Interview with Jon Roffe
© Jon Roffe and Figure/Ground
Dr. Roffe was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. February 18th, 2016.
Jon Roffe is Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of New South Wales. The editor of a number of volumes on twentieth-century and contemporary French thought, he is the author of Abstract Market Theory (Palgrave 2015), Badiou’s Deleuze (Acumen 2012), Empiricism and Subjectivity: A Critical Introduction and Guide (EUP, forthcoming), The Works of Gilles Deleuze (forthcoming, re-press), and the co-author of Lacan Deleuze Badiou (EUP 2014) with AJ Bartlett and Justin Clemens.
Why did you study philosophy and how did it shape your view of the world?
Really I came to philosophy after having failed at everything else. The inaugural years of my university education were a series of false starts (in engineering, then biochemistry, then music). The humanities seemed like the last possible safe port; and for my parents, the least worst option. So I didn’t choose philosophy, it is something that happened to me when I took hold of this final opportunity at higher education.
My encounter with philosophy came in a first year anthropology lecture on Michel Foucault. I became immediately enamoured with his work. I also became a horrible boor, pompously correcting the various false readings of his work. Insufferable. The same then followed as I discovered Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, and took up arms against both his poorly read disciples and the bulwarks of the good old modernists. I suppose there are certain benefits of youth, but self-awareness is not one of them. After a calamitous romance in the United States, I enrolled at the University of Melbourne to do an honours year, working on Jacques Derrida’s remarkable intertwining of philosophy and translation. The same day I finished my honours year, I cleared out most of my scrawny bank account on Gilles Deleuze’s little book Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, and more or less since that day have been in the grips of his remarkable speculative project. These four figures remain, in different ways, my masters, not least because they introduced me to a whole host of other absolutely indispensable thinkers.
This sequence does look a bit trite, though. To my mind, the important trajectory is an internal one, and consists in the transformation of thought, what you refer to as my world-view. This trajectory is much more difficult to reconstruct, though the same proper names would figure in any attempt to describe it. This time, though, they refer less to individuals than to sets of problems and styles of thought.
If I hesitate at this notion of world-view, it is because it has a hint of voluntarism about it that I can’t really relate to. Academic philosophers often speak of ‘their work’ as if its something that they’ve put together from materials that were at hand, as if it constitutes an object independent of them, to which they have a certain degree of indifference. One can always ‘change projects’. But philosophy doesn’t give you answers to the so-called big questions any more than it constitutes a field of empirical research in which a set of results can be put together under the heading of a research project. It functions to trouble the accepted organisation of thought, including the philosopher’s own. This goes as far – as we see in Heidegger, or Deleuze, for instance – as problematising our very way of conceiving of the relationship between questions and answers.
To put it a more briefly, if a little elliptically, I would say that philosophy does not help you form a world-view or give you tools for modifying the one you have: it replaces it.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what did you learn from them?
I don’t think I had anyone I would call a mentor as a graduate student, as it happens. The closest would be my honours and masters supervisor, Dr Marion Tapper, a great devotee of Kant, Husserl and Heidegger, whose patience with my somewhat wild and poorly supported philosophical enthusiasm is a prime reason why I’m still able to work in philosophy.
Part of the reason for this absence of mentors is the disdain with which European philosophy is still held in the philosophical establishment in Australia (but also, of course, the UK and the US). To begin your philosophical engagement with a close reading of Foucault does not mark one out as a bright newcomer in philosophy, but a regrettable excrescence, if you’re noticed at all. I felt, quite palpably, that I was working in an vacuum.
Another reason is certainly the cretinous self-importance I just mentioned, but then again this institutional reality is probably part of the reason why my initial relationship with the status quo in Australian philosophy had a hostile tone. This is also another reason for me to recall Marion’s name here – when this broad hostility was met by a growing wave of university marketisation, she promptly quit.
In place of mentors, I have been fortunate to have had a series of friends or small groups of friends who were my interlocutors over the last fifteen years or so.
Two instances of this are worth mentioning. The first is a series of reading groups that take place at the University of Melbourne each Fridayfor most of each year. My friend Justin Clemens is the lynchpin of these ongoing events, which have had a really significant effect on the culture of the humanities there. As another friend Bryan Cooke once rightly pointed out, it’s one of the only reasons why the University of Melbourne can still call itself a university. For many years, a Badiou reading group ran there which began by reading a draft of Oliver Feltham’s Being and Event translation, which was my first introduction his work and an important resource for me as I was preparing the PhD thesis that became (the slightly more svelte) Badiou’s Deleuze.
In general, I think reading groups are a terrible idea, since anything worth reading takes a long time to understand and a concomitant period of rumination (as Nietzsche calls it) that a two-hour session charged with all the social and libidinal charges of the modern academy. Nevertheless, these groups were consistently provocative to me, and major factors in pressing me to think in new directions.
The other is the institution called the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy (www.mscp.org.au). Along with a number of other people in the philosophy department in 2002 – before Facebook! – our disaffection with the status of European philosophy lead us to form a sort of parauniversity teaching school that gave cheap lectures in evenings and vacation breaks on the figures that were decisive to us in this tradition. While the people involved have all but completely changed now, the creation and sustenance of this new way of intersecting philosophy and a community of engaged readers was very important for my own conception of this intersection of thought and novel social forms. Sydney and Queensland branches of the thing have recently begun, so it’s fair to say that the experiment has yet to run its course.
You mentioned Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard and Deleuze as your four major influences. I think you would agree that there is a rather unfortunate tendency to group these thinkers –who differ from one another in so many respects– under the general rubrics of “post-structuralism” and “post-modernism”. What’s worse, we also tend to forget that, before to their discovery of structural linguistics via Levi-Strauss, these thinkers were on their way to becoming a third generation of phenomenologists, that is, they belonged to a pre-existing tradition of thought prior being associated with the “bearded militants” of May, 1968. My question is: what’s the danger of engaging philosophy backwards and losing sight of tradition as a graduate student; that is, for instance, reading Foucault and Derrida without a proper understanding of Heidegger and Husserl?
Yes, this is a very good question.
The worst mistake one can make as a graduate student is to too closely invest oneself in the figure or figures you’re working on, so that philosophy, the history of philosophy, and the work of thinking only make sense from that limited point of view. This is why I think it’s essential to always strive to have more than one master. The kind of pottered, retrospective construction of the history of philosophy that you’re talking about is, I think, a version of this error. It proceeds from an overly close attachment to whoever you’re working on, and this point of view comes to organise everything in its wake.
So the problem is not precisely the order in which one reconstructs the history of philosophy, since this is always contingent and oriented by current problems (we are always in the middle, as Deleuze likes to say). There isn’t really a backwards or a forwards engagement with the history of philosophy, no proper course in philosophy, only better and worse ways. The project of a philosophy of the history of philosophy appears in its importance here, and you can see why the great French historian of philosophy Martial Gueroult would dedicate two books to this problem.
As for the use of ‘postmodern’ and ‘poststructuralism’ as explanatory categories, you’re right, I completely agree with you. I think they perhaps have a minimal use as heuristic devices, but the problem with any heuristic is that if, like a bead of mercury, it is handled too much it becomes incorporated, becoming a set of ingrained presuppositions.
The mistake one can make as a philosopher is ultimately more serious though, and it consists in taking the protocols of academia and of what currently stands as normal in academic philosophy as philosophy itself. ‘Publishing’ replaces reading, writing and thinking. The either/or posed to Spinoza when he was offered a job at the University of Heidelberg (which he turned down) is always implicitly posed when anyone is invited into academia: you are welcome, so long as you do not ‘insult the principles of the established religion.’ From this point of view, the slow dissolution of philosophy departments in Anglo-American universities takes on an ambiguous cast. In any case, the division between being a philosopher and being an employee of the academy (or a student at one) deserves to be scrutinised a great deal more than it often is.
Of the four names you invoked, Deleuze appears to have outlived the rest. He seems to be the only one who truly overcame the logic of representation, the principle of identity and the primacy of the human as “exemplar being”, thus effectively moving beyond Heidegger. However, there is a sense in which the Deleuzian project can also be thought as a continuation of the heideggerian paradigm. Do you consider Heidegger and Deleuze as irreconcilable figures, or are there lines of continuity between their respective philosophies?
There is no doubt that Heidegger dominates twentieth century philosophy on the continent, and this holds for Deleuze as much as for anyone. That said, the significance of his relationship with Heidegger’s philosophy is difficult to properly assess. The publication only a few years ago of a lecture series called ‘What is Grounding?’ casts some important light on the matter, and it’s here that he appears very close indeed to the project of Being and Time in particular. And you can’t help but feel when reading Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (which refers to Heidegger on the first page) that it could share the same title.
In any case, the relationship is complicated, and I think too complicated to be identified with either a total rupture or absolute continuity. What really matters, too, is what kinds of connections we ourselves are able to make, to take the next step.
For my part, I do not agree that Deleuze is the only one of these fourfathers who has either succeeded or outlived the rest. The conditions for such a success or survival aren’t easy to ascertain, and here you could consult what Lyotard has to say about childhood, what Derrida writes about survival itself, but also Deleuze’s many insistences on the untimely, or Foucault’s renovation of the category of curiosity.
But I would add three other things. First, Derrida to me seems to be a particular case. He develops and follows through on a remarkable insight into the structure of thinking, and I think reading Derrida constitutes a profound pedagogy. That said, because of the nature of his insight, it cannot constitute a positive philosophy in its own right. One must pass through Derrida, keep the deconstructive perspective in mind, but then advance positive theses.
Conversely, what is certainly true is that Deleuze scholarship is riding high in academic publishing, public forums and conferences. Lyotard has never been taken as seriously as he should have been, and I include in this the regrettable popularity of a certain misreading of The Postmodern Condition (the young cretin who I mentioned earlier can still be roused on this front). Derrida seems to be unpopular now too, and Foucault’s broader project has been swallowed up by the maelstrom that the publication of the biopolitics lectures has convoked. But none of this bears on the value of the work. In short, popularity should not be confused with philosophical significance. The rules of the former are set by the publishing industry, not what we need to think in the present.
Finally, I find in all four of these thinkers penetrating analyses of the concepts you list. And what they all tell – each in their own ways – is that the principle of identity, anthropocentrism, and so on, are not just intellectual errors that we’ve been duped into believing by Cartesians, but features that belong in a profound way to our contemporary modes of thought. As Lyotard puts it in his remarkable series of lectures that were published under the title ‘Why Philosophise?’: “we need to understand this ‘within’ with the greatest degree of penetration: the enemy is within thought itself.”
The speed and insouciance with which critique has been dismissed by some thinkers under the banners of speculative realism and object-oriented philosophy has let it unable to deal in a satisfying way with what Kant first identified as transcendental illusion, a major problem in my view. I said this earlier – we can’t just think whatever we like. This critical, genealogical aspect of philosophy must be insisted upon.
Quentin Meillassoux actually treats both Heidegger and Deleuze as “strong correlationists”. Yet, the latter seems to be much more compatible with the post-finite, post-human turn that we associate with speculative realism, object-oriented philosophy and new materialism. You have recently edited a book on Deleuze and the non-human. Why is Deleuze and not Heidegger the champion of anti-anthropocentrism?
I find Meillassoux’s treatment of Deleuze extremely puzzling. The only way that the label of strong correlationism can properly be applied to his work is if one misunderstands (wilfully or not) his use of the word ‘thought’. I try in a brief and clumsy way to address Brassier’s critique of Deleuze along these lines in a chapter of the book you mention, Deleuze and the Non/Human.
I edited this book with my friend Hannah Stark, whose work is much more engaged with the problematic of the anthropocene, and the various ways in which it is addressed by the movements you cite. However, ‘my half’ of the book, if you can call it that, is concerned instead with the place of the human in Deleuze. Despite what is often asserted, Deleuze advances a remarkable series of positive analyses of the human mode of existence, at times quite clearly giving it a certain priority. My interest was and remains with this element in his thought. If that book is successful – I mean provocative and helpful – I think it will be because it manages to address both sides of the non/human issue in Deleuze, and from a wide range of perspectives.
I suppose my disinclination towards these new movements is obvious. I have a great admiration for the work of Quentin Meillassoux and Ray Brassier, each as projects in their own right. But these broader trends (and I do mean trends) seem to me to be repetitions of rather simplistic and sometimes false claims about the nature of reality. I don’t see much that is ‘new’ in new materialism. The adjective even has a kind of marketing quality to it. The old saying about music is true of philosophy as well: there are only two kinds, good and bad. And good philosophy will always have a life beyond the time allowed to it in the publishing schedule.
As for the relative significance of Deleuze and Heidegger in examining anthropocentrism, there is no doubt an element of popularity at stake. The Deleuze delirium in the para-academic world of conferences and publishing is truly of a furious intensity. At the level of philosophy itself, I don’t know if there’s an answer to be had. Neither Deleuze nor Heidegger (nor Plato, nor Descartes, etc.) will ever pass away, because their work will remain to be discovered in new ways as problems confront us. So if you’re implying that Heidegger is a resource for engaging with anthropocentrism, I couldn’t agree more.
At the same time, Heidegger has a much more limited and critical account of the animal, which plays an important part in Deleuze’s effort to complicate the status of the human – he famously describes animals as radically distinct from Dasein, as ‘poor in world’. But he also makes a lot more of the body than Heidegger does, perhaps bringing him closer to Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his concept of the flesh. Perhaps Deleuze’s true counterpart on the side of phenomenology is Merleau-Ponty?
It is true, on the one hand, that Deleuze is very much an heir of Bergson (but also Hume) on this point, in that he sees the difference between humans and other animals as a matter of development rather than a radical ontological distinction. It is equally true, as a result, that the resources that Heidegger has to offer with respect to anthropocentrism are limited in this direction. On the other hand, and I suppose this is where you question is gesturing, the concept of becoming-animal has been an important resource for those wanting to problematize the primacy of the human being in our image of thought.
Deleuze’s engagement with Merleau-Ponty, though, appears more interesting and fruitful to me than this line of argument, which really doesn’t give the animal any more primacy than the human in the end – the trajectory of becoming always being oriented by the imperceptibility that figures the highest degree of disindividuation or deterritorialisation.
Merleau-Ponty is someone who he explicitly engages with more than Heidegger. The passages that challenge his thematic of the flesh in What is Philosophy? are particularly striking in this regard, given the way in which Deleuze is often taken to be a thinker of the body as you indicate. Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari explicitly list the flesh in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological sense, as retaining a trace of transcendence, and therefore as a failure
Things come to a head in the chapter on art, which is from beginning to end an engagement with the phenomenology of art in general and Merleau-Ponty (not Heidegger) as its exemplar. The goal of the chapter is to identify art with the production of beings of sensation, compounds of affects and percepts which are independent of the phenomenological subject in strict, ontological terms. In his last works, you’ll recall, Merleau-Ponty wants to explain art as revelatory of the fleshly nature of being itself. But Deleuze and Guattari write that ‘the being of sensation is not the flesh but the compound of nonhuman forces of the cosmos, of man’s nonhuman becomings, and of the ambiguous house that exchanges and adjusts them, makes them whirl around like winds. Flesh is only the developer which disappears in what it develops: the compound of sensation.’
The claim is of a piece with their general critique of phenomenology, that by maintaining a place for the subject, however attenuated, it anchors art in the supposition of a transcendence. But if we want to know what a painting is, for instance, we need to treat it independently of the conditions of its creation. The flesh must fall away, leaving only the inhuman affects and percepts to stand on their own.
So the surprise here is that Deleuze thinks that the flesh, whether conceived as materiality or as the common manner of being-with-between as it is in Merleau-Ponty, is an inadequate way of conceiving affect and percept. This runs directly counter to certain quite popular ways of valorizing the body in Deleuze. What is valorized instead is, precisely, the immaterial.
Among the philosophies that came to be grouped under the general heading of “post-humanism” since the turn of the century is “object-oriented ontology” (OOO). For a while it became one of the most popular by-products of the speculative realist movement. However, over the past couple of years, it has been the target of some criticisms. A recurrent objection is Graham Harman’s notion of a “real object” that withdraws from all access/relation to hide within a vacuum-sealed, metaphysical domain. It appears that one of the weaknesses of Harman’s “quadruple object” is, precisely, its inability to overcome from the principle of identity and the so-called “emanative model”, which regulates the relationship between the real object and its sensual profiles. Do you think a Deleuzian version of OOO –with its emphasis on the virtualities, multiplicities and disjunctive syntheses– might have yielded a more robust and enduring version of OOO?
While Deleuze certainly presents a number of ontological accounts that make a fundamental place for the pre-human, I would hesitate to call him an object-oriented philosopher. What is essential from the beginning to the end of his work is a perspective that is pre-objective, or rather pre-objectal, as much as it is pre-subjectal. The question for Deleuze is never ‘what is an object?’ but what accounts for the genesis of objects, subject and what appears to be subjective objectivity (the relative fixity of truths in the epistemological regime).
What you say about the withdrawing characteristic of the object – its vacuum-sealed isolation – in Harman’s work is not really a critique. Indeed, one of his frequent points is that without such a withdrawn object, there would be no way to account for real change. So the individual object is the stopping point of philosophical analysis in his work. Deleuze would contend – and I agree – that without the supposition of a pre-individual field, there cannot be an adequate account of individuation. I’d even say that individuation is one of the major unrecongised themes of Deleuze’s philosophy as a whole, and precisely what Harman’s philosophy excludes from consideration. Your suggestion about the primacy of the principle of identity (A = A) in Harman is a very interesting one, and it seems to me connected precisely to this problem of individuation. Without a differential and genetic account of the advent of objects, he appears unable to avoid your critique.
The various terms you invoke in your invocation of Deleuze provoke me to make a rather dull but I think important point. Deleuze’s works are quite disparate in character. It is true that he has an overall project (that involves the problem individuation, as I just said), but the attempt to say that ‘the same’ argument is being made across different texts, or – and this is my point here – that his terminology remains consistent, will always be open to question. In my view, more is gained by focussing on one work at a time. The term virtual, for instance, appears inBergsonism, Difference and Repetition, The Time-Image, and What is Philosophy?, but in each case it means something different. But what matters is the way that each of these works engages with a particular set of problems, and the difference it makes in our understanding of them.
Harman’s return to a substance ontology was perhaps a needed response to the “relationism” that characterized philosophers such as Whitehead, Latour, not to mention the “post-structuralists”. Interestingly, however, in a recent interview with Figure/Ground, Günter Figal challenged the notion of relationism on the grounds it is not an anti-realistic but a realistic term. Briefly, his position is that postmodern versions of hermeneutics tend to reduce the interpretation of a text to interpretation as such, thus ignoring that “everything interpreted can only be understood as such if we know that it can also be interpreted otherwise and thus is independent from particular interpretations”. What do you make of the notion of relationism? Is it entirely fair to characterize posmodernism and poststructuralism solely in terms of this concept?
Was this return indeed “needed,” necessary, as you say? Is this necessity internal to thought or, as I suspect, a contingent way of describing the contours of contemporary discourse and its fate in the arena of publication?
Consider this, for example: by a long margin, the greatest champion in contemporary philosophy of Latour’s work is … Graham Harman. And consider the remarkable gap between We Have Never Been Modern and Process and Reality, let alone Principia Mathematica. As the two tentpoles for a movement that is often presented as the bane to realism, they are rather odd and of uneven height. I mean by all of this that what you outline here is a contingent ensemble of problems and texts, whose apparent necessity should not be attributed to thought itself, which has no necessity of this teleological kind.
I think that Harman is in the grip of an important set of problems, no question. But, on the one hand, I do not agree with his way of addressing them, as I have indicated. A return to substance ontology in particular does not seem to me to be either particularly novel or particularly powerful as such (the idea that Deleuze possesses such a philosophy is a rather unfortunate upshot of the way he’s been read through object oriented thought). But I am sure we can agree in any case that there is not one substance ontology.
On the other hand, I do not agree with the sense that these problems are the problems of our time (whatever this ‘our’ signifies) of necessity. We must always strive to avoid thinking that our present is the signal moment at which everything changed, that we are here at the hinge of history. People make fun of Hegel on this point (Napoleon riding past on his horse, and all of that), but we repeat precisely the same kind of claim – certainly without anything like the philosophical warrant that he had! – every time we think in terms of the necessity that is manifested in us.
This isn’t to say that there is nothing decisive in the present, that there are no events, etc., but only that the intellectual movements with which we grapple ought not to be raised to the level of the world-historic. Perhaps this tendency is the way in which our inevitable narcissism is figured in intellectual discourse, but it remains to be resisted.
Now, what Figal says about hermeneutic philosophy is certainly true, but I don’t think hermeneutics has been anything like a generalised plague either. In fact, I was struck by the line of Figal’s you cite, since it is a near literal rendering of certain of Derrida’s formulations of the infamous il n’y a pas de hors-texte. As he says in the afterword of the Limited Inc. collection, this also amounts to saying that il n’y a pas hors de contexte. But the fact that a text has no meaning outside of a particular context does not mean that it is independent of context in general. So this point hardly gets out out relationism. All it does is render its diachronic character.
Beyond this, I’d say that the realism/anti-realism opposition that has gained so much currency in the last decade or so is – at the least – not a very good way of understanding earlier debates like those pursued by the French thinkers working to break with the phenomenological and existentialist tradition. And, as is very often pointed out, to call someone like Deleuze or Lacan a post-structuralist is to confuse matters a great deal.
To finally get to your actual question, the same holds for the category of relationism. A great deal turns around what register one is talking about (material relations? linguistic? structural? ontological?), just for starters. But I’d rather just drop all talk of poststructuralism, relationism, all of these convenient but insignificant shorthands. Philosophy has no need of them.
You have thoroughly and convincingly criticized the so-called “emanative model” in the context of Badiou’s misappropriation of Deleuze’s philosophy (i.e., Badiou’s failed attempt to turn Deleuze into a thinker of the One). What is, in your view, a more suitable model to regulate the relationship between being and beings? It seems dialectical, analogical and emanative models are insufficient to think some of today’s problems…
I think you’re right in suggesting that the emanative model has recently enjoyed a kind of surreptitious popularity. We see it as much in ecophilosophy – the Earth as the unconsumable source of all – as we do in object oriented work. It’s always worth recalling its origins in Plotinus’ neo-Platonism, but its persistence today really owes itself to its theological filiation. But we should also recall the problem that it leaves unsolved, namely what Plato calls participation – and before I continue I should say that this whole argument I am rehearsing is found in Deleuze’s big book on Spinoza, Expressionism in Philosophy.
The framework advanced by Deleuze, and the one I think is best grounded, is the framework provided by the concept of expression. Being is not any Thing of its own, isolated or withdrawn into transcendence, but that which is expressed through beings in their dynamisms (the proximity with Heidegger we were discussing before is at once clear and opaque here). In Difference and Repetition, for instance, intensity is what exists, but it expresses through its dynamic processes the differential structure of the virtual. So in a sense, the problem of participation is dissolved at the same time as the ontological division between Ideas and material bodies is undermined from within.
This is a brief sketch and would require a lot more to be made convincing, but that’s the path I think should be taken. From this point of view, the apparent primacy of the object as it appears in object oriented philosophy is revealed as a kind of optical effect. What OOP takes as first is a secondary product of the dynamic processes of individuation, which turn around the virtual Idea that these processes express.
You use the interesting term ‘regulation’. On the one hand, this does not seem like the best choice, since it seems to confuse the ontological relationship (between being and beings) with a technical or political question of managing the relationship. If we are talking in ontological terms, then the political and the technical have no purchase. On the other hand, perhaps your point is that being does not possess a neutral, fixed structure, and that it is indeed subject to material dynamisms. This is what Deleuze and Guattari’s (misleading, in my view) phrase ‘For politics precedes being’ might seem to indicate, for instance. If so, it would seem like what you’re really doing is departing from the ontological perspective altogether. It’s a strange kind of perspective granted by ontology, one that always reappears at the very point when you think you’ve departed from it – I can always ask about the ground in being of any given change.
I am not certain which of today’s problems you are invoking at the end there. But I do think that all of these approaches will give us means to deal with any problem that presents itself, and the (Hegelian or Marxist) dialectical approach is certainly superior to the others. But – to use a tedious dialectical manoeuvre – what the approaches you cite are very bad at grasping is the problem itself. The thematisations of the event in Lyotard, Foucault, Deleuze and Badiou give us plenty to think about in this conjunction.
What’s the future of philosophical thinking? Is there a realist renaissance of “strong thinking”, in your view? If so, what happened to “weak thinking”?
The concept of ‘weak thinking’ – I suppose you’re invoking Vattimo’s il pensiero debole? – has always amused me a little, because as a thesis about the nature of truth, language, meaning, philosophy and so on, it’s as absolute as any other. It’s a little like the call for epistemological modesty that sometimes gets put around. The content of the discourse is one thing, but the form of its enunciation pushes in the opposite direction. In the case of weak thought, we are told that unless we give up our attachment to the absolute, we participate in the worst kinds of violence. A kind of blackmail attends these positions, as a result.
There’s no need to apologise for philosophy being what it is, namely the thetic development of extra-linguistic (ie., real) problems. That theses appear to be assertions (this is not necessarily the case, but this is not the place to go through all of that) does not mean that to write and speak this way is to embrace the worst of a dictatorial style with all of its moral and political correlates. Conversely, it is hard to see how giving way on philosophical theses in the name of some kind of ethics of inclusion could ever achieve any significant goal, other than emptying philosophy of all content.
I’ll resist ranting further, but I suppose my answer to this question is that the opposition between weak and strong in these formulations is a moral one extrinsic to philosophy itself. Allow me to repeat myself and just say that philosophy has no need of such a distinction, since it only ever comes after philosophy has taken place.
I also think that identifying realism with strong thinking doesn’t necessarily give us the whole picture. There is no one realism, for starters, and few anti-realist positions are equivalent to vaseline-lensed shopping network moral relativist version of democracy. All I think we need to say is that philosophy is an exercise in the absolute and its ethical value consists in its absolute rejection of subordinating thought to cliches, including the linguistic and affective cliches of contemporary morality.
Earlier you made the interesting remark that publishing –and the “publish-or-perish” logic that permeates the academy– has, in a sense, replaced reading and writing. What did you mean by that?
It’s not saying much to point out that the goals of the university have never been completely in line with the goals of thought. In the current context, though, where the logic of capitalism has simply replaced any fundamental pedagogical or intellectual goals, the situation is very stark. And indeed, the issue really isn’t just that demands that conflict with thought are being made on academics from the admininistrative strata of the university, though this is certainly true. The true problem is that this capitalist logic has been thoroughly internalized. The practical and affective life of the academic turns around the calculus of publishing, of quantitative metrics hard-baked into job descriptions, in the endless and gormless tribunals of the contemporary university.
The ‘or’ in ‘publish or perish’ is a red herring, since the moment the either/or comes to dominate, the game is already up. Thought simply perishes. Or as Deleuze rightly points out, if thought dies, it is because it was murdered.
I suppose this is all pretty much obvious at this point, but it bears repeating – often.
Let me just add that, in another sense, it is indeed necessary for thought to be published – I mean, publicare, made public. And nobody thinks without wanting to give that thought the life that it deserves beyond the moment of its inception. Don Patterson says this about the poet, but it’s equally true of philosophers. Thinking must not circle around the solipsistic self, but must be made to circulate through the relay of the other.
I think you would agree that part of the popularity of OOO had a lot to do with its members being active and responsive bloggers. Perhaps they should be given credit for bringing the scholarly conversation outside the confines of the academy at a time of increasing privatization of post-secondary education. Yet, at the same time, not everybody is happy about democratizing knowledge this way. Where do you stand on this issue?
It is certainly true that the internet – and blogs in particular – was instrumental in the flourishing of object-oriented philosophy, and that this did happen beyond the bounds of the academy strictly speaking. This might seem like a good thing, especially given everything I’ve just said. In truth, though, I ultimately agree with Ray Brassier’s well-known remark about the impropriety of the internet as a means for pursuing philosophy, though not for the reasons he says. The internet itself is neither the ideal and transparent means of communication it is often made out to be, nor the matrix of an orgy of stupidity. No, the problem lies with the dialogic form that blogging takes. I feel very close to Deleuze on this point when he says that philosophy hates discussion. As he and Guattari say in What is Philosophy?, ‘Communication always comes too early or too late, and when it comes to creating, conversation is always superfluous.’
The work of philosophy is always provoked by something, and this is often the interruption constituted by another thinker. But the problem comes when the discussion itself is taken to be the philosophical act.
At root, the key issue is this (and it relates back to the weak thought question from before): democracy is a form of social organization, not a protocol for philosophy. The idea that because it is good in one register, it must be good in all, is deeply false, it is a paralogism in the classical sense, and it must be rejected.
So this means we must ask about the impulse to ‘democratize’ knowledge. Why is this a good thing? Who wants it and for what reason? To think that all knowledge should be available to everyone is quite clearly founded on the exclusion of the new, the difficult, the obscure – indeed, on everything that characterizes the movement of thought.
In any case, as Derrida points out so forcefully with respect to communication, if we were to arrive at the point where a message could convey its meaning without any friction or difficulty to everyone equally, that message would be strictly speaking void of meaning, absolute banality. Communication between people, even with the ideal of democracy in place, presupposes miscommunication. And knowledge can only be ‘democratized’ in this sense at the cost of it descending into cliché – philosophy’s great and perennial enemy.
Consequently, what I called in a bit of a stupid way the ‘relay of the other’ before cannot be directly equated with democracy. The goal of a concept when it meets up with the thoughts of others is not to convey meaning, or worse, to confirm what others already know, it is to trouble this knowledge. Lacan’s maxim is incontrovertible: truth is what punches a whole in knowledge. And, by the way, this is essentially Deleuze’s definition of the true, just as it is Badiou’s: the true is the decisive, not the universally communicable.
What are you currently working on?
I have just finished a little book on Deleuze’s first text Empiricism and Subjectivity, which is a idiosyncratic but rather remarkable introduction to Hume’s philosophy, and right now am assembling a massive tome that introduces each of Deleuze’s works in chronological order, which will be published open-access through re-press. But the work that I published late last year in Abstract Market Theory is – I hope at least, though it’s of course not up to me – my first important ‘stand-alone’ text. It advances a new concept of the market, a category that is all but ubiquitous in public discourse but whose meaning is so unclear as to be non-existent. The aim of the book is to emphasise the reality and nature of price, and its irreducibility to value. Once I finish with the giant introductory book, I’ll be turning my attention to the topic of money, which is equally decisive, and which I think will complement and extend the market theory work.
Alongside this, I’m working on a translation of the philosopher of biology Raymond Ruyer’s book La Genèse des formes vivantes with my friend Nicholas de Weydenthal. It’s to appear under a new imprint at Rowman Littlefield International that I’m on the editorial team for, called Groundworks, devoted to the publication of important and little-known secondary texts in English translation.
Finally, to ratchet up my own anxiety level one more step by listing it, I’m closing in on the final chapters of a second book of aphorisms, which will be called Seduce or Die. It’s my chance to take a swing at that great enemy of philosophy and humanity, the mirror, and hopefully to put aside the adolescent snivelling that characterised its predecessor volume.
© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Roffe
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Ralón, L. (2016). “Interview with Jon Roffe,” Figure/Ground. February 18th.
< http://figureground.org/interview-with-jon-roffe/ >
Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at email@example.com