September 16th, 2012

S.C. Hickman

Subjectalism and Neo-Materialism - The War for Reality

In ancient Greece there existed a place, a site known as the Agora, an area of the city where free-born citizens gathered to listen and debate current matters of civic, political, and social pertinence. Amid the hustle and bustle of merchants and craftsmen, traders and beggars, the life of the city gave birth to philosophical speculation in the likes of Protagoras, Socrates, Diogenes, as well as great statesmen like Pericles. These citizens, and I do mean citizens in the sense of a political assembly of free peoples as a collective, a community of interest based as it is in open and participatory, communicative dialogue: it was out of this communicative matrix that most of the struggles we face today emerged. Reason itself as we have come to know it had its birth here in the sense of becoming something that people discussed and spoke of and contested. As Max Horkheimer once said:

"Reason in its proper sense of logos, or ratio, has always been essentially related to the subject, his faculty of thinking. All the terms denoting it were once subjective expressions; thus the Greek term stems from ‘to say,’ denoting the subjective faculty of speech. The subjective faculty of thinking was the critical agent that dissolved superstition." 1

The ancient Greeks considered wisdom to be an important virtue, personified as the goddesses Metis and Athena. Athena is said to have sprung from the head of Zeus. She was portrayed as strong, fair, merciful, and chaste. Even then the defining aspect of philosophical speculation was based on the darkening of citizens by the power of superstition and ignorance, and the empowerment and emacipatory power of φιλοσοφία (philosophia), which literally means "love of wisdom". 2  This permeates Plato's dialogues, especially The Republic, in which the leaders of his proposed utopia are to be philosopher kings: rulers who understand the Form of the Good and possess the courage to act accordingly. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, defined wisdom as the understanding of causes, i.e. knowing why things are a certain way, which is deeper than merely knowing that things are a certain way. All of this lead to the battle over just what reality is.

Even at that time the two founding schools of philosophy the Academy and the Lyceum, based on the life and writings of their respective founders Plato and Aristotle battled over if not exactly opposing views then at least differing versions of the real world. For Plato the universal essence, the Idea, the Form of a thing, is more real and thus more important than its physical substance. The physical world, the world of appearances experienced through the senses, does not harbor reality. This tangible world is an imperfect reflection of the universal world of Forms. Human observations based on these reflections are, therefore, highly suspect. At best, the tangible fruit of any human labor is "an indistinct expression of truth". Because knowledge of truth and knowledge of good are virtually inseparable to Plato, he counsels rejection of the physical in favor of embracing reason in an abstract, intellectual, and ultimately more human, existence. Art is removed from any notion of real truth, an inherently flawed copy of an already imperfect world. Art as an imitation is irrelevant to what is real.  

For Aristotle the world exists in an infinitely diverse series of parts. These various parts are open to human observation and scrutiny. Rather than an eternally regressing truth beyond the scope of human apprehension, knowledge of truth and good are rooted firmly in the observable universe; truth, or at least gestures toward it, lies in existence rather than essence. Aristotle encourages embracing the particular in order to possibly gain a sense of the universal. There is, however, no universal system of inquiry to investigate each part of the whole. Different parts require different methods of discourse.

The old battle between those who favor a substantive view of the universe based upon an ontological perspective,  and those for whom a more cautious epistemic or skeptical approach is warranted, based as it is on knowledge and its justification, seems once again to be surfacing within many of the heated debates within both academia and the blogosphere among divergent philosophical speculators. As an independent researcher with no academic accreditation to speak of I have often wondered why there is so much animosity springing from otherwise sane and honorable partisans of this ancient art of wisdom.

Out of the shambles of what was once termed speculative realism there is a growing division between various segments of this strange philosophical movement (if we can still call it that?). Most of us know the basic history of this movement from the wiki blurb:

"Speculative realism is a movement in contemporary philosophy which defines itself loosely in its stance of metaphysical realism against the dominant forms of post-Kantian philosophy or what it terms correlationism. Speculative realism takes its name from a conference held at Goldsmiths College, University of London in April, 2007. The conference was moderated by Alberto Toscano of Goldsmiths College, and featured presentations by Ray Brassier of American University of Beirut (then at Middlesex University), Iain Hamilton Grant of the University of the West of England, Graham Harman of the American University in Cairo, and Quentin Meillassoux of the École normale supérieure in Paris. Credit for the name "speculative realism" is generally ascribed to Brassier, though Meillassoux had already used the term "speculative materialism" to describe his own position."

We've seen the great divisions between the disparate parties as they have over the years battled for and against each other and their respective approaches of  epistemological or ontological realism; and, even segmentations within each of those camps over various processual or substantive approaches. For a long while I have watched from afar, so to speak, trying to be fair and balanced in my appraisal of the various philosophical trends within each of these camps. I've kept my own thoughts low key and to myself for the most part seeking wisdom rather than some vain and ego bound defense of "truth". Does anyone have a solid approach to reality? Will we forever be at loggerheads? Socrates pleaded ignorance, not knowledge or justification; and, most of all he never told us what reality is. Instead all he had was questions, and more questions, and the ability to listen: most of all to listen to what others had to say about such things. Socratic irony, the elenctic method: a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against the defense of another; one participant may lead another to contradict himself in some way, thus strengthening the inquirer's own point.

I often wonder at philosophers on blogs, wondering why the methods first established by Socrates, and emulated by Plato in his dialogues, have yet to catch on in our day to day handling of each other on the web. Instead, what I find most often is embittered invective and viturpation, castigation and anathema, rage and spite presented as sane comments on many blogs. I see that many academic philosophers disparage blogging altogther without realizing that this is still the most open marketplace (Agora?) in the history of the world for sharing our thoughts on thinking and being invented to date. What happened to civilized debate? Or was this an illusion all along? Not everything has a perfect answer, and the Socratic method of eliminative questioning has its logical limits, yet the basic idea of realizing our ignorance and our ability to open ourselves to differing views without reaching after hard fact or reasons is a sign of someone who can learn and listen carefully before making false judgments based on faulty reasoning and invalid methods. That Socrates approach was based upon a maieutic or epistemic perspective is well known. Maybe we all need to question the deep seated superstitions that still hold sway within each of our own minds.

Back to Quentin Mellassoux's Berlin Lectures (read here: pdf!). He has now divided the original four members of the speculative realism movement into two basic camps which he defines as the anti-materialist or subjectalist camp (Iain Hamilton Grant and Graham Harman), and the neo-materialist camp (Ray Brassier and Quentin Messassoux). What both camps have in common he tells us is their appreciation of realism. He calls realism a position which to "accede to an absolute reality": the speculative position itself. Yet, among these speculative realists there are those that believe in non-material entities and those that do not. This is the subjectalist and the neo-materialist stances, respectively. The heart of his argument is with the subjectalist approach best typified in his reading of Graham Harman's Object-Oriented Ontology (Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition: A Speculative Analysis of the Meaningless Sign Freie Universitat, Berlin, 20.April 2012):


Now whether this is a fair and accurate reading of Harman's work is not the point. The point is that we have a division, a formation of difference, an alignment or decisional judgment on the part of Meillassoux to demarcate or mark his position in reference to what he sees as a counter to his own speculative enterprise. His enterprise takes an epistemological turn centered in what he terms 'correlational facticity': for correlationism to be able to undertake a de-absolutizing of thought, it must maintain that correlation is not necessary, and that this absence of an absolute necessity of correlation is accessible to thought - that one can justify it through an argument, that it is not simply posited as an act of faith (8). He goes on to say that this "thinkable non-necessity of correlation is precisely what I call 'correlational facticity'. The thesis of correlational facticity is thus as follows: thinking can think its own absence of necessity, not only qua personal consciousness, but qua supra-individual structure. It is only on this condition that correlationism can claim to think the very possibility of the unknowable entirely-other of correlation."(8) His answer to how this can be justified is to emphasize the the 'lack of any reason' for correlation itself. In pursuit of his goal to prove the case he discovers that he can only demonstrate a part of it: the necessary contingency of all things. Yet, as he states his demonstration offers only one conclusion: to produce and empty sign one must have access to the "eternity of contingency" (the real world of material things). But this is only an ontological proof. In his mind he believes he also needs an epistemological proof and justification for his ontological proof, one that will allow for the goal of a "deutoro-absolutizing import of mathematics"(37). What he wants more specifically is a "description of the world independent of thought". Instead all he has is a "mathematics capable of not speaking of anything - sense if is founded upon meaningless signs".(37) He concludes with a paradoxical situation and quandary, stating:

"The new puzzle that appears before us is the following: how can a meaningless sign allow us to describe the world, without becoming once again a meaningful sign, and thereby capable of referring to a world outside of it? How through what paradox, can we hope that a meaningless sign could not only have a referent, but a (deutero) absolute referent, more radically separate from us than every correlational apprehension?"(37)

Unlike the Gordian knot of fable and myth we cannot like Alexander cut the knot in half and move on to conquer the truth of this paradox, instead we must all learn to love wisdom enough to come together, to reason together, to open dialogue with each other and find a middle-ground that might just help us reach both an ontological and epistemological conclusion to this strange strangeness.

1. Horkheimer, Max (2008-11-04). Eclipse Of Reason (Kindle Locations 97-100). Read Books. Kindle Edition.

S.C. Hickman

The Condition of Politics: Badiou and the Space of Compossibility

Been reading Badiou of late and one of his interpreters, Bruno Bosteels:

“The possibility of philosophy instead depends on the joint interplay of multiple truths that take place outside of philosophy, or behind the philosopher’s back. Politics is only one out of four such conditions of philosophy, next to art, science, and love. Philosophy, moreover, cannot in turn subordinate the truths produced in these conditions to the norms and concepts that would be its privilege as a crowning or higher science. Instead, philosophy opens a space of compossibility in which each of the conditions finds its place, not so much to violently seize them but rather so as to let itself be seized by that which takes place in them in terms of events.” (24) 1

To continue that thought, for me it is this “space of compossibility” that philosophy opens up that allows it to become aware of and seized by that which takes place within the condition of politics – as the immanent necessity of the event’s moments- that brings about the ‘moment of intervention’ equal to the event itself.

Bosteel breaks Badiou's condition for politics into a metapolitical orientation:

1. Politics, or a (mode of doing) politics, is first of all a process or a procedure, that is, an active form of militant practice, and not a form of the state.

2. As a process or procedure, a politics starts out from that point in the social order that signals the excessive power of the state. This point is the place, or site, of the political event. Every political event is anchored in a specific situation through such a symptomatic site, which otherwise appears to be near the edges of the void, or inexistent.

3. The state is the instance that doubly controls the situation, for example, by first counting all the inhabitants who have the right to be legal citizens, residents or nonresidents, and then, as in a census, by counting these members a second time in terms of various subcategories, or subsets: male and female, immigrant and indigenous, adults and minors, etc.

4. The difference between these two counting operations, first the elements of a set and then the subsets, corresponds to the difference between the simple presentation of a given situation and its redoubling or re-presentation in the state of this situation. Here as elsewhere, in an ambiguity on which I will have occasion to comment below, Badiou plays with the double sense of the '' state'': both the normal state of affairs (état) and the political state (État).

5. The example of the census already intuitively indicates that there is always an excess of the power with which the state of a situation exceeds this situation itself, signaled by the '' etcetera'' or '' other'' that cannot fail to appear at the end of every list of categories. The number of ways in which we can order the subsets of a given census is in principle always larger than the number of members that figure in this census to begin with. What is more, in an infinite situation, this excess can be shown to be properly immeasurable. It is this simple and fundamental axiom of contemporary set theory that marks the onset, so to speak, of a political intervention. The state's excessive power in fact becomes visible only as the result of an emergent political subject. When everything runs its course as usual, this excess remains invisible even as the errancy of the state's superpower secretly continues to serve an intimidating function. It is necessary to put a limit on the excess that otherwise remains hidden behind the semblance of communal bonds and cultural identities.

6. A political process, thus, does not start out from a previously given bond or group, not even when this social bond is defined in terms of the class struggle, but precisely from a local unbinding of the common bond. It is also not the case that the state rejects the formation of new social bonds but rather what it seeks to avoid at all cost, even if this means allowing all kinds of separations and subversions, is the coming apart of the ideological glue that holds together our particular identities. There is a primacy of struggle over the classes, a primacy that subsequent attempts at classification may actually seek to pacify or stabilize.

7. Politics is not the art of the possible but the art of the impossible. To be more precise, a political process must make the impossible possible. This means in the first place to give visibility to the excess of power in the normal state of affairs. During the revolt of May '68, no less than during the still obscure sequence of later events— from the protests of Solidarity in Poland to the uprising in Chiapas to the second Intifada— this process involves a certain gamble, or wager, through which the state is forced to lay bare its inherently repressive nature as a violent excrescence, typically shielded in a military and police apparatus used both inside and outside its own borders.

8. Politics as a procedure of truth, however, cannot be reduced to the typically youthful protest against the eternally oppressive and corrupt nature of the state apparatus. From the symptomatic site of the event, bordering the void that lurks everywhere in between the cracks of a census even if it cannot find a place in the images of representational politics, a militant subject emerges only when the particular terms of the various memberships that define society are put down and abolished in favor of a generic concept of truth as universally the same for all.

9. Politics, in other words, has nothing to do with respect for difference or for the other, not even the absolutely other, and everything with equality and sameness. This conclusion runs counter to the moral or moralizing consensus of contemporary politicians and political philosophers alike, which holds that a true (democratic) politics can contain the dangers of totalitarianism and fundamentalism only when a place is reserved for difference in the name of freedom. But the market, too, works with differences, or at least with semblances of difference. This is even the way in which the general equivalence of the underlying order is capable of reproducing itself. There is thus nothing inherently subversive, let alone revolutionary, about the affirmation of difference, becoming, or flux within the coordinates of contemporary capitalism. Only a strict egalitarian affirmation can break through this general equivalence of capital disguised as difference.

10. By traversing and deposing the different representations of identity with which the excess of state power maintains itself in its very errancy, a political procedure gradually begins to revolve around the notion of a generic set, that is, a set without determining attributes or qualities. Ultimately, politics is nothing if it is not the active organization of a generic equality, one possible name of which continues to be communism.

11. Indeed, with the notion of the generic, which according to Badiou is the most important conceptual contribution of Being and Event, we finally come back to Marx. It is, after all, he who, in the posthumous Manuscripts of 1844 and the Grundrisse, speaks of the possibility of the human as a generic species-being. Even more pertinently, it is Marx who in '' On the Jewish Question,'' speaking on the subject of complete human emancipation as opposed to purely moral or political emancipation, invokes the authority of The Social Contract where Jean-Jacques Rousseau— for Badiou one of the four great French dialecticians next to Pascal, Mallarmé, and Lacan— had written: '' Whoever dares to undertake the founding of a nation must feel himself capable of changing, so to speak, human nature and of transforming each individual who is in himself a complete but isolated whole into a part of something greater than himself from which he somehow derives his life and existence, substituting a limited and moral existence for physical and independent existence.'' 64 Perhaps there is no better description of the fundamental idea behind communism than to have confidence in this capacity of changing human nature itself— that is, above all, of transforming the human being from an egotistic independent individual, whose self-interest is so often invoked as an ideological legitimation for the natural superiority of capitalism, into a generic species-being. This means not only that politics cannot be referred back to any ontology as first philosophy but also, and perhaps primarily, that all emancipatory thought must likewise refuse to rely on an anthropological preunderstanding of what constitutes human nature. There is no more political ontology than there would exist a political anthropology. Both expressions are equally oxymoronic. (31-32)

1. Bosteels, Bruno (2011-07-20). Badiou and Politics (Post-Contemporary Interventions) . Duke University.

S.C. Hickman

Meillassoux on Alain Badiou's Being and Event

"I will thus attempt to explain a nodal and seemingly paradoxical thesis of Badiou’s: that there is only a history of the eternal, because only the eternal proceeds from the event. In other words: there is only a history of truths insofar as all truth is strictly eternal and impossible to reduce to any relativism."
          - Quentin Meillassoux, History and Event in Alain Badiou

Quentin Meillassoux in this essay tells us that Alain Badiou in Being and Event (BE) maintains that there are eternal truths, but that they are not unifiable in a metaphysical system, because they are distributed among four truth procedures: science, art, politics, and love—philosophy itself not having the capacity to produce truths. The idea that the production of truth occurs only within science, art, politics and love, but not in philosophy might seem counter to most philosophical discourse as we've come to know it, yet this is exactly what Badiou affirms. Furthermore these truths do not situate themselves in some perfect heavenly world of Ideas (Plato), instead they arise out of an undecidable event and from a fideltiy of subjects that attempt to investigate their world in light of it Meillassoux also relates that Logic of World (LW) reveals to us that all processes lacking truth are not historical in the true sense, but have been reduced to a simple temporal modification without the capacity for truth and the subjects who adhere to it.

He tells us that the three principle terms of BE are history, event, eternity but that we to understand them we will need to understand the two "constitutive theses" of Badiouian philosphy:

1. Mathematics is ontology

His ontology is based on set-theory and reveals that any mathematical entity is multiple. To be is to be a set: pure multiplicity.As Meillassoux explicates: "Being is not therefore a multiplicity composed of stable and ultimate unities, but a multiplicity that is in turn composed of multiplicities. Indeed, mathematical sets have for their elements not unities but other sets, and so on indefinitely. When a set is not empty, it is composed of multiple sets." That he admits to a Platonized world, it is not a unity of the One, but of mulitplicity where being, far from being a stable foundation for a phenomena that would be perishable in relation to it, is "pure dissemination, withdrawn from our immediate experience of reality, where we discover on the contrary, in daily life, consistent multiplicities".

No longer being concerned with what is the philosopher can now concentrate of "being's exception" - the event: a "multiple belonging to itself" - something, Meillassoux tells us, is forbidden for set theory and referred to by mathematicians as  extraordinary. This strange multiple emerges from within art, science, politics, and love which for Badiou are "truth procedures" - the "four fields of thought where genuine events can be produced, and as a result—eternal truths". One of the best explications of Badiou's term event is described in detail by Meillassoux:

"The political example is, as it often is with Badiou, the most immediately accessible. What exactly do we mean, when we say that “May 68” was an event? In this expression, we are not merely designating the set of facts that have punctuated this collective sequence (student demonstrations, the occupation of the Sorbonne, massive strikes, etc.). Such facts, even when joined together in an exhaustive way, do not allow us to say that something like an event took place, rather than a mere conjunction of facts without any particular significance. If “May 68” was an event, it is precisely because it earned its name: that is to say that May 68, produced not only a number of facts, but also produced May 68. In May 68, a site, in addition to its own elements (demonstrations, strikes, etc.), presented itself."

The key to the event is "precisely that an event is the taking place of a pure rupture that nothing in the situation allows us to classify under a list of facts." He formulates it as this: "the event is that multiple which, presenting itself, exhibits the inconsistency underlying all situations, and in a flash throws into a panic, their constituted classifications. The novelty of an event is expressed in the fact that it interrupts the normal regime of the description of knowledge, that always rests on the classification of the well known, and imposes another kind of procedure on whomever admits that, right here in this place, something hitherto unnamed really and truly occurred." Speaking of the French Revolution he tells us that to call "a Revolution the Revolution, is thus to affirm the sense in which one remains faithful to a hypothesis: the hypothesis, the wager, that something fundamental is being produced in the political field that is worth being faithful to, while trying to draw out that which, at the heart of the situation, upholds an emancipatory truth in the process of elaboration, and which opposes all the forces of the old world".
2. All truth is post-evental

This is how all truth is post-evental: "we understand in what way a truth, being the patient result of a series of local inquiries under a wagered hypothesis of an undecidable event, cannot exist outside the concrete history of subjects. But how is it that such truths can be at once eternal, and yet the bearers of history, the only genuine history? It is because a truth is the bearer, by right, of an infinite number of consequences: a set of inquiries therefore, by right, inexhaustible, and capable of being extended to historical moments in profoundly different contexts. In other words, a truth is the bearer of theoretical movements that form among themselves a historicity both profound and discontinuous".

He tells us that truths are eternal and historical, eternal because they are historical: they insist in history, tying together temporal segments across the centuries, always unfolding more profoundly the infinity of their potential consequences, through captivated subjects, separated sometimes by distant epochs, but all equally transfixed by the urgent eventality that illuminates their present. They "give birth to history itself through their reactivation, making their inexhaustible potential for novelty intervene in the monotonous train of daily work, ordinary oppressions, and current opinions".

1. Quentin Meillassoux. HISTORY AND EVENT IN ALAIN BADIOU, translated by Thomas Nail (PARRHESIA NUMBER 12 • 2011 • 1 - 11) - (warning: pdf)