:: Article

Sunday Rationalism

By Knox Peden.

Detail from Fluid Employment, 2012, by Sam Lewitt. Ferromagnetic liquid and magnetic elements, dimensions vary. Courtesy the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery.


Gilles Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs: The Incitement of Envy and Boredom in Market Democracies, trans. Robin Mackay, introduction by Alain Badiou. Urbanomic & Sequence Press, 2014.

Nostalgia for postmodernism is a peculiar phenomenon, not least because the latter prohibits the former as a matter of principle. Jean-François Lyotard’s account of the collapse of ‘grand narratives’ in The Postmodern Condition was the central document for a cultural moment in which the Left splintered into an array of local movements and agendas that, for many, proved indistinguishable from a market-oriented liberalism in which each was free to consume what he wanted and to construct an identity suitable to those desires. The book, based on a report commissioned by the Quebecois government, came out in 1979, but it turned out to be even more prophetic than diagnostic. The 1980s saw postmodernism itself blossom into a master narrative about the collapse of master narratives. But it was only in the 1990s that postmodernism truly came into its own. With History at an end, there was no further need to narrate the collapse of narrative. Social and political life was increasingly if not fully atomized; identity reigned as the principle of political commitment. What mattered was no longer history, but your history. Not for nothing did Time magazine describe Bill Clinton as the first postmodern President.

If nostalgia for this moment is possible, it is because the present age still lacks a master narrative – except now this lack is felt more as an onus than an opportunity. This anomie unites reactionaries and radicals; the former lament the loss of meaning, the latter the loss of purpose. But in the end they amount to the same thing: no history, or at least no intelligibility to the political effort that used to provide history with its essential stuff. First published in 1998, Gilles Châtelet’s The Live and Think Like Pigs encourages this nostalgia even as it eviscerates it. Part rant, part homily, and all rage, the book brings the reader back to a world prior to the War on Terror and the Global Financial Crisis. Yet as one reads one realizes that the very world one regrets longing for is one that is still here, one whose central principle is captured in the book’s subtitle: ‘the incitement of envy and boredom in market democracies’.

In an age when indictments of neoliberalism are increasingly indistinguishable from apologies for it – witness the trajectory of Bernard Stiegler’s thought and reception, or the debates occasioned by #accelerationism – the virtue of Châtelet’s work lies in its mad combination of idiocy and indignation. The psychic pain caused by market democracies is simply too severe to be taken seriously. Moralism is out of play from the outset. Instead, we are entreated to disquisitions on Turbo-Bécassine and her efforts to court Cyber-Gideon. Poor Turbo-Bécassine, she can’t stand how backwards her mother Petrolly-Bécassine is. Grandma Simpleton Bécassine gets a pass though. She can be forgiven for her ‘inability to think in real time, and her astonished alarm when it’s Singapore at the other end of the line’.

You may be wondering – besides: what the hell is going on? – who is Bécassine? Good question. A figure from French comics, she’s the quintessential rube, the country bumpkin of France profonde. Châtelet’s book is overflowing with references to the French cultural inheritance, high and low (mainly low), some of which are alienating, most of which are amusing, all of which are geared to establishing a set of local periodizations that track the fortunes of market democracy in France and the construction of the ‘tertiary service society’. Turbo is the girl of the hour, completely plugged in to the Web (albeit in a distinctly ‘90s fashion, hence nostalgia pangs). Petrolly had her day during the Trente Glorieuses; Grandma Simpleton harkens back to halcyon days – you know, wartime.

Robin Mackay’s translation of Châtelet’s manic prose is nothing short of heroic. ‘Fluid nomads’ become ‘viscous losers’ in an age when envy becomes a political component, ‘secreted by the Black Box—a replica of the economic component need, secreted by the Fixed Point’. It’s quite possible that Châtelet is unintelligible in the original French (I haven’t read it), and the virtue of Mackay’s work is to bring this sense of dubiousness into English. French radical harangues have historically been discomfiting to many, but this one is curiously invigorating, its obscurantism more inviting than offensive.

This is because at the heart of Châtelet’s mania there lies a serene diagnostic of the present age: it suffers from the total eclipse of political will under a logic of social atomization – exemplified by ‘Hobbes’s Robinson Particles’ (obviously) – that is not simply complicit with technical developments in the biogenetic and cyber spheres, but that actively fuses with them in a ‘Sunday rationalism’ that comprises growing legions of technicians. ‘Bite with white teeth into the fine apple of the “post-metaphysical era”, the era of democratic exchange between the cybervirgins who populate the contemporary campus and pool their expertise to arouse admiration at this post-adolescent pabulum’.

Everything in the book is overwrought and overstated, which gives Châtelet license to indict the marriage of ‘the austerity of the scientist’ to the ‘foppishness of the Sciences-Po graduate’. The indictment is part of a French tradition that targets anomie and laments the selfsame bureaucratic structures that French intellectual life has long profited from. What’s encouraging and revelatory in Châtelet’s account is the almost quaint way in which it holds out hope for democracy in such circumstances (remember: this is 1998) as a vector not of radical individualism against flattening bureaucracy, but as a space for a different kind of anonymity. Aping Pareto, he asks if ‘History is just a graveyard of aristocracies’, i.e. one damn revolt after another? It’s an affliction of the revolutionary to always blame the reactionary. Châtelet avoids the easy out. ‘To the mediocrity of the “average man”,’ he writes, ‘we should oppose the anyone [l’homme quelconque], capable of awakening the political gesture that surpasses all routine and every anticipated possibility’. That’s ‘all routine’, including the routines of revolt. Châtelet’s ‘anyone’ is heroic, but in a peculiar sense. His exceptionalism is less radical than banal. As he races toward some semblance of a conclusion, Châtelet begins to sound less like Lyotard and Deleuze & Guattari and more like Rancière:

Democracy is not deduced from an optimization of preexisting possibilities but emerges through a wager, infinitely more generous and thus infinitely more risky, on the excellence of the multitude’s virtualities and its ability to distribute them. This wager is linked to the principle of the innocence of the exception: no individual, no lobby, no community, no party possesses the privileged vocation to the exercise of power. Thus there is no democracy without the democratic production of an elite! Democracy is ‘worthwhile’ because it leaves open a chance for this anyone-heroism of which, so far, History has tolerated only the first stammerings.

With great Romanticism comes great disappointment, and To Live and Think Like Pigs succeeds by throwing a sardonic wrench into an affective cycle that has become drearily familiar. The world is not suffering from a lack of radical gestures and spontaneous indignation, both of which tend to buttress a sense of anomie more than they erode it. Châtelet’s anyone-hero may have more in common with the tax clerks of David Foster Wallace’s Pale King than the occupants of world squares. When he proposes a new definition of modern communism – ‘To each according to his singularity!’ – the nostalgia threatens to collapse into cynicism: singularity, again? (or worse: still?) But the value of Châtelet’s singularity is deflationary, in the sense that it’s a notion that avoids compromise with the promise of the individual as a ruptural force or entity – the true individual who breaks with the false individualism of ‘market democracies’. The ethical task is not to break from the pack in a radical gesture of new foundation, whose ephemeral consequences will serve mainly to stoke the flame for your next outburst. It is simply not to live and think like a pig, which means to live and think according to values that you articulate and rework in practice.

Many so-called postmoderns found their way back to Kant one way or another, and Châtelet fits with a certain ‘90s moment in that regard too. But the result is simply too extravagant to be commensurate with the Grandma Simpleton Kantianisms of yesteryear. Châtelet’s commitment to autonomy is much more Turbo. Deleuze thought much of Foucault’s ‘diabolical sense of humor’, which he linked to an ontological seriousness in Foucault’s work. This same union is at work in their generational confrere. The ‘Sunday rationalism’ that Châtelet skewers is a rationalism born of boredom. The real scandal is that thought would be a matter of leisure time, and not work, not life as such. Aghast at this scene, Châtelet seeks a rationalism of the everyday, of the plainly quotidian rather than the consumerist daily.

Châtelet’s humor is severe and consistent, in a word, rationalist. Consequently it is vigilant and never lazy. It avoids easy targets, and realizes that any satire that judges its success by the volume of indignation it arouses is simply complicit in the cycle of envy and boredom it purports to combat. There was probably something purposively untimely in Urbanomic’s decision to bring this book out in English now. But with the eyes of the world now focused – or crossed – on the peculiar intersection of humor and politics in the French republican mindset, Châtelet’s indictment of boredom in general – and the boredom of self-righteousness in particular – seems as timely as ever.


Knox Peden is an ARC Research Fellow in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University and the author of Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze (Stanford, 2014). You can follow him @KnoxPeden

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 30th, 2015.