It will forever be the case that we must endure our thoughts for as long as the night lasts. … Among such nocturnal thoughts, none is probably more worrying for us today than those that are tied to the political condition.
– Alain Badiou, Philosophy for Miltants
Confronting the inevitable apathy at the heart of leftist political struggle around the world Zizek asks:
What are we to do in such depressive times when dreams seem to fade away? Is the only choice we have between the nostalgic-narcissistic remembrance of sublime moments of enthusiasm and the cynical-realist explanation of why these attempts to change the situation inevitably had to fail? 1
Zizek suggests that these small explosions of emancipatory politics that have thrust themselves to the surface of our world are actually subliminal fragments from the utopic future. Our dystopian times should be exposed to a divinatory hermeneutics that allows these strange signs to be read as the distorted (sometimes even perverted) fragments of a utopian future that lies dormant in the present as its hidden potential. But what is this hidden potential? How can we release it into the world, bring about such emancipatory energy to transform our world? What kind of world would that entail? Does philosophy have an answer?
Badiou tells us that the future of philosophy “lies in its past”.2 He sees two tendencies within philosophy: the power of the Academy and the power of the Militant. The academic philosopher is the great transmitter of knowledge and tradition; while the militant is the confrontational antagonist of all knowledge and academic pretensions who offers the challenge of both individual and social change. As Badiou emphasizes the Militant philosophy corrupts; that is to say:
To corrupt here means to teach the possibility of refusing all blind submission to established opinions. To corrupt means to give the youth certain means to change their opinion with regard to social norms, to substitute debate and rational critique for imitation and approval, and even, if the question is a matter of principle, to substitute revolt for obedience. (10)
This is the philosophy of action, as act. He borrows a term from the poet Rimbaud ‘logical revolts’ as a good working definition of this action philosophy. He tempts a program out of Althusser suggesting that a philosophy of action promotes divisiveness in theoretical activities: it is a division among the opinions about scientific knowledge – or, more generally, among theoretical activities (12).
He tells us that the philosophical act is decisionary and normative: that is, it separates, cuts, and divides knowledge from opinion; as well as imposes new forms of hierarchization between good and bad ethical and political forms and dimensions. Ultimately this entails a transformation in both philosophy and subjectivity:
Philosophy is the act of reorganizing all theoretical and practical experiments by proposing a great new normative division, which inverts an established intellectual order and promotes new values beyond the commonly accepted ones. The form all this takes is of a more or less free address to each and everyone, but first and foremost to the youth, because a philosopher knows perfectly well that young people are the ones who must make decisions about their lives and who are most often ready to accept the risks of a logical revolt. (13-14)
This almost seems a return to Badiou’s roots in the sixties, a sort of latter-day Socrates emerging from the rubble of late-capitalist society entering its streets preaching a new philosophy of action and militancy. He tells us there is nothing new in this and that it is actually very old approach: the eternal return of the Same in its usual guise of revolt, inversion, and transformation or emancipation of youthful energies. Philosophy is a “repetition of its act” (14), a movement from the present through the past and back again. Nothing new there. Yet, if this is true, he asks then how do we account for new truths emerging? How do we “assume the consequences of a new event within the actual conditions of philosophy” (15).
Creative repetition. The crux of the matter is the movement of truths between theme and variation: the repetition that emerges as change, as an event. The movement of the future in the present, the divinatory philosopher must read this future as signs of the event. Deleuze in his Proust and Signs once offered this: the “worldly sign appears as the replacement of an action or a thought. It stands for action and for thought (6).” Deleuze in another passage explains:
…memory intervenes only as the means of an apprenticeship that transcends recollection both by its goals and by its principles…. [it] is oriented to the future, not to the past. … Everything that teaches us something emits signs, every act of learning is an interpretation of signs or hieroglyphs. … [it] is an apprenticeship to signs (4).
But what does this apprenticeship to signs entail? Badiou tells us that we must distinguish between fiction and ideology. Because, generally speaking, ideology is opposed to science, to truth or to reality. And the best way to do this he continues is by “finding the new great fiction that offers the possibility of having a final political belief” (77). That the “process of truth is also the process of a new fiction” (77).
And in fact, when the world is somber and confused, as it is today, we must sustain our final belief by a symbolic fiction. The problem of young people in poor neighborhoods or cities is the problem of the absence of a fiction. It has nothing to do with a social problem. The problem is the lack of a great fiction as support for a great belief. Thus, the final belief in generic truths, the final possibility of opposing the generic will to normal desires, this type of possibility and the belief in this sort of possibility, in generic truths, has to be our new fiction. (77-78)
He says we need a grand fiction, but one without a “proper name” (78). The “great fiction of communism, which goes from masses to proper names through the mediation of class struggles, is the form of the classical revolutionary recomposition of the political field” (78). Instead we need local possibilities, generic fictions that are not bound to the great names of the past. The localization of the generic calls for a new “political courage”:
To find the fiction is a question of justice and hope. But the question of the real possibility of a fiction is a question of courage. Courage is the name of something that cannot be reduced to either law or desire. It is the name of subjectivity irreducible to the dialectics of law and desire in its ordinary form. Now, today, the place of political action – not that of political theory, political conceptions or representations, but political action as such – is precisely something irreducible to either law or desire, which creates the place, the local place, for something like the generic will. (80)
So it seems a call to creative repetition, a return to those philosophies of subjectivity and will, but with a difference: this is a militant turn that is not to be encased in academic quests for knowledge and tradition, but the movement of a generic will, a will to localized fictions of political courage irreducible to the ‘dialectics of law or desire’.
1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-10-02). The Year of Dreaming Dangerously Norton.
2. Badiou, Alain (2012-12-03). Philosophy for Militants (Pocket Communism) . Norton.