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Bizarre-Privileged Items in the Universe: The Logic of Likeness

Paul North


336 pp

4 color illus.

5 black and white illus.

Published: March 2021

6 x 9



ISBN: 9781942130468

A butterfly is like another butterfly. A butterfly is also like a leaf and at the same time like a paper airplane, an owl’s face, a scholar flying from book to book. The most disparate things approach one another in a butterfly, the sort of dense nodule of likeness that Roger Caillois once proposed calling a “bizarre-privileged item.” In response, critical theorist Paul North proposes a spiritual exercise: imagine a universe made up solely of likenesses. There are no things, only traits acting according to the law of series, here and there a thick overlap that appears “bizarre.”

Centuries of thought have fixated on the concept of difference. This book offers a theory that begins from likeness, where, at any instant, a vast array of series proliferates and remote regions come into contact. Bizarre-Privileged Items in the Universe follows likenesses as they traverse physics and the physical universe; evolution and evolutionary theory; psychology and the psyche; sociality, language, and art. Divergent sources from an eccentric history give shape to a new trans-science, “homeotics.”

“The book gives us luminously to understand how likenesses arise, act, and proliferate…. Bizarre-Privileged Items in the Universe is a philosophical tour de force.” —Georges Didi-Huberman

“Paul North’s exploration of the logic of likeness is unlike anything I have read, with its admirable mode of moving between so many unexpected regions and objects. It performs or enacts (perhaps we should say, borrowing a verb coined in these dazzling pages, that it enlikens) what it analyzes: the book connects domains that we thought were as far away from one another as Darwin’s notebooks and Surrealism; the Plotinian universe and Wittgenstein’s duckrabbit; Arcimboldo’s composite vegetable portraits and Gabriel Tarde’s sociology.”

— Peter Szendy, David Herlihy Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Brown University

“Likeness looks like a relation that is both too obvious and too ‘bizarre,’ likely because it has been used and abused by a few lyric and surrealist poets. As a result, dogmatists and suspicious minds have held it in low esteem. Paul North overturns all these prejudices in a sort of tractatus poetico-philosophicus — at once free and rigorous, impertinent and lucid. Here, Darwin finally meets Caillois; Plotinus finally illuminates Arcimboldo; Peirce and Wittgenstein finally converse with Bergson, Reverdy, and Benjamin. The book gives us luminously to understand how likenesses arise, act, and proliferate. How they aren’t what we once thought; how they are a matter of noncoincidence, of multiplicity, of happenings; how they allow for the possibility of a morphology, a semiotics, a history, and a theory of social linkages. A ‘grammatology’ of difference and of repetition, Bizarre-Privileged Items in the Universe is a philosophical tour de force.”

— Georges Didi-Huberman, professor at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales and author of more than fifty works on the theory and history of images

“It is very rare that one comes across a book like Paul North’s Bizarre-Privileged Items in the Universe. I’m tempted to say that it constitutes itself a ‘bizarre-privileged item in the universe,’ in the best possible meaning of this formulation. It is an extraordinary and extraordinarily well-written treatise that takes the reader through numerous different facets of likeness, following its complex yet airy texture, its multiple refractions, arrows, and overlaps, by engaging in a smooth, tender, almost comforting flow of ongoing reflection. Big, extremely significant, and very far–reaching claims are being made all along the way, in a manner that in no way imposes itself upon the reader, but rather gently takes her hand and proposes a joint and fascinating journey through the strange wonderland of likeness. I have no hesitation in saying that this is one of the most original and important books written in the past decades.”

— Alenka Zupancˇicˇ, author of The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two and What IS Sex?