Against Multiplicity

One of the benefits of studying philosophy is to discover in detail, and in all their ramifications, the “logic” behind certain ideas that, in the real world, are widespread but dispersed, and thus partial, incoherent. Sometimes one even finds a philosopher who can serve as a sort of direct ‘representative’, on the level of ideas, of what millions of people think and do in a more confused, or a less systematically explicit way; by reading that philosopher, one can better understand what sort of ideas or ideologies are running through the heads of those people. A tendency which is scattered all over in tiny fragments―and which often reigns unconsciously, unquestioned―is neatly condensed in the doctrine of the one philosopher. That makes it easier to grapple with, not just because one can now see it “all at once,” but also because it can be brought into conversation with other ideas from other philosophers, who are inevitably representative of others. (To be clear, philosophers do not represent the people who hold these similiar ideas, but rather the idea’s mechanism, its virtual operating kernel, its abstract state or basic processing unit, which is most susceptible to modification and repurposing―as well as abuse and laziness in its handling―and thus most likely to crop up anywhere, in guises the philosopher-representative helps us learn how to detect.)

The political left has been under the sway of “multiplicity” for many years. The idea stems from a simple, egalitarian intuition, which hates domination and loves level playing fields. There should be no (or less) vertical structures, no ugly leaders at the top of hierarchies telling people how to live their lives, since this would automatically be authoritarian and repressive. There should instead be an infinite number of horizontal relations, connections, and correspondences: to each participant in the social, their own user profile. Likewise, different groups should respect each other’s differences―and perhaps keep their distance―, with no single group prevailing over any other. All should be equal, meaning we should listen to everyone and “love them for who they are.” This leads to the notion of a “we” that is a kind of shattered togetherness of the many: an ensemble of disparate entities without any sort of unity being imposed on them and without any imperative to commingle. Every piece of this multiple is to be left to its own freely-chosen existence, and its rights to do so are to be defended and bolstered if need be. Above all, there is never to be a “One”; and so whenever liberals invoke the One, they mean the One of pure multiplicity, the One of never-ending difference.

In 1976, two philosophers published a book that advances a similar notion. They titled it A Thousand Plateaus and it has earned a great deal of fame over the years, as has the idea of desiring machines and “rhizomes” it advances. The latter was an especially profound conceptual invention, an early attempt to think the burgeoning network of identities and fluidities which we now know quite well as our world and whose structures are decentralized, distributed, and nodal. A figure drawn from biology, the rhizome is set in opposition to the tree: instead of the arborescent arrangement of deep roots, solid trunk, and layered branches, which represent a unified center or system (the One), the rhizome refers to organisms like mushrooms and potatoes, which shoot their roots to the side, create anterior bulbs in any direction, and often form vast horizontal networks underneath the earth without any “center” anywhere and without any overarching system or plan for proliferation (the multiple). The essential thing here is that, “any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be.” The directive is thus to rupture, prolong, connect, relay, conjugate; everything may and shall come into contact in the general circulation; if any link is broken, the rhizome starts up again on an old line; it operates immediately in the heterogeneous, at multiple entryway points; the rhizome is an intersection of flat multiplicities, consolidated nowhere but virtually everywhere.

Among the consequences the authors extrapolate from the logic of the rhizome and multiplicity―which underlies much of the spontaneous ideology still practiced by the left today, or if not practiced, then present in its “include everybody” discourse (one should also study how compatible the rhizome is to the chaos of Capital itself, especially once the latter takes control of libidinal economies)―are the following: a glorification of the immediate contact of bodies, of their exchange of desires, of lines of flight and corporeal intensity that spread in all directions and have no predetermined destination (think of raves, clubs, music festivals, sexual promiscuity, online media, sports games, etc.); connected to this, a kind of “be whatever you want, do whatever you want, fuck whoever you want” attitude that never lets itself settle down, which always chases desire to its next aleatory connection; and a politics that, while all the different struggles of different groups are supposed to ‘converge’ somehow, at the same time it is forbidden to confer any unity upon them all or to seek any common cause in “class struggle”; rather, everything (identities, struggles, causes) communicates with everything else and it is just a matter of getting everyone to communicate openly―then we will see the beauty in our difference and live in the hybrid we create. It essentially implies a democratic space― offering a kind of market of desire―without any need for fundamental antagonism to the State; the State is rather a kind of container or space of play for all the divided factions, guaranteeing their protection under laws of free speech, and so on.

Anyone who has read A Thousand Plateaus will probably raise many objections to the above, which is not scholarly or rigorous in the least. Rest assured I’ve only tried to give a picture and suggest some continuities between it and today’s spontaneous liberal ideology. Let me now jump quickly to an author who has criticized A Thousand Plateaus and its real-world political consequences. Let me quote him (Alain Badiou) directly:

  • The ontology in question, by circuventing the dialectic, is built against any thought of antagonism. And so we can see how today it validates with total equanimity any figure of speech or action whatever. This is only logical: you cannot think and exalt the pure multiple (the rhizome) without throwing yourself into the flattest of conservativisms, the surest ratifications of everything that exists.
  • The great principles of the ontology of the multiple are by themslves the illustration of this conservativism, of this aesthete’s acquiescence to the proliferating splendor of all rubbish.
  • All scission having been eluded, all choice circumvented, the rhizome follows its course toward the unbridled apology of the anything whatsoever… As such, the One takes its revenge in the realm of universal connection.
  • The Deleuzian multiplicities are zero-sum combinations of weakness and impotence, of the multiple in revolt and the bourgeois One.
    To think the multiple outside the two, outside scission, amounts to practicing in exteriority the dictatorship of the One.
  • Deleuze and Guattari propose a subtraction, a flat indifference. The multiplicities, subtracting themselves from each other as One, peacefully coexist. To play in one’s own corner: such is the maxim of rhizomatic multiplicities.
  • Let us be even more divided, let us subtractively affirm our division, and we ourselves will be plentiful. Which we? In truth, the we prescribed by the One. We should say: In actual fact Rhizome draws the conclusion of the excellence of the bourgeois One.
  • Whoever renounces antagonism and thinks in the element of indifferent affirmative multiplicity has the need sooner or later to kneel down, under the cover of the cult of the Self, before the real political powers, before the separate unity of the State. This is why Deleuze and Guattari are pre-fascist ideologues. Negation of moral­ty, cult of natural affirmation, repudiation of antagonism, aestheticism of the multiple, which outside of itself, as its subtractive political condition and its indelible fascination, leaves in abeyance the One of the tyrant: one prepares for the kowtow, one is already bowing down.
  • [Badiou then cites D&G:] Groups and individuals contain microfascisms just waiting to crystalize.

Are we not witnessing this “crystallization” of the microfascist tendencies in the groups and individuals that make up the multiplicity? With Donald Trump, are we not confronted with the “worldwide” consequence of consenting to “the splendor of rubbish”? When international news outlets have deemed it worthy to write full articles on his tweets, it is hard not to see this prophecy confirmed. But the “unbridled apology for anything whatsoever” runs far deeper than this. The word ‘splendor’ is not chosen lightly: it is a precisely a situation in which rubbish as such is glorified and acclaimed (and not just trash-talking!). Why? Because rubbish best realizes the ideology of “anything goes”―”it doesn’t matter what anyone says anymore.” When everything is equally worthy of being thrown away, it might as well be trash to begin with. And it might as well be open about it: thus Trump’s success and the failure of the serious liberal discourses that do nothing more than add their own voice to the waste of incensed commentaries; at least the late-night comedies embrace their own trashy condition, accepting in so many words the fact that what they do goes nowhere and adds nothing but a few laughs to a desert of entertaining hatred.

Catastrophically, rubbish-love has inscribed itself deep in our culture and millions support it daily. It dictates and cultivates a nihilism of expression. It is present in trolling, in posts online, in the dead-end conversations one hears about politics or television shows and celebrities, and of course in all the merchandise that is designed to get to the landfill quickly so that the newest model can be purchased. In that sense, “A Thousand Plateaus” is an American document (not too far from Walt Whitman) and registers the coming idiocracy that results from the extended empire of cultural homogenization (“Be the Pink Panther,” D&G direct us). Of course this homogeneity takes on the guise of limitless difference―all our tiny idiosyncracies and unique foibles―, but each difference circles around a principle of Self or of given identity that ultimately accepts the division of the people that the State feeds off of and constantly regenerates, and which it is happy to let run wild online and in the streets, since havoc only bolsters the necessity of its military presence. But, as Badiou also prophesizes, when all these heterogeneous identity groups are left dismembered for too long, the bourgeois One will eventually come to massacre them, to restore itself, “in its most repugnant military forms.” Steps in this direction are already being taken in Trump’s administration, as already laws are being passed that will allow the elimination of dissenters among public employees. (I leave open here the massive question about how the lack of a politics of the people leads to the resurgence of nationalism and a refusal of liberal multiplicity.)

Although one must admit that the deleuzoguattarian creed of ‘becoming-imperceptible’ is not reducible to democratic pluralism, Badiou’s intent here is clearly not only polemic; it also has stakes for the people’s revolution. For him, affirmative multiplicity is essentially defined and defended in the shadow of a (bourgeois) One that makes possible their ‘play’ in the first place (D&G define a multiplicity as “n – 1”).  The difference at stake here is between a subtraction from the One that is content in its relative autonomy (its corner of existence, its minor revolt) and an antagnoistic division of or from the One that carries with itself a factor or index of unity. (To really grapple with this issue of the multitude, we should revisit the work of Antonio Negri, for whom communist collectivity is constituted through the living labor of a multitude of bodies, but such that “one world, one time” is constituted in antagonism to capitalism, because it is radically incompatible with its logic of command (cf. Time for Revolution). For Negri also the notion of multiplicity and desire alone is not enough: there must be a scission from the One of the capitalist whole and an indexing of work to the unity of communist temporality. At any rate, the question would never be about joining a collective; it is rather about indexing one’s work to a generic truth in its immanence.)

For example, orgies might liberate one from their individual desires and bring onthem e in contact with a more collective energy, what happens after it? What sense of antagonistic unity could be forged between disparate orgy cells? Or would this feeling of “communitas” dissolve without a “trace” to refer to except the memory of that ephemeral moment? I do not doubt that those who enjoy raves and dance parties and all that have the feeling of becoming-imperceptible. But in what way are these experiences ever indexted to a unified antagonistim against capitalism? At what point are they anything more than an ephemeral “minus”―an escape from Capital made possible only because, for a moment, one lets oneself forget that one is dancing and raving under its umbrella? Empirical considerations bear this out: this ethics of excess and vertigo is very much compatible with today’s capitalism and inspires no strong battlefront against it. At worst, it lets people who are just having fun for the fun of it tell themselves they’re doing something radical. The demand for the work is lost, precisely (which is not to suggest that D&G slacked in this regard; this analysis is about comprehending certain tendencies at play in thought and their uses, misuses, and abuses wherever they are detected in the world).

To summarize, Badiou’s enemy is the democratic fetish and the blind affirmation of all things multiple and different: the no-matter-what-expression as valuable, just for being expressed (Jean-Luc Nancy’s philosophy of finitude tends in this direction). Interestingly, this critique shares territory with American conservatives when they lament the “entitlement” society―not just when everybody gets rewarded for doing nothing, but also when no matter what a person does they get approved. The cliche: every kid’s fingerpainting is praised as beautiful because adults fear the kid will crumble if we don’t praise him or her. The attitude is also found in the self-approving mantra: we are all unique snowflakes, one-of-a-kind, etc. What is wrong with this? It takes the demand for truth off of existence. It makes one believe that being is sufficient without participating in a truth or in the creation of a work. It rests upon an idea of happiness as contentedness that neglects the register of joy, which is never “attained” without a challenge. Whoever finds being insufficent knows this. They learn to never believe more than once anything they have made, and this to the very degree that they have “poured their soul into it.” In command form: stop opening your mouth to say anything, stop paying attention to the trash that comes to you through the garbage can; use the spaces and times granted to you to construct a thought and action worth time; refuse the nihilism you have been taught is your freedom to be “yourself.”

It necessary to open our minds to something other than the “peaceful coexistence” of all, the affirmation of “whatever being,” the fetish of dialogue, democracy, and “sharing,” as well as the manic cult of immediacy―for results, for commentaries, for reactions, for indignation, for clever response, whatever. Instead we must understand the extent of the symbolic degradation of human life as it is effected by media; and we must begin the arduous process of inventing new practices and relationship to these technologies which to date have largely induced nothing but mental sedation. We must refuse to be “whatever being” and identify the false directions that leads us away from ourselves. We must encourage others, by example or through direction, to forms of life that, very simply, waste less of their time―forms of life whose energy is found, not in unbridled desire or immersion in the euphoria of the community-festival, but through a scission in the One itself―which means a radical separation from “all forms of bourgeois politics” (and it would be necessary to diagnose all these forms so as to achieve this separation in thought and practice). Above all, we should refuse to the greatest extent possible to let our time be flattened out and segmented by the various programmings and schedules. We should grant ourselves the space of our boredom and disinterest, passing through those uncertainties without finding relief in easy distractions. We should know that it takes time for a truth to be true, that answers will not come like revelations or cure-all positions. To the contrary: our “salvation” will only come in the form of long-term constructions that transform the very world in which they appear:

All radical politics will restore, in accordance with the infinite measure of the generic, the time to grow old needed for there to be truths, the time, Beckett says in Watt, ‘taken by the true to have been true’.

[All Badiou quotes from, “The Fascism of the Potato,” except for the final, “Commitment, Detachment, Fidelity,” both collected in The Adventure of French Philosophy (2012)]

―January 11, 2017

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