Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Quentin Meillassoux's After Finitude

Quentin Meilassoux (from here on out, referred to as QM), in his After Finitude, wants to rid philosophy of superstition, belief, mystery, and enigma. Following in Badiou's footsteps, he wants mathematics and Cartesian substance (without its metaphysics) to lead philosophy out of what he calls the "correlationist circle." On one hand, it is a relief to read an incredibly rigorous critique of correlationism (Kantianism, phenomenology, etc.), but on the other, it leaves little room for mystery. QM writes, "We must free ourselves of the question--but this requires not just that we resolve it, but that we formulate an answer which is necessarily disappointing, so that this disappointment becomes its instructive aspect" (73).

Gone is the poetry and the ambiguity of Heidegger or Derrida. We are not on the level of 'language' but the level of logic and mathematics. This is not to say that this is bad or wrong, but my question is how useful it is for literary/textual studies? Heideggerian hermeneutics and Derridian deconstruction kept up the use of the Text, but there is no 'text' here to be interpreted. QM defines his terms and then proceeds to derive propositions from them.

The big-picture argument comes from the last chapter, where he argues that philosophy never acknowledge the true "revolution" of Copernicus and instead, reacted against its insight in a "counter-revolution" of Ptolmey. Philosophy claims for itself a privileged position to 'explain' science at the same time as it praises science: "Ever since Kant, to think science as a philosopher has been to claim that science harbors a meaning other than the one delivered by science itself" (119). In a way, QM seems to try and say: wait a minute--philosophy is not a privileged discourse that gets at the 'originary' meaning of science or mathematics, as in the case of Heidegger: "philosophical time has sought to demote the time of science to the level of a 'vulgar', derivative, or standardized form of originary correlational temportality, being-in-the-world, or the relation to a supposedly primordial historicality" (123).

Now, Derrida critiques this "originary" temporalizing movement as well,  but through a critique of the "as such," but the as-such. In contrast,  what must be 'absolute' is what QM searches for. QM thinks correlationism's 'critique of meptahysics' actually adheres to an idea that a "reason" exists--it does not think what QM calls "the principle of unreason" far enough. Thus, it is stuck in a fideism, where truth becomes 'mere opinion' or belief: "From the perspective of the strong model [of correlationism] religious belief has every right to maintain that the world was created out of nothingness from an act of love [. . .] These discourses continue to be meaningful--in a mythological or mysical register--even though they are scientifically and logically meaningless" (QM 41). It was by denying reason access to the absolute that we have "returned to the religious."

Because of this tranformation, "the condemnation of fanaticism is carried out solely in the name of its practical (ethico-political) consequence never in the name of the ultimate falsity of its contents" (47). This could be pinned on Levinas--Ethics as first philosophy. For QM, Mathematics is first philosophy. The ethical question of the 'wholly other' is displaced by speculative thinking.

The "falsity of its contents" would be assured by a re-affirmation of the principle of non-contradiction. According to QM, Chaos actually reaffirms the principle of non-contradiction because if a contradictory entity existed, it would be necessary (see pg 67).  He does this by an interesting thinking of becoming: "such an entity could never become other than it is because there would be no alterity for it in which to become" (69). He goes on to say, "accordingly, real contradiction can in no way be identified with the thesis of universal becoming, for in becoming, things must be this, then other than this; they are, then they are not" (70).

Does this not mean that there is no room for the specter, the ghost, the hauntology of Derrida? A present-absent entity would be contradictory, would it not? For QM, this is a 'metaphysical' statement--and its a statement that cannot be true. If he is right, all of these quasi-entities, the present-absent is gone. Is the present-absent that which exists "in itself"? Is it mere poetic fancy? Surely such a being-non-being cannot be "mathematizable." Such an entity is not "contingent" because it is contradictory? I am not sure.

QM also seems to eliminate the thinking of the "witness": "the question of the witness has become irrelevant to knowledge of the event" (116). We will have to interrogate this claim. The question of the 'witness' assumes a a givenness of being. QM speaks of the "ancestral event" because it is prior to any sort of 'given-ness of being: "the ancestral does not designate an absence in the given, and for givenness, but rather an absence  givenness as such" (21). Science conceives of a time in which "the given as such passes from non-being to being" (21).

The idea of givenness, the 'gift' of being (Heidegger), of death, of life, etc. is a theme throughout Derrida's works. But this "wonder" at why there is something rather than nothing is exactly what QM wants to eliminate: "Ultimately, the fideist is someone who marvels at the fact that there is something rather than nothing because he believes there is no reason for it, and that being is a pure gift, which might never have occurred" (72).

Another interesting way in to QM's work from our perspective in the course is to look at the question of the "human" in QM's work. The book suggests that science/mathematics leads us to a concept of time, space, and substance that is  "indifferent to humans": "From its inception, the mathematization of the world bore within it the possibility of uncovering knowledge of a world more indifferent than ever to human existence [. . .] a world that is essentially unaffected by whether or not anyone thinks it" (116). In other words, that there is an "in itself," something "out there" indifferent to what our own minds conceive it as.

But interestingly enough, his argument is based on human observations of mortality. I will now cite a couple passages that I think we need to go over carefully and find what is at stake (in terms of QM's argument) if these claims cannot hold:

"The very idea of the difference between the in-itself and the for-us would never have arisen within you, had you not experience what is perhaps the possiblity of its own non-being, and thus to know itself to be mortal" (59).

"For I think myself as mortal only if I think that my death has no need to my thought of death in order to be actual. If my ceasing to be depended upon my continuing to be so that I could keep thinking myself as not being, then I would continue to agonize indefinitely, without ever actually passing away. In other words, in order to refute subjective idealism, I must grant that my possible annihilation is thinkable as something that is not just the correlate of my thought of this annihilation" (57).

Ultimately, I am having a difficult time dismissing QM's critique of correlationsim and I suppose that I would have to merely add that I'm not sure how speculative realism/materialism, the question of the possible "as such" has much to do with my own work. It is the insistence that "what is mathematically conceivable is absolutely possible" that is perplexing me. Perhaps I am too ignorant of mathematics and the "possible," but I fail to see how this changes those of us who think more "poetically." QM writes that what Badiou has shown is "the idea that the most powerful conception of the incalculable and unpredicatable event provided by a thinking that continues to be mathematical---rather than one which is artistic, poetic, or religious. It is by way of mathematics that we will finally succeed in thinking that which, through its power and beauty, vanquishes quantities and sounds the end of play" (108).

The end of play? The end of play and the inauguration of the serious? What a terrifying prospect (to me--perhaps not to others). Is this not a way to say that the event will be calculable? No room of the impossible to-come?

For me, the question of whether this speculative philosophy will be useful will be what Badiou argues QM's work clears the ground for: "[QM] then goes on to draw some of the consequences of his resumption of the fundamental problem ('what can I know') toward two other problems: 'what must I do' and 'what must I hope'? It is there that what lies beyond finitude is deployed from contemporary thinkers" (VII).

My guess is that this "doing" and "hoping" might be the subject of his more complete work, where he takes on the ethical and political consequences of his work.

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