The Poem of the Sea: Speculative Materialism and Realism

“Art makes things. There are… no objects in nature, only the grueling erosion of natural force, flecking, dilapidating, grinding down, reducing all matter to fluid, the thick primal soup from which new forms, bob, gasping for life.”
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae

“The rupture with the idealist tradition in the field of philosophic study is of great necessity today.”
Alain Badiou

“And this brings me to the great underlying problem: the status of the subject. Meillassoux’s claim is to achieve the breakthrough into independent ‘objective’ reality. For me as a Hegelian, there is a third option: the true problem that arises after we perform the basic speculative gesture of Meillassoux… is not so much what more can we say about reality-in-itself, but how does our subjective standpoint, and subjectivity itself, fit into reality. … we need a theory of subject which is neither that of transcendental subjectivity nor that of reducing the subject to a part of objective reality. This theory is, as far as I can see, still lacking in speculative realism.”
– Slavoj Zizek 

Timothy Morton on his blog Ecology without Nature mentioned the music of Sun0))) and Boris, which was weird because I was listening to their album Altar at the moment I saw his article on them… a Jungian synchronicity? – or, just another speculative event among like minded connoisseurs of the transcendent real. Anyway Alter is a performative music in which one enters an arena of the erotics of the technological subject, a subject that is no longer bound by our concepts of the human: or, as Slavoj Zizek has so eloquently put it – the “subject as the Void, the Nothingness of self-relating negativity”. [1]

As we enter the Age of the Real when the Dionysian fluidity of the chthonian, a radical contingency in which – as Quentin Meillasoux brilliantly states it: “…not only are there no laws which hold with necessity, every law is in itself contingent, it can be overturned at any moment” (ibid. 215), vies with the Apollonian formalism of science, we discover the terminal phase of postmodern culture in an electrical gaze between masks that forms a new object: an erotic, molten dance of sensual objects and thought out of which emerges 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.” [2]

If this all sounds like mystical mumbo-jumbo, the wild ravings of a speculative mind bent on the impossible possibility of a new mode of being beyond the humanistic subject, then so be it: this is the path that our post-humanist age is taking us, one that is being explored by some of the best minds on planet earth. In The Speculative Turn a conflictual and problimatic philosophical dialogue within Continental Philosophy is beginning, bringing together such diverse and anomalous defenders of both materialism and, what is being termed – for lack of a better term, speculative realism (SR): – both new and old voices such as Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant, Ray Brassier, Alberto Toscano, Adrian Johnston, Martin Hagglund, Peter Hallward, Nathan Brown, Nick Srinicek, Reza Negarestani, Quentin Meillassoux, François Laruelle, Levi R. Bryant, Steven Shaviro, Bruno Latour, Gabriel Catren, Isabell Stengers, Manuel DeLanda, John Protevi, and Ben Woodard. Each contributing essays that sparkle with wit and erudition, revealing more than concealing the inner workings of the philosophical tribes and their discourse surrounding both Continental Materialism and Realism.

Scott Bukatman has said of our postmodern terminal culture, with its “pervasive parallel population comprised of genetically engineered wetware wonders, electrically addicted buttonheads, fragmented posthuman enclaves, and terminal cyborgs,” that a new subjectivity is arising in our midst embodying our “new, and inescapable, state of being.” [3] Arthur Rimbaud in The Drunken Boat once sang:

“Sweeter than the flesh of sour apples to children,
The green water penetrated my pinewood hull
And washed me clean of the bluish wine-stains and the splashes of vomit,
Carrying away both rudder and anchor.

And from that time on I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, star-infused and churned into milk,
Devouring the green azures; where, entranced in pallid flotsam,
A dreaming drowned man sometimes goes down…”

The Poem of the Sea is a rupture out of an idealist vision of self/world and its correlational unity, and a new path into the deeps beyond the human where both materialism and realism, like combatants in a duel to the death, vie for the supremacy of a new philosophy of the cold void: in which ontology and epistemology coming at each other from differing traditions punch it out in hopes of developing a science that can once again be formulated within the boundaries of philosophical discourse; not as a supplement to the rigours of mathematical precision, but as a guide to that which lies beyond the limits of technological subjectivity. As Dr. Richard Roden tells us in his Manifesto of Speculative Posthumanism: “If it is possible for our technical activity to ultimately engender radically non-human forms of life we must confront the possibility that our ‘wide’ technological descendants will be so alien as to fall outside the public ethical frameworks employed by the majority of transhumanists and bioconservatives.” He argues, saying,

“Among the intellectuals to have appreciated the ontological stakes are those poststructuralists and ‘critical posthumanists’ who claim that the trajectory of current technoscientific change ‘deconstructs’ the philosophical centrality of the human subject in epistemology and politics – by, for example, levelling differences between human subjects, non-human animals, or cybernetic systems. However, while critical posthumanism has yielded important insights it is hamstrung by a default anti-realism inherited from the dominant traditions in post-Kantian continental philosophy. The deconstruction of subjectivity is an ambivalent philosophical achievement at best; one that cedes ground to potent forms of humanism while failing to address the cosmic likelihood of a posthuman dispensation.

… Speculative Posthumanism claims that an augmentation history of this kind is metaphysically and technically possible. It does not imply that the posthuman would improve upon the human state or that there would exist a scale of values by which human and posthuman lives could be compared. If radically posthuman lives were very non-human indeed, we should not assume them to be prospectively evaluable using the ethical frameworks available to us. This does not indicate that the posthuman is ‘impossible’ or, like the God of negative theology, transcends our epistemic capacities. Rather this proposition indicates a problem that is still ‘ours’ insofar as the posthuman could result from an iteration of our current technical praxis.” [4]

As Ray Brassier said in Genre is Obsolete, there would come a time when posthumanist technologies would offer a new path in human evolution:

“Neurotechnologies, including cognitive enhancers such as modafinil, brain fingerprinting, neural lie-detectors, and nascent brain-computer interfaces, are giving rise to phenotechnologies which will eventually usher in the literal manufacturing of consciousness in a way that promises to redraw existing boundaries between personal and collective experience and recast not only extant categories of personal and collective identity, but also those of personal and collective agency.”[5]

Brassier hinted at this in his interview Against an Aesthetics of Noise when he mentioned the nemocentric vision of neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger, saying that “the objectification of experience would generate self-less subjects that understand themselves to be no-one and no-where. This casts an interesting new light on the possibility of a ‘communist’ subjectivity”. [6] What would a ‘communist’ subjectivity look like? Or, much rather: how would a communist subjectivity emerge within our posthuman singularity? Instead of answering these questions I will now enter the essays of The Speculative Turn and discover the points of convergence/divergence within the speculative materialism and realism of the above disparate group of philosophers. Instead of reiterating what Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman did so well in their introductory essay, Toward a Speculative Philosophy, I will focus only on those points that touch on those issues and concerns that Slavoj Zizek raised when he said “…we need a theory of subject which is neither that of transcendental subjectivity nor that of reducing the subject to a part of objective reality” (ST: Zizek: 415).

*    *     *

“Sorceress, I have become more fanatically perfectionist in regard to my essays since we have met. I was expecting a more relaxed text but no, it is anything but relaxed, I am burning and what is left behind is not ash or smoke but tons of slimy, messy traces, oil, differentiated wetness, and muddled states of matter.”
– Reza Negarestani, Cyclonpedia

Graham Harman in his new book Circus Philosophicus describes a time when he lived in Japan. He’d met a friend from Canada that lived on one of the many islands off the coast, so he began taking a ferry to the island to visit the friend, and like many other repetitions in life this led to his meeting a gentleman named Kenji who related a tale of haunted boats at sea. Kenji described the voices coming from the boat rather than the boat itself. What was curious for Harman was not the actual tale but the similarity with a childhood memory of an officer who used to visit the neighborhood in his hometown and make speeches and hand out chocalates and balloons. Harman was never actually able to meet this mysterious officer, but was led to believe in his existence by tales from his bother from which he was excluded through mysterious factors of concidence. The same happened with the tale of the haunted ship several times as he ferried back and forth to and from his meetings with his Canadian friend on the island. Kenji, his ferry companion, would relate that he had espied the boat but was unable to find Harman either do to his being asleep or missing. Harman, a little skeptical realised he might confirm the truth of these sightings by asking other passengers but was dissuaded for the simple reason that Kenji spoke of them in such “hushed whispers” that Harman was afraid to make them a public fact. [7] Many years later, after leaving Japan, and after the death of his aquaintance, Kenji, he began thinking again of the haunted boat and its travels upon the seas of Japan.

In relating his new myth of the boat Harman discusses the emergence of Husserl’s idealist phenomenology, how his descriptions of the “natural reality of the boat be suspended or “bracketed,” turning the boat into an appearance to be explored, without judgement on that part of it which lies beyond the mind” (CP: 57). This form of idealism he says condemend Husserl to the dustbin of Plato’s purgatory, where he would go down as “the most unjustly treated of our great philosophers” (CP:58). Yet, Husserl made a great discovery along the way, he discovered that “experience is not made of qualities; instead, is made of objects” (CP: 58). But the idealist prerequisite of those objects being only for consciousness was still adhered too by Husserl. Husserl also performed an “eidetic reduction” upon the object, an analysis that determines what features are required of the boat to be a boat rather than a horse, tiger, whale (CP:59). He relates that there is a difference between sensual and eidetic qualities of an object, but that these are always hidden within the object and are never visible to the senses of the phenomenolgist’s consciousness (CP: 60). Husserl often believed that “categorical intuition” had access to reality in a way that the senses did not, but Harman emphasises that “this misleading claim is  merely the sad consequence of his idealism, which allows no reality outside of possible presence to consciousness” (CP:60).

Harman now turns to Heideggar from whom he gained his concept of the “withdrawness” of object from all human access (CP: 60). It was here in Heidegger he found something not found in Husserl: “the difference between a withdrawn real object and the accessible, sensual crust through which it is known” (CP: 60-61). He further says that in Heideggar we discover that real “…objects, no less than sensual ones, are torn between their unified reality and their plurality of specific traits. They are not empty poles of unity, but have distinct qualities without being mere bundles” (CP: 61).

These discoveries in both Husserlian and Heideggarian philosophy he terms the four tensions, and describes how they operate: the first tension is between the ferry as we know it and its multitude of shifting traits; the second tension is what Husserl calls the eidos (in a different sense from Plato’s). It is the tension between the sensual objects of experience and the features they truly need to exist, though in the case of sensual objects that existence must be for some perceiver; the third tension is described as the one in which all visible features of the ferry are in tension not only with a sensual ferry, but also with a real one that withdraws into darkness and remains invisible no matter how much it malfunctions; in the final, and fourth tension, we see what lies between the real subterranean ferry and its subterranean features. And in classical terms, this tension between a thing’s unified reality and its multitude of features is best called essence (CP: 61-62) He goes on to say,

“In the ferry, then, as in all other things, we encounter a fourfold structure of time, space, things, and eidos. No longer are time and space pampered twin sisters freed from all other rivals in metaphysics and popular imagination. Instead they are merely half of a set of quadruplets, reunited with their unkown sisters essence and eidos. Yet the banality of the world is such that only rarely do we notice these tensions” (CP: 62).

Now after a disquisition on the “crushing normalcy” of objects he returns us to the haunted boat, which in his words is the notion “that the ghost boat was dispateched by the gods of Shinto to restore some philosophy to this tired cosmos” (CP: 63). Harman is not without his humorous side. Yet, he goes on to say, that for “ghosts, no banality is possible” (CP: 63) Because the haunted boat rides high in the water, and starts and stops in fits and convulsions we are forced to “confront the tension between the unified haunted boat and its multitude of shifting features. Let this ‘confrontation’ be the name for those sporadic cases where we come directly to grips with the difference between a thing and ist slippery features.” (CP: 63).  Next we must form a theory about the haunted boat: “a theory is what disrupts the usual dull bond between the sensual object and its real hidden traits” (CP: 63). And, then, we can speak of the haunted boat as alluring – “haunting our dreams and luring us toward our doom” (CP: 63). What this kind of allure suggests is a “certain ungraspable spirit lying beyond all access. Indeed, all beauty has something ghostly about it” (CP: 63). And, finally, there is the tension between the subterranean ghost boat and its subterranean features: when “the normal relation between the haunted boat and its features is disrupted, then we have a transference of properties between things. These are cases of causation, and causation does not occur at every moment. Under normal conditions, the boat may continue as it was for long periods without anything ever happening” (CP: 63).

So ends the myth that Harman describes.
*    *    *

“And though their eyes saw nothing but the wild destruction that lay ahead, buried like a forgotten dream within each one of them was a perfect picture of other eyes and the unspeakable shape in which they now lived, and which now had to be murdered.”
– Thomas Ligotti, Flowers of the Abyss

One wonders just what Ray Brassier would make of Harman’s statements above on the allure of ungraspable spirit’s lying beyond all access. We might understand just what he’d be thinking if we went back to his early thesis Alien Theory where he openly attacked such tendencies toward phenomenological hiddeness, saying, “Is not part of the philosophers unease concerning scientific ‘reduction’ directly attributable to the unavowed wish that, as far as man is concerned, there always be ‘something’ left over beside the material: some ineffable, unquantifiable meta-physical residue, some irreducible transcendental remainder?” (AT: 15). [8] To say that Brassier is an antagonist of any form of unobjectifiable transcendence in theory or practice is an understatement: “the phenomenological conception of ‘phenomenality’ seems to us so dangerously narrow and parochial as to render the much-vaunted project of a ‘transcendental phenomenological ontology’ into an insidious form of anthropomorphic imperialism” (AT:15). Not to say that Harman is completely in that camp, but he does tend toward it with his withdrawn objects enclosed in their own solitude cut off from contact with other objects. Of course this too is a caracature of Harman’s philosophical project as well, but one that many others secretly or openly espouse in their readings of Harman’s connections to both Husserl and Heideggar.

Brassier’s transcendental nihilism (realism) affirms a deeper resistance to any philosophy that is unwilling to constrain its underlying principles by the Enlightenment program based as it is on the hopes of the scientific project with its unique set of tools and technological adaptations to both thinking and being. As he stated flatly and unequivocally:

“Consequently, either the philosopher accepts the irrecusable pertinence of scientific truth, and a fortiori, the scientific truth about human being; or he rejects wholesale the notion that science is in any position to formulate truths about man, in which case he subordinates scientific truth to a higher authority: to wit, the putatively unobjectifiable transcendence of human being. The latter option is, it seems to us, fundamentally indicative of the phenomenological stance in philosophy. Unfortunately, the popularity enjoyed by this stance among many contemporary philosophers -whether of a ‘continental’ persuasion or not- does not render it any less repugnant in our eyes” (AT: 18).

In Nihil Unbound he would further this cause against any form of false idealism and humanism. He would reduce our views of the universe to its sheer meaninglessness and purposelessness: an “organon of extinction”.  He tells us in another essay (Axiomatic heresy – The non-philosophy of Francois Laruelle) that there are two avenues philosophers have taken in regards to originality: the first being to effect our understanding of being, truth, or knowledge; and, second, there “are philosophers whose most conspicuous claim to innovation resides not so much in what they think but rather in how they think. They propose a fundamental change in the way philosophy is done – a revolutionary break, a new beginning.” That the non-philosophy of Francois Laruelle has occupied a place within Brassier’s thinking is an understatement. As he tells us:

“The truth is that his thought operates at a level of abstraction which some will find debilitating, others exhilarating. Those who believe formal invention should be subordinated to substantive innovation will undoubtedly find Laruelle’s work rebarbative. Those who believe that untethering formal invention from the constraints of substantive innovation – and thereby transforming the latter – remains a philosophically worthy challenge, may well find Laruelle’s work invigorating” (ibid.). A basic definition of what Laruelle is doing in his heretical non-philosophy is that it represents “a theoretical practice of philosophy proceeding by way of transcendental axioms and producing theorems which are philosophically uninterpretable” (ibid.). The ‘non’ in Non-philosophy is to be seen “not as a negation or denial of philosophy, but as suspending a specific structure … which Laruelle sees as constitutive of the traditional practice of philosophy. New possibilities of thought become available once that structure has been suspended and non-philosophy is an index of those philosophically unenvisageable possibilities” (ibid.). In a humorous aside he tells us that unlike “postmodern pragmatist’s ‘supermarket trolley’ approach to philosophy, where the philosophical consumer’s personal predilections provide the sole criterion for choosing between competing philosophies” Non-philosophy is “a means of turning the practice of philosophy itself into an exercise in perpetual invention” (ibid.). What Lauruelle is after is a “precondition for philosophy that is real’ without being empirically determinate and capable of assuming a transcendental function without becoming ideally transcendent”.[9]

Brassier tells us that Laurelle believed tht the “non-Decisional precondition for philosophising, and that defining it as the authentically ineliminable sine qua non for all philosophical thought is a matter of purifying the notion of immanence of every residue of ideal transcendence and empirical determination” (Pli: 68).  Brassier in explicating Laurelle’s non-phenomenological philosophy seems to be seeking a new vocabulary and a cyborgian philosophy shorn of the human, as in this description where he sees the need for a “prosthetic for conceptual cognition”: “non-phenomenological theory could be said to function like a kind of transcendental prosthetic for conceptual cognition, emancipating it from the functional specificities of the human sensory apparatus and the constraints of empirical sensibility, the better to provide it with an authentically universal mode of cognitive access to the nonanthropocognitive realm of pre-individual phenomena. Moreover, in providing this non-phenomenological amplification of cognition in accordance with the Identity of the phenomenon-in-itself, this transcendental prosthetic might be said to operate somewhat like a universal organon for radical translation, allowing creatures with otherwise utterly disparate sensory modalities and incommensurate individuation criteria to communicate via a cognitive vocabulary shorn of all contamination by empirically overdetermined conceptual schemes” (Pli: 80). One could imagine our posthuman progeny using such prosthetic implants to amplify and translate objects devoid of our anthropocognitive empirical sensibility. But what exactly would such a being be? It certainly would no longer be human in the sense that human has come down to us through the traditions of humanism; so, exactly what kind of being are we being asked to become if we are to take on such a prosthetic transformation of the human into the posthuman Brave New World?  But is he even concerned with humans at all? As he says in this passage: “…allowing creatures with otherwise utterly disparate sensory modalities and incommensurate individuation criteria to communicate…”: this seems like a preparation for an alien invasion, or the implosion of consciousness into an alien mode of being shorn of our human heritage and modes of awareness.

But as I’d already quoted in a previous context above this is exactly where Brassier thinks we are heading:

“Neurotechnologies, including cognitive enhancers such as modafinil, brain fingerprinting, neural lie-detectors, and nascent brain-computer interfaces, are giving rise to phenotechnologies which will eventually usher in the literal manufacturing of consciousness in a way that promises to redraw existing boundaries between personal and collective experience and recast not only extant categories of personal and collective identity, but also those of personal and collective agency.”[5]

But one wonders if these “creatures” he is speaking of are instead of humans much more likely the agents of some future cybernetic alternative species, something beyond the singularity event that portends a posthuman life that we have only begun to imagin within the context of science fiction must less philosophy. Of course there is a large history of such thinking within the sciences as authors as diverse as N. Katherine Hayles of How We Became Posthuman fame to such writers a Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge with their concepts of the technological singularity: a hypothetical event occurring when technological progress becomes so rapid that it makes the future after the singularity qualitatively different and harder to predict. This would be an unpredictable world in which the technological creation of superintelligence would be chaotic to humans due to an inability of human beings to imagine the intentions or capabilities of these superintelligent entities. Many prominent technologists and academics dispute the plausibility of a technological singularity, including Jeff Hawkins, John Holland, Daniel Dennett, Jaron Lanier, and Gordon Moore, whose eponymous Moore’s Law is often cited in support of the concept. Of course there have been many debunkers of such concepts and I will not go into that at the moment since we are dealing not with this but Brassier’s implications for philosophy toward a posthuman philosophical discourse.

What I am more interested in his how Brassier defines his ideas concerning the “promises to redraw existing boundaries between personal and collective experience and recast not only extant categories of personal and collective identity, but also those of personal and collective agency.” What would such a subjectivity allow for, what forms would perceptions take, how would be envisaged within the non-philosophy of Laurelle? Brassier at the end of his essay asks a question: “What is a non-rabbit?” He continues, saying,

“It is a dispersive singularity: the transcendental coincidence of a phenomenon that no longer presupposes an individuating logos, and a matter that is no longer posited on the basis of an individuated concept. It manifests itself as the unilateral duality of an unobjectifiably immanent phenomenon that has not been posited by means of an inclividuating phenomenality, and an unobjectifiably transcendent phenomenality that has not been presupposed through an indivicluated phenomenon. It is a xenotype: an unenvisageable but radically immanent theoretical entity.

And what is non-phenomenological theory that it is able to reconfigure the parameters of perception so as to allow for the apprehension of such phenomena?

A transcendental adrenochrome” (ibid. 81).

He quotes to us that “adrenochrome is a mythical hallucinogen, of reputedly terrifying potency, supposedly synthesized from the living body’s pituitary gland”, then produces a quote from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (London: Paladin, 1972): ‘The room looked like the site of some disastrous zoological experiment involving whiskey and gorillas…’ (ibid. 81). If an figurative description like Thompson’s, who was on hallucinogens at the time, is taken as an example of the derangement of the sensory filters of the human brain supporting an empirical adrenochrome induced perceptual transformation then what would a non-phenomenological perception be if it was both ‘transcendental’ and ‘adrenochromatic’?

His poignant attack on the correlationists self/world post-Kantianism is a central tenet not only of Brassier’s thought but of the whole SR tradition. This has been covered in previous essays on my blog and others across the net so I will not reiterate the basics of this philosophical program, but will only emphasize Brassier’s take on it within the context of his own project. Against other speculative realists (see my essay: Ray Brassier: On Transcendental Realism ) he tells us that his “sceptical stance towards phenomenology leads me to endorse a more austere, revisionary brand of realism that tends to undermine the reality of subjective experience, at least as ordinarily construed”. He continues saying that “”my conviction is that the sources and structures of human experience can and will be understood scientifically, but this integration of experience into the scientific worldview will entail a profound transformation in our understanding of what it means to be human—one as difficult for us to comprehend from within the purview of our current experience as the latter would have been for our hominid ancestors”. Finally, his form of transcendental realism is based on “a new compact between metaphysics and epistemology: transcendental realism in the former and revisionary naturalism in the latter. There is a reality that transcends the bounds of possible human experience set out by Kant, but we are learning that it is populated by ‘things’ about which it is proving increasingly difficult to say ‘what’ they are using the resources of sense currently available to us. We will have to forge new vocabularies to be able to say what these things are. Admittedly, this still has a ‘speculative’ ring, but I would like to insist that metaphysical speculation be constrained by scientific knowledge”.[11]

Now we come to Brassier’s Concepts and Objects essay where in proposition 26 he states:

“To refuse correlationism’s collapsing of epistemology into ontology, and of ontology into politics, is not to retreat into reactionary quietism but to acknowledge the need to forge new conditions of articulation between politics, epistemology, and metaphysics. The politicization of ontology marks a regression to anthropomorphic myopia; the ontologization of politics falters the moment it tries to infer political prescriptions from metaphysical description. Philosophy and politics cannot be metaphysically conjoined; philosophy intersects with politics at the point where critical epistemology transects ideology critique. An emancipatory politics oblivious to epistemology quickly degenerates into metaphysical fantasy, which is to say, a religious substitute.13 The failure to change the world may not be unrelated to the failure to understand it” (ST: 54).

To understand the world then we need to “know what things are in order to measure the gap between their phenomenal and noumenal aspects as well as the difference between their extrinsic and intrinsic properties. To know (in the strong scientific sense) what something is is to conceptualize it. This is not to say that things are identical with their concepts. The gap between conceptual identity and non-conceptual difference—between what our concept of the object is and what the object is in itself—is not an ineffable hiatus or mark of irrecuperable alterity; it can be conceptually converted into an identity that is not of the concept even though the concept is of it” (ST: 55). In proposition 29 he tells us what “is real in the scientific representation of the object does not coincide with the object’s quiddity as conceptually circumscribed—the latter is what the concept means and what the object is; its metaphysical quiddity or essence—but the scientific posture is one which there is an immanent yet transcendental hiatus between the reality of the object and its being as conceptually circumscribed: the posture of scientific representation is one in which it is the former that determines the latter and forces its perpetual revision. … The scientific stance is one in which the reality of the object determines the meaning of its conception, and allows the discrepancy between that reality and the way in which it is conceptually circumscribed to be measured.” (ST: 55).

After a disquisition of David Stove’s* attack on Berkely in the Gem argument and its defense of correlationism he mentions “it is somewhat perplexing to see Quentin Meillassoux, the philosopher who has done more than anyone to challenge the hegemony of correlationism, declare his admiration for ‘the exceptional strength of this [correlationist] argumentation…” (ST: 59). Instead “Meillassoux reasserts his conviction that correlationism can only be overcome from within: since Fichte has disqualified the possibility of positing the absolute as an object, the only non-dogmatic alternative to Fichte’s transcendentalization of reflection consists in absolutizing the contingency of the correlation…” (ST: 60). Against Meillassoux he tells us “Meillassoux is surely right to identify Fichte as the veritable founder of strong correlationism (as opposed to weak or Kantian correlationism). But transcendental realists may be forgiven for remaining unmoved by the claim that the free act of positing reflection disqualifies every invocation of a non-posited reality” (ST: 61). He continues his attack saying, “Fichte’s characterizations of freedom and reflection cannot but strike one as instances of gratuitous idealist dogmatism. Reflection is supposed to disqualify the in-itself because it is the unobjectifiable condition of representation and as such renders all objects, even and precisely those objects represented as existing in-themselves, into objects that are merely for us. … Meillassoux is overly indulgent towards Fichte’s reckless equations between reflection and activity, spontaneity and freedom; he is too quick to license Fichte’s hypertrophic inflation of terms like ‘reflection’, ‘act’, and ‘freedom’” (ST: 61). He tells us that contra Fichte there seems to be “good cognitive grounds for distinguishing words from things and meanings from objects” (ST: 62). He continues telling us that since “Fichte’s purported disqualification of transcendental realism relies entirely on this trivial confusion, there is no reason for us to lend it any more credence than we accord to Berkeley’s ‘proof’ of the impossibility of conceiving independently existing material objects” (ST: 62).

Pursuing his attack he states “Meillassoux insists that transcendental realism remains a secession from rather than a refutation of Fichtean correlationism. But there is no need to secede from something whose cogency evaporates upon critical scrutiny. Once one realizes that Fichte’s intimidating Teutonicisms mask flimsy Berkeleyian Gems, it becomes no more impossible to refute Fichtean correlationism than it was to refute Berkeleyian immaterialism. Fichte’s Tathandlung is merely the most rarefied species of Gem as that form of argumentation that slides from the true claim that we need a concept of mind-independent reality in order to make claims about the latter to the false claim that the very concept of mind-independent reality suffices to convert the latter into a concept, which is by definition mind-dependent. This is the fatal non-sequitur at the root of every variant of correlationism; one rendered all the more egregious by its reliance on a naive folkpsychological theory of the nature of conception” (ST: 63).

In proposition 45 he gets to the heart of his argument (which I will quote at length):

“The problem of objective synthesis (or what Laruelle calls ‘philosophical decision’) is basically that of how to adjudicate the relationship between conceptual thought and non-conceptual reality. But that we have a concept of the difference between Saturn and Saturn does not entail that the difference is a difference in the concept: concept of difference ≠ conceptual difference. The acknowledgement of this non-equivalence is the basic premise of transcendental realism, which cannot be subverted simply by equivocating, in the manner of strong or Fichtean correlationism, between the conditions of positing and the being of the posited. For as Laruelle points out, even this equivocation cannot but invoke the absolute reality of the Tathandlung or act of selfpositing: the Fichtean cannot help but be a realist about her own positing activity. Realism is uncircumventable, even for the most stubborn anti-realist. The problem is to identify the salient epistemological considerations so that the question of what to be a realist about may be rationally adjudicated. In this regard, the sorts of phenomenological intuition about conscious activity resorted to by Fichteans and other idealists remain a dubious source of authority. More fundamentally, the question is why those who are so keen to attribute absolute or unconditional reality to the activities of selfconsciousness (or of minded creatures) seem so loath to confer equal existential rights upon the un-conscious, mindless processes through which consciousness and mindedness first emerged and will eventually be destroyed” (ST: 64).

Finally he presents the problems facing any transcendental realism:

“Acknowledging the autonomy of the in-itself, transcendental realism faces the problem of determining what is real. This cannot be addressed independently of scientific representation. For those of us who take scientific representation to be the most reliable form of cognitive access to reality, the problem is one of granting maximal … authority to the scientific representation of the world while acknowledging that science changes its mind about what it says there is. Accordingly, the key question becomes: How can we acknowledge that scientific conception tracks the in-itself without resorting to the problematic metaphysical assumption that to do so is to conceptually circumscribe the ‘essence’ (or formal reality) of the latter? For we want to be able to claim that science knows reality without resorting to the Aristotelian equation of reality with substantial form. This is to say that the structure of reality includes but is not exhausted by the structure of discretely individuated objects. Indeed, it is the nature of the epistemological correlation between individuated concepts and individual objects that is currently being investigated by cognitive science” (ST: 65).

In summation of his argument he explains that  “…recognizing this does not resolve or answer any of the profound epistemological and metaphysical difficulties which confront us in the wake of science’s remarkable cognitive achievements. But it may help us realize that these difficulties cannot be circumvented, as both correlationists and dogmatic metaphysicians seek to do, by dispensing with those hard-won dualisms that have helped clarify what distinguishes scientific representation from metaphysical fantasy. Dualisms such as those of meaning and being, and of knowing and feeling, are not relics of an outmoded metaphysics; they are makeshift but indispensable instruments through which reason begins to be apprized both of its continuity and its discontinuity with regard to what it is still expedient to call ‘nature’” (ST: 65).

As he stated in the previous interview “I think it safe to say that neither Grant, nor Harman, nor Meillassoux shares my commitment to epistemological naturalism, or my sympathy for ‘reductionist’ accounts of subjective experience. I think they would view it as a mistake to begin philosophizing from the contrast between the ‘manifest’ and ‘scientific’ images of reality as I do, and as result their realism tends to be more catholic and ecumenical than mine, especially where subjective experience is concerned. By way of contrast, my sceptical stance towards phenomenology leads me to endorse a more austere, revisionary brand of realism that tends to undermine the reality of subjective experience, at least as ordinarily construed” [11].

*    *    *

Part I | Part II I Part III 

*Note: “Although life diverges from the inorganic in ever more circuitous detours, these are no more than temporary extensions of the latter, which will eventually contract back to their original inorganic condition, understood as the zero-degree of contraction, or decontraction” (NU: 235).

*Note:The Australian philosopher David Stove argued in typical acerbic style that idealism rested on what he called “the worst argument in the world”. From a logical point of view his critique is no different from Russell or Nietzsche’s—but Stove has been more widely cited and most clearly highlighted the mistake of proponents (like Berkeley) of subjective idealism. He named the form of this argument – invented by Berkeley — “the GEM”. Berkeley claimed that “[the mind] is deluded to think it can and does conceive of bodies existing unthought of, or without the mind, though at the same time they are apprehended by, or exist in, itself”. Stove argued that this claim proceeds from the tautology that nothing can be thought of without its being thought of, to the conclusion that nothing can exist without its being thought of. Alan Musgrave recently extended this argument to attack Conceptual Idealism.

1. The Speculative Turn (ST) (© the individual contributors and 2011) pp. 202-223.
2. ibid. pp. 224-236.
3. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction (Duke University Press 1993) pp. 328-329.
4. Manifesto of Speculative Posthumanism ( 12.2.2010)
5. Genre is Obsolete, Ray Brassier (Multitudes, No. 28, Spring 2007)
6. nY Transitzone: Against an Aesthetics of Noise by Ray Brassier/Bram Ieven (5.10.2009)
7. Circus Philosophicus (CP) (Zero Books 2010)
8. Alien Theory: Decline of Materialism in the Name of Matter (Ray Brassier: 2001)
9. Behold the Non-Rabbit: Kant, Quine, Laruelle (Pli 2001)
10. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Ray Brassier 2007)
11. Interview With Ray Brassier – Against an Aesthetics of Noise nY # 2 (2009)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s