December 2012

Some really valuable observations by Serres on critique in Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time.

To press home my plea to dispense with judging, let me say a word about the philosophies that, seen from afar, made me run in the opposite direction– although they occupied my contemporaries, fascinating them for a long time.  These are the philosophies Paul Ricoeur classified in the order or class of suspicion.

I was turned off for two reasons.  For one, these philosophies took up a position like spying, like looking over the shoulder of someone with something to hide.  This position immediately invokes a third person, who in turn looks over the shoulder of the second, who now is also under suspicion, and so on, ad infinitum.  This argument , a renewed version of the third man, opens up a vista of ongoing cunningness, like a succession of policemen and felons.  As a result, philosophy becomes like a police state; in fact, every police force requires another police force to police it.  When a policing body is looking over a person’s shoulder, assessing his heart and innermost workings, are we to suppose that this policing body has neither a shoulder of its own, nor heart, nor innermost workings?  This launches us into a “detective” logic.  And the best detective is the one who is never interrogated, who places himself in a position beyond suspicion.

The critic’s ultimate goal is to escape all possible criticism, to be beyond criticism.  He looks over everyone else’s shoulder and persuades everyone that he has no shoulder [Laurelle?].  That he has no heart.  He asks all the questions so that none can be asked of him.  In other words, the best policeman is the most intelligent fellow.  Critical philosophy ends with Inspector Dupin, who is invulnerable to it.

Better yet, what would you call the only person who could be imagined as looking over everyone’s shoulder, without having a shoulder of his own?  God.  So beware of philosophies that put he who practices them in the august position of always being right, of always being the wisest, the most intelligent, and the strongest.  These philosophies always and eternally come down to strategies of war.  (133 – 134).

Some gorgeous passages from Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time:

Either science must develop its own intrinsic epistemology, in which case it is a question of science and not of epistemology, or else it’s a matter of external annotation– at best redundant and useless, at worst a commentary or even publicity.  (14)

…I am driven by a strong disinclination to ‘belong’ to any group, because it has always seemed to require excluding and killing those who don’t belong to the sect.  I have an almost physical horror of the libidinous drive to belong.  You will notice that this drive is rarely analyzed as such, since it supports all ambitions and serves up the most widespread morality.  (20)

…We must define a perversion of the idea of what’s important, what’s serious.  Repetition is serious in the beginning, but later it is not….  It’s only seriously during apprenticeship…  Philosophy’s focus on its history can become prejudicial to the independent exercise of philosophy, although it is necessary and excellent as training.  Interpretation is only the beginning of philosophy.  In a certain sense, students should not stay in school.  The only serious thing is invention.  (22)

Technical vocabulary seems even immoral:  it prevents the majority from participating in the conversation, it elimnates rather than welcomes, and further, it lies in order to express in a more complex way things that are often simple.  It doesn’t necessarily lie in its content but in its form, or, more precisely, in the rules of the game it imposes.  You can almost always find a lucid way to express delicate or transcendent things.  (25)

Epistemology requires one to learn science in order to commentate it badly, or worse, in order to recopy it.  Scientists themselves are better able to reflect on their material than the best epistemologists in the world– or at least more inventively.  (29)

Until very recently, in order to get a teaching credential in philosophy, you had to have earned a certificate in one of the sciences chosen from a list that included mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology– in short, the hard or fairly hard sciences –and ethnology or prehistory, what we might call the softer or more human sciences.  Those students of philosophy with no scientific training always chose to take the exam in ethnology or prehistory.  This is the reason for philosophers sudden interest– the fad even –for the so-called human, or social, sciences.  You [Latour] are right:  great intellectual movements can often be explained by reasons springing from the sociology of science; one has only to invent an entrance exam, and the corresponding science will exist.  (35)

All these things are still seen everywhere today.

As I said in my last post, I find Badiou’s political philosophy to be among the most satisfying (Ranciere’s would be another).  It recognizes the rarity of politics or that not everything is political, refuses the mastery of philosophy, proceeds from an egalitarian maxim, and bases its politics on an affirmation rather than critique.  The question that must be posed, however, is what happens to our conception of the political when ecology becomes a site of the political.  With ecology, however, we get a fundamental mutation in our understanding of the political.  Since the beginning, politics– at least as conceived by the tradition of Western philosophy –has been an affair of humans.  To be “cosmopolitical” was simply to be someone that recognized all different human cultures.  We see this at work in Badiou’s thought as well:

…political sequences are singularities:  they do not trace a destiny, nor do they construct a monumental history.  Philosophy, however, can distinguish a common feature among them.  This feature is that from the people they engage these orientations require nothing but their strict generic humanity.  In their principle of action, these orientations take no account of the particularity of interests.  They induce a representation of the capacity of the collective which refers its agents to the strictest equality.  (Infinite Thought, 70)

He continues,

What does ‘equality’ signify here?  Equality means that a political actor is represented under the sole sign of his or her specifically human capacity.  Interest is not a specifically human capacity.  All living beings protect their interests as imperative for survival.  The capacity which is specifically human is that of thought, and thought is nothing other than that by which the path of truth seizes and traverses the human animal.  (71)

The political here is carefully restricted to humans, a point that can be clearly seen everywhere in Badiou’s work.  This is a point that Badiou himself recognizes.  As he recently remarked,

In ecology we can find a new form of the question of change.  Maybe it is the idea that we must create something like a modern tradition.  You must understand the point clearly:  the modern tradition is a tradition by the fact that we preserve the repetition of nature in some sense. [...]  This is why ecology is not directly inside the classical revolutionary vision.  Ecology is something different because it is a traditional revolution.  It is a revolution of the tradition itself.  Ecology aims to create a new tradition.  It does not aim to create a new form of pure progress or of pure becoming.  You know it is a very complex and interesting question, this relationship between the sort of will for a new tradition and the revolutionary tradition.  So we can say that ecology is the attempt to create a revolution of the revolutionary tradition, it is the attempt to invent a new tradition.  (Courtesy of Duane Rousselle, Badiou, Chapter 1– The Subject of Change).

What we see here is a faltering of Badiou’s categories or conception of the political.  With ecology as a site of the political, the egalitarian declaration no longer quite works.  We can, presumably, retain the categories of “subject”, “event”, and “truth-procedure” as political operators and dimensions, but the axiom of equality becomes more difficult.  Please note, that the issue here is not one of criticizing Badiou, but of trying to determine how politics is to be thought today.  What does ecology call for us to think in the domain of politics and philosophy?  This truly is a revolutionary transformation that is entirely new from the standpoint of the history of political thought and that will require us to rethink all political categories.

If ecology proves so difficult to think politically, then this is because it requires us to take account of ozone holes, coral reefs, garbage heaps, and all the rest.  We can no longer restrict ourselves to questions of just arrangements between humans.  The question of just social relations remains, but now we’ve opened on to an entirely different universe of actants that must be thought as well.  Such is the question of the shift from politics to, for lack of a better word, genuine “cosmopolitics”.  Cosmopolitics would not be a multiculturalism, but would be a “multi-speciesism”.  This is what ecology enjoins us to ask.

I do not intend to answer these questions here, but only to pose them.  From Badiou I want to retain the rarity of politics, the theory of events, the notion of a subject as that being that is convoked by an event (or in Guattari’s and Sartre’s terminology, a collective), and his understanding of truth-procedures.  From his politics I want to retain the egalitarian axiom.  But as soon as politics shifts to cosmopolitics, the egalitarian axiom encounters limits and we require a new set of axioms for relating to the nonhuman.  The question lies in determining just what those axioms might be.  We might wish to retain the axiom of equality and say that all organisms should be treated equally, but as Cary Wolfe pointed out to me last week, this 1) lands us back into the worst biopolitics of eugenics, and 2) creates an entire mess once we begin raising questions of inter-species relations between nonhuman species.  If, for example, a virus is bringing about the extinction of a particular type of organism, equality would seem to demand that we promote both the virus and the organism nearing extinction.  How do we decide?

This is what I know:  politics must become cosmpolitical, which is to say, ecological.  I also know that politics must be radically egalitarian and anarchic, eschewing hierarchy, the avant-gard, exclusion, and parties.  This is what I don’t know:  How to pose the question of what it means for politics to become ecological or cosmopolitical, what a truth-procedure looks like for a cosmopolitics, and what sorts of axioms it might rest upon.  Hopefully this is a little step along the way and others will have some interesting insights– that don’t involve talking about Stengers and Latour, as these are questions of real politics, not scholarly footnotes –to contribute to thinking these things.

Among the political theories I find most appealing, is that of Badiou’s.  There are roughly four reasons for this:

First, and perhaps foremost, Badiou does not treat everything as political.  For Badiou, politics is only one truth-procedure among others (the three others being love, art, and science.  For Badiou, politics is necessarily rare and exceptional.  The mere fact that something involves power or exploitation or oppression does not yet make it political.  Politics, for Badiou, is something very specific and is not simply or merely the presence of power.

Second, Badiou shares the position of object-oriented ontology in separating ontology and politics.  Ontology is one thing, politics is another, art is yet another, and love is yet another.  One cannot be reduced to another.  Indeed, as Badiou will write in Manifesto for Philosophy,

….philosophy is…the configuration, within thought, of the fact that its four generic conditions (the poem [art], the matheme [science], the political and love) are compossible in the eventful form prescribe the truths of the time, a suspension of philosophy can result from the restriction or blockage of the free play required in order to define a regime of passage, or of intellectual circulation between the truth procedures conditioning philosophy.  The most frequent cause of such a blockage is that instead of construct a space of compossibility through which the thinking of time is practiced, philosophy delegates its function to one or other of its conditions, handing over the whole of thought to one generic position.  Philosophy is then carried out in the element of its own suppression to the great benefit of that procedure.

I shall call this type of situation a suture.  Philosophy is placed in suspension every time it presents itself as being sutured to one of its conditions.  (61)

Philosophy suffers whenever it is sutured or reduced to one of its conditions.  Moreover, each of the generic truth-procedures suffers when it is sutured to another truth procedure.   What Badiou says of art also holds of politics:  Art, says Badiou, is characterized by “[i]mmanence”, in that it “…is rigorously coextensive with the truths that it generates,” and it is characterized by “[s]ingularity” in that “…[t]hese truths are given nowhere else than in art” (Handbook of Inaesthetics, 9).  The truths of politics are immanent and singular to politics, and politics is under no condition to be artistic, scientific, or amorous.  Likewise, the truths of a love are immanent and singular to that love, and that love is under no condition to be scientific, artistic, or political.  Each of the four generic truth-procedures must be given its free reign to elaborate and develop its own immanent and singular truths.

read on!


45I’ve expressed this thought elsewhere and before, but what we need more than ever right now is a skepticism of skepticism, a cynicism towards cynicism.  It’s not that we should become wide-eyed naifs, believing all that we encounter.  No, it’s that critique and cynicism, as Sloterdijk noted, have become both the reigning form of ideology and dominant mode of cultural production within the academic humanities.  Today what we get is critique upon critique and critiques of critiques, where yet another critique arises to critique these critiques as I’m doing now.  Indeed, with Laruelle we get the most radical mode of critique yet, a critique that shows that all thought is ultimately based on a circularity and unfounded decision, that ultimately leads us to a “real-in-the-last-instance” of which we can never speak because to do so would be to introduce yet another circular determination based on an ungrounded decision.  We get a real of which we’re permitted to say nothing.  In all instances we win, showing always how each statement, each claim, each thought, is pervaded by an illegitimate decision, yet we are permitted to say nothing beyond pointing this out.  A true Pyrric victory.

gardenstateWe’re drunk with critique, cynicism, and skepticism.  And in this way, all critique has come to be neutralized.  We now know, a priori, that everything we speak of– including our own critiques! –will contain illegitimate assumptions, illicit interests on behalf of the powerful and dominant classes, and unfounded decisions.  It is all neutralized in advance.  In the culture industry of the academy– and, in particular, the academy that calls itself radical –we will always be able to show that some scandalous desire, ideology, or interest is at work.   As a consequence, we become paralyzed.   We can say well enough what is wrong with any positive knowledge claim and how any ethical or political proposal conceals hidden interests and despicable forms of oppression and inequality, we can show, like the theologians, how everything is stained by sin, yet we can make no positive proposals.  Our sole and single ethical prescription becomes “make no claim, make no proposal, judge no thing.”  Our business– and it is a business, a tenure business –comes to consist in showing that everything is stained and dirty.

In a strange way, we thus become the mirror image of the theologians, yet with the caveat that where they can commit by virtue of their belief in a transcendent term– a horrific God that would condemn trillions to eternal suffering –we can say nothing.  Like the theologians we find sin in everything, seeing all as fallen.  Like the theologians or the fundamentalist freaks of today, we discard all science as really being masked strategems of power, of interest, that are ultimately constructed and without any truth.  We thus strangely find ourselves in the same camp as the climate change denialists, the creationists who use their skepticism as a tool to dismiss evolutionary theory, and those that would treat economic theories as mere theories in the pejorative sense and continue to hold to their neoliberal economics despite the existence of any evidence supporting its claims.  We critique everything and yet leave everything intact.

The point is not to abandon the project of critique.  We’ve all heard the critiques of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, of the gender theorists, of the post-colonial theorists, of Bourdieu and his critique of the scholastic disposition (academia and academics), of the Derrideans, the semioticians, and a host of others.  These critiques, at this point, are complete.  They no longer shock.  As Lacan observed in “Position of the Unconscious” in Ecrits, the formations of the unconscious shift and respond to our interpretations of the unconscious.  The point is that today we need to find the will to believe a little, to affirm a little, and to commit a little.  Marx called for “the ruthless critique of all existing things”, yet that stance has today become the most reactionary and ineffectual position at all.  In the absence of daring to affirm certain things as real and true, we leave all intact as it is.  Only where we abandon our foundationalist, obsessional assumptions, our desire to have the truth before we pursue the truth, our intoxication with epistemology, will we be able to move beyond this paralysis.

boiling_blood_by_hellsangel8924-d4e45ieToday I heard a commentary on the American public radio station NPR that made my blood boil red.  Remarking on the recent scandal and out of court settlement between the US government and SPCS on charges for money laundering, the commentator argued that the bank shouldn’t be held to standard fraud charges because “banks don’t commit fraud, people commit fraud.”  Why is this so galling?  Because in 2010, the American Supreme Court decided that corporations, unions, and various other groups are people and therefore have a right to free speech through their campaign contributions.  In other words, the Supreme Court took a posthuman turn, recognizing the existence of other beings beyond the human (corporations, unions, activist groups, etc).  Well enough.  We shouldn’t begin from the premise that posthumanism entails what is good.  It recognizes reality in recognizing that there are nonhumans with their own interests and that there are “aliens among us” already in the form of intelligent cognitive beings that might depend on humans but which are not themselves humans (a central theme of Kafka’s literature).

cuckoo nestSo what’s the problem here?  On the one hand we’re told that these alien beings are persons (not the same as humans) and therefore are entitled to the rights of free speech through their campaign contributions; while on the other hand we’re being told that when such “persons” commit fraudulent crimes they shouldn’t be held accountable because only humans commit crimes, not banks (which the Supreme Court already defined as persons).  You can’t have it both ways.  If we recognize a corporation as a person, then they should be subject– whatever the economic cost –to all the same laws and penalties as any other person.  We should make the bank go before a court and upon finding it guilty, place a form or document in jail that prevents them from practicing business or any other interactions over the course of their sentence.  If a state has capital punishment, we should be able to execute a corporation, union, or any other organization.  If they are persons, we should be able to put them in solitary confinement.  Indeed, we should be able to examine their mental fitness and institutionalize them, demanding therapy.

If we are to be posthumans, then we really have to be posthumans.  We have to consider the ethical machines of nonhuman machines such as animals and corporations, and we must also subject these other machines to our ethical and political machines.  We need to have serious discussions about the rights of these various entities and develop our incorporeal government machines accordingly.  The worst part of this whole story is that no one will be held accountable.  The bank won’t be brought up on charges because the governments fear that it would have too much of an economic impact and “because banks don’t commit fraud, people do”.  The bankers won’t be held accountable because it is believed the banks did it.  That 1 billion dollar settlement?  It’s coming out of the pockets of shareholders.  No one that matters is held accountable because we’re playing a double game as to just what counts as a “person” or “agent”.  What a world we live in.

A great set of interviews on digital humanities conducted by Alex Reid’s graduate students, including one by me.  Check it out here!

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