Archive for the ‘Non-philosophy’ Category

A theologian and a materialist walked into a barred nature…

June 11, 2010

Having just had to take a couple of longish bus journeys, I got the chance to listen to two audio lectures by two provocative but very different thinkers. The first was Adrian Johnston’s paper read at the Real Objects or Material Subjects conference and the other was Anthony Paul Smith’s paper ‘Nature is not’, where and when it was given I don’t know. It was pure chance that I listened to these side by side but they were essentially a response to each other.

Adrian was arguing against Zizek’s appropriation of theological language in his Janus-faced like stance in both hypostasizing death drive as a supplementary third level of reality over and above a barred nature (or weak/incomplete nature) and culture (the barred symbolic), and also rejecting this hypostasis by defining death drive as the negativity of the pleasure principle’s disruptive malfunctioning, its inability to assert it’s intrapsychical hegemonic dominance. Death drive is that monstrous thing that opens the space for freedom, which is not natural freedom a la Kant, but a non-natural compulsion that needs mastering: human freedom is in nature more than nature itself (nature is auto-negating of its own dictates). It is the mastering of death drive that produces culture which retroactively transforms its own nature (this is essentially the Zizekian reading of Hegelian totality).

Adrian wanted to re-assert and remind Zizek of his proper materialist materialism and to encourage the understanding of neuro-plasticity favourable to brain science research (rather than considering them antagonistic to each other). Adrian brings Zizek’s ontology of the monstrous partial subject in line with contemporary scientific work concerning the brain as ‘kludge’ – a work around, ‘quick and dirty’ solution to a problem – something that just about works, but is by no means perfect, and is confident of neuroscience / dialectical materialism hybrid as attempted in his recent and continuing work with Catherine Malabou.

When Adrian’s lecture has finished I fired up Anthony’s lecture focused upon the axiom ‘nature is not reducible to matter or to the idea of matter’. Essentially, he is replying to the calls of Zizek and Badiou to get rid of nature to be replaced with an ‘ecology without nature’. This is also seen in the work of Latour, but I feel, should be separate from Zizek as he has made it clear he disagrees with Latour’s notion of ‘we have never been modern’. To Anthony, these philosopher’s claim ‘the earth is just a mite in the eye of the universe’, which I feel is note quite what these philosophers have in mind but is a strong rhetorical statement that tallies with the notion of death drive as some kind of irritant of nature. Although Anthony’s lecture wasn’t that long or detailed, it’s call was for one of non-Decision as to nature, rather than a decision on immanence or transcendence.

One of the more interesting aspects of the recording of Adrian’s paper was the quasi-voyeuristic and accidental recoding of the conversation after the paper between Adrian and John Mullarkey. The conversation concerns animality and notions of the human. John, a die-hard vegetarian (and on a side note, I think looks like the bad guy from Die Hard 2), asks Adrian why does one need to be a humanist to be a materialist, as this drags along the baggage of human exceptionalism rather than, as John advocates, degrees of difference? Adrian says that language generates qualities of the brain that we don’t see elsewhere, to which John counters, that is in danger of reinvesting ideological baggage (almost theological) into a materialist humanism. John introduces the need for a generic humanity rather than an ideological one, to which Adrian responds favourably. The notion of a generic humanity is clearly John’s Laruellian influence shining through, as in the paper ‘Principles of a generic ethics’ Laruelle sets out an ethics of the ‘generic human’ based upon the thinking the human-in-the-last-instance according to the Real – as the human does not think towards the Real but is always already within the Real in its immanence, not delivered over from it from a Neoplatonic source.

This notion of a ‘generic humanity’ ties in with the direction of Anthony’s project of a non-theological critical piety, where a Decision qua Real as immanence or transcendence has not been made. This opens up the practise of a speculative philosophy of religion that absorbs Meillassoux’s criticisms of contemporary fidism with a renewed sense of reason. I am keen to not only read these works of non-philosophy infused meditations on religion but also John’s next book, which he told me will be based on a non-philosophy reading of theories of animality, which should be a serious questioning of the exceptionalism he sees in Lacanian infused negative ontologies (which, to me, seem to be reworking of the old Heideggerian worldless-worldpoor-worlded tripartite hierarchical separation of essences). Either way, the non-philosophy approach will be at the forefront of my mind while reading The Monstrosity of Christ over the next few days (as Milbank seemed enthusiast but quite hostile to non-philosophy at the Laruelle conference in Nottingham, and Zizek, I think, is yet to mention it at all).