Subtractive-Catastrophic Xenophilia




Subtractive ontologies – like those of Alain Badiou or Quentin Meillassoux – hold that Being is inaccessible to thought or experience. Rather, Being is indexed for thought by a hole in thought; an opening onto an Outside uncorrelated with thought or subjectivity.

I will argue that posthumanist ontologies are, likewise, subtractive operations and, consequently, leave us no relation to the future beyond a febrile and uncertain eros – a perverse operation, mutating bodies and machining worlds. This is not a psychological ‘desire for’ but a groundless, self-extirpating and necessarily contentless vector.

Posthumanism is consequently not– [1]as some claim- an ethics committed to releasing the world from the philosophical imposition of anthropocentricism. A sedentary, relatable world against which which anthropocentrism once appeared tenable or well-motivated is subliming away in the heat of undirected technoscientific and environmental change – that is, in what Rosi Braidotti and I call our shared ‘posthuman predicament’ or ‘posthuman condition’ (Roden 2014; Braidotti 2019, 2, 41). Since posthumanism recapitulates this predicament conceptually as subtraction it is not an ethics but the organon of a ‘counter-ethics’ (a term I owe to Claire Colebrook – Colebrook 2012, 38). Posthumanism does not offer us a new form of life that might end the perverse counter-finality of the posthuman but only an opportunity to affirm the erotic potentials and encounters it discloses, an affirmation that, as Colebrook argues, can no longer be bounded by a transcendental subjectivity or normativity (Colebrook 2016, 29).

In Being and Event Badiou proposes to unbind Being from Leibniz’s dictum that ‘What is not a being is not a being’ (2006, 53). Where traditional thought sees beings as wholes, Badiou argues that the whole is derived from an operation, a ‘count’ applied to an inconsistent (non-unitary) multiplicity that cannot be described by ontology without inducing ‘paradoxes of totality’ familiar from set theory (Cogburn and Heller 2017).

Being as such, then, is not merely uncountable but lacks even a definite uncountable numbering of the Alephs; Cantor’s ascending orders of infinity.

This inconsistent multiplicity cannot be described. It is thought through its symptoms, the empty places it furrows in language. These include the empty set which, for Badiou, signifies the void of being by including or presenting nothing. It also includes the generic set that – while adjoinable to an ordinary situation – is anonymous and unspecifiable within it; instantiating the generic property of belonging to it alone. The existence of a generic multiplicity – whose members lack any common features discernable within the situation – furnishes the elbow room for a ‘Subject’ to emerge and link its members in ways that the situation, ex hypothesi, cannot prescribe. In short, it supports a space of radical freedom that can transform a situation utterly (Badiou 2006, 338-9; Fraser 2009).[1]

Subtraction cuts away that which it thinks by capitulating to the weakness discerned within thought.[2] Both Badiou and his former student Quentin Meillassoux (See n1) employ subtraction to make a qualified break with representation.

Subtractive Ontology does not represent reality or express its abiding structures, rather, it exhibits representation’s constitutive inefficacy. Where posthumanism is committed to exhibiting this inefficacy, it is a subtractive operation. This can be readily discerned in the work of a philosopher more regularly associated with the academic posthumanities than Badiou: Jacques Derrida. In Derrida’s work, the deconstruction of a definite structure cedes to the ‘structurality of structure’: an absolute decentering that cannot be secured within any historical situation (Derrida 1978, 194, 352; Malik 2016). Rather than losing the world among texts or signifiers, Derrida addresses rudimentary inscriptional and temporal relations – such as iterability – that he proposes as conditions for life, meaning and intentionality.[3]

As with Badiou, these imply an ideal and incipient weakness in the status of systems as such. The deconstructive event is consequently not a radical alien or Other – alien or other to what? Deconstruction unbinds the structurality that would otherwise determine alterity and ipseity, sameness and difference, because no system can totalize, ‘arrest or ground’ the play of meaning and function (Derrida 1978, 365; Malik 2016).[4] Deconstruction does not, then, reveal or ‘represent’ a kind of slippery underside or ‘tain’ to meaning, function and performativity, but, as what Drucilla Cornell terms a ‘philosophy of the limit’, peels away the constraints that render a notional world in our image (Roden 2006, 82). What remains, as in Laruelle’s Non-philosophy, is not a world, and perhaps something weaker than philosophy (Cornell 1992, 1; Kolozova 2013, 99).

Unbinding and subtraction recur in more fleshy, libidinal posthumanisms. For example, critical posthumanists appeal to a passionate non-unitary ‘cyborg’ that composes its world by affiliating with other systems. Not a transcendental subject but dispersed singularities, transversally hybridizing and crossing ‘species, categories and domains.’ (Braidotti 2013, 60, 193) Rosi Braidotti refers to this power of lively affiliation with the ancient Greek for non-human/non-political life (zoe) – as opposed to bios, the cultivated, discursive life the human citizen.

By contrast, the ‘alien vectors’ of Rational Inhumanism (Prometheanism) are discursively mediated norms that engender active, self-modifying technological intelligences. Inhumanists reject the critical posthumanist primacy of life and sensate matter. Such vitalisms and materialism, they argue, violate Wilfred Sellars’s stricture against the epistemic given: that is, claims to self-authenticating insight into reality which bypass the space of discursive reason (Jelača 2014, 111).

Here, observe, one posthumanism unbinds a filter (a constraint on posthuman possibility) retained by another: the sapience filter identifying agency with linguistic and conceptual aptitudes; the sentience filter identifying agency with felt duration or incipient life.

As in subtractive music synthesis, the more Filters you remove, the closer the output to inharmonic noise. The inhumanist cannot survey which subjects timelessly instantiate the diagrams of rational subjectivity. The vitalist, cannot pre-empt the diversity of life – its ‘Great Outdoors’. Indeed, as Carol Cleland reminds us, there may be no features common to living things – no life as such. Perhaps, living entities compose an irreducibly generic multiple; one that cannot be comprehended under any salient common features (Cleland 2012, 129; Thacker 2010)

The synthesis metaphor acquires further traction if we consider posthumanism primarily as an orientation to time. The Speculative Posthumanism (SP) elaborated in my book Posthuman Life is specifically concerned with conceptualizing our relation to hypothetical agents in technological deep time. For (SP), becoming posthuman is conceived as the disconnection of hypothetical posthuman agents from the human socio-technical system or ‘Wide Human’ (WH).

The Disconnection Thesis (DT) is also conceived abstractly and, anonymously. It says nothing about how posthumans are embodied or disembodied; only that they possess the power or functional autonomy to become independent of WH.[5]

Other posthumanisms, xenofeminism (XF) and accelerationism (ACC) or Prometheanism are explicitly futural; concerned with the production of novel, less oppressive gender relations or sexualities. Even a critical posthumanism that, like Braidotti’s, eschews futurism, is concerned with power relations in the contemporary world and thus with whatever futures their transversal becomings might induce (Braidotti 2018, 4).

Each posthumanism, then, pre-empts an abstract disconnection space, unbounded by whatever Filters it removes.

Moreover, all Filters are vulnerable.

The Sapience Filter, to give one example, assumes that ‘serious’ agents participate in shared linguistic and inferential functions.

I have argued elsewhere (Roden 2017) that this pragmatist vision is incomplete. It supposes sapients capable of interpreting normative statuses within the social game of giving and asking for reasons.  However, this interpretationist model unbinds subjectivity by supplementing it. It accounts for a pragmatist subject1 able to follow shared practices; but leaves us a dangling interpreter subject2. This spectral figure is not accounted for by normativity because it is a condition of it. Thus, normative functionalism leaves what counts as a text or practice, hence agency and subjectivity, undetermined; marked, as in Derrida’s work, by the ‘absolute absence’ of any finite or notionally human reader (Goldgaber 2019, 147; Roden 2014, 128; Roden 2017; 111-112).

Given the futural orientation of positions which buy heavily into functionalism – including XF and Brassier’s Prometheanism, this voids their deep-time horizon by subtracting their agent from discourse (Hester 2019).[6]

Even the irreducibility of the normative to the material – frequently offered in defences against eliminative or reductive materialism – portends the dispensability of normativity and the fragility of agency concepts. Making our obeisance to Lovecraft and the unknowable, alien thing of Weird literature, this can be figured in the unreadable monstrosity of the hyperagent: a being whose functional autonomy (or power) has been expanded to a critical point at which agency ceases.

Maximizing agency implies its discursive subtraction because the irreducibility of the normative implies that hyperagents could not use intentional idioms for self-understanding. Given the irreducibility of the psychological to the physical or functional states of such a system, any self-intervention could delete any belief, desire or emotional attitude ascribed by auto- or hetero-interpretation. Such being would have to use forms of control other than human forms of reflection, discourse or first-person narrative (For details see Roden 2014, 100-102; Roden 2015; Roden 2016; Roden 201).

This limit (or non) agent implies a black hole in the space of reasons. The transhumanist dream of a technologically compliant nature maximizing subjective autonomy recrudesces as ‘advanced non-compliance’: Cthulhu-Prometheus (Roden 2016).

If posthumanism has a founding axiom, then, it is the subtractive claim that the Outside is not radically ‘other’ to the human but merely unconstrained by invariances that we might once have attributed to humanity or rationality. ‘The human’ is transcendentally broken.

A maximally unbound posthumanism can think its Outside only by producing, becoming or adjoining it. In Colebrook’s terms, disconnection is not a matter of decision or deliberation but of determinedly queer encounters which cannot be determined in advance by recognition or reproduction (Colebrook 2016, 30). The posthuman, then, is thought as performed, amid the biomorphic debris of disconnection space (See Roden Forthcoming).


Braidotti is correct when she claims that a subject is necessary to provide a normative response to the posthuman predicament that entangles life in its divergent, counter-final process (Colebrook 2012, 37; Roden 2014, 186; 150-165; Braidotti 2013, 42; 2019, 41). The subject is just is the source and address of normative claims. But, as we have seen, the most rigorous response to the posthuman predicament addresses the multiplicity of disconnection space by subtracting any ethically salient conceptions of subjectivity (Colebrook 2012, 37).

Xenophilia and subtraction are thus correlative. The posthuman ‘It thinks’ and ‘It feels’ operating not with transcendental arguments or dialectics – the epistemic frailties of the Filters preclude this – but with biomorphisms: simulating, producing, mixing or encountering bodies; an unruly productivity like the unoccupied factory that populates a wasteland with hideous novelties in Thomas Ligotti’s masterpiece of objective horror ‘The Red Tower’.

So posthumanism must recuse itself from any positive ethical role. Since there are no filters on the noise from the future, the Outside is produced before it can be determined or decided. Subtraction and xenophilia are thus correlatives because the subtractive operation exposes reason to this acephalic process.

Posthumanists often ground their position in an ethics of alterity that seeks to recognize nonhuman life in its difference rather than as a resource for exploitation (Braidotti 2013, 140). But the portals of alterity swing wider than Justice – as is evident in awkward attempts to distinguish the ‘perverse’ post-anthropocentrism of advanced capitalism – its constant disruption of boundaries and species, etc. – from an ‘ethical’ posthumanism that acknowledges life’s ‘constant disruption of boundaries and species, etc.’ (Roden 2014, 184-5; Braidotti 2013, 60-1; Ferrando 2019, 123).[7]

Posthumanism operates at this juncture between contestable life and the Unbounding/Unbounded. Its ‘bodies’ are uncertain ‘biomorphs’: experiments in unliving without the vitality or integrity accorded by the sapience and sentience Filters. The biomorphic body is constituted by technical forms of supplementation and repetition; its status politicized and eroticized by mobile or porous borders (Goldgaber 2019, 139; Roden forthcoming). As in Derrida’s work, this structural opening pre-empts ethics with ‘the majestic and simple notion of otherness itself’ (MacCormack 2016, 16).

Subtraction thus recapitulates in theory (or post-theory) the queer indetermination of biomorphic bodies encysted in rapacious planetary engines: an ontological catastrophe both global and intimate. In J G Ballard’s short story ‘The Terminal Beach’ this savage modernity unbinds a void that a hallucinating former airman exploring the bunker landscape of Eniwetok Atoll (a former Pacific H-Bomb test site) experiences as an ‘ontological Eden.’ Its ‘historical and psychic zero’ all that binds a biomorphic space littered with encyclopedically injured human dolls anagrammatized by the overkill technologies of modern wars; the conceptual auto-disasters endlessly reiterated throughout Ballard’s Crash (Ballard 2014, 30-31; Ballard 1995, 179).


Insofar as Xenophilia is satisfied it cannot be. Insofar as Xenophilia is, it cannot be satisfied.

Lacking subjective satisfaction conditions, Xenophilia 1) does not represent a goal states and 2) cannot oppose a present state on the grounds that it fails to optimize them. It is acephalic, counter-final, an effect of self-catalyzing technological circuits too vast and profligate to predict or control.

As noted, this operation is functional and self-defining, albeit without the assurance that philosophy finds even in its perennial defeats (Roden forthcoming). This broken posthuman performance converts the DT from abstract ontology to mobile formulae of bricolage and ‘demontology’, untying even the minimal framework with which SP originally sought to regiment the deep future. Its scope is correspondingly indeterminate, perhaps closer to hand, and philosophically mute.



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[1] Meillassoux argues, along similar lines, that the absolute represented by science is not a thing but the absolute contingency that follows from the lack of any sufficient reason for the laws or structures of appearance. Again, citing set-theoretic considerations similar to those adduced by Badiou, he claims that this contingency does not belong in any space of possibilities – like a set of all possible worlds (See Cogburn and Heller 2017). There is no all, only a groundless, hyperchaotic time in which all laws and regularities can be overthrown.

[2] Subtractive ontologies can be contrasted to those which ascribe positive characteristics to thing. Being as formed matter, as object of lived experience, as the duration felt or lived by biological creatures, as the material thing as described by mathematical natural science.

[3] These ‘infrastructures’ purportedly abstract from anything recognizably human or subjectlike: yielding an asubjective, topic-neutral difference that articulates such discrepant regions as Freudian unconscious, the theory of neural networks or semiotics (Roden 2006, 82).


[5] Some empirical content is retained, however, because this version of SP works with a minimal concept of self-maintaining agency that is psychology-free – giving no account of its modes of thought or feeling.

[6] Another filter is the tacit or explicit appeal to invariants of experience like embodiment or temporal duration. However, this ‘sentience’ filter is vulnerable to what I call the ‘dark phenomenology’ objection. A facet of experience is ‘dark’ (or intuition-transcendent) if having it confers either no or a very minimal understanding of its nature (See Roden 2013).

If there is dark phenomenology, experience offers no yardstick for its proper description. Thus, even the most sophisticated philosophical accounts of experience (transcendental phenomenology, say) may leave us with little grip on disconnection space.

[7] All functions and values supervene on fragile vessels or contexts whose transactions are perpetually open to technical, political or erotic contestation; the indetermination of life itself. The game is the same in the sedentary cultural re-use of highly discriminate human cortical maps for reading script – that could never have been evolved for this purpose – over a short timescale of millennia; to the rapid production of transgenic organisms, whose usable traits may traverse biological ‘kingdoms’. Both forms of re-use (cultural and technological) exploit the functional indeterminacy of life’s ‘plug and play’ components.


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