Katerina Kolozova on The Real in Contemporary Philosophy

The Philosopher in Meditation by Rembrandt

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Today, we have a guest post from Professor Katerina Kolozova, in which she discusses what she sees as the state of The Real today and outlines some ideas in her forthcoming book Cut of the Real, to be published by Columbia University Press in the Fall:

What Baudrillard called the perfect crime has become the malaise of the global(ized) intellectual of the beginning of the 21’st century. The “perfect crime” in question is the murder of the real, carried out in such way as to create the conviction it never existed and that the traces of its erased existence were mere symptom of its implacable originary absence. The era of postmodernism has been one of oversaturation with signification as a reality in its own right and also as the only possible reality. In 1995, with the publication of The Perfect Crime, Baudrillard declared full realization of the danger he warned against as early as in 1976 in his book The Symbolic Exchange and Death. The latter book centered on the plea to affirm reality in its form of negativity, i.e., as death and the trauma of interrupted life. And he did not write of some static idea of the “Negative,” of “the constitutive lack” or “absence” as conceived by postmodernism and epistemological poststructuralism. The fact that, within the poststructuralist theoretical tradition, the real has been treated as the “inaccessible” and “the unthinkable” has caused “freezing” of the category (of the real) as immutable, univocal and bracketed out of discursiveness as an unspoken axiom.

The romantic fascination with the possibility of self-invention, the dream of being the demiurge of oneself and one’s own reality, has been nesting in most postmodern readings of the idea of utter linguistic constructedness of the self and it’s jouissance. The theoretical trend of what I would call “cyber-optimism” of the 90’ was informed by the old European myth of transcending physical limitations by way of liberating desires from the body. Through prosthetic mediation, one would “emancipate” desire and re-create oneself as the product and the reality of pure signification. This is a theoretical trend mostly inspired by the work of Donna Haraway. However, in my view, one which has failed to see the terrifying void gaping behind that utter intentionality of the human mind that Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991) and Primate Visions (1989) expose. She speaks of the Cyborg we all are, a creature of no origin, “the bastard of patriarchal militarism” as the revolutionary subject that should aim to destroy the narratives of hierarchy which humanism and its anthropocentric vision of nature produce. Haraway radically problematizes the dualistic hierarchy which subdues and exploits nature. The Cyborg, that “militant bastard” of humanism, faces the horror of auto-seclusion in its narcissistic and auto-referential universe of dreams and desires informed by the universe of his philosophical fathers.

The realization about the fundamentally discursively constructed humanity, including its entire history of idea, its universe and horizon of thinkability, creates the following aporia: the limits of construction reveal a certain “out-there” against which one is constructed. The “out-there” has been habitually relegated by the postmodernists to the realm of nonsense which deserves no theoretical consideration insofar as it could only assume the status of the unthinkable real. Nonetheless, Baudrillard appealed to think it as affirmed negativity, and the Lacanians attempted to think it as trauma or “constitutive lack.” In Bodies that Matter (1993), Butler assigned the status of the real to some of the laws of phantasmatic construction of the body and gender. These efforts of invoking the real within a theory which is marked as predominantly poststructuralist seem to have failed to offer a satisfactory response to the ever increasing theoretical and existential need to reclaim the real. Hence, the emergence in the second half of the first decade of the 21st century of strands of philosophical thought such as “speculative realism,” “object oriented ontology,” Badousian-Žižekian realist tendencies in political theory and, finally, François Laruelle’s non-standard philosophy or non-philosophy. There has been a notable tendency in the last couple of years to subsume all these lines of thinking under the single label of “speculative realism.” The notion of “speculative realism” has taken a life of its own against the fact that virtually all of the prominent representatives of the heterogeneous theoretical trends it pretends to refer to do not endorse or even reject the label (except for some representatives of object oriented ontology).

All these trends to which the identification of “speculative realism” is assigned to, in spite of their fundamental differences, have something in common: they identify limitations to thought or discursivity precisely in the alleged “limitlessness” of thought, proclaimed by most postmodernists. The main epistemic problem of postmodern philosophy identified by the “new realists” is what Quentin Meillassoux, in his book After Finitude (2008), called “correlationism.” At the heart of postmodern philosophy lies “correlationism,” a philosophical axiom based on the premise that thought can only “think itself,” that the real is inaccessible to knowledge and human subjectivity.

Laruelle’s non-philosophy radicalizes the problem by way of insisting that indeed all that thought can operate with is thinking itself, and that the hallucinatory world of representation is indeed the only means and topos for mediating the real, viz. for signifying it. Nonetheless, according to him and radically differently from any postmodernist stance, the real can be thought and ought to be thought. Laruelle argues one should produce thought in accordance with the syntax of the real, a thought affected by the real and which accounts for the effects of the real. The real is not a meaning, it is not a truth of anything and does not possess an epistemic structure since it is not mirrored by and does not mirror any accurate knowledge of its workings. Therefore, a thought established in accordance with the effects of the real is unilateral. In non-philosophy, this stance is called dualysis. Namely, the radically different status of the immanent (the real) and of the transcendental (thought) is affirmed, and by virtue of such affirmation the thinking subject attempts to describe some effects of sheer exteriority, i.e., the real. The interpretation of these effects makes use of “philosophical material,” but it does not succumb to philosophy but rather to the real as its authority in the last instance.

Such fundamentally heretical stance with respect to the history of philosophical ideas or to the idea of philosophy itself creates the possibility of being radically innovative as far as political possibilities are concerned, both in terms of theory and action. In The Cut of the Real, I attempt to explore the potentiality for radicalizing some core concepts of the legacy of feminist poststructuralist philosophy. By way of resorting to some of the methodological procedures proferred by the non-philosophy, but also by way of unraveling a radically realist heuristics in the thought of Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray and Drucilla Cornell, I attempt to create grounds for a language of politics “affected by immanence” (Laruelle).

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