The Delightful Fellowship of Francois Laruelle

I was one of the participants at a 3+ hour workshop on Francois Laruelle held by Incite Seminars. The workshop was facilitated by Glenn Wallis who opened the session with a personal note about how he had first encountered Laruelle’s work and how that encounter has influenced his own projects, most notably (thus far) his book, The Critique of Western Buddhism. Glenn’s presentation and the general atmosphere of the workshop–co-created by the wonderful participants–were centered around the spirit of critique and skepticism, as well as the depotentialization and dismantlement of ideological frames/Worlds. These are consistent with Laruelle and non-philosophy but I wanted to write about another aspect of non-philosophy and its impact, which has over time become more important to me. This is what makes me go back to reading (struggling with) Laruelle. Why do I want the continuing companionship of Laruelle? Why do I want to continue practicing the balance, the ongoing resistance, the ongoing renewal that he attempts to embody in his writing.

Francois Laruelle (born 1937)

To hint at it very briefly, my theme has to do with a non-depression that Laruelle’s texts–and my conversations about Laruelle with Glenn, since June–slowly instigated. The questions that Laruelle’s work addresses for me include, not only the question of disillusionment with authority, but also the question of activity: What is left to do? After going through Psychology, x-psychology, discovering the authority/decision of psychology, the empty promises of psychology, I went through a phase in which I was disoriented and (more importantly for the present discussion) disheartened and discouraged. Psychology wasn’t what I had expected it to be. And it wasn’t what it had claimed to be.

After my disorientation phase (2014-2016), came an active critical phase (2016-2019), where I wrote my book Experimental Psychology & Human Agency and 3 related articles that illustrated the same problem: The over-reach and over-promising character of experimental psychology. The bait-and-switch of experimental psychology. My book (despite all its shortcomings and flaws) is, in my own view, full of life and energy. It is full of hope, playfulness, and critique. But after its publication, I went through a second period of disorientation. I lost my ability to transform my despair to playful (occasionally delightful) critique. I was disheartened again, especially because it had dawned on me that Psychology (due to its structure/identity as a self-preserving discipline) cannot and will not respond to my critique. The unresponsiveness of psychology to those issues was, after all, the foundation of my critique. Now I think that my conversion to heresy wasn’t yet completed. It was as if had “prayed” (a layer of prayer laying under my critique) to the gods of Psychology and I wanted them to respond and prove me wrong.

I started seeing a few citations to my book, all of which took the distant and evasive form of “There may be problems here, which are beyond our present scope, but for a critical discussion, see Gozli (2019)…” (these came from a few friends and colleagues who decided not to completely ignore my project). Such distant references keep the critique at an arm’s length, preventing a real encounter, and re-affirm the position, authority, (empty) promise, and sufficiency of experimental psychology.

The next phase came with finding Laruelle (through Glenn) and then finding Glenn (through Laruelle). What is important here isn’t primarily the discovery of a new intellectual position, but an orientation for the heart. It is about finding a new way to engage, to carry on, to affirm the Real, the Human, the Mystery, and Chaos. Laruelle’s fellowship–and, indeed, Glenn’s fellowship–is teaching me to be joyful again. I have gone back to reading psychological literature (now as material for experimentation). I think this comes from what/HOW Laruelle himself affirms, axiomatically, and where he directs his faith and loyalty. There is a loyalty to the One and to the inalienable Human. There is also a loyalty to the force-(of)-thought. That force-(of)-thought can be betrayed is an important clue.

It is possible to continue with/despite the empty promises of philosophy and psychology. In fact, we actively empty both philosophy and psychology from their (already empty) promises and discover HOW we ought to continue according-to-the-One precisely without the promise/harassment of an authority. We see what remains once these disciplines (now material) are emptied of their promises, from their teleology, from their doctrines of predestination. We see what remains to be discovered, what remains to be done, in the ruins.

The depression of disillusionment, in this way, slowly turns into a non-depression of (non)illusions, which seems inevitable with a continued loyalty to the force-(of)-thought. It is impossible for me to describe this transition in terms of an algorithmic. The more I write, the more I realize that the most significant parts are escaping my grasp. Do we become heretics following algorithms? Or do we first sense something that is off (seen-in-One) and then find a way of affirming it, say, by calling it heresy?

What is important to me is Laruelle’s demonstration that the (non)World of a heretic is not a barren desert. It is not a world of despair, a world of nothing-but-irony. It is, on the contrary, a rich and abundant world. It is a world where taking delight in lived experience, in being alive and being engaged with something (whatever/x/-…) doesn’t require the permission or instructions of a master, within a Master Discourse. The possibility of taking delight is simply there, simply given, though seeing it requires an initial non-seeing (or seeing the non-).

Let me end with a paragraph from Philosophy & Non-Philosophy (Laruelle, 1989 translated by T. Adkins, 2013, p. 27). This paragraph is helpful in dissociating the spirit of non-philosophy from that of deconstruction, as well as hinting at the “aim” of non-philosophy.

Whereas deconstructions work out and moderate philosophical critique, but still practice it and claim to know an author better than he knows himself; whereas they practice the gentle war of suspicion, of the “destructive ordeal,” of crafty interpretation, the violence of placing-in-structure and sometimes in series; whereas they detect presuppositions, the unthought, the unsaid and turn this critique into the dominant part of their activity, non-philosophy no longer utilizes critique as its main activity. It treats philosophy in the most positive and most actual way possible, undoubtedly as simple material deprived of authority over itself, as sterile chaos, but without resentment or interminable strategy and in the actuality of its accomplished exhibition. If non-philosophy still has a “goal,” it is immanent, i.e. to produce non-philosophical possibilities within philosophy. It is a question of “extracting” them directly from the material itself, of making this material serve as their production or manifestation. This is a creative task, an activity which is open by definition rather than by accident or supplementarity.

Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott)

In a recent trip to the nearby bookstore, I bought two books. One of them is Terry Eagleton’s How to Read Literature and the other is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I just decided to right-click and to add “Lamott” to my browser’s dictionary, not just because I was irritated to see it underlined as a possible typo, but also because of how much I loved her and her book. Even if I never write her name again, I want her name to be part of my (browser’s) dictionary.

I loved reading this wonderful book and my love for the book extended to my love for her, the author, for having written such a book. The book is about writing, but writing seems to become something else along the way: An excuse to communicate about more important topics. In some ways, this is similar to how people use “coffee” when they invite someone on a date. We want to love and be loved, but it is bad manners–not to mention risky–to talk about that early on, so we use “coffee” instead. Coffee plays the role of an excuse quite well, no matter how much some of us enjoy coffee qua coffee. Coffee qua date is something else. At the same time, no matter how poorly the date goes, you can at least enjoy the coffee. The coffee itself, coffee qua coffee, taken out of (its first) context (and viewed from within different contexts), as a little celebration, as a reminder of your intact health that allows for coffee drinking, and as a reminder of your persistent faith in love and taking chances.

Questions about writing, at least in parts of Bird by Bird, take the role of coffee on the first date. The date is related to the coffee, though it isn’t. The date is enabled, expressed, and materialized by the coffee. Coffee connects us or initiates our connections. In a similar way, while we read Lamott’s reflections on writing, writing fades into the background and we see her. We see her humanity and compassion. We see her insistence on celebrating, laughing about, and writing about our flaws, our misguided longings, our stubborn insistence on seeking solutions in wrong places. All that can be guided gently with, among other things, writing.

We write to learn, to practice commitment, to embody discipline, to discover and show self-compassion, to be free, to connect to each other, to communicate, to love, to make each other laugh, and to keep alive the mysteries of being in the universe.

Let me go back, once again briefly, to the comparison between writing and coffee. Enjoying and appreciating coffee, paying attention to coffee (and not all our other worries), not demanding too much from coffee, are all parts of an art. The art of being present. Lamott writes beautifully about being present. About the innocence of presence, the openness and vulnerability of presence. She writes about being present as a writer. But being present as a writer requires first being present as a human being. Writing requires being–or moving in the direction of being–soulful.

I forgot to mention that after coming back from the bookstore I first began reading Eagleton’s book, and I enjoyed it. But after about 20 pages I put it down and moved to something else. When I finally picked up Lamott’s book, I couldn’t put it back down (Ok, I did put it down for a moment to write a quick note of excitement about the book to my friend, Gairan). Lamott writes so well, so lovingly, so generously. At no point she asks to be praised as the great teacher of creative writing, as the heroine of the book. There is no pretense. No salesmanship. No talking down to the reader.

The way she talks about her close friends (neurotic, wounded, broken, jealous, …) is similar to how she talks about herself, both full of understanding and compassion and even reverence. She shows masterfully how reverence, self-respect, and love cannot come from denying our limits (or telling ourselves that we’ll transcend them the moment we receive our well-deserved fame and fortunate). Reverence, instead, comes out of nurturing the right relationship with our limits and finding, among all the limits, an innocent core that truly deserves love.

[T]he acknowledgement that in the midst of ourselves there is still a good part that hasn’t been corrupted and destroyed, that we can tap into and reclaim, is most assuring.

That’s from p. 106. On the following page we read:

To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to come to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.

The project of being a writer is inseparably tied to the project of being a person. At the center of this project lays self-compassion. Without self-compassion, Lamott tells us, writing well (about anything or anyone else) is impossible.

By the end of the book, the whole topic of writing is re-arranged and re-framed in our minds. We come to see writing as absolutely 100% about writing, separated from fame, fortune, or even being published. Writing is its own reward. When sufficiently cultivated as a domain within your life, it becomes an unending source of wonder and amazement, play and practice, patience and surprise, repetition and discovery. It would, therefore, be fair to say that, although writing is absolutely 100% about writing, it is at the same time an excuse. (Better: a medium, a method, a path). It is, and it isn’t, about the “coffee”. What matters the most (i.e., our slow, step-by-step, bird-by-bird movement toward being soulful) is enabled, expressed, materialized by what might present itself, at first, as an excuse.

My Days in Leiden

During the year I spent in Leiden (2015-16) I did almost nothing that would count as academic productivity. In fact I cannot think of any other postdoctoral researcher, who I have met or have heard of, less productive than me during that year.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have ideas. I had many ideas, enough to keep a team of 4-5 students busy. But I no longer identified with the ideas. The ideas were coming from a place that now seemed foreign.

The first indication of my growing detachment was my loss of appetite for article writing. Data set after data set were being collected. And I simply couldn’t write a new article. I knew how to write articles. The process had become somewhat algorithmic. But I couldn’t go through the motions of the algorithm. I still revised and resubmitted older work, but writing new ones felt unnecessary, unpleasant, un…something . It was like eating when you’re too full. The result is nausea. So I decided to take my lost appetite seriously. Soon after the loss of writing appetite, I began dismissing those ideas at earlier stages.

I imagine this must be similar to how an actor, say, Steve Carrell feels like after playing the character Michael Scott for so many years. He is good at it, sure. He can continue, easily. But he is also bothered by the gap between himself (Steve) and the role (Michael). Not that I want to compare myself to the great and masterful Steve Carrell, but I think there is similarity in the forms of discontent, the lost appetite, and the nausea.

But I was still writing. Quietly. Invisibly. And, of course, “unproductively”. For a period of few months I wrote every evening after coming home from the university. I wrote about my uneasiness. About missing my friends and family in Toronto. About the emptiness and uselessness of my doctoral dissertation, and for that matter, most of academic psychology. About the new fads and trends in academic psychology and how I couldn’t care any less. I also wrote about my new discoveries, including the field(s) of theoretical psychology, which gave me much hope at the time. I wrote about the new writers I was slowly discovering. Amedeo Giorgi, Fiona Hibberd, Jan Smedslund, and many more.

Writing allowed me to see and think more clearly, and to be able to make small day-to-day decisions.

I kept writing in a document that I named MyDaysinLeiden.docx. The writing had practical consequence. It was that writing that helped me stay “unproductive”. It was that writing that helped me decide to leave Leiden. It was that writing that allowed me to write and re-write, “Behaviour versus performance” (which essentially signaled a change in my career path, away from a cookie-cutter “experimental psychologist”). It helped me gain the capacity to say goodbye to a former role that had become alienating and suffocating.

The other night I opened the document again after almost 5 years, looking at My Days in Leiden. It contains over 40,000 words. I am not sure what to do with it. But I might spend some time with it, maybe looking at it with the eyes of an editor and asking if I can find something “worthwhile” in it. The question of public worth is difficult and requires being a little more presumptuous (or imaginative?).

I searched a bit in my email for photos from those days to add to this post. And I also found this email sent to a friend:

July 4, 2016

Your fourth and last postcard to Leiden arrived today. I have exactly 6 more weeks left before my departure. As I was biking to work this morning, I started thinking what “6 more weeks” means.

It means 6 more Monday-to-Friday at my office at FSW in Leiden University, 6 more trips to the laundromat near my building, 6 more trips to the grocery store (Albert Heijn). It means having around 6 more dinner with my friends/colleagues here, around 6 more walking conversations with my good friends Bruno, Roberta, and Bryant, and 2 more meetings of the reading group I have organized here. It means 1 more haircut at my usual hair salon near Leiden Central Station, preparing 3-4 lectures for my courses in the coming fall semester. And it means adding a few more paragraphs to my writing collection, My Days in Leiden.

These are the “solid metronomes of the human spirit”. I have developed them in the past 9-10 months. I am mesmerized by the gentle swings of these little metronomes. I surf on them, emotionally. When I am tired or unmotivated, they simply push me forward. Leaving Leiden feels like a part of my heart is getting removed, which might have the fortunate effect of leaving me a little less sentimental. These days, I am relying more and more on the automatic movements of the metronomes that I have already – thankfully – set in motion.

Yours, Davood