A Turing machine realisation in LEGO. Photograph by Projet Rubens
by Martin Paul Eve
Approaching the work of François Laruelle is a singularly disorientating experience. Billed in marketing blurbs and encyclopedia entries as a “philosopher,” Laruelle is difficult to place. Clearly indebted to the post-structuralist movement, with the verbal tics that run (through) his writing, but likewise also descended from (quasi-Althusserian) Marx, the most common characterization of his work is as “non-philosophy.” While this may summon images of Wittgenstein exhorting his readers to stop doing philosophy, Laruelle is of an entirely different breed, closer to Deleuze and his post-dialectical strain than any school of language philosophy, somehow clustered with Spinoza and the legacy of immanence, on the side of materialism but perhaps radically against empiricism.
Relatively unknown in Anglophone spheres at present and with English translations only recently surfacing, some have little time for his work. The same accusations of linguistic trickery and unsubstantiated claims that were leveled at Derrida (and even Deleuze) are to be found among the critics, with the less generous seeing the ultra-meta nature of Laruelle’s writing as “incomprehensible gobbledegook” (Brassier 2003, p.33). This is far from unexpected. Indeed, parts of Laruelle’s oeuvre have the ring of hokum or Hollywood: philosophy of “the One” being the most notorious example and perhaps the easiest target. It is also true that those seeking to gloss his work often tend only to be able to do so in a form of self-referential, jargon-dense prose that mirrors the original. With greater consideration, though, and through careful historical situation, there is at least something to be said for close engagement with Laruelle’s works and particularly the inversion of metaphysics engendered by his approach. I remain among the skeptical of Laruelle’s readers, yet his claim is “to have discovered a new way of thinking” (Brassier 2003, p.25), an aspect that is always tricky to appraise. For, within one paradigm of thought, any other is sure to be unrecognizable, so how to determine if this be method or madness?
In a new, somewhat sneakily-titled book, Alexander R. Galloway probes Laruelle’s esosteric thought in relation to “the digital.” Or at least, that is the outward proclamation. In reality, Laruelle Against the Digital presents a schematization of Western philosophy and its discontents in order to adequately characterize Laruelle’s thought. At the same time, the “digital” portion of the analysis is intended to critically defamiliarize the way in which we think about digital vs. analog so that a comparison to the history of dialectics can be made in this realm. Galloway’s “digital” is, in fact, only tangentially related to the digital to which we refer in everyday speech and is, rather, here presented as a mode of encoding and thinking predicated upon the breakdown of the singular into differentiated instruction sets. In this world, digitality is more a mindset of deconstruction (although not in its Derridean sense), of division and compartmentalization, than any specific computational phenomenon.
Bold and dangerously dense, the reader should be forewarned that Galloway’s book is not designed as an “introduction to Laruelle” and demands that the reader be pre-versed in much of its terminology. For those new to Laruelle’s thought, Galloway’s volume oscillates between summary passages and obtuse aphorism. It is not uncommon, for instance, to encounter sentences that, to the unversed, make little sense and seem predicated on a useless epistemology: “Laruellian objects are in fact black monads, smooth globes of an almost infinite flimsiness [… and] might best be understood as ‘actual inexistents’ for as they span the advent they move into the realm of the actual, but in so much as they are immanently real they cannot ‘exist’ (in the sense of ekstasis).” Like these objects, the prose is, from time to time, “irresistibly dense and stubbornly opaque” (21).
Structurally, however, Galloway’s book remains clear at all times and follows a useful, if ambitious, trail. Laid out in a series of theses, which are summarized at the end, the text has a structural resonance with Marx’s famous theses on Feurbach. Beyond this, though, the work is (aptly) divided into two parts, the first is designed, following a range of terminologies from theoretical physics, to lay out the “standard model” of Western philosophy. The second is dedicated to the ways in which a withdrawal from this mode might be possible. How one feels about the merits of so doing will vary from reader to reader.
In Galloway’s mapping, via a subset of Laruelle’s thought (a figure that I will hereafter refer to as Galloway/Laruelle), the standard model of philosophy can be subdivided into four key, overlapping areas: “the media principle,” “the architecture of distinction,” “the ontological principle and the principle of sufficient reason,” and “the philosophical decision.” It is worth outlining these areas a little before proceeding. The media principle, for Galloway/Laruelle, refers to the idea of communicability: the notion that whatever is real can be translated into a form that can be communicated and understood. One might question where epistemologies of the mystical fit here (or whether they are epistemological in this sense) but this is a fundamentally sound diagnosis, particularly for any form of philosophy that fits with a scientific method. The “architecture of distinction” here denotes an architecture of metaphysics, arguing that this mode always implies the separation of materiality and the relations formed on top of it. With reference to Badiou and Irigary, Galloway’s examples of such distinctions include object and body against information and thought. Similarly, the ontological principle and/or the principle of sufficient reason gives another version of an object-relation dualism in which rationality is firmly linked to presence and being. Finally, for Galloway/Laruelle, philosophy entails a decision “to reflect on anything whatsoever” (11). Communicability, materiality/super-materiality and decision are the orders of the day.
Galloway further characterizes this Laruellian standard model in terms of one/multiplicity, a move that allows him to relate various concepts to the histories of philosophy. This gives four “states of being” that Galloway/Laruelle refers to as: “differential being [One Two],” “dialectical being [Not-One],” “continuous being [One-as-Multiple],” and “generic being [One-and-the-Same]” (34). The first of these modes, it is claimed, represents the “classic definition of metaphysics” in which a singular one is cleaved into a differentiated binary (essence vs. appearance etc.). The morality of this mode is one where an ethical entity conforms with its essence; authenticity. The second mode is similar to the first, but Galloway/Laruelle couches it in terms of “a twoness […] understood not as a positivity of two but as a negativity of not one” (36). This mode is painted as typical of the opposition of politics, probably best espoused in Marx’s appropriation of Hegelian dialectics. The third state of being is the first of the immanent, as opposed to transcendental, states and its prime representative is Deleuze. This state represents a “smooth aggregation of heterogeneous entities” achieving immanence through “multiplicity and continuity” (37). The final state in this matrix is also one of immanence but it is of the generic (the removal of specificity), of which, we are told, Henry and Laruelle have the most well-developed theories, even if the latter cannot be located under this mode.
Against this claimed, complex orthodoxy, Galloway/Laruelle posits a radical alternative: “the axiomatic positioning of an immanent and generic one, against the reigning doxa of contemporary philosophy,” “a derivation of the standard model of philosophy in terms of decision or distinction,” and “the proposal of a non-standard model reliant on indecision, that is, the withdrawal from decision” (45). It is this position that constitutes Laruelle’s “science of philosophy,” his non-philosophy.
This purposeful focus on singularity and multiplicity, besides being core to Laruelle’s thought, finds its apex in Galloway’s discussion of the digital. Contentiously, this book contains scant reference to computation or technology, despite its title (just like Photo-Fictions contains barely a mention of mathematics, despite claiming to be “indexed on an algebraic coefficient present in (quantum) physics” (Laruelle 2012, p.1)). Indeed, the way of thinking about the “digital” here is certainly very different to that of other thinkers in this space, such as Lev Manovich. “Is it guilty of false advertising?”, the author wonders of the work’s title (219). Perhaps, but the definition of the digital expressed here is more conceptual, an element to which I will return at the close of this review.
For Galloway, the digital is best framed as a way of thinking. Derived from Turing’s universal machine, Galloway’s digital (to which his Laruelle is supposedly unsympathetic) is a mode in which “for everything in the world there is a process of distinction appropriate to it,” a decision to break everything down “into logical processes” (xxxiv). In this way, the digital is defined as the “one dividing into two” (52), while the analog means “the two coming together as one” (56). Two examples may serve to illuminate this way of thinking, although there are surely ways of conceiving the truth as precisely the inverse of these definitions. In the case of the digital, the idea here might be that a singular object, in the world, can be encoded as binary representation by systematically breaking it down into its components. A computer image is encoded by pixels. A pixel is encoded by color information. Color information is encoded by numerical representation. Numerical representation is encoded in binary. This “massively multiple” recursive divisibility is what Galloway calls the paralleleities of the digital (62). By contrast, the encoding of a vinyl record, which jostles the needle back and forth to create the sound wave, in Galloway’s description, is a system of two grooves in a singular parallelism, “never will they diverge or converge […] the two sides of the groove, while two, are not distinct. They are merely parallel” (61).
From such thinking, Galloway extrapolates what he calls the “principle of sufficient computation,” drawn from Laruelle’s essay “L’ordinateur transcendantale.” This principle, obviously punning on the principle of sufficient reason, is that anything co-thinkable (in the standard mode of philosophy) must also be computable, the assumption that all that exists must be possibly digital. In an attempt to undo this, Galloway/Laruelle’s reading here comes to “a purely immanent conception of computation” that is “entirely subtracted from any kind of conscious will or causality” (111).
In this way, Galloway/Laruelle’s digital becomes, in a sense, a stand-in for philosophy. Many of the goals of non-philosophy’s withdrawal from philosophy could also be said, in this instance, to apply to the “digital” presented here. What remains unclear, though, is why one would wish to so do. Non-philosophy remains opaque, which may be the intention of its non-representational thought. I find myself in agreement with another reviewer, though, who perhaps rhetorically asked: “is non-philosophy properly non-thinking or is it just plain not thinking” (Culp 2014)?
The same types of pointed query, however, can be aimed at almost all of Laruelle’s work. For instance, in his tract on photography, Laruelle gestures towards a non-standard aesthetics of photography that he calls “photo-fiction.” It is clear, in this particular volume, what Laruelle wishes to avoid when he begins by noting the asymmetrical power relationship that is supposed by philosophical aesthetics: “Aesthetics, particularly since Hegel, is the claimed domination of philosophy over art by which philosophy claims to unpack its meaning, truth, and destination” (Laruelle 2012, p.1). Perhaps this is a fair appraisal. However, Laruelle again proves a better diagnostician of epistemic illness than he is prescriber of a cure. His remedy lies in the construction of “a thought that exceeds or replaces the general process of philosophical aesthetics” (Laruelle 2012, p.12), “a kind of chaos that is even more intense than the photo” (Laruelle 2012, p.13), seeking the manufacture of “a thought less sure of itself than philosophical discourse” that is “formal and contains objectivity but a milder, non-apodictic or axiomatic form” (Laruelle 2012, p.18). That is to say that the physician’s tonic, in the end, sounds a great deal like the dilution of philosophy as it currently stands; a homeopathy for discourse.
Some immediate, similar questions spring to mind about much of the material in Galloway’s treatment of Laruelle and the digital. For one, it is easy to be extremely skeptical of the reductivist portrait of science that Galloway/Laruelle paints: “Science is always direct and radical, not reflective or mediated. Science reveals things immediately, unilaterally, and unconditionally” (xxiv). This is meant to be couching the immanent against the transcendental but it reads as a serious misunderstanding of scientific method that will do little to endear itself towards those in the empiricist tradition (maybe it does not wish to, though).
Likewise, it is unclear what non-philosophy – and the proposed retreat from the “digital” here – is for. Maybe it does not have to be “for” anything and, in this sense, resists a different tradition of utilitarian thinking. That said, the standard model, so rigorously rejected here and despite the epistemological problems on which it rests, has a lot going for it. Is it any good to have discovered a new way of thinking if the benefits of this mode cannot be articulated in any way that intersects with anything outside itself? In its radical immanence, I do hasten to brand Laruelle as crypto-theology (Brassier 2003, p.33). Yet, to put a utilitarian spin on this epistemology: could it not be correct? This seems then to be a matter of whether we might take a partial falsehood that works in favor of a partial truth that never can.
And yet, thinking differently should never be dismissed out of hand, particularly in spheres such as “the digital” that are premised upon the most utilitarian of grounds. However, rather than guiding us to correct fundamental misconceptions in our current epistemologies, Galloway’s reading of Laruelle, to my mind, reveals a shrewd gameplayer, adept at regressing up the meta-pathways, but one whose model can only ever be situated, at least here, in terms of against, as the negative “non-.” For, if your critique is that the supposition of communicability underpins a flawed mode that one wishes to avoid, the first step appears to be the creation of a new language, more suited to non-communication. Galloway, of course, is not unaware of this irony: indeed, he does not at any point claim that Laruelle would approve of his prepositional placement here (“against”). As a placement that, by default, requires more than “the One,” this formulation of “against” implies that Laruelle can be considered within the terms outlined above with respect to digital/analog. Instead, Laruelle’s cause, here mediated through Galloway, is to continue to carve out a negative space for a new discourse that at once sits inside, while remaining unreadable by, philosophy itself.
Piece originally posted at Electronic Book Review |
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Brassier, R., 2003. “Axiomatic heresy: The non-philosophy of François Laruelle.” Radical Philosophy, (121), pp.24–35.
Culp, A., 2014. “From the Decision to the Digital.” boundary 2. Available at:http://boundary2.org/2014/09/17/from-the-decision-to-the-digital/[Accessed December 6, 2014].
Galloway, Alexander R. Laruelle: Against the Digital, Posthumanities, 31 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
Laruelle, F., 2012. Photo-fiction, a non-standard aesthetics = photo-fiction, une esthétique non-standard Bilingual edition., Minneapolis, MN: Univocal.