Philosophy as Creative Repetition


I came across Badiou’s article, “Philosophy as Creative Repetition,” in which he discusses the very conception and role of and the subsequent “disciplining” of philosophy. For one, since it’s the end of the semester, I’ve been thinking of these types of questions that have been bothering me for a long time. In fact, it seems to be everywhere, for some of the discussions recently here at PE and other places have touched on questions like “What is philosophy,” “What does philosophy do, if anything?” or even as one PE writer asked “Is philosophy irrelevent?” or finally “What is a philosopher?” After drawing on Althusser’s notion that philosophy has no history and is a continual repetition of the same, Badiou writes:

What is the sameness of the same, which returns in the a-historical destiny of philosophy? Behind this question we naturally find an old discussion about the true nature of philosophy. There are roughly two main tendencies. For the first one philosophy is essentially a reflexive knowledge. The knowledge of truth in theoretical fields, the knowledge of values in practical fields. We have to organize learning and the transmission of knowledge. And the appropriate form of philosophy is that of a school. The philosopher is a professor, like Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger and so many others., including myself, when you address me under the name of “Professor Badiou.”

Badiou continues on to name a second–if not somewhat ideal–possibility, viz., the philosophical act:

The second possibility is that philosophy is not really a knowledge, that it is neither theoretical nor practical. It lies in the direct transformation of a subject, it is a kind of radical conversion, a complete change of life. And consequently it is very near religion, but by exclusively rational means; very near love, but without the violent support of desire; very near political engagement, but without the constraint of a centralized organization; very near the potency of artistic creation, but without the physical means of art; very near scientific knowledge, but without the formalism of mathematics, and without the empirical and technical means of physics. For this second tendency philosophy is not by necessity a matter of school, learning, transmission and professors. It is a free address of anybody to everybody. Like Socrates speaking to young men in the streets of Athens; like Descartes writing letters to Princess Elizabeth ; like Jean-Jacques Rousseau writing his confessions ; or also the Nietzsche or the novels or Sartre plays; or like, if you forgive me for a narcissistic touch, my own novels and plays.

The difference is that philosophy is no longer knowledge, or knowledge of knowledge. It is an action. One could say that what identifies philosophy is not the rules of a discourse, but the singularity of an act. It is this act that the enemies of Socrates called: “the corruption of young people “. And because of that, as you know, Socrates was sentenced to death. “To corrupt young people” is after all not a bad name for the philosophical act. If you properly understand “to corrupt”. Here “to corrupt” means to teach the possibility of refusing any blind submission to established opinions. To corrupt is to give to young people some means of changing their minds about all social norms ; to corrupt is to substitute discussion and rational criticism for imitation, and even, if the question is a question of principles, to substitute revolt for obedience. But this revolt is neither spontaneous nor agressive inasmuch as it is a consequence of principles and rational critics. In the poems of the great trench poet Arthur Rimbaud we find the strange expression: “Logical Revolts”. That is probably a good definition of the philosophical act. “Logical Revolts”.

Ultimately, Badiou concludes, “We, philosophers, are not allowed to sleep. A philosopher is a poor night watchman.” Indeed. I can’t help but think of Levinas’s conception of infinite watchfulness and insomnia which denote the indistinction and subsequent re-inscription of interiority and exteriority so we are left with an other interiroiry and exteriority. This is precisely the space of insomnia/infinite watchfulness/the ethical relation, or put another way, philosophy (as Levinas notes in Otherwise than Being) is re-inscribed as the wisdom of love in the service of love. It is this space of insomnia that becomes completely anachronistic for Levinas–it is nothing less than the possibility of redemptive action in history. Unsurprsingly, this kind of political aspect is not lost on Badiou, in fact it takes on more force here:

That’s why we can speak finally of a creative repetition. There is something unchanging in the form of a gesture, a gesture of division. And there is, with the pressure of some events and their consequences, the necessity for transforming some aspects of the philosophical gesture. So we have a form, and we have the variable form of the unique form. That’s why we clearly recognize philosophy and philosophers, despite their enormous differences and despite their violent conflicts. Kant said that the history of philosophy was a battlefield. Yes, it is so! But it is also the repetition of the same battle, on the same field. Perhaps a musical image may help. The development of philosophy is in the classical form of theme and variations. Repetition, the theme, and constant novelty, the variations. But both theme and variations come after some events in politics, art, science, love, events which provide the necessity for a new variation for the same theme.

Anyway, there is a good deal of useful ideas in Badiou’s article. Since I spend so much time teaching introductory courses in philosophy I wonder if this type of approach may be a nice way to help our students to “get the rubber to hit the road,” so to speak. I generally structure my intro classes around a theme, this semester it was “Knowing,” which focuses the reading and discussions nicely. Regardless, I’m sure I will revert to being always astonished at the passive “pornographic distance” some of my students adopt. I always hope for some sort of transformation, you know, into a more constructive space, but I’m today optimistic for the possibility of such a transformation since I haven’t yet graded the stack of finals glaring at me from the other side of the room…

4 thoughts on “Philosophy as Creative Repetition

  1. The link is broken, btw

    I appreciated Badiou’s notion of substituting discussion for imitation. Yet I often see what appear to me to be imitations of discussion, an intellectual theatrics, and people seem so committed to their roles I wouldn’t think of letting on that I am not convinced by their performances. They must have their reasons, I reckon. But I don’t trust what I see. How would I distinguish a discussion from an imitation of discussion, which may be like a second order imitation, that is, not simply an imitation of an idea (like eternal return, e.g.), but the imitation of the exchange of ideas? (I have an inkling–more in a second). And why not? And what if a convincing imitation of ideas demands an envelope of discussion, an atmosphere. Don’t we encounter such hybrids all the time, in these sleepless hours? I can say that I’ve found discussion to be the better path for me, but I can’t honestly deny that I’ve emulated or rule out the possibility that I’ve found the path of discussion through emulation, and that of course means that a capacity to imitate has given me access to discussion. Look at this other term: “rational criticism.” Where does rationality enter into it? Is it like a philosopher has a preexisting rationality that he applies to an object that he criticizes. I think it may be more like rationality is something one comes to in a crisis, an equilibrium struck for but a moment, a poise. (I’m reading Bachelard’s Dialectic of Duration this week and worrying over his idea that any rationalism is an interrationalism. Hmm. ) My prejudice would be to believe that philosophical crises can’t be forced. Eternal return, insomnia, love of knowledge: there’s no whopping upside the head for or by criticism. A philosophical crisis is coaxed. (Yeah, what do I know. Just a thought.) That’s a point that might find a home in the marathon discussion of difficult texts that wandered over to Sinthome’s blog. But I don’t know how committed I am to the idea of coaxing. Maybe a genuinely philosophical crisis never quite comes to be. So you see the inkling I have is that one loves to discuss and you know you’re discussing an idea rather than imitating one when you are truly enjoying discussing it—but darn if maybe I don’t know people better than that. A lot of people, Cipher to name a name we all know from watching movies, would be satisfied with the imitation. Perhaps one might feel that love of discussion is not contradicted by an engagement in intellectual theatrics. Well, we’d need to discuss this with somebody who will explicitly favor imitation over discussion, wouldn’t we?

  2. Thanks, I fixed the link.

    Well, as for where rationality enters, I read the distinction Badiou makes between “rational discussion” and imitation as an allusion to the Sophists since he was talking about Plato and Socrates in that sentence. However, I do see your point and was reminded (it seems like I’m always being reminded of this) of Searle’s Chinese Room experiment when finally, the answers given by the man stuck in the room alone (Searle’s point is that a computer program, an input machine, a game that imitates reality etc) cannot be distinguished from a native Chinese speaker who understood the questions being passed under the door. The point being, sure we can simulate the communication of meaning by invoking rules etc, but that’s different than actually realizing such meaning. The Derridean response (esp in Limited Inc. and his famous essay on Levinas in Writing and Difference where he is asking if Levinas is speaking Greek or not) is something like this: “to pretend to speak say, Chinese, we have to speak Chinese.” This is to say to pretend I actually do the speaking, but I have only pretended to pretend. This may seem to gesture to imitation or something like a conversation without content? Wouldn’t this backslide into a “discussion” at some point?

    I think it may be more like rationality is something one comes to in a crisis, an equilibrium struck for but a moment, a poise…A philosophical crisis is coaxed.

    Perhaps, but I think there is some sort of “whooping upside the head”–coaxing. If we do keep with the theme of crisis the obvious place to start (at least for me) is Husserl, whose late work attempted to cure the “crisis of the European sciences” which was (is?) also the “crisis of European (Western) humanity.” Phenomenology I think at least after Husserl, has been faced with a dual task: to uncover the cultural sedimentations and hidden motivations in our habitual assumptions about reality and to return to a faithful exploration of the richness of being as it gives itself to our experience. The kind of dance Husserl does between suspicion and since we’re talking about Badiou, “fidelity” to the range of our experience–that gap may precipitate the sort of coaxing you are alluding to…

  3. If we’re going to step between doubt, if I may, and fidelity to the range of experience, we should be dancing, eh? Not so much a fear of planting the feet as a joy in movement.

    Incidentally, I’d meant to say something like “Happy grading, Shahar,” just to be conversational.

    Wouldn’t this backslide into a “discussion” at some point?

    Can I take it from the quote marks that you have your doubts? I see this as a great question for philosophy. If you knew your students were discussing ideas outside of the classroom would it ease your mind about the relevance of philosophy? (It was difficult for me to write the previous sentence. Does one discuss ideas, texts, discussion? Maybe your hope as an educator is that students will carry on philosophical discussions outside of the classroom, beyond grading and perhaps beyond simulation. But there are doubts. Perhaps every discipline is haunted by its sophists, larvae in an ancient sense.)

    Can we assume that people have a capacity for discussion? Is this an assumption dialogism makes? What are we talking about when we talk about talk? How do we realize talk?

  4. Can we assume that people have a capacity for discussion? Is this an assumption dialogism makes?

    Er…the short answers (firmly stated no less): No! Yes! Respectively…

    Doubts? Perhaps. You know, is it just about fakin’ it ’till you make it–like they say in recovery! I mean, as a teacher, I demand all sort of things from my students, whether exams or essays etc. I wonder (worry) if my students are simply like the guy in Searle’s thought experiment, that is, simply following my instructions on exams, essays, journal assignments, quizzes and what not by responding with “correct” answers? Then again, what would we expect in such an overcoded or territorialized space such as the college classroom? I don’t know, but given both Derrida’s response and the position offered up by Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment, it seems that to me that there has to be some sort of decisive step back, an interruption, a break, for ideally the student-teacher relation would be a sort of “non-allergic relation to the other.” Generally, my intention as a teacher is to continually engage in the responses that the texts I assign demand– responses that materially extend the text into the midst of life. Really, at bottom, I can only hope that the “sharing of information:” all that lecturing, all those sometimes awkward classroom discussions are in the end, better than the Chinese Room because it creates or forces some sort of other type of demand/response than simple simulation.

    Anyway, thanks for the well wishing on the grading, which I’ve only just begun to wade through. By the way, now I have that song in my head: “Husserl makes me feel like dancing, I’m gonna dance the night away.”

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