18 November 2007

badiou, critchley, & žižek

This past week French philosopher Alain Badiou spoke in Philadelphia, interacting with the British philosopher Simon Critchley. I have little expertise in either philosopher, who have risen to some prominence in American academics only in the past decade or so. Nor was I able to attend their interaction. So I post this mostly as a reminder to myself to try to catch up on their thought a bit.

Badiou is an eclectic leftist philosopher with debts to both Continental thought (especially Lacan and varieties of neo-Marxism) and Anglo-American analytic thought (largely mediated through logic and set theory). In the wake of post-structuralism and deconstruction, Badiou's thought returns to an interest in ontology and the universal. What little I've read of Badiou primarily concerns ethics, evil, and his secularized re-reading of St. Paul.

Critchley is a left-anarchist British philosopher who labors primarily in Continental philosophy, building upon the wider phenomenological tradition, especially as mediated through Levinas and Derrida. Recently he has outlined his philosophy and politics in his book Infinitely Demanding, which engages at some length with the work of Badiou.

For an intriguing interaction with Critchley, a friend pointed me to a current article in the London Review of Books by Slavoj Žižek entitled "Resistance Is Surrender," in which he provides an extended reflection upon Critchley's Infinitely Demanding. Žižek is critical of Crithcley's notion of anarchic resistance to capitalism and the modern liberal State, arguing that recent history shows that such resistance is easily embraced and assimilated by the liberal State and the global market. As an alternative, Žižek suggests that "well-selected, precise, finite demands" can leave those in power without excuse.

In terms of operational and tactical involvement, activism, and resistance within contemporary political life, I suspect Žižek's criticisms and alternative are largely on target. Yet, as an overall strategic positioning within the public life of nations and economies, I'm not convinced that either Žižek or Critchley exhaust the possible alternatives. In particular, it seems to me that, when she is faithful to the scriptural witness, the church provides a site of "anarchic resistance" - an alternative polis with its own governance, identity, community, and shared practices, that doesn't so easily succumb to Žižek's criticisms.

That claim, of course, needs further unpacking. I've tried to do this in my essay on gospel as politics (despite some of its weaknesses), but would also commend the provocative work of theologian William Cavanaugh.