I want to talk about François Laruelle’s A BIOGRAPHY OF THE ORDINARY MAN, as I think it is particularly relevant to the current conjuncture of Continental Philosophy.
A BIOGRAPHY OF THE ORDINARY MAN is an « untimely » book in several senses of the word. To begin, the English translation was published in 2018, to no great fanfare, as it appeared ripped out of its context by an order of translation and publication that served other imperatives than those of thought.
The French original, UNE BIOGRAPHIE DE L’HOMME ORDINAIRE, was published in 1985, at the peak of what Félix Guattari called the « Winter Years » of the 1980s: characterised by the general disappointment of a turn to economic austerity, intellectual indigence, political quiescence and the rise of a new breed of media-savvy, and media-dependent, intellectual (the « nouveaux philosophes » and their subsequent avatars).
In response, French philosophers turned away from the effervescence and euphoria of the 60s and 70s and from the idea of a possible public role of the philosopher, and retreated back into the institutional enclosures of the practice of thought.
If, in Guattari’s words, the 60s were « a Spring that promised to be interminable », the 70s were, at first, the continuation and the intensification of that inspiration, its Summer. ANTI-OEDIPUS, the first volume in Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia research project, was published in 1972, as was Derrida’s MARGINS and DISSEMINATION. Lyotard published Dérive à partir de Marx et Freud and Des dispositifs pulsionnels (both collections of articles) in 1973 and LIBIDINAL ECONOMY in 1974. Deleuze and Guattari published KAFKA in 1975, and RHIZOME in 1976. The same year Baudrillard published SYMBOLIC EXCHANGE AND DEATH.
Laruelle’s published work belongs to this period of the Summer of thought, but he was slightly out of phase with the main current. The titles of his works of that period situate him both fully within the general movement, a little behind and dependent on the others, and yet fully aware that « Winter is coming », that the seemingly endlessly fertile shared paradigm was playing itself out, and that a new paradigm is needed.
Unfortunately, Laruelle’s books from the 1970s have not been translated. The immense labour that he accomplished in these works remains almost totally unknown in English, thus making it difficult to see not only where he is coming from but also where he could lead us.
The titles of these books give us an idea of the noetic humus from which his later works derive much of their vitality and vivacity:
Phenomenon and Difference. Essay on Ravaisson’s ontology (1971)
Textual Machines. Deconstruction and Libido of Writing (1976)
Nietzsche versus Heidegger. Theses for a Nietzschean Politics (1977)
The Decline of Writing, followed by discussions with J-L Nancy, S. Kofman, J. Derrida et P. Lacoue-Labarthe (1977)
Beyond the Power Principle (1978).
One can perhaps see from an examination of these titles that François Laruelle’s work in what he later calls his « Philosophy I » phase participated fully in the movement of thought of the 70s and was in dialogue with his contemporaries. There is a movement in his work from a sort of retrospective synthesis of this collective paradigm to its radicalisation, and then finally to its dissolution in favour of a new emergent paradigm that Laruelle pioneers, and that is only now coming to a wider consciousness.
We see in the title of the last book of that period, Beyond the Power Principle, a proclamation to which the next book The Minority Principle (published 1981, still untranslated into English), inaugurating a new phase, responds. This response is the beginning of what Laruelle calls his « Philosophy II », and it involves a radical re-orientation. Instead of assembling the most intense moments of the current paradigm (synthesis) or pushing them even further (radicalisation) he leaps into a new element, the Absolute, and proceeds from there (absolutisation).
This establishing of thought in the Absolute is perhaps the most untimely, and potentially the most contemporary move in Laruelle’s path of thought. This move was effectuated by Laruelle in 1981, and made of him a stranger in the theoretical landscape of that time. It is only recently that other thinkers in the Continental constellation have come to a similar move. One may note Alain Badiou’s IMMANENCE OF TRUTHS (published in 2018, English translation forthcoming in 2022) and Slavoj Zizek’s SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE (2020).
As is frequent with a new paradigm of thought it cannot emerge full grown and complete in all its details. Laruelle tells us that while THE MINORITY PRINCIPLE constituted a « breakthrough » to a new paradigm it was unable to express its thought in a pure state, remaining a « mixture » of the old and the new, still proceeding to a certain extent along the « paths of transcendence ».
The more fully realised expression of this breakthrough is contained in the second book in the Philosophy II phase, A BIOGRAPHY OF THE ORDINARY MAN, which was published four years later, in 1985, in French. The book is certainly a much purer expression of Laruelle’s new way of thinking, but I do not think that it is totally free of the « paths of transcendence ». As the saying goes « One swallow does not make a Spring ».
Published at the culminating moment of one of the many Winters of thought A BIOGRAPHY OF THE ORDINARY MAN announces the Spring and gives us an anticipatory view of a new paradigm of thought (although surely « paradigm » is not the most felicitous of terms). I will be reading it as an untimely but composite work, containing three strands of « untimeliness ».
1) retrospective synthesis: Laruelle synthesises the contemporary paradigm that he is trying to leave behind under the rubric « philosophies of difference ». I have argued on this blog that by the time Laruelle gets round to critiquing « difference » everyone has already moved on.
2) radicalisation: Laruelle extrapolates from what he considers the most living and intense of contemporary thought (multiplicities, minorities, immanence) and takes it to the extreme.
3) absolutisation: Laruelle moves from progressive deconstruction and deterritorialisation as means of approaching an absolute to beginning with the Absolute of pure immanence.
The first two strands belong to the figure of the Owl of Minerva, but thought for Laruelle is not principally retrospective, it is anticipatory. The third strand, which emerges in THE MINORITY PRINCIPLE and then prevails in A BIOGRAPHY OF THE ORDINARY MAN, corresponds to the swallow of Spring.
Each philosopher has their seasons and their birds, these are some of Laruelle’s.