Bite Size Theory: The New Yorker View

“Gros is a professor of philosophy at a French University – at the finest of French Universities, the University of Paris XII, and also at the great Sciences Po – and if you did not know this already you would not have to read much of this book [A Philosophy of Walking] to guess that it was so. […] Instead of historical argument supported by evidence, or chronicle illuminated by interpretation, he gives us oracular assertion, supported by more oracular assertion. In this game, it is batting average that counts: if four out of ten of your oracular assertions are arresting oracular assertions, you’re golden.”

Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, 1st September 2014.

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.