Speculations IV: Peter Gratton and Post-deconstructive Realism

In On Touching, Derrida argues that ‘for Nancy, touch remains the motif of an absolute, irredentist, and post-deconstructive realism [réalisme … post-déconstructif] … an absolute realism, but irreducible to any of the tradition’s realisms’ (OT 46/60).

– Michael Marder, The Event of the Thing: Derrida’s Post-Deconstructive Realism

Peter Gratton of Philosophy in a Time of Error fame in the introduction to his excellent book The State of Sovereignty tells us “Political mysticism in particular is exposed to the danger of losing its spell or becoming quite meaningless when taken out of its native surroundings, its time and its space”.1 One wonders if the same thing might be true of philosophical mysticism. Is that not what the history of the last two thousand years in philosophy is? Is not one of the basic tenets of modernity the overcoming of our ancestors metaphysical mysticism? Is metaphysics rather than being overcome still very pervasive within our academies hiding under other names other philosophical disguises?

One of the things that Gratton points out in his new essay for Speculations IV Post-Deconstructive Realism It’s about Time is just that: it is about time, about the presumptive arrogance of SR in its castigation of post-structural forms of philosophical speculation, and, as Gratton puts it, these speculative realists seek “means of driving straight past the “linguistic turn” that had side-tracked, they believe, a previous era of philosophers”. But we should not overlook the troubling effects of such a move he tells us, because what these philosophers have done in bypassing the “linguistic turn” is nothing less than a return to pre-modern, pre-critical modes of thought: “But my argument is that this is a dodge: at the heart of this speculative work is a pre-modern (not even just pre-Critical) consideration of time, where time is epiphenomenal when thought against the eternal…”. One of the consequences of this for Gratton is that until until a certain realism of time opens onto SR thought, their “interventions will be anything but timely”.

Peter center his attack on two specific members of the original SR gang of four: Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman. Why them specifically? Instead of answering that question directly Peter goes directly to the heart of Jaques Derrida’s central insight: “There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n’y a pas de horstexte]”. The point of this being as Gratton tells us citing Lee Braver’s rendition of this very notion is this:

There is nothing outside the text because our experience is always linguistically mediated; this makes both subject and object effects of language, rather than entities that precede it from the outside to master or anchor it. Language impersonally structures our selves and our world, and our actions depend on passively taking on these structures.

We could see this as a misplaced Kantianism, of a replacement of the structuring Mind with a new demigod, Language. But we might be missing the point. As Gratton points out SR tries to dismiss Derrida as too human centered, as too anthropomorphic in his thought. But as Gratton remarks: “Derrida’s emphasis on texts meets the test of realism as affirming an independence of given structures beyond human sovereignty, and no amount of stammering that “texts are created by human beings” obviates this point…”. A second point of attack by SR on Derrida’s bracketing or putting the word “reality” in quotation marks, which as Gratton points out nothing more than an indicator that “textuality is part and parcel of différance, as Derrida’s essay of that name makes
clear: there is no textuality without difference/deferral, and thus a whole thinking of time as other than simply presence”. The third and final attack SR levels is the notion that Derrida’s concepts are nothing more than a reduction of the Kantian toolset, that Derrida’s line of argument was always set within a destructuring of the metaphysics of presence rather than in some structuration of reality by language. As Derrida himself once remarked: “The real is this non-negative impossible, this impossible coming or invention of the event the thinking of which is not an onto-phenomenology. It is a thinking of the event (singularity of the other, in its unanticipatable coming, hic et nunc) that resists reappropriation by an ontology or phenomenology of presence as such….Nothing is more “realist,” in this sense, than a deconstruction”.2

One of the effects of such a reading of Derrida as a realist of time, and as the true heir of Husserl and Heidegger in continuing the critique and overcoming of any and all metaphysics of presence is that for Gratton it tells us that SR might not be what it appears to be, that it might not be so realist after all. In fact it may be just another Johnny-come-lately addition to that long line of metaphysical mystifications that Derrida was trying to overcome in the first place. As Gratton says of Harman:

Harman’s work must deny the reality of time in order to make his own claims for a certain realism—a problem that only serves to highlight the import of a certain form of deconstruction today, that is, a thinking of the meaning of the day and the future to come tomorrow.

Gratton continuing remarks that the speculative realists find the “real in the set theory of Meillassoux or the “hidden objects” “forever in the present,” as Harman puts it about his own object oriented ontology”. Gratton goes into depth in showing how Meillassoux in After Infintude is not inventing something new with his set theoretic (after his mentor Badiou), that in fact what they’ve discovered was in Plato all along: “what is this eternal set theory forever creating the world if not an updated version of the interlocking triangles in the Platonic receptacle in the Timaeus out of which the realm of becoming appears?”

Peter mentions the return to ontology that those within the SR community seek to do by sidestepping the previous generations philosophical heritage as naïve. Yet he does this, he tells us, “with great love for those writers operating under this heading”. This is why it is hard for him to turn to Harman and his sense of Time, for what Gratton sees is the sense of time as being “illusory” for Harman: “For, if time is but the sensuous, as Harman and Platonism before him held it, then it cannot touch the reality
of the thing itself, as Harman himself notes there is no correspondence between the thing itself and its sensuous objecthood and/or qualities.” He quotes a lengthy passage from Harman’s essay “The Road to Objects”, and I quote at length:

According to the object-oriented model only the present exists: only objects with their qualities, locked into whatever their duels of the moment might be. In that sense, times seems to be illusory, though not for the usual reason that time is just a fourth spatial dimension always already present from the start. Instead time does not exist simply because only the present ever exists. Nonetheless, time as a lived experience [i.e, within the sensuous—here he follows Husserl to the letter, as he does with a tradition of equating the sensuous with the temporal] cannot be denied. We do not encounter a static frame of reality, but seem to feel a passage of time. It is not pure chaos shifting wildly from one second to the next, since there is chance with apparent endurance. Sensual objects endure despite swirling oscillations in their surface adumbrations, and this is precisely what is meant by the experience of time. Time can be defined as the tension between sensual objects and their sensual qualities.

As Gratton argues this passage is exactly what Derrida describes as the “metaphyics of presence”: “the view that there is an eternal present beyond or behind the appearance of things, whether that’s the forms in Plato, the cogito in Descartes, the transcendental ego in Husserl, or indeed, the non-material, transcendental objects in Harman”. Continuing he remarks,

In the eternal present, the “real” object cannot change, cannot give itself over to the passage of time, and all we get is what “seems to be” an “illusory” or “apparent” change of time never happening in the reality of things. Time is thus epiphenomenal.

In concluding Peter tells us in the end we find that Meillassoux and Harman mark a “return to the real that is anything but, as long as they treat the time of becoming as epiphenomenal, and thus deny the reality of time—however aporetic it is, as we well know—at the beating hearts of thinkers they too quickly disparage while ignoring what were their central insights”.

Read Peter Gratton’s essay Post-Deconstructive Realism It’s about Time: here (warning: pdf)

1. Gratton, Peter (2012-05-31). The State of Sovereignty (Suny Series in Contemporary French Thought)  State University of New York Press. 2. Jacques Derrida, “As If It Were Possible, ‘Within Such Limits’…” in Negotiations: Interviews and Interviews, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).


Notes: After reading the above quotes on Harman I kept thinking Julian Barbour whose The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics provides the notion that time is an illusion. Barbour in an interview on The Edge said this about his theory of time:

My basic idea is that time as such does not exist. There is no invisible river of time. But there are things that you could call instants of time, or ‘Nows’. As we live, we seem to move through a succession of Nows, and the question is, what are they? They are arrangements of everything in the universe relative to each other in any moment, for example, now.

We have the strong impression that you and I are sitting opposite each other, that there’s a bunch of flowers on the table, that there’s a chair there and things like that — they are there in definite positions relative to each other. I aim to abstract away everything we cannot see (directly or indirectly) and simply keep this idea of many different things coexisting at once in a definite mutual relationship. The interconnected totality becomes my basic thing, a Now. There are many such Nows, all different from each other. That’s my ontology of the universe — there are Nows, nothing more, nothing less.

Of course the other side of the coin is Barbour’s friend Lee Smolin for whom time does exist. For Smolin the universe is made of processes not things. Here he clearly differs from Julian Barbour. The world is not made up of a lot of static snap-shots put together like a movie. Taking the analogy further, he points out that real snap-shots decompose. Everything we observe is always changing more or less. In direct contrast to Barbour, Smolin speaks of ‘the illusion of the frozen moment’.

Where does this leave us? It seems to be the old battle between our old combatants: the process philosopher’s agon with the object/thing philosopher, only that this time its grappling with the riddle of time: is it a process or an object? Maybe in the end it depends on ones lens, one’s psychological stance. Do you see things as processes receding into that infinite sea of time past or future, or as an infinite set of snapshots fully deployed in the universe withdrawn from each other cut off in their separate slices of now? I’m not going to choose this one for you, nor am I going to take sides in this issue. This one’s on you, whoever you are to decide for yourself.

But before I finish here I want to drop another bombshell on you: What if time is neither processual nor a series of snapshots cut off from each other in a sea of nows? What if time is like space multidimensional? Steven Weinstein of University of Waterloo Dept. of Philosophy believes it might just be so (see here: pdf). As he states in this essay:

The sort of constraint explored in this essay, one arising from the presence of extra time dimensions, exhibits one sort of nonlocality, but there are other sorts as well, given by constraints with different functional forms. What they have in common is that they embody what I have called “nonlocality without nonlocality”, meaning nonlocal correlations without nonlocal causation.

Of course one need not go to far to find this notion not only in science but also in philosophy. J.W. Dunne once proposed An Experiment with Time (1927) an ontology in which there is an infinite hierarchy of conscious minds, each with its own dimension of time and able to view events in lower time dimensions from outside. His theory was often criticised as exhibiting an unnecessary infinite regress. Another philosopher (Analytic) the English philosopher John G. Bennett posited a six-dimensional Universe with the usual three spatial dimensions and three time-like dimensions that he called time, eternity and hyparxis. Time is the sequential chronological time that we are familiar with. The hypertime dimensions called eternity and hyparxis are said to have distinctive properties of their own. Eternity could be considered cosmological time or timeless time. Hyparxis is supposed to be characterised as an ableness-to-be and may be more noticeable in the realm of quantum processes.

The conjunction of the two dimensions of time and eternity could form a hypothetical basis for a Multiverse cosmology with parallel universes existing across a plane of vast possibilities. The third time-like dimension hyparxis could allow for the theoretical existence of sci-fi possibilities such as time travel, sliding between parallel worlds and faster-than-light travel.

While Bennett has put forward some curious speculation, his ideas stop at some subjective aspects of the perception of time which does not place them on a fully scientific basis. The question of measurement, how one would measure these hypothetical extra time-like dimensions, is left unaddressed.

4 thoughts on “Speculations IV: Peter Gratton and Post-deconstructive Realism

  1. Pingback: Post-Deconstruction and Speculative Materialism | thediscursivesubject

  2. Pingback: Speculations on the End of Time: Gratton, Harman, Barbour | noir realism

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