THINKING ZIZEK WITH LARUELLE: the Absolute as Subject

This is a full transcript of Annex 3: Thinking Zizek with Laruelle

I am producing a Hyper-Book, a reading of François Laruelle’s A BIOGRAPHY OF ORDINARY MAN. I’m doing that because of my reading of Slavoj Zizek’s works, and in particular SEX AND THE FAILED Absolute, and because of my prior reading of a big book by Badiou, THE IMMANENCE OF TRUTHS, which is the third volume in the BEING AND EVENT series or trilogy. The translation will be coming out in February next year, it was published in French in 2018.

In both books, there’s an emphasis not just on a new positive apprehension of the subject, but on what was thought to be another discarded concept: the Absolute, and these two concepts are being deployed as an important part of a dispositif that can be strong enough to answer the current (although it’s been going for a while now) dominant ideology, which is an uneasy incoherent mixture of bio-materialism and what I call “democratic relativism”.

The democratic relativism part is the tendency to regard anything except my own ideas and my own experience as a social construct; the bio-materialism is an attempt to stick within the bounds of my experience, that I take is real and material and not constructed. You get that sort of position coming up with even greater force and visibility within the current COVID crisis, whether on the right with people who consider that the whole virus is a social construction and their own bodily freedom is the most important value to maintain, or on the left with people who seem to think if only we believe in science and we get away from the social constructions that are conspiracy theories we will be able to come to the end of the current crisis.

So we have this mixture, in different dosages or different proportions, and directed in different ways, of bio-materialism as an empiricist realist base and social constructionism as an explanation of what’s wrong with society. In order to fight that mixture and to not give in to either one or other pole, both Badiou and Zizek have felt the necessity to revive the notion of the Absolute and to bring it into new knottings or combinations with what was once thought to be another discarded concept within the postmodern relativistic variations, i.e. the subject, and to see what can be done if you deploy both of these concepts together.

I was thinking about this and trying to understand it and push it further, and I came to the conclusion that there’s something about the current debates and the current problematics that is reminiscent of what was happening in France, in the 1980s. In the thought of that period, there was a similar combination of bio-materialism and democratic relativism, that come out of the end of the 60s and persist all through the 70s. And there was a similar turn to accepting the ideological critiques that had been put forward in the 70s, but undoing this total depersonalisation and dissolution within the multiplicities in flux that had come out of the 70s.

So, many thinkers, in 1980-1981, started to change their orientation in thought. A first change can be seen with Laruelle’s, THE PRINCIPLE OF MINORITY. In this book – which initiated a break with his work published in the 1970s – THE PRINCIPLE OF MINORITY, published in 1981, Laruelle saw the necessity of starting out – or not exactly starting out, because he has a whole process coming up to it, but of putting in first position, if you will, the idea of the Absolute.

At that stage, Laruelle was still trying to work his way out of the sort of Derridean, Lyotardian, Deleuzian and Foucaldian synthesis that he produced in the 70s. He saw the danger of relativism and of the total dissolution of the subject on one side, and on the other side the danger of bio-materialistic dogmatism, reductionism, or scientism, and he basically went back to what he thought of as first principles and to the need for an Absolute. This led to the publication of THE MINORITY PRINCIPLE in 1981.

The year after, in 1982, Badiou initiated his turn towards the subject in THEORY OF THE SUBJECT. Those two sets of research programs, one privileging the Absolute and the other privileging the subject in a new idea of the subject, can be seen to converge in Laruelle’s second book after his theoretical breakthrough, A BIOGRAPHY OF ORDINARY MAN, which he published in 1985.

In this new book Laruelle says that there’s no point trying laboriously get to the Absolute, you have to begin with the Absolute. And he says quite explicitly, I don’t think he’s particularly alluding to Badiou or claiming an influence, but these ideas were already being imposed by the logic, the internal logic of the prior research programs, which were coming to a limit and needed a big transformation, in order to solve the current intellectual and practical problems.

So Laruelle says that we need the Absolute as subject, which is something that you can find in Zizek later. Laruelle develops this idea in A BIOGRAPHY OF ORDINARY MAN in a totally pure form. He eschews any quotations. He doesn’t refer, except by means of allusions, to any of his contemporary rivals if you aren’t, and he certainly doesn’t refer to Lacan or to Hegel, but that was his position in 1985: The Absolute as starting point, the subject as Absolute.

Three years later Zizek’s book came out, the first in a series of books aimed at a re-visioning and transformation of the meta-research program that many of these thinkers had in common in terms of the theoretical network that was the context for their ideas and problematics. So in 1988 Zizek published THE MOST SUBLIME OF HYSTERICS: Lacan with Hegel, and it was a revisioning of Hegel as propounding an Absolute outside of totalisations and inherently Subject.

This idea of refusing totalities and totalisation is present within Laruelle’s A BIOGRAPHY OF ORDINARY MAN, but he doesn’t have the idea, he doesn’t even think of re-visioning Hegel within those terms, he just introduces the notion of Absolute and goes on from there. Zizek, as well as seeing these ideas as crucial: non-totalization, the Absolute as a non-totality, and the Absolute subject, finds a way of getting useful weapons or tools or advice from Hegel.

In that same year 1988 Badiou published BEING AND EVENT, which was the first book in this ultimate paradigm in Badiou’s work, which would lead to THE IMMANENCE OF TRUTHS.

Three years later, once again three is the magic number of indirect dialogue, Deleuze and Guattari published WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? It’s not usually remarked on, but in this book the word “absolute” is quite frequently employed, mainly as an adjective a few times as a noun, and it’s employed when they talk about absolute outside, absolute overview, absolute speed. It is employed in a very positive way, in a favorable way. Whereas before, the word Absolute was proscribed in French philosophy.

Along with this use of the word “absolute” as an adjective, you have quite a huge number of mentions and uses of the word “infinite”, and a lot of other synonyms, expressions or a single word for this notion of the infinite, which is identified implicitly with the Absolute, but Deleuze and Guattari don’t have the technical mathematical material to give formalized and rigorous substance to these conjectures, they never develop it more in an intuitive way. And I would say that the project is incomplete. Both died too young. And we’re faced with the problem that the last work that Deleuze wrote is unpublished, and by that I’m not referring to his unpublished manuscript on Marx that I don’t think was even finished. I’m referring to Deleuze’s correspondence with Badiou.

Badiou recounts in his book on Deleuze that they began a correspondence after the publication of WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?, and it seems to have lasted about two or three years, from 1992 to 1994. At the end of that time, they concluded that they had gone as far as possible in expounding their own ideas, in exploring them and exploring the differences between the two different perspectives. So, in a certain sense, we can consider that this work of correspondence was complete. The problem is that Deleuze had an about face and decided to forbid any publication of his letters. I think that’s a very big gap, and a very big shame in terms of the evolution of these ideas.

After that we have various things happening. But on this central axis of the subject, and the Absolute, we had to wait to 2018 when Badiou published THE IMMANENCE OF TRUTHS in French, and it’s coming out in February next year, in February 2022. A related evolution led to Zizek’s book SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE. So there’s quite a constellation of evolutions and problematics and knots and linkages around a revised, re-visioned, and reformatted idea of the subject and a revised, re-visioned, reformatted idea of the Absolute.

So the ancestor, the vanishing mediator, if you will, is Laruelle’s 1985 book published in English in 2018. And I think, because of this new conceptual context, furnished by Zizek and Badiou, Laruelle’s book has a new timeliness. It’s an untimely book, because in some ways it was out of date, when it was published. In a certain way, it came too late. And at the same time, it was a precursor or a forerunner for evolutions that would come later, that is to say in the last few years.

So I’m reading A BIOGRAPHY OF ORDINARY MAN, and publishing my reading in Hyper-Book form (video, audio, text, interviews), trying to rethink the book. But I’m not a Laruellean, so I’m not trying to say Laruelle was right, or stick strictly within the stakes as Laruelle saw them. I’m trying to give an immanent reading that’s very faithful to the linear order of the text. And at the same time, and this is the Hyper-Reading aspect, I’m reading Laruelle with these ideas of Deleuze and Badiou and Zizek in mind, so as to hope that taken together they can mutually illuminate each other.

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