Reading Alain Badiou's Polemics, one might initially have the sensation of having wandered into a conversation not meant for oneself. Polemics consists of an English translation of a series of three slender French books, Circonstances I-III, which themselves contain a good deal of previously published material. Two heretofore unpublished lectures (the meatiest pieces of the lot) have also been included. Except for these last two chapters, almost all the assembled pieces either pertain to topical controversies (the wars in Yugoslavia, in Iraq, the response to Jean-Marie Le Pen's entry into the second round of the French presidential elections), or initiate such controversies (a series of articles on the word "Jew" that raised quite a furor in Paris at the end of 2005). They are thus specific to the French scene (where for example the role of France in the first Iraq war looked quite different at the time than it did here).
Nevertheless, the sense that one is witnessing a conversation already underway and not intended for present auditors appears wrong. Alain Badiou--do not most of us know it already?--is a philosopher of situations, of circumstances, of the event. Par excellence he seems to be the occasional philosopher, as well as the philosopher of the occasion. In addition, he is also the proponent of a new universalism and a novel and unexpected return to truth. The daringness, the gamble of Badiou's thought indeed consists in his resuscitation of the most standard philosophical reference points--truth, the universal--even as he recasts these to meet concerns that might seem to disqualify them. Truth and universals are wedded to themes to which they appear allergic: indetermination, the void, and most of all the event. Accordingly, Badiou's is a return to truth, a standing by, a loyalty to this reference point, that also reckons on the pervasive questioning of truth that so many now take for granted.
On a "practical" or political plane, Badiou's work is equally innovative. His political initiative, in fact, turns on a similar balance between the old and the new. For Badiou's politics are at once militant--some of the most stout and innovative that we have--yet they are by no means Marxian, nor, even, dare I say, revolutionary. Working in the aftermath of twentieth-century Marxism, Badiou aims at a new understanding of political activity that can be the successor of this radical politics that shaped Badiou's early years and so much of the last century. This endeavor gives these essays their singular importance.
Badiou's radicalism's stamp most shows through in Polemics in what Badiou stands against: left-liberal democracy in both its national and international forms. Though an affirmative strand of his thought exists, which he himself would highlight, what is plainest on Polemics' surface is that against which all these essays war.
The most provocative essays in Polemics are the final series, however, which gesture toward what politics (if not political order) Badiou would affirm in the place of the existing one. They mark an especially critical engagement, as Badiou no longer supports a recognizably revolutionary Marxian program (though he also denies that the predicates "Marxist" or "Marxian" carry any univocal semantic charge). In these two concluding pieces, Badiou returns to his Marxist roots, and reviews the history of the Paris commune and its subsequent Marxian interpretation for possible indices of a very different future radical politics.
The novelty of Badiou's politics as a whole lies in its rejection of any embrace of the particular (including, for example, of every politics of an identitarian stripe), stemming from its insistence on a role for truth in politics, even as it denies that this truth can in any way be comprehensive, as in traditional Marxism. Such navigation between particularity and totality leaves Badiou closer to modern representative democracy than he often seems to realize. This form of political organization also rejects the premise that we possess all or no political truth, while itself continuing to show fealty to universals. Thus, the very features that make Badiou's...