Ancestrality and The Problem of the Arche-fossil

800 encounters at the end of the world2

This week I delivered this text in the symposium to outline the introduction to my MA dissertation. It is in need of detailing and whipping into shape, but it allowed me to discuss the main themes of my inquiry. Of course, my quicktime clips  failed to play, but I still managed to explain how Herzog’s film dramatizes the example of the arche-fossil in my allotted 20 minutes:

Stefan Pashov: It’s a long story…I’ve explored many different lands of the mind and many worlds of ideas. I started before I even knew how to read and write; my grandmother was reading the Odyssey and The Illiad to me. So I started a journey in my fantasy, before I even knew the means of accomplishing it, but my mind and my psyche was ready for it…I was already traveling with Odysseus and the Argonauts to those strange and amazing lands, always taking with me that fascination of the world and I fell in love with the world. It is very powerful and has been with me this whole time.

Herzog: And how does it happen that we are encountering each other here…at the end of the world?

Pashov: (laughs) I think that it is a logical place to find each other as this place works almost as a natural selection for people that have this intention to almost jump of the margin of the map. And we all meet here, where all the lines of the map converge! There is no point that is south of the South Pole. And I think that there is a fair amount of the population that is here are full time travelers and part-time workers. So yes, those are the professional dreamers. They dream all the time.  And I think through them the great cosmic dreams come into fruition because the universe dreams through our dreams. And I think that there is many different ways for reality to bring itself forward, and dreaming is definitely one of those ways.

Pashov continues: There is a beautiful saying by an American philosopher, Alan Watts, who says that: ‘…through our eyes the universe is perceiving itself and through our ears the universe is listening to its cosmic harmonies. And we are the witness through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory…of its magnificence’.

Werner Herzog, in his most recent documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, meets this unlikely forklift-driving philosopher working at McMurdo Antarctic research station. Our friend here seems to be eloquently luxuriating in is an anthropocentric and vitalist cosmological view. He is apparently beholden to a form of folk-psychology or narrative practice that makes cozy sense of the subject’s relation to the world, the in-itself, which for him requires a sentient witness. And whilst Herzog enjoys the pantheist forklift driver’s conception of a spiritualized reality – a reality through which the universe intentionally creates subjects in order to perceive itself – as the film unfolds, we have to draw the conclusion that Herzog doesn’t share in this outlook whatsoever. The counter-impression we derive from the film is that we are ‘from nothing and for nothing’ and as complex organisms we are in fact both purposeless and meaningless,

The documentary’s human encounters, whilst affirming, only constitute one half of a more profound collision – that between man and nature. The Antarctic scientists at the base labour to apprehend material reality through the sensors, cameras and cascades of data in order construct a mathematizable empirical image of the in-itself. Accordingly, scientific understanding could be described as a vector of annihilation that cleaves into what we think we know, teaching us uncomfortable (and inconvenient) truths about the world and our relation to it. Moreover it hints at a fundamental incongruence between the mind and the world, a world that is glacially indifferent to mankind. At the limit-experience of the South Pole we witness a radical encounter between man and nature made intelligible by the auspices of science. In that respect, Antarctica itself represents the radically inhuman, inhospitable and alien power of nature, which is embodied by the beautiful yet annihilatory volcano, Mount Erebus.

[Erebus, by the way translates as blackness, darkness or shadow and was the son of Khaos, i.e. the primordial condition of conditions or the void from which the Gods emerged. Erebus therefore represents the personification of darkness and shadow, which fills the corners of the world. There is some pertinence to this observation, which will become apparent later]

So consequently, in Herzog’s view, there is something unknowable about this extensity, except when made intelligible by scientific study. That’s possibly why Herzog is explicit in his disinterest in making an anthropomorphic documentary about penguins. And whilst Herzog is fascinated by the geist or spirit that animates mankind in all his endeavours – man’s manifest image – he is equally concerned with the consensus of scientific discourse. And this consensus is derived from the intersubjectivity of scientific objectivism. And the consensus of the majority of the scientist’s at McMurdo seem convinced that mankind will undoubtedly encounter its own extermination, and perhaps sooner than we anticipate.

So what is the problematic nature of our charming forklift-driver’s Weltanschauung? We could say that whilst his outlook is common to Gaian mysticism or the Buddhist philosophy of Alan Watts, it shares a religiosity that is rampant within the heavy lifting of post-Kantian philosophy and critical theory. Here, with the assistance of Quinten Meillassoux, we can detect what Meillassoux nominates in his book After Finitude as correlationism at work.

In short, correlationism maintains: We cannot conceive of a mind-independent reality without a mind to conceive that mind-independent reality. Correlationism consists of disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another. This forms part of what Meillassoux calls the ‘correlationist circle’, in effect, the primacy of relation over related terms of subject and object and ‘a belief in the constituted power of the reciprocal relation’ [AF, p5]. Meillassoux states that the correlate is a ‘transparent cage’ that post-Kantian philosophy is imprisoned within. For the correlationist the only exteriority we can know is merely the pole of the correlate that faces us, like the unsurpassable character of a coin of which we can only know one side. Accordingly, Meillassoux states that contemporary philosophy has ‘lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers’.

The correlationist maintains that in the duality between subject and object, the correlation is all we can know and this understanding has the effect of dissolving epistemology. Subject and object (i.e. the mind and reality) are then hypostasized as poles of the correlation, of which we can only grasp one half, and this relation is then treated as actually existing. Therefore the correlation absolutizes the very subject/object dualism that it claims to overcome in metaphysical dogmatism. Metaphysical dogmatism is the often derided naïve realism of Locke, of which primary and secondary quality distinction was already implicitly present in Descartes. Correlationism begins with Bishop Berkley in his attempt to overthrow naïve realism by maintaining that ideas are created by sensations and sensations are all that we can know about the world. Bishop Berkley states:

…[the mind] is deluded to think it can and does conceive of bodies existing unthought of, or without the mind, though at the same time they are apprehended by, or exist in, itself.

This is indicative of the absolutization of the correlate, that cannot envisage a world without a mind to conceive it, thus enthroning thought over matter. This is a subjective idealist position based on a tautology. For Berkley, mind-independence requires concept independence and oxymoronically smuggles its conclusion into its own premise. This is what is known as Stove’s Gem, coined by intellectual gadfly David Stove in his critique of Berkley’s idealism, nominating it as the ‘world’s worst argument’.

Cartesian metaphysical dogmatism would have it that there are no rational grounds for an experience independent of substantial objects. In turn, correlationism assaults metaphysical reason – a reason typified by Descartes’ doubt/skepticism with regard to divine or natural ends to explain phenomena, the fallibility of sense data and thinking or extended substance. Awoken from his dogmatist slumber by Hume, Kant searches for thinking/being’s instantiation through experience and his principles of experience (experience’s transcendental condition). According to Kant: we can only have objective knowledge of reality (the noumenal) confined to the experiential realm of phenomena and bounded by the necessary structure of sensation. This represents the destitution of intuition as intuition is then tethered to sensation.

We can frame this historically by saying that up until Kant one of the principal problems of philosophy was how to think the substrate of substantial matter. Post-Kant the question becomes: how do we think the correlate? Interestingly, Kant does not use the Stove’s Gem ‘worst argument’ and Meillassoux states that Kant is merely guilty of a weak correlationism. For Kant objective reality is circumscribed within phenomenal bounds and consequently, he universalizes reality through the structure of the correlate. The idealist and phenomenologist heirs of Kant lop off this universal structure (solutus ab means to sever or set apart from), further absolutizing the correlate and creating the illusory dichotomy between thought and being that is emblematic of Nietzsche and Heidegger. The correlate can then not be grounded due to this absolutization, arriving at the bounded finitude of reason. Knowing then supervenes on a set of conditions that cannot be exhaustively known (i.e. Dasein’s ontological horizon). The ultimate consequence of the contingency of the correlation (facticity or Faktizität in Heidegger) is that we cannot ground the necessary conditions of the correlation, in turn producing a plurality of correlations. Therefore the undermining of dogmatism subsequently lets in fideism and superstition via the proliferation of post-Kantian absolutes, as exemplified in Hegel, Fichte,  Husserl, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and eventually Deleuze. In correlationism the conditions of conception re-inscribe the concept by the substitution of ‘X’ for any verb whether it stands for sensation, embodiment (e.g. Husserlian ‘flesh’), consciousness or language — as it is in the case of early-Wittgenstein and Heidegger — or Life, which is the detectable correlate in Deleuze. Every post-Kantian philosophy, however ingenious in its disavowal of naïve realism is a variant of the correlation.

Conversely, Meillassoux seeks to rehabilitate Descartes’ primary and secondary quality distinction in which: the primary properties of objects exist independent of an observer (e.g. density, spatial extension, temperature, etc) and their secondary qualities that are only subjectively perceived (e.g heat, colour, taste, etc).  Therefore the mathematizable properties of the object remain in itself, exempt from any relation we might have with that object. Yet this is not merely a regression back into the pre-critical position of dogmatic metaphysics, which becomes impossible after Berkley and Kant. Such distinctions require the universalization of the intersubjectivity of consensus and a community of scientific discourse, in order to prevent such mathematization from falling into mere subjective representation. As Meillassoux states: ‘Scientific truth is no longer what conforms to an in-itself supposedly indifferent to the way in which it is given to the subject, but rather what is susceptible of being given as shared by a scientific community’. Here he privileges the discourse of science over mere mathematics, which we should be keen to remind ourselves mathematics makes up only a miniscule proportion of actual existing reality.

Meillassoux attacks correlationism from inside out, that is to say, he destroys the fortress of correlationism from within by working through the correlation itself and the philosophical resources it provides us with.  In order to perform this he introduces the concept of the arche-fossil, an ancestral statement or geological fossil that is anterior to the emergence of biological organic life. Science, which has long perfected these dating techniques, produces many such statements that contradict correlationism’s inability to account for a mind-independent reality. Moreover, post-Kantian philosophy seems oblivious to such statements, to the extent that Meillassoux claims that Kant’s Copernican revolution of thought was nothing of the sort. For the correlationist, a world-in-itself subsisting independently of any observer is unthinkable, and each correlationist in turn claims that his absolute is the true outside of thought. However, the arche-fossil’s ancestral realm repudiates the even the most sophisticated correlationist doxa:

…it is as if the distinction between transcendental idealism – the idealism that is (so to speak) urbane, civilized, and reasonable – and speculative or even subjective idealism – the idealism that is wild, uncouth and rather extravagant – it is as if this distinction which we had been taught to draw – and which separates Kant from Berkeley – became blurred and dissolved in light of the fossil-matter. Confronted with the arche-fossil, every variety of idealism converges and becomes equally extraordinary – every variety of correlationism is exposed as extreme idealism, one that is incapable of admitting that [which] science tells us about these occurrences…And our correlationist then finds himself dangerously close to contemporary creationists: those quaint believers who assert today, in accordance with a ‘literal’ reading of the Bible, that the earth is no more than 6000 years old, and who, when confronted with the much older dates arrived at by science, reply…[that these radioactive compounds were placed there by God]…in order to test the physicist’s faith. Similarly, might not the meaning of the arche-fossil be to test the philosopher’s faith in correlation, even when confronted with data which seems to point to an abyssal divide between what exists and what appears? [AF, pp16-17]

It perhaps is worth pointing out here that Ray Brassier, in his footnotes to the chapter ‘The Enigma of Realism’ in Nihil Unbound, curiously alludes to striking similarities between the ‘critique of critique’ deployed in After Finitude and V.I. Lenin’s lambasting of clericist idealism in Materialism and Emprico-ciritcism. And although, Lenin’s 1908 excoriation of ‘correlativist’ subject/object theory may be the inspiration for Meillassoux’s thesis it doesn’t share the latter’s profound and original scope. However, for Brassier it is indicative of the lamentable state of 20th century academia’s idealism, which has been remained blissfully unperturbed for a century since Lenin’s criticism.

So, let us return to the chronological fact of the arche-fossil. Meillassoux resourcefully anticipates two criticisms of the arche-fossil argument:

The first correlationist rejoinder maintains that the ancestral argument privileges the temporal seniority of the arche-fossil, with regards to manifestation’s emergence of being, whereas a similar spatial distance (i.e. an unperceivable event occurring at a galactic distance, beyond the reach of the most far-seeing gravitational telescopes) would provide a spatial analogy for the ancestral statement. Such an analogue would also be devoid of any validating witness. Therefore even the most banal example of a synchronic unobserved event (such as a tree falling in a forest) could be claimed to be merely lacunary and subsequently any correlationist could argue that had there been a witness, then it could have been perceived. Such a comparison reduces the ancestral statement to a threadbare argument that has been presented time and time again.

However, Meillassoux counters this by saying that the temporal arche-fossil is in no way equivalent to the spatial example, as it doesn’t evoke distance in time, but rather anteriority in time. It is an event that is not merely ancient, but anterior to giveness itself. So ancestrality is not an event that lacunary awareness can’t apprehend, but an event that is not co-existant with any giveness whatsoever, lacunary or otherwise. It is a situation of the complete absence of giveness (i.e. consciousness, perception, experience, cogito etc.). Here we notice that Meillassoux explicitly uses the terms given and giveness, which allows us to infer that it is in fact Husserl’s concept of epoché with its distinctions of noesis and noema (the processes of thought and the external object of that thought) that he is attacking. And we know that the late-Husserl sought to exclude any hypothesis on the existence of external objects, to the extent he introduced the method of phenomenological reduction to eliminate them (a kind of counter-elimitavism).

So, to summarize, the problem constituted by the fact of the arche-fossil consists not of how science is able think the manifestation of consciousness, but how it thinks the passage from the non-being of giveness to its instantiation in being(s). This time that science thinks is not only anterior to giveness, but ‘allows the latter to arise at a determinate point in its own flux’; a radical index of diachroncity.  This ensures the triviality of the first correlationist rejoinder with regards to the lacuna of manifestation, which Meillassoux demonstrates is in fact a lacuna in the correlation itself (‘from which it emerged and will ultimately return’). Here we first glimpse Meillassoux building an argument for the diachroncity of time as a true absolute (or absolute of absolutes) with which he seeks to destroy the correlationist fortress.

The second correlationist rejoinder to the example of the arche-fossil continues from the first, but is argued from a transcendental standpoint and is consequently more substantial. Here the correlationist attempts to depict non-correlational reality as a cognitive illusion that whilst intelligible, is produced in the human present and ‘retroactively’ imprinted into the pre-human past. The correlationist proceeds by saying that the example of the ancestral statement confuses the empirical and transcendental regimes of sense. These two regimes of sense are distinct in the following manner:

–    The empirical or ontic regime, within the purview of science.
–    The transcendental or ontological regime, which is the privilege of philosophy.

Meillassoux counters the first correlationist rejoinder with an empirical answer as to how science thinks the manifestation of organic beings in the physical environment. But here the correlationist accuses him of collapsing the distinctions between the transcendental subject of science – of how this physical emergence of consciousness (i.e. individuation) is possible – into the empirical question. The correlationist maintains that the two regimes of sense are inseparable, but should never intersect. And by these lights, the ontic temporality of physical-cosmological time originates in ontological time and is therefore entirely dependent on it. This subordinates the conceptual autonomy of the empirical regime’s ‘time of science’ to the transcendental.  Meillassoux’s polemic is then relegated as an amphiboly, a conflation of the objective physical being of bodies with the objective ontological knowledge of the being of bodies.  More clearly, to inscribe ontology within scientific time is to turn those bodies into objects, i.e. to speak of them anthropologically rather than philosophically. Moreover, it is requirement of the transcendental to keep the discourse of objects that are born and die separate from the conditions of objective knowledge of those objects. The transcendentalist therefore abjures the potential paradox of confusing an object and its discourse. The transcendental is therefore not endangered by the diachronicity of the time of science, as it is effectively outside both time and space. And by disregarding this, Meillassoux is open to the accusation that the arche-fossil is ineffectually empirical and only ever part of a discourse about objects.

The inclusion of this second rejoinder addresses a Kantian idealist response to the novel problem of the arche-fossil. The Kantian transcendentalist here seeks to immunize transcendent non-objects from scientific objects. Meillassoux’s counter-argument however is that whilst there can be no such thing as a transcendental object, there is still a subject (for instance Husserl’s explicitly transcendental subject or Heidegger’s ‘worldless’ subject). That is to say, it is a subject that is instantiated and ‘takes place’ in an existing body, and therefore cannot be legitimately divorced from a physically existing in space and time. Accordingly, the time of science still determines the instantiation of a transcendental subject; being must necessarily have a body. As Ray Brassier puts it, the ancestral time of the arche-fossil is better understood as ‘an objectivity which provides a determinant-of-the-very-last-instance for every variety of transcendental temporality’ and when the conditions of the instantiation of being are absent, so is the correlation.

Ray Brassier makes an important further point on the manner in which Meillassoux tackles the two correlationist rejoinders to the fact of the arche-fossil. He usefully reminds us that Meillassoux in his appeal to chronology is deploying an argument within the field of logic in order to attack the correlate, yet in doing so is danger of ceding too much ground to correlationism. Brassier claims there is a fundamental asymmetry between the scale cosmological and anthropomorphic time and under our current scientific understanding of spatiotemporal relations, time and space are deemed indissociable. This doesn’t negate the weight of Meillassoux’s critical observations on the correlation, but Brassier would prefer to unyoke the argument from its chronological basis, by creating another sort of suspension (principally via the ‘transcendental hiatus’ that Laurelle provides with the discovery of the descisional basis of all of philosophy).  And for Brassier, ancestrality not the only manner in which to challenge the presumption of correlationism, he maintains that modern natural science provides numerous examples of contemporaneous processes that occur autonomously of any relationship we have them. For instance: the unicellular organisms that survive for centuries within the Siberian permafrost or endolithic microorganisms that grow within the very sandstone rocks of the McMurdo valley, in Antarctica. And if we overemphasize the ontological rupture of the ancestral statement, we do so at the expense of other co-existant processes that are patently not for us and clearly belong to the glacially indifferent in-itself.

Meillassoux continues his speculative argument by searching for a non-contradictory replacement for God, the God by which Descartes guarantees the existence of extended substance and derives the absolute reach of mathematics. This absolute is intrinsically tied to the principle of sufficient reason, which although identified by Leibniz was already at work in Descartes. Instead, Meillassoux opts for a principle of unreason and supplants Descartes absolute with the chaos-god of absolute time. He names this contingency-based absolute time hyper-Chaos, which he describes as ‘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’ [AF, p62]. And it is this I which opens a further problematic front regarding access to the in-itself, one which demands Meillassoux reinvestigate Hume’s problem of induction, for which he offers his own speculative solution to counter Kant’s frequentialist completion of Hume. That said, Brassier, through his Laurellean operations doesn’t require a rehabilitation of Descartes to overcome the correlate of thought, pointing to a ‘more rigourous way to root out the philosophy of correlationism’.  And as far as I know Meillassoux and Brassier part company on this somewhat.

To be added:

•    To describe the import of Laurelle in providing a transcendental hiatus for philosophy, in order to overcome the correlation. Here we need to indentify how Laurelle turns the resources of transcendentalism against idealism, which avoids the choice that faces Brassier between Badiou’s peculiar critique and a return to a Cartesian metaphysics, as proposed by Meillassoux.

•    To examine the ontologies of Heidegger and Deleuze, particularly how they move the question of being in relation to time forward. Each in turn orientates being toward death, yet in Heidegger death is appropriated by the subject, whereas in death is impersonal and no one’s in Deleuze. Here I’ll also identify the correlation in each ontology and how this pertains the apex of Brassier’s argument in his final chapter ‘The Truth of Extinction’.

•    To explain the conclusions drawn from Brassier’s reexamination of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which I’ll provide a comparison with Deleuze’s account of trauma in Difference and Repetition. And demonstrate how Brassier’s radical nihilism goes far beyond Deleuze’s Nietzschean affirmation of the essential nature of things and how he foresees a new role for philosophy in order to make it more commensurate with scientific understanding.

•    A discussion as to whether there are any aesthetic consequences derived from speculative materialism, so I will work through Herzog’s treatment of man’s encounter with nature in Encounters at the End of the World. It would also be useful to examine the manner in which representation might necessarily return in the light of speculative philosophy’s discoveries.


About andrewosborne

Andrew Osborne has recently completed his MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmith's.
This entry was posted in Deleuze, Heidegger, Hume, Kant, Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Speculative Realism, Subjectivity, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ancestrality and The Problem of the Arche-fossil

  1. Stefan Pashov says:

    Statement by Stefan Pashov:

    In an attempt to analise my vews expressed in the “Encounters” the autor of the article claims that i subscribe to the following position:

    “a reality through which the universe intentionally creates subjects in order to perceive itself”

    I would like to clarify:

    The Universe is not separate from its own content…Rather it is one ongoing creative event.

  2. Stefan Pashov says:

    I would like to clarify that if i must have to qualify and categorize my vews expresed in the “Encounters” they would be the exact opposite to the ones that the autor of the article seems to have discovered – NOT anthropocentric and pantheistic, but COSMOCENTRIC and ATHEISTIC.

    Stefan Pashov

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