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Liberal repressive tolerance, New Materialism, and "dark Deleuze": An interview with Andrew Culp


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At the website of the lit. crit. journal boundary 2, Alexander Galloway interviews Andrew Culp, a professor of media studies and author of the new book Dark Deleuze. While Deleuze is often celebrated as a philosopher of joy and affirmation, Culp uncovers a more negative dimension to his work and argues that this “dark Deleuze” is more useful in a era where our joy is used to capture us in circuits of affective exploitation. In the interview, Culp reflects in the repressive tolerance of modern liberalism, the (non)politics of New Materialism, and just what is so dark about Deleuze. Here’s an excerpt:

Galloway: In Dark Deleuze you talk about avoiding “the liberal trap of tolerance, compassion, and respect.” And you conclude by saying that the “greatest crime of joyousness is tolerance.” Can you explain what you mean, particularly for those who might value tolerance as a virtue?

Culp: Among the many followers of Deleuze today, there are a number of liberal Deleuzians. Perhaps the biggest stronghold is in political science, where there is a committed group of self-professed radical liberals. Another strain bridges Deleuze with the liberalism of John Rawls. I was a bit shocked to discover both of these approaches, but I suppose it was inevitable given liberalism’s ability to assimilate nearly any form of thought.

Hubert Marcuse recognized “repressive tolerance” as the incredible power of liberalism to justify the violence of positions clothed as neutral. The examples Marcuse cites are governments who say they respect democratic liberties because they allow political protest although they ignore protesters by labeling them a special interest group. For those of us who have seen university administrations calmly collect student demands, set up dead-end committees, and slap pictures of protestors on promotional materials as a badge of diversity, it should be no surprise that Marcuse dedicated the essay to his students. An important elaboration on repressive tolerance is Wendy Brown’s Regulating Aversion. She argues that imperialist US foreign policy drapes itself in tolerance discourse. This helps diagnose why liberal feminist groups lined up behind the US invasion of Afghanistan (the Taliban is patriarchal) and explains how a mere utterance of ISIS inspires even the most progressive liberals to support outrageous war budgets.

Because of their commitment to democracy, Brown and Marcuse can only qualify liberalism’s universal procedures for an ethical subject. Each criticizes certain uses of tolerance but does not want to dispense with it completely. Deleuze’s hatred of democracy makes it much easier for me. Instead, I embrace the perspective of a communist partisan because communists fight from a different structural position than that of the capitalist.

Galloway: Speaking of structure and position, you have a section in the book on asymmetry. Most authors avoid asymmetry, instead favoring concepts like exchange or reciprocity. I’m thinking of texts on “the encounter” or “the gift,” not to mention dialectics itself as a system of exchange. Still you want to embrace irreversibility, incommensurability, and formal inoperability–why?

Culp: There are a lot of reasons to prefer asymmetry, but for me, it comes down to a question of political strategy.

First, a little background. Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of exchange is important to Anti-Oedipus, which was staged through a challenge to Claude Lévi-Strauss. This is why they shift from the traditional Marxist analysis of mode of production to an anthropological study of anti-production, for which they use the work of Pierre Clastres and Georges Bataille to outline non-economic forms of power that prevented the emergence of capitalism. Contemporary anthropologists have renewed this line of inquiry, for instance, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who argues in Cannibal Metaphysics that cosmologies differ radically enough between peoples that they essentially live in different worlds. The cannibal, he shows, is not the subject of a mode of production but a mode of predation.

Those are not the stakes that interest me the most. Consider instead the consequence of ethical systems built on the gift and political systems of incommensurability. The ethical approach is exemplified by Derrida, whose responsibility to the other draws from the liberal theological tradition of accepting the stranger. While there is distance between self and other, it is a difference that is bridged through the democratic project of radical inclusion, even if such incorporation can only be aporetically described as a necessary-impossibility. In contrast, the politics of asymmetry uses incommensurability to widen the chasm opened by difference. It offers a strategy for generating antagonism without the formal equivalence of dialectics and provides an image of revolution based on fundamental transformation. The former can be seen in the inherent difference between the perspective of labor and the perspective of capital, whereas the latter is a way out of what Guy Debord calls “a perpetual present.”

Image from Andrew Culp’s blog Anarchist Without Content.