Interview by Richard Marshall.
‘By the way, here’s a philosophical rule of thumb: always start with the negative definitions. Negative definitions are always easier to understand. So, here’s a negative definition. We must not conceive difference in terms of the differences we find between things that already exist. Difference is not empirical differences.’
‘Merleau-Ponty himself compares the experience of the night to mystical experience, which implies that, when we follow the reversal of normal experience, we find ourselves in an unusual, nearly mad experience. Being in an almost mad experience is not something we should fear: only in such experience are we jarred out of our common sense opinions and beliefs. It opens our minds to other ideas and thought. It makes us think.’
‘In general, the reversal of Platonism is a reversal of a hierarchy. As in Nietzsche, the reversal of Platonism in Deleuze is the reversal of being and becoming. The stakes of the reversal of Platonism seem to be solely ontological: break free of the ancient doctrine of icons and models and of the modern notion of representation with its four shackles: identity, resemblance, analogy, and negation. Raise up difference, dis-similarity, disparity and inequality. There is no question that the stakes of the reversal of Platonism are ontological.‘
‘There is no question in my mind that Derrida varied and developed his idea of deconstruction across his career. However, now I think that three versions are continuous. Together they probably define what you are calling Derrida’s “ethos.” The three versions are: (1) the reversal of hierarchies (as in the reversal of Platonism); (2) the attempt to be just; and (3) the impossible.’
Leonard Lawlor is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Philosophy and Director of Graduate Studies at Penn State University, USA. Before joining Penn State, he held the chair of Faudree-Hardin University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Memphis (2004-2008). His research interest focuses on 19th and 20th century continental philosophy, and on the tradition of contemporary critical theory (developed in the 1990s especially in the US), on immanence and life. Here he discusses modern continental philosophy, immanence, difference, thought, the overcoming of metaphysics, the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’, Bergson’s three challenges, Bergon’s qualitative multiplicity, Husserl and Heidegger, Derrida, incompleteness, ‘the worst’, ‘hospitality’, deconstruction, animality, why transcendental idealism over naturalism, whether immanence and transcendance are different, singularity, the ethos of the ‘incorruptables’ Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Leonard “Len” Lawlor : I don’t have an interesting story to tell in reply to this question. But here it is. I was raised in a devout Roman Catholic family. The religious training inspired in me a desire for learning. In fact, I am immensely grateful for my Catholic education for instilling in me a desire for learning. However, the Catholic training also gave me a desire for questioning. In particular, I found some of the doctrines of Catholicism puzzling. How could God become a human? How does one “turn the other cheek”? The desire to question led me eventually to distance myself from the Catholic institution and its dogma. (I still identify as Catholic, although I am not practicing.) But the questions I discovered there continued to plague me. I could not find the answers in religion. So when I took my first university level philosophy course – I was 18 years old — a course on existentialism, well, the ideas simply spoke to me. I changed my major to philosophy, and have remained a student of philosophy ever since. The content of my first philosophy course determined my philosophical orientation: first existentialism and phenomenology, and then structuralism and post-structuralism. Today, I am more interested in ethical questions but oriented by what we call “continental philosophy.”
3:AM: You’ve worked mainly in the field of modern continental philosophy and I guess the French philosophers who might be labelled the incorruptables – Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Levinas, Blanchot, Guattari and the rest of the gang who came to fame in the fifties and sixties. You say that there are four features that help us understand what animated this group so perhaps a good starting point is for us to go through the four features so we get a grip on what’s going on. The first feature is what is called “immanence.” So how are we to understand this term, and why is it so important to these philosophers?
LL: This is a big question. These four features or formulas appear in the Introduction to my Early Twentieth Century Continental Philosophy (2011). You’re right that immanence is the first feature. It is structurally first. Immanence seems to have two senses. The first sense of “immanence” must be opposed to the transcendent. Abandoning the transcendent (and therefore certain forms of religious belief), we are no longer concerned with a second, heavenly world; we no longer gaze at an idea that lies beyond our world and our experience. Our gaze is now turned back to this world and to our ideas. We are now concerned with our experience or experience in general. This return to experience is why immanence is so important for the group of philosophers I have spent my life studying. What is experience? Phenomenological and Bergsonian investigations have shown that experience is necessarily structured by time. While our experience is ours and while it is of this world, the fact that experience is fundamentally temporal opens experience to something that goes beyond it, beyond the present. This “beyond” is what makes immanence a difficult concept. We must think of immanence as a “beyond within.” Basically, due to the structure of temporalization, there is becoming in experience. Because of its irreducible connection to the past and future, the present is always becoming other than itself. Becoming is the second and more profound sense of immanence. I think everything I will say today will revolve around this idea of “beyond within.” (My question of the incarnation probably led me to this idea.)
But I would like to make one more comment about immanence. I think a lot of confusion swirls around this concept. In What is Philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari provide a technical definition of immanence. They say that immanence is “a plane with two sides,” with the two sides being thought and extension, or consciousness and matter. And to this list of sides, we could add subject and object, quality and quantity, and past and future. In the plane with two sides, we must note that the plane of immanence is neither matter nor consciousness. Therefore, immanence cannot be immanent to matter or to consciousness. If Deleuze and Guattari call the plane of immanence at times “nature,” they mean nature in a sense entirely distinguished from anything like a natural substance. As they say in A Thousand Plateaus, “This plane is necessarily a plane of immanence…. We therefore call it a plane of Nature, although nature has nothing to do with it, since on this plane there is no distinction between the natural and the artificial. However many dimensions it may have, it never has a supplementary dimension to that which happens upon it. That alone makes it natural and immanent.” The plane of immanence “never has a supplementary dimension.” Therefore, the plane of immanence is based on nothing but itself, which gives it the status of being that which is prior to the two sides. Only in the sense of priority to the two sides is the plane of immanence “natural” (or better, “vital”). It is not natural in the sense of objective laws, chemical processes and causes, or neuro-chemical processes and causes, material forces; all of these scientific entities would be “supplementary dimensions.” To reduce the plane of immanence to these scientific entities (to reduce being to these beings, as Heidegger would say) distorts the very concept of immanence. One misunderstands the conceptual core of Deleuze and Guattari’s plane of immanence if one identifies their thinking with naturalism or materialism, or with “the new materialism.”
3:AM: “Difference” is the next feature – although doesn’t Derrida spell it differently – so what is this idea getting at?
LL: You can see already that with the phrase “beyond within,” there is a question of difference. The present is always becoming other than or different from itself. First of all, we should say what difference in this philosophy is not. By the way, here’s a philosophical rule of thumb: always start with the negative definitions. Negative definitions are always easier to understand. So, here’s a negative definition. We must not conceive difference in terms of the differences we find between things that already exist. Difference is not empirical differences. Derrida spells “difference” as “différance” in order to make us think of difference as productive or creative. But Deleuze too invents new words to make us think of difference as productive. He speaks of “the differenciator” and “the disparate.” “The differenciator,” with its active suffix, clearly indicates a process of productivity.
But the disparate is the really important idea. I think both Derrida and Deleuze are conceiving difference by means of a fundamental inequality. Deleuze gives us an image by means of which we can understand this fundamental inequality. Probably based on Plato’s Timaeus, the image is a kind of divine creation story. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze speaks about a god creating the world on the basis of a calculation that never quite works out “exactly [juste].” Deleuze is suggesting that this god had used a ratio to create the world, say, a ratio between the past and the future, between consciousness and matter, between space and time, or between quantity and quality. However, because this god’s calculations are not quite right or just, the world contains a fundamental and irreducible injustice or it is as if time is always out of joint. Because his calculation was inexact (pas juste), the ratio is asymmetrical, or we have to say that this ratio always results in an irrational number. The world then created from this irrational ratio, Deleuze says, is a “remainder,” that is, a quantity that cannot be completely resolved into an integer or a whole number.
I know this will seem strange. But I think the conception of the world as a remainder is part of the foundation of an ethics. There is and there must always be a remainder. The elimination of the remainder is the worst violence (complete apocalypse), while the preservation of the remainder aims at the least violence. But the question is: how to preserve the remainder?
3:AM: “Thought” is given a special technical meaning isn’t it – it’s about language liberated from the constraints of logic isn’t it? So can you unpack this for us and again sketch why this is of interest to these philosophers?
LL: Already, Husserl was trying to separate thinking from logic. His early descriptions of noesis testify to this effort. But it is really Heidegger who turned us toward the question of thinking.
Although Heidegger’s thought again seem to be passing into disrepute (due to the publication of the Black Notebooks), it is impossible to overestimate his influence over Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault. Heidegger’s question of what calls for thinking stimulates all of their thinking (and my own too). Heidegger, as Deleuze says, launched the arrow par excellence, the question of thinking. But what is really important is Heidegger’s response to this question. What calls for thinking is that we are not yet thinking. When Heidegger states this answer, he means that what we usually call thinking is not genuine thinking. Since Plato’s Theaetetus, we have always conceived thinking as interior monologue.
I have spent a lot of time studying Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon. (I taught the book three or four times over the 1990s.) The main point of Voice and Phenomenon is that interior life is not simple. It is complicated. Derrida shows that when we reflect on our interior monologue, what we discover right away is that it takes place in a natural language, in my case, in English. Because my interior monologue takes place in English, it resembles me hearing someone else speak. So as not to misunderstand what Derrida is trying to show, it is important to stress the word “resembles.” Derrida is not trying to homogenize my experience of myself to the experience of someone else. Clearly listening to someone else is different from me listening to myself. However Derrida is trying to show that these two experiences have something in common. What they have in common is mediation. Just as your conversation with me requires interpretation, my conversation with myself requires a kind of interpretation. Just as my experience of you never provides me with direct access to your interior life, my experience of myself never provides me with direct access to my own interior life. Here we encounter what I think is the most important phenomenological insight. Husserl shows that whenever I experience another, that experience is always mediated by bodily gestures and language. In other words, it is not possible for me to jump inside your head and experience directly your thoughts. Something about you always remains hidden from me. I think we have still not thought through all the implications of this tremendous phenomenological insight. In any case, when I reflect on my interior life and when I then realize that my thoughts are mediated by language, it is as if my thoughts come from someone else. It is as if my thoughts are not really my own. Thus there is always some sort of alterity right inside of me, in my head. We can even say that there are other voices in my head, voices crying out for justice, voices to which I must respond.
I know this experience of oneself, interior monologue, which seems to be the most ordinary in the world, now looks to be one of madness. That’s true. But perhaps only when we approach madness do we really think. One should not forget that Foucault’s first book was the <em>History of Madness which concludes with the valorization of the near mad experiences of Nietzsche and Artaud.
So we have returned to the question of experience. Earlier when we were speaking of experience, we were speaking of experience in general. Now we must speak of THE experience. There must be an experience that stimulates thought. There must be an experience which breaks down – deconstructs – previously established ideas and opinions. There must be an event.
Here we can return to Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. Merleau-Ponty shows that, in our usual, everyday experience, our vision is oriented by the objects and the world that surrounds them. The thing seen presents profiles that motivate the viewer’s synthetic activity, and the profiles appear against the background of a world that already makes sense. Merleau-Ponty then asks us to reverse this common understanding of experience. He asks us, for example, to think of nighttime experience, experience during a very dark night. In such an experience, we lose the orientation of the object and the world as its background. In fact, the night “envelops me, it penetrates me through all of my senses, it suffocates my memories, and it all but effaces my personal identity.” Merleau-Ponty himself compares the experience of the night to mystical experience, which implies that, when we follow the reversal of normal experience, we find ourselves in an unusual, nearly mad experience. Being in an almost mad experience is not something we should fear: only in such experience are we jarred out of our common sense opinions and beliefs. It opens our minds to other ideas and thought. It makes us think.
Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of experience are very important here. But it is Deleuze who really tells us about THE experience. Deleuze (like Levinas) calls the experience or event “the encounter.” For Deleuze, the encounter is an experience of intensity, an intense sensation. But especially for Deleuze, the encounter is an experience of what outstrips all possible sensations. It must be a sensation that can be captured neither by a quality or a quantity. It must be incommensurate with all possible ways of measurement. Here Deleuze intersects with Derrida since it looks as though the encounter is mediated by language. The encounter in Deleuze’s thought is an interrogation. However, this interrogation is one in which I really do not know the answer to the questions posed to me. Every time I try to use previously established ideas and opinions to answer the questions, those opinions turn out to be the wrong answer. Only in response to this sort of question do we find ourselves really thinking.
3:AM: Finally there’s the notion of “the overcoming of metaphysics” which seems rooted in a particular understanding of Heidegger rather than any logical positivism which might have had a similar slogan. So what did they mean when they said that this was something of importance?
LL: Well, to be honest, I think no one today in academic philosophy is very interested in this idea of overcoming metaphysics. Nevertheless, I remain stubbornly attached to it.
Overcoming metaphysics means reversing Platonism, as Deleuze said in the early part of his career (prior to his collaborations with Guattari). In general, the reversal of Platonism is a reversal of a hierarchy. As in Nietzsche, the reversal of Platonism in Deleuze is the reversal of being and becoming. The stakes of the reversal of Platonism seem to be solely ontological: break free of the ancient doctrine of icons and models and of the modern notion of representation with its four shackles: identity, resemblance, analogy, and negation. Raise up difference, dis-similarity, disparity and inequality. There is no question that the stakes of the reversal of Platonism are ontological. However, I think the genuine stakes of the reversal of Platonism do not consist solely in the ontological reversal of being and becoming. Instead, I think the genuine stakes of the reversal of Platonism are ethical. Repeatedly in Difference and Repetition, Deleuze claims that representation would not amount to much if it were not for its “moral presuppositions and practical implications.”
Because the genuine stakes of the reversal of Platonism are ethical, the question of this reversal remains very important for me. As I said at the beginning, my questions today seem to be mainly those of an ethics. I have not really found yet the answers to these ethical questions. But I think the answers will involve some aspects of Kant’s moral philosophy. I expect my reliance on Kant’s moral philosophy will be found to be surprising. Despite all the criticisms that have been leveled against Kant’s formalism, I think the form of the imperative – answer the question! – can be or must be exaggerated or made hyperbolic. If it is hyperbolized, then the form escapes from all previously established ideas and opinions, from all common sense moralities. The Kantian concern with telling the truth becomes the question of how does one indeed tell the truth. How are we to tell the truth when we really don’t know the truth (since I have no direct access to my own interior life)? For me, that is an interesting question, and the fact that the answer to the question is really unknown is not a cause for pessimism. It should make one pursue the answer all the more, perhaps interminably.
3:AM: You argue that the great philosophers of the sixties – in particular Derrida, Deleuze and Foucault were the end of a process moving through Bergson, Freud, Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty which went from “the inside” to “the outside.” Can you sketch out what “the inside” means in this context?
LL: All of the philosophers you mention are opposed to Cartesianism, which is the view that the interiority of the subject is primarily. So, the inside is the inside of the subject. Here again we could speak of the priority of interior monologue. Here again we could speak of immanence, within subjective experience. However, as I was trying to show earlier, a radical reflection on interior life shows that it is always, necessarily, contaminated (to speak like Derrida) with alterity and with what is different from me, or even beyond me. To define the outside is more difficult. It seems that if the inside is interior life, then the outside should be exterior life; if the inside is subjectivity, then the outside should be objectivity.
Yes, this is true. To overcome the subject, one returns to what is prior to it, which seems to be something like an objective structure, in which the subject is placed. This placement of the subject within a structure is something structuralism taught us. However, the outside – and here I am relying on Foucault’s essay “The Thought of the Outside” – is something stranger than the exterior, something stranger than objectivity and structure. If we think again about the encounter, we see that the encounter is an experience that disrupts all previously established ideas, opinions, and forms. What then does one experience? It is something that is formless or prior to all forms. Foucault gives us an image of the outside: the desert. In the desert, there are no buildings; there is virtually nothing. In this statement, one can hear the echo of Heidegger’s formulas about the nothing. However, with Foucault (who was writing on Blanchot in “The Thought of the Outside”), the formless outside appears; it takes on a figure. It is something that haunts me, like the cries inside of me for justice. It becomes what Derrida would call a specter.
The philosophers on whom I have worked are associated with the movement of the overcoming of the subject. They are seen to be truly radical (and I think they are). Despite their radicality, they are motivated, I think, by traditional, philosophical questions. When one has returned to what precedes forms, to the formless, one has discovered a genuine beginning of thought or philosophy. To return to a true beginning in philosophy through the encounter responds to the traditional question of a presuppositionless beginning. I think there is no philosophy worthy of the name that does not try to return to a presuppositionless beginning. If discovering such a beginning is impossible, then the attempt to return should be interminable.
3:AM: In your book on Bergson you say that he threw down three challenges: that subject and object should be understood in terms of time not space; that ontology should be understood in terms of being and memory and that by challenging Zeno’s paradoxes he was criticizing the entire Eleatic tradition and replacing representation with alteration, variation, movement and life. Is that right? Can you say why Bergson is the starting point for what sixties continental philosophy was all about by sketching the import of these three challenges?
LL: I think I overstated the case for Bergson as a major influence on Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault. Throughout his career, Derrida relies on phenomenology. And Foucault of course is really indebted to the Annales school of historiography. Bergson, however, dominates Deleuze’s thought. In fact, the more I work on Deleuze, the more I think he is primarily Bergsonian – even though we associate his work with Nietzsche and Spinoza.
I think I can summarize all three of the challenges you outline in the question with one Bergsonian concept, and that is multiplicity. Thinking in terms of memory, criticizing the Eleatic tradition, and prioritizing variation and movement, all of these ideas rely on Bergson’s idea of multiplicity.
In Time and Free Will, Bergson distinguishes between two kinds of multiplicity: quantitative and qualitative. When we speak of multiplicity, we usually think of quantitative multiplicity. A quantitative multiplicity is a homogeneous collection of separated things. What makes all the things homogeneous is that they are measured by one standard. In contrast, a qualitative multiplicity in Bergson is heterogeneous and continuous. The identification of heterogeneity and continuity makes the Bergsonian idea of qualitative multiplicity quite difficult. It is heterogeneous because there is no one standard by which to measure the multiplicity. It is continuous because the different parts of the multiplicity interpenetrate each other.
Bergson tries to show that our experiences, especially, our experiences of emotions, are composed of qualitative multiplicities. For example, the feeling of sympathy moves from the feeling of abhorrence at the suffering of others to a feeling of identification with the suffering of others. In between these two extremes of repulsion and identification, we find a variety of feelings, like the feeling of a need to help others (with the feeling arising due to a concern for my own self-interest). Each of these feelings is different, and yet each interpenetrates the next. With the idea of qualitative multiplicity, we are very close to the formless.
Qualitative multiplicity is Bergson’s greatest discovery. It is really what challenges us to think. Like the phenomenological insight into the mediated experience of others, Bergson’s insight into qualitative multiplicity holds more implications than we know today.
3:AM: So was the thought of Husserl and Heidegger important because it indicated what needed to be done to escape from this and move to “the outside”? This notion of “the outside” is not as simple idea as Derrida, Deleuze and Foucault thought is it – I think you analyze it in terms of at least two different ways – one as an opposition and the other as having the idea of a “between” or a “fold.” Have I got this right? Can you unpack what the thoughts are here?
LL: Yes, the thought of Husserl and Heidegger is very important for me. At Stony Brook University, where I received my doctoral degree in philosophy, I was trained as a phenomenologist. This training has never left me. In fact, I still call myself first and foremost a phenomenologist. Certainly Heidegger’s idea of the overcoming of metaphysics led me to the idea of the outside. But Husserl’s idea of the phenomenological reduction led me to the same idea, especially when he claims that the transcendental ego is not a human ego. That claim suggested to me that the level of the transcendental is very different from the empirical and the human; it seems to be really outside these things. But as I mentioned earlier, I borrowed the idea of the outside from Foucault and especially from Deleuze’s little book on Foucault.
We have already spoken of the outside. I can clarify it more now. When we distinguish the outside from the exterior, we are attempting to avoid oppositional thinking. The outside has no opposite because it is formless; only forms can be opposed to one another. If we are attempting dig below the subject-object opposition, then we can say that the outside is the “between” of subject and object. Here I am borrowing from Heidegger analysis of existence (Dasein) in Being and Time. The fold however seems to come from the philosophical tradition of expressionism (Spinoza and Leibniz). Indirectly, I have already spoken of the fold when I said that interior life is not simple but complicated. The expressionist terms “implication” and ‘explication” mean literally “to fold in” and “to fold out.” The image of the fold (le pli) helps us visualize the outside — and immanence. With the fold we should imagine a crease in a piece of paper, which produces a difference between two sides, but the difference is not a separation or an opposition. The crease in the piece of paper differentiates but without formalizing the differences. The image of the fold also allows us to visualize the plane of immanence with its two sides. But, as Deleuze points out in his Foucault book, what we should try to do is fold the outside into the outside and to fold the inside into the outside. In other words, we should try to expose ourselves to what is formless, to the figure of the formless in order to start to think truly.
3:AM: Why do these philosophers see incompletion as a key element to any philosophizing – Foucault called philosophizing a transformative project hasped to “the indefinite work of freedom” and Deleuze and Guattari called work towards “the constellation of an event to come”? And although the term “continental philosophy” seems to cause more confusion than enlightenment, is this notion of incompleteness perhaps something that gathers up a deal of what you mean when continental philosophy is discussed?
LL: Yes, you’re right. Incompleteness is an important aspect of what we call “continental philosophy,” that is, French and German philosophy of the 20th century. Several times, I have described a pursuit as interminable. What makes it interminable? Here we have to realize that the interminability of the pursuit of the formless and the presuppositionless does not result from human finitude. It is not the case that a superior being, like God, would be able to complete the pursuit. The interminability results from an essential and necessity. As I already mentioned, all experience is conditioned by time. But it is a fact about time that it does not end. Why? The answer seems to be that time is really “out of joint” between the past and the future. The future always is larger than the past, or the past contains a memory that no future experience can match. We cannot imagine the experience of time not being disparate; it is fundamentally and necessarily disparate. If time conditions all experience and if time is necessarily disparate, then any attempt to make things really join together, to be really equal and no longer disparate is doomed to failure. Again, I always worry that this consequence will lead to pessimism. But I always hope it will stimulate more thought, and more action, to make things be joined and just.
3:AM: To focus on Derrida for a moment: can you say something about “the worst” and “hospitality” because it seems to me that perhaps here are the key ideas to what Derrida is doing? Am I right in thinking this?
LL: By speaking of both the “worst violence,” and “transcendental violence” or “fundamental violence,” I am borrowing from Derrida’s 1964 text on Levinas, “Violence and Metaphysics.” (By the way, I think “Violence and Metaphysics” might be Derrida’s most important text.) However, it is important to distinguish fundamental violence from the worst violence. As the name suggests, fundamental violence is violence right in the foundation. In “Violence and Metaphysics” Derrida shows that, in order for me to experience anything, including another living being, that living being must enter into my sphere of experience. But when the other enters my experience, experience endows the other with a meaning. If we speak of the experience of time, we see that it is necessary that whenever anything new enters into my experience, it is understood through past experiences. In other words, whenever anyone enters into my sphere of experience, that other person is subject to my prejudices and already formed ideas. To concretize the idea of fundamental experience in another way, we can refer to linguistic performativity and the violence it can do. Hate speech is the occasion of a performative that categories the person (or the people) mentioned in the statement under a general concept (and its presuppositions or prejudices) that effectuates a change in their social status and thereby violates what the person is as a singular individual. Fundamental violence resembles this sort of performative violence. However, to say this again, fundamental violence is fundamental because it appears in the fundamental structure of experience. As fundamental, this violence cannot be eliminated. The violence irreducible in the fundamental structure of experience motivates reactions, one of which is more and more violence to repress and control what is fundamental in experience. This more violent reaction to repress the fundamental violence, or even destroy it, is what I call “the worst violence.” The worst violence is complete apocalypse without remainder.
While I don’t speak much about hospitality in my work, certainly, I think it is a reaction to this irreducible violence that is not the worst violence. As far as I can understand, the idea of hospitality in Derrida concerns fundamental violence. Whenever I allow someone to enter into my home, I expect that he or she will conform to the customs of my home. At the least, I expect them not to destroy my home. But when I expect them to conform and especially when I make them conform, I am doing a kind of violence to them. So, Derrida’s question is: how can I welcome someone into my home or country without forcing them to conform? To avoid conformity would be really welcoming. To avoid conformity explains why Derrida speaks of unconditional hospitality. But is unconditional hospitality even possible? Even if it impossible or “the impossible,” as Derrida would say, we must try to make it happen.
To think about hospitality in one other way, we can return once more to THE experience of alterity – other voices – inside my head. One possible reaction to this intrusion is to attempt to ignore or to silence the other voices, to repress them and destroy them. One might go so far as to kill oneself in order to silence the other voices. Suicide is the worst violence one can imagine. However, a different reaction, one less bad, would be welcome others into my interior monologue, to listen to them, and respond to their cries for justice. This listening and responding would be a form of hospitality. But would it be unconditional? To respond is to understand, and to understand is to rely on already formed meanings and ideas. To understand is to force conformity. How can we really welcome others into ourselves?
I hope this explanation of fundamental violence and the worst violence makes sense. I have struggled a lot with defining the worst violence. The difficulty stems from the fact that the word “worst” is quantitative. As a superlative, the worst violence suggests the most violence, that is, the death of the most people and living beings. I have called the worst violence complete and final apocalypse. However, I think the worst violence could also be the death or violence to one person or one living being. We know from common experience that mourning the death of a loved one is very difficult, sometimes a feeling from which a person might never recover. The death then of one person might be the worst violence. At least, that’s what I think. So, in my future work, I think I have to transform the quantitative idea of the worst violence into a qualitative idea. Maybe the right word here is hyperbolize the worst violence – so that we say that even the death of one person or one living being (even an ant) is the worst violence. Then, to let others, every single other, be what they are, is the least violent reaction. (I think my question about “turning the other cheek” led me to this idea of the least violent reaction.)
3:AM: Which version of deconstruction should we take to be Derrida’s final position – or is that to read against the whole ethos of his philosophical project?
LL: In my Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Derrida, I distinguished three accounts of deconstruction, going from Derrida’s earliest works to the works right before his death in 2004. There is no question in my mind that Derrida varied and developed his idea of deconstruction across his career. However, now I think that three versions are continuous. Together they probably define what you are calling Derrida’s “ethos.” The three versions are: (1) the reversal of hierarchies (as in the reversal of Platonism); (2) the attempt to be just; and (3) the impossible. If we start from the idea of the reversal of hierarchies, we see that all hierarchies subordinate the other terms or ideas. Is this subordination just? Derrida certainly thinks that it is not just. So when deconstruction attempts to reverse the hierarchy between, say, speech and writing, it is attempting to render justice to writing. When Derrida reverses the hierarchy between conditional and unconditional hospitality, he is attempting to be just to the most unwelcome guests. But then, in the attempt to render justice, we encounter the essential necessity of time being out of joint or being unjust. This injustice (or fundamental violence) cannot be eliminated. Consequently, completely or adequately rendering justice is “the impossible.” So we can say that every deconstruction is interminable and incomplete. One other consequence seems to be that when I realize that any deconstruction I do can never achieve justice, I will feel something like pain. I think therefore that there is no deconstruction without the feeling of pain. And I must feel this pain so that I continue to pursue the most just (or the least violent) deconstruction.
3:AM: In your Derrida book on animality you argue for an anti-Platonism and say something very interesting, Heideggarian, and rather contentious: you quote Heidegger saying we must “twist free” of Platonism (which I think you say Bergson was doing when he placed ontology in the domain of being and memory) and by that you say to do this we cannot be naturalists but (quoting Derrida) “responsible guardians of the heritage of transcendental idealism.” So why transcendental idealism over naturalism?
LL: As I already mentioned, the phenomenological training I received really took hold. As a phenomenologist, I think there is no philosophy that does not attempt to ask questions about the foundation.
Husserl showed that in order to reach the transcendental or foundational level, one must not rely on any of the areas of being or experience that one is trying to found or ground. These areas that are founded but not foundational include psychology, anthropology, and the natural sciences, physics in a broad sense. Heidegger says the same thing in his Introduction to Being and Time. Therefore, if one claims that naturalism is foundational, then one is taking one of the founded areas of experience and making it foundational. But this move begs the question. It is a vicious circle. Naturalism refers to one region of being, the region of nature. As one region among many, like the human and the animate, the ontological region of nature requires grounding. When one uses one of the things requiring grounding to be the ground, you are basically copying the foundation off the founded. I have already alluded to this circular reasoning when we were discussing immanence and materialism.
More than Heidegger, Husserl really warns against this kind of circular thinking. But it is Deleuze who really gives us the principle for non-circular foundational thinking. He gives us the principle twice. Here is the principle in Difference and Repetition: “The insufficiency of the foundation is to remain relative to what it grounds, to borrow the characteristics of what it grounds, and to be proved by these. It is in this sense that it creates a circle.” Here is the principle in Logic of Sense: “The foundation can never resemble what it founds.” Even though this non-resemblance principle is a traditional one; it aims for a presuppositionless beginning. As I said before, despite their radicality “the great French philosophers of the 1960s” remained committed to certain traditional, philosophical questions, including the question of foundation.
3:AM: Immanence and transcendence are two technical terms that seem crucial to your arguments here – immanence, as you’ve already explained – comes from Guattari and Deleuze’s What Is Philosophy? but Derrida talks about transcendence. So are they the same thing or are you breaking away from Derrida at this point?
LL: Yes, I’ve struggled with these terms a lot too. Immanence means within but immanence is really the outside since it is prior to all oppositions. Immanence is opposed to the transcendent as in Platonism with its other-worldly ideas. But immanence is not opposed to the transcendental since immanence is something like a foundation. And perhaps immanence is equivalent to transcendence since immanence includes becoming and becoming other. If transcendence means going beyond this world to a world that is other than this one, but not as far as another world separated from ours, then transcendence is equivalent to becoming. If immanence is equivalent to becoming, and becoming-other, then we’d have to say that immanence is equivalent to transcendence.
I just presented a sort of logic of these terms. In their wide-spread use in continental philosophy, they really need strict and precise definitions. But you can see the problem that these terms are attempting to solve: how do we remain within experience while not reducing experience to sameness? How do we account for the difference that time makes in experience? How do we have a foundation that is truly a foundation (and not one copied off the founded) without positing the foundation as outside this world? Earlier I had used the phrase “beyond within.” I had taken this term from Derrida’s Adieu. It too is an attempt to answer all of these questions. But, to be clear, the word “within” refers to immanence, transcendence within immanence. Immanence is prior. There can be other starting point for philosophy.
3:AM: Another key technical term in that book is “singularity” isn’t it? So what is singularity, and how does it contribute to your argument about animality?
LL: In order to understand singularity, we must first say that singularity is not particularity. (Here’s another negative definition.) A particular is what one can subsume under a general concept; a particular is what we can classify using species and genera. A singularity cannot be subsumed or classified.
However, in order to understand singularity in a positive way, we must return to the phenomenological insight into the experience of others. As I said, the experience of others is always mediated. I cannot jump into your head and think your thoughts. Something about you always remains hidden and secret. That irreducible lack of access to your interior life, to what makes you be you, means that what you are most basically cannot be classified. If at bottom you cannot be classified, then there is something singular about you. Singularity refers to the interior of others.
Of course, when we speak about others in this way, we immediately visualize human beings. But I think this kind of singularity applies to all animate beings, all non-human animals. The ethical question then becomes how we respect the singularity of all others, including animals, especially when it seems that we cannot experience anyone or any animal without using past experience and therefore generality and species and genera. With the word “respect,” we close to Kantian morality.
I should add there is a serious conceptual difficulty with singularity. Because I have no direct access to what makes you singular, can I ever say with certainty that I have experienced a singularity? Isn’t it always the case that my experiences always make use of general forms and ideas? Since Heidegger, a lot of ink has been spilled on the concept of event. But if we say that an event is a singularity – and I think there can be no other definition of an event — then can we ever say that an event has happened? Isn’t an event always immediately contaminated with generalities? Here we could appropriate Lyotard’s question from The Differend: arrive-t-il? Is it happening?
3:AM: You say that what you are attempting to do is to “continue and protect the ethos that produced the thought of Deleuze, Derrida, and Foucault.” So what do you mean by ethos here and do you think it is what makes this style of philosophizing seem rather alienating and opaque to some philosophers?
LL: The ethos of the “incorruptibles” is the ethos of pursuing answers to all the questions we have discussed here; to pursue answers to these questions regardless of all the paradoxes and aporias that these questions produce. The ethos is fearlessness in the face of the most difficult philosophical problems. “The great French philosophers of the 1960s” pursued the answers to these questions, even when people ridiculed the answers and even the questions. This effort is why I think the ethos must be continued and the ridicule explains why I think the ethos must be protected.
Unfortunately today, I do not see many people in academic philosophy pursuing answers to these questions. Yes, there is a lot of international interest in Deleuze, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, and Derrida’s work, but the interest seems to be aimed primarily at their more political and aesthetical work. There does not seem to be much interest in the traditional and theoretical questions that originally motivated their work. Given the continuing domination of analytic philosophy in the academy, I worry that this kind of philosophy will end up on the scrapheap of philosophical thought. I hope not.
But, perhaps there is a better fate for this kind of philosophy. Even if vital interest in their work has faded, it’s possible that these figures will enter the history of philosophy. Perhaps later, others might appropriate the works of Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault, and reveal new avenues of thinking. We know that even Plato’s dialogues, written 2500 years ago, still contain implications; they are waiting for someone to discover.
On the basis of our discussion, I hope you can see why the answers have to be opaque, and perhaps alienating. Because the questions are questions of a presuppositionless beginning, a foundation not copied off the founded, the formless, and the desert, the answers to the questions will necessarily include and require new modes of speaking and writing in order to express what have never been thought before. The formulas and concepts will not resemble any pre-established formulas and concepts. The formulas might be unrecognizable as such.
But such formulas make us think more. Whoever said that philosophy is easy? Whoever said that philosophy should conform to common sense? There is a comment from Bergson that I think is relevant to this part of our discussion: “We repudiate easiness. We recommend a certain difficult manner of thinking. We prize above all effort.” I think this comment should be memorized as a slogan for philosophy.
3:AM: And finally, are there five books that we should read to go further into your philosophical world?
LL: As I said earlier, I think Heidegger is terribly important for philosophy (despite what one might think about his politics). Therefore I think reading Being and Time is essential.
I’ve already mentioned Voice and Phenomenon,
Difference and Repetition, and Time and Free Will. These three are also essential.
I want to stress Deleuze’s little book on Foucault. It is an amazing book, brimming with ideas. If one wants to understand the development of 20th century continental philosophy, one must read the final ten or fifteen pages of Foucault. These pages contain the most succinct and clearest narrative of the movement from phenomenology, through Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, to Foucault.
But there is one book that I would recommend, a book hardly read anymore. That book is Bergson’s The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. I think today, more than ever, we need what Bergson calls in The Two Sources “open morality” and “dynamic religion.”
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 31st, 2017.