My Critical Introduction and Guide to Principles of Non-Philosophy

My second monograph, François Laruelle’s Principles of Non-Philosophy: A Critical Introduction and Guide [UK link], was recently published by Edinburgh University Press. (As an aside, I have had really lovely experiences working with Carol Macdonald at Edinburgh and would highly recommend her if you’re looking for a publishing partner.) EUP recently asked me to write a short blog about the book and that’s now up on their website.

The book is organized so that each chapter addresses the same chapter in Principles. So, Chapter 1 examines the history of Laruelle’s non-philosophy with special attention to the relationship between science and philosophy alongside of glosses on the important concepts of “the One” and “radical immanence”. Chapter 2 looks at Laruelle’s conception of a “unified theory of philosophy and science” in dialogue with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the metamathematics of Kurt Gödel. Chapter 3 provides the historical background for Laruelle’s conception of the “force-(of)-thought”. While Chapter 4 does the same for “determination-in-the-last-instance” but also sketches a schematism of his conception of the One in dialogue with Fichte’s Science of Knowing. Chapter 5 turns to the method of dualysis and explores the way it functions. This is carried out by surveying three instances of dualysis: 1) Being and Alterity or Otherness (with reference to the Greek and Jewish shape of contemporary European philosophy); 2) reason and mythology (with reference to the notion of universality in philosophy); and 3) life and death (with reference to the concept of the “lived” in non-philosophy). Finally Chapter 6 presents a reading of non-philosophy’s place on the contemporary philosophical landscape. While I accept that the distinction between analytic and Continental philosophy is largely artificial and intellectually untenable, the two terms are operative within academic philosophy and establish boundaries, however fuzzy, for certain concerns and concepts. Here we see how Laruelle takes up these concerns and concepts in a post-Continental form, before turning to look at some specific post-Kantian themes that are mutated and recast by non-philosophy.

This text was written alongside another introductory work on Laruelle to be published in June of this year by Polity entitled Laruelle: A Stranger Thought [UK link]. The two works are distinct from one another. The critical introduction and guide being more concerned with the philosophical register of his thought as given in Principles of Non-Philosophy and more focused upon the specific concepts Laruelle develops there and that endure throughout his work. While in A Stranger Thought I turn away from a particular text to examine what Laruelle’s non-philosophy has to say about the traditional domains of politics, science, ethics, religion, and aesthetics in dialogue with figures outside of the academic domain of philosophy. The two texts are written to work as stand alone books, but also to complement one another should a reader find that helpful in their own attempts to make use of Laruelle’s non-philosophy.

“Awkwardness as a Way of Life”: My lecture for the Architecture Department at UIC

Teaching music

I have frequently been called upon to teach the intro to fine arts course at Shimer College. It is a challenging course because it falls outside the “read books and talk about them” model that professors and students alike are most comfortable with. Talking about art and music in an intelligent and collaborative way requires a different set of skills than talking about texts, a problem that is compounded by the fact that many people believe those skills are an occult discipline that is unattainable by most — especially in the context of music, with its complex theoretical apparatus. In the worst case, you get some students making up narratives to go with a classical piece, other students (those with some musical performance training) trying unsuccessfully to explain basically what the sheet music probably looks like, and a critical mass sitting in sullen silence because they don’t know what they’re supposed to say.

My approach has been to sidestep the technical terminology to the extent possible and focus instead on giving them obvious things to listen for. Read the rest of this entry »

What I’m working on this semester

Having just finished a major project, this semester I’m using my writing time for smaller things. I’m working on expanding my theory on Coates and Augustine into a proper academic article, which I hope to be in a position to submit to a journal by the end of the month. I also have some revisions to do for an article comparing the concept of “canon” in scriptural traditions and in Star Trek.

Later in the semester, I’m going to be participating in a conference at Loyola University Chicago, where I’ll be giving a paper on Agamben and serving as a respondent for Thomas Altizer. For the former, I propose to flesh out a critique of The Kingdom and the Glory that I briefly lay out in The Prince of This World, and my intention is to write that up as a proper article and then condense it down for the conference.

I have also been working with Carlo Salzani on an edited volume centered on Agamben’s relationship to his sources. Over the course of last semester, we solidified our list of contributors, and now the proposal is under review — so I guess I’ll be “working on that” in the sense of “waiting to hear back.” Also Agamben-related: The Use of Bodies comes out in a few weeks, and at some point in April I should be doing a discussion session on it with Northwestern’s Paul of Tarsus Interdisciplinary Working Group. Watch this space for details.

And what, dear readers, are you working on this semester? (Thanks to Melanie Kampen for reminding me to include the discussion prompt.)

Fantasies of Europe: Žižek against Žižek

I’ve been thinking recently about the links between Žižek’s Eurocentrism and the role that Christianity plays in his work, and in doing so I’ve been returning to some of his earlier work, in which he’s less interested, as of late, in the notion of a Europe under threat from the fantasies of its external others and more interested in the ways in which his native Balkans get caught up in the fantasies of Western Europe. I was struck, repeatedly, by the contrast between Žižek’s analysis of the Balkans’ relationship to Europe and his recent discussions of European attitudes to immigration. I wish that Žižek would read Arun Kundnani’s account of the West’s role in creating “Islamist terror”; I wish he would read Christine Delphy’s discussion of the role that feminism has long played in French racism. But mostly I wish he would recognise in his own discussions of the Muslim world the complex and destructive fantasies he is able to see in Western Europe’s attitude to the Balkans. Žižek has a tendency to lazily repeat more or less racist stereotypes about Muslims, migrants and non-Europeans. What his own work suggests is that actually this makes a lot of sense, because his discussion of these issues is precisely an Orientalist fantasy of a world in which what everybody else most strongly desires is to become European. It’s frustrating that he cannot recognise this hypocrisy. Without further comment, then, here are some selections from Žižek’s discussions of Europe and the Balkans, alongside his recent discussions of Europe and migration from the Muslim-majority world:

Whose fantasy? #1

Recall the fascination exerted on Western democrats by the disintegration of Socialism in the late 1980s: the key dimension of what fascinated the West was not, as may have appeared, the scene of Eastern Europeans rediscovering the values of democracy with an enthusiasm that was conspicuously absent in the West, but, rather, the fact that the Eastern Europeans protesting against the rule of the Communist nomenklatura were them­selves fascinated by the West, looking towards it – the true fantasmatic object of the West was this Eastern gaze itself, able to see in the West what people there no longer saw: a land of freedom and democracy….
For They Know Not What They Do, c.

In escaping their war-torn homelands, the refugees are possessed by a dream. Refugees arriving in southern Italy do not want to stay there: many of them are trying to get to Scandinavia. The thousands of migrants in Calais are not satisfied with France: they are ready to risk their lives to enter the UK. Tens of thousands of refugees in Balkan countries are desperate to get to Germany. They assert their dreams as their unconditional right, and demand from the European authorities not only proper food and medical care but also transportation to the destination of their choice. There is something enigmatically utopian in this demand: as if it were the duty of Europe to realise their dreams – dreams which, incidentally, are out of reach of most Europeans (surely a good number of Southern and Eastern Europeans would prefer to live in Norway too?).
The Non-Existence of Norway

The clearest expression of the “desire for the west” are immigrant refugees: their desire is not a revolutionary one, it is the desire to leave behind their devastated habitat and rejoin the promised land of the developed west. (Those who remain behind try to create there miserable copies of western prosperity, like the “modernised” parts in every third world metropolis, in Luanda, in Lagos, etc, with cafeterias selling cappuccinos, shopping malls, and so on).
The Cologne attacks were an obscene version of carnival. Read the rest of this entry »

Deflating the Magical President Myth: Take 2 on Sanders vs. Clinton

You all have convinced me that my thought experiment yesterday was excessively pessimistic. It’s unlikely that Sanders could both win the nomination and enter office with the Democratic establishment seething with resentment against him (the role of the superdelegates alone ensures such an outcome is extremely improbable). Hence let’s say that the worst-case scenario of a Sanders presidency that turns into an utter fiasco is off the table.

Everyone seems to concede, however, that barring a massive change in the dynamics of Congressional races — a massive change that I actually think is more likely than conventional wisdom would grant — Sanders’ room for maneuver would be limited. His control of a crucial veto point would at least ensure that activists wouldn’t have to waste time rallying against obviously stupid stuff, and his ability to staff the executive branch could make a big difference (credit to Stephen Keating for both links). Nonetheless, the widely shared view even among Sanders supporters is that he cannot possibly fulfill his supporters’ most optimistic expectations.

And that may be a very good thing. What has made me hesitant on Sanders is my memory of Obama’s supposedly transformational mass-movement and its consequences. Yes, yes, this time we have a real progressive instead of a centrist with great rhetorical skills. And if we can finally, against all odds, get the Right Person into the most powerful office in the land, then that will definitively prove that the presidency is not enough. It will break the myth, which everyone on the left who has any investment in electoral politics keeps falling for again and again, of the Magical President.

I said in my last post that it would perhaps be better to concentrate on consolidating power at lower levels so that a progressive president could be most effective — an aspect of my argument that virtually everyone ignored, by the way — but not only is that not an either/or, it may be only a both/and. Only the disappointments and failures of the Right Person can open up the possibility that the movement will actually focus on building a broader power base instead of focusing exclusively on the presidential moon shot. By contrast, a Sanders loss leaves open the space of fantasy that electing the Right Person as president would have fixed everything….

Among all Democratic politicians, Sanders stands the best chance of creating this kind of mobilization as well. He’s not afraid to say that politics is about conflict and that there are real enemies who need to be defeated — hence he is more likely to blame Republicans rather than “Congress” and to forcefully make use of his guaranteed media access to help promote that end. By contrast, a defeated candidate would struggle to maintain anything like the national platform Sanders now has.

The presidency isn’t omnipotent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful, and as the commenter protoplasm elegantly argued, you learn to exercise power by actually exercising it. Sanders has proven effective in exercising power in the unfavorable circumstances of the Senate, so why not be optimistic that he would do his level best as president?

So there you have it: an opinion ventured, then changed through constructive dialogue. Remember this day, because it is the first and last time it will ever happen in our lifetimes.

A thought experiment on Clinton vs. Sanders

[Editor’s note: Comments have convinced me that this scenario is excessively pessimistic.]

Let’s grant from the outset that both Clinton and Sanders are “electable,” particularly against the crew of fools and mediocrities that the Republicans have to choose from. Let’s even further stipulate that either one of them would definitely win easily, to stay within my strictures against electability-based strategic voting. Finally, let’s assume that both of them maintain Obama’s modest progress on the environment, hence contributing to the literal survival of the human race. What does the situation look like the morning after?

On the one hand, you’d have the status quo. I see no evidence that Hillary Clinton would make things materially worse than they have been under Obama. She may be slightly more “hawkish,” but she’s also a craven opportunist — hence we’re not likely to get the Iraq War redux. On domestic policy, she’d probably continue to cut the same kind of discouraging deals with the Republicans, with the occasional micro-achievement to brag about.

What about the Sanders morning after? You would have a Democratic candidate who has never officially been a Democrat and has effectively run against his own party. His most significant policy proposal so far would be to undo the one major achievement of his predecessor and replace it with something totally different. Party leaders at every level have openly mocked this proposal, including the powerful House leader, Nancy Pelosi, whose political skills will be absolutely crucial to keeping the Democrats united and extracting concessions from the Republicans. Sanders’ most natural ally, Elizabeth Warren, has been unwilling to go so far as explicitly endorsing him.

It’s not unthinkable that the mainstream Democrats would support Sanders enough to avoid Trump, then hang him out to dry. They would be bad people for doing that, and in an ideal world, they would not be in a position to. Yet we have the system we have, and part of that system is that an effective president needs the support of his party. And if the Sanders revolution results in four years of government shutdowns, debt-ceiling scares, and recess appointments, will it have been worth the huge amount of money and energy it will take to grind out a victory against Clinton? For instance, that nurses’ union that gave a million dollars to Sanders — is that really the best use of their money when there’s so much organizing work to do?

And do we have any sense of how Sanders, who has been relatively sheltered as a popular small-state senator, would react to such sustained opposition, how he operates under conditions of brinkmanship? For instance, is it possible that he’d go along with a repeal of Obamacare in order to force the issue on single payer? I hope that’s a ridiculous suggestion, but jumping straight to single payer when there’s an obvious fix to Obamacare that could take us there — the apparently forgotten public option — is a strange tactic. Or could conservative Democrats join forces with the Republicans to create a veto-proof majority that would cut Sanders out of the equation altogether?

If we were voting for dictator, yes, I’d be 100% behind Sanders over Clinton. If Sanders is secretly plotting with sympathetic generals to suspend the Constitution and rule by decree, then this analysis obviously looks a lot different. But if he’s planning to operate within our baroque system of government and within the party system, I think there’s a serious risk that a desperate “Hail Mary” straight for the presidency could end up backfiring and discrediting his cause for a generation.

Could it perhaps better to spend a little more time in the wilderness, harnessing discontent at Clinton’s “not as bad as it could be but definitely not good enough” to continue building a movement that can actually exercise power?

This is all a thought experiment. It’s not an argument in favor of supporting Clinton — in fact, if I’m right, that will take care of itself. And it’s possible that the six-month-old pro-Sanders movement will turn out to be just the movement we need, though I have never seen an explanation of the mechanism that will turn mass mobilization into legislative success within the actual existing system. I certainly haven’t seen a roadmap to Democratic control of Congress, much less control by Democrats who would actually support Sanders’ agenda. I understand the appeal of the Sanders gesture, but it would take a huge amount of money and person-hours to make that gesture.

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