Category Archives: Critical theory and philosophy

Outward Bound: On Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude

 

 

Il n’y a pas de hors-texte. If post-structuralism has had a motto—a proverb and quotable provocation—then surely it is this, from Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Text has no outside. There is nothing outside the text. It is tempting to put a conventionally Kantian construction on these words—to see them, I mean, as bumping up against an old epistemological barrier: Our thinking is intrinsically verbal—in that sense, textual—and it is therefore impossible for our minds to get past themselves, to leave themselves behind, to shed words and in that shedding to encounter objects as they really are, in their own skins, even when we’re not thinking them, plastering them with language, generating little mind-texts about them. But this is not, in fact, what the sentence says. Derrida’s claim would seem to be rather stronger than that: not There are unknowable objects outside of text, but There are outside of text no objects for us to know. So we reach for another gloss—There is only textain’t nothing but text—except the sentence isn’t really saying that either, since to say that there is nothing outside text points to the possibility that there is, in a manner yet to be explained, something inside text, and this something would not itself have to be text, any more than caramels in a carrying bag have to be made out of cellophane.

So we look for another way into the sentence. An alternate angle of approach would be to consider the claim’s implications in institutional or disciplinary terms. The text has no outside is the sentence via which English professors get to tell everyone else in the university how righteously important they are. No academic discipline can just dispense with language. Sooner or later, archives and labs and deserts will all have to be exited. The historians will have to write up their findings; so will the anthropologists; so will the biochemists. And if that’s true, then it will be in everyone’s interest to have around colleagues who are capable of reflecting on writing—literary critics, philosophers of language, the people we used to call rhetoricians—not just to proofread the manuscripts of their fellows and supply these with their missing commas, but to think hard about whether the language typically adopted by a given discipline can actually do what the discipline needs it to do. If the text has no outside, then literature professors will always have jobs; the idea is itself a kind of tenure, since it means that writerly types can never safely be removed from the interdisciplinary mix. The idea might even establish—or seek to establish—the institutional primacy of literature programs. Il n’y a pas de hors-texte. There is nothing outside the English department, since every other department is itself engaged in a more or less literary endeavor, just one more attempt to make the world intelligible in language.

Such, then, is the interest of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, first published in French in 2006. It is the book that, more than any other of its generation, means to tell the literature professors that their jobs are not, in fact, safe. Against Derrida it banners a counter-slogan of its own: ““it could be that contemporary philosophers have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside.” It is Meillassoux’s task to restore to us what he is careful not to call nature, to lead post-structuralists out into the open country, to make sure that we are all getting enough fresh air. Meillassoux means, in other words, to wean us from text, and for anyone beginning to experience a certain eye-strain, a certain cramp of the thigh from not having moved all day from out his favorite chair, this is bound to be an appealing prospect, though if you end up unconvinced by its arguments—and there are good reasons for doubt, as the book amounts to a tissue of misunderstanding and turns, finally, on one genuinely arbitrary prohibition—then it’s all going to end up sounding like a bullying father enrolling his pansy son in the Boy Scouts against his will: Get your head out of that book! Why don’t you go in the yard and play?!

• • •

Of course, Meillassoux’s way of getting the post-structuralists to go hiking with him is by telling them which books to read first. If you start scanning After Finitude’s bibliography, what will immediately stand out is its programmatic borrowing from seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century philosophers. Meillassoux regularly cites Descartes and poses anew the question that once led to the cogito, but will here lead someplace else: What is the one thing I as a thinking person cannot disbelieve even from the stance of radical doubt? He christens one chapter after Hume and proposes, as a knowing radicalization of the latter’s arguments, that we think of the cosmos as “acausal.” In the final pages, Galileo steps forward as modern philosophy’s forgotten hero. His followers are given to saying that Meillassoux’s thinking marks out a totally new direction in the history of philosophy, but I don’t think anyone gets to make that kind of claim until they have first drawn up an exhaustive inventory of debts. At one point, he praises a philosopher publishing in the 1980s for having “written with a concision worthy of the philosophers of the seventeenth century.” That’s one way to get a bead on this book—that it resurrects the Grand Siècle as a term of praise. The movement now coalescing around Meillassoux—the one calling itself speculative realism—is a bid to get past post-structuralism by resurrecting an ante-Kantian, more or less baroque ontology, on the understanding that nearly all of European philosophy since the first Critique can be denounced as one long prelude to Derrida. There never was a “structuralism,” but only “pre-post-structuralism.”

Meillassoux, in sum, is trying to recover the Scientific Revolution and early Enlightenment, which wouldn’t be all that unusual, except he is trying to do this on radical philosophy’s behalf—trying, that is, to get intellectuals of the Left to make their peace with science again, as the better path to some of post-structuralism’s signature positions. His argument’s reliance on early science is to that extent instructive. One of the most appealing features of Meillassoux’s writing is that it restages something of the madness of natural philosophy before the age of positivism and the research grant; it retrieves, paragraph-wise, the sublimity and wonder of an immoderate knowledge. In 1712, Richard Blackmore published an epic called Creation, which you’ve almost certainly never heard of but which remained popular in Britain for several decades. That poem tells the story of the world’s awful making, before humanity’s arrival, and if you read even just its opening lines, you’ll see that this conception is premised on a rather pungent refusal of Virgil and hence on a wholesale refurbishing of the epic as genre: “No more of arms I sing.” Blackmore reclassifies what poets had only just recently been calling “heroic verse” as “vulgar”; the epic, it would seem, has degenerated into bellowing stage plays and popular romances and will have to learn from the astrophysicists if it is to regain its loft and dignity. Poets will have to accompany the natural philosophers as they set out “to see the full extent of nature” and to tally “unnumbered worlds.” The point is that there was lots of writing like this in the eighteenth century, and that it was aligned for the most part with the period’s republicans and pseudo-republicans and whatever else England had in those years instead of a Left. This means that the cosmic epic was to some extent a mutation of an early Puritan culture, a way of carrying into the eighteenth earlier trends in radical Protestant writing, and especially the latter’s Judaizing or philo-Semitic strains. The idea here was that Hebrew poetry provided an alternative model to Greek and Roman poetry: a sublime, direct poetry of high emotion, of inspiration, ecstasy, and astonishment. The Creation is one of the things you could read if you wanted to figure out how ordinary people ever came to care about science—how science was made into something that could turn a person on—and what you’ll find in its pages is a then new aesthetic that is equal parts Longinus and Milton, or rather Longinus plus Moses plus Milton plus Newton, and not a Weberian or Purito-rationalist Newton, but a Newton supernal and thunder-charged, in which the Principia is made to yield science fiction. It is, finally, this writing that Meillassoux is channeling when he asks us—routinely—to contemplate the planet’s earliest, not-yet-human eons; when, like a boy-intellectual collecting philosophical trilobites, he demands that our minds be arrested by the fossil record or that all of modern European philosophy reconfigure itself to accommodate the dinosaurs. And it is the eighteenth-century epic’s penchant for firebolt apocalyptic that echoes in his descriptions of a cosmos beyond law:

Everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to logical laws; and this not by virtue of some superior law whereby everything is destined to perish, but by virtue of the absence of any superior law capable of preserve anything, no matter what, from perishing.

Meillassoux’s followers call this an idea that no-one has ever had before. The epic poets once called it Strife.

That so many readers have discovered new political energies in Meillassoux’s argument is perhaps hard to see, since the book contains absolutely nothing that would count, in any of the ordinary senses, as political thought. There are, it’s true, a few passages in which Meillassoux lets you know he thinks of himself as a committed intellectual: a (badly underdeveloped) account of ideology critique; the faint chiming, in one sentence, of The Communist Manifesto; a few pages in tribute to Badiou. With a little effort, though, the political openings can be teased out, and they are basically twofold: 1) Meillassoux says that thought’s most pressing task is to do justice to the possibility—or, indeed, to the archaic historical reality—of a planet stripped of its humans. On at least one occasion, he even uses, in English translation, the phrase “world without us.” For anyone looking to devise a deep ecology by non-Heideggerian means—and there are permanent incentives to reach positions with as little Heidegger as possible—Meillassoux’s thinking is bound to be attractive. The book is an entry, among many other such, in the competition to design the most attractive anti-humanism. 2) The antinomian language in the sentence last quoted—laws could collapse; there is no superior law­—or, indeed, the very notion of a cosmos structured only by unnecessary laws—is no doubt what has drawn to this book those who would otherwise be reading Deleuze, since Meillassoux, like this other, has designed an ontology to anarchist specifications, though he has done so, rather surprisingly, without Spinoza. Another world is possible wasn’t Marx’s slogan—it was Leibniz’s—except at this level, it has to be said, the book’s politics remain for all intents and purposes allegorical. Meillassoux’s argument operates at most as a peculiar, quasi-theological reassurance that if we set out to change the political and legal order of our nation-states, the universe will like it.

Maybe this is already enough information for us to see that After Finitude’s relationship to post-structuralism is actually quite complicated. Any brief description of the book is going to have to say that it is out to demolish German Idealism and post-structuralism and any other philosophy of discourse or mind. But if we take a second pass over After Finitude, we will have to conclude that far from flattening these latter, its chosen task is precisely to shore them up, to move anti-foundationalism itself onto sturdy ontological foundations. Meillassoux’s niftiest trick, the one that having mastered he compulsively performs, is the translating of post-structuralism’s over-familiar epistemological claims into fresh-sounding ontological ones. What readers of Foucault and Lyotard took to be claims about knowledge turn out to have been claims about Being all along, and it is through this device that Meillassoux will preserve what he finds most valuable in the radical philosophy of his parents’ generation: its anti-Hegelianism, its hard-Left anti-totalitarianism, its attack on doctrines of necessity, its counter-doctrine of contingency, its capacity for ideology critique.

Adorno was arguing as early as the mid-‘60s that thought needed to figure out some impossible way to think its other, which is the unthought, “objects open and naked,” the world out of our clutches. “The concept takes as it most pressing business everything it cannot reach.” Is it possible to devise “cognition on behalf of the non-conceptual”? This is the sense in which Meillassoux, far from breaking with post-structuralism and its cousins, is simply answering one of its central questions. It’s just that he does so in a way that any convinced Adornian or Left Heideggerian is going to find baffling. Cognition on behalf of the non-conceptual turns out to have been right in front of us all along—it is called science and math. Celestial mechanics has always been the better anti-humanism. A philosophical anarchism that has thrown its lot in with the geologists and not with the Situationists—that is the possibility for thought that After Finitude opens up.  The book, indeed, sometimes seems to be borrowing some of Heidegger’s idiom of cosmic awe, but it separates this from the latter’s critique of science—such that biology and chemistry and physics can henceforth function as vehicles of ontological wonder, astonishment at the world made manifest. And with that idea there comes to an end almost a century’s worth of radical struggle against domination-through-knowledge, against bureaucracy, rule by experts, the New Class, technocracy, instrumental reason, and epistemological regimes. On the back cover of After Finitude, Bruno Latour says that Meillassoux promises to “liberate us from discourse,” but that’s not exactly right and may be exactly wrong. He wants rather to free us from having to think of discourse as a problem—precisely not to rally us against it, in the manner of Adorno and Foucault—but to license us to make our peace with, and so sink back into, it.

• • •

Lots of people will find good reasons to take this book seriously. It is, nonetheless, unconvincing on five or six fronts at once.

It is philosophically conniving. There are almost no empirical constraints placed on the argumentative enterprise of ontology. Nothing in everyday experience is ever going to suggest that one generalized account of all Being is right and another wrong, and this situation will inevitably grant the philosopher latitude. Ontologies will always be tailored to extra-philosophical considerations, any one of them elected only because a given thinker wants something to be true about the cosmos. Explanations of existence are all speculative and in that sense opportunistic. It is this opportunism we sense when we discover Meillassoux baldly massaging his sources. Here he is on p. 38: “Kant maintains that we can only describe the a priori forms of knowledge…, whereas Hegel insists that it is possible to deduce them.” Kant, we are being told, doesn’t think the categories are deducible. And then here’s Meillassoux on pp. 88 and 89: “the third type of response to Hume’s problem is Kant’s … objective deduction of the categories as elaborated in the Critique of Pure Reason.”

The leap from epistemology to ontology sometimes falls short. At one point, Meillassoux thinks he can get the better of post-structuralists like so: Imagine, he says, that an anti-foundationalist is talking to a Christian (about the afterlife, say). The Christian says: “After we die, the righteous among us will sit at the right hand of the Lord.” And the anti-foundationalist responds the way anti-foundationalists always respond: “Well, you could be right, but it could also be different.” For Meillassoux, that last clause is the ontologist’s opening. His task is now to convince the skeptic that “it could also be different” is not just a skeptical claim about what we can’t know—it is not an ignorance, but rather already an ontological position in its own right. What we know about the real cosmos, existing apart from thought, is that everything in it could also be different. And now suppose that the anti-foundationalist responds to the ontologist by just repeating the same sentence—again, because it’s really all the skeptic knows how to say: “Well, you could be right, but it could also be different.” Meillassoux at this point begins his end-zone dance. He has just claimed that Everything could be different, and the skeptic obviously can’t disagree with this by objecting that Everything could be different. The skeptic has been maneuvered round to agreeing with the ontologist’s position. But Meillassoux doesn’t yet have good reasons to triumph, because, quite simply, he is using “could be different” in two contrary senses, and he rather bafflingly thinks that their shared phrasing is enough to render them identical. He has simply routed his argument through a rigged formulation, one in which ontological claims and epistemological claims seem briefly to coincide. The skeptical, epistemological version of that sentence says: “Everything could be different from how I am thinking it.” And the ontological version says: “Everything could be different from how it really is now.” There may, in fact, occur real-word instances in which skeptics string words into ambiguous sentences that could mean either, and yet this will never indicate that they unwittingly or via logical compulsion mean the latter.

Meillassoux’s theory of language is lunatic. Another way of getting a bead on After Finitude would be to say that it is trying to shut down science studies; it wants to stop literary (and anthropological) types from reading the complicated utterances produced by science as writing (or discourse or culture). Meillassoux is bugged by anyone who reads scientific papers and gets interested in what is least scientific in them—anyone, that is, who attributes to astronomy or kinetics a political unconscious, as when one examines the great new systems devised during the seventeenth century and realizes that they all turned on new ways of understanding “laws” and “forces” and “powers.” Meillassoux’s own philosophy requires, as he puts it, “the belief that the realist meaning of [any utterance about the early history of the planet] is its ultimate meaning—that there is no other regime of meaning capable of deepening our understanding of it.” The problem is, of course, that it’s really easy to show that science writing does, in fact, contain an ideological-conceptual surcharge; that, like any other verbally intricate undertaking, it can’t help but borrow from several linguistic registers at once; and that there is always going to be some other “order of meaning” at play in statements about strontium or the Mesozoic. Science studies, after all, possesses lots of evidence of a more or less empirical kind, and Meillassoux’s response is to object that this evidence concerns nothing “ultimate.” But then what would it mean for a sentence to have an “ultimate meaning” anyway? A meaning that outlasts its rivals? Or that defeats them in televised battle? What, then, is the time that governs meanings, such that some count as final even while the others are still around? And at what point do secondary meanings just disappear? What are the periods of a meaning’s rise and fall? Meillassoux doesn’t possess the resources to answer any of those questions; nor, as best as I can tell, does he mean to try. The phrase “ultimate meaning” is not philosophically serious. It does little more than commit us to a blatant reductionism, commanding us to disregard any complexities and ambiguities that a linguistically attentive person would, upon reading Galileo, discover. We can even watch Meillassoux’s own language drift, such that “ultimate meaning” becomes, over the course of three pages, exclusive meaning. “Either [a scientific] statement has a realist sense, and only a realist sense, or it has no sense at all.” It exasperates Meillassoux that an unscientific language would so regularly worm its way into science writing; and it exasperates him, further, that English professors would take the trouble to point this language out. His response is to install a prohibition, the wholly unscientific injunction to treat scientific language as simpler than it is even when the data show otherwise. It is perhaps a special problem for Meillassoux that the ideological character of science writing is especially pronounced in the very period to which he is looking for intellectual salvation—the generations on either side of Newton, which were crammed with ontologies explicitly modeled on the political theology of the late Middle Ages—new scientific cosmologies, I mean, whose political dimensions were quite overt. And it is definitely a problem for Meillassoux that he has himself written a political ontology of roughly this kind—a cosmology made-to-order for the punks and the Bakuninites—since one of his opening moves is to disallow the very idea of such ontologies. After Finitude only has the implications its anarchist readership takes it to have if its language means more than it literally says, and Meillassoux himself insists that it can have no such meaning.

He poses as secular but is actually a kind of theologian. It is not just that Meillassoux is secular. He is pugnaciously secular or, if you prefer, actively anti-religious. He casually links Levinas with fanaticism and Muslim terror. He sticks up for what Adorno once called the totalitarianism of enlightenment, marveling at philosophy’s now vanished willingness to tell religious people that they’re stupid or at its determination to make even non-philosophers fight on its terms. And against our accustomed sense that liberalism is the spontaneous ideology of secular modernity, Meillassoux sees freedom of opinion instead as an outgrowth of the Counter-Reformation and Counter-Enlightenment. Liberalism, in other words, is how religion gets readmitted to the public sphere even once everyone involved has been forced to concede that it’s bunk. And yet for all that, Meillassoux has entirely underestimated how hard it is going to be to craft a consequent anti-humanism without taking recourse to religious language. At the heart of After Finitude is a simple restatement of the religious mystic’s ecstatic demand that we “get out of ourselves” and thereby learn to “grasp the in-itself”; the book aches for an “outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory—of being entirely elsewhere.” In the place of God, Meillassoux has installed a principle he calls “hyper-Chaos,” to which, however, he then attaches all manner of conventional theological language, right down to the capital-C-of-adoration. Hyper-Chaos is an entity…

…for which nothing is or would seem to be impossible … capable of destroying both things and worlds, of bringing forth monstrous absurdities, yet also of never doing anything, of realizing every dream, but also every nightmare, of engendering random and frenetic transformations, or conversely, of producing a universe that remains motionless down to its ultimate recess, like a cloud bearing the fiercest storms, then the eeriest bright spells.

No-one reading that passage—even casually, even for the first time—is going to miss the predictable omnipotence language with which it begins: Chaos is the God of Might. Meillassoux himself acknowledges as much. What may be less apparent, though, is that this entire line of argument simply extends into the present the late medieval debate over whether God was constrained to create this particular universe, or whether he could have, at will, created another, and Meillassoux’s position in this sense resembles nothing so much as the orthodox Christian defense of miracles, theorizing a power that can, in defiance of its own quotidian regularities, “bring forth absurdities, engender transformations, cast bright spells.” There have been many different theories of contingency over the last generation, especially among philosophers of history. As a philosopheme, it has, in fact, become rather commonplace. Meillassoux is unusual in this regard only in that he has elevated contingency to the position of demiurge and so returned a full portion of metaphysics to a position that had until now been trying to get by without it. Such is the penalty after all for going back behind Kant, that you’ll have to stop your ears again against the singing of angels. Two generations before the three Critiques there stood Christian Wolff, whom Meillassoux does not name, but on whose system his metaphysics is modeled and who wrote, in the 1720s and ‘30s, that philosophy was “the study of the possible as possible.” Philosophy, in other words, is the one all-important branch of knowledge that does not study actuality. Each more circumscribed intellectual endeavor—biology, history, philology—studies what-now-is, but philosophy studies events and objects in our world only as a subset of the much vaster category of what-could-be. It tries, like some kind of interplanetary structuralism, to work out the entire system of possibilities—every hypothetical aggregate of objects or particles or substances that could combine without contradiction—and thereby reclassifies the universe we currently inhabit as just one unfolding outcome among many unseen others. Meillassoux, in this same spirit, asks us to imagine a cosmos of “open possibility, wherein no eventuality has any more reason to be realized than any other.” And this way of approaching actuality is what Wolff calls theology, which in this instance means not knowledge of God but God’s knowledge. Philosophy, for Wolff—as, by extension, for Meillassoux—is a way of transcending human knowledge in the direction of divine knowledge, when the latter is the science not just of our world but of all things that could ever be, what Hegel called “the thoughts had by God before the Creation”—sheer could-ness, vast and indistinct.

He misdescribes recent European philosophy and is thus unclear about his own place in it. Maybe this point is better made with reference to his supporters than to Meillassoux himself. Here’s how one of his closest allies explains his contribution:

With his term ‘correlationism,’ Meillassoux has already made a permanent contribution to the philosophical lexicon. The rapid adoption of this word, to the point that an intellectual movement has already assembled to combat the menace it describes suggests that ‘correlationism’ describes a pre-existent reality that was badly in need of a name. Whenever disputes arise in philosophy concerning realism and idealism, we immediately note the appearance of a third personage who dismisses both of these alternatives as solutions to a pseudo-problem. This figure is the correlationist, who holds that we can never think of the world without humans nor of humans without the world, but only of a primal correlation or rapport between the two.

As intellectual history, this is almost illiterate. We weren’t in need of a name, because the people who argue in terms of the-rapport-between-humans-and-world or subject-and-object were already called “Hegelians,” and the movement opposing them hasn’t just “sprung up,” because philosophers have been battling the Hegelians as long as there have been Hegelians to fight. Worse still is the notion, projected by Meillassoux himself, that all of European philosophy since Kant must be opposed for leading inexorably, shunt-like, to post-structuralism. This is just the melodrama to which radical philosophy is congenitally prone; the entire history of Western thought has to become a single, uninterrupted exercise in the one perhaps quite local error you would like to correct, the cost of which, in this instance, is that Meillassoux and Company have to turn every major European thinker into a second-rate idealist or vulgar Derridean and so end up glossing Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Sartre and various Marxists in ways that are tendentious to the point of unrecognizability. There are central components of Meillassoux’s project that philosophers have been attempting since the 1790s, and he occasionally gives the impression of not knowing that European philosophy has been trying for generations to get past dialectics or humanism or the philosophy of the subject or whatever else it is for which “correlationism” is simply a new term. Perhaps Meillassoux thinks that his contribution has been to show that Wittgenstein and Heidegger were more Hegelian than they themselves realized. But then this, too, seems more like a repetition than a new direction, since European philosophy has always had a propensity for auto-critique of precisely this kind. Auto-critique is in lots of ways its most fundamental move: One anti-humanist philosopher accuses another of having snuck in some humanist premise or another. One philosopher-against-the-subject accuses another of being secretly attached to theories of subjectivity. And so on. For Meillassoux to come around now and say that there are residues of Kant and Hegel all over the place in contemporary thought—well, sure: That’s just the sort of thing that European philosophers are always saying.

He is wrong about German idealism. Kant, Meillassoux says, is the one who deprived us all of the Great Outdoors, which accusation seems plausible … until you remember that bit about “the starry sky above me.” This is one more indication that Meillassoux is punching air, though the point matters more with reference to Hegel than to Kant. Hegel’s philosophy, after all, turns on a particular way of relating the history of the world: At first, human beings were just pinpricks of consciousness in a world not of their own making, mobile smudges of mind on an alien planet. But human activity gradually remade the world—it refashioned every glade and river valley—worked all the materials—to the point where there now remains nothing in the world that hasn’t to some degree been made subject to human desire and planning. The world has, in this sense, been all but comprehensively humanized; it is saturated with mind. What are we to say, then, when Meillassoux claims that no modern philosopher since Kant can even begin to deal with the existence of the world before humans; that they can’t even take up the question; that they have to duck it; that it is what will blow holes in their systems? Hegel not only has no trouble speaking of the pre-human planet; his historical philosophy downright presupposes it. The world didn’t used to be human; it is now thorough-goingly so; the task of philosophy is to account for that change. And it is the great failing of Meillassoux’s book that, having elevated paleontology to the paradigmatic science, he can’t even begin to explain the transformation. You might ask yourself again whether Meillassoux’s account of science is more plausible than a Hegelian one. What, after all, happened when Europeans began devising modern science? What did science actually start doing? Was it or wasn’t it a rather important part of the ongoing process by which human beings subjected the non-human world to mind? Meillassoux urges us to think of science as the philosophy of the non-human, positing as it does a world separable from thought, a planet independent of humanity, laws that don’t require our enforcing. But does science, in fact, bring that world about? Meillassoux hasn’t even begun to respond to those philosophers, like Adorno and Heidegger, who wanted to pry philosophy away from science, not because they were complacently encased in the thought-bubbles of discourse and subjectivity, but more nearly the opposite—because they thought science was the philosophy of the subject, or one important version of it, the very techno-thinking by which human being secures its final dominion over the non-human. Meillassoux, in this sense, is trying to theorize, not the science that actually entered into the world in the seventeenth century, but something else, an alternate modernity, one in which aletheia and science went hand in hand, a fully non-human science or science that humans didn’t control: gelassene Wissenschaft. But the genuinely materialist position is always going to be the one that takes seriously the effects of thought and discourse upon the world; the one that knows science itself to be a practice; the one that faces up to the realization that the concept of  “the non-human” can only ever be a device by which human beings do things to themselves and their surroundings. There is nothing real about a realism that offers itself only as a utopian counter-science, a communication from the pluriverse, a knowledge that presumes our non-existence and so requires, as bearer, some alternate cosmic intelligence that it would be simplest to call divinity.

(Thanks to Jason Adams, Chris Pye, and Anita Sokolsky. My understanding of Christian Wolff I take from Werner Schneiders’s “Deus est philosophus absolute summus: Über Christian Wolffs Philosophie und Philosophiebegriff.” The ally of Meillassoux’s that I quote is Graham Harman.)

 

Postmodernism Is Maybe After All A Historicism, Part 3

PART ONE IS HERE.

PART TWO IS HERE.

You’re going to understand De Palma’s Body Double better if you understand why Theodor Adorno liked Mahler. Somebody might have told you once that Adorno championed difficult art in general and atonal music in particular: string quartets made to skirl; the mathematically precise caterwaul of that half-stepping dozen, the series chromatic and uncanny. This isn’t exactly wrong, and it is the regular stuff of encyclopedia entries and intro classes, but it’s not exactly right either. For Adorno did not want an art entirely without subjectivity, which is what serial music sometimes suggests, a pure and as it were automatic music that would never suggest to anyone listening a link back to human utterance or expressiveness; that would never once yield a tune that someone, at least, would want to sing; a music, in fine, that was all system. What he was seeking, rather, was an art organized around antitheses, in which the conflict between subject and system would become audible; and he worried there were different ways an artwork could instead obliterate any sense we had of a living person struggling to come to speech within it, and he didn’t like any of these. Traditionalism was the obvious problem: the expert mimicry of older styles, the striking of already petrified poses, the chanting of sentences already spoken. Adorno said of Stravinsky that he was a U2 tribute band. But then a radical aesthetic can beat its own experimental path to the same deadly place, one he identified in the fully developed versions of twelve-tone music, in Webern, that is, and the late modernists of the ‘60s: serial music become oppressive because now wholly itself, without any concession to its historical rivals or predecessors, routinized and ascetic, sealed off inside its own rigors and formulae.

It is this rejection of Webern that should clarify Adorno’s championing of both Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler, which is to say both a composer conventionally classified as atonal and one typically reckoned not, the point being that each of these two absorbed into his music the opposition that musical history tries to construct only between them. Mahler and Berg can be conceptualized together as the Composers of the Break, neither tonal nor atonal, but first-one-and-then-the-other, by turns and in shifting ratios or proportions. If it’s misleading to say that Adorno was one of the great theorists of serial music, then that’s because it was this music-at-the-cusp—and not the purity of The Twelve—that he meant to recommend. At issue were compositions in which the conflict between entire aesthetic periods or modes of cultural production was openly theatricalized, and from this perspective, a composer’s starting point was irrelevant. You could fill your music with tunes, but let them curdle on occasion into noise; or, alternately, you could plunge your listeners into noise, but remind them occasionally of what tunes used to sound like. Either way, you would be staging a face-off between the entire history of human songfulness and some other, radically new aesthetic mode in which art no longer takes our pleasure as its aim and limit. And here, perhaps, is the most curious point: These last are scenarios in which either term, tonality or atonality, can count as subject and either as structure. You can say that the fine old tunes sustain us as subjects and that the mere math of the twelve-tone series recreates for us in the concert hall the experience of structure and rationalization. But you can just as plausibly say that those tunes are sedimented and mindless convention, at which point we might welcome dissonance as the opening out of the composer’s idiom—or simply as the afflicted yowl of anyone who wishes the radio would for once play something different.

We can’t make listeners choose between Mahler and Berg, because it is really easy to find Mahler in Berg. If we want to get back to Body Double, all we need to do, then, is generalize Adorno’s argument in a direction he probably wouldn’t have; to insist that antithesis, far from being the special achievement of these two Austrians, is the inevitable condition of most artworks, nearly all of which absorb into themselves piecewise the styles and conventions of various historical periods, social classes, and political tendencies. You can call this “liminal art” if you want, as long as you are prepared to add that threshold never becomes room. The struggles that a Gramscian reader thinks go on between artworks are usually reproduced one by one within those same works, which, if patiently read, will generate maps of the broader cultural fields of which they are also a part. What we can say now of postmodern art is that it is almost never wholly itself, that in order even to be recognized as postmodern, it will have to announce its own distinctiveness, marking itself off from its modernist counterparts, which it will have to after a fashion name and in naming preserve. The sentences regularly encountered in Jameson in which x artist is declared to be a postmodern revision of y modernist are thus oddly self-defeating. How often do you find yourself wanting to remind Jameson of how the dialectic works?—stammering, in this case, that one cannot name a break between two terms without simultaneously positing their continuity. If you want to lift out what was new in the movie Body Heat, having first spotted that it was, as Jameson has it, a “remake of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity,” then you have yourself already conceded that the one was really, actually, finally a lot like the other. When we designate a work as “postmodern,” the superseded and modernist version thereof will persist, as its not-really negated shadow, and this shadow will, in turn, vitiate our sense of postmodernism as ahistorical. You can say that Body Double is a movie about other movies, but that very reliance on other films—prior films—will be a prompt to historical thinking. Postmodern Body Double preserves within itself the memory of movies that weren’t yet postmodern. But then this or something like it is going to be true of most really existing postmodernism, which we now have to reconceive as the arena of a certain fight—the showdown between the various modernisms and a postmodernism available only as ideal type.

This point is available, first, at the level of genre. There’s a remarkable moment about an hour into Body Double when we witness our hero decide to take matters into his own hands, make his own inquiries about the murder, get to the bottom of things. The spectator-actor prepares himself to assume the detective functions of classic crime narrative. And at just that moment, when the movie seems ready at last to lead us back behind the spectacle—to, you know, strike the set—it instead amplifies by the pageantry by launching into a full-fledged music video—for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax,” complete with shots of lip-synching lead-singer Holly Johnson. What makes the sequence even more compelling is that the music video stands in for hardcore porn; it’s the point in the movie when the hero is trying to infiltrate a porn set by pretending to be a hired stud, and De Palma is letting FGTH’s lubricious, post-disco electro-march substitute for the obscenities he cannot show. The movie thereby directs our attention neither to porn nor to MTV, but to whatever it is rather that the two share—and thus to an entire set of new or newly prevalent video genres, characteristic of the last few decades and defined by their collective willingness to abandon narrative or at least scale it back to some barely-more-than-sequential minimum. From our own vantage, we would want to add, above and beyond the raunch and the Duran Duran, YouTube shorts, initially capped at ten minutes and now majestically extended to fifteen, and new-model movie trailers, which, following Jameson, deserve to be considered as a form in their own right, with their own conventions and feature-usurping pleasures.

This is what it would mean to talk about Body Double not as postmodern but as a conflict-ridden composite of postmodernism and the pop modernism of the detective story, which still thinks of itself as a device for disclosing hidden truths. The competing genres are entirely visible within the movie. And then the all-important point to be made in this regard is that the detective story more or less wins out, and not only because the movie ends with a literal unmasking, latex pulled from a face. The movie does indeed document the spectator’s inability to act, though even here its procedure is basically satirical, in a manner that depends on our memory of other heroes having once done something, a memory counterposed to which postmodernity will register not as a schizoid intensity but only as a vacuity. Check your Jameson: The movie’s parody isn’t all that blank, because its very genre provides a set of expectations against which its innovations will be judged. But even beyond this, Body Double seems dedicated to the idea that certain forms of agency remain available even in the society of the spectacle. The movie’s hero doubles himself—he is both spectator and actor—and then this pairing is itself in some sense doubled, because spectator and actor both come in a second version that we could call juridical or epistemological, and not just inactive or image-consuming. There has after all always been an affinity between the spectator and the detective, with the latter now understood as the-one-who-watches, the one who arrives on the crime scene like an apparition, pledged to leave no mark, to pollute no object, to minimize the observer effect by leaving the murder bed unmade. To this we need merely append the observation that performer-cops are also a familiar species, called “narcs” or “undercover agents,” and that acting, too, can be a form of information gathering. Body Double does to this extent grant its cipher a certain limited effectivity, within the bounds of acting and spectating, as gumshoe and mole. The once corrosive insight that the detective is like a voyeur is thus replaced by its opposite, a reminder that the detective functions might in fact survive, that epistemological and moral purpose can still be roused from within the position of the spectator.

This last is a point to be made at the level of genre as a whole. But we can make a few similar observations if we start calling out the titles of specific movies, or at least of one specific movie. For Body Double’s relationship back to Rear Window also contains its own historical argument. De Palma updates his Hitchcock in one absolutely crucial way: In the later movie, the spectator-hero is meant to see the murder, which is to say that his spectatorship has been factored in in advance. We can think of the matter this way: Rear Window was still easily explained within the usual Enlightenment paradigm of truth and knowledge, the magical version of which is the usual stuff of crime stories, in which once the solution is announced and the murderer identified, everything automatically sets itself to right: culprits march themselves off to jail, widows and fatherless children return to their business suddenly unbereaved, &c. Hitchcock had some good questions to put to that paradigm, epistemological questions, for one—about whether one really knows what one thinks ones knows—and also psychoanalytic questions—about the relationship between the knower and the peeper and hence about the sneaky way in which desire rides in on knowledge’s back. De Palma, however, radicalizes this scenario by inventing a murderer who wants to be seen, a murderer, in other words, whose plans depends on the existence of a manipulated witness. The shift from Hitchcock to De Palma thus secretes a certain periodization, marking out the difference between a society in which the media exercise independent oversight functions over the government and other major actors, like corporations, and a society in which government and corporations have already reckoned the cameras into all their calculations and so incessantly stage themselves for the public, which means that watchdogs are called upon only to play an already scripted role. Body Double is really and truly a meditation on that condition, but within the narrow parameters of the thriller.

This brings us to the big point: There was always something unresolved in Jameson’s postmodernism argument, and especially in his claim that postmodern culture tends to jettison historical thinking. It’s not just that narrative forms are never going to be able to revert back to some zero degree of history-less-ness, though that’s also true. The issue is rather that Jameson was making two claims that are finally rather hard to square with one another: that under names like “retro” and “vintage,” postmodernism revived the copycat historicism of the nineteenth-century art academy … and also that it wasn’t a historicism. The best chance you’ve got of making this argument work is by making it accusatory, because you have to be able to say that postmodern historicism isn’t really historical, that it is fake history, history reduced back to image or consumer good, just so many styles for the donning, as when the ‘50s mean Formica and the ‘70s Fiestaware. Sometimes that blow is going to land. But if you’re doing anything other than designing your kitchen—if you’re making a movie or writing a novel or metering out a poem—the citations you introduce will often be, not an aping farrago, but their own path to chronology, an exercise in temporal counterpoint or Ungleichzeitigkeit, a dozen arrows pointing us outside the present, and so a request that we resume the project of historical thinking only just terminated.

Postmodernism is Maybe After All a Historicism, Part 1

Can you make a movie about postmodernity?

That probably sounds like a pretty stupid question. The scholars who first proposed the term “postmodernity” wanted it to mean something like the Age of Developed Capitalism, the global and all-consuming version, driven by its own distinctive and world-transforming technologies—long-distance communication, the media, computers, the Internet—and facing no obvious competitors. One clarification is immediately required: These scholars—Frederic Jameson, mostly—thought of postmodernity not as breaking with capitalism’s basic and long-term trends but precisely as intensifying them, which intensification we will begin to register if we simply list some of the things that have gone missing over the last half century: socialism, organized anti-imperialism, nature, the Left—capitalism’s historical rivals, in other words—the various attempted counter-modernities. This means that the term “postmodernity” was always something of a mess and bound to spread confusion, because on most accounts capitalism is one of modernity’s chief features—in lots of contexts, the word “modern” is a near-synonym or even euphemism for “capitalist”—in which case “postmodern” actually means something like “fully modern” or “hyper-modern.” Postmodernity comes after lots of things, but modernity isn’t one of them.

Now if you accept that periodization, the question, again, is going to seem pretty pointless. The word “postmodernity” is a way of naming our present and of marking out some of its more salient features. And since most movies are unselfconsciously set in the present—and since all of them engage with the present even when set in the past or the future or in unreal worlds with made-up histories—they are all to that extent “about postmodernity.” Maybe you take the word “postmodern” to mean something more bounded; maybe it inevitably calls up for you memories of 1982 and the first time you heard Cabaret Voltaire; but then there are movies for you, too, movies about the years when people started describing themselves as postmodern, movies that work to produce “the Eighties” as an object of historical scrutiny or puzzlement: The Squid and The Whale, say, and especially Donnie Darko.

I still think the question is a viable one, but it is up to me to explain why. One of postmodernity’s most pronounced features has been what Jameson calls “the cultural turn.” The argument here follows on from Debord and Baudrillard. Commercial media and the new technologies have created a world that is, to a historically unprecedented degree, saturated with “culture”—completely soaked with images and stories and music. This suggests an unusual process of de-differentiation, in which “culture” is no longer a special realm unto itself, governed by its own institutions, with its own rules and idioms (museums, libraries, philosophical aesthetics, &c.), but has become the universal medium for all other spheres—the economy, the law, the state, religion, &c—all of which must now learn to stage themselves, again to a historically unprecedented degree, at the level of image and story.

This “rise of culture” has in some sense meant the end of art—its apotheosis, yes, but also its termination—the end of art, that is, as something to be pursued in redemptive isolation, away from the state and the marketplace. Postmodernism—and we can now, at last, swap out suffixes—arrived as the liquidation of certain valuable aesthetic projects. It had once been the project of realist literature to help us cognize the composite and dispersed social systems of capitalism; realism broke with the experience of everyday life, allowing readers to hold in their heads the complexity of a capitalist city in a way that no person could do spontaneously. Modernism, meanwhile, which is usually thought of as having been consecrated to the New, is perhaps better conceived as a series of failed rescue projects, so many bids to preserve a realm of experience outside of the workplace and the shopping arcade; to get back to the objects so that they might be boosted by the doting armful from the market stalls and boutique vitrines; to give back to choking people their swallowed tongues; to salvage language … and sound … and paint … by reinventing them; to use each Adamically and as though for the first time; to model for us all an expanded realm of freedom, in which persons and objects would exist without function or fixed purpose. Postmodernism marked the collapse of all that—the end of a certain hard-won intelligibility, the end of search-and-rescue—and so the triumph of a generalized market culture.

We can say now that when Jameson started talking about “postmodern art,” what he meant was something like “fully capitalist art”—though he was more cunning than that and would never have put it that baldly. And “fully capitalist art” isn’t quite right anyway, because even postmodern art retained a complex and transitional character, cultivating some minimal allegiance to art’s inherited forms and institutions—paintings hung in galleries, long novels published by prestige presses—while nonetheless opening these latter up to Hollywood and rock & roll and comic books and advertising. What we witnessed in postmodernism was not, in this sense, the final abandonment of art—not the old avant garde’s rather more liberating fantasy of actually burning down the museums, thereby forcing artists to paint the streets—but a process still visibly underway and captured in freeze-frame—commercial culture’s ongoing expansion into the regions of its former quarantine. Marilyn vanquishes the naiads.

Another quick way to get a handle on what was going on in postmodern art is to imagine that it all began with a realist operation. Even impeccably realist novelists would, if trying to itemize the everyday life of contemporary North Americans, have to register the massive presence of the media in the lives of such people and so introduce into their realism the shadow world of television and the Internet, codes and whispers and images and memes, all taken now as social facts in their own right, at which point the accustomed distinction between realism and meta-fiction would become untenable, because postmodernity promotes meta-fiction to the status of realism. The least realistic thing about most horror movies is that, when the beasties attack, no-one shouts: “This is just like a horror movie”—which is, of course, the very first thing you or I would say. There is no getting around the Realm of Appearance; everything travels through it. The hallmark of High Postmodernism, then, at the level of style, was its commitment to the Code or to Seeming, not to seeming this way or that way, but to seeming as such; its wholly deliberate and upfront play with media images; its bracketing of the world’s objects; its bracketing, too, of what in other circumstances we might have called self-expression; its sense that we are all living in an enclosed videodrome where the signs will ever chatter.

What Jameson wanted to do, back in 1983, was lay out a certain trade off. It’s not that postmodernism didn’t have its pleasures. Postmodern art offered its admirers a sequence of free-floating and discontinuous intensities—this was its delight and its achievement—though we’ll want to note right away that such an achievement basically repeated the experience of channel surfing or listening to FM radio. The problem as Jameson saw it was this: Anyone wanting to pursue these joyous shavings or shards of vividness would have to give up on some of our older ways of trying to make sense of the world—entire vast and intricate modes of historical or structural understanding. For a while there, Jameson was especially drawn to aesthetic artifacts where you could actively experience the swapping of intelligibility for schizoid intensity, where you could sense some inherited expectation of understanding being violated and then feel that ticklish vertigo or camp sublimity creep in behind: great big buildings that make no effort to orient their visitors, that cheerfully allow guests to get lost in them, the luxury hotel as corn maze; historical novels in which the past is never properly retrieved, never allowed to march in review, in which distant events keep slipping away from readers until they realize finally that they are stuck in the present.

It’s that last we’ll want to hang on to: Postmodernism gave up on historical thinking and sometimes seemed to give up on narrative as such. Of course Marx was making the point as early as the 1860s that capitalism made it hard to think historically, simply by introducing into our daily lives an unprecedented degree of social complexity and so blocking our customary understanding of where objects come from. Factory production and long-distance trade fill our lives with mysterious things. And Lukács, similarly, was trying as early as the 1920s to describe an order in which commodities were entirely “constitutive of … society,” in which “the commodity structure [penetrated] society in all its aspects and [remolded] it in its own image”—a society, that is, in which capitalism had completed its historical mission to rob us of our bearings. That’s Jameson’s postmodernism, and there is a certain tone you need to hear in his argument, as though spoken back to Lukács: You thought you had it bad… Surely the sharpest bit of literary criticism that Jameson has ever written are those three pages on Doctorow’s Ragtime in the landmark postmodernism essay: “This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes ‘pop history’).” There is high drama in that sentence—postmodern ahistoricism comes crashing in to historical thinking’s last literary redoubt—though Jameson could have made matters easier on himself, since there was a whole string of straightforwardly anti-historical novels published between the late ‘60s and the early ‘90s, novels about professional historians and history teachers who abandon the practice of history, who conclude that historical knowledge has decisively eluded them: Grass’s Local Anaesthetic (1969), Swift’s Waterland (1983), Updike’s Memories of the Ford Administration (1992), Gass’s Tunnel (1995). There’s no mistaking what’s going on in those novels. Doctorow, on the other hand, you could misread as Walter Scott with an oddly clipped prose style.

So the question I really want to ask is: Can you make a postmodern movie about postmodernity? And that isn’t a stupid question because the term postmodernity is fully historical in a manner that is inimical to postmodernism itself. What we’ve been asking is: Can you make a movie about a historical period in a style that isn’t designed for recording history? And our hunch has got to be no. An artwork that is postmodern should not be able to register its own postmodernity, should not be able to draw attention to what is historically novel about its own condition.

More soon, because I think I’ve found the movie that fits the bill….

PART TWO IS HERE.

PART THREE IS HERE.

On Agamben’s Signatures

Let’s say you don’t believe that wholes or totalities exist. You don’t believe that people and objects inhabit underlying structures that assign to them meanings or functions. Whatever it is that is bigger than us, the space within which we move, is neutral terrain, not exactly empty, but unstriated, a field of constantly shifting singularities. It’s going to help to have a name for this space, this wire cage in which the lottery balls blow, though it’s unclear what that name is to be. There is a lot that you can’t call it, many words that, believing as you do, you are going to have to give up. You can’t talk about structure or system or any of their derivatives: There are no ecosystems, and there is no world; there are no political or economic or legal systems, no capitalism, then, no empire, nothing global. It would be safer, conceptually purer, to shut up about the state and society. There can be no talk of rules and laws, because such things either constitute structure or are assigned by it. You’ll also want to toss out any terms that refer to big blocks of time. You can start with the word “modernity.”

That people who claim not to believe in totalities routinely talk about all these things suggests only that they are not yet disbelieving with their hearts, like Christian teenagers pretending to be more badass than they really are. Yer average copy of Anti-Oedipus is, in this sense, a prop cigarette. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is the virtue of Giorgio Agamben’s recent book on method, The Signature of All Things, to remind us what a painstaking post-structuralism can look like. And yes, this is the first thing to know about the book: that it is post-structuralist, in some wholly precise sense of that term, still, in 2008, when it was first published in Italy, and not just because its author quotes Foucault a lot. What matters is that Agamben is still actively trying to purge the concept of “structure” from his thinking; still trying to jimmy that e from his typewriter; still scanning old volumes of philosophy so he can accusingly annotate the passages where schemes sneak in unbidden; still trying to devise something to put in their place.

We can see how this works in the second essay, from which this little book takes its title, and in which Agamben asks us to start thinking again about a basic problem in structural linguistics: How does language pass from words to utterances? Or if you like: How does the mind get from inert words, archived dictionary-like in lists, to living sentences that actually carry meaning? The usual answer to that question would have something to do with rules or laws: There are rules governing how words get combined. Your mind doesn’t only know words and their definitions; it’s absorbed the guidelines for their use. But Agamben doesn’t want to say this, because the word “rules” makes language sound like a government agency. Nor are the usual alternatives much better: Any talk about the “structure of language” is going to bring in resonances of the state or capitalism or the administered world. We could try to identify the mind’s “devices for building sentences,” but that would turn language into a technology. We could wonder how words get “processed,” but that would be either bureaucratic—words as case files or credit-card applications—or again technological—words as refined sugar. Agamben is in the market for a way of thinking about language that does not go through a juridical model of laws and rules …  or a political model of the system … or a technical model of the machine.

His proposal, derived from synopses of Paracelsus and Jakob Böhme, is that we learn to think of language as magic. Magic is what will substitute for structure, in which case one synonym for post-structuralism is “the occult.” Agamben wants magical signs; this, roughly, is what he means by “signatures,” signs that aren’t just neutral stand-ins for things, tokens or pointers, but charmed symbols vibrating with their own energies, signs that have “efficacy,” “efficacious likenesses,” not marks that you write down but marks that are written across you. Every spoken sentence changes the world and is in that sense a spell or hex. This is probably the clearest instance of the “regression” that Agamben makes central to his method: “the opposite of rationalization,” he calls it. If you are serious about your critique of enlightenment, you are going to need an enchanted epistemology.

So … at least it’s not the same old anti-foundationalism—a post-structuralism, then, with new emphases and possibilities. Indeed, one of the more conspicuous features of Agamben’s reflections on “method” is that they actually add up to some pretty strong and decidedly un-skeptical claims about the nature of social reality. How one studies the world is premised on an already robust idea about how the world really is. This is clearest in the book’s first essay, which explains Agamben’s notion of “paradigms”—it would help if you could set to one side whatever you currently think that word means and let Agamben explain it for himself. He is, above all, trying to explain what Foucault had in mind when he said that the panopticon was the nineteenth century’s representative institution, or what Agamben himself wants to say when he makes the same claim, for the twentieth century, about the concentration camp. These two, the panopticon and the camp, are paradigms—not their respective eras’ most powerful institutions, at least not by any of the usual metrics, and not their most frequently encountered institutions—but the pattern or model for all manner of other agencies, and so the key to the latter’s intelligibility. To examine in detail a Regency-era prison is actually to describe five or six other institutions all at once: hospitals, elementary schools, mental asylums, army barracks, nearly any public street in Britain in 2010. The prison itself serves as a kind of extended sociological analogy, even a kind of “allegory”—the word is Agamben’s own. Everything is now like x.

You’ll be able to make up your own mind about the “paradigm”—about how useful it is as an explanatory device—if you bring into view its competitor concepts, the notions that it most nearly resembles and so means to replace. These are basically two: the symptom and the function. We could try to discover what functions prisons or concentration camps play in the social order at large. This would require that we attempt something like a political economy of the camps, that we try to work out what it is in the modern European state or in organized capitalism that tends to produce camps. If, alternately, we called the camps a “symptom,” we would be positing not so much function as dysfunction; the camp would be the visible mark or felt sign of an underlying sociopolitical disorder, one whose pathways and mechanisms, because not available to the eye, would still have to be analytically reconstructed. Either way, if we talk about functions or symptoms, the task in front of us is to relate camps and prisons back to the underlying order that has at least partially produced them. And this is precisely the job that Agamben is now calling off. What he likes most about the notion of “the paradigm” is that it bypasses any talk of the totality or system; it spares us from having to reconstruct anything. If you call the camp a “paradigm,” you are saying that nothing “precedes the phenomenon.” Camps and prisons are “pure occurences” that persist “independently of reference” to other institutions—“positivities,” he calls them and doesn’t blush. They are representative institutions, and they conjure up parallel institutions, but only as a string of singularities, the relationships between which are to be left, as a matter of principle, unelucidated. It isn’t even an open question, to be settled empirically, whether prisons and this or that capitalism require one another. The question is methodologically disallowed. There is pride in not asking it. His sense is that the agencies of a given historical period might congeal into a set, might adopt similar designs and follow similar procedures, might come to resemble one another, without, however, being functionally related, and the task of the social historian is only to chart the spontaneous mutation in some free-floating logic of institutions.

Here’s Agamben: “According to Aristotle’s definition, the paradigmatic gesture moves not from the particular to the whole and from the whole to the particular but from the singular to the singular.” You can attribute that idea to Aristotle, but it also sounds an awful lot like the “constellations” of Benjamin and Adorno—assemblages of singular things, not subsumed under a category or master term, but linked all the same, except only just, minimally unified, scattered fragments carefully re-collected, scraps joined with twists of wire, like an early Rauschenberg combine, the unity-of-unity-and-difference with difference dialed high in the mix. Agamben and Adorno share the idea that singularities might be linked together directly and so circumvent the abstractions that typically manhandle them. And saying as much should help us identify what is peculiar about Agamben’s thinking. For Adorno, of course, preserves the moment of the totality or the whole—he continues to speak of “capitalism” or “the administered world”—to which the constellation of singularities nonetheless provides an alternative. Hence Adorno’s in some sense entirely conventional reliance on the aesthetic: He thinks we need a better way to cognize objects and thinks, too, that art might provide it; that in the aesthetic encounter we for once apprehend objects in their singularity, without immediately subsuming them under models or formulas. In rare moments, we stop thinking like administrators and lose the names for things. The constellation is an alternative mode of cognition, a utopian counter-term, and in that sense a project, rather than, as Agamben has it, a method—a counter-systemic thinking and not a post-structuralism. The bizarre thing about Agamben—although this is a peculiarity he shares with lots and lots of other thinkers—is that he thinks that this utopian counter-term already describes our political and economic reality. It is the mistake endemic to the breed. What in Adorno remains a political task Agamben and sundry others turn into proclamation. Fired by the idea that the world should not be organized into structures and systems, they convince themselves that the world is not so organized, though where they used to take the epistemological shortcut to singularity, they are now more likely to take the ontological one: sameness cannot exist; it is existentially excluded; there is only multiplicity.

If there is a big point here, then we’ve just hit it: You can be counter-systemic, or you can be post-structuralist, but you cannot coherently be both, because once you’ve declared that there is no structure, you cannot then say you want to overturn it. Adorno thinks that a transformed world—let’s call it communism, though he wouldn’t have, as others were hogging the word—would be one in which people and objects can exist as free but linked singularities; and he thinks that we can proleptically work out the epistemology of that world-that-is-not-yet-ours, such that we can sometimes experience objects and others as though already redeemed. Agamben thinks that this utopian epistemology—the knowing of linked singularities—accurately describes the world we already inhabit, which is the society of camps and prisons.

I don’t mean to suggest that Agamben has anything nice to say about prisons and concentration camps. This is manifestly not the case. He typically presents himself as a thinker of The Catastrophe—the destruction of experience, the permanent state of exception, the generalization of Dachau, the merging of the concentration camp with everyday life, Buchenwald without end. There is, if anything, an apocalypticism in his writing, modeled again on the late Adorno and a Benjamin-about-to-die. And yet a certain utopian misdescription of the concentration camp is built into his arguments all the same, simply because he has taken the redemptive moment from negative dialectics—Adorno’s inevitably temporary reminders of how objects would appear to us once liberated from the abstractions of the exchange relation and bureaucratic reason—and locked it in place as a uniform method. The strain of this argument is often evident, as here—Agamben is trying again to sum up what he means by “paradigm”:

We can … say … that a paradigm entails a movement that goes from singularity to singularity and, without ever leaving singularity, transforms every singular case into an exemplar of a general rule that can never be stated a priori.

This is a version of what we’ve already seen: Singularities are directly joined, flush up against each other. A certain generality can be achieved, but a miraculous generality that doesn’t come at the expense of singularity, a generality without abstraction. What Agamben is saying here really isn’t all that complicated. All he means is that when you write about a prison or a concentration camp, you are writing about our general condition, but you need never exit the detail and fine grain of your description in order to make this point separately and in its generality. You can just motor on with your individualized account, immersed in the singularity of that particular institution, confident that it will stand in for other similar institutions. The problem, in this light, is the term “a priori,” which Agamben has grabbed from Kant. The rule of prisons, like the rule of camps, cannot be stated a priori. To which one would like to reply: Of course not. Of course these “rules” can’t be formulated a priori, because Agamben and Foucault are offering us a method for historical study; they are talking about historical periods, trying to identify shifts in historical experience, and historical experience is by definition not a priori. That is one of things one knows a priori about the term “a priori.” The claim, in other words, isn’t wrong. Quite the contrary: it is troublingly evident, because definitional. It’s the sort of truth you can’t insist on without making other people wonder whether you’ve really grasped the underlying issues. We can be certain, at least, that we are not dealing with a distinctive virtue of Agamben’s method; there is no philosophy whatsoever that could deliver to us a priori knowledge of Sachsenhausen or the Alleghany County Jail. What is true of “the paradigm”—what Agamben makes his boast—is true of every other historical methodology, without exception. One suspects, then, that this sentence cannot mean what it plainly says, that Agamben wants to use the term a priori to suggest a rather different claim: not that the general historical rule can’t be stated a priori, but that it can never be stated in its generality, as an abstraction. But Agamben can’t put it that way, because in that form the claim is just false. Anything that can be said about the panopticon paradigmatically could also be said generally, as an observation about a system or set of institutions, without our even having to mention the panopticon. So that’s one way to make it seem as though you have excised from your thought the structures or totalities that have not vanished from the world: You argue the obvious in order to insinuate the wrong.