French Theory Since 1989

(Here is the syllabus for my spring doctoral seminar at NYU cross-listed between MCC and Comp Lit. Consortium students in the New York area are also welcome to join us.)

New York University
Department of Media, Culture, and Communication
French Theory Since 1989
(Special Topics in Critical Theory)

Course number MCC-GE 3010-001 / COLIT-GA 3013-001

SPRING 2015

Prof. Alexander R. Galloway
Office Hours: Tu 2:30-4pm; Th 9-11am
Class Location: East Building, Room 741
Class Time: Thursdays 2:00 – 4:50 pm.

Course Description

In recent decades French and Francophone theory has exerted considerable influence on the world stage. French intellectual exports from the post-World War II period, particularly in the area of feminism, semiotics, and post-structuralism, helped form an entire generation of theoretical inquiry in the English-speaking world. Even today, after the high water mark of postmodern theory has receded, the significance of figures like Michel Foucault or Roland Barthes has not so much faded as insinuated itself deeply into literary canons and course syllabi across the humanities and liberal arts.

This course focuses on recent French theory and philosophy published roughly during the last two decades, work that in some way deviates from the “greatest generation” of 1960s and ’70s theory. Our aim is to avoid some of the more familiar texts from the past, and instead seek out a new collection of thinkers (not all of whom are French), and indeed a new incarnation of critical and philosophical questions more apt for the contemporary landscape.

Reading texts by Alain Badiou, François Laruelle, Catherine Malabou, and others, we first examine the contemporary situation, specifically how best to understand the materiality of bodies, societies, and worlds. Then, during the final three weeks of the seminar, each student will select a longer volume, from the five enumerated below, and pursue individual/group inquiry.

We treat this group of authors and texts as a divergent conversation of numerous voices, not a unified school with a single set of interests. Several themes will structure the conversation, including postfordism, materialism, identity, power, and the body. The course will benefit from a number of recent English translations, and students are encouraged to consult the original French texts if their language skills allow it. Continue reading

Black Box Architecture 2: Damaged Modernism

The previous post was an attempt to rethink the brut in brutalism, not so much in terms of raw concrete but raw information. Still, a lot has changed in architecture since the 1970s, first with postmodernism and then with deconstructivism and subsequent forms of software-driven design such as blob buildings, procedurally-generated structures, cybernetic environments, and so on.

In The Interface Effect, I devote a few pages to Frank Gehry’s Stata Center, the large university building that opened on the MIT campus in 2004. Following Gehry’s signature style, the Stata Center features warped geometric forms cascading on top of each other. It “looks like a party of drunken robots got together to celebrate,” Gehry said of the building. Continue reading

Black Box Architecture

Occupy EarthRemember back to a moment of great energy. Remember back to the Occupy movement of a few years ago. During one of the larger marches, when protesters were quitting the island of Manhattan across one of the major bridges, a huge image appeared on the side of a nearby skyscraper in full view of the marchers. Like an angel casting its rays over the cops and the barricades, the beam projected images and slogans in solidarity with the Occupy protesters.

We live in an age of radiant surfaces. Electronic billboards are ubiquitous along roadways, and many modern cities are populated with buildings clad in LED displays, synchronizing video with architecture. But the Occupy beacon was a projection, not a video monitor. And this particular skyscraper is different from those flashing their visual spectacle to the urban landscape. Not the light boxes of Times Square, this is an architectural black box. It works well as a screen because of one unusual detail: this building has no windows. From the outside it appears austere and uninviting precisely because it has no outside to speak of. It works well as a screen because, ironically, it’s so stubbornly resistant to interfacing with the outside world. Continue reading

Old Materialism

I’m just finishing a piece on the work of Fredric Jameson, a process that has been challenging on a number of levels. Aside from the rather lurid if mundane biographical fact of the apprentice confronting the master (he was the chair of my PhD committee), it’s been difficult for me to wrangle the Jamesonian corpus not simply because of its formidable size and breadth but also because of Jameson’s tendency to suspend direct, generalizable claims about his positions and methods. Of course he wrote various treatises on method — see in particular the early essay “Metacommentary” and the book The Political Unconscious, which remains, shall we not admit, his most important volume — and most of Jameson’s writings contain at least a choice sentence on method, if not a paragraph or two, provided we know how to identify them. But overall, like the dialectic itself that he so reveres, Jameson shuns the process of actualization in favor of a kind of perpetual dis-actualization (the Hegelians might prefer to call it externalization) in which the suspension of discrete claims forms the basis for an entire theoretical project, one which despite its Hegelian hue can, I think, be properly labeled Marxist.

Much has already been said about Jameson’s writings on utopia, art, dialectics, allegory, history, and totality, and I don’t particularly want to repeat all that. Instead I’ve been thinking about Jameson in the context of the ontological turn, not so much New Materialism as “old” materialism (and proudly so). Continue reading

Counter-gaming

‘Tis the season. From Destiny to the Warlords of Draenor expansion, a number of new blockbuster games have been released this fall. Still, the world of gaming seems especially stagnant these days, as if unable to move beyond its own limitations, as if unable to reflect on its own conditions of possibility.

As time passes I’m increasingly convinced that real-time strategy (RTS) games are the most interesting game genre, particularly from the point of view of politics or economics. All games simulate miniature economies of some sort or another — be they playful economies of desire or more rigid economies of points — but RTS games tends to feature such economies at a level not seen in other genres. RTS games focus on a multi-nodal ecosystem of flows and factories, resources and expenditures, secure zones and hostile frontiers. The RTS genre is thus informatic capitalism pure and simple. The genre displays how informatic media and informatic labor are essentially coterminous in today’s world. And it’s interesting to note how Warlords of Draenor feels more like Warcraft III than any version of WoW thus far. Continue reading

Rise of Nondiegetic Media

For reasons that I don’t entirely understand, blogging seems to provoke in me a backward glance, not the kind of hyper-immediate status updates and running commentary of quotidian fancies typically associated with the format. And so I’ve been returning to some previous endeavors and trying to rethink them in the light of new concerns and new contexts. An immodest undertaking to be sure, still what appears in germinal form at one point might require the passage of time to grow and evolve, where only from another perspective it appears fully legible. Such is the logic of “discovery,” a term that should be used with extreme caution, given the role that creativity and innovation play in the new economy. And yet, as with Badiou’s truth procedures, we must adhere to such moments of discovery when they appear, aligning our subjectivity to them, not as a way to enact the mandates of postfordist labor in which innovations are tagged and banked like raw materials, but precisely to deviate from such mandates.

One discovery that came to light for me around seven or eight years ago concerns the old relation in narratology and aesthetics between diegetic elements and nondiegetic elements, those other things, whatever they might be, that separate themselves from the diegesis. Part of a very old conversation stretching back to Aristotle if not earlier — διήγησις being the old Greek term for narration — the diegetic/nondiegetic relationship has a strong connection to the critical discourse around the historical avant-garde (Brecht) as well as to the early harbingers of postmodernity (Godard). Addressed typically if not superficially via tactics like “revealing the apparatus” or “foregrounding the aesthetic infrastructure,” the diegetic/nondiegetic relationship became a kind of shorthand for political intervention, describing in essence the very conditions of possibility for what counts as political art: whatever perpetuates the lure of diegetic enthrallment is reification at its worst, while whatever shatters such spectacle by illuminating the conditions of its own production is progressive and political. Continue reading

Guy Brossollet’s “Non-battle”

Counter-insurgency is a urgent issue in American life today–indeed around the world–as state and non-state actors alike perfect the art of subduing popular upheaval. Viewing individuals and populations as liabilities even threats, the army and the police have been forced to adopt a series of new tactics, from urban warfare and occupation, to ideological campaigns and the winning of “hearts and minds,” to torture and other forms of non-lethal force.

The police have recently come under scrutiny in the wake of a spate of killings. And rallies against police brutality are met by cops in riot gear and military-grade equipment recently procured through Pentagon grants. Police vehicles equipped with Stingrays and LRADs are now a common appearance at protests and marches, not to mention semi-automatic weapons, flash grenades, tear gas, and pepper spray. Continue reading

The Universe of Things

(Here’s also a podcast of the recent panel discussion between me and Shaviro hosted by the New School on Nov 7th.)

With the recent publication of The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, Steven Shaviro confirms his status as one of the most interesting speculative realist auimagethors. In a philosophical field littered with mines and booby traps, characterized by antagonisms and growing factionalism, Shaviro has managed to produce a very lively book filled with equitable and generous readings of dozens of authors. He’s certainly the most diplomatic author working in speculative realism today, while still pursuing a particular line of argument all his own. The book is filled with creative and insightful observations on a number of different contemporary debates and conversations. Yet at the same time Shaviro has carved out an original set of concerns and proposals for the future of speculative thinking.

As I see them, the three basic contributions to speculative realism made by Shaviro are (1) connectionism, (2) panpsychism, and (3) aesthetics as first philosophy. Continue reading

Changing Fortunes of Contemporary French Theory

Here is an audio recording  on “The Changing Fortunes of Contemporary French Theory,” in which I say some flattering things about Laruelle and some unflattering things about Latour.

The recording is from a recent lecture in the Film and Visual Studies program at Harvard. The doctoral students there were incredibly interesting and generous discussants. All in all an excellent visit.

Here is the dossier of network images discussed about 14 minutes into the talk.

Immanence

There’s a new issue of Parrhesia. It’s one of the most interesting journals active today and I encourage you to take a peek if you haven’t already. In browsing through the issue I was struck by a few things. First, Laruelle’s fingerprints are all over this issue. This is evident more in the reviews than the articles two of which are by or about Bernard Stiegler — although it’s interesting to note that Stiegler has credited Laruelle with “having introduced me to the work of Gilbert Simondon.” In addition to the review of Laruelle’s Dictionary of Non-Philosophy, I know that Daniel Barber, Alex Dubilet, Anthony Smith, and Ian James are all interested in Laruelle or working on him in some way or another.

The second thing that occurs to me is how important immanence remains in contemporary debates. Immanence has always occupied an odd place in the history of philosophy, often appearing as a counter-orthodoxy or heresy that tears the fabric of metaphysical representation. Theories of immanence resist describing things “as” they are. Rather immanence identifies things “in” whatever they are.

But before exploring the how of immanence, let’s revisit the why. Why should we care about theories of immanence? Is immanence a good thing? If so, why? Continue reading