Quentin Meillassoux: Benefit and Alterity – Dark Materialism

“One could not better describe the movement underway: this benefit (bien) from a thirst for otherness [altérité] and the decentering which metaphysics begins again in the plural, requiring us to think this profusion in preserving it, as much as we can, from ancient wanderings.”
     – Quentin Meillassoux 

Is there a need to return to metaphysics? Instead of the grand systems of the past we are seeing a pluralistic metaphysics that encompasses its “great adversaries—instructed by its reversals (Nietzsche), by its destruction (Heidegger), therapeutic dissolution (Wittgenstein), or deconstruction (Derrida)—sets out both an extraordinary heritage, a treasure of unique thought towards which we are yet able to return—and at the same time imposes on us a totally new and exciting task: that is, how to produce a contemporary metaphysics, able to give a meaning, even a fragile one, to our lives by the sole force of thought, and one which may be likely to “pass across” [passer au travers] those tremendous undertakings of “demolition” which together ran through [traversé] the 20th century.” [1]

It seems Quentin Meillassoux has decided we should begin by “returning to the surface of those either forgotten or neglected for a long time…”, which offer an alternative to the great classical systems of Aristotle, Descartes or Hegel: “a metaphysics no longer of substance, of the subject, or of the closed system, but of the Open (Bergson), of the event (Whitehead), of singularity-in-becoming (Simondon), of possession (Tarde), of the work to be created [l’oeuvre à faire] (Souriau). Many more undertakings which demonstrate that metaphysics [“la” métaphysique] is not reducible to a determined collection of concepts which, once disqualified, take with them the whole of speculative thought.” (ibid.)

He tells us that the  “difference [l’altérité] of metaphysics permits us to be comforted in our hope for its renewal, and that from the heart itself of those currents which contested it the most radically: Alain Badiou, thinking totally within the heritage of Lacan’s anti-philosophy, takes up in depth the most radical requirements of Platonism in order to elaborate a system of the undecidable event and its weak multiplicities; Graham Harman, an American philosopher whose first work in French we are about to publish, successfully extracts from Heidegger himself a completely rethought metaphysics of the object” (ibid.).

Last there is the “rediscovery of an “other metaphysics” [autre métaphysique] (according to the expression of Pierre Montebello) is accompanied by the discovery of a metaphysics of the other [métaphysique de l’autre]—that is to say, of “non-Western” peoples. In Métaphysique cannibales, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro establishes that the Amerindians developed a metaphysics of original predation, a “multinaturalist perspectivism” that philosophy—in particular that of Deleuze and Guattari—can help us to tackle and understand. Viveiros can then cite, to support his point, a postface of Lévi-Strauss to a volume of L’Homme, dating from 2000, which treats of this “metaphysics of original predation” and reveals to us the gripping evolution of the author of Mythologiques vis-à-vis philosophy: “…whether one rejoices or worries, philosophy once again occupies center stage. No longer our philosophy, of which my generation had asked foreign [exotiques] peoples for help to dismantle [défaire]; but rather, by a striking turn, theirs.” (ibid.)

*     *     *

“We thus glimpse if all-too-briefly, the outlines of a philosophy emancipated from the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and endeavouring, in this very recommencement, to maintain the double exigency inherent to the classical form of rationalism: the ontology of that which is given to experience, and the critique of representation.”
– Quentin Meillassoux

But what is the basis of this new metaphysics that Meillassoux so willingly would have us resuscitate then transform into a new pluralistic form. First we must understand what he means by metaphysics. In a recent essay in The Speculative Turn he tells us that if “…metaphysics is essentially linked to the postulation—whether explicit or not—of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, the former cannot be understood, in Heideggerian fashion, as the final accomplishment of reason, but as the final accomplishment of real necessity, or again of what I call the reification of rational necessity. From this point of view, I understand by metaphysics, any postulation of a real necessity: so that it would constitute a metaphysical postulation that all or certain given determinate situations in this world are necessary (a determination being definable as a trait capable of differentiating one situation from another, equally thinkable situation). A metaphysics would thus affirm that it is possible, and moreover that it is the very task of reason, to establish why things must be thus rather than otherwise (why some particular individuals, law(s), God(s), etc., rather than other individuals, laws, etc.).” [2]  Positing such metaphysics he defines it axiomatically and which I will relate from the essay snatching a few golden nuggets of pure insight as he says:

“I posit that the law can be related to a universe of determinate cases; I posit that there is no Universe of universes of cases; I posit that time can bring forth any non-contradictory set of possibilities. As a result, I accord to time the capacity to bring forth new laws which were not ‘potentially’ contained in some fixed set of possibles; I accord to time the capacity to bring forth situations which were not at all contained in precedent situations : of creating new cases, rather than merely actualizing potentialities that eternally pre-exist their fulguration. If we maintain that becoming is not only capable of bringing forth cases on the basis of a pre-given universe of cases, we must then understand that it follows that such cases irrupt, properly speaking, from nothing, since no structure contains them as eternal potentialities before their emergence: we thus make irruption ex nihilo the very concept of a temporality delivered to its pure immanence” (232 ST).

“We must thus grasp the fact that the inexistence of a pre-constituted All of possibles makes of the emergence of a possible anticipated by nothing in the preceding situation, the very manifestation of a time underwritten by no superior order: every emergence of a supplement irreducible to its premises, far from manifesting the intervention of a transcendent order in rational becoming, becomes the rigorous inverse: a manifestation of a becoming which nothing transcends” (232 ST).

“Time throws the die, but only to shatter it, to multiply its faces, beyond any calculus of possibilities. Actual events cease to be doubled by phantomatic possibilities which prefigure them before they occur, to be conceived instead as pure emergences, which before being are nothing, or, once again, which do not pre-exist their existence” (232 ST).

“In other words, the notion of virtuality, supported by the rationality of the Cantorian decision of intotalising the thinkable, makes of irruption ex nihilo the central concept of an immanent, non-metaphysical rationality. Immanent, in that irruption ex nihilo presupposes, against the usually religious vision of such a concept, that there is no principle (divine or otherwise) superior to the pure power of the chaos of becoming; non-metaphysical in that the radical rejection of all real necessity assures us of breaking with the inaugural decision of the Principle of Sufficient Reason”.(233 ST).

“The notion of virtuality permits us, then, to reverse the signs, making of every radical irruption the manifestation, not of a transcendent principle of becoming (a miracle, the sign of a Creator), but of a time that nothing subtends (an emergence, the sign of the non-All). We can then grasp what is signified by the impossibility of tracing a genealogy of novelties directly to a time before their emergence: not the incapacity of reason to discern hidden potentialities, but, quite on the contrary, the capacity of reason to accede to the ineffectivity of an All of potentialities which would pre-exist their emergence. In every radical novelty, time makes manifest that it does not actualize a germ of the past, but that it brings forth a virtuality which did not pre-exist in any way, in any totality inaccessible to time, its own advent” (235).

So out of this discourse we’ve learned that there is no substrate of potentialities that pre-exists the emergence of objects into our universe, no great big Other (God, All) that orders the formation of things in our universe (no transcendental principle); instead we discover the notion of virtuality and irruption ex nihilo into a “time that nothing subtends”. We await Meillassoux’s Magnum Opus that might substantiate this all-to-brief glimpse into a philosophy freeing itself from the Principle of Sufficient Reason while maintaining “the double exigency inherent to the classical form of rationalism: the ontology of that which is given to experience, and the critique of representation.”



Zizek sees Meillassoux in the materialist camp…

Slavoj Zizek’s comments on Meillassoux in Speculative Turn:

“Quentin Meillassoux has outlined the contours of a post-metaphysical materialist ontology whose basic premise is the Cantorian multiplicity of infinities which cannot be totalized into an all-encompassing One. Such an ontology of non-All asserts radical contingency: not only are there no laws which hold with necessity, every law is in itself contingent, it can be overturned at any moment. What this amounts to is the suspension of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: not only the epistemological suspension, but also the ontological one. That is to say, it is not only that we cannot ever get to know the entire network of causal determinations, this chain is in itself ‘inconclusive’, opening up the space for the immanent contingency of becoming—such a chaos of becoming subjected to no pre-existing order is what defines radical materialism” (215).

Zizek continues saying,

“The emergence of a phenomenon ex nihilo, not fully covered by the sufficient chain of reasons, is thus no longer—as in traditional metaphysics—the sign of the direct intervention of some super-natural power (God) into nature, but, on the contrary, the sign of the inexistence of God, i.e., a proof that nature is not-All, not ‘covered’ by any transcendent Order or Power which regulates it. A ‘miracle’ (whose formal definition is the emergence of something not covered by the existing causal network) is thus converted into a materialist concept” (216 Zizek):

“Every ‘miracle’ thus becomes the manifestation of the inexistence of God, in so far as every radical rupture of the present in relation to the past becomes the manifestation of the absence of any order capable of overseeing the chaotic power of becoming” (233 Meillassoux).

Zizek as a Hegelian asks: “For us Hegelians the crucial question here is: where is Hegel with regard to this distinction between potentiality and virtuality? In a first approach, there is massive evidence that Hegel is the philosopher of potentiality: is not the whole point of the dialectical development as the development from In-itself to For-itself that, in the process of becoming, things merely ‘become what they already are’ (or, rather, were from all eternity)? Is the dialectical process not the temporal deployment of an eternal set of potentialities, which is why the Hegelian System is a self-enclosed set of necessary passages? However, this mirage of overwhelming evidence dissipates the moment we fully take into account the radical retroactivity of the dialectical process: the process of becoming is not in itself necessary, but the becoming (the gradual contingent emergence) of necessity itself. This is (also, among other things) what ‘to conceive substance as subject’ means: subject as the Void, the Nothingness of self-relating negativity, is the very nihil out of which every new figure emerges, i.e., every dialectical passage/reversal is a passage in which the new figure emerges ex nihilo and retroactively posits/creates its necessity” (217).

In this we also see a move toward Ray Brassier’s nihilistic cosmos as well…

1. Interview with Quentin Meillassoux – Influences (2010)
2. The Speculative Turn (© the individual contributors and re.press 201)

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