a review of Alexander R. Galloway, Laruelle: Against the Digital
by Andrew Culp
Alexander R. Galloway’s forthcoming Laruelle: Against the Digital is a welcome and original entry in the discussion of French theorist François Laruelle’s thought. The book is at once both pedagogical and creative: it succinctly summarizes important aspects of Laruelle’s substantial oeuvre by placing his thought within the more familiar terrain of popular philosophies of difference (most notably the work of Gilles Deleuze and Alain Badiou) and creatively extends Laruelle’s work through a series of fourteen axioms.
The book is a bridge between current Anglophone scholarship on Laruelle, which largely treats Laruelle’s non-standard philosophy through an extension of problematics common to contemporary continental philosophy (Mullarkey 2006, Mullarkey and Smith 2012, Smith 2013, Gangle 2013, Kolozova 2014), and such scholarship’s maturation, which blazes new territory because it takes thought to be “an exercise in perpetual innovation” (Brassier 2003, 25). As such, Laruelle: Against the Digital stands out from other scholarship in that it is not primarily a work of exposition or application of the axioms laid out by Laruelle. This approach is apparent from the beginning, where Galloway declares that he is not a foot soldier in Laruelle’s army and he does not proceed by way of Laurelle’s “non-philosophical” method (a method so thoroughly abstract that Laruelle appears to be the inheritor of French rationalism, though in his terminology, philosophy should remain only as “raw material” to carry thinking beyond philosophy’s image of thought). The significance of Galloway’s Laruelle is that he instead produces his own axioms, which follow from non-philosophy but are of his own design, and takes aim at a different target: the digital.
The Laruellian Kernel
Are philosophers no better than creationists? Philosophers may claim to hate irrationalist leaps of faith, but Laruelle locates such leaps precisely in philosophers’ own narcissistic origin stories. This argument follows from Chapter One of Galloway’s Laruelle, which outlines how all philosophy begins with the world as ‘fact.’ For example: the atomists begin with change, Kant with empirical judgment, and Fichte with the principle of identity. And because facts do not speak for themselves, philosophy elects for itself a second task — after establishing what ‘is’ — inventing a form of thought to reflect on the world. Philosophy thus arises out of a brash entitlement: the world exists to be thought. Galloway reminds us of this through Gottfried Leibniz, who tells us that “everything in the world happens for a specific reason” (and it is the job of philosophers to identify it), and Alfred North Whitehead, who alternatively says, “no actual entity, then no reason” (so it is up to philosophers to find one).
For Laruelle, various philosophies are but variations on a single approach that first begins by positing how the world presents itself, and second determines the mode of thought that is the appropriate response. Between the two halves, Laruelle finds a grand division: appearance/presence, essence/instance, Being/beings. Laruelle’s key claim is that philosophy cannot think the division itself. The consequence is that such a division is tantamount to cheating, as it wills thought into being through an original thoughtless act. This act of thoughtlessly splitting of the world in half is what Laruelle calls “the philosophical decision.”
Philosophy need not wait for Laruelle to be demoted, as it has already done this for itself; no longer the queen of the sciences, philosophy seems superfluous to the most harrowing realities of contemporary life. The recent focus on Laruelle did indeed come from a reinvigoration of philosophy that goes under the name ‘speculative realism.’ Certainly there are affinities between Laruelle and these philosophers — the early case was built by Ray Brassier, who emphasizes that Laruelle earnestly adopts an anti-correlationalist position similar to the one suggested by Quentin Meillassoux and distances himself from postmodern constructivism as much as other realists, all by positing the One as the Real. It is on the issue of philosophy, however, that Laruelle is most at odds with the irascible thinkers of speculative realism, for non-philosophy is not a revolt against philosophy nor is it a patronizing correction of how others see reality. 1 Galloway argues that non-philosophy should be considered materialist. He attributes to Laruelle a mix of empiricism, realism, and materialism but qualifies non-philosophy’s approach to the real as not a matter of the givenness of empirical reality but of lived experience (vécu) (Galloway, Laruelle, 24-25). The point of non-philosophy is to withdraw from philosophy by short-circuiting the attempt to reflect on what supposedly exists. To be clear: such withdrawal is not an anti-philosophy. Non-philosophy suspends philosophy, but also raids it for its own rigorous pursuit: an axiomatic investigation of the generic. 2
From Decision to Digital
A sharp focus on the concept of “the digital” is Galloway’s main contribution — a concept not in the forefront of Laruelle’s work, but of great interest to all of us today. Drawing from non-philosophy’s basic insight, Galloway’s goal in Laruelle is to demonstrate the “special connection” shared by philosophy and digital (15). Galloway asks his readers to consider a withdrawal from digitality that is parallel to the non-philosophical withdrawal from philosophy.
Just as Laruelle discovered the original division to which philosophy must remain silent, Galloway finds that the digital is the “basic distinction that makes it a possible to make any distinction at all” (Laruelle, 26). Certainly the digital-analog opposition survives this reworking, but not as one might assume. Gone are the usual notions of online-offline, new-old, stepwise-continuous variation, etc. To maintain these definitions presupposes the digital, or as Galloway defines it, “the capacity to divide things and make distinctions between them” (26). Non-philosophy’s analogy for the digital thus becomes the processes of distinction and decision themselves.
The dialectic is where Galloway provocatively traces the history of digitality. This is because he argues that digitality is “not so much 0 and 1” but “1 and 2” (Galloway, Laruelle, 26). Drawing on Marxist definitions of the dialectical process, he defines the movement from one to two as analysis, while the movement from two to one is synthesis (26-27). In this way, Laruelle can say that, “Hegel is dead, but he lives on inside the electric calculator” (Introduction aux sciences génériques, 28, qtd in Galloway, Laruelle, 32). Playing Badiou and Deleuze off of each other, as he does throughout the book, Galloway subsequently outlines the political stakes between them — with Badiou establishing clear reference points through the argument that analysis is for leftists and synthesis for reactionaries, and Deleuze as a progenitor of non-philosophy still too tied to the world of difference but shrewd enough to have a Spinozist distaste for both movements of the dialectic (Laruelle, 27-30). Galloway looks to Laruelle to get beyond Badiou’s analytic leftism and Deleuze’s “Spinozist grand compromise” (30). His proposal is a withdrawal in the name of indecision that demands abstention from digitality’s attempt to “encode and simulate anything whatsoever in the universe” (31).
Insufficiency is the idea into which Galloway sharpens the stakes of non-philosophy. In doing so, he does to Laruelle what Deleuze does to Spinoza. While Deleuze refashions philosophy into the pursuit of adequate knowledge, the eminently practical task of understanding the conditions of chance encounters enough to gain the capacity to influence them, Galloway makes non-philosophy into the labor of inadequacy, a mode of thought that embraces the event of creation through a withdrawal from decision. If Deleuze turns Spinoza into a pragmatist, then Galloway turns Laruelle into a nihilist.
There are echoes of Massimo Cacciari, Giorgio Agamben, and Afro-pessimism in Galloway’s Laruelle. This is because he uses nihilism’s marriage of withdrawal, opacity, and darkness as his orientation to politics, ethics, and aesthetics. From Cacciari, Galloway borrows a politics of non-compromise. But while the Italian Autonomist Marxist milieu of which Cacciari’s negative thought is characteristic emphasizes subjectivity, non-philosophy takes the subject to be one of philosophy’s dirty sins and makes no place for it. Yet Galloway is not shy about bringing up examples, such as Bartleby, Occupy, and other figures of non-action. Though as in Agamben, Galloway’s figures only gain significance in their insufficiency. “The more I am anonymous, the more I am present” Galloway repeats from Tiqqun to axiomatically argue the centrality of opacity (233-236). There is also a strange affinity between Galloway and Afro-pessimists, who both oppose the integrationist tendencies of representational systems ultimately premised on the exclusion, exploitation, and elimination of blackness. In spite of potential differences, they both define blackness as absolute foreclosure to being; from which, Galloway is determined to “channel that great saint of radical blackness, Toussaint Louveture,” in order to bring about a “cataclysm of human color” through the “blanket totality of black” that “renders color invalid” and brings about “a new uchromia, a new color utopia rooted in the generic black universe” (188-189). What remains an open question is: how does such a formulation of the generic depart from the philosophy of difference’s becoming-minor, whereby the liberation must first pass through the figures of the woman, the fugitive, and the foreigner?
Actually Existing Digitality
One could read Laruelle not as urging thought to become more practical, but to become less so. Evidence for such a claim comes in his retreat to dense abstract writing and a strong insistence against providing examples. Each is an effect of non-philosophy’s approach, which is both rigorous and generic. Although possibly justified, there are those who stylistically object to Laruelle for taking too many liberties with his prose; most considerations tend make up for such flights of fancy by putting non-philosophy in communication with more familiar philosophies of difference (Mullarkey 2006; Kolozova 2014). Yet the strangeness of the non-philosophical method is not a stylistic choice intended to encourage reflection. Non-philosophy is quite explicitly not a philosophy of difference — Laruelle’s landmark Philosophies of Difference is an indictment of Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Derrida, and Deleuze. To this end, non-philosophy does not seek to promote thought through marginality, Otherness, or any other form of alterity.
Readers who have henceforth been frustrated with non-philosophy’s impenetrability may be more attracted to the second part of Galloway’s Laruelle. In part two, Galloway addresses actually existing digitality, such as computers and capitalism. This part also includes a contribution to the ethical turn, which is premised on a geometrically neat set of axioms whereby ethics is the One and politics is the division of the One into two. He develops each chapter through numerous examples, many of them concrete, that helps fold non-philosophical terms into discussions with long-established significance. For instance, Galloway makes his way through a chapter on art and utopia with the help of James Turrell’s light art, Laruelle’s Concept of Non-Photography, and August von Briesen’s automatic drawing (194-218). The book is over three hundred-pages long, so most readers will probably appreciate the brevity of many of the chapters in part two. The chapters are short enough to be impressionistic while implying that treatments as fully rigorous as what non-philosophy often demands may be much longer.
While his diagrammatical thinking is very clear, I find it more difficult to determine during Galloway’s philosophical expositions whether he is embracing or criticizing a concept. The difficulty of such determinations is compounded by the ambivalence of the non-philosophical method, which adopts philosophy as its raw material while simultaneously declaring that philosophical concepts are insufficient. My second fear is that while Galloway is quite adept at wielding his reworked concept of ‘the digital,’ his own trademark rigor may be lost when taken up by less judicious scholars. In particular, his attack on digitality could form the footnote for a disingenuous defense of everything analog.
There is also something deeper at stake: What if we are in the age of non-representation? From the modernists to Rancière and Occupy, we have copious examples of non-representational aesthetics and politics. But perhaps all previous philosophy has only gestured at non-representational thought, and non-philosophy is the first to realize this goal. If so, then a fundamental objection could be raised about both Galloway’s Laruelle and non-philosophy in general: is non-philosophy properly non-thinking or is it just plain not thinking? Galloway’s axiomatic approach is a refreshing counterpoint to Laruelle’s routine circumlocution. Yet a number of the key concepts that non-philosophy provides are still frustratingly elusive. Unlike the targets of Laruelle’s criticism, Derrida and Deleuze, non-philosophy strives to avoid the obscuring effects of aporia and paradox — so is its own use of opacity simply playing coy, or to be understood purely as a statement that the emperor has no clothes? While I am intrigued by anexact concepts such as ‘the prevent,’ and I understand the basic critique of the standard model of philosophy, I am still not sure what non-philosophy does. Perhaps that is an unfair question given the sterility of the One. But as Hardt and Negri remind us in the epigraph to Empire, “every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.” We now know that non-philosophy cuts — what remains to be seen, is where and how deeply.
Andrew Culp is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Rhetoric Studies at Whitman College. He specializes in cultural-communicative theories of power, the politics of emerging media, and gendered responses to urbanization. In his current project, Escape, he explores the apathy, distraction, and cultural exhaustion born from the 24/7 demands of an ‘always-on’ media-driven society. His work has appeared Radical Philosophy, Angelaki, Affinities, and other venues.
1. There are two qualifications worth mentioning: first, Laruelle presents non-philosophy as a scientific enterprise. There is little proximity between non-philosophy’s scientific approach and other sciences, such as techno-science, big science, scientific modernity, modern rationality, or the scientific method. Perhaps it is closest to Althusser’s science, but some more detailed specification of this point would be welcome.
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2. Galloway lays out the non-philosophy of generic immanence, The One, in Chapter Two of Laruelle. Though important, Galloway’s main contribution is not a summation of Laruelle’s version of immanence and thus not the focus of this review. Substantial summaries of this sort are already available, including Mullarkey 2006, and Smith 2013.
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Brassier, Ray (2003) “Axiomatic Heresy: The Non-Philosophy of François Laruelle,” Radical Philosophy 121.
Gangle, Rocco (2013) François Laruelle’s Philosophies of Difference (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press).
Kolozova, Katerina (2014) Cut of the Real (New York, USA: Columbia University Press).
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri (2000) Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Laruelle, François (2010/1986) Philosophies of Difference (London, UK and New York, USA: Continuum).
Laruelle, François (2011) Concept of Non-Photography (Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic).
Mullarkey, John (2006) Post-Continental Philosophy (London, UK: Continuum).
Mullarkey, John and Anthony Paul Smith (eds) (2012) Laruelle and Non-Philosophy (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press).
Smith, Anthony Paul (2013) A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature (New York, USA: Palgrave Macmillan).