TB: Hello, I’m taking a break from my video reading of François Laruelle’s A BIOGRAPHY OF ORDINARY MAN to reply to questions from Isidore.
TB: Hello, Isidore, how are you?
Isidore: Fine, and you?
TB: I’m okay. I’m a little scared of your questions.
Isidore: Okay. So why did you choose this book?
TB: Well, for a number of reasons, I think Laruelle is a very important French philosopher, and he’s not well-known enough in English, for a number of reasons. His books were translated rather late compared to their date of publication. And there’s something funny with the order of publication, he seems to have been translated at the beginning for some of his later works, that had a more religious content and orientation to them, at least superficially. So there seems to have been some sort of, I can’t exactly call it lobby, but some sort of special interest group with an interest in the use of Laruelle to, in fact, legitimate form of really sophisticated, refined version of sublimated Christianity.
So we didn’t first get all the preliminary research where, which is a highly abstract level of philosophy. And we don’t get for the moment, we don’t have his more abstract later works.
There are in particular two masterpieces that haven’t been translated yet. NON-STANDARD PHILOSOPHY and TETRALOGOS, which was published, I think, three years ago. So we’re very lucky to have access to A BIOGRAPHY OF ORDINARY MAN, that was published in French in 1985. and is, I think, by common agreement, considered to be one of his masterpieces, and was only published in English in 2018.
So there’s first that Laruelle is a very important creator and contributor to the ongoing evolution of French thought, and at the same time, he’s not well enough known in English.
A second reason to talk about him that maybe we’ll explore later on, is that he’s in an ongoing dialogue with the thoughts of what are more well known philosophers in English. There’s an intense dialogue from the very beginning with Deleuze’s work, and a later dialogue with the work of Badiou. Laruelle even wrote a book on Badiou, which was, I think, at least in its outer form, rather severe and highlighted the differences. But in fact, there are lots of similarities.
And this comes out more in TETRALOGOS, where there’s quite a lot of deliberate allusions to and similarities with Deleuze’s work and also with Badiou’s work, despite his constant attempt to free them from their dogmatic shells.
Isidore: I see, and when did you first get interested in Laruelle?
TB: Well, that’s very interesting. I came to France to Paris in 1980 for six months, and I was already familiar with the work of Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard, Michel Serres, even a little with Badiou’s work, but I’d never heard of Laruelle. And then when I came to Paris, I noticed in the big bookshops, there was one particular bookshop that I loved, that was well equipped in contemporary, philosophical, French literature. And it just had a huge display table with all the important works of Deleuze, of Lyotard, and of Foucault, and I noticed that there were a lot of works, at the time it must have been five or six books, by this guy Laruelle. And when I leafed through them, I saw that there was a very intellectual, conceptual, abstract style, and that he was engaging the work of Deleuze and Derrida, and to a lesser extent other people like Lyotard and Badiou.
So I was immediately enthusiastic. I bought the books, I read them, and I was immediately hooked. And then I went back to Sydney, and I had six months of waiting to see if I got a French scholarship to come to Paris to study for four years. I got that, I came back to Paris, and suddenly everything had changed. All the thinkers that interested me, were changing their direction.
This was in 1981, and one of the most interesting changes was in Laruelle’s work. He published THE PRINCIPLE OF MINORITY in 1981. He calls that his “breakthrough” book to his new set of ways of doing philosophy.
So quite naturally, I was even more interested in his change of direction. and its relation with the changes of direction in the other philosophers that I was looking at. So in fact, ever since, over a period of 40 years, I’ve constantly kept up with the work of Laruelle, and read his works as they were published. His work has been through several different phases. I was constantly interested by the changes in phases, and I thought his work was just getting better and better.
Isidore: Okay, and how relevant would you say his work is in 2021?
TB: Well, that’s a big question, and I’m not sure fully how to answer it. Obviously, at a conceptual level, it is untimely. I’m talking here about the book I’m doing a video reading of, A BIOGRAPHY OF ORDINARY MAN. It is, in some ways, a book that is out of date, and was out of date, passé, when it was published. And in other ways, it’s really a book that was ahead of its time, and may still be ahead of its time today.
So it was outdated when it was published, because Laruelle didn’t seem to register as important what I thought was really important, namely the change in direction that the different thinkers I had been interested in had effectuated.
For example, in 1980, I went to Deleuze’s seminars, and he was talking about minority struggles and the importance of minority politics in the struggle against totalitarian tendencies of capitalism. When I came back in 1981, all that was gone. And he was talking in his seminars, and he kept it up for four years, he was just talking about the cinema.
Lyotard, who I met in 1980, was interested then in science in relation to new communications technologies. He still talked about that a little, but when I came back in 1981 he was mainly interested in the sublime, and in the role of the sublime in the arts and in his “philosophy of phrases”.
I can’t say anything particular about Foucault, beyond the fact that he had already made one turn in the 70s, where he became interested more in the actual material side of practices. But in the 80s, there was this turn towards the thematics of the hermeneutics of the subject and the care of self, so attended Foucault’s seminars for four years.
Unfortunately, he died in 1984. And Deleuze reacted to that after his four years on the cinema. He wanted apparently, he had intended to do a seminar on what is philosophy?, but he spent one year analysing the particular underlying logic of Foucault’s thought and he was emphasizing another change that had come over all these thinkers and so, do those was practising that change itself, but emphasizing it in Foucault, which was a turn towards the subject.
Before there had been a sort of structuralist and hyper-structuralist phase, where the subject was considered, in the most extreme forms, to be useless or ineffectual, or it was a mere adjunct to impersonal or abstract structures. All these people realized that this dissolution of the subject, this disappearance of man, had gone too far, and that it was not tenable, except as some sort of correction to the naive theorization as a subject that had gone before
Badiou published THEORY OF THE SUBJECT in 1981. Lyotard found a relation to the subject as inhuman Other by means of his analysis of art, even if it was a very strange and deconstructed type of subject. Deleuze along with Guattari, but on his own as well, had come to analyse what he called processes of subjectivation.
So Laruelle seemed not to notice that philosophy had changed, and the thematics of difference and dissolution were no longer the key concepts, but there was rather a notion of multiplicities, it’s true, but also of the subject that had come to be at the center of the research programs of his contemporary dialogical partners, even if they never met and talk to each other. Well, they’re probably sometimes they did.
So this constant skirmishing with the philosophy of difference is something that for me in 1985 dated the book, but maybe is relevant today. Because when people discuss Deleuze, many people conflate the philosophy of difference with the philosophy or the thought of multiplicities. Laruelle is a good corrective to these tendencies that exist in Continental Philosophy circles today.
A second emphasis that has become more important in recent years is the emphasis on the subject. Laruelle in A BIOGRAPHY OF ORDINARY MAN starts straight away with the subject. He doesn’t work around and say that maybe at an ultimate level of analysis, under the structures, there’s a subject. He says we must start with the subject, otherwise we’re never going to get there, or it will be only a relative subject.
Laruelle also says that this subject must be taken as the Absolute. It’s an absolute subject. That’s an important measure or move that he took in a radical form, that the others at that time were not taking, and that has now come to be a sort of future-oriented move that has been taken today. That is to say, focusing more on the subject, getting away from these structures, dissolution, which is also a psychological dissolution.
The more you get into French philosophy, the more you may become convinced that you don’t exist, and that nothing human or subjective exists. And you may become powerless when the idea is to empower you.
And the other emphasis, from the beginning of the book in Laruelle, is the emphasis on the Absolute. So now we have Badiou’s book, the third volume in the BEING AND EVENT series, IMMANENCE OF TRUTHS which was published in 2019 and is now going to be published in English in February of next year, where he examines the worlds we know and the knowledges we have from the point of view of the Absolute
There’s also Zizek, whose latest big book, aside from the books on the Covid Pandemic and HEGEL IN A WIRED BRAIN, is called SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE. And there’s this notion that the Absolute is subject, otherwise you’re condemned to postmodern relativism. The Absolute is subject, and the Subject is absolute.
So you do have, in a form that exists after traversing all this dissolution, a sort of anchoring point, if you will, an Absolute of a special sort, that is meant to undercut as just one relative development amongst others, this postmodern relativism. So the relativism is itself relativized by a thought that gives pre-eminence to, as a first axiom you could even say, that gives pre-eminence to the Absolute, and to the human as absolute, and to the Subject as absolute.
Isidore: Okay, thank you for your answers to my questions, Terence.
TB: Thank you, Isidore.