Letters

Laruelle’s Kinky Syntax

Perhaps the most original and eccentric flavor of Marxism in these times is that of François Laruelle. Introduction to Non-Marxism, (Univocal, 2015) is a translation of a book from fifteen years ago, with a rather striking new last chapter. The world might now finally be ready for him. Here are some preliminary thoughts. I went in a quite different direction in Molecular Red to that Laruelle might prompt, but let’s take a preliminary look at what might lie down the other fork of that decision.

Where Althusser tried to drive a stake through the heart of Hegelian readings of Marx, Laruelle drives a stake through that stake, refusing all philosophical interpretation of Marx in toto. He turns away from both the Hegelian and also the Spinozist supplements to Marx. Laruelle: “Folding Spinoza (rather than Hegel) into Marx allows us to gain… the Real and its causality, the refusal of origin and end, refusal of ontological causality, but this gain is neither radical nor ‘complete’…” (77)

Marxism does not need to be supplemented by any philosophy. On the contrary, its kernel is foreign to philosophy and irreducible to it. Reducing the philosophical component of Marxism is Laruelle’s goal. It begins with a suppression of needless premises. But for Laruelle this is not – and more’s the pity – a “regression” to a vulgar Marxism. But at least it “spares us the vicious cycle of a Marxism applied to itself with the surreptitious aid of a philosophy.” (3)

Laruelle sets out to construct his Non-Marxism by taking as its object both capitalism and philosophy, which together constitute a World. Non-Marxism’s central concept is determination in the last instance (DLI) which Althusser borrowed from Engels, and which in Laruelle receives the most radical formulation. “Alone, without the dialectic, DLI forms the identity of the scientific and the philosophical.” (7) It no longer means determination by the economic or the material but by the Real.

Materialism is a half-philosophy for Laruelle, as it was for Bogdanov, but where Bogdanov opts to grow a Marxism out of the labor point of view, Laruelle heads in the opposite direction and substitutes for materialism a thought of the immanent Real. Both are critical of materialist philosophy as one where “matter and thought, being and consciousness continue to reciprocally determine each other within an all-encompassing philosophy….” (9)

This is particularly clear in attempts to erect a Dialectical Materialist philosophy over Marx’s Historical Materialist practice of knowledge production. From Althusser to Zizek, these inevitably reduce the latter to the former, and make of Dialectical Materialism a philosophy that is a materialism without matter, or with a mere concept of matter. But Laruelle resists the contrary move, of sheering the philosophical overgrowth off from an Historical Materialism. His solution instead is a Real without philosophy.

There might be two paths, then. The Bogdanovite low theory path dispenses with philosophy as legislator for a practice of organizing knowledge where low theory acts as a reservoir of metaphors to be ported between fields and tested against experience, all the while paying close attention to which metaphors are in use, and favoring those from the worlds of collaborative labor. This is Bogdanov’s tektology; it is also a close-enough description of Donna Haraway’s practice.

Laruelle’s gambit is quite the reverse: it is that there is a high theory path even over and above philosophy. It has one Bogdanovite element, interestingly enough, to which Alex Galloway has drawn attention: Laruelle sees philosophy as caught in a metaphorical world of exchange relations. There’s always a transaction, whether of dialectics or difference, with which the Real can be put into play. Laruelle refuses all exchange with the Real, and yet also withholds from it the status of an Absolute.

Another way to think this is that Laruelle refuses to subordinate philosophy to science or vice-versa. Dialectical Materialism is not exactly a pure philosophy; Historical Materialism is hardly anything like a pure science. Each is tangled up in the other. Hence it is not really even possible to expunge the philosophy from Historical Materialism; and even though various Marxist philosophies, whether they call themselves Dialectical Materialism or not, have tried to be legislators for what is good science, none have succeeded. Laruelle would rather think Marxism as another genre, one which posits a radical unification of philosophy and science under the primacy of the determination in the last instance of both philosophy and science by the Real.

Laruelle: “… philosophy on the whole is in a posture that is excessively ambitious in relation to reality.” It is a desire for the Real that functions according to what Laruelle elsewhere jokingly calls the principle of sufficient philosophy: that there is nothing which, from philosophy’s point of view, it cannot think. Laruelle thinks the failure of Marxism not as this or that bad concept or bad result, but as a giving-in to this desire for the Real as if it were something with which thought had commerce.

Laruelle: “there is nothing to actualize in Marx: his failure is his relevance.” It’s a question of radicalizing his own categories, particularly that of the DLI. Laruelle’s Non-Marxism is a repetition of Marxism thought relentlessly through one of its categories – the DLI. “Marxism is not abstract because of some terrible philosophy that would move it away from history, but because of too much philosophy that plunges it into history.” (21) Non-Marxism has to bracket both history as history of capitalism and philosophy as thought of capitalism off together as determined in the last instance by the Real, with which neither philosophy nor capitalism has any real relations of exchange.

Non-Marxism recovers and generalized Marx’s theoretical style, which in its odd moments managed to be something other than another philosophy, or for that matter a social science. To the extent that philosophy has a founding principle it is that being = thinking. Whereas for Laruelle, the central category is the Real, which is neither being nor thought. But the price here is that the object of thought ceases to be empirical. Whether Non-Marxism can have anything more than a negative and critical function is yet to be seen.

Laruelle wants to sever Marx from any merely philosophical concept of the Real. In the ‘Theses on Feuerbach,’ Marx declares that philosophy has only interpreted the world, the point is to change it. But this is still a philosophical ambition. What philosophy aims to change is what Laruelle will call (not without a certain wit) superstructures, which indeed retain a relative autonomy. Philosophy, including Marxist philosophy, can have reciprocal relations of exchange with the world, but only with the capital-world, with superstructures, while the infrastructure is only available as an immanent Real.

So to sum up so far, the program of Laruelle’s Non-Marxism is: firstly, universalizing the concept of base or infrastructure; secondly, to posit a base foreclosed to every superstructure; thirdly, to posit a determination in the last instance that as a kind of non-ontological causality; fourthly, to unify science and philosophy as both subject to this unilateral causality from the Real. The concept of DLI has thus been transferred from the social-historical terrain and become a kind of formal ‘axiom’ or perhaps decision.

Laruelle: “Non-Marxism consists in uni-versalizing in-the-last-instance.” (28) Marxism is a limited form of a unified theory, or a symptom of it. Its ‘materialism’ is only a temporary anti-idealist, anti-philosophical thesis. It only works once. Materialism keeps getting made philosophically acceptable, via existence (Sartre), structure (Althusser), deconstruction (Derrida) and so on. Laruelle: “So many philosophies destined to supply it with a supplement of intelligibility and concreteness, of some semi-abstraction. Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc., are perhaps like Noah’s cloak intended to cover this apparent lack of philosophy, an original incompetence that is itself philosophical.” (33)

Laruelle is thus on a very different path to either forms of Dialectical Materialism (probably now mostly extinct) or the various attempts at a philosophy ‘for’ Marx. Laruelle: “The philosophical history of Marxism is that of a war of appropriation and idealist reconquest, while its real history is that of its failure, its violence and what is undoubtedly joined with it, its theoretical incompleteness that motivates philosophical desire.” (34) Rather than a philosophical ‘cure’ for what ails Marxism, to cure Marxism of philosophy itself, to wean it off this addictive pharmakon.

This would be an impoverishment of Marxism, which does rather press one to ask why anyone ever thought it ought to offer philosophical ‘riches.’ Laruelle returns again and again to the same axiom, determination in the last instance, which is neither political nor scientific nor philosophical. It is a infrastructure radically foreclosed to every action of a superstructure.

I am reminded here of the great (non)novels of Andrey Platonov, where the superstructures are always being build and rebuilt, but where various gestures stand-in for an impossible infrastructure, be in the pure negativity of the pit being dug in Foundation Pit, or the grating wind in Soul or the bottom of the lake in Chevengur. Platonov is the great thinker of the impoverished and hence a Laruellian Non-Platonov seems like a miraculously barren project, and hence worth conceiving.

Laruelle would perhaps see Platonov as complicit in the confusion of the immanent real with matter, although the constantly impoverished and disorganized state of matter in Platonov is a fair stand-in for the Real. Certainly, Platonov is aware of the heretical nature of this line of thought. It’s the other side to the principle of sufficient philosophy: perhaps a principle of sufficient reality. Not just that thought is adequate to the Real but that the Real ought to be adequately ‘rich’ when thought. Heresy might be the thought of a world both impoverished and unavailable – which in the superstructural world of philosophy cum capital is much the same thing.

The rather special causality Laruelle has in mind has two parts. The first is best expressed in his own words: “So it is not a matter of ‘difference’, of the con-extension of the One and the Two, of the One that is Two and of the Two that is One in some reversible way. It seems, instead, that DLI must be irreversible, the One is only One, even with the Two, and the Two forms a Two with a One only from its point of view as the Two.” (42) This is the rather strange quality of unilateral duality. Its only exchange on the side of the Two.

The phrase “point of view” rather leaps out here to me. What makes philosophy of a piece with capitalism is sharing a point of view where exchange is possible. Bogdanov’s approach to worldviews is to see then as metaphorical extensions (what he calls substitutions) from real social relations. In this sense he sees the distinction between religion and philosophy is that the former substitutes from authoritarian relations and the latter from exchange relations. Hence for the former there’s always a non-reciprocal first or last cause, a God or Gods; whereas for the latter this first or last cause is replaced by exchange itself. Actual worldviews then tend naturally to mix these two principles. The question with Laruelle is then whether it can be more than a returning back to the authoritarian world view and its first or last causes.

The second part of Laruelle’s causality, his “syntax without synthesis” (42) runs like this: “every secondary causality, as multiple as it is, is only taken into account and introduced within the final ‘reckoning’ on the condition of ‘passing’ through the principle causality or through the infrastructure, toward which the secondary causality is by definition ‘indebted’..” (42) Exchange, or the superstructure, might be plural or dialectical, but its multiplicity only ‘counts’ via an infrastructure with which it has no relation of exchange. The metaphorical substitutions are interesting here, even if Laruelle puts them in quotes.

DLI is not one of the classical four causes (final, formal, material, efficient). It is moreover a cause without a whole, without synthesis, and without expression. The Real is without Being. “The primacy is not that of matter over consciousness, but of the real One over the dyad of matter/consciousness, Being/life, but also the dyad of practice/theory… “ (45) Laruelle substitutes this unilateral duality for contradiction, struggle, division.

DLI even implies the refusal of the material as cause: “materialism is a kind of neighboring symptom of the immanent Real.” (49) The Real is heterogeneous to thought and yet determines it – a process Laruelle captures with a particularly interesting metaphorical substitution he calls it cloning. The clone is unilaterally produced without reciprocity or exchange.

Other revealing uses of language in Laruelle include his contrast of the “given without giveness” (55) of radical immance, of the Real, with the “given by giveness” within the superstructures. One is reminded here of Derrida’s famous account of the impossibility of the pure, non-reciprocal gift. And yet that is what the Real is in Laruelle: the non-reciprocal gift. This might be what saves Non-Marxism, and his Non-Philosophy in general, from being a theology, or at least any kind but the most negative: that there is no possible reciprocity with the Real. This I think is the path taken by my New School colleague Eugene Thacker.

So on the one hand, the given without giveness, and on the other, the given by giveness, or reciprocity and exchange. The latter has no effect on the former: “everything remains as it is or remains inalienable despite this capitalist transcendence.” (55) It is an astonishing thought: that of a Real untouched by exchange, a Real unknown and unknowable to capital. “Non-Marxism’s gesture is to immediately grant itself the uni(-)versality of capitalism and its theory, instead of attempting to conquer it step by step through the complication of axioms.” (57) That thought alone is worth the ‘price’ of entry into the thickets of Laruelle’s kinky syntax.

McKenzie Wark

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