Truth be told, as my thought has evolved the issue of correlationism had fallen off the radar for me. Somehow the debate had come to seem too “philosophical” to me, too “scholastic”, too remote from what interests me: understanding why social assemblages are organized as they are, how power functions in social assemblages, and what we might do to address that power and change things. Somehow the question of whether or not we can get out of the correlation between thinking and being just came to seem remote from these sorts of issues. Somehow it seemed too epistemological.
ASIDE: Numerous discussions over the years have led me to believe that the debate over correlationism is poorly understood (or maybe I just don’t understand it). On countless occasions I’ve heard people say “of course we must relate to things in order to know them.” Well yeah, of course! I don’t think this is what the critic of correlationism is getting at. It seems to me that correlationism is something more robust than the theses that we must relate to something to know it. Correlationism instead seems to require the thesis that thought and being are indiscernible. Put more concretely, the correlationist is someone who argues that we either a) can never tell whether being is merely a construction of our thought (weak correlationism), or b) who argues that thought actually constructs being (strong correlationism). In other words, correlationism is another name for idealism. One can hold that we must relate to something in order to know it without being a correlationist. As an aside I should also add that I am a correlationist about some things. For example, I think money is something constructed by society and am therefore a strong correlationist when it comes to money.
At any rate, for a long time I’d become rather indifferent to debates about correlationism and philosophies of access. I had learned the lessons of speculative realism– which I could have also learned, I think, from Deleuze and Guattari, the new materialist feminists, actor-network theorists such as Latour –and had moved on. However, occasionally you come across a tone of phrase that pitches something in a different light. In The Cut of the Real, Katerina Kolozova writes,
…the political problem of contemporary philosophy identified by the ‘new realists’ is, in fact, the product of a more fundamental epistemic problem. In his book After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux calls this problem ‘correlationism’ and identifies it as an essentially post-Kantian legacy, which continues to dominate and limit philosophy. As a matter of fact, correlationism lies at the heart of postmodern theory and consists in the premise that thought can only ‘think itself,’ that the real is inaccessible to knowledge and human subjectivity, and that there is nothing but discursive constructs that fully determine thinking and that are meth0dologically accounted for all the way down. (1 – 2)
Thought thinking only itself. Thought only encountering itself. In the jargon of postmodern and poststructuralist lingo, this would be the thesis of infinite semiosis, where signs (“thoughts”) only ever relate to other signs. Within ths framework, discursivity comes to be the hegemonic framework defining all of being. At the level of politics and social theory more generally, if the correlationist thesis is true the consequences are clear: all social phenomena are discursive and all solutions to social and political problems will be discursive. The sole sphere of the political will be the discursive and all questions of politics will be questions of speech-acts and interpretation.
The problem here is not that many theorists recognize that the discursive and semiotic plays an important role in the social and the political. It does and I’ve repeated this tirelessly. The problem is with what happens when thought or the semiotic becomes a hegemon, an “all”, foreclosing our ability to recognize other forms of power. What I’ve wanted to say is that not all power functions discursively. In my last post and elsewhere I spoke of some other forms of politics:
Thermopolitics: The politics surrounding energy in the form of calories and fuels such as gasoline and coal, and how our life and our very bodies are structured by energy dependencies and by being trapped in particular distributive networks that render these forms of energy available. I’m being quite literal when I speak of energy, talking about the effects, for example, of the absence of food in certain educational environments on cognition, for example; and am generally hostile to metaphorical extensions of the concept of energy which I see as erasing the dimension of real materiality.
Geopolitics: The role that features of natural and built geography such as mountain ranges, rivers, oceans, soil conditions, roads, housing design, etc., play in the form that social relations take and how they impact individual bodies.
Chronopolitics: The way in which the structuration of time organize what is possible for us. For example, the structuration of the working day, how much we can say and comprehend at any given time, the impact of things like the invention of the clock, etc.
Oikopolitics: This would be the domain of political economy described so well by Marxists.
So five different types of politics: Semiopolitics (or what currently dominates critical theory), thermopolitics, geopolitics, chronopolitics, and oikopolitics. No doubt there are other sites of the political or political struggle that we could speak of, but this is a good start. Also, it should be obvious that these aren’t exclusive domains, but are entangled in all sorts of important ways. For example, something might take place at the level of semiopolitics (speech, law, rhetoric, norms, communication) that has all sorts of impact at the level of thermopolitics. Congress might decide to cut programs that fund school meal programs. This, in turn, will have a thermodynamic impact on those students that go without the calories they need developmentally and cognitively to function in a particular way. There is an entanglement here of semiopolitical and thermopolitical domains. The young student here has been constrained both at the level of semiotic phenomena and thermodynamic structures.
The point is that if true, semiotic intervention (speech-acts, protests, interpretations, deconstructions, etc) will not be an appropriate response to all political problems because social formations are not entirely structured by the semiotic. The child in that school does not suffer from a lack of the right signs, but from a lack of calories needed to run the engine of his thought and body. Certainly semiotic interventions might be needed to render that energy available, but it is the energy itself that is at issue and the absence of that energy that forms the spider web entangling him in his position. A correlationist perspective tends to erase this as even being a site of the political.