What the Hell is Invariant Vitalism?

I’m sure some of you were thinking this after you read my post below. It is a fair enough question and so I’m going to give a sketch of what this might mean, with lots of reference to Renaud Barbaras’ remarkable book Desire and Distance: An Introduction to a Phenomenology of Desire.

From a phenomenological standpoint, and here I am bracketing the very question of how the subject thinking thinks the object outside (or ‘correlationism’), there is always an invariant that is contrasted with movement. Following upon the work done by Husserl in his fragment ‘The originary ark, the earth, does not move’ (described delightfully described as a ‘subversion of the Copernican thesis’) and that of Merleau-Ponty in his lecture course ‘Husserl at the Limits of Phenomenology’, Barbaras goes on to say that the invariant contrasted with bodily movement is grasped as the world and not as a thing. I should note here that I’ve tried to make a big deal about the difference (and co-implication) of world and earth, and it is here where such a notion may actually be helpful. One thing I like about this is that it fosters a better notion of nature than what we normal get when we posit something beyond nature, or the ‘non-natural’. Both the world and the earth are natural, whereas one is constructed and the other is the material for that construction. (Is my thinking here not exactly terracentric? Yes, yes it is. Perhaps a problem. We will see.) Now, I think this differentiation may be of interest to Barbaras because he goes on to tell us that the phenomenological reduction is ultimately a critique of pure nothingness and the principle of sufficient reason (encapsulated in the question why is there something rather than nothing?). Now, this is interesting in and of itself and I’ve written on it elsewhere, but it also opens up to the question of what do we have then if we bracket the world, which can be bracketed because it’s being is conditional, whereas the being of the earth is not conditional but neither is it fully positive.

Barbaras’ goes on to show how this negation of pure nothingness opens up to the notion of ‘being-at-a-distance’. He believes this moves beyond the shortcomings of thinking being as a play between positive being and negative nothingness. Being-at-a-distance is indebted to the Bergsonian transfer of ontological positivity to duration what traditional metaphysics had accorded to essence. What Barbaras adds to this is a kind of Deleuzian notion of desire. Desire, for Barbaras, does not refer to a lack, but this does not then mean that desire is complete, rather it is always referred to an originary incompleteness. Which is to say, when we say that desire does not lack we are saying that nothing can fulfil it. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, we can describe this incompleteness as fullness following on fullness evidenced by the fact that we do not experience pure nothingness.

So, back to invariant vitalism. What Barbaras goes on to do with these notions is bestow upon life the properity of subject or that which can act (and here this complicates his correlationist tendencies since the world itself also acts, leading him to posit that the only true cosmology would be a cosmobiology). The very heart of subjectivity is desire, the being-incomplete, and desire is always a desire for the world, which is to say for a continuation of experience. No longer can the world/earth simply be said to be the invariant of perception, for something lies even behind both world and earth. The name of this is being-incomplete which is the invariant principle – or life. Which is to say that the invariance of this vitalism, or the notion that there is something pushing material forward that is not reducible to mechanics, is this being-at-a-distance or being-incomplete of the world soul and organism of the earth (two heteroaffective modalities of life).

I think this lays out a pretty decent sketch of what I’m getting at here. I’ve simplified much of Barbaras here, which is unfortunate as his account of motion or life as motion is also interesting. But there seems to be a lack of consistency in some of his account, partly due to his charting a course between Husserl and Bergson via Merleau-Ponty. I’m sure my own paper will suffer from this lack due to its coordinates.

9 thoughts on “What the Hell is Invariant Vitalism?

  1. why is there something rather than nothing?

    I think from now on, my answer to this question is going to be: “There isn’t.”

    (I give this lame response because you’ve journeyed into areas far beyond my competency to comment upon.)

  2. Anthony, thanks for this.

    I had a friend who studied with Barbaras, who’s apparently an incredible teacher. (For what it’s worth.)

    One other thing (regarding cosmobiology): one of Brassier’s critiques of vitalism seems to be the way Deleuze, while extending thought beyond the domain of the human subject, still considers only biology and not physics. Whether or not this is the case, the question i had was whether this Deleuzian move could be extended, then, to physics and not just biology. In other words, is the problem with “vitalism” that it ignores physics in the name of biology, or is there something more essential to its logic that’s the problem? I wasn’t sure.

  3. Well in Brassier’s Collapse piece he does seem to be saying that the ‘arche-fossil’ come before life, by which he means biological life. I do think Deleuze’s vitalism could be extended to physics by way of Schelling, but I’m either not read up enough on this to show how or too stupid to get it. At the same time I am against this kind of belief that physics is the ultimate science and think the interview in the same Collapse issue with Trotta is interesting on this. He says at the end that it is not the job of science to explain the nature of the universe, but to give a consistent model. I think there is something quite right to this and I wish more science drunk philosophers would actually listen to a few non-Big Science scientists on the way they understand their own work. Not that I think Brassier is a complete scientistic thinker, but there are certainly currents of that in what I’ve read.

    But to the second part of the question, it does seem that for Brassier there is something more essential to the logic of vitalism that is the problem. Quite simply he thinks that life is a ‘magic term’. Or how Julian Huxley, one of the scientists who brought about the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology, characterized Bergson’s elan vital: is no better an explanation of life than is explaining the operation of a railway engine by élan locomotif. For Brassier it doesn’t seem to be a problem of exlaining life, but of realizing that life is, ultimately, nothing.

  4. I keep being drawn back to the chapter in Totality and Infinity titled “The Phenomenology of Eros”; and then, necessarily, to Irigaray’s critique of the same. The notion of desire as “fullness upon fullness”, a plenitude that does not suffice (and so come to a halt) but continually evanesces and renews itself, is very much what Levinas is getting at in this section; and the gendering of the figures he uses to make his argument is I think just as significant as Irigaray says it is.

    If one wanted to be cute, one could attempt to frame this non-halting of desire in terms of the noncomputability of the real (that is, with reference to Turing’s Entscheidungsproblem); but this I leave as an exercise for the reader…

  5. hi Anthony,

    Was scouting about for some comments on Quentin Meillassoux and I discovered your “The Mother of God – the Damp Earth”. I was very intrigued, and pleased that you had used Barbaras to counter what you have called the neo-rationalist trend.

    I am heading off to Paris (from New Zealand), next year to commence a doctorate with Barbaras. I am very excited by his work, and believe that the future direction he is taking( after his latest “Introduction to a Phenomenology of Life” ) in which he will look more closely at the question of what sort of world is the world that responds to a subject that is desire, will be of even more relevance to the subject of your enquiry.

    Just one little note on your comparison to Barbars’s notion of desire to that of Deleuze. In a very recent interview (Dec 8)in the journal Actu Philosophia,
    Barbaras is clear to distinguish his notion of desire from that of Deleuze, which he sees as one of pure affirmation, whereas, as you have rightly indicated, Barbaras’s notion of desire is not lack of something specific, but, as he notes, using Rilke, in his latest book, a desire for the Open, a desire for that which can never be fulfilled.

  6. Thanks for the comment. The piece I actually wrote was disappointing for me as I don’t think I delivered on what I set out. It’s something I’ve still been tarrying with a good deal and that I hope to take another attempt at in the second chapter of my PhD. I’ve written two presentations now on Meillassoux, the first one presents a critique of him poorly but might be more interesting in the way it tries to construct invariant vitalism, and the second presents a much stronger critique of Meillassoux that nevertheless challenges my own construction of invariant vitalism.

    I have to say, though, that I think I disagree with his formulation of desire in Deleuze. The two really can complement one another well. For Deleuze, I think anyway, desire is pure affirmation, yes, but pure affirmation is production. Production in Deleuze is never complete and this is what lends itself both to territorialization in capitalism and the deterritorialization of capitalism. If we combine this with desire in Barbaras’ philosophy I wonder if we don’t get something very interesting as a kind of production of the Open. This obviously accords well with both figures use of Bergson (which I’m interested in generally, contemporary Bergsonism that is, from Deleuze to Barbaras to Mullarkey), but also has interesting things to say in general.

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