[INTRODUCTORY NOTE: This piece is an absolutely serious inquiry into the possibility that Professor Levi Bryant is a hippopotamus. Disguised as a satire on materialist and naturalist philosophies, its real intent is to prove that L.Bryant is a very naughty professor, indeed.]
“Great apes such as ourselves [cannot stand the thought that we are contingent beings among other beings and, in our narcissism, cannot bear the thought that everything else isn’t for us and dependent on us]. ” (“Fighting Words“)
“[Your thought is a reaction formation to the narcissistic wound of the fact that your existence is contingent and that] you are only the third of the three great apes.” (“Fighting Words“)
“The basic lesson is don’t be a masculinist, ape-like, asshole.” (“Comments“)
Professor Bryant offers these statements in two different posts. Obviously, as can be discerned from the bibliographic data, the contexts of the first two citations differ from that of the third. The first two citations derive from a manifesto explicitly stating Levi Bryant’s philosophical positions, which he considers to be “the only credible philosophical positions today” (FW).
The third citation originates from a post delineating his “comment policy“. It is a somewhat emotive exploration of the ethics of commentary. After commending values such as “dignity” and “respect”, he concludes with a fundamental moral principle (cited above), that seems to be at odds with the categorical classification of humans he offers in the first two citations. It is by no means a contradiction: the opposition is ape/”asshole“. But Bryant enjoins commenters not to be “ape-like“, “asshole[s]”.
Assuming Bryant is addressing human commenters, the explicitly stated injunction not to be “ape-like” does seem to contradict his other statements. Perhaps he means that as humans are already apes, being “ape-like” is redundant? Or perhaps this is an example, already noted by Terence Blake, of his practice of ‘double positing’? It is difficult to determine the play of meaning here.
But there is a deeper contradiction here, one that a self-proclaimed “materialist” should not make, especially after eulogising Freud. How are we to retain civility without the necessary anal retentions that Freud claims are among its constitutive factors, without (being) “assholes“?
Bryant’s recent work develops his ethics of commentary, moving into actual blogging practice. “How to Make a Blog” begins with a report of corporate success: Bryant lists the visitation statistics of his blog, and asks how such figures were achieved. He goes on to form a list of hypothetical prescriptions: “First, the don’ts” and then “The Do’s“. For those who wish to replicate Bryant’s achievements, the list offers valuable and interesting advice. But Professor Bryant’s real breakthrough consists in what might well be considered a radical, perhaps even revolutionary, development of his theory of subjectivity-as-anatomical-object. In a bold move, he has shifted away from the central thesis of his influential work, “The Bottom Line: Civilisation and its Constipatory Structures”. After that canonical and exhaustive investigation of the “anal planes of immanence” and their “civil recapitulations”, constitutitive of the “social field”, he has decentred the former anatomical emphasis with “phallic relocation”. The relocation has a paradoxical structure: “3) Don’t be a dick.“/”1) Be a dick.“. This has caused some critics to speculate whether Bryant is fully committed to the paradigm shift, or whether the “relocation” is governed by a covert, anal oscillation. But Bryant is heedless of such reactionaries, explicating the actual conditions of immanence structuring the “relocation”:
“The thing is that you just need to be careful about not being a dick when you’re a dick. It’s important to be a dick with style. Again, if you’re constantly insulting others, degrading them, spitting ad hominems at them, and whatnot, you’re being a cock, not a dick. Don’t be a cock.”(“How to Make a Blog“)
After an implicit clarification of the paradox as a nuanced, multi-levelled structure (Derrida’s “originary complexity”) requiring Heideggerian ‘care’, he brings in Nietzsche, Schopenhauer perhaps, with the importance of aesthetic consideration (“style”). And then, in the midst of announcing one revolution, he inserts another. Through an ambiguity, oscillating between figural possibilities of synonymy and literally specific otherness, he introduces the notion of specific relocation. ‘Specific relocation’ is the transcendence of local anatomical instantiation, subjectivity is no longer bound to a corporeal singularity. A non-local shift is possible. A human can become a male chicken (“cock“). Bryant discourages such shifts, though (“Don’t be a cock.“), probably because of the unpleasant methodology required to produce such effects.
Reactions have varied: scholars have grumbled about ‘transcendental signifieds’, idealistic gestures, and ‘quantum mysticism’: the posthumanists are speaking of the “arrival of an intertranslatability of species”: whilst the linguistic behaviourists unequivocally claim, “it’s just slang, a metaphor: the whole thing is a transcendental illusion, Bryant has turned idealist”.
There have been resonances outside of academia. A semi-religious subculture has developed, the ‘cussing-cluckers’, as they have come to be known. Through the vectors of impolite invection, they hope to transcend human existence and turn into ‘Holy Poultry’.
Finally, there have been the reactionary sceptics who claim that Bryant’s innovations are nothing new. They assert that vital transformations have always taken place through excremental channels: that excrementality has always powered the ‘cycles of organic being’: subjectivity being a mere supervenient guidance mechanism of excremental flow. More extreme adherents of this scepticism reject the relation of ‘supervenience’, and the difference it implies, substituting ‘identity’ in its place: consciousness is the excremental flow: ‘consciousness is not autonomous governing conduction’, they say, categorising the view as ‘contraption idealism’. Until a critique of excre(mental) objects validates such idealism, it is perhaps wiser to reserve judgment.
It is unclear, at the time of writing, where Bryant might go from here.* That he has inaugurated a Copernican shift with “phallic relocation”, is without doubt an unquestionable advance. But that he might be suggesting the possibility of a specific transformation of anatomical critique, beyond the anatomical ‘organism’, beyond the ‘body’, beyond the species, can only be called visionary. But that, of course, is the province of the eye, the habitat of theoria, and the realm where matter and nature are not the only ideas.
*Will he return to the restroom, or has he flown to the chicken coop?