Sufficiency, Adequacy, Fidelity

The “principle-of-sufficient-X” is a principle held by X, stipulating a condition to which it either aspires or already conforms by (its own) definition. Rule 34 is something like a principle of sufficient internet porn: it entails that ∀x: P(x), or equivalently that ¬∃x: ¬P(x), where P(x) means “there is porn of x”. But it is a meta-pornographic principle, a rule “of the internet”, rather than intrinsic to the pornographic stance: porn neither presupposes nor purports to enact its own sufficiency (i.e. the pornifiability of everything). The limit of pornographic inscription is not set by any unrepresentable act, any “last taboo” (there is always one more taboo, and it is always possible to break it – and where else but on the internet?), but by the rubric of explicitness*: porn is emphatically not about anyone’s interiority. (A new rule of the internet is needed, in fact: for every feeling, there is a corresponding “tfw” – “that feeling when” – statement illustrating the circumstances that would give rise to that feeling, ideally paired with a suitable gif. But “tfw” is arguably the gravestone of interiority: its premise is that every feeling is communicable, and linked to an occasion outside the self.)

Here is a trivial model of “sufficiency”: for every set, there is a free monoid whose elements are the finite sequences of elements of that set, whose identity element is the empty sequence, and whose monoid operation is the concatenation of sequences. Every set is convertible with its free monoid, in a precisely definable way (there is a functor from the category of sets to the category of monoids, and what is meant by “free monoid” in this context is that this functor is left-adjoint to the forgetful functor running in the opposite direction. Haskell programmers know the monad arising from this adjunction as the “List monad”; it’s worth studying, as an elementary example of how such things work). The free monoid construction means that there are “sufficient” monoids to cover the entire category of sets (although this shouldn’t be thought of in terms of there being an equal quantity of monoids and sets, since we’re dealing with infinite categories).

Is this really a model of “sufficiency” in the sense intended by Laruelle, when he talks of the “principle of sufficient philosophy”? Not quite, and it’s worth trying to figure out why. The principle of sufficient philosophy doesn’t just entail that for every entity in some domain – the world, or some region of the world – there is a philosophical reflection or representation of that entity and its relations with other entities. It is also implied (in Laruelle’s usage) that this reflection is not “free” (in the sense of being “freely generated”), but rather involves the covert addition of extra structure or information. Philosophy’s “world-system” is then a construction over the world which uses materials taken from philosophy – Laruelle will sometimes describe it as a “hallucination”. Philosophical sufficiency is thus indicted as an imposture: the in-sufficient or over-sufficient specular model poses (itself) as sufficient, and in doing so does a kind of violence to that which it claims to reflect.

We are dealing, in that case, with a kind of failed or defective specularity, which “makes up for” its defects by violently normalising that which it purports to reflect, mutilating the foot to make it fit the glass slipper which supposedly transparently ensheathes it. And there are many such systems abroad in the world today (although I note in passing that this account lines up rather well with Friedrich Hayek’s in The Road to Serfdom: Hayek claims that a centrally-planned economy must compensate for its inability to model the informational complexity of real economic activity through distortion, cover-ups, and ultimately violent political suppression…). But we also have in hand an example of a “mapping”, or transference between categories by means of a functor, which is rigorously, demonstrably, non-violent – which serves, in fact, as a counter-example to the violence of which Laruelle accuses philosophy. For there are “full and faithful” functors as well as “forgetful” ones – and the mathematics of category theory exhibits a panoply of different kinds of specularity, different ways in which one thing can be reflected in, projected on to, extracted from or transformed into another, faithfully or lossily, invertibly or non-invertibly.

The point here is not to say that all we need to do is turn philosophy into mathematics and all will be well. It can’t be done anyway – mathematics can propose images of thought to philosophy, and philosophy can do its best to attend to them carefully, but there is no general-purpose mapping between the two. We have to recognise something like Badiou’s Being and Event as a philosophical construction of ontology with mathematics, which draws on set theory as an organon of ontological stricture.

What I mostly miss in Laruelle is any sense that stricture can be useful: the general drift is towards destriction, letting it all hang out.  In some respects of course Laruelle is very strict – Galloway describes him as having a “prophylactic” ontology, which absolutely forbids the binding together of entities under any representational syntax whatsoever. But this enforced unbinding and excommunication of entities serves the purpose of allowing them to mix promiscuously, to be brought into identity with each other in an ad hoc manner, without regard for regulated channels of communication (or, it must be said, the semantic conventions proper to their discourses of origin). I compare Zalamea’s vision, in Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics, of a universe of “transits” between regions of mathematics, in which extremely delicate constructions make it possible for remote areas of knowledge to be brought into communication with each other, mixed and modulated and amplified in just the manner Laruelle seems to desire, but with complete and unyielding exactitude.

  • But on this, see Helen Hester’s Beyond Explicit, which considers precisely the impasse encountered by porn when it attempts to go beyond the “frenzy of the visible”. The pornographic act may be one of explicit depiction, but it is haunted by the undepictable.

Samois Gamgee

Chiara d'Anna in The Duke of Burgundy
Here comes the new boss

Back in the days before the Feminist Sex Wars (ask your mother), radical feminists used to fret about sexual practices which revolved around domination and submission – their contention was that compulsory heterosexuality already revolved around domination and submission, and that S&M just did the same thing harder and more openly (which made it a convenient target of critique, e.g. Andrea Dworkin reading heterosexuality through porn, and porn through Sade and Bataille, telescoping together a long chain of determinations into a single static image of bad sex). At the root, the radix, was the fact of male domination: political, economic, physical; from this came the inscription of domination into sexual practice, which set the stamp of male power on gendered bodies.

In spite of decades of people arguing that this was ludicrous, and that domination in a sexual context had no necessary connection with social forms of domination (everything that now goes by the name of “kyriarchy”), I still think the radical feminists had a point. Social facts shape embodied practices, and what we do with our bodies is part of how we reproduce social forms. The claim commonly made for S&M is that it’s a way of interrupting that process of reproduction, making explicit and available for transformation the power dynamics that are implicit in less consciously mediated practices. That seems plausible enough, but it’s also a little like believing that racism isn’t properly racism if you’re doing it ironically. At some level you’re still really doing what you’re consciously, mediatedly, subversively and transgressively doing. It wouldn’t be any fun if you weren’t.

However, I also don’t think it’s worth arguing about any more. The radical feminists had this notion that you could derail patriarchy by attacking its reproduction via embodied sexuality; but nobody really wanted to go along with that all the way to the end. We have to live in the world as it is, embodied as we are, and that means compromising (with) ourselves. The last two decades of feminist talk about sex have largely been a mixture of thrashing out the terms of that compromise, and establishing the consent standard as a kind of minimal, universally agreed-upon index of OK-ness.  What do they want, who want neither Virtue nor Terror? Mostly, just to be left alone.

(There is a kind of melancholia attached to this compromise, which I do think deserves attention. As Janet Halley brilliantly argued, the radical feminist vision of sexuality gave rise to an extraordinarily total sexual politics. There is something rather degraded and shabby, in comparison, about the argument that we should just go on doing whatever we feel like – within the parameters of consent, naturally – but should also take time to “question where our desires come from”. What possible outcome is being imagined for such questioning? A mild frisson of guilt and regret at being so unreconstructed?)

One thing I found intriguing about The Duke of Burgundy was the way it set its laborious fetish-games in a male-free, child-free, female-only world – the world of artsy lesbian softcore reimagined as a temporary autonomous zone – in which sexuality had no patriarchal referent or context: no reproductive hazard, no men to please or pacify, no discernible “metaphysics of force” of the kind outlined in Dworkin’s Intercourse. What social facts are being reproduced through embodied sexuality here? Ultimately, and rather tellingly, the axis of domination resignified in the lovers’ games is class. The key question at each moment is, who is working for whom? It’s clear that the relationship is rather tyrannical, that the submissive party is actually obnoxiously demanding, and that what she demands above all is emotional labour: say the lines with conviction, be spontaneous, surprise me. She’s like a terrible neoliberal employer: not only do you have to go through with this whole scripted routine, you have to do it with a smile (or, in this case, a convincing “coldness”), adorned all the while with the requisite number of “pieces of flair”. The feeling of relief when the lovers agreed to give it all a break for a bit was palpable – this was the true utopian moment in the film.

I imagine it was the tyrannised-by-the-client aspect of their relationship that most resonated with viewers who weren’t themselves particularly into lesbian BDSM roleplay, that seemed most “universal”. In this way, The Duke of Burgundy has a kind of remorseless deductive logic about it: by bracketting off the entire context in which feminism had previously debated the ethics of sexualised domination, it’s able to isolate and present the true form of contemporary social power – that of the Pret-a-manger store manager, directing the behaviour of frontline staff like a client instructing a dominatrix in precisely which admonishments to use.

Matheme and mytheme

I’ve occupied, and still move back and forth between, the world of the figurative and the mythematic, and the world of the thetic and the conceptual. If I have an argument, it is that it is necessary to know both, and to know the difference.

There is a thetic demarcation of the mythematic: the world of myth according to the world of ideas. A pantheon of gods-according-to-the-philosophers, of secularisations that are also elevations, spiritualisations of the concept. There is also, and without any symmetry between them, a mythic re-absorption of the thetic, which does not demarcate and delimit (since that is not the mode of myth), but rather destabilises and re-integrates. The concept appears there in person, or as persona, subject to the trials of storytelling. There is no firm truth there, because there is no firmness anywhere: reversals and transformations are common. The pantheon is brought down to earth, and its gods are set to hustling along with the rest of us.

A mature thinking must set up a transit between these two worlds, and their reflections in each other. That is not the same as constructing a complete model of one inside the other. The domination of the concept leads to a brittle world-image, a server-room infinity. The domination of the mytheme leads to disorientation, apocalypticism or blood-and-soil political poetics. Both are real and present dangers to the future of human thought.