The French philosopher Mehdi Belhaj Kacem on the pandemic, the radicalism of the yellow vest movement, his infamous break with Alain Badiou and how to think outside the university
I sat down with French philosopher Mehdi Belhaj Kacem who the late David Graeber praised as one of the most important philosophers living today. In this interview, we discuss Kacem’s reading habits, what inspires him in the world of thought, how he derived his philosophical concepts, what qualifies as truly radical in our age and why he broke up with his former mentor Alain Badiou. Kacem is, similar to Giorgio Agamben, a major critic of the way the ruling class is managing the pandemic and he is not shy to share his views. In this wide-ranging conversation, we catch a glimpse of a deeply inventive and creative mind, and we get advice for how to do philosophy outside of conventional institutions.
This interview was conducted on Thursday December 9th, 2021, by Daniel Tutt. Translation and interpretation assistance provided by Saad Boutayeb. A podcast of this discussion, including a post-interview conversation with Kacem, has been released with English translations by the Jouissance Vampires podcast. You can also listen to the podcast here:
Here are some excerpts from this wide-ranging and truly wild interview:
About ten years ago you had a public split with the philosopher Alain Badiou. Could you tell us a little bit about the background of this event and perhaps something about your book on Badiou? What made the split necessary for you?
I discovered Alain Badiou in 2001 with Being and Event. I read it the first time, skipping all the math demonstrations, and found the book very interesting. But something left me unsatisfied. So I decided to reread it by doing all the mathematical demonstrations, and there, I was dazzled. To do the mathematical demonstrations, you have to take months, and so I took months. It was, really, a revelation, in the quasi-religious sense of the term. So: it was from there that I understood that, yes, philosophy, in the fullest sense of the term, was possible again. So that’s how I went from “simple theory” to philosophy proper.
For eight years, with Badiou, we were very close. Our correspondence, if anyone ever manages to reconstruct it, will be part of the history of philosophy: we had extremely rich exchanges there. I also sacrificed a lot for this man, especially on the French media front. I was like an anarchist who obeyed Lenin … There was something unnatural, it could only end badly.
- What advice would you give to young people who have a desire to follow a path of cultivating a life of the mind? Where would you recommend that they focus their energy and their attention? Are there any books or specific areas of philosophy or literature that you think is of utmost importance to study?
I would recommend three books to them to begin with, which I cite in my preface to The Pleonectic System as having been unconscious models of writing for me: The Ethics of Spinoza, The World as Will and as Representation by Schopenhauer, and Introduction Reading Hegel by Kojève. These three books, the link of which is to have been drawn up outside the University, are those which give a neophyte the feeling of entering fully into philosophy as such, without having any prior notions. For literature, I would recommend Sophocles, Lautréamont and Artaud.
You will find me obsessive, but I would also write, for the benefit of these young people, a very precise Debordist prescription: turn off your television. Turn off your radio. Throw all your newspapers and magazines in the trash and never buy them again. You have a fantastic tool for educating yourself today, which is the internet. Bypass the GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) which are propaganda and censorship apparatuses almost as formidable as the mainstream media. If you don’t educate yourself properly about what’s going on in the world, so that you can become as learned as you want, this learning will be of no use to you.
Finally, find an alternative means of life to the existing system. The social machinery which is being put in place, under the pretext of the so-called “pandemic”, is a nightmare which will relegate the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century to the rank of distant memories. Fight this system with all your might. And, above all: always be consistent with your thinking, always walk the talk. Not like our “media intellectuals”, or our international university stars.