This week we are pleased to announce that we are starting our long overdue book event on Geoff Pfeifer‘s recent book, The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou and Žižek. This work is an important intervention into the growing body of works in materialist philosophy that could be loosely described as ‘post-Žižekian/post-Badiouian’ in their theoretical orientation (another recent work in this spirit is Frank Ruda’s For Badiou: Idealism Without Idealism), and it explores how the materialism of both can be read in light of their distinct inheritances to the work of Althusser. For this event, we will feature responses from Becky Vartabedian, Agon Hamza and Michael O’Neill Burns. But to begin, we have an introduction from Geoff below. Please give it a read, and track down a copy of the book for yourself so you can join us in the discussion.
Author’s Introduction by Geoff Pfeifer
First of all, I want to thank Michael Burns and the Working Group on Contemporary Materialism for this opportunity. I am humbled and also very much looking forward to engaging with the readers about my book.
The purpose of this brief introduction is to talk a bit about the origins of the book and also to talk about how I see it contributing to the growing literature on contemporary materialism.
I’ll start with the first. The book began as a dissertation researched and written over a period of about six years (and finally defended in 2012). The main goal, as I saw it, was to try to make clear to myself (and others) the connections between the thought of Louis Althusser, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek and also to make sense of the materialism espoused in the different-yet-similar philosophical orientations of these three thinkers. I also, more specifically, was interested in making clear the differences between Badiou’s and Žižek’s positions while at the same time showing their shared philosophical background and debt to Althusser. Not only does this focus on the Althusserian background provide a nice frame for my interests in the project, but it is also something that had not been explored systematically in the secondary literature. Further, thinking carefully about the Althusserian background in Badiou and Žižek allows us to bring their differences into focus in a helpful way. As I argue in the book, the path that Žižek takes in appropriating and extending Althusser’s work succeeds in ways that Badiou’s mature work fails (I tend to think that Badiou’s earlier work is both much more interesting and much more consistent with a proper materialism than his more recent work and I try to make a case for this in the book also).
In converting the dissertation to a book, I had wanted to both sharpen the overall focus and also broaden it to include the intellectual and political history that I came to understand was an important piece of making sense of Althusser’s philosophical positioning and so the first chapter of the book took up that task. I know that there are a lot of better histories of this time in France (and I draw on a number of these in my own attempt at reconstructing this) but I thought it important to revisit this again, however briefly, in the context of a book that draws connections between Althusser’s views and those of Badiou and Žižek as this had not been done before in quite this way and it helps to further situate the links between the material, practical, and historical concerns and the theoretical enterprises that are born out of it.
As those who read the book will know, Adrian Johnston’s work plays a prominent role in the arguments in the latter half of the book in favor of Žižek’s views over against those of Badiou’s. I agree with Johnston’s critiques of Badiou’s mature work as exhibiting an uninterrogated form of idealism and I try to extend this argument a bit and also show how Althusser himself had already made theoretical moves that avoid some of this. As I try to point out there also however, this does not mean that I think we should reject the Badiouan approach outright- just that this provides a nice place from which to view the differences that emerge between Badiou and Žižek insofar as it is around this, in my view, that the two diverge most sharply.
In this way, the book places itself at the center of many of the contemporary debates around materialism insofar as both Badiou and Žižek play a prominent role in so many of these debates. It also makes a case for the continued importance of Althusser’s work both in these debates and also in contemporary social and political thought more broadly. In the end, I hope that the book is useful to folks and I very much look forward engaging with the readers here over the course of the next few weeks.