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BY ALEXANDER WILSON
I was nervous when I first met Bernard at his Beaubourg office, not only because he was a towering figure in philosophy and that I had been enthralled with his books for several years, but also because I was self-conscious about my mastery of French, even though I had been brought up speaking Québecois French (a minor language, according to Deleuze and Guattari). At that meeting I was trying hard to vouvoie him, but since we Quebecois are seldom polite I had rarely practiced the grammar of vouvoiement and a tu slipped out uncontrollably. I knew the importance of formal address in French and German universities, and that even Deleuze and Guattari vouvoied each other. I feared, in my illusion about what or who this man was, that I may have hurt my chances of working with him for my PhD. I soon learned that he could not have cared less about this.
Our last long conversation, when I invited him to Aarhus University during my postdoc in early 2018, was over a multi-course Michelin star meal on which I had overspent (by double) the dinner budget allowed by the University expense account. “On va se régaler!” he said, and I was very happy he was pleased. He was doing all right. He looked a bit tired, but his energy did not fail him throughout the daylong PhD seminar and evening lecture, back to back, that we had organized for the occasion. I was delighted to have invited Bernard to Aarhus: he had been so influential and challenging, a truly great interlocutor who urged like no other the development of my thought, and had given me the courage: I owed this to him more than anyone.
Over the course of that dinner he asked me about my family, my upbringing, my ancestry, their religion, and about past and present romantic relationships. We discussed all of this, but now I regret not opening up to him more, and not reciprocating the existential tone of his interrogation. I was eager to discuss philosophy with him. But also, even though I had by now been tutoieing him for years, I was still maintaining a stupid formality that I now see he was trying to wear down. Ironically, even though I was in awe of him, I kept him a stranger rather than the other way around.
Bernard leaves behind many orphans like me, in whom his personal and philosophical generosity helped cultivate a certain courage of truth. I am one of many to whom he gave philosophical wings, like the flying fish he used as a mascot for his School, École de philosophie d’Épineuil-le-fleuriel. These orphans, as was my case, were often from unphilosophical backgrounds and saw his writings, but also his backstory, as proof that we too, perhaps, could dare to think.
It could have been a spinoff of Breaking Bad: the story of a man who slowly sinks into criminality through a chain of desperate reactions to contingent events, each step fixing one problem but creating new ones, thickening the plot and raising the stakes. To the point where Bernard found himself in a situation where the only reasonable course of action was to start robbing banks. And yet this storyline bifurcates, and the main character becomes one of the most influential philosophers of his generation. An entire new plot trajectory that begins the moment he decides not to use the single bullet he had loaded into his gun. If a crime series ended this way, we would reject the story as too improbable to believe. How could this have happened?
His answer was, “by default”. By desperation. As Bernard wrote in “The Ordeal of Truth”, which Pieter Lemmens invited me to respond to in early 2020, and which, in his absence, now takes on new meaning:
In truth, there is nothing else to do but what is desperate, for it presents itself—and as never before—only by default.
A necessary default. An impossible but necessary passage to action, perhaps because action is not born of hope, but of its absence, despair. In prison, he came to cherish the silence of his cell. He came to see his imprisonment as an opportunity to overcome his fate. He recounted these experiences with a kind of reverie, a nostalgia, as if on a certain level he longed for the simplicity of those days in his cell, when everything was clear to him, when it was easy to distinguish the remedy from the poison. Like a hermit who moves into the mountains, or a prophet who rids himself of his possessions, but who, like a scapegoat, a pharmakos, is obliged to inhabit the boundaries of society, where all the noise recedes and the world is reduced to almost nothing, and where that which makes life worth living reveals itself with primitive clarity.
His prison cell, the only pharmakon available to him, presented him with a choice: nihilism or affirmation. Through some strange power of his will, this pharmakon allowed him to bootstrap a discipline, a technology of the self, an askesis. I keep wondering how I would have lived such a fate. Would I have had the courage to reinvent it, to transvaluate it? Or would I have merely experienced its agony and abandoned myself to madness?
In that clarity, the necessary default of origin became a foundational concept of his thought. He would go on to pursue its effects for the rest of his life. He stressed that the default is necessary—le défaut qu’il faut—in the sense that it must happen; it is a kind of deontic necessity, an obligation or a duty. It is a default firstly in the sense of that which happens by default, or contingently; secondly of that which fails, that which is at fault, defective, or lacking; but thirdly, just as importantly, I think, of that which happens as a default, a defection: “to defect” from something, perhaps a former life, and to reinvent it, to transvaluate one’s values, to bifurcate. He came to see this as the essential human gesture, in that our species constitutes a “dropping out” of biological evolution through technics.
In Bernard’s life and work, there is a reflection of the temporal contractions and dilations he discussed in the three volumes of La technique et le temps. His capacity to pass into action and transform himself as he did, echoed in his capacity to overcome a fear or guilt of technology, which had his contemporaries shy away from facing the monstrous processes conditioned by our tertiary retentions, hypomnemata, exosomatic organs—as he variously called them—our practices and technics, our inscriptions, tools, and traditions, the materialized cultures that cultivate us. Bernard’s style, his fervour, his incessant production of new institutions and perpetual involvement in public debate cannot be separated from the theoretical bridge he built between the 20th and 21st centuries. He was not content with merely talking about the technological epochal transitions we were facing, but strived to fully and sincerely live them from within, getting entangled with them, in a constant acceleration, a race to keep abreast of them anamnesically. He had learned that one must step up to the occasion, one must face the music. And in order for a philosophical gesture to be more than a bluff, in order for language to be more than chatter, rumour, superstition or messianism, it needs to be truly practiced and pass into action.
Bernard may have done to Derrida what Marx did to Hegel. Setting deconstruction on its feet meant getting directly involved with our contemporary modes of inscription, exposing their various prejudices and comparatively dissecting the skewed worlds they build: the only way to map out a general organology was to impatiently develop their critique in real time. The only way beyond the failures of the present was to intensify the feedback loops between the future and the past. But the technologies of late capitalism, he observed, were increasingly preventing the possibility of these anamnesic circuits through a proliferation of interfaces that short circuit our capacities to form concepts, to cultivate thinking minds, and to avoid stupidity. How does one orient oneself when the grounds are continually shifting? How does one imagine a future when one cannot recall the past? The default strategy can only be to tackle new forms of inscription head on, to get one’s philosophical hands dirty with the nuts and bolts, the hand-axes and bones, the texts and algorithms, the taboos and libidinal undercurrents, and the physical matter and energy that keep the runaway process of discretization burning along.
It is only outside the prison cell, when the noise returns, that the full complexity reveals itself. If the world is a palimpsest, he realized, it is because anamnesis only happens through new exteriorizations, après coup, through desperate acts and compromises. The only way to keep track of our failures is through more inscriptions. At this, Bernard excelled, producing a book a year for over a third of a century, each page treading water in an ocean of amnesia.
With each new turn into the labyrinth, each new paradigmatic upheaval, his politics, his answer to the question what is to be done? developed into a kind of fractal where, in each infinitesimal division of the whole, new features and nuances appeared: the pharmakon echoing and rippling through each nested layer, each shift in perspective further scrambling the origin, creating more entropy, and an ever greater necessity to act. As he reminded me in the course of that dinner, holding the observation to reveal a flaw in my reasoning about computation: “…the Turing machine’s infinite tape is impossible in the material world”. If the world is a palimpsest, it is because we all, sooner or later, run out of tape.
I was in awe at the feverish energy he had, at an age when most people in the West, including the philosophers, have long resigned themselves to nihilism; how fervently and intensely he willed to effectuate actual change in his lifetime, regardless of the immense and almost impossible complexity of what he had in mind. We who have known him have no doubt that the courage of truth is what both animated and consumed him. There was a constant sense of falling behind, of arriving too late, of not having gained enough ground in the battle he waged with the dying of the light. He demonstrated a deep and desperate urgency to act, despite having no illusions about the gravity of the situation and the insurmountability of the task, the apparent futility of even trying. He cultivated a philosophical sincerity that is very rare, ever more rare in our times.
I will always admire this in him. Bernard was a force of nature, a contingent crossing of inertias that had him become what he was: inimitable, so let us not try. Let us rather build those infinitely long circuits of transindividuation he allowed us to imagine. Let us now, find our ways, to pass into action.