[non-philosophical] fragment on critique and theoreticism

[Note: this fragment is old and before I understood the significance of Laruelle’s usage of the “fractional matrix” and 2/3 vs. 3/2 terms metaphor in his description of the philosophical decision (expertly described by Ross Wolf on his website thecharnelhouse.org). I use a fraction metaphor but it is meant to demonstrate the “completeness” of the philosophical decision, which I suppose is still compatible with Laruelle’s 2/3rd 3/2nd terms insofar as they demonstrate the moment of the philosophical sleight of hand that allows them to replace themselves with the One though definitely not as clever. It was the result of a kind of spurt of non-philosophical enthusiasm weirdly directed at some of the members of the non-philosophy community (which I admit, is not wise). The essay this was apart of was a paper on Marxism and Science, which I am in the process of reconstructing and reanalyzing. A few of members of the non-philosophical community have confronted the “so what?” aspect of non-philosophy and the significance of having already “understood” that critique was dead and democratic pluralism was the way forward on philosophical terms (namely the work of Lyotard in Libidinal Economy and Feyerabend, NB: the post also deals with the difference between non-standard philosophy and non-philosophy—a distinction which I think ought to be preserved). So this is somewhat relevant in the sense that it shows that the philosophical decision is potentially alive and well among within the ranks of the philosophers of science/philosophical scientists, SR/OOO and non-philosophers (who in some sense ought to know better). Further it raises some questions about when critique and “limited” hermeneutics are “non-philosophically sanctioned,” that is to say, in line with non-philosophy’s self proscribed axioms and in accordance with its rigor.]

Critique must be a form of “disinterpretation” or “inoperatization” of theoreticism, it must be a reminder and demonstration of the undecidability and indeterminancy of the One. It must be non-philosophical and aim at the disclosure and disabling of every philosophical decision. The attitude that must be “combated” (in the style of Mao’s “Combat Liberalism”) in the Marxist field is a deadening theoreticism and set of prejudices against using the “(theoretical) tools of the oppressor.”Jeff Bowker in his article “The New Knowledge Economy and Science and Technology Policy” inadvertently gives an example of this type of theoretical prejudice:

Working infrastructures standardize both people and machines. […] In order for the large scale states of the nineteenth century to operate efficiently and effectively, the new science of statistics (of the same etymological root as the word ‘state’) was developed. People were sorted into categories, and a series of information technologies were put into place to provide an infrastructure to government work (regular ten year censuses; special tables and printers; by the end of the nineteenth century punch-card machines for faster processing of results). These standardized categories (male or female; professional; nationality etc) thus spawned their own set of technical standards (80 column sheets – later transferred to 80 column punch cards and computer screens…). They also spawned their own set of standardized people. As Alain Desrosières and Laurent Thévenot note, different categories for professional works in the French, German and British censuses led to the creation of very different social structures and government programs around them. Early in the nineteenth centuries, the differences between professionals in one country or the other did not make so much difference: by the end of the century these differences had become entrenched and reified—people became more and more like their categories.[1]

Bowker, himself a proponent of science and the quantitative par excellence (even at the expense of its human element), shows a non-committal attitude to this analysis merely citing that the creation of working infrastructure and standards transforms and creates professions and, therefore, transforms and creates new types of humans; for him, this example is raised not to comment on the effect of standards on “subjectivity” but to note that standardization introduces the issue of proprietary standards and the corresponding realities of “protocols,” “agreement,” “negotiation,” and “interfacing” in complex work infrastructures and information hierarchies. The he main question is why is it that the best standard doesn’t always win out? In other words, this historical or archeological perspective on the development of standards and working infrastructure is interesting. Standards are not something to be resisted or denounced, they are a fact. However, the tendency of the theoreticist attitude we are attempting to pin down might find significance in the etymology of “statistics” (its root “state”—a smoking gun) coupled with its creation of “human categories” and “standardized people” as evidence of the field’s biopolitical “regulative ideal” that necessarily dominates, dehumanizes, and decomplexifies human beings, i.e., an indication of the disciplines necessary evil.

Bowker represents the “sensible” wing of this type of theorizing since he does not barrel into full on theoreticism but makes space for it via his noncommittal presentation of Alain Desrosières and Laurent Thévenot’s thesis. This would be theory that is not yet theoreticism: theory in its 1/3rd form: its simple presentation of itself in the form of information, postulates, and hypotheses.[2] However, if we take Tom Athanasiou’s article “Greenwashing Agricultural Biotechnology,” we can see theoreticist use of theory in its 2/3rds form: the theoretical rejection of theory. Here, even what presents itself as sensible critique—namely the rejection of the theoreticist tendency to find “thetic” significance in the conceptualizations and metaphorical deployments of scientists to explain their science, in this instance the “reduction” of life to “information”—we find a residual theoreticism present in the implicit in his conception of today’s medical establishment:

The “potential” of a technology must be clearly distinguished from its likely applications, and science cannot be abstracted from either social context or technological form. The Human Genome Project is a fine example—it is a frightening development, but not because it reduces life to “information,” as a die-hard Rifkinite might argue. It is, rather, frightening in its promise to further increase the power and hegemony of today’s reductionist medical establishment. And this is true despite the fact that real improvements in therapy and healing, as well as some amazing science, can be expected to flow from it.[3]

The “empirical” or “policy argument” implicit in this critique that lends it its force-(of)-thought lies in the notion that medical research firms unjustly capitalize on their own discoveries when they should perhaps become a public good. The theoretical “mixture” that has taken place is the surreptitious displacement of this argument into the unconscious of the text as a given assumption rather than an argument.

Another example is Alexander Galloway’s article on “The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism.” He introduces the article with the following:

Why, within the current renaissance of research in continental philosophy, is there a coincidence between the structure of ontological systems and the structure of the most highly evolved technologies of post-Fordist capitalism? I am speaking, on the one hand, of computer networks in general and object-oriented computer languages (such as Java or C++) in particular and, on the other hand, of certain realist philosophers such as Bruno Latour, but also more pointedly Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, and their associated school known as speculative realism. Why do these philosophers, when holding up a mirror to nature, see the mode of production reflected back at them? Why, in short, is there a coincidence between today’s ontologies and the software of big business? (348)[4]

Here we have theoreticist use of theory in its 3/3rds form which effectuates a “one-to-one” or decisional equivocation of one object or concept and another. It is a speculative philosophy that takes a thing’s conceptualization, description, or representation as indicative of something essential to the thing itself, a “determination” or “iteration” in empirical form of its thetic content, or indication of a structure governing its appearance. Galloway’s familiarity with Laruelle is disappointing (although here he trips up on purely materialist grounds as well) since he effectuates the mistake Laruelle accuses of certain philosophers like Badiou. He conflates or amphibolizes a decisional Vision-in-One with the One itself, i.e., effectuates a mixing of immanent and transcendental content (exploitable philosophical material that is necessarily produced by the Real’s foreclosure to thought) and the decisional equivocation of one thing’s specular Being-in-One with another’s so that they are reduced to the metaphysical order of the Same and thereby granted philosophical or thetic significance. The term Galloway uses which operationalizes and occasions his critique, of course, is anti-philosophical: he opts for the word “coincidence” so that there is but a chance resemblance or “congruity” between realist philosophies of science and certain programming languages that must be investigated. However, the assumption is that because programming languages are elements of capitalist infrastructure they are necessarily evil and that any political or scientific “ontology” that resembles them (e.g. object-oriented ontology) must potentially be “shown the door” (348). He states:

Yet such a coincidence has yet to be demonstrated, and certainly it will be my burden to show this congruity. Nevertheless if it can be demonstrated that such a congruity exists, two further questions follow, one (1) If recent realist philosophy mimics the infrastructure of contemporary capitalism, should we not show it the door based on this fact alone, the assumption being that any mere repackaging of contemporary ideology is, by definition, antiscientific and therefore suspect on epistemological grounds? And (2) even if one overlooks the epistemological shortcomings, should we not critique it on purely political grounds, the argument being that any philosophical project that seeks to ventriloquize the current industrial arrangement is, for this very reason, politically retrograde?

Here the position of anti-philosophy is taken up because of the philosophical equivocation materialism=(the) (essence) (of) science, a procedure which 1) signals that Galloway is at least theorizing with Marxist assumptions (least not indicated by the title of the essay), 2) that Galloway is putting himself in the position of science qua materialism, a position that is necessarily both philosophically created (i.e., a placeholder for the position of science) and grounded (materialism is scientific because of x, y, z)—this can only be done via persuasion or as an implicit assumption (proved elsewhere and used in usufruct), and 3) levelling a critique of philosophy insofar as it is the “spontaneous philosophy” of the realists and scientists, which is to say, science’s conceptualization of itself. Thus, what the realists cannot see is that they are necessarily making political decisions in favor of capitalism by their unconscious mirroring of capitalist infrastructures. This signals 4) a residual Althusserianism: the materialist critique of science, a critique which, as we said, is given “scientific” authority by virtue of philosophy.

This theoretical “knotting” of (anti-)philosophy to science qua materialism for the sake of the critique of science (insofar as it is the philosophy of science), this whole procedure, relies on a unilaterally dual conceptualization of science, which, as Laruelle notes is, 1) foreclosed to thought and 2) not reifiable in any particular text. Thus, from a non-philosophical standpoint, this procedure is illegal. Of course, the irony is that Galloway’s article is precisely meant to take up issues “concerning the validity of the theoretical writing at hand and the other concerning its political utility” (347) and “concern[s] the nature of critical thought” so that his essay confronts the “analysis of the old distinctions between object and thing, object and word, object and idea” (348). The political bankruptcy of the realist philosophies of science pales in comparison to the theoreticism that Galloway demonstrates in this instance. There is simply no indication that, for example, Bruno Latour’s philosophy and theory of actor-network analysis indicates anything about his political activity or opinions one way or another. This is armchair psychoanalysis, it purports that the decided-upon aesthetic resemblance of a philosophy to a programming language pushes us deeper into capitalist slavery, instrumental reasoning, and political quietism. This hypothesis, simply put, is silly since the sum of Bruno Latour’s writing=X, we cannot decide what it effectuates in-One or “according-to-the-Real” (perhaps understood as in the psychology of the reader and whatever other myriad effects it might produce).

This form of symptomatic criticism libidinally deploys its theoretical enthusiasm for politics, i.e., its Maoist or Schmittian desire to draw “battle lines” and separate (theoretical) friends from enemies, to lend force-(of)-thought to its critique. Its “libidinal economy” forces a “summation” (in the mathematical sense of applying operations to constants) that predetermines or decides its object’s multifarious and indeterminate effects, it fails to clone or dualize its object to reproduce the “immanence,” “difference,” or “indeterminancy” of its material, it Distances without distance to its object and it fails to appreciate it as fiction. Thus it deals with it only oral-anally, i.e., in an evaluative manner, so that it is a question of taste: Galloway prefers that his philosophies do not resemble capitalist infrastructure which causes him to despair; he is all-too quick to judge that it is somehow odious: he spits it out after a meagre bite with no appreciation for its complexity or after taste; he shits it out after only partial digestion (is it fair to “decide” Latour and index him with Graham Harmon or Quentin Meillassoux?—is this not a category mistake?). It reflects what Rancière writes about the “critical system” in The Emancipated Spectator:

Forty years ago, [the critical system] was supposed to denounce the machinery of social domination in order to equip those challenging it with new weapons. Today, it has become exactly the opposite: a disenchanted knowledge of the reign of the commodity and the spectacle, of the equivalence between everything and everything else and between everything and its own image. This post-Marxist and post-Structuralist wisdom is not content to furnish a phantasmagorical depiction of humanity completely buried beneath the rubbish of its frenzied consumption. It also depicts the law of domination as a force seizing on anything that claims to challenge it. It makes any protest a spectacle and any spectacle a commodity. It makes it an expression of futility, but also a demonstration of culpability.[5]

When this speculative tendency—this paranoid rejection of capitalist domination and whatever mirrors its evil—is coupled with the above mentioned typical “critique” of “instrumental reason” than we have a hellish brand of anti-consumerist quasi-luddite theoreticism (perhaps best exemplified by Julia Kristeva, though one strains to find this written anywhere in her oeuvre, one must hear her testify to this in English). Galloway is not the worst offender here and it is important to emphasize that this ultimately means very little, i.e., we do not assert that theoreticism leads one way or another and definitely not to concentration camps. However, what we do assert is that Galloway advertises the sufficiency of theoretical thought, i.e., a “Principle of Sufficient Theory” and a “Principle of Sufficient Thought” (PST), which attempts a conceptual encompassing of this or that by deciding it. We can also add to this list a “Principle of Sufficient Critique,” even if Galloway questions the value of critique, his solutions end up advertising historicism and materialism as solutions; thus critique becomes an occasion to advertise theory and theoreticism.

It is unclear why or how this variously humanist, materialist, philosophical or “theoretical” equivocation of technology with capitalism was generated. We can speculate that it was maybe because statistical or data-driven arguments have been made to “disprove” the utopian pretentions and economic claims of socialists or it was perhaps in part because of the introduction of the “history of science” into university curriculums or in part because of Lefebvre, Heidegger or Adorno and their thematically anti-rationalist critiques of “modernity.” In its most responsible form it was likely quantitative, concerning problems with statistical cognition, knowledge policing, “ideological” policy writing, and the manipulation and crafting of “trustworthy” facts.[6] However, in the final analysis, this has largely become the qualitative and typically “liberal arts” argument (although the “end users” of this argument are not necessarily liberals, it is truly a theoreticist argument with any number ideological mutations): one can always lie with numbers and that even when one “gets it right” they will never show the richness and complexity of the “human condition.”

It is not hard to point to specific texts like The Dialectic of Enlightenment or The One Dimensional Man and their equation of capitalist technological “instrumentality” to authoritarianism or fascism to see a reflection of the generalized Leftist suspicion of quantification. One can also point to texts like Althusser’s Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists to see the characteristic self-awarded privilege of Marxist philosophers (by virtue of their materialism) to “critique” the institution of science.[7] The neo-Marxist field which Althusser famously waged war with is exemplary of this “Frankfurt School” position (Sartre, Merleau-Ponty); however, Althusser and Althusserianism are guilty of the worst examples of theoreticism by using the critique of the neo-Marxists to occasion their own brand of odious theoreticism.

The residual trouble this causes on the Left is that it has led to a general suspicion against quantitative methods since they are variously perceived as blunt instruments or still all-too-primitive or fraught with capitalist/bourgeoisie instrumental purposiveness that would keep their scientific potential stunted and stuck at the level of an exploitable technology. Meanwhile there are certain elements of the Left that call for a total rejection of any and all “instrumental thinking” (usually equivocated with quantitative or computational work) is bad and that deceleration is a viable and necessary form of resistance (see below).[8] The most simplistic rejection being an equivocation of the “bro culture” around STEM fields as the regulative ideal of the fields themselves.[9] Obviously this sort of “math anxiety” about the state use of statistics and its recent use of metadata for surveillance purposes is well-founded (there is also much to say about the desire to avoid the shitty bro-culture and elitism of contemporary computer science programs); however, the reaction-response is symptomatic: the numbers themselves are not evil. Meanwhile, battling one form of elitism with another seems somehow counterproductive. Mackey and Avassian’s introduction to #ACCELERATE: the accelerationist reader eloquently confronts this issue:

[…] a well-to-do liberal Left, convinced that technology equates to instrumental mastery and that capitalist economics amounts to a heap of numbers, in most cases leaves concrete technological nous and economic arguments to its adversary—something it shares with its more radical but equally technologically illiterate academic counterparts, who confront capitalism with theoretical constructs so completely at odds with its concrete workings that the most they can offer is a faith in miraculous events to come, scarcely more effectual than organic folk politics. In some quarters, a Heideggerian Gelassenheit or ‘letting be’ is called for, suggesting that the best we can hope for is to desist entirely from destructive development and attempts to subdue or control nature—an option that, needless to say, is also the prerogative of an individualised privileged spectator who is the subjective product of global capital. From critical social democrats to revolutionary Maoists, from Occupy mic checks to post-Frankfurt School mutterings, the ideological slogan goes: There must be an outside! And yet, given the real subsumption of life under capitalist relations, what is missing, precluded by reactionary obsessions with purity, humility, and sentimental attachment to the personally gratifying rituals of critique and protest and their brittle and fleeting forms of collectivity? Precisely any pragmatic criteria for the identification and selection of elements of this system that might be effective in a concrete transition to another life beyond the iniquities and impediments of capital.[10]

This “psychoanalysis” of the Left and its quietism is fairly accurate, however, what it must be supplemented with is not the politicized paranoia and consumerist enthusiasm of accelerationism (we will outline notable differences between that project and ours below) but the Freudian observation that even if one has the “right” to be paranoid, the paranoia is still a symptom even if the causes are real: a rational and less heady approach contra “schizoanalytic” and aesthetic solutions must be proposed. Further, besides the obviousness that accelerationism is an aesthetic/intellectual “disorderly retreat” that indulges in much the same quietism it denounces, it still retains a hefty amount of Marxist-Deleuzian theoretical baggage; namely the bifurcational logic that is implicit in its name: that one should accelerate the contradictions of capitalism as a way of pushing it headlong into a revolutionary crisis.

Its healthy lack of suspicion and embrace of technology coupled with its hatred of despair and quietism and its real desire to offer alternatives are all to be admired. One can wager that no accelerationist will ever offer a “materialist” critique of bourgeoisie science or technological instrumentality—a boon since that will save them time and energy. However, the “long march” proposed by accelerationism is no less infinite than any other Marxist ideology. Bowker’s essay on knowledge economies, however, offers an interesting solution to the traditional dilemma of “reform or revolution” proposed by Rosa Luxemburg: normalization or standardization.

[1] Jeff Bowker,“The New Knowledge Economy and Science and Technology Policy,” p. 4, available online: <http://www.eolss.net/sample-chapters/c15/e1-30-03-05.pdf&gt;.

[2] We should note that the large body of Bowker’s work is considered largely anti-theoretical (in the sense of against what presents itself as “theory” by the humanities and liberal arts).

[3] Tom Athanasiou, Greenwashing Agricultural Biotechnology,” available online: <http://www.processedworld.com/Issues/issue28/i28green_wash.html&gt;.

[4] Alexander R. Galloway, “The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Winter 2013), pp. 347-366.

[5] Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Trans. Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 2009.

[6] There are a number of recent(ish) popular books that confront this issue. Remarkably they typically have a libertarian bent and express a “media skepticism,” e.g. How to Lie with Numbers, Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data, Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists and Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data—a favorite past-time of these books is debunking statistics presented by feminist activists. There are also a number of articles on mathematical literacy that make this point compellingly. Remarkably they show a huge disdain for people working in “qualitative” fields.

[7] For the Frankfurt School, although this attitude was nearly ubiquitous on the university Left, showing any enthusiasm for the instrumental or technological was to become “one dimensional” and an inhalation of the miasma of capitalism’s instrumental rationality. The moral project of the university Left has been to foster a discourse of compassion, tolerance, and an attenuation to suffering as well as an academic appreciation for personal testimony, the writing and research of traditionally marginalized histories, and the privileging of personal testimony. The more radical tendencies of this discourse—especially post Occupy Wall St.—occasionally veer into questions of violence, activism, and “what is to be done?” However, the overall sentimental and sincere quality of this discourse—even while it is incredibly outraged—seem to befuddle its “force-(of)-thought” and relegate it to a largely therapeutic discourse. Further there is a certain fetishization of emotional intelligence and creativity as both something to be preserved and protected from capitalism and a moral end it in itself that makes this brand of Leftism a largely pedagogical project and an active partisan in the heterogeneous (and perhaps largely fictional) Left wing “culture war.” The manifest brilliance of high theory ends up being the artistic production of variations on social justice platitudes, e.g. racism is bad, sexism is bad, colonialism was bad, authoritarianism is bad, and finally—the ultimate act of persuasion—capitalism is bad. Marxism has never been Leftism and has struggled ineffectually against this “tendency” in its engagement with first world social and revolutionary movements (the shift from Marx to Foucault or the more recent shift to Hardt and Negri as one’s “go-to” subversive thinker, for example). The qualitative shift from “identity politics” to “social justice” is a positive sign for Marxism and Marxists insofar as this new discourse is characteristically activist and has little signs of the university discourse and theoreticism of the former; however, where Marxists were experts at “deconstructing” and deriding the practicality and highlighting the potential theoretical “disasters” of identity politics they have utterly failed to counteract the same tendencies in their own bloc and all of these critiques have been made for the sake of advertising its own theoreticism “over and against” the alternatives. Thus, theoretically speaking, Marxism is geared for criticism rather than participation, it is unclear how a “New Marxism” will benefit from this public shift (primarily in the media and the university) on the progressive Left to a social justice oriented discourse. Hence, the difficulty that arises from making this critique is that it can so easily be done for the sake of theoreticism itself. This “anti-identitarian” discourse of “macho-socialism” or “heroic” Marxism (Žižek and Badiou) so easily becomes a conservatism in itself: it is anti-feminist, common sensical and utilitarian (when it comes to critiquing the theoreticism of “the Other”), de facto against any identity political discourse, and skeptical of any participation in “popular” social movements or mainstream political parties if they do not present a sufficiently socialist line—contemporarily an impossible requirement.

[8] “Despair seems to be the dominant sentiment of the contemporary Left, whose crisis perversely mimics its foe, consoling itself either with the minor pleasures of shrill denunciation, mediatised protest and ludic disruptions, or with the scarcely credible notion that maintaining a grim ‘critical’ vigilance on the total subsumption of human life under capital, from the safehouse of theory, or from within contemporary art’s self-congratulatory fog of ‘indeterminacy’, constitutes resistance. Hegemonic neoliberalism claims there is no alternative, and established Left political thinking, careful to desist from Enlightenment ‘grand narratives’, wary of any truck with a technological infrastructure tainted by capital, and allergic to an entire civilizational heritage that it lumps together and discards as ‘instrumental thinking’, patently fails to offer the alternative it insists must be possible, except in the form of counterfactual histories and all-too-local interventions into a decentered, globally-integrated system that is at best indifferent to them. The general reasoning is that if modernity=progress=capitalism=acceleration, then the only possible resistance amounts to deceleration, whether through a fantasy of collective organic self-sufficiency or a solo retreat into miserablism and sagacious warnings against the treacherous counterfinalities of rational thought.”

[9] See Amber Lee, “Bro Bash,” The Jacobin, available online  <https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/06/bro-bash/&gt;

[10] Mackay, Robin, and Armen Avanessian. #Accelerate#. Falmouth, United Kingdom: Urbanomic Media, 2014, p. 6.

the principle of (in)sufficient poetry, cure of poetic vocation

Its apparent to me that I have a hostility towards poetry and literature. One possible reason is because it can promote a shallow mysticism another is that it excessively relies on its tropes as “universal” “literary” truths. Badiou notes this philosophical impulse to find poetry intolerable to thought for philosophy in Conditions. Looking (not too much) further, on a personal level, my most literary friends are all extreme narcissists and range from mildly to extremely depressive. In recent memory I expressed an extreme distaste for memorizing French poetry and am somewhat vengeful about having to recite it (poorly) in from of a large room of people every day. I think Freud was on to something when he effectively said that the poetry was a form of sublimation of infantile fantasies, the equivalent of learning how to hide an erection (or lady boner) and engage in flirtatious small talk instead of just gaze and drool at your amour. I myself have turned to poetry in moments of extreme frustration and social alienation. Whatever. I am not a poet.

As a human and someone now antagonistic to (certain) philosophical prejudices, I still find that poets and theorists of poetry–but not poetry itself–piss me off since they are a somewhat egocentric bunch and it is the poetry of the rich that typically survives and becomes representative of poetry in general. While it is not evident that Grossman is a member of the aristocracy is, however, a decent example of the type of theoreticism that (occasionally) surrounds poetry. His brand is a particularly strong brew of Greco-Roman and New Age infatuations.

Regardless of my difficulties, here is a more concise resume of Grossman’s early poetics:

Grossman asserts with his somewhat abusive use of “economy,” that the emergence of poetry is a good “indicator” of social crisis. It is the mode of communication of “last resort” as a form of symbolic self-reclamation and preservation of a/the social memory, i.e., it “ascertains the moment.” This is the precarious insufficiency of poetry that ascribes to it a kind of provisional universality: the indeterminate or undecidable preservation (it might be better to say “implication”) of a life-world. The poet’s “poetic interest” in his life-world or the (non-)specific conditions of his “social pact” are preserved in poetry in a non-generalizable way. The role of poetry is to preserve the existence of value assigned to facts (its role as a normative realism). Here poetry and not philosophy compossibilizes the generic truth procedure of a “community” bound by a social-linguistic pact. Poetry cannot function without a “god-term” (theo-logos) that ascribes value to things, provides reality with a general intelligibility, and provides poetry with a confiance au monde. Poetry is itself and relies upon an institution that preserves the efficacy of this god-term. Poetry is mobilized by poetic language which refers and constitutes this term as it constitutes the world as an “act of initiation.” Poetry is an otherness from ordinary language that puts it in conflict with other institutions by its originality, however, it is paradoxically ascribed the “absolute priority of representation” and the “representation of last resort.” Thus poetry is necessarily subversive or disruptive since it effectuates a “reciprocal delegitimation of all institutions that assert validity. Poetry sustains and testifies to a primordial wound or symbolic loss which operatizes the symbolic economy of valuation. Poetic language is non-communicative, non-messaging, and non-homogeneous–it is a form of phatic communication, ritual, or performance. Poetry recognizes human beings but within an economy of scarcity such that a form of “eidetic” warfare breaks out for the poetic resources for self-description (linguistic self-identity or “manifestation”) and institutional recognition.

The balance of these claims implies a Principle of (In)sufficient Poetry. However, for Grossman it is apparent that poetry not only requires no assistance but is beyond adequate, it is in fact constitutive of the the social order and the world. This heroic posturing which asserts the constitutive power of poetry to render the world not only intelligible but existent plants us in philosophy’s dreaded logocentrism. However, we should note that this is more characteristic of Grossman’s work in the early-mid aughts. His position in the second half of the book and in his later publications seems to emphasize poetry’s inconsistency, communicative “difficulties,” and the radically ambiguous status of its “knowledge.” Instead of asserting the confiance au monde as the source of poetry’s value, he instead places its value on its indeterminateness and undecidability of its truth. This places poetry much more on the side of art than philosophy following the precepts of contemporary art theory discourse.

We also begin to see a more lucid (and frankly original) argument about the place of poetry relative to philosophy without any pretense to undertake a Nietzschean (anti-)philosophical coup of philosophy’s authority and prestige. He can be seen as making a Badiouian proposition that poetry arises at the “end of philosophy” but after a very ambiguous statement about the “status” of poetry: its relative autonomy and (in)sufficiency:

The idea of poetry in general does not require that there be any actual poems. Such as, for example, those made of metered sentences. There is, however, an attested sense among philosophers that poetry names a final discourse that comes into view when the limit of philosophy is seen. (p. 153)

He states more clearly later on:

I myself am not clear–despite the general prestige of the word–what, as a term, “poetry” with its entailed implication of “creativity” can now mean in the context of the actual human task. What obligations “poetry” requires. What benefit to the human world the obligations, privilege, or competence named “poetry”–the vocation to “poetic work”–implies or promises. Above all, what knowledge it contributes. Nor shall I answer that question to my own satisfaction. But the tendency of my thought is to consider the term “poetry,” as it is now employed, as a meaning “sanctioned making.” That is to say: “poetry” is now a mystified term. And the mystification of the term is demanded by the social necessity (peculiar to our cultural moment) of concealing the violence of representation as such: eidetic violence. (p. 154)

This re-emphasis on “eidetic violence,” something which concerns the capacity for poetry or the “poetic institution” to properly represent the diverse members of the polis and give them a kind of ontological legitimacy. Is a somewhat frustrating ontologization of the real political and economic problem of the social recognition and support of the arts and artists. It is a thetic or transcendentalized mixture of the usual question of “opening up” the arts to the real national demographic situation, e.g., how many artists are women, black, foreign, left-wing, homosexual, so that a few typically “othered” members of society can be set in the pantheon of great artists. How this is to be done with rapidly diminishing to non-existent public funding and in an increasingly elitist and financialized art-world… not to speak of the degraded state of the humanities in the university is, to make an enormous understatement, already difficult enough without Grossman’s theoreticism and mysticism. However, this question does become more material relative Grossman’s consideration of the poetic vocation and its “urgency.”

The cure of the [poetic] vocation requires, as I have said, provision of the regulative effect of an institution not poetic that the poem undertakes to state–in fact, to supply. But can a poem do that? In any case. the urgency of this poem [T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock] expresses the intent to do so. The speaker in the poem speaks in a tone of urgent purposiveness and expresses his anxiety about the generality, the shared intelligibility of his experience, which must be communicated and may be impossible to communicate. (p. 155)

While Grossman is not tremendously clear about what a poetic institution is, it is somewhat clear that it is both constituted by and regulative of poetry itself. The drive towards discovering and solving “hard problems” with poetry is fueled by this anxiety regarding the generic intelligibility of language and the generality of experience. A poetic institution then is perhaps the index of these problems.

In “creative writing classes” (Grossman’s use of scare quotes not mine) only issues of aesthetics and style are considered while “poetic anxiety,” like the philosopher’s is rarely regarded and certainly not transferred. To be grossly psychoanalytic, the poet seems motivated to contribute to and solve these hard problems since they effectively transfer onto the “poetic institution” as a way of rationalizing their personal problems and potentially solving them. This would be an example of poetry’s seductive “sufficiency” and conceptualizing potency: its capacity to universalize [the suffering of] the poet by endowing them with a historical or historicized and therefore “eternal” and “thetic” significance. This is coupled with a [hallucinatory/hallucinated] promise to somehow solve them: “The poem conducts us (permits us to think our way through) from tragic logic (Aristotle) to the other comic logic of inclusion, the logic of ecstasy” (p. 156). A potent cocktail, this is the cure of “poetic vocation.”

Allen Grossman and the principle of (in)sufficient poetry

A particularly anti-philosophical friend of mine (but in an unusual manner–which I will reveal in a second) gave me a copy of Allen Grossman’s book True-Love: Essays on Poetry and Valuing which has as very aggressive anti-philosophical streak. Professor Grossman has recently died evidently, so it is an inopportune time to write such an irreverent tidbit on him. However, I feel that his book addresses the anti-philosophical aspects of non-philosophy from a literary and aesthetic perspective. I also suppose that critique is not a totally bad form of flattery since I didn’t just decide to ignore the bastard and let his death and work go totally unnoticed.

Granted, this isn’t exactly my style and I find it indulgent and inflationary. I much I prefer non-philosophy to be “assisted” by psychoanalysis, economics or the philosophy of science–harder stuff. Further, it seems apparent that the potency of non-philosophical writing and effectuations can be weakened by overuse and overexposure. I also have found that it is sometimes simply not fair to mobilize the arsenal of non-philosophy against something like poetry since no field or practice is in anyway sufficient and poetry is in someways particularly vulnerable to the critique that it isn’t “rigorous” or that it can’t “think itself.” However, I think this is a hazard of speaking from the “institution” of poetry, a gamble that Grossman clearly takes. In this regard, by “taking the helm” of poetry as its authoritative institutional representative–like Badiou does for philosophy itself–he risks and indeed actually lapses into philosophical maneuvering. His philosophical pretense, well beyond a simple defense, is to assert the authority and superiority of poetry over philosophy.

Finally, before this gets underway, it is worthwhile to admit a lack of familiarity with poetry and a recognition that poetic writing is meant to do something else entirely than philosophy, I view it as something like one of Agamben’s broken or inoperative/inoperatizing tools. Further, its lack of a specific use or “institutional” mission makes it distinct from philosophy while traversing much of the same conceptual territory, e.g. somewhere (I wonder if it was in Badiou’s Conditions, although it might actually have been my Hegel professor Alfredo Ferrarin that made this comparison or maybe Iain Hamilton Grant’s Philosophies of Nature after Schelling) someone said that Lucretius and his Nature of Things was the great precursor to philosophical materialism and tows the line between philosophy, poetry, and a kind of “science-fiction” by issuing forth arguments, explanations, and descriptions but in the form of poetic prose. I’ll develop this more as this goes on.

So what is the basic maneuver of this text? Initially, Grossman produces–with a potent literary strategy and effective critical tone–a kind of humanist non-phenomenology of poetry and literature which initially functions as a foil to philosophy. Secondarily, it is to establish poetry and poetic knowledge as a sufficient by itself in lieu of philosophy (and presumably any other “authoritarian” epistemic domain or discursive regime). I appreciate this maneuver since a deconstructionist sensibility (see p. xvi-ii on literary or deconstructionist writing) would also assert this sufficiency insofar as literature and poetry need no assistance from philosophy or hermeneutic procedures to “unearth” a (presumably univocal) signification (see also The Post Card and Derrida’s comments on how literature already analyses itself). The product of the usual philosophical procedure (its “intervention” into literature) is to convert literature into a series of philosophical propositions, maxims, or “life lessons,” which–besides being mind-numbingly inane–deprives literature of its “richness” and inevitably more mysterious aesthetic dimension. Agreed. However, why assert the superiority of literature over philosophy in this regard? Isn’t the celebrated and characteristic atmosphere of freewheeling ungrounded aesthetic play in (post)(modern) literature a product of its abandonment of any and all authority? The point of poetic and literary license, I thought, (à la the Nietzschean “affirmational” element of Derrida’s argument in “Structure, Sign, Play”  see p. 369) is to irresponsibly effectuate knowledge as a savoir faire or “worldly knowledge” without a systematic or rigorous epistemology. Rather–and the operative post-structuralist term here is “autopoetic,” it is a spontaneous generation of concepts, ontologies, and epistemologies without any notion of “ground.”

Poetry, and here Grossman is on to something, is inconsistent by its principle and not obliged to be “true” in any satisfiably philosophical sense. This Real dimension of poetry and literature grants them a relative autonomy and a provisional capacity to produce “truths” by a procedure of an iterated modeling and expansion of identifiable thematic of (arche)typical (arche- in the sense of “arche-writing“) humans, objects, terms and concepts (e.g. love insofar as it is represented by a given love poem or is thematically found in a given poem). Poems or whatever, although here we can also include any genre of writing insofar as it presents itself as “art,” effectuate a regional, provisional and highly variegated truth, which is to say, more rigorously, they produce material and have a radical immanence. This material, to the deconstructionists’ chagrin, is inevitably theoretically and philosophically exploited; to wit, universalized, sutured to planified philosophical systems, and otherwise subordinated to the “desire of the theorist” which is disingenuously presented as a “discovery.” The theorist here is a philosophical dirigiste, crony, or ideologue–the type of character who pissed off Derrida by believing they could regulate the “play of the sign.”

It is precisely here, after this relatively effective and persuasive critique, that Grossman succumbs to various unfortunate philosophical pretensions and mauvaise habitudes the foremost of which is the placement of poetic knowledge prior to philosophical knowledge as the more proper and authentic representation of truth, a maneuver which demonstrates a continued mystification and seduction by philosophy–least not indicated by his immensely tight in-text citation of all the usual suspects, i.e., Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel, etc.–since this assertion of priority is a… no the philosophical maneuver par excellence. We have here the simple replacement of poetry with philosophy in an needless competition which presents itself as a hysterically masculine epistemological dick measuring contest.

In other words, the central claim is that poetry does knowledge better… however, the force-(of)-thought behind this claim is given its inertia by a variegated and somewhat esoteric philosophical scaffolding furnished with all the usual tricks and “philosophemes,” e.g., his practice of philosophically or dialectically differentiating and opposing terms to give them a kind of formal or causal systematicity (unilateral duality) based on decisional or auto-positional presentations of philosophically or onto-poetically “over-determined” words (e.g. truth, knowledge, love, desire, and death). For example, apropos his term “true-love” he states (I’ll try to keep citation light to medium):

Within the borderlessness of the language of love, I have chosen the term “true-love,” the crossing of knowledge (truth) and acknowledgement (love), the identity of contradictories both of which are maximal terms freighted not only with explicit value but, when conjoined with the intention of the highest value. Needless to say, the identity or equality of contradictories violates possibility in a world subject to the Aristotelian Laws of Thought. Power is brought to bear in the production of the tertium quidTrue-love intends an action that somehow authorizes the valid predication of truth upon love. And this “somehow” seems to cover over a counterlogical principle such as Kierkegaard’s “either/or” (concordia discors), neither religious nor philosophical–the poetic principle. (p. 16)

The various arguments that constitute the “assembled validity” (in the sense of the aggregate modes of adducing and validating its referend as real proffered by the author that function as an assemblage which directs its signification with relative consistency) or conceptual infrastructure of this term are operatized by his tight citation but minimal explanation of poetry as a persuasive strategy. This strategy of not explaining can be effective non-philosophically; however, in this instance it is simply manipulative. We also can see a bizarre and uncharacteristic envy of style or method (it is usually the other way around) in his auto-positional presentation of textual and terminological genealogies very much in the mode of the recent(ish) post-structuralist French anti-philosophers influenced by Nietzsche. (It may be that he took for granted their claim that intra-philosophical hermeneutic practices like archaeology and deconstruction were genuinely anti-philosophical and scientific.

The insinuations of the quote on p. 16 are essentially anti-philosophical via a kind of oblique Derridean (language is boundless) or Levi-Straussian (myth also resolves contradictions) reference. However, his term “true-love” he is not content to let sit as an undecided or underdetermined anti-philosophical term. It is used in a dirigiste manner to coordinate an argument and series of specific claims about what poetry can do–what type of knowledge it provides that philosophy can’t–for the sake of asserting poetry’s sufficiency, authority, and superiority to philosophy. For instance, under the name of poetry and by its (philological? etymological?) methods, he undertakes a genealogical analysis of his concept “true-love”:

The “true-love” I am studying has two genealogies, one demotic (the love knot, like a four-leaf clover, that everyone in the sixteenth century knew how to tie), and the other an esoteric transformation of the true-love knot, commonly figured as the Seal of Soloman (pentangle). The first stems from Anglo-Saxon feudality. “True-love” is a Germanic expression “(as still in der Leibesknoten) This true-love (AS treowlufu) implies in the first instance the truth/troth of contract (both social and cosmic on the comos/polis glechnis) respecting the relationship of persons. […] This contract between unlike parties stipulating likeness (the logic of power within power) bears, like biblical covenant, upon the fundamental intelligibility of the world as personal other. […]

The second genealogy of the true-love I am studying (the Seal of Solomon, esoteric version of the true-love knot that anyone could tie) implies the love of truth (objective genitive as in philosophia), not Germanic but Greco-roman, indeed Platonic–as Foucault found it (The Use of Pleasure, part. 5, “True Love”), intending not the sufficient conditions of contract, but cognitive/amative unity with the real, that is to say, knowledge. […] In both cases, the production of value is a dependence of the sacrificial model. (pp. 33-4)

What to make of this genealogy? Grossman’s reference to his ominous sounding “ongoing studies” is for the sake of an anti-philosophical maneuver of subordinating philosophy to the exigences of “true-love” which thereby makes it available (philosophizable, decidable) as an object of “poetic” study… a study that has evidently already netted a positive gain; namely, a historical/sociological insight into the logic of symbolic exchange (extricated from the demotic [ordinary] language feudal society) which already and separately (what a coincidence!) implied an Oedipus styled privative psychoanalytic linguistic pact which, for Grossman, renders the world intelligible in accordance to an instrumental or valuational logic (the “logic of the signifier” perhaps?). This discovery by his “studies” testify to the sufficiency and authority of poetry, presumably without which we would have never gained this (profound) insight. Poetry, “without mediation” and by its “artisanal boasting,” he states on the same page, illustrates the “Horatian logic [see particularly his themes and odes] in which human value is produced by human sacrifice–no middle term.” Poetry, in other words, more simplistically and perhaps more efficiently than philosophy, can attain knowledge without a hefty formal or ontological apparatus and without succumbing to the regulatory logic it indicates as its referent–it only cleanly and aesthetically reiterates and reflects or represents its objects without ontological commitment. We can politely admit that he might have a point here in terms the effectuations of poetry which can hallucinate or insinuate this type of access by its fictive power. But Grossman admits this transitive and ontological use of poetry is impossible (see below). So how poetry can “do all this and more!” namely, retain its ludic groundless play and be a “first philosophy” is unclear. However, for this and presumably many other other excellent reasons, he proudly claims that

[T]he poet’s authority is superior to the philosopher’s precisely because the poet can assign significance to a larger range of experience than can the philosopher. The will to power is a way of pointing to highest value, and the name of that value in the twentieth century is existence. The advantage of poetic authority is the poet’s confidence with respect to appearances (Steven’s confiance au monde) or the existence of what is seen to exist. This primacy of existence-experience (a revaluation or transvaluating–Umwertung–of the phenomenal by contrast to noumenal). (p. 36).

The misstep, which is not strictly speaking an error but is a misstep insofar as it plunges us back into philosophy is not to assert that this is true, –it might be at times or regionally or for some of us however this is not a generic or generalizable truth–but rather to find any significance in it. That is to say, to use his affective preference for poetry’s confidence, the poet’s apparent “passion for the real,” and poetry’s knowledge (whatever that is), to assert, as we said, its superiority (meh) and priority (very meh) over philosophy.

Thus, he indulges in a kind of paradoxical philosophical window dressing which heroically presents poetry as 1. an “assurance” of normative realism (see also this article) and therefore 2. a kind of sociological-hermeneutic practice which functions as authoritative testimony about term x, y, or z and 3. a form of critique. The last is not so absurd, the instances of poetic critiques are numerous and even occasionally politically effective.The other two in combination with the third, however, is asking for too much of poetry and are possibly not even desirable.

Apropos the first he states:

Realism because the poetic principle restates appearance, confident that there is something real that is like what is experienced. Normative because the poem is always built upon a double system of signifiers. To put it another way, the poem is always a discourse of one kind (existence discourse) about or intending and deferring a discourse of another kind (a true-love discourse). (p. 36).

There is something obscure here. “Double system of signifiers” could refer to Saussure’s notion of “double articulation” and the dual nature of the sign (comprised of signifier and signified); a structure which allows for a system of signs to emerge from both elements of the sign (whereby the signified functions as a signifier in its own system of signs–this composition causes the famed instability of the sign via the proliferation of its syntagmatic or associative relations of its component parts). I address this in my not objectively bad essay on Saussure’s economic metaphor. How this in any way normative is uncertain since any regulating or normative principle produced by la langue or a system of signs is totally provisional and arbitrary by its disruptive syntagmatic/synchronic and diachronic movement. Meanwhile to distance this “system” as a manifest or “existence” discourse on the side of realism that “intends and defers” another unconscious or “deferred” discourse on the side of normativity (true-love discourse) is somewhat arbitrary: here we have the classical philosophical distancing of appearance from essence. How normative realism is not within in the scope of generic philosophy or is a challenger to philosophy in general is not developed by Grossman. Suffice it to say, the claim that poetry might assist normative realism is not unfounded, however, this does nothing to grant poetry its own sufficiency or authority over any other field or practice.

In regards to 2, he states:

[I]f I am to affirm poetic text as a context authoritative in the matter of “true-love,” than I must concern myself with the authority of poetry as witness to the term in question. In brief, “true-love” or the infallible discovery of the unmistakable object of love–the truth of love and also the love of truth–is among the recurrent idealization of civilization. It is also a very constant subject of poetry and mingles itself with the most fundamental questions of relationship, representation, intentional consciousness, and valuation. (p. 20)

and later:

All representations of true-love are interrogative because true-love arises at crisis of social knowledge (cf. Plotinus), which ironically specify the difference between heresy and orthodoxy (i.e. between the truth of the particular and the truth and the truth of the general, child and parent, knowing and not knowing)–difference that always involves a betrayal. One such historical crisis was the English Reformation to which twentieth-century poetic modernism owes the structure of its discourse–consciousness as revision (cf. “repentance” in Crane’s “Legend”) and the de-commodification of the highest value. The authority of true-love, as of poetry is always […] a generative contingency–both origin and consequent presence–of institutions that true-love founds and that then bear it as an alien logic across time. (Indeed, it cannot be stressed too emphatically that neither love nor poetry are, strictly speaking, institutions.) Institutions such as church, state, nature, law, two-factored logic, et cetera, supply the historical object of value that true-love (subject) consciousness intends. (p. 24-5)

I believe here that poetry–insofar as it is useful in the usual respectable manner–can give an insight into history by reflecting (within reason) relatively generalizable sentiments about certain material conditions or events. To denounce the use of poetry in this regard is to denounce the study of history via texts, which I do not think is prudent. Indeed, the philological, historical materialist and archaeological use of texts to gain sociological insights about certain time periods I do not view as a bankrupt process insofar as it admits its own insufficiency and makes sufficient use of “assistant” methods like political economic, forensic and statistical analysis. Non-philosophically, the use of poetry for a philo-fiction or uchronic writing in the name of Laruelle’s non-philosophical rumblings and effectuations could be seen as a desirable. Indeed, I think that Grossman is effectively producing an anti-philosophical philo-fiction (in a “not non-philosophical” and somewhat pejorative sense) that insinuates various philosophies that exhibit a “passion for the real,” e.g. any sort of non or only partially discursive realism/materialism or, in its best form, object oriented ontology and speculative realism.

Indeed, it is necessary to note several places where Grossman expresses what I consider anti-philosophy boarding on non-philosophical thought. In part VIII he proffers a number of somewhat attractive ideas.

It is evident that poetry share with all speech that is language-like an incompetence with respect to consummatory states of experience. All indicators of temporality–including the present tense–signify distance from the origin of experience. (p. 34).

The imperatives therefore of love (both to the search for true-love experience and its deferral) confront the poet with complex requirements of contradictory kinds–the fundamental transgressive logic that finds the future of the poet’s work (definitive of its structure–true-love) in problematic relation to any outcome that can be rationally chosen in the light of and defensible meaning of love or of truth. (p. 35)

The claim I wish to make is that the structures in which poetry is realized as poems are authoritative, and recognized as such by philosophers (hence the “quarrel”) precisely because they preserve and affirm logically contradictory propositions, by contrast to the structures in which philosophy is realized as text subject to the constraints of logic (the Aristotelian Laws of Thought) known to be necessary but without truth. (pp. 35-6)

Finally, he says rather simply that poetry does not reach to the real (p. 34). These illustrate what might be called a “Principle of (In)sufficient Poetry.” It will take some time to translate some of this into non-philosophical parlance and this I view as not a particularly fruitful project. However, some “translations” and “conjugations” of Grossman’s concepts come to mind.

  1. the “underdetermination” of love or “true-love” from a rigorous term into an occasion for poetry.
  2. the divestment of the humanist or “moral” economy of poetry as a practice of the representation and “archiving” of the world.
  3. the re-characterization of poetry and its “terms” as a form of unitary “onto-fiction,” not-philosophical testimony, or archival text into a holographically onto-vectorial and non-decided “artifact” or “fossil” (not quite Meillessoux’s arche-fossil since it is coextensive with human existence but which serves a similar purpose) which can furnish non-philosophy with partially “cloned” or “dualized” material.
  4. this poetic material would then function as an “art-thought” or “art-fiction” (apropos Laruelle’s book Photo-fiction, non-standard aesthetics), i.e., an occasion, an instance of conceptual modeling, world-building, experimentation, and a contingent Vision-in-One which can be mobilized for a multitude of non-philosophical effectuations.
  5. giving Grossman’s conception of “truth without mediation” a more Deleuzian “radial immanence” flare might also serve to undo some of its philosophical aspirations.
  6. moving poetry closer to the side of art and away from philosophy or esoteric philosophical pretentions (Grossman’s moral economy of poetics and its burden of just poetic representation).
  7. just ditching normative realism and giving Grossman’s principle of (in)sufficient poetry a more non-philosophical anti-humanist characterisation. I think here deconstruction, especially the kind espoused by Derrida in Dissemination, is a useful assistant.

I’ll expand this as I think of more ideas.