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The New French philosophy

He captures this idea in ‘Being Singular Plural’ where any sense of self is irreducibly coexistent with shared, excessive elements where ‘sense is itself the sharing of being.’ Meaningfulness is always shared. Sense is never fixed but is a passage of exposure that cannot be delimited, made stable or fixed. It is a sort of flux. James summarises that Nancy means ‘we experience a world together whose meaningfulness is both shared and always already available to us in the most basic material sense of perceptions and worldly interactions.’ Out of this we produce a sense of self and such like, but sense can’t be reduced to these symbolic singularities. In ‘Listening’ Nancy claims that the self is nothing but a ‘syncopated rhythm of successive instances of exposure to sense.’

Nancy thinks art is important in showing how the irreducible multiplicity of the arts relates to the irreducible multiplicity of sense experiences. He thinks art has an intense impact, direct, even physical manner and gives us access to some form of truth. Art ‘touches on that very touch on sense which discloses the world to us in the most fundamental manner.’ Nancy says art isn’t mimesis but can still be realist. It disengages the world from signification which exposes us ‘to the moment of the world as such, the being-world of the world.’ That’s opaque and surprising for someone coming out of Derridean post-structuralism. It’s realism.

Nancy also engages with Christianity. He claims his deconstruction of Christianity is part of the unfolding of Christianity. The Christian doctrine of incarnation is his focus, it being the doctrine of ‘homousia, consubstantiality, the identity or community of being and substance between the Father and the Son.’ Nancy says that homousia is a key to the anti-metaphysics of his deconstructed, anti-foundationalist Christianity and cites Nietzsche, Heidegger and Wittgenstein in support. Christianity’s metaphysics is like all metaphysics in that it paradoxically reveals an anti-foundationalism by disclosing its own ground. In his negative theology Nancy says God renounces his divinity by becoming flesh. The doctrine of Kenosis is ‘the emptying out of God, or his emptying-himself out-of-himself.’ God atheises himself. ‘The “body” of the “incarnation” is therefore the place, or rather the taking place, the event, of that disappearence.’ Atheism and Theism contaminate each other in this logic. His bodily ontology is reasserted in his reading of Christianity. But by having the notion of finitude embodied in his whole system Badiou accuses him of being thoroughly metaphysical. Nancy rebuts this, saying that finitude doesn’t limit infinitude because all finitude is borrowed and shared.

Bernard Stiegler thinks about ‘the technological rooting of all relation to time,’ reworking Husserlian, Heideggarian and Derridean thought and drawing on anthropological and philosophical writers about technology such as Bertrand Gille, Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Glbert Simondon. From the second volume of ‘Technics and Time’ he responds ‘to the socio-economic, political and technological forms which have emerged over the last three decades.’ He says technology is rooted in time. He wants to open up a history of technics. Man as a technical animal would be both a continuation of a wider technological economy as well as a rupture, something new. Stiegler thinks human history begins with this.

The myth of Epimetheus says Epimetheus handed out technical skills to all the animals but had run out when it came to humans. Prometheus his brother stole fire to save them. Stiegler uses this as a metaphor explaining why techne plays second fiddle to episteme. Western metaphysics is the repression of techne. The human is understood in terms of an original lack so technology is worldly engagement rooted in this absence. He engages with Husserl and Heidegger in these terms. Rareified and mathematical technical and calculating knowledge since Galileo and Descartes obscures the link between technology and everyday thinking and life. Everyday life has its own time that is not clock time, says Stiegler.

Mathematized, calculative and technicised time is the time of modern technology for Heidegger and Husserl. Stiegler claims they downgrade technology. They both claim there is a time that is given that predates technology. This replicates the myth of Epimetheus and is an error. Stiegler says that ‘there is no already there, and therefore no relation to time, without artificial memory supports.’ Stiegler says technics establishes the primordial constitution of time that Heidegger and Husserl, inadvertently buying the myth of Epimetheus, claim is organic and pre-technics. Technics is a prosthetics for memory and the organization of time. Stiegler draws on anthropological work. Tool use leads to expanded brains and language. They become human at the moment they can remember and preserve their memories. Technics is how they did this. This led to a new regime Siegler calls a process of ‘epiphylogenesis.’ It caused a rupture , ‘ a new organization of difference, a difference of difference’ as he puts it in a very Derridean way. This boils down to a fairly straightforward and well established thesis about the transitions from hunter gatherer to agrarian via the Axial age to modernity as found in, for example, Max Weber and Ernest Gellner.

In ‘Disorientation’ he discusses modernity. He says it has failed to recognize the new technology and transformation into new cultural forms. He thinks there is a collective blindness towards modern technics and this is a threat. Stiegler is urgent about this. He thinks we are disorientated. New technological change is too fast to stabilize into new cultural forms. Technological time in our new epoch is ‘defined in and through speed.’ Digital technologies, information processing and communications media disorientates linear historic time schemes. Memory is ‘industrialised.’ This links with thoughts of Paul Virilio. The new technologies waste a situated, embodied experience of space and time. It overturns calender time, night and day rhythms but Stiegler is not nostalgic for past time rhythms and realities because he recognizes they were not primal givens but the result of previous technics. Stiegler urges us to engage critically but not to retrieve the past modes.

He writes about a ‘functional integration’ which he thinks marks out ‘hyper-industrialisation.’ This is where technical modes of representation converge with modes of production, consumption and economic exchange. Stiegler sees this as a massive change: it subordinates social and cultural spheres to economic exchange. Part of this process is the homogenization of experience. The result of this new hyper-industrialised nexus is the synchronization of collective experience. This synchronicity is not brainwashing but conditioning to ensure enough people coordinate desire and consumption with mass markets. Hyper-industrialised society is ‘profoundly hostile to the individualition process, to all heterogeneity, to singularity, and to the exception.’ This is the malaise. Cinema is an example of a conditioning technology, selecting memories supporting a shared present which, for Stiegler, is the aim of a cultural industrial complex.

Stiegler calls for an engaged politics: ‘such a politics must be a politics of technics, a practical thought of becoming capable of furnishing it with an idea projecting into the future in which becoming is an agent… A politics of technics should be able to elaborate practical ideas capable of asking and regularizing the question as to what must be done within the practical domain.’ He thinks hyper-industrialisation requires ‘symbolic misery’ and ‘ill being’. The economy demands libidinal affects that are limited, passive, curtailed, disrupted and short-circuited. It interferes with ‘primary narcissism’ where ‘individuals are deprived of their capacity for aesthetic attachment to singularities, to singular objects.’ This is a ‘loss of symbolic participation, which is also a sort of symbolic and affective congestion, that is to say …. A structural loss of individuation.’

This is what he calls ‘symbolic misery’, the ‘loss of participation in the production of symbols … And I suppose the current state of the generalized loss of individuation can only lead to a symbolic collapse, that is to say, a collapse of desire.’ There are echoes of Adorno and Marcuse here, and their dismal cultural elitism. Ranciere criticizes this privileged perspective. But Stiegler isn’t reducing politics to cultural politics. He is saying critique of the whole hyper-industrial landscape will provide better understanding and open up new perspectives ‘to elaborate a new political economy.’ Everything needs rethinking.

Catherine Malabou organizes her thinking around the concept of ‘plasticity.’ It originally was defined as ‘ that which is able to both receive and give form’ according to James. She is a post-phenomenologist, post-deconstructive materialist philosopher directly engaged with empirical findings of neuroscience. She gives Hegel a ‘plastic reading’ which is a new kind of reading, a ‘metamorphosis of deconstructive reading.’ She says; ‘The plastic reading of a text is the reading that seeks to reveal the form left in the text through the withdrawing of presence, that is, through its own deconstruction.’ Deconstruction proposes a gap between thought and its signs so that there is always a radical other at the heart of any reading. This is what Derrideans call ‘alterity.’

Malabou is interested in how a reading transforms the form of what is being read. This is anti-Derridean in as much as Derrida would see ontological form as inseparable from the metaphysical traditions he sought to renounce. Malabou seeks to show that ‘being’ is mutable, transformable and plastic. She reads Hegel and Heidegger in plastic ways. She reads Hegel as open to alterity and therefore against totalitarianism. ‘ Spirit, whose task is to comprehend itself, to anticipate itself in everything that is now and is to come, can never encounter anything wholly other, can never come face to face , we might say, with the event. How, then, could there be room in Hegelian thought for the future, if everything has already been permeated by spirit and, in this fashion, already completed.’ She wonders whether philosophy can ever account for the future. She does a plastic reading on Hegel and finds he is a post-metaphysical thinker. The plastic ‘gives form to the future and to time.’ How? By seeing Hegelian dialectic as a form of plasticity. Hegelian dialectics is the fundamental mutability of form. It is ‘neither the triumphal progress of speculative reason nor the ceaselessly disruptive and interruptive movement of negative dialectics.’ There can’t be a final term of the Hegelian system because plasticity is a ceaseless process of metamorphosis. The future is formed through a process of anticipation that allows the self to prepare for the contingencies of the future. The future is never, however, ‘the end of history.’

Her plastic reading of Heidegger focuses on the idea of ‘change.’ She is interested more in the possibility of ontological regimes being exchangeable with one another rather than any regime annihilation the like of which Heidegger proposes. Heidegger’s end of metaphysics doesn’t give a final form but ‘With the end of metaphysics it is not, as one might think, the end of exchange which arrives but rather a change of the primary change, a new exchange ability of being and beings.’ Malabou claims to find in Heidegger ‘ontological transformability, the migratory and metamorphic mutability of all that is.’ She liberates the legacy of Heidegger from Heidegger. The subtitle of ‘Le Change Heidegger’ is ‘ Du fantastique en Philosophie’ (‘On the Fantastic in Philosophy’).This links to surrealism and psychoanalytic interest in fantasy and the phantasmagoric. For Malabou the phantasmagoric is about mutability and change. Think Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’, a film of exchangeable and changeable realms of fantastic images. She opposes Marion’s account of the gift. The gift cannot help but be unstable and so cannot attain absolute and unconditional status. As for Heidegger, plastic reading means we ‘… will be able to begin, not simply to read, follow, or reject his work but to imagine it.’

She links the plastic to the plasticity of the brain as discovered in neuroscience. Ira Black’s ‘The New Cognitive Neuroscience’ traces this. Malabou in ‘What Shall We Do With Our Brain?’ is interested in philosophical implications of this. ‘It is precisely because … the brain is not already made that we must ask what we should do with it, what we should do with this plasticity that makes us, precisely in the sense of a work, sculpture, modeling, architecture.’ Issues of biological determinism, and of freedom and possibility, of individual and collective self-fashioning are raised. She argues that the interplay of culture and biology make reductive nature/nurture debates redundant. Marc Jeannerod, Jean-Pierre Changeux, Antonio Damasio, Joseph LeDoux and Daniel Dennett are on her reading list. Whether her claims taken from the secondary literature can hope to keep up with ever changing work in neuroscience is problematic. Any naturalistic stance seems to do better if it sticks to the science rather than veer off into social and political structures, just because so much scientific data is always changing. Malabou argues that the plastic brain is very different from the computer model of the brain with fixed centralized command and control centres, the Cartesian theatre type of model. She finds management discourse and neuroscience discourse converge. New management structures are plastic, using concepts such as ‘employee participation’, ‘involvement mechanisms’, horizontal management’ and so forth. She looks for greater convergence in the future in politics and social plasticity.

Malabou is interested in Damasio and LeDoux’s notion of ‘neuronal personalities.’ Trauma to the brain can bring about personality change and Malabou suggests a reductive view that personality is just the organization of brain synapses. This undermines psychological and philosophical notions of identity. ‘In the brain there is … no regulation without representation. This double economy precisely defines cerebral identity as a constant synthesis of different states of relation between the body and the psyche… Cerebral auto-affection is a logical sensuality which makes possible life’s attachment to itself; it is the base of all subsequent investment.’ Her idea of ‘destructive plasticity’ registers the somber recognition that plasticity can remove a personality and replace it with another, as in Alzheimer’s disease. She argues that Freudian psychoanalysis is incapable of understanding this in its present form. A fruitful exchange is required to transform psychoanalysis if it is to be useful. She is a thoroughgoing materialist naturalist who replaces metaphysics with materialist plasticity. ‘Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing’ argues that anchoring structuralism in language, and understanding writing as ‘ a governing image for the production of thought, meaning, form or presence’ is redundant.The economy of exchange and transformation is prior to writing. She is Nietzschean in deflating philosophy to physiology.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 14th, 2013.