Meillassoux: Divine Inexistence

This is the reading for Saturday, May 27th.  You can get all the details at our page.

Imagine rolling dice and coming up with six.  Some might say this outcome was determined, and others might insist it was pure chance, and still others might say it was a mix of the two.  What they would agree on is that the faces of the dice had the appropriate numbers which could have produced a six—and importantly, this means that chance requires a set of pre-existing possibilities to work on.  We can think of any situation this way, as the actualization of pre-existing possibilities, governed by laws, chance, or a mix of the two.

Quentin Meillassoux’s work is dedicated to working out a single core idea: that the absolute truth of all existence is contingency.  Every single thing can exist, not exist, or exist differently.  What this means for our dice is that the ratio of chance and determinism governing their tumbling can be sidestepped entirely: Meillassoux’s thesis is the the faces of the dice can change, and can change for no reason, and importantly, it means this process does not answer to any possible account of probability.  Entirely new sets of possibilities can appear in the world, possibilities that had absolutely no antecedent.  He quite literally believes anything is possible.

His term for the appearance of new possibilities, or new dice, is the advent ex nihilo of a new world because they emerge from nothing and for no reason.  He says there have been three new worlds: the emergence of matter, the emergence of life, and the emergence of thought.  Life appeared in the context of matter, and thought appeared in the context of life.  Divine Inexistence is about the possibility of a fourth advent ex nihilo in the context of thought: the world of justice, a world of resurrected humans.  The goal is the final vanquishing of the division between being and value, otherwise known as the famous is/ought distinction.

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Suggested Readings

June 10 – Mill – On Liberty

The classic 19th century defence of free speech.

June 24 – Berlin – Two Concepts of Liberty

Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive freedoms: freedom from and freedom to.

July 8 – Strawson – Freedom and Resentment

An incredibly influential theory about compatibilism and moral responsibility.

August 12 – Arendt – What is Freedom?

Hannah Arendt argues that freedom is primarily about action in the public square.

August 26 – Rothbard – For a New Liberty

The right-libertarian manifesto.

Sept 2 – Friedman – Freedom and Capitalism

Milton Friedman argues that free markets and free political systems go hand in hand.

Sept 16 – Graeber – Possibilities (Maybe)

An anarchist anthropologist discusses capitalism, slavery, and democracy.

Sept 30 – Pippin – Hegel’s Practical Philosophy

Robert Pippin argues that Hegel’s idea of freedom is a historical compatibilism.

Oct 14 – Pippin – Hegel’s Practical Philosophy

Oct 28 – Pippin – Hegel’s Practical Philosophy

Nov 11 – Parijs – Real Freedom for All

A left-libertarian account of material freedom.  This was influential for one of our previous readings, Inventing the Future.

Nov 25 – Parijs – Real Freedom for All

Dec 9 – Parijs – Real Freedom for All

Jameson – An American Utopia

This is the reading for our March 18th meeting.  Visit us at for the location and details.

There have been very few utopian ideas over the last few decades; most of our cultural production goes toward imagining dystopias.  Some of the reasons for this are internal to leftist thought.  In the 1950s, when leftists thought about power, they imagined pre-agricultural societies without power.  This eventually morphed into a thinking of power’s origin.  Factors such as the work of Foucault and the “revelations” of the gulags, turned thought about power into a near paranoia concerning collective action and practical politics.  This is the context that Jameson is writing An American Utopia in, and it straddles the line between a political program and a utopian vision; this summary leans heavily on the utopian side.

Jameson thinks that utopian visions contribute to discursive struggle, “the process whereby slogans, concepts, stereotypes, and accepted wisdoms did battle among each other for. . . hegemony.”  It is the attempt to delegitimate the slogans of the other side, as Thatcher and Reagan managed to do with nationalization.  The strongest evidence that Thatcher and Reagan won is that so few people today can imagine an alternative to the market. Liberal parties are good for keeping repressed ideas in circulation, by “talking socialism.” Words that we need to discursively struggle over are words like austerity, which has a whole neoliberal framework behind it, or debt, which functioned as an empty signified for Occupy Wall Street.  We need to rehabilitate ideas of collectivity and even bureaucracy against “big government”.  

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The Situation is Excellent

Another world is possible, anything can happen.  I have never been clear on what leftist sloganeers mean here.  Are these phrases meant to be taken as a regulative ideal, something to only hope for, things to be believed in without actually expecting them to be realized in any significant worldly way?  Or are they meant to be literally true, that the world can be completely changed?

Now we’ve been given evidence that these maxims are literally true; even the Trump campaign and its supporters seemed surprised by their victory. We have also been given a sharp reminder that “anything” can include a slide into the abyss.  We can either fall into despair over this realization, or we can be emboldened by it.

To think that Trump’s election has sealed the fate of American democracy is madness; this worry depends upon the belief that the future is necessarily tied to what we can see in the present.  It is the same kind of thinking that blinded all of us, possibly even Trump himself, to the possibility of a Trump victory.  We do not know what will happen.  His victory could be a step on the road to a farcical, cheeto-faced return of fascism, but it could be a step on the road to a brighter future.  

Let’s acknowledge the dangers first and go back to Richard Rorty in 1998:

“Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. . . .

“One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

How much of this is coming to fruition?  Is it possible that Trump’s movement threatens to overturn constitutional government?  In any other situation, the claim would be absurd.  The American-backed global establishment is one of the most stable and powerful network of institutions the world has ever seen.  Consider the fact that this network is capable of fielding multiple nuclear aircraft carriers: the level of cooperation between interests and long-term expropriation of resources required to do this is historically unprecedented and implies an unprecedented level of stability. This has largely included stable constitutional governments (we do not know if Pinochet and present-day China are quirks of history, or images of the future). Anything can happen.  Another world is possible.  We have to accept that constitutional government may in fact be in play, for good or for ill.  

By any standard metric, Rorty’s final paragraph is much more likely.  We have to face the fact that the alt-right actually is a thing.  The broad leftist coalition that has made so many cultural gains, the most obvious being support for gay marriage, may not be as stable as we thought.  Social conservatives in North America have always had to deal with a split within their ranks: there are average, everyday conservatives that are just as horrified by the n-word as the rest of us, and then there are the conservatives that resent not being able to use words like faggot and nigger.  Is this split being healed?  And if that split is healed, will the liberal inertia be arrested, or even turned back?  Anything is possible.

There are some favourable possibilities that are closer to hand than others.  Primarily, there is Trump’s promise to battle globalized free trade and bring manufacturing jobs back to America.  There are two sides to this, broadly.  

A) We all know the devastating effects of globalized free trade: millions living in shanty towns, mass migration, imperial wars.  Even if we accept the economic rationale behind capitalized open borders (free flow of capital, but not labor), that it will ultimately create more jobs and contain China, we still must take responsibility for its immediate effects and decide if it is worth it.  Some people have clearly already made this choice, and the only people offering it were Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.  

 We should not underestimate the dangers of this revolt against capitalized open borders in favour of protectionist isolationism.  First, it may cripple western constitutional governments from being able to oppose the rise of the authoritarian influences of Russia and China.  Second, it is a right-wing, self-serving, inward-looking revolt (Which may ultimately may come to nothing.  Brexit may be blocked by the legislature, and Trump may discover that NAFTA cannot be erased through executive order).   While the current situation restricts the movement of labour, it is open to the movement of refugees, those masses who have lost the right to have rights.

But anything can happen.  A more isolationist policy for western countries may stymie the march towards capitalized open borders (free flow of capital, but not people).  We may witness the resurgence and consolidation of local economies, which could allow for developing countries to get out from under the heel of the WTO, the IMF, and the harsher elements of the EU.

B) The second side is the apparent impossibility of returning manufacturing jobs to post-industrial nations.  The coming reign of automation militates against this; if tariffs manage to force companies to return to America, then the next obvious step is complete automation of those factories.  Nothing will be gained except the consolidation of a group of yet another group of people who have all the proof they need that there is no place for them in the world.  

The left needs to be ready for both sides, and it will require a mix of local and scalable, institutional-level responses.  In order to build this response, in order to fully acknowledge that we now know anything is possible, the left needs to accept a kernel of a-historical thinking.  The history of an object is not an absolute guide to its present, and its present is not an absolute guide to its future.  There is always an a-historical kernel of possibility in every situation.  Many already accept this, to some degree – but somehow, it does not guard against accepting Trump related despair.  The same contingency that works against us can work for us; it is simply the blind, unguided contingency of all things.  I do not say this to suggest that only a contingent god can save us; we ought to have done with that despairing finitude.  The world is not a series of stages that inevitably follow from one another, to be broken only by some “outside.”  As Hegel tells us, not even the natural world does this: “The old saying, or so-called law, [Nature does not leap], is altogether inadequate to the diremption of the Notion.  The continuity of the Notion with itself is of an entirely different character.”  (Philosophy of Nature, 22)  The Notion, that bundle of relations between universals and particulars, is not a robotic march of history.

Now is the time to dream, to stop worrying about what is “possible.”  We need to imagine a world in which stable local economies interact with a multitude of other stable local economies: a global economy regulated not by corporations but by the people.  A world in which actual human beings take responsibility for the workings of the apparently invincible networks we all find ourselves thrown into.  A world in which the experimentation with authoritarian capitalism is arrested.  

Max Horkheimer’s “The Social Role of Philosophy” concludes with this paragraph:

“We cannot say that, in the history of philosophy, the thinkers who had the most progressive effect were those who found most to criticize or who were always on hand with so-called practical programs. Things are not that simple. A philosophical doctrine has many sides, and each side may have the most diverse historical effects. Only in exceptional historical periods, such as the French Enlightenment, does philosophy itself become politics. In that period, the word philosophy did not call to mind logic and epistemology so much as attacks on the Church hierarchy and on an inhuman judicial system. The removal of certain preconceptions was virtually equivalent to opening the gates of the new world. Tradition and faith were two of the most powerful bulwarks of the old regime, and the philosophical attacks constituted an immediate historical action. Today, however, it is not a matter of eliminating a creed, for in the totalitarian states, where the noisiest appeal is made to heroism and a lofty Weltanschauung, neither faith nor Weltanshauung rule, but only dull indifference and the apathy of the individual towards destiny and to what comes from above. Today our task is rather to ensure that, in the future, the capacity for theory and for action which derives from theory will never again disappear, even in some coming period of peace when the daily routine may tend to allow the whole problem to be forgotten once more. Our task is continually to struggle, lest mankind become completely disheartened by the frightful happenings of the present, lest man’s belief in a worthy, peaceful and happy direction of society perish from the earth.”

I think it is clear that in our world, the “dull indifference and the apathy of the individual towards destiny and to what comes from above” has become, or at least threatens to become, a creed.  The turnout to the American election was dismal; the campaign against Brexit was anemic.  Anarchists such as Simon Critchley think all we can do is slip into the interstices of the state; non-anarchist leftists have retreated into a “survival until revolution” ethos, and the right can only await a strong man to save them.  We have not even risen to the level of having “so-called practical programs,” because all we can offer is a mixture of moral hectoring and localized stop-gap measures.  But: another world is possible, anything can happen.  The world can leap.  The frightful happenings of the present do not tell us what the future is.

Homo Sacer, P3: §6-7

Here is the reading for Saturday, August 13th’s meeting.  We will meet at 4:30 here, and there is a printable copy here.

In the previous passage, Agamben used examples of sinister medical experiments, such as blacks being infected with malaria in the U.S., to argue that doctors and scientists now wield a measure of sovereignty.  Remember that sovereignty is the capacity to decide who is killable.  In  section 6, Agamben explains how the line between life and death has become an increasingly political issue, as opposed to simply scientific or empirical.  

Section 7 is the last piece of the puzzle.  The first point is that sovereign power, the fundamental form of political power, is based on the capacity to decide, in exceptional cases, who is killable.  The second point is that the nation state has always been built on a connection between birth, land, and law.  The camp, as it developed over the last century, is the new fourth piece.  It is a space in which the exception is the new normal.  In our time, the key political issue which fundamentally divides people is no longer where one was born, or the territory a state holds, or the particular legal system of a given state. Now, the fundamental issue is who is inside a camp, and who is outside: and what’s more, everyone has the virtual capacity to be placed inside a camp.

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Homo Sacer, Part 3: §1-5

This is the reading for Saturday, July 30.  We will meet at 4:30 here, and there is a printable copy here.

In parts one and two, we saw Agamben’s argument that sovereign power is founded on a relation of ban, rather than something like a social contract.  The foundation of sovereign power is the capacity to decide who is outside politics, and therefore killable: the homo sacer.  

Part three applies this framework to the twentieth century, examining both totalitarian and democratic governments, and argues that this power to decide who is killable is common to both styles of government.  Further, this power is no longer limited to a traditional political sovereign, but is now also in the hands of doctors and scientists.

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Homo Sacer, Part 2: §5-6

Here is the reading for July 9th’s meeting.  We will meet at 4:30 here, and there is a printable copy here.

The first four sections of Part 2 began to argue that the ban, rather than a social contract, is at the origin of western politics.  Sections five and six complete this argument.  Section five is a historical study of the image funeral and its relation to three figures: the Roman devotee, the Emperor, and the homo sacer, or sacred man.  Each of these three figures has a different relation to bare life: the devotee’s bare life was expelled from the city, the Emperor’s bare life was divinized, and sacred man’s bare life was exposed to death.

Part six contrasts social contract theory with the ban.  The social contract, as an alleged founding event of the city, cleanly separates between nature and culture, or nature and law.  Agamben argues that the state of nature lives on in the heart of politics in the form of the bare life of the homo sacer and the sovereign, who exist in a liminal state between human and animal, hence the comparison to werewolves.  In short: Werewolves, therefore Holocaust.

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