Philosophy at Zero Point

For disciples of Western philosophy, the gathering of the sages happens each year in a Swiss Alpine resort. Secluded among the peaks where thin air brings reverie, the world’s most prominent intellectuals welcome an eclectic mix of students – artists, thinkers and eccentrics – into their midst. Only here, at an experimental institution known as the European Graduate School, is one granted access to Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, Avital Ronell, Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Jacques Rancière and Jean-Luc Nancy among others. This congregation of masters lasts for three weeks of seminars, night lectures and communal dinner discussion. No other school in the world boasts a more exceptional faculty whose calling is to philosophize. But ultimately what makes the European Graduate School unique is the educational style. Eschewing the approach of traditional academia, the European Graduate School encourages professors to come without a syllabus in favor of speaking extemporaneously about the ideas they are currently wrestling with. What one grasps at the European Graduate School is a reflection of the subterranean ideas bubbling up in our historical moment.

In the four years since I began my studies at the European Graduate School, I have always returned home with a deep insight into the direction of our culture. My first year was the summer of 2006, in the midst of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The air was charged with political intensity and the most frequent subject of discussion was anarchism. The next year conversations tended toward discussions of political violence. Together, these years anticipated the reemergence of insurrectionary anarchism as a cultural force and heralded the publication of The Coming Insurrection. In my third year, the flock seemed divided over what constitutes an organic human, suggesting increasing anxiety over the post-human era and the consequences of our continued cyborgization, themes which have yet to be addressed by society at large. In my fourth and final year, from which I just returned, discussions did not circle around a single point but seemed to be fleeing from some truth none were willing to speak of.

What a surprise that big name philosophers, who in previous years did not hesitate to share their profound wisdom in a language that was philosophical but plain, nuanced but direct, now seemed to be hiding behind words. It was as if there was something they could not say. Their presentations became more academic, their focus more narrowed. The absence of a theme was obvious and that, I believe, was the only theme.

We are in a moment of cultural stagnation where the only thing to say is that we have nothing to say. The great contemporary philosophers of our age are in intellectual retreat. Something about this historical moment is leaving the discipline of Western philosophy blind. The great minds seem aware of a presence, but unable to get to it directly. So they fill the air with empty words that, while philosophically interesting, simply serve as a placeholder, a time-filler while events unfold.

It wasn’t until the year was drawing to a close that I caught a glimpse of what had rendered us all so speechless. Žižek, in his nightly lecture, remarked that we are reaching a “zero-point” of systemic collapse and civilizational crisis. And although he did not go so far as to say it, I believe that we have become paralyzed in the face of the imminent ecological, economic and cultural catastrophe facing humanity. We are staring into the abyss and we see nothing on the horizon to save ourselves. Is this the end of philosophy?