Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Thinking In Equality: On Laruelle's Democracy of Thought

Professor of film studies at Kingston University, London

Equality and inequality are fast becoming commonplace themes, given our straitened times and recent efforts to uncover not only the vast social inequities around us but also the origins of such inequality. One could wax on about the unequal distribution of monetary wealth, or even discuss the less-tangible philosophical consciousness of who has what, how much do they have, and so on. But here, I want to address the equality of thinking itself, irrespective of what, or even if, it is a thinking about x, y, or z – money, rights, or consciousness. It is the question of an equality (or democracy) in thinking, in theory, rather than any theory of a specific equality. 

One implication of François Laruelle’s notion of a ‘democracy of thought’ is that all entities are indeed equal, which is to say (in his language), that they are equally ‘One’. Laruelle describes himself as a ‘non-philosopher’ or ‘non-standard philosopher,’ and for him, to respond to this notion of being ‘equally One’ with the query ‘equally one what?’ is to miss the point of the gesture with too much philosophy. Even to respond ‘equally different’ (with Gilles Deleuze, say), or ‘equally Being’ (with Martin Heidegger), or ‘equally multiple’ (Alain Badiou) remains all too philosophical for Laruelle. Individually, they are all One – and this is firstly a performative gesture before it becomes an ontological thesis (that tells us ‘what they are’): Individuals invent equality, they do not possess it (as a philosophical property of difference, multiplicity, and so on).

In my new book, All Thoughts Are Equal, I explore the idea that film is philosophical while also introducing Laruelle’s ideas about non-philosophy. Film and philosophy both think in their own way. Conversely, however, should one say that film is philosophical because it is a type of philosophical act (linguistic therapy, say, or fundamental questioning) then one adds a third, defined element, a definition of philosophy in which film is allowed to participate. Yet even this definition can always be defined in such a way as to still make the type of therapy or questioning that philosophy alone instantiates qualitatively different and superior to the therapy or questioning of film. When saying film equals philosophy, and then how they are equal (the third element), one thereby creates a new and potentially arbitrary definition that, again, can be made to make one half of the equation the privileged, exceptional instance. Alternatively, if there were no third quality or type, then their equality is not defined but invented: in other words, it is performative (a concept I discuss in the final chapter of my book).

And yet – haven’t I earlier said that film and philosophy both think, that they are equally thoughtful? Isn’t that a third quality? Well, yes and no. The reason I say ‘no’ is because I haven’t defined what thought or thinking is. I have simply said that film and philosophy equally think, but in their own way. This is a pluralistic gesture to be sure, but, according to Laruelle at least, it is also a non-philosophical gesture, because the job of philosophy (by contrast) is to attempt to enforce one or other image alone of what counts as thought. Despite what appears to many as philosophy’s benign, abstract, and consequently (perhaps) even irrelevant status, Laruelle takes philosophy to be the supreme form of thought control, or, to be clear, a device for controlling what counts as proper or fundamental thought.

So: when saying that film is philosophical, one must not take this equation – this equality – as one conflating two defined entities. Rather, the statement ‘cinema is a philosophy’ is an invention, an exploration of how this pair can be equalized, but without defining either of the two – nor their union – at the outset. For, inversely, if everything were equally philosophy as defined as X, we still have to account for the appearance of those films or philosophies that also actually do look like a film or a philosophy, and those others that do not. For instance, it would be uncontroversial among many film-philosophers to claim that Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003) is not a good example of cinematic philosophy. Conversely, Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005) is frequently taken as a typical instance of true cinematic thinking, if only because it seems to accord with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas; both tackle the infinite moral responsibility we have toward others. The latter film appears philosophical because it seems to say something typical of the kind of thing philosophers say. But what about those films that do not appear philosophical in any pre-defined fashion, or even those moving images that are barely counted as proper films at all (YouTube videos, TV adverts, etc.)? They have a self-identity after all, even if only an apparent one (as film), and the appearance of any identity counts for something, a something that can then be used as the basis of an exceptionality (were one so inclined): this is not a film but that is; this is not philosophy but that is. Anything less, such as to say that the self-identity itself is merely an illusion, still leaves the basis for the illusion as such unexplained.

Alternatively, to say that film is philosophical in a non-philosophical manner is not another logical equation, but an invention, a hypothesis to be explored, a new comparative that must be only one among many. Saying that ‘X equals Y’ in this ‘real identification’ is also to say that ‘X could equal Z or Q or R’, and so on. Of course, this multiplication of identities could explode into triviality, but only in a theory separated from practice. In practice, that is, performatively, the identifications have each to be invented in actual spaces and times (and not in one philosophical position of everywhere and always). A film can be philosophical, in its own way. This ‘can be’ is what some might call a ‘paraconsistent’ leap in logic (see second chapter of All Thoughts Are Equal), but it can also be the benefit of our doubt, of our resistance to definition.

All thoughts can be equal, but what that equality consists in has to be invented each and every time in an ongoing process of equalizing.


John Ó Maoilearca is author of All Thoughts Are Equal: Laruelle and Nonhuman Philosophy. He is professor of film studies at Kingston University, London. He is also author of Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline and Philosophy and the Moving Image: Refractions of Reality and coeditor of Laruelle and Non-Philosophy.

"All Thoughts Are Equal is an original act and development of non-philosophical thinking. John Ó Maoilearca gives us a virtuoso tour of Laruellian thought and offers a highly original and significant mutation of non-philosophy in his own right."
—Ian James, University of Cambridge

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