A few years ago, I took a graduate seminar on experimental texts at Emory University. Some of the work I have done during my studies I have put up on Fractal Ontology, but I never included this one. I will run you through the basics of the project.
First, I wanted to showcase the “consumption” of philosophical texts that I have participated in over the course of my reading. This usually entails me, pen in hand, marking and re-marking texts with underlines, brackets and marginalia. At the end of the course, alongside my own reflection in text-form, I produced an artistic artifact. Basically, I ripped out the pages from 25 of my favorite–and most marked–texts, juxtaposed them as partial objects, and grafted and glued them onto a desk chair. So, the seat and center of the chair looks something like this:
Below, I will include my experimental essay reflecting on this project and the questionnaire I had to fill out for the project. Here is the questionnaire:
Where is your experiment located?
It is devoted to experiments in philosophical forms and formalizations towards the development of new philosophical writings. From the perspective of our experiment, we proceed from the assumption that the claims of all philosophical theories are equally valid in terms of their truth value. This experiment therefore finds itself to be nomadically utopian insofar as it finds itself nowhere, or in a chaos upon which no philosophical decision ultimately can ground itself. This suspension of self-legitimacy will allow us to ‘simulate’ or ‘clone’ the structural code of any philosophy whatsoever in order to program it and generalize its performances. Here ‘performances’ is meant in the double sense of what a philosophy can do taken to a certain limit, and that of which philosophy is capable when it is understood from the perspective of philo-fiction (either in the sense of the ‘fictional’ quality of Plato’s dialogue’s or in Nietzsche’s power of the false, although these are simply possibilities among others). Unlike science fiction, which forces us to suspend our disbelief in order to imagine the (as of yet) impossible, philo-fiction allows us to suspend our belief in the sufficiency of philosophy to legitimize itself or its claims on the nature of reality. This type of treatment could at times seem like a scrambled collage of the history of philosophy, but it in fact is a treatment of philosophy in an originary way: as a mixture of discourses and a discourse of mixtures. Philosophy owes its developments to the soil of religion and art and the subsoil of myth and science (the former of which is composed of politics, ethics, and erotics). Giving up the right to rule over these mixtures, be their common measure, or form their encyclopedia of knowledge, philosophy can open itself up to a true experimentation of form that opens it up to its suspension and finitude, which is also perhaps its freedom.
What are the norms of your field and why do these norms call for experimentation?
For a rational philosophical discourse, it is the textual form of the expository essay proved by thesis and argument. Philosophical scholarship finds itself bogged down in an interminable dialogue with the history of philosophy in order to redefine the tenable boundaries of the respective philosophical terrains. These terrains organize different orthodoxies, usually known as schools or camps, thus emphasizing the battlefield upon which philosophies wage their war. When it is not talking about itself or other philosophies, the norms of the philosophical discourse force it to talk about everything else and intrude itself everywhere else. This leads philosophy to crossbreed itself with other discourses (philosophy-of-science/art/etc.) or even pit other discourses against each other (look at how Heidegger pits the phenomenologist against the biologist, or the poet against the engineer facing the Rhine). Philosophy becomes a proliferation of language games; however, for the experimental text, the point is not to referee these games but to point out in evocative ways how philosophy doesn’t make the rules and can only choose the game in limited, albeit vicious, circles.
What is possible or impossible within these norms? Why?
What seems most impossible for the traditional philosophical discourse is the practice of heresy. What I mean by this is that philosophical conflict establishes itself based on fortified positions that accumulate into orthodoxies. Of course it is normal for philosophy and its schools to experience schisms, but the essential point is that the schism always reestablishes itself under the guise of orthodoxy or as the true position to be followed. Thus the Young Hegelians could split into the left and right based on their progressive or conservative interpretations of the dialectic, all the while avoiding falling into Hegelian heresy (perhaps heresy during this age could be attributed to the anarchist Max Stirner, who was branded an anarchist and more or less became anathema to the Hegelians on the left). To raise heresy to the status of a principle would be to remain radically indifferent to the variety of philosophical decisions (in terms of reality) and to use them as material to be reworked, programmed, manipulated.
How are you going to achieve your tasks?
The experimental text does not intend to follow a rational argument with thesis, hypothesis, and conclusions. While the syllogism is the most established logico-philosophical form, philosophy finds its origins in mystic or pseudo-scientific pronunciations of the Oneness of the universe, poetic dedications to divine inspiration, and dramatic expositions of the movement of the concept through lived dialogical experience. Paying homage to its mixed origin, this experimental text will attempt to combine a variety of different genres and approaches to the philosophical material that will compose its content. This will proceed as an attempt to deterritorialize the stable ground upon which contemporary philosophy attempts to ground itself. The form will proceed in different scenes from the history of philosophy (granted the maximum amount of difference that a simulation can provide) of performances of philosophical systems simulated in terms of their theoretical and practical effects when taken to their limit. These simulations will not posit an orthodox interpretation but a heretical indifference to the sufficiency of interpretation.
What is the general form of the experiment?
There are a proliferation of genres and voices along with their mixtures. For example, the preface can be the fairy tale (similar to the way Hegel’s preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit is a fairy tale of the unity of the philosophical work to be sublated into a preface); the various simulations can take on the task of dramatizing the different philosophical systems, concepts and personae in question (for example, a series of love letters and journal entries from ‘low-ranking’ citizens in a strictly simulated Platonic Republic, including lottery stubs, written recommendations from the elders along with their false advertising of the lottery–there is almost already the seeds of a Romeo and Juliet drama that can be elicited from such a simulation). This involves grounding philosophical speculations in the conditions of their ‘real’ experience (qua simulation), which in turn implies the proliferation of a universe of values filled with desire. What happens when we think the Republic to its real and rational limit, instead of simply positing it as a gratuitous hypothesis–this is to rewrite the Republic as the simulation of an ethico-political manifesto instantiated in a real world, perhaps through the eyes and voices of those who come to grips with such a structure; these can be followed by riddles, antinomies, and aporias radically adapted and generalized from the history of philosophy; the epigraph can end paradoxically by suggesting that this will not have been an experiment (as such, but possibly as an experiment in experimentation).
Below, I have included my final essay reflecting on the project and the process. As you can already tell from the questionnaire, a large amount of the experiment is based upon my own reflections on Laruelle’s work, specifically Philosophy and Non-Philosophy. Please enjoy:
Towards an Artistic Usage of the (Consumed) Texts of Philosophy
This experiment takes place in the attempt to approach philosophical forms and formalizations in new ways for the development of new philosophical writings. From the perspective of our experiment, we proceed from the assumption that the claims of all philosophical theories are equally valid in terms of their truth value. This experiment therefore defines itself as nomadically utopian insofar as it finds itself nowhere, or in a chaos upon which no philosophical decision ultimately can ground itself. This suspension of philosophy’s self-legitimacy will allow us to take the structural code of any philosophy whatsoever as material to be reworked and reformed (performed even) in a medium that is foreign to it (here, layering the ‘structure’ of philosophy—its textuality—over an artistic structure). This is why ‘performance’ is meant in the double sense of what a philosophy can do taken to a certain limit, and that of which philosophy is capable when it is understood from the perspective of philo-fiction. Unlike science fiction, which forces us to suspend our disbelief in order to imagine the (as of yet) impossible, philo-fiction allows us to suspend our belief in the sufficiency of philosophy to legitimize itself and its claims concerning reality. This type of treatment could at times seem like a scrambled collage of the history of philosophy, but it in fact is a treatment of philosophy in an originary way: as a mixture of discourses and a discourse of mixtures. Philosophy owes its developments to the soil of religion and art and the subsoil of myth and science (the former of which is composed of politics, ethics, and erotics). Giving up the right to rule over these mixtures, be their common measure, or form their encyclopedia of knowledge, philosophy can open itself up to a true experimentation which welcomes its suspension and finitude, and perhaps also its freedom.
For a rational philosophical discourse, the textual form of the expository essay proved by thesis and argument is one of the most conspicuous aspects of the discipline, especially in its university context. Philosophical scholarship finds itself bogged down in an interminable dialogue with the history of philosophy in order to redefine the tenable boundaries of the respective philosophical terrains. These terrains organize different orthodoxies, usually known as schools or camps, thus emphasizing the battlefield upon which philosophies wage their war. When it is not talking about itself or other philosophies, the norms of the philosophical discourse force it to talk about everything else and intrude itself everywhere else. This leads philosophy to crossbreed itself with other discourses (philosophy-of-science/art/etc.) or even pit other discourses against each other (look at how Heidegger pits the phenomenologist against the biologist, or the poet against the engineer facing the Rhine). Philosophy becomes a proliferation of language games; however, for the experimental text, the point is not to referee these games but to take the philosophical text into a different arena where it is not a question of its production per se, but of its consumption by a community of readers and its reproduction and ‘re-handling’ in a situation that neither validates or denies it, but celebrates it in a way that brings the lived experience of the text (particularly my own) to bear as another material alongside the philosophical. This presence of the reader ‘myself’ (I say myself because these pages have been lived through and consumed, written upon by me) within the artwork brings the process of reading and consuming philosophical texts into play as another essential layer of the work in progress itself. This will be explained more when the question arises of the production of the experimental and textual (non-totalizable) totality that my project essentially is (not?). In other words, it forms a fragmented, fractal conglomeration that lays claim to wholeness without any possibility of ‘being finished’. Just like in philosophy, the question arises of this work of art when its layered textuality comes to be: when is it done, when is there enough ‘text’, can we rest content with the body we have assembled? Repetition in philosophy, like anything else, is necessary to its functioning; but here it is just another material and definitely not the essence of the composition.
For that matter, what seems most impossible for the traditional philosophical discourse is the practice of heresy. What I mean by this is that philosophical conflict establishes itself based on fortified positions that accumulate into orthodoxies. Of course it is normal for philosophy and its schools to experience schisms, but the essential point is that the schism always reestablishes itself under the guise of orthodoxy or as the true position to be followed. To raise heresy to the status of a principle would be to remain radically indifferent to the variety of philosophical decisions and to use them as material to be reworked, programmed, manipulated, but also enjoyed, thoroughly enjoyed. Is it heretical to claim to ‘enjoy’ philosophy, without reducing it to its games, its strategies, its enjoying of or ‘playing’ with itself? The answer is no, because enjoying philosophy (or reading philosophy for the ‘sheer’ enjoyment) simply indicates that we are already bewitched and captivated by its processes and progresses. To be radically indifferent to philosophy and its decisions, making use of it indifferently towards my own ends, would instead be a more crucial heresy. Nevertheless, can there be pure heresy when philosophy is used as an artistic material, instead of philosophical? Again, the answer must be no; but this no is the positive condition such that my own enjoyment can become a part of the artistic materials and process themselves. Of course, Plato booted almost all of the poets and artists for suspicions of having the power to ‘corrupt’ the youth, but he confused art’s capacity for deception with its unlimited ability to create despite what philosophers may deem the true or the good. Instead of being the representation of representations, a representation of the second-order, Plato repressed the actual nature of art which is of a zero-order, a ground zero that neither guarantees representations nor takes them as ready-made. It is in this precise sense that taking philosophy as material for artistic purposes borders on the heretical, scrambling the history of philosophy in the very process of its enjoyment.
The experimental text does not intend to follow a rational argument with thesis, hypothesis, and conclusions. While the syllogism is the most established logico-philosophical form, philosophy finds its origins in mystic or pseudo-scientific pronunciations of the Oneness of the universe, poetic dedications to divine inspiration, and dramatic expositions of the movement of the concept through lived dialogical experience. Paying homage to its mixed origin, this use of texts will experiment with its ‘layers’ of textuality. This requires some explanation. First, I chose 26 of my favorite books of philosophy and carefully cut them up, removing their covers and cutting them up basically chapter by chapter. However, paradoxically, although this is the first step in my project, there was already a step before it. Besides acquiring the texts themselves (the time of which spans ten years or more), over time I have diligently marked, underlined, circled, noted, commented, exclaimed, and questioned these texts with my own additional writing: the ‘best’ texts have all of these features, usually in two or three different colored inks on the same page, indicating that these texts have been read several times over with highly different temporalities. This layering of temporalities or sedimentation of my own reading experience over time at times puts me at odds with myself, forcing me to strike out in one color ink what I wrote years or months before, usually in black ink (again, sublating or preserving it instead of blotting it out). Ultimately, I chose the books for this project that had already chosen me. In fact, I did not ‘choose’ the books, but quickly scanned my favorites for the ones in which I had most diligently taken notes. The reason for this is twofold: first, this is a labor of love, and these texts bear the stamp of my consumption and enjoyment (enjoyment here usually includes questioning, cursing, arguing, resisting, disbelieving, etc., or what could be called basic philosophical affects), and secondly, these texts are much more visually striking, specifically due to the fact that I rarely take notes in black ink, leading to a much more impactful image than a patchwork of texts unmarred by human hands and interrogation. This helps to bring the piece in sharper focus when the viewer has no possibility of directly ‘reading’ the work, thus giving it a dimension of ‘perspective’, if one can say that without punning in a Nietzschean manner (everything is perspective, interpretation of interpretation, etc.). Interpretation here loses its function of rationally explaining in order to take on the role of aesthetically ‘persuading’, not like the old logos, but perhaps (at the limit?) the way in which Rilke’s torso of Apollo persuades the viewer that she must change her life. That ‘she’ is I, since killing what one loves, either with word or sword, has inspired me to find new life for that love, perhaps like Orpheus who kills his love in order to perform a resurrection, discounting either failure or success, since the former is constitutive of the latter or makes its reality possible (just like in every true experimentation?).
There is a proliferation of voices in this experiment along with their mixtures. In particular, the voice that is most relevant and prevalent for these texts is my own legibility in them. Not to reflect these back to my own image or to verify that image through these voices, but to break up my own constitution as subject through the careful dismantling and fragmentation of these texts. My tentative ‘voice’ within these texts is due to the fact that there is a proliferation of (my own) voices, a proliferation of selves or subjects that I can scarcely call mine. This is what is particularly meant by consumption: that I am irrevocably altered through the process of reading and writing itself, but also fractured by the process of reading and reorienting my readings and writings, from the most tentative to the boldest, from ‘what could this mean’ or simply ‘?’ to ‘!’ or ‘WOW!’.
After breaking up the books into manageable parts, I and my wife Lindsay began to sift through the thousands of pages that lay stacked on my living room floor. Many pages were simply passed over due to their lack of notes and scribbling. In fact, the ‘best’ pages are more or less entirely marked up and overfull of my comments. But instead of a meta-commentary, which would strive to comment on the work in a systematic way, these instances of my scattered textual interventions should instead be considered ‘para-commentary’, in the sense that they literally form the parergon or framework for these pages and in the sense that they do not strive for complete comprehension, but for representing moments of insight, understanding and intuition that flicker faintly and briefly and must be captured immediately for any effect to be achieved. They are less comments on the text than impacts on myself that are then translated back into a framework for ‘grasping’ (at) the text, for showing how the text has grabbed me. In any case, this decision to utilize the aspects of the text most impactful for me and impacted by me ultimately made the decision of how to utilize the text more decisive, allowing us to sift through the many thousands of pages in order to more quickly isolate the parts where the texts and my selves resonate most acutely.
After pages are selected, they are then cut up into various sizes depending on the density, quality, and overall visual appeal. The cutting is specifically focused on cutting out blank margins when they are present so as to maximize the surface area of text and minimize that of the ‘nothingness’ that surrounds it. In this sense, the excerpts cut out range in size from full pages (which are rare but usually are some of the most indicative for my intellectual development) to one or two sentences, and even a short phrase when it is something in particular that I have said and want to capture for minor details (for example, when I randomly write ‘Badiou is pissing me off…’). But due to the surface area of the chair and the knowledge that the smallest pieces will be saved for last, in general the excerpts cut out are as substantial as possible, usually with the minimum of unmarked text. This leads me back to my metaphor of ‘layering’ in a double sense: on the one hand, the texts themselves are already multi-layered due to my consumption of/intervention in them: on the other hand, the excerpts themselves, in order to maximize the density and quality of the decoupage, are forced to overlap at points. This causes the texts themselves to overlap, and also my texts to overlap themselves. This metaphor can be directly relatable in terms of philosophy. I believe it was Whitehead who said that the history of philosophy is merely a series of footnotes to Plato; here the ‘hand-notes’ are the consumption of a series of philosophies that culminate and accumulate in…myself and themselves. To preserve their integrity (for-myself and for-themselves), I must preserve their integration (in-myself and myself in them).
During the dismantling process, specifically when I was cutting up Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, I cut my hand extremely viciously, mainly because I was cutting towards myself instead of away. Nevertheless, this provided me another opportunity to incorporate myself within these texts, this time indelibly. As my wife suggested, I quickly took my bleeding hand and stamped the title page of the Phenomenology (which I have preserved, along with all the other title pages, as a sort of memorandum, but also as a ‘biblio’-graphy). If the other of spirit is blood, then we can wryly say that there is now already a dialectic occurring before the actual ‘text’ itself. On the one hand, it felt as though I were becoming ‘one’ with the texts, but also that I was entering into some sort of blood pact that would possibly take me beyond where I wanted to go. On the other hand, the intense pain was a sign that I was definitely on the path towards a true creation, even if it were monstrous.
After gathering together hundreds of excerpts from the thousands of pages I had to work with, we began trimming the excerpts to remove the excess margins. Having a mound of cut up text in front of us was both daunting and quite surreal, for the blues, reds, greens, browns, purples, and turquoises were all shuffled up in what could only be described as a kaleidoscopic array. Then we had to find a good medium for the artistic process to begin. Since the beginning of the semester I had been playing with the idea of taking philosophical text into a completely strange or foreign artistic medium. After a number of misfires and a brief lapse of faith in myself, I finally decided to follow through with my original idea: decoupage an armchair. Sadly, no ‘real’ armchairs were available to me, so the slightly more difficult and contemporary medium of a rolling computer chair was utilized. Luckily, the chair has arms! But the ersatz leather on it seemed to rule it out as a possible medium: how would paper stick to it?
To answer that question, we simply had to try and see. This part of the process involved some small paint brushes and a mixture of ¼ water and ¾ Elmer’s multipurpose glue-all. To our pleasant surprise, the leather was not too absorbent and perfectly allowed the glue and text to take hold to the chair with a minimum of rejection. The most difficult aspect of the chair would be the task of meticulously molding these strips of text onto the creases and folds in the chair, specifically its seat. However, after a careful and slow strategy of covering the seat (taking the time to embed the text as perfectly as possible into the creases), the process became much easier and manageable. What’s even better is that this attention to detail and care for the contours of the seat give the text more dimension and volume while preserving the essential look of the chair as a chair: it’s both recognizable as a chair and yet immediately understood as something more. There’s something about it that already makes it irresistible to me as a place where I must sit!
I do not think this urge to sit on this chair of philosophy is at all a coincidence. This is where the various metaphors of the armchair for philosophy can be brought to light. I have decided to title my artwork ‘Armchair Philosophy’, and this title can indeed signify in many different ways. The most obvious ones stem from the fact that philosophy legislates from privilege and not experience, that it is contemplative and thus based on the labor of others, making it aristocratic and turning its chair into its throne or ‘cathedra’. Furthermore, philosophy ignores the empirical (the world) and can thus devote itself to its own history, it legitimizes itself and authorizes itself of itself without having to leave its seat, and it remains content with its hierarchical position. But these all seem too facile. I have tried to take this analogy further. First, philosophy always indicates itself through a position, a stance or ‘seating’ towards the reality that it claims to determine, if merely through its language. Also it reveals the fact that philosophy relishes its own sufficiency, its self-sufficiency as for reality or its determination, along with the sufficiency that has traditionally put it in league with the university (Lacan and philosophy as defender of the university discourse). In this sense, if philosophy has always already wagered on what the ‘truth’ is, then it can rest content and take a seat. On the other hand, with the last century incessantly talking about the ‘end of metaphysics’ and even the ‘death of philosophy’, the chair comes to symbolize philosophy’s weariness, its enervation, and specifically its battle fatigue. But the chair can also positively indicate the ‘resting’ (and not restlessness) of the philosophical dialectic when it can give up its will to domination. Philosophers are imperialists, although they aren’t the only ones, and this imperialism coincides with an expenditure that philosophy cannot sustain (mainly because philosophical positions are rare or conditioned by the burden of the history of such positions). The chair can then represent a tranquility or a peace, an armistice among philosophical combatants (armchair = armistice chair?). Finally, in terms of the homage and celebration of philosophy that this chair represents for me, it must also be understood as a place for it, not simply to ‘roast’ and mock it, but more fittingly to honor it in the most heterogeneous way possible, thus to simultaneously honor it as a friend and a stranger.