Rival Dealer

Alexander R. Galloway, Laruelle: Against the Digital

University of Minnesota Press, 304pp, £20.50, ISBN 9780816692132

reviewed by Dominic Fox

Philosophy promises something. Students of philosophy are enticed by this promise; amateur philosophers keep the flame alive. Professional philosophers are in a sense professional promisers, makers and curators of philosophical promises. No matter how skeptical or reticent they may be, how epistemically humble or ontologically parsimonious, they maintain the promissory structure of philosophy. One day, but not yet – not yet, but soon – philosophy will deliver on its promise.

The ‘non-philosophy’ (or ‘non-standard philosophy’) of Francois Laruelle is usually characterised as suspending a singular assumption underlying all philosophical endeavour, an assumption Laruelle wittily describes as ‘the principle of sufficient philosophy.’ Philosophical ‘decision’, the initial gesture which according to Laruelle sets philosophy in motion, makes a cut in the real which philosophy then gives itself the task of mending, composing a synthetic whole out of a divided reality. In this way, philosophy projects its own ‘syntax’ onto the real, confusing its own structures with those of reality itself. Philosophy thus demands that reality and (philosophical) thought be placed in a relationship of correspondence, a relationship which is itself philosophically specified and controlled. In this way, it is guaranteed that philosophy is always ‘sufficient’ to whatever there is, adequate by fiat.

Non-philosophy rescinds this demand, withdraws from this relationship of control, and gives itself over to an ‘insufficient’ thinking, one which renounces the ambition to measure up to the real. It does so in the name of an unqualifiable immanence, a unitary and radically self-identical reality that admits of no partition, and hence no reparative synthesis. The real is ‘foreclosed’ to thought, given ‘as is’ without being characterisable in any way by its ‘givenness’, its availability for philosophical appropriation. According to Laruelle's formulation, non-philosophy thinks from the real, rather than about it.

In this way, non-philosophy is radically unpromising. What it suspends is not only a conceptual structure, or an intellectual posture, but also the very promise that animates philosophy, the promise that it is on its way towards somehow making sense of things. From the point of view of the would-be philosopher, the addressee of philosophy's promise, non-philosophy is disappointing. No-one ever comes to philosophy who does not simultaneously feel both that the world does not make sense, and that it should make sense. But philosophy's promise also entails making a decision about the kind of sense the world should make, and it is this decision that Laruelle suggests should be refused, in favour of a ‘democracy’ of thought that can accommodate multiple potentially contradictory sense-making activities without having to suppose that the world as such makes any kind of sense at all.

Alexander Galloway's Laruelle: Against the Digital presents Laruelle as a thinker of (but not within) the ‘standard model’ of philosophy, which on Galloway's account turns out to be a fourfold matrix of philosophical dispositions in various combinations. Essentially, any philosophical position can be plotted somewhere along a pair of axes, rather like those used in the ‘political compass’ quiz which purports to identify you as simultaneously socially liberal and economically right-wing (or vice versa, as may be). Galloway suggests that rather than taking up one of these positions in opposition to all the others, and so occupying an identifiable slot within the array of positions furnished by the standard model, non-philosophy begins from the ‘base’ of which the standard model reflects the ‘superstructure’.

A ‘political compass’ quiz may be able to identify different dispositions within the system of capitalist parliamentary democracy, but can only place communism as a ‘far-left’ position on one axis (and, typically, an ‘authoritarian’ position on the other), (mis-)recognising it in terms of the very system it aims to overturn. What ‘vulgar’ Marxism tells us is that all of these superstructural positions are determined by the material base of capitalist society, which communism seeks to transform at the fundamental level of its practical organisation. Similarly, in dealing with the philosophical ‘superstructure’ of the standard model, Laruelle is almost gleefully, systematically vulgar. Wherever the syntax of philosophy posits relationships of reciprocity and convertibility between pairs of opposed terms, such that the empirical and the transcendental (for example) are seen as mutually determining according to a logic finally external to both, non-philosophy withdraws the philosophically-introduced ‘third term’ that regulates this exchange, instead positioning both terms as immanent to, and determined in the last instance by, the real.

Even vulgar Marxism, however, has a theory of how the ‘base’ works: it identifies the infrastructure of social reality as economic, and traces the roots of social phenomena back to causal mechanisms operating in the economic domain. For Laruelle, such a theory would simply reinstate at a ‘lower’ level the philosophical imperative to partition and recompose the real. Rather, for Laruelle, the superstructure simply is the base - not added to it, emergent from it or embedded within it, but immanent to it without that immanence-to being able to be qualified in any way as a relationship of containment, or of part to whole (since this would imply a hierarchy of greater and lesser parts). Most often, Laruelle will simply say that whatever is immanent to the real – and everything is, the real being conceived of as immanence (to) itself – is identical with it; more recently, enthused by the terminology if not the mathematics of quantum theory, he has begun to say ‘superposed’ instead.

Non-standard philosophy thus does not posit a non-standard model, operating at a ‘lower level’ than the standard model, but rather collapses all ‘levels’ together in such a way that no distinct model can be extracted: rather than replacing one metaphysical account of the infrastructure of the real with another, it begins by abolishing the ‘place’ of philosophy altogether. There is still some philosophy, but it is not where it thinks it is (or should be): the position of command to which it aspires is simply foreclosed.

Laruelle: Against the Digital is an attempt to draw out some of the consequences of this dethroning of philosophy. It combines a sort of scanning and sampling of philosophical positions, conducted at high speed and at a somewhat head-spinning level of generality, with a repeated gesture of withdrawal and disavowal in which half-formed concepts are abruptly pivoted away from. Fending off philosophy turns out to be a little like trying to defeat the Terminator: every time you think you’ve finally broken it up, the pieces start trying to reassemble themselves again. Rather than actualising a complete and consistent non-philosophical vision, a text such as Galloway’s must therefore repeatedly evanesce back into the virtual, performing its own ‘insufficiency’. This makes a summary of its arguments difficult, although the text is punctuated by a helpful series of ‘axiomatic’ statements which are gathered up into a sort of manifesto at the end. Nevertheless, the general drift can be outlined.

By ‘the digital’ Galloway means essentially the predicative: everything that can be discerned by means of a predicate which separates P from not-P. Any model of the infrastructure of reality is ‘digital’ to the extent that it employs distinctions of any kind whatsoever; which in effect means that any model whatsoever is a ‘digital’ model. (Much effort has been spent in recent years trying to determine the scope and reach of a putative ‘digital humanities’. If its proponents adopted Galloway’s terminology, they might be drawn to wonder more about what a non-digital humanities might look like). The ‘analog’, in turn, is the domain of what the poet Geoffrey Hill once referred to as ‘at-one-ment’, the integration of P with not-P into a single expression. Reality according to Galloway/Laruelle is not intrinsically either analog or digital, but the analog makes manifest, within a digital world, something of the indivisibility, the indiscernible ‘whatever-ness’ of the un-decided real.

If ‘politics’ is the domain of antagonism – of them-and-us, P versus non-P – then, Galloway suggests, ‘ethics’ is the domain of non-identity, of the ‘generic’ which answers to no predicate. To take a contemporary example: the slogan ‘black lives matter’ is properly political, because it indexes the racist violence of the state against, specifically, black people. To expand this slogan so that it is more ‘inclusive’, rendering it as ‘all lives matter’ (or, most odiously, ‘cops’ lives matter too’) is to weaken this distinction and to disavow the antagonism: it is a depoliticising move. But the properly generic statement, which is no longer a political slogan at all but rather an ethical maxim, would be simply ‘life matters.’ This cannot be arrived at by adding more and more categories of person to the list of those whose lives matter, nor even by asserting that every category of person must be included; rather, it indicates the ethical basis on which the destruction of black lives in particular must be recognised as an ethical violation, as the destruction of something which should be held inviolate. It does not expand, dilute or in any way supersede the political slogan, but rather saturates it – rather as Laruelle’s ‘real’ saturates, to the point of being finally indiscernible from that which it determines in the last instance.

In a perhaps surprising final pivot, Galloway argues that such ethical saturation can complete, rather than undo, the ‘perfect crime’ of the philosophical world-system’s occlusion of the real. A statement such as ‘life matters’ is both all-encompassing and vacuous – it could as well serve as an advertising slogan for Nestle’s breast milk substitute. The ‘digital’ clarity of political antagonism, however tendentious its categories, may yet be preferable to such ‘analog’ warm-fuzziness. Ultimately, what Galloway is concerned with is not recovering the analog from the digital, or the ethical from the political, but with finding a way to back out of the initial ‘move’ that determines these oppositions in the first place, in order to enter the deep virtual space of the One in all its mystic impenetrability. This, he assures the reader, is what Laruelle can help us to do.

But then the book is rather suddenly over, leaving us with an assertion that it is necessary to ‘think the digital’ in order to come to terms with the state of our world, and an assurance that Laruelle is the thinker who gives us the tools to do so. Is it all a con? Yes and no. Galloway arrives at no transmissible conclusions, elaborates no system, proves nothing, delivers nothing of defensible philosophical value. But these are emphatically not the goals of his book, which should rather be judged in terms of its performativity: what kind of behaviour does it model? If one of the aims of Laruelle: Against the Digital is to show us how we might proceed non-philosophically, then what is it like to undergo that process?

On the one hand, I found as I read on through the book that something of its fundamental attitude started to sink in. Galloway is an engaging, uncynical and even charismatic writer, and his whirlwind tour of the ‘standard model’ and the various Laruellian heresies against it is never dull, hectoring or academically pompous. He has taken seriously the Laruellian promise that a withdrawal from philosophical sufficiency will open up our thinking to endless experimentation, and has written an unabashedly experimental book. Like Katerina Kolozova’s Cut of the Real (2014), Laruelle: Against The Digital is emboldened by Laruelle’s example to break with many of the most settled co-ordinates of contemporary ‘critical’ thought. There is nothing like a good heresy for showing everybody where the true orthodoxies of the age are most deeply entrenched. Above all, I found myself looking at the metaphysical schemes of non-non-philosophers with a fresh feeling of puzzlement and incredulity – less as an effect of any compelling argument that had been raised against them, and more as a result of having been eased in to something like a Laruellian stance.

On the other hand, much of the book’s treatment of technical or theoretical issues left me with a seasickness-inducing feeling of wrongness. Consider the following, from a discussion of Deleuze on analog versus digital synthesis:

"Analogical [sic] synthesizers are 'modular'," Deleuze continued, contrasting them with digital synthesizers. "They establish an immediate connection between heterogenous elements.” So although digital synthesizers are integral, slicing up the world into masses of homogenous code atoms, analogical synthesizers work through modularity. What this means is that different elements, remaining relatively whole and heterogenous to one another, are nevertheless able to interoperate immediately. They can touch each other directly, despite their differences.

The immediate problem here is that ‘modularity’, a design characteristic, is entirely independent of the analog/digital distinction. Some analog synthesisers are modular, as are some digital synthesisers (cf the MAX/MSP system, which is pervasively modular). Other analog synthesisers, such as the MiniMoog, are not modular in design. Furthermore, the connections between modules in an analog modular synth are certainly not ‘immediate’, but rather obtrusively mediated via patch cables (which moreover can be routed through all kinds of intermediary processes – I've seen people patch sockets together via guitar effects pedals, including digital delays). Taken literally, the statement ‘analogical synthesizers work through modularity’ is simply incoherent.

Because for Galloway the ‘analog’ is in the broadest possible sense the making-as-one of the divided, it perhaps makes a kind of intuitive sense to see the patching together of distinct audio synthesis modules into a single system as an instance of analogicity. But if so, then why not see the linking together of software libraries the same way? It may be objected that software is ‘homogeneous’, being composed of ‘code atoms’, whereas the modules involved in modular analog synthesis are ‘heterogeneous’, being physically separate units. But the latter are truly distinguished from each other in terms of function rather than substance – they are all ultimately assembled from a common set of mass-produced components which operate on electrical signals. Interoperation in a software system is no less a matter of drawing functionally distinct units together into a larger functional whole. However, if the sense of the term ‘analog’ is expanded to the point where it can be applied to any kind of functional composition, then the pertinence of the analog/digital distinction (in its conventional sense, e.g. as applied to audio synthesisers) collapses.

Many passages in the book seem ‘fractally wrong’ in a similar sort of way, almost systematically maladroit in their handling of technical material. Does this kind of ‘wrongness’ matter? More to the point, is it philosophical to say that it does matter, and non-philosophical to decide that it really doesn’t? Perhaps it is overly ‘digital’ to insist on distinguishing between the uses and abuses of technical terms. Just let it go, man. But perhaps this indifference to the finer details of the actual has something to do with the ultimate aimlessness of Laruelle’s project, with the fact that he has spent over four decades repeatedly issuing formidable denunciations of philosophical hubris and hallucination, promising exotic intellectual projects that will mobilise unheard-of forms of thought; and yet each time he has come to the jumping-off point he has simply turned about and gone back to the task of denunciation. Non-philosophy is not without its own promissory structure, its own rhythm of hype and disappointment. It seems to arrive repeatedly, as Galloway’s account in turn arrives, at a point of saturation, of immobilisation, just at the point when the world should come flooding in. Laruelle’s intransigence in the face of philosophy’s blandishments is admirable in its way, but why keep hanging around as if one were still waiting for the promise to come good?