BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 31 MAY 14
Featured in
Issue 15

Against Speculation

Philosophical manoeuvrings and political realities

BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 31 MAY 14

An incredible scene shot by artist Ursula Biemann: a philosopher sits in a tree-shaded courtyard and speaks eloquently about his fascination with the metaphysics of things that can be understood far better, although never directly, when freed from the tyranny of our subjective viewpoints. As he carries on detonations are heard behind him. Tear gas fills the air and eventually the interview has to be broken off. A second attempt fails; the interviewee’s eyes are burning too much. The billows of tear gas are coming from nearby Tahrir Square. This interview took place in 2011 during the demonstrations that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak. The philosopher is Graham Harman, who teaches in Cairo and who, alongside Quentin Meillassoux, is the leading light of the Speculative Realists.

No point jeering that these political events spoiled Harman’s metaphysical reflection. But the fact that he and Biemann stuck to their plan to discuss Harman’s object-oriented ontology, in spite of what was going on outside, would reveal either stoicism or a head-in-the-sand approach to reality, were it not for Biemann’s willingness (with Harman’s permission) to use the material in her video installation Egyptian Chemistry (2012) examining the relationship between the country’s socio-political and biochemical-geological economy.

Don’t get me wrong: the shaping of philosophical concepts should not be sacrificed to political events. On the contrary, in the face of heated turmoil, a cool consideration of the fundamental reationship between the mind and the world can be helpful. At the same time, however, such events also put metaphysical discourse to the test: what impact does it have – in content as well as form – on its followers’ perspectives towards society? What ways of thinking does it promote, explicitly and implicitly?

From this viewpoint, the brief scene in Cairo casts a spotlight on a key concept for the Speculative Realists: correlationism. Coined by Quentin Meillassoux in his first book Après la finitude (After Finitude, 2006; 2008) and adopted in part by Harman, charges of ‘correlationism’ are levelled by Meillassoux at a good part of philosophical discourse since Immanuel Kant, which he describes as being shackled by the assumption that reality can only be conceived of in correlation to human thought, that matter/nature/object can only be understood from the perspective of the subject. In this way, it is possible to tar very different thinkers – from Hegel, who saw the world spirit at work, to Deleuze, who sees us permeated and animated by the inorganic – with the same brush of ‘anti-material complicity’ (to quote Meillassoux speaking in 2012 at Berlin’s Freie Universität). Pulling off this coup depends on a triumphant and unshakeable belief in one’s own ability to make reliable, ‘absolute’ materialist statements about things out there in the wide world: even if only self-verifying mathematical theorems or claims that the world is subject to radical contingency (or ‘hyperchaos’, the coexistence of cosmic order and cosmic chaos).

In his generalizations, Meillassoux is keen to promote himself as the most coherent of all the speculative realists: the only philosopher who tracelessly subtracts subjectivity from materialism (although he completely ignores Adorno, whose negative dialectics takes Hegel to task at least as fundamentally in the field of epistemology) and one who faces the coldness of the universe without sentimentality. With this cunning self-aggrandizement he sets himself up as a lonesome Space Cowboy. This may also explain the fascination Meillassoux exerts on sections of the young art scene – a fascination noticeably driven less by his ‘actual’ ontological statements than by the snappy discursive manoeuvres and sheer chutzpah with which he claims to shake up centuries of philosophy. Which is just what many artists dream of doing with regard to art history.

Even if we assume that Meillassoux’s pedantry is ‘innocent’ (i.e. not done in the name of distinction-based positioning), one is left with the impression that many of his admirers are interested not so much in actual insights (whether it is hyperchaos that reigns, or just plain chaos, etc.) but in learning how to set oneself most clearly apart from the other discursive players. One tactic: not being overly dependent on the lowly spheres of empirical refutability (a major advantage of metaphysics as a whole).

Putting Meillassoux behind us, let’s have a look at how such a discursive strategy might deal, for example, with the Ukraine-Russia crisis: the kind of backdrop against which, firstly, one chooses a position (as with the former Yugoslavia conflicts in the 1990s) and, secondly, picks out news fragments from the ensuing propaganda bazaar in order to cement one’s own position. Whether it’s the new Kyiv government that’s anti-Jewish or the Russian separatists; whether it was Russian agents who shot at protesters in Kyiv’s Maidan Square or Ukrainian fascists. Unlike other public intellectuals, in his commentary on the crisis Slavoj Žižek has not fit this mold. Rather than simply pit a struggle between those pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia, Žižek has instead emphasized the antagonism between nationalist forces in both countries on the one hand, and progressive activists in both Kyiv and Moscow on the other. Perhaps Žižek recalls his own Slovenian, former Yugoslavian experiences too well to adopt a tone of false certainty.

And so it seems fitting to quietly sing the praises of correlationism, understood as the responsibility of a subject for the statements it makes about the world, and the awareness of being fundamentally implicated. Perhaps the triumphant delimitation of subject-independent ontological truths is not the epoch-making breakthrough humanity has been waiting for. And perhaps a subject that does not gaze out from the hilltop of speculation, but one that looks back at itself as an object, is better equipped to notice when it is sealing itself off from what’s going on. Before the tear gas arrives.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.