May 2006


The concept of immanence is ultimately very simple, yet it proves very difficult to accept in its implications. To affirm immanence is to affirm that the world is sufficient unto itself, that we need not refer to anything outside of the world to explain the world such as forms, essences, or God, that the world contains its own principles of genesis. As Laplace responded to Napoleon when asked about the role of God in the new physics, “Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypoth├Ęse”. “I have no need of this hypothesis.” What could be more beautiful and affirmative than this simple quip? To affirm immanence is to affirm the world as it gives itself and to deny any transcendent terms that might shackle the world to what a putrifying and decaying subject believes the world ought to be. Those who affirm immanence affirm the existent and its potentialities.

The immediate corollary of immanence is the consequence that “the whole is not” or that there is no whole. This is an ontological rather than epistemological thesis. Suppose we claim that the whole is. What are the conditions under which the whole would be possible? In order that there be a whole, it would be necessary that there be some point outside the whole through which the whole could be surveyed like an astronaut might survey the planet earth. But such a point of survey would be transcendent to the whole or world. Yet we have already affirmed that the world is immanent. Therefore such a point of transcendence does not exist.

Such is the rejoinder to Descartes’ proof for the existence of God.

It is not clear that we can demonstrate that the world is immanent. Rather, immanence is a thesis that can only be declared and followed through, as rigorously as possible, in its consequences. Perhaps the closest we come to a demonstration that the whole is not is to be found in Badiou’s appropriation of Cantor’s paradox. Cantor’s paradox states that there cannot be a set of all sets because the axiom of the power set stipulates that the subset of a set is always “greater” than the initial set from which we begin. Suppose we take a set a composed of elements {x, y, z}. The power-set of a would consist of the set of all subsets of a or {{x}, {y}, {z}, {x, y}, {x, z}, {y, z}, {x, y, z}, {0}}. That is, the power-set of a is a to the 3rd power, just as the power set of the power set of a would be P(a) to the 8th power. In short, the power-set or subset axiom leads to an infinite proliferation of being such that any totalization of a set can only be provisional.

As Badiou argues in Being and Event, the consequence that follows from the thesis that the whole is not is that being consists only of situations without any global, overarching situation (contra any holistic conception of being such as we find in Hegel or Whitehead). That is, it follows as a consequence that all logics are local. Despite Badiou’s mutilated reading of Deleuze in Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, where Badiou contends that Deleuze is a thinker of the One-All, the thesis of the primacy of situations, of the locality of being, had already been affirmed by Deleuze in his account of incompossible worlds (in contrast to Leibniz’ thesis that all modes are compossible or that this is the best of all possible worlds) and divergent series.

It is sometimes suggested that Deleuze rejects logic, but this thesis is poorly understood so long as we are unclear as to what Deleuze is rejecting in rejecting logic. If Deleuze rejects logic– and here I am skeptical as I have not found such passages in his work –then what Deleuze rejects is not logics, but rather logic, the law of identity and non-contradiction, as the normative measure of situations or worlds. Here, I think, Badiou expresses the issue with the greatest clarity. If Logic is to be reject (I capitalize the term to denote logic as a norm governing all situations), then this is because the thesis of a logos governing all situations returns us to the standpoint of transcendence requiring a point of survey outside the world (thereby undermining immanence). However, the rejection of Logic does not entail the rejection of logics. It is this move that motivates Badiou’s recent turn to category theory in Logiques des mondes. As Badiou describes it in Briefings on Existence: A Short Treatise on Transitory Ontology, “What topos theory offers is a description of possible mathematical universes. Its method employs definitions and schemas, and a geometric synopsis of its resources. It is tantamount to an inspection of Leibniz’s God: a categorical journey through thinkable worlds, their kinds and distinctive features. It ascertains that each universe bear its own internal logic. The theory establishes the general correlations between ontological features of these universes and the characterization of their logic. But it does not decide on a particular universe. Unlike Leibniz’s God, we do not have any reason to consider some such mathematical universe as the best of all possible universes” (Badiou 2006, 119). In short, what topos theory or category theory offers is a way of mapping the internal or immanent logic (logos) of a situation, or of describing the structure, system, or norms that govern the situation itself, rather than binding a situation to a norm extrinsic to that situation.

Like so much of the “dialogue” between Deleuze and Badiou, it appears that we here encounter a productive mis-communication. Had not Deleuze already discovered the idea of topoi in his account of virtual multiplicities, where he seeks to unfold and elaborate the organization immanent to a particular actualization? It is sometimes suggested that Deleuze rejects all order, that he is the thinker of chaos, but to my thinking it seems much more productive to conceive Deleuze as the thinker of how order emerges out of chaos, of how being generates its own or orders out of the infinite differences composing being. Take, for instance, Deleuze’s analysis of Francis Bacon in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. If there is a distinguishing feature of Deleuze’s aesthetic studies, it is the manner in which he approaches these works immanently in terms of their own internal organization, topos, or logic. And if we look to mathematics, to Riemann and topology from which Deleuze draws his inspiration in formulating the concept of multiplicity, what do we discover if not the thesis that a topological space or multiplicity is studied in terms of its own intrinsic organization rather than the manner in which it relates to its embedding space. The analysis of virtual multiplicities is the analysis of topoi.

Despite the joyous and affirmative nature of the concept of immanence (both as a thesis about the world and about situations) there is nonetheless a horror of immanence that even the greatest champions of immanence experience. If immanence is horrifying, then this is because it undermines our ability to refer to a transcendent standard or order that would tell us how to be, how to think, how to desire, and so on. That is, the affirmation of immanence is also the affirmation that “the Other does not exist” (that there is no transcendent rule or standard), or that “there is no Other of the Other” (that there is no point of view from the outside), or that “there is no metalanguage”.

In a very fine “B” science fiction film entitled “Cube” and directed by Vincenzo Natali, we are confronted precisely with the thesis that the Other does not exist, that there is no Other of the Other, and that there is no metalanguage. The film “Cube” depicts a story in which seven people one day awake in an enormous metallic maze that they must traverse using their knowledge of mathematics. If they are unable to decipher the mathematical riddle underlying the relationship from one room of the cube to another, they die a horrible death by taking the wrong path. As the film progresses we learn that each person has worked on the project of constructing this maze, yet we also discover that the maze was not created for any particular purpose or with the guidance of any single leader, but rather emerged out of the blind collaboration of a series of bureaucratic government agencies each trying to spend their budgets, without anyone envisioning a project such as the cube in which the seven characters are trapped. Fortunately the characters manage to unlock the mathematical riddle of the maze and escape. Yet upon escaping they discover that the maze they just escaped is a part of a larger maze with a new logic all its own.

The film “Cube” provides one of the finest depictions of Lacan’s thesis that the Other does not exist and of the Deleuzian affirmation of immanence that we find in perhaps all of cinema. On the one hand, the film depicts the claims that there is no metalanguage and that there is no Other of the Other in that there is no one code that governs these mazes and that there is no point of view outside the bureaucracy overseeing the creation of these mazes. On the other hand, the film depicts the thesis that the Other does not exist insofar as it undermines the phantasy that there’s a position we could adopt outside our situation that would finally allow us to completely understand the situation or see what is common to all situations.

The practice of analysis affords one of the most direct and anxiety provoking encounters with immanence and the non-existence of the Other to be found. If transference and traversing the phantasy mean anything, they mean 1) the belief that there is some ultimate standard we can refer to in defining who we are, how we should live, what we should desire, and what is wrong with us, and 2) coming to discover that we are our own immanent topoi such that there is no ultimate law or logic we can refer to in defining our being and desire. As a Lacanian I am approached by a very particular group of people, who are already sophisticated in their knowledge of “theory”, in generally adopting a leftist and postmodern politics, and who already affirm immanence. Yet strangely, in my practice, the first thing I discover among these analysands is that they wish for me to tell them who they are and whether they are living their lives in the right way. That is, they transferentially refer to me as the Other who has the answers and who is capable of measuring them and guiding them in their lives. My job, as analyst, is to refuse this position of mastery, this position of insight into God, and to perpetually be where I am not expected, so that they might increasingly come to discover that there is no overarching Law or order by which they might measure themselves, but only the immanent topoi by which their own internal logic unfolds. As the second film in the “Matrix” series claims, the point is not to make a choice, but rather to understand why we made the choice that we already made.

My question, then, is not simply that of how we might assert immanence, but rather how we might affirm all of the anxiety provoking consequences that follow from our assertion of immanence, or the manner in which we come to be cast adrift in the ocean of immanence, without any ultimate compass. Or yet again, how we can endure affirming difference, divergence, and incompossibility so as to find a little order in the world and no longer look to authority, the father, or God as the guarantee of our being.

The philosophies of difference– we might even refer to them as an “episteme” in Foucault’s sense –all share the common conclusion that where difference is first as the ground of being identity must be conceived as a product, result, or effect. Indeed, rather than thinking the ontology of difference negatively as aiming at overturning ontotheology, the task or problem of an ontology of difference could be thought affirmatively as the question of how the avatars of identity are produced. As de Beistegui has noted in his brilliant Truth and Genesis: Philosophy as Differential Ontology (in our view the finest study of Deleuze apart from Delanda’s Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy and Badiou’s Deleuze: The Clamor of Being), differential ontology announces the demise of the distinction between substance and accidents, such that entity becomes its accidents. In order to see just what differential ontology is getting at with this move, one need only consult Descartes’ famous analysis of the wax in the second meditation. There Descartes writes:

“Let us now accordingly consider the objects that are commonly thought to be [the most easily, and likewise] the most distinctly known, viz, the bodies we touch and see; not, indeed, bodies in general, for these general notions are usually somewhat more confused, but one body in particular. Take, for example, this piece of wax; it is quite fresh, having been but recently taken from the beehive; it has not yet lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it still retains somewhat of the odor of the flowers from which it was gathered; its color, figure, size, are apparent ( to the sight ); it is hard, cold, easily handled; and sounds when struck upon with the finger. In fine, all that contributes to make a body as distinctly known as possible, is found in the one before us. But, while I am speaking, let it be placed near the fire–what remained of the taste exhales, the smell evaporates, the color changes, its figure is destroyed, its size increases, it becomes liquid, it grows hot, it can hardly be handled, and, although struck upon, it emits no sound. Does the same wax still remain after this change ? It must be admitted that it does remain; no one doubts it, or judges otherwise. What, then, was it I knew with so much distinctness in the piece of wax? Assuredly, it could be nothing of all that I observed by means of the senses, since all the things that fell under taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing are changed, and yet the same wax remains” (Meditations, 2, paragraph 11).

In this connection Descartes is seeking to demonstrate that we know our own existence as cogito with greater certainty than we know the existence of external objects. Descartes enlists the discussion of wax with the aim of showing that we are only capable of knowing the identity of the wax through change through an act of intellection that grasps the identity of the wax as substance beneath its changing accidents. This premise of an identical substance throughout change was a necessary premise of scientific thought. Thus, for instance, the physics of levers and pulleys is dependent on the notion that regardless of whether the horse pulls the heavy object directly through the use of a harness or indirectly through a system of pulleys, the same amount of work is done in both instances. Similarly, without the premise of substance I am unable to conceive of chemical change, which presupposes an identity on both sides of an equation. From these examples it can be seen that the premise of the ontological primordiality of substance is not simply an affair of the State– of preferring identity to difference –but also goes straight to the heart of our scientific practice as well. The reason Descartes’ example is so illuminating is that it cuts right to the heart of the matter in pointing out that while we presuppose an identity of substance throughout change, we only encounter the changing accidents or qualities of a substance and never directly the substance itself. The problem thus seems to be that we require the premise of this identity for our equations and scientific practice to be possible, yet we are unable to epistemically see how substance as that which endures beneath change can cognitively be grasped.

Instances of the primacy of substance throughout the history of philosophy could be multiplied in a variety of different contexts. Thus Plato, for instance, concedes that the world of appearances, the physico-sensible world in which we live, is characterized by nothing but accidents and differences without enduring identities, but nonetheless insists on the primacy of substance in terms of the eternal forms. Aristotle’s formal cause and primary substances serve this role with regard to entities. Throughout medieval thought this role is served by essences. And Leibniz goes so far in his desire to maintain the primacy of identity that he transforms each thing, each entity, into an infinite analytic proposition that already virtually expresses the entirety of its predicates coiled inward upon itself. Nonetheless, the premise of substance has continuously come to grief in the history of philosophy. If this is so, then it is for two reasons:

1) First, and less importantly in my view, an epistemic reason: As Locke and Hume were quick to point out, we only encounter the accidents and qualities of beings (what Hume refers to as “sensations”), so what is it that warrants us in concluding that these predicates are supported by a self-identical substance that maintains its identity across time? Hegel would later present a more interesting variant of this problem in the chapters on “Perception” and “Understanding” in the Phenomenology of Spirit and in his discussion of existence and appearance in The Science of Logic. Similar problems emerge in Husserl’s later works such as Experience and Judgment and Analyses Concerning Active and Passive Synthesis, where the question becomes one of how a multiplicity can be intended as a unity when we only ever encounter it through its profiles. Whatever the case may be, the unity, the identity of the object, has always been a tremendous problem from the standpoint of knowledge. Here the discussions of Hegel and Husserl already pass from mere epistemic concerns, to more profound ontological concerns.

2) Second, and our view more importantly, a metaphysical reason: Throughout the history of philosophy the substance of a being has all too often been conceived in terms of the essence of the object. But an object is not simply its essence, it is also its existence. The existence of an object, its singularity, is not simply its accidents for the object remains the same object even when its accidents change. I, for instance, remain who I am even when my hair turns grey. Yet I am not my essence either, for I am something in addition to being human or any of the abstract categories that might be attributed to me. What, then, is it that individuates me as this singular being here? This problem will vex the scholastic philosophers– no doubt because they must preserve the singular irreplacability of the soul –and will be taken up again by Deleuze.

It is Hume and Kant who first point the way towards thinking identity as a product or effect rather than an ultimate ground. In the case of Hume, we have the flowing duration of impressions perpetually differing in themselves and from one another being synthesized according to the three laws of association. Here entity becomes the result of habit or those co-agulations of impressions in relation to memory that repeat. Kant presents a more refined account of the manner in which cognition “produces its own elements” or, as Badiou would say, “counts-as-one” in the axioms of intuition, anticipations of perception, and the first analogy. However, in relation to the second problem mentioned above, the problem remains the same. There the question was not that of what individuates a being for us, but rather what individuates a being for itself? Both Hume and Kant continue to relativize the individual to another being and are therefore incapable of conceiving it for itself. This is a move that will often be repeated in 20th century thought. Thus, for instance, social constructivists will speak of how entities are individuated for society. Luhmann or Maturana and Varela will talk of how beings are individuated for systems. Foucault will speak of how beings are individuated for epistemes and power-structures. Derrida, perhaps, will speak of how beings are individuated for language, and so on. It could be that we can never depart from the domain of “epistemology”, that questions of being must always be posed relative to some other being, but we would like to see whether being can be thought in and for itself (the ontologies of Whitehead, the later Heidegger, Deleuze, and Badiou suggest just such a possibility).

Second, while Hume and Kant both manage to think the being of beings as products of difference, rather than identity, they still posit identity at the level of the mind thinking these beings. In the case of Kant this identity is seen with regard to the transcendental unity of apperception. Hume fares better in this regard in that he is able to conceive identity as a product of associations forming a pattern over time, yet there is still the implicit assumption of identity in the form of the mind in which these associations are effected. To our thinking the task of thinking identity as a principle become must extend all the way to the subject itself such that being precedes the subject, not the reverse. In my view, no one has gone further than Lacan in this regard.

Like many events in thought, we can “fractally” discern the thesis that identity is a product in a variety of different domains.

  • Physics: As de Beistegui points out, science has foresaken the notion that there are ultimate units of matter and increasingly sees matter as composed of energetic patterns.
  • Biology: The great Darwinian revolution was to overturn the primacy of forms over individuals so as to see species as effects of populations or individual difference. Indeed, it could be that we have yet to catch up with Darwin, that we still speak poorly in speaking of species.
  • The New Science: The new sciences of complexity theory, systems theory, chaos theory, and even structuralism seem to have emerged precisely to thematize differential and dynamic systems that constitute their own elements and which only know processual identity or unity across time.
  • Psychology and Neurology: Freud demonstrated that identity is a product of identification and that thought pertains to non-linear processes that exceed the intentionality of a subject. Lacan later demonstrated the manner in which the subject is produced as an effect of the signifier and the differential of objet a. Neurology indicates the manner in which thought is the result of all sorts of microprocesses without unified center or “I”.
  • Sociology: Figures such as Althusser, Foucault, Bourdeau, and Luhmann have all shown how the units composing society are constituted by society as a system and do not pre-exist the system that counts-them-as-one.
  • Politics: Increasingly we’ve witnessed the demise of the nation-state and the accompanying idea of racial identity, to be replaced by temporary coalitians, multiplicities, and ever-changing alliances.
  • Art: Increasingly we’ve seen the fragmentation of the art object in favor of “open texts”, as, for instance, the works of Joyce or Pynchon.

My question then is that of how unity can be produced out of difference. It may be that there is no univocal answer to this question, and it may very well be the wrong question, a question still too tied to the tradition of substance based ontology. Nonetheless, it seems that no thinkers have gone further in ontologically thinking this question than Deleuze and Badiou.

Badiou manages to express the question most clearly:

  • By clearly expressing the manner in which the whole is not through his engagement with set theory (a statement worthy of any Lacanian aphorism).
  • By clearly expressing the manner in which, as a consequence, everything is a situation or local.
  • By clearly expressing the consequence that all identity is a product, effect, or result.

Nonetheless, Badiou’s clarity suffers from abstraction. As Hallward points out, it is very difficult to see how Badiou (in his work preceding Logiques des mondes which I have not yet brought myself to read) can properly attend to relation. Do we not need some account of qualitative difference and relation from Badiou’s work? Can we see how such an account can emerge from his infinite multiplicities-without-one? Moreover, what is it that presides over the operation of the “count-as-one”? It is here that Deleuze excells in his account of intensity, multiplicity, singularity, actualization, and individuation. Yet if we follow Deleuze in his account, how are we able to maintain Badiou’s remarkable theory of the event and the truth-procedures that follow from it? Are we not then commited to a gradualist and conservative notion of change?

Two articles worth reading on identity as a process:

http://www.dhalgren.com/Blog/?p=219

http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=471

One of the constants of the Deleuzian secondary literature is the opposition between the work of Deleuze and Guattari and the work of Lacan. For anyone who’s carefully followed Deleuze’s arguments about the logic of representation it’s clear that this should immediately make one’s ears perk up as it suggests an opposition. Yet as Deleuze remarks, “there is a crucial experience of difference and a corresponding experiment: every time we find ourselves confronted or bound by a limitation or an opposition, we should ask what such a situation presupposes. It presupposes a swarm of differences, a pluralism of free, wild or untamed differences; a properly differential and original space and time; all of which persist alongside the simplification of limitation and opposition” (DR 50). That is, do we not, in the opposition of Deleuze to psychoanalysis, encounter a difference between the subject of the statement and the subject of enunciation?

It is clear that Deleuze’s later work with Guattari often receives disproportionate attention. A glance at earlier works such as Difference and Repetition, The Logic of Sense, and Coldness and Cruelty reveals Deleuze in close dialogue with Lacan’s work. Indeed, Lacan himself noted this, referring to Coldness and Cruelty as the finest study of masochism yet produced in Seminar 14, and devoting part of his seminar to the study of DR and LS in Seminar XVI. Throughout these earlier works, Deleuze endlessly elucidates the concept of the dark precursor through reference to objet a, and draws on Lacan’s account of structure in “The Seminar on the Purloined Letter”, to elucidate his conception of dual serialization. Nor is the issue straightforwardly one of Lacan making use of lack as central to his account of the subject. In an astonishing remark in chapter 2 of Difference and Repetition, Deleuze writes that, “Although it is deducted from the present real object, the virtual object differs from it in kind: not only does it lack something in relation to the real object from which it is subtracted, it lacks something in itself, since it is always half of itself, the other half being different as well as absent. This absence, as we shall see, is the opposite of a negative. Eternal half of itself, it is where it is only on condition that it is not where it should be. It is where we find it only on the condition that we search for it where it is not. It is at once not possessed by those who have it and had by those who do not possess it. It is alwayss a ‘was‘. In this sense, Lacan’s pages assimilating the virtual object to Edgar Allen Poe’s purloined letter seem to us exemplary” (DR 102, italics mine). Here we see that Deleuze draws a distinction between lack on the one hand (which, as he argues in his important essay “How Do We Recognize Structuralism?” is rendered possible through the symbolic), and negativity on the other hand. Deleuze’s concern is not with lack, but rather with any ontology that would treat the negative as ontologically primitive such as can be discerned in the opening movement of Hegel’s Science of Logic.

During this period, when Deleuze critiques psychoanalysis, it is generally directed at Freud’s early tendency to treat one series as original (the series pertaining to infantile experiences) and one series as derived (the series pertaining to adult relations and experiences). This is an extension of his critique of Plato’s distribution of models and copies, where early Freud sees the infantile series as original and all adult amorous relations as being copies of these early series. Deleuze praises Freud’s later account of phantasy and the deferred effect (already present in the early Project essay) for completely overturning this primacy of one series over another, and sees something similar at work in Lacan’s account of how objet a functions to upset the primacy of one series over another.

One might concede these points and nonetheless argue that while this is true of Deleuze’s earlier work, his work with Guattari departs from this praise of Lacan and finally dispenses with psychoanalysis altogether in favor of schizoanalysis. Admittedly I am not much interested in Deleuze’s later work with Guattari, apart from What is Philosophy?, but the question nonetheless persists of whether this is the case. A close reading of Anti-Oedipus reveals that the issue is far from being straightforward. Thus, for instance, references to Lacan are generally positive throughout the text and criticisms tend to be directed at his followers for precisely the reason noted above: treating one series as primary over another. Similarly, in a footnote early in the text, Deleuze and Guattari write, “Lacan’s admirable theory of desire appears to us to have two poles: one related to “the object small a” as a desiring-machine, which defines desire in terms of a real production, thus going beyond both any idea of need and any idea of fantasy; and the other related to the ‘great Other’ as a signifier, which reintroduces certain notions of lack” (AO 27). From the perspective of those who treat Deleuze and Guattari as rejecting Lacan and psychoanalysis tout court, this comparison of objet a to desiring-machines and reference to Lacan’s account of desire as “admirable” cannot but appear surprising, and suggest that readings of this issue are not nuanced enough.

The broader point to be made revolves around the avowed aim of Anti-Oedipus in responding to Reich’s question of why people will their own repression. There is a tendency, I think, to treat the Oedipus as some sort of academic mystification or conspiracy on the part of analysts. While there are certainly ways of conducting analytic practice that reinforce the Oedipus, one wonders why these two authors would go to so much trouble critiquing the Oedipus if it were simply mistaken practice on the part of psychoanalysts and certain academics. As Deleuze and Guattari are careful to point out, “the Oedipus is not nothing”. Arguably the case can be made that Lacan was the first “anti-Oedipus”. This is evinced in his claim, beginning in the late fifties and persisting throughout his career that “the Other does not exist” (Seminar 5), “that there is no Other of the Other” (Seminar 6), that “there is no metalanguage” (Seminar 12), that the desire of the analyst is the desire for absolute difference (Seminar 11) and so on.

What is to be accounted for is the desire for Oedipus or Oedipalization. There is a certain cereal box version of Oedipus that reduces it to the relationship between parents and child. However, Lacan gives a far more nuanced account revolving around a certain relationship to the Other. Anyone who has practiced as an analyst is familiar with the early consultations where the analysand perpetually asks “what am I?”, “tell me who I am!”, “tell me the solution to my suffering!” and so on. That is, the analysand situates the analyst in the position of the subject supposed to know or the master who possesses knowledge. This is the Oedipus par excellence.
The Oedipal desire is evinced in the desire for a master, for an authority, to be identified and named. Lacan sometimes quipped that the analytic cure consists in being cured of the desire for a cure. If this means anything at all, it is in reference to overcoming this desire for an authority that would finally name us and serve as proxy for our desire. If there is a difference between Lacan and Deleuze and Guattari (and there are many), then it is perhaps that the former sees the Oedipus as something that must be worked through, as a phantasy to be traversed, while the latter often seem to suggest that we can immediately proceed to deterritorialization. Yet in reading the secondary literature do we not find that performatively Deleuze and Guattari often function as names of the master? It is odd to deny ourselves those tools that would allow us to conceptualize mass group submissions to despotic authority. Psychoanalysis provides us with these tools.

Philosophically it is difficult to know how to situate Nietzsche’s proclamation that God is dead. It would be a mistake to suggest that this is an ontological thesis or a philosophical argument, for Nietzsche does not demonstrate to us, as an atheist might, that there is no God. Rather, Nietzsche claims that a fundamental mutation or shift has occured in how we understand the world, the nature of being. In The Gay Science Nietzsche writes,

“The Madman. Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market-place calling out unceasingly: “I seek God! I seek God!” As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why? is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea voyage? Has he emigrated? – the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. “Where is God gone?” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? – for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife – who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event – and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!” Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. “I come too early,” e then said. “I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling – it has not yet reached men’s ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star – and yet they have done it themselves!” It is further stated that the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam deo. When led out and called to account, he always gave the reply: ‘What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God?'” (paragraph 125).

I will not here enter into a long discussion of Nietzsche’s narrative as to how we came to kill God. This is not a joyous proclamation– though it may have joyous consequences –but a lament. As Lacan argues, traversing the phantasy lies not so much in coming to see how we are castrated, fissured, or non-identical, but rather coming to see how the big Other through which we organized our desire does not itself exist. That is, the very co-ordinates of our world, desire, and identity collapse when we come to discern the non-existence of the big Other. This comes out most clearly in Descartes’ third meditation, where we are shown how God is not simply the guarantor of the truth of clear and distinct ideas, but of our very being or existence. In this precise Lacanian sense, then, both atheist and theist can still think prior to the death of God.

What strikes me as crucial in this passage is Nietzsche’s remark that we have wiped away the horizon, that we now move without direction, that we are suspended in an infinite void and cold, empty space. The death of God therefore seems to signify a world that has lost its coordinates (what else is a horizon if not a way of co-ordinating our movement?) and where the ground has disappeared beneath us. I take it that the term “God” is a generic term for any sort of transcendental term that would fix meaning and identity. It would be a mistake to assume that “God” simply refers to the God of organized religion. Rather God is a generic term referring to anything on the order of a form, essence, transcendence, identity, substance, permanence, ideal, wholeness, totality and so on.

While the death of God is not an ontological claim, it does present an ontological opening or challenge. In De Ordine Augustine writes that, “The soul therefore, holding fast to this order, and now devoted to philosophy, at first introspects itself; and– as soon as that mode of learning has persuaded it that reason either is the soul itself or belong to it, and that there is in reason nothing more excellent or dominant than numbers, or that reason is nothing else than number– soliloquizes thus: ‘By some kind of inner and hidden activity of mine, I am able to analyze and synthesize the things that ought to be learned; and this faculty of mine is called reason.’… Therefore, both in analzying and in synthesizing, it is oneness that I see, it is oneness that I love. But when I analyze, I seek a homogenous unit; and when I synthesize, I look for an integral unit. In the former case, foreign elements are avoided; in the latter, proper elements are conjoined to form something united and perfect. In order that a stone be a stone, all its parts and its entire nature have been consolidated into one. What about a tree? Is it not true that it would not be a tree if it were not one? What about the members and entrails of any animate being, or any of its component parts? Of a certainty, if they undergo a severance of unity, it will no longer be an animal. And what else do friends strive for, but to be one? And the more they are one, so much the more they are friends. A population forms a city, and dissension is full of danger for it: to dissent– what is that, but to think diversely? An army is made up of many soldiers. And is not any multitude so much the less easily defeated in proportion as it is the more closely united? In fact, the joining is itself called a coin, a co-union, as it were. What about every kind of love? Does it not wish to become one with what it is loving? And if it reaches its object, does it not become one with it? Carnal pleasure affords such ardent delight for no other reason than because the bodies of lovers are brought into union. Why is sorrow distressful? Because it tries to rend what used to be one” (chapter 18, paragraph 48).

The central “onto-theological” assumption is not so much that of God– God, as Descartes argues, is only a guarantor of that which cannot be guaranteed by our senses or appearances –but rather the assumption of the One. Whether the One be substance remaining identical throughout change such as Descartes’ wax, or the one of a transcendent form immune to the distortions of images, appearances, and sophists, or whether it be the one of personal identity or a subject that is the same despite all its ever changing thoughts, or the one of a holistic universe where everything is interconnected and harmonious, or the one of a state, the one is always the avatar of theological thought. As such, the death of God signifies first and most fundamentally the end of the primacy of the One in whatever form it might take. To announce the death of God is, as both Deleuze and Badiou have declared, to simultaneously declare that the One, the identical, the same, is only a product, a result, a term-become rather than a foundation or first. As such, metaphysics in the wake of God is a metaphysics that seeks to think difference first and to see identity as a result or product. That is, we must be vigilant in tracking down and eradicating all remainders of theology within such a thought.

Philosophically those ontologies premised on identity or the One as their first principle issue in irresolvable problems. Ethically and politically such philosophies are premised on the predominance of the Imaginary, the yearning for totality, completeness, and wholeness, as can be seen in Augustine’s example of the army and the city. The problem is that such organizations are inherently conflictual. As Plotinus, another thinker of the One will write when describing beauty and purity, “If a man has been immersed in filth or daubed with mud, his native comeliness disappears and all that is seen is the foul stuff besmearing him: his ugly condition is due to the alien matter that has encrusted him, and if he is to win back his grace it must be his business to scour and purify himself and make himself what he was” (Ennead I, sixth tractate, paragraph 5). This little parable ought to serve as the skeleton key for all philosophies of the One. Every desire for the One– whether in the form of identity, collective unity, the holism of the universe, etc. –is always accompanied by this “foul stuff that besmearches” it or the alien matter that must be eradicated. As such, we must ask whether it’s possible to formulate a politics beyond the One, beyond identification, beyond identity, and an ethics beyond the same. Lacan expresses this entire dialectic well in his discourse of the master.

In Lacanian terms this amounts to formulating a metaphysics, ontology, or philosophy that would no longer be premised on the discourse of the master. As Lacan writes it, the discourse of the master is configured as follows:

S1 —> S2
– –
$ // a

Here we have the self-identical subject addressing the world as its other, producing objet a as a remainder or scrap that escapes theorization (Descartes’ pineal gland?), which the barred subject in the position of truth or the unconscious as that which is excluded from the discourse. Here objet a is the scrap of alien matter of which Plotinus speaks– a harbinger of purges, oppositional social relations (us versus them), and that bit of filth to be mastered. The paradox, of course, is that objet a is not an alien matter that comes from without as Plotinus or Augustine would contend, but rather is a result of the repressed truth of the master’s self-identity itself: namely that he is split, fissured, different from himself. Thus another way of formulating the question of the death of God is to ask what a philosophy that was not premised on the discourse of the master would look like.

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