JOHN W. CAMPBELL’S QUARTER TURN: √-1, cognition and estrangement (2)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Laruelle’s « quarter turn » has its precedent in science fiction. In his recently published book « ASTOUNDING: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction » Alec Nevala-Lee notes:

The September 1971 issue featured the short story “On the Nature of Angels,” the last piece of fiction that he ever wrote. Campbell proposed that the soul was a complex number in which the variable b stood for the level of sin. No one knew the exact level at which a spirit became good or evil after death, so it would be best, he said, “to keep our soul’s b value as close to zero as possible.” (ASTOUNDING, 379).

Taken at face value this story appears to be a silly tongue-in-cheek thought-experiment, but I think that as a metaphor it describes something of the genre of science fiction itself. and of non-philosophy.

The superficial « humorous » level comes from the moralistic description of the imaginary axis as giving the level of sin or grace. However, this complex number could also be seen as determining the respective values of imaginary estrangement and real cognition. This would provide a formula for defining the difference between science fiction (defined by Darko Suvin as « the literature of cognitive estrangement ») considered  as escapism and as speculative fiction:

Campbell had wanted to be an inventor or scientist, and when he found himself working as an editor instead, he redefined the pulps as a laboratory for ideas—improving the writing, developing talent, and handing out entire plots for stories. America’s future, by definition, was unknown, with a rate of change that would only increase. To prepare for this coming acceleration, he turned science fiction from a literature of escapism into a machine for generating analogies (ASTOUNDING, 8).

Thus Campbell writes in the short story not only of a quarter turn, as Laruelle does, but of a limit to respect beyond which lies mere escapism, and within which the analogies of speculation remain productive:

Scientists have proven, however, that if the soul’s end-of-life b component is less than some number, E, the resulting « eternal » wave function will represent a « good » spirit, with a positive eigenvalue. Conversely, if b exceeds E, the soul will become an « evil » spirit (John  W. Campbell, On the Nature of Angels, Analog, September 1971, 160).

The question of the value of E, the escapist limit, is an important one, for both Laruelle and his followers. I have argued that most of the « performance » philosophy elaborated by the Anglophone disciples of Laruelle go beyond E into escapist idealism.

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LARUELLE’S QUARTER TURN: √-1, cognition and estrangement

One may find that philosophy taken as a whole is boring, tedious, monotonous, repetitive and lacking in creative intensity, with only a few exceptions. Even the exceptional cases (books, systems, concepts) can come to be banalised by their own creators, as they recite and organise their ideas over repeated use. Sometimes our own productions seem to be second hand copies of our few moments of learning or of inspiration.

Despite a sometimes euphoric rhetoric of de-anthropisation, individuation, conceptual creation, infinite intensities, pluralism, and the great outdoors, nothing seems to change and the old academic game seems to perpetuate itself.

Even Deleuze’s battle cry « philosophy is creation of concepts » has lost its provocative and political power, and can be found repeated unthinkingly as a self-evident formula. It has gone from strange provocation to marketing slogan to micro-social doxa in the space of a few years.

We have witnessed many attempts to break out from this impasse. The image of a « turn » has been invoked to proclaim, to describe and to incite to a radical change. The linguistic turn, the practice turn, the ontological turn, the ethical turn, the speculative turn, and the mathematical turn have succeeded or accompanied each other, provoking change within the academic microcosm but without changing its fundamental laws.

François Laruelle has felt this stifling aspect of philosophy intensely for decades, to the point of calling his own philosophy « non-philosophy », and « non-standard philosophy ». His solution is to take the image of the turn literally, mathematically and physically, and to take the mathematics and the physics imaginally, generically.

At this very general level, Laruelle is operating with the same sort of double crossover, or two way cross movement, as science fiction. An image (insight, affect, intensity, virtuality, quality, potential, speculation, intuition) is translated (literalised) into cognition, and this cognition is re-translated (estranged) into imagination.

More specifically, Laruelle employs the mathematics of complex numbers, comprising a « real » component (inscribed on the horizontal axis) and an « imaginary » component (the factor of a real number multiplied by √-1, thus forming an imaginary number (inscribed on the vertical axis). The two axes (real and imaginary) define the complex plane, and allow Laruelle to express his own non-philosophical turn as a « quarter turn », the result of multiplying standard philosophy (horizontal axis) by  90º, effecting a rotation onto the imaginary or vertical axis.

We can make several remarks at this point in our analysis

1) Laruelle is not always very clear on this point, but we must consider that the specific geometrical two way cross movement on the complex plane is only one possible analog of the generic conceptual double crossover.

2) Laruelle, at this stage of his argument, takes for granted the first movement, a quarter turn in which a speculative item on the imaginary axis is rotated into a cognitive content on the real axis. This first rotation is equivalent to the formation of standard, « sufficient » philosophy. The dissolution of this sufficiency requires the inverse movement, a rotation in which cognitive content is transposed onto the imaginary axis.

3) Laruelle seemingly considers only pure cases, sufficient philosophy limited to the real axis and non-standard philosophy confined to the imaginary axis. Despite vague talk of composites of philosophy and science under science, Laruelle does not make full use of the complex plane in its entirety.

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TETRALOGOS: first reactions

TETRALOGOS is possibly François Laruelle’s most important and most human book. It poses the paradoxical question: can one make music with concepts?

Can a work full of concepts and conceptual personae, a work of philosophy, produce and contain an inaudible soundless music? Laruelle’s new book « TETRALOGOS An opera of philosophies » is an attempt to reply in the affirmative to this question and to make speculative music under the sign of de Socrates musician.

Laruelle declares that he has always wanted to compose music by means of philosophy, to write not a philosophy of music but music composed out of concepts. We have long been accustomed to the scientistic programme of Laruelle’s non-standard philosophy, and we are amply confronted in this new book with his idiosyncratic attempt to conceive of a non-reductionist scientism. I find this position neither convincing nor even coherent.

However, there is something new in this book, which aims to

« describe, by a montage of philosophical theories and of references central to music, the harmonic and contrapuntal amplitude of the epic of human life as a function of its sites, which go from the Cavern to the Stars, and the diversity of its stages and intrigues, which go from Birth to Messianity » (TETRALOGOS, 11, my translation).

The book is very interesting, and calls for a close reading, but in this introductory post I will limit myself to the most general « traits » or « features » (in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?). The musical inspiration of the book is situated much more at the implicit level, in its style and structure and movements, than at the explicit thematic level, despite its continuous reference to music.

Just as in his generic treatment of philosophy, freeing it from its enclosures (for example in epistemology or ontology, or even in a « philosophy of music »), here Laruelle tries to treat music generically in order to free it from its sonorous enclosure and to allow its transposition into other materialisations.

As usual in my reading of Laruelle’s works, I am of mixed feelings, I am torn between a feeling of distance and one of proximity. Everything is interesting in this book, and one feels the sense of wonder that belongs both to the best science fiction and to the most exciting philosophy. If science fiction is the « literature of cognitive estrangement », then non-standard philosophy is the literature of conceptual estrangement.

At the same time, everything in this book is full of programmatic declarations, of the rejection of other philosophies, and of self-satisfaction. Laruelle passes much more time announcing or describing what non-philosophy or non-standard philosophy can do, and much less time doing it,  actually putting this inspiring programme into practice.

We are constantly confronted with the excesses of the « self-cloning » that Laruelle seems to feel obliged to practice throughout his books. This self-cloning leads Laruelle to over-identify with his primary conceptual personae (the figures of the non-philosopher and of the non-standard philosopher).

This identification lies behind Laruelle’s « uniqueness hypothesis »: that he alone of his compeers has attained radical immanence, that he is the only non-philosopher). Despite this constant of self-promotion, I think that TETRALOGOS is Laruelle’s most important, clearest, most accomplished, and most human book.

(Is this self-proclaimed uniqueness in the attainment of radical immanence really a « constant »? It may be a more charitable reading to see it as the value of a variable of the Laruelle wave-function. In fact, TETRALOGOS is perhaps the book of Laruelle’s that is most in dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari and with Badiou, to the point of borrowing from them key terms such as « conceptual persona » and « forcing ». True, he still declares that they remain within the domain of sufficient philosophy, but Laruelle goes out of his way to exhibit his indebtedness to his predecessors. It is clear that they are key members of his cast of conceptual personae, for both their positive and their negative traits).

If I critique Laruelle for his practice of « self-cloning », it is because he over-identifies not only with his conceptual personae, but also with his characteristic concepts (« quantum », « messianity », « algebra », « idempotence »). It is always a very strange experience in reading Laruelle to see him complain about the boring monotony and the lack of inventiveness of standard philosophy in an extremely repetitive text, as full of the same abstractions as his previous books, and which are still as badly explained.

Despite bringing new confirmation for my critical distance from Laruelle’s theoretical project (since I reject his scientism, his solipsism, and his obscurantism), this book also confirmed in me a feeling of proximity. This feeling of conceptual closeness consolidated  also a sentiment of human proximity, as I can see even more clearly in reading this book a kinship in the attempt to invent, each in their own way, a realist pluralism closely tied to radical human experience. In this common cause, we share to a large extent the same criteria: immanence, noetic democracy, testability, realism, pluralism.

(I have made it no secret that despite this commonality I consider Laruelle to remain too structuralist).

In reading this book I had the impression, much more than with his other books, that if only Laruelle could dis-identify with his concepts and his conceptual personae (and I add if I could dis-identify with mine), while still persisting with them, we could come to a mutual understanding.

If Laruelle could content himself presenting his philosophy as simply a conceptual auto-biography by way of his philosophical project, his research, his trials and errors, and his personae, without excessive pretensions, then it would be a fascinating, mind-expanding  undertaking. Unfortunately, this conceptual biography, despite its undoubted intensity, is still in some of its aspects narrow-minded, not « generic » enough. I continue to feel the need to supplement it with other readings, other concepts, other conceptual personae, for example those taken from the works of Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, Bruno Latour, Bernard Stiegler, Michel Serres).

In TETRALOGOS Laruelle himself seems to practice this conceptual supplementation and to invite us to follow his example rather than to adhere to his theses. As we have seen, the book is full of borrowings of the vocabulary and the concepts of his contemporaries, especially Deleuze and Badiou. Laruelle does not want to destroy philosophy, but to make it flexible, permeable, inventive. He is struggling against the boredom and monotony of philosophy, against its autocracy, to open it to democratic encounters and exchanges.

I can only wholeheartedly approve of his ambitions and try to help him improve on their execution.

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DIAGRAMMING PHILOSOPHIES (2): OOP and the problem of emergence

In the previous post we examined the elements and (non-)relations posited by Graham Harman’s OOP. In this post we shall see the movements, authorised and prohibited, that characterise this version of Speculative Realism.

OOP Diagram 2-1

Withdrawal is eliminative, deconstructive, abstractive, élitist – this ascent to the absolute is the defining movement of OOP.

De-withdrawal is emanative, constructive, concretive, democratic – this inverse movement of descent or return to daily life is prohibited by OOP.

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DIAGRAMMING PHILOSOPHIES (1): Graham Harman’s Disappearance Theory of Objects

It can be useful to diagramme alternative philosophies to compare their elements and their relations, and to visualise their movements.

In the case of Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (OOP) we have a strongly eliminativist ontology, in which all observable, imaginable, or even thinkable objects are declared unreal, and only Harman’s intuitively posited « real » objects are real.

The ascending movement of withdrawal

The ascending movement of withdrawal

Withdrawal is eliminative, deconstructive, abstractive, élitist – this is the defining movement of OOP

De-withdrawal is emanative, constructive, concretive, democratic – this inverse movement is forbidden by OOP.

The diverse objects that we “know” are emanations of the One real object behind the appearances (Harman’s sensual realm). This sensual realm includes the “folk” realm of common sense, but also the expert realm of the sciences and the humanities. The object behind the veil of unknowing cannot be known, nor even named, as it withdraws from all relations, including the relation of nomination or reference.

The real object does not cause its emanations or sensual counterparts, as causality for OOP is unreal, an intra-sensual notion. The diverse objects and relations of the sensual realm are eliminated from the reality posited by Harman’s OOP. The repeated rhetorical gesture of “turning towards” objects cannot hide the idealism of this position. In fact, OOP turns away from all objects of experience, imagination, and knowledge and turns towards (but cannot attain) the withdrawn real.

Harman is not a materialist, as for him matter is a sensual illusion. In fact, according to OOP we must distinguish between the “folk” matter of common sense and the “expert” matter of the various sciences (the matter of quantum physics is not the same matter as that of geology). Both are unreal in Harman’s system.

The ascending movement is fivefold:

1) ontological: real objects withdraw from relations, in particular they have no relations of causality or of correspondence with sensual objects

2) epistemological: real objects are unobservable, unknown, and unimaginable. We have no epistemic relation with them

3) ethical: real objects can be attained only by an ascesis involving the renunciation of sensual and cognitive access

4) religious: orientation towards objects is a conversion experience, philosophy permits us to « turn » towards real objects without acceding to them

5) methodological: there is no method of access to the inaccessible real object, but its existence is revealed by intellectual intuition (after conversion)

In conclusion, the demarcations between philosophy and common sense, and between philosophy and science are absolute. Harman incoherently excepts art from this rupture in the name of an ad hoc theory of indirect and allusive communication.

Further, it is impossible to explain how OOP crosses the veil of unknowing, attaining to such insights as that the real is made of objects and that objects withdraw from relations. These two principles constitute knowledge of the real, something that is forbidden by the basic assumptions of OOP.

No dialogue between OOP and the unconverted (both « folk » and « experts) » is permissible nor even possible.

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TÉTRALOGOS par François Laruelle: premières réactions

Je viens de recevoir TÉTRALOGOS Un opéra de philosophies par François Laruelle.

Je trouve le livre très intéressant, mais je ne peut parler que des grandes lignes du projet spéculative. L’aspect musical est beaucoup plus dans la structure du livre que thématisé explicitement, contrairement à ce que le résumé laisse entendre. Laruelle déclare avoir toujours voulu non pas écrire une philosophie de la musique, mais

« faire de la musique avec des concepts »

Comme d’habitude dans ma lecture des œuvres de Laruelle, mes sentiments sont assez partagés. Tout est très intéressant dans ce livre, mais en même temps tout est rempli de déclarations d’intention, et d’auto-suffisance. Laruelle passe beaucoup plus de temps en annonçant ou en décrivant ce que la non-philosophie et la philosophie non-standard sait faire, et beaucoup moins de temps à mettre en pratique ce beau programme. On retrouve les excès de l’auto-clonage que Laruelle se sent obligé de pratiquer en permanence et que j’ai analysé ici.

Néanmoins, je trouve que c’est son livre le plus important, le plus clair, le plus achevé, et le plus humain.

Malgré la confirmation de mon éloignement critique du projet théorique de Laruelle, ce livre m’a apporté un sentiment de rapprochement.

Si je critique Laruelle pour sa pratique de « l’auto-clonage », c’est qu’il s’identifie trop avec ses personnages conceptuels (le non-philosophe, le philosophe non-standard) et avec ses concepts (le « quantum », la « messianité », voire « l’algèbre »). Il est toujours très étrange de lire Laruelle en train de se plaindre de l’ennui monotone et du manque d’inventivité de la philosophie dans un texte extrêmement répétitive, remplie des mêmes abstractions que ses livres précédents, toujours mal expliquées.

Je n’ai jamais rencontré François Laruelle, il n’y a pas de relation, bonne ou mauvaise, entre nous. Lorsque j’évoque un « éloignement », je parle d’un éloignement théorique, que j’ai inlassablement analysé, sur ce blog et ailleurs.

J’ai passé tant de temps à lire Laruelle et à articuler mes critiques de la non-philosophie laruelléenne parce que je perçois un fonds commun conceptuel, malgré les désaccords dans les thèses et l’application de ces concepts.

Ce rapprochement conceptuel est devenu un rapprochement humain, puisque je vois en lisant le livre une parenté dans la tentative d’inventer, chacun à sa façon, un pluralisme réaliste. Nous partageons en grande partie les mêmes critères: immanence, démocratie noétique, testabilité, réalisme, pluralisme.

J’ai plus l’impression en lisant ce nouveau livre que si Laruelle pouvait seulement se dés-identifier de ses concepts et de ses personnages conceptuels (et si moi aussi je pouvais me désidentifier des miens), tout en les maintenant, on pourrait s’entendre.

S’il pouvait se contenter de présenter sa philosophie comme une biographie conceptuelle de ses concepts et de ses personnages, sans prétention excessive, ce serait une entreprise passionnante. Cependant, sa biographie conceptuelle, malgré son intensité certaine, reste en même temps très étriquée. Je sens toujours le besoin de la supplémenter avec d’autres lectures, avec d’autres concepts et d’autres personnages conceptuels.

Note: je remercie Gilles Grelet de m’avoir aidé à clarifier mes idées initiales à propos du livre.

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Reading Laruelle’s TETRALOGOS (4): Deleuzos

Laruelle devotes a little over three pages in TETRALOGOS (bottom 157 to top 161) to his differences with Deleuze, as he sees them.

1) Deleuze does not attain the « quarter turn » from reality to the Real.

Reply: Deleuze’s idea of the concept as survey, « survol », corresponds to a quarter turn, or a rotation away from the axis of referential reality (left to the sciences).

Deleuze’s quarter turn to science fiction was already accomplished in DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION (1969), as the Foreword to that book makes clear.

2) Deleuze does not accomplish the passage to the generic

Reply: this is a verbal quibble. In WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? Deleuze and Guattari make use of the term « generic » to refer to abstractions and stereotypes. However, the notion of the pure transcendental plane is one of generic, as opposed to naively empirical, events.

3) Deleuze does not reach the plane of radical immanence, which is both philosophical and scientific.

Reply: I have argued that there is a real problem in Deleuze and Guattari’s view of a conceptless science, assigning only functions to science and restricting the concept to philosophy alone. However, there is an even bigger problem in Laruelle’s scientism.

Further, the conclusion of WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? goes a long way to relativise the sharp demarcation between science and philosophy that the book begins with, as does Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of radical empiricism.

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