“Relieved Nihilism”

I once made an acquaintance who claimed to be what he called a “relieved nihilist.” This he opposed to “romantic nihilism.” Both share a tendency to see all human activity, and perhaps all cosmic happening in general, as ultimately meaningless. But the relieved nihilist considers this very fact to be meaningless as well. He does not make a romantic tragedy out of life’s many disappointing aspects, nor does he undergo the absence of sense and purpose as a loss, nor as lamentable. It is simply a consequence of nothingness and need not set off a stressful production; it prompts neither the threat of succumbing to hopelessness, nor the prospect of overcoming it in freedom.

He thus willingly professed his own lack of passion for anything whatsoever. Perhaps he even took it as a point of pride to laugh at the seriousness of any drama, cosmic or personal. Contempt for the world secured the first step, and a negativity prevailing in the soul ensured the rest. This character, however, maintained another view which seemed, upon reflection, to perhaps be an offshoot of this nihilistic “relief,” namely: he was a total pragmatist when it came to human dealings. If he was going to put in the effort, he had better get something out of it, a result, and this included relations with women.

I respected the boldness and honesty with which he espoused his views and listened to mine, but in the end it was troubling to realize that many other people, though lacking the philosophical grounding he had, probably share such a mixed outlook. Too accustomed to the pointlessness of things to despair of it, an indifferent utilitarianism takes over. Because of the thesis on nothingness, all consideration of the “large” consequences of our actions is suspended, since it is assumed that in the end there can be none, all will be erased. Every strong conviction is proscribed, for a relieved nihilism lets one aim only at little gains that can be anticipated in advance, or calculated according to a cost-benefit analysis. Most often, probably, a verdict of “it’s not really worth it” prevails, since the operative axiom here is that all value is swallowed constantly in emptiness. Even projects undertaken with enthusiasm succumb to this pull that saps faith. Nowhere a risk to be taken, no room for outcomes unknown. Nowhere any point to provoke, invent, or transform. Sad as it appears to me, I can also see how great a relief it might be; this would not prevent it from being, on its reverse side, the epitome of capitulation.

I tried to argue to him that, though I could share his contempt for the world, I nonetheless felt is was possible for humans to find others and to form intimate, unexpected connections “underneath” or in spite of that world. I was interpreted to mean that the world remained for me a place in which I could realize my personal goals. How often the convictions of others we only understand through the prejudices of our own! So perhaps I too misunderstood him.

He wanted to know why I spoke against suicide, why I upheld hope, why I felt life was worth living, despite all the evidence of its futility; and if positivity outweighed negativity in my soul. I told him all I could about that — all too briefly, as conversation must be, filtered as it is through hundreds of translations of language, tradition, background and context, not to mention the pressing constraints of time. Whether it was futile to express myself and my “convictions” as I did — to try to persuade him to see another potential attitude — is not up to me, and is thus not a question I choose to entertain.

(See Evil Compassion for another perspective on nihilism, in a different tone.)

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The Mystery’s Wellspring

“To guard the purity of the mystery’s wellspring seems to me hardest of all.” ―Martin Heidegger

How one translates the verb “being” need not accord with common sense, which links it most immediately with “existing.” This is the primary function of the copula, to designate something as being-there-in-the-world. To exist signifies: standing, standing out, or even stepping forth there in a space, occupying it with its material extension. In this manner, what “is” can be pointed to, referenced, usually in an unquestioning way. The designation makes the entity available for thinking and use. The automobile “is”: this means that it is parked there, occupying a space, and even if it drives away from us, it still exists, taking up its space somewhere else. This notion of the being of beings as ex-sisting allows us to know beings in a stable way, since by and large they exist or stand-out in an “immobile” fashion — not that they don’t move, of course, but, barring their destruction or transformation, remain identical to themselves, “unchanging” not on an atomic or molecular level but in our mind, in our reference, in our operation. Whatever we can reference in this way “is” for us; it exists through our stabilization of the chaotic flux of waves into discrete entities which “hold up” over time, which bear many instances of reference over time, thus convincing us of their beingness. It is a sort of convention of stability without which being itself would seem not to make much sense.

But what if existing and standing weren’t the only translation for being? What if these standards were only accepted so broadly because they served the pragmatic aims of man and language to stabilize them? Can’t we see here a certain choice that is as unfounded as the human world is in nature? For one could easily imagine that the standing-there which allows for the knowledge of entities could be replaced, for example, with an arising(-there) or a withdrawing(-there) that prevented all knowledge from holding them steady. Being would not imply the actuality or inactuality of beings in the world any longer. Indeed, the borders between entities, separating them — which relies on clear divisions in being and on the distribution of these divisions over space-time — would no longer be offered up and accepted as an obvious self-evidence. Discreteness could no longer so easily be assumed, because in a paradigm of arising or withdrawal all grasp of stability would lose certainty. It is not just that the flower blooms without why, but that the ground blooms up into it, and with it the bench beside it and the path leading to them.

But how then could we continue to say “it” and “them”? Here the language of reference evidently fails to suggest anything other than entities. One will object that we are simply confusing things, fusing them together into the unstable flux; that we thereby lose all specificity, losing beings to one undifferentiated arising and withdrawal, robbing us of knowledge; that we are contradicting the very conditions of experience, space and time. It is perhaps nonsense to try and rework these notions, specifically, to decouple coming-to-be from coming-to-stand-there, or more simply, coming from coming-to(-be). How could arising and withdrawal not themselves be referential to objects or at least to us as subjects, indeed, to our “stand-point”? Human thought on reality is so overdetermined by such “points” of being(s)-there that the very possibility of thinking otherwise seems absurd. In truth, arising, emerging, withdrawal, (dis-)appearing, going-down, all these potential replacement translations for existence and standing-there fall short, or at least suggest their own limitations; and, in any case, it is clear that a simple substitution of definitions, the suggestion of new claims about the essence of being in novel propositions, could only ever prepare the way for a more originary thinking. This, I believe, was Heidegger’s task, and we can name it: dwelling in the mystery — the enigma of (it) (not) being (there).

But to express this will require something more of us than propositions, theses, and claims, for here no war of “positions” is possible. Indeed, it is no longer even suitable to speak “about” beings or being. It is rather the case that we must invent, through a sort of “(poetic) naming of Being,” new forms of langauge, forms which we could do more releasing than grasping, more clearing than positioning, and which only arrive at concepts through long experimentation with bizarre discursive arrangements which make possible a suspension of the common sense stabilizations and “stationalizations” of beings as objects of knowledge. This is to go against the grain of what everything about assertorial discourse asserts about being. What is clear, however, is that there is no clear “outside” to language as we inherit it, nor to the propositional form of understanding. Bringing the mystery and our dwelling in it to language requires intead a sort of constant displacement in thinking: it demands a sort of disbelief in statements, in the evaluation of rightness and wrongness (for this inquiry, not absolutely or in general), seeking instead those words which bear the truth of being and, if we can say so, its silence.

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Just Reading

Every authentic form of thought contains at its core an undeconstructible point. For Derrida, this is the point where it attains or yearns for justice, or where it dwells in contact with an opening to the other that no single utterance could represent or contain.

Everything that swirls around that point in terms of dualities and networks of signification that can be deconstructed, words whose meanings can be debated and multiplied, metaphysical biases that can be diagnosed, good or bad readings of the tradition, etc.–all of that is extrinsic. Helpful to a degree, these considerations risk degrading a reading into a scholarly exercise, willfully overlooking the key point. It goes so far as to deny even the existence of such a point, whereupon the worth of the work is easily dissolved into a simulacra.

At the same time, to approach or grasp the undeconstructible, one has to pass through the deconstructible—words and their arrangements, concepts and their heritages, rhetorical strategies, references, in sum the entire level of the text which is subject to technique, repetition, reproduction, common language and convention, etc. One passes through all this earnestly, trustingly, in order to experience what cannot be reduced in it, what is singular and cannot be decomposed into these elements, in other words, what is undeconstructible and escapes knowing and objectivity. The temptation is to get stuck on one of the decomposed elements and to use it as the lens through which to judge the work as a whole; this inevitably induces a myopia that prides itself on being all-seeing. But the undeconstructible inhibits such judgments, and whoever has a nose for it will hold back from making them.

Obviously, it is much easier to comment based on decomposed elements, from partial or outside perspectives which want to know nothing about the undeconstructible and thus justify without trouble a global judgment on the whole, foreclosing its otherness, its resistance, its excess. A commentary that does the opposite—which keys in on the one key thing that cannot be located or indicated and that in some sense lies underneath all deconstructible elements—such a commentary is immediately thrust into the imperative of justice itself. It is tasked not with exposing an author’s shortcomings but with preserving the singularity of their thought. That alone communicates the hope they had and struggled to encode through a thousand compromising repetitions. It is respect.

Accessing this point and getting a feel for its singularity means going a very long road with an author, slowly digesting this one point by meticulously comprehending and experimenting with the apparatus they construct to conduct the undeconstructible, gradually discarding any impression of strictness or limitation in the deconstructible structures they present. The longer that path, the more enjoyable. The greater the breadth it grants to experimentation, the more it gives to think. For the more it leads us to our own singularities, the more just it will be.

But to get there, one must credit the author with having a genuine concern for all this, since without that trust the key point won’t be found or even allowed to appear. It depends on the reader to see underneath, to slip into the structures that can only undo themselves and disappear for the sake of being thought. A work is the presentation of its thinking of this point, which cannot be said to exist, and yet guides the entire construction, point by point. Reading follows the trail, faithfully, but only to get lost in what, for reasons of justice, must remain unpresented.

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poems by Timothy Lavenz

true to continue paining
confer on the conference-
less earthface

Mortals made Woundling
immortal in the Wordobey
wound up with reraise
in the others’ mortal
fullest space.

(Excavate, behind,
into the murmuring deceit,
recover the pearl’s keepsake,
make it thought-
treat in your treasure chart,

Unburied, a surface
tension breathes, eyebrows
bend and speak – seeing out
into each creak:

Songswept millstone
hung to the ghost’s raving nape
seeking longingly for memory
as the treetop bird
cries safe.


Compress of ahead
chills the power of shackle,
contact-fissure grapples
with oblivion reactor,
forms burst forth with matrixial
voraciousness as care
cleaves to the post register,
dashed-by destiny pasture

Etched in the lightache,
trembling, waiting trembling
for speed. The mind chases
shadow’s brittle battle,
forcehogs grunt and spleen,
coolants feed the dry vents
into fleshhot eye crevices
weeping prostrate repeating
craves for the unreadable.

Conclusion consents,
unstably; the agent clambers
silent from the wagered defeat;
but the bed spreads and the
seeds wet, drown into
resurrectables, found out now
in press retreat.


Frigid time’s gilded gale winds
whip up light in quick sediments,
in this dungeonous letterbit cave
lavished with stolid stirrings.

Belted, ripped, flung, shot:
grains flash-attack, linings give yield,
scrapes of unnatural beatings peal
as disharmonious ticklings set congeal
into starcrushed soulshapes slow-glittering;
bubbled-hollows reverberate kiddingly;
colorings clump and interweave in
abstract close range quantafigurines –
an eternal numeral, upstanding, log-rational,
love-graphic of the turtled skeleton.

A madhorn insignia escapes there –
forehead force gashed into the lately
reunified code-capitulation
until the unstained granite bliss out
and composite stroke eyes brightly see.

(Every steed comes whinnying
to an execution held hell deep
in wombfolds nurturing echo’s eek:
harness snap, unclasp, bail, repeat
into psychic glue outpouring
unbelievable: tongue, lick, greet.)

So pass the vial of that demented elixir
till rat gains entrance to the stone,
till it grasp the nebula in rotting torso –
humble portal in clay organ invisible
of demon-blessed, aged, porous
sudden airless taste vision
where lay down warm lips in dead gold.


No sentient remainder in the peat, tulips
despite the wipeout sprout craniums
fervent to wander thru the sprung leak –
drowsy outing to the unfathomable cling
of sleep’s whole silver possibility.

Humanless was that splendid offering:
pinecone, coast, and dropping heat.
I surveyed the dawn’s benevolent creep,
the honey-orange spirts and mockingjay peeps,
with a meal of torqued words snagged
from the mute chalice of the charred hands
eager to drink in the mixed relief,
tomorrow’s grief-delivered people
clarified to perfection by extinction assumed
and the hard-won gallop of final innocence:

Unglorious, ungodly, divine release;
Medusa’s blithe gift: free feet.



An ox to manage the cradle
through the wasteland, with dry lips,
cracked hooves, and an anvil
to mark the pacing,
roughs it through the biting sand’s
indifferent heap.

A burnt catalog keeps the grainy trace
of every leg: those met archangels or
frowning faces, oceans or severed
toes – shipwrecks of belief (if you
can still imagine a flag
raised for poetry):

Embroidered on the canopy of that wagon,
conveying mind-wise the covenant creep,
transporting time’s unpassable channel,
is hoping; the word snorts and
eats a growth and goes ahead.

What remains is little tug,
sad chipped red left cleat;
fortune’s cause of thought
tumbled in the damaged deep
of an embankment, the old ropes
fraying, alone stuck on repeat.

A baptism in the palace of emptiness
is expected, to forbid relief.

The mute beast
affirms the necessity, almost
peopleless, as the child
readies its heart to peek.


lack of axis
cracked the motor,
time the road twice murdered
by two gunning pumping
human legs –

break! shouts the ladder
fall back! sighs the lone
sing again! rises mourning
denegatived –

erases the lag in the towline
to sow secrets
secret to both our regions;
across it, mirror shavings
for a line to be seen.

is anyone’s misery or
in-running ghost-


Out of the veil
in light the barrier,
I reckon lots out
with the stars,
come out empty-handed,

beneath white I carve
the gawking stares
led up high to the high landing;
underground I stand preparing
for the gate to go up, but
nothing, yet

asked for patience,
large starvings,
as the black beyond rises
to speak.


A phlegmatic film of
friable spirit and naughty deed
over drool-wafting nothingness
is our prime world decree:

A spider’s net, prepped to catch
drift of notion and animal sneeze,
casting safe lines to unsuspected regions,
levitating in the rugged elsewhere.

(Scamper faster, knead.
The gaps and leaks
sliced so cursorily in the shield
run deeper.)

The vacuum eats the weave,
the weave feeds the vacuum,
love and scar tarry
in creation’s unequal:
the existence of poetry.



Carefree chassis and access
whistle another hill due west
onward on the sacred road
promising victory in distress;
concepts offloaded, roughened,
understandings bite-sized, up-to-date;
for insight: vision is mastery
staring violet irises wild into sun tapestry
plowing down haply shimmering corridors
with flags strung mad honking and
seven plus 70 sonnets to future glory,
until the final line jolts us
from the eased pavement; the image
on the horizon tapers, emulates

Accident , where
startled the encounter actions
in the absence of met doves:
fate unsealed, beloved drive
canceled: a word generated
in fog of mysterious gentle
lifelong soul commiseration
in a ditch of lost numbers
where death awaits initiation.


ripping at the saw,
first perception’s
awe in the rift:

cut time
incinerate infinity image,
sun pinion on slim
revolve – a caption
standing resolve
let sunder.

O empirical crumple,
unresolvable episteme,
bracket dough being in fall;
total up to tea towel
in sludge;
disavow, become;
tell look again focus
and pull.


Trial myth of fire
on the explosion’s scream,
a clock that has you
alive and asleep,
rapt in contention
with the crackle’s glow.

(Gather the logs, guests
are entering,
set up more chairs
in the snow.)

Distorted the conflagration
unlags, it sparkles
in welcoming shadows,
legs out, footprints made,
announcing converge
on that damned clockface
where counting’s nothing and
elixirs goad the indemonstrable
into that oratory emplacement
of chuckling silence, standing or
sitting round the echo labor
in memory of chances
past earning.

(Friend’s intrusion
learns my inner memory;
I listen for the countdown
in our go.)


Imagination’s urgency
deferred into rumor purge
plans demonry.

Pronunciation of the thing
debates intangibles;
organs denaturalized
relearn lassitude;
the clasp on the ape’s back
refigures human

pop into purposes
unnoosed. The grey
lark chooses not to move
yet falls in for the truth:
petals touching, tardily,
the wind. –

for the cage flutters now
and the chairs up-tip;
a channel into dark
amber begins.

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Self-Constraints VI

Non-philosophy claims to be a science of philosophy, able to observe and isolate a system at work in it globally, so much so that instead of remaining within this system it can treat its various idea-complexes as symptoms. In later texts, this requires the invention of a quantum physics of philosophy or its quantic deconstruction, which will bear on concepts themselves and not just texts. There are two basic sides to the non-philosophical endeavor: to diagnose the philosophical symptoms of transcendence; and to invent its own machines or matrices that modelize radical immanence. Both sides proceed through the use of “oraxioms” emptied of their sufficiency, thus “weakening” discourse. These are the property of no ‘ego’ but of a ‘we’ as “quantum of expression,” at once lived and generic. Non-philosophical texts are everywhere the invention, expression, and practice of these oraxioms. Thus the confusion for many readers who feel confronted with yet another batch of neologisms from yet another eccentric philosopher. It is difficult to recognize that in-the-last-instance they have no recourse to the philosophical languages they transform. Devoted fans are sent down the perilous path of trying to ‘decipher’ yet again the ‘meaning’ of these supposed neologisms, striking deals with philosophy and thus dooming it to mixture and incomprehension. As for philosophers, they develop an uneasy resistance to non-philosophy that is even stronger than their resistance to science, because unlike the latter it cannot be subdued or hierarchized so easily, for non-philosophy has brought, however ‘indirectly’, a scientific-type thought to the terrain of philosophy, while at the same time placing both science and philosophy under the condition of a generic man. Indeed, it is in the name of a generic transformation of all the productive resources of thought that non-philosophy stakes this claim to be a science of philosophy. To liberate those resources from their self-constraint is one of its primary aspirations.

In this installment of the series, we will again opt to do little more than diagnose, hoping that by clearly illustrating the philosophical system we can loosen some resistances to non-philosophy, which in our view is justified in calling itself a radical treatment of that system, even if it is clear that no single text, indeed no text at all, could ‘manifest’ this in a transparent way. Because the material at non-philosophy’s disposal is of philosophical origin, even when it treats it scientifically, the evidential ‘output’ is, or rather objectively appears to be, philosophical. Only the choice to shift the base for thinking will ‘suffice’. A different style of philosophical materiality is required, one that no longer treats concepts as bodies and bricks, as interlocking parts or referential loops, as noematic isolates, in sum, no longer as trajectories arrayed in a predetermined space, whether that be the text in consideration, the tradition, or the world itself. Instead, concepts and styles themselves are to be treated as interfering waves, underdetermining each other by quantic superposition, in a flux of immanence that never forms a field or plane. If we focus provisionally on diagnosis, we do so with this altered materiality of style in mind and try to practice it. This may appear like a lack of concern for detail, like a mess of strokes too broad. These charges are often leveled against non-philosophy, and from the perspective of philosophy rightly so. But it has no need or desire to defend itself against them, quite simply because it has different goals–to defend humans from the constraint the self puts on their productive resources. Suffice it to say, a non-corpuscular but wavelike materiality in concepts implies a different approach to the world of philosophy, and not just when it comes to texts. In the end, it is up to the reader to discern to what extent the collision of conceptual particles in this non-philosophical experimental chamber is not merely a free-associative scramble. Continue reading

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Really Doing Nothing

Eric Santner’s Tanner Lectures begin with the observation that, in contemporary society, human bodies at work do not only produce products or services, but a surplus over them, “work in excess of any apparent teleological order, work that [keeps] one busy beyond reason” (Santner, The Weight of All Flesh, 23). What is this extra busywork for and why is it so exorbitant and unreasonable? Why does it spill over the limits of normal work hours, such that all participation in social life feels like work? What is this surplus? The short answer is glory, that intangible excess related to reputation, fame, and status. Glory lies behind our obsession with media and its images, celebrities and politicians, with any shiny new commodity. But it also has to do with the People themselves, with incarnating the social bond under capitalism. In this essay, we will examine the relation between glory and labor in some detail, before discussing some potential responses: Santner’s idle worship and our “really doing nothing” with the help of the imaginary number. Continue reading

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Ethics of the Idea

[The following is a translation of Alain Badiou’s seminar from February 15, 2016, part of his last series of lectures on the Immanence of Truths. The video in French is here and the transcript (which I have added to in parts) here. For ease of reading, I’ve divided the text into sections: [1] Introduction to oppression as covering; [2] Finitude and constructible sets; [3] Infinity and non-constructible sets; and [4] Fundamental ethics of the Idea.]

[1] General Introduction to Covering

The major idea we are working with for the moment, I recall, is that ultimately every figure of oppression comes down to an imprisonment in a finite figure of existence, right there where an infinite perspective could have been upheld. In other words, we are transforming the problem of emancipation, or the process of liberating human possibilities, by no longer treating it directly under the form of an explicit contradiction between loose or separated terms like the oppressors and the oppressed. In fact, we believe that what attracts oppression upon oneself, oppression in all its figures, is always the fear, doubt, risk, or possibility that something will emerge that would be radically in excess over the order whose guardians are the masters. If the order functions without supposing its opposite, then specific methods of oppression will not even have to be used. Order itself then constitutes the oppressive figure. What we will discuss is the specific, identifiable figure of oppression that is required once order–in its own functioning, in the only machine it constitutes–no longer appears sufficient (or so it fears) to contain in the finite closure of oppression the figure that it represents. Continue reading

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