Speculative Realism

Conclusion from tomorrow’s paper on Speculative Realism

I’m editing my paper to get it down to the time limits for the CRESC objects conference. Since I don’t publish enough philosophy here, here’s my as-yet-unedited conclusion. I suppose it makes better sense in terms of the whole, though to set this up, I take up the problem of what Meillassoux calls “intuition” as the relation between the phenomenal and chaotic noumenal in his work…

Conclusion: Finite Relations Irreducible to Correlationism

            Is, then, “intellectual intuition” the only access to the real? Heidegger famously tells us in his 1929-30 lecture course that the “stone is without world,” that the animals are “poor in world,” and that human Dasein is “world forming.”[1] Nancy begins on territory familiar to Meillassoux’s readers, arguing that there is no sense of the world, as Wittgenstein claimed in the Tractatus, that is given from the outside. This would treat the world as representable, instead of, as Nancy claims, a infinite happening of coming to presence, each time just this once and thus non-representable. But it is also the case, he notes, that the fact that “there is something, there are some things, there is some there—and that itself makes sense,” without a need for a God. But this does not mean that it only makes sense “for, through, or in Dasein”:

[T]he world beyond humanity—animals, plants, and stones, oceans, atmospheres, sidereal spaces and bodies—is quite a bit more than the phenomenal correlative of a human taking-in-hand, taking-into-account, or taking-care-of. … For it is a question of understanding the world not as man’s object or field of action, but as the spatial totality of the sense of existence, a totality that it itself existent, even if it is not in the mode of Dasein. (SW, 55-56).

 

Certainly, Nancy note, one could proffer an exteriority to humanity, but this is not to be thought in terms of the “relation between subject and object” (SW, 56). Nancy is careful, as we’ll see, not to place language simply to one side of this relation. If we take there to be a circulation of sense among things,[2] then there are in a sense (a sense that is not reductive compared to human language) signature and singularities at work, and thus a passing of signs, even if these signatures exscribe their sense elsewhere from us. That is, for Nancy, being a “fragment” of a world means having a signature, having a place and a taking-place that is not simply, on the Heideggerian model, a placing in view of that which has been hidden away (abscondus). And this signature is always underdetermined in the circulation of sense, and thus can be confused with nothing, as the nihil, though in truth it is a “nihil unbound,” to use Ray Brassier’s phrase.

            To take the risk of an anthropomorphism that will quickly recede, this is what we mean when we say that we are touched. Something touches us (and thus is touched by us in turn) and its affectivity passes along the signatures of one and the other with such a gravity—whether the touch is light or not does not matter—that “to be touched” is synonymous with profundity, a depthlessness of meaning being passed along and circulated. And this is why, beyond Meillassoux’s apt discussion of “touching upon the absolute,” each touch (or all touching) is a touch upon the absolute, upon an infinity of sense irreducible to a signification communicated or a bit of information passed along; it is never just a simple touch. Having a sense or sensing of this touch marks a “coming to presence” “just at” (à même) us such it that can never be pinned down as a present thing[3]; it can never be fully felt and thus conceptualized: a touch is always shared, distributed, or it is nothing.

            And yet, we will in turn sovereignly declare human beings as having the touch, as we say in English. The result is that, as Graham Harman puts it in a different context, “One privileged entity is allowed to form links where others cannot. Against this notion, I propose the more democratic solution of a local occasionalism or vicarious causation, in which every entity that exists must somehow be equipped to serve as a medium of contact between two others” (IO, 8). On this matter, as so often, Heidegger takes the less democratic approach:

The stone is lying on the path, for example. We can say that the stone is exerting a certain pressure upon the surface of the Earth. It is “touching” the Earth. But what we call “touching” here is not a form of touching at all in the strongest sense of the word. It is not at all like that relationship which the lizard has to the stone on which it lies basking in the sun. And the touching implied in both cases is above all not the same as that touch which we experience when we our hand upon the head of another human being. …[B]eing a stone it has no possible access to anything else around it, anything that it might … possess as such.(FCM, 196-7; SW, 59)

 

            Before moving further, let me note that everything hinges on how we are inclined towards this passage. If Nancy is right in arguing that the epoch of representation is coming to end (GT, 83) and that “time of modernity is followed by the time of things” (FT, 317), then a “responsible praxis of sense” (FT, 292) must now register for the “test of the real,” even if, on Nancy’s account, “there’s nothing to prove” (FT, 317). This, for Nancy, is the mark of our primordial exposure—an exposure that is not ours alone—to the ruptures of sense in the “movement of a presentation to… which is a rupture of presence itself” (GT, 63). Again, every being-toward is toward another being that is itself toward. Without this circulation and excess of sense, there would be only be signification, that is, “mere indication” and the “denoting of things,” a zero-degree of sense that Heidegger presumes to find in the rocks that do not have a world.[4] And this “test of the real” is not just coming in terms of the “fraying” of things in all their abundance, but also in terms of all of the questions surrounding this notion of “access”—a responsibility of sense practiced in a variety of ecological and movements against the suffering of animals. As is well known, “access” has its root in the Latin accedere, to approach or come near, but nevertheless part of the motto of Roman civic life: accedere ad rem publican, to do one’s civil duty and begin a public life. The responsibility today, the “more democratic approach,” as Harman puts it, is very much about the public things—and how we accede to them, even if acceding to public things means questioning access itself. Nancy writes, responding to Heidegger,

Why, then, is “access” determined [with regard to the stone] a priori as the identification and appropriation of the “other thing”? When I touch another thing, another skin or hide, and when it is a question of this contact or touch and not of an instrumental use, is it a matter of identification and appropriation? … Why does one have to determine “access” a priori as the only way of making-up-a-world and of being-toward-the-world? Why could the world not also a priori consist in being-among, being-between, and being-against? In remoteness and contact without “access”? (SW, 59)

 

As Nancy notes, the scene is all but feudal, if not Platonic, with its hierarchies

of touch as it ascends closer to the sun, wherein “a hieratic and paternal pose fraudulently substitutes a knighting [the placing of the hand on the head] for a touch” (SW, 60). The whole of this antiquated anthropocentrism is “betrayed,” he rightly argues, “by the expression ‘the earth is not given for the stone.” But what, he asks, if this givenness were never “pure”? What if it were preceded by what makes that gift possible in the first place, namely the distribution and sharing out of unassignable gifts “neither to be perceived or received as a ‘gift’”? And what of the networks of stones and animality and—why not?—humanity passing in and through this “contact” of stone, heat, and surfaces of all kinds:

[the stone] is in contact, an absolute difference. … There is not ‘subject’ and ‘object,’ but rather, there are sites and places, distances. … [W]ithout this impalpable reticulation of contiguities and tangential contacts, without the place (interstice, interval, and escape) of a geared down being-toward ….there would be no world. “In itself,” the thing is “toward” the other things that are close, proximate, and also very distant because there are several of them. (SW, 61)

 

In this way, he writes, the stone isn’t simply there as an abstraction, laying in wait for its encounter “by or for a subject” (SW, 62). The stone does not “have,” as Heidegger notes, the world. But are we still naïve enough to think that we things, we res extensae do? The stone, for Nancy, is toward the world or “is the world” as “at least” “areality: extension of the area, spacing…” (SW, 62). The stone has a “liability [passibilité]” to sense, an area of passing through and passing along senses irreducible, Nancy argues, to an “animism” or “panpsychism,” which would figure the sense of the stone, of the things, back through the human. There is in the stone its “concrete” liability, which is also “concrete condition” of its singularity (BSP, 18). This liability is but another word for accede; the stone, too, accedes to the public thing.

            The stone’s “concreteness” is a “real différance” or différance as real and as à mème, circulating materially. The problem has not been, as Meillassoux suggests, too much use of the thinking of relation in modernity, but too little. What is called for is a thinking of a circulation of sense and materiality, that is, a thinking of an excessively real, if I can put it that way, complex of relations. This is the absolute to which we are all, one and other, one as another, liable and acceding, in the public and in common, passing along signs, partes extra partes, in a generalized circulation of exposure and relation. It is this exscription, this real writing of the real in the passage of sense, that is the res ultima. Where speculative realism in Meillassoux begins and then circles back to the correlationist circle by thinking through the absolute contingency of the relation, Nancy offers a generalized and therefore public thing, an ultimate res that refuses to privilege any given relation over any other—a “more democratic solution” of rocks, bodies, fragments, ligaments, and an endless catalogue from there, in touch with and sharing with one another. In this way, the an sich is still, as “à meme and exposure of the “to,” the ultima res. And this means the absolute is not the res abscondus, but rather the abscondus of the res: the secreting and motion away from signification in a way that hopefully makes sense retains a trace of the res along the way. It is time, then, to “learn to think toward the world.”[5] In the last poem of his Collected Poems, “Not Ideas about the Thing, but the Thing Itself,” published a year and half before his death, Stevens writes,

                                                            It was not from the vast ventriloquism

                                                            Of sleep’s faded papier-maché

                                                            The sun was coming from the outside.

                                                            That scrawny cry—It was

                                                            A chorister whose c preceded the choir.

                                                            It was part of the colossal sun,

                                                            Surrounded by its choral rings,

                                                            Still far away. It was like

                                                            A new knowledge of reality…

 


[1] Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concept of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996), p. 177. Henceforth cited as FCM.

 

[2] This is the locus of Graham Harman’s “object-oriented” philosophy, to think “a

universally given” as a de-localized givenness “withdraw[n] from all

perceptual and causal relations” (Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the

Carprentry of Things (Chicago, Il: Open Court Press, 2005), p. 20.

[3] This is why Nancy argues that “sense,” as touching, is an “untouchable touch,” since it can never grasp the full significance of the sense, the touch, that is open among things (FT, 110).

[4] The “test of the real” does not necessitate a return to ideologies that presume a hold over all sense, reducing the multiple of existence to singular significations (myths of human nature, God, etc.) less for the sake of realism than Reelpolitik. That is to say, we recognize the danger of those who have presaged an access to the real as a means for buttressing power (e.g., the “real” of a sexual or racial difference), though in turn these ideologies—never soon enough, but inexorably nonetheless—face the test of the real, the excess of sense of beyond any signification, which is another way of saying there is a future worthy of the name, unsignifiable by any tyrant of the present.

[5] SW, 191, n. 112.

Humans and Other Objects

Larval Subjects has a great post up responding to Paul Ennis’s thought experiment on the future of speculative realism, namely that there will be the eventual reactionary insight that somehow humans have been forgotten, thus offering a desolation akin to the one on offer in ecological catastrophe:

Setting that aside, I think an additional point worth making is that today we simply cannot talk about the human without talking about objects. As Latour tirelessly argues, the great sin of modernity was to try and produce a schism between the world of nature entirely independent of humans and the world of the cultural entirely independent of nature. The problem is that the world in which we live is a world in which we’re constantly enmeshed in imbroglios with objects of all sorts. To understand ourselves is, in part, to understand these imbroglios with objects. Yet what do we in fact find in so much cultural and critical theory? We find a bracketing of objects so as to get at that which is specifically human– norms, cultural significations, ethics, politics, and so on. 

Agreed. Writing as someone whose work at times has been deeply embedded in those “bracketers,” I can say that killing off the beast of humanism hasn’t worked out all that well. Surely there is someone dusting off their old attacks on the anti-humanism of Derrida, et al., and simply finding and replacing “Derrida, Foucault,…” with “Meillassoux, Harman…” I would only add that Meillassoux’s notion of the subject, for example, is rather classical (a point I make with a bit more subtlety in my recent Pli article). But more importantly, what SR offers  is a thinking that would call on us to avert the very catastrophes that would make up the moral blackmail no doubt coming soon.

Call it the argument from catastrophe, in which you cite the real possibility of global environmental devastation (in a previous era it would have been the nuclear holocaust) and then accuse X figure of basically wanting that through some theoretical apparatus. In any event, what is exciting about the work in SR is how it meets up with work in environmental studies and animal ethics, to name but two areas, which have long argued for getting out of the human as a part of a larger normative project, part of which would be finding means for averting the very catastrophe in question. This is where, in a sense, I see SR going, namely connecting up with these other movements in such a way as to bolder SR’s normative accounts (such as they are). Or at least, I see these connections whenever I’m at an environmental philosophy conference.

When ideas mattered…

Graham writes at OOP:

As unfortunate as it may be to read of Christian vs. Christian persecutions over such issues as the exact status of the Son, and as much as I would hate to live under the threat of persecution for my philosophical opinions, isn’t there also something enviable about a period that took its ideas that seriously?

 

So, I hate to make my first cross post on Graham a bit critical, since I usually agree with him. But this time, not so much. I don’t understand this mythology that we entered in an age of play in which no one took anything seriously. The culture wars were serious and while I know Graham has no love for some of the po-mo culture warriors, the effect of the 80s on the academy, I would argue, has been for the better. Would we want to return to the way English departments were run in the 70s? Would we want the intellectual exclusion of vast areas of knowledge simply because they didn’t come from the west or they were deemed feminine? I’m not saying that at times there weren’t excesses, but surely if it had Bill Bennett upset and stepping away from the slot machines long enough to decry the death of the American Academy, then it couldn’t have been all bad. (I’m letting my snark there get ahead of decent logic.) In any event, whatever one might think, this was not an era where people didn’t take their ideas seriously, and in fact that was often the complaint: people were too serious and everything became too political. Anyway, we still live in an era of Christian-on-Christian exclusions and violence, so it’s a myth to think that anywhere in the culture–the academy, the school boards of Kansas, or the churches of the Midwest, for example–that ideas aren’t taken seriously.

This reminds me, FYI, about the arguments over realism. As I noted to Graham once in an email, it’s not as if there are anti-realists. I just don’t know how that way of framing the debate is helpful. I mean, even if you think we live in a world of simulacra where the map is on the same ontological level as the landscape, then you are very much taking simulacra seriously. And you are very much taking it as “real.” Just as Hegel took ideas as “real.” Just as Husserl took the lifeworld as “real.” Just as Foucault took discursive power formations to be “real.” What matters, then, is the question of materialism: what do you take to be real and does this “real” have the correlationist effect of cutting out broad swaths of that real from philosophical consideration?