Monday, June 27, 2011

to have done with life (conference audio)

Vitalism and Antivitalism in Contemporary Philosophy: Zagreb, June 17-19, 2011
feat. Brassier & Malabou.  Full audio here

Thanks to Adrian / IMMANENCE for alerting me to the fact that the audio links were posted online.  Excerpts from the conference Introduction, below.


The being of “life” is a metaphysical problem because unless “life” is metaphysical it has no being: it is reducible to the material distribution of organizations and functions that  neither warrant nor support a general, encompassing concept. Every vitalist knows this, and that is why, for example, it at least makes sense to think that something like the Deleuzian concept of A LIFE may be the sine qua non of any coherent thinking of life. But, on the other hand, if “life” is purely metaphysical it has no being. Life is a physical problem because it is instantiated in material bodies whose properties and capacities differ from those of non-living bodies: even if, in certain instances, it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to specify just how this is the case.

The term “emergence” is the surest index of the doubly physical and metaphysical scope of this problem. The emergence of life, we say, and what we seem to mean by this is that we do not know exactly how—at exactly what point and in exactly what way—life came into being, though we do seem to know a great deal about its properties—including, supposedly, that it exists. The problem of “emergence” is that a modality of being came to be which was not before, and the difficulty is that tracking the physical causes of such an event leads to irresolvable aporia. And these aporia are too easily dissembled through reference to “complex, self-organizing processes,” as if we can at once account for and evade the radicality of the event we are trying to think by placing it within the same category as the formation of snowflakes, traffic patterns, or the activities of termite colonies. In its typical usage (the work of Stuart Kaufman, for example), the concept of “emergence” is a crypto-metaphysical concept pretending to offer physical explanations, at once allowing and accounting for gaps in the latter through reference to “complexity.”

The problem for biology, then, is that it is constantly on the cusp of either reduction to physical chemistry or ideological capture by metaphysics. The concept of “life” tends to get lost between explanations of biological organisms referring either to molecular interactions or to an irreducible systemic wholeness. And because it gets lost, it is prone to over-extension as the je ne sais quoi which accounts for the substance of the biological precisely through its indetermination.

Should we have done with life? If we deploy this concept as a means of pretending we know what we mean when we do not, then we probably should. And this is perhaps the dominant para-philosophical use of this concept today, as it is deployed by actor-network theory spin-offs and vitalist Spinozisms extolling the so-called “life of things.” As, for example, in the “vital materialism” of Jane Bennett.

But we cannot have done with life because it will not have done with us—until it does. In the meantime, it is a properly philosophical problem insofar as the self-evidence of its existence gives way onto the obscurity of its concept. The ethical and existential questions that it poses: “what is the good life?” or “what is it to live” are at the core of both ancient and modern philosophy. But there is a scission between these questions and the scientific and ontological question: “what is life?”

Within that scission, the life we do not know what it means to live demands to be thought.

To accede to this demand is to acknowledge that we do not know what death is. We do not know what extinction means. We do not know how affect, how feeling, how sensation came into the world. We do not what what sort of being it is that thinks or decides. We do not know what labors or suffers or revolts.


Read the full conference introduction