In Defense of Speculative Leftism: Benjamin’s Porous Subject

The current essay aims to draw Benjamin’s early speculative philosophy of experience into a conversation with a trajectory within present-day continental philosophy that the editors of the anthology, The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, refer to as “the speculative turn.” As the editors note, much of the research of the speculative turn does not absolutely reject the advances of critical philosophy so much as acknowledge and confront “their inherent limitations.” Ground zero for this confrontation is Kant’s critical philosophy. For Kant, experience is “structured by a priori categories and forms of intuition that comprise the necessary and universal basis for all knowledge. Yet the price to be paid for securing this basis is the renunciation of any knowledge beyond how things appear to us.”[1]

A political theory based on a speculative intervention into Kantian experience confronts us with difficulties, particularly from the position of a political left confronted over the last 40 years with emerging forms of political ideologies and political institutions that have been reconfigured to mirror so-called market logic. A theory of speculative politics must be able to meet the difficult challenges posed by the contemporary neoliberal political-market landscape, dominated as it seems to be by the ideology of neoliberalism,[2] the political economy of speculative finance and what Élie Ayache refers to as the  “absolute contingency” and “place process” of the market.[3] Frank Ruda notes that Quentin Meillassoux’s alleged post-Kantian non-correlative speculative realist philosophy finds its political-economic counterpart in Ayache’s ontological contingency of speculative marketization.[4] Politics as Kantian representation is distorted and challenged, if not resoundingly rejected, by the specter of a totalized market contingency. This is not simply a right-wing promotion or adherence to old-fashioned market values as it is an untethering of values and a speculative radicalization of financial market ideology that appears to race ahead of even capitalism’s abilitity to be cognized in any meaningful way.

There is a danger, if not a tendency, for many on the radical political left to fall into what Alain Badiou refers to as “speculative leftism,” which is “any thought of being which bases itself upon the theme of an absolute commencement.”[5] Speculative leftism’s insistence on “absolute novelty” is, for Badiou, politically and philosophically naïve precisely because it “fails to recognize that the real of the conditions of possibility of intervention is always the circulation of an already decided event.”[6] The speculative left imagines that it can exempt itself from representation or somehow step outside of the entrenched problems of politics as a form of representation. It envisions politics as an immediate experience. Bruno Bosteels notes that it “ignores the fact that every force is necessarily determined by a system of assigned places in which it finds its space.” This type of radical leftism “involves a reified external opposition, one as radical as it is politically inoperative,” Bosteels argues.[7] For Badiou, this always amounts to little more than “subversive arm-pumping.”[8]

Continental philosophy and critical political theory’s dogged refusal to acknowledge its limitations, if not its impotence, in the face of these challenges has caused them to lag behind real world changes in how politics is understood and practiced. If we accept Badiou’s critique of speculative leftism, which he associates most polemically with Deleuzean philosophy and its intellectual heirs, then considering a political theory of speculative experience that avoids the problems of absolute commencement and absolute contingency is a challenging endeavor, indeed.

I argue that the central concept of porosity in Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis’ brief co-authored essay, “Naples”, gives us a way to not only think of how to distort or transform the finitude of Kantian experience but also gives us a concept by which to consider a delimited experience of speculative immanence as a political theory that is neither wholly contingent nor necessary but keeps transcendence and immanence bound together. (The interventionist project that I pursue in this blog is to flesh out this line of thinking).

It is Benjamin’s speculative intervention into the “Kantian prohibition” on the uncognized or non-cognizable that gives the concept of porosity force in Benjamin’s political theory. Crucial for imagining the way in which Benjamin’s intervention into the forms of Kantian intuition functions is to consider how there are spaces and times of varying intensities or cessations of intensities that appear and disappear in a sort of discontinuous continuity.[9] Benjamin’s speculative wager is that the contingency and fluctuation of the spatio-temporal forms of Kantian intuition fundamentally distort and transform the other two components of Kant’s schema for experience, the categories of understanding and the forms of reason. This cascading distortion of immediate experience does not obliterate the objective knowledge of experience but it delimits it, brings more possible experiences under the umbrella of knowledge. What this means for politics is if politics and The Political are inclined towards the hardening of boundaries into borders by way of decision, Benjamin’s Kantian intervention soften borders into porous and flexible boundaries. It uses the finitude of political borders as material for softening those same borders but in a way that does not obliterate their necessity, however contigent they might be made to be.

Benjamin’s early speculative philosophy anticipates Quentin Meillassoux’s argument that post-Kant philosophy is fundamentally a correlationist philosophy. However, unlike Meillassoux, who sees this correlationism as a foreclosure of philosophy, Benjamin does not believe that Kantian correlationism leads us to (philosophical or political) oblivion. Benjamin shows us a way to radicalize Kant’s correlationist conceptualization of experience by delimiting Kant’s spatio-temporal forms of intuition. He then uses this distorted correlationism of the experiencing phenomenal subject as political material.

In Kant’s hierarchy of reason, practical reason is primary; reason remains speculative if it does not have a grounding in practice. What Kant argues is that it is only that which is practical, that which is related to a practical interest, that can be necessarily cognized. Everything else is not within the view of (practical) reason proper. It is akin to madness or dreaming. Kantian practical reason is The Political in the sense that the city, state, etc. are, by definition, bordered. Politics, understood here as relating to the polis, to what lies within (and outside) the city, is an inherently bounded concept. It is a spatial concept. There is a decisionist aspect to politics in the Kantian sense insofar as The Political can only be cognized within finite boundaries. Yet with the alleged openness of the market, the Kantian necessity of practical reason would seem to dissolve against the onslaught of speculative, contingent “rationality.”

[1] Speculative Materialism, 3.

[2] According to Wendy Brown, neoliberalism is a political rationality that is “liberalism’s economic variant,” not an ideology. Wendy Brown, “Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Theory and Event 7:1 (2003).

[3] Ayache, “The Medium of Contingency”, 18.

[4] Ruda, “The Speculative Family,” 72-76.

[5] Badiou, Being and Event, 210. Emphasis is mine.

[6] Badiou, Being and Event, 210.

[7] Bruno Bosteels, “The Speculative Left,” 762.

[8] Badiou, “The Flux and the Party: In the Margins of Anti-Oedipus,” 79.

[9] Both Howard Caygill and Alain Badiou use this phrase but in completely different contexts.

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