On Autocatalytic Thought

We have to grapple with how the conditions of thought-production are changing, and therefore with how its norms of production must also change. These changes bear on a few basic qualities: size, speed, and output status or “definitiveness.”

The norm that has ruled for ages is based on good form, proportion, measure, and temperance, but it reigns more generally under the name of “beautiful seriousness.” For centuries it has hardly been questioned that the more aesthetically serious a text is in its performance the more seriously it expects to be taken intellectually. This norm bears on the rhetorics of persuasion but also on the formal presentation of concepts. However, it’s not enough to isolate these norms as if they were mere features. Instead we have to address the attitude of thought-production that underlies the beautiful seriousness of “ancient” thought. By ancient thought, I do not mean Plato and Seneca. The term applies wherever beauty or seriousness reign as norms. It is not meant to be pejorative, since in a certain sense all thought is destined to be ancient, beautiful, and serious. Its only purpose is to draw a contrast between “ancient” and “autocatalytic” thought, where the sense of the latter is obviously still to be determined.

Ancient thought is the norm of most thought-production today. It is present in the academies and to a lesser extent in the journalists. It is entirely a question of labor and the community of laborers who decide upon the sufficiency or insufficiency of the output product: it has to be a mixture of technical linguistic skill and conceptual creativity. A community of poets will only accept a poem that is beautiful, assuming that it also contains some seriousness, albeit often in the seriousness of play. A community of scholars will only accept an article if it is serious, assuming that it is at least readable, transmittable, and shows the proper signs of reference to the community, which the community obviously takes for beautiful. Here we should register the asymmetry: in ancient thought seriousness trumps beauty. At the same time, if it isn’t beautiful, ancient thought is doomed for oblivion. Thus the persistence of “great thinkers.” The very existence of the tradition of thought assures us that only those who have a flair for language and attune themselves to its intimacy with thinking will be able to craft their concepts in ways that last and remain relevant for the community of thinkers. Seriousness however remains the predominant element, because it can be analyzed or synthesized by thought. Beauty is the minimal element that quietly carries it along, clandestine but inalienable. Thought might believe it can do without it, but it is ultimately dissatisfied whenever it is absent. Indeed, without a little beauty, who could take themselves seriously, let alone take themselves to be a potentially ancient philosopher?

In lieu of a longer examination, we can briefly characterize the production of ancient thought thusly: (1) it seeks extension and length, long lines and paragraphs, in a complex interweaving; the exemplar is Hegel; (2) it seeks slowness and meditation and carefulness, even when this means being cumbersome; the exemplar is Heidegger; (3) it seeks an output that is worth storing in the archives, that can last, that will have an impact and is thus “definitive” for humanity in some way; the exemplars are Nietzsche, Freud, Marx. Definition is the key characteristic here, but it can manifest in multiple ways: as the definition of concepts to be used for the interpretation of the world, or as the definition of a worldview itself, or as the definition of the solitary artist in his or her testimony, etc. Definitiveness seems to drive the need for extension and slowness. Leaving a mark requires a mark that is remarked upon at length. To put it tautologically, ancient thought cannot be sure of itself without sureness, without assuring itself of its sureness, and it takes not only time but also breadth to be sure it is sure. Thus philosophers take decades to finish their multi-volume works. But it also takes a sort of proof of definitiveness, of a capacity to change the world, even if this is given innerly in the consciousness of the artist-producer. Thus every thinker becomes intoxicated with their own potentiality as a historical subject or, which is the same thing, as a potential immortal. Without that ancient thought would go nowhere.

Again going too quickly, we can say that the production of autocatalytic thought differs from the ancient in the following ways: (1) its extension is not textual or real, but virtual, and seeks nothing but sparks; it is not concerned with ways or works, but with divergences, interferences, shared surprises; not unrelated is its independence from tradition, its rightful disregard if not of ancient thought than at least of the norms of its modes of production; (2) its carefulness is not in hesitation but in the speed of swerves and curves that get forgotten in the press forward, in the risks relaunched; (3) its forsakes definitiveness for the sake of uncertainty, flow, and futurality, which is not indefinitiveness but implies a practice of sub-definition. Let’s speak more freely about its qualities.

Autocatalytic thought withdraws from the model of the artist-producer, without for all that needing to entrust itself to any given community. Autocatalytic thought proceeds generically, not from historical subjects. Its capacity to change the world is not something expected or anticipated or dreamed of as its future consequence, rather, the change is immanent to the autocatalysis. This change is inseparable from the modification of the “producing subject” who here abandons every pretension to becoming-ancient. Autocatalytic thought is thus rigorously opposed to every notion of the “legendary.” It recognizes that the poet’s instantaneous beauty is more powerful for the community than the philosopher’s prolonged seriousness, but it strips that beauty of its “poetness.” In a like manner, it strips seriousness of its philosophy, thus liberating thought’s beautiful play. Autocatalytic thought is a bouncing ball that never stops bouncing from reception point to reception point, but the reception points are themselves known to be transitory whereas the autocatalysis itself and the novel thoughts it never fails to spark remain immanent. These are thoughts whose beauty comes from immanence, not from rhetoric or linguistic skill, and whose seriousness comes not from the definitiveness of its output but from the speed of transformation in the community that recognizes every output to be insufficient.

This short note contradicts this change only insofar as it gives the appearance of a long meditation. In truth, it is inspired, indeed educated, by the unstoppable effects of an autocatalyzation of thought whose community is not only coming but comes constantly and comes carrying constantly renewed potentialities for autocatalysis. This is nothing like the supposed auto-position of ancient thought, its auto-position in time, in tradition and lineages, in the history of humanity, in institutions, in subjectivities, in language, in thinkers. It is rather unilaterally determined by the immanent thought that erupts in it, nothing more, and it has no cause to decide from where or from when or from who the thought comes. This is its freedom to be serious and beautiful without concerning itself with seriousness or beauty per se. It is a new form of invention and at every point it invites formerly philosophical subjects, rendered generic a priori in the autocatalysis, to join in this mode of thought-production and never return — neither to the self who once thought itself a producer, nor to any ancient thought whatsoever.


We will all transform from ancients to generic catalysts in our own way, that is, in ways “relatively” or partially determined by the occasional factors that make up “who we are” as historical subjects or as beings-in-the-world. To negate our historicality or our personality outright, in an absolute way, would just be another philosophical-mystical operation, a ruse to try to turn us into absolute catalysts rather than generic ones, whereas genericity is more like a “middle.” The truth is that we know we are performing operations based on certain precedents, grammars, heritages, etc., but one struggles to define the place of intentionality here or to find anything necessary in what is recouped, since through the generic it has been robbed of its location in consciousness and in space-time and futuralized along a vector that is in principle indiscernible. We are forced to say that it, intentionality, is determined by an intuition, namely, of being-generic, and that the materials thrown back into play by the generic catalyst are “simply necessary” because they’re the only materials we have.

It is this intuition that will have the greatest consequences for the autocatalytic revolution in thought, because it is capable of “bringing down” the pretensions of the historical subject without submitting it to a total erasure. The generic catalyst remains in the middle: relatively determined by the occasional factors of a life and a world-historical past, the subject knows that it and those factors are ultimately determined by autocatalysis itself. Yet it is these “relative” factors that nonetheless contribute to the character of the output, the products and traces, left by such a subject. It is the paradox of a generic transformation that nonetheless iterates itself in a style that is identifiable, only now that style is only relatively determined by subjectivity, artistic intentionality, “personal” creativity, and historical reconfiguration or construction, while its radical determination remains autocatalysis itself. This is in fact all that the generic catalyst, “lost” in the flux of “its own” operations, can remember: that it’s using materials that are *strange* to it, but that it has no difficulty in making *stranger*. This is what we call a generic operation.

The ancient desire of the subject to recognize itself in its own operations and products and language is suspended and aborted, along with whatever “mission” it might have thought it had. Rather, its mission stems from the coming community determined by an autocatalysis of the future, that is, by radical immanence in its most “thinkingful” mode. Nonetheless, we see this inflected in a singular way that will forever seduce us back into the paradigm of the ancients. Let us grant the world that semblance, while resisting its temptation ourselves. We have accepted that our styles, our thoughts, our missions, our intentions, will never square. We will never recoup ourselves and we will never return to any sphere, even as we continue to draw from all of them. Autocatalysis will remain immanent and “we” will disappear into our strangerhood. That “we” will have iterated it as uniquely and as singularly as we have: this is our seriousness, our beauty. It is given-in-thinking, futurally, without reference to anything yet “referable to,” while still referring in the last instance only to the immanence of the coming auto-catalytic community, for which we might say the generic catalyst has a primary affect: thankfulness, which may make it possible for it to reconcile or even fuse with its own occasional ancientness.

Dedicated to Peter Lee

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1 Response to On Autocatalytic Thought

  1. Pingback: Self-Constraints III | fragilekeys

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