Speculative Materialisms: Thinking the Absolute with Meillassoux and Guattari

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guattari / Meillassoux / Politics / speculation / utopia

          Quentin Meillassoux’s recent work After Finitude comes as a breath of fresh air for those who have been languishing under the dominant regimes of philosophy today.  Meillassoux claims to be able to resuscitate the “great outdoors” of pre-Critical Cartesian philosophy, one that would both forgo the correlationist impulses of the Kantian tradition as well as the necessity of an all-knowing, veracious God to legitimize the representational content of consciousness.  To access this “great outdoors,” Meillassoux forces us to activate a speculative materialism that would break with the necessitarian impulses of metaphysics. He calls his own path speculative because it claims to access an absolute (though not an absolute entity), and materialism because it claims that absolute reality is indifferent to thought, is an “entity without thought,” and can exist without thought, rendering the latter ontologically unnecessary (36). The paths of this new outlook are various, and Meillassoux does not claim to have formulated all the domains that are now opened.  It is for this reason that we feel a need to supplement Meillassoux’s emphasis on mathematics with an ethico-aesthetic paradigm. Among the numerous materialisms that have been developed in the 20th century, the cartographies developed by Félix Guattari (sometimes with the help of Gilles Deleuze) also merit the nomination of “speculative,” insofar as Guattari himself has also isolated an absolute, namely that of deterritorialization. In what follows, I intend to sketch out the way in which these two thinkers uniquely accent the positions that claim to be “speculative materialism” in order to better exemplify how Meillassoux’s groundwork can be applied outside its original problematic domain.

            The attempt to pair these two extravagantly different thinkers is not the result of sheer caprice, but unfolded due to the overlapping of a series of common concerns. Although they do not espouse the same conclusions, there is a shared impulse to refute the most intractable metaphysical dogmatisms, along with the fanaticism that develops through this refutation, ranging from abstract universals to abstract necessity. Indeed, the theoretical interaction between these two thinkers is required in order to unlock the dimensions of a speculative chaos upon which a speculative politics could unfold. Their conjunction leads beyond a hyper-Chaos to the immanent domain of hyper-utopias.

            One side of the problematic is to break the vicious circle of correlation. One of the ways in which Meillassoux describes correlationism relates to its attempt to disqualify the claim that subjectivity and objectivity can be considered apart from one another (5).  In fact, correlationism goes so far as to make the correlation unavoidable and asserts “anything that is totally a-subjective cannot be” (38). This side of the speculative thesis is also acknowledged by Guattari, who writes in L’Inconscient machinique: “Concepts must be folded onto reality, not the other way around” (155). In the same vein, for Meillassoux, “the materialism that chooses to follow the speculative path is thereby constrained to believe that it is possible to think a given reality by abstracting from the fact that we are thinking it” (After Finitude, 36). Given that language and consciousness are the two prime contributors to the persistence of the correlation, how do we escape from language, let alone take up a vantage point wherein subjectivity can be illuminated and discerned without having to become constitutive?

            This leads us to the first conjunction of the Guattari-Meillassoux constellation: machines and mathematics. For Meillassoux, the discursive means for attaining a thought without subject or humanity lies within mathematics, especially set-theory and its insight into the de-totalization of the possible via Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers. On the other hand, Guattari can be shown to share a similar desire to escape from subjectivity, but only insofar as it would posit itself as self-enclosed or self-sufficient, as an auto-consistent territory without contour or horizon. Thus, when Guattari argues that a degree of subjectivity invades every material assemblage and a degree of machinic determination invades every subjective assemblage, he is not for all that reinstating the correlation between subject and machine (IM, 165-166). Instead, the (human) subject becomes the generalization of a movement of deterritorialization which is only a limit case of abstract and concrete machines taking on consistency and reference. Bestowing a machinic status onto subjectivity simultaneously implies accepting the existence of a dynamic proto-subjectivity and an economy of choices on every stage of the cosmos.

            The interpenetration of the cosmic and the machinic is one of the reasons why Guattari’s schizoanalytic cartographies are both stellar and speculative. This is not to resuscitate the dogmatism of ancient vitalisms, but to assert that there is no reason to accord an exceptional existential status onto the human subject (and this would also be distinct from the general notion of a transcendental subject instantiated in an individual). It is to accept that other instances of living consciousness and sensibility can assemble themselves from machines and singularity points through the bias of deterritorializing and deterritorialized processes, not to universalize the subject, not to absolutize it, but to stress its asubjective framework and fragility which can only be guaranteed through the real pragmatic interventions of abstract machines, without which no subject is possible. In short, it is to assert even the contingency of the productions of the subject and subjectivities starting from abstract components of the possible within the development of a plane of reference upon chaos.

            This is exactly what Meillassoux forces us to confront. He reveals and relinquishes us to the forces and the omnipotence of chaos. This is simply another way of indicating his insistence upon the absolutization of contingency and the disavowal of the principle of sufficient reason. Whether as allusive metaphor or philosophical concept, it makes sense that Meillassoux would deploy not only the term chaos but hyper-Chaos to indicate the general state of affairs where things are the way they are for no reason whatsoever. In other words, hyper-Chaos exemplifies the universe’s principle of unreason by disallowing the necessary stability of natural laws or causality. An early rendition of Guattari’s conception of chaos reads similarly: “Having considered things from the angle of machinic time and the plane of consistency, everything will become illuminated differently: causalities will no longer function in one direction, and it will no longer be permitted for us to affirm that ‘all is played out in advance’” (9).  In other words, it is the time of science, a serial, ramified time in which the before always designates bifurcations and ruptures to come, and the after designates retroactive reconnections (WIP?, 124).

            This leads to another tangential agreement between Meillassoux and Guattari: probability can neither account for the universe, chaos, or the possible as a whole nor all the morphogenetic mutations and catastrophes able to affect an assemblage in the midst of deterritorialization, i.e. its non-stable becoming. Here contingency becomes absolute once philosophy accepts it as a principle. In a similar vein, Guattari and Deleuze write in What Is Philosophy?: “The principle of reason such as it appears in philosophy is a principle of contingent reason and can be put like this: there is no good reason but contingent reason; there is no universal history except of contingency” (93).  In the same way, life exemplifies the non-stability of its becoming when it is mapped throughout the thresholds of consistency it has to cross: why beginning from chains of carbon atoms instead of silicon? Nothing in the current state of scientific knowledge indicates that it is prohibited to think things could have been otherwise.

            Yet, for Meillassoux, this is only one layer of chaos, for it embodies the “absolute necessity of the contingency of everything…the lawless destruction of all laws” (AF, 62). It is in this sense that chaos also becomes absolute, because it de-activates the principle of sufficient reason and renders the principle of non-contradiction irrelevant for logical discourse: “Our absolute, in effect, is nothing other than an extreme form of chaos, a hyper-Chaos, for which nothing is or would seem to be, impossible, not even the unthinkable” (64). Moreover, this omnipotence of chaos, along with the possibility of its auto-normalization and auto-limitation, can only be thought “on condition that we produce necessary propositions about it besides that of its omnipotence” (66). Similarly, Guattari believes that everything is possible on condition that the enacted connections are compatible with a set of machinic propositions. Indeed, even speculative materialism and its connection with set theory depends upon the theoretical intervention of machinic propositions, if only to begin to define the contours of this chaos and its implications for speculative thought.

            In other words, the only law assemblages uphold is that of the general movement of deterritorialization. As Deleuze and Guattari argue in What Is Philosophy?, for set theory both the endoreference (the intrinsic determination of an infinite set) and the exoreference (extrinsic determination) of sets require a “slowing down” that would prevent a set of all sets, or, in other words, the only kind of chaos that Meillassoux has argued against (detotalization of the possible) (121). Indeed, in particular Cantorian set theory resulted from a deterritorialization of mathematics onto the abstract territory of the transfinite. This has counter-effectuated a state of affairs in philosophy (thanks in part to Meillassoux himself), which has led in turn to the deterritorializing effect of the detotalization of the possible, constituting, for Meillassoux, an absolute that does not submit to probability as a reterritorializing schema of division, calculation, and totalization. Machinic consistency is not totalizing, but deterritorializing.

            Another way to understand Meillassoux’s discovery is the way in which the time of chaos takes on its function as the vehicle of machinic consistency. He writes: “This is not a Heraclitean time, since it is not the eternal law of becoming, but rather the eternal and lawless becoming of every law” (AF, 64). There is no law hanging over the set of all laws precisely because this has been disqualified. And it is not inconsequential that the concept of “becoming” has always been conceived by Guattari and Deleuze as a modality of constant variation, which undoubtedly coincides with Meillassoux’s attempt to articulate the time of chaos.

             Meillassoux believes that accepting the principle of absolute contingency and the dissolution of the principle of sufficient reason means that even becoming takes on the susceptibility that we applied to the universe and things in general. No doubt, the possibilities of which chaos is capable are not reducible to any number, and it is specifically “this super-immensity of the chaotic virtual that allows the impeccable stability of the visible world” (111). Notice it is not the infinite or transfinite weight of the actual that causes becoming to proliferate, but the immensity of the virtual, which, through the continuous activation of potential energies and quantum thresholds, is incessantly generated by the hyper-complexity of this swarming chaos. As the infinite stock and reserve for the variable actualization of equipotential forces, Meillassoux seems to emphasize the “virtual” aspect of the becoming of Chaos, if not to sufficiently describe this state of affairs, then to borrow conceptual terms from competing philosophical discourses in order to say the same things with a different resonance. Nevertheless, the implicit emphasis in terms of the concepts of the virtual and becoming separates Meillassoux (to a certain extent) from his predecessor Alain Badiou and aligns him with Guattari and Deleuze once again.

            Simultaneously, however, chaos must be understood as the embodiment of the lawless becoming of everything, and so we cannot assert the stability of chaos without the caveat that there is nothing necessary in its stability either. Stability neither applies to being itself or becoming, but its necessary presupposition and division along these two domains does remain as one of the idealist tendencies of Platonism. It is here that Meillassoux promotes another revision of or break with Platonism based on a misunderstanding about the ideal and the sensible. He writes: “Rather, it is a matter of relinquishing the belief…that becoming pertains to phenomena while intelligibility pertains to the immutable, and of denouncing…the ‘stabilist’ illusion of sensible becoming—the illusion that there are invariants or immutable laws of becoming” (83). We can begin to see with this last description of chaos and becoming why it is necessary to talk about the virtual immensity of chaos. For there is nothing in the sensible or the perceptible that guarantees the appearance of stability to repose upon a real stability negotiated on the level of the brute materiality of things. It is not inconsequential that the virtual is the short circuit between the ideal and the material: not their irremediable connection and symmetry, but the negotiation of actuality along the paths of its non-stable becoming.

            Ever since we began focusing on chaos in Meillassoux and Guattari, this is the point we have been driving to: not just the limitless and lawless becoming of all things, but the insistence that there is no immutable laws of becoming. For if there were laws of becoming that were somehow necessarily stable, everything else in the universe, from the most vital fluxes to the most inanimate structures, would rediscover its principle of sufficient reason.  Nevertheless, the insistence upon the insuppressible becoming of all things leads to a political vision of the possible as a differentiated matter to be tapped into: hyper-becoming forms the cosmological basis for a radical deterritorialization of the territory towards the theoretical constructivism of real and virtual unforeseen utopias.

            Why utopia? Does not Meillassoux, along with Guattari, assert a dystopia or nightmarish utopia on the basis of the principle of hyper-Chaos? Would not even the possible be absolutely consumed by the infinite tensions of Chaos? But there is nothing that necessitates such a grim foreboding. According to Raymond Ruyer, the speculative heir of the French empiricist tradition (on the same rank as Whitehead), utopia is the description of the world constituted on principles different than those at work in the real world (L’Utopie et les Utopies, 3). Even though Ruyer claims that utopia has no real speculative value, this claim should be dissociated from the importance that his definition has for speculative materialism. For it would be absurd to think that the conception of utopia constructs heterogeneous ontological universes ipso facto. Nevertheless, utopia investigates new possibilities of nature by dint of speculation.

            Several things constitute utopia as viable for speculative materialism. First, it is opposed to myth, which merely contemplates the eternal relations of humans in the world with a view to etiologically justify why things are the way they are. It is in this sense that myth reinstitutes the principle of sufficient reason within the core of our attempt to come to grips with reality. Instead, utopia pitilessly emphasizes the variable and arbitrary elements of the universe, pushing the normal through the virtual screen of becoming to make the former and the latter more discernible. Also, utopia is not a dream that would wish for things to be a single way instead of another, for it does not approach the universe with a nostalgia that stops halfway with thinking “things could be different.” It is a play upon the possible, infused with joy, experimentation, and invention. Utopia is theoretically different from myth because it does not explain, it invents, “it is simultaneously speculative and practical” (4). While myth leads to a reterritorialization of desire onto the obvious, utopia indicates the inconsistency of the social bond, “a sort of social uncertainty, a wavering of social instinct, a lack of polarization of myth” (5). Utopia is deterritorialization par excellence because it forces the territory to open to the intrinsic non-stability and non-givenness of social complacency. Utopia does not “escape,” it is not “escapist,” but rigorously organizes and constructs the coordinates of another possible within the situation. As Guattari would say, utopia shows us that all is not played out in advance.

            When we mentioned earlier that Guattari finds the absolute in deterritorialization, we perhaps left the idea undetermined. Yet the detour through a speculative politics on the basis of utopia allows for this idea to be illuminated more clearly. Where and how does philosophy engage its coefficients of deterritoralization, not simply within its own structure, but upon the recreation of the world and the universe? As an indication of this problematic, in What Is Philosophy?, Guattari and Deleuze write: “Philosophy takes the relative deterritorialization of capital to the absolute; it makes it pass over the plane of immanence as movement of the infinite and suppresses it as internal limit, turns it back against itself so as to summon forth a new earth, a new people…Actually, utopia is what links philosophy with its own epoch…In each case it is with utopia that philosophy becomes political and takes the criticism of its own time to its highest point” (99). This is the task for the future activation of speculative metaphysics, not because it allows all possibilities equal footing, but because it is uniquely and genuinely utopian. Or rather it is the plan or plane according to which the virtual consistency of utopia can be invented, diagrammed, and actualized within concrete situations. It is the abstract schema of the thinkable and the livable without transcendence or necessity. This is why it is inherently fragile and even susceptible to the most totalitarian regimes of the possible, which makes its pursuit even more pressing under the regime of capital which abstractly equalizes the possible and its invention.

            In his preface to Meillassoux’s After Finitude, Badiou reminds us that the latter allows us to ask “what can I hope?” as a speculative problem that is still left to be investigated now that the question “what can I know” has been grounded. Perhaps this is what forced us to wander from the territory of mathematics to that of utopia. Although we have not vindicated Meillassoux’s absolutization of mathematics, we have hoped to avoid trivializing his endeavors by examining different problems on the basis of a highly similar problematic. It is in this sense that the problem of hyper-Chaos has led us to reexamine the status of politics developed from the interaction between two divergent but also confluent speculative materialisms.


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  1. Pingback: Speculative Materialisms: Thinking the Absolute with Meillassoux and Guattari | Archetypal Garage

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