How Many Breakdowns For Every Breakthrough?

(tr. generation collapse)

Ultimately, one escapes from the structuralist impasse by recognizing that an effect of meaning only has repercussions at the level of the signified in so far as potentialities of subjective action are liberated, once there is a breach in the signifier…The machinic breakthrough, waiting, masked by the structure, is the subject in aspic, so to say, time at the ready. – Guattari, ‘Causality, Subjectivity and History’

What are the underlying set of concerns that renders consistent the various interviews and essays throughout Psychoanalysis and Transversality? What was the unifying thread that ran throughout all that preoccupied Guattari between the years of 1955-1971? Confronted with questions such as these, one is immediately signaled to an inquiry already underway; a search for the relevant experiences and conditions under which Guattari practiced analysis while also furthering his activist work. And the promise of this seemingly naive and biographical question is that of understanding what convinced Guattari to treat psychotherapeutic practice and revolutionary politics as inherently, and thus necessarily, implicated with each other? Biography, however, only establishes the scope of such a question. As Deleuze would aptly remarked:

a militant political activist and psychoanalyst just so happen to meet in the same person, and instead of each minding his own business, they ceaselessly communicate, interfere with one another, and get mixed up–each mistaking himself for the other…Pierre-Félix Guattari does not let problems of the unity of the Self preoccupy him. (Deleuze, ‘Three Group-Related Problems’)

The thesis we will put forward is the following: Guattari views psychotherapeutic practice and revolutionary politics as two distinct yet necessarily related endeavors since each is concerned with, and oriented toward, resolving a singular problem: What should one do when stuck in a situation? (Guattari, Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 73). In other words, schizoanalysis and revolutionary politics address themselves to those phenomena, which act as an impasse to the freedom of both desire as well as social life. Hence Guattari explains that

[T]he little subject clinging to its mother, or the dazed schizo…are entirely connected to this being. The subject is engaged with it and, paradoxically, it is only along the way that everything becomes blocked. This entire neurotic ball makes it so that at one point…there is longer any possibility of reconnecting, of being articulated with anything that is not fantasy. The problem is to dig a few new holes artificially so that it can reconnect somewhere. Recourse to absolute alterity is something that, in principle, should allow it to remain connected to the foundation of all value.  (Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 74-75)

Now, with respect to institutional psychotherapy, the methodological starting point is still the one offered by psychoanalysis: “to know how to arrive at being a subject under these conditions. What does he or she have to do to continue being a speaking subject and to speak efficiently?”  – where the ‘conditions’ Guattari is referring to is one of blockage, aporia, and impasse where “signifiers…are blocked as significations such that a singular individual cannot express him or herself in it…” (PT, 68-69). In cases such as these, institutional psychotherapy locates the ‘subject’ not in the face to face meeting but in that place where they “have remained prisoner” Hence the necessity for constructing diagrams, whose function is to bring the subject in relation with the ‘Outside’ (alterity) – for it is this need of constructing diagrams that becomes all the more urgent for the subject’s liberation from that which renders it unable to express themselves. In other words, a therapeutic method based on the construction of diagrams maintains, for the subject, the very possibility of achieving a real separation between itself and what is essentially an aporia of the unconscious: “A factory, an asylum, or a patient, they stink…You have to look for something. The first item on the agenda is to open up to the complete alterity of the situation.” (PT, 73).

Subject-Groups, Subjugated-Groups, and Group Phantasies

With respect to the concerns of politics and questions surrounding the organization of a properly revolutionary subject, we once again encounter the same problem. As Guattari puts it,

the revolutionary organization has become separated from the signifier of the working class’s discourse, and become instead closed in upon itself and antagonistic to any expression of subjectivity on the part of the various wholes and groups. The subject groups spoken of by Marx. Group subjectivity can then express itself only by way of phantasy-making, which channels it off into the sphere of the imaginary. To be a worker, to be a young person, automatically means sharing a particular kind of (mostly inadequate) group phantasy. To be a militant worker, a militant revolutionary, means escaping from the imaginary world and becoming connected to the real texture of an organization, part of the prolongation of an open formalization of the historical process.  (Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 218-219)

So, just as it is with therapeutic practices one of the fundamental problems encountered in politics – i.e.  how to realize a form of collective antagonism that avoids the trap of dogmatism, thereby leading to the ossification and curtailment of what is revolutionary within a certain organization. And these problems also take the form of blockages (of signifiers that translate into the silence of individuals) and are seen in those moments when some members of a group begin to speak for the group as a whole. Or, in the worst of cases, blockage develops into a fascistic mode of organization structured according to (i) the groups identification with a single image/signifier (Phallus) such as the leader; (ii) the foreclosure of any individual’s unconscious existence which leads to the substitution of the “I” for a generic, and impersonal, “we”; and (iii) the organizations group phantasy becomes increasingly insular, closed off from any relation to difference, and thus ultimately reinforces and demands the collective denial of individual and collective finitude. And with this final characteristic – a group’s denial of the finitude of its organization – we arrive at what is at work in what Guattari calls the ‘misunderstanding’ expressed phenomena such as racism, nationalism, and sexism:

…the great leaders of history were people who served as something on which to hang society’s phantasies. When Jojo, Hitler, tells people to “be Jojos” or “be Hitlers,” they are not speaking so much as circulating a particular kind of image to be used in the group: “Through that particular Jojo we shall find ourselves.” But who actually says this? The whole point is that no one says it, because if one were to say it to oneself, it would be something different. At the level of the group’s phantasy structure we no longer find language operating in this way, setting up an “I” and an other through words and a system of signification. There is, to start with, a kind of solidification, a setting into a mass; this is us, and other people are different, and usually not worth bothering with–there is no communication possible. There is territorialization of phantasy, an imagining of the group as a body, that absorbs subjectivity into itself. From this there flow all the phenomena of misunderstanding, racism, regionalism, nationalism and other archaisms that have utterly defeated the understanding of social theorists. (Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 223)

And it is precisely in light of this always present threat of fascisms resurgence (from the right and within the left) that Guattari proposes the distinction of subject-groups and subjugated-groups. To separate subject- from subjugated-groups, however, must be understood as an analytic distinction integral to schizoanalysis as method of analyzing the potentiality of the unconscious relations and habits sustaining one, or many, individuals, which allow them “to continue being a speaking subject and to speak effectively?” (PT, 69). By formally distinguishing subject-group and subjugated-group, Guattari’s main priority is determining whether the subject as ineluctably bound to a highly particular set of behaviors, ways of speaking, etc., repeats its existence in a manner that saves and/or liberates elements of the unconscious that may harbor the possibility of lines of flight within the unconscious from its reduction to ‘the repressed territories’ of the Ego:

The loss of consistency of a component will not have been followed…by a chain reaction of new inhibitions. It will instead have served as a sensitive plate, as a developer, as an alarm bell. But of what exactly? That is precisely the question! To which, actually, it is best not to answer too quickly. As there is perhaps no answer to it, strictly speaking. An a-signifying sign–the restriction on vocal performances–makes the halt of something without forbidding…that other things intervene. Great! This is already something! Certain paths marked out for a long time: singing, the moralizing surcoding of the mother, are experiencing a pragmatic transformation. Should these facts be considered liabilities and put down in record in the column of lacks a deficits: Nothing is less certain! But nothing is determined either! . . . It must be clear that all transferential induction…could have devastating effects, or, at the very least, bring us back to the depressive tableau which is “normally” expected under such circumstances. It seems less risky to me to think about the material qualities of this component of expression…Is it because of the presence of such a “luxurious” component that the song did not allow a preventative alarm to be raised and to suggest a bifurcation? From then on what was called to vegetate under the guise of inhibition was transformed into the beginning of a singularization process. (Guattari, ‘The Schizoanalyses’)

What is clarified with this example is that subject-groups and subjugated-groups, rather than corresponding to two discrete sets of individuals, corresponds to (and seeks to identify) the moments when a given subject finds itself in a relation with elements that offer an alternative to what Guattari views as the norm in Freudian and Lacanian analysis (i.e. a reductive treatment of the unconscious that continuously makes recourse to the Oedipal relation or the general linguistic structure underlying the whole of unconscious life). At this juncture what can be said with certainty is that, contrary to an analysis of desire in terms of its Oedipal or linguistic overdetermination, schizoanalysis aims to develop an analysis of desire where desire (or the subject, or the unconscious) functions as the guide and agent of analysis as such. In this way, then, to employ schizoanalysis with individuals and within and among groups is tantamount to constituting, within an individual or a group, “the conditions of an analysis of desire” that results in “analysis and desire finally on the same side, with desire taking the lead.” (Deleuze, ‘Three Group Related Problems’). Thus, we could say that what is at stake in schizoanalysis is the development of an analysis that returns desire to potentially liberatory elements, which have been deemed “irrelevant” or “meaningless” from the vantage point of Oedipal relations or linguistic structures.

And with respect to the social life within certain ‘militant’ or political organizations, Guattari identifies the same problem: where do we find the subject with respect to politics and under what conditions is it no longer able to creatively express itself? (218-19). In other words, how does the political subject free itself from structural impasses? (220-222). Just as the analyst takes recourse to alterity, so too must collective subjectivity develop the tools to ward off closing in on itself (through domatism or structuring group phantasy around a sign that assumes a Phallic function), policing its members (dictating, from above, legitimate and prohibited forms of speech, activity, etc.), and substituting a focus on how to identify and interpret, for itself, the unconscious traps that continuously hinder its expression. And it is this latter phenomena that obliges groups to  develop their own “transitional phantasies” or “transition objects,” whose function within the group is to liberate collective desire from grounding itself upon the dogmatic images of organization inherited from historical communism and the history of the workers movement. That said, one is still right to ask as to whether or not this development of transitional phantasies within subject-groups is simultaneously a sufficient reason for Guattari’s belief regarding the inherent link between psychotherapeutic practice and the concerns of (revolutionary) politics?

Breakthrough or Breakdown?

Just as he identifies the reductive work of psychoanalysis to be insufficient regarding the therapeutic aim of establishing, for the subject (i.e. the unconscious), a relation to a future that does not conform or repeat the structure of its past, so too does Guattari identify analogously reductive relations that inhibit the revolutionary potential of Leftist groups and organizations (e.g. the Party, the military, State, Capital). For Guattari, and with respect to Leftist institutions as historic as that of the Party-form and its mass organizations (union, youth organizations, women’s organizations, etc.), these forms have proven themselves to be an equally effective instrument of capitalist and state repression; achieved in large part by the alignment of workers’ desire with the interests of Capital as well as the Party’s collusion with bourgeois parties and the State in identifying and policing elements within the workers movement that continuously break with the Party line:

The demand for revolution is not essentially or exclusively at the level of consumer goods; it is directed equally to taking account of desire. Revolutionary theory, to the extent that it keeps its demands solely at the level of increasing people’s means of consumption, indirectly reinforces an attitude of passivity on the part of the working class. A communist society must be designed not with reference to consumption, but to the desire and the goals of mankind. The philosophic [sic] rationalism that dominates all the expressions of the workers’ movement like a super-ego fosters the resurgence of the old myths of paradise in another world, and the promise of a narcissistic fusion with the absolute. Communist parties are by way of having scientific “knowledge” of how to create a form of organization that would satisfy the basic needs of all individuals. What a false claim! There can be social planning in terms of organizing production…but it cannot claim to be able to give a priori answers in terms of the desire objectives of individuals and subject groups. (Guattari, ‘The Group and The Person’)

Moreover, says Guattari, it is only when groups undertake a schizoanalysis of itself that it can then develop “transitional phantasies” or “transition objects,” whose function within the group is to: “channel the action of imagination between one structure and another…To move from one representation of oneself to another, though it may involve crises, of at least retains continuity” (‘The Group and The Person, 229). More concretely, and as Guattari would argue with respect to the Italian State’s juridical and spectacular charges brought against Negri and the Red Brigades: “Violence is legitimate when it is the work of workers, women, and youths who are struggling to change their condition. It is no longer legitimate when it is only carried out by dogmatic groupuscules whose principal target…is the impact of their action on the media” (Guattari, ‘An Open Letter To Some Italian Friends’). Hence, Guattari writes:

Capitalism has only managed to consolidate those very bastions that the RAF and the Red Brigades claim too shake, insofar as it has managed to develop a majority consensus founded on social ultra-conservatism, the protection of acquired advantages and the sysmatic misinterpretation of anything that falls outside of corporate or national interests. And whatever works toward the isolation of individuals, whatever reinforces their feelings of impotence, whatever makes them feel guilty and dependent on the state, on collective agencies and their extensions…feed this consensus. To claim to lead a revolutionary movement without attacking these phenomena of mass manipulation is an absurdity. While the secret war conducted by the industrial powers along the north-south axis to keep the Third World is tow in indeed the main issue, it should not make us forget that there is another north-south axis which encircles the globe and along which conflicts of an equally essential nature are played out, involved the powers of the state and oppressed nationalities, immigrant workers, the unemployed, the “marginals,” the “nonguaranteed” and the “standardized” wage earners, the people of the cities and of the barrios, of the favellas, the ghettoes [sic], the shanty-towns, engaging the opposition of races, sexes, classes, age-groups, etc. To conduct this other war, in insure its social and mental control over the whole everyday, desiring world, capitalism mobilizes tremendous forces. To ignore this kind of opposition or to consider it of secondary importance is to condemn all other forms of social struggle led by the traditional Workers’ Movement to impotence or reappropriation. Like it or not, in today’s world, violence and the media work hand in glove. And when a revolutionary group plays the game of the most reactionary media, the game of collective guilt, then it has been mistaken: mistaken in its target, mistaken in its method, mistaken in its strategy, mistaken in its theory, mistaken in its dreams… (Guattari, ‘Like the Echo of a Collective Melancholia,’ 110-11)

Thus, it is for this reason that Deleuze will go on to claim, in his foreword to the text, that Guattari’s project has always been “about grasping that point of rupture where, precisely, political economy and libidinal economy are one and the same” (PT, 17) and that schizoanalysis refuses the misleading assumption that the problem of the Left is that of choosing between spontaneity and centralism, or between guerilla and generalized warfare: Guattari’s strength consists in showing that the problem is not at all about choosing between spontaneity and centralism. Nor between guerilla and generalized warfare. It serves no purpose to recognize in one breath the right to spontaneity during a first stage, if it means in the next breath demanding the necessity of centralization for a second stage: the theory of stages is the ruin of every revolutionary movement. From the start we have to be more centralist than the centralists. Clearly, a revolutionary machine cannot remain satisfied with local and occasional struggles: it has to be at the same time super-centralize and super-desiring. The problem, therefore, concerns the nature of unification, which must function in a transversal way, through multiplicity, and not in a vertical way…In the first place, this means that any unification must be the unification of a war-machine and not a State apparatus (a red Army stops being a war-machine to the extent that it becomes a more or less important cog in a State apparatus) (‘Three Group-Related Problems,’ 15-16).

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‘Desire Never Stops Investing History’

What is the relationship between machine and structure? What is it that differentiates a line of flight from becoming a pure line of death? Now, however unhelpful as it may seem, a perfectly adequate to answer to these questions would be the difference between the nature of the possible and desire’s orientation toward the virtual (‘real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’). For just as there is more in the real than the possible, desire is something more than what is deemed (structurally) realistically possible. As we see with Guattari’s own examples regarding the technological developments within the capitalist mode of production,

the spasmodic evolution of machinery keeps cutting across the existing hierarchy of skills. In this sense, the worker’s alienation to the machine excludes him from any kind of structural equilibrium […] Such professional bodies as still exist, like doctors, pharmacists, or lawyers, are simply survivals from the days of pre-capitalist production relations. (Guattari, ‘Machine and Structure’)

It is in this sense that a machine outstrips and modifies the structure in which it is embedded. Moreover, it is because of this relationship between structures which codify its machinic ruptures that Guattari locates desire on the side of the machine. That is to say, just as structure tends toward limiting the number of positions relative to the mode of production under capitalist society, desire tends toward its actualizing precisely in those locations within totality that have been deemed impossible, and toward what this structure cannot satisfy or incorporate. Thus we can say that ‘machinic desire’ is that which moves towards the impossible and is a process that attempts to resolve a certain social problem, and is actualized in response to everything that is felt to be intolerable within structures themselves. For what else does Deleuze mean when, reflecting on the events of 1968 in France, he remarks that May 68 was “a collective phenomenon in the form of: “Give me the possible, or else I’ll suffocate.” The possible does not pre-exist, it is created by the event. It is a matter of life. The event creates a new existence, it produces a new subjectivity (new relations with the body, with time, sexuality, the immediate surroundings, with culture, work).” What is more, and particularly in light of Guattari’s particular understanding of how desire and its machines relate to their corresponding structures, we are able to return to one of the oft-cited from Anti-0edipus, which claims that the German people were not duped into Nazism but authentically harbored the desire for it. For what is asserted here is not the non-being of ideology but rather the reality of an authentic desire for death (for it is precisely through this gradual modification of what is deemed acceptable and intolerable that a people arrive at a position whose politics is nothing but a celebration of the ‘cult of death’):

Given the right conditions, the masses express a revolutionary will. Their desires clear away all obstacles and open up new horizons […] Desire [however] never stops investing history, even in its darkest periods. The German masses had come to desire Nazism. After Wilhelm Reich, we cannot avoid coming to grips with this fact. Under certain conditions, the desire of the masses can turn against their own interests. What are those conditions? That is the question. (‘Deleuze and Guattari Fight Back…’ Desert Islands, 217)

However, we still may ask as to why it is said that machines are defined by its disruptive break with structures. For Guattari, it is constitutive of the history of capitalism that capital revolutionizes its means of production – a point perhaps best exemplified by Marx’s well known ‘Fragment on Machines’ and the tendency of automation in general. Machine in this sense is said to be disruptive because the structural modification, which is its effect, redefines which subject positions are viewed as acceptable and unacceptable relative to the mode of production. Thus, it is the progressive development of the forces of production that continually overtakes and displaces abstract labour’s role within the structure of capital. However, and in contrast with the machine understood from the vantage point of the accumulation and reproduction of capital, Guattari proposes the following understanding of this concept of machine: “At a particular point in history desire becomes localized in the totality of structures; I suggest that for this we use the general term “machine” (‘Machine and Structure,’ 327). Machine in this sense is when any development within a structure simultaneously“represents social subjectivity for the structure.” As Guattari writes, “it could be a new weapon, a new production technique, a new set of religious dogmas, or such major new discoveries as the Indies, relativity, or the moon. To cope with this, a structural anti-production develops until it reaches its own saturation point, while the revolutionary breakthrough also develops, in counterpoint to this” (Ibid). And it is precisely over this new element that machine and structure renew their mutual antagonism. And here, desire (revolutionary breakthrough) abides not by the logic of structural possibility but by the logic of the desirable and the intolerable:

The question we must ask is whether the things produced by desire –  a dream, an act of love, a realized Utopia – will ever achieve the same value on the social plane as the things produced commercially, such as cars or cooking fat? The value of anything depends, of course, on a combination of labour-force and available technology (that is, variable and fixed capital), but also, and far more basically, on its relation to the dividing line between what is accepted by desire and what is rejected. All the capitalist cares about are the various desire and production machines that he can link up to his exploitation machine: your arms if you are a street-sweeper, your intelligence if you are an engineer, your looks if you are a cover-girl…Any voice that might be heard speaking up for other things can only interfere with the order of his production system. So, though desire machines proliferate among the industrial and social machines, they are always being closely watched, channeled, isolated from one another, put into compartments. What we have to find out is whether this alienating control, which is believed to be legitimate and indeed inherent in the social situation of human beings, can ever be overcome. (‘Molecular Revolutions and Class Struggle’ 255)


What is it to Live and Think like Gilles Châtelet?

consume produce die

– What is To Live and Think Like Pigs about?

[Châtelet:] It’s a book about the fabrication of individuals who operate a soft censorship on themselves…In them, humanity is reduced to a bubble of rights, not going beyond strict biological functions of the yum-yum-fart type. . .as well as the vroom-vroom and beep-beep of cybernetics and the suburbs. . .So people with entirely adequate IQs don’t become free individuals. . .instead they constitute what I call cyber-livestock […] All fresh meat, all fresh brains, must become quantifiable and marketable. 

In the opening pages of his foreword to Gilles Châtelet’s To Live and Think Like Pigs, Alain Badiou repeatedly emphasizes the need for preparation on the part of the reader. In spite of Châtelet’s critical violence, poignant sarcasm, and general disenchantment with the present state of affairs, we readers must prepare ourselves for the encounter with that “rage to live,” which “animated Gilles Châtelet” (‘What is it to Live?’ 5). A rage whose urgency makes itself felt already in the books Preface. However, remarks Badiou, this was always a rage bound to and tempered by a melancholy felt in the face of the fact that more and more each day “we are solicited (and increasingly so) to live – and to think – ‘like pigs’” (5). What is more, adds Badiou, what is additionally exceptional and worthy of note is the fact that despite Châtelet being someone better known for his expertise in the history and theory of the sciences and the philosophy of mathematics, the fundamental commitment and impetus that guides his thought is better understood as one in which “every proposition on science [i.e. principle of Thought] can be converted into a maxim for life [i.e. principle of action].” Thus, if Châtelet is to be remembered, it will be as an individual whose life and thought will forever remain irreducible to the concerns of a pure epistemologist or professional academic. And for Badiou, Châtelet’s is a thought whose chief concern was always the question what does it mean to live? Now, to demonstrate why this is so, Badiou proposes the following five principles that are to serve as an introduction to, and outline of, the architectonic of Châtelet’s life and work as a whole: the principle of exteriority, the principle of interiority, the principle of determination, the principle of the indeterminacy of Being, and the principle of invention.

Principle of Exteriority: Thought is the unfolding of the space that does justice to your body

According to Badiou, if we were to identify the single theme that unifies Châtelet’s range of interests, which span from the arts and sciences to questions of revolution, it would be the idea that “thought is rooted in the body;” where body is “conceived of as dynamic spatiality” (5). What does it mean to say that thought is rooted in dynamic spatiality; that the grounds for thought is the body? It means that Thought finds its “origin” (this is Badiou’s formulation) in geometry whereby “all thought is the knotting together of a space and a gesture, the gestural unfolding of a space” (5). In other words, if Thought is rooted in the body or that what grounds Thought is a certain spatial dynamism, then ‘to think’ necessarily means to engender a particular act (gesture) within a particular organization of space (geometric plane) – Thought, says Châtelet, was never solely the domain of the mind and necessarily involves the conjugation of the points of one’s body with those of a plane. And it is this image of Thought as the conjugation of a body with a plane that leads Badiou to claim that Châtelet’s first maxim was as follows: ‘Unfold the space that does justice to your body’ (5). And it is this maxim of finding the space that does justice to one’s body that is the practical correlate to Châtelet’s own image of Thought as being founded upon a body (i.e. spatial dynamism): insofar as we are thinking and thus rooted in a body, we are simultaneously compelled to act in such a way that the conjugation of body and plane does justice to the body of Thought (the body which is the ground for Thought): “Châtelet’s love of partying obeyed this maxim. It is more ascetic than it might appear, for the construction of the nocturnal space of pleasure is at least as much of a duty as a passive assent. To be a pig is to understand nothing of this duty; it is to wallow in satisfaction without understanding what it really involves” (6).

Principle of Interiority: Solitude is the ‘Intimate Essence’ of Alterity

If Thought is rooted in the body and establishes the obligation of determining the space which does justice to one’s body, what we discover is that for every process of realisation there exists some, “virtuality of articulation that is its principle of deployment. Geometry is not a science of extrinsic extension…it is a resource for extraction and for thickening, a set of deformational gestures, a properly physical virtuality. So that we must think a sort of interiority of space, an intrinsic virtue of variation, which the thinking gesture at once instigate and accompanies”(6). In other words, the fact of Thought being grounded upon the body (as spatial dynamism) has as its necessary consequence the fact that the very function of any given process of realization (or actualization) can only be grasped by understanding its raison d’etre; by grasping why and how a given phenomena was able to be realized in the first place. That is to say, realization or actualization is a process that is not determined by that which it produces (i.e. the latent potential of any social phenomena can in no way serve as reason or cause for that which has been actualized). That said… how does Châtelet view this maxim of Thought as a maxim that also holds for the question of ‘what does it mean to live?’

According to Badiou, the fact that processes of actualization are determined by their virtual components are, for Châtelet, indicative of the fact that the process of extensive unfolding of (‘just’) space proceeds via gesture is repeated but this time with respect to what is intensive and belongs to interiority. For, as Badiou remarks, Thought is comprised of “a set of deformational gestures, a properly physical virtuality” (6), i,e. the deformation of a space that remains unjust vis-a-vis our body, and whose movements are guided not by the requirements of realisation but by what is virtually possible and/or impossible. It is in this way that Châtelet’s first principle (Thought is rooted in the body) gives rise to its second: just as the ‘deformational gesture’ is the developmental or extensive function of Thought (the pure function which is to be realised), so too is it the case that solitude as the ‘interiority of space’ and which harbors that ‘intrinsic virtue of variation,’ is Thought’s enveloping or intensive function. Thus Badiou can write that, “[I]n terms of life, this time is a matter of remarking that solitude and interiority are, alas, the intimate essence of alterity…Gilles Châtelet knew innumerable people, but in this apparent dissemination there was a considerable, and perhaps ultimately mortal, dose of solitude and withdrawal. It is from this point of bleak solitude, also, that he was able to judge the abject destiny of our supposedly ‘convivial’ societies” (6). And it is in this way, then, that in affirming the maxim of unfolding the space that does justice to our body; a space that also serves as the very ground for Thought as such; we discover that the development of ‘just’ space is only made possible by preserving the interiority of space for solitude and withdrawal. While embodiment may define the Being of Thought, it remains the case that it is through the solitude of interiority that Thought-as-gesture-of-deformation possesses any degree of determinacy. And in the absence of any interiority; lacking solitude as that “intimate essence of alterity and of the external world;” Thought becomes capable of nothing more than its passive assent to the nocturnal space of pleasure:

At this decades’ end, a veritable miracle of the Night takes place, enabling Money, Fashion, the Street, the Media, and even the University to get high together and pool their talents to bring about this paradox: a festive equilibrium, the cordial boudoir of the ‘tertiary service society’ which would very quickly become the society of boredom, of the spirit of imitation, of cowardice, and above all of the petty game of reciprocal envy – ‘first one to wake envies the others’. It’s one of those open secrets of Parisian life: every trendy frog, even a cloddish specimen, knows very well that when Tout-Paris swings, ‘civil society’ will soon start to groove. In particular, any sociologist with a little insight would have been able to observe with interest the slow putrefaction of liberatory optimism into libertarian cynicism, which would soon become right-hand man to the liberal Counter-Reformation that would follow; and the drift from ‘yeah man, y’know, like…’, a little adolescent-hippy but still likeable, into the ‘let’s not kid ourselves’ of the Sciences-Po freshman. (Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs, 8-9)

Principle of Determination: ‘Be the prince of your own unsuspected beauty’

Now, if it is the case that virtual solitude alone is capable of rendering Thought’s deformational gestures (gestures which unfold a ‘just’ space vis-a-vis the body as foundation for Thought as such), then the question necessarily arises: What is the criteria or measure by which Thought attains a discrete and determinate existence? If the virtual is what guides the process of actualisation, to what end does virtuality as such aspire? According to Badiou, the virtual determination of actualisation, appears in Châtelet’s text as a form of determination that is oriented toward the ‘latent’ and/or ‘temporal’ continuum. As Badiou writes, “[T]he latent continuum is always more important than the discontinuous cut […] For Châtelet, the history of thought is never ready-made, preperiodised, already carved up. Thought is sleeping in the temporal continuum. There are only singularities awaiting reactivation, creative virtualities lodged in these folds of time, which the body can discover and accept (6). Now, just as the body is the ground for Thought, the latent continuum as that set of not-yet realised virtual-potentials provide the outline of that which the process of actualisation is to realise. To unfold the space that does justice to one’s body; to deform actual or realised space (i.e. to no longer passively assent to the present order of space); such that thought and gesture are explicated in accordance with everything that has not yet been given its actual and concrete form. Thus, Badiou concludes,

The maxim of life this time is: ‘Reactivate your dormant childhood, be the prince of your own unsuspected beauty. Activate your virtuality.’ In the order of existence, materialism might be called the desiccation of the virtual, and so Gilles sought to replace this materialism with the romantic idealism of the powers of childhood. To live and think like a pig is also to kill childhood within oneself, to imagine stupidly that one is a ‘responsible’ well-balanced adult: a nobody, in short. (Badiou, ‘What is it to Live?’ 6)

It is this latent continuity of the virtual that give form to Thought’s deforming gestures and render it as an act whose very significance is indexed to the not-yet realised potential of interiority. For if Thought is said to be disfiguring in its deeds it is precisely because what is realised are modes of being who remain in an asymmetrical relation to the currently existing order of things. Perhaps we could say that one of the inaugural gestures of Thinking is its disagreement with the structure, and thus reality, of the world which it confronts. Absent this disagreement, Thought confronts, once more, that passive assent which signals its imminent failure.

Principle of Indeterminate Being: ‘Love only that which overturns your order’

Now, while it is the case that Thought resides in the latent continuum of virtuality and orients its actualisation in accordance with ‘the prince of its own unsuspected beauty,’ it is also the case that Thought grasps Being only in moments of its indeterminacy. For Badiou, Being as indeterminate commits Châtelet to a certain “dialectical ambiguity” wherein “Being reveals itself to thought – whether scientific of philosophical, no matter – in ‘centres of indifference’ that bear within them the ambiguity of all possible separation” (6). For, as Châtelet writes, it is these “points of maximal ambiguity where a new pact between understanding and intuition is sealed” (7). However, one might ask, what does indifferent Being have to do with the virtual’s determination of actualisation? What is the relation between indeterminate Being and the determinations of Thought? For Châtelet, it is this confrontation of indeterminate Being and the determination of the virtual of Thought that acts as that propitious moment whereby the virtual acts upon the process of actualisation; for it is precisely in the absence of the self-evidence of determinate and definite space, which served as that which Thought passively believes to be “capable of orienting itself and fixing its path,” (7) that the virtual and the actual are drawn together to the point of their indistinction. Thus it is when Being is indeterminate (or ambiguous) that Thought increases its capacity of deforming space in the name of its body. Hence, says Badiou, this principle of indeterminate Being is given the following, practical, formulation: “‘Be the dandy of ambiguities. On pain of losing yourself, love only that which overturns your order.’ As for the pig, he wants to put everything definitively in its place, to reduce it to possible profit; he wants everything to be labelled and consumable” (7).

Principle of Invention: To live is to invent unknown dimensions of existing

Thus far we have seen how in beginning with the maxim of Thought as the unfolding of a space that does justice to the body as ground of Thinking, Châtelet goes on to develop the principle of interiority/solitude, which leads to the discovery that the virtual determines actualisation, and thereby obliging us to “love what overturns our order” insofar as Thought’s passive assent to a certain pre-established harmony of space is that which Thought must deform through its gestures. However, the question necessarily arises: is the logical outcome of Thought’s deformation of a predetermined space nothing but the naive celebration of disorder pure and simple? As it approaches the limits of what it is capable of when confronted with indifferent/ambiguous Being, can Thought be something other than the discordant harmony of deformed space and the idealized continuum of time? To these questions, Châtelet’s response is strictly Bergsonian. Following Bergson’s insight that it would be false to treat disorder as the opposite of order (since ‘disorder’ is the term used for the discovery of an order we were not anticipating), Châtelet argues that not only is Thought something more than the multiplication of deformed space and ideal time; it is precisely when the preceding conditions, or maxims, of Thought have been satisfied that “the higher organisation of thought is…attained” (8). What is this higher order of Thought? Badiou’s answer to this question, as lengthy as it is moving, deserves to be quoted at length:

As we can see: a thought is that which masters, in the resolute gestural treatment of the most resistant lateralities, the engendering of the ‘continuously diverse.’ The grasping of being does not call for an averaging-out…it convokes…the irreducibility, the dialectical irreducibility, of dimensions. In this sense thought is never unilaterally destined to signifying organization…But this is not where the ultimate states of thought lie. They lie in a capacity to seize the dimension; and for this one must invent notations, which exceed the power of the letter. On this point, romantic idealism teaches us to seek not the meaning of our existence, but the exactitude of its dimensions. To live is to invent unknown dimensions of existing and thus, as Rimbaud said, to ‘define vertigo’. This, after all, is what we ought to retain from the life and the death of Gilles Châtelet: we need vertigo, but we also need form – that is to say, its definition. For vertigo is indeed what the romantic dialectic seeks to find at the centre of rationalist itself, insofar as rationality is invention, and therefore a fragment of natural force […] It is a matter of discerning, or retrieving, through polemical violence, in the contemporary commercial space, the resources of a temporalization; of knowing whether some gesture of the thought-body is still possible. In order not to live and think like pigs, let us be of the school of he for whom…only one questioned mattered in the end-an imperative question, a disquieting question: The question of the watchman who hears in space the rustling of a gesture, and calls our: ‘Who’s living?’ Gilles asked, and asked himself, the question: ‘Who’s living?’ We shall strive, so as to remain faithful to him, to choose. (Badiou, ‘What is it to Live?’ 7-8)

For Badiou, then, Châtelet never faltered in his commitment to Thought as deformational gestures which allow Thought to grasp diversity as such; to grasp the multiple as “the production of a deformation of the linear [the order enforced by the pig who wants to put everything in its place; the space of consumption and circulation] through laterality [the time of inventing new dimensions of existence determined by the latent continuum of the virtual]” (7). That is to say, in every deformed and mutilated act Thought is able to prise open the rigid organization of commercial space and re-establish its relation to those virtual images over-determining the realization of actual object. Such is the manner by which Châtelet conceives of this relationship between deformation (of the linear) and organization (of the ‘continuously diverse’); between Thought’s gesture that introduces disorder into the highly ordered space of circulation-consumption. Moreover, and much in the same way as Deleuze understood the relationship of the actual to the virtual, so too does Châtelet maintain that the virtual image is contemporary with the actual object and serves as its double: “its ‘mirror image,’ as in The Lady from Shanghai, in which the mirror takes control of a character, engulfs him and leaves him as just a virtuality” (Dialogues II, 150).

Hence Badiou can write that at the height of its powers, Thought undergoes a transformation and comes to establish a new “pact between understanding and intuition” such that “separative understanding and intuition fuse, in a paradoxical intensity of thought” (6-7). For it is this moment of Thought’s intensive functioning wherein what is given in our experience of the virtual finds itself without a corresponding actual phenomenal object. And in instances such as these, Thought is obliged to invent or discover the forms by which the temporalization of what is virtual within laterality achieves an intentional and determinate deformation of the axis of linearity. Only then does Thinking reach the highest degree of its power, which is its ability to expose the form or exact dimensions of existence, which will serve as the criteria for the reorganization of space (discrete, discontinuous).  Not to live and think like pigs, then. To remain faithful to everything that is at stake in the question of ‘What is it to live?’ and to always inquire into who among us are in fact living. As we have seen, any possible answer to these questions begin with a gesture that desecrates what is sacrosanct in cybernetic-capitalist terrestrial life. And perhaps from the present vantage point we are not too distant from the position Châtelet found himself; thinking and posing these questions – ‘what is it to live? and who among us are living?’ – in the shadow of neo-liberalism’s Counter-Reformation; that era, says Châtelet, which came to be defined by “the market’s Invisible Hand, which dons no kid gloves in order to starve and crush silently, and which is invincible because it applies its pressure everywhere and nowhere; but which nonetheless…has need of a voice. And the voice was right there waiting. The neo-liberal Counter-Reformation…would furnish the classic services of reactionary opinion, delivering a social alchemy to forge a political force out of everything that a middle class invariably ends up exuding-fear, envy, and conformity” (TLTLP, 18-19). And if we were to pose Châtelet’s question for our historical present, one would find an answer from Châtelet himself; an answer that is, however, a negative response:

“…here lies the whole imposture of the city-slicker narcissism…the claim to reestablish all the splendour of that nascent urbanism that, in the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance, brings together talents, intensifying them in a new spacetime – whereas in fact all our new urbanists do is turn a profit from a placement, a double movement that pulverizes and compactifies spacetime so as to subordinate it to a socio-communicational space governed by the parking lot and the cellphone. From now on the spacetime of the city will be a matter of the econometric management of the stock of skills per cubic metre per second, and of the organization of the number of encounters of functional individuals, encounters that naturally will be promoted to the postmodern dignity of ‘events’ […] In any case, for the great majority of Turbo-Becassines and Cyber-Gideons, cosmopolitanism is above all a certain transcontinental way of staying at home and amongst their own by teleporting the predatory elegance that immediately distinguishes the urban monster as a bearer of hope…from the Gribouilles and the Petroleuses, afflicted with vegetative patience or saurian militancy.” 

(Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs, 67-68)

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May 1, 1977: “Taksim Square had become a battleground”

1 may taksim sqTaksim Square (May 1, 1977)

[An excerpt from Sakine Cansiz’s memoir Sara: My Whole Life Was A Struggle] 

The days crawled by, and May 1 [1977] approached. We decided to celebrate the workers’ holiday here in [the Buca] prison and discussed the program. In the outside world, preparations were running full steam ahead. In Istanbul all the leftist groups were planning to demonstrate at Taksim Square. I wondered how May 1 would pass in Kurdistan. Surely the friends would participate in the action at Taksim Square. In Kurdistan, police attacks were usually much harsher. I suspected there would be clashes. 

On May 1 we put on our best clothes. Red carnations had been sent to us from outside–we put them in cans and arranged them on the cabinets. At 9 a.m., out in the courtyard, we started with a minute of silence, then shouted slogans together. We heard slogans booming from other cells as well. We were loud even though we were only few in number. “Long live the first of May!” we cried, and in Kurdish: “Bijî Yeke Gulanê!” [long live
the first of May!]. 
Then, tensely, we turned on the TV news. State television was reporting mostly on police security measures, but sometimes it switched to showing crowds streaming into Taksim Square. Hundreds of thousands were marching with raised eft fists and roaring slogans. It was a splendid sight, strengthening our belief that this mass of humanity could really carry out a revolution. We all murmured with excitement at each new camera shot. Never had I so much confidence in the working class and the prospects for revolution in Turkey. I was fired up, even as I ached with longing for Kurdistan [. . .] The sight of workers in smocks and overalls was impressive. Occasionally they showed footage of the leader of the DİSK revolutionary trade union confederation, Abdullah Baştürk, and the chairman of the TİP, the Turkish Workers Party, Behice Boran. I listened carefully for the slogan “Down with colonialism” and scanned the crowds for banners saying “Kurdistan Revolutionaries.” Suddenly a commotion broke out. Continue reading “May 1, 1977: “Taksim Square had become a battleground””

Au Revoir Aux Enfants… de Mai! (Abstract)

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working draft of an abstract for a conference on May 1968

In the December of 1968, Maurice Blanchot issued a warning that was to be repeated in the years to come: “May, a revolution by idea, desire, and imagination, risks becoming a purely ideal and imaginary event if this revolution does not…yield to new organization and strategies.”[1] And so, we find in an issue of the Frankfurter Rundschau, dated January 17, 1973, the following analysis by Félix Guattari: the events of May demonstrated that revolutionary movements could no longer proceed by assuming the existence of “one specific battle to be fought by workers in the factories, another by patients in the hospital, yet another by students in the university. As became obvious in ’68, the problem of the university is…the problem of society as a whole.”[2] And approximately thirty years after Guattari, it would be Alain Badiou’s turn to offer a similar line of inquiry: “What [would] a new political practice that was not willing to keep everyone in their place look like? A political practice that accepted new trajectories…and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other?”[3] Comparing these remarks reveals the kernel of truth shared by these thinkers: namely, that May ‘68 succeeded in forcing society as a whole to confront the problems which serve as the condition for its existence while also posing, to itself, the problem of discovering the necessary forms struggles must take in order to ward off state capture and its commodification by the market. In light of these remarks this presentation argues the following thesis: if one of the key double-binds of ‘68 is the dialectic between nostalgic commemoration and farcical repetition, its nullification will be achieved only with the realization of a form of collective struggle capable of substantially transforming the forces and relations of production. By beginning with a comparative analysis of Badiou’s, Guattari’s, and Blanchot’s analyses this presentation will show how, if left unresolved, the problems posed by the movements of ‘68 risk becoming the very limitations of contemporary struggles. For just as it was in 1968, these problems are all the more urgent in 2018 since the present cycle of struggle (at least in Western Europe) has again taken the form of federated networks of various local struggles where students take to the streets alongside workers, unions call for strike actions alongside strikes led by grass roots organizations and centered around social issues (transportation, gentrification, rent, the police, land). And so it appears that Badiou is right to underscore our contemporaneity with ’68 since we have yet to find an adequate solution to “the problem revealed by May ’68: [namely, that] the classical figure of the politics of emancipation was ineffective.”[4]


[1] Maurice Blanchot, Political Writings: 1953-1993, tr. Zakir Paul (Fordham University Press: New York, 2010), 106, my emphasis.
[2] Félix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics, tr. Rosemary Sheed (Penguin: New York, 1984), 255.
[3] Alain Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, tr. David Macey and Steve Corcoran (Verso: New York, 2015), 45.
[4] Ibid, 47.

Notes on Ciccariello-Maher’s ‘So Much the Worse for Whites’

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If the face is in fact Christ, in other words, your average ordinary White Man, then the first deviances, the first divergence-types, are racial: yellow man, black man, men in the second or third category…They must be Christianized, in other words, facialized. European racism as the white man’s claim…operates by the determination of degrees of deviance in relation to the White-Man face, which endeavors to integrate nonconforming traits into increasingly eccentric and backward waves, sometimes tolerating them at given places under given conditions, in a given ghetto, sometimes erasing them from the wall, which never abides alterity (it’s a Jew, it’s an Arab, it’s a Negro, it’s a lunatic…). From the viewpoint of racism, there is no exterior, there are no people on the outside.  There are only people who should be like us and whose crime it is not to be. (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 178)

      /1/. Between the Universal & the Particular: Politics
In his review of Susan Buck-Morss’ Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, ‘So Much the Worse For Whites,’ George Ciccariello-Maher provides one of the clearest formulations of the seeming antinomy between the need to defend the rights and lives of exploited and oppressed social groups and the need to uphold the ideal of universalism that is so central to contemporary liberal-Democratic discourse. According to Buck-Morss, the Haitian Revolution was, ultimately, a truncated one insofar as it was a process of social transformation that culminated in pitting one part of the population (i.e. previously enslaved Africans) against another (i.e. previously slave-owning whites). However, as Ciccariello-Maher highlights:

For Buck-Morss, the rise of Dessalines, the slaughter of the whites, and the legislative uniformity of Haitian blackness all point in one direction: that of a simple inversion in which the last become the first but little else changes, yet another turn in the “recurring cycle of victim and aggressor. (Ciccariello-Maher, ‘So Much the Worse For Whites,’ p. 30)

And with this it is said to have been demonstrated that the political process we call the Haitian Revolution was originally a revolutionary process whose content was truly universal and served the interests for all, but ultimately became a means for the previously enslaved populations to seek out a form of justice indistinguishable from revenge and by means of the physical retribution inflicted upon their white, formerly slave-owning, counterparts. By contrast, Ciccariello-Maher begins his analysis of Buck-Morss’ assertion of the existence of a betrayal at the very heart of the revolutions universal dimension with an altogether different set of questions. For Ciccariello-Maher, we would be wrong to begin by asking ‘Where did the revolution go wrong?’ or ‘Which actor or event marks the point of no return and the beginning of Dessalines betrayal to the revolution?’ Instead, we should begin any investigation into the universal aspects of the Haitian revolution by foregrounding the colonial situation: 

Why was it “the violent elimination of the whites” and not the prior elimination of various maroon and Vodou and other leaders that “signaled” a retreat from the universal? […] Buck-Morss reduces all identitarian opposition to brutality, which can only contribute to an interminable cycle of violence…As a result, she misreads the dialectical content of both Dessalines’ Manichaeism…and the universal blackness of all Haitians (as formulated in the 1805 Constitution). (Ciccariello-Maher, 28) 

Now, unlike Buck-Morss, Ciccariello-Maher finds Dessalines’ role in the revolution not only less problematic but also indicative of how the promises of Enlightenment universalism (universal humanity) are not obviated by the emphasis placed on particular identity groups within the context of political struggle. While Buck-Morss views Dessalines’ elimination of former slave-owners as the betrayal of the revolutions universalism, Ciccariello-Maher reads this emphasis on Dessalines identitarianism not only as an important pre-dialectical step in the dialectic between colonizer and colonized, but as containing a qualitatively different kind of universality than that espoused by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the European Enlightenment. For Ciccariello-Maher, the universality embodied by Toussaint L’Ouverture was a universalism that opposed any form of ‘racial identity that interfered with the establishment of formal equality in the here and now.’

In other words, Toussaint embodied a universalism whose content was a form of liberty and right that, when solidified into law, instantiated a new set of divisions and social relations within civil society. In place of the colonizer/colonized and slave-owner/slave relation, there would now be the relation between the public and the private,  the individual/collective, and the citizen and the non-citizen. If this type of universal emancipation remains insufficient for Ciccariello-Maher (as it did for Dessalines) it is insufficient for the very reason Marx gave regarding the distinction between political and human emancipation: the formal universalism of political emancipation only considers individuals in terms of their alienation from others and their social totality and thereby only grants them liberties and rights appropriate to their alienated existence as opposed to abolishing the conditions of alienation as such. As Marx wrote, 

Political emancipation is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a member of civil society, to an egoistic, independent individual, and on the other hand, to a citizen, a juridical person. Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished. (‘On The Jewish Question’)

However, even if we accept the criticism of Toussaint’s shortcomings in the project of political emancipation, how is it that Ciccariello-Maher can claim that this as a false or empty universalism; a universalism that Toussaint supported, just as the French revolutionaries before him and just like Buck-Morss’ today? Ciccariello-Maher’s answer is two-fold. First, the Hegelian dialectic between master and slave remains a wholly idealist dialectic insofar as Hegel presupposes each individual in the relationship entering into the process for recognition on equal grounding. In an implicit reference to Fanon, Ciccariello-Maher remarks that insofar as we are concerned with understanding the historical development of revolutionary politics we cannot satisfy ourselves with this Hegelian presupposition because

if we see struggle as the necessary precondition for this recognition (Hegel), and if more importantly we see one-sided, pre-dialectical struggle as the necessary precondition for even this Hegelian struggle for recognition (Fanon), then our understanding of the temporal structure of the dialectic shifts accordingly. For Fanon, the ontological blockage of white supremacy creates a more immediate perspective that foregrounds identitarian struggle in the present. Despite his own yearning for the universal…Fanon finds identity repeatedly forced upon him, and his universal is deferred into the distant future. (Ciccariello-Maher, 33)

     /2/. Decolonization Is Not A Discourse on the Universal
So, against the empty formalism that posits humanity’s equality to itself as something that while being true in theory can now become true in our lived reality, Fanon’s critique of Hegel reasserts the non-identical and different material conditions definitive of colonizer and colonized as the real grounds for any dialectical progression toward mutual recognition. Thus, the formal or political emancipation promised by Enlightenment universalism is empty since it seeks to realize in the world that which was already discovered in theory: the (abstract) truth of a humanity that is equal to itself and thus allows no room for discrimination or privileging certain differences over others. As Ciccariello-Maher writes

Much like the avenging angel Dessalines, the colonized returns upon the colonizer the “same violence…which governed the ordering of the colonial world,” and as though rejecting reconciliation outright, Fanon insists that decolonization “does not mean that once the borders have been eliminated there will be a right of way…To destroy the colonial world means nothing less than demolishing the colonist’s sector” (5-6). As though responding preemptively to Buck-Morss’ approach, Fanon insists that decolonization “is not a discourse on the universal,” with emphasis on both “discourse” and “universal”: there is no convincing the colonizer in words, much less in the flowery words of human love that even Fanon himself often uses. (Ibid.)

Second, if Enlightenment version of universalism is said to be empty and limited by its formal equality, it is because it amounts to an approach that only grasps the universal ‘by negating, rather than truly passing through and inhabiting, the particular.’ To be sure, this grasping at universality by negating all particularity, is precisely what was missed and thus constitutes the betrayal of the Haitian revolution insofar as individuals such as Dessalines maintained their identitarian positions. For example, if freedom is said to be universal, it is because it something available to all persons without qualification. Thus, to propose freedom in a qualified manner; to struggle for the freedom of a particular group; presents a problem within the schema of universality Buck-Morss’ seeks to defend, since any struggle for the freedom of slaves or colonized peoples manifest themselves as a violation of freedoms universality, where universality here means ‘free of all particulars’.

Moreover, as Ciccariello-Maher points out in a series of rhetorical questions, it’s historically inaccurate to characterize the politics of individuals such as Toussaint, Dessalines, and Fanon as ‘identitarian’ or as thinkers who are not attuned to the intricacies entailed by defending a specific political identity: “Was Dessalines blind to porosity when he baptized some Poles and Germans as “black”? Was Fanon blind to porosity when he suggested that “some black can be whiter than the whites”? And was not old Toussaint performing the same maneuver when he mobilized on the basis of the nation, and even more so when he reputedly told his troops “leave nothing white behind you” (Black Jacobins, 288)?” For Ciccariello-Maher, then, liberatory struggles waged in the name of the particular are attuned to what is ignored by the tradition of Hegelian universalism: namely, that the universal is never given in advance and one reaches the universal insofar as one retains a commitment to all that is particular in a given situation. And in this way Dessalines appears not as someone who betrays the universal but as the one who makes the first real attempt at its historical, material, and therefore real construction. And so, it comes as no surprise that one finds in his recent text the following claim:

“…colonization and enslavement are not processes in which individuals and groups simply bump haphazardly into one another. Rather, they denote the sort of specifically one-sided operations to which Hegel was characteristically blind, the utterly nonreciprocal oppression of those deemed not worthy of recognition…and from whom only work, land, or simply death is desired as a result…colonial difference indicates a more concrete and precise way of grasping those oppositions not visible to a traditional dialectics but whose appearance does not mark the impossibility of dialectics entirely.” (George Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics)

Notes on Christian Jambet & the Question of the One

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If there is one conviction shared by the majority of contemporary philosophers, this is it: the one is not [l’un n’est pas]. . .Once affirmed, this conviction converts smoothly into various systems of thought, until either every attestation of the real is renounced, or at least until the real is thoroughly separated from its theological identity with the one. . .Whatever the merits of this decision may be, its unavoidable consequence is to conceal what is at stake, metaphysically, when the mind acknowledges that the highest power resides in the one. [1]

“Que peut la philosophie? « cette pensée avec laquelle on ne peut essentiellement rien entreprendre et à propos de laquelle les servantes ne peuvent s’empêcher de rire (Heidegger). Je suis voué à l’impuissance traditionnelle de la philosophie, plus simplement de la vie contemplative. Longtemps prisée en Occident comme le privilège, la meilleure part de l’homme, ce dont tout être qui mérite le nom d’homme ne peut être privé, ce par quoi l’on touche à l’éternité, cette heureuse impuissance a vu son sens renversé. Thalès ne vaut plus la servante. La vérité, séparée de la vie, ne vaut pas la vie qu’elle contribue à opprimer. [2]

Y a-t-il une philosophie française?

It would seem that Christian Jambet’s intervention in the history of philosophy have largely escaped the attention of the Anglophone reception of  contemporary “French philosophy.” Hence the importance of Peter Hallward’s reflections on Jambet’s life and work in his 2003 introduction to Jambet’s ‘Some Comments on the Question of the One’ published in Angelaki. [3] For Hallward, this relative neglect of Jambet’s work is a disservice to ourselves and to the image of French theory/philosophy that continues to be faithfully passed down within academia – especially given a person who was influenced by “Mao and Lacan” while also serving as “the translator of Rumi and Oscar Wilde” and “an attentive reader of Foucault, Deleuze, and Badiou.” Given this range and diversity of Jambet’s thought, and as Hallward puts it, Jambet quite frankly “makes mainstream work in comparative philosophy look positively parochial” [4] and constitutes a blindspot regarding our understanding of the developments specific to the French tradition.

According to Hallward, Jambet’s intervention can be understood as constituted by its two main concerns: revolution and philosophy. Regarding the latter, Jambet defends a view of philosophy, not as the pursuit of knowledge or opinion, but as the reflexive undertaking that, when applied to oneself (“an entering into discord with oneself”), transforms both the subject and its image of thought. That is, philosophy is to be found in all those acts, which pursue a line of inquiry that is also defined by its qualitative break with every prejudice and acculturated habit that is recognizable by its belonging to a certain ‘common sense.’ As Hallward writes: “a genuine “philosophical act takes place when its subjects overturn their conception of the world,” when, breaking with prejudice or habit, they devise ways of thinking along lines indifferent to all received representations of the world. Philosophy…is a reflexive work of transformation applied upon oneself…so as to accord with a way of thinking that holds, in principle for anyone at all.”[5] For Jambet, what is at stake in the practice of philosophy is the transformation of the thinking subject such that this subject’s mode of thought is marked by a break with those forms of thought sustained by either tradition (“good sense”) or convention (“common sense”).

Qu’est–ce que la revolution?

Given Jambet’s experiences as a member of the Maoist groups Union des Jeunesses Communistes and Gauche Prolétarienne and ultimate disappointment with the direction taken by Maoism in both China and France, he returns to and refashions a theory of revolutionary subjectivity (as developed in his text L’Ange from 1976 and furthered in his 1978 work Le Monde) which allows him to begin theorizing revolution as a “spiritual affair” – a revolution whose “most immediate enemies are those…who seek to harness its forces to merely social or historical ends.”[6] However, we should not understand this spiritual definition of revolution as a regression or inherent mysticism regarding Jambet’s political thought. Rather, for Jambet, revolution belongs to the category of Spirit precisely because it is Spirit that is said to be the locus of the genesis of novel forms of both thinking and living. This revolutionary spiritualism opposed to a theory of revolution bound by the dictates of History (world), says Hallward, allows Jambet to directly address what is at stake in both emancipatory politics as well as the history of Islam:

“Jambet’s decisive encounter with Corbin…is what determined him to look for such points of reference primarily in esoteric Shi’ite philosophy, in which the struggle between world and spirit (between a literal and law-bound conception of the Qu’ran and one that urges the invention of new forms of interpretation) is particularly acute. The question posed today by the likes of Khomeini and bin Laden is the question that has divided Islam from the beginning: is God’s will essentially mediated by rules and institutions and thus caught up in the enforcement of law, or “is God creative freedom, pure spontaneity, such that true believers express this divine freedom in their own spiritual practice,” as so many instances of “boundless spontaneity”?” [7]

So, for Jambet, revolution is decidedly ‘spiritual’ insofar as it is precisely those instances which belong to Spirit that are also acts/moments/thoughts/lives/etc., that realizes that novel and creative force, which expresses, not the relative and particular intentions of human agents, but the logic of that which can only be said to be absolutely free, creative, and spontaneous. If Revolution no longer answers to the demands of realizing historical institutions such as law, or the state, this is because to do so would ultimately mean reversing the relation between the absolute and what is relative to it – which, as Hallward notes, when translated in practical terms is a reversal defined by the very agendas set forth by Khomeini and bin Laden since each, in their own way, valorize a policing relation based on a ‘literal and law-bound conception of the Qu’ran’ (a metaphysical reversal whose political correlate is categorized as World). So, if revolution is to mean anything it must necessarily be so many instances (i.e. so many moments of a coming-into-being and in accordance with substance and attributes of which it is an expression) of the divine attribute of “boundless spontaneity.” And in this manner, says Jambet, revolution is nothing if not a spiritual affair.

However it is at this point in Jambet’s reconsideration of the fundamental features of revolution that we would be right to ask the following: what leads Jambet to think revolution from the vantage point of a substance based metaphysics? What is it that compels Jambet to deny the dictum that l’un n’est pas [the one is not] and to recuperate the existence of ‘the One’? In any event, it is the radical transformation of oneself and the world that remains at stake. And as Jambet will show, it is only by virtue of ‘the One’ that (i) Thought has access to the reality of revolution just as (ii) it is by virtue of ‘the One’ that revolution becomes a real possibility in Practice.

So, on what basis is Jambet able to claim that Revolution is only said of Spirit and not of the World? On what grounds does Jambet’s theory of revolution avoid turning into a politics founded upon an underlying mysticism and whose subject is characterized by a properly agnostic paralysis; or a less prosaic variant of a heavily mediated idealism? These questions become all the more serious since Jambet’s position seems to go against the very method (historical materialism) that allowed Marx and Engels to develop a theory of revolution whose promise was the universal emancipation of humanity. So, all of this is to ask: ‘can revolution be accomplished in thought and action if we abjure our relation History, which would be, for Jambet, an attribute, not of Spirit, but of the World?‘ On this point Hallward is again instructive since, for Jambet, revolution undoubtedly belongs to ‘Spirit’ insofar as its defining characteristics are only many expressions, or emanations, of its attributes:

“Any conception of spirit as absolute creativity must have at least three fundamental attributes…In the first place (for reasons similar to those embraced by Spinoza)…an unlimited creative force can only be singular, unique…In the second place (for reasons similar to those embraced by Hegel)…pure creativity can only be thought as subject rather than an object, and the only subject adequate to the One is God himself…In the third place, then (for reasons similar to those embraced by Bergson), we ourselves can know God only in so far as God thinks through us…The only true principle immune to radical doubt here is not “think” but “I am thought (by God)” – cogitor rather than cogito.”[8]

 

endnotes
[1] Christian Jambet, ‘Some Comments on the Question of the One,’ Angelaki vol. 8, no. 2, (August, 2003), 36-41, 36.

[2] Christian Jambet, Apologie de Platon. 11.
[3]For more see Hallward’s introduction in Angelaki vol 8, no. 2, August 2003, 33-35.
[4] Ibid, 33.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 34.
[8] Ibid.