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The New French philosophy

Jacques Ranciere’s philosophy of equality repudiates Althusser’s understanding of ideology and the scientific status of theory. He rejects the linguistic paradigm and is a materialist. He argues that experience is inconsistent, unclassifiable and unstable and can’t be policed or maintained within conventional categories. In order to avoid providing a master narrative himself ‘the practice of writing that Ranciere develops questions the protocols, conventions and limits which would allow history, philosophy, political philosophy or aesthetics to maintain themselves as stable categories.’

James claims that Ranciere’s idea of equality can be contrasted with that of libertarian and liberal philosophers such as Nozick, Rawls and Sen. These have an idea of equality that ‘concerns what institutions are obliged to give people, rather than what those people do politically.’ This is a culture of passivity. Rancier’s notion of equality is active. It is not an end state to be achieved. Equality is the presupposition of any social setting and action to affirm it follows. Equality is structurally necessary, ‘the ultimate secret of every social order, the pure and simple equality of anyone with everyone’ is what he writes in ‘Disagreement.’ This assumption is then assumed as the necessary precondition of the arbitrariness of inequality. Ranciere argues that for a subordinate to understand her superior’s command ‘you must already be equal to the person who is ordering you.’ He concludes from this that ‘inequality is only possible through equality.’ This argument seems dubious. Ranciere works out some implications, the central one being that everyone must know their place in a hierarchy for social communication and understanding to be achieved. He then asks how certain voices get to be heard.

He breaks with what he sees as Althusser’s theoretical, structural Marxism, in particular the conservative distinction between science and ideology. For Althusser ideology sustains the socio-economic order by concealing its true nature. He contrasts this with Marxist science, a theoretical practice that identifies the hidden structures behind the Ideology. Ranciere sees Althusserian Marxist theory as an elitist position: ‘The stakes are clear…It’s a question of preserving philosophy, and “Marxist” philosophy in particular, as a concern of universal specialists.’ Ranciere opposes the structural inequality between the oppressed and the high priests of university-based Marxist theory. Much the same charge can be made against Stiegler’s idea about ‘the individuation and conditioning of subjects in hyper-industrial society.’ Ranciere also disputes the nature of Ideology as something without internal struggle and conflict. ‘Ideology is not posited, at the outset, as the site of struggle. Instead of being related to two antagonists, it is related to a totality, of which it forms a natural element..’ Ranciere concludes that Althusser’s position is deeply conservative, mutating class struggle into ‘a clandesitine and infinite ideological struggle: a Kantian task whose goal will never be reached in this world.’ Ranciere rejects both the vaguardism of Althusserian Marxist practitioners as well as ideology as ‘simply a collection of discourses or a system of representation.’ He replaced that idea of discourse with a different description: ‘ Dominant ideology is a power organized in a collection of institutions… An objective status can only be given to ideologies by thinking them as a function of class struggle. This implies that ideology does not simply exist in discourses, nor simply in systems, of images, of signs, etc.’ In so doing, Ranciere transforms ideology from a structuralist-linguistic paradigm into a materialist paradigm.

Ranciere talks about ‘the distribution of the sensible.’ This is about how sense perception and sensible experience are shared out in the communal world. This seems like a version of perspectivalism, where a shared and single world is nevertheless perceived from different angles by different members of the community. James says this allows ‘Ranciere to give an account of social and political conflict or antagonism and to do so in a way which engages with the multiplicity and different forms of antagonism which constitute material worlds, it also allows him to develop a highly original understanding of politics and political agency and organization.’

It is a politics of disagreement that claims to go beyond the merely structural pluralism of party democracy. He claims that muti-party electoral systems are differentiated only at the level of linguistic discourse. He claims that disagreement works at a level of the concrete, material conditions out of which a person lives. He is not concerned with arguing but ‘… with what can be argued the presence or the absence of a common object between X and Y. It concerns the sensible presentation of this common object, the very capacity of the interlocutors to present it.’ This picks up the idea of a structural inequality and equality in all shared communication and understanding. ‘Before the debts that place people who are of no account in a relationship of dependence on the oligarchs, there is the symbolic distribution of bodies that divides them into two categories: those that one sees and those that one does not see, those who have logos … and those who have no logos.’ That doesn’t seem straightforwardly right. Is our problem with the oligarchs and plutocrats about logos?

Only when ‘a part of those who have no part’ get involved in interrupting ‘an order of domination’ is there politics, he thinks. In making Occupy movements and Arab Spring type eruptions the only type of event to count as politics his view dismisses less adrenelin fuelled everyday politics. Politics is reduced to ‘a singular disruption… It is the name of what comes and interrupts the smooth working of this order through a singular mechanism of subjectivation.’ Subjectivation is ‘ the production through a series of actions of a body and a capacity for enunciation not previously identified within a given field of experience, while identification is part of the reconfiguration of the field of experience.’ This apparently means that ‘it is the process through which a voice can be found to identify a wrong and through which the equality of all with all can be declared and verified.’ This seems to misunderstand what events like the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring and current events in Turkey are about. Merely finding a voice is not the point. People want their grievances removed not merely enunciated and understood. As James comments, ‘ his emphasis upon the capacity for communication, voice and the enunciation of a logos, returns or recuperates his thinking back into the more abstract economy of signs, signification and discourse. This is the very symbolic economy which, of course, he seeks to think beyond in his decisive break from Althusser.’

His theories about art connect with his ideas about enunciation. He thinks ‘art forms are modes of inscription of the sense of a community.’ The aesthetic is ‘a specific regime for identifying and reflecting on the arts: a mode of articulation between ways of doing and making, their corresponding forms of visibility, and possible ways of thinking about their relationship.’ At is related to the political because it has the power to directly engage with and transform sensibilities.

There are for Ranciere three ‘regimes of art’. The first of these is ethical. Art articulates an ethical knowledge or ethos. He associates this with Plato’s discussion of art in ‘The Republic.’ The second is the ‘mimetic’ which is about the production of truth as verisilimitude. This truth is in the service of social hierarchy and so serves the powers in society. This is what art was doing up to the end of the eighteenth century, says Ranciere. The third regime is the aesthetic. This opposes the mimetic. It is inherently disruptive of mimetic norms of truth and therefore of social hierarchy. It is free ‘from any specific rule, from any hierarchy of the arts, subject matter, and genres.’ It is the art of the last two hundred years, says Ranciere. He thinks art is important because ‘The real must be fictionalized in order to be thought.’ Politics and art are connected because they both ‘produce effects in reality.’ They both create ‘a space where equality can state its own claim: equality exists somewhere, it is spoken of and written about. It must therefore be verifiable.’

Alain Badiou privileges mathematics and abstract, formalist thinking. He thinks of himself as ‘idealising mathematism.’ Others who do this are Plato, Descartes, Hegel, Lacan and Althusser. ‘Being and Event’ is supposed to be a rival ontology to Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time.’ ‘Logics of Worlds’ is supposed to rival Hegel’s ‘Science of Logic.’ He wants to overturn Kantian finitude and rethink the limits Kantianism places on knowledge for the critical philosopher in the post-Kantian tradition. He says post-Cantorian set theory is ‘the only viable contemporary discourse on being.’ He claims that he has a theory explaining the logic of phenomenological appearance.

He says maths not philosophy is the only viable language of ontology. He assumes qualities such as weight, shape and colour are not part of a fundamental ontology but are subtracted from the ultimate ontology. But he says that this is a kind of mathematical Platonism. Stripped of sensible qualities we are left with ‘an inconsistent multiplicity.’ He says ‘…if an ontology is possible… then it is the situation of the pure multiple, of the multiple “in itself”. To be more exact; ontology can be solely the theory of inconsistent multiplicities as such.’ Badiou thinks ontology is a matter of making a decision. He decides that ‘the one is not.’

Badiou assumes that set theory is the only way of expressing ontology. Sets are abstract objects. They are mathematical objects containing mathematical objects. Cantorian set theory is a mathematics of the infinite. Badiou assumes that being is infinite. He likes the paradoxes that are encountered in infinite maths. There is little reason to think he makes legitimate extrapolations from this strange and powerful maths to issues of politics. His whole philosophical approach is analogous to attempts to interpret Hamlet in terms of physics. Joseph Raz suggests such an attempt wouldn’t even count as an interpretation. Given that he isn’t presenting any of his work on ontology as maths but in language it seems an obviously self-cancelling project. Category theory is very impressive and important in physics. But physics is only the best description we have of physical reality. Ironically Maths is not part of physical reality. But the main problem with Badiou’s approach is not whether his views are right or wrong. It is that they are stated as dogmas. He doesn’t engage with current philosophical discussions about ontology, physics, reality and so on, and because of this his views are suspect.

He says every event exceeds any event or structure and so can’t be verified or known in advance, nor even in ‘the moment of its surging or emerging.’ Radical historical change can’t be talked about in advance, or predicted but only confirmed afterwards and then only via a process and agency of truth, fidelity and the subject. He rejects the correspondence theory of truth and says truth can only be understood through the concept of the ‘generic.’ The generic is ‘the most general quality of its whole and not a quality of its specifiable parts.’ Truth isn’t the singular fact of anything but a general proposition regarding it. The agent of this truth and its fidelity to the generic event is a rare subject, an exception to the norm bringing about transformed consciousness and action.

Peter Hallward says that ‘ Badiou’s work is today almost literally unreadable according to prevailing codes – both political and philosophical – of the Anglo-American academy.’ Badiou agrees, saying his work ‘makes a hole in knowledge’ and is ‘indiscernable of the situation.’ He likes the militant gesture of unreadability. He links his militancy with 1st century Rome , the French and Bolshevik revolutions and Maoist revolutionary politics. His is the militancy of the revolutionary vanguard. He says there are four domains which can be transformed through a decisive and definitive break. These four domains are the political, science, art and love.

He militantly opposes post-Heideggarian ‘poetic’ontology. He disavows hermeneutics. He dismisses humantitarian and post-Enlightenment liberal theories as a cultural political ethics of difference concealing a violence of the same! He writes against relativism and against ‘democratic materialism’ that claims that ‘there are only bodies and languages.’ He dismisses ‘historical relativism, the linguistic paradigm within philosophy (both continental and analytic), minoritarian or identity politics, the culture and politics of difference, consumer culture and the ideological structures which support it and… the political and economic structures of contemporary liberal-democratic states…’ As James comments, this is a position that lacks nuance. It also belies ignorance of contemporary science, maths, philosophy, politics, history, sociology and economics. As Hallward says, his philosophy opposes a degenerate and inaccurately drawn straw man. He makes ‘good polemic but.. also.. overly forced philosophical analyses and interpretation since they depend too much on a simple opposition of different philosophical techniques, that is to say, that of logical-mathematical formalism on the one hand and a more literary-philosophical mode of argumentation on the other.’ But it also fails to engage with contemporary disputes between physicists and philosophy of physicists (nearly all of them working in the despised Anglo-American academy) on the one hand, and naturalist and analytic metaphysicians on the other (also mainly in the despised Anglo-American academy). His broad brush makes his claims of adherence to precise maths unconvincing (and the philosophical problems of physics aren’t mathematical problems but philosophical ones!). Does he have the expertise in and knowledge of the huge number of domains he pronounces on? His work on the logic of phenomenology is “Logic Of Worlds’ where he seeks to ‘describe the logical consistency of appearing worlds and the multiplicities which are presented in them.’ This is a project that claims to show how consciousness emerges out of physics. Phenomenology arises from the pure mathematical formalism of his category theory physics. This is big news. He’s solved the ‘hard problem’ of reducing consciousness to physics. He does this by making phenomenology ‘entirely independent of that of subject.’ There is no subjective mediation of phenomenology just as set theory is not a mediation of ontology but is identical with the ontology. Badiou’s approach to hard problems of philosophy is to eradicate one side of the problem by fiat. What’s the relationship between our representation of reality and reality? The representation just is the reality. What’s the relationship between thinking and the thinker? There is no thinker. Easy. There are no bodies, says Badiou, just ‘bodies of truth’. Hmmmm.

Francois Laruelle tries to break with the entirety of philosophy. The heart sinks when James tells us that a ‘… notable, challenging and difficult aspect of Laruelle’s non-philosophical writing is its style. This is writing characterized by a very high degree of rhetorical and discursive complexity … in consequence marked by a (sometimes extreme) difficulty of accessible.’ He concerns himself with immanence and transcendence, key concepts in certain philosophical arsenals and theology too. Pantheists, for example, contrast their immanent idea of God in or as nature with the monotheists transcendental God. Similarly in philosophy there are issues of immanence vs transcendentalism regarding being, existence, objective reality, concepts, representation, categories and abstractions generally. Deleuze denies transcendentalism. Everything is imminent. He writes about a ‘plane of immanence.’ Laruelle writes of a ‘radical immanence.’ He writes of this immanence as ‘One’.

‘The One has an absolutely positive content: and it is the One as Indivision.’ He characterizes philosophy as doing just one thing, which is to resist this, which is why it has to be dismissed. Laruelle says that immanent thought isn’t philosophy but science. James wonders about the coherence of Laruell’es project. Philosophical decisions are supposedly a kind of idealism and abstract conceptualization. Thinking from the immanent ‘vision-in-One’ makes everything indivisible and unthinkably real. But then, as James asks, ‘ how can the One be thought or theoretically determined when it is taken , a priori, to be unthinkable and undeterminable? Or alternatively, has the One not always already and necessarily been thought and determined (and therefore divided by transcendence) in the very affirmation of its staus as unthinkable and undeterminable?’ We are asked to overlook the contradiction (and therefore impossibility) of this notion of ‘vision-in-One’ to admire its force and rigour. But no one can attempt anything they know is impossible.

Laruelle disagrees. ‘this impossibility of turning towards the One is not an insufficiency or forgetting that can be imputed to thought, it is a constraint that the One imposes upon it, the founding axiom of non-philosophy being that the One or the real is foreclosed from thought and is so in and of itself rather than through any failure of thought.’ But if it is impossible then it doesn’t exists. Laruelle faces the problem of showing how nothing can constrain anything. Laruelle thinks it is pretentious to claim to know the real transcendentally, as in having scientific theories, say, in physics. He wants to fuse the transcendent into the immanent and so dismisses transcendental thoughts, including logic. Without the constraint of logic, of course, he can say anything he likes.

His aim is to disrupt those thinkers of difference. The representative names are Deleuze, Derrida, Lyotard, Levinas and Lacan. These thinkers oppose difference or the other or alterity with the Same, or presence or Substance or identity and so forth. These latter things have monolithic and unitary pretentions whereas difference or alterity are thought of as primary or originary. Laruelle finds both equally transcendent and therefore difference is ‘the last avatar of philosophy in general.’ He says ‘knowledge does not determine the real, rather the order of the real determines-in-the-last-instance the order of knowledge.’ James sees this in terms of a ‘stark reversal of the Kantian-Copernican revolution’ comparable ‘to Badiou’s adoption of mathematics for similar ant-Kantian ends.’ Ray Brassier connects this to his ‘speculative realism.’

Laruelle wants to preserve the relative heterogeneity of philosophical work. ‘His is not a realism nor a relativism in relation to the world nor in relation to to any subjectively or objectively constituted reality which might be available to consciousness or knowledge’ says James. Laruelle says it is a ‘realism of the last instance and not an objective viewing or a viewing of the first instance.’ He gives science a privileged position. He thinks non-philosophy introduces democracy and equality, contrasting with philosophy’s legislative totalizing. Laruelle takes philosophy through different stages. These stages show how greater levels of philosophical theorizing removes philosophy from being real. Non-philosophical performance is proposed as a kind of remedy.

Apparently non—philosophy ‘liberates an infinite, really universal, field of possibilities from all philosophical closure.’ It is an ‘attempt to create … a new democratic order of thought that excludes conflict between philosophers and regional branches of knowledge.’ This seems to be an obscurantist expression of the rather mundane and well established practice of inter-disciplinary work. Many thriving philosophy departments in the Anglo-American academy have been doing this for years. His heresies seem tame. Pragmatists, Sellarsians, McDowellians, naturalists of all sorts have long been working on immanentist cross disciplinary philosophy. Xphi defines itself along those kinds of lines. Laruelle sounds like doors are being shut well after the horse has not only bolted but had foals.

James has written a good book explaining to the Francophile philosophical neophyte what these seven thinkers are about. He occasionally goes native but on the whole maintains an inoculated lucidity. However, by writing lucidly about them he has done some of them no favours. The project of naturalism in the hands of some of these thinkers seems to be a mix of rather clunky reductive materialism, formalism and handwaving. Some of it fails to engage with the genuinely intriguing philosophical issues of naturalism. Much of the trouble arises because they use paradox and impossibility as tropes rather than evidence of a problem. They tend to see contradiction as depth rather than muddle.

Some of the work seems purely polemical and make philosophy of the Anglo-American academies their polemical targets.They are agressively against it and the contested label ‘analytic’ philosophy’ is used to label their target. My issue with this stance is that there is no evidence any of them know about the philosophic work being done in these places, neither of the ‘continental philosophy’ being done in them nor in subjects they are writing about. There are no references to Tim Maudlin, Jonathan Bain, Sean Carroll, David Wallace and James Ladyman etc in discussions about physics and philosophy, or Kit Fine, Eric Olson, Scott Berman, John Haldane, EJ Lowe, Peter van Inwagen, Dave Chalmers etc when discussing analytic metaphysics or Joel Hamkins when discussing philosophy of maths or Alex Rosenberg, Dan Dennett, Josh Knobe, Pat Churchland when talking about cross-disciplinary work and philosophy of science or Brian Leiter, Robert Stern, Quentin Skinner, Fred Beiser, Steve Nadler, Ursula RenzJohn Richardson, Michael Rosen, Gordon Finlayson,Jessica Berry, Richard Moran, Richard Kraut when deciphering philosophical traditions or John McDowell, Huw Price, Jennifer Lackey and Simon Blackburn when naturalism of various stripes comes up or Elizabeth Anderson, Jason Brennan or Thom Brookes when politics is the issue etc. These lists are far from being exhaustive. It seems peculiar that only Malabou of the seven seems to be even aware of the work of these philosophers I’ve just mentioned, and then only Dan Dennett. Yet they claim to be making a paradigm shift in domains of philosophical activity all of these and many, many, many more are engaged. This wouldn’t matter nearly so much except that when they claim to be ending philosophy they explicitly target the philosophy as practiced in Anglo-American university departments. In other words, these are the guys they are out to abolish. To be clear about this, being ignorant of most of the work of most of the academic philosophers working in most of the philosophy departments in most of the universities in the world is forgivable and in these days of specialization, understandable. The problem I have is when they attack these philosophers as stooges of neo-liberal totalitarian police states whilst in this state of igorance.That is both bullshit and bad mannered crapola. I could forgive this, but only because it will annoy people. As Holy Golightly says, maybe everyone needs to feel superior to someone, but it’s customary to provide a little evidence.

The politics, which is where you’d hope to find powerful radicalism, seems driven by desires either for elitist vanguardism (in the name of equality or what-have-you) or else a magicical gesture politics that largely disengages from political processes and ideas ordinary folk have and gets high on eruptions and momentous events which are merely theatrical enunciations devoid of planning what happens afterwards, nor building in safeguards to prevent thugs taking over, nor even working out a coherent set of aims. Alongside this, the whiff of elitism in some of them is both ironical and troublingly hypocritical and the blatant disregard for any sort of safeguards when proposing violent eruptions of radicalism smells of decadent machismo. The many unstable, obscure and unsupported inferences they make, such as Badiou’s justification of Maoist politics from Cantor’s set theory, seems both reckless and spurious.

These are anti-philosophers, twilight philosophers. They see themselves as engaging in post-metaphysical philosophy. The idea of ‘the subject’ is a central interest to all these philosophers. Jean-Luc Nancy might be speaking on behalf of all of them when he asks, ‘ Who comes after the subject?’ This question is raised after metaphysics has been destroyed by Nietzsche and Heidegger. It is the issue of how we can understand their materialist conceptions of mind and self. The self is understood in relation to politics and individuation. For these thinkers the self is conceived in terms of a material process inseparable from a material worldly thought. They are all concerned with radical politics. They reject neo-liberal capitalism and its political forms. They reject the notion of autonomous, rational, self-determining individual agency which is assumed by neo-liberalism and which is assumed in discussions about economic and individual freedom. ‘They reject also the ontological assumptions regarding worldly relationality implicit in any conception of the human as homo economicus.’ Yet they are not anti-democratic. They call on ‘better or more fully evolved democratic thinking and democratic agency or forms.’ They see liberal capitalism as incapable of giving a philosophically rich enough account of human agency and shared relational existence. But are they giving us a better account? And why should we care about their ideas given that they seem so untethered from any shared community of ideas – either in philosophy or out in the world where a real economic and political crisis unfolds?

James is tentative about whether they all are concerned with shared philosophical renewal. ‘They might all be united by a shared sense that the destruction or deconstruction of metaphysics, subjectivity, or traditional notions of being, truth and knowledge, is a necessary (and unfinished) but certainly not sufficient gesture to meet the demands of contemporary thinking.’ But these thinkers diverge. Badiou and his followers (Zizek, Meillassoux, Hallward) break with phenomenology and philosophers of difference and finitude. So does Laruelle. But these philosophers are not as original as they sometimes proclaim themselves to be. In this respect, talk of a paradigm shift is exposed as being little more than a marketing ploy. Badiou, for example, is in a line of other French philosophers and thinkers such as Jean Cavailles, Jean-Toussaint Desanti, Lacan and Althusser in asserting a mathematical and formalist approach to ontology. Yet his talk of ‘multiplicity, undecidability, excess and the advent of the ‘event’ of the radically new are also central preoccupations of the preceding generation of post-structuralist thinkers he ostensibly opposes.’ An attempt to add considerations of ontology to those of knowledge and truth, through engagement with science, technology and materialism promised an interesting ‘naturalistic turn’ in the new French philosophy. Much of what is actually being delivered is dependent on readers finding dense opacity enlightening and/or a holiday from actually having to think clearly, or in some cases at all. And the idea that what we need are thinkers making gestures is a lamentable response to anything.

Hallward wrote that French philosophy is written in an obscurest high style of ‘…daunting if not arcane difficulty and sophistication which restricts access to insiders only.’ James defends them to some extent by saying that ‘these philosophers seek to renew the way in which we think, to transform the manner in which they come to write philosophy itself.’ But some of them deliberately hide disorganised thinking and show an elitist disregard by producing bullshit. Writing for ‘insiders’ is repugnant vanguardism. Nevertheless, Malabou and Stiegler have some interesting ideas and James has done a great job in bringing us news from the wild frontier of French philosophy. And lest I be accused of being not just a philistine but anti-continental philosophy, please note that in the list of philosophers I give above several are eminent ‘continentals‘.

Of course they could all be being playfully ironic. If they’re phony they’re genuine about being so, which annuls the phoniness. At first pass, that seems right. And then it doesn’t.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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