Monday, March 15, 2010

Welcome to this correlationist house!

We turned to Meillassoux to get a better sense of what Harman will say, but also I think to place Latour--like Harman himself does. First and foremost, I think this means drawing out all the consequences of a more hard-hitting Latourian realism, which at first glance can look like (and Harman says this often) just old-fashioned realism pasted on to a weird logic of scientific practice. Latour does this himself, of course, in We Have Never Been Modern most clearly (developing a whole Constitution that must be overthrown, one of whose components is the Kantian point of view). But like Harman we have to bring this out a little more, and to show how indeed it furnishes the materials for a specific way out of Kantian problems that is different than other ways out--that is, we must see it as one way of overcoming Kant among others, and remains a particularly good one at that. This will allow us to see why Latour in general is so important for Harman in the first place, but again it will also allow us, with Harman, to draw out Latour's realism more than he himself does.

But in order to do that, we need something like a general narrative that shows why the Kantian problem is such a problem all of a sudden--one that could be brought into relation to Latour but which remains a little outside his own way of talking about his problem. This is what Meillassoux gives us, and does so compellingly.

This is why, even if you want to go on to prove your particular favorite philosopher is or is not a correlationist, you find the word "correlationist" handy. For it is one of the many crucial terms that gets put to use in the immense rewriting of the continental tradition that goes on here. In other words, not only does Meillassoux give us something specific designated by correlationism--he gives us a reason why the task for philosophies to come remains to overcome, or at least engage with, the latter (and I think I am agreeing here with what Paul has just said, though I wouldn't quite describe this derailing entirely as Derridian, nor what Hägglund would call Derrida's "politicizing" in that precise way). Because Latour does this, this is why we turn to him now. It is another way of accounting for what Harman remains incredulous about in Prince of Networks: that Latour's work was available in its sophisticated form since 1984: "In that year, Chernenko led the Soviet Union, Reagan was only half-finished in Washington, and ten nations of today’s European Union were either single-party police states or did not yet exist. 1984!" (Prince of Networks, 32). Though he will say this because his narrative is an object-oriented one, the outrage is similar: what the hell were we doing during all this time?

Parts of Meillassoux's narrative are suspicious, of course. Like Brassier and some others (perhaps with more extensive exposure to Latour's brand of science), I remain a little perplexed why science is primarily here as the mathematizer of the universe, though I also think this claim is important for Meillassoux and needs to be looked at (we'll get to it eventually). But we certainly get its drift, and that's what is essential.

The narrative goes like this: science gave us a way to talk about being without thought by mathematizing the former. Philosophy tried to register this. It did so, however, by precisely reacting against what was revolutionary in it, and holding that we could only talk about being insofar as it was bound up with thought. More specifically, philosophy was busy in talking about what is, trying to ignore the scientific achievement (or register it in the most benign ways for philosophy), when Kant came along and said this talk was in vain precisely because of science: what mattered was the way we related to what is. Then squabbles broke out over the form of this relation.

I'd characterize these struggles in the following way, since we're more familiar with this form of the narrative: Phenomenology came along, and developed to the extent that this relation was seen as nonrepresentational or less-than-representational (Heidegger--Harman will eventually take issue with this but we'll come back to it then). Then the relation was seen as antirepresentational, such that it actively disturbed and was disturbed by our attempts to grasp (represent) it. Out of this postmodern situation, we get philosophies that insist upon the possibility that ("always already") something might be beyond this grasp. But at no point was the move of Kant seriously questioned.

Now, this way of putting it isn't Meillassoux's, because ultimately we see that representation has nothing to do with the relation between thought and being insofar as these are seen as always bound up with each other (or correlated). It only has to do with a modification of the correlation:

the correlation between thought and being is not reducible to the correlation between subject and object. In other words, the fact that correlation dominates contemporary philosophy in no way implies the dominance of philosophies of representation. It is possible to criticize the latter in the name of a more originally correlation between thought and being (7-8).

My only point is that with slight modifications to this traditional narrative--setting it back in the framework that Meillassoux has given us, which questions the Kantian innovation (and indeed this is why he opens brilliantly with the precritical distinction of Locke: to set things here)--we can see the achievement of the postmodern (criticism of representation) to be precisely that reassertion of a more original correlation. Thus, Meillassoux goes on to say:

And in fact, critiques of representation have not signalled a break with correlation, i.e. a simple return to dogmatism (8).

The implication is that instead of a break, we're tied up more than ever.

But because representation has nothing to do with correlation, let's just underscore with Meillassoux that this exacerbation is not "simple." Indeed there could be a critique of representation--or critique of critique of representation (as the case may be)--that calls into question the correlation. Some might say Derrida fits precisely here (maybe, maybe). And I imagine you could fit others in too--like Heidegger himself. The person put to postmodern ends that you probably could never fit in here would be Foucault, who is antirepresentationalist first and foremost and wouldn't give a damn about the great outdoors even if he could.

The point however is that contemporary philosophies that base themselves on a critique of representation have, however, not signaled a break with correlation, despite the fact that they might. What is keeping them from doing this? Meanwhile, why the hell did we get into this situation to begin with?

We already see from the narrative that the second question is the answer to the first. What keeps us from breaking with correlation is inadequate understanding as to why it was adopted in the first place. Now, unlike Harman, Meillassoux will contend that understanding this also means seeing what the trajectory through correlationism gives us, rather than getting clear about what the alternatives were and could be: I'd say personally (but I think with Meillassoux in some sense) that it gives us a better understanding of representation, which is why I cast it in these terms, and opens up a thinking about aporias that might or might not be crucial to the project of thinking those alternatives (maybe, maybe). But Harman's object-oriented insistence (and we'll come to it and give it its due when we pick up that part of PoN) is also important, because it underscores what is Meillassoux's ultimate point: that breaking with correlationism is completely possible, provided that we begin to think about what postmodern thought tends to keep under wraps. This is, quite simply, the reason the correlation was adopted in the first place.

And so we come to the arche-fossil, for it is the sense of this that is avoided in the adoption and in some sense brings about the avoidance. But in fact I think I will come back to that in another post. Suffice it to say here that the arche-fossil is the material support ("support" is such a weird way to talk about it, and like Martin Hägglund I'm interested in this) that allows scientists to date ancestral reality--reality that is seemingly anterior to any possible human-world correlation. In the face of this object, thought adopts the correlation because what would be required--Meillassoux thinks--to make sense of this reality would be what it interprets as metaphysical. In other words, I think we can claim, using what Meillassoux says, that the most immediate reason for adopting the correlation is because we don't want to hypostatize the correlate (11). But this is actually not a real answer to anything (it is only the immediate reason) since this happens after we've already gone towards the correlate qua correlate. Why this is seen as a metaphysical assumption in the first place is the crucial issue, and if we can demonstrate that this isn't a correct assumption (or that it only remains an assumption), we can see there is no reason not to get thought outside itself and admit the "irremediably realist" sense of the statement about the arche-fossil. But because we have to go to the necessity of contingency and Hume's problem in order to see all that, let me instead just focus on one remaining thing.

I said the reason the correlation was adopted was kept under wraps by postmodern thought. But this is not because focusing upon representation bolsters correlation (though we might imagine some sort of feedback loop here). No: the "cover-up" corresponds to a process of absolutizing the correlation, characteristic of a move from "weak" to "strong" correlationism. Indeed, this does not have anything to do with representation, but is a statement about the capability of thought itself (which is why it is an absolutization). As Meillassoux says, quite powerfully, this involves a significant shift:

This shift, from the unknowability of the thing-in-itself to its unthinkability, indicates that thought has reached the stage where it legitimates by its own development the fact that being has become so opaque for it that thought supposes the latter to be capable of transgressing the most elementary principles of the logos (44).

And it is because this is the case that we get a narrative about the religionizing of reason where I put in, above, a narrative about representation. The different ways of conceiving the correlation involve developing more ways of strengthening it. But we can get into that in another post. This one can just add to the many reviews and summaries of the argument of After Finitude that are already out there (perhaps the most thorough is here), hopefully adding something by showing a little bit how the parts of the argument are connected (especially the long excursus on the necessity of contingency)--as well as relevant for those looking at Latour.

But let me just end all this by saying how unbelievably lucky I feel to read all this great stuff (and have so many people be interested in what we all have to say--even Harman himself, who has been so nice as to link to this blog a few times as we've been going through his work). Both Prince of Networks and After Finitude are amazing, amazing philosophical works, and the whole speculative realist enterprise in general that is taking them up (along with the work of Brassier and others we will read) is just full of so much energy and razor-sharp argumentation and hard-hitting rhetoric… these people are bringing a whole new form of philosophy into existence despite all the individual differences (and there are many), working extremely hard and pushing into really new territory unfazed… it's just really exciting to be reading it all.


hypertiling said...

Mike, could you clarify this sentence for me: 'This one can just add to the many reviews and summaries of the argument of After Finitude that are already out there...hopefully adding something by showing how the parts of the argument are a little bit connected'.

What do you mean there? That some parts of the argument in AF are not well connected to each other?

Mike Johnduff said...

Oh I just mean by "how they are connected" how they're dependent upon each other, not at all that it is a poorly argued book: as far as the argumentation goes, it's great, as many have noted. I see the confusion is over "little bit"--that's just a phrase I should have put after "showing," as in "showing a little bit." I'll fix that.