MATERIALISM AND ENUNCIATIVE LINGUISTICS: Laruelle on materialist utterances

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 article The Decline of Materialism in the Name of Matter François 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. One exists inside the movement and one’s arguments become ritual invocations of principles based not on the real world but on definitions posited so long ago that the motivation for these posits has faded, and the conjucture is now internally defined. Examples lose all concreteness, reduced to the evocation of banalities and of possible applications that do not need to be realised in any detail as a simple sketch seems already to contain the essential information and so to be « concrete enough ».

For Laruelle the materiality that matters lies in the act of enunciation, and not in whether the resulting statement coheres with the other statements accepted by one’s group. “As far as a statement is concerned, at least insofar as it is grasped in its essence, to be ‘materialist’ is never a question of the manner in which it relates to other statements, but consists rather in its refusing to enter into a relation, a becoming or mediating tendency, refusing to allow itself to be inscribed within the strategy of a reciprocity, the economy of a community”. Materialist utterance requires more than cohesion, whether it be the social cohesion of a not so disparate group and its conceptual phantasm or the semantic cohesion of a self-positing chimera.

Materialism as the object of a set of philosophical proclamtions is no more than a collective posit rendered contentful only by appeal to pre-given conceptual and empirical fragments. These proclamations and their evidential fragments are pre-supposed to be materialist in the right way, before that “right way” is established. Such a tawdry notion of matter may result in a reluctance to employ an otherwise useful word, thus producing the impression that materialism is on the decline and that it is a courageous act to defend it in terms that unsurprisingly finally discredit it a little more. This is also Laruelle’s provisional conclusion: “Materialism still concedes far too much to  idealism,  and the gnosis of ‘matter’,  the  otherwise-than-materialist gnosis of the  dispersive real,  must be sought beyond materialism”.

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6 commentaires pour MATERIALISM AND ENUNCIATIVE LINGUISTICS: Laruelle on materialist utterances

  1. David Roden dit :

    This is historically interesting but I doubt whether it gives us much of a pre-philosophical handle on materialism. Laruelle’s position (as I understand it) seems to hinge on the traditional idea that the semantic and conceptual properties of matter depend on extrinsic rather than intrinsic properties of material things and events. Utterances are material, hence they only acquire content by being put into relation to other utterances by speakers or thinkers. If they had intrinsic content then they would mean stuff regardless of whether they were related to other statements, so his strategy would be futile. But matter is not like that and we live in a material universe. That’s probably quite a workable ontology, but it is an ontology. It assumes that the fundamental components of the world are devoid of intrinsic intentional properties. This may be the best characterization of materialism that we can hope for without tying our philosophy of matter to a particular physical theory, but I don’t think we should fool ourselves that it is a non-philosophical account.

    By the way, am I the only one who thinks that these repeated swipes at Bryant and Harman are doing your positive claims no favours? In this case the discussion of Levi’s ideas contributes nothing to the argument that I can discern.


  2. terenceblake dit :

    Hello David, thanks for your comment. I think that both extrinsic and intrinsic properties of matter belong to the level of the statement, which can be seen as the level of content and of the form of that content. The level of the utterance as act is of course never available in a pure state, isolated from any content, but it is more a performing of materialism than a referential assertian about matter. Laruelle is a bit vague, but I think my idea of diachronic properties (really Feyerabend’s idea, but he says he gets it from Mach, but not as Mach is usually read) is situated outside of the opposition between extrinsic or relational properties and intrinsic or predicative properties. « Diachronic » does not necessarily mean that we describe matter as processual and relational, although that would be a good start. It means that the components of matter and the laws of their relationing, including that very distinction of elements and relations, are questions of empirical research, and may vary from domain to domain or even from one problem-situation (involving several domains) to another. This is where I think that there is a convergence between Laruelle and Latour in his latest book. I think that this third alternative is insufficiently explored and not very well articulated by its practitioners. If you have been reading my posts on « non-philosophy » you already know that I am not satisfied with the appellation, nor with its more than residual scientistic formulations. Yet I do think that such a diachronic ontology may properly be called « non-standard » philosophy if one wishes to emphasise its minority status.

    On the question of my so-called « swipes » at Bryant, I have no idea how my few readers judge them. I have not had anything much to say about OOO for a while now, preferring to consecrate my efforts to (critically) appropriating Latour and Stiegler, and finding interesting things in Zizek’s latest work. It so happens that Levi Bryant just posted the the text to a recent talk he gave on materialism and I felt the need to give a critical response. I cannot bear the idea that such an unsatisfying perspective go uncontested. I did not wish to post a link to the article as I wanted my analysis to have more general import. In the interests of clarity I shall correct that decision.

    I am a spiralic writer so when I come back to an old problematic I try to go further in my analysis and to refine out the particularities of context and encounter that both gave rise to my initial thoughts and limited their scope. So my last two posts were conceived together and done in that spirit, and I felt happy that I had advanced. So of course your scolding saddens me, as apparently I give the impression of running on the spot.

    There is also a pedagogical aim in that Laruelle is often obscure, and his philosophical context is very Gallocentric. I thought I had done a nice exegesis of Laruelle’s text, by relating his ideas to a particular case, thus elucidating both their meaning and their continued utility outside his own context. Sometimes I find Laruelle too limited and I think his message has been understood and that we can move on to something else. Then I see something like Bryant’s piece and my immediate reaction is « Oh no, I have to read some Laruelle fast! »


  3. skholiast dit :

    I am reminded of the remark by Heidegger in the Letter on Humanism, that « the matter of thinking is not achieved [merely] in the fact that talk about the « Truth of Being » and the « History of Being » is set in motion. » One might say the same thing regarding talk about matter, or about objects.


  4. David Roden dit :

    Hi Terrence, This reminds me of the version of deconstruction that we get in Gasche’s The Tain of the Mirror: an attempt to retain an understanding of philosophy as a process whereby thought examines its own conditions of possibility without reference to any empirical domain and without reference even to the conceptual or subjective conditions of thinking. For Gasche deconstruction attempts to think the textual or inscriptional conditions for conceptual coherenc.

    It seems to be pretty easy to replace « textual » with « performative ». But it still sounds like the same game of finding something non empirical and non-conceptual that can stand as a condition of possibility for empirical and conceptual thought (I realize I sound like Rorty naturalizing Derrida here, but so be it). My problem with this is not that we can’t make sense of an utterance event as a potential for linkage or re-inscription, but that this understanding of utterance already presupposes that it is something in the world that can stand in relation to other things of a similar kind. I

    Sorry, if I missed the context of Levi’s paper. I tend to scan read blogs a lot these days. I just think your ideas stand on their own and don’t need this sort of polemical framing. Maybe, I need to catch up with your gloss on Laruelle. I’ll admit that I’m a bit impatient of hermetic philosophy these days. Writing a PhD on Derrida and getting to grips latterly with Deleuze was enough metaconceptual reflexivity for me.

    Skoliast. Not sure how to unpack the Heidegger quote. Is he just saying that there is some profound contact with Being that is not equivalent to talk of « Being ». Maybe. But the fact that Heidegger says this does not make it so.


    • skholiast dit :

      My impression is that Heidegger was pointing out that one can talk the talk without walking the walk; that what looks like philosophy can also be what he called « idle chatter. » Maybe he’s also going for some kind of hermetic distinction between those who know and those who just talk, but I’m not sure. I think he just wants to caution is that just using a new vocabulary does not by itself mean a step in any direction at all, let alone the right one.


  5. Frans dit :

    I don’t think we can get beyond the opposition of statement and performative unless we being to understand that both are governed by the same linguistic ideology. A materialist language use would be that which can ward of all (possible) ideologies of language, which is an impossiblitiy. Derrida, more than Heideggger, seems to have been aware of this predicament.


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