The Specter of 1966, or Speculative Realism and the Phantom of Deconstruction
Certain events have become landmarks in the history of contemporary thought. The conference held in October 1966 at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore was one such event: with Derrida's contribution entitled "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," as Benoît Peeters writes in his biography of the philosopher, "the whole programme of deconstruction was set out" (Derrida: A Biography 168). Forty years later, in April 2007, a workshop held at Goldsmiths College in London brought together Quentin Meillassoux and three other participants under the banner of "speculative realism," an event whose impact has been compared with that of deconstruction at the Baltimore conference.1
This is one version or sequence of the legend, of the legendary history of contemporary French thought, according to which speculative realism would have recently taken over from poststructuralism. (Or, if we prefer to adopt the maximalist version of the legend: speculative realism has overtaken all post-Kantian philosophy and its supposed "correlationism.") [End Page 992]
The problem with this legend is that, on closer inspection, it does not hold up. I am not talking about its media impact (which functions perfectly well), but rather about its philosophical mechanics. Because it seems to me that speculative realism is still haunted by the specter of many of the motifs and concepts of deconstruction, and it is far from even beginning to take this spectral presence into account. I will refer to three indications of this spectral proximity, which will serve as a preamble or program for a debate to come: first, the remarkable absence of Derrida's name in After Finitude (although the book covers the entire history of post-Kantian philosophy); second, the unsettling—and unquestioned—proximity of the notion of the archefossil (with which After Finitude opens) and the Derridean arche-trace; third, the notion of spectrality itself, which plays an important role not only in Derrida's thought, but also, surprisingly, in Meillassoux's own theologico-political speculations.
Derrida's name is an absence all the more glaring in After Finitude, as the book produces great movements of philosophical convergence or agglomeration that fall under the heading of the correlationism it intends to overcome. Thus we find matching pairs, such as the coupling of Wittgenstein and Heidegger under the banner of a correlationist discourse which "makes no positive pronouncements whatsoever about the absolute," and "confines itself to thinking the limits of thought" (41). But we also come across veritable lists inventorying different ways of "absolutizing the correlation" and indexing the different "forms of subjectivity" which are thereby "hypostatized" in the affirmation that "nothing can be unless it is some form of relation-to-the-world": "Hegelian Mind; Schopenhauer's Will; the Will (or Wills) to Power in Nietzsche; perception loaded with memory in Bergson; Deleuze's Life, etc." (37).
But in these grand philosophical maneuvers where we see the style—and often the strength—of Meillassoux's thought, deconstruction is always missing. One could object that it is at least mentioned, and even explicitly confronted in some of his other texts. But then it is in contexts that are either far from the philosophical ambition or consistency of After Finitude (I am specifically thinking of an interview where we find the same sort of list or inventory, and the same sort of nomenclature which this time groups Freud, Marx, Derrida, and [End Page 993] Lacan)2; or, it is found in a manuscript whose status remains problematic (to the extent that, though unpublished, it has been widely circulated), namely, Meillassoux's doctoral thesis entitled L'Inexistence divine.3
I will return to the manuscript of L'Inexistence divine without delay. Despite its impublication (if I dare say so), it should be the point of departure for any attempt to explain the relation of spectral proximity connecting speculative realism (or "speculative materialism," as Meillassoux prefers to say4) and deconstruction. A spectrality whose second sign, indication, or symptom is the notion of the arche-fossil, which is central to After Finitude.
Certainly, at first glance and despite the apparent assonance of the words, the arche-fossil has little to do with the Derridean archetrace: "I will call 'arche-fossil,'" writes Meillassoux, "not just materials indicating the traces of past life, according to the familiar sense of the term 'fossil,' but materials indicating the existence of an ancestral reality or event; one that is anterior to terrestrial life" (10). Whereas the Derridean arche-trace is an "originary trace" which "destroys its name"—because "if all begins with the trace," i.e., with the referring-to [renvoi-à] that every trace-of is, "there is above all no originary trace" (Of Grammatology 61)—the arche-fossil seems on the contrary to affirm the presence, even the arche-presence, of what was there before any witness, and what would remain after the disappearance of the final witness. But, when Meillassoux proclaims that "an archefossil manifests an entity's anteriority vis-à-vis manifestation," when he speaks of the arche-fossil as a "givenness of a being anterior to givenness," [End Page 994] it creates a strange effect of spectral contiguity with the Deriddean arche-trace (After Finitude 14). If, as Meillassoux writes, "the problem of the arche-fossil" concerns "statements about events occurring prior to the emergence of humans" as well as "statements about possible events that are ulterior to the extinction of the human species," we can push the phantomatic parallel between the arche-fossil and the arche-trace even further (112). In a passage in "No Apocalypse, Not Now" (a little-known text from 1984 that I would qualify as singularly "speculative"), Derrida speaks of the "only referent that is absolutely real" as a referent which we would have to call radically de-correlated, since it would have "the scope or dimension of an absolute nuclear catastrophe that would irreversibly destroy the entire archive and all symbolic capacity" (403).
One might nonetheless object that this spectral comparison of the arche-fossil and the arche-trace is easily conjured because it does not account for the (rare) moments in L'Inexistence divine, this arche-text that is reticent to manifestation or the phenomenality of publication, where there is an explicit, albeit cursory, debate with Derrida. However, the terms of this debate prove extremely problematic at times, notably when Derridean "différance" is reduced to nothing but a flattened version of the Heideggerian "ontological difference": it becomes "a difference that is just as factual as others," that is, "another intra-ontic difference" (L'Inexistence Divine 190).5 Whatever we make of this disagreement, we must acknowledge the distancing or overcoming which Meillassoux claims with regards to the project of deconstruction. He formulates it this way:
We might note that the Derridean primacy of difference over identity [of which the arche-trace is one name] assumes more profoundly a primacy of the identity-difference couple over other conceptual oppositions of thought. Surely, Derridean "différance" subverts the hierarchy of the terms of the fundamental couple of metaphysics by taking the term traditionally held first, which is identity, and placing it second, to the benefit of difference. But the factual sees in the primacy of the opposition of identity and difference itself6—and not in the preeminence of one term over the other—the [End Page 995] mark of the metaphysical interrogation of being. . . . In this sense, we can consider Derridean différance as the manifestation of an essential loyalty to the conceptual priorities of metaphysics, rather than a radical break from its mode of thought.
If, therefore, the "factual" for Meillassoux purports to "mov[e] away from the fundamental couples of metaphysics and from its contemporary critique," it is "by showing that the first opposition of thought is between necessity and contingency" (137). Now, on the one hand, it is at the very least debatable whether the opposition of necessity and contingency is independent—or even foundational—of the opposition between identity and difference, particularly regarding the permanence or impermanence of physical laws (such as in the case of "Hume's problem," which constantly preoccupies Meillassoux). On the other hand, it is simply false to say, as Meillassoux implicitly does, that deconstruction does not question the opposition of necessity and contingency, or that it considers it as secondary. As evidence, I would like to turn to the pages that Derrida dedicates to fortune, the Greek tukhê, in Given Time (133). Because the gift that he attempts to theorize—what he calls "the event of the gift" (123)—is supposed to extend beyond the tukhê, that is, beyond a chance or a hazard of fortune which would take its meaning "with regard to a human finality, intention, or intentionality." Tukhê, fortune insofar as it is fortune for someone, would preemptively forbid "the event of the gift," which could only take place (if it occurred) in "an instant that no doubt does not belong to the economy of time" (17). Wouldn't this aneconomy of the gift therefore be of the order of radical contingency?7
To conclude, I come to my third indication or symptom of the strange and uncanny spectral proximity between speculative materialism and deconstruction. That is, the notion of spectrality itself, which, as we know, [End Page 996] for Derrida follows precisely from the structure of the arche-trace: "To be haunted by a ghost," as we read in Echographies of Television, "is to remember . . . what, in essence, has never had the form of presence" (115).
But for Derrida as well as for Meillassoux, the spectral is also the moment in which the arche-trace for the former and the factual for the latter are called upon to disclose their ethico-political consequences. "To learn to live with ghosts," Derrida writes in Specters of Marx, to learn to live "in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts," is to learn to live "more justly" (xvii-xviii). It is also a discourse on spectrality which carries the demand for justice for Meillassoux: "how to believe that Justice for ghosts is possible"—this is effectively the driving question in this strange text called "L'immanence d'outre-monde" (66)—a question which leads directly to the resolution of what Meillassoux calls the "spectral dilemma," that is, towards the necessarily contingent (in)existence of a just God, who would be nothing other than the improbable arrival of an "end of politics" (67).8
If one could speak of what is properly spectral, it might be what Derrida called in Specters of Marx "revenance" (193).9 As for Meillassoux, in his rereading of the Nietzschean eternal return, he speaks of a "speculative restarting" [recommencement spéculatif] as the "possible emergence" of a just world for ghosts, that is, "the emergence of a world whose laws incorporate the restarting [recommencement] of past human bodies as a fact" ("L'immanence d'outre-monde" 55–56).
Beyond the overcomings and overtakings that the legendary history of philosophy happily tells (itself), it is quite possible that, from 1966 to today, from Baltimore to London or Paris, some spectral haunting still awaits its turn to return. [End Page 997]
1. See Harman, who cites a comment from Peter Hallward about Meillassoux: "Not since Derrida's 'Structure, Sign and Play' (1966) has a new French philosopher made such an immediate impact in sections of the Anglophone world. . ." (Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making 1).
2. See Harman, "Interview with Quentin Meillassoux," in Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, where "materialism" is described as a "misfired correlationism": "Whether it be the Freudian unconscious, Marxist ideology, Derridean dissemination, the undecidability of the event, the Lacanian Real considered as the impossible, etc., these are all supposed to detect the trace of an impossible coincidence of the subject with itself, and thus of an extra-correlational residue in which one could localize a "materialist moment" of thought. But in fact, such misfires are only further correlations among others: it is always for a subject that there is an undecidable event or a failure of signification" (166).
3. Passages from his thesis on "The Divine Inexistence" (1996) are translated in the same volume by Graham Harman, who describes the unpublished text as "somewhat legendary": he writes that Meillassoux has quickly become "something of a mysterious intellectual figure," in large part due to "rumors concerning the massive unpublished philosophical system" (viii, 2).
5. Meillassoux refers to Derrida's 1968 conference, "Différance," where we can explicitly read, though, that "there is no simple answer" to the question of knowing whether "différance" can "settle down into the division of the [Heideggerian] ontico-ontological difference" (22).
6. That is, as we can read in After Finitude, the "speculation" which announces the "principle of factuality"—a principle which "prevents it from being metaphysical"—according to which "only facticity is not factual—viz., only the contingency of what is, is not itself contingent" (80).
7. It would be necessary here to interrogate jointly the aneconomy of the gift and that of radical contingency as two ways of advocating the abolition of what could be called ontological debt or credit. Derrida thus writes (Given Time, 133): "We have resorted to the Greek word, indeed to the Aristotelian concept of tukhê, in opposition to automaton. Tukhê designates in general a chance when the latter derives its meaning with regard to a human finality, intention, or intentionality. Is it by chance that Aristotle chooses the example of credit to illustrate this difference? The creditor, going to the market in the agora, who runs into his debtor by chance and gets his debt repaid, thinks that there is tukhê in it, finalized chance, whereas automaton designates chance in general, spontaneity without intentional implications." Derrida implicitly refers to Aristotle's Physics II, 197a.
8. "Outre-monde" is an expression found in the French translation of Nietzsche's Zarathustra, where it stands for the German Hinterwelt, or "world beyond." The English translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Adrian Del Caro has "Hinterworld" (20). So Meillassoux's title could be translated as "The Immanence of the Hinterworld." The clearest formulation of what he calls the "spectral dilemma" can be found in "Spectral Dilemma" (266): "despairing at the belief in justice for the dead, or believing despairingly in a God without justice."
9. The English translation has "returning."