Monthly Archives: April 2013

Žižek on Lenin’s Anxiety about Revolution

In Less Than Nothing, while talking about democracy and power with regard to its particular emptiness, Slavoj Žižek briefly mentions Lenin’s critique of relying upon a “big Other” for political decisions:

Does this not fit the general matrix of Kant’s solutions, where metaphysical propositions (God, immortality, etc.) are asserted, “under erasure,” as postulates? Consequently, would not the true task be precisely to get rid of the very mystique of the place of power? This is why, in his writings of 1917, Lenin reserves his most acerbic irony for those who engage in an endless search for some kind of “guarantee” for the revolution. This guarantee takes two main forms, in terms of either the reified notion of social Necessity (the revolution must not be risked too early; one has to wait for the right moment, when the situation is “mature” with regard to the laws of historical development) or the idea of normative (“democratic”) legitimacy (“the majority of the population is not on our side, so the revolution would not really be democratic”)—as if, before the revolutionary agents risk the seizure of state power, it should seek permission from some figure of the big Other […] (120).

While I know very little about the 1917 Revolution, I do remember having read that Lenin was concerned explicitly about the proper timing of the revolution. I’ve looked through a bunch of essays to try to find where I read this, but without success. I remember reading (or maybe even hearing) that Lenin thought that if he didn’t act at a certain time, the revolution might have to wait years until the possibility arose again. Similarly, I think Trotskyists considered the end of World War II as a missed opportunity for revolution. This may be missing Žižek’s point about politics and power, but it still seemed worth mentioning.

Subjectivity as a Rupture in Hegel

I’m working on reading Slavoj Žižek’s Less Than Nothing in preparation for the upcoming conference on Hegel in May at Birkbeck, University of London. So far, I feel that I can make it through it, but of course, there’s a lot of Lacan and Hegel I could read still that Žižek references. In the second chapter on religion and “The Big Other”, Žižek writes about subjectivity as a rupture in substance itself while also being a form of synthesis:

When a chaotic period of gestation culminates in the explosive eruption of a new Form which reorganizes the entire field, this very imposition of the new Necessity/Order is in itself thoroughly contingent, an act of abyssal/ungrounded subjective decision. This brings us to the strict philosophical notion of subjectivity, since what characterizes the subject—in contrast to substance—is precisely such a complete coincidence of opposites: in the case of substance, synthesis and splitting remain externally opposed. […]

Two features which cannot but appear opposed characterize the modern subject as it was conceptualized by German Idealism: (1) the subject is the power of “spontaneous” (i.e., autonomous, starting-in-itself, irreducible to a prior cause) synthetic activity, the force of unification, of bringing together the manifold of sensuous data we are bombarded with into a unified representation of objects; (2) the subject is the power of negativity, of introducing a gap/cut into the given-immediate substantial unity; it is the power of differentiating, of “abstracting,” tearing apart and treating as self-sufficient what in reality is part of an organic unity. […]

But how, exactly, are we to understand this? The subject’s spontaneity emerges as a disturbing cut into substantial reality, since the unity the transcendental synthesis imposes onto the natural manifold is precisely “synthetic” (in the standard rather than Kantian sense, i.e., artificial, “unnatural”) (106).

This passage reminded me of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thoughts on the place of humans within the world. This should make sense since Rousseau had an influence on Hegel. The idea of self-perfection in Rousseau is specifically what came to mind. On the one hand, humans represent a break in the natural order, but on the other hand, humans are unique in their ability to perfect themselves. It is through this self-perfection that humans transcend the gap created by subjectivity and form a synthetic (“unnatural”) nature. I think Hegel’s term for this self-perfection in history is Selbstaufhebung, which can be translated as both self-sacrifice and self-overcoming—this seems to be precisely a dialectical movement.

Kant’s Epicurean Exceptions

In The Critique of Pure Reason, on the topic of causation and freedom, there’s a moment near the end of “The Antinomy of Pure Reason: Third Conflict of the Transcendental Ideas”, where Kant gives exception to the Epicurean school with regard to his argument:

This requirement of reason to appeal, in the series of natural causes, to a first beginning from freedom is fully confirmed if we see that, with the exception of the Epicurean School, all philosophers of antiquity felt obliged, for the sake of explaining all the movements of the world, to assume a prime mover, that is, a freely acting cause which, first and by itself, began this series of states. For they did not attempt to make a first beginning comprehensible by an appeal to mere natural (411).

It’s interesting to find Kant’s thoughts on the lack of freedom posited in Epicureanism. I have been thinking about this problem for a few months now, although through a somewhat convoluted path from contemporary philosophers. Specifically, I was thinking about Alain Badiou’s inheritance of Louis Althusser’s aleatory materialism, which Althusser gets from Epicureanism. Badiou’s Events and Truth Procedures seem to come from Althusser’s Encounters, all of which end up leaving little room for subjectivity. Badiou himself makes a similar point about Althusser in Metapolitics (2005): “there is no theory of the subject in Althussser, nor could there ever be one. For Althusser, all theory proceeds by way of concepts. But ‘subject’ is not a concept. […] ‘Subject’ is not the name of a concept, but that of a notion, that is, the mark of an inexistence. There is no subject, since there are only processes” (59). But for both Badiou and Althusser, these processes develop at layers or moments beyond the manipulation of individuals. In a sense, this is true that individuals cannot immediately grasp all relations of the world. However, Badiou puts such a great distance between individuals and change in the world that the only thing left for militants is to keep an open mind in order to think the possibility of change, so that if an “Event” occurs, they’re not too blind to recognize it.

The passages in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason on causation, the conditioned, and the unconditioned are some of my favorite parts so far. More on that late.

Laruelle’s Utopian Non-philosophy and the Future

I just read François Laruelle’s article “The End Times of Philosophy” in a recent issue of  continent. The article is only a part of his book, Struggle and Utopia at the End Times of Philosophy (2012). I must admit that this is the first I’ve read any of Laruelle’s work (and also, I’m pretty new to philosophical texts in general). Since I’m reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason right now, I might end up using that as a starting point for some of my thoughts on Laruelle’s article. Having seen his name come up several times, along with my friend Sean meeting him on an art gallery in New York City, I figured I should learn more about Laruelle’s work. A philosopher whose project is called “non-philosophy” could be interesting. What that name might mean, however, is something I’m still unsure of.

My best guess is that Laruelle posits his work within the endless struggle and slow death of philosophy to find its way in a proper methodology. Along with philosophy’s own issues, it is also within the larger structure that makes up the totality of World, History, Humanity. Here, Laruelle uses his own term “Humaneity” to describe the small “hells” in each of these realms. A more universal, surreptitious hell pervades all, he claims: “As a modernized form of Hell, perhaps harassment has a long future in front of it” (161). Concerning the means of solving such a problem, Laruelle continues, “with no way of recovering and which tolerates only salvation” (161). Here, it seems that by salvation, Laruelle means something beyond the grasp of the work of subjects, or, to continue Laruelle’s religious terms, salvation can only be a miracle. If this is true, then I would say that Laruelle falls into the same problem that Alain Badiou enters when he talks about communism as an Idea. For Badiou, to be a militant communist is to be one of the faithful—faithful to the future possibility of the Idea entering the Real. Although it’s an enchanting concept, I find it to be a faith that actually appears empty, or at least sad from the perspective of an outsider (a non-believer). Communism should rather be a continual self-working-through on the part of society. On the other hand, Laruelle might not mean that salvation relies upon an approach of a deus ex machina. He later speaks of self-transformation through thought: “non-philosophy is also a sort of ultimatum for considering one’s life and transforming one’s thought from the perspective of a uni­version rather than a conversion” (165).

Laruelle’s emphasis on non-philosophy’s connection to the future is interesting. For non-philosophy, he says, thinking the world should not be based upon our imaginations—which have the biases of all previous epistemology and all its assumed preconditions of thought—but rather, thinking the world just be based on the Future itself. I’m reminded of a section in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, where he talks about the pitfalls of types of arguments, in which certain propositions themselves already posit preconditions, which have not yet been determined to be stable grounds for the current proposition. Laruelle describes this utopian form of thought: “utopia as the determinant principle for human life, or to put it another way, of the Future as an irreducible presupposition of (for) thinking the World and History” (161). Of course, the question then arises, How do we access the Future’s imagination of itself within the World and History? I’m not sure if Laruelle answers such a question in this article. I would hope, though, that he addresses this later on in the book.

There are times in the article where non-philosophy sounds like a philosophy of philosophy itself. Laruelle speaks of different levels of philosophy, using terms to describe it like “topographical” and “topological”, as if non-philosophy were the theory of the geological, mathematical strata of philosophy—mapping out various flows and influences. This mapping sometimes takes on a tone reminiscent of philosophical inquiries at the level of language, in which obscured themes run below superficial “Logos”. I’m guessing that it is through this cartography, that non-philosophy would then be able to heretically infect those hellish realms that dominate all.

I should confess though that the difficulty of the text leaves me with only more questions on the meaning of many terms, or even the purpose of devising the school of non-philosophy. Regardless, it was an interesting read if only for its strangeness. A blog post by Terence Blake—someone who seems to be much more familiar with Laruelle’s work—puts forth the idea that Laruelle is experiencing a rise in popularity due to a standstill—even a regression—in contemporary continental philosophy. Blake implicates Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, and Quentin Meillassoux in this regression. While I also think that Badiou and Meillassoux’s work is not as politically groundbreaking (or even groundbreaking) as some think, I am not so quick to include Žižek in that same  group, which has much of its roots in Louis Althusser’s apolitical aleatory materialism.