Today’s New APPS interview is with Levi Bryant, Professor of Philosophy at Collin College. He blogs at Larval Subjects.
Thanks for doing this interview with us today, Levi. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
I suppose that for me the pain of philosophy is when it is absent. Klossowski’s Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle has always resonated deeply with me as my thought goes through various rhythms of intensity and withdrawal. I go through periods where no thought comes to me. At such times I feel as if I’m dead and I’m unable to do much beyond sleep and eat. The world becomes pale and gray. At other times thoughts come with great intensity and it’s all I can do to get them out. I quite literally experience these periods in my body. My heart races, there’s a certain breathlessness, I find myself pacing back and forth quite a bit. Peirce talks about how signs literally grow like a plant, and that’s exactly what it feels like. One idea leads to another and suddenly there’s a torrent of words. Strangely, despite the amazing enjoyment such periods give me, I also find them acutely painful. It’s as if I have to find ways to subdue myself or I’ll burn up.
How do you experience solitary study and writing?
I don’t really think of philosophy as a solitary activity. I’m not even sure if I’m the one doing the philosophy. In Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari talk about a schizophrenic unconscious that’s haunted by a sort of glossolalia. It’s filled with all sorts of tribes, national myths, history, discourses, images, expressions, and so on. This seems right. I’m often unsure as to just why I have certain things in my head or where they came from. I experience them as if they came from elsewhere. They’re snippets of philosophy that I’ve read, television documentaries, newspapers, novels, films, and so on. I just try to pass them along a little. I gave up trying to be original long ago. To me it seems that the moment you strive to be original nothing happens. Originality is always retroactive. Instead I’ve authorized myself to repeat, to share what I’ve found beautiful, fascinating, frightful, and so on. I want others with whom I can discuss these things and share them.
So there’s already quite a crowd, to quote the beginning of A Thousand Plateaus. What about upping the ante and collaborations between people who are already multiple?
Apart from that sort of impersonal unconscious, engagement with others is a key component of all my thought and work. It’s always a question of finding ways to keep your machines running. Even novelists, artists, and philosophers dream of inventing perpetual motion machines. The difference for us is that it is a question of creating a writing machine within ourselves that would allow us to endlessly generate new texts. I find that my machines break down in periods of little or no engagement with others. I’m unable to think alone. It’s as if my encounters with others are fluxes of energy that enable everything to run. For this reason, vacations are terrible for me. I fall into a deep and black depression when I’m not teaching. I need my students to think and seem only to think in response to my students.
And with blogging? You’re one of the most active philosophical bloggers out there.
Yes, for sure, the same is true with blogging. My encounters with others on the blog are a perpetual stimulus to thought. Their difference becomes a generative principle that stimulates me to theorize. Without those encounters nothing would take place at all. Yet blogging also provided me with a venue for thought outside of the academy. For a long time I had difficulty writing articles or submitting presentations. I’m not sure why this was. I suppose that I didn’t feel existentially committed to the sort of work I was doing in those venues, as if I was making professionally calculated decisions designed to advance my career rather than truly engaging with philosophy. If we think of the academy as a communication system in the Luhmannian sense, then it seemed to me that the channels of communication were already pre-defined and one was required to select among doing work on Deleuze, Derrida, Heidegger, etc, without necessarily doing philosophy. Such would be the lesson of Lacan’s discourse of the university and Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus. The academy is an inherently conservative institution that aims, as Lacan’s discourse of the university suggests, at replicating itself. In this regard, it’s difficult to imagine a Spinoza or Leibniz arising at the center of the academy today. The internet provided me with a venue where I could work without these considerations while still engaging my love of the history of philosophy. It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily describe the reality of the academy, but my fantasy of what the academy as big Other desires. Blogging has helped me to traverse that fantasy.
What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
I wish I had a routine, but it seems my machines just don’t work that way. Following Nietzsche, I don’t really think we have ideas, but rather that ideas happen to us. That said, there are ways that I try to jump-start my machines. In a number of ways, I believe that philosophy has suffered by becoming a discipline. If you look at the history of philosophy prior to the 19th century, it was almost always an endeavor secondary to the primary endeavors of the philosophers. We had the great scholastics who were primarily Church Fathers. Leibniz was more a diplomat, historian, and engineer than a professional philosopher. Spinoza ground his lenses. Hume was a lawyer and a historian. Epictetus was a slave, while Marcus Aurelius was an emperor. Descartes was a physicist, mathematician, and biologist; not to mention a military man. Examples could be multiplied.
Yes, but can’t you do that even when you earn your living in a university?
Yes, but the key point seems to me that philosophy is something that happens in relation to philosophy’s others. Additionally, I think it’s important to look at the negative feedback loops that structure the university. It’s important to remember that the academy is not simply a set of disciplines, but also a system and set of institutions governed by all sorts of feedback loops. In this regard, power resides in how departments are structured, as well as the editorial boards of journals and presses. Additionally, there are the committees that structure conferences. All of these agencies function as selection machines—Deleuze and Guattari’s first articulation in their concept of double articulation –that steer scholarship in particular directions and ensure that particular content is reproduced across time. This makes it very difficult for a particular sort of work to get done in the academy… Which isn’t to say that it is impossible for such work to be done, just difficult.
Returning to the theme of philosophy and its others, I believe that philosophy always requires an outside that provides it with its raw matter. Philosophy seems to occur in periods of profound social, political, economic, technological, artistic, and technological change. Such change challenges our understanding of the world and requires a meta-analysis for us to get our bearings. Philosophy strives to think, I believe, the present and that which is most vital and singular in the present.
A very Badiouan point.
Yes, there’s a strange way in which philosophy is without an object of its own. This is why so many of us within the discipline of philosophy have so much anxiety over the question of just what philosophy is. By transforming philosophy into a discipline, we’ve brought to the fore the manner in which it is objectless. As a consequence, philosophy increasingly ends up meditating on its history like a snake devouring its own tail.
Hmm. Not sure I’d go all the way with you on that.
Well, of course, I am not suggesting that we should reject or disavow the history of philosophy. That’s both impossible as time has an irreversible arrow and counter-productive as the history of philosophy is a source of constant inspiration. What I am targeting is a culture of commentary that arose in continental philosophy during the 80s and 90s in Continental philosophy departments where philosophers turned primarily to speaking about philosophers and where we ceased speaking in our own proper name. This occurred, of course, for institutional reasons. McCumber does a good time analyzing these reasons in Time in a Ditch. The past had to be preserved in the face of an increasingly militarized and bureaucratized institutional space. However, philosophy, in the Anglo-American world, largely halted during this time.
The point is not to reject the history of philosophy, but rather is a question of how the history of philosophy is put to work. In “Signature Event Context” Derrida speaks of how fragments can always be detached from signifying chains and grafted elsewhere. The history of philosophy is a wealth of concepts, arguments, and lines of flight. These should perpetually be renewed but in such a way that philosophical thought remains a meditation on the being of the world, not a commentary on a philosopher.
Returning, then, to the question of daily practices, I find that the last place I look to stimulate my machines are philosophical texts. A return to philosophical texts only comes later. Rather, I believe it’s necessary to look to that which is outside philosophy to get these machines running. Thus I spend a lot of time reading about mathematics, various sciences (especially biology and physics), ethnography and sociology, literature, and watching documentaries. These encounters provide the alterity, it seems, to get the machines of theory and concept-building running.
But then don’t you want to, while you’re constructing concepts, get back to the great philosophers with eyes freshened by that reading of philosophy’s others?
Absolutely. One doesn’t wish to reinvent the wheel, but it’s also worth recalling evolutionary theory’s point that often organs can be put to work in ways wildly divergent from the function they originally embodied. Lungs, for example, might have originally been air sacks an organism used to float and only later took on the function of respiration machines. What we need to be cautious about, I believe, is the tendency to reterritorialize the history of philosophy back on its original conceptual functions in the history of philosophy. This is part of the problem with the culture of commentary. Autopoietically it functions to reproduce the work of the history of philosophy under the logic of the same, preventing it from functioning elsewhere and in new ways.
How did you come to study philosophy?
I began studying philosophy around my third year of high school. Prior to that I had gone through a difficult time. I failed my second year of high school as a result of lost love and the school burning down. It was a very dark time in my life and I was engaging in a number of self-destructive behaviors. My family even kicked me out of our home for a time and I was homeless. I discovered both philosophy and writing on the tail end of this adventure. While I had always been a contemplative child, at the time I was looking, I suppose, to heal and cure myself. Philosophy seemed like a promising way to do this. During this time I discovered William James, Nietzsche, Whitehead, Spinoza, Descartes, Heidegger, Husserl, Sartre, and a number of others. I also began reading Freud, ethnography, and a lot of history and literature (especially Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Orwell, and Hesse). I had always felt that school was a sort of conspiracy designed not so much to educate as to indoctrinate. Philosophy gave me direction, allowing me to see the value in education. Descartes and Spinoza especially, in their methodological writings provided me with a unified picture of the humanities, mathematics, and the sciences. As a consequence, I became interested in everything. I was especially interested in the Holocaust and totalitarianism, wondering how these sorts of social assemblages could possibly arise and how we could prevent them from ever happening again.
What about your childhood, prior to this time, which sounds positively harrowing?
During my childhood we moved around quite a bit. We seldom lived anywhere longer than four years. I sometimes think this is also something that led me to philosophy. When you move around a lot you lose any sense of a familiar and reliable lifeworld. Every place is different. They all have different customs, different rhythms of life, different understandings of the world, and so on. As a result, you become a sort of void. Philosophy, I think, can be seen as an attempt to build a lifeworld. On the one hand, because you’ve lived in so many different lifeworlds and in so many different socio-economic fields, you become extremely attentive to the dynamics of lifeworlds and custom. On the other hand, you’re never quite able to inhabit any of them. It’s always as if there are ghostly norms governing how people live in a particular area, without you quite being able to discern what they might be. No wonder I became an ontologist with a deep passion for social and political theory and psychoanalysis.
So while we often joke that high school is hell, for you that’s a little too close to the truth?
I honestly didn’t think I would live through high school. I figured I’d be dead by the age of 18. Perhaps part of this dread lay in witnessing the lives of others and the dreary world of corporate America. At any rate, philosophy saved me. Once I got to undergrad (Ohio State), I was like a kid in a candy store. I graduated with 116 credit hours in philosophy (each course was worth 3 credits), taking a variety of courses in the history of philosophy, Continental thought, and Anglo-American philosophy. I wanted to devour everything.
We both went to the same grad school, Loyola Chicago.
Yes, I had the same voracity at Loyola, although there I was able to pursue my passion for Continental thought much more directly. Andrew Cutrofello, Patricia Huntington, and Adrian Peperzak were all decisive influences on my thought. Cutrofello taught me how to be creative in a rigorous way (I hope), and also guided me through the intricacies of Kant’s three critiques and writings on nature. Peperzak taught me the art of close reading and filled me with a healthy appreciation for the history of philosophy. Patricia Huntington taught me a tremendous amount about the social sciences, political philosophy, psychoanalysis, and feminism and gender studies.
What about your dissertation?
The story behind that is rather funny. I wrote my dissertation by mistake. I had been studying Deleuze since undergrad. When it came time to write my master’s thesis I sat down and started writing. That summer about four hundred pages came out. My advisors told me that this was a dissertation, not a thesis, and suggested that I put it on a shelf and write a master’s thesis. At that point I turned to Husserl, Peirce, and Derrida. Basically I ended up writing my master’s thesis after my dissertation. My dissertation would later become my first book, Difference and Givenness, which focuses on Difference and Repetition.
During this whole time I was dragging my feet. Difference and Givenness went up on a shelf and collected dust. Months dragged on as I worked The Sign-Structure of Being. I think oddly I was doing everything I could not to graduate. Loyola would have none of it. Oddly my Master’s arrived in the mail one day before I had defended Sign-Structure—there must have been a mix-up with the paper work as a result of Difference and Givenness –and I was forced into action to finish up. I defended Sign-Structure and a few months later defended the work on Deleuze. The big Other wanted me out of there, I suppose.
But you’re no longer only a Deleuze scholar -- not that there’s anything wrong with that!
That’s a difficult question. I continue to write articles on Deleuze. Moreover, Deleuze influences and pervades all of my independent thought. My variant of object-oriented ontology could variously be called a Deleuzian object-oriented ontology or cybernetic object-oriented ontology. Difference and Givenness was my attempt to make sense of the text of Deleuze’s thought. In certain respects, The Democracy of Objects could be said to be my interpretation of Deleuze’s thought. It is the proposal of an ontology that outlines what Deleuze would have to be for me to embrace his thought. In this connection, I think I’ve moved much closer to Deleuze’s collaborative work with Guattari—where the concept of “machine” and detachable entities in assemblages are far more sympathetic to OOO –than my earlier work.
At any rate, throughout graduate school I increasingly felt constrained by the manner in which Continental philosophy had evolved as an institution in the States. On my spare time I was reading biology, the social sciences, and a number of others things outside philosophy voraciously. Yet I felt as if there was little outlet for these things in the world of philosophy as it was then practiced. Fortunately things are beginning to change now.
As odd as it sounds, however, I don’t think my first book was my first breakout piece. In many respects, I think my breakout publication has been The Speculative Turn. Yes, yes, I know, it’s an edited collection, not a book or an article. However, putting together The Speculative Turn was a transformative event in my life and thought. This collection led me to formulate my own philosophical positions in ways that I hadn’t been doing before and led me to think of myself as a philosopher rather than simply a scholar. The last two years have been quite a ride. In retrospect I’ve been amazed at how contingent or chance driven it’s all been.
What about the institutional setting of your work?
Although I landed interviews at a number of places, my first position was at Collin County Community College. For the last six years I’ve had a teaching load of 5/5. In many respects, I believe this has been a good fit for me. I wanted a position where I would have a good deal of academic freedom. I didn’t want to get locked in a position where I had to be the “Deleuze guy” or the “post-structuralism guy”. This position has been a good fit given my multi-disciplinary temperament. Because of the low emphasis on research, I’ve been able to pursue all the interests I have without being locked in one area. I think this has enriched my work a great deal.
I’m asking this of everyone. How do you negotiate the continental / analytic “divide” – or whatever the right term is?
I really don’t find myself thinking about the analytic/continental divide. For me there is just philosophy. Some of the philosophers I’m in dialogue with happen to have an Anglo-American orientation, others have a Continental orientation. When I think of my own work, I don’t really think of my audience as consisting of philosophers—to be honest I often find them to be an irritating and provincial bunch –but rather those working in cultural studies, art, politics, and the social sciences. In that context, you really just don’t hear much about the analytic/continental divide. This is one of the benefits of teaching at the community college level. I just don’t have to worry about such things all that much as I’m doing my own thing. If it brings me some recognition, great, but otherwise I’m largely just left alone.
Sounds pretty good.
Let’s not be too sanguine about it. I do believe this divide has had real consequences for my professional life. Institutionally the dominance of analytic philosophy in the United States makes it very difficult for Continental philosophers to land positions. This is especially true of people such as myself that work on figures like Deleuze and Lacan, who are marginal even in Continental philosophy departments.
Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Where are you now? Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
At present, I’m still at Collin College. As for core ideas, that’s always, I think, difficult to say. It seems to me that we never really know the ideas that we have. Rather, others seem much better judges of whether or not and what ideas we might have than ourselves. With that said, I think my key idea is probably the role that relations play in the genesis of the qualities objects possess. This is really what fascinates me: the manner in which things manifest themselves in different ways depending on the contexts in which they’re embedded. I call this phenomenon “local manifestation”, while I refer to these contexts as “regimes of attraction”. I’m particularly interested in how shifts in regimes of attraction might help to produce emancipatory possibilities. I think about objects as being inherently “elastic”, such that they are topological machines or dynamic systems that are perpetually confronting the problem of entropy or dissolution in the order of time. Moreover, these objects exist at all levels of scale and must constantly (re)produce themselves in the order of time. For me the Coca Cola corporation is no less an object than a rock or a quark. These entities aren’t static clods, but are perpetually reproducing themselves and changing in the order of time. Rather than substances in which predicates inhere, it would be better to think of them as organized acts or activities, which are not unlike Leibniz’s monads. Above all, I’ve tried to embrace a posthumanist perspective that no longer treats objects as always having an anthropocentric reference as what is opposed to a subject. Subjects too are a type of object. I believe this understanding of entities shifts the manner in which a number of questions are posed.