Interview with Anthony Paul Smith on the slow reception of philosopher Francois Laruelle
Anthony Paul Smith is a scholar and blogger for An und für sich. He came to my attention by a web seminar I “attended” on the philosophy of Francois Laruelle and non-philosophy which I attended. I have since read his translations of Principles of Non-Philosophy (with Nicola Rubczak) and Future Christ: A Lesson in Heresy both out with Continuum. While still trying to wrap by head around the implications of Laruelle, I also wondered why Laruelle has taken so long to catch on compared to many of his contemporaries like Badiou, Derrida, and Deleuze.
C.Derick Varn: Why do you think Laruelle has been slow to be introduced to the anglophone world?
Anthony Paul Smith: Regarding your first question, I taught at DePaul University as an adjunct for a year bouncing between the departments of Religious Studies, Environmental Studies, and Philosophy. During that year Alan D. Schrift came and presented a paper to the philosophy department. You may know that he’s editing a pretty comprehensive history of Continental philosophy and I jokingly asked him about why he hadn’t included Laruelle in his history. After explaining that he didn’t really know anyone who worked on him, it didn’t come to mind and whatever, he did tell me that he thought Laruelle was one of those figures who just fell through the cracks. If things had gone a little differently, he said, or someone had picked up a text to translate in the 70s or 80s, who knows if he would have been picked up. I didn’t get the impression he particularly liked Laruelle or anything, but he did bring out for me the contingency of these sorts of things. I mean, there are lots of brilliant thinkers in the world and some of them are exceedingly smart. But in the same way we pass homeless people and think that there is some perfectly good reason why that’s him and not me, I think as readers of philosophy we just assume that there is a really good reason we all keep talking about Derrida or Deleuze or Badiou or even Meillassoux now (just to stick with some sort of contemporary names). So that is clearly part of it, just an accident of history. At the same time his work and the language he uses to express it are difficult and I think this has put off a number of potential translators. I always wondered why Ray Brassier, for example, never translated one of his works, even one of the shorter ones, considering his own skills in that area. But he has tended to go with relatively more straight forward writers like Badiou and Meillassoux. But that’s the real issue — the lack of anything of his to read unless you’re willing to track down the French and work through it in a language unfamiliar to most Anglophone readers.
C.D.V.: Do you think Laruelle’s linkage to Ray Brassier’s work and also to Badiou has limited his reading in the US and Europe?
A.P.S.: As for Laruelle being linked to Brassier’s work, I don’t know if it has limited his reading. Brassier really was the first person to advocate for him in his Radical Philosophy article. At the same time, I think that Brassier’s own development (which is ongoing as far as I understand) did really color how many younger readers ended up reading him. There was a certain assumption, since many of them weren’t reading the primary sources I don’t think, that Laruelle shared Brassier’s antipathy for the human, for religion, for meaning, even for a vision of science that isn’t itself colored by a certain grimness and darkness. I think with Laruelle’s own texts starting to finally be available in English this is starting to fade away, which means many of those first-generation of readers have moved on from Laruelle finding his work concerned with issues they are not. But, I think we are seeing new readers, many coming from the arts, and I’m looking forward to conversations that do build off of Laruelle’s actual work rather than Brassier’s. I should say, I think Brassier was always quite clear that he had found something useful in Laruelle, that he wasn’t just explicating him. And I think we see some of the harshest criticism of Laruelle, if respectful, in the chapter of Nihil Unbound where Brassier deals with him.
C.D.V.: What brought you to nonphilosophy as a methodological way of dealing with intellectual problems?
A.P.S.: I came to Laruelle pretty much by accident, as we usually do with these sorts of things. I had moved to the UK to study with Philip Goodchild at the University of Nottingham and during my MA year was focused on questions of immanence and transcendence in both philosophy and religion. While there I was part of a class with the traditionalist theologian John Milbank. Well, it wasn’t really a class, John isn’t known for really teaching material, but instead what he would do was pick a few books that were coming out that the wanted to read and we’d read them and discuss them. One of those books was John Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophyand though Milbank basically encouraged his students to rip apart the book based on its advocacy of philosophies of immanence, I somehow managed to actually read the book! The way Mullarkey described Laruelle’s project suggested that Laruelle may have resources that would be helpful for me as I thought through these questions of immanence and transcendence.
Still, I didn’t finally read him until about a year later in June 2008, during the first year of my PhD studies, when after a particularly bad time at Nottingham (I had run afoul of the traditionalists there) I felt I had to escape for my own sanity for a bit. I had a friend who had an apartment in Paris so I bought a return bus ticket and went there for a week or so. I went to the Gilbert Jeune near Place St. Michel and bought Le Christ futur and Principes de la non-philosophie/ I read Le Christ futur on the bus ride back to England and it opened up a different way of doing philosophy of religion. I talk about this at more length in a chapter in the edited volume After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion, but in short I saw a way for philosophy to happen using religious materials in a way that I thought was protected from theological capture, like you find in most contemporary French phenomenologists popular in Anglophone literature (Marion, Henry, Ricoeur, but others as well).
My PhD, though, was always going to be on the question of nature from a perspective that brought together the philosophical, theological, and ecological. Laruelle’s work was a model for me of how that could look. A kind of radical disrespect for the normal disciplinary boundaries, but wrapped in a very rigorous framework that helped me not to simply write “my philosophy” as if I was some kind of crank. Instead of looking at the question of nature, say, in ecology and wondering how these ideas are philosophically determined or how philosophy could shore up an ethics for ecology, I instead could begin with the idea that ecology thinks and it thinks in a way that is, yes, influenced by philosophy, but also outside of philosophy. I then worked to bring together what is traditionally thought about nature and what is found in contemporary scientific ecology into a single kind of philo-fiction of nature. An idea of nature that is philosophically rigorous, but also amenable (but not servile) to contemporary ecological projects. This isn’t a new kind of project, but I think that Laruelle’s non-philosophy gives us a far more robust and rigorous thinking through of the methodology underlying a project like that.
C.D.V.: What do you see as primary limitations to the development of Non-philosophy in the English speaking world?
A.P.S.: I think the primary limitation to the development of non-philosophy has been the lack of primary source material for English-language readers. I think that’s going to change now that so many of his works are being translated. But I’ve never thought that Laruelle was “the next big thing”. In part because his work is very abstract and difficult, but also because the sorts of institutions that support that kind of work are shrinking. It is difficult for me to see working non-philosophically landing someone an academic post, of Laruelle’s works fitting within the ways philosophy survives in the academia as the guardians of ethics subject to the whims of the business school or medical school.
C.D.V.: You recently taught an online seminar on Laruelle how do you think that has gone?
A.P.S.: As for the seminar, I think it started off going well, but I was surprised by how different the performative element of teaching this way is from classroom teaching. There is no “energy” to build off of, you can’t be interrupted with a clarifying question, etc. I also underestimated how busy I would be and how far along the technology is. The internet still doesn’t handle large videos very well and so when the seminar began I was traveling around the UK lecturing and finishing up the co-translation of Principles with Nicola Rubczak. And the speed was always too slow to get the videos up. I do think this is an area para-academics should consider developing though. It brought together people who were interested in Laruelle’s work in a way that a traditional academic environment never would be able to.
C.D.V.: Is there a particular book that you think will have a particularly dramatic reception in the Anglophone world?
A.P.S.: In terms of Laruelle’s own texts, his Principles is an incredibly rich but difficult text. I think it will reward reading for people looking for a way to think how to do thought in a way that brings together philosophy and science (or any other material outside of philosophy proper). But owing to the difficulty of that book, which may require a bit of a guide, I think two other texts are going to be really important for people’s engagement with Laruelle’s work in the Anglophone world: Anti-Badiou and Photo-Fiction, A Non-Standard Aesthetics. The first, translated by Robin Mackay, is a kind of fun polemic. Laruelle often performs his non-philosophical mutations of standard philosophy by taking on another philosopher’s style (I think, for instance, Principles is written very much in the style of Husserl and that makes sense given its mutation of phenomenology). In Anti-Badiou Laruelle takes on Badiou’s own polemical voice and uses it against him, which makes both for a fun read, but also a good way to understand Laruelle’s project in relation to one that is more familiar to readers of French philosophy today. Then Photo-Fiction, translated by Drew S. Burk and published in a bilingual edition by Univocal Publishing in Minneapolis, is a short but powerful recasting of his ideas related to art in the light of his most recent work on quantum theory and an ethics of insurrection (a rather anti-Badiouian notion!). I’m currently in Minneapolis where Laruelle is speaking to an arts organizations and at the University of Minnesota and I have been really happy to see how interested the artists have been and how they also seem to understand the shape of the project. But, both of these texts have a certain energy to them that I think people will pick up on and want to run with.
C.D.V.: What are do you think the internet will bring as far as prospects for more radical philosophy?
A.P.S.: In some ways I am a dinosaur when it comes to the internet. For me, it has always just been a way to fold space so that I could communicate with people I am very far from and do it must faster than sending letters. I think there are people who are more clued into the technology, its limitations as well as what it allows us to do, who may have a better idea of what new avenues of thought will be opened for us. My hope is that it continues to allow for a truly global network of communication between people from various backgrounds who are working on similar projects. Blogs, it seems, have mostly run their course in the philosophy world, and I mostly use my occasional writings at AUFS for book reviews and to let people know about events. What the new form of sharing theory will be is not yet clear to me, but there has been a certain lack of dynamic discussion online since everyone has closed down their comments or have begun to police them in ways that seem counter-productive and more about creating an in-crowd for this strand of thought or that. Whatever happens next needs to resist that.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
A.P.S.: In closing, I just want to say thank you. I hope people start to see what Laruelle’s work has to offer our projects. Not as a new master, but as someone whose framework can be redeployed in various ways to productive ends.