Monthly Archives: December 2009

contingencies

Yesterday on Object-Oriented Philosophy, Graham Harman made the following point about Quentin Meillassoux:

What many people still aren’t getting, and I myself didn’t quite grasp initially, is that Meillassoux is in a sense pro-correlationist, unlike the rest of us. For Meillassoux, the argument that “if you try to think a tree outside thought, you are thinking it, and it is thereby a tree inside thought” is a compelling fact for all philosophy. The attempt to get outside this circle is, for him, merely a dazzling rhetorical move or appeal to a “rich elsewhere” (he finds Latour guilty of this, and by implication me too). … Meillassoux really stands in the Badiou/Zizek/Lacan cluster, admires Hegel more than anyone else, and is not really a classic “realist.” Meillassoux simply wants to radicalize the human/world correlate into a form of absolute knowledge.

This is probably the clearest, most direct, and (it seems to me) most accurate characterization of Meillassoux’s position that I’ve come across. My reaction to his argument in After Finitude has always been that he has things backward (or upside-down?), so that the conclusions he draws from his mostly rather sharp insights tend to be the opposite of where those insights actually point. For instance, he sees “ancestrality” as a problem for “correlationism” because the ancestral datum signals a non-given existence, a time before givenness. But of course this is only a real problem if givenness has to be confined to givenness to or for the subject or thought in general, which seems to be exactly what he would want to argue against. If his initial characterization of correlationism is to be taken seriously, then it would be that position for which ancestrality is not a problem – or at most is a sort of attractive pseudo-problem. I can’t help but see it as such in After Finitude.

Now, I find his argument regarding the principle of factiality – viz., the sub-titular case for the necessity of contingency – much more engaging (if not always completely consistent). Thinking contingency as absolute is a problem to which so-called correlationism seems to be inescapably led, and one that it wouldn’t really be capable of addressing in any of its classical forms. What does bug me, though, is Meillassoux’s apparent attitude that taking the principle of factiality seriously amounts to an unstoppable critique of religion and/or theology. (This point, which is only a minor theme in After Finitude, makes me eager to get my hands on a copy of L’inexistence divine.) At least in After Finitude, Meillassoux never really engages with actual theological positions (many of which, at least in contemporary Christian theology, would be more than happy to endorse the complete contingency of every existent thing and existence itself – this is a perfectly coherent interpretation of creatio ex nihilo). Instead, he conflates belief, theology, and naïve fideism in a very facile way and then acts as if a defeat of the weakest of these amounts to a defeat of all of them.

messianicity & other difficulties

One of the difficulties – self-incurred, perhaps – that I’ve been trying to work through for a while, never sure if or when I’ll have done so adequately, is that of making a quasi-transcendental motif operate outside the confines of its historical determination. It’s part and parcel of a quasi-transcendental structure that it retains a sort of conceptual location that is always historical, and thus limited within some set of not only temporal but also social, cultural, perhaps geographical, and indeed material boundaries as to its applicability. I might go so far as to say limited as to its very sensibility. On the other hand, any figure or operation that would qualify as quasi-transcendental also necessarily exceeds these boundaries in some way or other, extending its applicability (and sensibility) beyond its concrete conditions. This is what is attractive to me about quasi-transcendentality: the combination and tension between these trajectories, the historical/material and the universal (could one also say the local and the global? … but that would need to have to many provisions attached). But this is also what is so difficult to negotiate; at every moment, it seems, one runs the risk of being reduced to a kind of unproductive conceptual provincialism or to a different kind of unproductive formal idealism.

Take the structure of “messianicity” that Derrida makes extensive use of primarily in “Force of Law” and Specters of Marx. It’s tempting, when approaching issues regarding religion deconstructively, to latch on to this figure, since it’s drawn directly from “Abrahamic” religious traditions. Of course, it’s Derrida’s aim as soon as he adopts this motif to divest it as much as possible from its specific religious senses. Nevertheless, he also acknowledges that he can never do so completely. At any rate, it seems to me that there’s much one can learn from paying attention to the general structure of messianicity in the operations of religious traditions – both internally and in their interactions with one another. This would be, however, not because of but in fact despite (or maybe something in between those two) the religious conceptual heritage of the term “messianic”.

There seems, though, to be an unavoidable problem with following this line of thought: viz., not the unavoidable religiosity of the word “messianicity” but its unavoidable Westernness. I would hold that any attempt to address religious pluralism seriously has to address as a central feature of such pluralism a difference that is almost inarticulable between “Western” and “non-Western” (to use a horribly insufficient phrase) traditions. I say almost inarticulable, because practically any means one has within the philosophical field to articulate this difference already resides in the “Western” idiom, and thus effaces the difference at the same time as it articulates it. This point (or one similar to it) is made very clear by G. C. Spivak in a paper I find as hard-hitting as it is brief, “Not Virgin Enough to Say that [S]he Occupies the Place of the Other” (published in Outside in the Teaching Machine). The argument I have in mind is that the opposition between monotheism and polytheism is itself determined (shall we say overdetermined?) by “Western” problematics: theisms both Greek and Abrahamic, philosophical as well as theological concepts of the One upon which both the “mono” and the “poly” are constructed, etc. Thus, this way (and doubtless many others … probably all others) of speaking about differences is simply not sufficient to to the difference about which it wishes to speak. It constantly undermines its own object. Yet, to exchange Western terminology for some “non-Western” terminology is not sufficient either; it simply inverts the problem.

So, my provisional solution is to stick with motifs like “messianicity”, as far as it remains sensible to do so from the position that I occupy, but at the same time to turn away from it at (irregular) intervals in order to provide reminders of its limitations… never being sure if this is really adequate.