Philosophy in the Present

Diana and Zizek

The following is a few scattered and collected thoughts I had after finally reading Philosophy in the Present. The text is a short work of conversations between Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. After having the privilege of finally seeing him speak,  I thought I share my brief reaction.

            Because the philosopher constructs his own problems, he is an inventor of  problems, which is to say he is not someone who can be asked on television, night after night, what he thinks about what’s going on. A genuine philosopher is someone who decides on his own account what the important problems are, someone who proposes new problems for everyone. Philosophy is first and foremost this: the invention of new problems.[1]

Should philosophy intervene in the world? Although this question has probed our minds and cultures for centuries, there is something about the present time, the 21st century that makes this question even more interesting. With revolt seemingly coming from every crevice of our existence, in many societies, chaos would seem to reign. Therefore the question need be posed, possibly now more than ever under the current reign of the age of information: should philosophy intervene?

Before we attempt to answer this question, I would like to provide a method of critique-that of ideology. According to Foss, an ideology is a pattern or set of ideas, assumptions, beliefs, values or interpretations of the world by which a culture or group operates.[2] An ideology of any given group typically includes their religious inclinations, predilections toward a governing body, motives, desires, and various psychological stances. Ideologies may be widely spread over a number of cultures (i.e. women need be thin and should esteem to be sexually attractive to men) or may be less direct and slightly ambiguous. An example of a somewhat prevailing and yet subvert ideology would be that men are superior to women in the workforce. Many scholars have lent to the concept of ideological criticism, including Philip C. Wander, Michael Calvin McGee, Janice Hocker Rushing, Thomas S. Frentz, Celeste M. Condit; I would like to focus on the more structuralist approach of Claude Levi-Strauss. Structuralism is the theoretical paradigm which states that the smaller fragments of a culture need be understood in relation to their overarching system. In ideological criticism, it is more a series of projects in which linguistics is used as a model for attempts to develop the ‘grammars’ of systems such as myths, novels, or genres.[3] By constructing these grammars, structuralists may gain insight to the varying ideologies of a given artifact.

Other studies that also inform the process of ideological critique are Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Pierce’s work in semiotics, Terry Eagleton and Luis Althusser’s work on materialism in Marxist thought, Paul de Man’s deconstructionism and postmodern theory of alienation and destabilization. The postmodern method is useful to ideological critics in that it suggests deeper examination into the context surrounding an artifact. Another method particularly obliging to the field is that of cultural studies, in this context, cultural studies are the “interdisciplinary project directed at uncovering oppressive relations and discovering available forces with the potential to lead to liberation or emancipation.”[4] One basic assumption of cultural studies, whether they stem from Jung, Marx, feminist or postmodern perspectives, is that culture consists of everyday discursive practices, and those practices both embody and construct one’s ideology. By studying elements in popular culture such as novels, music and film, one may obtain a distinct picture of a civilization’s ideology. A primary task of the ideological critic is to discern which of these ideologies are being made to prevail, and which have been forced into silence.

In Philosophy in the Present, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek endeavor to record a series of conversations as an invitation to philosophy. They at once agree and disagree on the outcome of the question of philosophy’s role in society. According to Badiou, the dominating ideology of the day is one of a democratic materialism which would deny the existence of truth and distinguish only “bodies” and “languages.” What Badiou would propose is the complete shift in the current model toward a “materialist dialectic,” a component of Marxism which synthesizes Hegel’s dialectics and acknowledges there are these “bodies” and “languages” but also truths. In this stance, truth goes unnoticed unless there is a break in the laws of being and appearance and a truth may become accessible only for a moment. This is what Badiou sees as the ‘event.’ If we seek to find the prevailing ideologies embodied in his portion of the artifact, we may also find the implications: what human efforts are being thwarted by oppressive existing ideologies? Who is representing these ideologies, and are these representatives fit to occupy the position of the intellectual?

The work begins with Badiou, who will be our main focus in this dialogue. Through a series of historical examples, he defines the ‘philosophical situation,’ and we come to our first revelation via Badiou: in the end, power is violence.  There must be a clarity between first the choice and the decision, and second, the distance between power and truths. “These are the three great tasks of philosophy: to deal with choice, with distance and with exception – at least if philosophy is to count for something in life to be something other than an academic discipline” (Badiou, 12). In Badiou’s eyes, for life to have meaning, one must accept the event; one must remain at a distance from power, and one must always be firm in their decision. They must be in the exception, and must at all costs live with the consequences of their decisions. In this sense, it is safe to assume the first author in this work feels it best to abstain from the rise to power-to abstain corruption and tyranny of the highest classes. What ideology is not being represented here is therefore that of the ruler. To Badiou, elections of standard parliamentarianism are often decided by the decision of the undecided, and because of this, he believes it best the philosopher refrain from constant electoral choices altogether. With all of the above information, then, we may deduce that for better or worse, the ideology represented is not just leaving out the beliefs of the supreme rulers, it is also often excluding the views of the masses. As the electoral process is typically limited to few options, it leaves no space for the radical exception, or an exception at all. Neither does it allow radical choice, or the distance aforementioned. Due to this, it does not constitute a ‘philosophical situation’ and the role of the philosopher is best left to be minimal. With this in mind, drawing back to our ideological critique, ideologies of the masses are both represented and not, and the ideology of the philosopher is both represented and not.

If one digs a bit deeper into Badiou, the above concepts are obviously not near as cut and dry as they may seem. He may believe at one time that the philosopher should refrain from participating in electoral processes in one vein, and yet he would advocate philosophy as ethical and political intervention in another. In one sense, Badiou would as a whole disagree with the ruling power, yet he seems to transfer it to the philosopher all the while- a type of subversive philosopher-king. As philosophy must be absolutely distinguished from politics, this necessarily creates a gulf of ideologies not represented in the work. The dominant ideology here is obviously the words and world of the philosopher and the intellectually elite. Regardless of the seemingly all-inclusive “power to the people” attitude that lies in the heart of many leftist philosophers, it would seem this ideology leaves much to be desired. By separating and/or elevating the thoughts of the philosopher, many are left out. In the words of Badiou, “Politics aims at the transformation of collective situations, while philosophy seeks to propose new problems for everyone.” From here, Badiou goes on to explain his eight theses of universality, and ends his section on philosophy of the present.

In conclusion, an ideological critique of Badiou’s dialogue in Philosophy in the Present is most suited because of the way it uniquely illuminates the subversive and dominant beliefs of the author’s system. In using rhetorical strategies to convince the reader that, for example, in the electoral process the vast majority of voters must be uneducated and unaware of potential implications of their choices, a mass is excluded from ideological representation due to the rationale of an inferior intellect. Who may question the philosopher? In implementing a rhetorical criticism, we may utilize the artifact as the basis for proposing new ideologies that allow other ideologies and interests to be more visible. Ironically enough, in the end, this has remained the ultimate goal of the philosopher all along: to pursue and encourage a love of wisdom and knowledge. As Badiou has said, there is a hidden agenda behind every ideology. It is in the critique and deconstruction of a text and ultimately ideal that we see what human potential is being thwarted by existing ideologies, and esteem to better understand ourselves and the world around us.


[1] Žižek, Slavoj and Badiou, Alain. Philosophy in the Present.New York: Polity Press, 2010.

[2] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, 2nd Ed. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1996., p. 291

[3] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, 2nd Ed. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1996., p. 292

[4] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, 2nd Ed. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1996., p. 293

Cattivo Maestro, A Revolt That Never Ends, and OWS

“I always thought that becoming a professor would mean teaching freedom and exercising freedom. I was wrong.”

-Antonio Negri, A Revolt That Never Ends 

 

And a brief glance into Negri and Hardt on OWS, published October 11, 2011:

Confronting the crisis and seeing clearly the way it is being managed by the current political system, young people populating the various encampments are, with an unexpected maturity, beginning to pose a challenging question: If democracy — that is, the democracy we have been given — is staggering under the blows of the economic crisis and is powerless to assert the will and interests of the multitude, then is now perhaps the moment to consider that form of democracy obsolete?

 

Full article may be found here: The Fight for ‘Real Democracy’ at the Heart of Occupy Wall Street

The Condition of Truth – Dr. Cornel West at Wilshire Blvd Temple

In the midst of my involvement with Occupy Los Angeles, working my way through Philosophy in the Present (Zizek and Badiou) and exploring various political ideologies and how they function, I recently attended a talk by Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley. Prior to attending, I did a quick bit of research into West’s CV. One of the more interesting interviews I found was conducted by Jonathan Judaken and Jennifer L. Geddes, speaking with him largely in regard to ‘intellectual life’.

You know the idea that the ‘condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak’ actually comes from the next-to-last line of the section called “The Speculative Moment” in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. He said the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. That’s very much like Hebrew scripture, very Judaic, and I resonate with that even though he’s got a secular mode of it and a very sophisticated, negative, dialectical way of conceiving it. But he’s always looking for the defeated. It’s important to focus on the most vulnerable, the widow, the stranger. It comes very much out of Hebrew scripture, couched in their very stories and narrative…As you speak a truth, you can do it with a generosity but also with a bite. You speak the truth, expose the lies, but most importantly, you bear witness.

Two of my favorite quotes by West came in response from a woman from the audience: a professor of religion at a local evangelical Christian college. She asked, simply, “Why, Dr. West, if we are all ‘in the faith,’ why do we read the bible so differently, especially in regards to the poor? How is it that there so many on the right and left that cannot see and agree on how we are to treat the poor?”

His response is as follows:

A) “Unfortunately, there are some who’d rather drink the kool aid than be washed in the blood!”

He then more soberly approached the audience and asked,

B) “Do you read the bible as a book of facts, or a book of truth?”

I loved this. It resonated within me-especially thinking personally of  my religious/spiritual background. Though I’ll never ‘abandon my faith,’ I’m fear I’m guilty all too often for casting aside the truth that may be found in scripture.

Throughout the continuation of talks by both Smiley and West joined by Rabbi Steven Leder, I was amazed at how many times I simply felt chills run down my body. Calling things to my attention such as “The new poor are the former middle class” and “This is not a political posturing of the future-our democracy is at stake” (West) proved not only enlightening, but also motivated me to decide to get back down to Occupy LA as soon I can. An illustration I thought was very cool was the picture he painted in retort to the following question:

 “Do the poor have power?

                                                             “Look at Hip-Hop.”

 I truly thought this was fantastic-anyone knows the roots to the present state of this industry can see how the culture of any society would not be the same without the near-impoverished demographic. Just look at how it started. We have the term “Starving Artist” for a reason! Brilliant. In conclusion, I’d like to add one last thing I took from last night, and it’s in regard to every political disagreement, and now occupation I have ever been apart of. I’ve never encountered opposition from friends, family members and academic advisors in regards to my political/ethical ideologies like I have during the past couple of years. I am thinking now of my stances on the Egyptian people under Hosni Mubarack. Of those who were imprisoned at Abu Ghraib. Of Troy Davis. And now, of the occupiers around the entire world. But Dr. West has said it before, and he said it last night:

          ‎”There are some fights ain’t worth fighting even if you win; there are other fights you have to fight even if you lose.”

-Dr. Cornel West

In Wall Street Solidarity: What I Took from the GA of Occupy Los Angeles

Last night, I partnered with someone I’d never met to facilitate/moderate in keeping time and empathy the General Assembly of Occupy Los Angeles on the steps of City Hall. Apart from my somewhat less “glorious” days in college of writing furious letters to congress to abolish the death penalty with Amnesty International, this week has really been my first physical presence in exposure to grassroots activism of this magnitude.

I met my co-moderator for the first time at the facilitation assembly a couple of hours prior. I had learned of this meeting through my new friend Esteban the previous day, who has tirelessly followed the Crisis on Capital all over the world. I simply asked him if there was a main facilitator of the Los Angeles movement that I could follow on some sort of media, and he in turn emailed me his personal reasons for involvement that evening.

I wanted to simply share a couple of reflections on what I learned from my first time facilitating an assembly of upwards of 1,000 people. I will begin by noting something beautiful I feel incredibly blessed to have been able to witness firsthand- feminism/gender equality in action. Though the general mass remained in support of what we were speaking on throughout the assembly, there were quite a few intimidating bodies around the speaker’s area. Soon into the meeting, my co-facilitator (A Caucasian, college-aged male) became discouraged with the rising tension from these provocateurs in our close physical proximity (for some reason in protest that a ‘white man’ was ‘leading’). Finally, the repeated statements from the audience became discernable- Let the woman speak. Though I was angered there had been prejudice in the first place, this was my very first exposure to not only feeling politically and socially equal to a male, but even treasured as a woman and independent mind, fully capable of positive and individual thinking. The respect I was given-only due to my sex-was incredible. Unfortunately, following my speech on Conceptual Presentation and Collective Thought,  my co-moderator remained discouraged. From here on out, we simply tried to continue announcing updates from the various assemblies (security, print media, Food Not Bombs, etc.) whilst assuring the masses that there would soon after be an opening of the floor for individual proposals and free speech.

Regrettably, an hour or so in, instances began to take place where hostile bodies rushed us and those around the platform in effort to quiet us with threatening racial suggestions, etc. From here, we digressed from the order so many had worked so hard to establish, and what ensued became an argument from floor to platform about the impending arrival of several policemen, fire trucks and (already present) helicopters. After tersely debating for a half hour the location of where we would camp for the evening, I learned the invaluable lesson I had seen in my friend’s blog: fatigue and hurry are the enemies of consensus. The assembly was soon after adjourned due to the imminent legal curfew and action was made to clean up the area in accordance and respect of the LAPD.

A couple of concretes I witnessed over the evening are as follows: if you’re going to protest/occupy/take a stand for any political or social cause, some type of unifying demand is indispensable. This was one of the main issues at the GA-the 1,000 people couldn’t come to an agreement that we were all in agreement of our demands. There is surely much to be learned from the successful occupation of Wall Street here. Another issue the general facilitation assembly has been emailing back and forth today is never assume anything-even assuming that race would (surely) not be a factor potentially hurt us in hindsight. Though I was afterward encouraged that I responded to racial slurs and comments appropriately and did the best I could, I was not prepared for it. I didn’t imagine people who obviously have a heart big enough to stand up to corporate tyranny and corruption would give into racial issues. I was wrong, and it can be better dealt with in future.

To sum it up, what I personally took from this evening: the reason I agreed to moderate empathy in the first place (with no real experience in facilitating a GA) is that I fervently believe a little compassion and love can transcend ANY conflict. The human voice is can be the most revolutionary tool we have, if we are but willing to listen. I believe this now and I will believe it until the day I am dead. Though I too became discouraged in reaction to the few provocateurs surrounding me, I connected with a thousand people last night, because of my pleading honesty for them to simply listen, and give us a chance to have a fair and just assembly. I have never seen anything like it-to look into the night from the steps of city hall and see so many faces fall respectfully quiet and just listen for a moment. It was excruciatingly beautiful. I am unsure as to the extent of my future involvement in Occupy Los Angeles, but as I told everyone I spoke with following the assembly last night, I am with them in solidarity until the end, and I hope and wish for the best.

 

Note: It’s a bit late now, but I completely forgot to mention: When I first started reading up on this movement, many of the posts were either completely one-sided/biased, overly passionate to the point of destructing their cause or simply uninformed. Here are a couple of posts I found to be very educating and helpful on the movement overall:

Democracy Now!

Occupy Wall Street and the Need for Demand(s) 

Real Resistance

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