The Horror of Philosophy

An article published in this same venue opens with a grievance: ‘We lack the philosophers that we require for an era marked with agitation and occupation.’ It is a common enough complaint and one worth listening to – not for its own merit, but for what it reveals about the politics that produce it. Turn it inside out into a research question: ‘Do we have the philosophers we need?’ and it reveals itself as a rejection of responsibility; as if new, radical philosophy is handed out to a generation like a pamphlet or a lecture. A philosopher is not something we possess, no matter what college boards have advertised. They, for a time, possess us.

Presupposing for now that there is a ‘we’ to talk about, let’s ask a question, the answer to which would directly implicate us: ‘Why are we – the self-styled Left – failing to conjure the philosophers that we need? ‘ The answer, I suspect, will begin with an admission: ‘Because we don’t have the stomach for them’. If we can arrive at the point when we openly admit this physiological problem, then we might finally be ready to raise real philosophical questions and even draw out the people who can shoulder them.   I am not the first person to suggest that philosophy will have to leave its current academic confines and become a tool for education, institution building, and politics. But I can add – looking at how the past few generations of the Left have conducted themselves – that the desire for a philosophical education has disappeared. Philosophy scuttles and groans in a closet, and those who are still able to dream of a different world, sleep uncomfortably.   In our period of advanced capitalism things change in conditions of near-total acquiescence, as almost everyone feels invested in the current socio-economic system. In the West, slavery (in the form of wage-labour at home and abroad) is accepted and promoted by all classes, even as a precondition of their parliamentary freedoms. If the society had any political volition at all, we would say that its submersion in the system is entirely voluntary.   The immediate impact on radical philosophy is that its potential students begin to view it with deep mistrust, because what it asks of them has the authentic flavor of madness, failure and danger. Today, anyone who dares to do philosophy has a cushy world to lose and little to gain – perhaps nothing more than him or herself. It’s no surprise that Leftist philosophy, at least in the West, has begun to take spiritualist dimensions.   Critical theory has spent decades describing these conditions. The descriptions are not attempts at confrontation with the system: in fact, they often highlight the impossibility of such clashes. In a timid society, most philosophers lose their grit as well. Where Marx defined philosophy as the means to change the world, and Plato thought of it as the training ground of leaders, even the more radical thinkers now offer academic daisy chains for definitions. Deleuze calls philosophy the work of creating concepts. Badiou says it’s posing problems in face of incommensurabilities. With a clumsy sleight of hand academic philosophers have managed to dematerialise the concept of praxis by referring to philosophising itself as a ‘practice’. Praxis, then, becomes a combination of thought with more thought on paper. Which is how A. J. Bartlett et al., for example, without a hint of irony, title a book that has almost no reference to practice The Praxis of Alain Badiou.   The detachment from action can be read in even the most optimistic examples of critical theory. Turn to the concluding chapters of their books, old and new, and you will come across sentences like these:


Henri Lefebvre: ‘[In] urban reform and revolutionthe battle is … fought out on the field of production and it is there that strategy must set its objectives…’

Everyday Life and the Modern World (1968)

John Holloway: ‘we must live differently, we must act differently…’

Crack Capitalism (2010)

Žižek: ‘one should avoid … the predicament of the Beautiful Soul … the subject who continually bemoans and protests his fate, all the while overlooking how he actively participates in the very state of things he deplores.’

Living in the End Times (2010)

Emphasis mine.   The grammar is the giveaway. What is the role of this ambiguous deontic modality (should, must, etc.)? By whom should these things be accomplished? Using what capacities? Who has the will, the nervous system, the patience, the practiced ability to suffer self-inflicted pain, to press forward with these God-pleasing agendas?   Incendiary literature has a history of using this type of language. However, in the past if it was not addressed to a particular group or party as a directive, then it was stated as a threat: this should be done, or else, revolution! Today it has lost its address. Anarchist writings in the US (e.g. Chomsky) and the UK (e.g. Simon Critchley) are especially clogged up with these passive ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’. Critchley has even hiked up the idea into a modus operandi. In his Infinitely Demanding he reduces the work of the Left to becoming repositories of ethical demands that the system, being a mess of contradictions, cannot fulfill. But the people who are intended to make these demands, to what extent are they to feel them in their bones? Enough to go mad or violent? And in what school of life are they to train themselves for the long haul? Questions like this get Critchley into trouble so quickly that at only the slightest provocation (from Žižek, for example) he is forced to hedge his bets and so recourses to the power of faith to get things going. He goes on to write The Faith of the Faithless.




In the recent years, we have seen some genuine street action. Can we say now that Occupy and its related protests have readied us for a new philosophy? Perhaps. But not in the ordinary sense of the word ‘philosophy’. If the Occupy movement meant anything, it was to confront us with the question of man/woman-power – the role and requirement of bodily stamina to feel an opposition and sustain it. But it signified not just the role, but also the absence of these bodies. The well-meaning advocates of Occupy merely recount its achievements. They refuse to stare into the void of those terrible Occupy sites on university campuses. A handful of tents put up in mega campuses and then left empty for the day while the occupiers attended class and passed exams.

Only by staring clear-eyed into that void, by recognising this landing – this state of emergency, as Walter Benjamin would have called it – can we devise a different direction for philosophy: as a means of training men and women who are capable of the highest forms of self-motivation. This, however, is dangerous ground.   In the past few years, the new interest in radical politics has come with a renewed interest in the question of revolutionary terror. Terror here is violence perpetrated on someone by an outside political power, usually the state. Should radicals be prepared to use violence if they look for power? Will they have to use it in order to achieve a new hegemony?   I think the question of terror intentionally tries to bite off more than it can chew. It speculates about a situation that is either too far in the future or too far in the past. Whatever theoretical interest it unwraps, it obscures a much more immediate question: the problem of horror. If terror is what others can do to you, horror is what you are willing to do to yourself. What form of education will the few people who find the current conditions nearly unbearable have to submit to? No topic in critical theory has been treated as shabbily as education, and not least because of a fear of what it might entail. Whatever has been said has concentrated on disrupting the authoritarianism of the traditional school model. But we hear nothing about what we are to do if the student herself demands discipline and danger (physical, moral, emotional, etc.) as part of her education. Are there even teachers capable of responding to that call?   If what I am saying is not clear, then let me say that in the twentieth century the thinkers who came closest to fulfilling that role are those that horrify us the most. At the same time, anyone with a sense of philosophical purpose in our era is attached to at least one of these groups. First, the revolutionary communist leaders: Lenin, Mao, Rosa Luxembourg, Gramsci, and to a lesser extent, Che Guevera. Second, the fascist dictators. And third, and perhaps most relevant (because most recent and closest to the current conditions), the shadowy figures that built the New Age ‘cults’ of the last century. Two of the most prominent examples of this last group in the West are Rajneesh and Har Bhajan Yogi. We could also include in this category a range of figures such as Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam or even Jim Jones, whose followers committed ‘mass revolutionary suicide’ by drinking poison laced with Kool-Aid.   The Left has managed to cut off its relationship to all these groups. It has not acknowledged the educational program of the communist leaders, and it has failed to start any conversation with working class neo-fascist youths in Europe. How is it that academics of the Left have failed to produce a coherent theory regarding the last group, the so-called ‘cults’, beyond the simplistic notion that their followers were disillusioned neurotics who were duped by the first snake-oil peddler? The Left has failed to see the relevance of a movement that, just as all other radicalism had waved the white flag, convinced hundreds of thousands to drop everything – their names, their families, and their patrimonies – to join the quest for a lifestyle that operated beyond everyday capitalism.   At least one reason for this ignorance is the wish to disregard the horror of philosophy in our times. The need to break through this smokescreen provides an explanation for nearly all of Žižek or Badiou’s shenanigans – what Michael Sayeau calls the philosophical left’s ‘embrace of the moderate to extreme right’. These are meagre attempts to finally reconcile the Left with that horror.   We see this in Žižek’s showmanship: when he praises the overtly racist and pro-US film 300 as an ode to anti-imperial spirit of discipline and sacrifice; when, in the middle of the insipid editorialising that followed Thatcher’s death, he suggests that the Left needs its own charismatic Thatcher; or when he happily adopts Berlusconi’s saying that Obama is a white man with a good suntan – Žižek is trying to blow some courage into the conversation. He is trying to haul a lone flag into fertile enemy territory. He wants at least a daring interpretation. Which is perhaps all he can offer.   We can find a more forceful example in Badiou. In the Badiou-Žižek philosophising duo it is the older Badiou who is the real rascal – despite appearances to the contrary. That things might be accomplished through ‘faith’ is Badiou’s idea, and so is the conception of the revolutionary ‘event’ as something almost supernatural. It is also Badiou who hints that what might be needed is an ‘act of God’, a great catastrophe, what Žižek with characteristic flare for borrowing (this time from Benjamin) calls ‘divine violence’. Compared to the old man, Žižek is rather reconciliatory. Where Žižek praises the message of the gospels and on television refers to himself as Jesus’ ‘biggest fan’ Badiou dismisses Jesus as irrelevant and turns instead to St Paul. The same St Paul who has come to represent the militarisation of Christianity and its movement away from Jesus’ supposed pacifism toward an institutional religion mixing love with, yes, horror.   Badiou’s treatment of St Paul is emblematic of what is happening in radical philosophy. It is about the way theory can simplify a real educator/philosopher.   Badiou’s basic premise is that Paul is the founder of universalism. On the way to Damascus, Saul, a militant Jew who persecutes Christians, has a vision of the deceased Jesus, appearing to him in blaring light. Saul is converted, changes his name to Paul, and goes on in solitary and militant fashion to spread a message throughout the Roman Empire. The message, according to Badiou, is this: Jesus died and was resurrected, all laws and traditions binding men are abolished in him, everyone has become one in the potential for salvation that Jesus represented, and so a time for true freedom has come. Through faith in Jesus we can connect to this new salvation. (Paul is astonishgly materialistic: salvation belongs to this world, not the next.) But carrying out the message of salvation is not limited to a simple credo. It requires, in Badiou’s reading, ‘fidelity to the event’. Paul, according to Badiou, outlines three components to the procedure of truth: faith, hope, and love. You must have faith that the event happened (Jesus was resurrected) and because of it you have been given self-worth beyond your assigned role in society. That faith becomes active only once you realise that everyone is endowed with the same worth, and so you begin to exercise love for everyone. From there, you must exercise stamina, that is, hope that liberation belongs to all.  


What’s all this got to do with the price of cheese? First, I think it demonstrates well the type of searching that is happening in the more adventurous minds of Western philosophy. The leaning on to a spiritual tradition is not an accident – in fact, Badiou’s life project, as well as Žižek’s so-called ‘open Hegelianism’ are deeply rooted in some version of Christianity. That the two of them, along with many others, are not only ignorant of but also hostile to all non-Western modes of thought goes to show the timidity of their spiritualism. They can’t leave home, and so they keep mining Western philosophy for what they see as signs of life.   Much more important, however, is the figure of Paul according to Badiou. Who’s this Paul? We recognise part of him from Badiou’s description. He is the man who wrote the ‘Hymn to Love’ (‘love is patient, love is kind…’) and described the relationship between the law, sin, and death (1 Corinthians). He is a consistent philosopher writing about a new creed.   But what happened to that other Paul? What happened to the one chastising his followers for questioning his authority? The man who tells them ‘imitate me!’ or I will come over to Corinth ‘with a rod of discipline’? Badiou’s Paul would not have anything to punish others about, with his indifference to differences. And let’s not forget the Paul who excludes in one breath all adulterers, philanderers, homosexuals, thieves, slanderers, and drunks from the kingdom of God.   This Paul has been wiped out of Badiou’s imagination. Who is he? He is the institution builder, the day-to-day Pedagogue. Faith and hope are all good, but this man has a community to build and people to raise. People who see regularly that it will be easier to say ‘credo’ but continue to do in Corinth as Corinthians do. As a teacher, Paul is self-contradictory, seemingly arbitrary, and dangerous. Badiou tries to reduce the entire pedagogic process to a state of being (‘fidelity to the event’). He, like all current philosophers, reduces philosophy to a matter of the mind, graspable in one encounter – i.e. an epistemology. How can such philosophy ever triumph?   The horror of St Paul, the horror of contemplating those men and women who submitted themselves to his authority in order to transcend their own subjection to a social order, is the horror of the task of education. In the age of liberalism any act of education is approached with fear and trembling by people who know the history of oppression – and who knows that history better than the Left? Philosophers who have been reduced to writing books and lecturing instead of raising men and women – which is inevitably dirty work – will have a hard time giving us the real dirt on the task.   The problem, however, is not only professional. The thinkers who were physically involved in Occupy – David Graeber, for example – also did not manage to produce compelling work outside the experience. A great opportunity was lost. Graeber’s writings on the movement are so soft you would never know they are accounts of a defeat. The fear of horror is at work: if the Occupiers had wanted to go beyond the point of their defeat, to try anything more than they tried, what would that action have looked like? I wonder if anyone can imagine an option that would not be in some sense horrific.   The current philosophical landscape of the Left lacks blood, we haven’t seen any gut-churning polemics in decades and disagreements occur within extremely limited parameters (Baudrillard vs Foucault; anyone vs Althusser; Žižek vs anyone). Against that backdrop, the current attempts at danger and adventure in philosophy appear to me as welcome changes. They merit something more than amusement. I suspect that in the future, when they write Žižek’s biography, they will have to admit that maybe the most significant fact about him was his being the first philosopher in a long time to have gone through military training and – horror! – liked it.


's previous work has appeared in the Harvard Educational Review, Connect, American Reader, Frontline, and the Guardian.