Will I Follow or Will I Be? The Comparison, Research Time, 02/05/2016

When you write something that compares how two thinkers understand a particular idea, you have to be seriously careful how you present the discussion. You can very easily make that discussion about the two thinkers themselves, even though you might have intended to discuss the ideas.

Most of the time, ideas and concepts are more interesting than the people who think them. Even concepts that someone like Michel Foucault thought about, and he was probably one of the most interesting people in the last century of philosophy.

Because I want to talk about a conception of event. There’s a discussion of this in Antonio Negri’s Commonwealth that I find fascinating, and could very well become a centrepiece of my own Utopias. And Negri discusses it as a back-and-forth between Foucault’s and Alain Badiou’s conception of the event. 

The last time I talked about Badiou was more than two years ago. He’s another one of those philosophers who, once you mention him or one of his ideas, rapidly makes the conversation all about him. I don’t really like that in philosophy – or any creative field, really – because it takes the emphasis away from the ideas and draws you into arguments about one particular person’s set of ideas. Heidegger’s another one of those people.

So Utopias is a book that explores how we understand our political attitudes and the strength of our dedication to a cause through our relationship with time. The different ways in which we can unfold our lives shape how we engage with our communities, promote social change (or not), and our potential optimism for the future.

That's the guiding idea behind the whole book. Or at least it will be. So it was really interesting for me to have seen Negri write about how these two build their intensely political conceptions of event. And it fits very much with what I’ve read of both those thinkers too. 

It breaks down, basically, like this. 

For Badiou, the politically relevant event is an inspiration. It’s an inspiration so profound that it shapes your entire character and all your moral, political, and ethical beliefs. It’s always in the past. 

You identify the pivotal event retroactively – maybe it first inspired you through your experience of it, but its power over you only ever becomes apparent through your memory. Not just your memory in reflection, but your memory in action. Because you intend every action that you take in the world now to reflect and pay homage to that event and its power over your life from the past. 

The pivotal event is always separate from you, in Badiou’s thinking. It’s not necessarily about striving to re-create the event, because you can never really bring it about again. Nor would you necessarily want to.

I mean, think about how horrifying and violent some of the pivotal events in people’s lives are. Maybe it’s some massacre or attack. I’ve often thought about the September 11 attacks as one of these pivotal events that have shaped my political consciousness. 

You wouldn’t want to re-create that. Not only would it be horrifying, but it would take away from the original event’s power. It had that power to define your personality because of the way the event hit you at that moment. And part of what was special at that moment was that there had never been anything quite like that event before. 

That's why there’s never any true repetition. Whenever something happens again, it’s never quite the same event, even if it unfolds exactly according to the same script. The history is different because the event has precedent. 

Badiou calls this relationship to a pivotal event fidelity. We’re faithful to the event that shaped our lives and personalities. Our relationship with it exerts a powerful force that constitutes a lot of our subjectivities. Our contemporary actions become a tribute to that event’s power.

The pivotal event for Badiou and his philosophy, to which he returns continually in
his own Being and Event, is the time of May 1968, and the riots that convulsed
Paris in dreams of a radically different society.
Foucault’s concept is very different, and I’d say it’s the one that Utopias the book will prefer. Foucault is interested in the event as our own power to create events. The event is the new beginning that we create with our political action, with our daily life working in our society and community. 

One is a past event that inspires our action in the future with our faith and fidelity to it. One is our own power to create change in our world. You can see which one I’d choose. The question is why. . . . To be continued

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