Pocket Pantheon: Figures of Postwar Philosophy
by Alain Badiou
Reviewed by W. C. Bamberger
Alain Badiou, often billed as France's leading radical thinker, here collects a group of tributes he has written to philosophers who are no longer with us. Most of these names -- all French-speaking, all but one male -- will be familiar to American readers: Lacan, Sarte, Foucault, Derrida. But others will be less familiar: Georges Canguilhem, Francoise Proust. In the "Overture," Badiou refers to the subjects of these eulogies as "friends, enemies and partners," categories which are not impermeable. Even those he thought of as friends or teachers are subject to criticism from his Maoist, revisionist-Marxist position.
Badiou tells us that these pieces are his way of calling these thinkers as "witnesses for the prosecution" in his dispute with those who would prostitute philosophy -- that is, those who propose the maxim, "Cling to your illusions, prepare to surrender." Badiou and his absent allies for their part insist that we "cast away illusions, prepare for struggle." Badiou's readings of this pantheon are illuminated by this particular slant of light. The first essay, a very short piece on Jacques Lacan, is a fairly standard eulogy which becomes an attack on Lacan's critics: "All those psychoanalytic dwarves, all those gossip columnists amplifying the mean cry of 'He was standing in my way, and now he's dead at last. Now pay some attention to ME!" This confrontational tone, modulated to suit but never totally absent, permeates all the pieces here. At one point he asks his audience to allow him to be "absolutely anecdotal and completely superficial," but there is no noticeable drop in intensity anywhere.
In Jean Cavailles (who died in 1944, when Badiou was seven years old), Badiou finds a valuable ally who proposed the uniting of philosophy and resistance logical and imperative. He quotes Cavailles as declaring: "I am a follower of Spinoza, and I think that we can see necessity everywhere....The stages of mathematical science are necessary. And the struggle we are waging is necessary." This yoking of Spinoza and resistance led Cavailles to enter a World War II German submarine base in disguise, which points to another thread that appears several times here: the French hyper-awareness of who played a part in the World War II resistance and who didn't -- and who only claimed to have done so. For Badiou, having made the wrong choice when active resistance was called for can discredit much of a philosopher's work. What he calls for, what shapes his responses to the legacy of the dead, is not simply a call to philosophical activism in such straits, but for philosophy to enable one to live life with dignity and honesty.
Among those Badiou champions most forcefully is Sartre, whom he groups with Voltaire, Rousseau, and Victor Hugo as "writers who never surrender." He also champions Jean Hyppolite for being responsible for the fact that in the 1960s, "the bolts on academic philosophy, which we normally shut tight, were released." The longest essay, however, is on Louis Althusser. Badiou quibbles some with Althusser's terminology, but in the end holds him up as an example for his strong impulse to intervene, for his sense that there was little time left in which to right the failures of the proletariat and to struggle for the kind of life Badiou holds up as ideal. He characterizes Althusser's view of the nature of philosophy (by way of Marx, and in agreement with his own) as holding that it shouldn't concern itself with "guarantees of truth," but with "the mechanisms of the production of knowledge."
And that's what this little book finally is about: Badiou's insistence that the way knowledge is produced is the real subject for those who struggle to use thought to help us find our way into a better world. These elegies-as-activism make a forceful argument for this point of view.