Tag Archives: realism

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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What kind of realism is this anyway?

From Graham:

“For me it is individual objects that are real. And what’s becoming more important to me is this question: for all those positions that call objects a useless fiction, what are they granting reality in its place?

On the one hand there is what I called, in Bristol, the “undermining” approach to objects. In other words, objects are superficial encrustations or actualizations. What is real is either a boundless apeiron, or a churning matter laced with cryptic forms, or a primordial flux, or a topological pre-individual realm.

On the other hand there is what we could call, by analogy, the “overmining” positions. For such positions, the object is not a superficial encrustation, but a pseudo-deep and spooky fiction that explains nothing, since reality is much more evident. Reality is how it manifests itself to us. Or it is a thing’s relational involvements with other things. Or it is just a bundle of qualities. And so forth.”

It would seem on first glance that a spectral realism is part of Graham’s first group, the “undermining” of objects folks. I think this is wrong though, as is the alternative. As Graham has presented these position is flawed in a particular way that I think excludes both my own position, and my reading of Schelling (Bohme would fall into this category as well), that is, what I call the Hermetic position.

As Graham puts it, on one extreme objects don’t matter because they’re really just their set of relations or maybe reality is just “how it is given to us.” The other extreme is where I think he would put me, the end which claims that objects don’t matter because what has primacy is either the whole of the cosmos before we chisel it up with perceptions and ideas, or the idea that reality is just a primal flux with objects forming as clots. In the middle of these two extremes stands OOP, the only group that says objects are themselves that which makes up reality (it’s objects all the way down), but also the whole of reality would itself be an object. In other words, for Graham and OOP in general, reality is simply an infinity of objects.

So what’s the problem for spectral realism then? I’ve said before that reality for me is simply drive, or to be even more specific, the twin drives of expansion and contraction (what Freud called the life instinct and death instinct, respectively, and which Lacan clarified in his maxim that all drives are death drives, which of course all comes from the middle period Schelling [the Freiheitsschrift and Weltalter, although part of my thesis is trying to show that it’s already there in the early work] and which originates in Jakob Bohme). Reality as drive means that all objects are temporary stabilities on the road to collapse. The problem arises however when this is taken to mean that objects are somehow not real, or “less real” than drive. For me, and I would argue this whole lineage I’ve linked myself up with, there is no “more real” or “less real,” because the Hermetic tradition has a very simple maxim: As above, so below; this is the microcosm/macrocosm relation of all reality. When Schelling writes a psychology of God (which Bohme did as well), he’s not “anthropomorphizing” as Zizek claims, but making a valid Hermetic move: all things in reality are basically the same, but not in the Neoplatonic sense of “All is One,” but in a very weird way, that if one object in reality is really understood, this knowledge is applicable to all of reality. By understanding the human mind then, we not only understand ourselves, but all of reality. This was the secret of Hermetic science, the goal of which was divine knowledge (as in, knowledge of the divine) and the method was natural philosophy, learning of the cosmos (which is why the Hermetics were so keen on things like alchemy and astronomy). When Bohme came along, he took this principle and began to understand psychology as it had never been understood before, the heritage of this work being not only Schelling, but all of psychoanalysis.

What this means for Graham’s distinction is that spectral realism also occupies a middle position, one that claims all reality is drive, but all objects are manifestations of drive, that at bottom what an object is, is drive. But all of the parts of this object are also drive, and so is the whole of reality, and so is God. It is not then that there is a churning pool of drive and then it freezes up in some parts and these are objects, rather, the relationship is one of microcosm and macrocosm: there is only drive, only becoming (in the sense of no static being and no absolute nothingness). Objects have reality, no more or less than anything else, but this reality is their drive.

Then, from Levi:

“Braver then goes on to distinguish between trivial dependent entities like beliefs and real independent entities. Attitudes towards this distinction actually define something of a fault line among Speculative Realists. Speculative Realists like Ray Brassier, Nick Srinicek, and perhaps Quentin Meillassoux (I can’t speak to Iain Hamilton Grant’s Position here) would wholeheartedly endorse Braver’s description. To be real, for these realists, is to be independent of humans. Object-Oriented realists such as myself, Graham Harman, and Bruno Latour adopt a more egalitarian ontological position. Our view is not that the puff of matter on the other side of the universe is somehow more real than the United States (an entity dependent on humans). Rather, the Object-Oriented Philosophies are united around the thesis of a flat ontology in which there is no hierarchy of being or modernist distinction between culture and nature. There is just being. Being is pluralistic and differential, coming in many kinds and flavors, but it is no less real for all that.”

I think it follows that by Levi’s distinction as well, spectral realism occupies a similar position to OOP. Nothing is more or less real than anything else, whether it is a property of civilization or nature, because all is nature; there is nothing artificial about reality. I would add though, again, that Being (qua Being) is always only an impossibility for spectral realism, that it is this perfect Being that the first drive is always striving for, while the second drive strives for the Nothing (though metaphysically, the drive for contraction, the latter of these two drives is first; there is always contraction before expansion).

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The Unconscious and the Critique of Correlationism

(The following is a small [edited] section from a recent paper I’ve written on Meillassoux’ critique of correlationism as it pertains largely to Schelling, though I hope to expand it to include other “thinkers of the unconscious” as much of my research relates to the history of the unconsciouss. This paper will likely find its way into the second half of my thesis.)

The fundamental question to be asked when attempting to determine whether a thinker is a correlationist seems to be the following:

Is there or can there be being without thought? If so, can we know it or speak of it?

There are two correlationist positions on the matter: First, there is the weak position which claims that there are things-in-themselves but that we cannot know them, and second, the strong correlationist position claims that there are no things-in-themselves at all, as the very idea is unsupported speculation. I would like to put forward the suggestion that a certain strain of thought associated with the concept of the unconscious should be thought of as a “third way” on the matter of things-in-themselves. Both Schelling and Schopenhauer for example pose a difficult problem for this dichotomy, as they both claim allegiance to the Kantian legacy of transcendentalism and yet both criticize Kant for his agnosticism on the subject of things-in-themselves. What is crucial in understanding the problem these thinkers pose to Meillassoux’ dichotomy is that while they both claim there are things-in-themselves, they also both claim human beings have knowledge of them. For Schopenhauer, this is Will, while for the early Schelling, this is Nature as productive (Natura naturans). The distinction Meillassoux makes between weak and strong correlationism seems to fall apart in light of such thinkers, as they prove the possibility of a position not accounted for, not a realism in the sense Meillassoux insists upon (what he calls ‘speculative materialism’), but not a Kantian idealism with an unknown X lurking in the background, nor a true speculative idealism whereby the possibility of being without thought proves impossible.

These two thinkers prove there can be a position which accepts Kantian things-in-themselves, but eliminates the mystery often associated with them. How is this done? It is with the concept of the unconscious. For Schelling for example, Nature is not inanimate matter, but nor is it quasi-divine mystery, it is unconscious spirit, unknowingly free (it images freedom). The distinction is not one of things-as-appearances and things-in-themselves, but rather, one of things as conscious (subjects), and things as unconscious (objects). There can then be being without thought, because this is simply the state of the natural world, that is to say, entirely unconscious. In other words, metaphysical thinkers of the unconscious are entirely free of the correlationist circle as they accept a universe free of human beings as a possibility, the ancestral statement need not be put through the filter of the correlation in the present, as natural history has a place in a system like Schelling’s whereby natural science studies precisely those instances of spirit older and other than the human being. Again, there are things-in-themselves, but they are not unknown, they are like us, they simply don’t know it. Both thinkers allow for there to be existents without human thought attached to them, and therefore do not fit his correlationist criteria. We should say then that there are more options available to contemporary metaphysics than simply correlationism or Meillassoux’ speculative materialism. Indeed, there is a whole other historical lineage available to contemporary realism, it simply needs to be brought to light.

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Homme-Sick Animals

Watching this video this morning:

I’m so conflicted when it comes to Lacan. On a very deep level, I have an immediate aversion to his thought, I “recoil” from it if you will. It’s almost an unease, and almost disgust. And yet, on another level, I feel like there are important bits within his thought… bits of ore that can be fashioned into something better, and stronger.

Is there any hope for a true realism if Lacan is involved? Can such a strange idealist be saved?

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Zizek and Schellingian Realism

So I wrote the following over on Graham’s blog. I’m going to post it here and then add a couple of things that I meant to say or should have said:

“If we think of it in basic Schellingian terms (which I know are problematic because Zizek is a very… *select* reader of Schelling) I think it might be more clear. This is coming from the middle Schelling by the way (Freedom Essay, and the Weltalter):

– There exists some infinite unconsconsciousness (Ungrund).

– A decision (cutting off) is made (for Schelling this is by God and thanks to his Hermetic ontology [As Above, So Below], the decision is made on all levels of existents). It’s not REALLY God who made the decision as God only comes to be IN THE DECISION. It is the “will to be” (which Schelling inherits from Spinoza with some alterations…), the drive for existence itself.

– This decision is the decision for consciousness which creates the division between consciousness and unconsciousness (for Zizek, this would be the division between the Symbolic and the Real).

– The problem arises though when you compare notes between Schelling and the Lacanians (including Zizek and Badiou). For Schelling, this is all done by Will (aka Freedom), whereas you’re right Graham, it is humans (although I suspect transcendental subjects) for the Lacanians.

– I think it’s better to think of examples from time rather than from things. I mean, this is exactly where Heidegger gets his “the past comes to meet” you bit; there only exists a past when you are in the present. Who I was only makes sense in the context of who I will be, so I can only ever understand the direction my childhood took after a certain time, with a certain distance.

– Now, the past isn’t less real than the present, but a break has been decided, and we now distinguish between the two. For God, this becomes the break between the unconscious drives for existence and actual free existence, creation and self-knowledge. For the human being, it means basically the same thing from a psychological level, that I am able to look back at who I was (what is self-consciousness but the ability to really look at oneself?) Ultimately though, the human being is the eyepiece for God, and through our consciousness it is God who becomes self-aware (for example, through scientific insight into Nature).”

Now, what I want to add is that although it seems the Lacanians are explicitly human-cenetered (Badiou is perhaps the worst for this, as we’ve seen in the recent blog posts), Schelling doesn’t even say he’s talking about humans. The Freedom essay and the Weltalter are explicitly THEOGONIES. I don’t think we can properly infer that it is only God and the Human Being that he’s talking about either. If we incorporate his later philosophy of time and freedom with his earlier philosophy of nature, it seems that everything that exists underwent some sort of decision from their unconscious surroundings. Again, in the early works he talks about things coming to be by accident, that they ought not to be. I am beginning to think that the later works are simply the extreme microcrosm/macrocosm cases, where in the early works he describes coming to be in terms of the processes of Nature, the later works are both this on the smallest scale (an individual thing coming to be) but also the grandest scale (God coming to be).

Back to Zizek though, I want to say that while I agree with Graham’s conclusions (ultimately I disagree with almost everything Zizek says), I just worry that he’s not being fair to Zizek and possibly putting words in his mouth. I think it’s a lot more complicated than either “the subject produces the world” or “they co-produce each other,” but rather that both are produced by the same decision, neither of which made that decision.

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an ontology of unfinished reality

In reference to my earlier post on a Schellingian weird realism, Zizek actually articulates this quite well in his Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, as seen in this clip.

All that I would add is that it is not only human beings that are haunted by “alternate versions of themselves,” but that all of reality is in some sense haunted both by what has been as well as what could have been. The whole universe then possesses this quality of spectrality, and we are all haunted by the spectral universe.

[ADDENDUM:] I want to add that I am not speaking of spectres as mysterious things-in-themselves, but rather what Schelling refers to (and Iain Hamilton Grant picks up on) as the retarded (that is, impeded) productive activity of Nature. What this means is that there are parts of Nature that are incomplete or stunted and appear as possible voids or ghosts in reality. The universe is itself imperfect.

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Derrida and Realism

When I wrote my undergrad thesis, I had it clear in my mind what I wanted to write. My thesis was to be on how the two greatest critiques of the Philosophy of the Middle Ages constructed in the Twentieth Century had already been written and solved by Meister Eckhart.

The first of these two critiques was Heidegger’s critique of onto-theo-logy, which became the topic of my thesis. At some point I’ll have a revised edition of my thesis (it will be published as an essay by this time next year) and I’ll share it here.

The second of these critiques was Derrida’s critique of negative theology. My intention when coming out here for grad school was to write this as my MA thesis. At the time, I was hopeful in regards to deconstruction, and I was quite taken by the possibilities held within this school when it came to religion.

Of course, that didn’t last. I quickly became dissatisfied with people like John Caputo (and his Weak Theology), and abandoned my thesis on deconstruction in order to find the “superior empiricism” of Schelling’s early work. I see connections between Schelling’s Naturphilosophie and thinkers like Bergson and Deleuze, who I’ve become quite taken with. This obviously puts me squarely into some sort of realism, whereas deconstruction seems to be some sort of textual idealism, lost in language.

But what do we do with Derrida? There seems to be much of his writing worth working with. I still see his Hauntology as particularly important (although I see proto-hauntological ideas in Schelling’s Clara and his Weltalter). The idea of the spectre, and more importantly, of parts of reality that are missing or incomplete (or even decaying) seem applicable to a new Schellingianism (not that unlike the old Schellingianism. . . ), a realist Schellingianism, but an “imperfect” realism.

So is there room for Derrida in a realist philosophy, or must we abandon him entirely?

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