Articles/Alain Badiou/On Contemporary Obscurantism

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'On Contemporary Obscurantism' by Alain Badiou


What should we call the extraordinary intellectual constructions that are the works of Darwin, Marx, and Freud? They are not strictly sciences, even if biology – including contemporary biology – is thought within the Darwinian framework. They are certainly not philosophies either, even if dialectics, that old Platonic name for philosophy, was given new momentum by Marx. They cannot be reduced to the practices which they throw light upon, even if experimentation proves Darwin right, even if revolutionary politics tries to verify Marx's communist hypothesis, and even if the psychoanalytic cure places Freud on the ever-shifting borders of psychiatry.

Let us call "the 19th century" the time that goes from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution. I propose calling these three attempts of genius thought devices, and claiming that, in a certain sense, these devices identify what the 19th century brought, as a new power, to the history of mankind's emancipation. After Darwin, the movements of human life and existence, irrevocably detached from all religious transcendence, were left to the immanence of their own laws.

After Marx, the history of human groups was removed both from the opacity of providence and from the almighty, oppressive inertias of private property, the family, and the State. It was left to the free play of contradictions within which an egalitarian future might be written – even if it was with effort and uncertainty. After Freud, it was understood that there is no soul, whose training would always be a moralizing one, opposing the primordial desires through which childhood brings about what will be. On the contrary, it is in the core of these desires, particularly sexual desires, that the subject's possible freedom is at stake – the freedom of the subject inasmuch as he or she falls prey to language, that summary of the symbolic order.

For a long time, all sorts of conservatisms attacked these three great devices. It's only natural. It is a well-known fact that in the United States, even today, educational institutions are often forced to oppose Biblical Creationism to evolution in the Darwinian sense. The history of anti-Communism practically overlaps with that of the dominant ideology in all the large countries in which Capitalo-Parliamentarism reigns under the label of "democracy". Normalizing psychiatric positivism, which sees deviances and anomalies everywhere that must be counteracted by means of chemical brutality, desperately tries to "prove" that psychoanalysis is an imposture.

For a long time, particularly in France, it was nonetheless the huge emancipating effects, in thought and action, of Darwin, Marx, and Freud, which prevailed, of course in the midst of ferocious arguments, agonizing revisions, and creative critiques. The movement of these devices dominated the intellectual arena. Conservatisms were on the defensive.

After the vast normalization process on a global scale which started in the 80s, any sort of emancipating or even merely critical thought is inconvenient. Thus we have seen the attempts follow each other, trying to remove all trace of the great thought devices which have been termed "ideologies", whereas they are exactly the rational critique of ideological serfdom. France, according to Marx "the classic land of class struggle", has found itself under the action of small groups of renegades of the "red decade"(1965-1975), who are at the front line of this backlash. We have witnessed the mushrooming of the "black books" of communism, of psychoanalysis, of progressiveness, and of everything that does not equal the contemporary stupidity: consume, work, vote, and shut up.

Among these attempts, which, under cover of "modernity", recycle obsolete liberal nonsense from the 1820s, the least detestable are not those that are derived from a materialism of enjoyment in order to act as a sort of watchman, particularly with regard to psychoanalysis. Far from being related to any kind of emancipation, the imperative "Enjoy!" is the one which so-called Western societies command us to obey. And this in order for us to prevent ourselves from organising what counts: the process by which some available truths are freed which the great though devices used to guard.

Thus we shall refer by "contemporary obscurantism" to all forms, without exception, of undermining and eradication of the power contained, for the benefit of all mankind, in Darwin, Marx, and Freud.