Tag Archives: philosophy

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

The (possibly alarmist) claim recently surfaced on social media that it was only a matter of time before some enterprising hacker managed to connect the records held by porn sites of their users’ browsing histories to the individual identities of those users, creating considerable opportunities for individual blackmail or general mischief. My personal reaction to this scenario –oh god please no – was balanced by a tranquil sense that a great many people would be in the same boat, and that the likely social impact of mass disclosure was difficult to anticipate. It might be horrific and hilarious in about equal measure. However, sites such as Pornhub already occasionally release their own statistical analyses, showing which US states evince the greatest interest in teenagers, spanking, interracial couples and so on. Public access to their – suitably anonymised – access logs might yield much of sociological interest.

My review of Tim Jordan’s Information Politics: Liberation and Exploitation in the Digital Society is now up at Review 31.

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.

Universality and Heresy

Heretics of Dune book cover
Sexy heretics!

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.

Etienne Balibar, On 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.

Rationalism in the present

The label “rationalism” has already a somewhat anachronistic aura about it, as if it named something that had no proper place in the present. We have been (or, plausibly, “have never been“) rationalists; but who could be such a thing now? Both the rationalism of the past and the rationalism of the future have a phantasmal quality; it doesn’t seem unreasonable to many people to treat them purely as objects of fantasy, and to focus their critique, such as it is, at the level of libidinal investment. What do these strange people want from rationality? How do these wants relate to the usual generators of desire – anxiety about social position, for example? Why the embattled posture, the rhetoric of transcendence?

Answers to these questions are not difficult to produce – in a sense they’re encoded into the questions themselves – and so the desire-named-rationalism can without much effort be rendered transparent and intelligible. What the would-be rationalist really wants – we are immediately sure of it – is to recover a (fantasised-as-) lost position of mastery, no doubt imbricated with the self-image of the colonial slaveowner; they feel threatened by women and queers and people of colour, whose political demands they wish to subordinate to their own privileged sense of what would be “reasonable”; and so on. Inasmuch as all of this registers only at the level of unconscious fantasy, they are (for now) at least one step away from the out-and-out racists and sexists and reactionaries. If only they could be brought to acknowledge the unsavory unconscious content of all their high-minded talk, they might yet be saved.

Now, this hermeneutic has its own self-sufficient logic: it supplies to itself guarantees of its own correctness. It does not have to reckon with rationalism as a concrete position, taken in the here-and-now, because its founding gesture is one of incredulity that such a position could be held in earnest, that it might have any ramifications beyond the fugitive gratification it offers to a handful of hapless nerds. You cannot be serious. It will not, for example, distinguish between the doing of mathematics, an activity which has real ramifications inasmuch as one thing really does lead to another, and the performance of mathiness, the brandishing of the matheme as a totem of sophistication (or abstract fedora). In short, the source of its power (as a derailer of argument) lies in its capacity for inattention: since I already “know” that the object of your attention is a fantasy with no real purchase on the present, I am authorised to focus my attention on your attention, rather than upon the thing attended-to.

It’s in the specific polemical context in which proponents of rationalism encounter this hermeneutic – and while that is often a very narrow and specialised context indeed, it is nevertheless legitimately of concern to us – that we find ourselves both at bay, and empowered by concrete demonstrations of the viability of rationalism in the present. The terrain under dispute is not, or not immediately, that of the concrete conditions of everyday life. What we’re trying to do, ultimately, is strengthen the hand of a certain kind of argument, in the hope of bringing closer some of the goods that this kind of argument is – we believe – uniquely able to envisage. It’s all pretty meta. But we do think it’s important – or we wouldn’t bother – and I for one do find it galling when people whose reaction to the accelerationist manifesto was to describe its program as inextricably colonialist, then describe the accelerationists’ sense of being put somewhat on the back foot as histrionic.

A few words are in order about the use made of mathematics. I don’t believe, and don’t believe that anyone else believes, that a sound knowledge of category theory is necessary for salvation. We’re not trying to become Pythagorean sages here. What I think has become apparent during the course of the HKW summer school is that the current rationalist use of “higher” mathematics is partly revisionary and partly metaphorical: it’s about taking apart some old and creaky logico-mathematico-ideological constructions, which had trapped us in a false image of thought, and provoking new images of thought by giving a motivated and metaphorically suggestive account of the technical machinery used to do so. Some of the work involved in doing this is very technical, and requires those performing it to learn and practice some real and quite difficult mathematics. But the ultimate purpose is not to become surpassingly good at maths, but to get away from an inadequate sense of what “rationality” can mean, so that we are not presented with a bogus choice between (for example) first-order predicate logic on the one hand, and everything that isn’t first-order predicate logic on the other. Rationalism in the present moment means using whatever tools are available to reflect on rationality and extend our sense of what it is capable of. It turns out that fancy mathematics is quite indispensable to this endeavour, but we do not hold it to be synonymous with thinking itself. In fact, those of us who are good Badiousians will be well-accustomed to the vertiginous transit between mathematics and poetry:

Someone saw that very clearly, my colleague, the French analytic philosopher Jacques Bouveresse, from the Collège de France. In a recent book in which he paid me the honor of speaking of me, he compared me to a five-footed rabbit and says in substance: “This five-footed rabbit that Alain Badiou is runs at top speed in the direction of mathematic formalism, and then, all of a sudden, taking an incomprehensible turn, he goes back on his steps and runs at the same speed to throw himself into literature.” Well, yes, that’s how with a father and a mother so well distributed, one turns into a rabbit.

The good rationalist, I submit, will be a five-footed rabbit, composing a living present out of the energetic, irreconcilable distribution of antecedents.

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.

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.