Rene — Badiou / Critchley — ‘Ours is not a terrible situation’

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‘Ours is not a terrible situation’ – Alain Badiou and Simon Critchley at
Labyrinth Books, NY, March 6, 2006
Dorothea von Moltke: It is truly a great pleasure to be able to introduce to you tonight Alain Badiou and Simon Critchley, eminent philosophers both and both with a host of crucial works, which I will not attempt to catalog here. Suffice it to say that – in and through philosophy – the work of both also centrally engages politics as well as literature. Alain Badiou has been teaching at the Ecole Normale Superieure since 1999. He was very much influenced by the events, I should say the event, of 1968 and against the grain of widespread repudiations by his own generation has remained true to its legacies. He is actively involved with L’Organisation Politique, a post-party organization concerned with direct popular intervention in the political sphere. He is also the author of several novels and plays. Simon Critchley teaches philosophy at the New School for Social Research and at the University of Essex and is author of many books, most recently Things Merely Are and Infinitely Demanding is forthcoming from Verso. But we are here to discuss and
celebrate the newly translated, seminal work by Alain Badiou, Being and
In their press materials for this book, Continuum Publishers present
Badiou as France’s most important living philosopher and Being and Event as
“accessible and actually a pleasure to read”. The former claim is patently
true; the second in my view bears some qualification: as most great works of
philosophy, it abundantly rewards the considerable effort of reading it. One
partial way to characterize the 20th century in philosophy and in the
sciences is in a drive towards formalization in which mathematics has played
a significant role as both model and method. Another preoccupation has been
the persistent question of ontology or what the Being of beings is. Alain’s
Badiou’s work makes a strong claim for seeing these movements as
complimentary – and by extension states, in fact, the “nullity of the
opposition between analytic thought and continental philosophy”. His
concepts of the void, the multiple, the event, and truth lie at the core of
this claim and will, I am sure, be part of tonight’s conversation. I invited
Alain Badiou to come to Labyrinth with high hopes and low expectations that
he might be willing and able to accept this invitation and trust that he
knows what a very great honor it is to have him with us. I then suggested to
him perhaps to ask Simon Critchley to join us for a discussion of his work.
I was certain that this would make for a meaningful dialogue. But I wondered
to myself what they each might think of the idea since an important part of
Simon Critchley’s work has been devoted to articulating and defending an
ethics in relation to Levinas and Derrida of which Alain Badiou in turn has
offered a very forceful critique. – only to be told by each of them and
whole-heartedly that they are friends and would be delighted. So in thinking
about some of the points of agreement within their possible disagreements, I
am going to speculate that – alongside the political where they share an
insistence on the need for radical politics and new political subjectivities
or forms of political engagement – I will speculate that alongside this
important field, Beckett, too, is not an unimportant common ground. Badiou
and Critchley are two of the most subtle readers of Beckett that I have come
across. Both, moreover, read Beckett against his reception in the nihilist
tradition and for a residual kind of affirmation : “a few possibles, in the
plural — a few possbilities other than what we are told is possible,” as
Badiou has said. And so I would like to turn the conversation over to Alain
and Simon with a quote from The Unnamable, hoping that we will not only be
proceeding by ‘aporia pure and simple’ but rather in a way characteristic of
Beckett and, perhaps too of Badiou. “One starts things moving without a
thought of how to stop them. In order to speak. One starts speaking as if it
were possible to stop at will. I is better so… In the frenzy of utterance
the concern with truth. Hence the interest in a possible deliverance by
means of encounter.” Please join me in welcoming Alain Badiou and Simon
Critchley. Simon Critchley: “Thank you, Dorothea, and thank you to Labyrinth
Books. I am going to introduce Alain Badiou, philosopher…
Alain Badiou: yes (laughter)
S: … dramatist, novelist, militant. And we are here to
celebrate, to mark the long awaited translation into English of L’être et
L’événement, which appeared in 1988 in French and was translated, we
should mention, by Oliver Feltham, an Australian philosopher working in
Paris, who has completed this enormous work. And that brings me to my
questions. I will say a few words and then I’ll tell you the questions. I’m
going to raise 4 questions. I’ve told Alain what they are. Our plan is very
simple so we’ll see what happens. But first I want to talk about the
reception of Alain’s work a little bit. Because the reception in the US is I
think a little behind the reception, for example, in the UK where a lot of
the work has come out. This work has not been done by English people, I’m
happy to say, but by Peter Hallward, Alberto Toscano and others. The
reception in Australia, in the UK, in Latin America precedes that in the US.
Alain has, for example, been widely discussed in Argentina for many years,
without mentioning the reception of Alain’s work in France and elsewhere in
Europe. The publication of Being and Event will, I hope, will make a
difference to the American reception of his work and I look forward to
seeing how Alain’s influence will grow in the coming years. However, I think
for Alain Badiou’s work to be understood, (and he and I were talking about
this last night), I think it will require the creation of a new theoretical
space or a new intellectual space where a number of things come together: a
very strong and constructive idea of philosophy, which is in a certain way
novel and unlike what one is used to within a certain discourse, let’s call
it deconstructive. A constructive philosophy, then, combined with a radical
politics, and an interest in theater, in poetry (I think what Alain and I
share in particular is a militant concern for poetry), for cinema, for
psychoanalysis and – this will be one of the topics for our discussion –
also for mathematics. That constellation of elements there is no space I
think that exists for that in the American academy with its strict division
of labor and its pseudo professionalization which divides the humanities
from each other and from the social sciences and where philosophy prides
itself on its cultural irrelevance (laughter). So I think it’s a space that
has to be created — and created (and this is my hope) by younger readers of
Badiou’s work. Some of you, I hope. By people concerned let me just say it
directly, with truth, with truth in its different forms with philosophical
truth, with poetic truth, and with political truth, and we’ll talk about
some of these things. The current situation with regard to theory is odd,
and is maybe defined by a paradox. On the one hand there is a tremendous
thirst for a constructive, explanatory, and empowering theoretical discourse
and it is defined by the absence of something that would quench that thirst
and a sense of frustration and fatigue with a whole range of theoretical
paradigms: paradigms having been exhausted, paradigms having been led into a
cul-de-sac, of making promises that they didn’t keep or of simply giving
some apocalyptic elucidation to our sense of imprisonment. And I name no
names. Badiou’s work is something very different. It is refreshing, it’s
direct, it’s concise. It’s the concision of thought in Badiou’s work that I
think is one of the most striking things about it. It is overwhelmingly
conceptually creative and also enabling and empowering. Reading Badiou,
certainly for me when I started to read Alain’s work a long time ago, it
felt like a weight being lifted from my shoulders and once you get a grip on
the basic concepts and on the overall system of thought (and this is a
system of thought), you can mobilize those concepts theoretically,
practically, in very powerful ways. In a sense the framework of Alain’s
thought is simple. It’s the articulation that is sometimes more complex but
the framework is simple. Those of you who have read Alain’s work will know
what I mean; those of you who haven’t have got difficultly delicious
pleasures in store. As I said, I want to ask four questions:
1. The question of context
2. The question of ontology
3. The question of the event
4. The question of the four subcategories of the event.
Let me just sketch those questions and then I’ll turn it over to Alain and then we can begin from there. Context firstly. I think it’s very important with L’être et L’événement to understand the context for this book. this context is perhaps even clearer in Manifesto for Philosophy, whose publication almost
coincides with Being and Event. This is a context dominated by a certain
Heideggerianism for which philosophy was in a time of closure or ‘over’.
This is at its most dramatically clear in the work of Philippe
Lacoue-Labarthe, in particular his La fiction de politique. On the one
side, there’s a Heideggerianism; but the other side of the context is a
certain neo-Kantianism: a neo-Kantianism à la Française — of rights, of
democracy, of ethics and respect for the other and allied to that a certain
Levinasian neo-Kantianism. What is most striking about Alain Badiou’s work
is its robust defense of philosophy against all forms of the critique of
philosophy, whether in the form of positivism, a Marxist idea of poverty of
philosophy, or a Lacanian anti-philosophy. So, the first thing is the
question of context, I want Alain to talk about that. Then – maybe we should
just begin with that – if you could talk perhaps about the context for Being
and Event.
A: Thank you very much for this presentation, for this friendship. You have said that I was simple, I don’t know if it’s really true, but I want always to be clear. There is a difference in philosophy between the question of clarity and the question of complexity. We can be complex but clear and you can be simple but confused. And it’s for me really a philosophical duty to be clear. And to address the philosophical discourse in principle to everybody. In fact it’s sometimes different, but in principle you have from the beginning, from Socrates, to address the philosophical discourse to everybody in the streets. So you have to be clear. It’s a relation between the question of clarity and the question of the context. Because in the philosophical context from the beginning of the 80s or a little before we have a philosophical discussion in France in fact between something like a Heideggerian orientation with the idea that philosophy is finishing –not finished but finishing. It’s something like an eternal end. And on the other hand something like a return to a Kantian
picture of philosophy: moral philosophy, philosophy of rights and so on. And
in any case the question of the possibility of construction in the
philosophical field was like in a crisis. In the Heideggerian conception we
have to go beyond philosophy — beyond metaphysics, but in fact beyond
philosophy — and on the other side we have to restrain philosophy to a
moderate politics under the very confused name finally of democracy, which
is not a really clear name to adopt in the philosophical because it’s a name %0