Note: this post and the preceding one were inspired in part by my reading of the text to a recent talk by Levi Bryant that he has kindly made freely available
Much of French philosophy is based on a linguistics of the enunciation, and is destined to be understood only very incompletely if one is not attentive to its presence. The works of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Lyotard, and Latour are permeated by its approach to language. In enunciative linguistics it is important to distinguish between utterances (énonciations) or the act of enunciation, and statements (énoncés) or what is enounced. This distinction is for example behind Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of psychoanalysis, where the subject is not called into question but merely split into a subject of what is uttered (making statements about all sorts of things) and a subject of the utterance (reducing all this multiplicity to an Oedipal grid).
Levi Bryant has recently made a contribution to a materialist ontology which is severely flawed through lack of attention to its own enunciative position. Bryant is caught between the tension of making statements about matter and materialism while trying to be materialist and to make materialist utterances, and his pronouncements do not result in more clarity but rather in more confusion. He is unable to live up to the goals of his own project, and his texts are a dissatisfying mixture of conceptual incoherence, critiques of unnamed because nonexistent adversaries, confusion between stipulative definitions and concrete theses about the world, wordy ramblings about « objects, combined with banal yet underdevelopped « possible » examples to give the appearance a concreteness to come (subjunctively) that never does. Talking about materialism, making statements about matter, is not the same thing as making materialist utterances, talking from matter.
In his articleFrançois Laruelle discusses the nature of statements about materialism. He distinguishes between talking about matter and making a materialist assertion. “Talking about matter” is a sort of philosophical gossip that is based on a “quasi-religious belief” in matter as a starting point, both “index of itself and of the other”. Matter, in appearance an ontological concept if one judges by the content of the statements, becomes an epistemological principle of demarcation between knowledge and common sense (or its philosophical translations) if one looks at the form of such statements and at the mode of coherence of the system of statements making up a materialist philosophy.
A “materialist assertion” is something quite different, being itself intrinsically material, it need not talk about matter at all, leaving the scope of applicability of any particular concept of matter to scientific research. “« To talk of matter, to designate either it or the sciences of matter, isn’t sufficient in order to produce a genuinely materialist assertion, or even – which would only be one of its traits among others – an immanent one » (Laruelle, The Decline of Materialism in the Name of Matter). Thus, for example, nowhere is Bruno Latour more materialist than when he declares: “There is no matter at all” (for more on this see preceding post).
Sometimes one would like to create a philosophy of a different sort, one that would be capable of reaching through the veils of ideology and prejudice, of doing away with all mediation, and of grasping the real itself. But such philosophical dreams, and OOO is certainly such a dream, end up giving us yet another abstraction, a composite of certain particularities of individual experience and of generalities taken out of context from specific sciences. “Such generalities always contain a reference to qualities given in experience. They are mixtures, combining general traits of matter, but ones taken from the sciences of nature, with more empirical traits taken from the perception of nature”. The dream gives us no contact with the real but produces instead an unanalysed mixture, a chimera.
The empirical extracts and the conceptual abstracts seem to confirm each other mutually, and one does not notice that the basic concepts are mere translations of certain striking experiences and that these experiences are exemplary only in light of the concepts. Dimly one senses the circularity and the vacuity of such a self-positing system and one seeks to consolidate the chimeric totality by relating it to a supporting community, unwittingly distancing it even further from any contact with the real and transforming it into a group phantasm.
Such group adhesion to a transcendental postulation cloaked in empirical form removes all possibility of a materialist utterance, whatever the statemental content of the utterance.