Before “Our” Time

Jonas raises some crucial questions concerning my reading of Meillassoux in my previous post. Now this reading is central to the theory of temporality I’ve been working on, based around a version of ancestrality that departs from Meillassoux’s conception, so these questions must be addressed carefully. Hopefully this will further clarify the temporal framework of my anontology.

Jonas says:

Do you consider the necessity of the past to be a thesis Meillassoux himself would defend, or is that your own extrapolation? See, I have not read him as being commited to anything like that. I read his “ancestral statements” as being connected to, 1) a critique of correlationism, 2) a hint concerning mathematics. As far as I have understood him, he is affirming (and the argumentation for this awaits his forthcoming work on mathematics as figures of absolute contingency, I guess) the necessity of the mathematics of ancestral stements, rather than their necessity as statements about the past.

I don’t know how Meillassoux would react to this point. I imagine he wouldn’t like it. But I intend it as a complication of his theory, not a straightforward extrapolation.

In any case, I don’t think it makes sense to separate the mathematicity of ancestral statements from their referentiality. Suffice it to quote Meillassoux:

[O]ur Cartesian physicist will maintain that those statements about the accretion of the earth which can be mathematically formulated designate actual properties of the event in question (such as its date, its duration, its extension), even when there was no observer present to experience it directly. In doing so, our physicist is defending a Cartesian thesis about matter, but not, it is important to note, a Pythagorean one: the claim is not that the being of accretion is inherently mathematical – that the numbers or equations deployed in the ancestral statements exist in themselves. For it would then be necessary to say that accretion is a reality every bit as ideal as that of number or of an equation. Generally speaking, statements are ideal insofar as their reality is one of signification. But their referents, for their part, are not necessarily ideal (the cat is on the mat is real, even though the statement ‘the cat is on the mat’ is ideal). In this particular instance it would be necessary to specify: the referents of the statements about dates, volumes, etc., existed 4.56 billion years ago as described by these statements – but not these statements themselves, which are contemporaneous with us. [After Finitude p 12]

So for Meillassoux, ancestral statements are unequivocally statements about the past. Now Jonas’s contention was a bit more nuanced – his point (as far as I can tell) being that these referents themselves are not necessary, but only the mathematicity of statements about them. I have two problems here. First off, I don’t understand how the mathematicity of an ancestral statement should be necessary if the primary qualities of anterior facts are not also necessary. This would seemingly lead us into the kind of Pythagorean idealism Meillassoux wants to avoid. Perhaps we will have to wait for Meillassoux’s coming elaboration of the place of mathematics, but I’m skeptical.

Secondly, we must remember that Meillassoux bases his discussion of ancestral statements on the crucial figure of the arche-fossil, as the inherence or intrusion of ancestral time into the present. Ancestral statements refer to a past anterior to givenness, but they are formulated on the basis of analysis of arche-fossils as wholly contemporary marks of an anterior given foreclosed to givenness.

In this light, I hope it’s a bit clearer why the ‘necessary past’ I’m talking about is not a chronological past that preceded the present in a linear fashion. The arche-fossil, when submitted to scientific analysis, yields data which – by virtue of mathematical necessity – bear witness to a foreclosed ancestral world, given without givenness. This data is inferred from the primary qualities of the artifact. Yet the ‘testimony’ in question, while pointing toward or referring to a pre-human past that chronologically precedes the present of investigation and lies before it in a linear time, is itself contained in the present moment as an intrinsic ‘primary’ property of the artifactual witness. This is true, again, by virtue of mathematical necessity.

So while the ancestral referent of the artifactual witness is projected into a linear time by, say, the scientist, the ancestral dimension – or what I’ve called the ‘necessary past’ – is not a linear precedent but a structural antecedent that is contained statically in the given present of investigation. The ancestral dimension or necessary past does not ‘lie before’ the present, but is wholly contained within it, structurally presupposed by it. While this may not have been clear in the previous post, my point is not that every prior moment of history is frozen as it was for eternity. Rather, my point is that any given or present(ed) moment contains its own past as structurally necessary.

So Meillassoux’s discussion of the arche-fossil as witness to ancestral anteriority can be generalized beyond the discussion of givenness in human cognition, such that every constituent of every present moment acts as a witness of that which is was given prior to the givenness of that present. Meillassoux himself provides several hints in this direction. Take, for example, footnote 12 to chapter 1:

Although it is essentially distinct from the objection from the un-witnessed, the argument from ancestrality is nevertheless closer to the objection which points out that the singular birth and death of consciousness implies a time which cannot itself be of the order of consciousness… [p 130]

Meillassoux goes on to cite the correlationist objection to this objection, and describes it as a ‘desperate sophism’ on which he doesn’t want to waste time. But the point is clear: the structure of ancestral anteriority applies not only to the whole of human history taken as a monolithic bloc, but also to each individual instance of human consciousness, in that the birth and death of concsiousness are presupposed by it as structural horizons. Furthermore, take his discussion of time from chapter 3:

This point [about the irrefutability of the principle of unreason] becomes readily understandable if we relate this capacity-to-be-other-without-reason to the idea of a time that would be capable of bringing forth or abolishing everything. This is a time that cannot be conceived as having emerged or as being abolished except in time, which is to say, in itself. No doubt this is a banal argument on the face of it: ‘it is impossible to think the disappearance of time unless this disappearance occurs in time; consequently, the latter must be conceived to be eternal.’ But what people fail to notice is that this banal argument can only work by presupposing a time that is not banal – not just a time whose capacity for destroying everything is a function of laws, but a time which is capable of the lawless destruction of every physical law. It is perfectly possible to conceive of a time determined by the governance of fixed laws disappearing in something other than itself – it would disappear in another time governed by alternative laws. But only the time that harbours the capacity to destroy every determinate reality, while obeying no determinate law – the time capable of destroying, without reason or law, both worlds and things – can be thought as an absolute. [p 61-2]

In other words, this sense of ancestrality or anteriority, the time of the birth of time (and also posteriority or inheritance as the time of the death of time) as structurally contained in the present goes not only for human history and for the time of an individual life, but even for the ‘life’ of a physically-coherent span of time.

Here we can put Jonas’s provactive, even frightening, question about instability of the past into perspective:

As far as my understanding of modern physics go, it seems that a change
in natural laws would certainly change the past as well as the future.

Even if this is the case, however, the anterior past of which I speak is not the kind of chronological past that would differ substantively if the laws of physics were to change. This is not a past that would appear differently once its former time disappears into an alternative time, a time governed by different laws. Nor is it simply the ‘atemporal’ eternity of temporal possibility to which we apply a selective linearizing schematism. It is neither non-linear nor eternal, but the static time foreclosed to temporal schemata, be they linear or not – a time that inheres negatively in every legally determined time. It is what Meillassoux refers to here as the ‘absolute time’, the absolute structure of anteriority inherent in every intra-legal temporal determination, whether this take the form of linear succession or a field of morphisms.

(via Perverse Egalitarianism)

If a chaotic change in the laws of physics were to yield a substantially different past, the structure of anteriority is nonetheless fixed, invariant, and necessary. Moreover, if contemporary physics does oblige us to abandon time as linear succession, this ‘atemporal’ field of possible moments itself still presupposes the fixation of physical laws that condition it or define it, and hence still presuppose an anterior giving of these laws that falls outside of their determination. It may be difficult to imagine anteriority deprived of the linear metaphor, but the former is certainly not exhausted by the latter. Rather, anteriority is the negative inherence of temporal schematization qua the erection of laws of temporal givenness or presentation.

The mathematical primary qualities of any given element of the present constitue the interiority of the presenting or giving operation that is foreclosed to the given as given. In this sense, it is akin to the withdrawn inner life of the object in Harman, and to the passage from inconsistent to consistent multiplicity via the count in Badiou. This interiority is formed by the static genesis of time in-place, as form-of-interiority or emergent individuation. It provides an answer to Meillassoux’ challenge to correlationism: “how to conceive a time in which the given as such passes from non-being into being?. Not a time which is given in a lacunary fashion, but a time wherein one passes from the lacuna of all givenness to the effectivity of a lacunary givenness.” [p 21]

So my reading of Meillassoux does not impose upon his theory of temporality an ‘intuitive directionality’ that it seeks to undermine. It rather finds a ‘static’ time presupposed by directional time as well as the ‘adirectional’ time of physics. This is the time in which hyper-Chaos is foreclosed in the constitution of contingent arrangements of laws and time, yet effectively inherent as the artifactual testimony intrinsic to individual objects.

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2 Responses to Before “Our” Time

  1. Jonas says:

    This is very interesting. I’ll have to think some more about it, I’ll have a more extensive comment when I have my books and some time.

    One initial thought:

    The way in which you complicate Meillassoux here raises the question of the relation of the arche-fossil to Meillassoux’ proof of absolute contingency.

    I’ve read the chapter on the arche-fossil as the “Prolegomena” part of Meillassoux’ system. A regressive argument going from the given statements of science and inquiring into the conditions for their meaning. It then turns out that the result of this is that we require a “critique of correlationist reason” (pardon the Kantian terminology here, I think there’s a point to it pertaining to the different levels Meillassoux operates on, but that would need to be developed)

    This critique of correlationist reason finds its ground on a principle from which the place of the arche-fossil is far from clear.
    The question might be something like this: Is the “givenness” of physical laws neccessary?
    You say: “anteriority is the negative inherence of temporal schematization qua the erection of laws of temporal givenness or presentation.” Now the problem I see is that this temporal schematization, this erection of laws of temporal givenness, is not neccessary, and thus anteriority conceptualized as the negative inherence of hyper-Chaos within this cannot be neccesary either. It seems a distinct possibility that hyper-Chaos could destroy every law of temporal givenness without erecting any new ones. Not just destroying particular laws of temporal schematization, but destroying temporal schematization tout court.

    Based on this I question the centrality of concepts like “anteriority” and “given without givenness” to Meillassoux’ account. I think I see them as functioning negatively, not in an absolute sense, but merely relative to our correlationist situation.

    • reidkane says:


      Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but it seems like you are claiming that it is not necessary that hyper-chaos (or absolute contingency) inhere in the ‘relative’ or ‘regional’ necessity of physical laws. Wouldn’t this be tantamount to claiming that absolute contingency is itself not necessary?

      In other words, the temporal schematization I’m talking about is the (already accomplished) passage from hyper-Chaos to contingent forms. This is not itself contingent, not as long as contingency is itself necessary, a necessary feature of all existent forms.

      I think the points about anteriority and given-without-givenness will become a bit clearer in my coming posts about non-philosophy.

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