Category Archives: Philosophy

The clout of the real

Reading the opening chapter of Katerina Kolozova’s Cut of the Real, I’m struck with a kind of delighted awe, the kind you might feel when observing a dazzling card-trick or reaching the conclusion of a felicitous mathematical proof. I want to record this sensation at the outset, as I believe it points to something about the book: an effect of suddenness, of striking or leaping or arcing. A short-circuit. And this is in spite of the book’s style of plain and patient argumentation, without overt rhetorical showiness or show-stopping flourishes. Its sublimity is argumentative rather than oratorical. It does something unexpected and, in doing it, shows that it can be done.

What Kolozova does in her first chapter is to show that the canonical “postmodern”, and especially queer or feminist, theory of the subject rests on a disavowal of the unitary – of any sense that the subject’s protean capacity for being woven out of “multiple discursive positions” might be borne by a single self, something that is itself even as it is this multiplicity of self-positings in discourse. This disavowal has become routine to the point of being “axiomatic”, and is guarded by an ethical apparatus that trains us to associate the unitary with the totalising, one-ness with soliloquy, identity with domination. (“Identities” are permitted, on precisely the condition that they are multiple – that they are identifications-with discursive positions, rather than the identity-of a self prior to its co-responsibilities). What we might call the “mystic” or “spiritual” sense of one-ness (wince all you like) is always taken to be a mystification of the coercive forming-into-one of imposed fixity and manufactured consensus. As sexual beings, for example, we are encouraged ethically to focus on the “…which is not one” part of Irigaray’s formula “this sex which is not one” – rather than the prior “this sex”, an identity which proceeds from and as itself into not-one-ness. Kolozova shows clearly that the indicative gesture which picks out this sex, this “I”, this instance of the real in its this-ness, is frequently the disavowed precursor of the common gesture of dispersal, the gesture towards multiplicity. In the work of Judith Butler, for example, there is an unavoidable recourse to, a repeated looping-back towards, the “I” to whom and in whom the psychic life of power occurs. We can treat this as an unfortunate but unavoidable lapse into a theoretically-unsophisticated manner of speaking; but we can also treat it as a symptomatic intrusion, a resurfacing of what’s really always there, a return of the repressed.

If we can disarm or circumvent the ethical apparatus which enforces these associations between identity and domination, then (and perhaps only then) we can get to the point of treating the axiomatic decision it secures as an option amongst other options. Perhaps it is a good option, but we ought nevertheless to be able to suspend it, to treat it as material for thought rather than the indispensible precondition of thinking at all. This is of course the “non-philosophical” move par excellence, and Kolozova makes the best use I have yet seen of Laruelle’s strategies of “unilateralisation” and “dialysis” to render the seemingly-unmovable bedrock of (a certain) gender studies amenible to questioning and transformation. (My view of Laruelle remains that what he proposes to do is extremely interesting, but that he himself does it quite badly. He’s rather like Lacan in that respect: all the best of Lacan is in the work of his disciples, whether faithful or rebellious). To put it simply, Laruelle turns out to be useful for a feminist writer such as Kolozova insofar as he outlines strategies for disloyalty and disaffiliation (or non-loyalty and non-affiliation), for separating oneself from the suffocating self-sufficiency of closed systems of thought. Once you learn to detect gestures of auto-position, you can also learn how to avoid being positioned by them as inexorably subject to the law they propose.

This is a surprising and very promising start, and as I continue through the book I’ll report back here on where Kolozova’s speculative journey takes her. For the moment, though, here’s a passage from Douglas Oliver’s An Island That Is All The World that her first chapter sent me back to:

My companion set off with a strong sidestroke and I liked watching her progress before plunging in and striking up a crawl designed to catch her up. But she was 12 years younger and the cigars had affected my blood. In the lake’s centre I watched her climbing out on the far side; and discovered I was completely out of stamina. For 20 seconds I flailed about wildly or tried to float, which only made me lose precious breath, and I thought myself sure to drown. She was too far away to help. (We found police notices afterwards warning against swimming there.)

It came to me that the mind must have some hidden rescue of its own. There stabilized within me a steady, confident self, which I imagine to be the self I had often speculated about, the unconscious unity of everything we have experienced and incorporated throughout our length of days, an entity that persists, minutely changing, very minutely, as our conscious self goes through its wilder swings of mood. Much modern linguistic philosophy argues this large entity out of all real existence, but I simply don’t believe it. A larger self instructed me to let my limbs do the work while it lay back, almost entirely uninvolved. After great calm – the panic holding off on the periphery – I realised I had ground under my feet, staggered up the shore, and collapsed, as everyday conscious awareness flooded back.

There may be much more to say about the relationship between Douglas Oliver’s conception of harmlessness, connected to the “almost entirely uninvolved” passivity of this “larger self”, and Kolozova’s sense of the real of the subject as a kind of animal-corporeal selfhood; but I’ll need to read more before I can come back to this.

Accelerationism, inside and out

A recurring theme in this discussion between Pete Wolfendale and Anthony Paul Smith is the relationship between the inside of a conversation and its outside. The scenario, in abstract, is like this: a conversation is going on; some people are admitted as interlocutors, and others are not. Still others are neither included or excluded, but simply not engaged – most of the world most of the time is not engaged in conversations of this type, for reasons ranging from antipathy to apathy to (perhaps most commonly) urgently having other things to do. Some desired interlocutors are unavailable, and may need more than an open invitation in order to come onboard.

I read Pete and Anthony as prioritising different sets of needs on the part of possible-yet-absent interlocutors. For Pete, the “space of reasons” is something like the conditions of possibility of an agora, and the way to draw outsiders in is to seek reasons whose ramifications include the kinds of concerns those outsiders might want to talk about. I cannot join a conversation with you if we cannot reason with each other, and will be actively excluded from conversation if all you will meet my reasons with is assertions of your own truth. Our respective freedoms, in the sense of being able to encounter one another as interlocutors who can give and ask for reasons, are vitiated by what Pete called a “truncated” conception of reason, such as that currently sweeping the academy in the guise of neo-liberal management practices. We need, rather, an extensible conception of reason, in order that the ramifications of our reasons should spread out to include presently unacknowledged and unforeseen human needs and situations.

I’m confident of having paraphrased Pete sympathetically here, even if I may well be wrong on some points of detail or emphasis. It’s more difficult for me to do the same for Anthony, because I often find that we disagree strongly about things, but I’ll try anyway. One of Anthony’s concerns I think is that the polemic of accelerationism, in taking aim at tendencies within an established conversation (within “the humanities”, “academic philosophy” and so on) which seem to hamper access to an extended, more powerful, political rationality, unfairly dismisses as “folk politics” and “localism” a wide and valuable range of already-extant conversations. The accelerationists want in to the established conversation, and see themselves as trying to get a wedge in the door; but those they attack also see themselves as embattled – and, what’s more, as battling on the side of the genuinely (that is, socially and not merely discursively) excluded.

Now, we can picture a kind of dyad between those inside the conversation who maintain that they uphold a link with the socially-excluded – that they are exercising a kind of “option for the poor” in opting to argue in certain ways and according to certain rules – and those who are outside of the conversation because they are actually socially excluded from being where it is happening. To attack the insiders who speak as/for the outsiders, to undermine the link the they claim between their discursive positions and practices and the concrete social oppressions to which they address themselves, is necessary if you want to make the argument that those positions and practices are politically insufficient. The dyad has to be dissolved if you want to make a claim for a kind of political rationality that opens up options beyond the currently-favoured “option for the poor”. (The accelerationist argument is, in a nutshell, that this favoured option is a not-very-satisfactory “local maximum” in the space of reasons, and that we need to do some speculative roaming-around if we’re to find a better vantage-point).

However, I think there is also a certain fantasy of the academy at work here, as a zone of social privilege where the “outsiders” and their struggles by definition are not. In this fantasy, the “insiders who speak as/for the outsiders” tend to appear as privileged people instrumentalising the oppressed in order to lend moral gravity to their insider-positions. That is sometimes the real situation, but in reality a) the academy is also, and intensifyingly, a place of struggle, where nominally “included” people nevertheless routinely experience oppression and exclusion, and b) the conversation in which the accelerationists wish to intervene is in any case not confined to the academy: “folk politics” and “localism” are among the modes of political rationality at work in much wider social movements. In this situation it is no longer possible to specify a dyad linking the conversationally-included with the socially-excluded, because the two categories aren’t mutually exclusive in the first place. The target of the accelerationists’ attack is accordingly much harder to identify: there is a real risk that they will in fact succeed in a) gaining a place for themselves within the academy discourse, but b) through becoming incorporated in that discourse, end up playing a part in hardening it against outsiders who can be stigmatised and dismissed as practising “folk politics”, “localism” and so on.

I don’t think it’s enough to say that one doesn’t want this – that what one wants is an extended space of reasons, and that one’s enemies are dogmatists on the inside not social activists on the outside. Because in fact the social activists often do sound pretty dogmatic, especially when they’re fighting on the inside against continual attempts to contain/expel and stigmatise/normalise them. It is of course frustrating to be on the wrong end of impatience, suspicion and the seemingly-malicious withholding of interpretative charity, but not everyone shares, or can reasonably be expected at this juncture to share, the accelerationists’ confidence that success for them in the long run means success for everyone – even if success for everyone is the desired and ostensible goal.

Mathematics is a symptom…

of the structuredness of the universe.

Spelled out a little, the argument runs like this: a completely chaotic universe not only would not be amenable to mathematical description, but would not be such that any kind of mathematics could be practised in it, since the practice of mathematics itself requires that it be possible for certain kinds of stable entities and entailments (a stock of symbols, arrangements of those symbols according to a syntax, repeatable procedures of induction and verification) to exist.

The existence of mathematics does not prove that the universe is in essence mathematical, but it does prove that the universe is capable of at least local stability and regularity, of which the stability and regularity of mathematics itself is a demonstrable instance. Phenomena that are amenable to mathematical description are by that token also instances of at least local stability and regularity.

There is no good reason to suppose that the universe is fundamentally chaotic, any more than we are obliged to suppose that the universe is fundamentally stable and regular. Chaos is not necessarily degenerate order; order is not necessarily arrested (or misperceived) chaos.