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

The Sound of Prose: Omensetter’s Luck

For anyone interested in music theory in terms of form and analysis, musical syntax or the ‘sound of prose’ and how it may work closely with its more literary neighbors, there’s a great post just up at An und für sich already yielding some interesting discussion. This post (On Some Sentences of William Gass) is part of a book event on William H. Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck of which I will soon be submitting. As someone indulging in a bit of literary analysis from a music background of sorts, I’ve already found it quite interesting, and wager you will as well.