Recently, on the non-buddhist forum, Glenn Wallis asked for suggestions for non-buddhist “first names”, quoting from Laruelle’s definition of the term in Future Christ:
Fundamental terms which symbolize the Real and its modes according to its radical immanence or its identity. They are deprived of their philosophical sense and become, via axiomatized abstraction, the terms – axioms and theorems – of non-philosophy. (Laruelle, 2010, xxvi)
I have been trying for a while to come to terms with the difficulty of Laruelle’s thought. This effort recently intensified after someone made me a present of three tomes on/by Laruelle. So I was primed to respond to Glenn’s call. But I began to doubt my ability to contribute – not because of lack of time or motivation, but because of the nature of non-philosophical thought and the effort it takes to understand and apply it. As he admitted, his own students, all of whom were equipped with MA’s and PhD’s, were not up to the task. The best attitude, no doubt, and one loyal to the spirit of Laruelles thought, is an attitude of experiment and creativity not overawed by the complexity or seeming impenetrability of the texts.
Be that as it may, his call got me thinking about non-philosophical thought and something paradoxical about its means and its ends.
What’s the relation between non-philosophy, philosophy, and what we could call ordinary thinking? Can a non-philosopher (someone unacquainted with the history, procedures and theories of philosophy) do non-philosophy? On a superficial reading it might seem that it is possible to side-step the difficulties of philosophy (its complexity, proliferation of ideas, opposing camps, obscurantism, abstraction, specialization – what the ordinary man calls its difficulty). It might seem that non-philosophy is a blow on behalf of the common man against the monolithic and impenetrable obfuscations of philosophical thought. Well, it is, but not in any ordinary way.
A superficial reading of non-philosophical ideas, perhaps from second or third sources, might make you believe that an intuitive stab at non-philosophical thought will get you by. You will come across terms – the Real, the ordinary, the human of flesh and blood, the minimally transcendent, vision-in-One, Determination-in-the-last-instance – which might seem to imply a thought that is more accessible, nearer to the bone, stripped of its philosophical complications, decimated (cf. Wallis, 2013, 94). But a decimated thought is not a simplified thought, a more accessible thought. It’s not a concession to those untrained in philosophical thought. To use a non-buddhist example, the thought of Bodhi as, in its decimated form, the person of flesh and blood, is philosophical thought shorn of its transcendent presumptions. In its place stands a thought that represents the One, or the Real, in a way that is minimally transcendent – it contains only that amount of transcendence necessary to the workings of thought as requiring a transcendental object known to a thinking subject.
We are, according to non-philosophy, a priori, the One, the Real – but as soon as we represent the One, even in its minimally transcendent form (shorn of philosophical transcendence), we involve ourselves in proliferation (thinking) and all that implies – abstraction, complexity – everything that the division of labor of thought (specialization) tries to overcome by parceling out elements of the task of thinking among specialists – the academic practice of philosophy. Non-philosophical practice happens within this philosophical system of specializations and within the actual structures of the academy, for the most part, not outside it. The ‘outside’ posited by non-philosophy as the ‘Real’ is a state or condition prior to all thought of that state – but that prior state of the ‘Real’ is not spontaneously ‘reflected’ in thought. This is the great illusion of, for example, x-buddhist thought – thinking, thought, mind, awareness, as the passive mirroring of the Real, over and against philosophical thought as a labour of thought that tries to capture the Real. Non-philosophy is neither of these, and yet it does require the accumulated knowledge of philosophy to function, since it is a performative practice on the material of philosophy.
Non-Philosophy makes thought usable to the human of flesh and blood. But this human of flesh and blood is not the human reduced to its historically determined immediacy – to you and me as flesh and blood persons in the particular social, physical and psychological state in which we find ourselves. Non-Philosophy does not directly address this person. It posits the a priori ‘real of the human’ foreclosed to thought and only referenced by non-philosophy as an axiomatic first name – as Laruelle says above, a term that symbolizes the Real in the last instance. In other words the non-philosophical human of flesh and blood feels no pain and doesn’t bleed, in fact it is without any qualities at all in relation to the appropriating philosophical gaze.
This is because non-philosophy has nothing whatsoever to say about the human as real. Non-philosophy is a work on the material of philosophy. It shows the purely decisional nature of the philosophic appropriation of the human real as this or that philosophically determined being. It frees the human that does feel pain and does bleed from the hegemonic denigration of philosophical capture, and establishes the human of flesh and blood as a first name, an axiomatic term in a constitution of terms.
The human posited by non-philosophy is a thought pushed to a state of severe abstraction – a generic thought of the Real, and not a thought of the generic real. Such a thought (the generic real) is an impossibility, and is in fact the thought of the philosophical real as “being“. As Laruelle uses the term, being denotes philosophy’s hallucination of the human – its use of the “raw material” of sociology, anthropology and psychology, in its project of capture. This hallucinated being is an admixture of the immanent in the form of the qualities identified as typically human (biological, social, psychological, etc) and the synthesizing unity bestowed on these categories by philosophy as transcendent arbitrator of the Real. This is what it is to be human. So says Philosophy.
Laruelle arrives at the thought of human of flesh and blood by way of a rigorous philosophical abstraction exclusive in its means (exclusive, for the most part, to the academy, or at least to the academic) and democratic in its outcome – a leveling of the ontological ‘value’ of forms of thought in relation to to each other against the horizon of the Real. From the Real, non-philosophy speaks of the Real as a thought-in-the-last-instance, a thought drained of the excess of transcendence. It rigorously abstracts to put an end to abstraction; to put an end to endless iterations of the human imposed on the living by the dead – the already calcified remains of Philosophical excess.
What we describe here are the structures of the ordinary man. Structures that are individual, invisible in the light of reason or intelligence. These are not ideal essences, but finite, inalienable (and consequently irrecusable) lived experiences. (François Laruelle, From Decision to Heresy, back cover.)
The upshot is that non-philosophical thought pushes beyond philosophical thought to a more rigorously abstract thought to arrive at a minimally transcendent thought, or a Vision-in-One of the Real. There is no escape from the rigors of philosophical thought, only from its presumptions to wholly capture the Real. Does that put it beyond the ken of the ordinary (unspecialized) reader?
Strangely, perhaps, the very simplicity and directedness of this mode of thinking which is ultimately for us here in the world necessitates stringent conceptual labours. At any rate by emphasizing at the start the unavoidability of technical and conceptual sophistication for elaborating non-philosophy’s relation to ordinary experience, we will avoid any possible equation of the real human ordinary with a vulgarism or an anti–philosophy. (Gangle, 2012 , 62; my emphasis)
A technically and conceptually sophisticated text does indeed follow this quote, emphasizing the abstract nature of the non-philosophical project in the way the term ordinary life ends up referring not to our ordinary life but to the examination of two philosophical texts – Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology and Ryle’s The Concept of the Mind. You will need a solid grounding in contemporary philosophy, if not specialist training in phenomenology and linguistics, to understand these texts, which reference ordinary life only obliquely.
Here’s an example of the difficulty we face, from Laruelle’s preface to the dictionary of non-philosophy:
[···] Non-philosophy’s vocabulary is mainly that of philosophy, but each term is constantly reworked in its sense, in its figure and sometimes in its signifier. This language is taken from anywhere in the tradition [...]. Non-philosophy is not bound up to a particular tradition, for it is a theory and a pragmatics of every philosophy, whether actual or possible, past or to come. Hence the effect of overdetermination, a wide variety of languages required and a fluidity of “language games” […]. (Laruelle, 2013, 20; my emphasis)
Are we, then, necessarily beholden to the Philosopher and to the Academy? The answer seems to be yes, but this is, of course, true of all revolutionary thought, including the spontaneous forms of thought (what might be called local or indigenous thought) engendered by specific concentrations of social humanity – the classic example being the concentration of workers in large factory spaces and collective articulation of a series of demands (trade union consciousness) and complex forms of proto-communist thought and expression. The academy’s historical colonization of the thought of this western sub-culture of the factory space is as real as its colonization of the cultures and geographical spaces of Africa, the Americas or Asia.
This priestly caste, as it founds the church of modernity, is instantly and integrally involved in founding a broader colonial division of labour. These new priests conjure up the traditional/modern divide by the use of history – differentiating old and new European Western societies – and by the use of anthropology (later, sociology too), by differentiating the colonized from the colonized. The living knowledge traditions of the colonized are pronounced dead on arrival in the present. And their cosmologies, philosophies, social practices – are entombed into opaque “cultures” the contents of which can only be clearly illuminated by the keepers of the flame. (Shilliam, 2013, web)
This is exactly the subjugation Laruelle has in his sights (he calls it denigration) when he describes how non-philosophy opposes “the ordinary man” as first name :
[...] To the philosophical android or anthropoid – that is to say the homo ex machina, a part of the philosophical machine, of Being, of Desire, of the State, of Language, etc. Man, in his real essence, is not visible within the horizon of these presuppositions [...]. (Laruelle, 2012, 44)
Its worth quoting Shilliam at length to get a flavour of how the academy goes about its work of intellectual appropriation and subjugation:
But the priestly caste prefers to fuels its flame by utilizing an epistemic division between knowledge production and knowledge cultivation. [...] Using the Latin roots of these words, we could say that to produce knowledge is to lengthen, prolong or extend, whereas to cultivate knowledge is to till, to turn matter around and fold back on itself so as to encourage growth. Knowledge production is less a creative endeavour and more a process of accumulation and imperial extension disguised as “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”. […] In this colonial division of knowledge, the priestly caste, as knowers, allow themselves to cultivate their own living traditions and extend them productively into the future. Hence, as the knowers, they gift themselves the privilege of being cultivators (to themselves) and producers (for all others), just as they are also traditional and modern. The priestly caste projects its knowledge tradition across historical and spatial trajectories away from a European genus in the form of a straight line. Recipients are not considered co-creative or self-determining in this intellectual process. They must merely receive and consume produced ideas, and extend them. The colonized and their descendents, as the known, must always be catching up with someone else’s production line. (Shilliam, 2013, web)
Are we, then, unavoidably in thrall to a division of intellectual and physical labour imposed on us by the mode of social relations of capitalism, a mode of relations conditioned on economic structures of exclusion (ownership) and power (the state as guarantor of existing relations). Or can we, outside of the academy, (outside of bourgeois specialization) hope to do non-philosophy. Is that a realistic option?
This, no doubt, has to do with the age old discussion about the relation between Marxism and Philosophy, between revolutionary activism and intellectual work. It touches on Buddhist thought too, bringing to mind the Buddhist exhortations against conceptual proliferation, the thicket of thoughts, and the superiority of moments and methodologies of direct seeing.
At any rate we are left with a mind-boggling paradox. Non-philosophy’s project to arrive at the thought of the Human Real as inalienable must proceed by way of a torturous abstraction of thought that, in its exclusivity, rests upon a division of labour (the academy) and its products (the material of philosophy) whose primary function is to replicate oppressive social relations of ownership, power, and inequality.
What is to be done? Shilliam has a practical suggestion, although I think such gestures, even on a group basis (although it would be a great start) are ineffective except in the context of a mass movement for radical change:
[...] You would need to commit apostacy, disavow the colonial episteme, extinguish the flame of modern revelation, shake free the thin line of the white West’s (co-opted) prophets and (even if just occasionally) stand at the crossroads rather than sit in the agora. You would have to find your other community or communities once again, take part in their redemption, and cash in your privilege wisely. You would have to publically affirm that impossible and ungovernable communities exist, as do their living knowledge traditions, and that the problematique of representation is a deferral strategy for a democratization of dialogue with these communities. If you did this – if we did this as a critical mass – it would precipitate the end of the Western Academy. Our job specs would change, perhaps for the better. (Shilliam, 2013, web)
Shilliam offers a challenge that proposes a practical as much as a theoretical decimation of hegemonic philosophical discourse. It is the corollary in action of Laruelle’s determined abstraction. The more I read Laruelle the more convinced I am of the radicalism of his thought. It insists on the unassailable essence of the human; its always already foreclosed status and its apriori victory over the appropriating grasp of all forms of systematized thought – the human as inalienable (and consequently irrecusable) lived experiences. In this it has an uncanny resemblance to the more radical formulations (or un-formulations) of Buddhist thought, such as Dzogchen. It peruses the practice of this radical perspective, though, via thought, and that, despite Buddhist claims to the contrary, is its strength. So my last word on Laruelle, for now, is that, despite the difficulties, and despite the inevitable reliance on dubious academic structures and process of knowledge production, his thought is a magnificent, if unwieldy, weapon of liberation, personal and collective. It would not be amiss to devote ones energies to the ‘strenuous conceptual labours’ which seem to be the lot of anyone who wishes to overcome its daunting impenetrability.
Glenn Wallis, Speculative Non-Buddhism: X-Buddhist Hallucination and its Decimation. In Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice by Wallis, Pepper, Steingass; 2013.
Rocco Gangle, Laruelle and ordinary life. In Laruelle and non-philosophy, ed. by John Mullarkey and Anthony Paul Smith, 2012.
François Laruelle, Future Christ, 2010.
François Laruelle, From Decision to Heresy, 2012.
François Laruelle, Dictionary of Non-Philosophy, 2013.
Robbie Shilliam, Living Knowledge Traditions and the Priestly Caste, 2013, retrieved 05-22-2014.