Politics of philosophy
Reviewed by Shelley Walia

Philosophy in the Present
By Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek.
Edited by Peter Engelmann. Polity. Pages 104. Ł9.90.

Philosophy in the PresentALAN Badiou and Slavoj Žižek are Europe’s two most eminent philosophers who have in their recent book brought philosophy out of the closet, bang into the arena of everyday affairs. Philosophy’s ethical and political intervention is so necessary to at least know what questions we are asking and to also face up to the fact that we are sometimes asking the wrong questions.

Badiou teaches philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure and College International de Philosophie in Paris, whereas Žižek is professor at the European Graduate School, and at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. I cannot imagine any student of philosophy or political theory doing without confronting two of the most controversial thinkers of modern times who have written much on communism, on Sarkozy, on ethics and Metapolitics. Their desire to reconceptualise philosophy as an imaginative substitute to the empty theoretical position of the New Left, a thesis so well argued here in this book, gives a galvanising call to political leaders to engage the minds of philosophers in discussing political and social issues.

Such was the practice followed by President Francois Mitterrand who "positioned himself in a long tradition in which enlightened power sought to come closer to the philosophers and to draw legitimacy from this proximity". Philosophy to Badiou is both intervention and commitment and cannot be relegated to the dry areas of classroom teaching. Philosophy for him "is concerned with novel, extraordinary truths, and yet speaks in the name of all". This is indeed a universal feature of philosophy which can enable a far better understanding of not only the serious issues confronting mankind but also lead to a more positive and engaging dialogue. Žižek agrees with this postulation and further discusses how philosophy can move us beyond the mere "normal" or "moderate" aspects of our reality.

But the glory of being invited to the tables of power should not blur or trivialise the need for intelligent suggestions which were always forthcoming from thinkers like Jean Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault or Hannah Arendt. However, we could question the role of Karl Marx in the totalitarian regime in Russia or ask, "Was Pol Pot not an intellectual educated in Paris?" The role of the intellectual, therefore, becomes questionable within any debate on the framing of state policy. It has to be kept in mind that "the participation of intellectuals in the crimes of the 20th century weighs heavily on the self-understanding of this social group. On the other hand, we could ask ourselves if we really get a good deal if we let models, presenters, sportspeople and similar groups occupy the position of the intellectual in our contemporary media society".

Badiou and Žižek are quite skeptical of the role of the philosophers and instead, they dwell more on "the quality of philosophical thought". Their final answers are derived from this position. Badiou argues that the false idea that the philosopher can speak on any issue has to be first of all set aside. The idea is exemplified by the example of the TV philosopher who talks about all the problems of society without really facing the "philosophical situation". "A genuine philosopher, therefore", argues Badiou, "is someone who decides on his own account what the problems are, someone who proposes new problems for everyone". Thus, the philosopher intervenes, "when in the situation—whether historical, political, artistic, amorous, scientific—there are things that appear to him as signs". And these signs spur him towards visualising new problems within situations that demand a philosophical intervention. The real issue is to ask what are these philosophical situations.

An interesting example is of Archimedes being summoned to the court while he is busy contemplating on the diagram he has drawn on the sand. He does not care for the summons and goes on with his deliberations on the mathematical problem at hand. The soldier, who is exasperated, kills him. Here lies the distance between power and truth or between power as violence and creativity. The soldier is incapable of traversing this distance and the philosopher needs to "shed light on this distance".

It becomes imperative to first "clarify the choice or the decision ... and then clarify the distance between power and truth". The final situation that Badiou postulates is one of exception or a break which in reality means being firm in your decision. You need to think of the event that turns upside down ordinary rules of life or social conservatism. In this lies the real philosophical situation and the need to throw light on the fundamental choice of thought as well as the distance between thinking and power.

The book is an incisive critique of the role of the intellectual within the areas of violence and hunger, love and death. I am sure it will inspire many to go further into the writings of these two very radical philosophers whose intellectual polemics offer a compelling conversation on contemporary vision of resistance to arbitrary state power and violence through a revitalised view of philosophy’s place in the world today.