The hermeto-logical circle is deeper and more original than the “hermeneutic circle.” Hermeto-logical Difference is a fundamental invariant, a matrix for what is called “metaphysics” in general. It is more powerful than its modalities or avatars, among which the hermeneutics conflict of interpretations, as well as the textual and signifying critique within hermeneutics, and all possible theories of communication.
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In this very short text first published in French in 1987 as “La vérité selon Hermès” (PDF), Laruelle suggests that the “dominant way of thinking” is characterized by the “Hermeto-logical Difference”: that is “the undecidable coupling of truth and communication” (2010: §1). Communication, in that sense, is the process by which truth is made manifest to human beings, either as accessible (as logos) or as inaccessible (as a “supposed secret”). It belongs to the “unitary” way of thinking which, historically, is the thinking “of Being, then of Difference”. This thinking is furthermore characterized by the forgetting of the “essence of the One”. In the essay, it is personified by a “greco-Western Hermes”. One could say about this Hermes what Laruelle says later about the “unitary philosopher”: he is a “servant of the Postal and Telecommunication Ministry; a transmitter and decoder of hermetological Difference”, a mailman of truth (Ibid.: §10, §16). As he writes in the quote featured above, Laruelle believes the “Hermeto-logical Difference” is a “matrix for what is called “metaphysics” in general” (Ibid.: §2). That is why he thinks that this dominant way of thinking is more powerful than “all possible theories of communication” (Ibid.).
Laruelle calls the “One” or the “Real” the principle that is prior to this economy of difference. “Non-philosophy” is his attempt to develop an understanding of this principle. For all that, non-philosophy is not a theory of philosophy, nor its dialectical opposite: such a view would simply amount to another iteration of the philosophical decision.
In his short essay, Laruelle also points to another communication. This “mode” of communication is not reducible to the “unitary” way of thinking. Indeed, next to [“à côté”] the common Hermes, there exists another Hermes. This less obvious Hermes personifies a secret that is not dialectically determined by the potential manifestation of an alliance between truth and meaning (like the communicable secret mentioned earlier). In fact, insists Laruelle, this secret “has never appeared in the horizon of presence”. However paradoxical this may seem (it is not), this absence is the very effect of the secret’s positive essence (Ibid.: §4). Another way to put it would be to say that the second Hermes carries no proposal of alliance and, as such, that he is the messenger of nothing, except maybe of his own mode of messaging (Ibid.: §14-§15). Consequently, his incommunicable secret has no need for the kind of communication that is the object of the usual theories of exchange, of meaning, of transmission, etc. Instead, this secret should be understood as being prior to “all possible theories of communication”. That is why Laruelle provides it with its “own mode” (“son mode propre”) of communication which allows it to determine “the communicational games in the last instance” (Ibid.: §15). Although Laruelle does not use this expression, I believe one could say that this special mode of communication is a “non-communication”.
Just as non-philosophy does not oppose philosophy, the second Hermes does not oppose the first Hermes. This would still constitute a coupling, whereas between the two, writes Laruelle, “there is no conflict, no war, perhaps not even a ‘dialogue.’” (Ibid.: §14).
In light of all this, one understands that not all communications fall under the “Hermeto-logical Difference”, although all theories of communication may very well do, especially when they are understood as theories of transmission, of meaning, of exchange, etc. In other words, Laruelle has a rather specific understanding of what “all possible theories of communication” can be. As I will show, this common but narrow understanding of communication-as-exchange is also shared by some of his commentators.
Without going into too many details, I will quickly sketch what I believe are points of contact between Laruelle’s special mode of communication (what I have tentatively labelled “non-communication”), and a unique paradigm of communication explored by a selected group of authors in recent times. Georges Bataille, Jean-Luc Nancy, Maurice Blanchot, Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito all explored another understanding of communication. Together they share strongly coherent lines of thought, and often explicitly refer to one another. Among other aspects, their understanding of communication is not grounded in the dialectical coupling of differences. It is neither the means to an end, nor the sharing of something. It precedes human agency, and possibility any kind of agency in general. In so many words: it is a conception of communication without exchange.
In presenting those points of contact, I’m not suggesting that those authors are “laruellians”, nor that Laruelle’s “non-philosophy” can be merged into a broader tradition of thinking.
Laruelle’s essay was translated into English in 2010 by Alexander Galloway, who discussed it the same year in the fifth session of his seminar French Theory Today – An Introduction to Possible Futures. Galloway’s lectures were made available in five PDF “Pamphlets” which also include special contributions from various guests. For the session on Laruelle, published in Pamphlet No. 5, Eugene Thacker also addresses Laruelle’s essay on Hermes in his contribution:
All philosophy, says Laruelle, subscribes to the “communicational decision,” that everything that exists can be communicated. In this self-inscribed world, all secrets exist only to be communicated, all that is not-said is simply that which is not-yet-said. (2010: 24)
In the mid-60s, the Palo Alto school put forward a similar view. In Paul Watlzawick’s Pragmatics of Human Communication, the very first axiom clearly posits “the impossibility of not communicating” or, to put it another way, that “one cannot not communicate” (1967: 48-51). However, while Watzlawick et al. studied the problems of human communication, they were not concerned with what allows communication to be a reality for humans in the first place, whether as a process of relation or separation. This blind spot in their investigation is precisely what allows them to see communication everywhere. Watzlawick et al. were specifically interested in behavioral communication (see §2.22, Ibid.: 50). Although their views certainly do not represent all theories of communication, one can understand how they could be associated with a common, dominant conception of communication.
The ideas shared by Galloway and Thacker in 2010 were later expanded in a book they coauthored with McKenzie Wark. Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation (2014) contains one essay by each of the three authors. As their programmatic introduction makes clear, the perspectives they propose to explore are significantly informed by Laruelle’s ideas.
In the book, Galloway, Thacker and Wark do not refer to Watzalwick. Instead, when it comes to commenting on Laruelle’s ideas, they refer to the linear model of communication. They chose to understand “the elements of the modern communicational apparatus” as “sender, receiver, channel, message” (2014: 19). This reduction, however useful it may be, remains akin to reducing “media” to mass media devices (i.e TV, radio): it makes for an easy target. Elements of the linear model come from the early dawn of mass communication research. From this perspective, one can understand how theories of communication could be said to fall victim to Laruelle’s contested “hermetology”, as they split truth between a meaning and its transmission. Inspired by Laruelle, the three authors propose “to move beyond” the limits of this canonical conception of communication. Henceforth the conceptual proposal of “excommunication” as a way to “push media and communication theory further” (pp. 20-21).
The field of communication studies is actually widely diversified, to the point that its limit are not clearly defined. Laruelle, and in his path Galloway, Thacker and Wark, all ground their views on a general understanding of the communication process. From this standpoint, communication as a means of exchange or transmission is a process employed toward an ideal end, usually represented by the transcendence of differences between individuals, or in other words, by mutual agreement or consensus. This understanding may be canonical –quite common and largely shared–, but its ability to explain communication only goes up to a certain point. As Robert T. Craig once remarked “the transmission model, as usually presented, is scarcely more than a straw figure set up to represent a simplistic view.” (1999: 127). Galloway, Thacker and Wark nonetheless offer original and challenging ways to think communication in a new light.
Here, I want to bring attention to another similar effort that have previously been made outside the academic circle of media and communication research. Georges Bataille is well known for having proposed a view of what could be called a “communication without exchange” (it is in fact the title of a book from 2007: Une Communication sans échange : Georges Bataille critique de Jean Genet). This “negative” horizon of Bataille’s communication wasn’t just an esoteric glitch. As I suggested earlier, his ideas had and still have a strong legacy (Mitchell & Winfree, 2009). In the past three decades, they were significantly and coherently developed by authors such as Jean-Luc Nancy (1991), Maurice Blanchot (1988), Giorgio Agamben (1993) and Roberto Esposito (2010). Those authors have in turn proposed a unique take on communication which is reminiscent, in some aspects, of Laruelle’s special mode of communication.
This view is very much concerned, in one way or another, with the communication of incommunicability or, to use Nancy’s words, with the fact that “the incommunicable communicates” (2002: 8). For the matter at hand here, “incommunicability” should not be understood as a predicate of communication: it does not stem from a (failed) process of communication. For example, it is not the same as the incommunicability of Kant’s noumenon, which still manifests itself as an inaccessible secret. Instead, the incommunicability at hand here actually communicates no-thing: a gap, a groundlessness, an opening, the lack of anything.
Understandably, this incommunicability cannot be confused with the inherent ambiguity of the communicative process either (see previously). The fact that communication both unites and separates –this “duplicity”, as Thacker calls it in his essay which is also concerned with incommunicability– is still often presented as a dialectical process, especially when, among other things, it is subordinated to a positive end (indeed, an ideal end: the successful communication).
Instead, this incommunicability is prior to this ambiguity, and prior to communication itself, when one understands “communication” as the common, canonical way discussed above. In some respects, it could be another name for Laruelle’s second Hermes, whose secret “is itself the Uninterpretable from which interpretation emerges” (2010: §4).
The communication of incommunicability is not an exchange: it does not happen between agents of communication. The question of agency is another potential point of contact between Laruelle and the work of those authors. As Galloway explains in his 2010 lecture, putting aside the “human agent”, “receptive perceiver” or “human perceiver” is an important requisite for non-philosophy: a way to contest the dominance of the “Hermeto-logical Difference”.
Bataille’s understanding of communication makes a very unique use of human agency. Eugene Thacker picks up on this aspect in his chapter of the book Excommunication:
Whenever Bataille speaks of communication or mediation, his reference is always that of the mystical tradition of the via negativa; for him mediation and communication always imply the dissolution of sender and receiver, leaving perhaps only the message that is the gulf or abyss between them. (p. 136)
Bataille was nevertheless quite notoriously concerned with the problem of community. Contre-Attaque, Acéphale and the Collège de sociologie were all laborious attempts at confronting human coexistence as the very tragic problem it had become in the middle of the 20th century. Nancy, Blanchot, Agamben and Esposito respectively, and very consciously, picked up on this problem where Bataille had left it. Given what is at stake, how could their views on communication do without human agency or, as Galloway puts it in his 2010 lecture, without the “fluff of human mediation” (p. 9)?
It is possible precisely because all those attempts refuse to ignore the fascist catastrophe of World War II. This research on community takes place in a historical horizon where human exceptionalism is severely brought into question as a guiding principle for human coexistence. This is clearly manifest in The Inoperative Community, an important book Nancy wrote after spending a year teaching the work of Bataille, in the early 80s. When it comes to the nature of the community, Nancy writes:
it is not obvious that the community of singularities is limited to “man” and excludes, for example, the “animal” (even in the case of “man” it is not a fortiori certain that this community concerns only “man” and not also the “inhuman” or the “superhuman,” […]) (1991: 28)
To a certain extent, Nancy’s remark is reminiscent of the way Laruelle understands non-philosophy. After all, a “non-human” take on communication could not be understood as the opposite of an anthropocentric perspective, but rather as the deactivation of the dialectical operation by which the human exists in a differential opposition to something else (animals, things). This is what allows Nancy to list together, at the very beginning of Being Singular Plural, “(…) all things, all beings, all entities, everything past and future, alive, dead, inanimate, stones, plants, nails, gods—and “humans” (…)” (2001: 3). In the work of Agamben, where it is also present, this process of indifferenciation has already been linked to the work of Laruelle (Watkin, 2014).
The fact that there is a kind of communication that is prior to any form of agency can still be illustrated in another manner. In Communitas, Roberto Esposito suggests a revision of the Heideggerian formula Es gibt Sein in order to address a special kind of “donation” or munus: one that is entirely constituted by a “with” (2010: 90-91). Following Nancy’s re-reading of Being and Time, Esposito further explains that “all that exists, coexists” (Ibid.: 93; see also Nancy, 1993). In other words, what is given through the munus is the cum, and not “something” in particular: no essence, no meaning, no information. Not only is nothing given –except coexistence– but no agent is responsible for the “donation” as well: the given is without givenness. It is, as Derrida once wrote a “giving that gives but without giving anything and without anyone giving anything” (1992: 20). On this basis, one could probably argue that while there is communication, this communication is actually prior to any agent, whoever or whatever it may be. How exactly does Laruelle’s own “don sans donation” (given-without-givenness) differs from the Es gibt of munus is a question that would be worth exploring.
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