Rhapsophy: A Prolegomena to the Next Whacked-Out Problematic Ontological Assumption

1.1 The Real versus the Reel: Beware Shiny Flashy Things (When Swimming in Murky Waters).

This is not meant to be scholarly. Thanks to my affiliations with the Theory Centre at the University of Western Ontario, I’ve been continually bumping into something called “Speculative Realism” and a family of interrelated thoughts and thinkers that are presently gaining popularity in Theory and Continental Philosophy circles. Back when I was working on my PhD, my analytic buddies would regularly accuse us Continentals of ‘hero worship’: Where analytic philosophy was primarily organized around various traditional problems, continental philosophy was organized around various traditional thinkers. I never disagreed with this accusation, but then I never felt its bite either. At the time, I saw the Problematic Ontological Assumption (POA) as the problem in philosophy: if the traditional problems were artifacts of ancient or more recent philosophical wrong turns, then perhaps less rather than more thought was needed. Perhaps we needed to go back to certain forks in the road, and begin once again. And what were those forks in the road but the innovations of past great thinkers? I would always point to Wittgenstein, the way analytics treated him with the same ‘hero-worship’ continentals reserved for, say, Heidegger. Why was he the exception? Well, because he was all about forks in the road, the way implicatures can trap us with problems that no amount of ingenuity can solve.

The thing about hero-worship is that it inspires emulation. And the thing about emulation is that it inspires presumption. The fact is, the Hunt for the Great Problematic Ontological Assumption has been institutionalized. So where ‘Presence’ was seen by the previous generation (the one I cut my teeth studying) as the POA, the new one climbing the institutional rungs seems to be ‘Correlation.’ So I decided, not so long ago, to start looking into recent continental thought during those rare slivers my professional and domestic life provided. And I thought I would start a little journal to chronicle the haphazard adventure. And a timely one, I think.

There’s a new philosophical ecology taking root. Philosophy is communicative, and we happen to be living through the greatest communications revolution short of writing itself. The old philosophical ecology turns on books and articles, fixed, monologic forms adapted to the economic requirements of old world information delivery. It truly is curious just how much academics are explicitly trained to conceal: their personality, their ignorances, their personal histories, their institutional incentives, their head colds, their professional animosities, and so on. If you think about it, the humanities ‘article’ really is a peculiar exercise in writing fantasy: not only does it purport to be an exercise in reasoning rather than rationalization, its competent execution demands that almost all potential cognitive contaminants be hidden as opposed to accounted for, not to mention the pretence of being wholly invested in its subject matter. In an odd way, it represents a form of ritual deception, and an inevitable one, given the way the economic and social psychological incentives line up in the old ecology. The physical transmission of information forces senders to concentrate their messages in bursts, a process that provides ample opportunity to minimize as many social and epistemic inefficiencies as possible. The old ecology compels senders to continually rationalize, everything from typos to social positioning. Everything must be properly groomed in the old ecology. And such is the genius of human institutions that this became a set of thoughtless norms, doled out and consumed like the air we breathe, leading to the absurd irony of using one set of cosmetic obsessions–books, articles–to critique other kinds of cultural cosmetic obsessions–politics, fashion.

The new ecology, on the other hand, is both dialogic and informal. It allows others to see more of the process, all the ugly little living things that the edifice of the ‘philosophical text’ elides in condensation. The hiccoughs. The sneezes. The way personality always gets in the way. And it allows for a different, more mobile form of thought to find expression, one that gropes and stumbles in the light. One need only think of Wittgenstein, and the omnipresent antagonism between his thought and the form of its delivery, the sense of arbitrariness that puzzles all his publications. Why is there a book cover here? The old ecology was antagonistic, not simply to certain modes of communication, but certain modes of thought as well. A book is far more than a physical object, it is a logical one as well. A book should never argue against itself, let alone ridicule its own presumption. A book should never be conflicted, fragmentary, dissolute. It should be, as much as possible, a tidy, perfect, little person…

An illusion. Polish is ever the substitute for substance.

I don’t think I could ever agree with myself long enough to write a philosophical book. I certainly couldn’t keep a straight face. I find novels easy simply because they are expected to be conflicted and dishevelled. But I took three consecutive runs at my philosophy dissertation only to find myself utterly undone by my inability to believe. Like so many PhD students I have known, I tried resigning myself to just ‘pretending’ so that I could ‘get the fucking thing done.’

I couldn’t even manage that. I couldn’t even agree with myself long enough to publish an article for fuck’s sake. And, since all those holding the yardsticks had been able, because they could believe themselves over the course of writing a dissertation or they could pretend without their motivation boiling away, I was, to put it bluntly, screwed. The novel deals were like manna from heaven when they arrived.

You see, I know that tucked away in some corner of your thought you suspect that something is out of joint. That some kind of systematic dysfunction haunts institutionalized theory and philosophy. A strange form of make-believe in the belly. We know how institutions become myopic and morbid, their tendency to become self-regarding and conservative. So, out of all the interlocking institutional networks that comprise society, where has this critical second-order knowledge of institutions been institutionalized? Who has most effectively instituted recursive procedures designed to prevent and redress the inclination toward institutional myopia and morbidity? Corporations. Some universities, to the extent they have been corporatized. Certainly not that supposed bastion of second-order knowledge, the philosophy department. Why should it when it pays to play along?

You adapt yourself to your institutional environment, and you love it to the extent that it seems to reward you. And when you finally get that job, suddenly it all becomes worthwhile. A kind of version of consensus fallacy does the rest: If it was good for you

Humans are rationalizers before reasoners. If this isn’t simply an empirical fact, then it’s becoming more and more conclusive every passing day. Given this, you would think that greater intelligence and training would also make for more skilful rationalization. And if you think about it, this pretty much has to be the case. All you gotta do is look at the florid diversity of philosophical views out there and start summing incompatibilities. It’s just lottery tickets they’re waving…

Philosophy is where human beings are just plained stumped. It’s where we organize and isolate our confusions in the hopes of understanding and perhaps overcoming them. The books and articles of the old ecology can be seen as deceptive notes sent from those who have made a profession of our collective confusion, but are loathe to call themselves the Professionally Confused. The new ecology, however, is about to change all this. Not only does it allow the dissemination of unpackaged voices, it allows the profundity of our perplexity to shine through all the cracks once sutured shut by the processes of publication. Blogs like this, for instance, capture the development of thought in a living environment, with errors, and ignorances, and mood swings visible to all. They show philosophy for the slovenly, flawed, human thing it in fact is, a form of specialized mythmaking that seems to connect us to the baffling limit of our thought.

Recent continental philosophy is also, in many ways, a product of the new ecology: I knew this going in, since Speculative Heresy had been my lone portal on its world for some time. But now that I’m finally beginning to read the texts and browse the blogs, I’m beginning to suspect that it still anchors itself in the old, rather than indulging it as an institutional necessity. Consider the opening words of Alain Badiou’s Being and Event:

Soon it will have been twenty years since I published this book in France. At that moment I was quite aware of having written a ‘great’ book of philosophy. I felt like I had actually achieved what I had set out to do. Not without pride, I thought I had inscribed my name in the history of philosophy, and in particular, in the history of those philosophical systems which are the subject of interpretations and commentaries throughout the centuries.

These are literally the first words I had read written by any of the movements principles. Bad luck–I hope.

So, the first adventurous observation I would like to make about Speculative Realism is that, from a very superficial perspective at least, it does not appear to be a very self-critical enterprise.

It strikes me as very ingroup–and self-consciously so. Very old school.

1.1.1: The Other Other Philosophy.

So let’s look at something that is supposedly ‘radically new.’

What follows is a simply a johnny-on-the-spot summary of my response to Ray Brassier’s “Axiomatic Heresy: The Non-Philosophy of Francois Laruelle,” a paper which has apparently become the paradigmatic exposition of Laruelle’s notoriously difficult work. I thought the article itself was brilliant. You could barely see the scars.

In keeping with the tradition, it starts with the Diagnosis, the attempt to isolate the Problematic Ontological Assumption (POA). Laruelle calls his POA the ‘Philosophical Decision,’ where ‘decision’ means something like the ‘theoretical attitude,’ the stance philosophers take when theorizing the world. It is, Brassier explains, universal to all philosophy (no mention is made of the other possibility, that the Decision is something that can be read into all philosophy) which simultaneously fixes the mega-implicature of all philosophical possibilities and renders all things philosophizable. Well, all things with the exception of the Decision itself.

The minimal condition of the Decision is the division between the condition and the conditioned, giver and given, and insofar as this relation (of division) is itself given, the Decision is always an instance of itself. This is where the problems start piling up, since it renders the Decision both self-positing and self-presupposing. For Laruelle, this explains why philosophy’s specular character generates an endless regress of interpretation: in positing presuppositions it necessarily presupposes, which in turn requires positing, which in turn presupposes, and so on.

This Diagnosis is given a higher resolution and more actionable explanation through the difficult concept of ‘Unilateral Dualism,’ Laruelle’s account of the way the Decision, in addition to rendering philosophy interminable, actually does violence to the everything it considers. My guess is that more than a few people of my intellectual generation see Laruelle’s ‘non-philosophy’ as a version of deconstruction on their first encounter. Concepts are bigots, and they generally assimilate the new by unilaterally appropriating it to the old. Deconstruction, in other words, will tend to see non-philosophy as identical to itself, whereas non-philosophy does not see itself as identical to deconstruction. The distinction, in other words, is one-sided, unilateral. By simply framing this unilateral distinction in discourse, we have covered it over, since the identity assumed by deconstruction is posed as the identity of two different things, namely, deconstruction and non-philosophy. This means that discursive thought can only handle unilateral distinctions by transforming them into bilateral distinctions, which is to say, it cannot handle them. It simply cannot inhabit the position of what it theorizes.

One way of putting this is that philosophy suffers from what might be called a ‘Son of God Paradox.’ To know humanity is to know finitude, and to know finitude is to be finite. Since God is ‘infinite,’ there is a sense that humanity had to have been literally incomprehensible to God (and thus a paradoxical limit on his infinitude) until he became human–that is, until Jesus. This is the lesson of unilateral dualism: since philosophy cannot subtract itself from what it philosophizes, it cannot philosophize in terms belonging to what it philosophizes.

If philosophy is God (and saddled by all the paradoxes that entails), then non-philosophy is Jesus, the performance of an instrument hitherto only heard. For Laruelle, non-philosophy is simply a way to ‘conceive’ in the absence of reflection (specularity, decision), a form of what might be termed ‘concepting’ as opposed to traditional ‘conceptualization.’ With the absence of second-order reflection (decision) comes the absence of the distinction between positing and presupposition: non-philosophy is both axiomatic and non-reflective, a performance that is never for, only from.

Laruelle openly acknowledges that this has to be preposterous from the point of view of philosophy, which can only critique philosophical reflection via more philosophical reflection. It is “programmed to insist” that the axiomatic positing of “radical immanence” is decisional. This resistance, it turns out, is precisely what non-philosophy requires, since philosophical decision is the very object of non-philosophy.

As foreshortened and crude as this thumbnail sketch is, I think it provides a means of contrasting non-philosophy from deconstruction, which it does resemble in several striking respects. So where Derrida renders reflection performative, you could say Laruelle renders the reflected performative. And where for Derrida, the ‘axiom’ (differance) is free floating, and the encounter with reflection is simultaneously performative and reflective, with Laruelle the axiom is fixed, and the encounter with reflection is performative through and through. Both philosophies can be styled ‘deflationary realisms’ insofar as the are from reality and not of reality, and so subtend upon a real that is devoid of content, the one an ‘x,’ the other ‘under erasure.’

The most problematic convergence, however, has to do with the actual practice. Just like deconstruction, there is nothing in the practice of non-philosophy that cannot be otherwise explained as the result of interpretative underdetermination, the way all interpreters unconsciously game ambiguities to various ends. Where deconstruction games meaning to produce aporetic ‘demonstrations,’ non-philosophy games meaning to produce non-reflective ‘conceptual effects.’ Given our theoretical incompetence, there is strong likelihood that both practices are simply gerrymandered artifacts, ways to exploit our unconscious ability to creatively discover.

There is a reason why religions expend such resources managing and policing belief. There is a reason why the detailed consensus we find in science is without historical precedent. Likewise, there is reason why philosophy is a jungle of crazy ass beliefs. From an outsider’s perspective, Laruelle is simply one more vine. Why should anyone even entertain non-philosophy, let alone commit to it? 

According to Laruelle, they shouldn’t. They are simply executing the program. Non-philosophy necessarily sounds preposterous to them given reflection (specularity, decision). Like Derrida, Laruelle has found a way to structure his position so as to be nonposition, to deploy a preliminary ontological diagnosis as his ladder, which he then pulls onto his back after him. To be as he says, axiomatic.

The reason this is so important is that the practice is really the only thing that preserves Laruelle from another devastating criticism: that non-philosophy is simply philosophy pretending to be something different, something more ‘primordial’ (even if it never admits as much). In other words, that it’s just a gimmick. Without the practice of non-philosophy, the theoretical rationale is little more than a word game.

And last but not least there is the curious way that non-philosophy escapes the Moebius strip of positing and presupposing (the one which renders decisional First Philosophy impossible) only to find itself exploiting a non-decisional Moebius strip of justification. Like deconstruction, it wraps itself around discursive performance (or a totalized interpretation of it), such that the discursive performance of any critique of non-philosophy becomes orthogonal evidence of non-philosophy. Non-philosophy, in other words, is autojustificatory, which from the reflective outsider’s perspective, has to appear as a kind of madness or tyranny. Maybe we should just say, yes, we do recognize this, in the guise of innumerable deaths. At the very least, it is (like deconstruction once again) a form of performative First Philosophy. A crafty new kind of philosophical atavism. Onto-theology.

So the first question I think I would pose to Laruelle would be: I’ve noticed that you have this way of reading that you find readily identifiable. How do you know it’s ‘non-philosophy’ (as you define it) as opposed to simply another esoteric, regimented way of gaming ambiguity, especially when Occam’s Razor suggests the latter?

1.1.1.1: Rhapsophy, the Mother of all POA’s, and the Real Non-Philosophy.

What is it about the doppelganger? What is it about the accumulation of alternate interpretations?

They demonstrate the role ignorance plays in estimations of value. Kant was hot until the alternatives swamped him. Hegel was hot until the alternatives swamped him. Heidegger was hot until the alternatives swamped him. Derrida was hot until the alternatives swamped him. It’s as if the music of the solo is slowly drowned out by more and more discordant voices, until the resulting chorus drive us exhausted from the theatre altogether. The power of philosophy, like singing, turns on silence.

Rather than wait twenty years for this to happen to non-philosophy, I would like to steal its voice in one fell swoop, dispel its apparent value by showing how bloody easy it is to coopt its discourse into something obviously ridiculous. In keeping with the neologistic tone, lets call this an exercise in parastruction. The idea behind parastruction is largely skeptical: to game the moves that characterize a given philosophical outlook to show their largely arbitrary nature: the reason why they inevitably founder in the rising interpretative tide. As well as to remind everyone to lighten up.

Comic strips should be fun.

So let’s invent a variant performative philosophical discourse, where the goal is to explore the associational and perhaps hidden inferential possibilities of various concepts. Let’s call it, ‘rhapsophy.’ The idea would be to see the future of philosophy as a kind of debris field, and the rhapsopher as a kind of picker, looking for that improbable conceptual resonance that could spark the greatest philosophical implicature of dude, like, all time. Since it gets cold positing in the nude, we probably should adduce some totalizing interpretation of traditional philosophical practice that will transform any critique of rhapsophy into evidence of its necessity. (Of course, we probably should have started with this interpretation, then ‘discovered’ rhapsophy as a necessary consequence, but, you know, hey, like whatever. I’m sure it’ll all be straightened out in the book.)

The problem in this case turns on an universal invariant of all philosophy whatsoever, called, shrinkage. Shrinkage turns upon what might be called Unilateral Solipsism. It is important here to clarify the special onto-epistemic meaning accorded that hoary old concept, ‘solipsism,’ which here refers to those enclosed in ignorance. Shrinkage arises as a function of a basic epistemic asymmetry that is the condition of any philosophy whatsoever, the way reflection levels the ignorance that allows thought to make identifications.

So for instance: Canadians think Quebec is identical to Canada, whereas Quebeckers think that Quebec is distinct from Canada. Any reflection on the asymmetry of this has the effect of prioritizing the latter distinction, such that those Canadians who hold that Quebec is identical to Canada become ‘ignorant.’ In other words, reflection necessarily generates a species of epistemic alienation: the mere act of reflecting on this relation has the effect of eliding its true structure. Thus, ‘shrinkage.’

Philosophy qua philosophy is philosophical precisely to the degree which it assumes epistemic asymmetry (shrinkage): all philosophy going back to Thales possesses what might be called a prophetic structure insofar as it consists in the presumption to know. Epistemic alienation is the necessary consequence of this, not because philosophy in fact does not know more, it quite often does, but because it simply cannot grasp the fundamental role that ignorance plays in human thought, an ignorance often born of the absence of reflection.

(The parastructionistic thing to note is simply how all these turns are cut in psychological clay.)

And here we at last see, not only where traditional philosophy founders, but where more recent attempts to evade the perils of reflection/decision/presence also step into a steaming pile of onto-epistemological ambiguity. Traditional philosophy, failing to see the constitutive role of ignorance and/or the absence of reflection simply embraced reflection. With their ears pricked to the problem, the philosophies of difference conceptualized this absence as an excess, as a limiting limit that continually denied the consummation of reflection and its presumption. The non-philosophy of Laruelle, one the other hand, sought to eschew conceptual reflection altogether, and embrace a kind of conceptual performance instead, one axiomatically (rather than reflectively (and so paradoxically)) bound to the truth.

But as the merest reflection makes plain, both the philosophies of difference and non-philosophy simply redistribute what is in fact the real problem of philosophy, which is to say its prophetic structure (and the resulting shrinkage). They may have, unlike their Anglo-American counterparts, shaved their beards, but they remain prophetic all the same. Rather than relinquish the Presumption, they transform it, a fact that is clearly evinced in their utter failure to distinguish performance from competence. So where the philosophies of difference perform the incompetence of reflection, and where non-philosophy performs the circumvention of the incompetence of reflection, both retain the first-order presumption of competence.

A presumption which necessarily turns on reflection: which is why there would be no deconstruction without preliminary reflections on presence and no non-philosophy without preliminary reflections on decision.

Rhapsophy, then, would be the first ‘philosophical’ form to engage in what might be called diaformance, the nonreflective, incompetent performance of what is performed. So, for example, in the following

I’m Miss American Dream since I was seventeen

Don’t matter if I step on the scene or sneak away to the Philippines

They still gon’ put pictures of my derriere in the magazine

You want a piece of me? You want a piece of me?

I’m Bad Miss Media Karma, another day, another drama

Guess I can’t see the harm in workin’ and being a mama

And with a kind on my arm, I’m still an exceptional earner

You want a piece of me?

Britney Spears engages in what can only be described as a brilliant rhapsophical meditation on how much it fucking sucks being chased around by those paparazzi assholes, and she does so without the benefit of either reflection or competence.

In other words, only rhapsophy, the willy-nilly stitching of things together, can overcome the problem of epistemic alienation, and so socially (and not just quasi-pseudo-theoretically) redeem philosophy of its onto-epistemic presumption. Where the philosopher necessarily speaks down, the rhapsopher speaks to, which is why the latter tends to have far more frequent and satisfying sexual encounters, while the former is generally condemned to surfing for free porn on the web.

Here we can see how ‘non-philosophy’ as applied to the work of Laruelle is actually a gut-busting misnomer. Insofar as non-philosophy remains wedded to competence, it remains married to the presumption, and so remains non-philosophy. Rhapsophy, on the other hand, is truly non-philosophy, because it believes what it believes ‘like, because,’ which is to say, axiomatically in the incompetent sense.

Thus to accuse rhapsophy of incompetence is to at once recognize rhapsophy as well as to exemplify it. To dismiss the rhapsopher is to simply reinscribe oneself within what can now be called the Metaphysics of Presumption, and to go entirely unheard, simply because the rhapsopher doesn’t have a fucking clue what you are talking about, and is, to be honest, thoroughly alienated by your presumption.

You pompous prick.

2.1: Bottlenecks and Epistemic Priority.