Where angels fear to tread: Badiou, Zizek, and les événements

The concept of ‘event’ has become a hot topic in certain strains of cultural and political theory, inflected by the thought of Derrida, Deleuze, Badiou, and others. It’s meant to be a figure for the surprising, unforeseen, ruptural, and, perhaps, the relation of the ‘exciting’ to the more routine, entrained, predictable. It’s also become, in some usages, a smart way of keeping alive a messianic fantasy of political revolution.

It’s been fun, given all the talk of ‘the event’ in theory-land, to see so many of the leading figures of ‘Continental Philosophy’ expound on the political events sweeping North Africa and the Middle East these last two months. Because what is notable is how many of these commentaries manage to find exactly what they want to find in Tunisia, or Egypt, or Libya – even if it’s confirmation of the pure contingency of ‘the event’.

So Alain Badiou has found confirmation of his own version of communism, replete with Orientalist flourishes about ‘Eastern winds’; Hardt and Negri had a nice piece in The Guardian, in which these events were all about the multitude, leaderless movements, and horizonality; Peter Hallward is one amongst a number who are inscribing these events into broader narratives of a revolt against neoliberalism. From a somewhat different position within contemporary Franco-philosophical scene, Andre Glucksmann is less sanguine.

Zizek’s interpretation of the uprising in Egypt is my favourite: “The uprising was universal: it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognise what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society. In contrast to Iran’s Khomeni revolution (where leftists had to smuggle their message into the predominantly Islamist frame), here the frame is clearly that of a universal secular call for freedom and justice, so that the Muslim Brotherhood had to adopt the language of secular demands.” This is a brilliantly self-aggrandizing assertion, one that underwrites the arrogation of interpretative authority to a cadre of bombastic universalists who don’t have to worry about what they do and don’t know about other places!

The projection on these worldly events of current theoretical perspectives has been a feature of lots of the commentary over the last month or so. It’s perhaps most obvious in the ongoing debate about the role of new media like Twitter in triggering and spreading political rebellion – where debate has oscillated between those who over-state the importance of new media, and those who dismiss this aspect. Jay Rosen has already analysed the rhetorical positions in these debates, which might be read as one moment in broader contemporary cultural debates about social technologies, wonderfully dissected by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker last week.

Amongst all this reflection, the best commentary I have found has been on the SSRC website, which contra Zizek, has provided lots of well-informed discussion by people who know about the region, including voices actively involved in these struggles (Noel McAfee at Gone Public has also provided useful links to regional voices). A couple of things stand out from these discussions – one is a more careful understanding of the secular qualities of these movements, discussed by Seyla Benhabib and John Boy for example; and the other is the importance of nationalist registers to these movements against authoritarian regimes. In both respects, the know-nothing universalism of Badiou or Zizek is revealed as somewhat limited in its analytical purchase. The best way to learn from these events, the welcome challenge presented in the commentaries by Badiou and Hardt & Negri, is to listen to people who know what they are talking about. That’s always a good way learning something you didn’t already think you knew.

2 thoughts on “Where angels fear to tread: Badiou, Zizek, and les événements

  1. Pingback: Aristide and youth | Maoquai

  2. Knowledge has been broken up, it is now only perspectival, the idea of its ‘progression’ has been abandoned, you do not need to look away from the screen of the computer you type on to see this contemporary technological process constantly undermining the unicity of any episteme whatsoever, this is a starting point you are obviously missing in the work of Badiou and the other so-called ‘universalists’ today, which in turn, I would claim, accounts for your immediate disdain for such critics. It is you who thinks that the truth is out there and that you can know it. It is Alain Badiou who suggests that the truth of any situation is beyond you, the only ‘truth’ is explicated by the subjects to the event itself and then, almost without fail, it becomes manipulated by capital powers in the very ideological process you have inserted yourself. You commit to this process so that you, blogger, may entitle yourself to some Knowledge of a something in which you have really have absolutely no access. You will search for participating experts and you will choose your favoured perspective in which you believe you can trust and what you will always end up with is only a parcel of information best suited to your and the informant’s ridiculous western ideology, while the fact of this procedure goes unnoticed. Thankfully, not everyone in the academy has succumb to the democratic materialism of which you so prodigiously exemplify. It is precisely when you are upset by a type of language, that one which you have called ‘universalist’ for example, that you should read the position of its foundational difference with your own way of understanding your world and the worlds of others, else you may only be a counted sheep in the bedtime routine of capital’s globalizing organisation.

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