Monday, August 09, 2010

Roy Bhaskar, Stengers, Haraway, Hayles, Luhmann, Protevi, and Toscano

Are we restricted to Derrida, Deleuze, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Husserl, Levinas, Lacan, etc., or are we able to treat thinkers like Lewontin, Oyama, Stephen J. Gould, Luhmann, and so on as key thinkers.
An interesting feature of speculative realism and other new trends in philosophy is that they all propose a new canon. While Badiou is not a speculative realist, we nonetheless see him proposing to treat Cantor and Sartre’s later thought (largely ignored and passe today) as key references. Graham recommends Zubiri, Gasset, Latour, and Suarez as key points of reference. Meillassoux resurrects Hume (never popular or revered in continental circles outside of Deleuzians). Brassier champions the Churchlands and Laruelle. Morton makes Darwin a key point of reference. Bogost draws attention to thinkers like McLuhan and Wolfram. I hope to have made some small contribution by introducing Roy Bhaskar, Stengers, Haraway, Hayles, Luhmann, the developmental systems theorists (along with Protevi and Toscano), and a number of biological theorists. Changes in the canon are also changes in patterns of thought and in what it is possible to say and think.

Additionally, it’s my view that a number of Continental texts are designed as labyrinths such that they are rhetorically put together in precisely such a way as to trap the reader and provide no means of moving on. A good deal of Hegel is like this. Derrida is certainly like this. Lacan is like this. Much of Luhmann is like this. Deleuze is like this. (Note that I’ve cited four thinkers here who are huge influences in my own thought). These texts are put together in vague, elliptical, allusive, and polysemous ways so as to prevent the reader from pinning them down. In the case of Hume, Kant, Descartes, and Spinoza, I can readily pin down the claims they’re making and their arguments for these claims. In the case of the above listed thinkers, by contrast, I become a slave to the text, forced into an infinite labor of interpretation that never ends. Shouldn’t there be a point where we can move on?

Rarely do I learn more from a scholarly book than I have from Stefanos Geroulanos’s An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought. Geroulanos’s central thesis is compelling but simple: French antihumanism, in its theoretical mode, was based on a radicalized “negative anthropology,” i.e., the idea that man is a negating animal, as articulated in a widespread rejection of neo-Kantianism, first by Heidegger and then passed on to French thinkers like Bataille and Blanchot, largely via Alexandre Kojève and his “end of history” argument. Instead of the homo absconditus that Ernst Bloch was to locate in Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann’s “Protestant anthropology,” we have here a “last man,” heir to those “negations” of the world named freedom, history, and individuality, whose historical realization reveals that humanness is ultimately based upon a relation to death. And to the degree that this antihumanism continues to order thinkers like de Man, Derrida, and Foucault, it has also shaped many Anglophone intellectuals of my generation. Geroulanos tells a story that thus illuminates us too. […]

Hulme, Maurras, and Eliot’s antihumanism is important because it takes us to the border where atheist antihumanism, in its search for an institutional base, meets orthodox and reactionary Catholic antihumanism. Little illuminates the difficulties of occupying this border more than Action Française’s highly charged relation to Catholicism, which, despite the breadth of the movement’s support among French Catholics, would culminate in its formal prohibition by Pius XI in 1926 (the same year, interestingly, that Carl Schmitt broke with the Church). And I think it likely that the antihumanism that develops in and out of Heidegger and Kojève, and which Geroulanos illuminates so well, is also, at certain moments, shaped at this border.
One remembers, in particular, Maurice Blanchot. As a young man, he had been a radical, sometimes terror-embracing ultra-rightist in Action Française’s slipstream. But, as Geroulanos shows, he receded into post-Kojèvean antihumanism from about 1942 (in a world where the institutional barriers to secular nonhumanisms were breaking down). But, while a “negation of God,” Blanchot’s thought is famously hard to call irreligious. Let’s say that it is as if Blanchot chooses the other side of Pascal’s wager: he makes a bet against God, a bet that the world is not just immanent and Godless but “catastrophic.” That’s a wager that can’t pay out—it’s staked in a kind of madness—except insofar as it rescues you, if not exactly from atheism, then from mundaneity. At this point, maybe “atheist antihumanism” can be conceived of as positioned against ordinary social being, and belongs in that sense to the right, even where (as was the case for Blanchot in the 1960s) its sponsors join the radical left. At the very least, it is where the world is judged catastrophic in terms that Maurras and Racine and Pascal, those conservative nonhumanists, share.

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