John Ó Maoilearca. All Thoughts are Equal: Laruelle and Nonhuman Philosophy. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2015; 375 pages. ISBN: 978-0816697359.
Reviewed by Rocco Gangle, Endicott College.
The wide-ranging theoretical project of François Laruelle offers perhaps the most radical and ambitious program in contemporary Continental thought. It purports to detail a rigorous critical theory of philosophy that is at the same time the instantiation of an alternate form of thinking called “non-philosophy” or “non-standard philosophy”, a form of thought provocative of and compatible with the creative proliferation of new practical and theoretical models for art, science, politics, and history, as well as philosophy itself. The long-simmering Francophone critical reception of Laruelle’s work was joined by attention from Anglophone scholars after the first full-length translations of Laruelle’s work appeared in 2010. Since then, Laruelle continues to be highly productive, and over a dozen of his books have now been translated into English, with more slated for publication. All Thoughts Are Equal appears, thus, among a burgeoning secondary literature on Laruelle that is now coming into its own. In the book, Ó Maoilearca, one of the first English-language scholars to examine Laruelle’s work, aims “to explain Laruelle’s strange image of philosophy” (4), that is, to introduce his distinctive notion of non-philosophy, and to do so in a way that instantiates, rather than merely represents, Laruelle’s non-philosophical way of thinking. Ó Maoilearca’s book thus sets itself the criterion of performative consistency: it must do the very thing it describes.
In pursuing this line of performative consistency, Ó Maoilearca hews close to Laruelle’s own non-standard model. The core idea of non-philosophy is that only a form of thought no longer structured by the decisional and differential axioms of philosophy—its constitutive presuppositions that thought must differentiate and decide what counts as the Real in order to think it—is capable of being true to its word, that is, of doing what it says and saying what it does. In a certain sense, then, non-philosophy itself claims to be nothing other than the simultaneous demand for and satisfaction of such practical-theoretical consistency. In order to fulfill the difficult expository task of introducing and explaining a form of thinking that sets such a high—many would say impossibly high—bar for itself, Ó Maoilearca opts to follow what he describes as “an extraphilosophical, indirect or tangential approach.” (37) More precisely, he chooses to “use a visual art form (cinema) to perform a non-philosophical introduction” to Laruelle’s non-philosophy. (37)
Specifically, Ó Maoilearca pursues the inventive strategy of pairing a fivefold analysis of key concepts from Laruelle (decision, fiction, posture, the nonhuman, and performance) with the set of aesthetic constraints presented by filmmaker Lars von Trier in his 2003 film The Five Obstructions. In this film, his former mentor Jørgen Leth must remake Leth’s earlier film The Perfect Human five separate times, according to von Trier’s willfully irritating demands. Each of the cinematic remakes is obstructed by some particular formal controlling limit, mandated by von Trier and meant to challenge Leth’s aesthetic autonomy and good conscience.
The accompaniment of von Trier/Leth’s The Five Obstructions plays a key role in the performative dimension of Ó Maoilearca’s text. The relationship of the film to the expositions of aspects of Laruelle’s thought is intended to be neither exemplary nor metaphorical. Instead, the film’s five obstructive constraints and the five primary non-philosophical concepts analyzed by Ó Maoilearca are allowed to develop in parallel, without following any rigid or a priori schema of co-determination. At times, the cinematic analyses converge closely with the non-philosophical concepts, but at other times they only loosely align, with no apologies made or analogies forced. This unusual organizational pairing, a kind of relation without relation, is meant to model Laruelle’s own way of conceiving “determination in the last instance,” the unique form of (non-)relation setting non-philosophical thought in accordance with the foreclosed Real.
In this respect, Ó Maoilearca’s use of von Trier’s film provides an ingenious instance of Laruelle’s central doctrine of occasionalism. For Laruelle, non-philosophy cannot by right found or legitimate itself. It remains irreducibly dependent in each and every case on some already-given material, material that serves as the “occasional cause” of non-philosophical theory in that particular instance. The paradoxical and philosophically irritating “twist,” however, is that this apparent supplementarity and derivative, parasitical status is then inverted by non-philosophical theory itself, such that the secondary position of non-philosophy is taken to be a mere illusory effect of philosophy. The real priority—Laruelle would speak of being prior-without-priority—is held to be that of the One or Real itself, which non-philosophy claims to think from rather than about. In a similar way, Ó Maoilearca does not claim to project non-philosophy into von Trier’s film so much as to discover Laruelle, strangely enough, already there.
The first three chapters of the book focus on philosophical decision, logical fiction, and behavioral posture respectively, coordinating each of these with a corresponding cinematic obstruction from the film. The critical stance of non-philosophy with respect to the purported decisional essence of philosophy is linked to the film’s second obstruction, the demand that Leth remake The Perfect Human in the “most miserable place in the world.” (61) In this way, Ó Maoilearca links what can often appear as a strictly theoretical analysis and critique of philosophy by non-philosophy to its equally important ethical and utopian dimension. The second chapter focuses on logic, more particularly on the challenge to classical logic represented by the forms of the claims and argumentation used by Laruelle. Ó Maoilearca connects these to the problems raised within philosophy by impossible objects and paraconsistent logics in such philosophers as Alexius Meinong, Richard Sylvan and Graham Priest. The ethical dimension of non-philosophy returns here in the form of the practice of radical fiction-making, the utopian speech of the impossible that corresponds in the film to von Trier’s demand that Leth forge a remake of The Perfect Human with no cuts longer than half a second. The third chapter revisits the central concept of “decision” for Laruelle and aims to explicate the turn in non-philosophical thought from thought based in positions to thought oriented through postures. The cinematic obstruction here is perhaps the most Laruellian in spirit: Leth must remake his earlier film with no constraints whatsoever, just as non-philosophy must reproduce or “clone” philosophy itself, yet with its decisional axioms suspended.
A recurrent theme throughout Ó Maoilearca’s analysis is the conceptual dividing-line that is itself divided by the terms it is meant to hold separate, thus mutating both itself and them. This theme of the self-mutating line hearkens back to Laruelle’s very earliest work on the aesthetics of Félix Ravaisson, as well as his later studies of photography and non-standard aesthetics. Whereas in a logical register, such a line would merely mark an inconsistency or formal mistake, in the immanent “physical” register of thought that Laruelle calls “posture”, the line traces instead a new fictional capacity that immanently transforms its dual objects or terms. It instantiates a mutation. In the fourth chapter on animality and the nonhuman (probably the most densely and carefully argued of the entire book), this structure is discovered or invented at the border of nature and culture. As Ó Maoilearca puts it, “[w]hat is culture and what is nature…is a dividing line that can itself be treated as cultural or natural. The border between outside and inside mutates, and every mutation calls forth another mutation.” (182)
Here, Ó Maoilearca develops his argument through contrasts of the Laruellian approach with other recent attempts to think animality in relation to philosophy, including sketches of the animal/human difference as it inflects the thinking of Derrida, Deleuze, Badiou, and Agamben. Although the analysis of Von Trier’s fourth obstruction—to remake The Perfect Human as an animated film—is quite brief, especially provocative in this chapter is the entangling of the thematics of animality with the materials and methods of what Ó Maoilearca calls “film-philosophy.” As Ó Maoilearca points out, the power of cinema itself is “the power of the animal that we (always) are when we think in images.” (183) The core of the argument developed on this basis—which becomes the central assertion of the entire book—amounts to the claim that only a radically insufficient and underdetermined concept of the human (a non-philosophically generic conception) is capable of underwriting a genuine democratization of thought beyond narrow anthropomorphism on the one hand and reductionist anti-humanist materialism on the other. Only a concept of the human that takes no sides and makes no decisions about what the human essentially is can support the kind of generalization of democracy beyond traditional humanist limits that Ó Maoilearca aims to achieve. Yet something remains nonetheless: the generic term, “human”. Without presupposing or constituting an essence, the non-teleological and non-philosophical usage of this term across multiple contexts is intended just as much to undermine and subvert the anti-humanist elimination of the human from theory. The generic human is thus conceived as nonhuman, not inhuman.
The final, fifth chapter concludes with the concept of performance, which from within the theoretical stance of non-philosophy is precisely not a concept but rather an inevitably self-modeling and self-mutating posture, to which thought remains strictly immanent. Performance, from this point of view, is not the means to some representational or practical end; it is instead the very thing itself, non-philosophy in person. By concluding with the concept of immanent performativity, Ó Maoilearca brings the book in a sense full circle, returning to the methodological challenge with which he began. Having instantiated a non-philosophical approach to non-philosophy via cinema and, in particular, von Trier’s The Five Obstructions, the text has come finally to include its own performativity within the purview of its analysis. By its own lights, this recapitulation and self-inclusion does not mark a circular closure, however, since the mutational aspect of non-philosophy’s self-relation, as emphasized throughout the book, marks the text itself in this very return.
Ó Maoilearca’s study of Laruelle is allusively gregarious, helpfully and not unreasonably so. There are references not only to prominent scholars of Laruelle (Kolozova, Smith, Galloway, and others) but also canonical Continentalists (Heidegger, Bergson, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Deleuze, Henry, etc.), figures from classical film studies and contemporary aesthetics (Bazin, Cull, Flusser, Kirkkopelto) and—particularly intriguing for the ongoing critical reception of Laruelle—a variety of analytic philosophers (Quine, Ryle, Priest, Brandom). This at times profligate variety of references seems justifiable for reasons internal to Laruelle’s overall approach—all philosophy as well as all forms of theory and experience are understood to be susceptible to non-philosophical treatment—and also because of Ó Maoilearca’s more immediate expository concerns, namely, his aim of presenting a broadly accessible introduction to Laruelle’s thought in the contemporary philosophical and cultural context.
The variety of thinkers, disciplines and Laruellian terms and concepts canvassed throughout All Thoughts Are Equal should not overshadow, however, the underlying unity of Ó Maoilearca’s approach. The guiding thread for the entire exposition is the question of the human vis-à-vis non-philosophy. By focusing on the problem of the human and nonhuman in Laruelle, Ó Maoilearca has shown the relevance of non-philosophy to current concerns with animality, the post-human and related questions as well as the utility of working within the Laruellian reorientation of thought for moving past stale dichotomies and oppositions that have probably outlived their positive theoretical functions in these important debates. Both critics and proponents of various new, alternative and reactivated humanisms (as well as anti-humanisms) will have to take account from here forward of the non-philosophical stance and its possibilities.
The implication traced out by Ó Maoilearca over the course of the book is that the non-philosophical concept of the human as radically underdetermined or generic leads to an explosion of directions for plural mutations of thought across a wide variety of fields. The generic human subject instantiated by non-philosophy implies a multiplicity of potential modes of thinking undreamt of by philosophy. Rather than a complete survey of Laruelle’s project, however, Ó Maoilearca’s book with its determinate focus on the question of the human and nonhuman is best understood as one instance or sample of what non-philosophy can do. Like any self-consistent exposition of Laruelle’s work, Ó Maoilearca’s own non-philosophical project is best conceived as, to use his own words, “a remodeling, a hypothesis to be explored, a new comparative that must be only one among many” since, after all, “it is always the mutation that counts.” (284)