Philosophy as politics of the real

The New French Philosophy
By Ian James
Cambridge: Polity Press. Pages 221. £16.99

Reviewed by Shelly Walia

IAN James, a major theorist who teaches French at Cambridge, in his book The New French Philosophy, emphasises the relevance of recent French theory in transforming society, and in accounting for the experience of a world in collision. In recent years, formalism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis and deconstruction failed in provoking dissidence and political radicalism, motives which were significant with the so-called demise of Marxism.

Sadly, what seemed to be steeped in radical critique gave way to political apathy. The spark of philosophical theory slowly died out only to be rekindled by those who saw the reality of a civilisation literally under fire and the conspicuous return of the repressed. The book takes us beyond the conventional French philosophers such as Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault and Roland Barthes to a concern with a world ridden by problems of subjectivity, and the ever-growing world of “events” of terror and violence, hunger and poverty.

Though there is a sense of continuity with the previous generation of French philosophers, new thinkers discussed by James such as Jean-Lac Marion, Jean-Lac Nancy, Bernard Stieglar, Catherine Malabou, Jacques Ranciere, Alain Badiou and Francois Laruelle can be viewed as the “successor generation” which continues its intrinsically French obsession with the “New”. The word has double semantics of novelty or discontinuity from the past as well as the primary concern of Deleuze and the rest of the 1960s generation of philosophers with new and opposing modes of discourse which compel us to engage in thinking differently. Derrida argued similarly for incorporating “new knowledge, new techniques, new political givens.”

And thus arises the need for understanding the contemporary imbroglios of technology and politics so as to move to a critical realism for a philosophical grounding of the social sciences and humanities geared towards understanding movements of resistance within society, as well as vital social concerns about the future of cultural materialism or the mechanics of cyberspace. The impact of eminent thinkers discussed here is on a renewal of philosophy through giving the ‘real’ “the thought that it merits”.

The intention of the philosophers taken up here is to move to the real in order to reinvigorate or reform philosophy. Examining Jean-Luc Marion’s idea of the return to phenomenology and its irreducibility that are essential to human consciousness, the author sees a connection between him and Nancy’s philosophy of “trans-Immanent sense” as well as Laruelle’s argument for the “non-philosophical”. This leads James to then see a connection of such a view with the philosophy of Ranciere and particularly Badiou who breaks away from Althusser and the structuralist-linguistic paradigm, taking the stand “in favour of thinking being as inconsistent multiplicity.” In the 1970s, Badiou had rejected the categories of discourse and text denouncing them as “idea-linguistry” and suggesting instead the mathematical paradigm “which will … open the way for restored philosophical conceptions of truth, subjectivity, universality and so on.” His attention of realigning philosophy with mathematics is to “move beyond the (traditional) impasses and aporias of finitude.”

On the other hand, Ranciere, instead of understanding ideology by taking the mathematical presentation “as the sole means of speaking for the material immanence” argues for the preconception of the real “as the ordering of the heterogeneous dimension of the real.” He places the tangible and the sensory at the heart of his philosophy. Thus “thought approaches or seeks to reach the real by way of the material practice.” ‘New’ philosophy therefore has emerged with its emphasis on “the rethinking the real outside of the linguistic paradigm and in response to the necessity of repositioning of the real itself as immanent to the techniques of thought.” It is ‘new’ in its movement away from the anti-foundational deconstructive practice of the predecessors to the position of the non-foundational ground of the real to see how best to approach the real in all its multiple and plastic dimensions. It is indeed, a step towards a renewed philosophical realism to restore a concrete experience within the shared material world.

The book meaningfully introduces the reader to the thought of the seven most important philosophers writing today whose work injects a certain visible praxis that may allow philosophy to move forward out of the classroom into the arena of meaningful politics that would help thought to respond to material culture and the “worldly shared existence.” An all-encompassing view provided by this concise and insightful book allows us the possibility to comprehend the pressing issues of fundamentalism, evil and death, of madness and reason, of the “questions of how something new might enter the word.” The need is to foreground “the questions of transformation and change, with the emergence of the unexpected, the unforeseeable or the uncategoriseable.”