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While there is no shortage of references to the event in the Anglo-American tradition, from Alfred North Whitehead to Donald Davidson, the concept serves above all to define the principal stake of so-called Continental thought, from Martin Heidegger to Jacques Derrida to Catherine Malabou and from Michel Foucault to Gilles Deleuze to Alain Badiou. Genealogically, the event emerges with particular force toward the late sixties, marking a possible crossover point between structuralist and subject-centered approaches. Among the features that are relatively invariant in the use of its concept, we can mention the event’s contingent, unpredictable, singular, and radically transformative nature. Beyond these basic invariant traits, however, each individual thinker also gives the event a specific inflection. Major polemics thus concern the unicity or plurality of events, their ontological or nonontological inscription, their immanence or transcendence to the world as is, and their susceptibility to a hermeneutical or a dialectical understanding. Finally, the primacy attributed to the event in contemporary philosophy is not immune to criticisms and attacks from a political point of view, insofar as eventfulness, contingency, and difference in the context of late capitalism can be seen as descriptive of the current functioning of the global market, instead of promising its revolutionary transformation. Genealogically speaking, we might say that the event becomes the central topic of theoretical and philosophical reflection precisely in the wake of the worldwide “events” of 1968. To think this revolutionary sequence, then, entails not only investigating what happened but also asking the underlying question of how to think the happening of that which happens. In French, this is often called the événementialité of the event, awkwardly translated as the “eventality” of the event, with the task of thinking, whether in history, in political theory, or in philosophy, being described as événementialisation, “eventalization.” Of course, we can also enumerate many conceptual precursors for this notion, such as Aristotle’s tuchè or “chance” as opposed to “automatism” or automaton; the role of clinamen, “deviation” or “swerve,” for ancient atomists after Lucretius; Machiavelli’s fortuna, “fortune” or “chance” in relation to virtù as “capacity” or “power” for intervention; Mallarmé’s coup de dés or “dice throw” as the attempt to “abolish” chance; Nietzsche’s “destiny” of breaking in two the history of humanity; or Heidegger’s Ereignis as “enowning.” These concepts have been variously retrieved among contemporary thinkers of the event, but they appear as precursors only in retrospect and as a result of such retrievals, which do not begin to give shape to a common doctrine until the late sixties in what is then frequently called post-metaphysical or anti-foundational thinking. More specifically, the concept of the event bridges two traditions that otherwise are at loggerheads: a humanist, subject-centered approach and an anti-humanist focus on the action of the structure. An event is neither the expression of free human action nor the causal effect of structural determinisms. Instead, an event occurs precisely when and where a certain dysfunction or systematic deadlock becomes visible through the intervention of a subject who, by gaining a foothold in this gap in the structure, at the same time profoundly reshuffles the coordinates that otherwise continue to be determining in the last instance. The event, in other words, transversally cuts across the traditional oppositions of freedom and necessity, action and system, spontaneity and organization, movement and the State. Among the event’s defining features we should list its contingency, its
unpredictability, its singularity, and its transformative capacity. Beyond this basic consensus, however, we find a wide range of divergent and often polemical orientations. In the Heideggerian tradition, for example, there is good reason to speak of the event only in the singular, as the event of being itself—being which “is” not but “happens” or “occurs.” This then raises the difficult question, which thinkers as diverse as Derrida and Deleuze grapple with in much of their work, of defining the relation between the unique event of being qua being and the occurrence of plural events in the everyday sense of the term. For Badiou, on the contrary, the event is that which is not being qua being. In this orientation, therefore, ontology, as the science of being, can literally say nothing of the event, which rather calls for an intervening doctrine of the subject as operative in various fields or conditions, such as art, politics, or science. A related polemic concerns the immanent or transcendent nature of the event with regard to the situation at hand. Here a Deleuzian orientation, which involves a reevaluation of virtuality outside the traditional binary of the real and the possible, will insist on the presence of the unique event of being as if folded into particular accidents. To this image of the event as fold, by contrast, we can oppose to notion of a radical break, which Badiou, for example, finds at work in Nietzsche and Mallarmé. Neither immanent nor transcendent, in fact, the event crosses out this very opposition for Badiou. The method for thinking the event also changes depending on which of these basic orientations we adopt. Thus, if in everything that happens the virtuality of the one and only event of being is always already present, then our approach will ultimately take the form of a hermeneutic interpretation in which each item or entity (this or that occurrence) can also simultaneously be read as the expression of the immanence of being (the happening of all that occurs). Conversely, if an event is inscribed in a specific situation by way of this situation’s deadlock and yet depends on a break with (existing representations of) being, then our approach will most likely take the guise of a dialectical articulation (not in the orthodox terms of negation and the negation of negation but as a logic of scission and of the exception). The proliferation of theories of the random, multiple, contingent, and radically transformative event, however, can also be seen as the product of late capitalism, rather than as a counteracting force. Marx was after all quite enthusiastic about the power of capitalism to break down old feudal, patriarchal, or idyllic bonds and hierarchies. But, if it is indeed capitalism itself that reveals all presence to be a mere semblance covering over random multiplicity, then the event as the core concern of postmetaphysical thought might turn out to be little more than descriptive of, if not complicitous with, the status quo. Difference, multiplicity, or the primacy of events and becomings over subjects and objects, far from giving us critical leverage, thus would define our given state of affairs under late capitalism and its attendant cultural logic. See also Anti-foundationalism, Becoming, Change, Difference theories, Exception, Hermeneutics, Immanence, Multiplicity, Ontology, Singularity, Virtual Further Readings
Badiou, A. (2005). Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Continuum. Casati, R., and Varzi, A. C., eds. (1996). Events. Aldershot-Dartmouth: International Research Library of Philosophy. Davidson, D. (1980). Essays on Actions and Events. New York: Oxford University Press. Deleuze, G. (1990). The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale. Ed. Constantin V. Boundas. New York: Columbia University Press. Derrida, J. (1982). “Signature Event Context,” Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 309-330. Foucault, M. (2003). “On the Archaeology of the Sciences: Response to the Epistemology Circle.” The Essential Foucault. Ed. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose. New York: The New Press. 392-404. Heidegger, M. (1999). Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning). Trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Lyotard, J.F. (1990). Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event. New York: Columbia University Press. Malabou, Catherine. (2004). The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic. Trans. Lisabeth During. New York: Routledge. Rajchman, J. 1991. Philosophical Events. Essays on the Eighties. New York: Columbia University Press. Whitehead, Alfred North. (1978). Process and Reality. New York: The Free Press.
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