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Real Life Philosophy Top Ten

Rock critic and all-around pop culture intellectual Greil Marcus has, for a number of years and across a number of different publications, written a list he calls "Real Life Rock Top Ten." It's a chance to look back across the year and take stock--mostly citing the good, occasionally citing the bad, and in general marking the important and/or worthy of note. It seems like a nice idea, and so I thought I'd mark the beginning of 2010 with a look back at the year that was. Here it is, then: my real life philosophy top ten for 2009.

1. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Slavoj Zizek. It's Zizek's most accessible book yet, and ought to be on everyone's reading list. When was the last time communism had a true public intellectual? Zizek's been trying to fill the role for years, but has never quite been able to make up his mind about which side of the fence he's on: the pop culture references and dirty jokes have always fought for room with obscure theoretical points, and the end result is that both sides have dismissed him. The "serious" philosophers seem to lump him in with clowns and the various "pop culture and philosophy" books, while non-philosopher-types seem to find him too dense and philosophical. For evidence of exactly the problem I'm talking about, look at exhibit A, Zizek's most accessible book previous to First as Tragedy: How to Read Lacan. Zizek wrote a small, accessible, really smart book dedicated to (admittedly, his pet project) helping the lay-person read the most abstruse thinker of the 20th century, who, P.S., is also a French psychoanalyst. In other words, it's exactly the kind of book that only "serious" intellectual-types are going to pick up in the first place (come on: how many people do you know who are interested in trying to read Lacan...?)--and then, of course, only to dismiss it (too entertaining, it's obviously not "serious" work...::sigh::). I sent my mother a copy several years ago when it first came out--I honestly thought she'd get a kick out of it, and told her so. It still sits on her shelf...and she hasn't read a single page of it. Can you blame her? The title of the book is promising to teach her how to do something she has absolutely no interest in doing!

Enter First as Tragedy. Couched as a book helping us understand the current financial crisis, this timely book is also once again short, witty, and inexpensive. It's written for the lay-person--no lengthy discussions of theoretical points, or side-swipes at rivals--which means that it cuts right past the usual "serious" intellectual-types to do the job philosophers ought to be doing in the first place: going out into the marketplace and engaging in public discussion. But this is no mere work of pop culture philosophy, either: Zizek never once dumbs himself down. Furthermore, Zizek interlaces his discussion of the financial crisis with a non-dismissive discussion of Ayn Rand, something "serious" philosophers--almost by definition--pride themselves on never doing. Meanwhile, among non-philosopher types, Rand continues to be shockingly, obscenely popular; a popularity only helped during the past year by the financial crisis and the publication of a couple of spiffy new biographies and an entry in the For Beginners series...

Signs of life: The slow return of Louis Althusser has also continued this past year; most recently with a lengthy new entry over at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as well as a chapter in Badiou's Pocket Pantheon (translated into English this year).

2. Died: Claude Levi-Strauss, age 100. Did you realize he was still alive?! The father of structuralism far outlived not only his peers, but most of the significant members of the next several generations of French thought: Foucault, Derrida, Althusser, etc. Rounding out the year in dead philosophers, meanwhile: Rosa Luxemburg's body may have been found in a Berlin hospital this past October--casting, I would assume, further doubts about the body currently buried in Luxemberg's tomb...

3. The Examined Life, Astra Taylor. The director of Zizek! released her second philosophy documentary this year: a series of interviews with various philosophers (mostly in New York City). If you haven't seen it yet, do so--if for no other reason than for the cab ride with Cornell West. It's hands-down the best of the bunch, and Taylor knows it: she chops the interview up, and spreads clips of it throughout the movie, forming a sort of shell narrative for the rest. The movie is by no means gripping or poignant, and at its worst--the segment with the insufferable Avital Ronell--veers wildly into self-congratulatory chin-stroking. But at its best--and West's cab ride is joined here by Judith Butler's walk through San Francisco and Zizek's stroll through a garbage dump--it's an engaging and accessible ride through philosophical terrain on the big screen. Taylor may never make a blockbuster movie, but her films bridge the gap between professional philosophy and the public sphere in a way that few others even try.

4. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Terry Pinkard. I have long been a huge fan of Pinkard's books on Hegel, which I think explicate Hegel clearly and perceptively, yet concisely and without falling into the temptation to add a page of commentary to Hegel's every line of text. So I was thrilled this past year to see that not only has Pinkard translated the Phenomenology for Cambridge, but he has put the entire first draft of his translation online for immediate download! I have yet to go through the whole draft myself, but from what I've seen so far I would not be at all surprised to see this edition replace the classic, ubiquitous, peach Miller translation as the standard grad school translation.

5. Ian Hacking receives the Holberg International Memorial Prize. Hacking has been a favorite of mine for years--the guy has an amazing range, a great writing style, and a fresh, smart perspective on every issue he touches. Not only does he deserve a prize of some sort, I am now all the more interested to watch the list of future Holberg recipients: as far as I'm concerned, Hacking tops previous recipients like Dworkin and Kristeva--so what will they do to top this one?

6. Simon Critchley at the New School for Social Research, October 23rd. The occasion: Verso books is hosting a round-table discussion between Critchley, Judith Butler, and Jacques Ranciere. The topic? "On the Importance of Critical Theory to Social Movements Today." (You can find a recording of the proceedings here.) Ranciere is a hero of mine, and both Butler and Critchley are always fun to see live, so I hustle in from a long day of teaching to join the standing-room-only crowd for the event. Each presentation goes well enough--during Critchley's, he briefly discusses the work of The Invisible Committee, and mentions the copy of The Coming Insurrection that was handed to him by some stranger about a year ago. But all is relatively straightforward (and each presenter gives roughly the talk I expected), until the Q&A session. Some fellow down front stands up and addresses Critchley: "I'm the one who gave you that copy of The Coming Insurrection, but now I'm not necessarily glad I did, because I think you completely misunderstood it." The fellow proceeds to call Critchley out for, essentially, armchair revolutionarism; he says Critchley has misinterpreted the Invisible Committee and reduced their very real political struggle to a moment in an academic debate...

Critchley's response? "Maybe you're right. Maybe I've misunderstood The Coming Insurrection, and if so, then I stand corrected." Critchley doesn't flinch. He doesn't defend himself. He doesn't hit back. Did he really misunderstand the text? I don't necessarily think so. In fact, Critchley's accuser cited Ranciere approvingly during his brief speech, and Ranciere hastily jumped in after Critchley to explain that he has his own set of disagreements with The Invisible Committee and their work. But while a professionally-trained philosopher could have found any number of ways to dodge, rebut, or reflect the attack, it took some intellectual honesty (not to mention, chutzpah) to take the accusation right on the chin. Furthermore, having walked in to that room thinking that I basically understood who each of the panelists were (and Critchley perhaps moreso even than the others), Critchley's response was the one thing I heard all night that genuinely surprised me.

Signs of life: Critchley has had another busy, successful year--joining a score of other philosophers in contributing to the Guardian's online How to Believe series, a blog of commentary on major works of philosophy and religion. The New York Times has Stanley Fish blogging drivel about politics and culture, while the Guardian has people like Simon Critchley and Mary Midgley blogging about Heidegger and Hobbes (respectively). When will America get a real newspaper for grownups?

7. Logicomix, Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos, and Annie Di Donna. An epic, full-color comic book about the search for the foundations of mathematics, with Betrand Russell as its protagonist. Need I say more? Very well, then: about 350 pages long, and it retails for less than 30 bucks. A book so good that my friend Steve brought it out to the bar with him one night. A book so good that, while Steve and I were up at the bar getting another beer, someone stole it from our table.

8. Søren Aabye Kierkegaard. The Danish existentialist has been dead for over 150 years, but is staging an amazing comeback of late. It's not only the fact that every philosophy paper I read lately cites him; he's been popping up in newspaper editorials, there are a number of new reprints and even new translations of his work around, there just seems to somehow be Kierkegaard in the air lately. A recent survey of grad students in the philosophy department at the New School revealed that the most popularly-requested course topic was--you guessed it--Kierkegaard. Not any one particular book: anything Kierkegaard. I'm seeing the same special topic pop up as an elective course for undergraduates at the various schools where I'm teaching, too. What gives? Am I just traveling in the wrong circles of late, or is Christian existentialism on the rise...?

9. Is The Word “Communism” Forever Doomed?, Alain Badiou. Technically, this is one from 2008: it's a talk Badiou gave to a packed (and hot!) house at the Harry de Jur Playhouse in New York City on November 6, 2008. But I'm sneaking it in here because it was only posted online for the benefit of everybody else in 2009. Badiou moves seamlessly from a discussion of Obama's election into an amazing discussion of the meaning of the word "communism" today. In the process, he rediscovers the sense of open and wonder the term carries in Marx's 1844 Manuscripts, without simply falling back into Marxist humanism. As a sign of hope and life equal to the election his talk so closely followed, it simply had to be included on this list--damn the technicalities.

10. Communique from an Absent Future: On the Terminus of Student Life, anonymous. This pamphlet's been getting passed around lately, and I see that it's found its way online as well. Written by some folks out at the University of California, it's a call to arms: "We'll see you at the barricades." Much of the message here is not new: anyone familiar with the May 68 movement will have a distinct sense of déjà vu. But what is new is that it's come (returned?) to America, and it's happening now. After 40 years' dormancy, the spirit of 68 seems to have returned to American colleges the last year or two--the sit-ins and other shenanigans here in New York at both NYU and the NSSR are further notable evidence--and it remains to be seen how far it'll catch on, as well as how closely it'll follow 1968's script (not with a bang, but a whimper...). Of course, some damned clever German once said, everything in history happens twice: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce...

...And with that, we've come full circle. So there you have it: my real life philosophy top ten for the year 2009. Signs of life brew right alongside the fear and trembling. Happy new year, folks--let's make this next one count.

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