Fear of Flesh
“The Human cannot slough off its skin, the physicist cannot find their Grand Unified Theory (or absolute univocal ontological component).”
According to Alex we are negentropic tensors poised between absolute annihilation on one side and the abomination of embodied contamination on the other. Or rather it is negativity which, at a zero degree of minimal decay, is, in the flesh, contaminated by its very embodiment. The horror of the zombie, or death in person, in the putrefying flesh. The inside of a holey space or (w)hole complex, of the body as permeated by microchasmic collapses and disintegrations, is inhabited by an Insider, the “inhuman” or non-ground, or “inside which is also outside”. The extimate, intimate contamination, signals the complicity of elimination with the lingering figures of the condemned, the persistence of a stubborn flesh in the face of decay. Decay is as much the source of the remnant as it is a threat.
That every man is, in himself, an abyss, yawning infinitely, an eternal descent into the most obscure depths of what is, this is certainly a terrifying prospect. It rightfully provokes recoil from those who catch a glimpse. Yet it would be in bad faith to deny the full consequences of immanent decomposition, or the endless withdrawal of the non-ground. I suspect this is the motive force behind the mandatory anthrophobia demanded by object-oriented philosophy. The leveling of the ontological ground underlying human beings and objects is done in the name of the denial of even this equal ontological status, because of the terrible revelation it would demand: that we are, as much as objects, withdrawn from ourselves, we are absent even from our relation-to-self, there is nobody home: this nobody, or insider, anontological intruder I am (not)…
The interior immanence of an object, of the object I am, is also the elimination of every identity it can have, or of every object it is (/ I am). It is identity itself which is not identical to what identifies with it. This is the real as void in the flesh, and it is the real that I am, in person. The nightmare of object-oriented philosophy, of having to face oneself as an object, to vainly identify with one’s own elimination in the face of…
Not only in its obligatory anthrophobia, but also in its fetishistic obsession with discrete individuals populating the real, does object oriented philosophy show its true colors. Clinging desperately to the remnants of the world without humans, it refuses to draw its radical conclusion: the withdrawn interior or substance of an object, which is to say, its identity, can not, having no properties, qualities, or relations in itself, be identified with one individual over another. Identity, or the extimate real, no more belongs to one bundle of qualities than another. Far from being the identity ‘of’ a given object, it is the intruder that invades and defiles all objects equivocally, including you. It is inside you now and you believe you are it. But it does not believe in you, you are nothing but residue, you are already gone.
This is a legitimate source of anxiety. But it must be confronted head on, not denied, disavowed, overlooked. It must be lived.
The Real: You are it, in the flesh. But it is not you.
Badiou In Effigy
To justify anthrophobia, one is wont to erect a symbol of the threat in question. Badiou is condemned for refusing to banish man from the gates of his castle of purity. He harbors the fugitive, the survivor, the remnant of extinction. Man, who would be non-human, who would be a flesh machine, a crawling corpse, a bottomless vacuum, teetering on his own edge always. He, this creature, cannot be allowed. So object-oriented philosophy, rather than drawing the full radical conclusions from the withdrawn interior or internal difference that is untranslated and faceless, instead erects a wall between man and world all the more imposing: he must be sealed way forever with Fortunato, deep in the catacombs…
Let’s be clear: object-oriented philosophy may champion the ontological equality of objects with human beings, but this equality comes at the price of the dehumanization of man, of his destitution and defacing, his reduction to (almost) nothing. And it seems that, rather than bear the horrors of confronting oneself – as a man, as a philosopher – in such a hideous state, object-oriented philosophy, as quickly as it grants liberty to objects, must imprison man: he must be punished before he can commit his crime of becoming a thing. Far from leveling the playing field, of granting the same rights to objects that we enjoy, object-oriented philosophy is rather more interested in an exchange of prisoners. This is evidenced in the reluctance, even refusal, to talk about human beings as embodied abysses, and the rapid condemnation of any philosopher who foolishly invokes man if not to ridicule and denounce him.
The fear left, and wonder, awe, compassion, and reverence succeeded in its place, for the sounds uttered by the stricken figure that lay stretched out on the limestone had told us the awesome truth. The creature I had killed, the strange beast of the unfathomed cave, was, or had at one time been a man! (Lovecraft, The Beast in the Cave)
The paradox: man is so disfigured by the void-he-now-must-be that he is no longer himself at all, he is something hideous with which he can’t identify, he is himself an object. There is no longer any man! And yet the anthrophobics act as if he still lingers behind the scarred and disfigured flesh that remains, and so he must be contained, prevented from ever imposing his tyranny anew. The objects must be protected from this blinded Oedipus! (or perhaps he must be protected, from what he would discover, looking into the mirror and seeing a thing staring back.) And so, along the road that leads to his prison, the anthrophobics have lined up stakes impaling effigies of every philosopher foolish enough to invoke the name of man. Kant and Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault, they hang, barely holding together under the weight of accusation.
Badiou – that friend of the wicked must be condemned as well.
Throughout Logics of Worlds we find Badiou pre-occupied with questions of how to measure, identify, and evaluate objects. However, these are all epistemological terms that have little or nothing to do with the ontological status of an object as real. Badiou tells us that his account of the transcendental and objects makes no reference to the subject, but with the exception of a very brief discussion of galaxies, all of his examples of worlds refer to cultural phenomena.
These sorts of claims make me want to pull my hair out in frustration and ire. Such a thesis can only be epistemological and made from the standpoint of a viewing subject because the degree to which a being is or is not is an absolute binary such that it make not one bit of difference whether or not some appears intensely to us or not. From the realist standpoint something either is or is not, it is absolutely actual. (“On Cleaning One’s Hands” – Levi Bryant)
There are two glaring problems with the frustrated condemnation. First, lest we forget, Levi’s own onticology explicitly depends on a scale of existential degrees, in which an object exists to the degree of difference it makes, and this difference is made precisely by way of trans(re)lations with other objects. Without this feature, onticology is lost in a night in which all cows are black. Either that, or he may claim that such degrees bear on the ontic register of relations, whereas being and non-being is a strict binary when it comes to the ontological register of univocal difference, in which a being either makes a difference or it is not a being. Yet if this is his defense, then it seems odd that he would ignore that it is the same for Badiou: on the ontico-apparent register, objects appear in different degrees by virtue of their relations with other objects in their given contextual world, whereas on the ontological register, there is a strict binary of being/non-being.
Finally, there is one further proximity between Levi and his object of derision: whereas Levi maintains that every difference-being is defined not only by extrinsic differential relations, but also by an internal difference which defines the inexhaustion of that being by these specific differences, signaling a capacity to be otherwise without identifying substantial possibilities, Badiou similarly maintains that every apparent object contains an inexistent element that marks the contingency of its being presented as such, rather than otherwise. In other words, they both maintain that that the being of objects is irreducible to trans(re)lation, or to intra-objectal appearance. (I say intra-objectal because, for Badiou, human animals are simply one object amongst others, with no special capacities. The possibility of being incorporated into a truth-procedure is equivocally open to all objects, insofar as they possess an inexistent element. Of course, the criteria of the sufficient body to support such a process are not so equivocal, but nor are they a priori limited to human animals over other learning objects.)
Moreover, while Levi is seemingly accusing Badiou of a sophisticated sort of anti-realism, he inadvertently reveals his own latent anti-realism. He says Badiou cannot claim that objects have measurable differences or degrees of affinity and incompatibility without implicitly presupposing a subject doing the evaluating. Badiou, of course, has no problem making such a claim, which means Levi himself must believe that objects do not have measurable differences or degrees of compatibility unless we are looking at them. Yet is this claim consistent with realism? Can a realist truly believe that objects have no relations or differences unless we are looking at them? Badiou seems to believe objects don’t need us to have such properties, so why does Levi demand that they require a subject? The answer is plain: Badiou does not make appearance dependent on the subject, but does allow it to encompass humans and other objects equally, whereas anthrophobic ‘realism’ wants humans to disappear… This is why Levi can’t stand, and is genuinely angry about, Badiou’s examples that involve humans and their products: we should be barred from even mentioning human beings; any ontology that can accommodate them is forbidden.
Graham Harman also voices his strange antipathy with Badiou, usually on the basis of Badiou’s invocation of the count-as-one in Being and Event. Graham insists that, if entities are counted into existence, then there must be a human being who is presupposed as doing the counting. Yet this is not at all evident. When Badiou says entities are counted, he does not mean individuals are cut from a preindividual cloth. Quite the contrary, he simply means that there is one, that they happen to be given as one, as individuated. He gives no more and no less of an explanation for why there are individual entities than Graham does. Moreover, in Logics of Worlds, Badiou gives Graham good reason to be threatened, as he exploits an insight that Graham refuses to draw from his own theory of objects.
Graham’s division between the real object or ‘substantial form’, and the intentional object as qualified and related, is almost perfectly homologous with Badiou’s division between ontological multiple and apparent object. Levi even makes this point:
Actually, I do think there are some points at which Graham and Badiou converge. Where Graham’s objects are withdrawn and enjoy a subterranian existence, Badiou’s being is pure multiplicity qua multiplicity withdrawn from all representation. Where Graham’s objects aren’t a function of their relations, Badiou’s elements in sets (the pure multiplicities) are completely independent of their relations. A major difference, I think, is that Badiou’s multiplicities are multiplicities without one, whereas Graham’s objects do have an essence or defining unity that intrinsically belongs to them. Moreover, Graham does not assert the identity of being and thought in the way declared by Badiou. Moreover, the suture of being to mathematics– Badiou argues ontology belongs to maths not philosophy –erases the singularity of objects, placing them under a representational criteria that is not that of objects themselves.
(We will deal with that last point about mathematics and thought below.) Levi claims that the defining difference is that, for Badiou, real objects are ‘without one’, which seems to elide Badiou’s constant emphasis on the count as that which gives any multiplicity (consistent) being. Graham simply takes this unity for granted, whereas Badiou, in Logics of Worlds [Scholium to Book III] explicitly accounts for it: the count, as operational synthesis of inconsistent multiples into ‘ones’, is a retroaction of ‘(non-human) intentional relations’ on the ontological substratum. In other words, the possibility of being of a unified object is retroactively enacted by its actual unity in the world. There is no genuine separating of ontology and logic in this sense: they are integrally linked, reciprocally presupposed.
This point in Badiou, while breaking the homology with Graham, nonetheless touches upon an insight Graham fails to draw from his own theory of the withdrawn interior of objects: if the ‘substance’ of an object is infinitely withdrawn from every possible expression or manifestation, every quality and relation, every possible predication, then what right do we have to claim that it is the substance of this given object? How can we localize it for this given bundle of properties if it is as identical to those properties as to those of another object (which is to say, not identical at all)? In other words, if the substantial identity of an object cannot be identified with that object, even when that object identifies with it, what right do we have to claim it belongs to that object?
This is the fundamental point of Badiou’s whole philosophy: the ‘real being’ of any given unitary object is not specific to that unity, but rather, is ultimately the indifferent void of inconsistent and un(ac)countable multiplicity as such. Being qua being no more belongs to this object than that object, it is equally indifferent to all objects; it is only retroactively attributed to or synthesized by their unity in appearance. This is seemingly the logical next step in Graham’s own theory of intentional relations between objects: the real substance of an object is only retroactively defined by a given bundle of qualities that achieves relative stability when adequately occasioned; it does preexist this definition, but does not yet ‘belong’ to any given quality or bundle of qualities – it is anonymous.
Finally, we must discuss Levi’s accusation of mathematical idealism, not only in the above quote, but here and here as well. First of all, Levi is right in claiming Badiou’s Parmenidian affinities. For example, in the Introduction to Book II of Logics of Worlds, Badiou writes, “I have established that ‘mathematics’ and ‘being’ are one and the same thing once we submit ourselves, as every philosopher must, to the axiom of Parmenides: it is the same to think and to be.” (See also the note to the Introduction of Book IV.) Yet if we actually pay attention to what Badiou means by this, we will see that it is far from a correlationist assertion. Badiou is simply claiming that, for his equation of ontology and mathematics to hold, it must also hold that being is thinkable, or that ontology is possible. For Badiou, mathematics is the most general and universal form of thought, in that mathematics allows us to think things that we cannot intuitively comprehend. In other words, for something to be, mathematics must be capable of thinking it.
Yet far from absolutely correlating thought and the real, Badiou is ultimately safeguarding the real. For Badiou, if the real is to be, which is to say, to be given, it must be given in a mathematically intelligible form. Being qua being, or the Real as given, must be thinkable by mathematics. Yet what is the name of being qua being in mathematics? It is precisely the name of the void, as that symbol or marker, within thought/mathematics, of the foreclosure of inconsistent multiplicity qua infinite decomposition or dissemination. Far from allowing the Real itself to be exhausted by thought, thought/mathematics begins by announcing the foreclosure of the Real, by explicitly recognizing it is insufficient to pure inconsistent multiplicity. Mathematics is only capable of thinking inconsistent multiplicity insofar as it remains an empty symbol whose function is to mark the limits of thought and of being:
By consequence, since everything is counted, yet given that the one of the count, obliged to be a result, leaves a phantom remainder – of the multiple not originally being in the form of the one – one has to allow that inside the situation the pure or inconsistent multiple is both excluded from everything, and thus from the presentation itself, and included, in the name of what ‘would be’ the presentationg itself, the presentation ‘in-itself’, if what the law does not authorize to think was thinkable: that the one is not, that the being of consistency is inconsistency. [Being and Event, Mediation Four. Emphasis mine]
I’d advise anyone tempted to accuse Badiou of ‘correlationsim’ or ‘anti-realism’ to read this excerpt very carefully. This is why Badiou consistently claims that mathematics is the science of being as being, rather than the science of being itself. In fact, Badiou’s admiration of set theory is due entirely to its explicit recognition of the foreclosure of the Real or the in-itself of being.
The accusation of mathematical idealism against Badiou can only come from a poor reading that misses this fundamental point, from which everything else in his theory flows and through which everything must pass. Certainly Badiou cannot be accused of anti-realism if his entire system begins from the premise that the Real itself is foreclosed to thought, even while presenting or giving itself as mathematically thinkable being. Here, Badiou is very clear that, while being(-given) and thought are formally identical, the Real itself must nonetheless remain foreclosed to this dyad, as a constituent feature. In other words, if they did not exclude infinite decomposition, then not only wouldn’t being be thinkable, it wouldn’t be at all, it would collapse into pure elimination.
Badiou further confirms this point when, in Book II section 5 of Logics, he explicitly identifies mathematics/ontology as a world amongst others, be it a world of a special type – the classical world. If this is the case, then all this means is that the pure, mathematical conditions of thought act as a synthetic envelop that condition consistent, mathematical entities. And as Badiou affirms in Book III section 3.3, every transcendental inquiry must differentiate between the element in which the enquiry proceeds (the mathematically thinkable world of ontology, or being qua being), and the element which is at stake in this inquiry (being itself, inconsistent and unpresentable multiplicity).
Far from conflating the ontological and the epistemological, Badiou explicitly recognizes that every ontological theory is, as such, amenable to thought and thus subject to epistemic conditions. If a theory is not thinkable, then it does not exist. Yet he does take special care to distinguish between epistemically conditioned ontological discourse, and the proper object or element of that discourse, and he does so by explicitly marking within that discourse the symbol of that which is excluded from epistemic amenability: the unpresentable Real. Thus, if he claims being is exhausted by its mathematical thinkability, this is only being that appears as being, or being within the horizon of (classical) appearance. Yet this thinkability is only consistently possible if it presupposes the exclusion of being that does not appear, that is inconsistent or withdrawn.
I must admit, I find Levi’s accusation of the epistemic fallacy to be largely inconsistent. Is he claiming we shouldn’t reduce ontological questions to epistemological questions? I don’t know anyone who does this. Transcendental philosophy certainly limits ontological discourse to epistemic conditions, but this is altogether different: there is a big difference between reducing questions of what a thing is to what we can know about it, on the one hand, and limiting what we can say about what an object is to what we can know about it, on the other. Moreover, Levi seems to refuse to distinguish between thought and knowledge: isn’t there an important distinction between being capable of consistently thinking something, and being able to know the properties of that thing? In other words, Levi seems to be collapsing the transcendental structure of philosophical inquiry, refusing to distinguish between the real as the object of investigation, and thought as the medium in which that investigation takes place.
Against Anthrophobia, or, What Is To Be Done With Man?
The fact that a philosopher has a particular concern for the problem of human being, and focuses on that problem, doesn’t invalidate his ontology, but rather only attests to the pertinence of that problem. Indeed, it is the central problem to our condition. It’s not the only problem, but it is a problem, and a particularly pressing one for us, so it is certainly within the right of the philosopher to deal with it. That is, unless the anthrophobics want to argue that philosophers, the majority of whom happen to be human, are wrong to worry about the problem of being human.
There are scarcely any philosophers who would honestly subordinate all being to the being of humans. I know of none. Even Bishop Berkeley makes human beings equivocally objects of thought in God, thereby leveling the ontological playing field between humans and the objects of their perception. Of course, human beings, as one object amongst others, are not the ontological ground, the crown of creation, the strongest link in the chain of being. But nor does the rejection of this fanciful notion entail that relations entertained by humans should be no more unique than those entertained between any objects whatever. Every object, as unique unto itself, entertains entirely unique relations; and indeed, every relation is as unique as its terms. Not only ought we not hold human relations to objectally equivocal standards; we ought not even hold objectal relations to such equivocal standards.
Of course relations involving human beings have properties unique amongst relations more generally, just as those involving diamonds or sea water or supernovae also have unique properties that are not shared by other types. Moreover, it is perfectly legitimate that we, being human, should give special emphasis and priority to the problem of human being and relations involving humans, considering that every relation we entertain does, in fact, involve us. Even the relation between sea water and supernovae, insofar as we are considering it, is itself related to us. There should be nothing controversial or even slightly problematic about the recognition of this fact.
That is, unless the fear of human being that pervades anthrophobic discourse is the effect of a startling realization: that while we are human beings, we are nonetheless not identical to anything human, we are identical only to the real in-man or in person, which nonetheless refuses to identify itself with us. As I said above, the anxiety that follows this realization is legitimate. But we must not allow our inhuman identity to frighten us into refusing to raise the problem of human being, and its inhuman identity, anew.
Ultimately, if philosophy will always be all too human, it is because anthrophobia is a terminal condition. It is because no philosopher can recognize his own inhuman identity without desperately denying it, or attempting to overcome or master it. Graham and Levi are as guilty as anyone of attempting to reduce the real to the sufficiency of their philosophical discourse about it. Every philosopher begins from this spontaneous (bad) faith in the sufficiency of their own discourse, and this is why the history of philosophy is a history of attempts to start over, to rebuke all who came before, to finally stand philosophy on its feet. This is why the history of philosophy is also a history of anti-philosophy and meta-philosophy.
This is why Reza and Graham are correct that the spontaneous anger experienced by philosophers upon reading another’s work are legitimate. However, the ‘appropriate’ response to this anger is not to carefully construct an argument, a refutation, out of which one poses one’s own system as a solution. This is dialectical negativity at its most obvious. Rather, the goal should be to recognize the source of this anger in the illegitimate form of philosophical decision itself, insofar as philosophy is coextensive with its claim to sufficiently give the real.
The ‘appropriate’ response, which cannot but appear inappropriate for philosophy, is to use this anger to suspend the sufficiency of philosophical discourse in general. Philosophers are at their worst when they attack each other for not sufficiently giving us the real, only to pretend that they can themselves do so. Rather, by suspending this pretension, the conceptual content of a philosophical decision becomes disengaged from its support of the overall claim to sufficiency, and hence becomes equivocally given by the real, open to a philosophically illegitimate but nonetheless liberated use.
Graham is at his best when, suspending the systematic sufficiency of a philosophy like Heidegger or Husserl, he pilfers and reassemble their concepts into new, monstrous configurations. But putting these monsters in the service of expressing the ‘True form of the real’ is horribly vain, and of course, makes him guilty of the same thing he used against his forbears. I don’t mean to single Graham out, because all philosophers are ‘guilty’ in this respect. Yet they need not feel guilty, they need not submit to the ‘higher law’ of non-philosophy. They need only suspend the sufficiency of the philosophical law to leave their guilt amongst the ruins of its kingdom.
Realism that ceases to pretend that thought can adequately or sufficiently give us the real itself is a non-philosophical realism, a Real which we already are, in the flesh. This is the true problem: not how do we bypass being human, or bypass thinking, and get to the Real, but rather, how do we deal with the fact that we are the Real, everything is, and yet that the Real is not itself ever given? How do we deal with our non-reciprocal or unilateral identity with the Real? It must begin with a gesture akin to Badiou’s, although no longer within the form of philosophy: the transcendental marking of the real foreclosure of Identity, or the One-in-One, or radical immanence, with a proper name (for Badiou, the void). Yet rather than pretending this allows us to describe the real itself, this allows us to suspend the sufficiency of all claims to such description, if only to use the concepts of these claims improperly, to use them as given by the real without in turn giving it back. This allows man to embrace his artificial identity, as a machinic conspiracy of thought and flesh, signs and things, no longer sterile and pure but hopelessly contaminated in-themselves.
Anthrophobia is not misanthropy, because as much as it attempts to keep man at a distance, to guard against his intrusion into the purified world of objects, it nonetheless is unwilling to reduce him to the inhuman thing he would become. It does not tear down the wall between humans and things, but piously reinforces it, hoping to preserve him, rather than allowing him to rot.