Below is the text from a recent conference (The Fracture of Nothing – On the Return of Nihilism) in which I recently participated. Though I eventually get to Deleuze & Guattari, and a brief reference to Laruelle, the bulk of the paper ended up circling around the work of J Dilla:
“You better stop, and think about what you’re doing.” This is the refrain from a Dionne Warwick song, in 1973, addressed to the lover she is losing, the lover with whom she is in a fractured relationship. What is the lover doing? What is it that the lover ought to stop and think about? Leaving the singer. And if the lover were to stop and think about it, what would the lover realize? The lover would realize what the singer already knows, and what the singer knows is what the song is titled: “You’re Gonna Need Me.”
I want to point out two things about this song. First, the temporal structure of its argument. The lover needs to stop and think because the lover has not yet realized that it will need the singer in the future. Perhaps the lover does not feel this need at present, but what’s interesting is that Warwick does not contest this fact. Warwick implicitly grants the lover’s present lack of need, the fractured nature of the present, focusing instead on the future. The lover is not thinking about the future, but the singer is thinking about it, and the singer wants the lover to do so as well. If the lover were to stop and think, the lover would realize that the singer will be needed “one day,” and most definitely at “the close of the book.” The future is one in which “all your rainbows have turned to gray,” one in which the darkness will set in and in which the lover will realize that, “There’s no splendor in the darkness of night.” In short, the argument goes like this: the relationship, no matter how fractured it is in the present, must survive into the future, because the future without the relationship will be even worse.
The second thing I want to point out is the connection between stopping, thinking, and doing. For Warwick, stopping is necessary for the sake of thinking. The demand to stop is in service of the demand to think, and to think in a certain way. The lover needs to stop, and to think about the threat of a future that has nothing to do with the relationship. The lover, upon thinking of this threat, will do something different. The lover who stops and thinks will stop doing without the relationship and will instead do the continuation of the relationship. To stop and think is thus to do survival. And the implication is that not doing survival is possible only where one has not stopped and thought. If the lover does not do survival, if the lover is doing something that is not survival, this is because the lover has not been thinking; if the lover stops and thinks, then the lover will do survival, since thought demands survival.
We should keep in mind that Warwick is not the first to issue the demand to stop and think about what you’re doing. She has many predecessors, including such luminaries as Plato and Descartes, or Hegel and Aretha Franklin. In fact, Warwick is especially linked to these last two, for her demand belongs to an intersubjective context. Though we have been schooled to recollect the intersubjective context of Hegel’s supposedly world-historical thought, the context of Franklin’s thought is less often presumed to be universal (despite Judith Butler’s pointing out how Franklin troubles the “natural woman”). So let’s pay particular attention to what Franklin says in a song released five years before Warwick’s: “You better think … think about what you’re trying to do to me.” Like Warwick, Franklin addresses this demand—to stop and think about what you’re doing—to a lover. Unlike Warwick, however, Franklin expands this demand outside of the context of the couple. Franklin says “you need me … and I need you,” but this intersubjective need of the couple is derived from a larger horizon, of which the couple is but an example: “Without each other there ain’t nothing people can do.”
Franklin thus moves the intersubjectivity of the demand to stop and think about what you’re doing from the context of the couple to the context of the social, i.e. of people in general. Does this mean Franklin is doing something different from what Warwick is doing? When Franklin contextualizes the couple within the social, does she rethink the couple in virtue of a non-heterornormative social freedom? Or is it the case that Warwick, in speaking only of the couple, gets at the fact that the couple and the social are indistinguishable, that the bonds holding together society are already there in the normative intimacy of the couple? Though I would side with latter interpretation, I want to stick to the obvious commonality between Warwick and Franklin, the element that binds their injunctions together in the last instance. This element is the threat of the future, and more exactly of a future that would not be the survival of the present. For Warwick, we have seen, this threat is a future of being alone, of living without what one is supposed to need, of being in a dark night without splendor. For Franklin, this threat is a future in which, because people are alone, meaning that people are split from the bonds of the couple or the social, “there ain’t nothing people can do.” In short, then, the threat is of a future in which we are unable to do anything, a future in which people can do nothing, a future that has nothing to do with being able to do, a future that is disabled. The threat, in other words, is of a future that is nothing. Borrowing from Lee Edelman, we could say that the threat is that of a future that is unrecognizable, a future that is “no future.” Such a future, or such no-future, has nothing to do with the present, with the reproduction of the present in the name of the future. To stop and think about what you’re doing, at least as it is said by Warwick and Franklin—and no doubt by Hegel too—is to stop, think, and do “reproductive futurism.”
What is at stake in everything thus far, then, is the temporal structure of stopping, thinking, and doing, which is bound up with a logic of survival. One stops and thinks because to do so is to make survive what has been done. There is, in this sense, an assumption, and this assumption is that thought is on the side of survival. Is this assumption built into the demand to stop and think about what you’re doing? In other words, is this demand necessarily a demand for survival?
I don’t think so. My proposal is that the logic of survival, or the assumption that thought is on the side of survival, is produced not by the demand to stop and think about what you’re doing, but by the temporal structure of this demand, i.e. the temporal structure I’ve just been discussing. Additionally, then, my proposal is to find a different temporal structure in this demand. To find this difference we can look at a re-use of Warwick’s song by the rapper and producer J Dilla. This re-use appears on Donuts, released in 2006. It should be noted that this album, though 43 minutes long, consists of 31 tracks. In other words, these songs are very short, and this is important because of the affective environment that is thereby produced. One cannot listen to the album without constantly being cut. One is repeatedly interrupted, and very often this is an interruption of longing or excitement. This means that one is immersed in intensities of joy and sadness yet constantly being interrupted from and by these intensities. The effect is that one can never settle down in any specific intensity, since the mood is constantly being cut off, where this cutting off is also a cutting into another mood. To put this somewhat bluntly, every time one gets immersed, one gets stopped. This continual stopping makes it difficult to think of survival, for the stop becomes more important than the survival. In this regard, it’s worth noting that Dilla made this album on what was effectively his deathbed; existential stopping formed the horizon of its production. And it’s not incidental that the song in which Dilla re-uses Warwick is simply entitled “Stop.”
This change in title marks a change in temporal structure: whereas Warwick subordinated the stop to the thought of the title, “You’re Gonna Need Me,” Dilla just tells us to “Stop.” In other words, the stop is given autonomy from the temporality of survival; the stop becomes prior to the past and future doing of survival; the stop becomes its own, recurrent temporality. This shift is indicated not only in the title but also in the performance. When Dilla gets to the demand—“You better stop and think about what you’re doing”—he plays it four times in a row. Such repetition takes the demand out of the linearity of an argument about the relation between what one is doing and what one is supposed to be doing. And in taking it out of the linearity of argumentation, Dilla also takes it out of the linearity of temporal survival. The demand to stop is followed by the demand to stop, followed by the demand to stop, followed by the demand to stop. In fact, in the third repetition, right after the word “stop,” the sound actually stops. There is pure presentation of the stop, of the cut, as silence. In this way, the demand to stop and think about what you’re doing doesn’t even belong to the flow of the song; it belongs instead to the performance of a stop that literally stops the flow of the song.
But what does all of this have to do with philosophy, and what does it have to do with nihilism? I’ll get to nihilism in a second, but the connection with philosophy emerges with this question: Does the demand to stop and think about what you’re doing belong to philosophy? If one is involved in this demand, is one automatically involved in philosophy? Or is philosophy one particular way of addressing this demand? Or could it even be that philosophy is a way of capturing this demand and turning aside its force?
It’s not possible to consider every philosophical endeavor, so I’ll stick here to the last text from Deleuze and Guattari. Here, as with Warwick and Dilla, the title is important: “What is Philosophy?” As they pose and follow this question, there emerges—once again—a relation of stopping, thinking, and doing. This is because they connect their question to the doing of philosophy. They claim that one can pose the question of what philosophy is only after having done philosophy for a very long time. They are stopping and thinking, “What is it I have been doing all my life?” (1)
What’s relevant is not their specific answer to this question, it’s how they secure the conditions of its poseability. What guarantees the poseability of “what is philosophy?” is the assumption of the doing of philosophy. If one can ask what philosophy is, this is because one assumes that there is something being done that is called philosophy. Thus philosophy is already assumed to exist when one asks what philosophy is; the questioning of philosophy may put many things up in the air, but in the same stroke it maintains a ground, which is that there is philosophy. Deleuze and Guattari are questioning philosophy’s essence, but simultaneously assuming and securing its existence. (As an aside, and in reference to the comment with which I’ll end my talk, it’s worth noting that this resembles Aquinas’ claim about natural knowledge of God—he says that reason is not able to know what God is, but it’s certainly able to know that God exists.)
For Deleuze and Guattari, then, stopping and thinking about what they are doing stays within the horizon of philosophy. Asking “what is philosophy?” means stopping and thinking about what they are doing in the name of philosophy. This assumption of a philosophical horizon is, for me, precisely the obstacle. To indicate where I depart from them, consider this question: What is philosophy doing when it asks what philosophy is? Deleuze and Guattari answer that it is thinking about what philosophy does. I answer that it is securing the existence of philosophy. For me, the most important characteristic of the question “what is philosophy?” is the assumption it depends on and leaves out of question, namely that philosophy exists. When philosophy asks what it is, it is deflecting attention from whether it is. To ask “what is philosophy?” is to do philosophy into existence. And here is the question that Deleuze and Guattari never ask: What are we doing when we do philosophy into existence? They stop and think about what they’re doing in the name of philosophy; but they never stop and think about what they’re doing when they stop, think, and do in the name of philosophy. For this reason, we can say that the act of stopping, thinking, and doing, as such, is prior to philosophy; stopping, thinking, and doing is not intrinsically philosophical, rather philosophy is the capture of the act of stopping, thinking, and doing; this act has no intrinsic need for philosophy.
Deleuze and Guattari’s stopping, thinking, and doing, like Warwick’s, is involved in a certain temporality. Their stopping of philosophy, because it’s a doing of philosophy into existence, is bound up with the survival of philosophy. Specifically, we find that there is a past of philosophy, since one has already done philosophy when one asks what philosophy is. Additionally, since asking what philosophy is ensures the existence of philosophy, there is also a future of philosophy. The question “what is philosophy?,” even if it fails to give us an answer, even if it fails to give us a philosophical essence, most certainly does not fail to give us a temporality of philosophy. It succeeds in giving, by giving, philosophy something to be inherited and something to go on). It makes philosophy succeed. This is why the question “what is philosophy?” is bound less to an answer or even to a concern for an answer, and more to the survival of philosophy. Even when philosophy has left behind all of its objects (God, the world, and man), even when philosophy calls itself into question and emerges as undefined or indefinite, philosophy still pursues the object of its survival. Or, put differently: even when philosophy gives up, or puts into question, all of its objects, even itself, it still succeeds in surviving, it still succeeds as philosophy, and philosophy still survives.
Now we can explicitly raise the question of nihilism. It’s connection to philosophy is this: nihilism is what threatens philosophy’s survival; what gets called nihilism is what gets at the stopping of philosophy. In this sense, the term nihilism will be affixed to whatever says that philosophy should not go on. Philosophy is able to embed the stop within the temporality of philosophical thinking and doing; nihilism frees the stop from this temporality of philosophy, it makes thinking and doing belong to stopping, to stopping philosophy. Philosophy is willing to conceive nihilism, but nihilism stops conceiving, for nihilism stops survival. Nihilism just stops. If we ask what philosophy is, even if we ask whether philosophy ought to be, we still have to do with philosophy, we still want to do things with philosophy. Nihilism, on the other hand, goes even further than wanting to do nothing with philosophy; nihilism wants nothing to do with philosophy.
Deleuze and Guattari stop, but they make sure philosophy does not. And philosophy does not stop because it does the not. If the stop says no, philosophy survives by making the no a matter of philosophy. Along these lines, it’s no surprise that Deleuze and Guattari, after beginning with “what is philosophy?,” end by confronting what says no to philosophy. Philosophy, they tell us, “needs a nonphilosophical comprehension.” (218) It most definitely does, if it wants to survive. But note the direction of dependence: it is philosophy that needs nonphilosophy, it is philosophy that depends on the no, it is not the no that depends on philosophy. Philosophy cannot stop the no, it is the no that can stop philosophy. So if philosophy needs a nonphilosophical comprehension, this is because it needs to survive the no by incorporating the no into philosophy. Philosophy must capture the no, the stop that has nothing to do with philosophy, by doing philosophy with the no. Philosophy wants to redeem the no because it wants to redeem itself. But if you stop, so does the need for redemption.
One final comment: We have seen what the stop, the no, looks like from the perspective of philosophy. But what does philosophy look like from the perspective of the no? When we stop and think about what philosophy is doing, what do we see? François Laruelle, who has sought to provide such a diagnosis, says that philosophy looks like this: an attempt to reconcile Athens and Jerusalem by means of war, an attempt to conceive a world in which the need for reconciliation survives by means of irreconcilable war. I would like to add to this diagnosis a question: Who is it that has done such a thing? Philosophy, of course—but the emphasis ought to be put on the “who” … yes, the philosophers give birth to this world of survival through war, they conceive it … but who are the philosophers? Are they everyone, or are they a particular group of people? Do philosophers spring forth from human nature, or do they belong to a particular history, a history in which particular people conceived the world in order to divide the world, a history in which particular people thus conceived their own survival, succeeding over others? In case my point’s not clear, let me ask one last question: Where are the philosophers? Where do we find those who give birth to this world in which the need for redemption and the need for war are inseparable? I do not think they are everywhere.