Contingency, Necessity and the Final Absolute:

Expanding on my summary of Ray Brassier’s Remarks on Subtractive Ontology and Thinking Capital here are some further related observations on aleatory rationalism, drawing on Elie Ayache’s account of how the option ‘science’ of the derivatives trading comes to  hypostasize the market as an absolute relation that is not thought-independent:

Brassier’s critique of aleatory rationality shares the epistemological concerns of Quinten Meillassoux, who at the end of his philosophically innovative work After Finitude attempts to offer a speculative resolution to Hume’s problem of induction;  questioning the traditional ludic understanding of randomness and how certain varieties of intractable uncertainty impinge upon us in the form of large-impact rare events. Ludic fallacy finds its apotheosis in the financial markets, particularly in derivatives trading; something that French theorist Elie Ayache has noted leading him draw upon Meillassoux to better explain how the misapprehension of traders affects the dynamic meta-stability of the real with false certainties. Ayache is an ex-volatility trader, working at a time when physical scientists such as engineers were co-opted by the markets in order to work on option science, providing workable algorithims for market traders wishing to price options contracts. Options trading requires the pricing of options on underlying assets in order to create futures contracts, locking a ‘strike price’ – in what is known as put-call parity – to be realized at a later date (i.e maturity). These derivatives are financial instruments which are derived from the underlying price of another asset (an index, event, value or condition), all of which are reliant on the unpredictability of volatile markets or more accurately, we could say it is a process of speculation on speculation. Ayache draws upon and deepens Nassim Taleb’s highly influential – if somewhat one-sided – explanation for the current global economic crisis. Taleb’s Black Swan hypothesis falls within the ambit of Hume’s problem of induction, which casts doubt on inferential reason.

The Black Swan event refers to the catastrophic failure in 1987 of the Black-Scholes-Merton model for deriving future prices from underlying assets and ultimately attempts to replicate risk-free portfolios by damping stochastic turbulence [BS, p.3]. Black-Scholes is a differential equation reliant on large data-sets of market performance and is imported from physics as a way of predicting trends in stochastic conditions – the Brownian motion of prices. Both Taleb and Ayache claim the failure Black-Scholes to be a completely unforeseeable and gratuitously random event; a probabilistic aberration. Up until then Black-Scholes had been satisfactory model of realization. The model’s dramatic failure in 1987 was the single counter-instance of the model’s falsification and thereafter it was used in reverse in order to continue to derive value. Both authors question the model’s overall empirical fitness due to its reliance on the assumption of market completeness. Furthermore, following in the footsteps of Badiou, Ayache places an emphasis on the event that makes it ‘impossible to prescribe [as] a process of history’ [FTS1, p20]. It is also here that Badiou’s unbinding of the figure of history in the face of the void as possibility of possibilities is combined with Meillassoux’s diagnosis of the problematic nature of the correlation between thought and being. Ayache, with regard to the problematic inscription of the event within processural history, states that:

‘[…] the impossibility of prescribing a process for history is no ordinary impossibility in the sense of lack of possibility. The impossibility of processing history is incommensurable with possibility because the “process” of history is a change and shift and disruption of whole ranges of possibilities. A more accurate characterization would be to say that the “process” of history is an im-possible process.” [FTS1, p.20]

He then stipulates that whilst we can traditionally read world history as a ‘process of possibilities’, there is a special class of possibilities that don’t occur in possibility, but in capacity. By capacity he means the active ‘writing of history’, ‘price process’ or ‘market process’ that materially writes or translates to produce something original and unprecedented. For him, writing is the voluminous space of decision – he equates the writer with the stock-trader, the one who physically interjects himself subjectively into an stochastically unverifiable space created by dynamic replication – over which he ‘imposes his own necessity’ [FTS1, p.21] in order to behave independently and originally. This forcing allows him to progress beyond the im-possibility of prediction and mere empty replication of the same. If the writing process is held as equivalent to the price process, this has complex implications when applied to the concrete case of derivative markets: ‘The pricing/trading of a derivative is this inscribed in capacity not possibility, for it amounts to changing the context and changing the range of variables’ [FTS1, p.22] For Ayache, price as market given (datum) ‘resurfaces from possibility’ in what appears to be a transition from pricing ability to pricing capacity (i.e. from possibility to writing). Here we can detect a movement from unverifiable volatility to computable pricing, that subsequently determines marketable hedging options. Ayache is adamant this requires the physical interjection of the trader’s body to allow the pricing process of the derivative to resurface ‘from the depths of possibility’ and rejoin the pricing surface, emerging as ‘process history’, which in turn generates new contexts and variable parameters. This appears, at least superficially, to bear all the hallmarks of Badiou’s aleatory rationalism; the Mallarméan throw of the dice, the moment in which the trader plucks price from supernumerary excess. It is in this the moment in which the derivatives seller (writer) is exposed to the real, the moment he forces a subjective prediction in the face of the storm of hyperChaos.

This exposure to what Brassier refers to as stochastic noise and Meillassoux calls the transfinite – the ‘detotalization of number‘ [AF, p. 103] – is precisely why this part of the trade cannot automated, since it is non-axiomatizable and beyond the limits of calculatory reason. Operations within a space that is incompossible specifically require the subjective intervention of a human trader. Indeed, market prediction cannot be fully automated, since it would demand computers to be armed with perfect information, but this level of completeness and compression is exactly that which is precluded by Turing’s halting problem and Chaitin’s halting probability; it is common knowledge that the term market forecast is merely a figure of speech. And whereas machines execute algorithmic models in the market, it requires humans to interpret the feedback to modify the model. Therefore, it is through the creation of trader’s own necessity in the face of unverifiable that they produce a computable price from the excessive possibility of possibilites (or more specifically given-without-giveness). When traders write derivatives they are creating a pure formula of contingency, wishing that the difference they will make in the future may make a difference today, given that price is a differential. In so doing, the writer obscures underlying value with price, proliferating informational opacity and undermining empirical claims with regard to any market models. As Ayache states: ‘Traders do not trade derivatives indifferently.’ [FTS2, p.47] This allows Ayache to ask: ‘Isn’t the market the perfect embodiment of the co-relational circle?’ [FTS2, p.47], since no fixed mathematical law can provide an empirically given price for the market and absolutization occurs precisely when the market model is reversed. This is the instance in which the market is confused for reality, denoting a certain circularity that leads us to question the limits of deductive reasoning and ‘science’ of rational expectation. Here we could say that the market itself is hypostasized as an absolute relation that is not thought-independent. Here the market becomes a opaque rendering of the world wherein we can only maintain the ‘fact’ of the market and not the in-itself. This absolutization implies that crisis in the market is a crisis in faith, borne out by repeated need for sellers to ‘fudge’ (or modify) the Black-Scholes-Merton model in order to render it functional. The competitive advantage pursued by those who engineer the sophisticated complexity of derivatives – layered speculation and the interpenetration of models – comes at a cost to transparency, which in turn drives leveraging and the securitization of products of unknown and uncertain value. Moreover, there is a proliferation in variations of the model, precisely in order to create opacity and informational asymmetry in order to protect profit margins. This antithesis of parity in finance is characterized by opaque markets, black-box trading and dark pools of liquidity that escapes any State regulation or  taxation of these unobserved flows of capital; an estimated one-third of all trading exceeds any such legislation.


Ayache E. (2008) The French Theory of Speculation Part I: Necessity of Contingency (Wilmott Magazine) pp. 20- 29.
Ayache E. (2008) The French Theory of Speculation Part I: Necessity of the Future (Wilmott Magazine) pp. 44-49
Badiou, A. (2007) Being and Event, trans. O. Feltham (Continuum).
Badiou, A. (1999) Manifesto for Philosophy, trans. N. Madarasz (State University of New York Press)
Badiou, A. (2008) Number and Numbers, trans. Robin MacKay (Polity)
Brassier R. (2004) ‘Remarks on Subtractive Ontology and Thinking Capital’, Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy, editor Hallward, P. (Continuum).
Brassier, R. (2007) Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Palgrave Macmillan).
Brassier R. & Toscano A. (2004) ‘Aleatory Rationalism’, Badiou: Theoretical Writings (Continuum).
Chaitin G. (2006) Meta-Math: The Quest for Omega (Vintage)
Meillassoux, Q. (2008) After Finitude: An Essay on the Contingency of Necessity, trans. R. Brassier (Continuum).
Taleb N. & Haug E.G. (2008) Why We Have Never Used the Black-Scholes-Merton Option Pricing (Social Science Research Network).

Posted in Badiou, Capitalism, Hume, Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Speculative Realism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Plastic Bag: In Search of The Vortex

Here’s an appealing short film by Ramin Bahrani in which Werner Herzog gives voice to a tenacious plastic bag in search of its maker and struggling with its own immortality; wafting its way through the wasteland until it chances upon the Pacific Ocean trash vortex (a hedonia of trash). I was just reminded about it reading this thoughtful post about Space Junk & the (relational) Real.

Posted in Ecology, Herzog | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi: ‘The Soul At Work: From Alienation to Autonomy’

Malinche, Martin and Cortes.

Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi – ‘The Soul At Work: From Alienation to Autonomy’ Tuesday 2nd March 2010, 6-8pm Goldsmith’s

Thankyou for this invitation to discuss news paths of research, the chaosmotic order of subjectivation. My book The Soul At Work: From Alienation to Autonomy is a history of radical thought from the 60’s to the end of the 20th century, with regards to subjectivation in the workerist, neo-marxist framework and constellation of the work of Deleuze and Guattari — the relation between the French and Italian experience of neo-marxism, in order to rethink the process of subjectivation in post-industrial society. I hope to provide new conceptual weapons and understand this new framework of subjectivation under precarization. In order to do this, I suggest that we re-read Baudrillard — writer of the process of precarization — who has almost been criminalized; mostly by my friends in Autonomia. But we must move past old philosophical conflicts between Foucault and Baudrillard. I re-propose Baudrillard as a thinker of (the) depression, since Marxist alienation has been replaced by pyschopathology, the loss of self, in the new framework of precarious labour. This is a conflict for the soul.

We have to accept the fact that in the 21st century we are completely inside this new framework — as Deleuze and Guattari foresee. Precariousness is the new basis of subjectivation that dissolves and destroys any promise of a progressive future. Therefore, the issue of subjectivation must be reconsidered in the wake of the failure of the declaration: ‘Yes, we can!’. Obama’s slogan was a declaration of the foreclosure of any progressive future; a Freudian lapse. It is the end of any possibility of human change brought about through subjectivation. But now I want to talk about something else. I am Italian, but would like to talk about subjectivation through Mexican eyes, to talk about the Baroque and its relation to Semio-capitalism (the capitalism of signs and semiotic goods). And in order to explain this new subjectivity we must discuss the recent mutation in Capital.

The Fordist-era, which was determined by mechanical production, has evolved into one of immaterial production that rests on the cognitive ability of workers to socially produce; which in turn dissolves the mathematical measurement of labour time and value. We are now living in the ‘kingdom of indetermination’ as Baudrillard might say, brought about by this dissolution of the connection between labour time and value. The real and true nature of Capital has been deprived of the material foundation of value. Consequently, violence (coercion) is then the only thing which can now determine the value of labour. The linguistic nature of Capital is now violent. Christian Marrazzi is worthwhile in this respect, in that he explains the essential nature of capitalist production (i.e. Semio-capital), in which social relations are only ones of linguistic displacement (language is not for the truth, it invents, it lies, it displaces as Umberto Eco notes). Language generates a multiplicity of meaning in the field of exchange.

So returning to the question of the Baroque: we all accept the Protestant break in the history of modernity and Capital and its intimate connection with the bourgeoisie as a class. But we should ask the question: does the bourgeoisie still exists as a class? This leading Protestant class of the city that is territorial in character, which has an affective relationship with labour and the thing, one of hegemonic propriertorial ownership. Yet, everything in contemporary capitalism is changing from the point of view of labour, in that it is no longer a possession of the propriertorial bourgeoisie. Capitalism is now chararcterized by the ability to dispossess and change the place of exchange (the place of non-place or deterritorialization). A process of precarization based on profit which has ruined the bourgeoisie as a class.

However, if we look to Mexico we detect two streams of modernity (in truth, there is no such thing as post-modernity). Firstly, we have the bourgeois Protestant strand of proprietarian modernity based around labour/time/value. However, the Mexican philosopher Bolívar Echeverría identifies a second stream, a Baroque culture of modernity (which Deleuze wrote so eloquently about with reference to Leibniz). This is why you should all please stop reading Spinoza and read Leibniz instead! Leibniz is a much darker and more paranoiac writer, but he is also the writing about the multiplication of worlds and the multiplication of productive consistency. Leibniz is the appropriate thinker of the recombinant phase of capitalism, therefore Leibniz is essential to understanding capitalism’s mutation (under which labour is presented as an infinite sprawl of viable time). Capital now has the ability to produce infinite fractals of time inside the productive working day. This makes Liebniz the thinker of the recombinant machine.

Momentarily, returning to Italy, if we look at the Italian struggle between language and Capital, we must understand that the Fascist experience was not only one of pathological criminality, but also a deep understanding of the second stream of Baroque modernity inscribed within capitalism (exemplified by Curzio Malaparte, who subverts the the reactionary character of the baroque into a ‘progressive force’ in his book Leaving Europe). Here we see that the Baroque produces multiplication, an infinity of points of singular annunciation in language, which erases any possibility of Truth (i.e. that labour-time equals value). Therefore, only the arbitrary use of force (Fascism) can create power, a kingdom of arbitrary force between workers and Capital. The Baroque is a delegitimisation of the truth of value by force (this is the experience of Autonomia in Italy in the 70’s).

What I’d really like to talk about now is Malinche (also known as Marina, Malintzin, Malinali), the interpreter and lover of Cortes who translated for him when he wanted to talk in the languages of meso-americans. She meets Cortes and considers him a messenger of God? But the question is: whose God (the Catholic God or Quetzacoatl)? Malinche is a traitor, but why should she be against the conquistadors,? Her world — the world of the Aztecs — is collapsing with arrival of the European metalanguage. She represents the mixing of cultures, the emergence of a new Mexico, a new history of a new world. The creation of a new subjectivity, her son Martin who she conceives with Cortes, the first Mestizo. She realizes that the world cannot be changed (‘No, we can’t!), so the experience of Malinche is important. We must become Malinche — we have lost our collective soul, we are no more ourselves — within the framework of infinite truths that semio-capital creates (the mestization of language). Our identity no longer exists historically, Italy does not exist! Life in the territory has been erased and cultural energy cannot change reality. We must start again like Malinche.


Q: Is resistance to semio-capitalism based in language, the hijacking of language as Delueze might say — creating a vacuum of non-communication such as radio piracy (such as Radio Alice)?

Berardi: Is subjectivity possible only when resistance is possible, is this the question? It is through the act of exodus and escape that we search for new processes of subjectivation, we are not merely running away. However, what is missing in Delueze and Guattari’s account is the word ‘depression’. They never mention the ‘d’-word. But at the end of their partnership they write the beautiful book What is Philosophy? on the subject of growing old. This is good for both social and demographic reasons in Europe. It is the problem of slow speed, the velocity of ageing. This is depression. This is the political problem of the 21st century. The relationship between infinite speed (velocity) and our brain in the field of chaos.

Q. How is the story of Malinche and the mestizo experience related to Virno’s theory of social exodus?

Berardi: Exodus is the point of change in political perspective according to Virno. A new process of autonomy, there is not only one way of escaping. Malinche’s exodus offers us the founding affect of contemporary South America. And this affect is the coexistence of differing temporalities within the same social sphere (worlds in worlds, in Mexico we can travel from the Palaeolithic-era to the 15th century right up to modernity in the same territory). This harbours a great potentiality. A virtual infinity of temporalities.

Q. Yes, but what about Europe?

Berardi: Yes, Europe has been one of the last great hopes for workerism. But I think we should reframe our hope differently. Interestingly, Deleuze and Guattari voted in opposite directions on the question of the Maastricht Referendum (Deleuze voted with a communist ‘No!’, and Guattari with a post-everything ‘Yes!’). Both contradicting each other on the question of the European superstate. However, the issue of Greece is telling, Greece’s debt and the German-Greek debate. This is the beginning of the end for the European entity. What is at stake is the financial identity of the European state. And there are no European intellectuals currently (who? Gluckmann!!??). What is required is the beginning of a new intellectual idea of autonomy, a construction free from the dictatorship of the European Central Bank.

Q. I’m an old-fashioned socialist utopian. My favourite book is Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism, I’ve read Marcuse and Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman, who claims that femininity is inscribed within language. So what is semio-capitalism? Post-Fordism emphasizes the cognitive worker (according to Gramsci). And you’re referencing Baudrillard, so should we fight within the virtuality of hyper-realism?

Berardi: Baudrillard has perhaps written too many books,but some of his points are certainly crucial. Hyper-reality offers a possible entrance to the castle of the world. I am interested in this idea of aleatority between time and value. Gramsci configured the framework of change as being comprised of intellectual labour and class organisation. But there has been an essential change in this framework, it is no more a process of the reflection of intellectual labour and class. It has become a problem of integration, a difficulty produced by the multiplication of perspectives. This is exactly what eludes the Grasmsican view, the gulf of separation we experience between language and the body in cognitive labour. An abyss of alienation, a psycho-pathology. Baudrillard allows us to think this separation.

Q. I’m Mexican, so pleased you spoke about Malinche. She is indigenous and represents indian modernity breaking from the European conception of left and right, not based on the question of ethnicity. We see this extreme grounding in territorial reality in Chiapas, also with the Cocaleros, the coca-planters of Peru and Bolivia. However, the Zapatistas are also deploying affective language (Our Word is Our Weapon). What is the connection between deterritorialization and this experience?

Berardi: What is fascinating about Mexico is the different temporalities within Mexico itself — between Chiapas and the city, for instance. All these differences living side-by-side in an apparently unified world, a model of possible autonomy. Not just politically with regard to labour, but also allowing for the possibility of a singularization of experience. There is absolutely no possibility of changing the world, only the possibility of singularization (which is in fact the communist project). Mexico teaches us this, it is the mestizo experience — a therapy of singularization. Only by forgetting about identity (like Malinche) is there a way forward. A new beginning after the apocalypse.

Q. What about de-colonial thought – colonial subjectivity must be eradicated? Surely, we must decolonize Europe.

Berardi: We see the concept of post-colonization beginning, but in truth colonization never ended! There is no teleological linearity, linearity towards where? In Latin/South America there is only non-linear singularization, which might be individual, collective or transversal. An entirely new process. It is like the Fox and the Grapes — not my problem.

Q. What about the feeling of apocalypse in Malinche’s story, the Aztec collapse? Who won? There is this story of Montezuma playing dice with Cortes for everything, and not caring, since his empire was collapsing. If you want to be a ‘Malinchista’ is there some relevance to the aleatory and the financial system?

Berardi: The end of the world is a true singularity. The end of the world is always singular (a personal apocalypse?). However, the second stream of modernity was more vicious, carnal and fleshy (9 out of 10 indians died). But Martin and Malinche survived. Martin is the beginning of a new world that inherits nothing from his mother or father, he is a new subjectivity. As such, the messtizaje mix cannot be codified in one sense or another (here Berardi mentioned Serge Gruzinski’s La Guerre Des Images). For us it is principally a problem of forgetting, not one of coming to terms with capitalism, the world begins with me in a singular sense.

Q. You mentioned that ‘Yes, we can!’ was a Freudian lapse, but his hope over? Does redemption start here? If so, what would the autonomous soul at work look like?

Berardi: If we examine the slogan ‘Yes, we can!’ we see this translates into what is in fact an impossibility of political will on the behalf of Barack Obama. (‘No, we can’t!). It becomes an extraordinary Freudian lapse, a final declaration of political modernity and the belief that human will can change things. Look at the constitution of power, look at Afghanistan, Obama said he wants to withdraw, but finds he cannot leave. He wants to leave and stay at the same time. This constitution of power is a worldwide Mafia power. Just look at Italy. The Mafia is the Italian state! There is no difference, they are the same thing. Under such a constitution of power voluntarism is impossible. Dr. Bush has proscribed infinite war! The idea was not to win in Afghanistan, it was to push the world into a war it cannot pull out of. The human dimension of this is sheer exhaustion (the growing-old of mankind). Unable to face this we are forced, like Deleuze, to live in withdrawal. However, Deleuze states that withdrawal offers us the ability to find new weapons. Obama knows that he is playing a game with no way out, it is over. So how is it possible to live in this inhuman world? Well, through collective withdrawal.

Alberto Toscano: Are you merely taking this question of depression and turning it into a euphoria of collapse? There have been these virulent debates throughout history, like the anarchists of the 19th c. who suggested radical, intensive and spatial withdrawal. This is an old strategy, a dissipation of useful energy: every one who goes to a farm is one less person that does something useful. But given workerism’s hostility to Hegel, your suggestion of a multiplicity of temporalities suffers from a Hegelian teleology, as well. The old model of the industrial world was hegemonic, yet it was never total, although certainly violent. The experience of Fordism was so significant that its end is seen as a collapse. Yet still, even at the end there is still plenty of industrial exploitation (manual labour is still cheaper than cognitive labour). The collapse of Fordism doesn’t seem like much of a collapse.

Berardi: Yes, I admit there is a Hegelian undertone to Autonomism. You read Hegel when you are young and become a prisoner for life of Hegel! I must come to terms with my Hegelianism everyday. Unfortunately, you cannot aufheben the Aufhebung! We must take this question of a paradigm change — this passage from the mono-level of Fordism to the baroque plurality of semio-captial — very seriously. I want to stress this emphasis on aleotority and arbitrarity (the violent law of the determinability of human time). When there is no arbitrary violence, no compulsion, there will be a huge change. However, the voluntarism of the decision is nothing, since we dwell in the kingdom of indeterminability.

Posted in Capitalism, Crisis, Deleuze and Guattari, Hegel, Karl Marx, Subjectivity, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Brassier: Capital and the Incompressible

Here is my exegesis of Ray Brassier’s compelling conjectural reversal that moves from thinking Capital to the bold conclusion that Capital thinks. In his text ‘Nihil Unbound: Remarks on Subtractive Ontology and Thinking Capital’ he grapples with how it might be possible to think Capital by providing an objective determination-in-the-last-instance. Beyond the Marxist analysis of the dynamics of accumulation, Brassier draws on recent philosophical insights in continental thought, mathematics and informational theory that appear eminently useful supplementing our conceptualization of Capital as a dynamic that refuses totalization. In order to achieve this he examines the subtractive ontology of Alain Badiou — turning his attention to precisely that which Badiou’s axiomatic set-theory elides — reconciling it with the profound diagnosis of capitalism as auto-axiomatic by Deleuze and Guattari. He then supplements this with the innovative informational theory and epistemological sophistication of mathematician Gregory Chaitin — namely in his work on uncomputable reals — in turn making Capital’s unthinkability and uncomputability intelligible.

THE VOID: In Nihil Unbound –– principally, in the chapter ‘Unbinding the Void’ in which he offers an appraisal of the philosophy of Alain Badiou –– Ray Brassier outlines the nihilistic consequences ‘incurred by science’s disenchantment of the world and capital’s desecration of the earth’ [NU, p.97]. Under such a determination the twin vectors of science and capital reveal unbound or pure multiplicity as the ‘veritable figure of being’: a rupturing of the traditional figure of the bond [MfP, pp.35-9]. This unbinding is made possible under the auspices of post-Cantorian mathematics and the discrete formal object-language of Frege and Russell, which masters the multiple by rendering lexical terms axiomatic. The axioms of set theory are defined compositionally –– rather than conceptually –– since ‘the multiple does not allow its being to prescribed from the standpoint of language alone’ [B&E, p. 40]. Or more precisely, we cannot count-as-one, or count as ‘set’, everything that is subsumable by a property, denying the coherency of any linguistic institution of a universal all-encompassing ontological situation. In short, Badiou denigrates the power of intuition to totalize its objects. Consequently, we can claim that the axiomatic presentation of inconsistent multiplicity annihilates the logical consistency of language and inaugurates the anti-phenomenological reign of the pure multiple (i.e. the void/null-set, the multiple of multiples, or groundless ground of what is presented). This subtractive discipline broadens the discursive range of philosophy, abjuring any previous idealist claims of auto-positional self-sufficiency and deposes the precarious configuration of Oneness. In short, Badiou’s axiomatic decision requires that philosophy be ‘expropriated of its conditions, [and] deprived of the appeal to intuition’ [AR, p.2] which accords him the ability to claim that the One is not, denying the existence of the Whole.

Further to this, Brassier makes some critical remarks with regards subtractive ontology and thinking capitalism in his contribution to Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy. Here Brassier examines Badiou’s unbinding of the ontological Being of History ‘as a crypto-transcendental condition for thought’ [TA, p.51]; an unbinding of the myth of the teleological train of history climbing to its inexorable progressive destination. Instead, Badiou acknowledges the aleatory contingency of philosophy’s historicity with regard to the future. Like Marx and Engels, Badiou applauds Capital –– which operates by number and value-form –– as a desacrilizing vector, saluting the genuine ontological virtue of non-being, whilst denouncing capitalism’s complete barbarianism. This allows Brassier to cautiously remodel the Badiouan description of Capital as an ‘over-event’ of universal unbinding; a ‘quasi-Truth’ of Capital as condition of conditions, situated outside of thought [TA, p. 52]. This truth can only be ‘quasi’ since it is only randomly and gratuitously true. Moreover, as Badiou himself points out –– the banal tyranny of numbers, outside of thought and under the law of Capital, obscures the ontological virtue of numbers and delivers us to numerical slavery:

“In our situation, that of Capital, the reign of number is thus the reign of the unthought slavery of numericality itself. Number, which, so it is claimed, underlies everything of value, is in actual fact a proscription against any thinking of number itself. Number operates as that obscure point where the situation concentrates its law; obscure through its being at once sovereign and subtracted from all thought, and even from every investigation that orientates it towards some truth.” [N&N, p,213]

THE AXIOMATIC: Accordingly, Capital is declared the historical medium for subtractive ontology, which Brassier claims is the imperative consequence of being as void. Brassier then risks a ‘hazardous analogy’ by comparing Badiou’s universal unbinding with Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of the axiomatic automation of Capital. Here the parallel is drawn between Capital –– an impersonal pathological system experienced as the absolute unbinding of the schizophrenic condition –– and Badiou’s excessive void set. Under Deleuze and Guattari’s diagnosis the immanent axiomatic of Capital is purely functional and impersonal in its operations, operating directly on decoded flows whilst remaining thoroughly indifferent to their intrinsic content; just as in Badiou the axioms of set theory are defined compositionally rather than conceptually. Within universal history the errant automation of capitalism is activated when, as Karl Marx identifies, we are confronted the abstract configurations of objectified labour and independent capital, crossing the threshold of decoding and deterritorialization, rendering empty every social bond. The axiomatic demonstrates an extraordinary adapative ability to add and subtract axioms, continually modulating and reconfiguring its parameters ‘within relative limits that are sufficiently wide’ [A-Oe, p. 139]. This unprecedented suppleness allows it to take contingent positions with regards to the unpredictable future, since the axiomatic is never saturated and always capable of appending a new axiom to preceding ones. Consequently, it is able to ward off limits to its expansion and is never ‘stymied by its incompleteness’ [TA, p.53]. This dynamism is therefore a non-totality or open system that rapaciously thrives off the discontinuous breach to the outside; or limitless immanence. It is here that the comparison between the ‘role played by cosmic schizophrenia as locus of absolute unbinding […] and that played by the excess of the void for Badiou’ [TA. p.53] seems most apt.

Deleuze goes further in providing an ontology for axiomatics with reference to competing mathematical tastes. Deleuze and Guattari make the explicit claim that their use of the term axiomatic is ‘far from a metaphor’ [TP, p. 455] and precisely stipulate that axiomatics is a ‘royal science’ synonymous with capitalism. This is something that French mathematician Nicolas Bourbaki has also noted, calling axiomatics ‘nothing but the “Taylor System” –– “the scientific management” of mathematics’ [TA, p.83]. Both the Taylor System and axiomatic set theory rise to prominence as foundational systems in the same historical moment. And here we discover a tension between the philosophical systems of Deleuze and Badiou, a political differend that arises from within mathematics itself. Yet, whereas Badiou favours the theorematic-axiomization of Cantor, Deleuze prefers the non-Cantorian problematics of differential calculus, with its emphasis on gradual quantitative transition, since philosophical novelty is engendered by the problem. He therefore designates problematics as a philosophical minor science which he then sets against the unifying royal mathematical tradition. Daniel W. Smith calls this the axiomatic-problematic distinction, a tension which is present in the very title of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. He further states that capitalism functions precisely on the basis of an axiomatic –– ‘not metaphorically, but literally’ –– since:

“…[Capital] as such is a problematic multiplicity: it can be converted into discrete differential qualities in our pay cheques and loose change, but in itself the monetary mass is a continuuous or intensive quality that increases and decreases without any agency controlling it. Like the continuum, the Capital is not masterable by an axiom; it constantly requires the creation of new axioms (‘it is like the power of the continuum, tied to the axiomatic but exceeding it’).” [TA, p. 91]

In short, Deleuze claims the ‘true’ axiomatic is social rather than scientific, since it generates new problematics (i.e. minorities or non-denumerable multiplicities) that are resistant to any axiomatic or discrete reduction.

GÖDEL, TURING & CHAITIN: Furthermore, Brassier is keen to cast suspicion on Badiou’s characterization of the State as the regulating force of re-presentation that configures and neutralizes the ‘inconsistent void underlying every presentation through apparatuses of ‘statist’ [etatique] regularization’ [TA, p. 54]. Brassier is wary that this constitutes a reductive description of the operations of Capital which cannot be explained simply through reference to the excess of the State’s regulating function. This requires him to explore the subjective political dimension of Badiou’s truth-procedures, the generic procedure that attempts to ascribe a fixed measure to the excess of the State, which in turn indexes the ‘unlocalizable excess of Capital’ [TA, p.54] in order to rationalize errancy. His suspicion is that the subjective truth-procedure –– which forces a determination in an unverifiable situation –– rests on a somewhat normative or common-sensical intuition of the random or aleatory. This affirmation of the decision on the undecidable within the parameters of aleatory rationalism is somewhat problematic, given Badiou’s founding disavowal of the power of intuition, and threatens a ‘relapse into superstitions of phenomenal voluntarism’ [TA, p.55]:

“[…] Badiou is curiously reliant on a suspiciously common-sense or intuitive notion of ‘chance’ or ‘randomness’. This suspicion is compounded by the eagerness with which Badiou wishes to dissociate the field of deductive fidelity concomitant with truth procedures from any ‘merely’ mechanical process of calculation. Yet it is precisely this venerable distinction between thinking and calculating –– often a cipher for the familiar philosophical opposition between subjective freedom and objective necessity –– which Alan Turing subverted from inside mathematics itself.” [TA, p.55]

Badiou’s allegiance to chance as the substructure of the production of truth is therefore interrogated by Brassier by referencing the audacious post-Cantorian mathematics of real infinity. He turns to the renowned theoretical computer science of Alan Turing, in particular the halting problem, for a more rigourous account of randomness, proof and computability (also known as ‘effective calculability). Turing’s halting problem is principally a ‘decision’ problem with regards to deciding whether, as the result of a given input, a particular program will halt or continue interminably. Turing deepens Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem –– under which no system for mathematics can be consistent, non-contradictory and complete (i.e. axiomatically provable) –– something that Badiou seems eminently familiar with. The halting problem as not Turing-computable was first proven by Turing in 1937 when he designed his machine to compute David Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem, or more precisely, show it was uncomputable. This problem is of historical importance since it was one of the first mathematical problems to be proved undecidable. Decidability requires there to be a method, definite procedure or test that can be applied to any given mathematical assertion, which will decide as to whether that assertion is provable. Consequently, Turing worsens Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, recasting it in terms of computers (axiomatic logic machines). Incompleteness means that there will always be problems that even a universal computing machine can never solve, so a Turing machine fed one of these problems would perhaps never stop (halt). And so Turing proved that there was no way of telling which these problems were satisfiable beforehand. This is the definition of uncomputability that proves there are ‘non-provable’ statements and determines the range and limits for axiom systems for mathematics. Therefore there is ‘no finite proof procedure whereby one can prove whether or not a given mathematical statement is provable’ [TA, p.55]. Brassier states that under such determinations Badiou must demonstrate that his truth-procedures are not based in a ‘pre-theorectical’ intuition of the spontaneous. Otherwise, he threatens to uphold the unsullied division between thought and calculation (i.e. non-algorithmic and algorithmic computation); which could similarly be designated as truth and knowledge. In short, Badiou is required ‘to show that truth procedures effectuate non-computable functions’ that are immeasurable [TA, p.56]:

“[…] if forcing delineates the cusp between the finitude of truth’s subjective act and the infinity of its generic procedure, it does not necessarily follow from this either that it must index some putatively unquantifiable upsurge of subjective freedom or that this cusp must be without measure.” [TA, p.56]

Brassier continues by analysing Gregory Chaitin’s recent contributions to the tradition of Gödel and Turing. Chaitin’s digital philosophy derives inspiration from Turing’s 1937 paper on computable numbers. His work is of epistemological and ontological importance in physics, biology and philosophy, determining that particular areas of mathematics are only quasi-empirical. Chaitin’s novel contribution is to demonstrate that not only do we have no way of predicting whether a given programme will loop infinitely, he shows that the probability of a program’s halting is absolutely random. In other words, there is no axiom capable of predicting it –– since every bit of information in a binary system is disconnected from the last, be it 1 or 0 (like the fair toss of a coin) –– and can only be iterated as ‘an incompressible string […] exhibiting no pattern or structure whatsoever’ [TA, p. 56]. Subsequently, Chaitin calls this strictly random probability Ω, a metacomputational constant that is irreducible; or in his terminology incompressible. Unlike the irrational number π, which can be expressed as a fraction and is therefore a computable real, Ω cannot be compressed in explanatory terms. Consequently, it would require an infinite amount of information to precisely measure Ω’s length and consequently it constitutes a strictly non-denumerable infinity. According to Chaitin, every explanation is a compression of the original problem that must by definition be simpler and more precise than that which it explains. In short, to explain is to compress and the best informational theory, program, explanation or logique du monde is the shortest (i.e. the smallest in bit length). In order to produce an elegant explanation a theory must be more concise than the unstructured data-set you began with. Accordingly, most infinitely recursive strings of bits (i.e. uncomputable reals) cannot be compressed or produced by a program smaller than they are, making them an un-totalizable and incompressible sequence that is completely unstructured. Moreover, Ω’s length jumps from finite to infinite from iteration to iteration. It produces what Ray Brassier nominates as an ‘unpredictable burst of objective randomness [or] indecipherable noise’ [TA, p.57] that can only constitute a quasi-empirical fact that is randomly and accidently true. Since Ω’s finitude or infinitude is non-deducible, every iteration of Ω (each bit, 1 or 0) can only be incorporated into the computable axiomatic order with the supplementation of further axioms. This allows us to detect an uncanny similarity to Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the pathological functioning of the capitalist axiomatic that thrives off incompleteness through the addition of new axioms. Here Brassier seeks to index the real through reference to Ω as an empirical and scientific determination-in-the-last-instance that provides an objective measure of the gap between Badiou’s ontology of the void and requirement of a subjective truth procedure in the face of the inconsistency. Furthermore, Brassier concludes that capitalism itself is ‘fuelled by random undecidabilities’, just as we find in the flip-flopping digital iterations of Ω –– the stochastic unpredictability and incremental price differences from which value is machinically extracted. It harnesses dysfunction and crisis by ‘axiomatizing empirical contingency’ [TA, p.57]. Here he alludes to the unthinkable and ‘unameable real’ which Badiou cannot acknowledge, surmising that Chaitin’s constant provides us with ‘an objective determination of the excess of the void as embodied by the errant automation of Capital.’ [TA, p.58] And perhaps more acutely, Brassier speculates that Capital in fact thinks through the very micro-processes that comprise it.


Badiou, A. (2007) Being and Event, trans. O. Feltham (Continuum).
Badiou, A. (2009) Logics of Worlds, trans A. Toscano (Continuum)
Badiou, A. (1999) Manifesto for Philosophy, trans. N. Madarasz (State University of New York Press)
Badiou, A. (2008) Number and Numbers, trans. Robin MacKay (Polity)
Brassier R. (2004) ‘Remarks on Subtractive Ontology and Thinking Capital’, Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy, editor Hallward, P. (Continuum).
Brassier, R. (2007) Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Palgrave Macmillan).
Brassier R. & Toscano A. (2004) ‘Aleatory Rationalism’, Badiou: Theoretical Writings (Continuum).
Chaitin G. (2006) Meta-Math: The Quest for Omega (Vintage)
Delueze G. & Gauttari F. (2003) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Continuum).
Deleuze G. (1992) Poscript on Societies of Control, from OCTOBER vol. 59, Winter 1992, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 3-7.
Marx, K. (1993) Grundrisse (Penguin Classics).
Smith D.W. (2004) ‘Badiou and Deleuze and Ontology of Mathematics’, Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy, editor Hallward, P. (Continuum).

Posted in Badiou, Capitalism, Deleuze and Guattari, Karl Marx, Ray Brassier, Speculative Realism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Subject and Appearance: On Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject and Logics of Worlds

Subject and Appearance: On Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject and Logics of Worlds

Event held at Bolivar Hall Friday 20th November 2009

Speakers: Bruno Bosteels & Kristin Ross (Theory of the Subject) Alberto Toscano & Ali Alizadeh (Logics of Worlds)

Chair: Peter Hallward, Peter Osborne

Introduction (Peter Hallward): Badiou’s philosophy concerns changing the logic of the world, topologically constituted by the space of placements or l’esplace in Badiouan terminology, ‘not in order to change the bourgeoisie, but to change the bourgeois world’. Therefore he is concerned with the political project of the proletariat. There are two dominant structures to his thought:

i. The Logic of Place (splace), which is a logic of historical topology.
ii. History as aspect of the dialectic, in which history takes secondary status to politics.

The theory of a militant subject is not a science of history, in which history is mere appearance. The emphasis is on political needs over and above what seems historically or teleologically feasible.

[…] it is always in the interest of the powerful that history is mistaken for politics….Science of history? Marxism is the discourse with which the proletariat sustains itself as subject. We must never let go of this idea. [p44 Theory of the Subject]

Bruno Bosteels: On The Role of History – What is Badiou’s relation to Marx? Badiou’s relation to Marx lies in the concept of inexistence (the impossible), potential and actualization. Here Borsteels made reference to Marx’s 1843 Letter to Ruge and the relationship of the dream to change in history:

“The reform of consciousness consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions.”

So, the image of the dream and its realization of the new is the conscious actualization of a potential world – whereas the dream itself eludes the grip of the world – an acutalization made manifest in practice (see Lukács, Benjamin and Lenin). Therefore the rupture, gap or dream is the fictive extension of the situation, which appears in philosophy in one of the following forms:

i. Spectrality without presence or non-actual radical potentiality (Heidegger/Derrida)
ii. Real Virtuality or virtual-actual, the actualization of latent potential (Deleuze/Benjamin)
iii. Actual Impossibility (Badiou/Zizek)

The actual impossibility of Badiou’s metapolitics is the art of the impossible, and consequently, not a science. The structural impossibility of the transgression of the forbidden could be characterized as a deadlock between the impossible and its actualization. Therefore, impossibility must must be forced into the open of the event. This forcing requires a subjective intervention; the doing of an intervening subject which is only retroactively readable as such. Impossibility or inexistence gives minimal anchorage that prevents political adventurism. The evental site (or splace) – which Deleuze states crosses immanence and transcendence diagonally – is the weakest link in the chain. This is exactly the same as Althusser calls overdetermination, combining Freud and Mao, as a way of thinking about the multiple forces active at once in any political situation, without falling into an over-simple idea of these forces being simply contradictory.

[“…the representation of dream thoughts in images privileged by their condensation of a number of thoughts in a single image (condensation), or by the transference of psychic energy from a particularly potent thought to apparently trivial things … [For Althusser] overdetermination of a contradiction is the reflection in it of its conditions of existence within the complex whole.” – Brewster]

The evental site itself has no matheme and constitutes a movable concept in Badiou’s thought. It is the site where history is inscribed (i.e. the hidden abode of the factory), cut loose from history? Is it more worldly or more transcendent? Does it constitute truth within a given world? Inexistence is derived from Theory of the Subject‘s lesson from the Commune, the event that gives existence to the inexistent. Bosteels questions whether inexistence is too structural in Logics of Worlds (Section 3), where the logic of not-all-ness in conceived of as anti-frontier (an excess of the multiple that limits the world?). In Theory of the Subject immigrants figure as inexistence with regard to proper totality (i.e. the national multiple); they are the internally excluded. Therefore there is an inherent limit to any given totality in the figure of the not-all which lends existence to the non-exsitence; much like Žižek’s ‘perverse supplement’. Badiou criticizes any gesture designed ‘to give equal rights’ as feeble – it is not adequate to merely give papers to the ‘sans papiers’. Conversely, multi-national unity is an excess immanent to the Whole, a transformation from feeble positive potential into negative potential, in which a historical subjective break exceeds the axioms of possibility. The event is not prescribed by given possibilities, but the possibility of possibilities. Under such conditions the Real equals the impossible, here such conditions inaugurate the advent of the Real whereby the subject introduces a minimal gap; the force of which may be impossible to limit. Here we return to Marx’s original dream.

Kristin Ross: Badiou’s Pantheon – Discussion of Badiou’s pantheon of poets. Mallarmé is a purified poet or poet’s poet and the protagonist is Badiou’s thought. He renders more pure the thought of the masses, a negative being which annunciates being at the point at which it vanishes. Mallarmé’s syntactical complexity (i.e. the hypertactical dimension or military organization) is a machine to produce thought, capable of invoking the an event in its absence or vacancy. He is therefore a retroactive thinker of the event post-Commune (along with Edgar Allan Poe, Verne and Rimbaud). However, Ross asks if Badiou’s argument can only be made through high-modernist texts? Suggests that the warding off that modernist aesthetics effectuates has the consequence of gendering as feminine everything that is devalued. By considering everything else to be an inferior understanding lends his argument misogynistic overtones.

Ross also offers the a critique of Badiou’s reading of the Commune, derived from Julien Gracq’s Lettrines, asking if it is anti-communard – whereas Marx was considerably more tolerant of the Commune’s leaders. Does Badiou agree with the passage? Does the desire to be led come from the people? Is the event being used to lend gravitas to the philosopher? Does Badiou still believe that intellectuals should still lead the workers? [Bosteels jokes, ‘if only the masses were still asking us to lead them’]

Alberto Toscano: Logic and Appearance – Badiou opposes democratic imperialism with dialectical materialism. This requires the concept of a world and asks what the idea of a world might mean. Capitalism within Badiou is both a worldless system and at other times a one-world system. Logics of Worlds is a somewhat polemical gesture against French Heideggerianism. He also casts Negri as his nemesis, describing this hegemonic ideological fluid of democractic imperialism which is only made up of ‘bodies and language’. Badiou states that beyond bodies and language there are also truths (dialectical oppositions). The dialectic materialism of appearance and being is a polemic against the vague categories of ‘Life’ and ‘Spirit’, setting Badiou against vital potentiality. Therefore Badiou’s philosophy is a natural philosophy, which begins with a rational choice with regards to intelligibility, utilising mathematics as the testing ground for reason. Badiou’s thought is plastic and equivocal about consistency and inconsistency. The inconsistency of the inexistent Whole of the universe is posed as a both logical and ontological universe, a multiple of multiples. See Russell’s paradox.

If there is the multiple of multiples there must therefore be a chimera (reflexive multiple/non-reflexive multiple?) a non-reflexive inconsistency, which precludes any Whole. This is an argument against the totality, the fact that everything belongs to the Whole is an obstacle to the Whole (a torsion). This shifts in Logics of Worlds in which Badiou perhaps resurrects structural analysis, in which there is a displacement of the non-totality of the site that breaks the laws of being. He links ontological impossibility (the chimerical) with the temporal (structural consistency). The concept of worlds as a closed totality shifts into the reflexive entity of the site. There is also a shift in notions of consistency and inconsistency, subjectivization and the truth procedure or body. And whereas stiuations are bi-facial in Being & Event, in which situations are structured presentations consisting of a double multiplicity of inconsistent/consistent, in Logics of Worlds this is side-lined in favour of individuated elements in being (a fully individuated domain without consistency). Therefore Badiou’s political examples are corrrelated to elements within being itself (i.e. things without virtuality). Is this a claim of access!? Materialism of the Real/actual in Logics of Worlds changes in the schema of that which inexists/exists. There is more emphasis on figures of unity in Logics of Worlds than in Theory of the Subject.

With regards to metapolitics, in Logics of Worlds there is a modification in category of state to world. Representation/State disappears whereas it is central to Being and Event. This presents a problem from political economy and the dialectic, as both the concept of State/Representation and World make any concept of Capital difficult. Particularly, since Capital cannot be regionalized in a world nor is it a world/global totality.

Ali Alidzedah: Hegel – Begins by alluding to Badiou’s ‘strange reading’ of Hegel and highlights difficulties with the mathematical formalization of philosophy. However, such a formalization lends it authority over phenomenology, hermeneutics and Hegel himself. Formal mathematization sutures –– in the Lacanian sense –– Badiou’s thought to the chain of discourse (lack and its structure). Here the suture stands for anyone that says ‘I’. There is no subject of science for Badiou, not even through the placeholder of lack. Instead, everything is signified or given a mark, such as Ø of Frege. For Badiou the subject belongs to ideology not science, the closed field which governs philosophy (or the psychosis of no subject). Theory of the Subject is the exception in Badiou’s work, operating without science and it is here where Hegel comes to the fore. Badiou achieves minimal relationality using Zermelo-Fränkel axioms and in later works, such as Logic of Worlds, mathematics thinks for him. Otherwise philosophy is sutured to politics through Maoism and Hegel’s logic fills the place of science in Theory of the Subject – so Mao → Lenin → Marx → Hegel’s Logic of Science forms the underlying structure of the subject. For Badiou, there is no subject thinking the logic/psychoses of Hegel or mathematics.

Alidzedah queries whether Badiou is seeking justification for what he already politically knows. For instance, subjective forcing is already present in his Maoism and this causes him to go find what he wants in the mathematics of Cohen. Does this inscribe Maoism into mathematical discourse? Also, in Badiou there is no discourse with Hegel, he is only seeking to clear the terrain of philosophy. For him, Hegel decoratively affirms his own thesis, allowing him to borrow dialectical reflection in a detemporalized way. Alidzedah goes as far to ask if Badiou wants negation or subtraction at all, instead favouring affirmation and perhaps even vitalism?

There is also the political danger that destruction will simply bring about the Same, by reproducing the possible. By abolishing the present will we abolish the memory of the Same and simply restore it? Alidzedah also suggests that Badiou might also be too greedy in wanting to talk about too much and perhaps even abdicates the responsibility of thinking.

Unfortunately, I had to leave before the panel discussion at the end, but Nina Power at Infinite Thought has posted a further article: Is Badiou a Modernist?

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Henry Kaiser: The Long Take

An eerie long take filmed by Henry Kaiser on the supercool sea-floor of McMurdo Sound and set to his own music. I find it most unheimlich and despite having watched it a few times over now, it never seems anymore familiar. The diversity of the subtidal fauna is astonishing. Something distinctly unexpected happens around the six-minute mark which is worth waiting for (clues as to what is happening can be found here).

Thanks to my friend Dave A. for showing me this.

Kaiser’s Anarctartic journal can be found here: Henry Kaiser Family Foundation

Posted in Art, Henry Kaiser, Herzog | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Cathedral of the Sublime and the View from Nowhere


So how does Meillassoux and Brassier’s non-correlative realism return us to Werner Herzog and his film Encounters at the End of the World? Throughout Herzog’s films he charts the phenomenal dreaming of his subjects, whose visions cannot be made commensurate to the vast extensity of nature, the super-immensity of which exceeds their imagination. This is certainly noted by Deleuze in Cinema 1 in the chapter ‘The Figures of Large and Small in Herzog’. In each of Herzog’s films we encounter ‘a man who is larger than life who frequents a milieu which is itself larger than life, and dreams up an action as great as the milieu’ [C1, p.184] These figures, who are often marked by madness, enact super-feats in an attempt to inflate their hallucinatory dreams to match the expanse of boundless reality; Aguirre in the virgin Amazon; the jungle which serves as Fitzcarraldo’s opera-house; Stroszek’s America; the prophet Mühlhiasl’s mountain; the small-brained Kaspar Hauser’s inquiry into God in the garden; the rapturous ecstasy of the ski-flyer Steiner; Treadwell’s wilderness and so forth. In each case Herzog’s ‘small’ characters –– literally small in Even Dwarves Start Small –– inflate their hallucinations, so that ‘the Large is realized as a pure Idea, in the double nature of landscapes and actions’ [C1, p. 184]. Here visions are synonymous with the caesura of the apocalyptic Idea. Through this characterization Deleuze recognizes Herzog as a filmmaker of the Kantian sublime, his films being an account of how the ‘small enters into a relationship with the Large’ [C1, p.185]. Subsequently, Herzog is rightly identified as the ‘most metaphysical filmmaker’ –– he himself claims to be a filmaker of the ecstactic truth. Herzog’s subjects are dwarfed by this sublime, it enfeebles them, despite their attempts to adequate their visions with the cosmic limits of reality. More often than not, the subject’s idealist thought-world cannot match unbounded nature, resulting in madness, death or a heroic action that sublimates this relationship –– in many cases affirmation is insufficient. For Kant, the sublime is the ‘wide blue yonder’, the substrate of supersensible reality foreclosed to our faculties and beyond experience: a glimpse of the land of silence and darkness. This is the numinous feeling of the sublime experienced by Herzog’s visionaries, the ‘Cathedral’[1] that the McMurdo ice-divers refer to when they swim beneath the polar ice of the Antarctic. As the visionary William Blake describes it in Auguries of Innocence:

To see the world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour. [‘To See a World…’, fragment from Auguries of Innocence 1803]

This unbounded infinity encountered in nature dwarves us, making us feel physically frail, since it is incommensurate with our powers of imagination. This is especially pronounced since, in a Darwinian sense, we are not equipped by evolution to track the essential nature of things. Under such an understanding representation must necessarily return for the subject, in order to cope with the incongruence of the mind and reality, in order to ascribe formlessness a cognizable form. As a result, we could say that the conditions of representation are secreted by the world and reality generates representation in a degenerate form (i.e. metaphor, recognition, identification, equivalence, etc). However, the sublime does allow us to intuit that there is more to reality than the sensorial and the imaginative, beyond our phenomenal ideality. Yet whereas Kant had an inadequate mathematical understanding of infinity, the paradox of infinity has been completed in Cantor’s set theory and made coherent by Meillassoux, making the unthinkable immensity of chaotic reality intelligible to us as the transfinite. Spinoza would have it that the secret of joy is to love something infinite, much like Nietzsche’s affirmation of the eternal return, but joy’s transcendence should not be privileged over woe, since joy is merely the mask for the meaningless and painful condition of the world. Kant correctly realizes that whilst our relation to the sublime can effectuate joy, more often than not it is accompanied by horror[2]. Here we detect a contradictory double economy of the sublime; the differend as Lyotard names it. [3] This negative pleasure, the dissonant tension that we feel in the thrall of the thunderstorm, is experienced by even the most rational scientists in Encounters at the End of the World, who doubly understand the consequences of our relationship to the annihilatory power of the real, both through subjection and in scientifically objective terms. This is precisely the treatment that the theme of the sublime receives in German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Polar Sea (The Destroyed Hope) (1824) in which double-power of beauty and terror are at odds. It is this thrilling dread that Herzog seems to feel lies beneath even the most positivist gloss, which fills him with the suspicion that motivates his enquiry and informs his aesthetic. Despite this, Herzog is vocal in his affinity for the anecdote about Martin Luther, wherein the theologian was asked what he would do if he knew the world was ending tomorrow, to which he replied: ‘I would plant an apple tree today’. However, is this not merely a pragmatic acceptance that the decontraction of death establishes the possibility of being; a ‘purposelessness, which compels all purposefulness’?

Herzog is rightfully suspicious of the idealism and positive vitalism that Stefan Pashov subscribes to at the beginning of Encounters at the End of the World, since such totalizing thought-worlds subordinate the mindless ‘distinct objects’ of reality to the human consciousness. Such exorbitant claims are tantamount to an anthropocentric imperialism that skews man’s position in relation to alien nature; a result of mankind’s misplaced confidence in the consonance of its own thought. In this regard, Herzog is keen to deride the folly of the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and those dreamers who gaze upon the glacially indifferent real and believe we can ultimately master such a superior force. Amusingly, Herzog dramatizes this folly with the depiction of a ‘deranged’ penguin that cannot be persuaded from heading into the interior of the continent and towards certain death. It is here we find an analogy for the delusional character of strong correlationism, exemplified by Hegel’s totalitarianism of the Idea –– the suspicion of which led Marx to his materialist inversion. As Marx observes with regard to Hegel’s methodology in Grundrisse:

[…] Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way by which thought appropriates the concrete [and] reproduces it as concrete in the mind. [GR, p.101]

Accordingly, we can say that idealism is the vice of post-Kantian thought, which suffers from a pathological and delusional obsession with the concretization of the correlation –– the ‘philosopher’s syndrome’. Yet whilst Marx and Engels’ dialectical materialism might be assumed to be ‘scientifically’ insufficient to truly overthrow Hegelian absolutism, they and the other philosophers of suspicion, including Nietzsche and Freud, were right to view such philosophical solipsism skeptically. Meillassoux deems these thinkers philosophical secessionists:

Schopenhauer said that solipsism was a fortress impossible to penetrate, but also pointless to attack, since it is empty. Solipsism is a philosophy that no one can refute, but also one that no one can believe. So let’s leave the fortress as it is, and let’s explore the world in all its vastness! [CVIII, p. 423]

Consequently, suspicion of Hegelian idealism only permitted philosophy to step out of the circle of correlation and into the circle of reflection, abstaining from a proper engagement with idealism completely. However, reflection still remained shadowed by enobling idealism. This is why Meillassoux seeks to destroy correlative philosophy from within through the necessity of contingency and why Brassier seeks to annihilate it through a scientific determination-in-the-last-instance. So how might the aggrandizing visions of Herzog’s principle characters be better described by neuroscience, supplemented by the ‘speculative armature’ of metaphysics in a manner that is commensurate with realism proper?

In his book Being No One philosopher of the mind Thomas Metzinger draws heavily on representationalist and functionalist analysis, arguing that no such things as selves exist: ‘nobody has ever had or was a self’. We merely experience a phenomenal self-model (PSM), or variety of selves as they appear in conscious experience; not an entity or essential being, but a process that Metzinger states is the content of a ‘transparent self-model’. This clearly finds harmony with the Badiou’s ontology of subtraction, which we are now able to ratify transcendentally through Laruelle. Metzinger states that neuroscience is approaching a stage at which it can provide specific answers regarding the self-presentational model, or ‘user illusion’ of first-person reality as we experience it, which has consequences for intentionality: ‘The content of the PSM is the content of the conscious self: your current bodily sensations, your present emotional situation, plus all the contents of your phenomenally experienced cognitive processing.’ [BNO, p. 299] Accordingly, the content of the PSM constitutes a metaphorical self that you intuitively experience as you, a system of representation that allows goal-directed deliberate actions. The PSM is valuable delusion that grants us conscious action, yet is absent in unconscious automatic responses to motor-sensory stimuli (e.g. catching a ball thrown in our direction or the ‘telepathic’ group movement of a flock of starlings). This engenders formidable confusion for the folk-psychological phenomenal subject, or self we experience as a unitary whole:

It endows our mental space with two highly interesting structural characteristics: centeredness and perspectivalness. As long as there is a phenomenal self our conscious model of the world is a functionally centred model and usually tied to what in philosophy of the mind is called the “first-person” perspective. [BNO, p. 303]

This is precisely the notion that forms the kernel of most epistemological and metaphysical difficulties in philosophy. Metzinger goes on to say that this centering generates an ‘epistemic asymmetry’ between the recognition of conscious states from the first-person to third-person perspective. This appears to be highly reminiscent of Heidegger’s inability to find being in general coextensive with the specific mineness of Dasein. For Metzinger, the mineness of selfhood that the PSM experiences –– notably in the act of introspective thought –– cannot conclusively be said to belong to one entity. Moreover, the distribution of this property in space can vary considerably and in heightened mental states this phenomenal quality of mineness can exceed the bounds of the physical body, leading to deviant and disembodied self-models.

The florid schizophrenic experiences many extreme and disorientating states of mind, including radical depersonalization in which consciously experienced thoughts are no longer their own; just as Woyzeck experiences when he feels the Earth rise up by touching the wood he is chopping. The schizoid self-model becomes dissociated from the user of the PSM, just as people experience with phantom limbs, alien-hand syndrome or unilateral hemi-neglect (‘my leg is not my own’). Literally, their mind no longer belongs to them and they might even say: ‘My mind is no longer mine’; as if it were an alien appendage. They lose the subjective embodiment or mineness that they are accustomed to. A sense of ownership of mind is essential to the subject’s orderly function and if the subject cannot integrate his/her own self-model with their own cognitive processes they will experience serious depersonalization. Here the entire system of representation may in fact be lost. [4] The result is an altered state of consciousness not of their volition. They might say to a doctor, ‘I am a robot’ or, ‘my volitional acts are not my own’; in short, they feel remote controlled, a zombiefied self-model in which intentionality is diminished. Conversely, through this depersonalization they can also experience an inability to delimit the PSM from the world. They might to say, ‘I am the whole world’. Consequently, the schizophrenic subject might stand at the window all day, staring at the sun, controlling its movement with his/her mind. Or they might look down at the traffic in the street and control the movement of each tiny car; making the puppets walk; turning the traffic lights on and off. In such cases, the self-model expands to the boundaries and every miniscule change in the world is perceived to be self-caused. This is clearly where thought oversteps the threshold of what can be known, such as when the subject is in the thrall of sublime and inflates his/her visionary ideas to match its immensity. This is a mania, a pathology that Aguirre assumes when he declares that he is The Wrath of God, or much like Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of the leviathan, whose monstrous corpus he manages to successfully integrate himself with; a successful binding of organism’s finite being with the infinitude of boundless ocean.

Then can we not say that idealism‘s totalizing thought-world bears a conspicuous similarity to this pathology? More acutely, the reality of the matter is far closer to that which Darwin intuits when he gazes upon the bucolic English countryside, which appears immutable and congenial, and whilst in appearance happy nature is representationally offered as an ordered harmony with man at its centre: ‘One may say there is force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of nature, or rather forming gaps by forcing out the weaker ones’ [OS, p, 67]. It is scientific objectivity that confirms this by providing a perspectival vantage point on the real –– a view from nowhere –– and on the contrary, it is mankind’s delusional self-hood that renders reality opaque by believing itself to be naturalized. This presumption of naturalized consciousness is grounded by evolution in our biomorphic architecture and grants us agency within our own milieu:

Human beings may –– and do –– differ in what they can imagine, in what classes of worlds they can consciously simulate, and in what they find intuitively plausible. We cannot imagine a thirteenth-dimensional shadow of a fourteen dimensional cube or the continuum of space-time, because the visual cortex of our ancestors was never confronted with this type of object and because the brain’s global model of reality is based on three spatial dimensions and one distinct, unidirectional temporal dimension sufficed for surviving in what was our biological environment. [BNO, p.595]

In Metzinger’s view we resemble Plato’s neurophenomenogical caveman; the neural cave being determined by our internal central nervous system. The shadows on the wall are as close as we get to access reality from our subterranean location, the shadows being a ‘low-dimensional projection of a higher-dimensional object’ [BNO, p. 548]. Yet whereas Plato claimed that all we could know was ourselves in the cave, Metzinger departs from the metaphor here to state that there is not even anyone in the cave at all. [5] Or rather, the interior surface of the cave is the ‘physical organism as a whole, including all of its brain, its cognitive activity, and its social relationships, that is projecting inward, from all directions at the same time’ [BNO, p. 550]. There is no homonuculus situated in the neural cave, just a shadow cast from the fire and projected onto the wall. A shadow we identify as us, yet the cave is empty. This excessively selective projection is defined by the contingencies of biological evolution. As such, neuroscience provides an injunction to abandon outmoded conceptions of our access to reality and highlights the timeliness of a metaphysics that seeks to continue to disenchant the world and allow us to think the ‘great-outdoors’. As we witness in Encounters at the End of the World, even the most objective and rational are prone to the mistaking to the flickering of the shadows on the wall of the cave as being meaningful. The decentering of the manifest image has presently become an important task, since it this very egocentric self-delusion that is endangering the future of mankind’s biological environment at a rate faster than we can evolve.


[1] Herzog enhances the tension of sublimity in Encounters at the End of the World with the use of Russian Orthodox music composed for the lowest humanly possible vocal range, the Basso Profundo or ‘Voice of God’.

[2] Kant uses an example from the Bremen Magazine, Vol. IV entitled ‘Carazan’s Dream’ to express the horror of the sublime, in which the author relates a mind-state in which he encounters the Angel of Death who transports him to the outer limits of the cosmos: ‘I soon left countless worlds behind me. As I neared the outermost end of nature I saw the shadows of the boundless void sink down into the abyss before me. A fearful kingdom of silence, loneliness and darkness! Unutterable horror overtook me at this sight. I gradually lost sight of the last star, and finally the last glimmering ray of hope was extinguished in the outer darkness! Mortal terrors of despair increased with every moment, just as every moment I increased my distance from the last inhabited world. I reflected with unbearable anguish that if ten thousand times a thousand years more should have carried me along beyond the bounds of all the universe I would still be looking ahead into the infinite abyss of darkness, without help or any hope of return…’ [OFBS, p. 49]

[3] In Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime Lyotard conceives of the sublime as just such a crisis between reason and imagination, the differend of conflictual anxiety and pleasure, caused by the mind straining at the edges of itself and conceptuality: ‘The admixture of fear and exaltation that constitutes sublime feeling is insoluble, irreducible to moral feeling’ [LAS, p131]

[4] There is a moment in Aguirre when the remaining conquistadores on the raft see a ship in a tree, but are completely uncertain whether it is real or hallucinated and have no way of validating the experience by means of sense-data alone.

[5] Metzinger goes on to replace the limited metaphor of the cave with a further model, the technological metaphor of a total flight simulator, or vehicle consciousness, in which external reality is modelled internally in high-resolution in real-time, yet this phenomenal apparatus us invisible to us [BNO, p. 555].

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