I think a basic distinction needs to be introduced here, between technical domains that function according to various logics, and the ideology (neoliberalism, for example) that says that society is a system that should function according to some such logic, the “should” typically being a mixture of description and prescription (akin to what Laruelle calls an “amphibology”). It isn’t the logic itself that’s neoliberal, it’s the deployment of that logic in a particular hegemonic social project.
Foucauldians and critical theorists tend to want to see technical domains as embedded in epistemic formations, the way e.g. “psychiatric medicine” is theorised by Foucault as embedded in a wider system of power/knowledge, characterised by a continuous two-way transit between power relations and conceptual structures. The argument I would make is that computer technology is fundamentally unlike psychiatric medicine, because it has its own hard, objectively specifiable, intrinsic constraints which determine both its own character and development, and how it can be ideologically embedded or reflected. The halting problem, for example, just is not a social artifact: there is no possible alternative ideological dispensation under which computation-without-the-halting-problem could proceed. It constrains absolutely and unilaterally what computation can and cannot be. Technological determinism!
Some familiar features of the way we use computers could be, and in all likelihood would be, different under counterfactual social conditions. You get a glimpse of a parallel universe when you use a complete Smalltalk environment, for example, where the entire system down to the lowest level is available for inspection and modification. Anyone who remembers tinkering with home computers in the 1980s will remember the moment when the grey IBM PCs started to take over, and a computer went from being something you hacked on (in machine code, if you were really good) to something you ran spreadsheets on. That’s an interesting story to tell; but it’s a story about how s particular software stack has been put together, not a story about the fundamental nature of software itself. Conway’s law states that “organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations”, and that’s at least half-true at least half of the time. A corollary is that different forms of social organisation might well give rise to different designs for working software systems. In order to think software as such, one needs to think about what would remain invariant across such transformations; otherwise you’re just doing social anthropology, again.
We knew it wouldn’t last for ever. We “literary critics” or even “theorists” had to move quickly while the going was good, make the most of our chances, rush on excitedly, trying not to take too much notice of the slow, heavy, inexorable tread of the law somewhere close behind. The philosophers were back there somewhere, tortoise to our hare. In 1986 their books came out.
Geoffrey Bennington, Deconstruction and the Philosophers (The Very Idea), in Legislations: The Politics of Deconstruction (London: Verso, 1994), p. 11.
It’s worth remembering that “deconstruction” was always also an extra-philosophical phenomenon, a phenomenon which mounted its own retort upon philosophy, spreading out into the art world, the world of “literary criticism” as the latter attempted to alchemise itself into “theory”, and many other regions besides. “Deconstruction is America“, Derrida once said – a little hyperbolically, but you kind of knew what he meant. He wasn’t averse, either, to giving a symptomatic reading of this “spread”, of all the network-effects that constituted deconstruction as a multiple practice across multiple sites, never finally localisable within any of them. The effects were deconstruction, just as much as they were effects of deconstruction (that famous double genitive…).
With some philosophers, perhaps most of them really, you can usefully distinguish between what you might call the “toolbox” of characteristic rhetorical moves, modes of address, angles of attack and so on, and the deeper metaphysical system which provides the rationale for proceeding in that way. While there are now some Derrideans who are basically tool-users, repeatedly and somewhat mechanically “doing Derrida” to this or that theoretical object, there are others who are engaged in attempts at critical reconstruction of the philosophical core of Derrida’s thinking, who don’t necessarily write as or even like Derrideans but who find some intrigue in Derrida that they feel is worth pursuing in their own way. Same with Deleuze, same with Badiou. I’ve always felt (contra DeLanda, say) that with Deleuze the toolbox is actually more valuable than the system, such as it is; and I feel much the same way about OOP.
That’s not a disaster; a good toolbox (or two) is a thing worth having. But my bet (prior to reading the book) is that an attempt such as Pete’s to isolate and criticise the metaphysical core of OOP will end up punching smoke for the most part. I don’t at all mean that (in particular) Graham Harman’s work is substanceless, or valueless – just that its substance and value aren’t where a philosopher of Pete’s disposition would tend to look for them. The tortoise and the hare may sometimes seem to be running along the same track, but they aren’t actually in the same race.
Because I studied the Romantics – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats – under the waning light of literary deconstruction, I can never hear the word “aesthetic” without unconsciously appending the word “ideology”. And because I read Althusser shortly afterwards, I can never hear the word “ideology” without immediately wondering about the possibility of some “science” that might suspend ideology’s imaginary self-sufficiency. This sequence, aesthetic-ideology-science, sets up an enclosure and proposes a path out of that enclosure. But the first term in the sequence, the aesthetic, forecloses the last: in the romantic conception, at least, science is at best an instrument for tracing paths within a realm of experience that vastly exceeds the scope of what scientific investigation and description are able to grasp. It may produce new objects of aesthetic experience, some of them sublime, but it cannot go beyond that experience. The sublime, in aesthetics, is an operator of capture: through it, whatever points beyond experience is converted into experiential intensity, and becomes the occasion for a reaffirmation of the powers of the subject. (By “operator of capture”, I mean that aspect of a system of ideas that comes into play whenever an exit from that system presents itself, ensuring that you never leave. You may if you wish picture the giant bubble that pursues and enfolds the fleeing Patrick McGoohan, ensuring that he never escapes from the Village). In Lyotard’s formulation, the sublime in art is that which presents that there is something unpresentable, something which the aesthetic sense is unable to assimilate. For romanticism, the focus always returns to presentation: that which the sublime says there is, the unpresentable, is incapable of further conceptualisation.
Scientific concepts are those which begin where aesthetic categories and modes of apprehension leave off. They are able to treat of objects which are not the objects of any possible experience. What we experience, looking through a microscope, is not the world of microscopic-scale objects, but a magnified projection of that world; the microscopic domain itself is inaccessible to human experience, being beyond the limits of our senses, but not to conceptualisation. Our theories about micro-scale entities and interactions are not theories about magnified projections of those things: they aim to describe how the entities themselves behave. (This is not the same as claiming to know what the entities are “in-themselves”. The point is simply that when you are describing, you are describing something, and that the object of this kind of description sits on the thing-projected end of the projection relationship, rather than the projected-thing end. Neither “end” need be accorded the status of noumenon, pre-theoretic given or whatever). Projection is an aesthetic activity which brings something into view – and “science” is also an arsenal of aesthetic means, of projections of various kinds, which convert the non-visible into an image. Heat maps of the sun; spiralling tracks in a particle chamber. For aesthetics, and for the aesthetic ideology of romanticism, these projections are all we know and all we need to know of the things projected; for science, they are the way-stations of an investigation.
Thinking about when I read the final books of the original Dune series – Heretics and Chapter House – and how they became a kind of myth for me: Bene Gesserit (introspection, sublimation, technique, training, control) versus Honored Matres (anger, sex, violence, technology, power).
The HM are pretty obviously the BG’s Jungian shadow, romping around out of control – and they’re great fun, with all the death-kicks and tying people up with shigawire and enslaving-men-through-advanced-sexual-technique. But it’s the BG who have the deep introspection, the knowledge of millennia of experience through immersion in Other Memory, the long and large (and, um, eugenicist) view of human and posthuman evolution. The implied unification of the two at the end of Chapter House is deeply satisfying in much the same way that the ending of A Wizard of Earthsea is satisfying, because it suggests the possibility of an accomplished, integrated selfhood.
I realised today that I had been seeing the twitter/tumblr axis of intemperate social justice red-guardism as basically the Honored Matres – a disorderedly flailing but also enviably vital offshoot of a longer and more thoughtful intellectual/political tradition. Trotskyism’s Jungian shadow, its returning-repressed. That is a cartoonish, stereotyped way to look at it, but the unconscious often thinks in cartoons – re-reading these books has been a way for me to look again at the source material for this particular fantasy.
Balibar’s definition of heresy is a definition from the point of view of truth, as the “internal adversary” and logically insufferable “exception”. In other words, it is only according to the sense in which “the logical characteristic of truth” creates an enclosure that the adversary can be seen as “internal” to this enclosure, and only according to the sense in which this enclosure must be logically consistent that the heretic can be seen as “exceptional” with respect to this consistency. From this perspective, the heretic and the renegade are indistinguishable: both are identified by the characteristic of being in default of the truth. The renegade completes his renegacy by finally leaving the enclosure; the heretic is the one who remains inside, as an “internal adversary”, in spite of the fact that they truly, if still secretly, belong to the outside, the domain which is not regulated by the truth. For example: the “leftist” renegade continues to identify himself as a “leftist”, hangs out in “leftist circles”, speak in leftist code to leftist friends, whilst secretly harbouring un-leftist attachments, an orientation towards the outside of the leftist enclosure, where the external adversary rules in force. From time to time he will speak his “heresy”, and enjoy for a moment the drama of public contrariness; but it is only a matter of time before he finds the company of non-leftists more congenial, and abandons forever the commitments of his – in piquant retrospect – misguided youth…
Immanence is heretical (says Laruelle), but why? Because according to the point of view of immanence, the logical enclosure which belongs to truth is a kind of hallucination: its consistency is established according to a decision which cannot be justified in terms of immanence. It must find a way to present its self-justification, or justification in terms of its own truth, as underwritten by the Real; this is what Laruelle calls “auto-position” and “sufficiency”. It is as if – in this story, the story told by philosophy to itself – the Real were determined by the truth which it determines, in perfect accord and reciprocity, a relationship of reversibility or exchangeability. What is “heretical” here is to break this symmetry, to insist on the one-way and irreversible priority of the Real before the truth. This is a definition of heresy from the point of view of immanence, as the suspension of the truth’s authority to define its own logical enclosure and determine what is internal to it and consistent with it. The heretic according to immanence is not someone whose secret loyalty is to the “outside”, like the leftist renegade, but someone to whom the distinction between inside and outside, and the logical basis on which that distinction is made, has a limited salience: it no longer has the power to organise all “context” according to its own rubric, but must be seen according to a larger contexture which it does not control. Laruelle leaps directly to the Vision-in-One as a kind of (non)-context-of-all-contexts; he recontextualises philosophical decision within something that cannot be recognised as a context as such. This leap is a leap of gnosis, which relativises everything in a single stroke; but that is not the only way we can go. The imperative of navigation is that one simultaneously refuse to stay put within any given enclosure, and refuse the mystical revelation of the transience of all truths.
In procedurality, we should understand that faraway global behaviors are not simply the similar or homothetic variations of local behaviors. Procedurality or the shift of the perspective according to the shift of landscape of rules is a response to this asymmetry between the global and the local. For example, contingency differs at different levels. We cannot overextend the concept of contingency at the level of the individual gambler to the contingency at the level of a collection of games to the contingency at the level of casino. These have different levels of probability which cannot be over-stretched to one another. By calling this hierarchy of gambles within gambles ‘contingency’ without any regard to the specifications of each distinct level, we are making a flat universe.
A flat universe is a trivial environment in which the content of a local domain is uniformly distributed across the entire horizon. It’s another variation of what Mark Wilson calls “the classical picture of concepts”.5 According to the classical picture, a concept fully and in one-to- one relationship covers the object. The speculative implications of such a universe are indeed appealing because everything can be applied all the way down, concepts can be overextended from one domain to another at will. But as Mark Wilson points out, this conceptual universe is precariously overloaded. It is akin to a house where the basement is leaking, in trying to fix the basement, the kitchen floor sinks in, in repairing the floor, some of the pipes burst. Everything always needs to be patched up because ultimately in this universe nothing works, the entire edifice is a house of cards.
It wouldn’t be too hard to detect this pattern in certain speculative philosophies [lol] where either the object or contingency is the crazy glue – the big idea – that holds everything at the levels of local and global together. Flatness is another name for the condition of triviality where the global structure has the same properties and/or behaviors of its local fields. But when there is an asymmetry between the global and the local – a non-triviality – we cannot solely resort to analysis (locally oriented) to produce or examine a global structure. Conceptual mapping for a non-trivial universe requires various conceptual maps or navigational atlases distributed at different elevations according to their different a priori statuses.
(That’s “One God Universe” as in Burroughs: “Consider the impasse of a one God universe. He is all-knowing and all-powerful. He can’t go anywhere since He is already everywhere. He can’t do anything since the act of doing presupposes opposition. His universe is irrevocably thermodynamic having no friction by definition. So, He has to create friction: War, Fear, Sickness, Death….to keep his dying show on the road…”)
The guiding (mathematical) metaphor here is that of the manifold, which patches together an “atlas” of local spaces, or the sheaf, which ensures the availability of “gluings” for consistent local data. Both entities have the property that local qualities are not globally preserved: a manifold is “locally Euclidean”, but globally may be very weirdly-shaped indeed; sheaves construct a sort of protocol of descent/ascent which determines how local consistency is globally represented and how global data is locally enriched or deformed. To put it another way: they schematise situations in which, to adapt a phrase of Geoffrey Bennington’s, you need more than one idea to think with.
(edit: I have as usual misremembered the phrase, which is from Bennington’s review of books by Gillian Rose and Peter Dews: “the ‘anarchy’ whose spectre is reported to be looming whenever Left or Right finds it needs more than three ideas to think with”)
Now the violent exclusion inherent in the institution or realization of the universal can take many different forms, which are not equivalent and do not call for the same politics. A sociological and anthropological point of view will insist on the fact that setting up civic universality against discrimination and modes of subjection in legal, educational, moral forms involves the definition of models of the human, or norms of the social. Foucault and others have drawn our attention to the fact that the Human excludes the “non-Human”, the Social excludes the “a-social”. [cf the Afropessimist version of this critique, which identifies this exclusion with its specific, racialising form in anti-blackness]
These are forms of internal exclusion, which affect what I would call “intensive universalism” even more than “extensive universalism”. They are not linked with the territory, the imperium; they are linked with the fact that the universality of the citizen, or the human citizen, is referred to a community. But a political and ethical point of view, which we can associate with the idea or formula of a “community without a community”, or without an already existing community, has to face yet another form of violence intrinsically linked with universality. This is the violence waged by its bearers and activists against its adversaries, and above all against its internal adversaries, i.e. potentially any “heretic” within the revolutionary movement.
Many philosophers – whether they themselves adversaries or fervent advocates of universalistic programs and discourses, such as Hegel in his chapter on “Terror” in the Phenomenology or Sartre in the Critique of Dialectical Reason – have insisted on this relationship, which is clearly linked to the fact that certain forms of universalism embody the logical characteristic of “truth”, i.e. they suffer no exception. If we had time, or perhaps in the discussion, our task now should be to examine the political consequences that we draw from this fact. I spoke of a quasi-Weberian notion of “responsibility”. Responsibility here would not be opposed simply to “conviction” (Gesinnung), but more generally to the ideals themselves, or the ideologies that involve a universalistic principle and goal.
A politics of Human Rights in this respect is typically a politics that concerns the institutionalization of a universalistic ideology, and before that a becoming ideological of the very principle that disturbs and challenges existing ideologies. Universalistic ideologies are not the only ideologies that can become absolutes, but they certainly are those whose realization involves a possibility of radical intolerance or internal violence. This is not the risk that one should avoid running, because in fact it is inevitable, but it is the risk that has to be known, and that imposes unlimited responsibility upon the bearers, speakers and agents of universalism.
If I had to give a name to the present moment in philosophy, I would call it the time of the heretics – this is the moment in which heresy is elevated into a value, almost a (negative-)universal value, the value of the exception, of that which is not tolerated by any politics which “[embodies] the logical characteristic of ‘truth'”. Can one distinguish the figure of the heretic from that of the renegade? Certainly the renegades like to think of themselves as heretics; but the true heretic is always something more and other than simply a renegade.