Realism, contingency, and the powers of nature

Quentin Meillassoux has set two requirements for realist philosophy: the rationalist requirement and the materialist requirement (Brassier, pp. 49-50). The former requires “that reality be perfectly amenable to conceptual comprehension”, while the latter requires “that being, though perfectly intelligible, remain irreducible to thought”. For a realist, conceptual thought cannot be essentially relative (to a transcendental subject, to a form of life, etc.); it must be possible for it to be absolute. But at the same time, thought must not be necessary to the being of the world; a world devoid of intelligent life, and therefore of thought, is perfectly comprehensible: thought is contingent. I will hereafter refer to these requirements as the absoluteness and contingency requirements, respectively, since the terms ‘rationalist’ and ‘materialist’ have a number of other meanings irrelevant to the subject.

Meillassoux offers the “principle of factuality”, or the necessity of contingency (Meillassoux p. 120) as a foundation for a form of realism that meets these two requirements. He starts from the principle of the contingency of thought (and everything else), then argues that this principle is itself absolute (Meillassoux pp. 90-98); he then hopes to derive from this absolute principle other propositions concerning the nature of the in-itself (pp. 100 ff.). There are several reasons to be dissatisfied with this strategy, but the most important is its sterility: Meillassoux is not able to derive the possibility of an absolute scientific thought (i.e. the discovery of “arche-fossils”, phenomena that pre-date the existence of thought) from the principle of factuality as he had set out to do, and can only offer the hope that someone will be able to do so (p. 187).

There is another possible strategy that Meillassoux mentions, but drops after only a cursory examination (pp. 93-94). He identifies an “intimate seam in the correlational circle”: the fact that only one of the two constitutive principles of the circle can be “de-absolutized” at a time. If we oppose absolute idealism by insisting on the facticity of the shared structure of thought and the world, we thereby rely on the absoluteness of the principle of facticity; this is Meillassoux’s strategy. Conversely, if we oppose Meillassoux’s speculative materialism by denying the absoluteness of the principle of factuality, we thereby rely on the absoluteness of the correlate. Meillassoux dismisses this second option on the grounds that it makes a certain being or type of being (eg. “Spirit, Will, Life”) necessary. Absolute idealism cannot coherently think, for example, the mortality of the subject, because it makes the subject necessary to the existence of the world. (Indeed, Fichte argues that the impossibility for the I of abstracting from itself demonstrates its immortality.) But Meillassoux does not consider the possibility that his strategy, described in the previous paragraph, can be reversed by absolute idealism: to start from a principle of the absoluteness of thought, and derive its contingency from its absoluteness.

The details of this derivation are not entirely clear to me yet but it will involve three currents of thought in analytical philosophy:

  1. scientific realism, including its development into Ladyman and Ross’s ontic structural realism, and the Churchlands’ eliminative materialism. I feel that the combination of these two developments results in something like Andy Clark’s active externalism;
  2. scientific essentialism, and in particular the metaphysics of powers developed primarily by Mumford and Molnar;
  3. analytical idealism, or the appropriation of German Idealism by analytical philosophers like McDowell and Brandom.

As in absolute idealism, rather than starting from the subject and asking how it can acquire knowledge of the object, we start from knowledge, and derive an understanding of the subject and object. A very rough outline of the strategy:

  1. If we can know the world in-itelf, then it must be composed of pure modal structure (power);
  2. if we can know knowledge in-itself (and not just the appearance of knowledge, knowledge-for-us, ie. normativity), then knowledge must also be a modal structure (a power);
  3. yet if there is nothing but powers, then there must either be an ungrounded power or an infinite regress of grounds which is itself ungrounded — in either case, “reasons come to an end”.
  4. so if knowledge is a power (2) and powers are essentially contingent (3) then knowledge is contingent.

I’m quite aware of how unsatisfactory the argument is in this form and I hope to flesh out each of the stages in a way using the three traditions in analytical philosophy mentioned above.

I also hope that this project will shed some light on Deleuze. Peter Wolfendale has pointed out the importance of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) to Deleuze’s thought (here and here) and I think this shows how we can understand Deleuze better by opposing him to Meillassoux. The promised third part of Wolfendale’s study has never appear though, so the difficult reconciliation of Deleuze’s affirmation of chance and chaos on the one hand, with his acceptance of the PSR, on the other, is left unfinished. I think it will be possible to interpret Deleuze as pursuing the strategy I described above of deriving the contingency of thought from its absoluteness.


Brassier, Ray “The enigma of realism”, Collapse III

Meillassoux, Quentin Après la finitude (my translations)

Central Industrial – Tuned To A Dead Channel (AUXCD006)


This album came out a few months ago but I only just got around to listening to it. The sci-fi soundtrack music that Auxiliary has been pushing over the past few years is one of the more interesting trends in electronic music today.

From the liner notes:

Central Industrial is the anonymous alias for a couple of well established producers. The project was born from their love of 90’s IDM and Electronica on such labels as Warp, CCO, Morr Music etc. and a general love for all things science fiction. There is an underlying ‘cyberpunk’ theme to the LP, inspired in part by William Gibson’s Neuromancer and titles such as Ghost In The Shell . The title itself comes from the opening paragraph of Neuromancer! On whole, the LP plays through in a seamlessly dark fashion and ignores all rules and restrictions placed upon music by genres and name tags.

If you are looking for something completely different to sink your teeth into this summer, then this might be that LP to make your jaw drop.

Mid-Term Examination (EDM January – June 2013)

Since half the year has gone by I figured I should do a bit of a review of my favourite EDM releases of the past six months. I’m not going to try to pick the best of each category; I’ll just list a few things that I liked.

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Cognitive economy and the production of stupidity

Peter Wolfendale has posted a “short” piece on his new blog Dialectical Insurgency (his short pieces are longer than most bloggers’ long ones) on cognitive economics and stress. The tumblr format unfortunately doesn’t allow comments so I thought I’d make a couple here.

1. I think the concept of ‘cognitive economy’ can help to explain Deleuze and Guattari’s remarks in Anti-Oedipus about capitalism producing “flows of stupidity”. It doesn’t just mean that capitalism produces stupid products or products that appeal to people’s stupidity, it means that it produces “cognitive noise” that makes it harder to make intelligent decisions.

2. I think it’s also relevant to the future of science. Scientists are increasingly being evaluated based on citation indices and patents produced by their research rather than on anything like the scientific value of their work. Science in the 20th century was on the whole characterized by a high degree of cognitive freedom which allowed scientists to pursue a variety of lines of research — just think of Barbara McClintock working in her cornfields for 40 years — but this freedom may be disappearing. Scientists will be under the same stress to produce “results” as other knowledge workers and will increasingly favour research that will produce publishable data, no matter how trivial or boring, over riskier fields that may provide new understanding but may also be dead ends. As Isabelle Stengers points out somewhere, already today, in fields like biotechnology it’s more important to have “promising” research that attracts investors than to actually create knowledge. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, spend a large portion of their “research” budgets on producing variations on existing drugs that will be covered by new patents (“line extensions”) or on new conditions that old drugs can be prescribed for (“drug repositioning”), rather than on developing new drugs that solve new medical problems. (See the National Institute of Health Care Management report here; apparently 65% of the drug applications reviewed by the FDA between 1989 and 2000 were for drugs containing the same active ingredient as drugs already on the market.) Scott Bakker has presented a distopian future in which neuroscience has run amok, with powerful corporations and secret government agencies controlling our brains. This is an important possibility to bear in mind, but I think a more likely future under capitalism is simply that science as we knew it in the 20th century will go extinct. There will still be research but it will simply be a form of marketing. The prospect of extinction is why I feel that science must be one of the primary sites of the “major form of resistance” that Wolfendale recommends: “the pursuit of cognitive liberation through progressive collectivisation”.

Best EDM of 2012

The results of the annual Dubstep Forum awards for 2012 have finally been announced,  so it seems like a good time for me to give my picks (only 1/6 of the way into 2013!). I can’t say I’m too satsified with the way it turned out. Most of my nominees didn’t even make the final ballot. A lot of the winners are overhyped in my opinion, and  a lot of worthy candidates were overlooked. I’ll skip over categories that I don’t have a strong opinion on.

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Joe Muggs Interview with Coki

Joe Muggs Interview with Coki

This interview is from a week ago, but I haven’t gotten around to posting about it till now. For those who don’t know, Coki is one of the members of Digital Mystikz and DMZ and one of the founders of dubstep. He’s become known since 2007 or so for crazy “wobbler” tracks built around midrange-heavy basslines that use an LFO (low-frequency oscillator) to produce a “wobble” sound. The result is something I’ve heard described as aliens communicating with each other between galaxies, or as “scrambled eggs”.

A couple of examples:

And probably my favourite Coki wobbler, “Marduk” with its absurd  ADHD bassline and cheesy sci-fi bleeps and bloops:

My favourite Coki track is not a wobbler at all though: his bootleg of Richie Spice’s “Burnin”. This is just a badboy tune.

There are couple of quotes in the interview that relate to something that interests me a lot: the motif of the inhuman in electronic dance music (EDM).

…since “Goblin” I’ve tried to do something that’s a bit more mental, that makes musical sense but doesn’t at the same time. Like, 2008, I thought, I don’t want to make something that’s so catchy that people can hum it! [laughs]


No not escape, the truth is I just didn’t want to make catchy stuff any more! If it’s catchy people are going to pick it up, it’s hooky, it becomes popular because people can say to each other “ah have you heard that one that goes like this,” “ah yeah I know that one,” or if they haven’t heard it, when they do they’ll go “aaaaah it’s that one my mate was talking about.” But the kind of tunes I’m making now, they’re mental, you’re not going to be able to explain that to no-one! Soundwise you can’t do it with your mouth, I mean – you just can’t sing it. You might be able to describe it, of course, but that’s different, the person doesn’t catch on the same as if you can just sing the hook.

I’ve always felt that electronic music has to be in some sense inhuman: if you’re going to use all samples of “real” instruments, you might as well just play in a band. This is why I don’t find Mala (Coki’s partner in Digital Mystikz) as conceptually interesting as Coki and some of the more extreme forms of dubstep, even though he produced some of my favourite dubstep tracks, like “Give Jah Glory” and “Ancient Memories”.

Over the past few years I’ve been listening almost exclusively to EDM. It’s not that I don’t like a lot of traditional playing-instruments-and-singing music, but it feels somehow outdated. Not just that EDM uses technology in a way that more traditional music doesn’t, but a lot of this music feels to me like it’s only conceptually possible today, and somehow captures something about the world that more traditional music misses. What exactly it is that EDM can capture is something I’d like to be able to state more precisely, and something I’m working on at the moment.