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[This is from the March 2006 issue of Socialist Review. It’s a slightly ambitious attempt at a joint review of Alex Callinicos’s The Resources Of Critique, Slavoj Zizek’s The Parallax View, and Alain Badiou’s two major works, Being and Event and Logics of Worlds.]
In 1845 the young Karl Marx wrote down a series of short notes to himself summarising the conclusions of his intense engagement with the radical philosophies of his day. They were never intended for publication, but were nevertheless been preserved for posterity after Marx’s death by his lifelong friend and comrade Frederick Engels. Of these notes – the so called Theses on Feuerbach – the final one is the most famous: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” For Marx, this statement marked an exit from philosophy and a declaration that philosophy’s interminable problems and contradictions could only be resolved by a kind of radical conscious political activity that he would soon call revolutionary socialism.
Ever since then philosophy and radical politics have been engaged in a curious relationship of simultaneous rivalry and dependence. On the one hand revolutionaries have been deeply suspicious of philosophy, seeing it as a sophisticated mask and justification for the existing political order – ideology, in other words.
But on the other hand, revolutionaries cannot simply ignore philosophy. Radical political practice is inseparable from radical political thought and theory. These theories in turn are both influenced by philosophy and are obliged to hold their own in the court of philosophy.
In recent years these complexities have reemerged into the centre ground of intellectual debate. The ruling class has attempted to impose neoliberalism on the world. This, combined with the new drive to imperialist war has sparked mass resistance.
This resistance on the ground has been accompanied and paralleled by a new strain of radical and explicitly political philosophers such as Tony Negri, Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou. In various ways all of these thinkers try to grapple with the abstract aspect of the same problems that political movements face concretely – how can radical change come about? How can the new emerge from the old?
Alex Callinicos’s new book, The Resources of Critique, is a detailed and sustained engagement with these questions and these emerging radical philosophers, as well as with more established leftist and liberal thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas, Pierre Bourdieu and John Rawls. The book operates at several levels, acting as a summary of major current trends in philosophy, a negative critique of those trends, as well as a positive intervention into philosophy and contribution to its ongoing debate.
The range of authors surveyed in the book is extremely broad, straddling both the “analytic” tradition of social and political theory favoured in British and US academia and the “continental” tradition of speculative philosophy. Much of the book builds on and deepens the philosophical positions developed by Callinicos over the years, especially over moral questions – how, if at all, can a radical left political project be justified? – and problems regarding the nature and origin of scientific knowledge and realism.
But his direct engagement with explicitly ontological issues – roughly speaking, the question of what “being” means at its most general and abstract level – is a new development. Callinicos writes, “Ontology matters. This is the result that has most surprised me personally… [though] I must confess some vestigial wariness about the whole subject.”
Why should ontology matter? The reason is that how we conceptualise being is closely bound up with how we conceptualise how the new can emerge from the old. In the most general sense, if something new can simply be explained by the old, then it isn’t really new in any radical sense of the term, it was “always already there”. Such a static and conservative understanding of the world leads ineluctably to a static and conservative understanding of politics.
But if the new cannot simply be explained by the old, it must in a sense come out of nowhere. Radical innovation – an “event” as Badiou calls it – emerges “from the edge of the void” and ruptures with the current order of being. Yet this too is also politically problematic, as Callinicos notes. It is uncomfortably close to a miraculous and religious conception of the world, and seems to licence all sorts of arbitrary voluntarism and moral relativism.
It follows that radical change, innovations, events, have to be situated somewhere in the dialectical relationship between something and nothing, being and the void. But the structure and nature of this dialectic is anything but obvious. In the latter half of the book, Callinicos lays out his provisional contribution to this problem, drawing on Marx’s understanding of society, Rawls’s theories of justice and the “critical realist” ontological theories of Roy Bhaskar.
The publication of The Resources of Critique coincides with major new works by two of the philosophers most prominently associated with the “ontologies of the void” that Callinicos critically engages with, Zizek and Badiou. In their different ways, they too seek a philosophical understanding of how it can be possible to break with the deadlocks of globalised neoliberal capitalism.
Zizek has declared his latest work, The Parallax View, to be his “magnum opus” and his most philosophically ambitious work to date. As always with Zizek, it is a dizzying mixture of highbrow philosophy and lowbrow cultural analysis, all peppered with psychoanalytic insights, idiosyncratic asides and the odd dirty joke. But underneath this dazzling display of pyrotechnics is a single philosophical theme hammered home relentlessly.
This theme is a concept of “parallax”, which is Zizek’s latest attempt to traverse the paradoxes of the old and new outlined above. Roughly speaking, the idea is that from the perspective of the old, the new appears impossible and miraculous. But from the perspective of the new, the old is radically transfigured and abolished. The trick – and this is where Zizek’s “parallax” metaphor comes into play – is to grasp both these positions simultaneously and identify their truth with their very incompatibility.
All of this sounds very much like the classical dialectics of early 19th century philosopher Hegel reinvented for a materialist and disenchanted age. And indeed Zizek proudly declares himself to be a partisan of “dialectical materialism”, taking on all the connotations of this term for a school of philosophical thought that is often dismissed as hopelessly old fashioned and fatally compromised by Stalinism.
Whether Zizek succeeds in reinventing dialectical materialism is open to question. For my money his approach is a little too overidentified with Stalinism – one gets the impression that the primary reason for Zizek choosing this terminology is to shock the liberal academy. His contrarian audacity in this regard is always charming, but it often acts to paper over his own complicity with the capitalist ideology he so ruthlessly criticises.
An alternative approach is taken in Badiou’s latest book, Logiques des Mondes, which has just been published in French and is currently being translated into English. This work is conceived as a second volume of Badiou’s 1988 masterpiece, Being and Event, which has just come out in English translation – the 18 year gap testifying to both the stupefying parochiality of English language philosophy and the fact that this parochiality has finally had its day.
Logiques des Mondes outlines what Badiou describes as a “materialist dialectic” that plugs some holes in his previous account of how new thinking (“truths” in Badiou’s terminology) can emerge from the sterile and endless circulation of opinion, dogma and academic knowledge. This question is treated in detail in Being and Event through a close reading of mathematical set theory.
Being and Event is certainly an astonishingly original and provocative book, though at times extraordinarily difficult. But as Callinicos notes in his valuable summary and exposition of the work in The Resources of Critique, Badiou’s conception of events and truths suffers from a kind of theoretical ultra-leftism that tends to dismiss questions of objective reality and empirical relations entirely.
Logiques des Mondes is in many ways a response to these criticisms that deploys another aspect of mathematics – the theory of categories – to offer an account of relationality, objectivity and appearance. It also points to a curious shift of tone in Badiou’s work and a break with a certain political pessimism that marked his previous work, written at the height of the intellectual backlash against the radicalism of May 1968.
In the preface to the English language version of his book Metapolitics, also recently published, Badiou writes: “The demonstrations in London against the war in Iraq bore witness to a confidence far greater than in Paris… This is what one might call the French paradox: intellectuals there are capable of great radicalism, but they are also fickle and highly dependent on prevailing phenomena… I am happy that [my work] is appearing in English, for I have found there to be, in the countries which speak this language, perhaps less certitude and audacity, but more tenacity.”
The political implications of Zizek and Badiou’s philosophical interventions will no doubt be worked out over the coming years, and will no doubt be marked by all sorts of mediations, corrections and contradictions.
But the fact that this strain of radical thought is alive and kicking – and tentatively entering into conversation with the new political movements against war and neoliberalism – is itself a beacon of hope and a signal that cracks are beginning to widen in the stultifying order of Blairite “common sense” ideology.
Alex Callinicos, The Resources Of Critique, Polity Press
Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View, MIT Press
Alain Badiou, Being and Event, Continuum; Logiques des Mondes, Editions du Seuil