In Praise of the Prophylactic

Prophylaxis is on everyone's mind these days. Oh what a reversal from only a few months ago, when the decades long march of promiscuous ontologies seemed unstoppable. Are freedom and mobility unquestionable virtues? Should everything touch everything else? Until recently the answer was an unmitigated YES. The Spinozians spoke of flat ontologies. The network scientists devised rhizomatic mesh networks. Artists were obsessed with interactivity and social engagement. The social scientists were writing on mobility and mixing. It seems that anything, at any time, and for any reason, could conceivably interact with anything else. But today the scene has reversed, and prophylaxis is the order of the day. The masks worn by Pussy Riot or Anonymous are an eerie foreshadowing of N95 protective gear. Édouard Glissant's notion of "opacity" is popular in theoretical circles. Even in digital systems, scientists speak approvingly of "obfuscation," and proprietary platforms have superseded open protocols. In my last book I framed this in terms of promiscuous ontologies and prophylactic ontologies, with Deleuze being the archetype of the promiscuous and Laruelle the prophylactic. I'm excerpting a footnote here that discusses the liberal nature of the promiscuous, as opposed to the radical nature of the prophylactic.

Laruelle is essentially an illiberal thinker in that he does not cede center stage to the unfettered freedoms of an empowered individual. Consider his discussion of the generic as fulfillment. “The generic means ‘fulfillment,’ just was we might speak of a ‘fulfillment of the Law’” (Laruelle, Philosophie non-standard, 141 and repeated on 423). By alluding to Romans 13:8–10, “Whoever loves others has fulfilled the law,” Laruelle means to indicate that the generic entails a determination of elemental conditions, not a liberation from the constraints of those conditions. “Whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” means essentially: whoever commits to loving the other has fulfilled the generic determination that “all are lovable” or “love is the radical medium of all.” One must fulfill the generic law, therefore, not flee from it. One must force the generic, not liberate the transcendental, as liberal thinkers suggest.

This gets to the core of the distinction between a promiscuous or liberal ontology and a prophylactic or radical ontology. The liberal seeks a state of natural freedom with a minimum of laws, while the radical accepts at least a modicum of discipline, law, or commitment in order better to adhere to the generic common. A promiscuous ontology assumes a kind of ontological anarchy rooted in contingency and the seeming absence of law, while a prophylactic ontology posits axiomatically some sort of “foundation,” law, or way. Promiscuous ontologies may seem attractive at first glance, because they are adept at corroding and collapsing even the most odious of normative hierarchies (patriarchy, orientalism, heteronormativity). Yet promiscuous ontologies have a danger of falling into a tyranny of structurelessness, in which “all that is solid melts into air” and things are caught up in the larger movements of an invisible engine of power. To be sure, prophylactic ontologies, if improperly wrought, also have their own dangers; they can easily slip into priggish moral philosophy, ontological essentialism, or even a kind of quasi-fascism. The key is to craft the non-foundation in such a way that it avoids these dangers. Deleuze’s solution is to make the foundation immanent, multiple, and infinite. Badiou does something similar: transcendental, multiple, and infinite. Laruelle’s solution is slightly different: the non-foundation of the one is immanent and generic, but also finite.

(Excerpted from Laruelle: Against the Digital [University of Minnesota Press: 2014], p. 240n17.)