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Some provisional notes on the materialism of thought, and modernism as “an aesthetics of necessary failure”

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The fundamental question, insofar as modernism is concerned, is what does modernism make its diverse forms say about themselves. Depending on what modernist forms say about themselves — i.e. whether those forms construe, envisage and articulate themselves as myths of non-meaning, non-cogitation and non-thought; or, allegories (in Benjamin’s sense) or symptoms of the same — we need to internally divide modernism into two temporalities, two periodisations and two politico-aesthetic trajectories: fascist (or postmodernist, that is, neoliberal) and critical. And yet, as ‘consumers’ who are already always producers, even the fascistic and/or postmodernist politico-aesthetic temporality of certain modernist forms — something those forms speak as the intentionality of their producers — we need to brush against their own grain.

Brecht brilliantly anticipated that through both his intervention in the famous realism/modernism debate, and through the dramaturgy of his theatrical productions. So, the problem, from where I stand, is not whether a phenomenology of thinking haunts an aesthetic form. The problem for me, instead, is whether or not such a phenomenology is able to found itself in and as its own materiality by finding its own historical index and historicity. This is precisely where Benjamin’s post-phenomenological thinking — contrary to the dominant poststructuralist current that seeks to interpretatively assimilate him to difference-thinking — stands rigorously and radically distinguished from both Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenology of thought. The ‘Convolutes N’ of his The Arcades Project unambiguously declares that. And it is precisely such post-phenomenological thinking — in its radical separation from the phenomenology of thought — that Badiou, following Althusser, rightly affirms as the materialism of thought.

What, therefore, needs to be stated here unambiguously is the following: post-phenomenological thinking, or the materialism of thought, is not some premature abandonment of phenomenology of thought. Rather, it amounts to the extenuation of what is sheer phenomenology precisely by traversing it to its post-phenomenological antipodes, wherein it stands realised as its own materiality in and as the institution of its own duration and historicity. Conversely, sheer phenomenology of thought in its existence is – from this Benjaminian-Badiouian perspective — the incompleteness of its realisation as the post-phenomenology or materiality of thought, and thus the incompleteness of its own extenuation. [As an aside, it must be said here that this reveals how the line that separates mystified revolution, which is mysticism of difference (Fascism, Bonapartism, social democracy and/or neoliberal postmodernism) from revolution as difference demystified is perilously thin.]

If we attend closely to Badiou’s conception of “fidelity to the event”, we will see that what underlies this conception is precisely the move of extenuating phenomenology of thought by traversing it to its post-phenomenological antipodes, wherein it is its realisation as its own materiality. The event, for Badiou, is not truth, but an interiorised subjective illumination. And yet the event is, for him, indispensably crucial because it enables what he terms fidelity to the event, which in and as its own actuality is the truth of the event in its forcing. That is why, for Badiou, even as the event is not truth; truth is the truth of the event in its forcing. So, for Badiou truth is not the thought of the event. Instead, truth is the event as its own thought in action. And this event as its own thought in action is already the thought or the truth of the event in its forcing. That is precisely why Badiou thinks the event — contra phenomenology of difference and poststructuralism — as neither event of being nor being of event; but as the supernumerary supplement to being that in being identified thus is already always integrated into being. Therefore, for Badiou, the post-phenomenology or materiality of thought is not an out-of-hand rejection of phenomenology of thought. Rather, phenomenology of thought is for him not sheer phenomenology, but is the post-phenomenology or materiality of thought as already always its own limit and thus the already always crossing-of-that-limit.

As a consequence, Badiou’s post-phenomenology or materiality of thought — unlike the post-phenomenology of poststructuralism such as Foucault’s genealogy or Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic ontology – is not a future-anteriority that is retrospectively constructed in, as and through the production of phenomenological effects, which as those effects are no different from the effects produced by Hegelian and Left-Hegelian phenomenologies of identity-as-identity and identity-as-change-of-identity respectively. Badiou’s post-phenomenology is, therefore, clearly, not hermeneutics. Rather, it’s a future-anteriority that is an adventure of construction in being an anticipatory, prefigurative ‘hermeneutic’ thought in action.

Materiality, therefore, cannot be the rejection or abandonment of the idea. That would merely be the inversion of the constitutive diremption — or idealist dialectic — of idea and matter, taking us towards a positivist and vulgar materialism that would continue to confine us within the structure and/or force-field of idealist rationalism. Rather, materiality is the singularising rupture — or rupture as singularity — with that constitutive diremption. This means materiality is the moment of the idea in its emerging as the instantiation of its own absence as the cause of such emerging. In other words, materiality is about the inseparability — and thus singularity — of matter and its idea. Hence, it’s also the movement that is constitutive of prefiguring the overcoming of its interruption by anticipating the limit this movement generates by virtue of precisely being that movement. Materiality then is, as its own (immanent) thought, the already always grasping of its own limit.

This, in my view, is what one learns from the poems of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, particularly Alberto Caeiro’s; Badiou’s rigorously engaged reading of the same, and Adorno’s explication of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure.
In fact, it is in this context of materiality being its own (immanent) thought as the already always grasping of its own limit that Adorno’s conception and explication of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure needs to be situated and made sense of. Modernist forms as forms of non-meaning, non-thought and non-cogitation, vis-à-vis the forms of historical-realist meaning and sense, do not call on us to approach them in a melancholic contemplation imbued by “aecidia” — something that Benjamin warned against. Such forms call on us, instead, to approach them, as Benjamin would have us believe, by intensifying our contemplation of them to such an extent that such contemplative thought turns into its radical opposite: the thought of historcisation that is, therefore, thought in action. This is thought immanent to being now-time; or, ontological subtraction as its own thought in action. Therefore, to grasp modernist forms in terms of Adorno’s conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure is to see how such forms call on us – regardless of what the intentionality of their respective producers is or was – to grasp themselves as something that must already always be exceeded.

Clearly, Adorno’s conception of modernism is in line with Benjamin’s deployment of Schlegel’s romantic conception of aesthetic criticism, wherein a work of art is, at once, itself and an articulation of its own criticism. This is also what Brecht, through the conception and practice of his V-effect, points towards, as does Badiou through his “inaesthetic” conception of art as the real of reflection.

Benjamin’s aforementioned approach to the question of art is, admittedly, from the side of the producer. And that is largely true of Brecht too. But do such approaches of Benjamin and Brecht not, therefore, imply that the consumer is already always the producer, and that he/she thus reads forms not as forms, which would reduce the question of form to that of sheer style, but as modes. To read form as mode is to read form as the transparency of its own formation. We would do well to pay attention to Andre Breton’ glass-house in Nadja, the one he wished to inhabit as a writer, and which Benjamin also affirmatively alludes to in his essay on Surrealism. Thus, to read a form as a mode is to grasp it as the determinate excess of form, and subtraction from the abstract logic of formalism that the concrete form, which is being thus exceeded, mediates.

To read form as mode is to grasp a form as articulating its own criticism, and thereby already always being its own excess and voiding. Adorno’s conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure, not unlike Badiou’s inaesthetics, amounts precisely to that. What Benjamin and Brecht merely imply for the consumer’s side through their insistence that the producer of a form have that form articulate itself as mode, stands cogently formulated as the consumer’s task in Adorno’s conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure.

Clearly, Benjamin and Brecht on one hand, and Badiou and Adorno on the other, together complete the asymmetrical or singular dialectic of productive consumption and consumptive production that Marx clearly indicated while laying bare that same dialectic as the symmetrical and thus idealist dialectic of capital.

In such circumstances, I don’t feel like quibbling much when I am confronted with a certain heuristically recursive reading of this conception of aesthetics of necessary failure as itself a necessary failure. Nevertheless, I cannot stop myself from saying that this conception as the concept that it already is, operates at the modal, not formal, level of abstraction. As a result, this theory is an affirmation of itself in and as its singular temporality and mode by already always being an articulation of the criticism of its own discursive-formal specificity that interrupts its singularity precisely in instantiating it. So, unless one’s insistence about the Adornoesque conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure itself being a necessary failure proceeds through such specification, it runs the risk of becoming a theoretical argument for founding a ‘new’ historicist aesthetics – or, an aesthetics for a ‘new’ historical realism.

Of course, I have my share of problems with Adorno. The way he explicates his concepts of negative dialectics and constellation demonstrates the dialectic as the mode of presentation of its own negativity. This clearly points us towards thinking the dialectic as the affirmative mode of determinate presentation of its own void, and thus excess, in its limit.

In other words, Adorno’s concepts of negative dialectics and constellation clearly point towards thinking (and envisaging) a new order of affirmation that is non-productive. And yet Adorno himself is not able to fully see what his concepts point towards, and walk that path of thinking (and envisaging) affirmation as a non-productive order of ‘being’. His concepts of negative dialectics and constellation show he understands that negativity can escape from its Hegelian dialectical inscription only if it’s thought in terms of the uninterruptedness of destruction. And yet he cannot understand how such an (im)possibility can actually happen. That is because he is unable to think of negativity in terms other than that of destruction. In other words, we find him unable to think negativity in terms of adventurous constructionism of subtraction as an actuality, which would be the actuality of destruction in its uninterrupted ceaselessness. It is not for nothing that Badiou conceptualises and envisages subtraction as that which is the articulation of destructive antagonism towards the sublationary force-field of the (idealist) dialectic. This is why Badiou terms his subtractive affirmationism political negativity.

In such circumstances, Adorno’s failure to think the happening of the (im)possible, which his “negative dialectics” conceptually articulates, can possibly only be ascribed to the limit imposed on his thought by its objective conjunctural location. This failure of his to draw the non-productive affirmative consequences from his own concepts of negative dialectics and constellation is clearly evident in his melancholic conception of the “totally administered society”. Something that then risks generating its own obverse: the Heidegger-like affirmation qua the irrationality of poetic-thinking, and the deconstructive infinite finitudes. And yet, unless we are able to arrive at this criticism of Adorno by showing how his concept of negative dialectics frees negativity of determination from being merely the negation of determination to become its own moment of presentation as negativity, we won’t be able to think and envisage the non-productive order of affirmation in and against the productivity of capital. And that, ironically enough, would make us bring the Heideggerian deconstruction, we strive to throw out of the front door, back in through the rear window.

The heuristic-recursive insistence that we see Adorno’s modernist conception of aesthetics of necessary failure as itself a necessary failure unwittingly risks upholding the ways of deconstruction, and the infinite regress that is concomitant with it. This, as far as aesthetic production within a Marxist field is concerned, could easily compel artists to submit their productive activity, paradoxically enough, to a kind of Lukacsian aesthetic imperative of historical realism.


Marx: An Epicurean in Hegelian disguise?

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“…the principle of Epicurean philosophy is not the gastrology of Archestratus as Chrysippus believes, but the absoluteness and freedom of self-consciousness — even if self-consciousness is only conceived in the form of individuality.
“If abstract-individual self-consciousness is posited as an absolute principle then, indeed, all true and real science is done away with [aufgehoben] inasmuch as individuality does not rule within the nature of things themselves. But then, too, everything collapses that is transcendentally related to human consciousness and therefore belongs to the imagining mind. On the other hand, if that self-consciousness which knows itself only in the form of abstract universality is raised to an absolute principle, then the door is opened wide to superstitious and unfree mysticism. Stoic philosophy provides the historic proof of this. Abstract-universal self-consciousness has, indeed, the intrinsic urge to affirm itself in the things themselves in which it can only affirm itself by negating them.
“Epicurus is therefore the greatest representative of Greek Enlightenment, and he deserves the praise of Lucretius:

“Humana ante oculos foede cum vita iaceret
In terris oppressa gravi sub religione
Quae caput a caeli regionibus ostendebat
Horribili super aspectu mortalibus instans,
Primum Graius homo mortalis tollere contra.
Est oculos ausus primusque obsistere contra,
Quem neque fama deum nec fulmina nec minitani
Murmure compressit caelum………………………
Quare religio pedibus subjecta vicissim
Obteritur, nos exaequat victoria caelo.”
(“When human life lay grovelling in all men’s sight, crushed to the earth under the dead weight of religion whose grim features loured menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky, a man of Greece was first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge. Fables of the gods did not crush him, nor the lightning flash and growling menace of the sky…. Therefore religion in its turn lies crushed beneath his feet, and we by his triumph are lifted level with the skies.”)

“The difference between Democritean and Epicurean philosophy of nature…has been elaborated and confirmed in all domains of nature. In Epicurus, therefore, atomistics with all its contradictions has been carried through and completed as the natural science of self-consciousness. This self-consciousness under the form of abstract individuality is an absolute principle. Epicurus has thus carried atomistics to its final conclusion, which is its dissolution and conscious opposition to the universal. For Democritus, on the other hand, the atom is only the general objective expression of the empirical investigation of nature as a whole. Hence the atom remains for him a pure and abstract category, a hypothesis, the result of experience, not its active [energisches] principle. This hypothesis remains therefore without realisation, just as it plays no further part in determining the real investigation of nature.”
–Karl Marx, ‘Difference Between The Democritean And Epicurean Philosophy of Nature In General’


What do we have here? Marx, the Epicurean affirmationist and anti-dialectician in a Hegelian garb? And was this not who Marx really always was? Is this not the Marx that Althusser and his band of Althusserians, particularly Macherey and Badiou, produce through their detour via the Greek atomists (and Spinoza in Macherey’s case), thanks to the ‘discovery’ of the “epistemological break” between Early Marx with his expressivist human ontology and subject and Late Marx with his antagonism between concrete labour and productive forces on one hand, and abstract labour and social relations of production on the other? Was this not the Marx that was always there, right at the very beginning — this being his doctoral dissertation — and who had only momentarily been obscured by the dross of Hegel’s dialectic and Young Hegelian dialectical anthropology? Did not the Marx of Capital, but especially of the Grundrisse, continue doing what he does in this doctoral thesis of his: mobilise and deploy the dialectical discourse against itself in order to have it break with itself? Is it not this break with the dialectic and its structure — which is tantamount to the universalisibality of the singular — that is evident here when he writes:” Abstract-universal self-consciousness has, indeed, the intrinsic urge to affirm itself in the things themselves in which it can only affirm itself by negating them.”? Sure, he uses the Hegelian-dialectical terminology and conception of negation to articulate this anti-dialectical universal. But is that anything more than his historically given threshold of sayability? So then, is the dialectic of productive forces and social relations of production that Marx elaborates really meant by him to be a dialectic? Or, is the relentlessness of the dialectical machine — that is his magnum opus Capital — not actually meant to indicate the relentlessness of the antagonism of the singular universalising to the dialectical universality? In fact, is that not the direction he unambiguously indicates in his Grundrisse, what with the text tending clearly towards according conceptual primacy to labour vis-a-vis capital and its labour theory of value?

The Althusserian conception of materialism of thought — which in Badiou’s conception of “subjective-materiality” finds a more rigorous and developed reformulation through Mallarme, but also Pessoa — is an Epicurean-subtractionist conception. Epicurus is so extreme in his anti-universalising rigorous particularism that it amounts to subtraction from the diremptive horizon of the universal and the particular, and is thus universal-singularity. Marx’s reading of Epicurus’s philosophy of nature points clearly in that direction. In the portion excerpted above he writes: “If abstract-individual self-consciousness is posited as an absolute principle then, indeed, all true and real science is done away with [aufgehoben] inasmuch as individuality does not rule within the nature of things themselves. But then, too, everything collapses that is transcendentally related to human consciousness and therefore belongs to the imagining mind.” The last sentence of this quote is particularly irrefutable as evidence on that count.

And this is the direction Althusser pursues in his later conception of aleatory materialism or materialism of the encounter. Badiou follows that path even further as is evident from his conceptions such as truth as “fidelity to the event”, the “universal-singular” and “subtractive ontology”. Both of them correctly grasp the materialist dialectic as the culmination of Epicurean rigorous particularism and thus subtractive universal-singularity. This evidently makes this materialist dialectic the operation of forcing the truth of the aleatory, the encounter, or the event a la Badiou. In fact, when Althusser articulates his conception of materiality as pure happening (the encounter) sans all matter, it is this Epicurean subtractionist conception of materiality that he strives to affirm.

That Marx himself adopted this Epicurean-subtractive modality of thinking – albeit in the discursive idiom of Hegelian dialectics — is evident in how he envisages and articulates his conception of natural history of capital in Capital, Volume I. Marx’s conception of natural history with regard to his discursive representation of capital as its own immanent critique – Adorno was to later further develop this conception of natural history in his Negative Dialectics — reveals how the emergence and generalisation of productive labour is constitutive of diremption between man, and nature-as-matter. Something that, therefore, renders labour, in its situation within and animation by that horizon of diremption, fundamentally immaterial.

Marx’s conception of capital in terms of natural history, therefore, also demonstrates that labour can emancipate itself from its constitutive condition of immateriality (or ideality) only in, as and through its self-abolition. That is encapsulated in clear programmatic terms in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. And labour in self-abolition would basically be materiality as a rupture with the horizon of constitutive diremption of labour in its immateriality and nature-as-matter, to be an affirmation of the singularity of nature as nonidentitarian excess of identity, or as the negativity of the historical in and as its own determinate presentation.

Clearly, therefore, materiality, a la Marx’s conception of natural history, is not simply nature-as-matter because matter is nothing but the constitutive obverse of the immateriality or ideality of labour. Rather, materiality, in this conception, is the duration and/or historicity of nature as nonidentitarian excess. This is precisely materiality without matter, as materiality should and can only be. In that context, the Althusserian conception of materialism of thought, and Badiou’s conception of “subjective-materiality” is an Epicurean-subtractionist rearticulation of this natural-historical conception of materiality without matter.
We can, therefore, also easily claim that Althusser and, especially, Badiou’s subtractionist rearticulation of the materialist dialectic – something they accomplish by reading the materialist dialectic in Marx through the prism of Epicurus and Greek atomism – is a reformulation of the Marxian conception of natural history in the discursive register of Epicurean and Greek atomism. Can we not?

Political militancy and the question of literature

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I am no literary scholar. I have neither the qualification nor the inclination to be one. Therefore, I wouldn’t know – and can’t say – how a literary scholar ought to go about his/her business of engaging with literature. However, I can probably talk about what an aspiring militant seeking to engage with the literary can and ought to do.

The question before such an individual cannot be how the literary can serve the political – or, for that matter, how the political can serve the literary. The question, instead, must be; can one approach the literary and the political as two paradigmatic conditions of the singularities of literature and politics, and constellate them as those generic singularities. Politics, as opposed to the political, and literature, as opposed to the literary, is precisely about such constellating of generic singularities. [Here one must be clear that politics and literature as generic singularities, even as they are informed in their determinate instantiations by the particularites of their respective paradigmatic conditions, of the political and the literary, are irreducible to those conditions. The paradigmatic particularity and the singularity whose instantiation it informs are in an asymmetrical dialectic.]

In other words, an aspiring militant is faithful to his aspiration only when he seeks to equally engage with the literary and the political by struggling against – that is, criticising both theoretically and practically – the pushing of the political into the literary and vice-versa. For such an individual, it can never be about the ‘enchantment’ of poetry against the ‘disenchanted’ arrogance of critical theory, or vice-versa. It’s not even about being even-handed with regard to this binary so that some sort of reconciliation, either additive or aggregative, can be effected between the two, and the binary as the distributive structuring of differences can exist by striking a balance (a golden mean as it were). Rather, an aspiring militant must approach critical theory and poetry as two determinate anthropological-passional registers, and two determinate historical indices, of thinking in its affective (and thus impersonal) singularity. Thinking — we would do well to remember here a la both Heidegger, and Badiou’s Platonist matheme — is that which has not yet been thought and which perpetually resists thought.

So, if it is not the normativity of logos (political philosophy, critical theory) over the literary, it cannot be the poem-as-difference either. For a radical critique of the logos — which is the force-field of identities and within which the subjective experience of difference that is the poem is already always subsumed, thereby articulating the poem as an objective identity (difference-as-identity) – what is required is concept of the impossibility of conceptualisation (logos).

In other words, we need to rearticulate logos as difference in its limit. This is what the matheme, thanks to Badiou’s radical reinterpretation of Plato, amounts to. And that is the reason why I personally prefer the matheme, over Heidgger’s “poetic-thinking”, as a rigorous explication of thinking as the presentation of the void of thought. [It is on account of its rigour that the matheme enables an anticipative-prefigurative articulation of future-directedness, which is much more powerful and radical than what Heidegger’s “poetic-thinking” affords.]

Therefore, both literature and politics as generic singularities are instantiations of that singular affectivity of thinking in its indivisibility. It must be mentioned here that they are generic singularities only in their tendency to mutually constellate with one another as the uninterrupted process of singularisation (Badiou’s “singular-multiple”).

Unfortunately, there are far too many people – including both terrorists of the political, and terrorists of the literary — who miss this only to unreflexively indulge in such stupid and pointless instrumentalism from one end or the other. The former in the name of some kind of romanticised radical political valour, and the latter in the name of the enchantment of poetry and suchlike. And then, of course, there are those middlemen, even more stupid, who have made it their lifework to effect a reconciliation between the two instrumentalist modes so that the binary can continue to perpetuate itself even as their privileged position as oh-so-balanced and oh-so-ecumenical scholars is preserved and reinforced within the system that is this binary.

These middlemen can often be seen neurotically holding forth on the enchantment of poetry for the benefit of those who are engaged in politics, and on the valour of the movemental for the benefit of those who are engaged in literature. Such propensities, needless to say, are animated by the objective reality of capitalist modernity, which is a horizon constitutive of mutually competing particularities seeking to accomplish their sovereignty through such competition.

It ought to have become clear by now, I assume, that I’m distinguishing singularity from sovereignty, which is the particular seeking to institute the universality of its own particularity. Therefore, an aspiring militant who seeks to engage with literature can be faithful to both his aspiration and his engagement only if his activity is informed by the following conception: there can only be singularity, no sovereignty. Or, if, following Georges Bataille, he does decide to affirm sovereignty then he must carefully attend to the conceptual valency of sovereignty in Bataille’s thinking, and discourse, of “transgression” “radical evil” and the “general economy” of expenditure (as opposed to what Bataille calls the “restricted economy” of production and accumulation). If he does that he will see that, for Bataille, singularity is the only sovereignty that can be affirmed.

The affirmation of literature (together with politics) as a generic singularity, if situated rigorously in that context, is not an “art-for-art’s-sake” kind of argument. Not at all. Instead, what such affirmation amounts to is literature is so autonomous, or singular, that it’s not even for itself, to say nothing of being for the political. The autonomy of literature that a militant engaging with literature must affirm — if he’s to be truly committed to his literary engagement, and thereby to his militancy — is not the sovereignty-seeking aestheticised particularity of literature, but literature as the “inaesthetic” (Badiou) evental-process of singularisation in the determinate paradigmatic condition of the literary.

It, therefore, follows that to think the singularity of literature, or, for that matter, the singularity of politics, is to necessarily think them in their respective limits. To not do that would hypostatise the eventality of the singular with the paradigmatic condition, wherein it is determinately instantiated. That would amount to politics as the revolution of the event turning into counter-revolutionary antipolitics of evental revisionism.

Politics then is nothing else save the actualisation/actuality of this mode of thinking singularities in their respective limits. More importantly, it’s such thinking in action. In such circumstances, the only radical possibility before militant politics, as far as literature is concerned, is to demonstrate and reveal, not politics in literature but politics of literature. That is, not the demonstration of what literature says about politics, but the demonstration of politics in what literature in being literature is. More precisely, the politics of literature is literature being the revelation of the formal economy it is as literature.

What is “true metaphysics” and why materialists should embrace it?

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Whether one aspires to be a militant of revolutionary action or strives to be an artist committed to a radical aesthetic, one would do well, in a certain sense, to follow Foucault in giving up the Kant of Critique of Pure Reason, and its project of theoretical philosophy as analytic of finitude, and affirming the Kant of Critique of Practical reason and its project of practical philosophy as the ontology of the present.

However, instead of conducting this operation in the Foucauldian mode, which amounts to abandonment of the Kantian project of theoretical philosophy as analytic of finitude from the standpoint of Kantian project of practical reason (or ontology of the present), which is thereby rendered ethics a la care of the self, one would do well to adopt a different modality for setting aside the Kant of the First Critique and its project of theoretical philosophy. And that modality would be thinking the Kantian project of theoretical philosophy as analytic of finitude and the Kantian project of practical reason as ontology of the present together, but in their separateness — in a dialectically articulated separateness to be precise.

That would arguably be constitutive of what Alberto Caeiro (a heteronym of Fernando Pessoa) calls “true metaphysics”. This “true metaphysics” is, pace Badiou, thought as already always the presentation of its own void or the instantiation of its absent-cause (which is non-thought) in its limit. Hence, it’s not about thought as knowledge but thinking as that which exceeds thought as knowledge by subtracting from it. It’s thinking as excess of — or, more precisely, subtraction from — its own cogitative capture. In the words of the Marx of The Holy Family, it’s matter that thinks. Not what matter is in thought, but matter as its own immanent thought in action as disavowal of matter in thought.

Thus propositional knowledge is not, in the first instance, its own limit as knowledge. Rather, it is the limit of the presentation of the impossibility of knowledge (which is ontology of the present) that therefore then amounts to propositional knowledge being its own limit. Not metaphysics but metaontology. That in Caeiro’s words is “true metaphysics”.

So, Caeiro as “the keeper of the flocks” — a witness to the emerging of thought as the instantiation and interruption of the non-thought, whose importance as such a witness lies in his vigilance that prevents thought from valorising its limit and thus become metaphysics. Here is a poem by Caeiro that acutely demonstrates that even as his “true metaphysics” is thinking the void, it is not nihilism.

“If at times I say that flowers smile
And if I should say that rivers sing,
It’s not because I think there are smiles in flowers
And songs in rivers’ running…
It’s because that way I make deluded men better sense
The truly real existence of flowers and rivers.

“Because I write for them to read me I sacrifice myself at
To their stupidity of feeling…
I don’t agree with myself yet I forgive myself
Because I’m solely that serious thing—an interpreter of
Because there are men who don’t understand its language,
Being no language at all.”

True metaphysics, a la Caeiro, is a new order of affirmation that is not productive. Badiou’s in-existing as invention (his “nothing-as-something”) is, as far as one is concerned, what Caeiro’s true metaphysics amounts to. Not for nothing does Badiou insist, “Non-thought is rather, for him, the living wisdom of thought itself, and in particular of philosophy in its entirety.” The Swiss-German writer, Robert Walsermust also be mentioned here in that context. Walser’s prose fiction both declares and seeks to enact precisely that singularity of “living wisdom” — excess as ontological subtraction amounts to that — in its inimitably peculiar minoritarian register. Here is a small tale that comprises his ‘Six Little Stories’ in his A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories: “Now I’ve just remembered that once upon a time there lived a poor poet, very oppressed by dark moods, who since he had seen his fill of God’s great world, decided to put only his imagination into his poems. He sat one evening, afternoon, or morning, at eight, twelve, or two o’clock, in the dark space of his room and he said to the wall the following: Wall, I’ve got you in my head. Don’t try to trick me with your strange and placid visage! From now on, you are the prisoner of my imagination. Thereupon he said the same thing to the window and to the gloomy view it offered him day after day. After which, spurred on by wanderlust, he undertook a walk that led him through fields, forests, meadows, villages, cities, and over rivers and lakes, always under the same beautiful sky. But to these fields, forests, meadows, villages and rivers he continually repeated: Guys, I’ve got you locked tight in my head. Don’t any of you think any longer that you make an impression on me. He went home, constantly laughing to himself: I have them all, I have them all in my head. And presumably he has them there still, and they can’t (however much I want to help them do so) get out again. Isn’t this story very full of imagination???”

From Theoretical Antihumanism and Practical Humanism to Practical Antihumanism and Theoretical Humanism: Badiou After Althusser

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That Badiou continues with Althusser’s terms of “practical humanism” and “theoretical antihumanism” — terms whose explication we can read in ‘Marxism and Humanism’, the last essay of Althusser’s For Marx — is there for all to see. But if we attend a little closely to how Badiou adopts those terms by having them pass through Lacan’s affirmation of the “in-human” as the basis of his “ethics of psychoanalysis (ethics being nothing but the question of practice and practical reason) we will see the radical shift that is effected in the conceptual valences of those terms in Badiou’s deployment of them. As a result, Badiou’s redeployment of the Althusserian term of practical humanism conceptually renders it a practice that articulates the non-human in its human embodiment and thereby is an affirmation of a radically new concept of generic humanity as a subtractive construction with regard to what Nietzsche critically designated “Human, All too Human”.

In Althusser, practical humanism is seen as the effect of theoretical antihumanism that is its thwarted immanence. In Badiou’s redeployment, practical humanism is meant to be the reflexive subjectivisation of its own immanent antihumanist thinking in order to be the actuality of that immanent thought in its (unthwarted, uninterrupted) action. A move that, therefore, makes it practical antihumanism precisely when it’s practical humanism. And what this would amount to in terms of theoretical fidelity to itself is a to-be-actualised generic humanity that is radically new in being a constructionist adventure.

Hence, theoretical humanism is, in this sense, conceptual fidelity to the truth of practical antihumanism that the Althusserian practical humanism has become in Badiou’s inimitable redeployment of it. Badiou’s universal-singularity as nonrelational relationality — or the human under the condition of the non-human — is what this practical antihumanism (the immanent thought of antihumanism in action in its human embodiment) as the condition of the (radically new) theoretical humanism amounts to This is clearly a philosophical manoeuvre — a thought-procedure if you will — of epistemology-ontology short-circuit that underlies Badiou’s engagement and explication of politics as prescriptive thought. A thought that, in Lacan’s words, is the thought that finds and not one that seeks itself in its own cogitative capture. This, if you will, is precisely what is at stake in Badiou’s thinking of “subjectivity without subject” from within Althusser’s “process without subject” but against and beyond it.

That Badiou is a thinker of practical antihumanism and theoretical humanism in the sense I’ve tried to argue above is most clearly evident in his Ethics and the last chapter of The Century — “The joint disappearances of Man and God’ — where he engages with Sartre’s “radical humanism” and Foucault’s “radical antihumanism” by attempting to read them in their dialectical encounter with one another. I will make two brief citations from that chapter here in the hope that they will somewhat demonstrate Badiou to be a thinker of practical antihumanism and theoretical humanism in the sense that I have tried to bring out above:

“As is the wont of the dialectical thinking of contradictions, there is a unity of the two conflicting orientations. That is because both of them treat this question: What becomes of man without God? And they are both programmatic. Sartre wishes to ground a new anthropology in the immediacy of praxis. Foucault declares that the disappearance of the figure of man is ‘the unfolding of a space in which it is once more possible to think’. Radical humanism and radical anti-humanism agree on the theme of Godless man as opening, possibility, programme of thought. That is why the two orientations will intersect in a number of situations, in particular in all the revolutionary episodes.

“In a certain sense the politics of the century or revolutionary politics more generally, creates situations that are subjectively undecidable between radical humanism and radical anti-humanism. As Merleau-Ponty saw perfectly – but only to draw from the undecidable indecisive conclusions —the general heading could very well take a conjunctive allure: ‘humanism and terror’. While the twenty-first century opens with a disjunctive morality: ‘humanism or terror. [Humanist] war against terrorism.

“This conjunctive dimension, this ‘and’, which can already be registered in the thinking of Robespierre or Saint-Just (Terror and Virtue) – a conjunction that authorizes us, forty years later, to write, without a hint of paradox, ‘Sartre and Foucault’ – does not hinder, but rather demands, in order that we may be worthy of what happens to formalize the conflict of radical orientations….”

And then again the following from the end of the same chapter:

“Through the great voices of Sartre and Foucault, the century asked: The coming man, the man who must come, in the guise of an existence or of a thought, is he a superhuman or an inhuman figure? Is the figure of man to be dialecticized, surmounted? Where else will we install ourselves? In an ‘elsewhere’ that Deleuze declared to be ‘interstellar’.

“At the century’s end, animal humanism wants to abolish the discussion itself. Its main argument, whose obstinacy we have already encountered several times, is that the political will of the overhuman (or of the new type of man, or of radical emancipation) has engendered nothing but inhumanity.

“But that’s because it was necessary to start from the inhuman: from the truths to which it may happen that we partake. And only from there can we envisage the overhuman.

“About these inhuman truths, Foucault was right to say (as was Althusser with his ‘theoretical antihumanism’ or Lacan and his radical dehumanization of the True) that they oblige us to ‘formalize without anthropologizing’.

Let call our philosophical task, on the shores of the new century, and against the animal humanism that besieges us, that of a formalized in-humanism.”

Zeleny and Althusser: A New Humanism through the Antihumanist Route

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“In France and Italy Althusser’s interpretation of Marx has recently attracted attention. As opposed to a mass of superficial literature –unscientifically grounded and lacking textual analysis — which is trying to surmount a dogmatic Marxism by reinterpreting Marx in the spirit of a Feurbachian, existentialist anthropology, Althusser emphasizes the text and the intellectual development of the young Marx. When he insists that we have before us in the Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology a new stage of Marx’s theoretical and philosophical development which transforms his preceding views, in particular the standpoint of the Paris manuscripts of 1844, we find that our results agree. But they are distinguished from Althusser on such questions as the content of those stages. Althusser characterizes the transition from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts to The German Ideology as a break or clevage (‘rupture; coupure epistemologique’) which corresponds to a transition from humanism to anti-humanism; in that sense Marx utterly rejects his old problems and concepts, and appropriates radically new ones and a radically new method.
“Our analysis is the foundation for the view that the theoretical, philosophical standpoint of the Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology represents a new form of humanism. In the Paris manuscripts and in The German Ideology Marx deals above all with ‘real’ men. In both cases he takes on the task of explaining social and historical reality solely from the life process of ‘real’ men. If from the standpoint of The German Ideology, from that conception of ‘real’ men and history as introduced in the Paris manuscripts, Marx appears ‘ideological’, then we are dealing in The German Ideology — following our preceding analysis — with the radicalization of humanism, the creation of a new form of humanism.
“Althusser’s error in connection with humanism can be illustrated in his citation of one of Marx’s comments on his method in Capital:

“[Wagner] who has not once noticed that my analytic method, which does not start out from man, but from the economically-given social period, has nothing in common with the academic German method of connecting concepts…’

“The concept ‘economically-given social period’ was not understood by Marx as objective, divorced from the activity of human individuals. This Marxian observation does not prove his anti-humanism, but rather refutes the ideological concept ‘men in general’ (‘Man’) and advances a theory based on ‘real’ men in the sense of practical materialism. He wants to say only what he had already said about the starting point for economic theory in the Introduction of 1857: ‘Individuals producing in society — hence the starting point is naturally the socially determined production [carried on] by individuals.’ ”
–Jindrich Zeleny, ‘The Logic of Marx’

I entirely agree — from the vantage-point of Badiou’s “practical antihumanism” and “theoretical humanism” — with Zeleny’s insistence that Marx in breaking with Feurbach’s expressivist ontology of the human pointed in the direction of developing a radically new conception of generic humanity. But what I wish to doggedly insist is that this theorisation cannot be grasped with adequate rigour unless one necessarily passes through Althusser’s antihumanist reading of Marx. The determinate dialectic of concrete and abstract labours (or productive forces and social relations of production) must be grasped by disentangling it from its historically concrete, phenomenalised agentic-subjecthood, albeit of course by passing through the latter. Such a move is basically what Althusser’s theoretical antihumanism amounts to. Only through such a theoretical move can real historical men be grasped as historical indices and anthropological-passional registers (not particular agentic-subjecthoods) of determinate antagonism between politics and history, and thus the asymmetrical dialectic of concrete and abstract labours. And only then can real historical men and women truly become the constituents of the radically new generic humanity that Marx sought to theorise. A humanity that would be a constructionist adventure rather than an historical unfolding. So, to affirm real historical men without effecting this shift in the conceptual valency of the term real historical men will keep returning to us through the rear window what we are throwing out of the front door: the expressivist dialectical anthropology of the Left-Hegelians.

I’m not, therefore, claiming that this is Zeleny’s problem too. From the way he affirms the conception of real men — i.e. through a close reading of The German Ideology and Capital — that seems far from being the case. And yet his criticism and rejection of Althusser’s “theoretical antihumanism” misses the importance of Althusser’s conceptual privileging of the determinate dialectic of concrete and abstract labours, which is registered by real historical men, over this register itself. Even the 1857 Introduction of Marx that ends the Zeleny quote above points precisely in the direction of conceptually privileging that which is registered (productive forces, social relations of production) over that which registers it (real historical men).

In this context, it must be said that what such a surreptitious return of the abstract Feurbachian man, with the conception of real historical men acting as its Trojan Horse, amounts to in political terms is an ethical socialism of commonisation, if not an out-and-out rights-based politics. Ranciere, for instance, walks exactly into such a trap when he breaks with Althusser’s antihumanist Marxism in that thoroughly Oedipalised and cantankerous work of his: ‘Althusser’s Lesson’.

Hence, it is absolutely imperative that one grasps the two distinct conceptual valences that the term real historical men has. For, neither can withdrawal and difference, exhausted solely by a politics of resistance, be equated with subtraction as an articulation of revolutionary (or law-unravelling) violence. Nor, for that matter, is our politics, which accords theoretical and political centrality to the self-activity of workers and self-organisation of the working class, the same as anarchism. To insist on this distinction (both in conceptual and political terms) then, is to guard against being perceived by certain ‘autonomist’ tendencies’ — with whom we vigorously interact and engage as we should — as being part of their thoroughly anarchist formation. What could be far worse, however, is that we ourselves lose sight of that political and theoretical difference between their ethical commitment to an anarchist socialism and our revolutionary commitment to communism.

The distinction of conceptual valences for the same terminology of real historical men must be tightly held on to for another equally important reason. Many of our radical friends, who don’t tire of swearing their loyalty to sundry Marxist-Leninist groups, and thereby also to Marxist theory, seek radical legitimacy for the reformist and rights-based politics of their respective organisations, if not also for their own individual lifestyle politics, through a theoretical manoeuvre that conflates the two distinct conceptual valences for the term real historical men.

For a new aesthetic of revolutionary exhibitionism against the aestheticised politics of liberal bourgeois voeyurism

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There is a need to think a new revolutionary aesthetics of exhibitionism against liberal exhibitionism — for me, the latter is basically the politics of commodity abstraction and society of spectacle a la Situationists such as Guy Debord. However, in order to do that the scopic drive will need to be rethought and re-envisaged, not in terms of contemplativeness, but contemplativeness pushed to its extreme that renders the contemplated object into a dialectical image. [Now, this is already a displacement of contemplation into practical-materiality — or, at any rate, the former being placed under the condition of the latter — in Marx’s sense of the terms as he explicates them in his Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology.] That is crucial if desire is not to be conflated and confounded with its cathection (investment). Such cathection or investment being the interruption and concomitant distortion of desire precisely on account of its determinate instantiation. After all, as Lacan would tell us, the “petit object a” is not much more than a metonymy of desire.

And here Nietzsche’s acute poser about whether truth is not a woman can be deployed rather productively. “Woman” here in its Nietzschean articulation must, arguably, be grasped in terms of “becoming-woman”. That is, woman not as an anthropological difference (which is difference-as-identity) but as an ontological difference (difference as differing away from identity). Translating this antidialectical conception of “becoming-woman” into the conceptual framework of the asymmetrical or materialist dialectic we could say, following Lacan, that woman-as-truth or becoming-woman is to be understood as the Real that cannot be inscribed within the horizon of the symbolic even as it founds that horizon. Clearly then, ‘woman’, in “becoming-woman” or Nietzsche’s “woman-is-truth”, is now no longer thinking of even ontological difference but is, instead, a limit-conceptual figure of ontological subtraction.

This, I beleive, dovetails with what I have tried to get at above with regard to grasping the exhibitionism/voyeurism couple not simply as a dialectic, but as an asymmetrical dialectic, and thus as determinate presentation of exhibitionism-voyeurism singularity in excess of their symmetrically dialectical coupling as exhibitionism/voyeurism duality. In that context, the exhibitionist desire of revolutionary militancy is not merely exhibitionism but Dionysian exhibitionism (a la Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, for instance). And here, therefore, the exhibitionist revolutionary-militant is not a declarative-constantive object — or a directive tribune — vis-a-vis a milieu of passive contemplators/consumers he/she subjectivates thus. Rather, he/she is a semiosis of impulse or symptom of performativity, which is the object-exceeding force in the distinct temporality of its own singularising/singular subjective-materiality. Something that renders this sign/symptom a unit of the milieu of active and continuous producers in the Brechtian sense.

In fact, that is precisely the reason why I think Marquis de Sade’s ‘pornography’ poses and articulates a revolutionary-republican aesthetic. If we attend carefully to the apparently pornographic discourse of his literary production — particularly, his ‘Philosophy in the Bedroom’ — we see that not only does it have a didactic form but one whose mode is Dionysian (performative), which this form strives to transparently reveal. Clearly, De Sade’s discourse ceaselessly registers the thinking of the ethical imperative of desire and the moral law together, but in their separateness. It’s this form and mode of what I wish to call the Dionysian didacticism of desire — and not just any form of BDSM pornography — that renders De Sade’s ‘pornographic’ discourse the index of counter-contemplative revolutionary-republican aesthetics. And it’s arguably this formal and modal dimension of De Sade’s literary discourse that Foucault misses when he critically describes the former as “the sergeant of sex”, who, in Foucault’s estimation, elevates transgression itself into a law.

After all, it’s not for nothing that Lacan impressed on us the indispensability of thinking Sade with Kant. In short, the new revolutionary aesthetic of exhibitionism-voyeurism — as a historically concrete reconstitution of the revolutionary-republican aesthetic of De Sade — will be one wherein a form of contemplation is already always a demonstration of the displacement of contemplation. That is to say, such an aesthetic will truly fulfil itself only when exhibitionism is already always the demonstration of excess of exhibitionism in its limit.

Therefore, the problem of pleasure, from the standpoint of revolutionary politics, is ineluctable. However, the question then is whether pleasure is merely subjectively interiorised experience that is grasped by way of phenomenological reduction, or, is the question really of pleasure founding its own duration and historicity. For, if it’s the latter, then it is already a post-phenomenological displacement of pleasure beyond its phenomenological experientiality, albeit necessarily in and through that experientiality and phenomenology of pleasure. Hence, what we have is pleasure as an existential experience informing the constitutivity of an austerely neutral extension, which is the historicity of suspension of history — “historicity without history” in Alain Badiou’s terms. This, to my mind, amounts to pleasure founding its own duration and historicity.

And this, as far as I understand, is the path Freud also prefigures and indicates in his engagement with the question of pleasure. For him, the problem of pleasure is not, in the final analysis, one of interiorised experience, subjective intentionality and thus joyous productivity. Rather, the problem of pleasure (read in terms of jouissance) brings to him, particularly if we read him through a Lacanian lens, the question of lack and/or trauma as the Real. This, from what I understand, is the crux of his “beyond the pleasure principle”. And this reveals why Freud is no phenomenologist of pleasure, one who would be concerned merely with the question of alternation between the reality principle and the pleasure principle. Rather, Freud’s concern — in his concerted engagement with the problem of pleasure — indicates the need to develop an approach that thinks the problem of pleasure and its politics in terms of the suspension of the horizon of this alternation of the reality principle and the pleasure principle.

To think the question of pleasure in those terms – i.e. to think pleasure as an experiential-phenomenological moment of the post-phenomenological movement of its own overcoming (beyond the pleasure principle) — is to already have pleasure-as-joyous-productivity displace and thus transfigure itself into the neutral of subtraction. An engagement with the affective experience of pleasure, if it’s rigorous, is, arguably, bound to lead one towards its post-phenomenological beyond – which, in the same movement, would also obviously be a radical break with the horizon of the reality principle. That is demonstrated, besides Freud, by Roland Barthes: a thinker of pleasure for whom the twinned-questions of “zero degree” and “the neutral” are what ultimately matter.

As for me, I have been helped quite a bit in this respect by Badiou’s critique of what he calls “democratic materialism” – the differing alternation of bodies and languages (or joyousness and its interruption) – as also his attendant critique of Deleuze’s anti-Freudian productive conception of desire (“desiring-production”).

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