THE MYTH OF FRENCH RELATIVISM: liquidationists vs affirmationists

Far from trail-blazing a new paradigm in the comprehension of Nietzsche, Domenico Losurdo, with the publication of his book NIETZSCHE THE ARISTOCRATIC REBEL is a late-comer to the actual battle for hegemony based on an ongoing « radical » ressentiment against post-68 French thought.

For the last 50 years there has been a growing flood of books and articles trying to caricature, denigrate, and liquidate the heritage of May ’68 as both intellectually and politically deleterious.

From Luc Ferry and Alain Renault’s polemic « French Philosophy of the Sixties » through former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s condemnation of the heritage of May ’68, and on and on, the accusation has been repeated of moral, political, and intellectual relativism.

A number of French philosophers, contemporary to the event and trying to inherit from the theoretical and practical creativity preceding, accompanying, and stemming from May ’68 had a very different type of response to the accusation of relativism indistinguishable from nihilism.

They responded also to the related critiques that they were guilty of « textualism » (reducing real life to mere textual play and of « differentialism » (as partisans of the so-called « philosophies of difference » and of its permissive « anything goes » attitude).

Gilles Deleuze’s whole evolution after DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION is driven by the need to resolve this dilemma of serving the doxa and the status quo or defending an impotent relativism.

Deleuze dropped the vocabulary of difference in his next book LOGIC OF SENSE in favour of that of multiplicities, and proceeded to collaborate with Guattari on the formal arrangements of desire as a way of critiquing and escaping the oppressive, exploitative status quo and its legitimating doxas. This book was misunderstood as propounding formlessness and a relativism of desire (and it must be kept in mind that all such misunderstandings are political, in the concrete sense of the struggle for hegemony and its fruits). Deleuze and Guattari indirectly responded to these critiques by de-emphasising (not abandoning) the concept of desire in favour of a two-pronged concept of arrangement (agencement) as both machinic and enunciative, in A THOUSAND PLATEAUS.

Even this precision that desire is always machined and semiotiically formed was not enough to avoid the accusation of re-producing relativism at a higher order of abstraction, in a sort of meta-relativism. This pitfall was obviated by their increasing recourse to ideas of an absolute: resistance as primary, absolute deterritorialisation, the outside, the infinite. This conceptual line is pushed to the forefront in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? where the vocabulary of the « absolute » (noun and adjective) and the infinite is deployed in a constant critique of the relative and the finite.

Jean-François Lyotard is another key thinker in this response to the dismissal of « May ’68 thought » as textualist, relativist, and nihilist. His insight that « difference itself » could never be instantiated as such led him to a far-reaching critique of Freudian and Marxist problematics and strategies, resulting in his LIBIDINAL ECONOMY. This book too was criticised for its supposed relativism, which led Lyotard to traverse a long series of conceptual experimentations culminating in THE DIFFEREND. His key insight was that « relativism » is correlative to metaphysics, the privileging of the machinic signified over the semiotic regime and of the descriptive and cognitive over the prescriptive and the vocative. There is a turn towards the « authority of the infinite » and towards an absolute interiority.

Derrida’s path is in appearance more complicated, but in attempting to respond to the ever-present accusations of textualism, relativism and nihilism, he turned towards an absolute of « justice » as that which is undeconstructable.

Alain Badiou sees the problem of the spectre of relativism, but his response is once again the opposite of that proposed by those critics. His most recent systematic work, THE IMMANENCE OF TRUTHS, deploys the mathematics of infinity, in the wake of Deleuze, Lyotard, and Derrida’s use of this concept to save French thought from the accusation of relativism.

Badiou is trying to inherit from the thought of his predecessors and to push it further. His analytical and critical remarks on Lyotard, Derrida, and Deleuze are not radical negations aimed at the liquidation and abandon, unlike Losurdo and Rehmann, but are geared towards transformative prolongations.

Losurdo is liquidationist, Badiou is affirmationist. I see noone working with Losurdo who rejects his easily refuted accusation of post-’68 thought as relativism. Losurdo’s followers are in the liquidationist camp.

Badiou is clearly in the transformationist camp. Badiou tries to preserve the Deleuze-Lyotard-Derrida line from the spectre of relativism, Losurdo abandons them because of their putative relativism.

An instructive example of this liquidationist line is to be found in Jan Rehmann, who is an inheritor of Losurdo’s Nietzsche critique. The very title of the book gives the game away: « DECONSTRUCTING POSTMODERNIST NIETZSCHEANISM Deleuze and Foucault ».

Rehmann is not at all concerned with Nietzsche, or even Nietzscheanism (whatever that may be), but « postmodern nietzscheanism », in plainer words the left-Nietzscheanism of Deleuze and Foucault (and by implication the other French thinkers of their ilk). But even this is misleading. Rehmann does not give a damn about Deleuze’s thought, and his « scholarship » on that subject is lamentable and lacunary, he is in fact concerned with the struggle for intellectual hegemony between an oldstyle Marxism and the inheritors of French post-structuralism that have already critiqued the avatars of that Marxism.

What strikes me about the debunkers of a left-Nietzscheanism such as Losurdo and Rehmann is the bad quality of their thinking. They are unable to see a move of conceptual creation (as in Deleuze’s linking of Spinoza and Nietzsche) as anything other than a historical « error ».

They accuse Deleuze and Foucault of being guilty of « textualism » (i.e. to be the exemplars of everything they fought against, really kids!), nothing counting except the text, yet all they do is limited to the text, to the historical archives. They are the true textualists.

Losurdo is so deeply buried in the archives trying to prove that left Nietzscheanism is an impossibility, an argument based on Nietzsche’s left-wing partisans’ own supposed misinterpretations, conceptual confusions and category mistakes that he never considers that there is perhaps an empirical question to investigate.

Just how many contemporary readers of Nietzsche (and I’m not talking about academic experts) are left-wing in orientation? How many are extreme right readers? What are the relative proportions? Losurdo and Rehmann do not even remotely envision the question. Yet their project presupposes the answer:

there are many such left-wing readers of Nietzsche, and of Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard. To attempt to stigmatise that vast array of intellectual and political forces as being the victims of relativistic confusionism is ridiculous.

Indeed, why pose the empirical sociological question, or even just look around themselves in the diverse academies that they wish to purge of rivals, when they can use the reductionist readings deriving from their own textualism to validate the prejudices of their own pressure groups?

Rehmann’s case is the worst as he deliberately misreads Deleuze’s texts, misunderstands their stakes, conflates passages from radically different phases of his work, fails to consult Deleuze’s well-known and very explicit discussions of these different phases and of their conceptual evolution.

For example, Rehmann perpetrates the fable of Deleuze as a « philosopher of difference » rather than of multiplicities, basing himself mainly on the title DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION, despite the rarity of « difference » in Deleuze’s work prior to that book and its almost complete absence after.

In conclusion, Rehmann’s book is insignificant and deleterious as a contribution to the understanding of contemporary « left-Nietzscheanism » in that it is permeated by bad scholarship, bad arguments, and bad readings.

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2 commentaires pour THE MYTH OF FRENCH RELATIVISM: liquidationists vs affirmationists

  1. dmf dit :

    there’s something tragically a-political/a-historical about the idea that simply recognizing that there is no Grounding of our commitments in anything other then the contingencies and inventions of anthropology is somehow the same as saying nothing matters or all positions have the same outcomes with no way of preferring some over others, just nonsense really totally divorced from how human interactions actually play out.


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