12 April 2013

Realism and Negative Sensation

There is a moment in Meillassoux's After Finitude that threatens to subvert his entire argument. This moment comes towards the end of the book, in the chapter ‘Ptolemy's Revenge’:
‘The world of Cartesian extension is a world that acquires the independence of substance, a world that we can henceforth conceive of as indifferent to everything in it, that corresponds to the concrete, organic connection that we forge with it – it is the glacial world that is revealed to the moderns, a world in which there is no longer any up or down, centre or periphery, nor anything else that might make of it a world designed for humans. For the first time, the world manifests itself as capable of subsisting without any of those aspects that constitute its concreteness for us’ (115).
The modern world is a ‘glacial’ one, one which presents no clear will of a god or saviour, and simultaneously presents a scientific system that disavows common perception, that refutes common perception of the world. Here the moderns are presumably the post-Enlightenment thinkers, which include Schelling, Burke and others who have theorised not the real directly, but apprehensions of the real couched in phenomenology. Despite the 'correlationism' that these thinkers may be subject to, they have certainly felt the exposure of this glacial world that became manifest in their modern world. This ‘glacial world’ of the moderns presents ample opportunity for drama, an opportunity that is almost entirely avoided in Meillassoux's stark proof, until we hit the very incongruous remark. This remark is distinctive and significant because it crystallises a notable absence from Meillassoux's theory: the absence of a link between sensation and the real: what is the experience of realism? And, if knowledge that exceeds human life or presence is possible as Meillassoux argues, how is this connected or disconnected from sense? What is even more striking about Meillassoux's remark, in addition to the departure from the overall style of Meillassoux's text, is that it echoes so closely Burke's key illustration of the experience of the sublime. In this post I'd like to articulate how it becomes possible for Meillassoux to argue for a realism that excludes mediation and attraction, and to replace these bridges with an understanding of knowledge of that which subtracts from experience. Here, I will also attempt to draw a distinction between Graham Harman's concept of allure, which is a form of attraction to hidden depths of receding objects as well as a form of articulating realism, which still retains a primacy of sensation that Meillassoux does away with. One of the hardest aspects of Meillassoux's text is the absence of any clear theories of either attraction to the real, or mediation between consciousness and the real. This is, in the first instance, not because he rejects outright a role for either of these theoretical components. Meillassoux has gone on, after the publication of After Finitude, to publish on mathematical writing, and its distinction from natural language, which certainly addresses the latter category that I am presenting here, mediation. This work is found in Meillassoux's essay 'Contingence et Absolutisation de l'Un', a paper which was presented at the Sorbonne conference on ‘Métaphysique, Ontologie, Hénologie.’

Here I merely want to show how speculative materialism necessarily goes beyond theories that incorporate negative sensation, leaving a necessary void where sensation should be: this is not an articulable sense, but a subtraction from sense, as impossible as such a thing may seem.  This subtraction from sense is most importantly achieved through transitive and / or transfinite deductions, which do not pursue depths or chains of objects, but rather performs a diagonal cut in the form of the mathematical proof.

Negative Sensation and the Psychoanalytic Real

It seems incomprehensible that there should be a theory of materialism that excludes sensation; even theories of the real, it seems, should include some kind of sensation, and usually they do: here I am thinking of the infinity that Schelling finds within and Burke's concept of the sublime, in addition to Lacan’s concept of fantasy and Harman’ concept of allure. The presumed necessity of sensation often rests on another, unspecific psychoanalytic assumption about human knowledge: that in every act, every pursuit of knowledge, something must be gained (even if, hypothetically, this knowledge is one that exceeds human life). This (still vaguely) psychoanalytic scepticism presumes that the impulse towards a philosophical realism must afford something to the subject that pursues this, i.e. that the pursuit of the real is in some ways an aspect of the pleasure principle. This is, in a way, a first objection to Meillassoux's speculative materialism that proceeds from the grounds of sensation, but is interesting because it proceeds from the grounds of negative sensation and negative reason: an intention that the subject obscures from itself. This provides an (admittedly crude) refutation that at once reintegrates speculative realism back into correlationism, but not into any simple binding of perception by phenomenology, rather into subjective or unconscious, and hence even more isolated, fulfilment. Alenka Zupančič gives the sophisticated version of this objection in her lecture at the European Graduate School entitled 'The Fantasy of Speculative Realism', avoiding the easy reintegration of the realist position into correlationism whilst also addressing the psychoanalytic understanding of the real. Zupančič claims that in Meillassoux we see a ‘complicity’ with the ‘fantasy of the great outdoors, which will save us’ and that this fantasy is a ‘screen that covers up the fact that discursive reality is itself leaking, contradictory, and entangled with the real as its irreducible other side’.

Here the attraction to the real comes not in the form of the sublime or other extreme emotional state, but in the form of a pure saviour that would justify or make sense of (what is for Lacan a) discursive reality. This objection to Meillassoux is made not on the basis of intuition or phenomenon, but rather fantasy, which is at once absolutely subjective yet at the same time does not take the form of a straightforward or positive sensation. Zupančič will counter Meillassoux with Lacan's conviction that modern science creates the real; nature is unchanged by physics, and unaffected by discourse (and that is why, following Lacan, she remarks somewhat wryly that we love nature so much). Zupančič will go on to illustrate Lacan's positions on science and his own identification as a dialectical materialist. For Lacan, the epistemic and semiotic relation to the real is necessarily a mute one: we can say nothing about immanent reality, it simply is as it is. This is where Lacan and Meillassoux may agree: the depths that empiricism attempts to reach are ultimately futile. If we want to produce facts about nature, this is a separate reality, Lacan would contest; empiricism does not access depths so much as make a new cut into reality (and in this he is quite distinct from Meillassoux). Here Lacan by no means inoculates the real that science creates, for indeed he acknowledges that the scientific cut is powerful, because it has effects on in the real, the example here being the arrival of a man on the moon. Nature – the moon – however will be unchanged by this. The ‘reduction to the letter’ that science makes is a process of a ‘cut’ and a ‘substitution’; the scientific letter does not replace anything, it substitutes for something. This for Lacan is the ‘link between discursivity and the real’, hence resulting in a dialectical stance. For Meillassoux, however, the mathematisation of primary qualities shows what of the object exists without the human. For Lacan, this is quite different, because this mathematisation has consequences in terms of constructing a new piece of the real, without affecting nature in the least. It is this unaffected nature which is, for Lacan, the real. Here Lacan uses a metaphor of the net to illustrate what he is describing: the language or marks of empiricism are the net, and the real is precisely what does not fall through such a net. Here, I take the net to be both a sieve of interpretation, but also the form of the cut in the real: one might think of the net billowing in the winds of the real, formed by these conditions but not articulating them. In this sense, Lacan’s ‘net’ is a mediating device between human science and the real, even if it does not articulate or describe the real per se, because the device still takes on a form, makes a cut in the real, and has effects. Simultaneously, the net is also a barrier between human knowledge and the real, without this being easily collapsed into a correlationist position. If we transport the metaphor of the net to Meillassoux, we might say that speculative materialism takes the net to ‘stick’ to the real, to represent and enact primary qualities. In both of these cases, we result in speculative methodologies: things can be entirely other than their present state, and in both cases science touches the real, but in Meillassoux this becomes knowledge – this absolute is ‘absolutely thinkable’, whereas for Lacan this is exactly that which is always precluded from knowledge. For Lacan the idea that the form of the net will fall in form of the real is a grave misapprehension, specifically a misapprehension that confuses the fantasy of an absolute with knowledge. The difference here is the same difference that Graham Harman isolates between his own philosophy and Meillassoux’s: Lacan moves from a position of weak correlationism, and radicalises it, whereas Meillassoux departs form a position of ‘strong correlationism’ (which is not to bring Lacan and Harman into agreement at all; their concepts of the real and knowledge could not be more different). The only similarity here is that weak correlationism incorporates a philosophy of attraction whilst simultaneously articulating a speculative position, whereas a radicalisation of the strong correlationist position does not. I’ll now turn to looking at Harman’s theoretical articulations of attraction and mediation devices in relation to realism, to consider an alternative to fantasy as attraction device.

Negative Sensation and Object-Oriented Ontology

The concept of ‘allure’ is Harman’s key formulation of an attraction to the real. Allure is the articulation of the sense of depths of the object: although for Harman we do not have access to the object in its real existence, and the object necessarily withdraws from human perception, we do have a sense of those depths that move away from us. In this sense, the concept of allure manages to capture a contradiction: both a proximity, a closeness to the object, and a withdrawal of the object. The term allure also, of course, refers to the way in which we would refer to such objects: not through direct reference, but through allusion. Allure is not the identity of the object, but is rather a force between things and humans: ‘sincerity occurs everywhere in the universe at all times, since a thing always just is what it is; allure is a special and intermittent experience in which the intimate bond between a thing's unity and its plurality of notes somehow partially disintegrates. This is an important point that will require further development. But clearly it is just the sort of thing we are looking for: the entire method of this book hinges on drawing up a geographic atlas of the bonds and joints between the four poles of being, mapping their union and dissolution’ (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 143). In his own 'Manifesto for Object-Oriented Philosophy' Levi Bryant insists that any theory of the real needs to include a theory of langue, a system that occupies the space between the world and consciousness, and this does seem necessary to account for the tendency of speculative realisms to appeal to the sublime, the glacial, the real, the other side or the great outdoors: all, at least since Burke, concepts loaded with affective import. Harman's version of langue is the forces of attraction – the allure – that operates between the mind, drawing it towards the withdrawing object. What is striking about Harman’s version of object oriented philosophy, and specifically about this concept of allure, is the distinction between objects and forces, which seems peculiarly human. Of course, Harman addresses this through his concept of tool-being, using that initial human perception, impulse or relation to the world as a stepping stone in order to comprehend some form of access to the real. This form of attraction is itself based in sense and by no means exceeds human finitude (for Harman, this is not a problem because objects are finite anyway, and knowledge of objects is thus manufactures only ever within relation).  But the object-force distinction, like causality, is not necessary, and remains only a theory of sensory relation to objects rather than any rigorous concept of the real, even if that real is excluded from human knowledge, even if that absolute is unthinkable. What is strong about Harman's philosophy, and deeply appealing, is precisely this stepping stone approach, which is somewhat lacking in After Finitude: the theorisation of a mediation and attraction device that is rooted in sensation, and explains a non-subjective impetus for pursuit of objects, of knowledge. But what is disappointing is the reappropriation of the real into an economy of finitude: effectively reintegrating the universe into an economy of finite relations of allure: there is both no absolute, and also no apprehension of existence that exceeds our relation to objects, or that exceeds, importantly, belief. This concept of allure might indeed be the element of Harman's philosophy that aligns him with a tradition of German idealism, as well as the aesthetic and metaphysical theories of Edmund Burke. This affiliation seems closest in Schelling's writings on the infinite. For Schelling, for instance, the attraction of realism is in part because of recognition, the recognition of something in ourselves: ‘When the series is obliterated, nothing remains except the feeling of an infinite tendency in our- selves—this tendency now emerges in intuition, and the above expression of the poet should be considered in this regard. From this it becomes clear that originally all infinity lies in ourselves’ (First Outline of a System of Philosophy of Nature, 15). For both Schelling and Harman, the infinite, the real beyond human grasp, is sensed, through different forms of intuition, and notably both philosophers then have a particularly stake in aesthetics and art as exemplary of this tendency. This intuition of that which goes beyond us constitutes a kind of negative sensation, a sense of the beyond, in these philosophies, a sense that is notably excluded in Meillassoux, except for the one, rogue comment about the glacial.

I have very briefly skimmed through three different forms of negative sensation that provide a theory of langue, or in my words theoretical devices of mediation and attraction, for theories of realism (or, in Schelling's case, necessary for an engagement with the infinite). These elements of a theory seem necessary for any metaphysical theory, if only because it seems impossible to have knowledge that is exempted from some sort of sensation. Without wanting to collapse various theories of the knowledge and the real into one another, the common way to deal with the necessity of an intuitive or experiential relation to the real that precludes or anticipates knowledge is through theories of negative sensation. Meillassoux's work is devoid of any theory of mediation and attraction, or of the concepts of negative sensation that may be associated with this. Harman claims that ‘even for some readers who admire Meillassoux’s verve, his proofs sometimes have the flavor of St Anselm’s ontological argument, in which the agility of the mind outruns genuine belief’ (Harman, Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, 124) On one level the remark about belief is an apt description of the experience of reading Meillassoux or relating his ideas to others, but I also think that this claim of Harman’s fundamentally misses the point. Meillassoux is attempting to argue for the possibility of thought beyond human existence and thus belief is somewhat irrelevant here. One does not, for instance, have to believe in mathematical formulas that exceed intuitive or imaginative availability. For Meillassoux, belief, and certainly subjective suggestion, of knowledge that exceeds human intuition or sensation, are unnecessary and even contradictory to knowledge of the real, where the real is that which exceeds human life; primary qualities do not simply exceed or go beyond the subject (as if the subject would be retained as a starting point), they are independent of it. What Meillassoux is pointing to here is necessarily that which exempts itself from intuition or affect: he goes beyond negative sensation to look at exactly that which subtracts itself from sensation. The prime example here is found in the transfinite mode of counting, which is easily illustrated in the mathematical paradoxes that caused problems for early 20th century set theory. Whilst Russell's paradox is the best known of all of these, another paradox illustrates the impossibility of completing a set using naïve set theory. The briefest and clearest example here is a sort of linguistic trick that is used by Lacan in ‘Seminar 14: The Logic of Phantasy’. In one of his seminars, Lacan writes the following on the blackboard:

1 2 3 4
the smallest whole number which is not written on this board

The initial answer to this might seem to be the number five. However, it quickly becomes clear that the number five thereby is written on the board and thereby we have to default over to answering with the number six, and then seven, and so on. Even if the number five, and six, and so on are not immediately part of the set of the first line of numbers, they are referred to through a different form of signification in the second line, a signifying chain that does not stop: one starts from five and must keep going in order to answer the sentence. This little trick is effectively a representation of transitive set. Obviously one comes to the conclusion, eventually, that the numbers do not stop: you would have to proceed to five, and then to six, and then to seven, and onwards and onwards: but, crucially, you do not have to go on counting forever, rather one can see that, in principle, there is an act of repetition with minimal difference that goes on and on. This realisation comes from an apprehension of the numbers subtracting, rather than adding, in front of one. Even if one deployed ordinal or cardinal numbers to try to complete the problem, one would end up with the same effect (eventually one could just cry 'ω'! and be done with the problem). One has no subjective sense of these numbers: only of the principle of constant movement, constant repetition that always creates difference. It is this same effect that Meillassoux is dealing with, and this is why, going back to Harman's impression, his arguments may seem like St Anselm's ontological argument: very hard to believe. But this is precisely because the transfinite knowledge that he is in part working with to develop his theory of contingency and advent excludes belief; just as the little game of Lacan's does not require that you believe the numbers will keep going on: you simply know this. Similarly, you do not need any sense, positive or negative, of the number chain, or the infinity of natural numbers that is represented by ω. What this is, rather, is a system that exceeds one and excludes one, and this is known not by a continuity of numbers but of the transitive principle of the thing: a diagonal rather than linear form of count that, after the initial few numerical lunges, operates on the basis of principle, a principle that makes a cut across the procedure or experience of counting.

This is how Meillassoux constructs a theory of the real that does not require belief or attraction, and why he does not theorise mediation devices. Although the example here uses writing in the first instance, the transitive principle is represented only by mathematical symbols. This is the fine line that he cuts between knowledge without belief, and an absolute without sensation.

Baylee Brits, Sydney, 2013

Bryant, Levi. ‘Onticology: A Manifesto for Object Oriented Ontology.’ Larval Subjects. [http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2010/01/12/object-oriented-ontology-a-manifesto-part-i/]
Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Chicago: Open Court, 2005.
-------. Quentin Meillassoux:Philosophy in the Making. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011. 
Schelling, F. W. J. First Outline of a System of Philosophy of Nature. trans. Keith R. Peterson. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.
Zupančič, Alenka. ‘The Fantasy of Speculative Realism’. European Graduate School: Saas-Fe, Switzerland. 2011. Lecture.

1 comment:

  1. http://anthem-group.net/2013/07/12/john-caputo-on-speculative-realisms-latour-zizek-and-more/