Absolved of the Absolute

By Joseph AlbernazNovember 4, 2015

Atopies: Manifeste pour la philosophie by Frédéric Neyrat

There is no transcendent but there is transcendence.

— Michel Deguy, A Man of Little Faith


There is a crack in everything God has made.

— Emerson, “Compensation” 


ARISTOTLE FAMOUSLY SAID that all philosophy begins with wonder, but he did not mention it is a specific kind of wonder: wondering where in the hell one is (though maybe less so where one is going — hence the age-old caricature of the philosopher stumbling into a ditch while contemplating the heavens). In a sense, this deeply important question of “where are we?” bothers us less than ever — though maybe this lack of emergency is precisely the emergency, as Heidegger once said. We think we know where we are; but in our age of GPS-equipped smartphones and Google Maps, in our Cartesian dreamworld of total coordination and localizability (two miles away on Tinder!), is there any place for the non-place, for the outside? This outside would not be the Great Outdoors, with all its wondrous but frighteningly imperiled green stuff, or some secluded space “off the grid,” and even less a transcendent realm outside of mundane material existence, but rather something that eludes or dis-places this totalizing logic of location, containment, and management. What is at stake then is not an outside of the world, but an outside in the world itself — but where might such an outside be accessed, and how would it be thought and put into practice? These are some of the questions that preoccupy Frédéric Neyrat in his excellent and necessary recent book Atopies: Manifeste pour la philosophie (English: Atopias: Manifesto for Philosophy).

Before the what, where, and how, though, there’s the matter of who. Frédéric Neyrat is someone to whom we should be paying attention. A youngish French philosopher teaching as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Neyrat is a compelling thinker and prolific writer who has authored a number of books on a wide range of topics such as biopolitics, community, and terrorism, as well as monographs on Heidegger and Jean-Luc Nancy (the latter his former teacher and doctoral advisor). He continues to write in French, however, which unfortunately means that his work is largely unknown and unjustly neglected in Anglophone theoretical discourse. This is owing in no small part to the politics and trends of literary and especially academic and philosophical translation into English. Lured by an addictive attraction to the Big Names, presses will snatch up and immediately publish a translation of Jacques Rancière’s morning grocery shopping list while leaving the work of important emerging thinkers untouched. This state of affairs, regrettable if economically understandable, has not gone unnoticed by the unluckier continental intellectuals in the translation lottery — a celebrated but savagely undertranslated venerable French poet and thinker grumbled to me in Paris this summer about this very Nameism, and the concomitant difficulty of breaking through. Though when it rains it often pours: take, for example, the recent waterfall of translations of François Laruelle’s labyrinthine oeuvre, or similarly that of Italian thinker Roberto Esposito, the latter a notable influence on Neyrat. At any rate, very little of Neyrat’s work — and none of his books — has been translated, though one hopes this fact will change sooner rather than later.

As for the thing itself, Atopias: Manifesto for Philosophy is fairly slim in volume but broad in scope, and can be seen as a distillation and development of many of Neyrat’s themes and concepts introduced in earlier works, while also introducing new ones. In refreshing contrast to two stern and self-serious books with the same title Manifesto for Philosophy by the current grand maître of French philosophy, Alain Badiou, Atopias is true to its subtitle; this wide-ranging, playful, and often lyrical book is written with all the peremptory seriocomic verve that is endemic to the manifesto genre. The work is also quite polemical, much of it consisting of what the French call a bilan, a taking account, of the scene of contemporary philosophy. Crucially, Neyrat is aware that this same contemporary scene, whether it acknowledges the fact or not, is also the Anthropo-scene. The Anthropocene — a concept Neyrat touches on in Atopias and has discussed in other writings[1] — refers to the idea proposed by geologists that the earth has exited the Holocene and entered a new geological epoch, one irrevocably shaped and altered by the activity of the human being (anthropos). Just as Fredric Jameson once claimed on the first page of his influential book The Political Unconscious that “the political perspective” (namely Marxism) was the “absolute horizon” of all criticism, the Anthropocene now compels us to recognize that the horizon of thought is the actual horizon outside your window, that distant nebulous jointure of the sky into which we relentlessly pump CO2, and the ground whose geological makeup we have, in all likelihood, forever modified. Our emergent realization of the Anthropocene makes it exceedingly difficult (though in practice it never was easy) to cordon off neatly the zones of nature and culture into distinct spheres; it reveals to us in undeniable ways an interdependence, an inextricability, and a relationality between humans themselves and between humans and nonhumans that was probably always the case, but that now urgently demands to be confronted. Neyrat’s thought of the atopian outside is an important early step in helping us do just that. If we have never been modern, neither have we ever been inside.


As I have already mentioned, one of Neyrat’s main objectives is to revive and repurpose an idea of the “outside” (le dehors), a concept that seems to have been banished by what he calls the “exophobia” of contemporary thought. While the move to eliminate the outside often stems from a healthy critical impulse — namely, that of dismantling the oppressive structures that are enabled by a bad transcendence (e.g., “God wants you to be a peasant forever, and your children too”) — this tendency toward immanence has gone overboard, Neyrat thinks, and now has a baby/bathwater problem. Thus, “this foreclosure of the outside has amputated contemporary thought,” according to which “everything is inside.” The immanence proclaimed by recent thought — especially but by no means exclusively those following in the wake of that late gray eminence of immanence, Gilles Deleuze — has, in rejecting negativity, led to what Neyrat calls “saturated immanence.” This saturated immanence cannot conceive of a more salutary notion of separation and the outside (immanence means “to remain inside,” from the Latin im + manere), one that is necessary for a proper thinking of relations and relationality, that is, simply the fact of being necessarily in relation to something. For “it is relations themselves that lead us to the outside” as Neyrat writes in a critique of the anti-relational stance found in Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (Neyrat later refers to object-oriented thinkers as “the new proponents of the absolute”).[2]

For Neyrat, this outside is also internal to each entity, a radiant (non)space both constituting and constituted by the necessary relationality and actual relations of things. This relationality is rendered possible by a rupture in the immanence of the world, a crack in Being, a separation (sepáration) which opens up the field of relations themselves — as opposed to a split or cleavage (clivage):

Existence, to be sure, is experienced always in separation, the irreparable tragedy of existential difference; this separation however is not a split (clivage), nor is it the guarantee of an identity or a substance: it is instead that which relates me to others. This relation is internal — prior to being an exchange between distinct individuals, it designates an interior disjunction owing to which existence is in the world.

In contrast to the separations which open up and foster relationality, mutuality, and interdependence, splits are “juxtapositions without relations”: that is, juxtapositions which ostensibly divide reality equally, but do so only to undermine this very division through an underhanded privileging of one structurally transcendent term, which in practice subordinates the other(s). In an example Neyrat likes to cite, think of the way feminist analyses critiqued the marked category of “female” against the juxtaposed but actually dominant unmarked category of “male,” the latter being the covertly assumed neutral universal (one can view much of Luce Irigaray’s work as an attempt to rethink sexual difference from the perspective of relational separation rather than its traditional conception as an oppressive and hierarchical split). Discourses that affirm absolute immanence — in particular the new vitalists, materialists, and Spinozists — in a justified opposition to such splits and the deleterious transcendences they enable, however, can become blinded or at least hindered from recognizing and doing justice to the potential of embracing separation as condition of possibility for relations, especially relations beyond the human.[3]

But however noble this “iconoclastic immanence” and its gestures might be, the dismantling of the absolute and of transcendence in the name of absolute immanence, materiality, and the affirmation of becoming has not succeeded in ridding us of the bad transcendent absolute. On the contrary, even in our ostensibly secular age, we believe in the absolute, transcendence, and immortality more than ever: “those persistent beliefs in the absolute, in substance, and in immortality have not at all disappeared, but have proliferated — now being actualized in the technological and social spheres.”

Neyrat mentions those intimations of biodigital immortality emanating out of Silicon Valley, and one thinks especially of the prophet-like prognostications of Google’s mortal enemy of mortality Ray Kurzweil, whose very name, in a scrumptious irony, recapitulates the very finitude against which he is struggling so mightily (eine kurze Weile is German for a “a little while,” “a brief period”). For other contemporary absolutes in our purported epoch “of finitude and the relative” one need look no further than the utter moral certainty of the latest internet outrage piece and its frenzied comment section, as well as, of course, the reigning absolute of the day: the singularly sovereign deity Capital (the constant flux of which bears a more than passing resemblance to the flux of becoming in some contemporary philosophies of immanence). In reducing everything in its path to a localizable grid of abstract equivalence, what Neyrat calls the “ontologico-economic trap” of neoliberalism (where ontology — i.e., the theory of what Being is — and economy are not easily separable) is another version of the attempt to eliminate any and every outside. “We believe ourselves to be immortal, unaffected by existence,” Neyrat writes, “and so we can conscientiously go about destroying the world on the basis of an unrestrained humanism that no critique seems quite able to discard.”

So, if we can’t return to the old, bad transcendence, but neither can we be completely satisfied with a contrary and iconoclastic affirmation of pure immanence (which ultimately amounts to the same thing as the transcendence it tries to overcome), where does that leave us? Neyrat surveys the contemporary “murky confusion concerning the concepts of immanence and transcendence which reigns over the theoretical battlefield” and proposes his own concept — a not entirely limpid one itself, it must be admitted — of what he calls “transcendence ≈ x.” Steering clear of the Scylla of transcendence of the beyond and the Charybdis of saturated immanence, transcendence ≈ x would be a model of “finite transcendence,” a transcendence that has no reference to a beyond but only to a primordial outside. Here the squiggly lines of the “approximately equals” sign (≈) undulate like the clinamen (or the swerve, now popularized by Stephen Greenblatt and others) that is the world and the beings in it. It’s not that there is order, then only after that a clinamen which emerges to introduce contingency and chance — rather, the clinamen is originary and for Neyrat is existence itself, as such.[4] This original clinamen means that contingency goes all the way down and that transcendence must be finite and plural, “having finitized the infinite” and “being absolved of the Absolute.” The Absolute in philosophy has traditionally been that which is not in relation, that which is self-grounded, self-sufficient, and is absolved or detached from all relationality and dependence. To be absolved of the Absolute would thus be to detach from detachment, to reject the nonrelational closure of the outside in the name of the constant flickerings of transcendences that simultaneously separate and join us together in the common world (Bruno Latour uses the term “mini-transcendences” to refer to something similar).

Here then we come to the rub: Neyrat’s paradigm — not unlike that of his teacher Nancy — is one of what we might call contingent relationality, a transcendence without a transcendent being, ground, God, or guarantee, one facing up to and enabled by a necessary contingency. In resisting the “trap of the ground” (piège du fondement), we are not abandoned to isolation, but on the contrary opened up as never before to the multitude of relations that occur at and as the outside; in a word, groundlessness causes us to be exposed (that is, “put outside,” from the Latin ex + ponere). Significantly, this relationality and these relations are not particular to the human being — indeed, Neyrat specifically calls for a “thinking of relations in order to dispense with anthropocentrism, to dispense with the human’s exceptional position according to metaphysical humanism.”[5] Humans have no special purchase on the outside — this too is actually one of the more ironic lessons of the Anthropocene, the idea of which is, as Timothy Morton has pointed out, a truly anti-anthropocentric concept. The Anthropocene or “The Human Age” (Diane Ackerman) shows us that we are in fact not at the center of things — simply look around at all the unintended effects our fantasy of ontological mastery hath wrought, global warming the most prominent and menacing among them. If, as seems to be the case, human activity has become the driving geological and climatological force changing the makeup of the planet, this is happening precisely not in the way we planned, and in ways that now may indeed be out of our control, a control that we never had in the first place: we have proven failed masters — and, pace Heidegger, shepherds — of Being and of Nature.

All of this means that in the Anthropocene we must find new ways of thinking, figuring, and putting into practice our relations to nonhuman beings. In a beautiful and mysterious (and to my mind quite Latourian) section of the book called “Coalitions,” Neyrat speculates on the various coalitions to be made and unmade between humans and nonhumans of all kinds: animal, mineral, plant, robotic, divine, and the multitudinous beings yet to come, multiplicities linked “with/against/on/in/from one another, by all possible prepositions.” Beings are related, interlocked, interlinked, and intertwined — including agonistically, as relationality doesn’t always mean harmonious happy coexistence — by a prepositional existence, but these necessary prepositions must come without presuppositions. The only presupposition for these ecological coalitions to come is that they cannot be presupposed or controlled in advance; their communal contingency is generated by the opening of the outside they share and which shares them. This opening is exactly the negative space that the pure positivity of immanence wants to saturate (or always ends up saturating, whether it wants to or not). For this reason, over and against any presuppositions or guarantees, “every alliance must remain an adventure.”

If there is a concrete named philosophical adversary (or at best, frenemy) in Atopias, it is Badiou. Seen in this light, Neyrat’s book, particularly with its Badiou-alluding subtitle, could be set alongside recent Badiou polemics like Mehdi Belhaj Kacem’s Après Badiou and Laruelle’s Anti-Badiou, though Neyrat refrains from trollery and has much respect for the man himself. But as opposed to the severity of Badiou’s Plato, Neyrat opts for the ludic, knowledge-disavowing figure of Socrates, who interrupts and disrupts Platonic discourse from within and, apropos of the transcendent Platonic Idea, engenders “a counter-Idea,” one that “destabilizes” and “fractures” Plato’s project as usually conceived. Neyrat’s thought is on a fundamental level incompatible with Badiou’s, not least because the latter’s mathematical ontology explicitly forbids relations. As Badiou himself says: “I would even state that my ontology is primarily an ontology of alterity without relation. There aren’t, then, relations at the level of being.”[6] Against the exactitude of the “matheme” that Badiou prizes for cutting through opinion and poetry and introducing Truth and the Idea into the situation, Neyrat sees philosophy as “the reminder of an originary chaos, of the temporal flame that flares up in each object and each thought: every matheme is just the suppression of this disturbance.” In his diatribes against postmodern relativist sophistry, Badiou doesn’t see that “relational thought is not relativist thought.”[7] From here one begins to understand the implicit motivations behind Badiou’s blanket dismissal of ecology as a bourgeois distraction at best or “the new opium of the masses” at worst.

But if we have our suspicions about Badiou’s model of philosophy as conditioned by (even if not reducible to) the scientific matheme, the question still remains as to what philosophy is now and what it is supposed to do — Atopias is a “manifesto for philosophy,” after all. For Neyrat, the atopia of philosophy is not a placeless, universal, and neutral “view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel); rather, it is always local, governed and managed by nothing but the clinamen or swerve of contingency. Philosophy must be done from the outside, from the place of exile, even of madness, and its duty is to resist everywhere the closures of saturated immanence in the name of the outside, the “ex” of existence (Neyrat does not shy from referring to his own thinking as a kind of existentialism). Philosophy’s atopias must also be the “dis” in displacement, providing the conceptual displacement needed to understand and confront the actual logics of displacement and dispossession that generate the “socio-ecological misery” of the world. The task involves involving ourselves in the wonder and terror of relationality (for “there is no relation without atopia”), but in a strict sense there is, however, nothing to be done, nothing to be created. Relationality is already how we are and what and how we do. It’s only a matter of facing up to our constant exposure to this everyday ecstasy, the everyday ecstasy of being together — a bright, mundane ecstasy, the meaning of which — ek-stasis — is simply standing outside.


[1] See, for instance, an interview with Neyrat entitled “The Political Unconscious of the Anthropocene,” translated into English and available online here: http://societyandspace.com/material/interviews/neyrat-by-johnson/

[2] Here and in other places and ways, Neyrat’s ideas intersect some with Benjamin Noys’s critique of contemporary theory’s dislike of the negative and obsession with affirmation (see Noys’s book The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory).

[3] I am aware, and certainly Neyrat is aware, that this view of immanence could be seriously complicated, and that there are different ways of thinking immanence (Neyrat himself gives a taxonomy of kinds of immanence in his book, warning against equivocation), some of them friendly to thinking relationality. However, generalizing is inherent to the polemical energy of the manifesto form, where positions must be staked out decisively.

[4] Neyrat has in fact written an entire book on the clinamen — see his Clinamen: flux, absolu et loi spirale (2011).

[5] Here an intriguing and instructive parallel — and contrast — could be drawn between Neyrat and object-oriented ontology (OOO) of Harman et al., which also seeks to knock the human being from its central ontological pedestal. However, while OOO tries to do this by positing a withdrawn, nonrelational essence to all entities human and nonhuman, Neyrat wants to achieve this same decentering of the human via the exact opposite gesture, that is, via a thinking of every entity’s necessary relationality.

[6] Badiou, Philosophy and the Event, 57.

[7] Neyrat, Biopolitique des catastrophes, 104.


Joseph Albernaz is a PhD student in the English department at UC Berkeley.

LARB Contributor

Joseph Albernaz is assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Much of his work focuses on Romantic literature and the force of its political and theoretical legacies. He is writing a book about community called All Things Common.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.