Non-linearity and Momentum

02Jun08

Following Nick of The Accursed Share’s brilliant remarks on Brassier’s reading of Deleuze, I wish to return to the following passage from Nihil Unbound:

“In Zizek’s Hegelianism, the subject achieves its autonomy by retroactively positing/reintegrating its own contingent material determinants: freedom is the subjective necessity of objective contingency. But by dissolving the idea of a necessary connection between cause and effect, Meillassoux’s absolutization of contingency not only destroys materialist ‘determinism’ understood as the exceptionless continuity of the casual nexus, but also the idealist conception of subjective ‘freedom’ understood in terms of the second-order reflexive causality described by Zizek. The subject cannot ‘choose’ or determine its own objective determination when the contingency of all determination implies the equal arbitrariness of every choice, effectively erasing the distinction between forced and unforced choice. Thus it becomes impossible to distinguish between objective compulsion and subjective reflexion, phenomenal heteronomy and noumenal autonomy. The principle of factuality collapses the distinction between first and second order levels of determination, thereby undermining any attempt to distinguish between objective heteronomy and subjective autonomy” (Nihil Unbound, p. 247 n15).

The above quote has, for several weeks now, has plagued me and I do not believe simply because it is a serious challenge to transcendental Materialism – the philosophical doctrine to which I have been bound to for almost half a decade. The above is indicative of several issues in Speculative Realism that have been bothering me, particularly that of narrative and momentum.

In the above quote Brassier makes several assumptions:

1 – Brassier assumes that Zizek ontologizies the transcendental subject a la Kant and that a transcendental subject is necessary in order to retroactively assume/assert one’s freedom.

2 – Following the subject’s purported transcendentalism, that the subject chooses its objective status (and not its subjective status since, for Brassier, it must always already be transcendental) due to the fact that the absolutization of contingency nulls such a possibility. This is how Brassier concludes that all choice is arbitrary.

First let us engage the first point:

As is clear in his more recent works, Zizek’s use of the transcendental subject is an affirmative positioning and does not bear a necessarily ontological status. For instance, Zizek points out that the transcendental can be a useful political position such as when Mao, in response to the USA’s position of atomic weapons, quipped that it would make little difference to the universe if the entire Chinese race was wiped off the face of the planet. In a vein similar to Lacan’s use of the line from Jarry’s Ubu Roi that ‘Imagine there’s no Poland,’ the idea is that poles would exist even if Poland no longer did.
We might immediately assume that the above reeks of transcendental idealism, but does it necessarily? If the Real is that which guarantees the possibility of consistency, that is, it is that which forces all things to be self limiting to maintain their consistency, doesn’t this fall close to Meillassoux’s concept of factuality, the concept of unreason? The Real is, in essence, the consistency of the failure of things to corrupt one another completely – the guarantee that something, outside of difference, allows for difference as such.

Thus, just because the subject can place itself in a noetic position, does not mean that it is no longer an object. As Zizek argues apropos Daniel Dennet, the subject is caught in the very nexus of determinism. Now let us move on to the second point.

Brassier points out that Meillassoux’s principle of unreason negates the very concept of material determinism. But doesn’t this, as Nick points out, purport a rather odd conception of temporality? Doesn’t Brassier’s comment above collapse the thought that ‘things happened for a, or due to reason’ and ‘things happened the way they did because that is what happened?’ Both Brassier and Meillassoux seem to argue that, because anything can happen due to hyper chaos, then the way things did happen has no bearing on the present. Nick’s mention of Quantum Entanglement is very apt here as is Einstein’s response to it. Einstein referred to the theory as ‘spooky action at a distance’ which, to him, seemed to invalidate physics. Brassier and Meillassoux then are implicit proponents of the principle of locality, that only the present changes the present. But, as many experiments, though controversial, have shown, objects at a distance can and do affect one another. Taking a quantum reading of action at a distance into affect, one might be able to recapitulate Zizek’s forced choice.

Via experiments in quantum teleportation, it has been shown that entangled particles can have an immediate affect on one another but such an effect can only be registered after the experiment has taken place. The collision of these particles brings us to the famous Heisenberg principle and back to Meillassoux and Hume’s billiard balls. As Anton Zeilinger notes, information is smeared across the two particles making it unclear how the first was able to affect the second. Taking into account then that the transcendental position is just a position, if the force of the forced choice can be taken as material, not because of a complete determinism as Brassier suggests (although we may perceive it as such), but because of the speed of influence, because of the incompleteness of objects and that this incompleteness is spread from object to object. There is then, no ‘noumenal/subjective autonomy but only an unconsciousness registering of the collision, taking down on the ‘other scene’ of the brain. Zizek’s mistake then is in regards to the term reflection which, instead, should be articulated as a kind of registration.

The aforementioned Zeilinger has discussed ‘two freedoms’ due to the fact that the choice of instrument to locate the particle effects the result of the outcome but does not completely determine it (because of unpredictability – hyper chaos) hence the freedom of the researcher and that of nature. Zeilinger goes on, in terms similar to Meillassoux’s, to argue for things in and of themselves exist and we can only access them indirectly.  The instrumental arrestation of any particle is inaccurate because the measurement affects the outcome but this does not negate the impossibility of a perception-independent reality.

Have we then swung back to correlationism, that the existence of the in itself is, in fact, dependent on our observation? Clearly not – while our thoughts can reshape matter, it cannot disregard it, nor would the inexistence of our thoughts have any consequence on existence itself. For Meillassoux, our ability to think a time (and following Brassier a place) where there is no thought, is a uniquely human characteristic. But any sort of indirect thinking, that is having thought hypostasized in any way is automatically correlationist. Again, as Nick points out, Brassier’s reading of Deleuze slides between time being contracted by thought and time being reduced to a brute matter, a kind of Schellingesque unground – time as a pulsation of matter itself.

The unconscious disjunction between being and thinking disrupts our relation to time not in a way that we simply spatialize it, but in that we imperfectly experience it and register it in ways that are not chronological. Again, this does not mean that time is merely subjective but neither does it mean that we can have no relation to the past or to the future that is merely imaginary. Choice, then, cannot be reduced to mere compulsion as Brassier would have it – not because we can remove ourselves from the realm of objects affecting objects, but because there are non-local entities affecting our movement and our objective status. The unconscious is not purely noumenal in this sense but simply non-linear.

It would seem that a Speculative Realist theory of representation would have much to learn from psychoanalysis and that Manuel Delanda has much to say in regards to Meillassoux’s issues with the appearence of chaos.

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11 Responses to “Non-linearity and Momentum”

  1. 1 Nick

    The more I think about it in relation to my reply to your comment today, this quote seems suspicious:

    “The subject cannot ‘choose’ or determine its own objective determination when the contingency of all determination implies the equal arbitrariness of every choice, effectively erasing the distinction between forced and unforced choice.” (NU, 247n15)

    Specifically, it seems as though Brassier is re-introducing this idea of ‘equal arbitrariness’ that Meillassoux is trying to eliminate with his arguments against probabilistic reasoning. But I’m not sure if my point holds up or not… What’s the relation between arbitrariness and probability? Does the predicate ‘equal’ imply a notion of possibility? Or just an absence of reason?

  2. 2 naughtthought

    Ah, once again you articulate my own thoughts better than I!

    Taking arbitrary to mean without reason, it would seem that Brassier is saying that is impossible to distinguish between ‘I did that because of my choice’ and ‘I did that because that’s what happened.’ He is also saying, I think in argreement with Meillassoux, that anything can happen and therefore my choice didn’t matter but also, what happened was also not determined because it could have happened any other way.

    I think the error is when Brassier assumes that the subject retroactively injects a gap in material determinism. The subject is a material part of the causal chain and the forced choice is not ‘the material situation forced be to choose to love whom I love’ it is, ‘choose to love whom I love and realized it after the fact.’

    So the material conditions didn’t make it happen (I was forced to love one), nor did my thought completely dominate the material conditions (I chose to love one). The notion of forced choice, as I see it, does not, against Meillassoux assert a totality of universes nor does it say that what happened had to happen materially. The point is this: I have choosen to be determined to love one. Could this determination have never happened, absolutely, but does this determination, which is contingent because its temporally disjunct, mean that one’s love is arbitrary? I think the answer is it was arbitray but now is not – the past has been closed of possibilities – not of loving others but of not loving the one I have choosen (unconsciously).

    I think this is why momentum is important.

  3. 3 Jonas

    Hi, hope you don’t mind if I give some comments on this very interesting discussion. It’s good to see others engaging with the work of Brassier et.al.

    “Both Brassier and Meillassoux seem to argue that, because anything can happen due to hyper chaos, then the way things did happen has no bearing on the present.”
    Actually, I don’t think that this is correct. I seem to remember Meillassoux saying, in Collapse III, that he does not object to or deny laws. He has no problem affirming laws of nature, and their bearing on what happens, and thus the connection between cause and effect. It’s just that it’s a contingent connection, that’s all.

    I therefore fail to see how he, or Brassier for that matter, are “implicit proponents of the principle of locality”. At least for Meillassoux, that would be very strange, unless you are arguing that the principle of absolute contingency demands the principle of locality, in the same way that Meillassoux argues that it demands non-contradiction. But contingent action at a distance (just like contingent local action), how is that incompatible with absolute contingency? Perhaps I misunderstand what you are arguing here.

  4. 4 naughtthought

    Having now read Meillassoux, I would agree that he does not close the relation to the past but, at the time of writing this, I had only read After Finitude and, if he doesn’t deny such a connection, he at the very least obfuscates it. I just read “The Spectral Dilemma” today and am very interested in Meillassoux’s next text.

    I believe my critique of Brassier holds in regards to locality which is based on what I say above as well as the linked article from The Accursed Share. I think it is Brassier’s sundering of time and being (in a seemingly overly zealous way) that gets him into trouble regarding a relation to the past.

  5. 5 Jonas

    “I would agree that he does not close the relation to the past but, at the time of writing this, I had only read After Finitude and, if he doesn’t deny such a connection, he at the very least obfuscates it.”

    yeah I agree with this. In the transcript from the “Speculative Realism” seminar in Collapse III, it’s clear that Graham Harman saw him as asserting this as well, describing him as “the most extreme occasionalist ever” or something to that effect, because he thought that Meillassoux denied any sort of causal connection at all.

  6. 6 Nick

    “Could this determination have never happened, absolutely, but does this determination, which is contingent because it’s temporally disjunct, mean that one’s love is arbitrary? I think the answer is it was arbitrary but now is not – the past has been closed of possibilities – not of loving others but of not loving the one I have chosen (unconsciously).”

    Ya, I think this hits on a good point. To lay it out, Brassier argues that we can’t distinguish between objective determination (the material situation made me choose this way) and subjective determination (I chose this way), because of the absolute contingency of all causal connections. In a way (and I think you say this), he seems to suggest that Zizek believes in a deterministic world, with the subject being the moment of indeterminacy. But if everything is indeterminate (in the sense of there not being any causal necessity), then there’s no way to distinguish between material causes and subjective causes. The distinctiveness of the subjective freedom is lost.

    The key is though, that Zizek premises the distinction upon a retroactive recognition – when the absolute contingency has become the necessity of the past. In a sort of Deleuzian way, once the contingency of the dice roll has occurred, the necessity of the results take hold. I don’t know whether Brassier or Meillassoux would agree to that, but the role of the past (what I take you to be suggesting with ‘momentum’) certainly seems key here. Does contingency translate into necessity in the transition from the present to the past?

  7. 7 Nick

    haha, those damn smileys. that wasn’t meant to happen.

  8. 8 Haoma

    freedom is the subjective necessity of objective contingency…can a kind soul explain this with an example

    or…

    The Real is, in essence, the consistency of the failure of things to corrupt one another completely – the guarantee that something, outside of difference, allows for difference as such.

    I have not studied Lacan, deleuze or Kant …but can these sentences be applied to things in the front page news or some daily activity.

  9. 9 naughtthought

    Nick,

    That’s the question – how does the past becomes objectified/solidified or what have you, or does it? I think that the unconscious is key in maintaing some level of contingency because, without it, the past’s influence on the present would be completely dependent on our choice or on some other form of directed thought. I wander if Brassier might have an issue with the retroactive as such. I think there’s a lot that brain sciences could help us with here especially in regards to Benjamin Libet’s discovery that unconscious processes happen prior to acts we think causes such thoughts – basically that we are unconsciusly touched before we actually experience the physical touch. This process subjectively closes the gap between the stimulus and feeling the stimulus.

    I’m deep into Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics now and maybe, in the end, he can help?

  10. 10 Nick

    Haoma:
    Ben can correct me if I’m off, but I take your 1st quote to roughly mean that the subject retroactively reintegrates certain material determinants of its actions. We rely (“subjective necessity”) on something to occur (“objectively contingent”) that we can afterwards realize as our own choice. Love is the perfect example because we can’t choose who to love – or rather, we only realize that we’ve chosen to love someone after the fact. We retroactively realize that we’ve already chosen to love someone.

    I take the 2nd quote to be referring to a Lacanian concept of the Real. It’s unfortunately not really something that I could explain very quickly (I’d have to cover Kant, Hegel and then Lacan), but I’d recommend reading some of Naught Thought’s other stuff, where he makes use of the concept in a more concrete way. Or try reading stuff by Bruce Fink or Adrian Johnston if you’re really interested.

    Ben:
    I’ll continue the discussion onto your next post…


  1. 1 The Velvet Howler › Blog Archive › Correlationism

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