The World as a Concept at the RPA

I’ll try to keep this post generally short, but here’s Stuart Elden’s thoughts on the RPA.

First: he’s absolutely right that there were some god-awful papers there. If I had to list the three worst papers I’ve seen, it would be hard to think of others than three I saw that would come to mind. I saw several great panels (a particularly good one on violence and language, for example) and the RPA has a great vibe that’s not stuffy. But I think this gave people the belief that they can waste people’s time by meandering around their notes and forgetting that they are supposed to actually present something. I mean, I’m all for the rights of the sans papiers, but I think a “papers please” check might be in order: you must actually show up with something written down (hand written is fine) that shows you actually have a paper.

Ok, now the point. Here’s the abstract of the three papers for the panel I was on (I’m cutting and pasting from a pdf, so the formatting will have problems):

This panel discussion explores the relation between world and violence. How does violence relate tothe world? Does it make sense to speak of a violent world or a world of violence? Is the violence aprocess directed toward the world, or the things that constitute it, or is violence inherent in the worldor particular ways of grasping the world? Is the world itself violent? Is the violence to be understood interms of brute force or some other degree? How does violence work in different ways at different scalesor levels?

A number of recent European philosophers have provided conceptual tools to make sense of thesequestions, or directly discussed such issues. This would include such figures as Lefebvre, Derrida,Nancy, Malabou and Sloterdijk. What elements of their work would help to address these concerns?The session will also seek to relate such issues to contemporary concerns around terrorism, war, andcapitalism, especially to the claim that there is no alternative to capitalism today.
1. Marie-Eve Morin – The Violence of the World
Violence, we tend to think, is something that occurs within the boundaries of the world. But what ofthose cases where the world, in the act delimiting these boundaries, shows itself as violent? To reflecton this question, I will take Jean-Luc Nancy’s discussion of violence in “Image and Violence” as my pointof departure. In this short essay, Nancy defines violence as that which remains outside of the system,refusing to become one force among others. Violence is the pure monstration of itself, without anysense other than this monstration itself. Yet, given this definition, there will be an essential complicitybetween violence and truth. In its irruption, truth refuses negotiation with the existing order. When itdoes negotiate, it is more of the order of systemic knowledge, following Badiou’s distinction betweenknowledge and truth. What Nancy discusses as the violence of truth (and links to the image) can inturn be linked to a sort of ontological violence, the violence of being as phusis: that which irrupts andcomes to presence from out of itself and in doing so disrupts the order of knowledge. How are we thento differentiate, in the moment of its irruption, between brute violence, whose only goal is to crushthe order in place and the violence of truth, which crushes in order to open a space for truth? From aDerridean perspective, we would have to say that the difference between these violences must remainundecidable. If both types of violence are intrinsically irruptive, we must lack any pre-given criterion, onthe basis of which we could distinguish between them.
It might be then that the worst violence would be the one which tries to do away with inner-worldlyviolence and its essential ambiguity, following a paradoxical “economy of violence” of the sort broachedby Derrida in “Violence and Metaphysics”. Derrida shows, in his discussion of Levinas, that in a finite,enclosed totality—in a world where everything has its place and everything is accounted for—wecould speak neither of violence, nor of peace, since there would be no space, no opening for play. Asystem, a totality, a world, can play only because of its opening, an opening that can give rise both tobrute violence but also to the violence of truth—or of what Derrida calls justice. To put an end to thepossibility of brute violence would mean putting an end to the opening of the world, out of which justicecan irrupt. Justice, truth, comes at this price: (Brute) violence must always remain possible.
Though these reflections might initially appear as extremely abstract, I hope to conclude by pointing outhow they can help us think violence in relation to capitalism, terrorism and revolution.
2. Stuart Elden – Violence, Calculation, World
Max Weber famously defined the state as “that human community, which within a certain area orterritory [Gebietes] – this ‘area’ belongs to the feature – has a (successful) monopoly of legitimatephysical violence”. Yet violence is not simply a possession of the state, something that it exercises, butone of its conditions of possibility. The modern state requires a whole range of calculative, abstractingtechniques that are shot through with violence. This is no more so than in the question of its territory,where creating a bounded space is already a violent act of exclusion and inclusion; maintaining it assuch requires constant vigilance and the mobilisation of threat; and challenging it necessarily entailsa transgression. As Henri Lefebvre described it, sovereignty implies “a space against which violence,whether latent or overt, is directed – a space established and constituted by violence”. Yet Lefebvreargues that this is also found in its enthroning of “a specific rationality, that of accumulation, that of thebureaucracy and the army – a unitary, logistical, operational and quantifying rationality which wouldmake economic growth possible and draw strength from that growth for its own expansion to a pointwhere it would take possession of the entire planet”.
It is that relation between that specific rationality, its violence, and the things it makes possiblethat I want to explore in this paper. Building on work on the history of the concept of territory, andits contemporary imbrications with questions of terror, I want to think the relation of violence andcalculation to the space of the world. To what extent is the notion of the world itself a categoryof violence, before any mere extension of political, cultural and economic phenomena across thesurface of the globe? How do philosophical resources—in particular the writings of Eugen Fink, KostasAxelos and Peter Sloterdijk—help to make sense of the global forces actively reshaping the world, itsconstituent states and territories?
3. Peter Gratton – Derrida, Malabou, and Otherworldly Concerns
In his later writings, Derrida brought to the fore a certain conception of the world and of sovereigntyas important to the trajectories of deconstruction. In this paper, I tease out Derrida’s later work onsovereignty in order to make sense of his rereadings of the Heideggerian conceptions of world in hislast seminar, particularly those available in Séminaire: La bête et le souverain, Vol. II (2002-2003). WhatDerrida argues against, ultimately, is a reductionist account of world as found in Heidegger (and byextension, others) that would limit it to meaningful for human existence, that is a world inherently opento the other, if not another world. I juxtapose this conception with Catherine Malabou’s immanentist model of the world as one of plasticity, which gives rise to her argument, in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing and elsewhere in her recent work, to a thinking of the world in which, as she puts it, “we have toadmit that there is no alternative to capitalism; this is something that is, I think, inescapable today”. My argument is that we have to admit no such thing, and it is through Derrida’s later work that I argue thatwe are, animal and human alike, not bound to be “poor in world” in the era of late capitalism.

Now, my claim, following actually not just from Stuart’s and Marie-Eve’s work, but also from Tim Morton’s, I think the “world” as a concept (found in Heidegger, Arendt,… Nancy, etc….) is perhaps one we need to do without.  Here’s what I wrote in a a very rough conclusion I actually didn’t deliver. It might be time to give up the notion of the world:

Not least because we always think we are the world. But having a world, whatever Heidegger argued, is not enough. In other words—as much as it pains me to say, since my project for some time was precisely on the politics of the world—that we might have to do without the world as a political concept for a while: The world is there, as a concept, to be ordered by our schemas. It is, as Derrida argued at length in his last set of lectures, always linked to the solus and solitude that he reads from Robinson Crusoe to Heidegger’s 29/30 lectures. The most depressing song is “We are the world,” precisely because we must stop all this kind of thinking of the we and of a world that is there to receive our motor schemes, even if we think these schemes as doing the least violence. This is not to hold out hope for a transcendence from this world—that is the oldest schema of the world, in fact—though it might mean taking leave of the world as it is for a little while. Because in the end, I’m not a phenomenologist and I’m not a Schmittian bent on making the world a life world or giving the world its nomos. To quote R.E.M., it may be the end of the world as we’ve known it, and I feel quite fine.

Thus Marie-Eve asked me–she’s been working on a similar project and with similar thinkers and has similar worries–about what concept could be used other than “world.” In other words, just as Derrida critiqued Nancy’s notion of community for bringing with it and overloaded tradition, I think the “World” is doing the same thing. Let me quote from Tim Morton’s paper from the RMMLA:

Now for a kick off, there are many reasons why, even if world were a valid concept altogether, it shouldn’t be used as the basis for ethics. Consider only this: witch ducking stools constitute a world just as much as hammers. There was a wonderful world of witch ducking in the Middle Ages. Witch ducking stools constituted a world for their users in every meaningful sense. There is for sure a world of Nazi regalia. Just because the Nazis had a world, doesn’t mean we should be preserving it. So the argument that “It’s good because it constitutes a world” is to use the technical term bogus. The reason not to interfere with the environment because it’s interfering with someone’s or something’s world is nowhere near a good enough reason. It might even have pernicious consequences.

I’m not sure I’d go with the “Nazi” imagery, but the point is well made. But Marie-Eve’s perspicuous question remains: what concept to use, without giving into a “World” that will always have its ordering, its calculation, and a pre-given sense as if from the outside (to use the themes of Elden’s and Morin’s papers)?

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