Levi, it’s fascinating to me how you quickly go “elsewhere” after you publish a book. What’s up with that? Do you mean to be a moving target? Whatever the motives, it’s been great to go along for the ride.
I wish I had some sort of elaborate and philosophically rich response to this question, but it’s something I wonder about myself. Each time I write a new book and often even when I write articles, I feel compelled to build things from the ground up. In my article for The Speculative Turn, “The Ontic Principle”, the key concept was affirmative difference. Where the philosophical tradition has largely thought the being of being from the standpoint of the principle of identity (A = A), and its entailments– the principle of non-contradiction, ~(A & ~A), and the principle of the excluded middle, A v ~A –I wanted to see where thought would be led if we began from the premise that there is no difference that does not make a difference or that to be is to make a difference. In The Democracy of Objects, the key concept was “objects” and, in particular, the relationship between what I called “virtual proper being” (the powers or potentials of an object) and local manifestations (the way in which an object is actualized in a particular ecology. In Onto-Cartography, the key concepts are machine, gravity, and world. Now I am on to folds which have a logic and ontology very different from– even if continuous with, perhaps –the ontologies I proposed in “The Ontic Principle“, The Democracy of Objects, and Onto-Cartography. The attentive reader of “Radiant Things” will notice that it is an implicit critique of the ontology I developed in The Democracy of Objects.
I have often felt that this inability to stick with one philosophical scheme is a failure on my part. As an undergrad I had a curious fantasy. In Ohio State’s library, I noticed that a sort of archeology of books was possible. The books I would check out would be filled with underlining from a variety of different readers. It occurred to me that these different underlinings reflected different interpretations of one and the same text. I imagined writing a variety of articles on these books under pseudonyms based on these different underlinings, showing how books are holographic, capable of generating a variety of different readings. Each of these readings would be more or less well defended. How to decide between them? At the time I thought the decision was to be made at the level of the ethics and politics they each generated; at the level of practice.
I often feel as if it’s this way for me with philosophy. There is something holographic about the world, admitting of a variety of different theorizations or conceptualizations. Nonetheless, there is something compulsive in all of this for me, something superego. Maybe it’s among my symptoms in the proper Lacanian sense of the word. I could have gone on just fine after writing The Democracy of Objects, giving talks all over the world and writing endless articles recapitulating what I wrote to these various audiences. Yet whenever I sit down to write such things, whenever I resume, my superego screams at me, forbidding me from doing so, commanding me to go elsewhere, to think something other than I thought before. “Thou shall not repeat!”, it screams. Indeed, the moment I have written something it becomes shit for me, excrement, something that is dead.
Lacan, of course, has taught us that the true imperative of the superego is “enjoy!” And here it bears noting that there’s little that’s “enjoyable” about what Lacan is referring to under the title of “enjoyment” or jouissance. Jouissance, enjoyment, is beyond the pleasure principle, the obverse of pleasure. I do wonder if, in writing, I am not seeking a sort of jouissance of writing. There is, on the one hand, the written or that which falls on the page and goes on to circulate throughout the world. The written is that which has become an object in its own right; a thing that has its own independent existence. But the written is but the snails trail of writing. I experience the written as the bars of a prison cell; as a ghost that haunts me. We become trapped in the words that we have inscribed such that those that read us define us by them and halt or movement. The written becomes an impediment to writing, something that you must perpetually navigate if you are to achieve escape velocity from who you were and what you have thought.
What I want is writing and above all the jouissance of writing, where the act of writing, of inscription, is the leading edge of the envelop of who you are, pushing or taking you elsewhere. I always want to be thinking new things that are obscure to me, to fold myself into new conceptual spaces and to see what the world looks like and what I become when folded into these new conceptual spaces. With the written I feel dead, trapped. With writing I feel as if I am becoming and going elsewhere. I want to get away from the written as quickly as I can. It’s detritus, refuse, waste; the snake’s skin that I have shorn. This symptom is so deeply imbedded in me that it makes editing a tremendously painful process. I can barely stand to look at what I have written as what I have written is finger nail clippings. This is why what I write is so often riddled with typos. I simply don’t go back over it.
This shifting nature of my conceptual system makes me a rather peculiar realist. The lesson of Lacan’s discourse of the master is that the signifier is never adequate to the thing. To signify anything we must refer to another signifier. We unfold the signifier (S1) in another signifier (S2). “Justice is…” “Being is…” However, the truth of the signifier is that something always falls away or escapes; something is always lost. With signifiers (S1 —> S2) we circle around the real (a) without ever being able to capture or articulate it. No matter how well I describe the sound of rain pattering on a tin roof or the taste of a frittata, the sound and taste themselves don’t ever materialize. Carroll’s Alice is never able to capture the thing itself. It always eludes her. This is true even of our attempts to speak ourselves, whether to another or our own internal monologues. Something always slips away. And it is for this reason that we as subjects are split ($). We are divided from both the world and from ourselves, riven or alienated in language. An endless stream of signifiers issues from our mouths, without ever being able to say “it”.
Perhaps this would be the lesson of a superior realism; a realistic realism. The fantasy of much of the history of philosophy ($ <> a) has been the idea of an identity of the concept and reality– C = R –or what amounts to the same thing, the identity of the signifier with the thing. Such is the will to power and dream of domination that Adorno speaks of in Negative Dialectics. So much of the history of philosophy is premised on the idea that we can replace the thing with the concept salva veritate without losing anything because an identity obtains between concept and reality. This is what Latour is referring to in “Can We Have Our Materialism Back, Please?”, when he argues that most materialisms are veiled idealisms because the treat the model, rather than what it models, as the real. We see a move akin to this in my great love (and vice), Badiou, when he argues that the thinking of being (mathematics) is identical to being itself. Mathematical inscription is treated as identical to the real, such that there is nothing else.
What thinkers like Lucretius with his infamous swerve, Hegel with the opening movement on sense-certainty in the Phenomenology, Adorno with his material or differential remainder, Lacan with his objet a that always slips away from our ability to articulate it, and Harman with his withdrawn objects, teach us is the failure of the concept or signifier; that there’s always something that escapes, that can’t be captured in the net of signification. Something similar takes place with the new materialist feminists who all emphasize the capacity of matter to surprise, to behave in unexpected ways. Regardless of what one thinks of re-enchantment of nature and deployment of strategic vitalism (I’m a fan of neither), what’s important here is the emphasis on something that is heteronomous to conceptual schemes, models, and signification.
The odd man out here would be Hegel, for while Hegel underlines the essential inadequacy of language to articulate things in the sense-certainty chapter of the Phenomenology— the way we can never truly say the this, here, now that we wish to point to, but instead always fall into the universal or general of the “this”, “here”, and “now” –his move consists not in preserving this accursed share or ineradicable remainder, but rather in replacing it with the universal. For Hegel it was the universal (the signifier) that was the truth all along. Once again the thing, the material, the event is erased or subordinated to the model (S1/a). The unique feature of thinkers such as Lucretius with his swerve, Adorno with his negative dialectics, Lacan with his Real or remainder, and the new materialists is that they refuse this dialectical gesture where the material remainder is erased and replaced by the signifier, instead marking the gap or hollow, the failure or impossibility, that everywhere and always haunts language. This is the realism, I think, in the new realisms. The realism of the new realisms lies not in the claim that we can represent or capture the real conceptually, but rather in marking the failure of any and all conceptuality and, like Sisyphus, marking the space where something always escapes.
The dream of the ontologies of presence was the identity of the concept and the thing, of thought and reality, of the signifier and what exists. The first consequence that follows from the tracing of the space of the remainder by the new realisms and materialisms is an epistemology of the gesture. The new realisms and materialisms are gestural in both their epistemology and style of writing. Not only is this emphasized conceptually in the writings of new materialists and realists– witness Latour and Barad and their emphasis on the importance of the experimental setting as opposed to the polished scientific article or book that erases the steps by which the abstractions are arrived at –but as is often noted, these vectors of thought are often pervaded by examples and references to the world (rather than simply working with abstract concepts after the fashion of Hegel in The Science of Logic). Everywhere the texts of the new realists and materialists gesture to the world, they point at it, they draw on cases. While we cannot discursively or linguistically refer to the real, they might be able to gesture at the real. When new realists and materialists evoke an example of cooking or deep undersea ocean life, they are not simply illustrating a concept (signifying chain: S1 –> S2) through a helpful example, they are not engaged in what Hegel disparagingly called “picture-thinking”, rather they are both gesturing at something that can’t be discursively or linguistically articulated and are calling the reader to do these things such as cooking to discover the real. “Cook!” the author says, “discover the difference between the recipe or the domain of the concept and the thing that one encounters in the process of cooking!” If, in the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that the realm of the ethical, the realm of phronesis, can only be learned by doing rather than by a conceptual transmission in speech or writing, then this is because the phronetic pertains to the realm of the singular, the irreplaceable, of that which evades the concept. You have to live it to come to know it. In the debate between phronesis and episteme, between practice and theory, the new materialisms and realisms squarely come down on the side of phronesis or practice. One must leave the world of the armchair, of concepts, to encounter the real. The real is nowhere to be found in the concept. Everywhere, then, an epistemology of the gesture that will certainly leave the rationalists dissatisfied. In The Speculative Turn, Brassier’s invectives against Latour come as no surprise, for he is angling after the equation C = R or that the concept can replace the real.
Another strategy, however, lies in multiplying signifiers. Perhaps, in addition to the epistemology of the gesture, the epistemology of that which can only ever be pointed at without it ever being possible to conceptualize it or say it, I have adopted the strategy of multiplying signifiers and perpetually shifting between and among conceptual models of the real. The lesson of shifting conceptual models would be two-fold. On the one hand, shifts between conceptual models would implicitly trace the ever shifting and elusive real. The very eruption of varying ontological models would be a testament to the real, to that which escapes conceptualization. Lacan says that the real is impossible to signify, but that it nonetheless never ceases to be written. There is no signifier of the real, but that very absence leads to a profusion, an eruption, of signifiers. Shifting systems of signification or conceptualization are a symptom of the real. They are the strongest evidence that the real is, well real, or that the antirealists and idealists are mistaken. Were there enough words and were words enough, signifiers wouldn’t proliferate in this way (and note how signifiers explode and proliferate in response to trauma, the most direct instance of an encounter with the real).
On the other hand, shifting conceptual systems disclose something of the real, hook on to something of the real, disclosing different aspects of the being of being. The shift from difference to objects to machines to folds does not entail the utter failure of each of these prior conceptual constellations, but rather is a way of unfolding the real differently. Each conceptual system envelops its own logic that displaces the real in its own way, drawing other things into relief. Again, the hologram. Each conceptual model fails in its own way and unfolds according to its own immanent logic, revealing something true in its deployment.
With the strategy of the proliferation of the signifier, of ever shifting systems or conceptual schemes, we depart from the patriarchal discourse of the master premised on the fantasy ($ <> a) of mastery where we might, once and for all, speak the magic signifier where words are identical to things (notice how similar this is to magical thinking), and enter the discourse of the hysteric: the discourse Lacan identified as the discourse of revolution and the only discourse that produces knowledge. In the discourse of the hysteric we speak not from a supposed position of absolute mastery (S1), but instead speak from the split in our being ($), which is both a split produced by language, but also the split arising from the opacity of our bodies to ourselves and the mystery of materiality and the real. We interrogate and critique those master-signifiers (S1’s) that claim to master being in the concept, and in doing so we generate an explosion of signifiers and of new knowledge. And we do all of this in light of the real (a) in the position of the truth of our discourse, animated by that which always and everywhere escapes every signifying and conceptual web. Such would be the strategy of a superior or strange realism and materialism.