March 10, 2006

· Philosophy

Today I was wondering whether it was worth buying Slavoj Zizek’s new book, The Parallax View and reading it, even in a spirit of ironic detachment or what have you. Reasons to Buy: 1. Some smart people I know like him. Selected Reason Not to Buy: 1. Life’s too short to deal with bullshit, even if it’s high-quality, triple-sifted, quintessence of ironic Lacanian crunchy-frog bullshit like this: “Zizek is interested in the “parallax gap” separating two points between which no synthesis or mediation is possible, linked by an “impossible short circuit” of levels that can never meet. … Modes of parallax can be seen in different domains of today’s theory, from the wave-particle duality in quantum physics [I assume he put this in just to irritate people—KH] to the parallax of the unconscious in Freudian psychoanalysis between interpretations of the formation of the unconscious and theories of drives. … Philosophical and theological analysis, detailed readings of literature, cinema, and music coexist with lively anecdotes and obscene jokes.” From this—especially the last bit—it’s clear to me that it’s not the Mainstream Media that has anything to fear from the blogosphere, but rather Slavoj Zizek—he will shortly be rendered obsolete by the universe of pop-culture enriched slacker grad-student/ABD bloggers. Even Zizek can’t write fast enough to keep up with them all.

Anyway, here’s another slightly breathless example, this time from the Chronicle about the philosopher Alain Badiou:

Monday’s discussion celebrated the publication of a long-awaited English translation of Mr. Badiou’s 1988 book, Being and Event … First, he dissects “being” with the aid of set theory, the mathematical study of abstract groups of objects (sets) and their relations to one another. … Indeed, Being and Event makes the striking claim that “mathematics is ontology.” And chunks of the book are studded with equations and theorems that may frighten off the scholar who fled to the humanities to escape mathematics.

The idea that set theory might be useful to philosophy is not exactly new, nor are claims about the relationship between math and ontology. (Maybe Kenny will show up in the comments with the relevant reading list.) On the other hand, although often ignored in English-speaking countries, it is nevertheless an important fact that an elite French education can entail learning quite a lot of math in addition to ploughing through the great philosophers. So your typical Next Big French Intellectual often has the wherewithal to bug the shite out of technoids and comp-litters, although only one of these constituencies is typically targeted. Badiou looks like he might be a rare double-header. He can alienate the humanities people with the set theory and simultaneously annoy the technoids with stuff like this:

“Love is an event in the form of an encounter,” said Mr. Badiou, and it has the effect of forming “a new relation to the world.” … In response to one question that asked Mr. Badiou to link his philosophy to contemporary politics, he noted that “names in politics are impoverished. … The weakness of politics today is a weakness of poetry.” The fall of communism, he continued, also influenced that impoverishment. “Marxism,” he said, “had a constellation of names” for political concepts. “It was a sky of names. We lost the sky.”

Lovely. The other great thing about French academic culture, by the way, is that in addition to producing high theorists like Badiou it also produces the best theory of the theorists. The cafés at the Collège de France sell bottled reflexivity instead of Evian.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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