The Desire Called Speculative Realism

I recently had the chance to dialogue with the Japanese philosopher Masaya Chiba. The text, which we titled "The Problem of Authority: Departing from Speculative Realism," was first published in Japanese in the journal Gendai-Shiso 44-1 (Jan 2016). I'm posting the dialogue here in the first of two parts. Read part two here.

Question 1

tumblr_inline_o03g224QEs1r61lko_400Masaya Chiba (MC): In Japan, speculative realism (SR) and the arguments surrounding it have been taken up seriously since around 2010. Here in this magazine Gendai-Shiso, some important articles by thinkers such as Meillassoux, Harman, Brassier, and Thacker have been translated into Japanese. Within such a context the picture of control society as described in your Protocol was also introduced. I and two colleagues completed a translation of Meillassoux’s Après la finitude to be published at the beginning of 2016. At nearly the same time our correspondence will appear in this magazine.

Since comments and articles about SR have already flourished, and since it may be possible to say the influence of SR has receded just as you say in your blog, we can now measure in various ways the historical position of SR from a sobering distance. As for me, I am especially interested in how to capture the “desire” of SR as one expressed necessarily in a certain stage of our (over-informatized) society. Then, a question; from your point of view, if one considers the specificity of SR in the present state, what type of discourse can be productive and meaningful?

Alexander R. Galloway (AG): The desire called speculative realism—it's an excellent question. Two things strike me as most relevant at the outset. First is the status of desire as such, something that, we must admit, has its own history and its own specificity. I'm thinking of the way in which desire was slowly rehabilitated during the twentieth century, first by way of psycho-analysis and political and feminist theory, and then, more urgently, by Deleuze and his ilk. Here desire is understood in opposition to reason and rationality, not as irrationality or folly, but as a legitimate kind of force in the world. Deleuze and Guattari, with their “nonstratified, unformed, intense matter,” set the standard for what has become quite commonplace today, the usurpation of rational, humanist subjects by swarms of desiring machines. So, while it has a complex history, I now associate desire with the general trend in society and culture toward affect (away from emotion or sentiment), toward horizontality (away from verticality or hierarchy), toward interaction (away from isolation), toward physics (away from metaphysics). In this way it seems natural to speak of such trends in contemporary thought in terms of a desire, since desire is such a powerful structuring force.

As for the particular form of desire—and here is the second point—it has been articulated in different ways by different thinkers. Some have a desire to do away with Kant and the legacy of Kantianism. Others seek to move beyond what they see as the irredeemably culturalist tendencies of postmodern theory, with its penchant for text, discourse, subjectivity, ideology, and epistemology. (Sometimes this has a rather blunt effect and can be interpreted, correctly or incorrectly, as the desire to do away with culture itself.) Still others are driven by the desire of the animal and the nonhuman. In general, most speculative thinking is driven by a desire to outsource authority to a place beyond the human. Thus, we are dealing with an instinctively if not fundamentally masochistic era in philosophical theory: we are nothing, but the molecules and the rhizomes buzz and bloom. As Lacan said, if you want another master, you shall have one!

MC: Yes, I also think today’s theories of the nonhuman exhibit a certain masochism. They exhibit the pleasure of accepting purposely de-subjectivation or alienation. You chose the word “authority.” I would like to take this as the keyword of my comment. It seems the problem of masochism in our context concerns the way of dealing with an authority that works in a simple way; this boils down to rethinking the pure form (formality) of the notion of authority. I am saying this from a psychoanalytic angle. What is authority? It is what determines externally our specific thoughts and conduct; negatively defined, it is what diminishes possibilities. It gives a certain finitude to possibilities. Thinking ahead to question 3, authority is what impoverishes a pool of possibilities. This definition leads me to the notion of castration, in our context of talking about desire (in general / and of SR). Current discourses about the nonhuman seems to be concerned with how we might reconsider the function of castration, though I am not sure whether you will agree with psychoanalytic paraphrasing like this.

What matters in correlationalism is the causality that works amid intersubjective reflections (and the superposition of meta-reflexions). This causality has been the main object of cultural-critical theories based in social constructivism. On the other hand, if we think of the absolute outside of correlation, it will come to take seriously a flowing radically meaningless causality, ignoring intersubjective reflections in our “freezing of thought.” For example, if there are mountains between two villages there is a natural cause for slow paced communication; the predetermined material condition simply limits our thought-conduct possibilities without any relation to our intertwined reflections about the world. This can be considered as the forcing of finitude or pure castration that completely shuts out the question of why a given limitation is such. It is this type of reasonless, meaningless authority that today’s theories are tackling under the guise of realism and materialism.

I will stop my comment here. I will take up the problem of authority again in the question 3.

AG: Or, alternately, radically meaningful. We live in an age today when “impoverishing possibility,” as you put it, is a cardinal sin. Things like forcing or castration need to be on the table for discussion, most certainly. I find the concept of determination, for instance, to be much more interesting than the concept of possibility. “Possibility” makes me think of a mobile app, or a television commercial for a new credit card! And I find it curious that in the age of possibility—our age—there is such a strong prohibition on the most important possibilities. Everything is possible, as long as it's not anti-capitalism, or the elimination of the state, or the end of racism, or reversing climate change. There's something binary if not digital about this.

Question 2

MC: To my understanding, what matters mainly in the evaluation of SR is how one thinks about the supposition—I think it’s common to many SR variants—of absolute non-relation. Meillassoux’s “Great Outdoors” is surely in absolute non-relation with our qualitative cognition. Harman’s objects are absolutely isolated from each other in their own depth, withdrawing from any relationships.

On the other hand, many arguments dealing with the nonhuman—broadly referred to as New Materialism (and which I think is not-SR)—often try to say something about how the nonhuman affects, intrudes or supports our human-social relationship in some non-discursive way. From such a viewpoint, SR’s insistence on the non-relation—which may prevent us from thinking of SR as a source of commitment to social action—might seem to be a great defect. However, I do not believe so. The point to be reevaluated is the very defect.

Rather, I think the crux of SR lies in putting simply the absolute outside and the non-communicative or the non-interpretive in front. Rather, from this point, we can begin to think about some form of the politics of "non-communication" (as suggested by Deleuze in the last pages of the dialogue on control society). What are your thoughts on this?

AG: Absolute non-relation is certainly what draws me to speculative thinking. Meillassoux has achieved something along those lines. His hyper-chaos represents the continued evolution of modern nihilism, in which causality in the most general sense has evolved from its classical and even modern forms, to its postmodern one. (We shall overlook the odd decision to name such a condition after that most primordial of Greek deities.) With his fixation on radical contingency, Meillassoux is the consummate philosopher of white noise and Brownian motion. But, then, those are also the guiding principles of our times, with contingency and precarity governing more and more of daily life. I'll note that Gilles Châtelet, in his Vivre et penser comme des porcs, has already skewered this kind of thinking, with its “Robinson-Particles” and crypto Hobbesianism reducing everything to raw, random interaction. Meillassoux is a very clever philosopher. But it's difficult to know the difference between chaos and precarity. His technical virtuosity seems to lack a certain passion, a certain care and attention to the underlying forces at play. At times he reminds me of those old Greek debaters who could argue the truth of any position, given enough mental agility, but without much regard as to the conditions of the position in question.

As a comparison we might look to the work of François Laruelle, who in my view has most thoroughly considered this “absolute non-relation” that you mention. While he doesn't use the word, his critique of correlationism is much more extensive and radical than that of Meillassoux. And while you mention Meillassoux's “great outdoors” and frame his work in terms of non-relation, there's a different way of interpreting his work—particularly hyper-chaos and its randomness or pseudo-randomness—in which such chaos indicates a surplus of relation not an absence of it. Hyper-chaos is a space where all things relate virtually to all other things. Meillassoux is very Deleuzian in this sense.

By contrast, I've taken to calling Laruelle a “prophylactic” or even “autistic” thinker, because he has structured all of non-philosophy around the one as absolute non-relation. There are a number of ways to consider this, but perhaps immanence is the best: immanence refers to the condition in which something does not need to go outside itself in order to realize itself. Laruelle has axiomatically placed radical immanence at the center of his non-standard method. His use of non-relation is thus “structural”—if that's even possible! A structural prohibition of relation. (Admittedly I'm stretching the truth to make a point; Laruelle does indeed allow something that we might cautiously term “relation,” the most vivid illustration being his notion of unilateral determination.) What's appealing about Laruelle is that such a structure is truly non-worldly or non-human, not like Meillassoux's hyper precarity that we can glean from any passing policeman or financial market. Because of this I see a utopianism in Laruelle that is missing in other speculative thinkers.

MC: The contingency for Meillassoux is about elementary natural laws; it does not mean the precarity of worldly events (that are meaningful for us). In spite of this, one of the reasons why so many people have been attracted to his work seems to rest in the confusion of the contingency in the ontological sense (of hyperchaos) and the precarity in the ontic sense (for example, that of the unexpected fluctuation of financial markets). Because the latter belongs to the affairs of the world-for-us, it is just within the frame of correlationism. Meillassoux’s theory appears to be mostly indifferent at an ontic level (which we are always anxious about), while limiting itself to the ontological level gives me the impression of a willing apathy that perhaps involves a sort of jouissance (in the Lacanian sense).

As for the theoretical orientation of radical immanence (or self-sufficiency) that rejects all relations, it is well-discussed in Japan with associating it to the characteristics of the autistic spectrum. Just as you say, Laruelle’s treatment of the One-Real is certainly the clearest case of such an orientation; I hope his systematic insistence on the absolute non-relation will catch the attention of the Japanese readership.

I would also like to add a brief comment on Deleuze. Certainly it is possible to take Meillassoux’s hyperchaos as the surplus of relations and to call this Deleuzian. However, I think we can find more autistic aspects in Deleuze (and Guattari) as well. In Japan, some scholars underline that his (their) contentions on schizophrenia must be read as more autistic (rather than schizophrenic) comments, for example making a very limited circuit of flow of desire, etc. This of course depends on one’s way of reading because his (their) text is often ambiguous. But I think it is important to re-emphasize the theme of non-relation or non-communication in Deleuze, which enables us to take definite distance to many “orthodox” Deleuzians that you referred to as “reticular” optimists in your dialogues on Theory, Culture & Society.

AG: Yes, that's right. And it was an elderly Deleuze who spoke of “vacuoles of noncommunication.” Part of the issue is that Deleuze is read very selectively these days. The deterritorializing, rhizomatic Deleuze—let's be clear, it's the Guattarian influence!—tends to dominate other discourses that interweave throughout his work. I love, for instance, the concept of “athleticism” found in his late book on Francis Bacon. Or the Marxist thread he followed all through life.

(Dialogue continues in part two...)