I’ll be back to regular posting soon, including the Marx posts I’ve promised, but I’ve been very busy lately. In the mean time…
Nina Power posts some thoughts on the privileging of ontology in philosophy to the detriment of the thereby devalued ontic sphere, specifically that of politics. She questions, in a Badiouian vein, whether philosophy even has adequate resources to pursue ontology, to speak about ‘what is’, especially when compared with those of mathematics, and presumedly mathematicized natural sciences as well. What, then, is philosophy to do if it soberly renounces the delirious proliferation of ontologies, whose apparent yield amounts to little more than the denigration of being in its ‘impure’ local modalities?
Confronting ‘what is’ has to mean accepting a certain break between the natural and the artificial, even if this break is itself artificial. [...] What happens, or what does not happen, should be what concerns us
Far from explaining what basically ‘is’, philosophy amounts to an essential confrontation with what is (our confrontation), with the fact that it is, and a concern with the consequences of this ongoing confrontation. Far from any sort of correlationism, weak or strong, the key proposition here is not ‘to be is to be the correlate of thinking’, but rather, that ‘to think is to think under the condition of facticity’. (This is moreover quite amenable, if not identical, to Meillassoux’s escape act.)
This is the real value of Heidegger, for whom ontology is nothing but the hermeneutics of facticity, of the fact of being here in the world, in our very essence inseparable from our confrontation with mere ontic things, mere beings. There is no sense in which we can talk about ‘being’ itself apart from this confrontation, and the manner in which being is fundamentally concealed in that which is disclosed. For Heidegger, ontology speaks of nothing but the insurmountable immersion in the ontic – and in this regard his work has far more political and ethical value, be it implicit, than either he or his followers would care to admit. Agamben is exemplary in indicating this value.
In the above quotation, Nina uses a strange phrase – a break between natural and artificial that is itself artificial. This break is, of course, the fundamental problem for Marx, as manifest in the break between ‘natural’ use-value and ‘artificial’ exchange value, a break itself artificially imposed by the form of value. Yet Marx is not so naive as to think that simply recognizing this artificiality is sufficient for disregarding it. As Nina says, we must, as philosophers, accept this break. It’s an impotent gesture to reject admission of the ‘artifices’ of being (political being, for instance) into philosophy, instead allowing passage only to the ‘nature’ of being itself, deprived of such divisive determinations. If the difference between nature and artifice is itself artifice, then it seems in vain to probe into uncontaminated nature, which itself exists in its distinction only on behalf of artifice, and as itself artifice. Does this lead us inevitably toward some sort of social constructivism?
No, because the nature/artifice distinction does not coincide with that of nature/culture, despite appearances. Nature does not mean ‘that which occurs without dependence on humanity’, nor does artifice mean the ‘that which is dependent on humanity for its occurrence’. (I’m taking some liberty with Nina’s statement, possibly extending it beyond her intentions.) Nature, rather, means necessary or of necessity, whereas artificial means unnecessary or contingent. The ‘nature of being’ speaks of what is necessary or essential in being, whereas ontical artifices could either be or not, without affecting being itself. Nina’s comment, and its Marxian echoes, suggests on the contrary that the ‘natural’ in this regard is itself the result of a process of naturalization, of a ‘treating as natural’, and hence is artificial. The implication is that we cannot say anything about the nature of being, anything that holds necessarily about being, anything that is fundamentally prescribed by being itself. The ground of any such prescription is itself artificially supposed.
The problem for a position willing to admit the artificiality of the difference between nature and artifice is its inability to prescribe itself. It cannot ground this claim in the nature of being, nor can it accept the prescriptive valence of any such claim proceeding from nature in this way. In beginning from the artificiality or contingency of every alleged necessity, it seemingly deprives itself of any justification of this very claim as itself necessary. Here we should turn to Meillassoux, who provides a way out of this deadlock. Beforehand, however, a point of clarification regarding the natural/artificial distinction: I said above that artificiality is equivalent to contingency. Now artifice is typically taken to refer to the man-made, the product of human labor and imagination. More generally, it is semantically quite close, if not etymologically related to facticius, the Latin root from which ‘facticity’ is derived. (I suspect a relation, on the basis of the Latin root fictus; the precise relation to factus is still obscure for me, but I know the latter has the sense of made, molded, etc, whereas the former has the sense of forged, counterfeited, etc; their proximity is clear, and not so easily reduced to the difference between fact and fiction.)
Heidegger’s concept of facticity draws upon Augustine’s use of facticius, which designates the status of man as ‘made’ by God, and which is opposed to nativus. Agamben on this distinction:
In Latin, facticius is opposed to nativus; it means qui non sponte fit, what is not natural, what did not come into Being by itself (“what is made by hand and not by nature,” as one finds in the dictionaries). [from "The Passion of Facticity"]
Nature is that which has its source and reason in itself, whereas in the facticius source and reason – or ground – is outside. Now I’d have to go back to Augustine to know for sure how this disjunction complicates God’s relation to Nature, but holding off on this point, we can see how the man-made does not have its reason in itself, or does not arise spontaneously. This much is obvious. Yet the important point is that, having its reason in man, the man-made or artifice did not arise of necessity, as its origin was dependent on the contingent whim of man (and the same could be said of man vis-a-vis God). Man did not necessarily have to make this thing, or make it in this way. The important point here, far from dependency on man for origination, is the sense in which there is no intrinsic reason in the thing itself why it should be, or be this way. Artificiality is equivalent to contingency, then, in the sense in which things are void of reason for being what they are, lacking necessity in themselves, being grounded on something else. A natural being, on the contrary, is necessarily what it is insofar that it is, in that its very being is its reason for being what it is – it is its own ground.
Yet aren’t we drawing dangerously close to correlationism? If the distinction between nature and artifice is itself artificial, doesn’t this mean that everything is grounded upon man? This confusion, however, misses the point: contingency is not a matter of dependence upon something else, such as man, but rather, of a lack of intrinsic reason. Man-made things may depend upon man for their ground, but man is no more self-grounding, he is himself contingent and groundless in himself. Meillassoux’s innovation in this regard rests in transforming the epistemological problem of discovering the (external, natural) ground of a factual thing, into the ontological maneuver of treating contingency itself as the only ground. Hence, the lack of reason intrinsic in any thing is converted into unreason itself as ground. The purely contingent and ungroundable fact that something is – the facticity of the thing – is not only an unsurpassable epistemological obstacle, but the ultimate ontological condition, the in-itself itself. To avoid confusion, it’s important to realize that facticity is a matter of reasons, not causes. The argument is not that things are uncaused or arise spontaneously without any possibility of explanation. It is not a question of how the thing came to be, but why it should be, rather than not, or rather than otherwise. Thus, Meillassoux does not simply collapse nature into artifice or vice versa; he does not simply say that everything is by nature contingent, constructed, etc, thereby leveling the distinction between ground and grounded in the name of a univocal plane. The distinction between ground and grounded, nature and artifice, is preserved, with the simple adjustment of emptying the former of any content – the ground is not some metaphysical thing (God, Nature, World, etc), but rather only groundlessness or facticity itself.
This last point might seem like splitting hairs, until we take account of the political consequences. The univocal leveling operation, in which contingency is naturalized, will thereby imbue every contingent thing with intrinsic self-grounded reason, thereby cutting off every actual instance as in-itself eternal and necessary (Latour is paradigmatic here). The artificial gap between nature and artifice is refused, and as a consequence, there is no justification for claiming things should not be thus – on the contrary, for Latour, things must be thus, insofar as they are. Rather than devaluing the ontic in the name of the ontological, this gesture assimilates the ontic into the ontological, and thereby imbues everything with the intrinsic self-grounding reason of being itself. (I think Harman’s corrective reading of Latour is important in this regard, in his insistence that the ground is not reducible to what it grounds.) Meillassoux, on the contrary, maintains the gap, accepts it as such, if only to empty nature itself of any reason. The ontological, far from being the ‘deeper reason’ of ontic things, is their very reasonlessness as such, taken as a positive condition for being. Whereas the Latourian move suggests things are always already what they should be (at least in their very instantaneous actuality, given that temporal endurance has no sense for him); and the ‘traditional’ ontological move condemned by Nina suggests the way things are is at best a matter of indifference, in that their being is irreducible to their manner of being, or at worst to be evaluated on the basis of the intrinsic tendency of being itself, and hence their conformity with their ground (this is where one ‘reads politics off of ontology’, in the most vulgar sense); Meillassoux’s gesture allows us to claim there is no reason things should be the way they are, without permitting either indifference or ‘natural’ standards of evaluation.
In this regard, Meillassoux’s formal evacuation of ontology, reducing it to the pure form of factical confrontation, opens the space for genuine political contestation. The critique of Meillassoux’s project as politically ambivalent, or at least underdetermined, is therefore desperately wrongheaded. Only a position like Meillassoux’s (and in different ways, this is also true of Heidegger, Badiou, and Brassier, amongst others), in which being simply is our confrontation with ungrounded facticity, gives politics a space between indifference devaluation and technocratic dogmatism, a space in which no decision or commitment is guaranteed, but in which we nonetheless must decide. On this ontological basis alone can we achieve, in Nina’s words, “a historical materialism…that is able to conceive of politics from the standpoint of catastrophe but carries on anyway“. This is precisely how we should understand Heidegger’s concept of resoluteness.
Here I have to disagree with Nick, who claims that “The positive political outcome of speculative realism, then, is to refuse the move of deriving politics from philosophy – and to restore politics to its own relative autonomy.” While I don’t think we should simply derive our political commitments from some alleged tendency inherent to being itself, I think the total separation of the two is mistaken, especially given the conviction that (philosophical) ontology is nothing apart from the pure meaningless confrontation with facticity. It is only on the basis of accepting the groundlessness or reasonlessness of facticity itself that we can derive a politics that does not ‘depoliticize’ itself, or that respects the political proper – not in the Schmittian sense of the friend/enemy distinction, but in the more fundamental sense of the vertiginous situation of undecidability, in which we must act without any guarantee, and hence must commit ourselves to something resolutely, without reason. It is only on the basis of such a groundless decision (which in Schmitt is relegated to the sovereign exception) that something like a friend/enemy distinction can even be intelligible. To respect this groundless condition of action, which is the political tout court, one would require a politics that refuses to naturalize itself, that refuses to resort to the fantasmatic necessity of its own decision. This is the fundamental difference between Left and Right, as Zizek often affirms. The fundamental character of political conviction, if not the content of the positions it endorses, is very definitely derived from one’s ontological prerogative – grounding or ungrounding. Ontology is therefore very directly political, although not in the trivial sense of ‘committed to this or that party or group or cause’…Here is where I think the sort of ‘political critique of philosophy’, advocated by Benjamin Noys, becomes absolutely essential.
So while I understand where Nick is coming from, I think his conflation of the content of political positions with politics as such leads to a fatal misrepresentation of the political itself, which is a matter of the groundlessness or groundedness of prescription, and consequently, either resoluteness or disavowal in the face of facticity. Here, John Effay’s response to Nick is exemplary: “It is impossible to refuse such a move [of deriving politics from philosophy] because philosophy is founded upon the break between the natural and artificial which is politics. The one presupposes the other”. The break between nature and artifice is the very space of the political, insofar as the search for any ground of (artificial) prescription terminates in either the bleak confrontation with groundlessness, or the deluded certainty of a fantasized ground which thereby closes the gap. Philosophy is the very confrontation with this break, as manifest in the absence of apparent reason in things themselves. Either we attempt to circumvent this absence by positing some ground beneath it, from which political prescriptions can be cleanly deduced, or we transform that absence into the only positive condition, through resoluteness. Only the latter option does justice to the unshakable primacy of the gap itself. Again, to quote John’s post:
Politics, in the broadest possible sense, is this break. It is via our practices and thought as social beings that we situate ourselves with regard to everything else. This is why Deleuze and Guattari say that ‘politics precedes being’. Inasmuch as we think and do things, we are unavoidably political. This is not some sort of claim that politics constitutes the real; rather that our access to the real is mediated via politics.
To repeat the claim from above, this access does not reduce the real to a correlate, but rather situates thinking under the aegis of facticity as its ultimate condition. Resoluteness in the face of factical contingency, conviction without guarantee – this is what it means to be a Leftist.