Bogus philosophy. The ideal of the French philosophe de cafe, which owes so much to Sartre, retains a hold over our imagination. But, Edward Skidelsky writes, it has ceased to have any basis in reality

Ethics: an essay on the understanding of evil

Alain Badiou, translated by Peter Hallward <em>Verso

We have an ideal image of the French philosopher. He is engage, preferably a communist, though mistrusted by the party apparatus. He rails incessantly against the French state, while at the same time holding a prestigious and well-paid post at a grande ecole. His taste in art is avant-garde, his sex life complicated. But above all, he is entertaining. In his versatile hands, weighty questions of being and nothingness acquire a certain buoyancy. They no longer seem quite so irrevocably opposed to Chanel No 5 and Chateau Lafite.

The philosophe de salon has his origins in 18th-century Paris, although his modern successor, the philosophe de cafe, owes most to Jean-Paul Sartre. He is despised by his British counterparts, who cultivate their notorious dullness mainly in order to distinguish themselves from him. But for the British reading public, he retains his allure. Shorn of any disturbing radicalism, he is recognisable in our very own Alain de Botton.

But while this image of the philosophe de cafe keeps its hold over our imagination, it has ceased to have any basis in reality. The last surviving giant of French post-structuralism, Jacques Derrida, is in his seventies. The younger generation of French philosophers are more sober and professional. Analytic philosophy, with its emphasis on logic, is gaining in popularity. But this new trend is barely represented in British publishing. We demand that French philosophers live up to their exotic reputation. The more like us they become, the less interested we are. Such is the power of cliche.

Ethics, by Alain Badiou, is guaranteed to satisfy our taste for all that is trivial and bogus in French philosophy. Badiou conforms to the stereotype outlined above in almost every respect. He teaches philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, where he occupies Althusser's old position. His radical credentials are impeccable: he has graduated from Leninism and Maoism to membership of the shadowy Organisation Politique. His passions include 12-tone music and occupying factories. About his sex life I can't speak, although some dark comments to the effect that "sexual pleasure as such is inaccessible to the power of truth" hint at hidden complexities.

Ethics resembles an intellectual circus. The mangy old beasts of French structuralism - Lacan, Foucault, Althusser - are paraded round the ring for our applause. Badiou has added a few new acts of his own. Allusions to mathematical set theory provide an acrobatic accompaniment to the main performance. Both the cultural revolution in China and Alexandre Grothendieck's creation of topos theory are "events" that compel "a new way of being". But even this is not original: it partakes of the French fashion - famously dissected by Alan Sokal - for drawing spurious analogies with half-understood scientific theories. More surprising are the occasional references to grace and immortality, although the recent theological turn of Derrida, Slavoj Zizek and others points to a precedent.

All these circus animals, old and new, have been dressed up in uniforms designed by the ringmaster himself. Badiou clearly has ambitions to found his own school and, to this end, has invented an entire vocabulary of "situations", "events" and "truths". But these terminological innovations cannot conceal that Badiou has nothing original to say. For all its elaborate syncretism, the basic structure of Badiou's thought is very traditional. It derives not so much from the "anti-humanism of the 1960s", to which Badiou pledges allegiance, as it does from the Marxist existentialism of the 1940s and 1950s. Visible behind the smokescreen of jargon is the familiar face of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Ethics is primarily a polemic against the newly fashionable ideology of human rights. To the ethics of human rights, Badiou opposes his own "ethic of truths". Badiou's truths are not the universal truths of human nature on which the advocates of natural rights stake their case. His truths are revealed only in extreme "events", which lie outside the circuit of ordinary life. A truth is always a "break" with the "prevailing language and established knowledge of the situation". It is unique and incommunicable. It cannot be known, only "encountered". Ethical action consists in "fidelity" to such truths.

Badiou offers as an example of "fidelity" the decision of a doctor to treat illegal immigrants in defiance of the law. This cannot be justified in the universal language of human rights, because if all doctors acted similarly the health service would collapse. Nevertheless, the doctor's actions express "a clear vision of this situation"; they are a correct response to an "urgent, singular situation of need". Fidelity is, in short, the old existentialist notion of "commitment". It refers to a decision that cannot be justified in universal terms, but which is still passionately believed to be right.

Badiou's example of fidelity is calculated to appeal - who cannot be moved by the good doctor who defies bureaucratic protocol in obedience to his Hippocratic duty? But the existentialist notion of commitment/fidelity takes on a less attractive aspect when one considers that it is formally identical to the Leninist notion of "revolutionary justice". Both operate outside the realm of universal laws. "If I want to be faithful to the events of the 'Cultural Revolution'," writes Badiou, "then I must at least practise politics [ . . . ] in an entirely different manner from that proposed by the socialist and trade-unionist traditions." Existentialist commitment and Leninist cynicism naturally unite, as they did most famously in the person of Sartre.

The problem Badiou faces is this: if ethical action (fidelity to a truth) cannot be justified in universal terms, how are we to distinguish it from plain wickedness? This is the dilemma that confronts any version of existentialism. It was posed in striking terms, but never properly resolved, by Kierkegaard. How does Abraham know for sure that it is God, and not the Devil, who is calling him to sacrifice his son Isaac? The problem is particularly acute for Badiou, because he admits the possibility that truths may call forth their own "simulacra", which are "formally indistinguishable" from the truths they imitate. Thus the Nazi "simulacrum" borrowed much of its rhetoric and technique from the Bolshevik "truth". It is this circumstance, Badiou adds, that led Heidegger astray. He thought he was being called by God; in fact, he was being called by the Devil.

Badiou believes that he possesses the answer to this dilemma. Truths such as the Bolshevik revolution can be recognised by their "universal address"; simulacra such as the Nazi revolution are distinguished by their rejection of universality and their "invocation of blood and soil". This distinction is historically dubious. Badiou seems to accept without question the orthodox Marxist equation of the proletariat with the "universal class". Yet Nazi theorists were equally adamant that Germany was a "universal nation". On what grounds does Badiou accept one identification and reject the other?

But this historical oversight is nothing compared to the philosophical howler that accompanies it. Badiou is here helping himself, without any recognition of inconsistency, to the notion of universality that he previously rejected. He begins by condemning the bourgeois fiction of a "universal human subject" and ends by condemning fascism because it fails to recognise the very same subject. Universality is good when it is communist, bad when it is bourgeois; particularity is good when it is communist, bad when it is fascist. Such are the subtleties of dialectical thinking.

The only conclusion one can draw from this hodgepodge is that Badiou's philosophy is entirely at the service of his politics. Indeed, Ethics is nothing more than political autobiography dressed up in metaphysical terms. When Badiou defines ethical action as "fidelity to an event", what he is really talking about is his own fidelity to the events of May 1968.

His ethic is that of an ageing Marxist for whom the supreme commandment is: "Keep going!" The worst thing one can say about such a conception of philosophy is that it is wretchedly parochial. Philosophy - which for Kant was inspired by wonder at "the starry heavens above" and "the moral law within" - has here been reduced to the role of political journalism. This criticism has often been levelled against French philosophy; it is sad to see it once again confirmed.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A spin too far

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.