QUANTUM ALLEGORIES AND LEXICAL LITANIES: on some difficulties in reading François Laruelle

I find Laruelle’s non-philosophy very interesting, and his non-standard philosophy even more so, but I absolutely reject the mystique that has been thrown up around his ideas, one that he himself cultivates. Laruelle is guilty of a double standard: while practicing and demanding a charitable reading of his own work as non-philosophy, he practices an uncharitable reading of the work of rivals such as Deleuze and Guattari, and Badiou as enmeshed in philosophy’s sufficiency.

Behind ths lack of charity there may lie a methodological problem. If Laruelle is so stifled by the sufficiency of philosophy, why does he not seek fellow thinkers outside the confines of a very French nostalgic set of references? Paradoxically, there is a principle of French sufficiency at work in his writings. He does seem to refer to German idealism as well, so we could call it the principle of Franco-German sufficiency.

We are not yet in a position to fully grasp Laruelle’s “quantum” thought, as up to now he has principally been explicated either by religious or by political reductionists. I have no objection to his making a qualitative use of quantum ideas. A number of philosophers of science, including Paul Feyerabend, have highlighted and commented on the heuristic use made of qualitative considerations as a driving force in the development of quantum theory.

Laruelle is not trying to dupe us in his transfer of quantum terminology and concepts into philosophy. However, in doing so he is not at the forefront breaking new ground, but  is lagging behind other thinkers such as Deleuze and Feyerabend. Even if by his notion of “qualitative quantum” thinking all that Laruelle means is something very simple such as the impossibility of both correlation and withdrawal due to the impossibility of sharply defined untraversable boundaries, that is a very useful insight to keep in mind. Laruelle seems to have quite a few of such useful maxims, but he has inflated them into a system self-proclaimed to be new and beyond all the others.

Rejecting such sharply defined untraversable borders is an important step, that would allow us to cut through lots of the Lacanian pathos of the “trauma of the real”. Personally, I make this step for quite other reasons than Laruelle does, not for “quantum” reasons. I recognise that he is trying to make such a step in his more recent work, and he adduces quantum reasoning to justify his step. His argument seems to be based on a qualitative application of the wave/particle duality associated with the phenomenon of quantum tunneling. This is Laruelle’s way of breaking free from the “myth of the framework” and of avoiding the spectre of relativism.

I defend Laruelle’s right to make such metaphoric transfers on the grounds that we do this sort of thing all the time, and that it is necessary to use concepts loosely in order even to communicate, and even more so to get thought moving. I further defend Laruelle’s right here in that he is not doing analytic philosophy of quantum mechanics but rather trying to construct a “new” general image of thought. A further defence is that philosophy is more about conceptual exploration than about referentiality. I do not see this as a licence for a philosopher to say just anything that comes into his or her head, regardless of empirical reality. On the contrary I think philosophy, even transcendental philosophy, is far more empirical than it usually acknowledges, and should be even more so, at least in spirit. On the question of science, Laruelle’s system would be in big trouble if it could be shown that he got all the science wrong.

Yet science makes use of or presupposes philosophical concepts, and I do not accept that scientists are the sole proprietors of these concepts. So I defend Laruelle’s attempt on democratic grounds as well. I would emphasise “attempt” as there is no guarantee that he is successful in constructing a new and useful type of thought. One of the indicators would have been to explore argumentatively but charitably the relations of his thought to other recent and contemporary thinkers working on comparable endeavours, but this is vitiated by Laruelle’s continuing noetic posture of uniqueness and beyondness.

One of the major obstacles to understanding Laruelle’s texts, and so responsible for their obscurity, is the almost complete absence of proper definitions, even according to a very loose, contextual, notion of defintion. Laruelle uses a set of words in an incantatory way, agglomerating them together to form a veritable Laruelle litany. This does him a great disservice. For example one of his older, non-philosophical, incantatory words is “unilateral”. In his new non-standard philosophy phase he introduces the notion of complementarity, but he cannot stop himself from talking about “unilateral complementarity”, which is a contradiction in terms.

Some people have claimed that Laruelle’s style is obscure because its syntax is innovative, following the “syntax of the real”. But I do not see much syntaxical innovation in his texts, rather the obscurity is lexical. Further, this notion of “syntax of the real” is an expression of the very worst sort of naïve empiricism. There is no syntax of the real.

Laruelle’s qualitative use of concepts is close to Deleuze’s notion of “deterritorialised” concepts, in view of a pop-philosophy. The problem is that neither Deleuze nor Laruelle attain that pop level of expression. Only Badiou seems to have succeeded in doing that: first with his manifestos following each “difficult” book, and even more so with his series of “plays for children” (the Ahmed tetralogy).

Notwithstanding, Laruelle cannot legitimately be criticised for not helping us to learn more or to better understand quantum physics in the absolute, as he declares that this is not his objective. Relatively, however, he comes out looking bad compared to Badiou, who does help us to learn more about set theory and category theory, and to understand them better. Nor will knowing something already about quantum theory necessarily help us to understand Laruelle’s discussions. Badiou often quite effectively makes an allegorical use of mathematical language, but Laruelle’s quantum allegory remains comparatively under-developed.

Note: I am indebted to a very interesting conversation on facebook with McKenzie Wark, Dominic Fox, Matthew Landis, and Samuel Vriezen.

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4 Responses to QUANTUM ALLEGORIES AND LEXICAL LITANIES: on some difficulties in reading François Laruelle

  1. Laruelle 77
    Deleuze (+ 70)
    Badiou 78
    Latour at 67 seems a youngster.
    Why are all these people on which you concetrate at such ripe old age? Is it that French intellectual life is not that productive any more? Is it a necessity, due to the experiential development one has to go through to arrive at the point these people are (hence old age)?


  2. dmf says:

    Sokal on ” Science, Postmodernism and the Left”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: ISSO – International Summer School in Ontology (some comments) | AGENT SWARM

  4. Pingback: LARUELLE’S NON-PHILOSOPHY: principles of a metaphysical research programme | AGENT SWARM

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