Has philosophy become irrelevant in public debate? Was it ever relevant? Who now looks to philosophers for advice in times of trouble? Once upon a time the thoughts of John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, or AJ Ayer would grace newspapers, television shows or films. Especially in America, the appearance of a philosopher in almost any mainstream event is cause for celebration. Even Steven Hawking's latest book boldly claims (though somewhat disingenuously) that "philosophy is dead." So whence philosophy? Does the love of wisdom's ancient whale lay dessicated on the shoreline? Has our age seen the passing of the once deemed grandest of all subjects? Strange that two figures that sometimes loom prominently in the European media would face off to tackle such issues. Slavov Zizek (sometimes called "the Elvis of critical theory") has appeared on television,cable and voluminous YouTube clips (seeing that YouTube has indubitably entered the realm of mass media). To a lesser degree, one can find Alain Badiou's image on talk shows, news shows and YouTube. Not only that, both often seem to field questions about current events. This seems to belie the basic message of this short volume, "Philosophy in the Present." Though neither seems to feel that "philosophy is dead," they nonetheless place limits on philosophy's scope and authority.
The speakers take turns and end with a discussion. Both apologize profusely about their constant agreement on the subject matter. No debate really ensues. Badiou begins and delineates his idea of the role philosophy should play in the present. Using three intriguing examples, Callicles versus Socrates in Plato's "Gorgias," the death of Archimedes and a 1954 Japanese film translated as "the Crucified Lovers." Badiou locates philosophy in the paradoxical or the incommensurable, exemplified by each example. First, when two sides cannot meet. Callicles and Socrates represent polar opposites. Agreeing with both or finding a compromise seems impossible. Second, authority and creative thought have no common measure. Archimedes gets struck down by a Roman soldier who attempts to summon the great mathematician to his superiors to no avail. Lastly, like the two lovers in the Japanese film, love and the bounds of society also have a "relationless relation." Badiou does not make (much) room for politics in the philosophical space he delineates. Politics, to him - and he gives an example of parlimentarianism - does not imbue incommensurability. One side (today's winner) will eventually give way to the other (tomorrow's winner), so a "philosophical situation" does not arise. Curiously, he categorizes the American Iraq war (then occurring) as a philosophical situation, but the war of 1914-18 war between France and Germany as not one. The former involves a superpower versus a third world country (no common measure and the issue of choice), the latter involved two superpowers. Badiou also adds a theory of universality to his notion of the incommensurable philosophical situation. He outlines it in eight theses that comprise the most difficult part of the book. Anyone not familiar with the Badiouian lexicon may find themselves lost in these some 22 pages.
By comparison, Zizek's talk meanders, though not in a pejorative sense. Where Badiou lays out his arguments in a fairly straightforward linear fashion, Zizek jumps from place to place but nonetheless gives a provocative presentation. He agrees that not (much) room exists for politics in philosophy. One function he claims for philosophy is changing the concepts of a debate when a choice presents false alternatives (or a Deleuzian "disjunctive synthesis"). For example, Badiou, Zizek claims, has helped change the concepts of a debate on communication between Derrida and Habermas: "Otherness is not the problem, but rather, the Same." Then on to virtual reality. Against postmodernists who flit from reality to reality, and more conservative types who bemoan virtual reality's "inauthenticity," Zizek claims that the real interest in the "debate" lies not in virtual reality, but in the "reality of the virtual." Other examples follow, such as hedonism, which branches off into an excoriation of New Age reactions. Then totalitarianism and its sources upon which Zizek decries the ban on analyzing horrors such as the Holocaust: "we are only allowed to witness them, any explanation would be a betrayal of the victims..." Habermasian "state philosophy" then receives a pummeling for allegedly interfering in the biogenetic debate. Such a philosophy, to Zizek, celebrates science while keeping the traditional moral balance in order. Nothing changes while everything changes. Next, after adumbrating the various ways philosophy has melded with politics (in revolutions, literature, etc.), Zizek claims that perhaps philosophy "is abnormality par excellence." Philosophy, then, embodies a certain foreignness or displacement. Citing Kant, Zizek's final point involves universality, a la Badiou, in embracing the idea that "you can be a human without first being German, French, English, etc." The singular universal. Zizek sees this as Kant's most enduring legacy.
The discussion builds on these themes while both speakers continue to bemoan their agreements. "God, it's becoming boring," Zizek fulminates at one point. Kant reappears and receives praise for his idea of juxtaposing the limits of reason with an excess of humanity in practical reason (not in delimiting the bounds of reason itself). The undead, political correctness, the fallout from Zizek's book on Lenin and the meaning of democracy today also receive attention. Following a few questions from the audience, Zizek aptly concludes by saying that with Badiou he feels "as Ribbentrop said to Molotov during his trip to Moscow in 1939 - 'amongst comrades.'"
This book provides a decent introduction to both Badiou and Zizek, despite the difficulty of a few sections. The demarcations of philosophy's boundaries may echo with anathema to some (particularly to those not of the "Continental" persuasion), but they nonetheless provide additional arguments for the perennial question "what is philosophy?" It may seem paradoxical, but both of these dominant figures in contemporary philosophy posit a limited role for their field. But their machinations only represent one perspective on the role of the now ancient practice of loving wisdom. In any case, they present a framework that needs to be dealt with when delineating one's own philosophical boundaries.