Philosophy Consoling Boethius and Fortune Turning the Wheel, attributed to Henri de Vulcop, c.1470
What are we to make of the recent ascendance of Alain Badiou to the position of general representative of French philosophy in the Anglophone humanities? There are multiple possible explanations, none of which seem immediately convincing on their own. Perhaps there is a general exhaustion with the linguistic focus of priorly dominant movements, most obviously deconstruction, inciting the fashion for Badiou at the same moment that it has birthed the rather different resurgence of Continental metaphysical realisms. It could well be that, in the context of the consensual liberal politics that befogged Anglophone academe in the 1980s and 1990s, an unrepentant Communist 68’er with no time for centrist equivocation provides a desperate gasp of fresh air otherwise unavailable; this writer, at least, would take the ambition and iconoclasm of a Badiou over the elite liberalism of a Martha Nussbaum any day. That said, Badiou and the new metaphysicians’ frequently hasty dismissals of Derrida and other, prior exemplars of the Anglophone-Continental philosophical firmament are often tiresomely superficial, and they threaten to tether the current generation to a parochialism of the eternal intellectual present.
The new ‘speculative realist’ metaphysicians can be read as part of a broader movement away from critique in the humanities, one that, despite its internal heterogeneity, tends toward the same, implicit conclusion: philosophical modernity, with its stubborn focus on the paradoxes of signification, with its gritty political partisanship and critical verve, is over; indeed, it may never have existed — and a good thing, too. This is the explicit conclusion of Bruno Latour, whose 1991 book We Have Never Been Modern set the tone for the anti-critical movement only now gaining its full voice. None of those involved agree on everything, of course, but they’re differently representative of a trend that seems to be on the up in domains as varied as philosophy, political theory, literary criticism and cultural anthropology.
In literary studies, for example, the imperatives of critique (or ‘suspicious reading’) are increasingly being replaced by various kinds of ‘sympathetic’ or ‘surface’ reading, such a move generating the repetition of older historicisms and positivisms at least as often as it induces genuine theoretical novelty (see, in this regard, the work of Franco Moretti, Stephen Marcus and Sharon Best, among others). Academic fashions never march in strict lockstep with wider sociopolitical developments, of course, but it’s tempting to hear the rise of the anti-critical humanities (to say nothing of that especially worrisome blot on the horizon, the ‘neurohumanities’) as the less-than-thunderous aftershock of the comprehensive and painful defeat of the Marxist Left in the West since 1989.
But even as Badiou marks a break with earlier, linguistically-oriented forms of French philosophy, he is as doggedly faithful to the modernist radical Left as the new anti-critics are determined to leave it behind. Badiou is nothing if not a thinker of grand Truths, both philosophical and political, and the volume under review, nimbly edited by young philosophers of note Tzuchien Tho and Giuseppe Bianco, gives readers an insight into the very earliest moments of the militant philosopher’s development.