Some recapitulations

1. Life without being (… or nature): Without further clarification, the term “critical vitalism” stands under the threat of implosion. Its integrity is predicated, moreover, on its differentiation not only from the two halves of its contradictory namesake but also from prior attempts at such synthesis, which have tended toward the disaster of culture that we now call “modernism” (e.g., romanticism). The current eco-political crisis demands a philosophy of life (in the objective sense of the genitive) that refuses the supposed relevance of philosophy to life (under the ideology of “lived experience”), the naïve materialism of life as either substance or matter (the object of biochemistry), or the vulgar systematicity of taking as its guiding principle the unity of the “living organism”. We still suffer these errors on account of the tendency to read concepts like the élan vital as a metaphysical principle of (evolutionary) biology with the consequence that life becomes either the movement of differenciation without difference (in Deleuze’s terms) or the abstraction to which we appeal when insisting on what we all have “in common” when we are actually at our most mechanical (when we say, for example, that we all have the same rights because we eat, sleep, and defecate). A critical vitalism requires, like Deleuze and, most recently, Jane Bennett have argued, a conception of difference that is sensitive to the violence of the negative and to a joy that has no need of it. Beneath the vulgar materialism of an illusory “dynamism of force” that struggles for more existence is precisely what Freud had described as the secret will to destruction. What vitalism must reject is both the anti-dialectical posture of a “cycle of life”(predator/prey, life/death) and the militaristic dialectic of production and consumption whose condition and limit is death.

2. Why write? (not for politics): Both French and English criticism have been encumbered by the dogmatic insistence that writing consists in giving material to ideas in language, with the consequence that the writer’s task is literary. The writer whose activity consists of putting words to a page betrays a complicity with at least a certain form of bourgeois idealism that safely ensconces language in words and sentences. Rationality thus consists of discourse and commentary and the critic believes himself effective by the possession of a quick wit, verbal acuity, and the appropriate amount of self-aggrandizing righteousness of character. The writer simply needs to be “committed” to a political task. No such criticism can escape the production of false discourse and the subsequent tendency toward quietism despite any protestations of radical or revolutionary commitment.

(Addendum) 2a. In 1929/30, Benjamin complained that “criticism has to secure its own power by developing a more effective attitude toward the relations of production in the book market. It is well known that far too many books are published. What is worse, a consequence of this is that too few good books appear. And those that have appeared have made too little impact. … The aim here, of course, is not to attack the commercial aspect of publishing … but to appeal to the misguided idealist whose patronage supports dangerous products”. In the eighty years since these lines were written, what Benjamin could not have foreseen was not only the absolute monopolization of textual production by capital but the entirely distinct onto/logical field of digitization and hyper-textualization of new media. As Benjamin points out, what is at stake here is more than simply a critique of the economy of textual production nor even of the dissemination of signifiers that were at one time meaningful within a shared field of intentions. Beyond the degradation of criticism as a mere refinement in taste (subjective judgment) or as political commentary, criticism must fight against the very ideology of discourse that, at one time, it had itself created.

This may seem paradoxical insofar as criticism seems to be precisely that which is excluded from public discourse. Habermas, for example, explicitly exempts “aesthetic criticism” from the modes of discourse available to the rational speaker in the ideal speech situation. Yet this is, of course, merely another symptom of the general collapse of criticism into its current ruins in blogs, syndicated newspaper columns, scholarly commentary, and user comments.

2b. In the comments to an online news article reporting the latest results from experiments performed by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the majority of users aligned themselves with one of two positions: either the scientists involved in this project were guilty of an overwhelming “Anything But God” neurosis or of misplacing their priorities for the benefit of “merely theoretical” questions at the expense of pressing “practical” problems such as disease, hunger, and energy. What should be objectionable to the critic is not the defective logic or rationality of these comments but, rather, the philistinism that results from a posture of being “original” that masquerades as the supposed “right” to have and express an opinion (of course, what stands in need of finesse is not the right itself but its value). The very notion of “originality” has been irreversibly transformed into the anti-dialectical inversion of its authentic sense: we say that to be “original” is to be without precedent and to cast aside the bonds of tradition when being the one who has an origin means recognizing that we are not the first to arrive—that my opinion is our opinion. But this “we” is the abstract universality described by Hegel and Heidegger as the immature thought of thinking that does not yet know itself (or, more precisely, that does not yet know that it does not know, according to Socrates): this is the same adolescent reason (which is, incidentally, encouraged by certain sophistic practices of philosophy that promote so-called “general critical thinking skills”) that presumes to pronounce on any discourse with the “view from nowhere”.

The desire for the absolute

In some religions, practitioners are advised not to look upon the dead and when confronted with an image of death to avert their gaze. In some cases, such an aversion or refusal to look is shameful or ascetic. Yet not all sacred practices are normative; some might be considered, instead, aesthetic. What is at stake in the prohibition against the viewing of death is the formation of a certain kind of body, which is to say the condensation of some habits over others, the formation of potentialities along some orientations over others, and the creation of certain tendencies of moving, acting, and doing that reproduce the conditions for life. But in every case, this diamagnetism is specific to the living material. In some sense, we might say with Aristotle that there is no such thing as pure matter—not because matter must be wedded to form but because the material is always multiple and always presents itself in composites (which has been a tenet of every materialism since Leucippus). Life itself is the complex of relations that comprise these composites.

This is the intuition to which the French spiritualists (after Bergson) attempted to give expression against the dialectic of the absolute while, ironically, surrendering to that very dialectic by taking it too seriously. Lavelle, for example, insists on a “pure experience” of existence or an “experience of real presence” that is made concrete in determinate consciousness, which itself creates an interval between the cognition and presentation of its objects. It is on the basis of this sympathy for existence that vitalism has always thought that the thinking of death was merely naïve and, consequently, that life should tend toward the fulfillment of eternal life (which, equivalently for Hegel or Lavelle, means achieving the original unity of thought and being).

We see this desire for the absolute disguised in various ways in philosophy. For example, the greatest pretension of philosophy is that thought should have an effect on the world (whereas the gambit of religion is the opposite—i.e., that thought is impotent against the destiny of a contingent world). Under the guise of a persistently naïve empiricism (to which Carnap, despite the genius of his Aufbau, must have recourse since for him there is only one domain of objects), analytic philosophy has simply renounced the task that philosophy has arrogated to itself and, without an account of its conditions, will continue to fiddle while the world (and itself) perishes. On the other hand, continental philosophy has yet to realize that philosophy must be about something other than itself. In both cases, however, we are caught within the temptation both to affirm and to deny the unity of thought and being, i.e., that there is no such unity (else the philosophers would rule the world) or that it is only on the basis of that unity that philosophy exists at all.

Yet between philosophy and religion—i.e., between a material or a spiritualist thinking—perhaps what we need to affirm is not only that “the gift of thinking to itself is betrayed by a thinking that insists only on thinking itself” (Desmond) but also that the very attempt for thinking to think itself is impossible. What is impossible, however, is not simply a negation of the possible, for the possible is itself the negation of the necessary. That thinking should find it impossible to think itself is not the condition but task of thinking. Every philosophy that fails in this task is unjust.

Life without being

Despite everything Bergson did for philosophy, he made an unfortunate mistake by nominating the logic of difference the “élan vital”, which was quickly misunderstood as another name for being. Rather, all the great vitalists (Spinoza and Leibniz come to mind) understood that logical monism (what Driesch calls the “monism of order”) was neither a metaphysical monism nor beholden to the usual problematic of necessity/contingency. If vitalism is to be a philosophy of freedom—of the “unforeseeable creation of novelty”—then it must be understood as a critical philosophy according to which what had been known as metaphysical questions are at bottom questions of sense (which, of course, is a question of time). Spirit, as Scheler says, “has its own nature and autonomy, but lacks an original energy of its own” as a series (Scheler says “group”) of pure intentions. It is only thus conceived that a philosophy of spirit can be deduced (dialectically?) from a philosophy of nature without succumbing to the identity of thought and being. If vitalism is to have a future, it must come to see that there are only specific relations (special metaphysics) and no relations “in” the absolute (general metaphysics):”organization in general is … nothing else but a diminished and as it were condensed picture of the universe” (Schelling), i.e, as a phenomenon.