Radical Denial

by Arran James

And this is why for the last 40 years or so, since post-structuralism came on the scene around the failed revolutions of 1968, we’ve all been skeptics of a sort. We’ve traced the same anti-systems. A few more have come along, but basically, any attempt to say anything must first reveal itself as at least an anti-system, never a system. And so, any system produced today has to really be about how systems are produced, and how we’re not really saying anything, but simply being manipulated.

Of course, all of this makes sense in the age of late capitalism, and the rise of what many have called postmodernism. Lyotard argues that post-modernism isn’t just a contemporary phenomenon, it’s what happens whenever a society breaks with its attempts to break with the past. That is, societies have values which come from repetitions of the past. At some point, they decide to break with these, and this is what is known as modernism. “We won’t be like our parents!,” people say. But after a period, people come to realize that they aren’t as different as they seemed, and much of what they are opposed to has seeped into their positions, if in reverse. Like a rebellious teen who does the opposite of whatever their parents desire, only to realize that this is being controlled by them in reverse. The result is a loss of modernist and traditional confidence in belief in general. Everything is possible, but nothing really real. It’s all images, lies, simulacra. This is postmodernism. For Lyotard, this happened in the late Roman empire, and any so-called ‘decadent’ period of the past, is happening in what is now often called ‘late capitalism,’ and such cycles will repeat again in the future.

But does that mean we need to deceive ourselves? Lie to ourselves, so we can believe something again? Certainly this is what Nietzsche would have said. In his famous essay on “Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense,” he argues that all language is lies (proto-deconstruction!), and so is philosophy and all thought. The question isn’t whether or not we’re lying to ourselves, because we always are. The question is which lies are better than others. Those who pretend they’re not lying to themselves are the most dangerous liars, they fully believe their own lies. But those who realize they’re lying to themselves can ask the question of which lies they want to believe. It becomes a question of values. What type of world do we want to live in, what colors do we want to paint our world?

Deleuze is the most anomalous of the bunch. And perhaps this is why, towards the end of the twentieth century, it was Deleuze that so many philosophers so as a path beyond the crises of post-structuralism. Deleuze felt that all philosophy was a result of the play of the virtual, that which could never be captured by any worldly embodiment thereof. Deleuze’s skepticism was in this sense broader than that of his peers. Rather than see language, or the economy, or power, or the unconscious, as the source of simulation, he sees the world itself as one giant simulation of itself, a world-cinema in which all are images, and all images are real, but none as real as that agency which produces images and yet is captured fully by none of them. The virtual, Deleuze’s name for this force, is everywhere actualizing, but nowhere fully actualized. And this is the opening to freedom. It’s all false, which is why at points Deleuze speaks of the “powers of the false” which is to say, the wonderful power to produce new worlds.

Chris Vitale. 2012. ‘Speculative Realism, Deconstruction. and Post-Structuralism: Can We Start Philosophizing Again, Or Is That Just Naive?’ Read in full at networkologies.

Deleuze, Ballard, Baudrillard…certain strains of Gnosticism… circle round and round. To lie is to create, to produce… the identity of ontology and aesthetics. And here, below, I reproduce something I wrote two years ago. The stability and continuity of that thought with this time, two years hence, speaks of an intellectual laziness brought on by concerns with actually living. What remains though is the idea that incorporeals are themselves material, that Illusions are as real as those things invested with a more obvious, sensuous (Feuerbachian) materiality. Perhaps I am still entralled by early influences, the brief adolescent love affair with Max Stirner…the undergraduate in me who was certain of the impossibility of the Absolute that Hegel’s system in the Phenomenology logically implied, the materiality of Giest. Conflations and confusions. I groped then for understanding and still grope now. Here is what I had to say then, what I still have to say…

Thus we are not exactly real for one another, nor are quite real even to ourselves. And this alterity is our best chance of attracting and being attracted to others, of seducing and being seduced. Put simply, our chance at life.

The alterity that Baudrillard refers to here is that created, or maintained, by Illusion. In this passage from The vital illusion Baudrillard is quite clear that for him, just as for myself, Illusion is not something to be conceived of in its distance from the real as an error or contamination. There is no Fall in this, or if there is then the Fall is constitutive and there is no possibility of any prior Edenic state, no golden age, and at the same time no possibility for any nostalgia for such a time.

In the image above we have an approximation of the real of sex when we view all the extra layers we experience it through as rectified and removed. It is presented stripped of its various possible aspects (as love union; one night stand; hedonistic act; violence; social relationship; property mediator; reproductive act conceived within a Darwinan or genetic discourse; an act of consumption or production; a social ritual replete with codes and entrenched with meaning). Here sex appears naked. We appear naked. Our bodies appear naked. Muscle, cartilage, grey matter and so on. The entire assemblage of the two bodies. They appear in a macabre manner but also slightly ridiculous and explicitly, we realise, in a carefully posed manner, and their is certainly a truth to all this. In sex we can be macabre, we are ridiculous and we do take up carefully learned poses, moves, gestures.

Yet we do not fully recognise ourselves in this image. The dead are fucking! It is obscene. Yet not out of some fictive respect for the dead, such is pure delusion as we have never truly respected our dead. Instead we have philosophies that laud death itself, giving all respect to the idea alone at the expense of those who pass through it and cease. Perhaps it is the lack of skin, the sheen of continuity, or the absence of faces. Yet neither Freud nor Levinas will do. Rather, they will both do. The key is the illusion. We are appalled because here we are faced with ourselves, stripped of our Illusions. Those fantasies that pattern our inner existence; whatever it is we mean by subjectivity, whatever we mean by unconscious or mind.

These illusion are, for Baudrillard, ‘radical and objective’ as denoting the deferral or splitting of things from themselves, the ‘definitive absence from themselves’ of things. These illusions are a distinctly human affair in Baudrillard but why should this be so? The human is a thing as much as any other and there is the possibility of the truth of panpsychism.

In Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy objects withdraw from themselves and from all other objects, including but certainly not exclusively limited to that particular object named ‘human’. Here I wonder, isn’t Baudrillard’s Illusion incredibly close to Harman’s own concept of Allure which is ‘the separation of an object from its qualities’ which Avoiding the Void goes on to note, in a dictionary of Harman’s very poetic terminology, as an object’s ’seductive power as it alludes to a things mysterious depths beyond its qualities’[emphasis added].

Likewise in Levi Bryant‘s onticology, which I have much more time for for reasons I can’t really explain, he claims that ‘What OOO rejects is the thesis that objects are their relations. There is a vast difference between the claim that there are only relations, and the claim that there are objects and the relations objects enter into. The former is ontological relationism, the latter is what OOO claims’. The object that proceeds and exceeds its entrance into any particular (set) of relation(s) is, if I understand Bryant at all correctly, what he calls its proper being which exists as virtuality. No object, therefore, is ever fully actualised. There can be no exhaustion of an object in whatever mesh or assemblage or network it enters into, something always remains of it. Something seductively withdrawn from access. Of course the thrust of this last point is shared by all the (post?) speculative realist philosophers in one variant of another.

This may be philosophically crude at best but I want to focus on simply this notion that for both Harman and Bryant objects are withdrawn, remaining in some sense virtual (to risk conflating two different systems). In the same passage cited above we find these words:

‘Everyone knows that the light of stars needs a very long time to reach us; sometimes we perceive it after the star itself has disappeared. This gap between the star as virtual source and its perception by us, this non-simultaneity, is an inescapable part of the illusion of the world, the absence at the heart of the world that constitutes the illusion.’

This illusion is what allows human being to orientate themselves to something they can live through, share and call reality. It may not be the real as such, the virtual source/being, from which the perception, the ‘as-it-appear-to-us’, that part of it that becomes accessible to human beings but it is vitally necessary for humanity to exist as it does. Given speculative realism’s rejection of correlationism we can also safely posit that all other objects enter into similar relationships whereby they never attend to the virtual source only (if this is itself not correlationist language) to some ‘perception’, the mode of disclosure that that relationship conditions or promotes.

I raise this tentative connection with Baudrillard in order to observe that for him the disappearance of the real is simultaneously the disappearance of the Illusion of the world. For Baurdrillard the disappearance of the real does not occur because it has been rendered non-actual or somehow or other made into less than real but precisely by its relentless actualisation, its too-muchness; ‘It is the excess of reality that puts an end to reality’. This excessive reality leaves no gap for the Illusion, a hyperbolic actualism obliterates the virtual. Perhaps we could think of a nuclear explosion, or a bomb that was so destructive as to leave not a trace of its target. This weapon would reach down deep into the depths of the zone of withdrawal that is proper to the object-target and, in coming into relation with every possible aspect of that object, would tease out every virtuality, would (in B.’s terminology) make obscene every point of seduction. Such would be a reality bomb, as devised by the Daleks in an episode of the re-booted Dr.Who. In this way, actualism is the enemy of the real by depriving it of its virtuality. The Illusion is necessary. The Illusion is integral to the real.

It is for this reason that I wonder whether it could be that the proliferation of new realist positions point to the vanishing of the real. Even the name ‘speculative realism’, to take it out of context, harbours the suspicion that reality is now a matter of speculation or that it requires such speculation, at least that is from our limited perspective. As the real vanishes from view we develop strategies that would sure it up, we gamble on the possibility that it is we are not finally cut off from its domain, that there is still objects and that we are still among them.

Perhaps this goes some way to giving a ‘subterranean’ explanation of Harman’s positing of a universe carved up into discreet objects. However much people may disagree with him, Harman’s system is an attempt to remind us that the real still exists. It is, as Bryant has stated elsewhere, a result of the fact that in our emphasis on process we have left behind the things at work in these processes just as, as we have focussed on time, we have forgotten the importance of space.

This is not a project of resuscitating the real, philosophically or otherwise, as the real has and continues to exist quite aside from our interventions (sometimes incredibly so, given our history). Of course such an idea would have to be discounted from the outset as we ourselves are of, through, in and because of the real. It is merely that insofar as we have conceived of it, and insofar as this impacts and shapes our experiencing of it, we have forgotten the real in a mad accelerative thrust towards transparency. To make everything visible by first making everything actual. It is not to save the real but to respect it and in doing so, perhaps, to save one particular parcel of it; ourselves. Maybe this is why onticology is crucial to our social and political endeavours.

An object is any difference that makes a difference, in Bryant’s (re)formulation. Illusion makes much difference. We must conclude that illusion itself is real. The eliminativist picture, nicely depicted in a certain manner by the image atop this post, can only be considered incorrect from this realisation. An Illusion that is real. Could this be a (gnostically) philosophical definition of the scientific concept of emergence?

For Baudrillard we would enter the world of simulation when objects become merely signs- that is when the philosophical linguistic turn generalises itself- and until such a time only ‘principle of simulation governs us’, and clearly speculative realism, the new materialisms, and the New Aesthetic all signal that even this principle may be in recession: the nonhuman turn signals a revalorisation of Illusion. As Baudrillard wrote in Art and Artefact:

The illusion of the world cannot be dispelled (1996a:19) – from its very beginning the world has never been – as realism believes – identical with itself, never real .

Here is the strangeness, or weirdness if you prefer, of the realism that I am trying, and probably failing, to extract from Baudrillard. The realism that he is decrying, which states that the world is identical with itself is precisely that naive realism that does not take heed of the fact that things are not what they are but are really hidden away in the space of Illusion, which is a space beyond mere appearance- the real detached from the sensuous, the phenomenal aura. Another way of phrasing this space is as the space of disappearance. More strictly of dis-appearance; this very break or split that both establishes and undermines the reality of things. As Baudrillard writes in the paper ‘Photographies’

Objects are such that, in themselves, their disappearance changes them. It is in this sense that they deceive us, that they generate illusion. But it is in this sense too that they are faithful to themselves, and we must be faithful to them: in their minute detail, in their exact figuration, in the sensuous illusion of their appearance and connectedness. For illusion is not the opposite of reality, but another more subtle reality which enwraps the former kind in the sign of its disappearance.

As Chris Vitale contends, in the quoted text that opened this post, the cry of postmodernists, or more so their critics, is that its ‘It’s all images, lies, simulacra!’ Yet we can rejoin that it has always been images, lies and simulcra and that the postmodernist, and the legacy of post-structuralism, is to a kind of sadness of this fact. We could say that in choosing genealogy as his method Foucault wanted to find the uncontaminated outside of his own anti-system, the original place of genesis that was itself not subjected to and subject of the generative powers of Illusion.

One might ask why I prefer to focus on Baudrillard than Deleuze. I make so much work for myself in this way. It may simply be a matter of temperament or taste. It is simply that I can’t go along with the ringing optimism of a Deleuze, feel a repulsion to the affirmationism that his thought is so often identified with, often with good reason. The difference between Deleuze and Baudrillard is one of tenor, the latter being steeped in the noxious air of pessimism; steeped in it but still able to breath in it. It is the difference that means that while Vitale can claim that the virtual is ‘a force’ somehow ‘more real’ than it’s actualisations, something which I don’t think is true, the same could not be claimed of Baudrillard’s illusion.

It’s space is one of disappearance, of being unable or refusing to appear so that what is given in appearance is partial and the result of withdrawal rather than outburst (or their conflation) means that the ‘illusion’ cannot be placed into a hierarchy. Simply, the appearance of an object is akin to it’s encrustations, it’s outer epithelium: dead skin. The actualised portion of things is the product of a kind of death (hence Baudrillard’s constant exhortation that it is not enough that we learn how to die but that we learn how to disappear. It is in this sense that my silly and playful term, autopsy vitalism, makes sense.

Thus when Baudrillard claims in the paper ‘Integral Reality’

“Does reality exist ? Are we in a real world ? Such obsessive questions, which are the pervasive leit-motiv of our culture, simply expresses the fact that the world, trapped in the claws of reality, is bearable now only under the sign, in the shadow of the principle of Evil, that is in the form, whatever it may be, of a basic and radical denial.”

he is not setting up this ‘radical denial’ as complete and successful because, under his own insistence, it must be that any such denial would necessarily fail. This, finally, is the difference between Deleuze and Baudrillard- and for that matter probably of Ballard too. The only way in which anything can be affirmed is by way of its catastrophic aspect, its woundedness, the parts of it that are falling apart back into the space of illusion. Negation is the engine of creation and skepticism is a paradoxical affirmation.

If we want to get out or away from post-structuralism then I would think that this is a good direction to go in. Hidden away in all this is the assumption that the only way to get at a realism, to be able to say something again, is to preserve post-structuralism as just that moment of denial. The way out of our naivety (realist and constructivist) is to affirm the denial. Reality doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as the real world. The real is a lie. Objects are illusions. To say all this is to break through the phenomenal world and get at what lies underneath; the illusion that is real, and we can choose (some) of our illusions. In the end it is enough that we be realists of a kind, and that we again speculate… but choosing an allegiance, that might be too far. The point is that it is reality itself that is speculative.

I suspect that this is all a jumbled heap of nonsense. It’s not really that important. No suffering went into this, so it’s hardly a work of art. It passed the time and sated an urge to write. That’s enough for me.You judge it by your own criterion.