Monday, May 16, 2016

Special Guest Post: Bill Haver on The Politics of Transindividuality

Back in the days when people actually read blogs I used to get requests for guest posts, some bad, some good--all of which I declined. My response to the good ones was always "you should start a blog with that," to the bad ones I just replied, "get your own damn blog." Now I just get weird spambot requests that have keyed in on my use of the terms "unemployed," "debt," and, in a post about Breaking Bad, "rental storage units," keywords for an age of austerity. Anyway I am making an exception to the longstanding, and now irrelevant rule, to post Bill Haver's response to my recently published book, The Politics of Transindividuality. Bill Haver was my professor and dissertation director back at SUNY Binghamton, and, to be quite honest, the only reason I stayed in graduate school (I know, damned by faint praise). He is just an amazing teacher and person. As the text below will hopefully, demonstrate, Bill is the most generous and perceptive reader of texts that I have ever known, the person who can most succinctly and perceptively understand what is at stake, and examine the limits of a text.

I post this here as both a shameless act of self-promotion and promotion of Bill's work. His introduction to Ontology of Production (as well as the essays by Nishida he translated) should be required reading. 

Is There—Can There Be—a Political Practice of Philosophy?

Notes on Jason Read’s The Politics of Transindividuality

William Haver

This essay is not a review of The Politics of Transindividuality [hereafter, PT].[1] Neither do I attempt anything like a comprehensive explication de texte; I assume that if you are interested in PT, you are undoubtedly more than competent to come to your own understanding, and assessment if you are so inclined, of the text. Rather, I come to my reading with certain questions in mind; what I look for in PT are indications that might inform my thinking about such questions. I am particularly interested in the turn of various disciplinary practices (in this instance, philosophy) to interrogate their own conditions of possibility in the present conjuncture as a response to the resistance presented by their various objects to the practice in question. 

I read with the assumption that in the present situation the only possible excuse for reading philosophical texts is that they offer concepts that can provoke us to think beyond the presumptively common sense of the dystopia that is the present conjuncture; indeed, insofar as they might provoke another practice of philosophy.

I therefore do not read PT as a position in what is called social and political philosophy, a position to be defended, and from which polemical attacks might be launched in the struggle for interpretative hegemony. What is at issue in PT is not merely a difference in interpretation, but the very possibility of interpretation, the very possibility of making sense. Because it is an intervention in the making and unmaking of sense (and what else could a “philosophical” intervention be?), it is necessarily an intervention at the level of the transcendental a priori, without making any claims for “transindividuality” to be itself a (or the) transcendental a priori (precisely because, as we shall see, there is no truly transcendental a priori possibility of sense, but only metastable—historical—conditions within which sense is made and unmade).

1. The Political Problem with Philosophy

If there is, or if there can be, a political practice of philosophy, it certainly does not consist in the expression of opinions by those who call themselves philosophers regarding one or another political issue, event, state of affairs, affairs of state, or whatever. Of course, this does not mean philosophers should not express opinions, engage in debates, take positions, or simply discuss aspects of whatever is said to be political. It simply means that it is at least disingenuous to claim to do so in the name of philosophy; it is more than disingenuous to claim a specifically philosophical authority for such interventions. Philosophers can make critical interventions of course, but so can anyone; there is nothing specifically “philosophical” about such interventions. 

Neither would a political practice of philosophy be constituted in the widespread habit of translating political events, figures, or states of affairs into their significance, be that significance world-historical, ontological, theological, or cosmological. To say what the (first) Paris Commune of 1871, the so-called Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the current refugee crisis, or the events of the (second) Commune (Nuits debout) in the streets of France, means—without even doing any historical homework or language learning that might support interpretation—is a waste of time, serving only to spare the philosopher the trouble of thinking.

More seriously, neither would the political practice of philosophy consist in producing a concept of the Good, or indeed of the essence of the political as such, from which it would be possible to deduce the best form of governance, the best social and political policies, the best behaviors of political subjects, and thus to dictate to us what we should think, feel, and do: political correctness with a vengeance. Such productions inevitably are based on the entirely unsupportable assumption that a certain “we” are on the side of the Good, and are in a position to say what the political—in itself and as such—is in its essence. This would be the end of any possibility for politics altogether.

There is, however, a much more difficult political problem with philosophy than the arrogance of philosophers pontificating on current events, or abstracting political action into significance and meaning, or pronouncing moralist diktats. And this more difficult political problem is concerned with the question of the limits of philosophy. Without a conception of the limits of philosophy, it is impossible to conceive philosophy to be in fact a practice; without a conception of the limits of philosophy, philosophers are reduced to the contemplation of universals and the codification of an utterly rational totality.

The natural (“hard”) sciences tend to think their limits in terms of the circumscription of their respective epistemological objects, and/or in terms of what statements are not permissible in the discipline (“…and then, a miracle…”, for example) in order to constitute what they do as a practice that produces their respective knowledges (savoirs). These limits—“disciplinary,” of course—are constituted in processes of exclusion, differentiating between what is and what is not within the purview of the practice of a given discipline, between what does and what does not make sense in a given discipline. Moreover, and most importantly, it defines what it is to think like a practitioner in the given discipline. It is not simply the assimilation of “knowledge” that defines the discipline, but the ways in which sense is made in the discipline, ways of making sense that in fact makes what is known count as knowledge. Therefore—and we will pursue this point later—speculation in a given discipline is not merely fantasy in free fall, because such speculation must make sense to others according to the ways sense is made in the discipline. (This, after all, is what makes theoretical physics count as a science.)[2]

In what are called the “social sciences” and in the humanities in the U.S., the attitude towards the question of limits is sometimes much more relaxed. Anthropology departments can be entirely caught up in the question, whereas history departments most often find it sufficient to refer to the study of “the past,” and let it go at that. But it is English and philosophy departments that give in to the most breathtaking megalomanias, relying on a cursory acquaintance with one or another version of a canon, literary or philosophical, to establish disciplinary boundaries. Often enough—and this is particularly true in philosophy departments—the “history of philosophy” is a “history,” so-called, entirely internal to the sequence of the great texts of the canon. 

Of course, philosophy cannot rely on the identification and circumscription of an epistemological object in order to establish itself as a discipline; the problem is not that philosophy has no objects, but that there is nothing that cannot be an object for philosophical consideration. Likewise, there are no statements that are necessarily disallowed in philosophical discourse; even miracles are not necessarily excluded from philosophical discourse. If we are to conceive the limits of philosophy in the present conjuncture, those limits clearly cannot be conceived on the model of the natural sciences. 

And it is certainly not the case that all those who are called philosophers have been insensitive to the temptations and dangers of disciplinary megalomania. Philosophers have indeed frequently considered the question of the limits of philosophy, but almost inevitably overcome those limits precisely in producing the concept of the limit. The concept of contradiction, just for example, has named a limit of philosophy ever since Aristotle, but the contradiction itself is overcome precisely in its abstraction into a systematic rationality. The other popular option is to take the limit to constitute a barrier between the knowable and the unknowable, between sense and whatever does not make sense, such that the “unknowable” and “non-sense” are relegated to a pure “outside” of what can be thought. This, however, simply reclaims the ground of sense and reason for philosophy because the line between the intelligible and the other of intelligibility is always drawn from the side of philosophy: a tautology in the service of megalomania. Thus, philosophy becomes the pastime of an intelligentsia that is utterly divorced from its historical, economic, cultural, political situation. No intervention—or at least none that can be taken seriously—is possible. Speculation becomes mere fantasy, and critique is reduced to mere squabbling.

There are, however, some extremely important exceptions that we might take as inspiration for any attempt to think about a political practice of philosophy. Long before the work of Jacques Lacan in psychoanalysis was appropriated by various thinkers in the humanities and social sciences as the Theory of Everything, his seminars (from first to last, not merely the seminar entitled The Ethics of Psychoanalysis) were concerned with the analytic situation as ethico-political practice. What is most striking is that, contrary to the appropriation on the part of the noisiest of Lacanians, he was concerned not with producing an ethics that would be universal in its scope and applications, but an ethics of psychoanalysis, a determinate practice in a very specific historical, economic, cultural, political conjuncture. What we might learn from Lacan’s example is that ours is not a question of producing a concept of the limits of philosophy valid at all times and in all places, but a concept of the limits of philosophical practice within (which also means, against) the institutional, economic, political, and historical constraints that constitute the present situation. 

In Cannibal Metaphysics, as throughout much of his other work, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has taken seriously the challenge that Amerindian thought and practice pose to the very possibility of disciplinary anthropology. Viveiros de Castro recognizes the Eurocentrism of much traditional anthropology, in which Amerindian thought becomes simply an epistemological object to be described, analyzed and classified, but ultimately dismissed as primitive superstition, undoubtedly interesting, but not to be taken seriously. Neither, however, can the anthropologist find solace in the comforts of cultural relativism, which fundamentally leaves everything essentially unchanged. Yet neither can the anthropologist simply take up Amerindian thought and practice as her and/or his own, the intellectual equivalent of “going native.” It belongs to the determinations of the conjuncture within which we find ourselves that we cannot simply opt to make sense differently as an act of choice or of the will. One can study Amerindian life as much as one likes, but one will not thereby become Amerindian, or make sense as Amerindians are thought to do. What the anthropologist can do, however, is engage Amerindian thought (ways of making sense) such that it interrupts and disturbs the anthropologist’s ways of making sense in essential ways. In other words, the engagement with the interruption and disturbance of “our” ways of making sense, the engagement with difference, is precisely what constitutes the limit of anthropological thought, a limit which is also a condition of possibility for “anthropology” altogether.

In What Is Philosophy?, as is well known, Deleuze and Guattari take up the challenge of identifying what the vocation of philosophical practice might be, which is, as is no less well known, the creation of concepts. In order to make sense, the concept so created must be possessed of endo-consistency (make sense in itself) and exo-consistency (make sense in relation to a network of other concepts). This demand for consistency and coherence constitutes a limit of philosophical practice. Concepts are not subject to judgments of truth or falsity, for their purpose in the first instance is not to make statements about the world, but to make sense. They are useful precisely to the extent that they help us make sense, however uncommon that sense may be. If concepts are to be assessed, and if that assessment is not a question of truth or falsity, then they are to be judged as either more or less persuasive. If it is the vocation of the concept to make sense rather than to tell the truth, then the concept is essentially speculative—but it must make sense not only within itself, but also in relation to other concepts. It is for this reason that theoretical physics can be said to make sense, even though it is thoroughly speculative. It is the relation to other concepts that is constitutive of sense, and it is those networks of concepts that constitute one limit of philosophy. But, of course, this alone cannot constitute philosophy as a political practice, precisely because there is no necessary relation to actuality; it is this relation to actuality that distinguishes the philosophical creation of concepts not only from paranoia, but also from industrial strength psychosis. (Deleuze and Guattari knew this very well, of course, which is why in A Thousand Plateaus they warned us against the celebration of an unimpeded line of flight—a fate worse than fascism, as they say.)

In Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, Isabelle Stengers follows Whitehead’s intellectual trajectory from the mathematician’s rationalist collaboration with Bertrand Russell to the end of his productive life, a trajectory characterized by Whitehead’s preoccupation with the relation between rational abstraction, exemplified by mathematics, and the empirical actualities that had to be excluded in order to constitute the rational abstraction as such.[3] What distinguishes Stengers’ reading from many others is her insistence, first, that at no point in this articulation of the rational with the empirical does Whitehead give up on rationality (the rational abstractions of mathematics and science in particular); and, second, that Whitehead comes to his concepts of God and the soul (for example) as a matter of the essential necessity of his intellectual trajectory, rather than being a psychological or religious conversion. Whitehead’s creation of concepts, libre et sauvage though it be, is nevertheless a matter of necessity in order to make sense of the articulation of the empirical with the abstract in terms other than those of mutual exclusion, but an articulation in which the empirical is a “limit” of rational abstraction, a limit which is also rationality’s possibility. In other words, Whitehead undertakes a transformation of sense as such, a transformation that will not leave our commonplace assumptions about the making of sense intact. “The concept of the dog doesn’t bark,” to be sure, but it is no less the case that the relation between the concept that is incapable of barking and the barking dog is rather more complicated than one of mutual exclusion, and certainly not one of claiming priority for either the concept or the empirical. So let us take from Stengers’ reading (we will return to her reading for further thievery) the indications that what might be at stake in a political practice of philosophy is first of all not the sudden vision of a new heaven and a new earth, but a process of transformation, a revolutionary transformation of what it might be to make sense. 

It is in the contexts of interventions such as those of Lacan, Viveiros de Campos, Deleuze and Guattari, and Stengers that I want to read PT, not in order to save you the trouble of reading it, but to attempt to decipher further indications of what it might take rigorously to make sense in ways that do not, cannot, rhyme with the logic of the capitalist mode of production. 

2. The Twelfth Camel and the Complicated Concept of Transindividuality 

If one were forced to provide a relatively short definition of “transindividuality,” one might begin by noting that the concept emerges from a profound discontent with the modern conceptions of individual and collectivity in which either the collectivity is primary and the individual merely of the collectivity, or contrariwise, that the individual is primary and the collectivity merely the association (in the sense of Tönnies’ Gesellschaft) of individuals. The concept of transindividuality grants priority to neither individual nor collectivity, but refers to the constitution together of individual and collectivity. (Heideggerians might invoke the concept of equiprimordiality [Gleichursprünglichkeit]; Buddhist thinkers would refer us to the notion of “co-dependent origination” [Pratītyasamutpāda].) In transindividuality the relation between individual and collectivity is a relation of transduction wherein each necessarily presupposes the other as its own condition of possibility. One might even speak of the co-immanence of individual and collectivity. Thus, in his discussion of Simondon, Read writes:

Transindividuality for Simondon is not just the constitution of collectivity, something existing above and beyond the individual, but is also the constitution of individuality. Transindividuality is always the constitution of the individual and the collective; it is always a transindividual individuation and the constitution of collectivity. Or, more to the point, it is because the individual subject is never complete, never identical with itself, that every individuation is both an individuation of subjectivities and collectivities, a transindividual individuality. Transindividuality is not intersubjectivity: it is not a relation between constituted subjects, but rather a relation between the constitutive conditions of subjects. . . .Transindividuation is not a relation between individuals, but a relation of individuation. (p. 113)

For a short hit-and-run definition of transindividuality, it’s not bad; there’s nothing really “wrong” about the definition; after all, we have to start somewhere, and this is as good a place as any. But of course things are more complicated than that (aren’t they always?), in the first instance because a definition is not a concept. Typically, we assume a definition to be a more or less stable coagulation of predicates in a durable relation to a no less stable logical subject, and which we further assume to establish the logical subject in its quiddity, its essential what-it-is-ness (a very free translation of Aristotle’s to ti en enai). The logical subject is thus assumed to be what it is, as the coagulation of all of its predicates, regardless of its context; indeed, that which is defined is without context altogether. This is an unavoidable and necessary procedure, unless “transindividuality” is to be merely a ritual incantation in an esoteric mystification. A concept of transindividuality, however, is irreducible to its definition, because a concept is conditioned by and must maintain consistent relations with other concepts that together form a conceptual network entirely bound to its historical, economic, social, and political contexts. Neither, therefore, is a concept a proposition, an axiom, or a premise. Least of all is it a (Platonic) Idea, transcending all context, all history. Thus Read:

[W]hat I am calling the practice of philosophy refers to the practice of placing these different philosophies [Spinoza, Hegel, Marx, Balibar, Simondon, Stiegler, Virno, Lordon, Lazzarato, Citton] together, of placing together the problem of transindividuality as it crosses the domains of ontology, politics, and political economy, without necessarily reducing one to the other. . . .[P]lacing them together already entails a central claim . . .: the question of collectivity, of transindividuality, is not only simultaneously ontological, political and economic, encompassing the different senses in which things, or people, can be said to be individuated, but it is so in a manner that cannot be neatly, or hierarchically, organised. (p. 19, my italics)

Likewise, when Read introduces his reading of Simondon, he reminds us that “[t]he goal is not to present Simondon’s thought as the culmination and resolution of the problem of transindividuality . . .but to open up the tension and problems between the different modalities of the problem” (p. 102) In other words, there is no single articulation of the concept of transindividuality against which all other articulations are to be measured, and—inevitably—to be found either immature, superannuated, or at least incomplete, mere deviations from the truth of the concept. And if this is so, it is because the concept “itself” is the result or trace of a thinking that itself is a process of individuation. The status of the concept is neither a priori, nor is it transcendent, a god’s-eye view of the totality.

As the concept of transindividuality figures in PT, then, “it” is the assemblage or composition of its multiple discrete articulations. It’s complicated. By which, I do not mean to say that it’s a mess. Rather, it’s complicated in the sense (borrowed, obviously, from Deleuze’s reading of Leibniz and the Baroque) that in its presentation, the concept necessarily folds over itself, into itself, outside itself, as in the com-pli-care of Baroque sculpture. Which is to say that the concept, as complicated assemblage or composition of multiple articulations, is dynamic. The concept is a dynamic system, as it were; it is a process of incessant individuation, always caught up with its determinations in becoming. If all this is so, then the concept of transindividuality cannot provide a ground for politics or for social and political philosophy. Or, as we shall see, it would be more productive to say that the “ground” is nothing other than its contextual—conjunctural—determination, when “determination” does not indicate a causal relation, but a becoming-determinate, the process that individuation is. If the concept cannot provide a ground for politics and social and political philosophy, then what is the status of the concept of transindividuality? What’s the point? What’s the use?

The concept of transindividuality is speculative. That is to say, this concept is an attempt to make sense; it may be thought to be more, or less, persuasive than other concepts, but there is no attempt in the deployment of the concept to make truth claims. Neither, therefore, does it constitute itself as “knowledge.” The ambition of the elaboration of the concept is rather to intervene in the making and unmaking of sense, to get us from where we are to somewhere else, we know not where. In introducing Whitehead’s practice of “speculative philosophy” as “a free and wild creation of concepts,” Stengers tells us a story:

There once was an old Bedouin, who, sensing that his death was imminent, gathered together his three sons and signified his last wishes to them. To the eldest, he bequeathed half his inheritance, to the second one quarter, and to the third one sixth. As he said this, he died, leaving his sons in perplexity, for the inheritance in question consisted of eleven camels. (p. 16)

The problem, of course, is that to divide his wealth as directed, the sons would have to kill camels, thus destroying the inheritance. Perplexed, the sons seek the counsel of an old sage.

This old sage, on this occasion, told them that he could not do anything for them except to offer them what might perhaps help them: his old camel, skinny and half-blind. The inheritance now counted twelve camels: the eldest took six of them, the second three, the youngest two, and the old camel was returned to the old sage. (ibid.)

Problem solved. On Stengers’ account, the speculative concept operates in the same way as the twelfth camel. Just as the twelfth camel introduced a different sense of an “inheritance,” so too the speculative concept intervenes in the making and unmaking of sense:

As far as the twelfth camel added to the inheritance is concerned, it illustrates the efficacy proper to the speculative proposition. This camel will not benefit any of the brothers. It makes the division possible, in conformity with the father’s will, but it is not distributed itself, and is not added to any share.

The specificity of the concepts proposed by Whitehead is that, like the twelfth camel, once they have done their job, once they have transformed the way in which a situation raises a problem, they disappear without leaving a trace other than this transformation itself. This is why Whitehead can write that the interest of the speculative scheme he has constructed resides in its applications, in the transformations it carries out in our ways of explaining or characterizing our experiences. It is these transformations that are to give rise to the experience Whitehead associates with the goal of philosophy, an experience of “sheer disclosure,” rather than the concepts themselves. The concepts are required by the transformation of experience, but it is this disclosure that has, and always will have, the last word. (p. 17)

The speculative concept is, in Stengers’ lexicon, experimental. The experiment, which is an empirical experience that puts sense at risk, has long occupied a privileged place in Stengers’ thought, for it carries with it a risk, the risk that we will never be able to think or experience the world in the same way as before; indeed, it is this risk that differentiates an experiment from a mere demonstration, which is simply the repetition of a process where one already knows the outcome, and therefore simply reinforces common sense. The point of an experiment, however, is precisely a radical transformation of sense and experience, a transformation that is irreversible (which seems to me to be the strongest sense of “individuation”). We therefore know a speculative concept by its effects, by how it changes the way we make sense, and the ways in which we experience the world. That’s the point of the concept, its use-value.

The remainder of this essay is therefore devoted to a much abbreviated consideration of some of the effects of the concept of transindividuality on other, related, concepts by means of which we make sense of experience, and indeed, the ways in which we experience the making and unmaking of sense.

3. On the Priority of Relation: Consciousness, Affect, and Imagination

If the concept of transindividuality requires that we think the mutual imbrication of collective and individual, that the individual is not merely an emanation of the collective totality and at the same time that collectivity is not merely the coming together of individuals, that neither individual nor collectivity enjoys either logical or ontological priority, and finally if the concept requires us to think the simultaneous transductive constitution of both collectivity and individual, then it is clear that it is the relation itself that is prior. It is precisely the relation that constitutes the relata as such. We might even press the point, perhaps further than Read would be willing to go, and claim that collectivity and individual are “co-immanent,” each immanent not only in but as the other. And inasmuch as the relation is prior to collectivity and individual, it must itself be a generative or constitutive becoming (because there is nowhere else from which the relata could be constituted as such). Thus Read on Simondon:

For individuation to be a process, to be something other than the entirety of being, there must be something, some dimension of reality, which exists prior to it. This is what Simondon refers to as the pre-individual. The pre-individual is less a thing, some fundamental atomistic reality that provides the basic building block of reality, than it is a relation, or relations. What is pre-individual for Simondon exists in a metastable state, in a relation of flux or tension. . . .What is called pre-individual exists primarily as metastable state, as a set of possibilities and relations: it is a reserve of becoming, not a definite being. (p. 109)

I pause briefly to note that this concept of the pre-individual, which specifies what is at stake in the merely logical concept of the “priority of relation,” means that we are now entirely within speculation, the territory of the twelfth camel. We can prove neither that the “pre-individual” and “transindividuality” itself exist, nor can we prove that they do not exist: they simply hold out the possibility of making sense otherwise. So let us continue:

[T]he pre-individual is not so much prior, understood as something that comes before individuation, than it is that which exists alongside individuation as a different phase. The persistence of the pre-individual in the individual, the unresolved metastability of the stable body, becomes more and more significant as we cross the threshold from the physical to the biological. (ibid.)

And yet more significant as we proceed from the biological to the social and political, precisely because it allows us to consider the proposition of social being to be something other than apodictic. The concept raises the question of the possibility of sociality, rather than merely assuming that possibility to be self-evident. The concept of the pre-individual that accompanies all individuation (the para-individual, as it were) allows us to think the constitutive nature of (be)coming-together. It is certainly neither intersubjective recognition, nor any detailed rational agreement, nor obeisance to any moralistic diktat that brings people together in large numbers (nuits debout, various Occupy gatherings, etc.); what brings people to the Place de la Commune is the simple fact of coming together. What is most important is simply to be there—together: a sociality is coming into being in its radical contingency. Just because. 

And if this is so, it is because 

The affective dimension carries over from the pre-individual, constituting a kind of indetermination at the heart of individuation, an indetermination that demands a social dimension in order to be at least partially resolved. In a similar fashion, Spinoza’s affects are pre-individual; they are less determinate states of individuals and properties of objects than passages and transformations, increases and decreases of power. . . .As much as the affects are not so much states as they are an index of their transformation, constituting a process of the constitution and destruction of individuation, they are necessarily transindividual. (p. 145)[4]

The pre-individual circulation of the affects is not without its effects. In the first place, “[a]ffects are both causes and effects of individuation, constitutive of and constituted by the process of individuation” (p. 143). The affects are effective not only at the level of the individual, but at the level of the collective as well: affects circulate, and it is that circulation that is determinative in the constitution of collectives. One of the consequences of this aspect of the concept of transindividuality is that it shifts social and political discourse from all the old familiar questions about what sort of political forms we should have—questions of the Good—to questions of what sort of social and political life we want (a move that Spinoza made in the Ethics, of course, when he argued that we do not desire something because it is good; we call something good because we desire it [Ethics IIIP9S]). This is a move that social and political philosophy, for the most part, has been loathe to make. This hesitation is perhaps not without reason, because our desires and affects are not exactly respectable: what if contemporary forms of governance and political life are what we actually want? Frightening thought.

A second consequence: Desire is without psychological determinations. Psychological effects there may well be, but psychology and related practices are only dealing with effects, not with causes. Here we are immediately embroiled in a political contestation, because psychology and related practices are, for the most part, thoroughly complicit with neoliberalism; they are, in fact, among the necessary presuppositions of neoliberalism. Even to suggest that desire and affect are at once bound up with the constitution of the absolute intimacy of the individual, but are at the same time radically impersonal, is cause for alarm among those who would find the cause for every desire in the psychological disposition of the individual: “my” desire has to be my fault and/or my glory. 

Third consequence: Consciousness “itself” must be conceived to be constituted in transindividuality, or perhaps indeed, as transindividuality. The concept of “consciousness” has a long and volatile history, of course, with very little agreement as to what it “is,” what it does, what or whom possesses consciousness, or even whether or not “consciousness” exists.[5] Even recent work in neurophysiology is said to point towards a concept of consciousness that is not simply a property of a brain enclosed in a skull. Indeed, it has been argued that using some of the more common concepts of consciousness, even trees could be said to be conscious. In the early twentieth century, V.N. Vološinov argued in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language that consciousness cannot be conceived as a kind of pure interiority because it can only be constituted with its (external) material supports (language, for Vološinov), such that what is construed as “interiority” is constituted of what is considered to be “exterior”; in fact, that interiority and exteriority, as well as the presumptive difference between them, are in fact effects of each other: “consciousness” names that transductive relation. 

My point here is not to attempt to adjudicate any of these differences or to take sides in any of the debates; my point is simply to point out that the concept of transindividuality (as well as pre- or para- individuality, of course) makes a questioning of what is at stake in the concept of “consciousness” unavoidable. 

Clearly, then, the concept of the “priority of relation” resonates in both the ontological and socio-political registers, and it does so because it generates affects that are at once individual and collective, the theme of the second half of PT. It would be reductive indeed to settle for the slogan “the ontological is the political,” but it is also the case that the ontological is nothing but the determinate conjuncture; there is no Being but beings. In other words, the actuality of beings is irreducible, which is to say, singular; the actuality of beings in the finite modes is therefore also irreversible. 

4. The Irreducible and the Irreversible

Read takes up the concept of the irreducible in the section of ch. 4 titled “Irreducible Limits: Individuation is Always Actual” (pp. 249-265), in the context of a certain congeries of questions:

[C]an individuation be understood to be the effect of a singular structure or relation? . . .Can one instance of relation completely determine or destroy the conditions of individuation? This is a question that is at once ontological, combining the relation of effects and causes; anthropological, opening up the question of some irreducible and unchangeable humanity; and political, opening up the question of resistance (p. 249).

If individuation is not to be the effect of a single structure or relation that could either determine or destroy the conditions of individuation, if cause and effect are not to determine an eternal relation, if “man” is not to be a universal, ahistorical determination, if resistance (to the manipulations of affects, for example) is to be possible, then there must be something that limits determination, causality, and the possibility of utter appropriation or domination. There must be that which constitutes the “limit of control,” and that limit is the Spinozist conatus (striving) in its irreducible singularity (p. 254). 

How so? Recall two of Spinoza’s most frequently quoted propositions: “Each thing, insofar as it is in itself [quantum in se est], strives to persevere in its being” (Ethics IIIP6), and then, “The striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing” (Ethics IIIP7). Spinozists may find the short cut I am about to take unconscionable, but I am going to claim that Proposition 6 insists on the empirical singularity of each thing (quantum in se est), and Proposition 7 insists that desire, uncoupled from any psychological determination, is the “actual essence” of each thing in its empirical singularity. This desire or striving is not a desire or striving for this or that particular object; nor, indeed, is it a desire or striving for the satisfaction of desire or striving as such, a striving toward the end of striving, a desire for the end of desire. Spinozist conatus is not a response to a lack. It is simply the desire or striving to be in its singularity, quantum in se est. 

Quantum in se est, as it is in itself, says that each thing in its empirical singularity is without predicates. It is not a question of what each thing is in its quiddity, but that it is: it is that it is. In fact, each thing in its empirical singularity (its actuality) is not a particular that, in the attribution of predicates, would be abstracted and subsumed under universals; rather, empirical singularity as such is what refuses predication, subsumption, and abstraction absolutely. Quantum in se est thus says in effect that a thing is identical to itself—a statement Wittgenstein considered absurd, or at least not a philosophical proposition. Quite so. Which is precisely why empirical singularity constitutes a limit for philosophy, and it is only as limit that the philosopher can conceive it.[6] I stress that it is a limit for philosophy; as with any limit, it is at once “outside” and “inside,” as well as the mutual imbrication, or transduction, of outside and inside, a relation that philosophy cannot but sustain. Empirical singularity (or the empirical “in general”) cannot simply be relegated to an essentially irrelevant noumenal realm. We can, however, experience it, provided that the concept of “experience” can be relieved of its putatively phenomenological determinations. In fact, of course, this experience is unavoidable, particularly in view of the fact that one of the more familiar nicknames for this experience is “existence.”

Here, then, singularity designates the singular trajectory of individuation, a separation from the collectivity, from the totality. I claimed that singularity, and indeed the conatus that is its essence, is the refusal of subsumption; it is thereby also the refusal of any recuperation or redemption within the collective or the totality. It is a separation, a refusal, to be sure, but that separation is nevertheless a relation. It is not a negation, but simply a separation.[7] And this movement of separation, this movement of individuation, is nevertheless the very movement that constitutes the collective or the totality as such. The very (pre-individual) movement that constitutes empirical singularities as such (individuation), is at the same time the movement that constitutes the collectivity. This would appear to be a contradiction, but it is a contradiction if and only if the relation in question—the co-immanence of singularity and totality—is conceived as a static relation, abstracted from all becoming, all history, all metastasis. But there is nothing whatever to justify that conception. The irreducible is immediately the irreversible, and it is precisely that irreversibility, and concomitant unrepeatability, that makes empirical singularity irreducible.[8] Precisely because of the irreversible, unrepeatable individuation of singularities, the totality incessantly exceeds itself, becoming other than itself. 

Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin have recently argued, against those who posit the possibility of plural or alternate universes, that the universe is indeed unique, that there can be only one universe at a time. Further, they argue that time is all-inclusive, that there is nothing that is not susceptible to time as essential change and irreversibility including the presumptively immutable laws of nature. There is only one universe at a time, but it is not the same universe at all times; even the laws of nature are metastable (including the law of metastability itself): the universe has a history. Finally, they offer a view of the “selective realism” of mathematics, which has long claimed to be the rational expression of the laws of nature, the language in which the laws of nature must be expressed.[9] “Mathematics” is assumed to be entirely, even if only ideally, adequate to express the rationality of the universe qua totality. (As Stephen Hawking recently put it, “we shall soon know the mind of God.”)

Or again, in a supposedly autobiographical memoir entitled Coma, Pierre Guyotat remarks that he has no trouble with the concept of God—as long as there are more than one.[10] The point with both Guyotat as well as Unger and Smolin is that the totality (or the collectivity) is always more than total, that the totality never achieves what the scholastics would call perfection, the completion of production; the totality never closes in upon itself, and thus can never achieve perfect coherence, perfect rationality. Sense itself is subject to the depredations of time, the vicissitudes of history, the constraints of determinate conjunctures. 

5. Another Practice of Thinking is Possible

Q: Is there—can there be—a political practice of philosophy? 

A: Yes. No. Maybe. It depends. All of the above.

In his “Conclusion,” (pp. 286-291), Read offers a succinct meditation on the question of the effects of the concept of transindividuality on intellectual and political practices (especially intellectual practices as political practices, of course). In the first instance, the concept is considered in terms of its intervention in philosophical practice, in terms of its essential disturbance of philosophical commonsense conceptions of the binary opposition of individual and society, demanding a reconsideration of the relation of the individuated and collectivity. In other words, this is an essential disturbance of the logic that sustains not only neoliberalism but in fact the capitalist mode of production altogether. Here, I think there is an implicit but unavoidable recognition that regime change (of whatever sort), more equitable economic arrangements and so forth, important though they may be, do not in themselves augur the end of the capitalist mode of production; it is also necessary to interrupt the logic of the capitalist mode of production, that is, the assumptions (for the most part unexamined) according to which the capitalist mode of production makes sense. This is neither a precondition of, nor substitute for, other political practices; it took centuries for the logic of the capitalist mode of production to achieve a certain hegemony in the making of sense (real subsumption). It will not be transformed overnight. The revolution in the making of sense obeys a different temporality than other forms of political action: this is a slo-mo revolution.

One could go further, I think, although Read does not do so explicitly. Any philosophical practice that is not an experience of radical difference (what Rancière called “disagreement” and Lyotard identified as the différend—both of which, in spite of their important differences, specify a difference so profound that there is no common ground upon which the difference could be adjudicated), any philosophical practice that does not undertake an experience of the limit of sense, an experience of non-sense, cannot claim to be a transformative practice of philosophy. This does not mean, of course, that all nonsense is a transformative practice, but it does mean that it is only as an experience of non-sense that philosophy can claim to be experimental (which at least rhymes with Stengers’ strong reading of experiment). This practice can be undertaken in any number of ways that are of immediately political importance. For example, through an anthropological encounter with radically different cultures where the concept of “cultural difference” does not, for once, master that difference (think, for example, of Viveiros de Castro’s work); an encounter with the essential opacity of historical difference (one may become as learned as one will about 14th century Japan or ancient Greece, but that is never to overcome the essential opacity of the past); a serious encounter with schizophrenics and psychotics (Félix Guattari’s psychiatric/philosophical practices, for example); an experience of what is at once the possibility and impossibility of communication with other species: it is obvious not only that affects circulate among dogs, but also between dogs and humans, yet there remains something radically opaque even in the immediacy of that intimacy. Et cetera, most definitely et cetera.[11]

Second, “transindividuality as a kind of philosophical practice necessarily exceeds the boundaries of philosophy proper, turning from the speculative and ontological matter to one that is infused with politics, economics, and history” (p. 286). Indeed, roughly the entire second half of PI makes precisely that turn, a turn that not only Marx but Spinoza made as well. But, nota bene, neither Marx nor Spinoza stopped being philosophers on that account (and neither has Read himself, of course). Accounts of this move in Marx (although certainly not Read’s) not infrequently take philosophy and political economy (or the social sciences in general) to be mutually exclusive: Marx was once a philosopher, and then on the road to Damascus (by way of Paris and London) experienced the blinding truth of economics, and philosophy was left in the dust. Certainly, philosophy must be “infused with politics, economics, and history,” yes. At the same time, however, it is most certainly also the case that the social sciences bring their own philosophical baggage, their own ontologies, their own metaphysics, their own epistemologies, with them. If the concept of transindividuality infects philosophy with politics, economics, and history, conversely politics, economics, and history must recognize that they have always already been infected by philosophy, and the concept of transindividuality, if taken up seriously from the perspective of any of the social sciences, forces that recognition. For all the insights various investigations in the social sciences have offered in terms of the sociology and histories of knowledge and of philosophy, they cannot thereby reduce philosophy to simply an object for the social sciences—a symptom of an epoch, culture, society, whatever. Conversely, neither can philosophy simply reduce the knowledge and insights of the social sciences to their (philosophical) truth or significance. Neither the social sciences nor philosophy can play the trump card, for the simple reason that there isn’t one.

Third, to deploy the concept of transindividuality in a larger political context than the contexts of philosophical and intellectual practices means that the aspiration that a new revolutionary subject, either as collectivity or as individual, might arise to lead the assault on Capital, and thus lead us all to a new heaven and a new earth, would no longer make much sense, because 

[T]he conditions of politics are less an event than multiple processes of transformation….Politics is not a matter of waiting for some epochal event, or rupture, but is always taking place (even if disappointingly so) in the tensions and pressures that define every metastable articulation of individuations (p. 289). 

Here there can be no promise, and even less a guarantee, that what will emerge from these “multiple processes of transformation” will not be either an unmitigated disaster or a better world; in this sense, politics is experimental (in the strong sense that I take Stengers to use the term). There is no cause for either optimism or despair; perhaps it is a matter, as a Palestinian slogan I saw recently has it, that “existence is resistance.”

I clearly still have much to learn from Bill, but I am going end with this--just because philosophy is clearly the dark side:

[1] Jason Read, The Politics of Transindividuality (Leiden: Brill, 2016). A paperback edition from Haymarket Books is promised for fall, 2016. 

[2] Of course, it is probably true that the sciences pay little attention to the conjuncture within which they operate. Or rather, they construe the conjuncture to be merely internal to the discipline within which they operate, or if “external,” to be merely practical, extraneous determinations (requiring grantsmanship, for example), without effect on the science “itself.” Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour are two thinkers who have consistently paid rigorous attention to the conjunctural conditions for the discrete sciences. 

[3] Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). 

[4] Here is Stengers’ on one aspect of Whitehead’s “speculative empiricism”: “If I feel something, this thing certainly enters into the definition of my experience: it belongs to my experience, and it is not forged by my experience. I sense it insofar as it testifies to something else. I produce myself qua feeling that which is not me” (p. 295) 

[5] The questions raised by William James in his famous essay of 1904, “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” are still pertinent. See Essays in Radical Empiricism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), pp. 1-38. 

[6] Which of course is why Hegel was so anxious to bracket the empirical in the Phenomenology. The most persuasive account of this move that I know of is Jean Hyppolite’s Logic and Existence, trans. Leonard Lawler and Amit Sen (Albany: SUNY Press, 1997), esp. pp. 3-37. 

[7] Except—perhaps, but I am not at all sure about this—in the sense of omnis determination est negatio. 

[8] Is this not what makes entities in the “finite modes” in fact finite? Isn’t this somewhere near the heart of Spinozist finitude, Spinozist materialism? 

[9] Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015). I take no position with regard to their propositions or the debates in which they are embroiled; those are matters for physicists interested in philosophical speculation. I am simply indicating what seems to be a certain resonance in conceiving totality, time, and history. 

[10] Pierre Guyotat, Coma, trans. Noura Wedell (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2010). 

[11] Read has gestured toward what is at stake in these experimental undertakings that constitute a transformative experience of philosophy in his blog entitled “Conceptually Barking Dogs: Between Spinoza and the Frankfurt School,”, 17 September 2015: “It is a matter of thinking simultaneously determination and irreducibility, causal connection and difference of expression. Ideas are nothing other than their material conditions grasped differently, but the difference, the difference of their expression, does make a difference. It seems to me that . . .Spinoza’s real contribution to Marxism is…his way of thinking through the identity and nonidentity of things and ideas.”


seymourblogger said...

It took me 3 days to read this. Difficult and beautifully written.

Korean Car Mania said...

I had taken several of Haver's courses at Binghamton many years ago when he was a history professor. He had a layered personality with a very progressive -theatrical style of presenting himself and his material. Students were exposed to profanity and an expansive vocabulary of words not many have ever come across or used in daily life. I had taken his 360F AIDS course which brought in 500 extra students who peeked in to see gay pornograpic imagery presented right infrom of them on film. He also gave presentations sometimes all in leather with a bald head, that was very unusual for that time.