I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Alain Badiou’s 2012 book Philosophy for Militants.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve found myself wondering repeatedly about the extent to which philosophy needs to play catch up again, just as Badiou demands it must in much of his post-2007 writings. After all the complexity of Being & Event, it seems (perhaps under the influence of his good friend Žižek) that he realised the broader consequences of his philosophy warrant a more accessible form of presentation; one that will assist the moment at hand (the financial crash and its aftermath) and help to guide people other than philosophers out of it. This is necessary because, for Badiou, philosophy is a discipline that is, more often than not, put in the service of capital rather than helping to birth new ways of thinking about our ever-changing world. This isn’t just that age old tension between philosophy and sophistry, however. As there is less and less difference between the two, antiphilosophy — or even non-philosophy — must soon enter the equation.
Just eight years on from the publication of Badiou’s book, however, it is clear we are responding no better and no more efficiently to our current capitalist crisis. This is obvious when we consider how little the questions of our age (in our field at least) have changed. What good is philosophy now? How can it survive the present capture of capitalism? Furthermore, how can it actually effectuate the birth of a new world beyond the capitalist realist one we know? How do we inaugurate a truly speculative realism in response? Even those of us outside of any academic philosophy spend very little time writing about anything else (whether that is directly or indirectly).
It seems to me that, whilst Badiou’s philosophy of the event attempted to answer these questions explicitly, and whilst it remains a really useful body of work for anyone asking the questions above today, we are in a moment that necessitates our recognition of and an attempt to fully enter into an post-Badiouian moment. Why? Frankly, because Badiou is cringe, but we can retain the baby — the new — as we drain out the stagnant bath water.
In Philosophy for Militants, Badiou addresses these concerns by first briefly discussing Althusser, for whom “the birth of Marxism … depends on two revolutions, on two major intellectual events”. The first, he writes, is
a scientific event, namely, the creation by Marx of a science of history, the name of which is ‘historical materialism’. The second event is philosophical in nature and concerns the creation, by Marx and some others, of a new tendency in philosophy, the name of which is ‘dialectical materialism’.
Badiou, in describing “the enigmatic relationship between politics and philosophy”, is arguing that it has often been the case that “a new philosophy is called for to clarify and help with the birth of a new science”, and this raises a lot of questions for us in the present. (In fact, these are questions that, in my recent research into the early accelerationist blogosphere, were considered quite explicitly by a number of thinkers and writers from that time — a fact that is oddly forgotten today, with Badiou seldom written about in the context of accelerationism, despite being a central referent once upon a time.)
Badiou goes on to address the fact that philosophy’s future “does not depend principally on philosophy and on its history, but on new facts in certain domains, which are not immediately philosophical in nature.” Focusing initially on the relationship between philosophy and science, he provides a compelling list of philosophers whose works have retained a canonical importance precisely because of the ways they synthesised the new knowledge of their age into their own philosophical concerns — “for example, mathematics for Plato, Descartes or Leibniz; physics for Kant, Whitehead or Popper; history for Hegel or Marx; biology for Nietzsche, Bergson or Deleuze.” However, Badiou adds that he does not wish to “limit the conditions of philosophy to the comings and goings of science.” Instead, he proposes “a much vaster ensemble of conditions, pertaining to four different types: science, to be sure, but also politics, art and love.”
Badiou, with his trademark egotism, sees himself as being a worthy successor to this roll call. He continues:
Thus, my work depends, for instance, on a new concept of the infinite, but also on new forms of revolutionary politics, on the great poems of Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Pessoa, Mandelstam or Wallace Stevens, on the prose of Samuel Beckett, and on the new figures of love that have emerged in the context of psychoanalysis, as well as on the complete transformation of all questions concerning sexuation and gender.
We could thus say that the future of philosophy depends on its capacity for progressive adaptation to the changing of its conditions. And, if this is indeed the case, we could say that philosophy always comes in second place; it always arrives après-coup, or in the aftermath, of nonphilosophical innovations.
Badiou’s charge is an important one and the unruly crowd of Speculative Realists, circling around the first blogosphere, certainly took the implications of this drive-towards-newness seriously. There are echoes of this throughout their writings. Graham Harman, who sees himself as the next Badiou most explicitly, once claimed, quite explicitly, that H.P. Lovecraft was to their movement as Mallarmé had been to their predecessors, claiming the cosmic horror of Lovecraft’s implicit post-Kantianism as a cultural touchstone of philosophy today.
Unfortunately, Harman is also the most obvious example of a Noughties philosophy falling arse over head into co-opted cringe. In his introductory book on speculative realism for Polity Press, for instance, he knowingly places himself in a superior position, noting that, whilst he wants to give fair coverage to his interlocutors and critics, his Object-Oriented Philosophy, in being the most popular product of the SR movement, sort of speaks for itself. But, as ever, Harman’s hubris is lacking. In fact, in allowing SR to affix itself to a certain art world zeitgeist with ease, he arguably places an infuriating amount of drag on the movement. This isn’t a series of non-philosophical events demanding new thought, this is philosophy hopelessly profiting on the back of art world pretension and naivety — and it is this fact that seems to have intensified the Speculative Realist’s subsequent falling out with one another.
Harman’s move is similar to that of Timothy Morton in this regard, whose best-selling foray into the anthropocen(tr)ic discourse of new materialism has reduced it to little mroe than a plaything for capitalist fashion-flux. (Not that that is solely Morton’s fault, but he’s certainly helped extend its reach.) As such, many argue these branches of philosophy are popular for all the wrong reasons; they are all too easily assimilated by the bourgeois mechanisms of the art world and its theoretical impotence. This, in turn, is arguably just a symptom of its fidelity with a well-established liberal politics rather than helping to birth something truly radical and new. This may just be a question of perspective, but it is a given to many that much of that produced in the name of new materialism or object-oriented ontology exists for the sake of hollow academic shilling, giving rise to the final form of an outdated Seventies eco-humanism rather than a new philosophy for our so-called “new dark age”. (Pete Wolfendale’s mammoth demonstration of this fact remains highly convinving; Dom Fox’s review is still excellent explanation as to why — the book “is ultimately a defence of philosophical seriousness, of a particular way of holding such commitments and consenting to be bound by them.”)
As interesting as these debates can be, what hope does the new have of emerging in the way Badiou envisioned it when political debates are often caught between — in the case of new materialism most explicitly — a repressive Marxist orthodoxy and a reheated hippie humanism? Put another way, what use is the “anthropocene” when all it does is update our present geological understanding of the world in which we live, rather than updating it to make good on the new cosmic perspective that more recent science provides? In this sense, the term “anthropocene” becomes “the end of history” but for ecologists, symptomatic of a melancholy covered over by a hot new buzzword. It destroys the old but does it produce the new?
It is because of this that so much of what emerged from the late Noughties must now comes in for some reflexive critique. Back then, it was clear that philosophy was entering a new phase of stagnation, but this is true again today, and it is a great shame that many of the old Speculative Realists now find themselves at the helm.
What I am struggling with at the moment is the negative feedback loop of this sort of frustration. It is far too easy to point this out and despair when what I’d really like is to find a space for reflexive critique that is truly productive.
In the present blogosphere, there is a similar sort of cold war ongoing between the so-called neorats and libmats — the neorationalists and libidinal materialists. It is a war that stalks the old frontlines of the accelerationist blogosphere, between left-accelerationism and left-Landianism (or, put another way, between Ben Noys and Alex Williams).  The former tendency has since pulled increasingly in the direction of a philosophy of science, and renames itself according, but inevitably gets so bogged down in the science that it is often slow to keep up with all other non-philosophical events; the latter is accused of revelling in the mud of materiality and political factionalism and ignoring all science, as if it hopes to inaugurate a new dark age in which we are but pawns on a chess board occupied by capitalism and its odd future.
It’s hard to know where to stand at present. I find myself increasingly turned off by the representatives of both. But maybe that’s a good starting point. If we are to follow Badiou, at least in this 2012 guise, surely the right approach to now is something between the two. This was, arguably, the path taken by Ray Brassier but his contempt for the blogosphere means that few who have had their interest piqued by this online environment will take the time to keep up with where his thought has gone since. This only extends our concerns, of course. The academy is where philosophy goes to die, but this is no less true of the internet. It is afflicted by a different disease, maybe, but the result is still the same. We can say that this is a critique of the worst of us, pointing to the asinine and theatrical egotism of Philosophy Tube or Contrapoints, but are we, over here, really so different?
As far as the old Noughties crowd is concerned, I’m sure I don’t need to do a bullying roll call of names to inform people who has gone from inspiring mind to inept headcase. However, as much as this might sound like little more than killing your idols, I feel like it is more of a sneaking disappointment in those responsible for cementing our desire for the new in the first place but who have struggled to stay on the buckaroo of their own commitments. However, this new generation is missing a trick if millennial ridicule is all it can muster rather than a re-commitment to these demands. Philosophical extensions and revisions are a better response than giving more attention to some of the more (self-)abusive has-beens. Indeed, the fact that Badiou and those who once wrote about him have become victims of their own analyses is not a point of cynical celebration to me but has more recently become an acute point of concern. Is that future as inevitable as it seems? Are must of us doomed to becoming internet Dads that a next generation finds endlessly embarrassing?
This realisation might account for why so many of the second blogosphere’s initial participants have ducked out of the internet altogether in recent years, seemingly in order to pursue more revelatory, long-term projects — just as Brassier did.
*proceeds to take hard, long look in the mirror before logging off*
 As much as we like to term it as a war between left-accelerationism and right-accelerationism, I think the indifference of the right with regards to these philosophical debates is today understated and, if a diffuse online right ever does decide to step into the fray, it’s because they mistakenly think it is expected of them thanks to the paranoid framing of debates by the left themselves. This is to say that left-accelerationism often drew battle lines by insulting its opponents by calling them rightist, even if this wasn’t (strictly) the case. After all, Alex Williams’ initial blogospheric “left-Landianism” was far more influenced by the post-Landianism of Ray Brassier’s nihilism than retaining a fidelity with Land’s own. This established Land as a contemporaneous bogeyman despite the conversation having move explicitly beyond him and his immediate political concerns quite explicitly. Put another way — and much to Land’s own delight, I’m sure — he becomes a bludgeon that the Left like to hit itself with.
I’m sorry but I didn’t learn anything from this essay except that battle lines are being drawn by x and y and z.
Thanks for the interesting post! I think that that you managed to describe really well what lot of us fear. Also I think you are right that being unable to respond to events (and due to that being too easily assimilated) is one of the reason for becoming an “internet dad”.
Can you by any chance recommend any good neorat and libmat blogs ,or at least some that exemplifies those stands of thought?
I think it would be quite an interesting topic to think about the development from left-accelerationism and left-Landianism to those two.
Thanks for your comment!
Pete Wolfendale’s blog is one of the most long-lasting and explicitly neorat: https://deontologistics.wordpress.com/important-posts/
Alex Williams’ old blog is only available via the wayback machine now but he was the best for bridging the gap you speak of: https://web.archive.org/web/20100805024039/http://splinteringboneashes.blogspot.com/2008/10/post-land-paradoxes-of-speculative.html
Steven Shaviro’s Pinocchio Theory blog is crazy electic but a deep dive will bring out some relevant stuff, I’m sure: http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/
Hope that’s useful!
Thanks a lot! Those were really useful.
Do you know any good libmat blogs to recommend? If not, it’s also fine, you already helped me a lot.