‘Concrete Rules and Abstract Machines’ (some notes & comments on Brassier’s talk at the ‘A Thousand Plateaus and Philosophy’ London Workshop)


[What follows is a summary of, and some comments on, Ray Brassier’s talk regarding the final chapter of A Thousand Plateaus. Delivered in London, 2015, at the A Thousand Plateaus and Philosophy Workshop]

At the very least one can confidently say that the reputation of A Thousand Plateaus precedes itself. At times, its reputation even precedes a reader’s first encounter with the text itself. And in light of ATP‘s repute, one of the features of this text that is known by all is that its authors have written the book in such a way that a reader can skip ahead or begin from the middle of whatever plateau grabs their interest. We are told that ATP is a book written to liberate its audience and to affect us so that we feel free to pick and choose where the story begins and ends. As Massumi himself notes in his translator’s forward, reading ATP is best done in the same way one listens to a record:

“When you buy a record there are always cuts that leave you cold. You skip them. You don’t approach a record as a closed book that you have to take or leave. Other cuts you may listen to over and over again. They follow you. You find yourself humming them under your breath as you go about your daily business. A Thousand Plateaus is conceived as an open system…The author’s hope…is that elements of it will stay with a certain number of its readers and will weave into the melody of their everyday lives” (ATP, xiv).

Despite the kernel of truth in Massumi’s record metaphor (the element of truth being that it is the case that throughout the chapters of ATP Deleuze and Guattari remain consistent in their use of specific terms and concepts and thus develop a unifying thread throughout all the plateaus that renders a one’s decision of abrupt beginnings and endings of little consequence), to overemphasize this staggered and haphazard approach to ATP is to elide one of it’s most fundamental features; a feature that Brassier will seek to highlight in his reading of the final chapter, ‘Concrete Rules and Abstract Machines.’

For Brassier, there is in fact a fundamental or privileged plateau: namely, the chapter on the Geology of Morals. Why? Because when Deleuze and Guattari conclude their text with a set of concrete rules for effectuating specific abstract machines, they base this final chapter on the very logic of double articulation develop in the Geology of Morals plateau. For Brassier, what’s striking when one reads ATP is the consistency with which Deleuze and Guattari use their vocabulary. Thus, despite the appearance of a proliferation of concepts tied to particular sets of practices (art, science, philosophy, literature, psychoanalysis, etc.), the concepts developed throughout ATP in fact constitute a unified logical system. Thus, says Brassier, it is the logical and conceptual relationship between double articulation and the final chapter that gives the lie to the kinds of readings of this text that fall in line with Massumi’s prescribed approach. However, before directly engaging with the relationship between double articulation and the final chapter of ATP, Brassier spends some time clarifying Deleuze and Guattari’s text in relation to other philosophical positions, and specifically in relation to those philosophies that lay claim to the title of materialism.

I). What is it that makes rules ‘concrete’ and machines ‘abstract’?

For Brassier, Deleuze and Guattari’s materialism is neither a contemplative representation of a pre-existing material reality, nor a series of practical imperatives that presupposes and yet disavows a theoretical representation of the world. For all its idiosyncrasy, ATP is a very classical work – where ontology is at one with ethics. This is not to say that it is a conservative work. Rather, it is a contemporary reactivation of the classical task of philosophizing: a fusion of understanding what there is and how to live (what we should do). The title of the last chapter, ‘Concrete Rules and Abstract Machines,’ gives Brassier a hint at how Deleuze and Guattari reconceive of this classical aim of philosophizing. Namely, by developing what Brassier terms an ‘abstract materialism’ (unformed matter) in tandem with a ‘concrete ethics’ (practical prescriptions for action selected independently of universal law). Thus, the question Brassier aims to clarify and explain is this: how can concrete practices engage formless matter? This is another way of asking about the relation between the ABSTRACT (machine) and the CONCRETE (actions); or, in Deleuze and Guattari’s language, between the UNFORMED (i.e., matters/flows that characterizes the plane of consistency) and the EFFECTUATED (i.e., how concrete rules develop the abstract machine enveloped in the strata/stratification).

Continue reading “‘Concrete Rules and Abstract Machines’ (some notes & comments on Brassier’s talk at the ‘A Thousand Plateaus and Philosophy’ London Workshop)”

Transcendental Clones & Generic-Humanity: Ray Brassier, Nina Power, And the Future of (Non-)Humanity


“Thus, the non-human subject of the death-drive is neither HE nor SHE but IT: the transcendental clone. The cloned subject of transcendental parthenogenesis which yields IT as universal non-human subject of the unconscious-the unconscious subject with which I am identical in the last instance.” – Ray Brassier

This essay will attempt to build some conceptual links between Ray Brassier’s essay ‘Solar Catastrophe: Lyotard, Freud, and the Death-Drive’ and Nina Power’s ‘What is Generic Humanity?’ and asses one of the political consequences of this encounter. The hope here is that by demonstrating the conceptual solidarity between what may appear as two entirely different topics – the question of the conditions for thought with Brassier and the question of the status of universality in politics with Power – we gain a better understanding of how philosophical activity is conditioned today and what those conditions can tell us about philosophy’s relation to politics. Since this is an essay which seeks to build connections and develop their consequences, I will reserve most of my criticisms or hesitations for another forum.

I will first begin with a brief introduction of each essay with their respective theses and conclusions, then move to a discussion of what I understand to be the shared set of commitments common to both: namely, the commitment to a standard of immanence in Thought and Politics. Then, I want to read back into each essay, taken together, these commitments in order to get a better sense of what is at stake – where what is at stake is whether or not the life of the mind and the life of revolutionary struggle can feasibly be said, understood, measured, and most importantly lived as concrete reality and not a simple theoretical possibility. For each thinker, it is through interrogating the ontological and political feasibility of certain conceptions we have of ourselves as rational subjects and political agents via the the themes of Universality and Thought that we can move beyond the limits imposed by the definitions of Thought as circumscribed by a horizon of meaning, or politics as grounded on those inviolable features of the human animal.

By bringing both essays into conversation I will end with some brief comments on how a). the philosophical project laid out in Brassier’s piece calls for a ‘radicalization’ or ‘generalization’ of the implications effected onto theoretical activity by solar death as transcendental catastrophe and b). how the political project laid out by Power in the Feuerbachian-Badiouian register could possibly be seen as the practical/concrete extension of what is already given in the former. One of the chief consequences of this conjunction is the following: with the eradication of all horizons for Thought in light of solar death (Brassier) the corresponding political task becomes the attempt to actualize the material organization of human life in such a way that makes it possible for a form of living adequate to the ‘non-human subject’, or ‘transcendental clone.’ By projecting Brassier’s Laruellean corrective of Lyotard and Freud through the lens of the Feuerbachian-Badiouian conception of ‘generic-humanity’, we arrive at a single (albeit ambiguously alien or liberatory) conclusion: revolution can no longer be thought of as necessary on the basis that there is some Evil, or a violation of liberal-human-rights, in the world. Rather, revolution is necessary in order to organize human life in such a way that we begin to concretely and materially construct a form of life that actualizes the transcendental catastrophe of Thought itself. Thus, the ‘revolutionary maxim’ in this conjunction of Transcendental Clones with ‘generic-humanity’ is nothing short of the assertion that we must act in such a way that we can Transcendentally Clone the Real universally and without contradiction.

[1]. Only Transcendental Clones Will Survive The Solar Catastrophe

In ‘Solar Catastrophe: Lyotard, Freud, and the Death-Drive’ Ray Brassier revisits Lyotard’s question: ‘can thought go on without a body?’ For Brassier, what is of interest in Lyotard’s line of thinking is not so much the content of his arguments or the conclusions he draws from them. Rather, what is of importance is that in simply posing this question Lyotard raises the ontological status of cognitive and rational capacities vis-a-vis its embodiment in human animals. While Lyotard’s essay oscillates between two interlocutors – relevantly nominated as HE & SHE – where the male/masculine eschews a position in the affirmative and the female/feminine adopts the position of the negative. While the former proposes a way for thought to persist independent of embodied existence, the latter not only refutes this assertion but implies, further, that it is only through embodiment – and hence gender – that thought can exist as thought. For SHE, the body engenders thought as thought. Brassier himself opts to sidestep any attempt to reconcile Lyotard’s dialogue – because it remains impossible to conceive of thought without a body and it is not without critical import that the body-as-gendered holds a certain influence on how we think – in exchange for positing a third interlocutor: IT. As Brassier writes, what we are dealing with when Lyotard feels the need to emphasize the important fact that the sun will die roughly 4.5 billion years from now extinguishing all cognitive life with it, is not a cosmological or physical reality but a transcendental catastrophe:

It is because we are dealing with a transcendental catastrophe that Lyotard’s question needs to be specified. It should be: can philosophical thought go on without a body? I believe it cannot and can only continue to oscillate…between two possibilities: the claim that there is a horizon of all horizons, if not the earth then some other candidate, and the claim that we can keep changing horizons indefinitely. [Ray Brassier, 2003: 421-9]

Brassier develops the transcendental constitution of solar catastrophe by connecting Lyotard’s thought experiment with Freud’s death-drive. What is of importance for Brassier here is how Freud comes to conceive of the death-drive; Freud’s reasoning for why people compulsively relive traumatic moments even though it goes against the pleasure principle:

If the function of dreams is primarily that of wish-fulfillment, in accordance with the pleasure principle…then traumatic neurosis poses a problem for psychoanalysis because it resists explanation in terms of the pleasure principle: why is the patient compulsively drive to relive a shatteringly unpleasurable experience? Freud’s answer is that the patient suffering from traumatic neurosis is driven to repeat the moment of trauma so that his psyche can muster the anxiety required to achieve a successful cathexis or binding of the excess of the excitation concomitant with the traumatic breaching of the organism’s psychic defenses. Thus, the compulsion to repeat consists in an attempt on the part of the unconscious to relive the traumatic incident in a condition of anxious anticipation that goes some way to buffering the traumatic shock. [Brassier, 2003: 425]

A few things are of importance regarding the connection between the death-drive and the relationship between Thought and Solar Catastrophe. First, the relationship between compulsive behavior and the initial trauma that is barred from conscious experience and yet motivates conscious life is analogous to the relationship between the nature and function of Thought and the fact that 4.5 billion years from now the sun will die. Why? Because, like the originary trauma, solar death can never be constituted in human experience and is only knowable theoretically. Additionally, like compulsive behavior which is a reaction to originary trauma, thought (and for Brassier philosophical thinking) is thus constituted by this fact that cannot be experienced and only known.

However, we need to add an important caveat here. The transcendental nature of this solar catastrophe is not one that ‘logically precedes’ the activity of thought itself. Rather, as Brassier frames it, solar death draws our attention to the function and directionality of thought itself: how does Thought continue to project itself into the future, or continue to set ends for itself, given the fact of solar death, which would mean that whatever ends thought sets for itself are, in the last instance, futile? This problem of the future oriented activity of thought raised by solar death is seen as problem only insofar as we understand Thought as the attempt to overcome solar catastrophe itself. In other words, the problem of the future is a problem for philosophical thought insofar as this thought manifests itself as the compulsive behavior that reacts to an initial unconscious trauma:

Bear in mind that what is repeated in the death-drive is something that never happened: a non-event that cannot be registered within the perception-consciousness system. Thus, organic life merely recapitulates the non-occurence of aboriginal inorganic death. Similarly, terrestrial philosophy as quest is fueled by the non-occurence of solar death as impossible possibility. Solar death is catastrophic because the collapse of the terrestrial horizon is unenvisageable for embodied thought…and it is because it is unenvisageable that solar catastrophe overturns the relation between thought and its terrestrial horizon. [Brassier, 2003: 428]

For Brassier, then, the task at hand becomes one of retaining the insights of Freud in relation to Lyotard’s question of ‘can thought go on without a body?’ while at the same time developing an account of Thought that is freed, in some sense, from the need to act compulsively and reactively. “What if, instead of switching horizons and staving off death, thought could annihilate every horizon by effectuating the death that drives it?” (SC, 427-8). In order to do this, Brassier lays out three criteria for a thought which seeks to ‘effectuate’ the death that motivates thought itself: unidentification, unilateralization, and excarnation.

Unidentification is the conceptual construction of a subject that instantiates the identity-without-synthesis of death and thought; or in Brassier’s terms “This subject-(of)-death is the immanent identity of the death of the death that is the life of thought” [Brassier, 2003: 427-8]. Regarding the identity-without-synthesis of unidentification, this would be the way in which Thought can successfully bind the catastrophe that constitutes its own activity. Unilateralization, on the back of unidentification, is “the transcendental clone. The cloned subject-(of)-death is established through a form of transcendental parthenogenesis which yields IT as universal non-human subject of the unconscious” [Brassier, 2003: 429]. Unilateralization, then, would not only be the subject whose identity is the identity of the death that motivates Thought, but is also the subject who elevates the unconscious to the status of constituting the fundamental features of subjectivity itself. However, it is not sexual difference or sexuation that constitutes the unconscious subject. Rather, it is the aboriginal death transformed into effective and acting subject that is the product of unilateralization.

Lastly, excarnation means that a Thought freed from reactionary and compulsive activity “is not the labor of the negative but the organon of death” [Brassier, 2003: 429]. As organon of death, Thought becomes the conduit for the expression in thought and experience of the unconscious death-drive that motivates the life of thought but now no longer in compulsive terms, but in an expressive, productive, and colder register. With these three criteria (unidentification, unilateralization, and excarnation) Brassier concludes that a thought which can appropriate the death-drive that is the life of the mind would satisfy these three tenants and would be the properly non-human subject, the transcendental clone: “As organon, IT, the subject-(of)-death, inhabits the non-thetic universe of the autistic unconscious: IT is deaf, dumb and blind. This is the excarnation of thought” [Brassier, 2003: 429]. Thought-as-organon-of-death; a Thought that becomes aware, if only for the first time, of the transcendental catastrophe presented by solar death ultimately amounts to Brassier’s reconfiguration of Lyotard’s initial question of whether thought can go on without a body. For Brassier, Lyotard suffered from the misplaced concreteness of taking the death of the sun as either of phenomenological or of epistemic import instead of understanding that solar death is, in fact, of transcendental significance. If, following Brassier, thought is truly bound up with embodiment where one cannot persist without the other, and if solar death is true for thought just as it will be true for terrestrial life, then solar death is of transcendental significance because the death of the sun becomes the very thing which conditions Thought’s future oriented activity:

“Lyotard’s question…here serves as the pretext for dealing with another question, one that I think is perhaps more fundamental, although it only warrants a passing mention by Lyotard. This other question is: can thought go on without a horizon? The use of the word “horizon” here is intended to bear a quasi-transcendental charge. For European philosophy up to and including Nietzsche…the name for the horizon was “God.” Then…the name for the horizon becomes “Earth.” My aim here is to show that this horizon too needs to be wiped away.” [Brassier, 2003: 421]

Thought must become the organon of death and must be able to effectuate the death-drive (fact of solar death) that constitutes the vitality of the life of the mind because to think and live according to any series of horizons simply prolongs our understanding of that which is already true for thought itself: that the very condition for theoretical and philosophical activity is, in fact, that this activity is not constituted by any horizon whatsoever. Brassier’s corrective to Lyotard’s thought experiment aims at the heart of the terrestrial nihilism inaugurated by solar death in order to transform our own theoretical and philosophical activity in such a way that Thought is no longer the compulsive repetition of the (non)originary fact of solar death. That is to say, at the level of theoretical and philosophical activity, to predicate any Thought in terms of its horizonal purchase is simply to delude oneself and secure the life of the mind as the debilitating compulsive repetition of the very (solar) death Thought cannot grasp through experience all the while viewing this compulsion of the mind as one of the many epistemic virtues of philosophizing.

[2]. Connecting Generic-being with its Transcendental Clone

In her article entitled ‘What is Generic Humanity? Badiou and Feuerbach’, Nina Power revisits another classical problem in the history of philosophy: what is the metaphysical status of the human, especially in light of the concept of Gattungswesen (species-being). For Power, bringing Feuerbach and Badiou into relation around the question of gattungswesen is important, not simply for Badiou’s own appropriation of Marxism. The question of species-being, or ‘generic-being’, is central for understanding Badiou’s criticisms of human rights and his conception of what is actually ‘universal’ in terms of political struggle. Power suggests that, like Badiou, Feuerbach himself doesn’t hold onto a notion of species-being that is simply a taxonomical categorization of the human animal. Rather, for both thinkers, the human is that animal which is ‘unnatural’, or for Badiou ‘Infinite/Immortal’:

“What is most important to note about Feuerbach’s use of the term Gattungswesen is its distance from any straightforwardly naturalistic resonances – genus (or species) should not be understood as a taxonomic category. The ‘unnaturalness’ of man…is a crucial aspect of Feuerbach’s position. It is what distinguishes Feuerbach from Hegel, who used the category of Gattungswesen precisely to refer to the natural component of human life in the Encyclopaedia. Similarly, for Badiou…the potential for dissymmetry is what distinguishes generic humanity from any over-determination by its biological, victimized, human-rights-inflected descriptions, and allows for a rationalist, non-theological conception of immortality.” [Nina Power, 2005: 35-46]

The very ‘unnaturalness’ of Man gets translated into the fact of Thought for Badiou, and leads him to posit that it is Thought itself that constitutes what is generic, or universal, in humanity as such. Thus, each in their own way, refuse to ground gattungswesen in some biological or anthropological genealogy of human history. Rather what is generic, and thus constitutes the real possibility for universality, is Thought itself. Power goes on to underscore how Badiou himself relates this idea of generic-humanity with the tradition of revolutionary politics:

“What is unique about Badiou’s project in the wake of Heidegger is precisely his attempt to think ‘man’ anti-humanistically, that is, as devoid of the limitations imposed by transcendental legitimation, biological perishing, or moral destination – whilst at the same time preserving precisely the political force of the original humanist project, with its anti-religious aims.” [Power, 2005: 37]

For Badiou, any conception of gattungswesen that serves as the guiding thread and political axiom of revolutionary struggle must be evacuated from any residues of what is generic in humanity as being predicated on some form of biological, anthropological, or transcendental determination. As Power goes on to show, Badiou extends this evacuation of the residual ways of dogmatically determining what is generic in humanity all the way down to the idea of the pursuit of self-interest:

“For Badiou as for Feuerbach, interest is not a specifically human capacity, since all living beings protect their interests as imperative for survival. Thought as traversed by truth – this peculiarly human capacity – must be capable of being absolutely disinterested. Badiou writes, “Any truth procedure distinguishes the properly immortal disinterest from an abject properly “animal” assemblage of particular interests” (2001a: 15). Furthermore, thought and disinterest coincide in the overcoming of all that is finite in man,”Thought is the specific mode by which a human animal is traversed and overcome by a truth” (Badiou 2001a: 16).” [Power, 2005: 39]

While Power’s essay goes on to deal with the question of the infinite as it relates to Badiou’s ontology and politics, I want to shift our focus onto her discussion of Badiou’s critique of human rights discourse since it will have important bearing on the consequences of relating Badiou’s project with Brassier’s.  As Power points out, Badiou’s argument against human rights discourse in his Ethics is centered on the ideas that the presuppositions of human rights misconstrues what it is that constitutes the generic, or universal, character of humanity. For Badiou what is errant in this discourse is the definition of the human as victim; the definition of human life as that which must be protected from the physical, environmental, and sociological vicissitudes that befall it. As Badiou writes,

“For at the core of the mastery internal to ethics is always the power to decide who dies and who does not. Ethics is nihilist because its underlying conviction is that the only thing that can really happen to someone is death…Between Man as the possible basis for the uncertainty [aléa] of truths, or Man as being-for-death (or being-for-happiness, it is the same thing), you have to choose. It is the same choice that divides philosophy from ‘ethics’, or the courage of truths from nihilism.” [Alain Badiou, 2003: 35]

While these features of human existence (namely all those things which constitute our vulnerability to physical and mental harm) are important, and Badiou himself would not support a politics that seeks to neglect altogether the claims made by those seeking human rights, his argument is centered on the fact that this conception of the human, and a conception which guides our political projects as the desired aim, excludes precisely what human beings are capable of: namely, thought as that which gives us access to the universal. Thus, following Foucault, the criticisms leveled at a politics that begins and ends with the demands of ‘human rights’ simply replicate this desire for the ‘mastery internal to ethics’ which should be termed biopolitical. Thus, in order for politics to avoid being reduced to determining and administering life – the ones who die and the ones who are left to die – the democratic fetish for the recognition of rights must be subordinated to Thought as that which constitutes humanity’s ‘generic-being’. As we saw Power underscore above, a politics that administers and manages ‘interests’ is nothing but biopolitics. However, a politics that is motivated by the disinterested and universal character of Thought is a politics worthy of the name; where the concern for rights would simply be a moment of this politics’ pre-history.

Now I want to briefly draw out important similarities and summarize the key moments of Power’s and Brassier’s piece as it will be important for understanding the final section of this paper, which is something of a fusion of each essay. Brassier’s piece deals with the thought experiment posed by Lyotard and Power’s which deals with the question of species-being in the Marxist tradition. However, both of these pieces actually constitute parts of a larger set of questions/problems for both strictly philosophical motivations (what is the nature of thought?) and more readily practical and political concerns (what is the nature of humanity and how does this affect our conception of revolutionary politics?). As an entry point into Brassier’s and Power’s underlying alliance we can say that what is common between the two is the attempt to think of the nature of reason and the nature of politics, respectively, without its being indexed to something other than itself. Thus, for each thinker, there is a minimal commitment to a standard of immanence, where this standard means that whether we are speaking about the nature of cognitive/rational activity or the nature and structure of political struggle, each object of analysis cannot be measured, understood, nor lived in good faith (and this is the important conclusion I want to draw out at the end of this essay) as anything other than what the activities of reasoning and politics in fact are; both in their ontological and modal register.

As we saw with Brassier, what is important in Lyotard’s piece, and with its connection to Freud (and we should add here Nietzsche), is the problem each poses for the nature of thought itself. For Lyotard the impending death of the sun constitutes human death as already existing in principle and thus already existing for thought itself. Freud’s conception of trauma and the death-drive is important for us here since what Lyotard is highlighting – solar death in principle – is exactly what Freud understands by trauma. That is, trauma is that which elides our conscious perception; or experience; and thus is the motor of unconscious drives themselves. Thus, the attempt of consciousness to repeat in a compulsory manner the trauma which it has in fact never experienced is the attempt of consciousness to experience-through-the-mastery of its own motivation; it’s own constitution by something that can only grasped through the traces of trauma. Consciousness, we might say, in its striving toward the unconscious vis-a-vis its compulsive behavior is nothing but post-traumatic neurosis raised to the level of thought.

For Power, what is generic in humanity is Thought understood as the “capacity for universal, abstractive, activity, even (especially) in his isolation (his inner life)” [Power, 2005: 40]. It is the nature of Thought as that capacity for abstraction and universalization that marks off the human animal from the rest of the natural world, and hence for Badiou and Feuerbach, constitutes what is, in fact, the content of the concept of  ‘generic-humanity.’ If Thought is that aspect of humanity which expresses Universality it is because the disinterested character of Thought places us in the proper relation viz-á-viz the infinite (which is the object of ontology and politics) while simultaneously elevating the human animal above its brute (and ultimately animal) interestedness:

“The infinite comes into play in every truth procedure, but only in politics does it take the first place. This is because only in politics is the deliberation about the possible…constitutive of the process itself…politics treats the infinite as such according to the principle of the same, the egalitarian principle.” [Badiou, 2004: 32]

It is because Thought affords us a relation to the Infinite and because the infinite is given priority in the realm of political struggle, that Thought will be constitutive of our ‘generic-being’, our gattungswesen, and will be the very condition by which politics itself operates. Thus, what is common to both of these projects, while different objects are treated in their course, is the idea that the ontological and political conditions of solar catastrophe (Brassier) and Thought’s universal character (Power) require a substantial reconsideration of what we mean by the very terms of revolutionary transformation, liberation, and some form of rational and collective self-determination. It is this (albeit partial and incomplete) reconsideration of the meaning of revolutionary transformation in light of the transcendental conditioning of Thought viz-á-viz Brassier and the political constitution of Thought viz-á-viz Power that this last section will take up.

The important conclusion that will be drawn here, given the transcendental catastrophe for thought and the generic element of humanity, is the political prescription that we must be in reality what we already are in truth (where the reality of human social organizations fails to adequate (clone) the truths presented by the transcendental conditions for both Thought and Politics). Thus, it is not accidental that it is precisely this intellectual and political prescription that Althusser already discovered and attributed to Feuerbach himself:

“Feuerbach calls out to Humanity. He tears the veil from universal History, destroys myths and lies, uncovers the truth of man and restores it to him. The fullness of time has come. Humanity is pregnant with the imminent revolution which will give it possession of its own being. Let men at last become conscious of this, and they will be in reality what they are in truth: free, equal, and fraternal beings.” [Althusser, 2005: 43]

[3]. …And What if the Transcendental Clone was the Content of Our ‘Generic-Humanity’?

Now it is not without import that one of the guiding concerns we see in Brassier’s and Power’s theses is the shared concern with either the ontological or political status of Thought – whether as traumatic compulsion (Transcendental Catastrophe) or constituting our universality. And it is precisely this shared concern with the status of Thought that we can begin to draw some consequences from each thinkers object of study. Perhaps for a bit of theatrics we can begin with the consequence that we see arising from the conjunction between Brassier’s Laruellean reworking of Lyotard and Freud and Power’s clarification of the concept of gattungswesen in Feuerbach and Badiou: what is of consequence from this encounter is a theoretical and political project that seeks to create the material conditions under which what is true of the transcendental catastrophe for Thought is rendered as true in the lived experience of humanity’s Immortality.

Why is this one of the possible consequences of this encounter? For the very reason that the Laruellean corrective offered by Brassier does not seek to synthesize, fuse, or negate its predecessors but simply ‘radicalize’ or ‘generalize’ the very condition of thought as constituted by solar death.  It is this idea of opting for radicalization over synthesis or negation that I take Brassier to mean when he writes that Thought “is not the labor of the negative but the organon of death” [Brassier, 2003: 429]. That is to say, with Brassier, what we have is a reworking of how we are to understand the very conditions by which Thought functions. It is for this reason that Brassier alters Lyotard’s question in terms of a transcendental (as opposed to phenomenological, or epistemic) catastrophe. However, if we were to merely stop here, we are left with a sense of achieving a conception of a new type of subjectivity without the means for determining any other features about this mode of being other than the three criteria of unidentification, unilateralization, and excarnation. And it is at this point that Power’s essay sheds necessary light on the matter.

With the Feuerbachian-Badiouian assertion that it is precisely what thought is capable of (i.e., universalization/abstraction) that constitutes ‘generic-humanity,’ Power’s piece provides the necessary supplement to the Laruellean move – namely, while it is with Brassier’s Laruelleanism that we gain a new perspective on thought considered transcendentally, it is with Power’s reading of Feuerbach and Badiou that we gain insight into thought considered in its capacities. That is, by bringing these two thinkers together, we bring together what conditions theoretical activity and what theoretical activity can, in fact, effectuate. It should be noted here that if we remain faithful to the Laruellean inflection in this reworking of what is proposed by revolutionary transformation, we must also understand that bringing these two thinkers together is not simply a theoretical construction via conceptual addition: it isn’t that the Laruellean corrective is given its added supplement to enhance its overall project. Rather, this conjunction alters the very content of what the very concepts of ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ mean for us today.

In a certain sense, we should say that once we understand these transcendental conditions  and modalities of Thought, the problem posed for theory and practice, or for revolutionary transformation, become one and the same. Namely, how does one live their life, individually and collectively, in a way that remains ‘dictated’ both by Thought’s transcendental catastrophe and its generic-being? In other words, by what means and procedures can we fashion a kind of living that replicates, or ‘clones,’ what is already true for Thought itself? We should maintain that the consequences of bringing these two essays into conjunction remains focused on the question of the opportunities afforded to human beings to fashion their lives since it is precisely this idea that is implied in Brassier’s piece. As Laruelle himself writes, “The identity of the real is lived, experienced, consumed while remaining in itself without the need to alienate itself through representation.” Thus, the political supplement via Power’s essay is not the moment of Thought moving outside of itself in order to realize itself. Rather, it is because the philosophical problematic and the political problematic have become one and the same that the proposed task is the extension, or ‘radicalization’ of what is given for Thought viz-á-viz the transcendental catastrophe of solar death.

So, how does this ‘radicalization’ operate? Primarily through the recapitulation of the three criteria for Thought but at the level of a politics that remains guided by, or ‘dictated’ by, the Real itself. Namely, if the goal of revolutionary politics is the eradication of everything that constitutes any form of oppression, repression, violence, exploitation, etc., because these are conditions which obstruct our ‘generic-humanity,’ then, it follows that the goal of revolutionary politics would be to create and organize human society in such a way that what is generic in humanity is both theoretically and practically the case. Now, up to this point, the proposed project does not drift far from most radical/revolutionary political programs. However, the important ‘programmatic’ difference in terms of this Laruellean-Badiouian consequence is that revolution can no longer thought of as necessary on the basis that there is Evil in the world.

As we saw with Badiou, any politics that begins and ends with human rights can only be reformist at best while excluding the very features of humanity that can positively determine revolutionary transformation itself; namely, our ‘generic-being’. And here we should turn Badiou on his head, so to speak. Instead of his formula regarding the inherent nihilism specific to ethics and human rights discourse we should assert the following: it is only by virtue of ‘cloning’ the nihilism that is at the heart of the transcendental condition for Thought into the realm of politics – where the inherently nihilistic situation of this condition arises from the eradication of any horizon for Thought itself – that we can, both in principle and in fact, relieve ourselves of the pathological compulsion of Thought’s dependence on the fictions of fixed, or quasi-fixed, horizons. It is the fact of nihilism as transcendental condition of Thought coupled with the understanding that Thought is what gives us our generic-humanity that we can positively determine revolutionary transformation; one where revolution is necessary in order to organize human life in such a way that we can begin to live (according to and sustainably with) the transcendental catastrophe that is nihilism, which conditions that which is most markedly proper to humanity. Or, what amounts to the same, what is specific and singular for Thought itself. If the transcendental clone is the only one who can survive nihilism as its very condition for existence it is because the transcendental clone understands that it is the cloning of nihilism to which any revolutionary politics worthy of the name is alloyed.

Correlationism and Vitalism: Comments on Henri Bergson

Immanuel Critique

(Section from an article on Bergson)


At this initial juncture it is important to underscore how Bergson’s philosophy cannot be equated with the phenomenological tradition, at least in any straightforward sense, despite his profound influence on many of those thinkers; at least starting from Heidegger and up through Levinas, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. The reason for classifying Bergsonian philosophy as distinctly non-phenomenological has to do, primarily, with his own understanding of the relationship between subject and object; between thought and being; between what is given in my experience of the world and the world itself. That is to say, unlike Kant who has provided a systematic argument for why it is the case that our experience of the world is barred access from the thing-itself (noumena), it is important to see that Bergson’s own characterization of the relationship between thought and being is one which posits not a difference in kind between phenomenal experience and the noumena. Rather, for Bergson, there is only a difference in degree between my experience of reality and reality as it is in-itself. Now, this is not to say that Bergson cannot be said to share a lot of arguments with the phenomenological tradition. Rather, this section aims to show how, even if we want to include Bergson’s arguments and method within the tradition of phenomenology, the conclusions and aims of his project place him squarely outside of any phenomenology that perpetuates and/or modifies the initial assertion made by Kant regarding phenomenal experience. That is to say, any version of phenomenology that perpetuates the relationship of the transcendental subject and the world as one where the former is barred access from the fundamental nature of the latter cannot be attributed to Bergson, nor to legacy of Bergson’s influence on the history of philosophy.

Now, Heideggerian phenomenology stands in here as the chief example of such a contrast to Bergsonism. Whereas for someone like Heidegger, and Derrida after him, the inquiry into the meaning of Being; whether approached against the backdrop of western metaphysics or from within language itself;  only shows us that our access to Being is always stymied by the ineluctable nature of these conditions of doing philosophy. Now, the reason why Bergson cannot be said to belong to this lineage, or any other lineage which asserts a difference-in-kind between phenomenal experience and the noumena is due to one of the main tasks Bergson gives himself: namely, to show how these approaches to the nature of Being – whether through science, metaphysics, mathematics, or language – are in fact doomed at the outset but are not ineluctable features of human consciousness. Rather, what gives each of these schemas the appearance of being absolutely intractable features of experience is their adaptive, evolutionary, and biological history. Thus, for Bergson, and Deleuze after him, the obstacles which present themselves to our understanding of the structure of reality are no longer rendered as absolute limits of human consciousness. Rather, the obstacles which stand between consciousness and the world itself are merely the bad habits of thought which have served useful and important functions in the evolution of the human species but come back to haunt, and plague, how we approach the question of determining Being itself. So, here we see how the Heideggerian problems that arise from Heideggerian phenomenology are not so much absolute problems from the Bergsonian perspective: we can give an account as to why those mechanisms of consciousness, language, etc., have been useful in giving us the world as it accords to our specific interest, while not having to sacrifice the initial aspiration of determining fundamental features of the world-itself. From the Bergsonian perspective, one could say, the ineluctable features of our pursuit for the meaning of Being are not so much a priori inevitable, as they are merely the bad habits of thought that we have evolutionarily acquired.

However, before getting into the crucial aspects of Bergson’s argument, it is important to note certain historical relations between Bergson’s project and Hegel – if only to show how the Bergsonian project shares certain commitments to Hegel’s objective idealism and yet attempts to find other means of moving beyond any reliance on a transcendental subject as the guarantor of objective truth. That is, bringing Bergson and Hegel into conversation with one another will help us clarify how Bergson approaches the problems addressed by Kant and how Bergson himself differs from the traditional of German Idealism itself. Here it is useful to quote Ray Brassier’s commentary on this shift at length since it gets right to the heart of the dispute: “So…famously, in Hegel’s objective idealism, the relational synthesis which Kant takes to be constitutive of objectivity is simply transplanted from its localization in the subject and construed rather as the relation between subject and object, which Hegel recodes as the ‘self-relating negativity’ that yields the structure of reality” (Brassier, et. al., ‘Speculative Realism’). Now, the following question arises from the Hegelian transformation of Kant’s insight: “if you refuse to say that synthesis…is anchored in a subject, does this mean that you have to idealize the real by attributing to it this capacity for self-relation? A capacity for self-synthesis whereby a continuum of relation itself yields the type of discontinuity that gives rise to discrete objects? In other words, is there a principle of intelligibility encoded in physical reality?” (Brassier, Speculative Realism).

It is precisely this question – of a continuum of relation (Duration) that yields discontinuity as the condition for discrete objects (Matter) – that lies at the heart of Bergson’s project. That is, what brings Bergson into close proximity to Hegel is their shared commitment to the idea that it is not the subject which provides the transcendental guarantee between representation and the world. Rather, it is the world itself which is constituted by continuity and discontinuity; that is, it is because Nature is structured in this way, and because Nature produces Thought itself, that we can subsequently articulate why it is the case that we can posit the idea that human consciousness has something fundamental in common with the reality of Nature. The important addition here being that consciousness mirrors Nature in such a way that what guarantees the objectivity of our experience isn’t so much space, time, and the categories; rather, it is the common structure of  ‘self relating negativity’ in Hegel, or ‘real duration’ in Bergson, which Nature engenders within human consciousness that now replaces the guarantee of objectivity via the transcendental subject. This is something that we see explicitly in Bergson: “Evolution implies a real persistence of the past in the present, a duration which is, as it were, a hyphen, a connecting link. In other words, to know a living being or natural system is to get at the very interval of duration, while the knowledge of an artificial or mathematical system applies only to the extremity. Continuity of change, preservation of the past in the present, real duration – the living being seems, then, to share these attributes with consciousness. Can we go further and say that life, like conscious activity, is invention, is unceasing creation?” (CE, 22-23).

Here we see Bergson asserting a few important points that will allow us to see how he conceives of the claim that there is only a difference in degree between my lived experience of the world and the world in-itself. First, Bergson is clearly stating what he takes to be the proper object of philosophical inquiry. No longer is philosophy concerned with discrete objects as things-in-themselves. The task of philosophy, for Bergson, isn’t to come to a clear understanding of what my experience of certain objects in the world are in reality. Rather, philosophy’s task is to concern itself with how the past continuously manifests itself in the present, as the present, and influences the future. That is to say, the proper object of philosophy is duration. It is only by understanding duration as the object of philosophy that we will be able to move beyond the gridlock of any residual mathematical, and idealist, assumptions within thought.

Second, we see Bergson asserting an alliance between biology, the study of evolution, and the study of philosophy. Why? Not only is it due to their shared interest in understanding how matter, how species, individuals, etc., are the particular realizations of a historical process (evolution/duration). In addition, these three disciplines are concerned with providing us a very strong critique of what we take to be the nature of thinking and human consciousness. That is to say, and this is a theme that is heavily emphasized in someone like Deleuze, it is the nature of human intellectual activity to consider the world in accord with our biological, evolutionary, and social interests. This idea of the adaptive nature of human consciousness, then, undercuts any attempt to treat intellectual activity as being defined, in essence, as a mechanism that is predisposed to truth. In other words, it is the nature of human reason to approach the world through the lens of its interest. Or again, rational inquiry, perception, the intellect, and so forth, are not tools for acquiring eternal truths about the world but rather are evolutionary mechanisms that serve as the practical function of locating points of interest, points of indetermination where human freedom is capable of intervening, for the organism to further its own existence.

Thus, it is through this alliance of biology, evolutionary theory, and philosophy, that Bergson builds his argument that thought is not predisposed and naturally suited for a search for truth – whether this idea is guaranteed by some divine naturalism or transcendental subject. It is for this reason that Bergson will find in mathematics and in geometry, not only the highest expression of the human intellect as it functions according to its natural, instinctual, and evolutionary impulse; it is because of this image of mathematical/geometrical reasoning as the most natural habit of thought that Bergson takes it upon himself to underscore the error of equating certain scientific determinations of the world (mathematics and geometry, as well as older kinds of physics and chemistry) as being representative of the world in-itself. Thus, as Bergson writes, “The essential function of our intellect, as the evolution of life has fashioned it, is to be a light for our conduct, to make ready for our action on things, to foresee, for a given situation, the events, favorable or unfavorable, which may follow thereupon. Intellect therefore instinctively selects in a given situation whatever is like something already known; it seeks out, in order that it may apply its principle that ‘like produces like.’ In just this does the prevision of the future by common sense consist…Like ordinary knowledge, in dealing with things science is concerned only with the aspect of repetition.” (CE, 29).

Now, if the error of human consciousness is to be found in equating practical intellection with objective truth, this signals Bergson’s underlying premise regarding human consciousness and the task of philosophy: It is not the case that we are barred access from the world as it exists in-itself and for-itself; rather, it is simply the case that we will never approach the world as it exists in itself without correcting the fundamental error of equating consciousness in its natural attitude of determining what is objectively true. As Bergson writes in the opening pages of Creative Evolution regarding the relationship between my impatience at the dissolution of a sugar cube in water and the time it takes for the sugar itself to dissolve, “If I want to mix a glass of sugar and water, I must, willy nilly, wait until to the sugar melts. This little fact is big with meaning… It [the sugar cube] coincides with my impatience, that is to say, with a certain portion of my own duration, which I cannot protract or contract as I like. It is no longer something thought, it is something lived. It is no longer a relation, it is an absolute” (CE, 9-10).

That is to say, the relationship between subject and object, between Thought and Being, is not to be done away with but must be conceived under the proper schema; a schema that begins with Duration as being the true object of both philosophy, biology, evolutionary theory, and the World itself (and ultimately, Bergson hopes to show, it is actually Duration which is Being-itself and in our lived experience of Duration – of Being – we are no longer barred access from the Absolute, but are able to experience a limited portion of it. That is also to say that Bergson’s conception of the Absolute, of Duration, of Life, is one which says that the structure of reality is pure quality. In other words, any portion of the absolute expresses the absolute in its entirety. Or, if we subtract a portion of the absolute in our experience of it, we do not alter the essence of Absolute Duration – only insofar as we understand that the essence of Absolute Duration is nothing but pure difference and because every potential realization of the absolute must be qualitatively different from all other potential realizations of the Absolute, that we can be guaranteed in our limited relation of lived duration as being one of an absolute and not relative relation).

Now the third important point will be Bergson’s question regarding creativity. If thinking and the world partake in duration; are constituted, in essence, by real duration; then is it possible to attribute certain features that we find in conscious life to Duration itself? That is to say, because there is the common structure of duration (evolution, history, etc.) in both Thought and Being, can we then determine certain features about the structure of reality on the basis of certain findings we make about human consciousness? For Bergson, it appears that we can. For instance, what was once thought to merely be psychological memory – the mental process by which past events persist, and come to bear, on our present experience – has a natural correlate in the world itself. In other words, what gives us the conditions for never having the same experience twice (psychological memory) has a natural correlate in the very individuation of species and its members (ontological memory). This latter case, of ontological memory, is what gives some clarity to Bergson’s idea that the past preserves itself automatically. As he writes, “In reality, the past is preserved by itself, automatically. In its entirety, probably, it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present…” (CE, 5).

Here, the example of our experience from infancy to the present isn’t simply a further articulation of psychological memory. Rather, what this shows is how Matter is the preservation of Memory automatically. In other words, the past preserves itself in the present through the creation, instantiation, and realization of a species with its individuals, and their habits and interests. It is in this way, by understanding that Matter is Memory preserved that we can understand how there is at once a psychological and ontological conception of memory – whereby ontological memory is the preservation of a historical evolution, or historical development, in the present via the individuation of species and this species’ self-reproduction (bare repetition) through individual beings. So, while our subjective memory is preserved by way of our interests and our habits, ontological memory is preserved at the historical, biological, and evolutionary register.

It is this discrepancy between psychological memory (subject/product) and ontological memory (object/process), when not understood, that gives rise to further errors of human cognition. As Bergson writes: “It is of no use to hold up before our eyes the dazzling prospect of a universal mathematic; we cannot sacrifice experience to the requirements of a system. That is why we reject radical mechanism” (CE, 39). Thus, one of the major pitfalls Bergson finds in the mathematical understanding of the structure of reality is its failure to account for what is precisely constitutive of lived experience – time, history, evolution, duration, the persistence of the past in the future, matter as the preservation via realization of memory, etc. That is to say, any conceptual framework that wants to determine the fundamental structure of reality and fails to account for the processual development of the world considered socio-psycho-biologically, cedes any capacity for accounting for reality itself.

Now we can see why Bergson privileges lived experience and why this may seem like a regression in the history of philosophy. For Bergson, lived experience is an adequate starting point for inquiries into the nature of reality because lived experience is the product (and repetition) of this natural process of evolution. That is to say, lived experience is the very instantiation of matter as memory preserved, of the past gnawing into the present, as the most recent individuation of the process of evolution, etc. In other words, lived experience is, in a certain sense, the experience of History itself only embodied in individuals. Now, the task then, is to reflect on lived experience as the embodiment of history in order to then move outside of any kind of subjectivism or psychologism, and into the terrain of the world (as another case of memory-history materialized in the present) itself.

It is for this reason that Bergson will have no problem beginning with the subject as the locus of philosophical inquiry. But it is also for this reason, in light of the various reasons that we have just mentioned, that Bergson’s emphasis on lived experience cannot be simply placed under the rubric of a certain brand of phenomenology, or even proto-phenomenology (where phenomenology here means the study of how the world appears to us in our experience of it) – since the Bergson’s task is to show how we have to move beyond lived experience in order to get to things themselves; to show how what appeared to be settled by Kant’s transcendental subject is in fact a perpetuation of certain errors in how we conceive of our relationship to the world itself. That is to say, when Bergson begins with lived experience it is not taken to mean the way in which I experience things in the world (though this is a crucial aspect of is, if not only for the critiques of the natural inclinations of intellection). Rather, to begin with lived experience is to take ourselves as the preservation of memory in the present. Or again, lived experience de-emphasizes individual subjectivity as the being which secures the objectivity of the world, in order to emphasize individuals as instantiations of the worlds objectivity itself – reality understood as process; reality understood as descent and ascent; as divergence and convergence; as Matter and Memory.

Now, in what sense can we talk about Bergson and Correlationism in the same breathe? If for no other reason, it is because Bergsonian philosophy represents one of the chief philosophical challenges to the task Kant assigned him self; namely, determining the nature and limits of human reason. Bergson remains a correlationist insofar as he continues to affirm that there is a necessary, ineluctable, relation between subject and object, between thought and being, where knowledge of either independent of the other is barred at the outset. However, the Bergsonian take on correlationism aims to show how the relation between thought and being is our very access to things-themselves. It is through the lived experience of my duration as it coincides with the duration of other beings that renders my relationship to the world an entry point into the Absolute itself. Thus we can see how Bergson at once remains close to Hegel while at the same time remaining distant from any phenomenological tradition that perpetuates the relationship between the transcendental subject and the world.