LARUELLE ACROSS THE DIVIDE: translation dead translate

I think there is a phase divergence between Francophone and Anglophone philosophical worlds. What can seem old hat to us can seem new to the French because they vivify it in terms of their current problematics and vice versa.

For example, I think Laruelle’s book NIETZSCHE VERSUS HEIDEGGER (1977) is close to contemporary interests in Continental Philosophy in English. I think it would be a good choice for the next in the ongoing publication of translations of his work. A very useful translation of the first chapter, by Taylor Adkins, can be found here.

There is also a paragraph-by-paragraph translator’s introduction and exegesis of the text to be found here.

This sort of work is important as in diversifying and opening the number of points and modes of access to Laruelle’s thought we shall get a more informed and hopefully more accurate vision of its lineaments, of its strengths, and (dare one say?) its weaknesses.

For the moment the Laruelle world is too small, and it needs to let a thousand flowers blossom, as is the case with Derrida, Badiou and Deleuze, and not be controlled by a tiny monopoly that are afraid to air their differences and to confront the big outside world.

I think Laruelle may not have realised the harm he was doing himself in choosing some of his emissaries in English.

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AVENGERS INFINITY WARS is a very enjoyable film, which means that comes very close to pure ideology, and its protagonist Thanos arrives at a moment of enjoyment at the end of the film. His contentment is tinged with sadness, as he has sacrificed “everything” in service of his ideal of balance. Thanos is an idealist. Of course he is the villain, capable of totalitarian terror in pursuit of his ideal, but he sheds a tear at the “necessary” sacrifices, including his own personal sacrifice, and so gains a small amount of reluctant sympathy.

Some notes on the ideology of the film follow:

1) Thanos without Death: this is like de-caffeinated coffee or laxative chocolate. In the comic Thanos is in love with Death and seeks to restore “balance” at her order. In the film Thanos is an imperialist who applies the shock doctrine to the planets he invades, claiming that after his intervention (murdering half the population) the planet becomes “balanced”, and prosperous. Thanos is a liar (including to himself) and propagandist, an accomplished ideologist.

2) Top-down De-growth and Mechanical Repetition: According to Thanos, he creates sustainable utopias. However, he does not mention the suffering he produces, and its aftermath. Wielding the “infinite” power of the infinity gauntlet he merely repeats the same process on the scale of the universe. Nothing has changed here, as he will have to intervene each time the population has doubled.

3) Bad Infinity and Closed Totality: Despite possessing the six infinity gems, Thanos does not have the imagination to use all of them. He mainly uses the Power, Space and Time gems, and to a limited extent the Reality gem, but he does not think of altering the laws of physics to make the universe as a whole sustainable (e.g. by revising the second law of thermodynamics).

4) Love and True Infinity: Love is the deployment of a subjective infinity. By sacrificing his love (Gamora) to his ideal of Balance in order to obtain the Soul stone, Thanos would seem to guarantee that he will be unable to use it, having sacrificed the little soul that he possessed.

5) Non-noetic Montage: Thanos does not use the Mind stone or the Soul stone. In that, he is in the image of the film-maker, and the infinity gauntlet is an image of their power of montage.The film is mainly composed of scenes of combat, with the power of the attacks against Thanos constantly mounting in proportion to the progressive increase of his own power with the acquisition of each infinity stone.

6) Box Office Balance: The logical sequel is to deploy a hero with even more power than the preceding heroes, hence the teaser for Captain Marvel at the end. We know that some form of time-rewind or time travel will be used to restore balance in a commercial sense, a balance containing enough antagonisms to allow the Marvel Cinematic Universe to continue to prosper.

7) Holistic Terror vs Antagonistic Politics: Thanos does not empower people, but “solves” their problem for them, repetitively one planet at a time. Thanos is in denial of politics, the fidelity to the infinite as the collective labour of the possible, only the strategy of shock and awe, and thus of disempowerment. Terror is the imposition of “balance” by the most unbalanced means imaginable.

The Avengers will assemble long enough, as community of singularities (of marginals, freaks, outsiders), to defeat the totalitarian menace. After the ideological breach due to infinity being arrogated by one person is covered over, the usual democratic dissensus in the field of finitude will be re-established.

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A NEW GERMAN IDEALISM (3): Ontological Heuristics

The long-term over-arching philosophical project of this blog is to critically analyse the diverse contemporary Continental philosophical systems (those of Deleuze, Zizek, Serres, Stiegler, Badiou, Laruelle and Latour). It is my thesis that these “systems” can usefully be seen as metaphysical research programmes, in Karl Popper’s sense.

Popper’s concept of such programmes as composed of a mixture of scientific (testable) and philosophical (non-testable) elements fosters cross-continental understanding by allowing us to compare and evaluate alternative systems of thought as endeavours of a similar type, namely the elaboration, articulation, and development of metaphysical research programmes.

It seems to me that Johnston approaches Zizek in this sense, and we have seen that his analysis of Zizek’s speculative method attempts to describe it in terms of its combination of metaphysical and empirical elements. This leads to Johnston’s immanent criticism’s in that he wishes to keep Zizek’s overall framework but to extend and deepen its empirical elements.

For example, Johnston highlights and questions Zizek’s privileging of Hegel’s Logic over his Realphilosophie (philosophy of Nature and philosophy of Spirit). A second criticism is that Zizek’s philosophy of nature privileges the model quantum physics over other more concrete sciences such as biology and neuroscience. A third, but not unrelated, criticism is that Zizek privileges a primordial excessively abstract negativity over more concrete positive concepts such as material historicity, contingency and facticity.

Zizek’s philosophical project is to elaborate an philosophical framework adequate to the practical stakes and the theoretical problematics of the twenty-first century. This project entails elaborating an ontological research programme whose fundamental premise is the incomplete and un-synthesisable real.

The investigation of this dispersive real cannot be conducted without presuppositions. It is carried out speculatively by deploying such concepts as inconsistency, incompleteness, disparity, negativity, contingency and multiplicity taken as positive values in a heuristics of immanence.

Another useful heuristic tool for Zizek’s investigations is typology of ontologies. We have seen that Zizek distinguishes as relevant for his materialism of freedom: (1) pre-critical monistic substance ontologies, as in Spinoza, (2) transcendental (ultimately “two-world”) ontologies, as in Kant, and (3) dialectical ontologies, as in Hegel and Lacan. This typology allows Johnston to lay out in Chapter One a rationally reconstruction of the evolution of  German idealism after Kant.

In Chapter Two, “Where to Start? Deflating Hegel’s Deflators“, Johnston makes use of this same typology to critically analyse the various competing contemporary interpretations of Hegel’s philosophy. Johnston quickly dismisses the standard idealist interpretation in which Hegel posits a substantive Spirit that exists prior to and apart from its progressive historical manifestations, as if Hegel were proposing a pre-critical substance ontology.

Johnston spends more time on the so-called “deflationary” or non-metaphysical reading of Hegel, in particular in Robert Pippin’s version. Having elucidated and endorsed in the first chapter Zizek’s maxim that “one cannot avoid ontology” Johnston examines what he considers to be an erroneously de-ontologised reading of Hegel. However, he also differs from Zizek’s own line of criticism, which Johnston finds insufficiently oriented towards a philosophy of Nature.

One can view these first two chapters as providing a set of tests of the explanatory value of Zizek’s ontological hypotheses. First, can they elucidate the historical sequence of the evolution of German idealism up to Hegel’s mature philosophy? Secondly, can they allow us to understand and critically evaluate contemporary interpretations of Hegel? In both cases Johnston does not simply apply Zizek’s system dogmatically to the chosen field of investigation. He allows the concrete details that Zizek’s system allows him to uncover act back on and modify the system itself.

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ZIZEK AND THE QUANTUM MODEL: Explanatory Distance vs Formal Closeness

I think that the “mirroring” (what Zizek calls the “uncanny resemblance”) between the quantum level and that of human subjectivity is more than a simple formal homology and less than an ontological grounding. As a working hypothesis I call this mirroring a type of “formal causality”.

Johnston’s argument is that Zizek’s use of quantum mechanics to explain the emergence of free subjectivity starts at a level that is too far from the phenomenon that it is trying to explain and would require a long series of “bridge” theories before getting to the level of the human subject. It would thus be more economical to begin with biology and brain science, which occupy levels just adjacent to the human subject and which (similarly to quantum physics) premise an ontological incompleteness of nature.

Johnston’s objection depends on what I call “the argument from distance”, which itself depends on the standard view of science as edified on the stratification of the levels of emergence (or of reduction, depending on which direction you take, moving up or down the levels). This is what has been called the “layer cake” model of explanation and reduction.

Zizek’s idea is that on the layer cake model the quantum level appears “distant” from the human level, with many other intervening levels, but that from a formal view they are quite close. This means that for him the layer cake model is not always the best or most useful way to envisage the relation between different ontic domains.

Zizek gives primacy to the quantum model not because it is the most fundamental level following the the descending line of reductions and of efficient causality, but because it is the most “deconstructed” model, and thus formally closer to human subjectivity. The sort of causality that Zizek is emphasising here is a formal causality, where the “highest” (or most distant) abstractions are inscribed in the real itself. In other words, Zizek is arguing for a realist interpretation of quantum concepts.

This formal analogy between quantum physics and subjectivity means that the formal causality is operative not only at the “base” or sub-microscopic level but equally at every succeeding level. Real emergence from one level to another, that cannot be explained by reduction to lower levels, is only possible because of the ontological incompleteness that is best described by quantum mechanics (at the present moment, for Zizek this notion of the “best” scientific description is an empirical question).

Note: I am indebted to a discussion with Cadell Last for helping me to clarify my ideas on this question.

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Zizek has an ambivalent or two-tiered reaction to Deleuze on the question of ontological negativity. This response is only approximately summarised in Zizek’s idea that the pre-Guattari Deleuze of DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION and of LOGIC OF SENSE proposes a negative ontology (in terms of the previous post a type 3 ontology) and the Guattarised Deleuze provides a full or positive ontology (type 1).

However, both before and after Guattari Deleuze’s texts swarm with holes, gaps, fissures, ruptures etc. despite his official pronouncements in favour of affirmation and positivity.

Zizek is quite explicit in LESS THAN NOTHING in his praise of Deleuze’s formulations of an ontology of appearance as appearance, even if he considers that Deleuze himself is mistaken in thinking that this is an anti-Platonic thesis.

One of the forms in which negation enters as a central concept in Deleuze and Guattari’s system is in the concept of deterritorialisation. They assert that “deterritorialisation (note the negative prefix) comes first”.  Deterritorialising does not efface our cognitive map but opens it up to permanent revision and self-revision, making its use heuristic rather than dogmatic. It subtracts vertical transcendence.

Zizek has evolved on the question of negativity point. In LESS THAN NOTHING and in the preface to the second edition of his book on Deleuze, ORGANS WITHOUT BODIES, that he elaborates a concept of negativity that does not only negate but is also productive. Zizek comes closer to Deleuze here, perhaps without realising it.

In terms of the discussion in my last post Adrian Johnston seems to be going for a sort of “weak negativity” (my description, not his). I consider Zizek’s reply to an earlier version of Johnston’s critique here.


Note: I am indebted to a discussion with Cadell Last for helping me to clarify these ideas.

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In Chapter 1 of A NEW GERMAN IDEALISM Adrian Johnston proposes a very interesting genealogical narrative covering the brief but intensely creative period in the history of German philosophy from the end of the 18th to the beginning of the 19th Century.

This sequence of philosophical history begins with Jacobi’s critique of the inconsistencies in Kant’s philosophy in relation to his distinction between phenomena and noumena and the positing of the thing-in-itself. It continues with the diverse developments proposed by Hölderlin, Fichte, Schelling, and the young Hegel.

The sequence ends with Hegel’s mature system of absolute idealism, which, according to Zizek and Johnston, provides us with a relatively unknown and insufficiently understood ontological thought that remains relevant to the contemporary world. They argue that a return to Hegel is capable of renewing our approach to scientific, artistic, psychoanalytic and political problems.

This idealist genealogy of Zizek’s and Johnston’s contemporary materialism is interesting in itself from the point of view of the history of philosophy, but it is also useful today in the typology of ontologies that it proposes, that can be envisioned independently of this historical sequence. Johnston, following Zizek, distinguishes three types of ontology:

1) monistic substance ontology (historical figure:Spinoza, contemporary figure: Deleuze)

2) two-world ontology (historical figure: Kant, contemporary figures: Harman, Laruelle (note: Harman and Laruelle are not discussed by Johnston, but fit in to his classification)

3) dialectical ontology (historical figure: Hegel, contemporary figures: Zizek, Johnston)

Later in the book Johnston spells out his immanent difference with Zizek concerning the problematic primacy of negativity in Zizek’s dialectical ontology, that Johnston replaces with the positivity of “weak” nature. For both thinkers Being is conceived not as strong positive substance but as antagonistic, incomplete, inconsistent, non-All. However, it is clear that Johnston’s reservation is based on the fear that Zizek’s ontological primacy of negativity is in danger of regressing to a pre-Kantian type ontology based on a principle of “strong” negativity.

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A NEW GERMAN IDEALISM (1): Dialectical Method and Speculative Ontology

Adrian Johnston’s new book A NEW GERMAN IDEALISM Hegel, Zizek, and Dialectical Materialism is a sustained reading, and immanent critique, of Slavoj Zizek’s speculative materialism as articulated in two of his most recent books: LESS THAN NOTHING and ABSOLUTE RECOIL.

Johnston wishes to make a contribution to the edification of an ontology adequate to the practical stakes and theoretical problematics of the twenty-first century. In particular he wants to criticise and to improve from within the “ontologically ambitious philosophical framework” of Zizek’s Hegelian speculative materialist ontology.

Johnston intends to follow the dialectical method outlined by Hegel, Zizek, and himself so he begins with the convergences (Hegel, materialism, dialectics) not to indicate a will to consensus, but to lay out a shared field of immanence where divergence, disparities, and dissensus can be embraced. The negativity inherent to critique is not seen as destructive, reductionist, or transgressive, but as constructive, emergentist, and transformative.

In the Preface Johnston elucidates the method that he will be following, after Zizek, after Hegel. This “method” diverges from the standard understanding of Hegel’s dialectics, and so it obliges us to read Hegel a little more closely.

It emerges from this closer reading that the standard opposition between understanding (Verstand) and reason (Vernunft) thought to hold in Hegel’s dialectics is itself a dialectical illusion. According to Johnston reason is not a faculty of synthesis and totality as opposed to the analytic fragmentation of the understanding, but the re-visioning of that disunified field.

This re-visioning of the dispersive field revealed by analytical understanding is carried out in terms of such concepts as inconsistency, incompleteness, disparity, negativity and multiplicity taken as positive values in a heuristics of immanence. The “synthesis” is not a separate moment, it lies in a transformed (but selective) relation to the dispersion.

Such a re-visioned Hegel is no longer the proponent of a necessitarian historicism but the thinker of materiality, facticity, and irreducible contingency.

Elaborating an ontological research programme whose fundamental heuristic premise is the incomplete and un-synthesisable real means inscribing openness into the framework of Being itself. We shall see Johnston deploying the concepts of an incomplete, weak, or “rotten” nature and grappling with the best theorisation of indetermination, emergence and freedom in an open universe.

It is an important achievement that Johnston begins his book with such an extensive and illuminating methodological preface. Despite his obsessive repetition of master signifiers (Hegel, Lacan, Zizek, dialectical materialism) he is able to articulate that  methodology at a high enough level of abstraction that he can begin to productively question seemingly central aspects of Zizek’s thought (such as the primacy of quantum physics in accounting for subjectivity, emergence and freedom).

A second advantage of his giving us his positive methodology at the beginning is that we can assess Johnston’s own fidelity in implementing it, evaluating immanently not only his criticisms of Zizek and his positive suggestions, but also his particular, contingent theoretical commitments.

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