Symposium Introduction

The title of Jacques Lezra’s On the Nature of Marx’s Things: Translation as Necrophilology (Fordham, 2018) calls to mind Lucretius (the author of De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of Things”) and also therefore Marx’s relation to Lucretius. The allusion summons in turn a third proper name and body of thought, one that famously ends with an intriguing, enigmatic meditation on the Marx-Lucretius relation—that of Louis Althusser, whose thinking looms over On the Nature of Marx’s Things.1 If Lezra’s book might be construed to depart from Althusser’s investigations of the epistemological specificity of Marxism in Reading Capital, it would seem to reroute this inquiry through the Lucretian, aleatory turn of the later Althusser. The question that Lezra inherits from Reading Capital is that of what constitutes an “object” for Marx; this question, so Lezra argues, entails investigating not only Marx’s “concept of the object” but also investigating concepts themselves as objects—“second-order objects,” as Lezra sometimes calls them (18–19, 68–73).2 In this Lucretian reworking of Reading Capital, the instability afflicting the object—its “swerve,” “catastrophe,” “non-teleological dynamism,” or “entropic drift,” to cite Lezra’s terms—must be “translated” into the discourse on these objects, objects which thus are not to be represented in any mimetic sense so much as registered and formalized in the “swerve” (“catastrophe,” “dynamism,” “drift”) of these concepts themselves.3

It is in his theorization of these “second-order objects” that the specificity and originality of Lezra’s project becomes clearest. One of the major stakes of On the Nature of Marx’s Things is the contemporary contest over the notion of “materialism” as such; Lezra distinguishes his own thinking from that of New Materialism (as well as object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, etc.) precisely in offering a materialist theory of concept-formation itself, that is, in Lezra’s lexicon, a materialist theory of the “second-order objects” that we call “concepts.” Indeed, it is only through the swerves of what Lezra affirmatively refers to as “defective concepts” that critical thought may “touch” its object (46–47). In this sense, Lezra’s wager is that materialist epistemology is “more materialist” than any “ontology,” though one must hasten to add that this gesture ultimately displaces (without therefore dissolving or overcoming) the classical distinction between epistemology and ontology. The great merit of On the Nature of Marx’s Things is to show that the path forward for contemporary requires no abandonment of the concept of mediation but rather its intensification and deepening. It is thus Quentin Meillassoux, coiner of the epithet “correlationism” and exponent of a distinctly rationalist version of materialism, who emerges in the book’s final chapter as Lezra’s arch-antagonist. To the very degree that Lezra engages mediation as a concept—again, an affirmatively “defective” concept—his writing is refreshingly free of the pathos of failure that characterizes much first-generation post-structuralism. Similarly, if Lezra’s writing has a deconstructive inflection throughout, it is a version of deconstruction that strategically accents “mediation” rather than “difference” (or “différance”) and is thus able to circumvent negative theological recuperation, fetishization of alterity and abyss, or the substantivization of negativity.4

The first chapter, also bearing the title “On the Nature of Marx’s Things,” treats Marx’s early writings on Lucretius, in which the Roman philosopher-poet comes to stand in not only for the materialist undoing of teleology but also for the literary-figurative labor required to make such an undoing intelligible (37–54). While the Lucretian text lends itself readily to the construction of a Marxism both aleatory and literary and thus seems to be the very source from which On the Nature of Marx’s Things flows, Lezra’s encounter with Spinoza, and with Marx’s reading of Spinoza, must by contrast go against the grain, given the rationalist and necessitarian aspects of Spinoza’s thought (55–103). In a particularly dazzling extended analysis, Lezra demonstrates that Marx’s citation of what he calls “Spinozas Satz”—determinatio est negatio (“determination is negation”)—constitutes a paradigmatically “catastrophic” conceptual instrument, encoding a violent oscillation between first- and second-order objects, between reference to bodies or things and reference to its own status as a conceptual determination-negation. Per Lezra, Marx’s citation of Spinozas Satz is not just generally or abstractly paradoxical for the manner in which it tethers an allegedly general principle to the singularity of a proper name, but more specifically and concretely so, on account of the traits and problems associated with this proper name—Marranism, heresy, “the Jewish question”—traits which come to metaphorize and intensify the meta-logical aberration of the Satz itself. Jason Read’s contribution to this forum deftly reconstructs and recontextualizes this argument, tying it to broader questions of monism and immanent causality as they arise in French Spinozist Marxism after Althusser; in Read’s apt formulation, Lezra’s concern is thus with “the identity and difference of idea and body” as “the challenge of materialism.” Chapter 3 also takes up Marx, but rather than exploring an allusion, it proposes a structural parallel with a literary text, finding the logical conundrum of the determination of the general equivalent or index-commodity unexpectedly at work in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (104–25). Remarkably and happily, Lezra not only presents a persuasive and substantially new reading of this most interpreted of stories, he does so without a single reference to the by now lamentably overburdened “I would prefer not to.” It is from the story’s famous closing “dead letters . . . sent on errands of life” that Lezra draws the concept of “necrophilology,” which supplies the title to the chapter as well the subtitle to the work as a whole (On the Nature of Marx’s Things: Translation as Necrophilology) (122–23). In a broad, searching response, Peter Gratton queries the relation between subtitle and title, asking whether “necrophilology,” in spite of the “necro-,” remains within the humanist parameters of the linguistic turn (humanist because linguistic) and is thus ultimately incompatible with the materialist ambition signaled by the reference to “Marx’s Things.”

Crucially, On the Nature of Marx’s Things assumes a fundamental solidarity between the “impossible sciences” of Marxism and psychoanalysis and thus also contains a reflection, intermittently more and less explicit, on the nature of Freud’s things—and on the nature of Lacan’s things too. This solidarity is more pronounced in the second half of the book, in chapters 4 and 6, which take up Freud and Lacan in detail. Indeed, the now-canonical analogy between Althusser and Lacan’s respective “returns” to Marx and Freud haunts the text, though Lezra ultimately seems to drive a wedge between these efforts, radicalizing the late Althusserian aleatory reading of Marx while rescuing Freud from Lacanian logical formalization (197–99). If chapter 2, as noted above, examines in great detail the overdetermined reception of a notoriously enigmatic Satz—Marx’s citation of Spinoza—chapter 4 pursues this strategy in reverse, reading Freud’s programmatic “wo es war, soll ich sein” through its prehistory in Friedrich Schiller’s Don Karlos, a prehistory that reveals the political-theological dimension of Freud’s formulation, which in turn finds belated echo and amplification in Lacan’s “Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious” (129–56).5 Between the two explicitly psychoanalytic chapters, chapter 5 takes up non-dialectical “monstrosity” in Adorno, a thinker who should be appear in any serious treatise on mediation (157–77); Adorno’s remarks on “non-violent reflection” also supply an instructive epigraph to the text as a whole (1). In a book on Marx, psychoanalysis, and “things,” the question of fetish all but inevitably arises—and here it is the subject of Lezra’s last chapter; chapter 6, “Uncountable Matters,” thus presents the aforementioned critique of Meillassoux, carried out by way of Freud and Lacan on fetishism and threaded through readings of Dinggedichten from Donne and Neruda—with the somewhat surprising conclusion that Freud is a better materialist than both Lacan and his rationalist grandson Meillassoux, inasmuch as Freud better succeeds in marking the non-identity and incoherence of the object qua thing (178–200). This especially rich chapter is subject to commentary by both Gratton and Tracy McNulty; whereas Gratton suspects Lezra of remaining too much on the side of language, McNulty by contrast offers an inventive and precise counter-reading of the fetish and its relation to the figure, understood as a plastic or material, “paralinguistic” element that undoes any neat distinction between the linguistic and the extra-linguistic. Though Read’s response does not explicitly address the language-question, his “identity and difference of idea and body” points towards the same crux. On the Nature of Marx’s Things: Translation as Necrophilology thus succeeds in provoking a vigorous disputatio on materialism and realism, Marxism and psychoanalysis, and the philosophy of the concept after deconstruction.

  1. The relation to the late Lucretian Althusser is also the point of departure for Vittorio Morfino’s foreword (“Encounter and Translation”) to On the Nature of Marx’s Things (vii–xiii).

  2. Unless otherwise indicated, parenthetical page numbers refer to Jacques Lezra, On the Nature of Marx’s Things: Translation as Necrophilology (New York: Fordham, 2018).

  3. Lezra is also the author of a companion volume of sorts, entitled Untranslating Machines: A Genealogy for the Ends of Global Thought (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), which also focuses on translation, capital, and the problem of equivalence, but is situated more within the literary field of translation studies.

  4. Lezra’s Untranslating Machines (op. cit) is more thorough and explicit in its engagement with Derrida.

  5. The interest in political theology and sovereignty reflects a certain continuity with Lezra’s earlier Wild Materialism: The Ethic of Terror and the Modern Republic (New York: Fordham, 2010).

Jason Read


The Difference of Spinoza

Jacques Lezra’s On the Nature of Marx’s Things: Translation as Necrophilology is primarily concerned with the transformation and displacement of translation. A displacement that is not unrelated to the displacements and transformations that make up capital, make up production and exchange. Within the various displacements and translations that make up Marx’s writing, one in particular which takes on particular importance is Spinoza. Marx makes his debt to Hegel clear on multiple occasions even if it is often through metaphors of kernels and shells, heads and feet. Spinoza appears less often and the appearances are even more oblique. One of the rare, and important citations of Spinoza appears in the Grundrisse. As Marx writes, “Production as directly identical with consumption, and consumption as directly coincident with production is termed by them production and consumption. This identity of production and consumption amounts to Spinoza’s thesis: determinatio est negatio” (Marx 1973, 90). This is in some sense a citation of a citation. Marx does not so much cite Spinoza as cite Hegel citing Spinoza, or, more to the point, Hegel citing that which separates him from Spinoza. Jacques Lezra argues that Marx’s citation is not a simple restaging of the division between Hegel and Spinoza, but something more complex, and even overdetermined. In Marx’s text it is not just a matter of the abstract logics of negation and affirmation but the way in which those logics make sense of or fail to make sense of the more concrete conditions of production and consumption. As Lezra formulates the different and interconnected questions stemming from this citation and translation:

Note the three sorts of identity that run together in Marx’s famous text, at obviously different levels of analysis: the identity of production and consumption in the portmanteau concept that classical economics calls, nennt, “productive consumption”: the identity of determination and negation: and—most mysteriously—the identity on which the relation between those two hangs. (63)

Lezra’s list of the various identities and differences of concepts and problems underscores the extent to which Marx’s question in the passage is of the way that political economy constructs its object as a relation between production, consumption, and distribution. As Marx writes,

Thus production, distribution, exchange and consumption form a regular syllogism; production is the generality, distribution and exchange the particularity, and consumption the singularity in which the whole is joined together. This is admittedly a coherence, but a shallow one. Production is determined by general natural laws, distribution by social accident, and the latter may therefore promote production to a greater or lesser extent; exchange stands between the two as formal social movement; and the concluding act, consumption, which is conceived not only as a terminal point but also as an end-in-itself, actually belongs outside economics except in so far as it reacts in turn upon the point of departure and initiates the whole process anew. (Marx 1973, 89)

The economy is sustained by a logic that is at once anthropological, needs are its basis prior to and outside the economy, and anthropomorphic, the entire economy acts toward an end, towards consumption, that serves as its end. It is a logic, but a shallow one. Placing production and consumption outside of history and society means that history is only a history of distribution. There are only different relations of property, different relations of distribution, mediating and facilitating production and consumption. It is a logic that is at once anthropocentric, grounded on needs, and anthropomorphic in that the economy is the subject. The economy works to realize humanity’s needs.

This shallow coherence effaces the history of consumption, the history of needs, desires, and their transformation, a history of subjectivity, as well as the history of production, a history of the different ways in which things are produced, in terms of technology and social relation, a history of the mode of production. In opposition to it, and its particular logic, Marx constructs a series of statements that begin to examine the way in which what is posited as outside of the economy as its natural ground must also be seen as an effect. Need, or consumption, does not stand as prior to the economy, to economic relations as a basis, but appears as an effect. “Production thus produces not only the object but also the manner of consumption, not only objectively but also subjectively. Production thus creates the consumer” (Marx 1973, 92). The culmination of these various assertions leads to the assertion that production figures twice in this totality: once as a specific activity situated with respect to consumption and distribution, but also as the way in which the different activities intersect, act on, and transform each other. “Production predominates not only over itself, in the antithetical definition of production, but over the other moments as well” (Marx 1973, 99). Marx dispenses with the transitive causality of an anthropology, of needs as the basis of the economy, but also with a causality that would make production anything like a base that would act on all of the other aspects of the economy, rendering them effects. The subjectivity created in consumption in turn acts back on production, effects become causes. It is for this reason that Louis Althusser argued that the point of convergence between Marx and Spinoza was not to be found in any specific citation or reference, but in the general logic of “immanent causality.” In Spinoza the immanent cause was a way of understanding the relationship between creator and created, God and nature, a relation often summed up by the assertion “God that is nature.” Far from seeing God as some kind of transcendent cause acting above and beyond its effects it has to be seen as existing only in and through its effects. If a similar logic operates in Marx, Althusser argues, it has to be in the way in which it is now the capitalist mode of production that has to be understood as an immanent cause as a cause that exists only in its effects. To say that it exists only in its effects is to immediately displace the rigid mechanism and hierarchy of cause and effect; or, to put it more succinctly, the lonely hour of the last instance, of economic determination, never arrives. The rigid mechanism of base and superstructure is replaced by a way of thinking in which all of those things considered to be effects, most notably ideology, subjectivity, language, must be seen also as causes, as conditions that act on their cause. More specifically the effects of the capitalist mode of production are necessary conditions of its reproduction. The two conceptual innovations of Althusser’s work of the sixties and seventies, immanent causality and ideological reproduction are just two different versions of the same problem.

Lezra’s reading of the name of Spinoza in Marx repeats and follows this basic idea that can be found in Althusser. Of what is called the double determination, determination of cause and effect. As Lezra writes,

“Spinoza” and the class of terms that I am using that name to name, do work for Marx, do the work that Marx needs in order to provide the “critique” of the discipline of political economy, inasmuch as they not continuously identical or self-identical, that is, inasmuch as they are not just (like the value of commodities) doubly determined, but also over- and underdetermined by the “objects” they produce and from which they take their sense and value. (95)

This assertion can be understood as post-Althusserian in that it is not enough to simply posit the cause as immanent in its effects, as identical with its effects: it is equally necessary to think not just the double determination, as cause and effect, but also the overdetermination. Lezra cites the overdetermination of the name Spinoza itself, that part of the reason that there are so many versions of the conjunction of Marx and Spinoza is that there are so many Spinozas, republican revolutionary, heretic, materialist, monist, etc. To which we could add the multiple figures of Marx, materialist, communist, historian, philosopher, etc. The combinations multiply. However, as Lezra indicates, this overdetermination can be thought of in a different way, not in terms of the multiple significations of the name but in terms of the concepts and conceptual relations indicated by each name.

The first concept, or conceptual pairing between Spinoza and Marx, would be that of cause, or cause and effect. Spinoza and Marx are linked in terms of their positing a new figure of causality, immanent, and thus a new understanding of social relations. A second would be ideas and things, minds and bodies: Spinoza argued that “the order and connection of things is the same as the order and connection of ideas.” This idea is not without its corollary in Marx, for whom the “ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class,” the material conditions of domination are the same as their ideal expression. This identity is also a difference. As Spinoza argues ideas determine and act on ideas, while things, bodies act on and determine bodies. Spinoza’s simultaneous assertion of identity and non-relation of ideas and things would be exactly the kind of non-dialectical difference that would earn Hegel’s criticism. It seems static and paradoxical without mediation or relation. Lezra argues that the paradox is less a static substance than the beginning of a conception of dynamism. Moreover, this paradox is integral to materialism, which is predicated on the insistence of the identity of bodies and ideas, as both are effects of the mode of production, which produces both objects and subjects, things and ideas, social relations and subjects. At the same time a materialist philosophy cannot end there, it must also address the specific and different causal conditions of ideas and bodies. Chantal Jaquet refers to this logic as a “logic of alternation.” As she argues, Spinoza sometimes uses bodies to explain the relations between ideas; for example, universal notions such as “man” arise when “so many images are formed at one time in the human body that they surpass the power of imagining” (EIIP40Schol). The limits of the bodies’ capacity to be affected underly the limitation of the mind’s capacity to think. In a similar manner some of the most intimate expressions of affective life, jealousy, anger, and fear, can be understood not by examining the body but the association of ideas. Jealousy and fear are connections of ideas before they are lived as affects in the body. Moving beyond Spinoza we could argue that the logic of alternation sometimes compels us to grasp ideologies by their material conditions and sometimes when confronted with brute materiality of bodies and forces it is necessary to examine the ideas that organize forces and bodies. Or, to use Etienne Balibar’s terminology, sometimes the explanation is found on the “other scene”: sometimes to understand the material forces we need to resort to ideology, and sometimes to understand ideology we need to turn to material forces.

As Lezra argues, this identity and difference of idea and body is the challenge of materialism. Materialism cannot be a materialism of the thing, of the object, but nor can it be a materialism of the idea, of theoretical practice. Instead materialism is both a materialism of things and ideas, tracing their overdetermined connections and their disparate effects. Lezra’s book is not dedicated entirely to Spinoza, only parsing out the effects and conditions of one citation. It is not, as with recent books by Franck Fischbach or Frédéric Lordon, an attempt to grasp the entirety of the Marx/Spinoza relation. However, its attentiveness to a singular instance of Spinoza in Marx, a citation of a citation no less, demonstrates that the Marx and Spinoza connection has to be judged in terms of its effects.


Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. “The Object of Capital.” In Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital. Translated by Ben Brewster. London: New Left, 1970.

Jaquet, Chantal. Spinoza à l’oeuvre: Composition des corps et force des idées. Paris: Sorbonne, 2017.

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. 1857. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. New York: Penguin, 1973.

Spinoza, Benedict. The Ethics. In The Collected Works of Spinoza, translated and edited by Edwin Curley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

  • Jacques Lezra

    Jacques Lezra


    Response to Jason Read

    Jason Read’s “The Difference of Spinoza” opens describing the primary concern of On the Nature of Marx’s Things: “The transformation and displacement of translation. A displacement that is not unrelated to the displacements and transformations that make up capital.” I’m struck at the formula: “not unrelated.” Here Read compactly touches on one of the book’s points of stress. We handle concepts of “relation” and call this management “thinking”—concepts of the relation between individuals (forming or discerning classes of individuals based in likenesses, unlikenesses: we think “abstractly”); concepts of the relation between one group of relations, like “transformations and displacements” of one sort of material (call it linguistic material: translation, then) and another group of relations, like the “transformations and displacements” of materials that enter into the circuit of commodities. It’s strange to call thinking “handling concepts of relation,” but the figure helps underscore simultaneously that “thinking” has a relation to embodiment; that concepts are the sorts of objects (or are like them; or related to them) that can be handled; that concepts are not just used to given or derived ends (I can handle a hammer and not be using it; I can handle the shard of a cup and not drink from the fragment, or even remember the cup it was part of); even that my relation to concepts is unthought and unthinking (my handling may be habitual, as when I flick on the light-switch when entering a room). To think of thinking as “handling concepts of relation” allows me to imagine a state of affairs in which concepts of relation, like things handled and like individuals subject to relation, can be broken, scuffed, forgotten, dropped and destroyed, as well as made, valued, exchanged, admired, consumed . . .

    To affirm that two individuals are “not unrelated” is not the same as to affirm that they are related: this seems intuitively correct, though it’s hard to spell out the difference in practice. The difficulty may flow from the difference between the rhetorical and logical forces of the expression. “I’m happy with the reception of my book” does not mean the same, we know, as “I’m not unhappy with the reception of my book.” Two quite different professional identities are on display, though logically the two phrases should mean the same. Recall the double negatives of “Bartleby, the Scrivener’s” orbicular narrator, whose mode is partly the subject of the third chapter of On the Nature of Marx’s Things: “I was not unemployed in my profession. . . . I was not insensible to the late John Jacob Astor’s good opinion.” Prudence keeps this most prudent man from the vanity of affirming that he was employed, and that he was sensible to that opinion; no such prudence inhibits Melville’s reader, who infers what was guarded and thereby learns to doubt the moral value, we might say, of that sort of prudence. The “transformation and displacement of translation” “is not unrelated to the displacements and transformations,” but what relation can be inferred from Read’s prudent formula, and from On the Nature of Marx’s Things? On what sorts of grounds will we draw this inference, and what value will it have? Is the not-unrelatedness of translation’s transformations to capital’s a concept (classically defined: coherent or tending to coherence and identity; boundable; useful), or is it the sort of thing I handle instead?

    The royal way into my handling of “not unrelatedness”—the “not-unrelatedness” of translation’s displacements and the displacements of capital—is to be found, for Read, in the account of Marx’s encounter with Spinoza that On the Nature of Marx’s Things offers. Read very helpfully unpacks the different levels on which this encounter takes place, and rightly points out the importance of a Spinozan principle of causation to Marx—a sort of retroactive causation bound to conflict with the different figures of determination at work in Capital especially. (And even more strikingly at work in the roughly-called Hegelian reception of Marx; as well as in circumstances in which it may be strategically useful to offer as seeming certainties the outcomes of specific political interventions at concrete moments.) This conflict, Read suggests, lines up with a conflict of a different sort whose dynamic traces run through Capital. On one side of Marx’s work we find a “shallow” “logic that is at once anthropological, needs are its basis prior to and outside the economy, and anthropomorphic, the entire economy acts toward an end, towards consumption, that serves as its end” and “effaces the history of consumption, the history of needs, desires, and their transformation, a history of subjectivity, as well as the history of production, a history of the different ways in which things are produced, in terms of technology and social relation, a history of the mode of production. In opposition to it,” Read suggests, “Marx constructs a series of statements that begin to examine the way in which what is posited as outside of the economy as its natural ground must also be seen as an effect.” The “Spinozan difference” consists in this reinscription of the “outside,” “natural ground” of economy and society as instead or in addition as the effect of these.

    Marx’s logic is “not unrelated” to Spinoza’s, but how does Marx handle Spinoza? On this question there is, and should be, controversy. Despite the deep structural affinities that Read and others, not least of them Althusser and Balibar, note between the two, On the Nature of Marx’s Things chooses to hang its argument on a very slender peg. The tactic is not unrelated to Althusser’s own symptomale readings of Marx, though just how the notion of “symptom” is to be handled has changed substantially in the past half-century (along with the notions of “body,” “effect, “cause,” “pathology,” and so on). I think Read is right in insisting that the symptom-tactic as deployed in On the Nature of Marx’s Things is post- rather than strictly Althusserian. The surplus-and-deficit machines tipping the argument away from the figure of the symptom are the couplet of over- and under-determination, and the handling of concepts—defective, explicitly subject to scuffing and nonidentities, embodied, materialized; liable to dropping, destruction, forgetting, and so on. Here’s an example. Read reminds us of Chantal Jacquet’s observation: “Spinoza sometimes uses bodies to explain the relations between ideas; for example, universal notions such as ‘man’ arise when ‘so many images are formed at one time in the human body that they surpass the power of imagining’ (EIIP40Schol). The limits of the bodies’ capacity to be affected,” Read continues, “underly the limitation of the mind’s capacity to think. In a similar manner some of the most intimate expressions of affective life, jealousy, anger, and fear, can be understood not by examining the body but the association of ideas.” The problem is Soritical: one fact or individual will yield an adequate image; two will permit a judgment of similarity between two adequate images, and the imagination will produce an image of what-is-similar among the two individuals and can be predicated of both; so too with three; and so on until a threshold is crossed, and the universal notion, by defect, is produced from the exhaustion of vis imaginativa. But what is this threshold? The question beats at the heart of what Read rightly identifies as the “identity and difference of idea and body [that] is the challenge of materialism.” He continues, summarizing a turn in the argument of On the Nature of Marx’s Things: “Materialism cannot be a materialism of the thing, of the object, but nor can it be a materialism of the idea, of theoretical practice. Instead materialism is both a materialism of things and ideas, tracing their overdetermined connections and their disparate effects.” When we ask about this “threshold,” we are also asking about the not unrelatedness of “things” and “ideas,” both of which are “objects” for Marx—though they operate at different levels in Capital (and in capital). What status does the threshold have? With this question, a materialism of relation comes on scene. (Thresholds are such things as can be handled; they offer a materialism of the not-unrelated.) Is the threshold between body and idea (the idea of the body; the embodiment of the idea) an aspect of the concept of the imagination? Is it an attribute of all bodies? For instance, of the embodied ideas “Spinoza” and “Marx” or for a certain Karl Marx and Bento Spinoza, the bodies that bear those names. But the expression “all bodies” is also a universal, and also an axiom of exhaustion. So—are we predicating this “threshold” of “all bodies” out of exhaustion—this time, out of the double exhaustion of our capacity to imagine the limits of the power of the imagination, and of the exhaustion of our capacity to imagine “all bodies”?

    Marx, I suggest, handles this sort of Soritical question, indeed this very question, first as a problem of translation or translatability. Translation is the door into the question of the normative ground of the threshold between bodies and ideas, that is, into Marx’s underlying handling of materialism. It’s here that his residual Lucretianism is at work, since the threshold is crossed per saltum. The expression is Hegel’s; he is seeking to translate into a conceptual frame tolerable to the Logic a distressingly aleatory movement per casus or per lapsus, the accidental falling-together movement or declinatio of Lucretian ontology, cosmology, logic, and historiography. Capital, and capital, not unrelatedly, translate among orders of thought and across material thresholds, the thresholds that constitute materialism, per saltum but also per casus. Translation in capital (and in Capital) happens incerto tempore ferme / incertisque locis spatio (DRN 2:219–20): at uncertain times and in undetermined places. It could have happened otherwise: the lemma of the underground materialism of the encounter, as the late Althusser has it. On the Nature of Marx’s Things takes up an alternative I explore in Wild Materialism (2010): it is, it happens, otherwise.

    How does it help us today, when the world is so direly in need of transformation, to interpret things, bodies, ideas, and the not-unrelated translations among them as On the Nature of Marx’s Things does? Let’s say we could indeed—by means, say, of such an interpretation—install the material operator “not unrelated” where the assertive, imprudent ontologization of relation now rules. (I want to distinguish between the “ontologization of relation,” stress on the verb, which I take to be the sovereign act of granting a “relation” existential primacy over relata; and the “ontology of relation,” a paradoxical and deeply helpful sort-of-concept handled with the greatest lucidity by Simondon, Balibar, and Read himself, which instead—here the Spinozist strain of the argument is clear—dissolves any claim to existential primacy in the solvent of a general monism.) Install that form: this would mean reinscribing the “outside,” the “natural ground” of economy and society: the “natural ground,” body, ecology, material circumstance, are now effects, and as such not prior to but correlative with economy and society. Tendentious separations, built to serve historical interests, become untenable; the role of extractive logic in the production of the environment becomes unassailable; that bodies are and bear the effects of logics of production and consumption, too.

    But this isn’t enough. On the Nature of Marx’s Things tries, with what success of course is to be seen, to offer the bases and means by which interpretation can lead to specific, concrete political-administrative change, by claiming that the not-unrelatedness of Marx’s things, as I’ve been calling it here (with my great thanks to Jason Read), can serve as the structure of institutions. (Administrative, social, political, juridical . . .) I mean this quite specifically, though my argument here operates where the question of the decline into universals occurs. On the Nature of Marx’s Things offers, not-quite-explicitly, a theory of institution and of state- and self-governance based in defective associations and in bodies’ and ideas’ not-unrelatedness. To make these explicit is the task of the book I’m working on now.

Peter Gratton


On the Nature of Lezra’s Things

“Yes,” one plenary speaker intoned to an audience of poststructuralists at the open of a conference, “there is no reason to deny that photons have an unconscious.” Thus she represented herself as contributing to the “new materialisms” and “new realisms” in current Continental thought, which received further boosting from a closing lecture at the same conference when another speaker attempted to tease out how rocks could feel pain. The takeaway was a quasi-political correctness in the air, that to deny pain to rocks or a quasi-soul to photons was analogous to denying rights to racial minorities. The task of these new materialists has been to surpass a focus in critical theory on language and mediation, which are said to block us from discussions of nature as such. Influenced by Bruno Latour as well as a whole line of thought going back to Spinoza, the new materialists have argued for a flatter ontology that undoes the self-world split found in the Kant and his heirs—“correlationism” in Quentin Meillassoux’s terms—which they believe rendered the in-itself as inert, or at the least, as a receiver of human concepts. In sum, the new materialists and new realists have rightly seen that hermeneutics and deconstruction often became at best a neo-Kantian denial about questions of the real and the material. Instead of the philosophies of difference, we now have the pseudo-politics of indifference, where all supposed distinctions coming with the force of a long tradition are not just contested but removed. This has the effect of providing an anthropomorphism of nature worse than the anthropocentrism that is being critiqued, saying to nature, “You’re great, you’re just like us. You have agency, you have pain, you mourn”! A larger project would ask why various writers are pushing an argument that claims to absolve itself of humanism while its metaphors and tropes very much belong to it? After all, there are many beliefs we don’t wish to have in life: beer is not a health food; the grey-haired God of my earliest children’s books is dead; male hair loss is not, in fact, sexy—so why a certain need to believe in the mourning of rocks?

This, in a sense, is the question that animates chapter 6, “Uncountable Matters,” of Jacques Lezra’s important and often daring On the Nature of Marx’s Things: Translation as Necrophilology. The book offers a far-reaching reconsideration of Marx and Marxian thought after Althusser’s aleatory materialism—what Lezra dubs the former’s Lucretian strain (9)—all while attempting to provide us tools for beginning to dismantle the thinking of objects that is the condition of possibility of neoliberal commodification. The book suggests that objects are not stable entities but always exist in translation (neither wholly material nor wholly conceptual) between words and things.

If one thinks that his concentration on “Marx’s things” brings him within the orbit of the new materialisms and new realisms, then the introduction and chapter 6 instantly do away with any such notion. He begins chapter 6, for example, “from a position of deep dissatisfaction” at how materiality and objecthood “are used, when, synonymously or just hand in hand, they are made proxies for nonhuman agency” (178). Who, though, could deny “nonhuman agency”? And why have such “mistrust” or “irritation,” let alone see such a proffering of this agency as “masochist[ic]” (180)? Lezra’s reasons are not all easy to make out (he takes us deep into the woods of Freud’s 1927 account of fetishism by way of Lacan, an approach that has never made any point less obscure), but he avers:

  1. The new materialisms and realisms—whose differences, he wrongly suggests, are merely “trivial” (234n2)—provide, perhaps with the exception of Meillassoux, a new Enlightenment in which “new ‘matter,’ new ‘objects,’ new ‘things’ fashion the world to our advantage in the very gesture of abjecting us” (180). This enlightened humanism commits us to the last property of the human: to see itself as merely one thing among others and, therefore, as nothing special in the world, repeating the tropes of the humanisms Lezra and the new materialists critique. How this is an enlightened approach, I have no idea, not least given the pre-Kantian tilt of many of the new materialisms and new realisms (if not that of Ray Brassier, whose approach to Sellars necessitates a return to Kant). And how this could not be said of any “anti-humanism” is hard to tell: you might as well say the deconstruction of the human/nonhuman dyad is done by humans and therefore remains a humanism. (Vexingly, some new materialists have used just such a facile gambit.) Humanism is an ism, a centering, and Lezra himself suggests that what drives these fields is a marginalization of the human (180–82). This critique, while exoterically concerned with a return of a certain humanism (I would say dialectically an anti-humanism that brings in a humanism if not for the rejection of a certain dialectics in the text), is less about that humanism than the tone of the new materialists.
  2. The tone is one of a “humanism of masochists” and is not insubstantial to Lezra’s incisive critique, even if this not the way he puts it (180). We define ourselves as heroes in a story in which the new materialist recognizes what previous generations of theorists were too humanist and too blind to note: we are nothing special and there are “rights” we humans deny to things in this “democracy of objects” (179), just as previous generations denied the rights of women, people of color, of animals, and now rocks and relics. Lezra writes,

Both “anthropomorphization” and the companion demand that we embrace speculative, post-anthropocentric thought make all things ours inasmuch as they are material, our kin, our proxy. Whatever-things and all-things bear our species its redemption inasmuch as all things are now agents, bearers of rights, entities to which and for which we are responsible, big-o Others. (180)

Though seemingly more facile—what does it mean to critique a shared tone as he implicitly does?—Lezra is on sure ground here: to parrot the language of these liberatory discourses in the name of those things that have no proper name (things) is to practice the politics of indifference, not simply that there are no differences among things but also an indifference to those struggles that analogically the new materialists often borrow from in anthropomorphizing that which is nonhuman. There is all the difference between deconstructing the human/nonhuman distinction and destroying it, just as there is all the difference between Fanon’s “crushing objecthood” and objecthood itself. The political stakes are quite high here, as Lezra rightly sees.

  1. Lezra cannot deny agency to materiality, as his beginning question suggests, without subtending his own humanism or denying his own materialism. He is right to suggest that what is on offer from the new materialists is a narratology, which is just a new animistic spin on an old story, one that gets rid of “mediation (note well: this chapter appears in the section of the book called ‘Mediation’), critique, textuality, and culture” (180). The new materialisms and new realisms (except, again, perhaps Meillassoux, for Lezra) offer up narratives of the “human to human, human to and with nonhuman, face to face, world without end, as it was once before we pointed to something, some matter, that was-not-yet object as such and named it thus and so” (180–81). In short, what we have is less a new set of realisms and materialisms than a return to what philosophers call naïve realism—a belief in our unmediated access to the world. Here, Lezra is on even firmer ground. Let’s leave aside the speculative realists for the moment, since Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Ray Brassier have rather complicated accounts of the real and are critics of any easy “access” to it. This is not the case with new materialists such as Bennett: one cannot just narrate away mediation, since the narration is the mediation, as generations of good hermeneuts understood. This doesn’t make the latter anti-realist, but rather one sees that the real is what translates itself. To put it another way, when the new materialist narrates garbage dumps and power outages and the “wild,” we see the hand of the all-too-human narrator at work, like a magician trying to pull off a trick with a glass box.
  2. Meillassoux, then, remains Lezra’s last target. His realism falls to Lezra’s ambitious critique, via Freud and Lacan, of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities (194–45). The fetish object is neither “real” nor “imaginary,” neither “symbolic” or “thing,” or in other philosophical terms, neither a fact or a value. And the wish for unmediated access to the real via mathematics is another ontotheology, the reduction of the real to one substrate (the mathematical), or as Lezra puts in Bourdeauian terms, looks to make a discipline from which one has special access as a subject of that discipline. That in the end is what is at stake: to claim new disciplines that answer to the neoliberal need for new commodities (post-this, post-that) to be brought to market.

What, then, is to be done? Lezra calls for thinking matter as uncountable by any discipline; it absolutizes what is not-one and cannot even be counted upon for providing the human its abjection. And yet, between the title and the subtitle of the book, one finds what Meillassoux might call a correlationism between one side and the other. On the one hand, we have a claim that this book—an erudite and excellent one from the first word to its last—concerns Marx’s and the nature of “things.” Then comes the subtitle: “Translation as Necrophilology.” Which is it? On the hand, an account of the things themselves—let’s assume—and on the other, translation as necrophilology, which would mean, one would think, an entree onto language and the vicissitudes among various natural languages, which is to say, we are in a Saussurean world in which no one reaches the thing itself, but are endlessly invited to more interpretations and translations with no referent to the nature of things. Hence, we might think we have a divided book: we talk either about the things themselves or are endlessly doing “readings” that get us nowhere, a critical reader might aver, since we are still caught within textual practices, albeit necrophilological ones. For my part, I don’t think translation is on the side of natural languages (20) and, following Jean-Luc Nancy, the passage of sense happens in and amongst things, but Lezra hopes that a critique that finishes off the new materialists would finish off not just his book but any possible critique of his own necrophilology. I am less convinced. He writes as the conclusion to the book:

We will want to recognize, and assume, that inhuman matter insists in us just where we count ourselves both as one thing among others and, covertly, as the measure of all things. . . . Whatever ethicopolitical disposition we seek to assume regarding the human animal’s predatory relation to itself and its environment will answer to these conditions, or fail. (200)

But Judith Butler recognizes rightly what his necrophilology means in her back-cover blurb for the book: “For Lezra, the term ‘object’ designated neither the mental object nor the material one but precisely the relation between them, a relation of translation.” Or as he puts it himself, “Here, the term ‘object’ will designate neither the mental object nor the material one that I can point to or designate . . . but rather, something like [my emphasis, since so much rides on how near and far this likeness is] the relation between them, or better the translation between them” (20). This relation is precisely the target of Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism, whereby we focus on our representation of things rather than the things themselves. If this is the case, as an escape route out of humanism, Lezra’s necrophilology would be dead on arrival. In sum, I left this book wondering if Lezra had threaded the needle of (a) basing his analyses on the “relation between” the mental object and the material one, and (b) having a negative materialism that would bypass correlationism. No doubt, by following up on Althusser’s thinking of mediation and negative articulation of materiality, especially from his later work, Lezra gives us much to consider when thinking “translation” and language otherwise than as mastered by human agency, but in the hiatus between his title and subtitle remains, perhaps, a humanism that dare not speaks its name.

  • Jacques Lezra

    Jacques Lezra


    “This Thing of Likeness I Acknowledge Mine”: Response to Peter Gratton

    There being in perfectly similar and equal but incongruous solids, such as the right and the left hand, conceived of solely as to extent, or spherical triangles in opposite hemispheres, a difference rendering impossible the coincidence of their limits of extension, although for all that can be stated in marks intelligible to the mind by speech they are interchangeable, it is patent that only by pure intuition can the difference, namely, incongruity, be noticed.

    —Immanuel Kant, “Dissertation on the Form and Principles of the Sensible and the Intelligible World”


    . . . and he sighed with many sighs

    That moved me, and his cheeks were wan and white

    Like pallid lilies, and his lips were red

    Like poppies, and his hands he clenched tight,

    And yet again unclenched, and his head

    Was wreathed with moon-flowers pale as lips of death.

    —Lord Alfred Douglas, “Two Loves​”


    I am grateful to Peter Gratton for his attention to On the Nature of Marx’s Things: Translation as Necrophilology. I hasten to add the subtitle, since Gratton’s response takes the book to task for sneaking a “humanism that dare not speak its name” back into the critique of humanism just where the colon falls—in the hiatus between “things” and “translation.” “Which is it?” he asks—things or translation? “Hence,” Gratton writes, “we might think we have a divided book: we talk either about the things themselves or are endlessly doing ‘readings’ that get us nowhere, a critical reader might aver, since we are still caught within textual practices, albeit necrophilological ones.” Gratton’s point is that whatever it is that links an ostensibly realist project—concerned with the “nature of things”—to a linguistic project—translation among natural languages, of course, but more problematically still the organization and characterization of conceptualization and thought according to linguistic schemes—reintroduces the very correlationist topology the book criticizes in Meillassoux and others. He sees my project as trying to come up with a way of thinking across and with the hiatus; he is left suspecting that I sneak in the shameful figure of the human to carry out that task. There’s some reason to worry that this happens, I agree: the terms we criticize have a way of finding back doors through which to re-enter the most guarded of arguments. And who would not cringe at the prospect of being “caught within textual practices”?

    Calling “humanism” whatever-it-is that enters through the back, ashamed or unable to call itself by name, seems to me off. And yet getting the name of this whatever-it-is right is a matter of high conceptual as well as political and economic stakes, as Gratton notes. Also of high disciplinary stakes. “Humanism’s” sad history of collusion with bad and worse need hardly be recalled, but it is a historical term whose uses vary and values wane and wax. Tarring a thinker with “humanism,” shameful or heroic (as I do, I admit, with New Materialism), is an old and happy way for the bien-pensant disciplinarian to put that thinker in his (in this case) place.

    I’m not unhappy that the book’s queerness should be identified, its name spoken at last—though I suspect that the name the book has deliberate trouble speaking is not the names “human” or “humanism,” but rather “politics” as expressed in the formula “something like.” Indeed you might say that the book intends to make the political formula “something like,” or in its complete form “something like the relation between the mental object and the material,” hard to speak, hard to think, and difficult to name. Why would I want to make things harder for us? Why make a name harder, rather than easier, to think and speak? Pace Wittgenstein, language doesn’t just go on holiday when things are made hard in this way: it’s made to stop doing its job, it’s furloughed, locked out. Why (to take the chapter at hand) take my readers “deep into the woods of Freud’s 1927 account of fetishism by way of Lacan, an approach that has never made any point less obscure,” as Gratton puts it? Am I (who would?) denying nonhuman agency? How does something like “politics” get to stand on the formula “something like”?

    Let me out myself. First off, I do not have Gratton’s faith in the idea that we can, after all and at last, approach either “things” or “translation,” or “something like” their relation, if not immediately, then at least without tangling ourselves irremediably in mediations. Some of these make our paths obscure; some shed light for indeterminate reasons; some set us off on different paths altogether; some end up being the paths we take. Only very impoverished notions of mediation, of historicity, of thought, things, and the dynamic and historically contingent movements among these will offer up “things,” “translation,” and “something like” their relation outside the thicket. Just such notions are one of the book’s targets—from the first. The book makes its way to the last chapter, on which Gratton focuses, with some deliberation. It’s possible—it’s likely—that the position the last chapter opens on, of dissatisfaction and irritation with the uses of “materiality and objecthood,” has its foundation in these chapters. To lay this foundation—and to map out the Lucretian turn in Marx—the first chapters directly address the standing of “relation”—the relation between material things that I can point to, demonstrate, hand over to the “this” and the “meaning” of what comes to hand really; and the concepts associated with them. The tack is not just (post-) Hegelian and (post-) Althusserian; a wholesale engagement with Husserl is entailed (though it’s implicit—time and the economies of writing prevailed); Simondon and Balibar on the ontology of relation are the book’s interlocutors here. Second—still preliminary. The distinction between “things” and “translation” (of the sorts of apparently immaterial things we can translate: “pain,” “bread,” etc.) is, as Gratton knows, an especially shaky one in Lucretian atomology. Marx’s materialism takes that shakiness seriously, as do I.

    “Something like the relation . . .” Gratton is right to pick up the phrase-formula. It makes the book’s argument in the compactest possible way. The domain of what is “like” (which is to say—according to one definition—of what can be assigned a common predicate with something else) is a “thing,” a “something.” A thing, this thing (for now, a material object as well as an object of thought) is related to that inasmuch as they bear a common predicate. (“. . . is cold,” said of a beer—to take Gratton’s example—relates that beer to whatever I predicate “. . . is cold” of; and “beer” is “something like” “male hair loss” because both “. . . are examples” in Gratton’s argument). “Relation” is a “thing,” “something;” and it is also like a thing. This is odd and distinctly worth exploring. On the Nature of Marx’s Things outlines, through Marx’s lasting engagement with Lucretian atomology, the notion that relations have material, objectual standing, and obey many of the same rules of movement, extensibility, production, composition and decomposition as both real, material, indicable objects and concepts. My suggestion is that this strange notion of materialized, objectual relation opens up a distinctly political lexicon.

    When I say that “something like a relation” between “things” and “language” obtains, or can be established, or can be fashioned, or produced, or assigned value, or marketed, I mean in the first place something like this. When I mark off a class of actors who have some standing and some commonality—let’s call them an economic class, or a social class, or an interest group: the basic unit of political association—I may then say that the members of that group resemble one another, that they are alike, in this: that they belong to that class. Whatever differences I may want to note among them, this at least will be true: that they share a spectral resemblance to one another inasmuch as belonging-to-the-class qualifies them in the same way, and that they are alike in that respect. “Likeness” is, on this description, a logical operator rather than a concept, strictly speaking—but a powerful one, whose abstractness can get us into trouble rather quickly. My “like” actors—things and language, say—may not recognize their likeness, but if they do they have at their disposal the lexicon of solidarity, even of fraternity, in which to express this recognition of their likeness.

    When I say that “something like a relation” obtains or can be established between “things” and “language,” I may have in mind, in the second place, a stronger view regarding this “likeness.” Let’s say we agree that “this group of people has a common interest, let’s say they are all interested in gaining access to land that will allow them to grow food, or to employment that will allow them to feed their families,” and that I am a member of that group. We are “alike,” in my first, abstract sense, merely in having in common the belonging-to-this-class. But I may want to assert something stronger: I may want to say that we share a “likeness” that is the condition upon which we enter into the class or the group. We are all, we might say, hungry people, or people desirous of employment—and this quality that we share is the condition on which we can be understood to be a class. It is the condition on which we can be grouped and our interests assessed, compared, and measured in a general economic frame: like with like. “Like with like”: I am now founding the first, abstract sense in which I say that this or that person is like another, upon a prior, qualitative likeness we share: we resemble one another in being hungry, or desirous of employment. We are first alike in this definitive and immanent sense, and then we discover or disclose to one another the abstract relation we also share: being possessed of that quality is also an abstract relation; here too we will have at our disposal the lexicon of solidarity, even of fraternity, in which to express this recognition of our likeness.

    When I say that “something like a relation” obtains or can be established between “things” and “language,” I may be using the term to distinguish it from a stronger form of identification: this is like that, but it is not identical in substance with it. I am like you in this respect, say inasmuch as we are both hungry and that we demand, together, that our needs be met, but we are not the same. We may even be alike in “liking” Fred, or in “liking” green beans. A simile will hold two terms in tremulous proximity, but the assertion of a metaphoric identity is never consummated: “his cheeks were wan and white / Like pallid lilies, and his lips were red / Like poppies”—but they were not. (Even the line breaks serve to mark the difference.) “Achilles is like a lion,” in having a great mane of hair, in his valor, in his nobility: but the word “like” calls up immediately an aspectual distinction between Achilles and the lion. Achilles is like a lion in this respect and that, but not, for instance, in marching on four paws, or in allowing the female of the species to hunt for him, or in having a tail. The aspectual distinction that “like” holds forth, and which the identity proposition of a metaphor or of a name hides, need not be quite so trivial as this aesthetic, Homeric example might imply. Indeed one can organize an entire cosmology around this distinction between the assertion of identity and the assertion of likeness, as Aquinas does in Summa Theologica 1.13, “On the Names of God.” These are Aquinas’s famous words, which establish that “being,” existence, is the univocal, “universal ground” of “likeness” that permits other substantial, but equivocal, likenesses to be established among or discerned in actually existing beings. This univocal, universal ground produces its own likeness, the fact that existent beings exist, because it is univocal: and in this sense it is a likeness that precedes being-like-another-substance. It is, in short, the condition of transcendence; the ground of theology. This is the passage from Summa Theologica:

    Although equivocal predications must be reduced to univocal, still in actions, the non-univocal agent must precede the univocal agent. For the non-univocal agent is the universal cause of the whole species, as for instance the sun is the cause of the generation of all men; whereas the univocal agent is not the universal efficient cause of the whole species (otherwise it would be the cause of itself, since it is contained in the species), but is a particular cause of this individual which it places under the species by way of participation. Therefore the universal cause of the whole species is not an univocal agent; and the universal cause comes before the particular cause. But this universal agent, whilst it is not univocal, nevertheless is not altogether equivocal, otherwise it could not produce its own likeness, but rather it is to be called an analogical agent, as all univocal predications are reduced to one first non-univocal analogical predication, which is being.

    Political theology stands on the reticent relation of likeness that the sovereign bears to God: he is like God, but not in ways that humans can know fully, because God’s qualities are beyond us, and our terms for them are merely like the names Gods qualities would properly have. “So the name of ‘lion’ applied to God,” Aquinas says, “means only that God manifests strength in His works, as a lion in his. Thus it is clear that applied to God the signification of names can be defined only from what is said of creatures.” When God becomes a lion, or when Achilles becomes a lion, when we say “Achilles is a lion” or “God is a lion,” or when we say “MAN is born free; and everywhere he is in chains,” we lose our guide along with the lost, aspectual “like” that provides us with what Aquinas calls “proportionate likeness.” Now, when we must supply “likeness” where there is no “like” to indicate that we may do so, to indicate that we are licensed to do so; now, under the weight of identity we are invited or required to provide, not just the aspects under which the similarity of the terms “Achilles” and “lion” or “chain” and “fetter more broadly construed” might fall, but also the figure of an identity without aspectual qualification: Achilles truly is a lion, when he is also manifestly not; man everywhere truly is in chains, when there are also and evidently men walking the streets, freely, whose mind-forged manacles we only imagine. But how? In what respect can something both be and not be something else? A different concept of identity is entailed than classically obtains in the logic of propositions, including propositions concerned with such ontico-political matters as citizenship, or representativity, or sovereignty. If Achilles can both be a lion and not be a lion, if Man can both be in chains and not be in chains, then a citizen may also be a slave, and someone who hungers, whose political identity is that he belongs to the class of people whose hunger is definitive of their political standing, this person may also not hunger; a sovereign may be other than a sovereign at once; a king may have two bodies. When identity propositions are haunted by the difference of mere “likeness,” “like” is not only a political concept—it gives us the privileged figure of theologico-political subordination to a single, ghostly, univocal predication that stands, in sovereign silence, over all else. The specter of “likeness” provides the privileged figure of modern political language: the simile, the figure of aspectual relation, which is to say of limited identification, of a contracted and limited identification with another, or with a group. I am like you, inasmuch as we hunger for the same things or desire in common this or that thing. But I differ from you as well, and when our goals are achieved or when they are shown to be unachievable my elective association with you reaches its term, and we part ways, and I find myself allied with another, for now, in this or that context and to one or another end.

    I have been referring throughout to the “ghostly” effects of “like,” whose systematic unsystematicity I have been outlining. I’m doing this for rhetorical purposes, of course, but also in order to emphasize the connection that “something likeness,” the major operator of On the Nature of Marx’s Things, has to a specific biopolitical, bio-theological register, in which sovereign power is invested in political subjects, and transferred across generations, according to a principle tied classically to likeness to the father. The systematic unsystematicity of “like” reflects in part, and in part generates, crises in the application and in the understanding of that principle, crises that take institutional form in, and at the advent of, European modernity: of Marxian modernity.

    Here is an example. We are on the battlements in Elsinore, where Horatio and the watch greet Hamlet and open the play on the question of the likeness between their recollection of the dead monarch, and the appearance of his ghost. Look, Marcellus says, “There it comes again!” “In the same figure, like the king that’s dead,” Bernardo exclaims. “Looks it not like the king? mark it, Horatio.” And Horatio: “Most like: it harrows me with fear and wonder.” Here it is the similarity of appearance between the ghost and the living king that Shakespeare’s characters intend to stress. If “like” is a figure, it is a figure tending not toward substitution but toward identity: “In the same figure, like the king that’s dead”: the “same figure,” the figure of sameness, is the figure of “like.” On the battlements, before the hour when the cock crows, likeness strikes the eye; from this “like” flow the claims that the specter makes upon the living. To the extent that one generation truly resembles, is like, another, the state’s coherence is secured. Like passes to like, the ghost of sovereign authority carried upon genetic likeness. The play Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most searching consideration of the politics of likeness.

    Hamlet himself is less sure that “likeness” of this sort secures the claims of the sovereign and the father—“The spirit that I have seen,” he says, “May be the devil: and the devil hath power / To assume a pleasing shape.” He famously dithers; he offers a conception of man that takes up the matter of likeness, and finds it unsatisfactory, and lacking in delight. “What a piece of work is a man!” Hamlet will exclaim. “How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” How like an angel; how like a god. That Hamlet then goes on to stress man’s disanalogy to both gods and angels and his dislike for man in general—and woman too—tells us how far he has moved from the battlements at the play’s opening, but also from the Thomist stress on the univocity of Being, the universal ground on which substantial, equivocal analogies stand. Finally, the grounds the play provides for his decision to seek revenge are not clear: the “likeness” of the ghost to his father alone is shown to be insufficient.

    But this is already true on the battlements, where Shakespeare ties the incoherence of the concept of likeness both to doubts concerning the transmission of legitimate sovereign power and to the overdetermination of his medium. These are the lines I am remembering. Horatio is addressing Hamlet, explaining what he and the watch have seen in past nights:


    Two nights together had these gentlemen,

    Marcellus and Bernardo, on their watch,

    In the dead vast and middle of the night,

    Been thus encounter’d. A figure like your father,

    Armed at point exactly, cap-a-pe,

    Appears before them, and with solemn march

    Goes slow and stately by them: thrice he walk’d

    By their oppress’d and fear-surprised eyes,

    Within his truncheon’s length; whilst they, distilled

    Almost to jelly with the act of fear,

    Stand dumb and speak not to him. This to me

    In dreadful secrecy impart they did;

    And I with them the third night kept the watch;

    Where, as they had deliver’d, both in time,

    Form of the thing, each word made true and good,

    The apparition comes: I knew your father;

    These hands are not more like.

    “I knew your father; / These hands are not more like.” We know what Horatio must mean: this hand, my left for instance, is like this other hand, my right, say, in the way that the dead king is, or was, like the ghost. Proportional analogy stands on and in the actor’s hand, which gathers together the ways in which the play can resemble, be like, things living and absent, dead or unrepresentable things like sovereignty itself, the actor gathers them into a gesture, and presents them so as to catch the conscience of the Prince, and of the pay’s audience. But what does Horatio mean? Is the subject’s hand “like” the living prince’s hand in the way that the remembered King is like the ghost? Does proportional analogy still and always secure the bio-theo-political domain? Horatio’s gesture catches the theater’s dilemma: what is the actor’s body designating? What is the gesture like, what does it mime, of what is it a mimesis? My assertion was hedged in with qualifications: I said, Horatio must mean that this hand, my left, his left for instance, is like this other hand, my right, his right, say, in the way that the dead king is, or was, like the ghost. But can we be so sure what is like what on stage, and what the time of “likeness” is? Is Horatio holding up his own hand? And what is his hand—is the actor holding up the hand of the character, or the hand of the actor? Doesn’t everything depend in the first instance on their being no “likeness” at all, but sameness between one and the other hand, the hand of the actor and the hand of the character, the sameness of convention and agreement that yes, this hand I see on stage is indeed Horatio’s hand, and not the hand of the actor I also see, whose hand I am truly seeing, as the watch and the Prince, and the Prince’s friend, “truly see” the ghost of Hamlet’s father? “I knew your father; / These hands are not more like.” But what are Horatio’s words indicating, what is he pointing at verbally? Whose hands are these? What are they like? Is Horatio catching Hamlet by the hand and saying, “Your hand and mine, the Prince’s hand and his good subject’s hand, these are as alike as the living and the dead are?” And how alike is that? Is Horatio holding up both his own hands, or both Hamlet’s? Is one hand, say the left hand, like the right hand, or is it its inverse? Is Horatio holding up two notes, each written in a different hand, comparing them, saying, “Look, this handwriting and that, they look alike”? The demonstrative pronoun, what the hand and the tongue indicate, pitches the matter into the director’s lap: here, you do something with “these hands.” Neither the author’s hand, nor the hand of the player who copied these lines in the author’s hand for his use, will illuminate us; nothing beyond the demonstrative gesture is indicated; we do not know what it is like, this gesture; in it, we fear or we feel, the likeness of the father’s ghost is not affirmed, but put into question; what it means to know the Prince’s father, to the extent that such knowledge is expressed as the knowledge of his likeness, of his figure, is also placed into question. It helps not one bit that we know or think we know the work’s author, that we see or do not see here the hand of the writer or of the director: these hands that Horatio indicates, just here, are not like them in any way that can be read upon them. If I do not know whether this hand that I hold out, which holds together the system of proportional analogy that holds my theologico-political life in hand, if I do not know that this is my hand, then I also do not know your father, or my own, or myself: Marcellus says, about the Ghost: “Is it not like the king?” And Horatio answers: “As thou art to thyself.” Shakespeare’s, or Horatio’s, “like” places before us the spectacle of the disarticulating of the unitary conception of “like”-ness on which sovereignty classically stands; on which the concept of the concept stands classically; on which the relation between demonstrable, indicable, material “things” and translation sits. On the Nature of Marx’s Things argues that this structural disarticulating, and the aleatory rearticulating of the field of the political about the systematic unsystematicity, temporal, representational, logical, political, of “something like [. . .] relation,” are the two hands that the material concept of relation called “something likeness” hold out today.

Tracy McNulty


“What If the Fetish Could Speak?”

In this impossibly rich book, I would like to pick up on a single argumentative thread that runs from the introduction to the final chapter, “Uncountable Matters.” It concerns your dissatisfaction with the approach to matter, objects, and things in what is variously called the New Materialism or Speculative Realism, which you develop through a series of highly economical arguments that explore in different ways the fetishism that alternately accompanies or resists procedures of mathematical abstraction. By my count, you take it up in at least three different ways (not including the “commodity fetishism” you discuss in an earlier chapter on Marx, which I won’t address here).

The first is the “vulgar fetishism” you detect in Quentin Meillassoux’s appeal to mathematical formalization in After Finitude. You are not the first to charge Meillassoux (or his mentor Alain Badiou) with fetishizing mathematics, of course.1 But you do so in a way that is both novel and ingenious, by demonstrating that Meillassoux’s turn to the primary qualities of material objects for a knowledge not compromised by “correlationism,” or the mediation of knowledge by human consciousness, is reliant upon a form of “species-humanism” that is reinstalled by the very procedure of mathematical abstraction that purports to render it unnecessary. First, you detect in Meillassoux’s “fable” of an archeologist’s discovery of an unintelligible, repeated mark (apprehended alternately as a frieze or as a set of identical marks) a disavowal of the spatial and temporal qualities of the mark that is necessary for it to be apprehended as a unity that is at once reiterable and devoid of meaning. By “extend[ing] into narrative time these two frames for the object, and the two sorts of judgments they make meaningful,” Meillassoux’s fable reintroduces or retains, in the successive experiences of his imagined protagonist, “the ontic, spatio-temporal considerations excluded from its account of the mathematical properties to which the ‘absolutizing’ philosopher attends” (190). More broadly, you show that Meillassoux’s procedure, which relies upon the “absolutization of the one, the unit, or of unity [de l’un, de l’unité]” that he takes to be the source of mathematical discourse, invariably reduces matter (which is never one) to an object, and thus to what counts because it can be counted, turned into a unit or unity (196). His is thus a “theological fetishism” (185), the recognizable story “of a transumption, of flesh becoming spirit” (190).

Second, and even more remarkably (for me), you locate the same reductive mathematical ontology in Lacan’s reading of fetishism. Glossing Lacan, you write: “The difference between the ‘real phallus’ and the ‘symbolic one’ whose loss occasions the value-investment in the fetish is, minimally, that the ‘real phallus’ can always only exist or not exist. The ‘symbolic phallus,’ however, insists in the subsequent circuit of symbolic exchanges, and can bear a relation to every-other-object, inasmuch as every object, event, or phenomenon can be a symbolic proxy for the “symbolic phallus,’ and can be both absence and presence; can both exist and not-exist” (194). Unlike a “real phallus,” therefore—which, as a material entity, can at every moment either exist or not—the “symbolic phallus” is apparently not subject to the laws of identity or of noncontradiction; because “it is always and at every moment both present and absent,” it can be described only through recourse to statements formed in nonstandard logics (195). Rather than stand upon this paradoxical ontology, however, Lacan downplays the non-identity of the symbolic phallus by claiming that it “alternates” between being and non-being, presence and absence. The temporality of this move introduces allows Lacan, just as it does Meillassoux, “to maintain or install the logical integrity of the symbolic phallus (to absolutize the one): to rescue its one-ness, its unity, and its being-the-unit for mathematical ontology, from the wound he has opened up in it” (195). Wow.

Finally, your sustained reading of Freud’s “Fetishism” argues that Freud’s way of approaching the fetish-object resists this mathematical ontology by showing objects to be “uncountable inasmuch as they are material” (191). He does so by introducing an impasse he will not resolve, by showing the substitute for the symbolic phallus to have “two contradictory ontologies, two contradictory aetiologies, and a logical structure inimical to the principles of identity and non-contradiction to which both Lacan and Meillassoux will turn” (197). Is the choice of the fetish-object contingent and accidental, determined by nothing more than the object’s proximity to the body of the mother where the expected penis is found to be lacking? Or is it grounded in the substitute’s resemblance to the male penis that is its “normal prototype” of all fetishes? Freud first introduces,2 in the form of a story, the naturalness and self-evidence of the fetish’s origin. Unlike Meillassoux and Lacan, however, he steps back from it to leave us with a non-identity and a contradiction that cannot be resolved.

Across these three readings, you deal with fetishism alternately as an object of investigation (in Freud and Lacan) or as a method (the disavowal of mediation that shapes Meillassoux’s way of approaching matter and its possible absolutization). In the space that remains, I would like to introduce a fourth way of thinking about the fetish and mathematical formalization, which considers what work the fetish is doing for the fetishist: and how its articulation of the material and the absolute might depart from those you’ve already considered.

The speculative realists are all concerned in different ways with the articulation of realism and idealism. For Meillassoux, this project involves the articulation of scientific empiricism to the thinking of the “absolute” that has traditionally been the purview of philosophical idealism—an articulation enabled by mathematics. You have shown us why this operation deserves to be called “fetishistic”: because it disavows the mediation of this operation by a species-humanism.

My question is: how does the fetish articulate them? The attempt to make the real and the ideal coincide, and therefore to bypass correlation (or language and its finitude) altogether, might be the very definition of the fetishistic enterprise, since the fetish is a thing that articulates what is concrete and real (a shoe, braid, undergarment, or other object) to a pure ideal (the phallic mother). However, I would argue that the fetish articulates the real and the ideal in a way that doesn’t only disavow mediation (or “castration”), but that “forces” an ideal into the world in a material form. It attempts to reconcile the psychical and the physical by lodging in empirical reality an object that exists only in the mind, such that the psychical meaning of the object—the affirmation of the reality of the phallic mother—converges with and is sustained by the realness of the thing.

You note the kinship of Meillassoux’s argument with “the analytic dream of a spiritualized formal language,” one that would be “purified of the bony objectness we find in natural languages” (191), capable of extracting spirit from its fleshly vessel. The fetish too can be understood as a refusal of correlation/finitude/castration, but I would suggest that it isn’t only that; it also embodies something like the “bony objectness” of language, since it is a thing-language whose materiality is indispensable to its operation.

I want to focus on is the mode and the aims of this “forcing,” which may be relevant to Badiou’s appeal to mathematical formalization in particular (a project you mention several times, always in proximity to Meillassoux, but never explore in detail). My point here is not to dwell at length on Badiou’s work, but rather to consider how it might illuminate a different contribution of fetishism to your meditation on things by allowing us to think about the relationship specific materiality at work in formalization, fetish, and figure.

If Badiou fetishizes mathematics, he does so in a different way than Meillassoux. His rejection of finitude does not lead him away from language and toward empiricism, as does Meillassoux’s. Instead, it is often framed as a quest for a “new” language: one that would “write,” “name,” or “force” the real, rather than representing it. This is where mathematics comes in, but not as something wholly inimical to language. Poetry and mathematics are both opposed to the core assumptions of the linguistic turn in Badiou’s work, and are often treated as almost interchangeable. Both are charged with what he calls “nomination” as distinct from signification. Here the salient distinction is not between language and non-language, therefore, but between two different modalities of language. In Number and Numbers, for example, Badiou draws a distinction between mere numbers, whose function is to count or enumerate, and Number. If the former are entirely circumscribed within the logic of signification, the latter is tasked with what he calls an “evental nomination.” The difference is that

a signification is always distributed through the language of a situation, the language of established and transmitted knowledges. A nomination, on the other hand, emerges from the very inability of signification to fix an event, to decide upon its occurrence, at the moment when this event—which supplements the situation with an incalculable hazard—is on the edge of its disappearance. A nomination is a “poetic” invention, a new signifier, which affixes to language that for which nothing can prepare it.3

Badiou finds such a nomination in the Greek alogos, usually translated as “irrational,” which comes to name “certain relationships [that] cannot be ‘numbered’ within the code of existing numbers,” that have no logos, but that nonetheless must be decided as number. Alogos is thus “the trace within language of a foundational truth-event,” Badiou writes, because it “inscribes in a new situation of thought a nomination without signification: that of a number which is not a number.” Nomination creates a “new signifier,” one that postulates or heralds the advent of something unprecedented, rather than representing in language what already exists.

(Inasmuch as Badiou’s Number is inimical to counting, we can imagine how his argument might dovetail with your own criticism of Meillassoux: when mathematics is reduced to counting up units of matter, then signification—and with it valuation, humanism, and narrative temporality—can never be far away. In purporting to deal only with primary qualities that can be absolutized mathematically, Meillassoux would thus be engaged in a kind of empiricist domestication of mathematics.)

This account of Number has certain affinities with fetishism, but they are not the same affinities—or the same fetishism—at issue in your appraisal of Meillassoux. Instead, the nominative dimension of Number relates to another function of the fetish. We can appreciate what the latter contributes to the distinction between language as signification and the “nomination” of the real by examining Freud’s “Fetishism” alongside with his earlier essay on a similar problem, “Medusa’s Head” (1922). Both essays are concerned with how the male child responds to the unwelcome discovery that women do not have a penis. But while the first essay makes use of the Greek Medusa myth to delineate the mechanism of repression, the second isolates for the first time the perverse logic of disavowal (Verleugnung).

In “Medusa’s Head,” Freud argues that the terror inspired by the Gorgon’s decapitated head should be understood as the transformation of a repressed fear of castration provoked by the sight of the female genitals. The snaky hair covering the Medusa’s head takes the place of the penis, “the absence of which is the cause of the horror.” The essay is therefore concerned with repression, or how the fear of castration comes to be represented by means of a substitute. In the Standard Edition of Freud’s works, “repression” translates the German Verdrängung, whose primary meaning is “displacement” (or even “replacement”). In repression, something comes in the place of something else; its mechanism is therefore tropological. Its operation is encapsulated perfectly by the “technical rule” confirmed by the Medusa myth, according to which “the multiplication of penis symbols signifies castration.” In the same way, the fear of Medusa and her snaky hair is the repression of castration anxiety: one fear comes in place of, and so displaces, the other. The proof is that the Medusa “turns men to stone” when they look at her. Freud reads this as an example of the “transformation of affect”: the castration anxiety provoked by the sight of the female genital is replaced by an affect that, however terrifying it may be, nevertheless serve to mitigates the horror occasioned by the absence of the penis. This is because the rigidity associated with being “turned to stone” signifies an erection, and so reassures a man that he is still in possession of the penis (202–3). “Better to be stiff with terror,” it seems to say, “than to be castrated.” The logic Freud describes here anticipates quite precisely what Jacques Derrida will later elaborate as the logic of the “supplement,” where the signifier comes to supplement or compensate for an originary lack. For Derrida, of course, this tropological mechanism even gives a kind of rule of language, what he calls “blindness to the supplement.”

Many non-clinical discussions of fetishism, and especially of “Fetishism,” assimilate the fetish to this logic of supplementarity, as if the two essays were continuous in their argumentation. For Freud, however, it is important that repression is not a universal logic, but specific to the neurotic’s way of evading an unpleasant reality. Something very different is at stake in perverse disavowal, which is the object of “Fetishism.” Like “Medusa’s Head, the essay is concerned with the castration anxiety provoked by the discovery that the woman has no penis. But it deals with this not as a general anxiety, common to all or most men, but rather in relation to the specific logic of perverse fetishism. At first they seem not to be so different. Freud is categorical in stating that in every case of fetishism, the fetish emerges unambiguously as a “penis-substitute.” However, he hastens to add that

it is not a substitute for any chance penis, but for a particular quite special penis that had been extremely important in early childhood but was afterwards lost. That is to say: it should normally have been given up, but the purpose of the fetish precisely is to preserve it from being lost. To put it plainly: the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (mother’s) phallus which the little boy once believed in and does not wish to forego. (214)

Belief in the maternal phallus—in the phallic mother—is something more than horror at the woman’s castration. This element is crucial to the perversions, which are defined not merely by the disavowal of the mother’s castration, but by the corresponding affirmation of the reality of the maternal phallus. In other words, disavowal does not merely deny castration, but posits or upholds the reality of an object whose existence cannot be perceived. The point is not merely that an expected object (the penis) is found to be lacking, but rather that a new object, a non-empirical object, is forced into reality by means of the fetish.

Freud describes the fetish as the support for an “idea.” He observes that the fetishist’s refusal of the mother’s castration actually involves two distinct operations. “If we wish to differentiate between what happens to the idea as distinct from the affect,” he writes, “we can restrict ‘repression’ [Verdrängung] to relate to the affect; the correct word for what happens to the idea is then ‘disavowal’ [Verleugnung].”4 Repression concerns affect, namely the castration anxiety provoked by the sight of the female genitals. To say that this affect can be “repressed” is to say that it can be represented by means of a signifier or image: for example, the multiplication of penis symbols that signifies, through a compensatory addition, the dreaded castration. Conversely, the “idea” is not represented by a signifier, but postulated, sustained, and upheld by the fetish as thing. This “idea” is not castration anxiety, or even the perception of the mother as castrated, but rather the reality of the maternal phallus. While Freud affirms that castration anxiety and its repression are common to all men, neurotic or perverse, the “idea” of the maternal phallus, of the phallic mother, is upheld by the pervert alone.

In this sense, fetishism is not merely a “blindness” to castration that sees “something” in the place of the dreaded absence (as “Medusa’s Head” or the Derridean logic of supplementarity would suggest), but an attempt to give visibility to a new object. In other words, the mere existence of the fetish, as a real thing (a man-made thing or object) attests to the realness of the maternal phallus it figures. The fetish does not “signify” the maternal phallus, we might say, but figures it. It thus allows for a different visibility than the one supported by the signifier by offering itself as a plastic support for an unconscious reality.5

In other words, the fetishist doesn’t merely perceive in the “reality” of the mother’s castration the possibility that he, too, could be castrated. Rather, this “reality” is itself experienced as unreal. This is because the fetishist, unlike the neurotic, knows that the mother is not castrated. His own experience confirms for him that the mother’s enjoyment—like her demand—is in no way limited by the signifier, mediated by the phallus as signifier of lack. I’ve argued elsewhere6 that the fetish sustains the reality not only of the maternal phallus, but more broadly of the death drive—the “unbound” or “free” drive—that is first discovered in the mother’s body, and that the perversions attribute to the mother as a will or command that the pervert is powerless to refuse (for example, the destructive impulse that the Sadean libertine ascribes to Mother Nature, who “commands us to enjoy [jouir]” through what “idiots take to be crimes”).7 In stressing the mother’s relation to the drive as unbound, the perversions reveal that the fantasy of the maternal phallus cannot simply be understood as the child’s response to the anatomical makeup of women, and especially to the lack it is supposed to perceive there. That is, the woman embodies the excess in drive, and not its lack, finitude, or negation: a lack that in man is symbolized by the phallus that inscribes the logic of castration in the body as the loss of a part of the living being to the Other of language and of culture.

Serge André’s perverse patient Violette makes the same point more economically. A woman is superior to a man, she declares, because she never loses her erection. In André’s gloss, Violette’s “true identification is with a phallic mother with respect to whom all men, beginning with the father, are castrated”; for this fetishist, therefore, castration “is located on the side of man and the father, rather than on the side of woman and the mother.”8 This anecdote suggests that the fetish does not substitute for a “real” penis, but instead figures the maternal phallus that does not exist in reality, and that for that very reason lays claim to being the ideal or “true” phallus: the one that never fails, that is not subject to castration. (I wonder how this take on the fetish might inflect your wonderful discussion of Freud’s claim that the “normal prototype [Normalvorbild] of fetishes is a man’s penis” [198–99]. You note that the German Vorbild has the meaning of type or archetype, but is also connected to Bild, image, and thus to aesthetics and painting. Moreover, Grimm Wörterbuch relates Vorbild to exemplum, “both a case of something, and the exemplar, the highest form of an object, event, or phenomenon” [199]. Is the maternal phallus related to the penis as a copy to a prototype? Or as an ideal exemplar to a case?)

While fetishistic disavowal certainly entails a refusal of castration, it can also be understood as a kind of “nomination” or postulation of the real, whose aim is to herald, call forth, or figure what is not perceptible to consciousness because it cannot be named. Gilles Deleuze even claims that “disavowal should perhaps be understood as the point of departure of an operation that consists neither in negating nor even destroying, but rather in radically contesting the validity of that which is: it suspends belief in and neutralizes the given in such a way that a new horizon opens up beyond the given and in place of it.”9

In my own work, I’ve been trying to think through how the logic of the fetish as I’ve described it here is related not only to the “nomination” that Badiou identifies with Number, but with the status of figure, as distinct from trope, in the history of rhetoric and poetics. Erich Auerbach, in his seminal essay “Figura,” shows that figure has always represented something like a “perversion of the linguistic turn” from within language.10 Quintilian describes figure as a “deviation” or deformation of the normal and obvious usage of words, and not merely as a non-literal use of words as in trope. Trope is inherently a function of language, part of linguistic theory. Figure, on the other hand—like Badiou’s Number—is something that is paralinguistic but also not foreign to language. It is resistant to linguistic formalization, but does not simply fall outside of language.

“Figura” originally meant “plastic form,” and Auerbach shows not only how it comes to encompass mathematical and geometric figures, but expands over time in the direction of “image,” “portrait,” “effigy,” and “simulacrum.” Jean-François Lyotard describes figure as a plastic agency that is at work within, but not entirely reducible to, language: an agency he equates explicitly with the drive. “Figure,” he writes, “is linguistically charged—that is, acts as linguistic event—because it is an effect of discharge issued from another order. . . . Figure offers itself as a straying trace that defies reading, that is not a letter, and that can be grasped only in energetic terms.” This is because figure is “the mark, on the units and rules of language, of a power that treats these units and rules like things. It is the trace of a working-over [travail] and not of knowledge by signification. Through this working-over, what is fulfilled is desire.”11 (Without elaborating upon them, I’ll simply note the resonances I hear in this formulation not only with Badiou’s “evental nomination,” but with your discussion of the mathematical unit/unity that makes matter recoverable for Meillassoux in a way that figure, for Lyotard, would seem to defy.)

Auerbach emphasizes that figura is from the beginning linked to the “new.” In the two oldest examples of its use, “figura” occurs in combination with “nova” (“new figure”), and is related to the notion of a “new manifestation.” Most important, for the argument I’m trying to make here, he affirms that figure not only names new things, but is itself frequently a thing rather than a signifier: “Figura,” he writes, “is something real and historical which announces something else that is also real and historical” (29). As an example, he cites the technique of figural interpretation that was invented by Paul and developed by the early church fathers. Although the aim of figural interpretation was to show that the persons and events of the Old Testament were “prefigurations of the New Testament and its history of salvation,” Auerbach writes that

Tertullian expressly denied that the literal and historical validity of the Old Testament was diminished by the figural interpretation . . . and refused to consider the Old Testament as mere allegory; according to him, it had real, literal meaning throughout, and even where there was figural prophecy, the figure had just as much historical reality as what it prophesied. The prophetic figure, he believed, is a concrete historical fact, and it is fulfilled by concrete historical facts. (30)

Paul famously deploys the technique of figural interpretation to postulate the reality of the heavenly kingdom itself. When Paul declares the “present Jerusalem” to be a figure of the “Jerusalem to come,” the effect of this figure is not to diminish the import of the historical Jerusalem (which would thereby become a “mere” metaphor, a signifier of something else), but rather to claim that the earthly kingdom, in its historical reality, affirms, upholds, and even guarantees the reality of the spiritual kingdom to come. That is, the real lived history of the Jews figures (i.e., anticipates the real advent of, rather than merely metaphorizing) the “new Jerusalem” made possible by Christ’s resurrection.

Let me conclude this overly long “response,” then, with a few questions:

  1. What do you have to say about Badiou, anyway? And how is his project both proximate to, and different from, Meillassoux’s? (A big question, I know: but throw us some crumbs.)
  2. Even as Freud identifies disavowal as something distinct from repression, does he end up conflating them all the same by dealing with the fetish primarily in terms of the phallus-as-lacking, and thus in terms of a logic of signification or supplementarity? In the terms I’ve just used, does he assimilate fetish to signifier, figure to trope, and so miss the thingliness of the former and its specific materiality? Is Freud more Lacanian in this way than you suggest?
  3. Why, in your argument, is poetry—and more broadly literary language—so frequently the conduit through which you approach matter and things? Is this just a matter of how disciplines construct their objects, as you sometimes suggest? And what is the place of poetry (and perhaps the poetry of Mallarmé in particular) in the discourse of the authors whose work you engage here, in particular Meillassoux and Badiou? Does it prop up their respective fetishisms by modeling a transumption of flesh into spirit, as you propose a propos of John Donne? Does it inflect this fetishism in a different way? How is poetic formalization like or unlike mathematical formalization?
  4. What do figure and figural reading contribute to a reflection on matter and materiality? How can we think about the temporality that is either introduced or negated by these formulations? And which is it? (I’m thinking here of your observation, a propos of Freud’s Normalvorbild, that the particle vor- has “the Augustinian sense of an event occurring in historical time [the incarnation] and outside of it [God is not a being-in-time]: a unit, a cipher” (199).

  1. Ray Brassier, “Speculative Realism: Presentation by Ray Brassier,” Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development 3 (November 2007) 331–33; Adrian Johnston, “Hume’s Revenge: À Dieu, Meillassoux?,” in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, ed. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman (Melbourne,, 2011), 105–6.

  2. I explored this hypothesis in “The New Man’s Fetish,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 51, Spindel Supplement (2013) 17–39.

  3. Badiou, Number and Numbers, trans. Robin Mackay (Cambridge: Polity, 2008), 106; emphases mine.

  4. Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, 215, Standard Edition XXI, 153.

  5. Freud emphasizes that the fetishist does not fail to perceive the mother’s lack of a penis, of which he is perfectly conscious. Instead, two distinct and incompatible realities come to exist side-by-side: the perceptual reality in which the child knows that the mother has no penis, and a psychic reality, upheld by the fetish, in which the maternal phallus reigns supreme.

  6. “Unbound: The Speculative Mythology of the Death Drive,” Differences 8.2 (2017) 86–115.

  7. Freud himself credits the perversions with first “bringing to light” the reality of the death drive, making “conspicuous” and “tangible” what would otherwise be “silent” and “imperceptible.” Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1962), 77–78.

  8. Serge André, L’imposture perverse (Paris: Seuil, 1993), 126–29.

  9. Gilles Deleuze, Coldness and Cruelty, in Masochism, trans. Jean McNeil (New York: Zone, 1989), 31.

  10. Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” in Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach, ed. James I. Porter, trans. Jane O. Newman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 65–113.

  11. Jean-François Lyotard, Discourse, Figure, trans. Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 141.

  • Jacques Lezra

    Jacques Lezra


    The Fetish Is Never One: Response to Tracy McNulty

    Dear Tracy:

    Thank you for your generous and far-reaching response to On the Nature of Marx’s Things. Your comments center on the book’s returns to the matter of the fetish. (A return: the fetish, because of lexical coincidence, a common genealogy in both lines of thinking, and a similar topology, is the peg on which Freudo-Marxism was most commonly hung, at the time when that juncture promised something like a unified theory of psycho-cultural production and consumption.) You show how the term “fetish,” taken in a number of ways, runs through the argument of On the Nature of Marx’s Things. Here is in brief the arc that “fetish” traces: The opening chapters focus directly on commodity-fetishism and the inscription of aleatory, discontinuous, necrophilological moments—incoherent mediations—in Marx’s ontology and in Capital’s theory of value. This focus shifts with the argument, and the fetish becomes, via Freud and Adorno, the field on which On the Nature of Marx’s Thing ends up grappling with Meillassoux’s account of correlation and with Lacan’s restaging of Freud. Badiou draws the strings subtly when Meillassoux breaks lances on the field, but isn’t directly addressed; Freud himself, you are right to note, emerges as something like the hero in this andromachy; what was an analysis of Marx’s ontology and theory of value undertaken from the Lucretian moment in his writings becomes an account of mediation undertaken from the fetishization of form in Meillassoux (and, behind him, larval, Badiou). You don’t note this, but it’s I think implicit in your remarks about the “plasticity” of figura: as “fetish” changes in value, so does “matter” in the book. “As . . . so” is a little off. There’s something not quite systematic and not quite explicit in my treatment of fetishism throughout the book—and in my treatment of its relation to matter. I’m very glad that your response will give me the opportunity to address it.

    From your reading of fetishism’s declensions in On the Nature of Marx’s Things you pose four questions—clusters of questions, really—in closing: Badiou? Is Freud really the hero of the andromachy, or does he not rather retreat into the language of lack and compensation that’s the signature of the tropology of the fetish? Poetry? And what do figure and figurality contribute to a reflection on matter? They’re crucial and they’re related. Let me approach them through the moment of greatest stress in your response, which falls, I think, about at the point of greatest stress in On the Nature of Marx’s Things: where you make the transition from an account of fetishism understood as substitution—of whatever-is-to-hand or of what-is-like the Vorbild of the phallus: trope—to an account of fetishism as installing or forcing, into the real and as real, the “bony” (Donne’s term, also Hegel’s, borrowed and repurposed in On the Nature of Marx’s Things) idea of the integrity of the maternal phallus: figure. Whatever may distinguish the different accounts of fetishism in On the Nature of Marx’s Things, you argue, they have this in common: they are of the order of translation, that is, of substitution, of trope. Since this is so, they are figures of intralinguistic displacement occurring as it were on the same level, within or between natural languages and within and between orders of the symbolic. The figure-forcing-fetish that you invite us to consider operates from a symbolic domain, to install a singular new thing in the real: the truth of the idea of the phallic mother. This thing is no longer lost (in substitution); it can be enjoyed fully; it sutures the field of fantasies precisely inasmuch as it is singularly installed; its truth is the singular forcing that’s signed onto it; and the singular event of its forcing has the status of a real historical event, or better, of the event of the real in history; or better still, of the installing (in human history) of history-as-the-advent-of-the-event. And because the event installing the figure-forcing-fetish has this standing, it pre-figures (you lean on Auerbach wonderfully to introduce prospective temporality into the account of the fetish) the real eventual standing of the fantasy of the maternal phallus. (And hence the organization of the fields of fantasy and desire not about a lack but about a real.) You write: it—the figure-forcing-fetish, nomination, figura—“like Badiou’s Number is something that is paralinguistic but also not foreign to language. It is resistant to linguistic formalization, but does not simply fall outside of language.” The transition from trope to figure, or from counting to Number, reminds you not just of Badiou, but also of Lyotard’s account of figure. It brings to mind, for me, the always-unthinkable difference between stative or thetic moments—Fichtean setzen—and the predication of such moments, that is, the system of qualities of, and thus substitutes, tropes, for, whatever-substance those thetic moments then, in that same predication, are granted (as in de Man’s late essay on irony).

    This is, I said, the point of principal stress both in your response and in the book. One way to explain why this is and must be so is to ask where the term “matter” fits into the scheme of figura: “something that is paralinguistic but also not foreign to language . . . [that is] resistant to linguistic formalization, but does not simply fall outside of language.” “Matter,” I’d like to say, with you, is the name we give (or the name historically assigned) to figura in this sense. But it’s hard to affirm this. We follow out the chain: figura is the singular name for what is “resistant to linguistic formalization, but does not simply fall outside of language.” This seems intuitively off, since to nominate matter as matter is to ascribe to it differential qualities (we distinguish it from form, from spirit, from substance, from body, and so on). Evental nomination is the condition on which that ascription occurs; it is ascribing, predicating—gerundives that mark an occurring. Here the Lucretian strain of Marx’s thinking is at work: the gerundive eventing that is nominating has the shape of declinatio or clinamen.

    What does it mean to install declinatio in the structure of fetish-formation, and also in the event of nomination that the figure-forcing-fetish installs, as the singular idea of the unity of the phallic mother, in the real? Here your mention of Badiou’s Number and Numbers will be of use. For another way to construe the point of stress in your response and in On the Nature of Marx’s Things is to gloss the installed idea of the one of the phallic mother as the installing of the One as idea, as the counts-for-one of the null. Number is built on the axiom of the counts-for-one; that it is axiomatic tells us that whatever relation there is between the null set and the One is different from the relation that obtains between the One and any other number; and that that relation is not thinkable in the same way. So just how is it to be thought? On the Nature of Marx’s Things offers three related answers. It is to be thought precisely as clinamen; as mediation; and as poeticity. These three terms aren’t synonyms; they operate on different levels of the argument; they pertain to different sorts of objects. Together, though, they signify that the real of the idea of the singular phallic mother, by virtue of being installed according to an eventual nomination that bears their triple signature, does not and cannot have the function of suturing ideally the field of fantasy and desire. Rather, it installs the real of the not-one as the condition of what we can no longer call a field, not even the field we would want, fantastically, to call matter.

    Where would this then leave us? It seems to me that installing the real of the not-one as declinatio (which is, I think, what the book means by necrophilology) has striking consequences for politics; for understanding the value-form of capital; for understanding how the concepts produced under its regime become objects-for-thought; and when we seek to establish what the ontology of these sorts of objects might be. (Are such defective concepts objects? If they are not-one, in what sense are they objects for thought? Would the discipline of the philosopher consists not only in recognizing, in the middle, deponent sense of “reconnaitre,” the “nomination-effects,” “nominalization,” or “translation-effects” in the “mathematical condition for philosophizing,” but also in producing them? And would this then correspond to a strictly political dimension of thought?) Finally, it seems to me to yield a rather different understanding of historicity than the Augustinian one that rides on the singular event of forcing.

    Let me try to be clearer. In your response you refer to a passage from Badiou’s Number and Numbers that defines a nomination as a “‘poetic’ invention, a new signifier, which affixes to language that for which nothing can prepare it.” Badiou is referring—by way of an example, but it is not an example like any other, any more than the Normalvorbild Freud refers to is indeed only normal, just one of a set of possibly-exchangeable cases, tropes for each other, so to speak—to “the appellation ‘irrational numbers.’” Here, he says, “for example,” “the problems of terminology bring the weight of the event to bear.”

    His example:

    Take for example the appellation “irrational numbers.” It is truly astonishing to find such a designation at the heart of mathematical rationality. . . . “Irrational,” in [Dedekind and Euclid’s] mathematical texts whose rationality is transparent, paradigmatic even, no longer has any signification. We might say that what makes itself known here is a symptom of the radical difference between nomination and signification. A signification is always distributed through the language of a situation, the language of established and transmitted knowledges. A nomination, on the other hand, emerges from the very inability of signification to fix an event, to decide upon its occurrence, at the moment when this event—which supplements the situation with an incalculable hazard—is on the edge of its disappearance. A nomination is a “poetic” invention, a new signifier, which affixes to language that for which nothing can prepare it. A nomination, once the event that sustains it is gone forever, remains, in the void of significations. Now, at the moment of the great Greek crisis of number, when the arrival of that at once inevitable and enigmatic event made it known that certain relationships (those, for example, of the diagonal of a square and its side) cannot be “numbered” within the code of existing numbers, the word i arrived, saturating and exceeding the mathematical situation. This word designates that which, having no logos, nonetheless must be decided as number. It inscribes in a new situation of thought a nomination without signification: that of a number which is not a number. Since that time, the word has lodged itself, without alteration, in mathematical language. It traverses translations, negligible but subsistent. Our word “irrational” is unmindful of the import of the nomination i to the same extent that the word “rational” retains little of the Greek logos. And, above all, this nomination has ended up taking on a univocal signification. But the contrast remains, and one can reactivate it—as I do—in between signification and that which, in the word that imparts it, contradicts it explicitly. For this contrast is the trace within language of a foundational truth-event.

    The story that Badiou recalls (“when the arrival of that at once inevitable and enigmatic event made it known that certain relationships [those, for example, of the diagonal of a square and its side] cannot be ‘numbered’ within the code of existing numbers”) haunts the history of Western philosophy—understandably: it tells of what befell the first man who made public the limits of reason. It reaches us indirectly, translated, mediated. We find it in Greek, related by the neo-Platonist philosopher and scholiast Proclus, who is probably working from a slightly different form of the story found in Iamblichus’s De vita pythagorica. We also find it in an Arabic translation, by the great tenth-century translator Abu Uthman al-Dimishqi, of a lost Greek work by Pappus of Alexandria.1 The tale concerns the school of Pythagoras. Here are two versions:

    It is well known that the man who first made public the theory of the irrational (alogon, ana logon) perished in a shipwreck in order that the inexpressible and unimaginable should ever remain veiled. And so the guilty man, who fortuitously touched on and revealed this aspect of living things, was taken to the place where he began and there is forever beaten by the waves.2


    Since [book X of Euclid’s Elements] has the aforesaid aim and object [the attainment of irrefragable principles, which he established for commensurability and incommensurability in general], it will not be unprofitable for us to ascertain the benefit it provides. Indeed the sect [or school] of Pythagoras was so affected by its reverence for these things that a saying became current in it, namely, that he who first disclosed [lit.: brought out—akhraja] the knowledge of that which does not hear and does not speak, and spread it abroad among the common herd, perished by drowning: It is fitting that they meant by this, in the way of a riddle [lughz], that everything within totality that is deaf or does not speak or cannot be visually imagined ought to be veiled [sitr]; and that every soul which by error or heedlessness discovers [takshaf] or reveals [tazhar] something of this kind that is in it [in the soul] or in this world, will wander [thereafter] hither and thither on the sea of non-identity [lit.: a sea of non-similarity; a sea lacking all similarity of quality or accident], immersed in the stream of coming-to-be that has no order.3

    The discovery of additional manuscripts and corresponding changes in editorial conventions pertaining to, as well as the established readings and translations of, earlier sources have shifted the outlines of the story considerably over the centuries; its sense and pathos, what the story is understood to tell and to what effect, have also changed, in and out of time with these editorial changes. The bibliography on this fable focuses for the most part on the different historical knots it ties—as Badiou indicates, the question whether what the unfortunate Pythagorean disclosed was the construction of the dodecahedron, the irrationality of the square root of 2 (the diagonal of the square), or rather a larger principle of mathematical irrationality that would put paid to the Pythagorean world order broadly speaking; whether the Pythagorean school would indeed have sacrificed one of its members, even if he betrayed a secret; whether the school treasured such secrets in the first place; whether the story is to be read as allegory or parable rather than as history.

    The mystery that the treacherous Pythagorean reveals hangs on an accident. What is this bit of information, this deadly secret? The editorial tradition has handed down two answers: the event of nomination is not one; it is not One. The preferred reading of Proclus’s story—preferred since the first quarter of the nineteenth century, though noted earlier—concerns not what is inexpressible or irrational in general, but much more specifically the incommensurability of the measurements of the diagonal and the side of the square—that is, the irrationality of the square root of two, √2, revealed by the proportional construction [ana-logon] of the geometric figure. On this account—which is bolstered by the observation that the form alogon would be out of place, grammatically, in Proclus’s text, what founders on the story will be a particular sub-branch of early mathematics, and not the “rational vision of the world.”

    On the strong, metaphysical reading that Proclus appears to endorse and which Badiou recalls for us, what is at stake in the story is the disclosure of the unthinkable, the unthought, the inexpressible or inconceivable—ton alogon. The term alogon figures elsewhere in Euclid and in Proclus (whose “Prologue” to his commentary on Euclid’s Elements says, in most editions, that Pythagoras “discovered the unthinkable or inexpressible [τῶν ἁλόγων πραγματείαν] and the construction of the cosmic figures”). On this reading, the traitor in my story (who may be Hippasus of Metapontum) threatens to bring about what one critic calls, perhaps hyperbolically, “the sudden collapse” of the “rational, ordered vision of the world set in place by Pythagoras.”4 For Pythagorean cosmology, in the definitive versions we find in Iamblichus, in Porphyry, and in Proclus, tends toward numerical “rationalism.” Here is Proclus: “Pythagoras, being asked what was the wisest of things, said it was number. . . . But by number, he obscurely signified the intelligible order, which comprehends the multitude of intellectual forms: for there that which is the first, and properly number, subsists after the superessential one.”5 The metaphysical version of the story produces a paradox. Properly irrational numbers, if that is what alogoi are in this story, and if the texts do indeed intend alogon at this juncture, both belong and do not belong to the “intelligible order,” inasmuch as they occur within it but are not part or members of it; they are and are not intelligible. If “number” “signifies the intelligible order,” however obscurely, then our unfortunate Pythagorean philosopher bears us news of something that is and is not a number, and which is unintelligible both in lying outside the order of the intelligible, and in violating the twin logical principles on which intelligibility in general stands, the principles of identity and of non-contradiction. Condemning the bearers of such news to eternal, Promethean suffering, over and over, at different historical junctures and under aspects that differ according to how “intelligibility” or rationality are marked, defined, or valued—this seems not only just, but philosophically constitutive, constitutive of the discipline of philosophy, in its long history.

    The old story sticks, as Badiou remarks. It is lurid, even if it is nothing more than an allegory or a fable; over time it gathers and sheds cultural values. Its Promethean heroics must appeal: the disclosure of the mystery; the betrayer bears philosophical fire; the secret he discloses democratizes knowledge, extends philosophia, and not just geometry, into “the form of a liberal discipline, seeking its first principles in ultimate ideas, and investigating its theorems abstractly and in a purely intellectual way,” ton peri auton philosophian eis schema paideias eleutherou metestisen, as Proclus writes of Pythagoras. Its contradictions are signs, we suspect, of conceptual and historical compromises. To erect a tomb for a living man is to condemn him to social death, but also to guarantee him symbolic life (a tomb is a memorial); this is also the practice of the Pythagorean school, Iamblichus tells us, with respect to those probationary students who were not allowed to become true Esoterics, or to join the ranks of homacoi, the initiates, those who listened to Pythagoras from within the veil, face to face.6 The excluded, the socially dead, the School’s rejects, reaped this benefit: they were awarded twice the wealth they deposited in order to be considered for elevation to homacoi. To note that the gods, outraged, brought about the traitor’s death is to exonerate the School, and in the same stroke to make the School’s mysteries matters of divine concern. To draw an analogy among the various mysteries revealed—the construction of the dodecahedron, the discovery of the irrationality of the diagonal (the incommensurability of the diagonal with the sides of the square: ana-logon), the discovery of the irrational, a-logon—is to betray the historical record, which insists on the particularity of each mystery; but it is also to establish the commensurability of these singular events, to bring them under the measure of a single scheme. To read the story as an allegory, a parable or a riddle is to place a veil before it, to be removed by initiates in possession of esoteric knowledge; the allegorical mystery revealed thereby amounts to this alone: that esoteric knowledge must be kept veiled. (Hippasus revealed that there is a School, a discipline; he publicized the scheme of disciplinarity.) Whether in its hyperbolic or in its more restricted shape, the story tells also, allegorically, parabolically, the story of the disciplinary formation of philosophy, and the costs entailed in moving from an esoteric mystery-cult toward paideia. The history of lectiones of Proclus’s scholium marks another circuit: from a discipline whose extreme limit is the alogon, what is deprived of the logos, reason, enunciation, articulation; to a discipline concerned instead with the internal paradoxes of the commensurable and the proportional, analogon. Finally, this old story fits its Promethean protagonist into a particularly significant circuit—the one leading “the guilty man . . . to the place where he began and there is forever beaten by the waves” ; more explicitly still: “Every soul which by error or heedlessness reveals (takshaf) or reveals (taZhar) something of this kind that is in it [in the soul] or in this world, will wander [thereafter] hither and thither on the sea of non-identity [lit.: a sea of non-similarity; lacking all similarity of quality or accident], immersed in the stream of the coming-to-be that has no order.”

    “Nomination,” Badiou holds, is “a ‘poetic’ invention, a new signifier, which affixes to language that for which nothing can prepare it.” He says: “And, above all, this nomination [i, alogon] has ended up taking on a univocal signification. But the contrast remains, and one can reactivate it—as I do—in between signification and that which, in the word that imparts it, contradicts it explicitly. For this contrast is the trace within language of a foundational truth-event.” Note here that the trace of the foundational truth-event is reactivated in the counts-for-two of a “contrast.” The One of the truth-event of nomination is traced in the Two of the difference or contrast between “signification and that which, in the word that imparts it, contradicts it explicitly.” But the circuit of mediations—through neo-Platonic sources, through Arabic scholia and translations—no longer offers, as a single or indeed intelligible story, the allegorical trace of “a foundational truth-event” that “supplements the situation with an incalculable hazard.” Rather, as I’ve tried to argue in On the Nature of Marx’s Things, this open, unsystematic operation “invents” or “produces,” by declinationes, “poetic” signifiers that install what I call necrophilology in the “field” of desires constituted in, and as, capitalist modernity—that is, “poetic” signifiers that install in that field what is neither only irrational nor only alike-to-something else (neither only alogon nor only analogon; not only figura, not just trope) as the non-self-identical trace of the not-one. The One of the Truth Event is rather the figural-forcing-fetish, the trace of the instancing of the multiple as Normalvorbild. “And so we wander hither and thither on the sea of non-identity [a sea of non-similarity; a sea lacking all similarity of quality or accident], immersed in the stream of coming-to-be that has no order.”

    Thank you.

    1. See Burkert, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, 1st German ed., trans. E. Minar (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 409ff.

    2. T. L. Heath, The Thirteen Books of Euclid’s Elements (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928). See also Proclus, Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements, trans. Glen Morrow (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).

    3. Pappus of Alexandria, Tafsīr Bābūs li-al-Maqālah al-ʻāshirah min kitāb Uqlīdis (The commentary of Pappus on Book X of Euclid’s Elements, as translated into Arabic by Abu Uthman al-Dimishqi), trans. William Thomson and Gustav Junge (Frankfurt am Main: Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, 1997), 64 (English), 2 (Arabic). I am delighted to acknowledge Jeannie Miller’s help in correcting the translation. Here is Thomas Taylor’s translation of Iamblichus’s Life of Pythagoras (London: Watkins, 1818), 126–27: “It is said, therefore, that he who first divulged the theory of commensurable and incommensurable quantities, to those who were unworthy to receive it, was so hated by the Pythagoreans that they not only expelled him from their common association, and from living with them, but also constructed a tomb for him, as one who had migrated from the human and passed into another life. Others also say, that the Divine Power was indignant with those who divulged the dogmas of Pythagoras: for that he perished in the sea, as an impious person, who rendered manifest the composition of the icostagonus; viz. who delivered the method of inscribing in a sphere the dodecahedron, which is one of what are called the five solid figures. But according to others, this happened to him who unfolded the doctrine of irrational and incommensurable quantities. Moreover, all the Pythagoric discipline was symbolic, and resembled enigmas and riddles, consisting of apothegms, in consequence of imitating antiquity in its character; just as the truly divine and Pythian oracles appear to be in a certain respect difficult to be understood and explained, to those who carelessly receive the answers which they give. Such therefore, and so many are the indications respecting Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, which may be collected from what is disseminated about them.”

    4. I cite from the most probing account of this story that I have found, Jean-Luc Périllié’s “La Découverte des incommensurables et le vertige de l’infini,” Cahiers philosophiques 91 (2002) 15, online at (accessed August 8, 2012).

    5. Proclus, scholium on Cratylus. See Proclus’ Commentary on the Cratylus in Context: Ancient Theories of Language . . . , by Robbert Maarten Berg, 104, for a better translation: “T. 4.6 For Pythagoras, when asked what is the wisest of all things, said ‘Number’. ‘And what comes second in wisdom?’ ‘He who gave the things their names.’ And through ‘number’ he hinted at the intelligible cosmos that contains the multitude of intellectual Forms. 31 . . . And just as over there the intelligible, the Intellect (Nous) and intellection are one and the same, in the same manner are number and wisdom the same over there. And through ‘the name-giver’ he hinted at Soul, which exists as a product of Nous. And Soul is not the things themselves in the primary manner in which Nous is these, but it has images of these and discursive, statues of the beings (viz. Forms) as it were; likewise names imitate the intellectual Forms, i.e. the Numbers. . . . Therefore, Pythagoras says, naming is not the task of just anybody, but of the one who focuses on the intellect and the nature of the beings. Therefore names are by nature” (In Crat. XVI pp. 5, 27–26, 19).

    6. This is Iamblichus: “During this [probationary] time, however, the property of each was disposed of in common, and was committed to the care of those appointed for this purpose, who were called politicians, economizers, and legislators. And with respect to these probationers, those who appeared to be worthy to participate of his dogmas, from the judgment he had formed of them from their life and the modesty of their behaviour, after the quinquennial silence, then became ~rot~rics; and both heard and saw Pythagoras himself within the veil. For prior to this thy participated of his words through the hearing alone, beyond the veil, without at all seeing him, giving for a long time a specimen of their peculiar manners. But if they were rejected they received the double of the wealth which they brought, and a tomb was raised to them as if they were dead by the homacoi; for thus all the disciples of the man were called. And if they happened to meet with them afterwards, they behaved to them as if they were other persons, but said that they were dead, whom they had modeled by education, in the expectation that they would become truly good men by the disciplines they would learn.”