- On Meillassoux’s “Transparent Cage”:Speculative Realism and its Discontents
In After Finitude (2006), French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux levels a severe critique of post-Kantian philosophies. From Marxism and phenomenology to psychoanalysis and deconstruction, continental thought has suffered the limitations of what Meillassoux calls “correlationism.” Correlationism—realism’s named antagonist—maintains that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (2008a, 5).1 Since we do not have a rational access to things-in-themselves, all we have after Kant, all we are allowed to discuss philosophically, are the transcendental conditions for knowledge.2 The limits of my epistemology are the limits of my concepts and categories. Any claims of knowledge must therefore be qualified by “for us,” that is, for us finite beings. As a result, Meillassoux argues, we have foreclosed any genuine access to the external world, that is, to an absolute reality, to what he calls “the great outdoors…that outside which was not relative to us… existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not” (2008a, 7). In other words, we have confined ourselves to a “‘transparent cage,’” [End Page 393] in which we turn endlessly in a linguistic circle, in the old prison-house of language, trapped by unseen, epistemological falsehoods.3
Meillassoux’s indictment of modern philosophy had an immediate impact in continental philosophical circles, galvanizing a bold return to realism—a subject matter long deemed exhausted if not irrelevant to intellectual pursuits.4 Sparked by Meillassoux’s call to go beyond correlationism (speculative realism’s “mortal enemy” [Harman 2012, 184]), the movement of speculative realism, and its variant or subset, Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), have emerged as corrective philosophical responses to the Kantian heritage.5 Speculative realists aim to return to the origins of modernity in the hope of critically adjusting post-Kantian philosophy’s misguided trajectory and reviving its epistemic ambitions. In releasing philosophy from its “transparent cage” and opening the door to the “great outdoors,” speculative realists aim to cure modern philosophy of its perceived obsession with mediation (with language and power) and with the human.
In the following pages, I would like to explore what in some ways appears as a surprising—and surprisingly strong—resurgence of philosophical questions considered until recently outdated and naïve. The appeal of speculative realism’s post-linguistic orientation, which captures so well the aspiration of a new generation of philosophers hungering for a non-human centered approach to the world, would seem to lie in part in its phantasmatic function. In its psychoanalytic sense, fantasy is more than a distortion of reality. The idea of the great outdoors functions, as Alenka Zupančič puts it, as “a screen that covers up the fact that the discursive reality is itself leaking, contradictory, and entangled with the Real as its irreducible other side” (2011, 33). What Meillassoux’s transparency by-passes or covers up is the problem of mediation, and the attendant problem of the ethical relation to the human and non-human alike. In the process of opening access to the great outdoors, Meillassoux constructs his own idea/l of transparency and immediacy, but one that, in fetishizing the outdoor world as proper philosophical object, re-inscribes the very boundary between interiority and exteriority that he ostensibly seeks to dissolve. Practicing his version of a hermeneutics of suspicion, Meillassoux exposes the transparent, discursive cage of the correlationists as a distortion of the proper philosophical scene. Once we [End Page 394] tear away the hermeneutic layers of phenomenology and poststructuralism, once we transcend the limits of subjectivity and finitude, we discover an indifferent universe, a “glacial world” (2008a, 115). And only then can we return to a philosophical understanding of objects as they are. After finitude really means, then, after mediation: an invitation to go beyond the limits of consciousness, language, and, as we shall see, interpretation.
What this phantasmatic account covers over, I would argue, are the deeply unsettling effects of the permeability of the human, of the entanglement of the human, and discourse itself, with the non-human and the Real. In...