Published on February 24th, 2012 | by Daulton Dickey1
Polemics by Alain Badiou
To French philosopher Alain Badiou, philosophy is more than intellectual arm wrestling; it doesn’t merely serve to ask questions about knowledge or to infer assumptions about what we call reality; philosophy, Badiou assures us, can change existence. To change existence, we must first assess and understand the states of affairs dominating the modern world. We achieve such understanding through modern philosophical inquiry.
Throughout Polemics, a collection of essays recently published by Verso Books, Badiou turns a philosopher’s eye on events ranging from the so-called ‘war on terror’ to American escapades in Iraq and Serbia, to French democratic parliamentarianism and the riots that engulfed France in 2005. While many topics Badiou covers focus on French politics and culture, his assessments and conclusions can, in most cases, be applied to the collection of societies we tend to refer to as ‘the West.’
Divided into three parts, Polemics begins with an intellectual shotgun blast against the war on terror and modern-read: American—use of the military machine. Badiou pulls no punches as he analyzes and eviscerates modern liberal democracy—punching holes in almost every conceivable political ‘truism.’
He doesn’t make assertions or form assumptions based on the evaluation of systems, on the entirety of intricate machinery like a society or a civilization; instead, he focuses on situations—what he calls ‘events,’ which are situations in which reactions or responses invite divergence from routine or tradition. By setting his sights on specific events, like the French elections or Chinese revolution, Badiou gnaws the flesh of modern rhetoric, revealing the sinew, the muscles, the bones, of each event, annihilating our perceptions of sacred cows like the meaning of ‘terrorism’—an empty phrase, he concludes, out of which any aggressive or imperial web can be spun.
By chewing on the gristle of the modern world, Badiou reveals the stunning ways in which entities like governments can subvert our subjective realities. In his essay on the invasion of Iraq, for example, he demonstrates the effect of images captured by embedded journalists and how they serve propagandistic needs. Far from typifying the free flow of information, the release of images—i.e., the kind of images released—by the media, and the notion of suppressed images and information, serve a larger purpose: to advance narratives authored by one or both sides of a conflict. While on the surface an image may represent an objective truth—say, the positive way in which Iraqi civilians greeted coalition troops—when one considers the significance of the release of the images, one finds it serves to enforce the narrative of liberation, a key concept bandied about in the public sphere in the run-up to the invasion.
As expected from its title, Polemics contains thoughts and insight some may view as radical—even dangerous. At its heart, Badiou’s overall concept is largely a rejection of modern liberal democracy. He challenges Neo-liberal ideology—spreading democracy through conflict, say—challenging even the notion of democracy itself. His analysis is at times revelatory, such as his annihilation of the concept of ‘the war on terror,’ inviting and challenging you to view systems you think of as true in radically different ways.
Alain Badiou is one of the great living philosophers, and when he applies his method of inquiry to politics and current events, he reveals situations, and diagnoses systems, in ways that feel correct. Some analyses may floor you—such as the contrast between voting and political ‘principles’; or the fallacy or inadequacy of representative government—some analyses may enrage you—his constant decimation of modern liberal ideas—but nothing he considers or shares will leave you ambivalent.
Polemics is a major work by a monumental figure, a collection of essays representing analyses and critiques of a variety of established and accepted political, social, or cultural ‘truths.’ These essays will force you to consider your perception of the world, your concepts, differently. It may even alter how you see the world—and how you interact with it, possibly proving Badiou’s central thesis correct: that philosophy is not simply a language game played by educated elites; it is a system through which legitimate change can be affected.
“Philosophy,” he writes, “is beholden to invent the Enlightenment we now lack.” (P. 56) If more people—if the right people—approached questions of politics, culture, and society as Badiou approaches them, their collective actions and ideas might prove the eminent philosopher correct.
Hardback, 364 pages
$26.95 / £17.99