20 June 2006

Badiou: Badass

Frenchman tries to heal the contintental/analytic rift

In early March, French philosopher Alain Badiou came to New York to promote the first English translation of his 1988 pillar work, l’Être et l’Événement, or Being and Event. I caught him at Labyrinth Books in Morningside Heights, where he was to be interviewed by the New School’s Simon Critchley—a man as hip as philosophers come, whom I once saw sporting leather pants.

In school I’d never read Badiou, but I’d had a vague idea that he was the rarest of his kind: an optimist. A believer, even, in a future for philosophy. This was important, because when I left college there seemed little to look forward to. The analytic-continental divide, once an ideological schism, had turned into a passive-aggressive gang war. Before graduation one of my favorite professors rounded up the senior philosophy majors to talk about grad school. There’s funding, she said—lots of funding, and not enough women! Summers off! France! It sounded like a timeshare pitch. None of us, to my knowledge, ended up in a philosophy department.

My professor and I met recently when she came to New York. She expressed disappointment about losing students and colleagues to English and comparative literature. I’m sad, she said. That is to say, I’m happy for them—sad for us.

A few weeks later Badiou came to town. Much of the audience was young. Critchley was not wearing leather, and I was disappointed to find that Badiou wasn’t, either. In his sweater vest, the man looked too pleasant to be a real radical. He was old and gentle, much like my grandfather; he’d take off his glasses to rub his eyes when he deemed a matter grave, or when he laughed hard at his own jokes.

There was more solemnity than laughter. As Critchley steered Badiou through the parts of Being and Event most important to Badiou’s later work, it became clear that people believed, or hoped, that something special was happening. Both the audience and Critchley seemed ready to interpret the English translation of BE as a sign of America’s newfound hospitality for revolutionary thinking—a sign that, with Badiou’s assistance, the rift between the analytics and the continentals could someday be healed.

Badiou will politely accept our mediocre wine and cheese, but he has a different take on his American advent. In the introduction to BE he writes, “I would like the publication to mark an obvious fact: the nullity of the opposition between analytic and continental thought.” He means this in the most slanted way a Frenchman can mean it, and, glasses in hand, he says with a snarl: you are all sophists.


Behind the cash register at Labyrinth hangs a poster-sized photograph of the Holland House Library in London, taken in 1940 on the morning after a German air raid. In the center sits a pile of rubble—planks from the collapsed roof, glass from the shattered windows, busted chairs and tables—and on either side of it, the only part of the structure to have survived: shelves filled with dusty books, standing tall. Men in coats are hungrily reading from them.

Nothing could better characterize the stereotype of the philosophy professor, turning his back on disaster to bury his nose in a text, while the real masterminds seem to be the ones behind the missiles. If the philosophers are having a war of their own, how could it be more dangerous than a fistfight—or a staring contest—among the rubble? What’s at stake for anyone else? Why wouldn’t we also turn away?


Less than a decade after that photograph was taken, US philosophy departments underwent a great change. A group of scholars, influenced by Wittgenstein and Carnap, decided that professional philosophy needed to be transformed so that it could pursue the kind of progress being made in the sciences. Scientists had breakthroughs: the atom bomb, for instance. Philosophers, then, should produce a methodology as precise and clear as the scientist’s, their objects the mechanics of words, rather than the world. These “analytic philosophers” adopted a practice of rigorously analyzing language (mostly English) and the ways that people use it. “Continental” became a way to label colleagues who were still obsessed with storytelling about what happened years ago across the ocean. Soon departments divided off into the continental philosophy-that-was and the analytic philosophy-to-come. The former criticized the latter for not caring about the world; the latter criticized the former for not caring about philosophy.

Philosophers of the two traditions started genuinely to hate each other. When I was an undergraduate I presented a paper on Nietzsche at a conference that included people from both sides. Afterward, an older guy congratulated me in passing, saying smugly, “Nice work. What a fun piece.” He left me with one of the worst frustrations I ever had as a student: of not being taken seriously, of producing meaningless work. I wasn’t a philosopher yet, but I did hate him.


Among the real philosophers and career academics, things are worse. In 1989, Brian Leiter, now an analytic philosopher and law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, declared open war on continental philosophy by launching the Philosophical Gourmet Report. In the PGR, Leiter offered a ranking of the top philosophy programs in the US. At first hard copies of the rankings were distributed; then in 1996 the PGR went online. Geared toward prospective undergrads and based on the “quality of faculty” factor, the rankings were clearly, profoundly biased toward analytic programs. Some continental-leaning departments hung near the bottom of the list; most didn’t make it at all.

On the PGR website, which is now very fancy, there’s a section called “Continental vs. Analytic Philosophy,” a concise version of the introduction Leiter wrote for the book A Future for Philosophy. Here he distinguishes between them as two styles of doing philosophy, rather than categories for the kind of books to be read:

Continental philosophy is distinguished by its style (more literary, less analytical, sometimes just obscure), its concerns (more interested in actual political and cultural issues and, loosely speaking, the human situation and its “meaning”), and some of its substantive commitments (more self-conscious about the relation of philosophy to its historical situation).

Leiter seems to think he’s dropping a bomb—note the disparagements of “obscure” and “loosely speaking”—but the house of philosophy had begun to self-destruct half a century before. Since the 1950s analytic philosophers have made the same complaints: that continental philosophy has a messy literary quality, that it wastes time with “concepts-in-quotations,” and that it bothers itself with cultural things like genocide and the Internet. And yet, boom! Like a frantic seven-year-old, Leiter defends his kind of philosophy by pushing out people who don’t agree with him.

Not all continental scholars are concerned with historicity. Some are: the postmodernists, the feminists, the critical race theorists. But what the continental has tried to preserve (and what the analytic has tried to run from) is a sense that, even while pursuing self-preservation, philosophers should never give up on answering questions that are important and interesting to everyone. The analytic philosopher takes his scalpel to the concept of democracy; the continental presents us with an account of the brutal pacification of the east. One is not more philosophically interesting than the other, but certainly the second is more interesting to real people. And after all, there are still real people asking questions—for instance, the undergraduate who takes a course on ancient Greek philosophy and wonders why the platonic philosopher-king banished poetry while on television presidents use the highly poetic rhetoric of wartime. In universities with hard-core analytic cliques, like NYU or Princeton, continental philosophers end up outside of the philosophy department and find a home in comp lit, women’s, or African-American studies. In those settings they won’t be the ones to teach classes on the western philosophical tradition, and the task of teaching the ancients (and the recents) is left to the analytic philosophers. In their classrooms, “meaningful” words are more important than rhetoric, “sophomoric” everyday questions are banned, and in place of natural curiosity a student learns pragmatic methodology.

Continental philosophy isn’t obsolete. But the continental education, that ideal classroom in which Wittgenstein and Foucault are both taught, is becoming very difficult to find. This should worry us more than the fates of individual graduate students, whichever gang they choose. Today’s missiles are being dropped east of the Holland House Library. If the American students taking philosophy courses are confined to feasting on the concept of war, rather than making sense of the mechanics of it, then there is little reason for philosophy in a time of “terror.”


It seems likely that more prospective graduate students have read and considered the Leiter report than have read Badiou. Other options for guidance, after all, are slim. The Hartmann Report, the continental counterpart to the PGR, hasn’t been updated since 2003; the exemplary professors Hartmann mentions from my own college have since either retired or moved. If I had looked at the reports as a high school student, I would never have ended up in the department where I’d studied, which is currently ranked #41. What did I know then? By the time I graduated, the number of philosophy majors there had reached a new low.

Soon after the birth of the Gourmet, Richard Heck, at the time of Harvard and very worried, publicly attacked Leiter. Though Heck was himself an “analytic,” he was angry. He claimed to have heard stories of departments making senior faculty appointments based on how they would affect their PGR ranking, and of junior faculty using the ranking to choose among proffered jobs. Philosophers who felt that the rankings misled undergraduates signed a petition and posted it online. But little, by then, could be done: Leiter and his gang had found a slick dirty trick—the college ranking system—which they used to drive the continental department ever closer to obsolescence. Thanks to people like Brian Leiter, students of continental philosophy began to feel that things were moving toward a state of Armageddon—and that, even if they chose to fight their way to tenure, they would still be on the side of the losers. Forget funding! Forget Paris! They wanted their pride.


Though he now presides over France’s prodigious intellectual factory, École Normale Supérieure, Alain Badiou has led the life of a philosophical misfit. (He also founded the United Socialist Party in France, his activism going back to ‘68.) The reception of his philosophy has been different from that of Derrida or Foucault, both of whom, within their respective lifetimes, were contentious and formative figures for US universities, albeit largely outside of the philosophy department. Also unlike the other two, Badiou is a rare catch—a straightforwardly systematic thinker who, despite tricky allusions, is not too slippery.

Broken into 37 meditations, Being and Event is centrally an intervention in what Badiou calls the “Cantor-event.” It goes something like this: Georg Cantor’s work in set theory circa 1874 shatters the distinction between the finite and the infinite by proposing that in any given set of numbers, say [a,b,c], the one, a, is merely a count and not oneness in and of itself. Rather, it is an effect of the presentation of the multiple, a, b, and c; all three take place in the particular situation of the set. Such a presentation allows for the members of the set, and not vice versa. Badiou uses set theory to revise the Heideggerean being-as-one: “Ontology, if it exists,” he says, “is a situation,” that is, one in which beings-as-multiples are presented. It is this structure of which a representation of oneness is an effect.

And his startling proposition: ontology, if it exists, is mathematics.

Philosophy, on the other hand, is not. In fact, Badiou doesn’t really care what philosophy is, as long as it remains a dynamic activity. The practice of philosophy is conditioned by math and the sciences just as it is conditioned by history, but Georg Cantor, science, and history, are not contained within the philosophical act. They are what Badiou calls “truth procedures” to which philosophy can bear witness, and whose revolutionary moments should catch the philosopher’s attention. The philosopher’s task is to evaluate the truth procedures of his time, to look closely when he finds one, to turn away only when he’s sure he hasn’t.

Badiou’s dislike for analytic philosophy is not just a question of taste, which, for a Frenchman, is the province of the real gourmet. Analytic philosophers, who strangle philosophy with a linguistic noose just because nothing else seemed to be working fifty years ago, fail to see the danger in thinking that language is the only truth procedure—or even one at all. The revolutionary moments most interesting to philosophy, whether political, artistic, or that of great world-changing love, have more often than not been the work of blood. This is no metaphor; Badiou means real blood. That of Leiter and his fellow navel-gazers’ should run cold. What can they say? Badiou is logical, yes; his writing is clear, yes; he believes in a situation for truth without being a historicist; and he still finds a way to move outside the prison-house of language.

But Badiou also has a beef with his fellow motley continentals, finding them, from the postmodernists to the Neo-Kantians, misled for reasons just as diverse as their respective attitudes toward truth and all its impossibilities. He disparages the cultural studies programs born in the eighties for raising interest in cultural relativism—what he calls a reactionary moralizing philosophy that denies the universal system of truth for the sake of difference. Though he respects Derrida’s contribution to the French “moment,” his vision of a structure of truth challenges the oh-so-tricky differance and the cynicism it disseminates. In New York, Badiou was sure to let his American crowd know that he is a reconstructionist. He wants things to work out for us. He beamed.


At Labyrinth, Badiou acknowledged that his chances lay with the young. Critchley, hopeful that Badiou’s work will find its way to the American philosophy department, called for a room of Badiou’s own in the academy, suggesting that philosophy’s youth are ready for a change in the profession, and that there is ample work to be done. A young graduate student hesitantly asked Badiou what one should study in the way of math. The response was not pretty. Abstract algebra, set theory—(but I’d rather be reading Bataille!). Students who fantasize about turning in a set of poetic aphorisms for their dissertation may make a run for it when they hear they need to be comfortable saying things like, lim(α) ↔ ~Sc(α) ↔ (Эβ [α = S(β)].

A young philosophy major who has never taken high-level math may find it difficult to be a serious reader of Badiou. And what of the renaissance student, solving related-rate problems with her left hand and holding Chekhov with her right like a statue of Justice? At best she’ll be absorbed into the tradition of the philosophy of math, confusing the Cantor-event with a Cantor philosophy, and soon become Badiou’s rival without ever picking up one of his books. Her hands are too full.

And yet, despite the stratifications of the academy and its determined will-to-expertise, someone called the interdisciplinary student (who is perhaps a cousin of the renaissance student) currently thrives. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Richard Byrne also came to see Badiou, and he looks to the interdisciplinary student to carry Badiou’s banner. Byrne writes: “Significant emerging trends in America academe have helped to raise Mr. Badiou’s profile. His philosophy explicitly aims to unify disparate branches of learning, a tactic that resonates strongly with an increasing interest in working across disciplines in the United States.”

Americans have a knack for tidying thinkers up. Poor Nietzsche looks like a Catholic schoolgirl when we’re through, and Badiou becomes the emblem of lush interdisciplinary success. But it is to the disadvantage of theory-lovers to appropriate Badiou as the next poster child for lazy interdisciplinary research and pedagogy. Sartre and Foucault are amenable to the interdisciplinary; by blurring the boundaries between the genres of philosophy and literature, Derrida was one of the great shapers of the way philosophy is taught in conjunction with the English or French department.

But Badiou is very particular about the way philosophy should be done. And this is the challenge that Being and Event presents in the United States. Badiou doesn’t give us a successful instance of America’s diversified humanities program; instead, he offers a singular, specific way of rectifying a philosophy dissipated by unproductive factioning, both within the philosophy department and outside it. Badiou is happy to note how changing subjectivity makes way for revolutionary events—say, the humanities student’s phobia of math being transformed into a love. Fifty years after philosophy’s great change, twenty years after his breakthrough, Alain Badiou is one of the few philosophers surveying the wreckage and making plans. Maybe the university is not ready for him yet; we’ll have to read him at home, where there’s always a place for a true badass.

Image: "Spot the badass." Courtesy of the Maison Descartes.

Subscribe!

It’s the right thing to do.

Sign up now to start receiving the magazine that believes history isn't over just yet.

Subscribe now »