What is a theological concept? Part 4: Jean-Luc Nancy’s “something in Christianity deeper than Christianity”

In the previous post I explored Nancy’s reading of Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme as a theological moment in Badiou’s thought. But what about Nancy himself? Does his own atheism—for atheist he indeed professes to be, providing that atheism is understood in a way that avoids the Christmas projection—avoid theological concepts? In this post I want to suggest one moment in Nancy’s thought that could well be considered theological. As with Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme, my aim in these early posts in the series is not to adjudicate in any definitive way whether these philosophical moves are or are not ‘theological’; my concern here is to sketch some contours of the territory we shall be surveying in more detail in future posts, and to consider what sorts of philosophical concepts, moments and moves are liable to be called ‘theological’.

Nancy himself does not see atheism as a decision that ruptures from theistic thought, but as contemporaneous with—as well as the consummation of—monotheism: monotheism is an atheism (La Déclosion[1] 27/Dis-Enclosure[2] 14). The trajectory of atheistic thought for Nancy begins as far back as Xenophanes and his tirades against the anthropomorphic gods, a rejection of immanent deity that is only accelerated by the singular theos of Plato which replaces the paradigm of gods and mortals inhabiting the same space with the ontological distance that the name ‘God’ will henceforth measure (DDC 29/DisDC 16). The invention of atheism and the invention of theism are contemporaneous and correlative, because they both rely on what Nancy calls ‘le paradigme principiel’ (DDC 29/DisDC 16), the principial paradigm, which seeks to establish, or to put into question, the principle or archē of the world, the axiological reason for what is given. Theism and atheism are bound by their complicity in this principial paradigm in a way that the assertion of atheism and the denial of theism simply reinforces. Here, theism and atheism stand or fall together; neither can survive the other.

Nancy critiques this logic of the principle, shared by theism and atheism alike, as being either inconsistent or incomplete. Its great weakness is at the moment of the positing of the principle itself, the ‘in the beginning there was (not)…’ Whether it is affirmed or denied, this originary moment can only ever collapse into its own affirmation or denial (DDC 37/DisDC 22). Either 1) a principle must make itself an exception to its own ‘principiality’ in an ever-repeated (bad infinite) gesture, or 2) it must confirm itself as an equally recurring bad infinite. It must except itself from its own ‘principiality’ in the sense that, while everything that follows it must be accounted for in its terms (in terms of ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ or ‘All is matter…’ or ‘All is history…’ etc.), no such constraint is demanded (or indeed possible) in the case of the principle itself. Or it must confirm itself infinitely in the sense of an infinite regress: it must account for its own principle, and the principle of that principle, and so on to infinity… If the principle is complete, it is not consistent, and if it is consistent, it is not complete.

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.

 

Nancy and the self-surpassing of religion

Nancy’s own position is framed by the need to, and impossibility of, escaping this theo-logic of parasitic imitation, as Derrida warns in On Touching: ‘This is not about being free from harm, safe, and saved, seeking one’s salvation or immunity outside of Christianity. These values would still be Christian’ (On Touching 220).

Nancy is aware of this danger of seeking to bootstrap his way to post-theological thinking, and in L’Adoration he articulates his own position not in terms of a rupture with Christianity but rather as a claim to be faithful to something in Christianity deeper than Christianity itself, for which God is only the ‘front man’ (Adoration[3] 31-2):

Whereas the Qu’ran states that God created mankind in order to be adored, modern man is ready to condemn the nullity of this vain operation, the exorbitant presumptuousness of such a Narcissus. But what if we were called upon to understand the Qu’ran’s statement altogether differently? What if it meant that “God” is only the name adopted by a pure excess—indeed vain, indeed exorbitant—of the world and existence over themselves, in themselves? Of a purely and simply infinite relationship to infinity? (ADC 20)

It is the movement of self-surpassing, of pure excess, in itself that is crucial for Nancy’s purposes, not the fact that this self-surpassing happens to be, in this instance, Christian:

It is necessary to extract from Christianity what bore us and produced us: it is necessary, if possible, to extract from a ground deeper than the ground of the religious thing [la chose religieuse] that of which religion will have been a form and a misrecognition. (ADC, 26)

 Indeed, Nancy is not interested in Christianity for itself, for any religious, moral, spiritual or salvific virtue (ADC 39), and the self-surpassing he discerns only in some currents of the Christian tradition (most prominently the Reformation, ADC 50-1) is deeper than religion itself.

The idea that we must search in religion for something deeper than the religion itself, of which religion is perhaps only a misrecognition, is a familiar enough move. It is the move of Derrida’s ‘messianicity without messinaism’ or indeed ‘religion without religion’. It is also a Kantian move, the Kant who in Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone discerns in the determinate historical husk of Christian religion the kernel of the universal archetype which alone is worthy of imitation. As a trajectory, Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ can also be brought into productive conversation with Marcel Gauchet’s idea of ‘the religion of the egress from religion’ in The Disenchantment of the World, as Nancy himself notes in Dis-Enclosure.

However, Nancy’s idea of ‘something in Christianity deeper than Christianity’ can itself be considered a characteristically Christian move: a search for the animating spirit beyond the letter of the law.[4] It is the gesture of ad fontes, of semper reformanda, of circumcision of the heart rather than circumcision of the flesh (Colossians 2:11), of the reality rather than the shadow (Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:17), of the antitype rather than the type (Romans 5:14).

So in seeking to escape Badiou’s imitation of the theological entry of the eternal into the temporal, Nancy performs a theological gesture. There is, of course, a conversation to be had about whether this gesture of ‘something in x deeper than x’ is irreducibly or contingently theological, and we shall return to this in a future post. Derrida, in On Touching, suspects that it may reveal Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity to have been ‘Christian hyperbole’, but I do not want to be too hasty either in echoing or rejecting that claim. For now, I simply note that the gesture of finding ‘something in x deeper than x’ it is both present in Nancy’s navigation of the Christian legacy and also a repeated and prominent move within the Christian tradition itself.

 

Raising the stakes

But this is not simply the swapping of one theological imitation for a second, equivalent imitation. In repeating the Christian gesture of ‘something in x deeper than x’, Nancy has escalated the philosophical stakes. Badiou’s imitation is local: his understanding of the birth of philosophy can be viewed as a theological moment. But Nancy’s imitation, precisely because it rejects any determinate figure of self-surpassing but seeks to imitate the movement itself, is not local but limitless. Nancy’s rejection of Badiou’s theological imitation turns out to be a much more radical gesture of imitation than that which it dismisses.

Rather than avoiding the question of philosophy’s imitation of theology, Nancy has succeeded only in playing out that same question on the much broader canvas of the notion of imitation itself, and all the questions that can be asked of Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme can be asked of the gesture of Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’.

Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ infinitises the gesture of imitation, performing the sublation of the example in the imitation of exemplarity. Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ is not an alternative to Badiou’s Christmas projection at all, but its hyperbolisation and its paroxysm.

[1] Hereafter: DDC.

[2] Hereafter: DisDC.

[3] Hereafter: ADC.

[4] I will develop this claim more in a future post when I engage at length with Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment.

cc image courtesy of Morgan on Flickr

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What is a theological concept? Part 3: Alain Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme and Jean-Luc Nancy’s “Christmas Projection”

In this third post in the “what is a theological concept?” series I focus for the first time on a specific philosophical moment: Alain Badiou’s account of the interruption of the mytheme by the matheme. I am particularly interested in Jean-Luc Nancy’s reading of this Badiouian move, for Nancy sees in the interruption of the mytheme by the matheme a quintessentially theological moment in Badiou’s thought. Our analysis of Nancy’s reading of Badiou here will provide us with the first example—and perhaps also the first model—of what it can mean to call a philosophical move “theological”.

The birth of philosophy for Badiou relies on the difference between what, in Conditions, he calls the matheme and the mytheme. The mytheme trades in opinion and narrative, in cosmogony and poetic richness. For the matheme, by contrast, it is a question not of opinion but of truth. The matheme is non-narrative, non-hermeneutic, and abstract.

The philosophical miracle of Greece, Badiou insists, is to be ascribed not to the mythic and poetic richness of that culture, nor to its poetry’s grasp of the sacred, but rather to the interruption, chiefly by Plato, of sacred cosmogonies and opinion by secularised and abstract mathematical thought (Manifeste de la philosophie 14/Manifesto of philosophy 34): ‘mathematics is the only point of rupture with doxa that is given as existent or constituted. The absolute singularity of mathematics is basically its existence’ (Conditions 102).

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.

Although this Platonic interruption of the mytheme by the matheme took place within a given historico-cultural context, Badiou insists that it must not be viewed in a historicist perspective. In fact, in the essay ‘Le (re)tour de la philosophie elle-même’ (Conditions French[1] 57-78/Conditions English[2] 3-22), he expands on five propositions concerning the relation of philosophy to history, five propositions that will help us understand both his claim to be non-theological and Nancy’s counter-claim that he imitates the theological after all. The five propositions amount to an attack on what Badiou sees as the danger of inscribing philosophy within a finite historical horizon.

  1. Philosophy today is paralysed by its relation to its own history (proposition 1) because it no longer knows whether it has a place of its own, scattered and subordinated as it is in a host of disciplines including art, poetry, science, political action and psychoanalysis, with the desultory consequence that philosophy has become little more than its own museum (C 57/Con 3).
  2. It therefore becomes imperative for philosophy to break decisively with historicism (proposition 2), which means that philosophy’s self-presentation must in the first instance make no reference to its history; its concepts must be presented without having to appear before the tribunal of their historical moment, for it is philosophy which judges history, and not the reverse (C 58/Con 5).
  3. If philosophy is thus to be freed from the vicissitudes of historicism it must be defined in a historically invariable way (proposition 3),
  4. and in a way that distinguishes it from sophism (proposition 4)
  5. So philosophy as understood by Plato is both possible and necessary (proposition 5) in the face of the modern sophism of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Vattimo and Rorty.

 

Nancy, Badiou and the “Christmas projection”

Despite Badiou’s categorical professions of atheism, for some of his readers it is in the very idea of a rupture with, and interruption of, historical opinion by ahistorical truth that Badiou is imitating a theological gesture. Jean-Luc Nancy is one of those readers.

Nancy sees in Badiou’s thought what he calls the ‘Christmas projection’, which he characterises as ‘a pure and simple birth of Christianity, which one fine day comes along and changes everything’ (Dis-Enclosure 145). Like the incarnation of Christ, the Christmas projection interrupts the regular course of events with a bolt from the blue, an intervention from outside that cannot be accounted for in terms of the situation into which it intervenes and that performs a decisive break, creating a ‘before’ and ‘after’. For Nancy, it is in repeating this Christmas projection that our tradition remains Christian: ‘our whole tradition, as unchristian as it would like to be, still retains something of the “Christmas projection”: at a given moment “that” takes place, and we find ourselves thereafter in a Christmas condition’ (Dis-Enclosure 145).

Badiou’s account of philosophy’s ahistorical condition, crucial as it is for his reading of the death of God, is in Nancy’s eyes just such a Christmas projection, for it suggests that, at a given moment, the matheme interrupted the mytheme: ‘that’ takes place, philosophy comes into the world, full of light and truth. Philosophy itself may be ahistorical, but Badiou nevertheless requires it to effect a rupture with the mytheme at a particular historical moment.

So, for Nancy, Badiou’s literal and categorical understanding of the proposition that ‘God is dead’–‘I take the formula “God is dead” literally. […] God is finished. And religion is finished, too’ (Briefings on Existence 23)–re-inscribes itself into the same metaphysical, arche-teleological structure from which it is ostensibly seeking to extricate itself.

[1] Hereafter: C.

[2] Hereafter: Con.

cc image courtesy of Cindy Villaseñor on Flickr

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The Return of Religion, Kettle Logic, and the Secular Dilemma

lambert-return-statementsAt this year’s Australasian Society of Continental Philosophy conference I had the pleasure of responding to Gregg Lambert’s new book Return Statements: The Return of Religion in Contemporary PhilosophyI chose to focus on the very idea of the “return of religion”, its multiple senses, and their potential conflicts. The paper is downloadable from academia.edu and researchgate.net.

Here is the abstract:

There are at least three distinct senses of the “return of religion” in recent Continental thought. Taken together, they obey a sort of kettle logic, and they leave the secularist with a dilemma about how to avoid returning to religion in the very attempt to escape it. The paper discusses Gregg Lambert’s Return Statements, and engages mainly with Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy, touching briefly on Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Quentin Meillassoux.

Jean-Luc Nancy and Visual Culture just published, with my chapter on Nancy, dance and equality

Just published: Nancy and Visual CultureHere is the abstract for my chapter, entitled “Dancing Equality: Image, Imitation and Participation”.Nancy and visual culture

‘We are facing a very new demand in terms of art’ remarks Nancy in Allitérations, ‘the demand that art be “made by everyone”’. And yet we also know very well that the arts require individuality, singularity and difference. How can art satisfy both of these two demands: that it issue from the collective or the common and that it also satisfy the requirement for isolation and secrecy? The question becomes broader and more pressing with Nancy’s conclusion:  ‘We have here an aspect of our general difficulty with equality and democracy’.

Taking Nancy’s remark as a provocation, this chapter probes how dance in particular, and visual culture more broadly, not only perform or reflect but also develop and advance Nancy’s thinking and writing on equality. Throughout Allitérations, Nancy is careful not to reduce thought to dance or movement to description, nor simply to translate between the two, but to give each its singular and untranslatable sense. Though dance is visual, Nancy repeatedly distances it from the image, which he associates with a mimetic paradigm, in order to develop an understanding of dance as a visual methexis that is neither object nor image.

The performance recorded in Allitérations seeks to work at the limit between movement and text, with exscription and bodily sense sitting at the threshold of thought and dance, but Nancy’s own movements as recorded in Allitérations – both physical and philosophical – not only resist being reduced to signifying thought but also place themselves at the foremost limit of his thinking of equality as it is elaborated in Être singulier pluriel and elsewhere. This, then, is the pattern for our investigation of equality: how can the visual methexis of dance and art more broadly ‘speak’ and ‘think’ about equality without being immediately reduced to thought, and beyond the customary limits of thought? How can thought and dance together elaborate and, in so doing, move beyond the terms of an equality that marries the demand for the ‘by everyone’ with the requirement of secret individuality?

 

Talk at UD Melbourne on Aug 5 – Varieties of Contemporary Atheism: Badiou, Nancy, Meillassoux

On August 5 at 11am Difficult AtheismI will have the pleasure of speaking at the Melbourne University of Divinity philosophy seminar on the subject “Varieties of Contemporary Atheism: Badiou, Nancy, Meillassoux”. The talk seeks to synthesise and develop some of the main lines of thinking from Difficult Atheism and to open the argument of the book to a wider audience.

Here is the abstract:

This paper summarises and extends the argument of my 2011 book Difficult Atheism to argue that contemporary “atheism” is an umbrella term used to describe three distinct positions. I briefly explore these three positions in the work of French philosophers Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux, showing that they seek to position themselves in relation to the theological in three mutually exclusive ways. As well as being of interest to scholars working in contemporary French thought, the talk aims to offer to a broader audience a framework for understanding and evaluating modern atheisms.

Article on Jean-Luc Nancy and dance now available in Korean

Dancemomm244My article on Jean-Luc Nancy and dance entitled “When I think, I dance”  has been translated into Korean and appears serialised in issues 243 and 244 of Dance Magazine MOMM. Many thanks to Philipa Rothfield and Yewoon at DanceMOMM for their collaboration.

A longer title for the article would be “When I think I dance I don’t dance, but when I think, I dance”.

20150330_090958

New interview with Jean-Luc Nancy available online, along with “Quando penso, danzo”: Italian translation of my short essay on Nancy

The Italian translation of my piece on Nancy and dance, originally written for Melbourne’s Dancehouse Diary, is now available at logoi.ph, a new online philosophy journal. The inaugural issue also contains an interview with Jean-Luc Nancy entitled “Art Singular Plural”, available in Italian and English.

My thanks to Annalisa Caputo for inviting me to be part of this great new initiative, and for getting it off the ground.

logoi

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.

Seres at SEP-FEP: Think human language, distinctiveness and responsibility metonymically, not metaphorically

Among the aspects of Serres’ paper that provoked the most animated discussion this morning was his contention, in ‘Information and Thinking’ and elsewhere, that human beings are not the only entities to think. The idea was articulated most powerfully in the snippet of the talk reproduced below:

20140903_215324

This thought returned in the final paragraph of the address:

They [material elements] encode, we encode; they count, we count; we speak, they speak.[1]

The thought that exercised some of the panel members in the round-table discussion following the intervention was the way in which ascribing language (and by implication, it seemed to be extrapolated, agency and responsibility) to non-human objects was a metaphor unwarranted by the very clear differences between a human being and (to use Serres’ example from Verne’s cave) a crystal.

This understanding of how Serres is deploying terms like ‘encode’, ‘speak’ and ‘count’ is not the only one available, however, and indeed it is not the one that cuts best with the grain of his arguments. The issue can be clarified by considering the difference between metaphor and metonymy.

The contributions of some panelists seemed to imply that there are only two options available to us: either a ‘flat ontology’ (attributed to Serres) in which there is no way to account for distinctively human responsibility (for the environment, for example), and a human exceptionalism that eschews a flat ontology but legitimates political and social concerns in a way that the flat ontology cannot.

This is not a dichotomy I recognise from my own reading of Serres, and I think that the confusion comes through taking Serres to be speaking metaphorically when in fact he is speaking metonymically.

The (spurious) metaphorical reading of Serres goes something like this: Language simpliciter, language as such, is human language. All other uses of the term ‘language’ are (legitimate or illegitimate) metaphorical extensions of this literal sense of the term. ‘Humans speak’ is not metaphorical; ‘material elements speak’ is. The metaphorical sense here is parasitic on the literal (human) sense; if there is no ‘plain’ sense of what it means to speak, then there can be no metaphorical sense.  We start with human language—or human responsibility—as traditionally understood and then every other instance of the term ‘language’ or ‘responsibility’ must be a metaphorical extension of that first, human sense.  It’s when we think of Serres in this way that he seems to be painting a Romantic, enchanted, Toy Story world in which stones whisper to each other behind our backs and objects come out to play when we are absent.

But I don’t think that reading of Serres is most faithful to what he is seeking to communicate. We get closer to Serres’ thought when we read him as speaking not metaphorically but metonymically, or more precisely synecdochically (I argue this at greater length in a forthcoming article on Serres in SubStance). In arguing that material elements, too, encode, count and speak, he is not seeking to extend the human meanings of these terms to the non-human world. That would indeed–as was rightly pointed out by the panel–be anthropomorphic and anthropocentric.

He is doing something more radical and much less anthropocentric: contesting that there is a literal sense of language that is to be identified with human language in the first place. Rather, for Serres human language is one local and distinctive instance of a phenomenon that is in no way properly human, but that belongs to all entities. Crystals do not speak with syntactic human language (whoever suggested they did? After all, humans do not undergo an existential crisis when we realise that we don’t transmit information in the same way that crystals do, so why would we assume the reverse?), but it is still quite true and not in the least metaphorical for Serres to insist that crystals speak and human beings speak. (In this he is very close indeed to Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of ‘renvois de sens’ between all entities in the world in L’Adoration).

Serres’ rethinking of language is intended to be a challenge to the privileging of the mode of syntactic language as the paradigm of which all other instance of language are metaphors, not a universalisation of this paradigm. In this sense, it is akin to a Wittgenstinian argument about definitions: when we say ‘language’ we must take it to mean any emission, storage, processing or reception of information, not only what humans do in communicating with words.

Where does this leave human responsibility and human distinctiveness? Smoothed away on some universal ironing board of flat ontology? Not a bit of it. Serres can (and does) retain a notion of human distinctiveness—he is a self-avowed humanist, after all—but it is a distinctiveness traceable to a quantitative difference, not an ontological difference between the human and, say, the crystal.

There are different sorts of difference, and we must be careful not to fall into the sloppy binary of ‘no difference at all’/’irreducible ontological difference’. Serres’ account is more fine-grained than that. To reconstruct  it quickly (and elaborate it beyond what Serres says himself, to the best of my knowledge of his work):

  1. Both the human and the crystal receive, store, process and emit information.[2] There is no ontological difference.
  2. But there is an indisputable quantitative difference: the amount, variety and complexity of information that I receive, store, process and emit, is many orders of magnitude greater than the crystal (though the crystal can also perform some tasks of information storage, processing and emission better than I can).
  3. This quantitative difference between humans, animals and crystals tips over, in a Hegelian way, into what is to all intents and purposes a qualitative difference: my information processing is so different to a crystal’s that, looked upon in terms of their results, they hardly seem the same thing at all.
  4. This quantitative-qualitative difference does the heavy lifting that ‘human distinctiveness’ is usually called on to schlep: humans bear a peculiar weight of responsibility, not because they are ontologically or at bottom qualitatively unique, but because they are quantitatively (and therefore qualitatively–think Hegel again) set apart within the entities of the world by virtue of HOW they process information and HOW MUCH they process, not THAT they process it.
  5. So we can, after all, draw a line between human speech and crystal speech, and we don’t need to see fairies under every rock (though the post-Baconian fact-value distinction also needs interrogating afresh in the light of Serres’ ontology, and the odd ‘fairy’ here and there might not always be unwarranted).
  6. And the question is not whether there is a line to be drawn, but the nature of that line, and the point at which a difference of quantity tips over into a difference of quality.

[1] Incidentally, note the inversion of order of ‘we’ and ‘they’ in the third element of this ternary rhythm and its subtle reinforcement of the argument being made: Serres is on his game!

[2] If Serres’ account is to be challenged, it is at the point of the adequacy of this information paradigm, not at the point of the denial of distinctive human responsibility. Can the reception, storage, processing and emission of information act as a sufficient (let alone necessary) paradigm for human being in the world (or, for that matter, for crystalline existence)?