philosophy as not philosophy: para-ontology, hauntology, schizoanalysis

"Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was’. It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to hold fast that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger. The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it. For both, it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer; he comes as the victor over the Antichrist. The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious."
- Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI

"The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice."
- Karl Marx, Thesis III

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Speculative Unrealism


The basic commonality that allows us to group such disparate lines of thought under the name of Speculative Realism is the assertion that, in short, there in fact exists something apart from our subjective access to its existence. As Graham Harman puts it, the move here is from subject-oriented philosophy toward an object-oriented philosophy. While there are likely very few philosophers who would openly identify with the term 'anti-realism' (a pejorative label primarily used by Analytic philosophers to describe their Continental counterparts), the fact is that philosophy has been generally enamored of our relationship to existence, caring little, if at all, about that which exists - and, at the limit, denying any such externality (anti-realism proper, what Meillassoux calls 'strong correlationism'). If there is a real shift going on, it is that of a speculative leap into the outside.

I want to make two points. First of all, I think there is a sense in which the new realism should learn from strong anti-realism's denial of a world outside the subject, or to be more precise, the subject's access to an outside (language). We of course must be wary of the implicit or explicit solipsism of language, if for no other reason, because it betrays a startling political attitude of indifference towards that which is invisible or unknown (or better, whose invisibility is invisible, or whose unknownness is unknown). Yet there is nonetheless a lesson here, one which only comes once we 'take the leap'. While we shouldn't privilege mediation to the detriment of the mediated-immediate, we should nonetheless not ignore the mediation altogether. Rather, the mediation we call subjectivity - our knowledge of, relations with, and actions upon objects - should rather be treated as itself an object, imbricated in the network of objects we call world. The subject, or subjectivity, is itself an object, on the same level as objects, and objectivity should be said univocally of subject and object. The subject is a subject-object. (This is obviously close to the neuro-philosophical position, but I'm not prepared to go any further in describing this relation.)

Second, besides the speculative shift towards object-orientation, there is nonetheless something 'unreal' and non-objectal that must not be neglected. There is a sense in which existing objects, and objectality in general (here including subject-objectality), always bear the mark of that which does not exist. Or rather, reality in general, including both existing objects and non-existing objects (fictions, illusions, potential objects, et cetera), bears with it a certain mark of the unreal, unrealizable. That which could not have existed. The unreal, as I refer to it, is the ancestral. And to specify where precisely my concept of ancestrality departs from Meillassoux, he uses the term to refer to that which is absolutely outside subjective-mediation - facts that are anterior to any access. Yet, if we are to apply his criterion of absolute contingency here, we come upon a strange temporal paradox - while for Meillassoux, everything that exists is necessarily contingent, ancestral facts are, qua ancestral, not contingent, they could not have been otherwise, they must be what they were.

There is, in short, a necessary existence: the past was necessarily what it was, even if it could have been otherwise at the time. The being-otherwise of the past is necessarily foreclosed, left out of reality. In other words, the contingency of the present is grounded upon the necessity of the past - the past in its becoming could have been otherwise, but as past, it can no longer be otherwise. Ancestrality, as I understand it, refers less to anterior - or exterior - facts than to the necessarily lost contingency they bear. It is the unreality of anterior contingency that is, for me, the crucial dimension of ancestrality, and indeed, objectality in general. Each object may be contingent, but with regards to its genesis, the past it carries with it, it bears the lost contingency of that past. While its own past could have been otherwise, it in fact could not have been otherwise so long as that object could be.

So, if we are to take the speculative leap, we must bear in mind the implications of the unreal, unrealized, and indeed lost contingency of what could not have been, so that what is can in fact be. Speculative Realism must also be a Speculative Unrealism.