Larval Two-Step

Larval is up with a post responding to the use of narratives in works of realism. This is great time to raise this question, since it’s come up in my SR class and after Harman, we turn to some of Levi’s work. For what it’s worth, I have other arguments that I would use regarding the question of language and I find Levi’s argument here (but not elsewhere) less than convincing. Correlationism isn’t using a two-step, but actually has a more complicated dance with reality. That doesn’t mean I agree, but one can’t just make correlationists into magical thinkers. Levi writes:

This two-step consists of 1) pointing out that x is a necessary condition for y (the signifier, narrative, signs, etc), and that therefore 2) there is no y (in the ontological sense), without x. Move 1 is perfectly legitimate. It’s move 2 where all the problems begin.

But of course, from Kant on down, no one seriously argues this, and even Hegel can’t be brought in here, since there’s much more conceptually going on in terms of asking about the speculative movement itself. But no one argues “there is no y (in the ontological sense) without x.” Ok, maybe somebody at some point does, but the claim is that “there is no y (in the epistemological sense) without x.” That’s quite a more respectable move, and that’s why Larval is critiquing philosophies of access, and is ultimately right to do so. But they’re about “access,” and thus they’re not arguing that there is only y with some given x; they are saying that when we discuss y, how we access “y” inherently filters through the mode of access, just as I don’t expect the pasta to get through the drainer: I get only water. Now, we can then work through the moves that Nancy uses in Sense of the World in his essay on the “différance of the real,” or Meillassoux in After Finitude, to work from the fact of access itself to ontological statements about the real, but I don’t think we can simply be done by suggesting that correlationists think they are creating being by naming it, which is the worst form of nominalism and magical thinking. In the end, Meillassoux reifies the phenomenal realm (the “stability” thesis of After Finitude), but that’s another matter. But it’s the fact that the correlationist argues precisely that they are not making ontological statements (the in-itself is left alone) that allows Meillassoux’s project to begin.

Another way of putting all of this is that I don’t think the linguistic turn was a dead end in Continental theory (just ask Lacan). That’s not to say that we make, as simplistic thinkers leftover from that turn tend to do, the claim over and over that by talking about something, we disturb the fragile flower of the real. But when we introduce language, we introduce other relations (this is a Latourian point) and ultimately, the reason why there’s not “something more” in Latour’s work to each “thing” beyond its relation is his fear that it’s only in a relation to language that a thing is said to be a chair (instead of a set of relations) or something else. In other words, once you remove the signifying act (or the intentional act in Husserl for that matter) it needs to be made clear just what makes a thing a thing. It’s notable that Heidegger writes the Thing essay and quickly runs into this problem and throughout the 1950s works on ever great ways of saying “language is the house of being.” I don’t think we need to go there, but there’s no denying that there is a performative power to naming, that a thing unrelated previously gets related through and in language. This is Latour’s whole reasoning for Pasteur’s work on bacteria and its non-existence prior to his discovery. Now, I think that’s wrong (bacteria don’t just have a linguistic relation and obviously had relations prior to 1864), but in doing a realism, one must not dismiss language’s role (this is not pointed at Levi, who does exactly this in numerous places); otherwise you’re likely simply to have a descriptive physics.


  1. I quite disagree here. This is the core Kantian or correlationist move. If it were just a question of access there’s be no problem here, because then one would be a realist. But the correlationist claim is far more radical. It’s the claim that “reality” as it manifests itself for us cannot be known in any way to mirror reality as it is in itself. For example, we experience everything in time and space, but whether or not there actually is time and space is, according to Kant, apart from humans is impossible to know. Indeed, Kant goes one step further and say that there is no time and space apart from humans.

    No realist is opposed to the thesis that we have to access a thing to know a thing. That’s not the problem. The anti-realist move lies in arguing that the access makes the object what it is.

  2. Or put a bit more clearly, I think the epistemological qualification you’re making is a red herring because the whole gesture of the correlationist move is to collapse ontology into epistemology. This was already summed up in Kant’s aphorism (quoted favorably by Gasche in Tain) that the conditions for the possibility of experience are the conditions for the possibility of the objects of experience. Holding that the in-itself exists does not a realist one make. Very few idealists were ever Berkeleyian idealists. They were idealists rather that waved their hands and said “yeah something other exists but our ontology is restricted to appearance or manifestation as produced by whatever x we contribute.” And here I think the sort of linguistic nominalism you dismiss is actually operative in thinkers like Lacan (and I would say Derrida and Foucault as well). Lacan is pretty clear on these points. Take, for example, his famous example of the two doors in “The Agency of the Letter” in Ecrits. When Lacan discusses the real in his earlier seminars he treats it as a real without fissure or gap and therefore without any objects or differences of its own. Rather, the segmentation of the real comes from the diacritical differences introduced by lack and language, and consequently it is only in language that beings come into existence. When the correlationist cries uncle and says “that’s not what I’m claiming!” I think they’re just refusing to recognize what they themselves are claiming in their epistemo-ontology and the logical implications that follow from the correlationist move.

  3. Thanks Levi. We’ve discussed this before and as you may recall, I quite agree that in general there is a slippage here. The example I’m working on in a manuscript right now is the notion of time: this is where you see the idealism at it’s full tilt. I can go round-robin with people on whether a chair is a chair in any meaningful way outside a signifying act or intentional act—otherwise, the chair is but a set of relata and to describe it as a chair is but a helpful index—but time is something that is always other to the idealist’s attempts to bring in under control. In any case, you’re point’s well taken, though I don’t agree that this is the common move—there are other bad ones being made, but not just simply this one collapse of epistemology into ontology. For example, one can look at Heidegger’s reading of Kant, which on the whole is making a similar claim, but only by showing how Kant must ignore the ontological problem or simply bracket it, which is a different claim. But thanks! this is helpful, since I’m going to send my class to those links ahead of reading from you in the next week or two (which is something I’ll have to discuss with you…)

Comments are closed.