Monday, 16 June 2008

Correlationism Ha Ha Ha

By materialism we understand above all acknowledgement of the priority of nature over 'mind', or if you like, of the physical level over the biological level, and of the biological level over the socio-economic and cultural level; both in the sense of chronological priority (the very long time which supervened before life appeared on earth, and between the origin of life and the origin of man), and in the sense of the conditioning which nature still exercises on man and will continue to exercise at least for the foreseeable future. Cognitively, therefore, the materialist maintains that experience cannot be reduced either to a production of reality by a subject (however such production is conceived) or to a reciprocal implication of subject and object. We cannot, in other words, deny or evade the element of passivity in experience: the external situation which we do not create but which imposes itself on us. Nor can we in any way reabsorb this external datum by making it a mere negative moment in the activity of the subject, or by making both the subject and the object mere moments, distinguishable only in abstraction, of a single effective reality constituted by experience.

Sebastiano Timpanaro, On Materialism (1975), p.34

This is not to simply make a rather vacuous point of intellectual priority, and neither is it to deny the way in which Quentin Meillassoux's After Finitude offers a devastating 'internal' ruination of correlationism. It is, however, to signal a certain number of anxieties I have concerning his work and its take up.
  1. The anxiety that renaming his speculative materialism as speculative realism is a sign (admittedly minor) of de-politicisation. This is reinforced by the tendency to dissociate Meillassoux from Badiou.
  2. The uninhibited lumping in of all Marxism with correlationism. This was the point of my fortunately tiny intervention in the debate on Speculative Realism recorded in Collapse III. While Timpanaro was fighting against Hegelian and Platonic interpretations of Marxism, and his work is a minor and not unproblematic current (I especially have my doubts concerning his critique of Freud), he at the minimum signals difficulties with this maneuver.
  3. Certainly so-called materialisms can merely amount to inverted idealisms - erecting one type of matter above all others in the function of an ideal. This point was made long ago by Bataille and commented on here. When Graham Harman re-insists on the point it seems to me to veer dangerously close to excluding Marxist forms of materialism for problems which haunt many (even all?) materialisms.
  4. Meillassoux's article 'Spectral Dilemma' in Collapse IV compounds these issues. On a cursory reading, which I realise is not philosophically acceptable, the article seems to me to use his radicalised reading of contingency to rehabilitate ethics and theology ('inexistent God' yes, but...) towards a new irrationalism. Robin was kind enough to position my very poor article as a critical response despite it being written without awareness of Meillassoux's piece.
  5. To choose just one example from those lumped in as correlationists - the most deeply unfashionable - isn't Derrida's quasi-concept of the 'trace' resistant to simple characterisation as correlated to the human subject?


Dominic said...

isn't Derrida's quasi-concept of the 'trace' resistant to simple characterisation as correlated to the human subject?

I've always thought so - all that stuff about breaking with every possible horizon, including those centred on the various figures of Technology, History, Man etc., which is why I get so frustrated with e.g. marxists who want to posit one or other of those things as a sort of transcendental operator - but the correlationist might sneakily retort that the trace does also trace its way through the human, and isn't thinkable by us except in the trace of this, er, tracing.

Dominic said...

I also think - on an equally cursory reading of the Meillassoux piece - that if "divinology" is what all this metaphysical heavy-lifting gets you in the end, then no thanks. Reminds me of the sci-fi story about the almighty supercomputer, where they first question they ask it is, "is there a god?", and it answers, "there is now".

johneffay said...

it seems to me to veer dangerously close to excluding Marxist forms of materialism for problems which haunt many (even all?) materialisms.

If there is a problem which haunts all materialisms, why would you not want to exclude Marxist forms of materialism if you feel that said problem excludes the others?

Dominic said...

If nothing else, Meillassoux has invented a fun new philosophical parlour game: What Would The Correlationist Say?

Thinking again about the trace: to think in the trace of something is not to think (in) its presence; the reduction of the thought to presence, and of thinking to self-presence, just is what Derrida diagnoses (via the analysis of auto-affection in Husserl as hearing-oneself-speak) as phonocentrism.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link love. With Meillassoux I'm always concerned that by this attempt to evade correlationism he chucks the Marxist (and indeed perhaps numerous other useful theoretical positions) with the metaphysical-correlationist bathwater.

Ray Brassier's take on this when we here at Nottingham quized him on the political upshot of all this, in private conversation, was pretty interesting. He basically said he felt that it wasn't needed to make one's politics ontological as Marx's critiques don't operate at this level, but merely one of slightly pragmatic fair distribution of good, that doesn't need huge metaphysical underwiring. This said, he also said the attempt to fashion a through going materialism is always a form of political resistance of sorts and cited the Vienna Circle as an example - fascism was quasi-metaphysical and should be disawoved of this empistemelogical warrant. Which was an interesting move, if I understood him correctly, which I may not have.

Matt said...

Je est un autre, I share your concerns about the dismissal of all kinds of Marxist materialism in the Speculative Realist philosophers, and Ray Brassier's defence at Nottingham only exacerbates my suspicion that, despite the rigour of their fascinating new work, there's a gaping hole labelled 'materialism' in their philosophy and politics. Thanks to Ben for tackling this problem head-on.

The argument that Marx's critique of capitalism does not operate at the ontological level and is instead concerned with a 'slightly pragmatic fair distribution of good' is not a Marx I recognise. I’m no expert, but on the contrary, couldn't it be argued that Marx's politics are premised upon some very strong metaphysical claims? For one, the idea that collective labour under capitalism (irreducible to it's use as an analytic category in Capital) is definitely not an egalitarian ideal, nor is it a simple productivist ethos, but is instead the postulation of a qualitatively better life for all which can be reached through the production of new kinds of subjectivity after the demise of capital. Add to that the teleology of class struggle and the necessary revolution of the proletariat and I think Marx makes some very strong philosophical claims, or at least claims which cannot be reduced to a rational idea about what's best for everyone and the pragmatic means by which it might be reached. These strong claims of Marx are a genuine problem for philosophy, a problem which to my mind only Deleuze and Guattari's collaborative works seriously tries to address and resolve. I'm thinking of their conception of desire as something which must be constructed through various kinds of experimental assemblages. Arch pragmatists that they are, they will certainly dare to make the strong philosophical claim about the 'truth of the relations' in order to make their philosophy a materialist one.

As for Ray Brassier citing the Vienna Circle as a model for political resistance within the epistemological tradition, this seems more like a provocation. Whilst it may be true that the Vienna Circle kept their hands clean from the political extremes of the left and the right during the Second World War, a fact which Adorno apparently acknowledges. But aside from the odd one going off to die on the battlefield, I find it hard to see how they managed to do anything political other than produce the great founding text of neo-conservatism, Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies'. Maggie’s favourite philosophical work, and a book I fondly recall reading about ten years ago, bored out of mind during my factory nightshifts. Put me off Marx for years- very effective!

Benjamin said...

I'm pleased there is some sense of the same anxieties I have. On John's point, yes my argumentative skills are obviously not great (one reason I avoided blogging up to now). I suppose I was concerned that Marxism gets thrown out then other sorts of 'materialism' (say Graham's use of Latour) get included when they run into the similar problems. It's not simply that I think Marxism has all the answers, but I do think the sweeping version of 'it's correlationist' DONE [to quote Gordon Ramsay] hardly displays the speculative generosity so often claimed.
On the trace I'm not willing to go back through Of Grammatology but the trace as trail links to the animal, as breaching to neuronal pathways, as forest path to nature, and so on.
On Marxism well it is a massive question and I'd be unhappy to see Marxism simply read as an ameliorative politics although I'm not sure I'd also buy into a full blown ontological version a la Michel Henry. I think more and more the point of purchase comes in the category of real abstraction. Decried as it was (including by me!) Derrida's Spectres was moving along this line, better still some Jameson. I think these real abstractions inhabit a new 'ontological' form that impacts on the abstractions being produced by speculative materialism / realism. I'm sorry this is all very vague and despite working on this I'm not sure I will be able to make it any less vague. Interestingly on Ray's point, which I'd guess is linked to rationalism v irrationalism what Meillasoux's recent piece evoked in me was the reaction of Lukacs in The Destruction of Reason (a book at once terrible and fascinating)

marcegoodman said...

I have been eager to learn of other responses to the 'Spectral Dilemma' article. My own response, similar
to "at once terrible and fascinating" was one of enthrallment and incredulity. Could he be serious? And does the following statement offer a more palatable path to any future divinology?

Must I despair of the world if I am an atheist, must I despair of God if I am a believer? This dilemma in fact has to do with the relations between the living and the dead…And I found support neither in religion nor in atheism. Instead of the messianic hope resting on a God of incomprehensible justice existng now for the hope of a future justice, I propose the necessary messianic hope for the emergence itself of the divine as that surplus justice of the possibilities of the physical world.

Anonymous said...

Benjamin, I appreciated your intervention in the Collapse III volume and look forward to reading what you have to say in Collapse IV. I was especially bothered by Grant's response as he seemed to suggest a sort of determinism that foreclosed anything political whatsoever (perhaps I misread him?). That said, I wonder if Meillassoux's demonstration of the necessity of contingency wouldn't like at the heart of a Marxist political project. When Meillassoux argues that the ideological gesture par excellence consists in claiming the world is necessary, he also presents the basic political matrix in which it is possible to think otherwise, no?

Benjamin said...

Yes, I think Meillassoux's point is highly pertinent for a re-fashioning of ideology critique (I don't have After Finitude to hand unfortunately). That's why 'spectral dilemma' concerned me somewhat in linking back to the necessity of contingency what at first glance seems something apolitical or irrationalist. It seemed to be that there was / is a danger in simply accepting speculative realism en bloc and as if it was consonant with a politicised materialism. It may be a powerful heuristic but then that power is what produces my suspicion that things are being passed over...

doctorzamalek said...

"Dominic said...
If nothing else, Meillassoux has invented a fun new philosophical parlour game: What Would The Correlationist Say?"


On another point, Meillassoux never chose to rename his position speculative REALISM, which is merely an umbrella term for four very different philosophical positions (QM's, Ray's, Iain's, and mine).

The history of the term "speculative realism" is fairly simple. We needed a title for the Goldsmiths workshop in April '07, and it was suggested that we simply adopt the term "speculative materialism" from Meillassoux's book as a group name.

But I pointed out to Ray that I'm not a materialist-- in my view materialism always veers toward idealism, because it always reduces objects to a fairly shallow set of discernible and humanly accessible properties. No appeal to the Marxist spirit of liberation can redeem materialism from its miserably flawed metaphysical attitude (here I'm speaking only for myself; my three colleagues are to some extent materialists, each in his own way).

Nonetheless, I told Ray I'd be willing to go along with "speculative materialism" if there were nothing better. But then Ray came up with "speculative realism" as a solution. It still seems like a reasonably good term to me (it's caught on fairly well in the blogosphere), but it only has value as a deliberately vague umbrella under which all four of us can huddle. By no means should it be seen as Meillassoux's new term for his own position; he's still quite attached to the phrase "speculative materialism," I believe.

"Speculative realism" was a compromise between four people, nothing more.