How art can create a new future: Stephen Zepke, Sublime Art

Stephen Zepke's Sublime Art forthcoming in EUP Crosscurrents series

I am delighted to report that Stephen Zepke’s Sublime Art is nearing publication, with the cover now being proofed.

How art can create a new future
Sublime art exceeds the present. It is an undetermined expression that in coming into being creates new universals, new modes of life and new coefficients of freedom.
Stephen Zepke tracks this movement from its beginnings in Kant to its flowering in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He shows that in the work of Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Rancière and finally in the recent philosophy of Speculative Realism the idea of sublime art waxes and wanes, and with it a visionary politics of art that seeks to give it the most creative power possible, the power to overcome our conditions and embrace the unknown.

 

‘Stephen Zepke is already known as a considerable philosopher of the new. In these pages he expertly navigates the inconsistent legacies of Kantian aesthetics with the goal of regaining the political and philosophical potentialities of sublime art and its role in difficult eruptions of the new. Zepke’s analyses range across a continuum of discomfort attributed to the sublime through exquisitely crafted chapters that counterpoise Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida and Rancière. This book may have absorbed its subject so well that its readers will be left in tatters.’
Gary Genosko, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

 

‘A remarkable book that explores the reception of Kant’s theory of the sublime in Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, Rancière and Derrida, as well as in more recent philosophical movements such as Speculative Realism and Accelerationism. But Zepke is an equally astute observer of the art world, and he simultaneously examines the role that this “sublime aesthetics” has (or has not) played in contemporary artistic production and political struggles. Sublime Art is not only the definitive analysis of the reception of the Kantian sublime, but a visionary manifesto for the aesthetics of the future.’
Daniel W. Smith, Purdue University

 

Sublime Art is available for pre-order on Amazon here, and a full list of titles in the Crosscurrents series, as well as instructions on how to submit a proposal, can be found here.

My article on Jacques Rancière and the Death of the Author out in Philosophy and Literature

I am delighted to be able to report that my article “Rewriting the Death of the Author: Rancièrian Reflections” is finally available in Philosophy and Literature.

Abstract: For decades now, critics of the “death of the author” thesis have worked themselves up about a paradox that supposedly undermines Barthes’s and Foucault’s treatment of the theme: these French theorists cannot banish the authorial voice from their own writing. Taking a lead from Jacques Rancière, this article tells a different story of the death of the author, one that makes better sense of this supposed case of double standards and that uses Nietzsche’s ideas on authorship to show that Barthes and Foucault are doing something much more powerful and interesting than simply contradicting themselves.

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A table showing who is part of the new materialism, and an argument as to why it is not a “turn”

I’m currently writing the introduction to The Human Remains, discussing the figure of the human in the new materialism. I thought I would share the table I drew up of all the thinkers identified as part of the new materialism in different monographs and collected volumes. I have excluded individual journal articles from the list below in order to keep it under a page, and the table also excludes occasional references to the term “new materialism” by writers in the list (Catherine Malabou, for example, uses the term on a number of occasions).

Some of these texts employ the “new materialism” tag explicitly, while others have been included because the themes they identify in contemporary thought overlap substantially with at least some of the main concerns of NM. I was inspired by the table drawn up by Joe Hughes in his review of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy for NDPR.

If you think I’ve missed any important entries, let me know and I’ll update the table. It does not attempt to be exhaustive, but it does attempt to include all the main book-length treatments of the new materialism. The full bibliographical references are given below the table.

new materialist thinkers, ordered alphabetically

Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne: re.press, 2011.

Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Crockett, Clayton, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Crockett, Clayton, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dobrin, Sidney I. Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media: Writing Ecology. London: Taylor & Francis, 2011.

Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press, 2012.

Galloway, Alexander R. Les Nouveaux Réalistes. Paris: Editions Léo Scheer, 2012.

Gratton, Peter. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Hallward, Peter. “The One and the Other: French Philosophy Today.” Angelaki 8, no. 2 (2003).

James, Ian. The New French Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

Johnston, Adrian. Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013.

Mullarkey, John. Post-Continental Philosophy. Transversals. edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson London: Continuum, 2006.

Pfeifer, Geoff. The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek. London: Routledge, 2015.

 

Here is a passage from the introduction to The Human Remains, sketching why I think it misleading to refer to the new materialism as a “turn”. The extract jumps in towards the end of a reading of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy:

In the final paragraph of the introduction to The New French Philosophy, James makes a brief but very telling remark: “these philoso­phers seek to renew the way in which they think, to transform the manner in which they come to write philosophy itself” (James 2012: 16). In his conclusion James returns to this idea in order to establish a three-fold chain of influence which accounts for the emergence of the new materialism, a chain which leads from a demand, through a technique, to a philosophy. The new materialism, he argues, has heeded a new demand and generated in response to that demand a new technique or techniques, which have in turn produced the philosophy that we now call “new materialism”. The demand is issued by the real:

it can be argued that a transformation in philosophical practice or technique has occurred in response to the necessity of rethinking the real outside of the linguistic paradigm and in response to the necessity of repo­sitioning of the real itself as immanent to the techniques or technicity of thought. […] The task of thought which these philosophers take up, and the demand of thought to which they respond, is one of thinking material immanence and worldly, shared existence. They do so by way of techniques which affirm themselves as resolutely mate­rial. (James 2012: 187,8)

What I find compelling about James’s analysis at this point is that, with the emergence in French thought of what is coming to be called the “new materialism”, we are dealing not only with a new set of thoughts but with a new way of thinking, not just of new philosophy but at least new “technique”, and perhaps a little more as well. There are parallels to be drawn here with the emergence of “postmodernism”, however unwieldy we consider that term to be.

This is why it is misleading to speak of a “turn to the material”. The genus “turn” comes in two prepositional species: the “turn in” and the “turn to”. Perhaps the classic example of the first variant is the “theological turn in French phenomenology”. He we have a relatively consistent (though contested) theoretical framework, namely phenomenology, deployed to investigate new sets of phenomena, namely theological ones. This “turn” is a relatively modest change, and that is why it has courted such controversy. If the theological phenomenologists were claiming to be doing something completely new, departing radically from phenomenology, then the non-theological phenomenologists would not feel the need to enter the lists against them. This sort of “turn in” is an extension of a way of thinking that already exists. Turns “to” cover much the same ground. A technique of thinking that already exists turns to redirect its critical and analytic gaze onto a new subject matter or a new problem. A cursory Google search turns up “the turn to technology in social studies of science”, “the affective turn in philosophy”, the turn to religion in early modern English studies“ and “the turn to community in the arts”. To describe the new materialism in these terms would misunderstand what it is. As James rightly points out, it is not just that something new is being thought about, but that thinking is happening in a new way, with a new technique and a new style.

I would, however, nuance and develop James’s helpful account in two ways. First, the influence of the demand on the technique and the technique on the philosophy should not be thought to be unidirectional. Secondly, I would question the extent to which we can differentiate between a new demand and a new capacity or predisposition to apprehend and respond to a demand. I want to re-frame James’s new demand as what I will call a new “disposition”. Disposition is to technique as technique is to the content of philosophy.

A philosophical disposition includes, to be sure, a new fundamental set of assumptions about the nature of reality, but it articulates and deploys those assumptions as part of a new way of holding oneself in the world and new style of writing which are just as fundamental as the assumptions that take root in their soil. Such a new disposition informs and engenders not only a new set of concepts and ideas, and not just a new set of philosophical questions, themes, and areas of investigation but also, along with them, new rhythms of language and of engagement with the world, along with a demand for a new way and rhythm of reading.

[…at this point in the introduction I work through the notion of “disposition” systematically. I’ll cut to the concluding paragraph…]

What is captured by evoking a new disposition but missed when we refer merely to a new “turn”, “event” or “technique” is that the change we are witnessing with the rise of the new materialism implies and predisposes not only to a way of thinking and writing but to away of holding oneself in the world, and that this in turn brings forth a new world, where “world” is understood as the objects, concerns and ideas that appear to a particular philosophical disposition, and that appear important. It is not only that certain things appear more important than before (that would be a “turn”), nor that certain things appear simpliciter, in the sense that they are now written about when previously they were not considered at all (that would be an “event”), but that a new way of holding oneself in the world brings forth a new set of concerns, objects and ideas that also in turn form and inform that same emerging disposition.

I then go on in the introduction to relate my notion of “disposition” to ideas from Jean-Luc Nancy and other thinkers.

 

Next week I plan to press on with re-drafting the first chapter, which deals with Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricœur’s respective readings of Spinoza in What Makes us Think? and elsewhere.

Update on current books: _The Human Remains_ and _Humanity After God_

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Since giving a brief sketch of my current research project in January 2014, the focus of The Human Remains has tightened and developed. I have moved the material on the imago dei motif out of this book and into a new project in which I want to look at eikon and mimesis, image and imitation, as twin figures of the human in the Western tradition, teasing out the theological implications of both, as well as their relation to each other. The project will draw heavily on Quentin Meillassoux and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, inter alia. The tentative title of this book is Humanity After God.

That leaves The Human Remains with a more focused argument about the complexities of situating the human, along with its attendant notions of dignity and equality, in the landscape of contemporary French thought. THR will have chapters on Jean-Pierre Changeux, Catherine Malabou, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paul Ricoeur and Michel Serres.

Ex uno plures!

Current Research: The Human Remains

Leonardo skullI am currently working on a book provisionally entitled The Human Remains: French Philosophy in the Image of God. The first part of the book looks at the ways in which the imago dei motif is explicitly taken up in contemporary French thought. The second, longer part takes debates from the philosophical reception of the imago dei motif and uses them to provide a fresh comparative reading of contemporary French philosophical anthropology in its humanist, post-humanist, neuroscientific and ecological guises. Chapters discuss Catherine Malabou, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Pierre Changeux, Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean-Luc Marion and Michel Serres. The book’s thesis is that the human persists in contemporary thought, however radically altered its trace might be from traditional philosophical understandings. In order to argue that point it shows how reading contemporary thought through the lens of the imago dei motif helps us see how very different accounts of the human can be made to talk to and critique one another.

Thinking Equality Today: Badiou, Rancière, Nancy

French Studies

My article ‘Thinking Equality Today: Badiou, Rancière, Nancy’ has just been published in French Studies. You can click through to a PDF version from this page.

The article is part of the project on humanism and anti-humanism I am working on at the moment. I argue that Badiou and Rancière both end up, despite themselves, with problematic understandings of equality because they both hitch their understanding of the human being to the wagon of a particular determinate capacity. Nancy, on the other hand, in seeking to decouple the human from any determinate capacity or capacities, has to address a different set of problems in relation to equality. In the article I conclude with a preference for Nancy’s set of problems, but the wider question raised by the article’s analysis, and that I deal with in the broader project, is whether it is possible to understand the human neither as hostage to determinate capacities nor as detached from capacities altogether, and so avoid both sets of problems laid out in this French Studies article. I think you can, but I don’t think that Badiou, Rancière or Nancy give us the tools to do it.

Abstract: Recent work on Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière has rightly identified equality both as a central theme in their own thinking and as the key notion in contemporary radical political thought more broadly, but a focus on the differences between their respective accounts of equality has failed to clarify a major problem that they share. The problem is that human equality is said to rest on a particular human capacity, leaving Badiou’s axiomatic equality and Rancière’s assumed equality vulnerable to the charge of having a blind spot for some of society’s most vulnerable. This article introduces an alternative understanding of equality drawn from the thought of Jean-Luc Nancy, an equality that does not rely on a human capacity to guarantee or verify it but rests on Nancy’s notion of sense. The article explores the advantages of Nancy’s account of equality in relation to sense over and against an alternative reading that focuses on Nancy’s evocation of the suffering human body, before addressing, in conclusion, the problems with which Nancy’s idea of equality will have to grapple, and why, despite these problems, it is still preferable to the Badiouian and Rancièrian approaches.

Rewriting the Death of the Author with Jacques Rancière

BarthesI was pleased to hear this week that a piece I’ve written on the death of the author has been accepted by Philosophy and Literature. The article is entitled ‘Rewriting the Death of the Author: Rancièrian Reflections’ and it re-thinks the death of the author in the light of Jacques Rancière’s little essay ‘Auteur mort ou artiste trop vivant?’: ‘The death of the author or the life of the artist?’ in Chronicles of Consensual Times (London: Continuum, 2010) pp. 101-105. This reading of the death of the author will eventually provide part of the groundwork for the project on humanisms (including post- and anti-humanism) in contemporary French thought.

Here is the abstract:

For decades critics of the death of the author have worked themselves up about a paradox which supposedly undermines Barthes’ and Foucault’s work on the theme: these theorists cannot banish the authorial voice from their own writing. Taking a lead from Jacques Rancière this article tells a different story of the death of the author, one that makes better sense of this supposed case of double standards, refutes the paradox thesis and uses Nietzsche’s ideas on authorship to show that Barthes and Foucault are doing something much more powerful and interesting than simply contradicting themselves.