My mind is more or less fried this evening from editing articles for The Speculative Turn, but I wanted to draw attention to this post by Jon Cogburn on Brandom, Hegel, and idealism. Because my background in Anglo-American thought is pretty rusty these days, I’ve had to reread Cogburn’s post a few times now to understand what he’s getting at with the distinction between sense and reference dependency. I don’t feel ready to address his questions about pantheism, but I do think the criticisms of anti-realism he draws from Brandom get to the heart of the matter.

In this connection, I think that while Meillassoux has done an important service in naming a pervasive phenomenon in Continental thought with his term “correlationism”, there’s an important sense in which his explanation of this term does more to obscure than illuminate what is at issue. Setting forth the concept of correlation he writes:

By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never either term considered apart from the other. (After Finitude, 5)

Meillassoux goes on to remark that,

Correlationism consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another. Not only does it become necessary to insist that we never grasp an object ‘in itself’, in isolation from its relation to the subject, but it also becomes necessary to maintain that we can never grasp a subject that would not always-already be related to an object. (ibid.)

Whenever I read Meillassoux’s definitions of correlationism, both in After Finitude and his Collapse talks, I get the sense that he’s circling around the issue without quite putting his finger on it. When Meillassoux expresses the issue in terms of a subject relating to an object, he is constructing a concept– to employ Deleuze’s famous description –that is too baggy for what it tries to put its finger on. Additionally, as he’s formulated the issue it becomes clear that the realist can give nothing but an incoherent response to the correlationist; for if it is true that the problem is the mere relation of a subject to an object, then it is clear that the realist can give no coherent rejoinder to the correlationist because it is both clear and obvious that in any claim we make about objects, in any knowledge of objects, we must relate to objects to know them.

read on!

No doubt this is one of the reasons that Meillassoux is led to believe that there is no possible way to defeat the correlationist argument (as he explicitly states in his Collapse talk). And as Harman has observed, this entails that Meillassoux is at heart a correlationist. But the problem here is that he is conflating the broader genus of relation with a specific concept of relation as it functions in idealist or anti-realist strains of thought. The term that Meillassoux is groping towards with the term “correlationism” is not relation, but reflexivity. It is not the relation of knowers to objects that is problematic for realists– all realists have posited some sort of relation to the real –but rather a conceptualization of these relations as reflexive that lies at the heart of the anti-realist or idealist wager.

In short, the idealist thesis is that all relations are reflexive relations. This is the real force of the idealist argument in all of our forms. The issue is not that we must relate to objects to know them– who ever thought otherwise? –but that the nature of our relation to the object is reflexive in character.

What does this mean? What does it mean to say that our relation to the object is reflexive? It means that in any relation that relation says as much about ourselves as it says about the state-of-affairs out there in the world that it is talking about. As Fremont-Smith put it in terms of the psychoanalyst Kubie of Macy’s conference cybernetics fame,

“What Dr. Kubie is really trying to say is that language is a double coding: both a statement about the outside and a statement about the inside. It is this doubleness which gives this consciousness/unconscious quality to it. (quoted in Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 71).

Kubie is speaking of utterances we make about the world, but the point holds across the board for all anti-realisms. To illustrate this concept, in deference to Copjec, anyone who has ever had “their desire read” in their writing by someone who loves them or has amorous intentions towards them knows what it means for their utterances to be doubly coded. You write an article that is dry as dirt about something in the world. For example, you write something on finance capital and how it functions in post-Fordist capitalism. The reference of your missive is post-Fordist capitalism, a state-of-affairs out there in the world. However, the person adept in reading desire will have none of this. The missive about post-Fordist capitalism is not a missive about post-Fordist capitalism, but is doubly encoded such that it is also a missive about the writers own desire or internal states, having nothing to do with post-Fordist capitalism. For example, perhaps, throughout the writer’s article, metaphors pertaining to anality (“plopping out”, “being stopped up”, “the shit capital produces”, etc) and theses such as the claim that capitalism is infinite such that it aims only to produce more excess, are present. The reader adept at reading for desire rather than reference takes these metaphors to be statements of the writer’s psychic conflicts and unrequited desire (the manner in which capital perpetually reproduces lack and expands). Rather than treating the missive as a statement about the dynamics of finance capital, the piece is instead read as a statement about the writer. This is the double articulation of every utterance or statement. Every utterance or statement says as much about the person making the statement as it does about the world that it comments on. And this is the essence of reflexivity.

Now the disturbing feature of reflexivity– apart from the fact that it tends to generate infinite regresses (am I not making a statement about myself in interpreting the writer’s desire in this way?) –is that we can no longer tell what is inside or outside. Is the writer’s statement about finance capital really about finance capital, or is it simply her own desire displaced and distorted as a discourse on finance capital? This feature of reflexivity is the core idea behind every variant of anti-realism. In Kant you get the thesis that the transcendental subject reflexively contributes distinctions that aren’t there in the world itself. As a consequence of this, we can never know the in-itself, because it is always-already constituted by our own cognition. Hegel, in the most extreme version of reflexive logic, bites the bullet and argues that because inside and outside are always indeterminate, being and thought are necessarily identical, even in their difference. I offer these only as “nutshell” versions of the anti-realist argument.

The move that makes Harman’s work so unique is the manner in which it practices parity. Harman’s move is not to deny reflexivity (if I have him wrong he’ll correct me), so much as to de-epistemologize reflexivity and democratically extend it to all objects. Harman’s thesis is thus not that epistemically we have access to objects as they are in-themselves independent of our own grasping of objects. No, of this sort of naive realism he can clean his hands. Harman’s thesis is that all objects are reflexive in this sense with respect to one another. In other words, for Harman, the reflexive “distortion” of the object is a ubiquitous feature of all inter-ontic or inter-object relations. It is not a special feature restricted to humans. And here– my thought’s fizzling out so I have to wrap this up –we can go one step further and say that the cardinal sin of the reflexive turn is that it did not practice parity. It began by noticing the doubly articulated nature of thought, perception, and language, noting that utterances about the world say as much about us as they do about the world. However, all too quickly it transformed this sort of reflexivity into a hegemony like Maturna’s variant of autopoietic theory, holding that utterances only speak of us and not the world. Here, I think, my remarks converge somewhat with Cogburn’s (I still remembering screaming that name when he’d show up at the coffee house) about reference-dependency. In other words, why is the relation not reversible? Why, under the reflexive turn, does reflexivity reveal only truths about language, mind, society, etc., and never about the objects that are also making “utterances” after their own fashion? Reflexive ontology would thus consist in two moves: the parity principle that extends reflexivity to all objects and not just humans or knowers, and the point that something of the object is revealed in its own utterances or local manifestations that cannot be reduced to our distinctions.