CONTEMPORARY PLURALISM: Lists vs Encounters (Laruelle, Stiegler, Latour)

Pluralism as a philosophy suggests new ways of of thought and of practice putting more emphasis on diversity and exchange, on interaction and transversality, than is customary for our dominant modes, which remain disappointingly monist. The aim is to favorise freer and more creative approaches by liberating us from relations of domination and authority. However, paradoxically enough, our contemporary pluralists seem to produce convergent or complementary analyses, but in practice remain quite solitary and compartmentalised. The question that we can ask is how to pass from a thought of plurality to a pluralist practice? how can we pluralise the pluralists?

In a thoughtful article, entitled “How can we speak about contemporary philosophers”, that the French philosopher Jean-Clet Martin published on his blog Strass de la Philosophie he meditates on the lack of properly philosophical, and not just journalistic, lists of contemporary philosophers. He sees in this state of affairs not simply the external sign of the fact that a philosopher busy creating his work has little time to or interest in reading his contemporaries but also and more essentially a sign of the untimeliness of philosophical work, whose inspirations are constituted of singular encounters that are refractory to the aim of objectivity and of generality inherent in the notion of such a list. For Martin this lack in a philosopher of a conceptual cartography including other contemporary philosophers as positive factors, and thus the absence of any real discussion and exchange, is not just a contingent matter, but is somehow a necessary condition of the act of intellectual creation

One reason that I find this observation, which I take to be globally true, so disappointing is that it seems to be the case even for pluralist thinkers, who seem for the most part to ignore each other. As I have recounted elsewhere on this blog, I became a pluralist in 1972 when I read the first version of Paul Feyerabend’s AGAINST METHOD, which was initially published as an essay, and was expanded into a book several years later. As my philosophy department (at Sydney University) was dominated by Althusserians and Lacanians my years of study and teaching as a pluralist philosopher were quite lonely. When I discovered some translations of Deleuze, Lyotard, and Serres, I taught myself French to read their books, and later, in 1980,I came to France to attend the seminars of these three thinkers. The richness and the la beauty of their thought dazzled and inspired me, and I have never regretted my choice to take on French nationality and to establish my life here.

However, I was disappointed to see  that there was a gap between a rhetoric valorising multiplicity, transversality, going beyond binary oppositions and summary demarcations on the one hand, and on the other the persistence of practices of submission and of exclusion, of schools of thought and of consensual coteries. One had to be a Derridean or a Foucauldian or a Deleuzian etc, in the practice of that very exclusive disjonction that had been refuted by the theory. I was astonished to see, not as in Australia the pure and simple rejection of pluralism, but the practive of what I have called a monist pluralism, of which today Alain Badiou is a brilliant example. What was described and prescribed in theory was far from being applied in practice.

Deleuze seems to constitute a partial exception to this rule. He regularly cited Michel Serres in his courses, and he consecrated two years of his seminar and a book to the work of Michel Foucault, who he mentioned in many of his other courses and books. He cited very favorably Lyotard’s DISCOURS, FIGURE, but to my knowledge made no allusion to his subsequent texts. He also cited François Châtelet and devoted a little book to him. Thus, Deleuze was able to make coincide locally the practice of lists and an openness to singular encounters.

An amusing anecdote illustrating the lack of communication between philosophers comes to mind, dating from the period when I attended Deleuze’s seminar on the cinema on Tuesdays and on Saturdays Serres’ class on multiplicities (which gave rise to the books ROME and GENÈSE). On Saturday I would hear an interpretation of the dispute between Bergson and Einstein favorable to Einstein’s position from the point of view of a theory of time (this in Serres class on multiplicities), on Tuesday I would hear a discordant interpretation justifying Bergson’s position (in Deleuze’s class on time and cinema) in the name of the theory of…multiplicities. This difference of interpretation and of evaluation was already amply treated in the previous published work of the two philosophers, without any explicit attempt by one to respond to the arguments of the other.

A second anecdote, less amusing for me at the time: I was discussing the relation between “spiritual” practices and traditions and contemporary pluralist philosophy with Lyotard. I spoke of the relation between Buddhism and the Homeric cosmology described by Feyerabend (which he found to have important features in common with Ernst Mach’s general methodology). Lyotard found the comparison valid and interesting from the point of view of the relativisation of the unitary ego and of the dissolution of the foundations of knowledge and legitimation that we were going through both in philosophy and in society as a whole. Lyotard declared “J’adore Feyerabend”, and he added that in fact everything that he was saying at that time about the Hassidim (for example in JUST GAMING) went in the same direction, and that “the Hassidim are perhaps the Buddhists of the Occident”. Unfortunately I then tried to make a parallel with Deleuze’s notion of the body without organs and Lyotard totally rejected the concept, declaring that it was “metaphysical”, and that Deleuze gave “too much importance to the signified”. Lyotard’s pluralistic openness did not extend to Deleuze’s pluralism.

Nonetheless, it is Lyotard who a couple of years later, in a text published in TOMBEAU DE L’INTELLECTUEL, gave a very admiring list grouping together Deleuze, Foucault, Levinas, Derrida, Serres and himself as thinkers of incommensurability and thus of pluralism. This was to combat the primacy given to consensus in the communicational  philosophy influenced by Habermas. This pressure towards consensus, and so towards monism, as norm of thought continues today. In France I find that there are thinkers who permit us to struggle against this monist pressure: François Laruelle, Bernard Stiegler, and Bruno Latour. This is my short list, to which I would add Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s ALL THINGS SHINING and William Connolly’s work on pluralism (especially A WORLD OF BECOMING) and I would like to get these pluralists to take note of and to “interact” with each other. No doubt the thinkers on this list belong to my own personal intellectual cartography of singular encounters, but I think that they have a more general scope and potential impact.

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11 Responses to CONTEMPORARY PLURALISM: Lists vs Encounters (Laruelle, Stiegler, Latour)

  1. Bill Benzon says:

    This is an interesting and tricky issue, Terry. In the final chapter of POLITICS OF NATURE Latour takes up the problem of cultural relativism, but only with respect to science—though just what THAT means, given the rarified nature of his argument, is itself a tricky business. What he says, in effect, is that existing cultures will have to negotiate the common world, with none of them being allowed to assert privilege in the process. The negotiating parties will each give up their particular ontological commitments to the extent that they wish to participate in the commons.

    The process Latour sketched out is so general, it seems to me, that it can apply in all spheres, not just ontology. And so I made use of it with respect to ethics and aesthetics in Facing up to Relativism. Now, I suppose you could argue that your various monistic pluralists are thereby contradicting themselves. But I don’t think it’s so sharp as that. They just don’t want to make common cause with their fellow pluralists. And there’s nothing about the academic culture of philosophy or the humanities, or even academic culture in general, that would encourage them to do so. Everyone’s got to have his or her own system and that’s that.

    I’ll also note that, when I was looking around the web working on my relativism piece I discovered that there didn’t seem to be much philosophical attention given to the existence of various cultures. Multiculturalism may be a pressing problem of practical politics all over the place, but it doesn’t seem to have been given much philosophical attention. And it’s one thing to assert a pluralism, it’s quite something else to figure out the ethnics of negotiating a life in a pluralist world.

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    • terenceblake says:

      I agree with your conclusion: ” it’s one thing to assert a pluralism, it’s quite something else to figure out the ethnics of negotiating a life in a pluralist world”. I think I agree with your explanation of the indifference of pluralist philosophers to each other’s existence in terms of the sociology of academia. Where I would nuance things is in your idea that the various monistic pluralists are not contradicting themselves. I agree that it is not a “sharp” contradiction as everyone has limited time and energy, and creating your work is a singular affair. But I still think that there is a pragmatic contradiction, however understandable and however “fuzzy”. I try to say more in my next post.

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      • Bill Benzon says:

        Let me just say that, when I was writing that post on relativism, I was deeply struck by the fact that, on the one hand, so very much of practical politics these days is about negotiating cultural difference (e.g. headscarves in French schools, creationist biology in American schools) and, on the other hand, the relatively paucity of philosophical reflection on these issues. They show up in the ‘applied’ division of philosophy, but pure philosophy seems to be strongly monistic in its committments.

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      • Bill Benzon says:

        Oh, and on the sociology of academia, humanistic culture is mostly that of lone individuals. In literary criticism, my (more or less) home discipline, critics operate alone and, in the last three decades, we’ve seen the phenomenon of the critic as academic star. But my own work has led me to believe that literary criticism is in desperate need of better descriptive work on our primary texts. That’s going to require a much stronger ethos of cooperation. I can see the seeds of such an ethos in so-called digital humanities.

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  2. terenceblake says:

    I think the idea of “negotiating” difference is a sign that we are confronted with solid inflexible impermeable blocks that cannot communicate with each other, but that in the field things are less clear cut and more supple than that. Philosophical pluralism should be saying, and drawing the consequences, that it is all “in the field”, including their academic selves.

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  3. terenceblake says:

    There is the notion of lone star, but there is also the Deleuzian notion that when you are most alone you are most connected. You are always collaborating with ideas and movements and emotions, and with people most of whom are unaware of your existence. Some of that solitude is normal and necessary to break out of consensus views, but some of it is Romantic ideology hiding a less lovely but hopefully mutable set of ingrained practices. Internet for example can be an instrument for extending and reinforcing and unifying consensus, or it can be a tool favorising lonely collaboration.

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  4. Though I have a lot of his works, I haven’t read enough of Lyotard. I always thought of him as a philosopher equally at home in both the ‘Anglo-American’ and ‘Continental’ traditions, probably because of “The Differend” and its Wittgensteinian slant. He seems to be a restless thinker, possessed of a powerful intellect that can go anywhere. He doesn’t seem to display the systematic continuity of a Deleuze or Derrida, his transformations, from work to work can be radically disjunctive. Or that was my impression, I can’t say that I know his work well enough to produce such definitive judgments.
    On pluralist consideration of other thinkers, as opposed to a pluralism of ideas or approach, I guess there comes a time when the topics themselves exercise a greater attraction than what others say about them. And sometimes, one sees a space, to paraphrase Helene Cixous, that needs filling.
    Wittgenstein wasn’t well read in philosophy, whereas Heidegger was. Paul Dirac, the physicist, when asked about his reading, said: “I don’t read, I’m too busy thinking.”
    It might be a little like learning musical improvisation? One learns technical vocabulary, but then one has to create something with it. But musicians do listen to each other, and influences are usually discernible, even in the most ‘original’ players. Tradition is important.
    I guess there are many ways of viewing the process.

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  5. terenceblake says:

    Lyotard is not given the attention he deserves, and I try to compensate for that. I especially like his “intermediary” phase after LIBIDINAL ECONOMY and before THE DIFFEREND, especially JUST GAMING. I met him in 1980 and he began by quoting Adorno at me: “The age of metaphysics is at its end, what remains is to multiply the micrologies”. I was instantly in a state of admiration and wonder!

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    • I think “Just Gaming” might have been the first Lyotard book I bought, in the second half of the 80s. Probably, “The Differend”, after that. I haven’t really read either of them, have glanced at them a bit.
      Lyotard’s quote of Adorno seems to encapsulate, or at least suggest, both his own work on the Postmodernist “incredulity toward metanarratives”, and Foucault’s “microphysics of power”. Adorno was another high-powered thinker.

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  6. Leon says:

    Love your post, Terry. Here is me riffing on the ridiculousness of ready-made French stars.

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