Tag Archives: Graham Harman

The Limits of ‘Correlationism’

The Sea of Ice

Graham mentioned that he liked my distinction between structuralism (read broadly) and other forms of correlationism. I’ve felt, probably since first reading After Finitude, that Meillassoux’s categories tell a very small story and that that story should be broadened to include new categories or designators. In some ways this has meant broadening ‘correlationism’ but it also means looking at how contemporary thinkers designate their contemporaries. Graham’s work for instance is very good on this, as he lays out clearly why his position is different from materialism (of many types), the two forms of correlationism, empiricism, occasionalism, relationism, etc, etc. He writes a story with many characters (17 apparently, if Treatise on Objects will contain his own system against 16 others), which I really appreciate. I suppose my own efforts stem from this desire to tell a big story, to have many characters rather than a strict argument against one single position. In my paper in Claremont for instance, there were several such systems at work, with some overlap: eliminative materialism, eliminative idealism, weak and strong correlationism, speculative materialism, OOO, transcendental realism, and neo-vitalism. The two forms of eliminativism could perhaps (in the case of eliminative idealism at least) be subsumed under the heading of correlationism, as I mentioned yesterday of structuralism.

As for structuralism as a variety of idealism, I don’t think this is quite right. I don’t know if the category ‘idealism’ makes sense anymore after we have chosen to adopt ‘correlationism.’ As Graham has said before, initially Meillassoux thought himself to be arguing against idealism, but he realized that there were important differences between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ forms of correlationism, both of which would be, under more classical terminology, ‘idealist’ in the sense of being anti-realist. But the important difference has to do with things-in-themselves, and not simply the principle of correlation. Since structuralism as I have defined it maintains the possibility of novelty, of things being other than what they are, and of things existing outside of thought (however traumatic this transition from unthought to thought may be), they are not really classifiable under Meillassoux’s schema. Nor are they classically idealist. If we take perhaps the two extreme forms of idealism to be those of, on the one hand, Berkeley, and on the other, Fichte, then this becomes clear. For Berkeley, there are no things in themselves because everything is always being perceived by God. So while we could say he is an idealist in the sense of all things being mental, he is also an anti-realist in the sense that nothing exists apart from being perceived. For Fichte, we have the relation of Subject and Object boiling down to the fact that the Object is always created by the Subject as a form of opposition. The Object only has being from the Subject, who creates it in order to strive against it (in the form of absolute freedom and the striving for Justice). He is therefore both an idealist (the Object is created entirely by the mind of the Transcendental Subject) and an anti-realist (the Object has no reality apart from this relation to human mind). There also really are no things-in-themselves for Fichte for this reason, as the Object is always excluded from Subjectivity in order to be further integrated and included. So both extreme examples of idealism share the fact that they are strong correlationists (there are no things-in-themselves) as well as the fact that they are anti-realist (all things are reducible to mental processes or Mind generally).

Structuralism, which I should point out I am entirely against, maintains along with the weak correlationist that there are things-in-themselves, but claims we not only imagine them as a possibility, we encounter them as trauma. We also do not cause them to exist, as they have some disorganized being outside of thought, existing whether we like it or not. So the structuralist is neither a correlationist in the weak or strong sense (things-in-themselves actually do exist and we know them in some traumatic way), nor are they a strict anti-realist (Nature exists in opposition to Culture, even if it is a swirling tumult of chaos).

I have also proposed a lineage of “Transcendental Realism” in both my Claremont talk as well as another essay, where I maintain that there is a lineage after Kant that takes Kantianism (and critical philosophy generally) seriously, while also maintaining that there is more to things than our ideas of things. I locate this tradition with the rejection of Fichte by his star students, Schelling and Novalis, and see it as the ground of Romantic philosophy broadly understood to include Schopenhauer, Fechner, Nietzsche, von Hartmann, etc. It’s also a tradition which takes Spinoza very seriously, as well as aesthetics and mysticism. This is because they represent a group that knew that the logical consequence of Enlightenment thought was the reduction of the real to the rational and that this isn’t the case. They accept that there are things-in-themselves and that we have some vague knowledge of them through non-cognitive means, like sensation, imagination, intuition, etc. This is precisely the critique of Kant that Schopenhauer makes, that we actually know something of the in-itself because we are able to grasp the in-itself in us intuitively. They are also realists in the sense that things exist prior to human thought and will exist after we are gone. This is because they accept the metaphysical unconscious, that conscious perception not only is not the ground of reality, but is really only a very small part of the cosmos.

I think this gives some idea, at least in part, of the limitations of ‘correlationism’ as a category. While it is useful and telling of certain figures, it is in no way the whole story. We simply need to add more characters to the story of contemporary philosophy.

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OOO, Language, Activity

Semiotics

Ben does a nice job of pulling together the relevant material on the recent debates, so if you’re not up on the haps already, go here and read what he has to say, along with what he links to.

There are certainly many things we could talk about in this exchange, but only a couple I want to draw on now: Language and Activity.

It seems the term “Linguistic Turn” is problematic in this debate. Graham and Levi will both say that the Linguistic Turn was a problem for philosophy and something that contemporary philosophy still struggles to overcome. What people concerned with semiotics (like Adrian) seem to hear from this is that “language is a problem, so let’s not worry about it.” This simply confuses this further. I’m currently writing about the metaphysics of language, really on inhuman communication. Not all language is a problem; there is a particular kind of philosophy of language that seems to dominate continental thought which is problematic for any form of realism, which I have called generally “structuralism.” More precisely, there is a founding metaphysical structure in all philosophies which I deem structuralist: the incompatibility of Nature and Culture, or, the rift between world and human.

Ultimately, this is a mutated form of correlationism founded on a metaphysics that says Language is a human trait equated with Rationality that has the power to structure and make sense of the unstructured non-sense of the inhuman world. Outside of culture (read broadly as the cohesive structure of signs human beings create as a womb) there is only chaos. I say it’s mutated correlationism because it actually stands against both weak and strong correlationism. Weak correlationism says there could be things-in-themselves, but we couldn’t ever know them anyway (we might imagine them, or like Meillassoux, maintains that the things-in-themselves represent the possibility for things to be other than what they are), while the strong correlationist maintains that there are no things-in-themselves because nothing can exist outside of thought (if you think a thing outside of thought, you bring it into thought by thinking it). The structuralist holds a different position: there are things-in-themselves, that is, there exist things outside of thought/rationality/language/culture, but they exist as traumatic pseudo-entities, things which break our womb of culture/etc and which must be dealt with. This is the underlying metaphysics of Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Badiou and Zizek (and possibly Heidegger and Derrida, but we’ll leave them alone for now). I talk about this specific structure in Lacan and Zizek in a forthcoming essay for the International Journal of Zizek Studies. (Badiou appears prominently in the essay as well, though after reading Logics of Worlds this past Fall, I’m not sure if he can be read entirely in this way anymore. He seems to be focusing more on the structural aspect rather than the traumatic. I certainly think this is the structure at work in Being and Event though.)

This is the “Linguistic Turn” that poses a problem for contemporary realism, those thinkers which reduce everything to language (what I called in my Claremont talk, following Levi, “eliminative idealists” which also includes social constructivists). So in my current essay, I can talk about Deleuze and Serres and it isn’t a problem, Jim Bradley can present a robust realism based in Peirce, also not a problem, etc.

Speaking of Jim, this brings me to my second point: Activity. Ben mentions briefly in the above-linked post that “OOO is Newtonian.” I wish he would elaborate on this because this is a central part of my reading of Graham’s work. Indeed, it’s what I criticize in “To Exist is to Change.” Something that Jim mentioned in his talk at Claremont (that unfortunately didn’t make it into the wonderful live blog) was a little comment about my work. One of his criteria for truly “speculative” philosophy is a strong principle of activity, and he mentioned that my work is an attempt to push OOO in this direction, but that it otherwise isn’t there. (This is also drawing exclusively from Graham’s work, since neither he nor I have read The Democracy of Objects yet. I’m sort of assuming based on recent and past comments that this is something Levi is attempting to move towards as well.) This is something I’m working more and more on, having begun in “To Exist is to Change,” continued in my Claremont paper “The Inner Life of Objects” and am pursuing in a couple of forthcoming essays.

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Objects for your ears

foreign object

For those of you who aren’t aware, the recordings from the Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium are up and available for download. I’m looking to listening to these when I’m not so swamped with work!

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Thinking, the In-Itself

Zizek

There’s been some back and forth and back again between Paul and Graham largely as a result of Paul’s recent interview with Peter Gratton as part of Peter’s course on Realism. See also the exchange between Ben and Graham on Hegel and Zizek.

Paul’s been brining up Hegel for a while now since he’s “in the air” in Dublin. I have to say this makes me more than a little uncomfortable. I’m not friendly to Hegel or Hegelianism and the neo-Hegelianism of the Ljubljiana Lacanians makes me equally as on-guard. The reason I’m so uncomfortable with this is the ease with with they all do away with the very real problem of the in-itself.

The in-itself is of course a long-standing issue for debate in post-Kantian philosophy and is one of the important fault lines that Meillassoux revives in After Finitude where he bases correlationist thought on the principles of correlation and factiality. The strong correlationist is the one who maintains the strength of the principle of correlation and does away with the principle of factiality (doing away with the in-itself, contingency, and freedom ultimately). I shouldn’t have to repeat this, I’m assuming people know this. By aligning yourself with Hegel (especially) you fall immediately into the Fichtean move of rejecting the in-itself (or more accurately for Fichte, making the in-itself a closeted for-us, making things-in-themselves a necessary illusion in order for the performance of the infinite ethics of the Kingdom of Ends; depending on your reading of Hegel, the same move is made though possibly for different reasons).

The same move is made by the Lacanians; the in-itself for Zizek is nothing but the “Imaginary Real,” a fantasy of a non-Symbolic realm prior to language or even humans. There is no world outside of the Symbolic for Zizek meaning there is no in-itself. This is why ultimately he favours Hegel to Schelling. Schelling of course maintains the in-itself in opposition to both Fichte and Hegel (though with the support of Schopenhauer, who is of this Schellingian strain of post-Kantian thought that finds its way into people like Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson, etc.) The significant move of this strain of post-Kantianism is not only that they maintain the in-itself, but that with this school of thought the in-itself is in some sense known. In opposition to both the Fichtean line which does away with the in-itself and the more orthodox Kantian line which maintains the in-itself but also its unknowability, this line of thought (which I refer to as “Vitalist”) says that the in-itself is in some sense grasped through self-analysis (this is the importance of “intuition” for Schelling and Bergson for instance). We have access to our own noumenal existence by which we understand other existents to have their own non-phenomenal (that is, non-for-us) existence. Just as I am not the sum of my phenomenal appearance (I am unconscious, I am will, I am virtual, etc, etc.) neither are objects.

This also gives us clues as to how non-human objects interact with each other, as well as their inner lives. First, it allows for a pre-human and post-human world. Vitalism accepts history as a given, things existed, things happened, before there were human beings to observe them and these things are in no way dependent on our knowing to have existence. In the same way, aspects of my existence go un-actualized, remaining unconscious. This in no way means they do not exist, simply that I don’t know of them.

The importance of this cannot be under-estimated. The road to anti-realism is paved with Hegelian intentions. I don’t see how anyone could read Hegel and take a realism from it without doing some serious work (which even the Marxists have trouble maintaining, what does Nick Land call dialectical materialism? Shoddy idealism, I think). This means ultimately that I’m on the side of Graham and Grant on this one, once the in-itself is ditched, there is no possible realism. For the same reason then that Fichte irreversibly anti-realist, so too is Hegel.

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On Vicarious Head-Scratching

I’ve been seeing a lot on Harman and capitalism and his model of causation as “nonsense” and whatnot and thought I’d try my hand at an explanation. For one, I don’t see why Harman’s model of causation is so hard to grasp but maybe its because I have a different background than most of those involved in the theory-corner of the blogosphere. I also want to stress that I’m not an object-oriented philosopher. I have serious misgivings about OOP which will be evident from my paper for Speculations. In fact, my paper will be on the subject of change and causality. That doesn’t mean however that I don’t think highly of the theory or that Harman should be insulted or attacked. Disagreements happen, we’re all adults here.

There are essentially two modes to understanding Vicarious Causation. The first is Aristotelian, the second is Kantian. It should be noted that both of these give us different versions of Occasionalism, that is, a mediated model of causality. I think the main problem people have with Harman’s theory is that they approach it strictly from the perspective of Heidegger’s tool-analysis, which while foundational for Harman’s thought has been overshadowed by a newer model of OOP over the past year. I think this this clear from lectures he’s given recently where the tool-analysis is explained but not foundational. He’s found new, better ways to ground the theory which makes it much more historically relevant and probably much easier to grasp by those without the Heideggerian or even phenomenological baggage.

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Systems of Thought and the Issue of Names

As some of you know by now, I’ve taken something of a pet interest in the Speculative realism Wikipedia page. This isn’t because I feel like I’m any sort of authority on the subject, but I’ve read a lot of the material and basically no one else was chomping at the bit about it. Actually, as both Nick and Graham mentioned (though it was Nick who brought it to my attention), the page was basically stillborn, with so little there that people were threatening to delete it.

So I fixed it up a bit and added subsections and publications and mentioned some of the presses that have shown an interest and I think it’s a pretty decent little page now. It certainly fits the criteria of something worthy of being on Wikipedia. So now we’re out of the woods, we’re not in danger if dying of exposure without a wikipage.

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Some Notes On Relationality- What I Know So Far

– What does it mean for a human being to be connected? When is one wired and where does this wiring go? Is the wiring visible like a marionette, or are we all wireless now? Am I connected? Of course I am, but to what? Is it to you or to…

– On my relation to my relations. As object, I remains distinct from those other objects around me. But I am not entirely distinct, as I am not simply an isolated atom, but am defined by the complex relations I build, maintain, and destroy. The family members I don’t speak to or foods I avoid are a part of me, just as my significant other or favourite songs are. There is no “at bottom” when describing myself, because I am more than myself, I am outside of myself.

– What then, if anything, am I? I am animal, of this I am fairly certain. I am mobile, desiring, creative flesh and bone. I have been told I am rational (of this I am always doubtful). I am a thing which thinks (though often doesn’t). I am real, this I accept. I am, but am not reducible to my relations. The same goes for my character. For I am also a history, and a trajectory.

– I am not my static presence, but a past and a future as well.

– My past is perhaps unknowable, as my past selves are themselves defined not in terms of isolated character traits or unchanging substance, but by their relations, both to other things, as well as to the relations of those things, and those things, and and and.

– I am a history in matter, a formation in the rock. I am a tender history in rust. I am an outgrowth in reality; a smudge on the windshield. I am a violent outburst of sight and sound. I am tired.

– How is history even possible?

– It gets crowded in here with all these memories (lies). For the amount that I write and think about memory, about haunting and the residue of relations, you’d think I had more of them. All my writing about memory is really about forgetting. (This is perhaps the thinker at his most candid, take note.) I forget everything. The vast majority of life forgotten: days, months, years, feelings, thoughts, homes. I would not survive without pockets of lists. My archive is continually destroyed by the washing machine. What would Freud say? (Don’t even get me started.)

– I am a force, a drive, a movement. I surge forward, in search of food, drink, this, that. I am empty, please fill me. Please, fill me.

– I am always to come, that is to say, I am not yet ready, but always in preparation. I am not yet, and yet…

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