Reading BADIOU AND INDIFFERENT BEING by William Watkin

BADIOU AND INDIFFERENT BEING, by William Watkin, is a very useful and interesting book on Badiou’s “Platonic gesture” in ontology. It is the first volume of a projected two. The aim of this first volume is to begin re-read Badiou’s BEING AND EVENT in a way that bears in mind the modifications of perspective brought about by Badiou’s sequel volume LOGICS OF WORLDS.

As the title suggests, Watkin gives great importance to the concept of indifference. He argues that the epoch of the hegemony of the philosophy of difference in French thought came to its end between 1982 and 1988. For Watkin Badiou’s BEING AND EVENT sounds the death knell of the epoch of difference and announces an epoch of indifference.

Long-time readers of my blog will know that I agree with this diagnostic of the end of the epoch of difference, but I have often argued that this end comes about much earlier, in the period 1969-1976.

Gilles Deleuze left the philosophy of difference behind implicitly in LOGIC OF SENSE (1969). I say implicitly because there is no explicit critique of the notion, it merely fades into the background behind more important concepts such as multiplicity and intensity. Writing with Guattari, Deleuze gave full expression to this change in RHIZOME, and this expression culminates in the exposition and enactment of a philosophy of multiplicities in A THOUSAND PLATEAUS in 1980.

Badiou in his recently published (in French) seminar, TRUTH AND SUBJECT, of 1987-1988 attacks the philosophy of difference under the name of the “modern sophistics”. It should be noted that he does not criticise the sophists’ pluralism but their relativism.

Badiou is himself a pluralist, advocating a Platonism of the multiple. He distinguishes the sophistic relativism made possible by the philosophies of difference from the realism of the thought of the multiple.

What Badiou criticises in the modern sophists (or post-moderns) is their hyper-plasticity, a type of thought making the irreducibility, the infinite variability and the disparateness of language games the ultimate foundation of democratic society. Against this ideology of modern society, Badiou argues that the task is not “to take shelter in this heterogeneity” but to create a new space of thought.

However, this new space is not reducible to the single master-concept of “indifference”, as Watkin claims. At the end of the first class of this seminar Badiou cites three “nodal concepts”: the multiple, the subject, the indiscernible. Multiplicity, subjectivity and indiscernibility are the knot of the post-sophistic space that Badiou articulates with his Platonism of the multiple.

Nor is Badiou unique in his valorisation of “indifference”. Deleuze is a great philosopher of indifference and indiscernibility. Nuancing Watkin’s case for the end of the epoch of difference and the opening of a new epoch, I would argue that among the three notions characterising the new conceptual sequence (multiplicity, subjectivity, indifference) the main concept linking Deleuze and Badiou is not so much indifference as pluralism.

If we wish to highlight one term, the multiple seems a better candidate than indifference to bring out the kinship between such diverse thinkers as Deleuze, Derrida, Badiou, Lyotard, Foucault, Serres, and Latour.

My hypothesis is that the “epochal” passage is from difference to multiplicity. This hypothesis also has the advantage of allowing us to see the continuity between the philosophies of difference and of pluralism, and why several thinkers were brought to pass from the first to the second at almost the same time.

For more details on this line of thought, see:

LARUELLE AND DELEUZE from difference to multiplicity

Deleuze philosophe of difference or philosopher of multiplicity?

From Differentialism to Pluralism

Watkin cites François Laruelle’s critique as part of the closure of the epoch of difference. However, when Laruelle published THE PHILOSOPHIES OF DIFFERENCE in 1986, he was criticising a dead paradigm, one that had been dead for 15 years. This time lag effect is a constant in Laruelle, whose work is always post-festum:

https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2015/05/16/dis-anti-badiou-laruelles-anti-badiou-as-time-machine/

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BLADE RUNNER 2049 AND ARRIVAL: a pedagogical cinema

Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL is a brilliant film, thoughtful and moving, visually powerful and emotionally rewarding. I cannot recommend this film too highly.

However, just as his BLADE RUNNER 2049 differentiates itself from the original BLADE RUNNER by providing an explicitation of  certain of its elements and themes, and even of its enigmas, Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL can be seen to modify Ted Chiang’s original novella STORY OF YOUR LIFE in order to render it more comprehensible.

The novella deals with an alien race with a different conception of time, one that is based on apprehending causality as a synchronic array rather than as a diachronic sequence. The film tries to concretise this alien conception in terms of an alien perception of time, one that involves precognition. It is never stated in the novella that actual foreknowledge is obtained from learning the Heptapod language. The synchronic vision of our life may be “just” a consequence of retroactive apperception of meaning. Saying yes to the event involves affirmation of its consequences, both good and bad.

This shift from synchronic conception to precognitive perception is useful to show how the alien language rewires the human brain and its vision of the world but the drawback is that it reintroduces linear causality in form of the use of inside information about the future to bring about a desired outcome.

Whereas in the novella we never know why the aliens came, it seems to be just part of their existential fatality, in the film they come to gift us with their language and with it their precognition, because they have foreknowledge of a future time when they will need our help. This reintroduces a sort of egoism, and reduces the exchange to our linear model, making it a sort of insider dealing.

In the novella there is an exchange between humans and aliens, but the Heptapods seem to have no idea of equivalence: each side gifts the other without a requirement of equal value. The only seemingly new “gift” of scientific knowledge, aside from their language (whose value seems more philosophical than practical) turns out to be a not yet widely publicised recent discovery.

Villeneuve adds the “insider futures trading” aspect as a pragmatic repetition of the more epistemological linguistic exchange. This pedagogical explicitation does not necessarily betray the original story, but can be considered to fill in a gap, or to spell out an implicit motive. The aliens bring us something we needed, a linguistic vehicle for the revelation and assimilation of the Stoical, and Nietzschean, Eternal Recurrence. In return, they may need our linearity so that their own seemingly passive habitus of willing the event may be redoubled into active willing.

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Zizek’s INCONTINENCE OF THE VOID (2): Deleuze/Zizek parallel or parallax

Zizek’s reply to his critics has important points in common with Deleuze’s “apology” in “Letter to a Harsh Critic”. In particular, both reject negative psycho-social interpretations of their person and work as malevolent, attempts to imprison them in stereotypes and to judge them by criteria that make it impossible to understand what they are saying.

There is the critic of identitarian thought, the appeal to a counter-tradition of philosophy, the method of immanent subversion (Deleuze’s immanent “buggery”), the refusal both of deconstructionist strictures against metaphysical thought and of pre-critical ontologies, an attempt to elaborate a non-standard philosophy, i.e. one that does not conform to the “dogmatic” image of thought.

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Zizek’s INCONTINENCE OF THE VOID (1): the only good ontology is a failed ontology

Slavoj Zizek’s new book INCONTINENCE OF THE VOID embodies the latest stage in his ongoing “non-standard” metaphysical research programme. It is non-standard in that its “ontology” of the “barred One” is at the same time an exploration of “the impossibility of ontology.”

Part 1 is entitled “SOS: Sexuality, Ontology, Subjectivity”. It begins with an introduction in which Zizek reflects on the contemporary status of the question “What is philosophy?” by way of analysing the oft-repeated accusation that Zizek himself is “not” a philosopher.

Behind this accusation Zizek diagnoses the remanence of an untenable opposition between idealism and materialism that makes his sort of (non-)ontology inconceivable and incomprehensible as philosophy.

Zizek tells us that his metaphysical research programme, symbolised by the formula SOS is of a different nature than deconstructionist philosophies caught in the “hypercritical transcendental questioning of every ontological claim”, but also differs from the rise of the many “new ontologies” which “replace the critical stance with (sometimes feigned) realist naivety”. Zizek’s project attempts to escape the false alternative between critical sterility and naive proliferation:

The project of SOS is to formulate a third way: to break out of the critico-transcendental approach without regressing into precritical realist ontology.

At the beginning of this introduction, Slavoj Zizek cites a series of critiques that seek to deny him the very status of philosopher. The three main claims are that

1) Zizek has no philosophy, no system, but only proposes and exemplifies a method, he is a “reader of philosophy” rather than a real philosopher.

2) Zizek has no status as a philosopher inside of the academy, he is anxious over “being excluded from prestigi­ous insti­tu­tional appar­at­uses and depart­ments of philo­sophy”.

3) Zizek is an excitable hysteric rather than a Stoical master.

In short, Zizek has no legitimacy as a philosopher.

A primitive psychological explanation accompanies this diagnosis: Zizek’s nervousness, anxiety, and bodily tics are so many subjectivations and somatisations of his intellectual and social situation, psychosomatic reactions to his lack of legitimacy.

One is reminded here of Deleuze’s similar response to intellectual and personal criticism in his text “I have nothing to admit”. Zizek too refuses to admit to a diverse collection of imputed personal failings, and chooses to raise the discussion from this trivial level to a more philosophical one. Like Deleuze before him, Zizek diagnoses a dogmatic image of thought (in Lacanese, the discourse of the master) underlying his detractors’ accusations.

2) Symptom versus singularity: Zizek quickly dismisses accusation to (2), by remarking simply that there is no psycho-sociological interpretation to be given of his nervosity and bodily tics, which are purely physical manifestations of an organic disease. They are, like Deleuze’s workers’ vest and long nails, not symptoms to interpret but singularities.

As for complaints (1) and (2), he finds them to be based on dichotomies that he does not accept.

1) Method versus system: Zizek indicates that his work is not purely methodological or “deconstructive”, but that it contains also a constructive element, a kind of ontology, or a “quasi-ontology”:

I do propose a kind of “ontology”, my work is not just a deconstructive reflection on the inconsistencies of other philosophies, it does outline a certain “structure of reality”.

3) Hysteric versus master: Zizek replies that philosophy after Kant and Hegel does not conform to the dogmatic image of the master’s discourse. Philosophy is deconstructive and reflexive, but it is not purely destructive. This is because the impasses to thought and the obstacles to knowledge that the deconstruction discovers are not just epistemological failures, they have ontological import and weight.

To deepen his analysis Zizek refers to two posthumously published book manuscripts by Althusser: Ini­ti­ation a la philo­sophie pour les non-philo­sophes and Etre marx­iste en philo­sophie. Zizek finds that beneath the surface of their renunciation of the “theoreticism”, and also of the scientism, that characterised Althusser’s earlier work (for example in FOR MARX) a certain number of scientistic presuppositions remain.

In particular, Althusser’s naive opposition of science and ideology persists in the idea that philosophy originates in a reaction to the rise of science, and that it tries to reinscribe the results of science within the same sort of universe of meaning as religion. Zizek, while acknowledging a certain degree of truth to this idea, argues that the deeper opposition is not between philosophy and science (which is only conjunctural, varying according to the historical situation and the state of various struggles) but rather that between philosophy and the Sophists.

Zizek contrasts what he calls, in a way reminiscent of Laruelle, the “standard situation”, (where philosophy’s task is “to contain the subversive potential of the sciences”) with another, call it “non-standard”, situation where philosophy and science provide us with arms on the terrains of class struggle. Zizek clearly rejects the whole model of standard philosophy, but he denies that the only alternative is purely negative deconstruction.

Something is wrong with Althusser’s demarcation of the respective roles of science and philosophy and with the accompanying historical narrative. Zizek claims that if we see philosophy in rivality with Sophistry we will no longer be caught in a simple dualism. Sophistry makes a real discovery, that standard philosophy tries to cover over. This discovery is that of the impossibility to fixate meaning within a universal unchanging system, resting on a synchronic ontology.

What non-standard philosophy adds to this discovery, so as to avoid falling into the trap of total scepticism or of facile relativism, is a new ontological idea. This failure to obtain univocity, totality, and stability is not just a negative trait preventing us from obtaining absolute knowledge, it is also a positive feature giving us ontological knowledge of a different sort, “non-standard” philosophy, if you will. This is what Zizek calls “quasi-ontology” and that I have discussed elsewhere under the name of “diachronic ontology“.

Note: Zizek’s critique of Althusser’s “simplicity” and “arrogance” can justly be transposed onto non-philosopher François Laruelle. Like Althusser, Laruelle puts forth “brutally simplified” statements about the universal structure of philosophy, and his enunciations also exhibit a performative contradiction between a “modest” content (the critique of philosophical pretention) and an arrogant form. The source of these failings is the same for both Althusser and Laruelle: a naive, dualist principle of demarcation, a simplified and univocal terminology, and an undue degree of certitude and arrogance in the form of the enunciation.

How­ever, in what Althusser actually does when talk­ing about philo­sophy, his “pro­cess of enun­ci­ation,” his approach to philo­sophy, we can eas­ily dis­cern the exact oppos­ite of what he char­ac­ter­izes as a mater­i­al­ist approach: bru­tally sim­pli­fied uni­ver­sal state­ments which pre­tend to define the uni­ver­sal key fea­tures of philo­sophy, with no mod­est pro­visos.

Thus, in examining the initial question of whether Zizek is a philosopher, we are confronted with two seemingly plausible possible responses, a veritable parallax:

1) Zizek the hysterical cultural studies guy, the neurotic failed philosopher

2) Zizek the proponent of a new image of thought, of a different sort of philosophy, Zizek the quasi-ontologist

I have based my discussion so far on the introduction to Part 1 of INCONTINENCE OF THE VOID. Suddenly, on page seven, Zizek changes the subject and begins talking about Lacan and surplus-enjoyment, and we are left perplexed as to the relation of the first discussion on the nature of philosophy with the rest of the text.

Zizek has given several talks previously covering much of the same ground. As is usual with his books, each talk is composed of disjoint “blocks” in various combinations, some including passages not found elsewhere, while omitting other passages, that may or may not turn up later, in a different context.

This mode of composition would seem to corroborate the stereotype of Zizek the neurotic failed philosopher, unable to put things together into a coherent whole, self-plagiarising, indulging in disjointed ramblings on his recent reading, his enthusiasms and repulsions. This is the hysterical Zizek forever fixated on the lack of  legitimation of his pretention to the status of philosopher by the discourse of the University.

Another reading of the text would be in terms of Zizek’s quasi-ontology. On this vision we are left to our own resources to reconstruct the conceptual problematic tying together the various blocks. This is sometimes hard work, and we will not spend time and effort on articulating the underlying philosophy if we are convinced that there isn’t one, that Zizek is not a philosopher. However, another reaction is possible.

My interpretative hypothesis is that the link between the heterogeneous blocks is not so much discursive (in the sense of the “university discourse”) as performative. Zizek is not a “failed” ontologist nor even a deconstructionist of the “failure” of ontology. Failure enters Zizek’s thought as a feature rather than a fault. In a slogan, the only good ontology is a failed ontology, one that performs its own failure instead of dogmatically asserting it (cf. Laruelle’s performative contradiction):

to put it in brutally-simplified Kantian terms: the last horizon of my work is not the multiple narrative of cognitive failures against the background of the inaccessible Real. The move “beyond the transcendental” is … the basic dialectical move, that of the reversal of epistemological obstacle into ontological impossibility that characterizes the Thing itself: the very failure of my effort to grasp the Thing
has to be (re)conceived as a feature of the Thing, as an impossibility inscribed into the very heart of the Real.

This ontological impossibility of ontology explains why Zizek affirms that the “heart of the problem” is performative, it lies “in the application to philosophy of the opposition between the Master and the Hysteric. This is another Deleuzian point. In philosophy we are not talking about psycho-social types but about conceptual characters. With Kant and after Kant the philosopher is no longer the Master enunciating “the basic structure of the whole of reality” in an all-embracing complete and coherent world-view:

with Kant, philosophy is no longer a Master’s discourse, its entire edifice gets traversed by a bar of immanent impossibility, failure, and inconsistency.

This failure is not to be simply asserted as the abstract principle of a negative dogmatic “non-philosophy” but is to be performed concretely, as in Hegel’s phenomenology:

With Hegel, things go even further: far from returning to pre-critical rational metaphysics (as Kantians accuse it of doing), the whole of Hegelian dialectics is a kind of hysterical undermining of the Master … immanent self-destruction and self-overcoming of every metaphysical claim.

This Hegelian “hysterical undermining of the Master” aptly characterises Zizek’s own performative undermining of declarative ontologies and deconstructionist critiques. The contribution of psychoanalysis to philosophy is to formalise and to intensify this hysteric approach:

Insofar as philosophy (traditional ontology) is a case of Master’s discourse, psychoanalysis acts as the agent of its immanent hystericization.

Zizek’s response to the question is not to give a hard and fast identitarian answer, but to entertain us with a performance. To “entertain” is a parallax concept: as the post-Jungian James Hillman reminds us, it means to hold in the space between two possibilities:

That word “entertain“ means to hold in between. What you do with an idea is hold it between — between your two hands (PHILOSOPHICAL INTIMATIONS, 28).

The “performance” of philosophy, in Zizek’s sense, means holding the idea between the two alternatives of hysterical practical application and academic theoretical reflexion.

Underlying the question Is Zizek a philosopher?, that his critics answer in the negative, Zizek diagnoses a fixation on identities, the presupposition of an identitarian ontology that inscribes social identities in a putative hardcore Real. Philosophy for Zizek belongs to performance and enjoyment. The social status of “philosopher” is something else: the retrospective reconstruction of an identity and of its exclusions.

Thus Zizek begins by citing various accusations of “arrogance and stupidity” that people have directed at him. His response is a philosophical one. He refuses the accusation of arrogance, claiming that his discourse is that of the hysteric rather than of the “arrogant” Master. He further claims not to fall into the stupidity of a positive pre-critical ontology, and situates himself at the analytic pole of an ontology of the incomplete, inconsistent real.

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FROM DIFFERENTIALISM TO PLURALISM

The so-called “philosophies of difference” had great importance in the 1960s in France, but by the end of the 60s something else was happening in thought. The “deconstruction” of structuralism was already under way. Difference is the master-concept of structuralist philosophies, multiplicity characterises a non-structuralist, or “post-structuralist” thought that attempts to have done with the master-function of such concepts by subjecting them to various processes of multiplication, relativisation, and continual variation.

The transition from a philosophy of “difference” to a philosophy of multiplicities can clearly be seen in Deleuze’s LOGIC OF SENSE, and even Derrida’s more timid progress is visible in the passage from “différance” to “dissemination” (which “marks an irreducible generative multiplicity”). Lyotard’s libidinal economy and Foucault’s archeology can best be seen as transitional philosophies on the way from differentialism to pluralism.

The supposedly great works of the “philosophies of difference”, Derrida’s WRITING AND DIFFERENCE and Deleuze’s DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION are not programmatic texts for a new paradigm. They signal the end of an epoch, and contain the seeds of something else. Retrospective syntheses of what has been accomplished, built on moving terrain.

When Laruelle publishes his THE PHILOSOPHIES OF DIFFERENCE in 1986 he does not represent a lone voice in the desert criticising a hegemonic ideology, he is stating what is obvious to all, labouring a point that others have laboured better and more creatively before him. Far from isolating and extracting the contemporary philosophical “decision”, he is expressing his own decision that nothing has changed, that philosophy remains the same.

However, French philosophy had changed considerably since the structuralism and the differentialism of the sixties. Deleuze and Guattari published A THOUSAND PLATEAUS in 1981, Lyotard THE DIFFEREND in 1983, Michel Serres in GENESIS (1982) and in ROME (1983) proposes a thought of the pure multiple, as does Badiou in his seminars in the 80s, culminating in BEING AND EVENT (1988). These are all pluralist works that have left the differentialism of the 60s far behind.

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LARUELLE’S PERFORMATIVE IDEALISM: a god of the gaps

In this post, now greatly expanded and re-written, I show the explanatory power of viewing Laruelle’s non-philosophy as a metaphysical research programme.

Laruelle’s blind spot with respect to other “non-standard thinkers” such as Deleuze and Guattari, Latour, Stiegler, Zizek, and Badiou, can be elucidated in terms of a fundamental defect at the heart of his system.

Laruelle’s “non-standard” thought is thus a half-way house between standard philosophy and ontological pluralism.

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AGAINST DELEUZE DITHYRAMBS: is your univocity immanently schizo?

I agree with Artxell Knaphni that the words “immanence” and “transcendence” belong to a conceptual metaphorics. Deleuze’s own use of “immanence” is in danger of being self-contradictory, as the intended anti-foundational meaning of the word can be negated by its use as part of some foundational litany.

The reiterated use of a “non-theological” vocabulary is often itself a theological gesture. Repeating it three times (or horror! more) does not make it so. A “Deleuzian” veneer can hide positivist fabric.

On the analogy of the famous “Latour litany” we could call such lexical tropes “Deleuze dithyrambs”.

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