In a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver in 1926, when he was working on what would become Finnegans Wake, James Joyce points towards what he is now trying to do in his writing by saying that some things cannot be expressed in ‘wideawake language cutanddry grammar and goahead plot’. Quentin Meillassoux’s style of writing, when it comes to philosophical argument at least, is decidedly pre-Wake for his book After Finitude is characterized by a lucidity and correctness that Joyce was quite capable of but nonetheless had put behind him. Meillassoux writes in a way that is not typical of Continental philosophy and what sets him apart from many of his peers perhaps helps explain why he has gained such praise for his work; for some he has already earned a place in the hallowed pantheon of ground-breaking French philosophers. A remarkable achievement for someone whose reputation is largely based on just one book, although dedicated followers of French philosophical fashion can train their truffle hounds to dig up a scattering of essays, excerpts of an unpublished text, The Divine Inexistence, and a second book, The Number and the Siren, about Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de Dés. Is the Meillassoux phenomenon just another cliquish storm in a Parisian teacup or has something explosively new appeared?
The manifest of works of continental philosophy usually indicates intellectual freight of a heavy and bulky kind and one that sometimes requires cognitive apparatus, like set theory in the case of Badiou’s Being and Event. So it comes as welcome relief to know that After Finitude, a mere 128 pages long, is one of the more reader-friendly texts of recent French philosophy and that its basic argument is put forth with crystal clarity. The book’s author is not one to wallow in words and there is an intellectual impishness to the writing that adds to its attractiveness.
Meillassoux likes using analogies and here’s a typical instance: once upon a time we lived in a Ptolemaic world, fondly thinking the sun and other planets revolved around Earth until Copernicus rudely inaugurated a new and less self-centered way of picturing our place in the universe. When Kant introduced his own ground-breaking philosophy he termed it a ‘Copernican revolution’ because in his own field he wanted to overthrow a Ptolemaic mentality through a radical act of decentring, declaring at the start of his Critique of Pure Reason that ‘Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects….[BUT] objects must conform to our knowledge’. Kant’s own brand of heliocentrism would displace the notion of a domain of objects whose constitution we can come to know in some absolute and dogmatically true sense, arguing instead that reality is not independent of what we bring to it. We see the world from our own transcendental frames of thought and while we can think about ‘things-in themselves’ – the really real that lies behind the appearance of things – we can never properly get to the heart of what is there outside of ourselves. Think the Copenhagen Interpretation writ large.
A part of Meillassoux’s philosophical bravado is to claim that Kant actually inaugurated the opposite of what he thought he was achieving: not a Copernican revolution but a veritable ‘Ptolemaic counter-revolution’, antiquatedly placing humans back at the centre of the world with reality orbiting outside and according to the conditions that govern our knowing. This is the mental universe most of us now live in, accepting as we do that there is an infrangible correlation between being (what is taken to be there) and thinking (about what is taken to be there), bracketing off the possibility of any absolute in favour of a reality mediated by language, discourse, forms of consciousness, relations of power and so on. We can ever only access the correlation and cannot deal with subjectivity and objectivity as independent of one another. Correlationism is Meillassoux’s label for this way of thinking, a doxa that for him has uncritically woven itself into many of our cultural forms, and he argues that it is fundamentally flawed.
One of the telling observations he makes apropos correlationism is the way it has created a space for religiosity to reassert itself. If ‘things-in-themselves’ constitute an absolute irremediably beyond human reason, then religion can claim access to an absolute that is not subject to rational justification: what philosopher today, asks Meillassoux would try to refute the Christian Trinity on the grounds that it contains a contradiction? Atheism for religionists becomes just another (mistaken) belief; questions of truth are replaced by fideism, and in the argument between the religioner and the atheist there is a common epistemological boundary: there is a reality we cannot objectively access; and so ‘the condemnation of fanaticism is carried out solely in the name of the practical (ethical-political) consequences, never in the name of the ultimate falsity of its contents …. if there is an ultimate truth, only piety can provide it, not thought’.
Meillassoux is rightly unhappy with this elevation of a sweeping je ne sais quoi and he produces a logical rabbit out of the hat to deal with it. Regarding an afterlife, we all have to acknowledge that anything could be true and the anything-that-could-be-true does not require a correlation between thought and reality: it is an absolute knowledge that anything could happen after death and this cannot be conceived as a correlate of our thinking in so far as it harbours the possibility of our own non-existence:
For I think myself as mortal only if I think my death has no need of my thought of death in order to be actual. If my ceasing to be depended upon my continuing to be so that I could keep thinking myself as not being, then I would continue to agonize indefinitely, without ever actually passing away.
The correlationist who claims there is no absolute – we cannot know anything about the world outside of us and that therefore there is little difference between the atheist and the believer because we cannot be sure about anything – can only claim this position by insisting there is, absolutely, any number of possibilities. The import of this may not seem to amount to much — ‘instead of saying that the in-itself could actually be anything whatsoever without anyone knowing what, we maintain that the in-itself could actually be anything whatsoever and that we know this’ — but for Meillassoux a crucial advance has been made because we now know that there is something that is necessary, i.e. contingency. There is a necessity of contingency and, likewise, a contingency of necessity:
We see something akin to Time, but a Time that is inconceivable for physics, since it is capable of destroying, without cause or reason, every physical law, just as it is inconceivable for metaphysics, since it is capable of destroying every determinate entity, even a god, even God.
Thought can think of something, contingency, that is independent of thought. We can all disappear but contingency will still be there. ‘The truth is that you are only able to think this possibility of ignorance because you have actually thought the absoluteness of this possibility, which is to say, its non-correlational character’. What has been taken as an epistemological limitation, not being able to access an absolute, becomes the ontological and absolute truth of the matter. It becomes the absolute because there is nothing apart from the contingency. The possibility that everything is contingent is something we can think of – and that is what makes contingency necessary. Meillassoux has turned upside down the infamous ontological proof of God (being God entails perfection and perfection entails existence therefore God necessarily exists): we know that reality could be different to how we take it to be but this gap between reality and the Absolute is the Absolute. A skeptic might suggest that if contingency rules OK then wouldn’t we notice an eternal instability in everything instead of basking in the supposed constancy of nature’s laws. Meillassoux’s answer is to call for a ‘knowledge of chaos’, a knowledge that needs to be developed now that we have laid to rest the anti-realism of Kant’s legacy. Our conviction, he says, ‘is that in order for an entity to be contingent and un-necessary in this way, it cannot be anything whatsoever…the entity must conform to certain determinate conditions, which can then be construed as so many absolute properties of the what is.’ The italics are Meillassoux’s, highlighting a return to Locke’s ‘primary qualities’ that is announced in the first page of After Finitude. It is also in the book’s first chapter that the author lays down his challenge to the correlationist: what do we think is going on when evidence is found in fossils of a time before the emergence of humans? If reality is only meaningful to a thinking being is the status of evidence from a time before there were any thinking beings to be relegated to some discourse of science that is only objective within its own terms? What such a relegation entails is that, yes, it is a ‘fact’ that the earth was formed 4.56 billion years ago — but only from the perspective of science; it’s not literally true. Meillassoux’s riposte is to remind us that a statement of science like the ones about the earth’s formation [either] ‘has a realist sense, and only a realist sense, or it has no sense at all’. To think otherwise, he mischievously but correctly observes, is not altogether different from the mindset of creationists who, confronted with the evidence of science, claim that when God created the world some 6,000 years ago he also created radioactive compounds and fossils in order to test our faith. Analogously, modern philosophy is tested by pre-human fossils but falls back on its faith in correlationism. Are we, we might add in support of Meillassoux, to let class or climate change disappear up its mediated backside or is it something real, tout court?
The logic of After Finitude is so razor sharp that the reader risks being cut by it and the pitfall in trying to summarise Meillassoux’s arguments is the impression it may give that he is little more than a supremo sophist. This is not the case but it does not follow that he is immune to criticism and some of the notable responses to his work mix adulation with qualification. Žižek devotes one of his ‘interludes’ in Less Than Nothing to Meillassoux, appreciating the quality of his thought but employing Hegel and Lacan with a deadly finesse to pinpoint what After Finitude misses by its way of concentrating on reality and thought. The challenge for Žižek is not so much access to ‘objective’ reality independent of our subjectivity but how the subject arises in the first place; how does, as he puts it, reality begin to appear to itself? The subject is the result of a constitutive rupturing within reality, leading to a withdrawal or exclusion by a part of reality that makes possible the impossible object that is the subject. In order for the symbolic order to be what it is, the Real cannot be erased for it is the site of the impossibility, the gap, which results in the subject. For Žižek, what correlationism ignores is the blot of the Real that decenters the subject internally, always accompanying the reality that we create symbolically. We can never, in some absolute sense, access ‘objective’ reality because we are necessarily a part of it – and this is the ultimate epistemological lesson of quantum physics.
Graham Harman’s Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making begins with a summary of After Finitude and goes on to give articulate accounts of the French philosopher’s other writings that are available in English (except The Number and the Siren which appeared after Harman’s book) as well as an interview with Meillassoux and the first translation to appear of parts of the yet unpublished The Divine Inexistence. Harman is to be commended for bringing more of Meillassoux to our attention and he delivers an admirably balanced account considering his own broad allegiance to the kind of philosophy he is explaining. There is a winning enthusiasm to his writing, even when he draws attention to questionable lines of thought in Meillassoux, and he is especially cogent in drawing out the larger philosophical frames of reference in which the French philosopher needs to be situated. For Harman, the most innovative of these frames is the one that seeks to limit correlational knowing by posing issues of thinking what exists when there is no thought. Meillassoux calls this the ‘eminently speculative character’ of science, access to the absolute through the ability to refer to primary qualities of entities that are not dependent on human thought and to realize them through the mathematizable. When Harman, in his interview with his subject, raises the objection that mathematics itself is a product, a construction, of human thought Meillassoux responds with another analogy: there is a difference between architectural construction, something made by humans, with archaeological construction (winches, scaffolding and so on) that seeks to uncover something that is there but without interfering with it or modifying its nature. Of course, says Meillassoux, the mathematizable involves thinking but nevertheless it breaks with the mutuality of being and thought by rendering what lies outside of thought. The noumenal is within our reach: ‘all those aspects of the object that can be formulated in mathematical terms can be meaningfully conceived as properties of the object in itself’. In a similar vein he is able to deal with the Copenhagen Interpretation:
Certainly the presence of an observer may eventually affect the effectuation of a physical law, as is the case for some of the laws of quantum physics – but the very fact that an observer can influence the law is itself a property of the law which is not supposed to depend upon the existence of an observer….science deploys a process whereby we are able to know what may be while we are not, and that this process is linked to what sets science apart: the mathematization of nature.
Questioning the mutuality of being and thought is the shared ground of what has become known as speculative realism, a philosophical movement that Harman aspires to invest with momentous substance and one in which he does not shy away from claiming a pioneering role. To his credit, Harman is not trying to minimize crucial differences between his own Object-Oriented Philosophy and key arguments of After Finitude and readers who seek to know more about speculative realism must turn to a select number of radical and exciting non-mainstream publishers like Zero Books. Towards Speculative Realism, a small collection of pieces by Harman, is just one of his books published by Zero Books and another is Weird Realism, looking at the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft for its philosophical import, which succeeds in arousing fresh interest in a notably disturbing writer. Urbanomic is an avant-garde arts organization as well as the publisher of works of speculative realism and Meillassoux’s new book The Number and the Siren. Then there is Re-Press, publisher of The Speculative Turn, a superb collection of essays relating to speculative realism, which follows Open Access practice and makes it available as a free download (re-press.org). Some of the best essays in The Speculative Turn are highly critical of their subject matter and one of them is by Ray Brassier, the translator of After Finitude, who, according to a remark by him found in the Wikipedia entry on speculative realism, has no truck with a ‘movement’ that exists only in the imaginations of a group of bloggers promoting an agenda for which I have no sympathy whatsoever: actor-network theory spiced with pan-psychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy. I don’t believe the internet is an appropriate medium for serious philosophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement online by using blogs to exploit the misguided enthusiasm of impressionable graduate students. I agree with Deleuze’s remark that ultimately the most basic task of philosophy is to impede stupidity, so I see little philosophical merit in a ‘movement’ whose most signal achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity.
Such a withering judgement, in the true spirit of Meillassoux’s wideawake philosophy, is a wake-up call to anyone tempted to think that speculative realism is a term to be banded about carelessly. It suggests that After Finitude should not be approached as the spearhead text for something called speculative realism but as an epoch-breaking work of philosophy in its own right.