The ‘Not’ of Speculative Realism

By Giorgio Cesarale, 19 February 2014
Image: Finis Ab Origine Pedet (My End is My Beginning)

Is the movement formerly known as Speculative Realism really as weird as it would wish, or is its free floating negativity the index of a different kind of estrangement? Giorgio Cesarale descends into the philosophical interior of the artworld’s favourite brand of theory and discovers a peculiarly inconsistent kind of nothing at its core.


The Strange Birth of Speculative Realism

To say that something is ‘strange’ or ‘weird’ implies an already established subject, or a subject in the process of being established. To define something in this way it must already have manifested itself, and been judged as incongruent with a standard. However, at the conference at Goldsmiths in 2007 that launched Speculative Realism (SR) as a philosophical movement and gave it its name, Graham Harman was already pointing out the strangeness of the philosophical project of SR’s proponents, Ray Brassier, Ian Hamilton Grant, Quentin Meillassoux himself. [i] The realism put forward by the (so-called) Speculative Realists departs from common sense and philosophical realism.[ii] The traditional ‘realist’ thesis that argues for a mind-independent reality is endorsed by all these philosophers, and it constitutes one of their central conceptual objectives (this holds particularly true for Meillassoux and Brassier). However, the way in which they attempt to verify this thesis, and most of all, the philosophical substance of their reasoning, is very different from what in the history of philosophy is labelled as realist. SR proposes that reality is insofar as it is mind-independent. But this proposition is more the consequence of its larger philosophical framework than the object of a determinate theoretical demonstration. SR’s particular form of realism arises from the combination of heterogeneous philosophical materials, and complex and differentiated strategies, from the reductive eliminativism of Brassier to the object-oriented philosophy of Harman, to the metaphysical dynamism of Grant and the Cartesian rationalism of Meillassoux.[iii]


However, what makes SR strange and to some extent idiosyncratic is, we argue, the peculiar relation that it establishes with both the issues of nothingness and negativity. If we look at the history of philosophy, it is in fact difficult to find a realist philosophy that engages as deeply with the issue of nothingness and negativity as SR. It is rather idealism, both in its ancient and modern forms, that has endowed negativity and nothingness with a decisive role. The question, however, is not confined to history – its theoretical dimension immediately arises. Traditional realism, by insisting on the autonomy of being from thought, claims the fully positive nature of the former, and takes being away from negativity. The sole form of negativity that traditional realism can concede is that of external negativity, which is hierarchically articulated: reality determines what represents it, despite never coinciding with it. It is not therefore by accident that the reemergence of the need for a materialist realism within the Marxist debate – we refer here to Lukács’ Ontology of Social Being – has been accompanied by a struggle against the ontologisation of negativity.


To speak of nothingness and negativity means at the same time to speak of nihilism, as Jacobi showed in his denunciation of the dissolving power of the ‘I’ of Fichtean idealism and its elimination of a mind-independent reality. The link between SR and nihilism, and especially with the nihilism of continental philosophy, is rather ambiguous however. If SR is strongly imbued with nihilism, it also tries to ‘domesticate’ it, to constructively relate to it. Such domestication mostly relies on the rediscovery of the absolute, of a being-in-itself which is capable of opposing the annihilating spiral triggered by the different conceptual devices of modern philosophy, ranging from the idealistic ‘I’ to the Hegelian dialectic and the ontological difference postulated by Heidegger. The task is without doubt ambitious, and it has required the accumulation of a vast array of philosophical tools. Nonetheless, we will argue that the philosophical bravura that distinguishes the proponents of SR is not sufficient for them to overcome the historical enmity between realism and nihilism or to relocate it on a different conceptual level.


Quentin Meillassoux: Nothingness as the Origin of Facticity

While Meillassoux has, over time, greatly enriched and clarified the reasoning that lies at its base, the book After Finitude remains crucial for the understanding of his discourse. His original question, endowed with a ‘transcendental’ nuance, is the following: under which conditions are ancestral statements possible, meaning by ‘ancestral statements’ all those statements referring to events that precede the origin of the relation between humans and the world (such as the origin of the universe or the formation of the earth)?[iv] The question arises from the hegemony, within contemporary thought, of what Meillassoux defines as the ‘correlationist circle’. This can be paraphrased as the impossibility of apprehending something in itself, as independent from thought, without turning it, in the very same moment in which we think of it, into something ‘for us’, that is, into something posited by thought.[v] But if we assume this stance, says Meillassoux, we cannot attribute any rational status to ancestral statements, as they contain pretensions of truth independent of human thought. We need, therefore, to search for a ‘being in itself’, for an absolute that could resist any attempt to turn it into a ‘being for us’.


According to Meillassoux, the solution to this problematic situation lies in a further articulation of correlationism, a category that incorporates within itself all those currents of thought that support the unsurpassable character of correlation, the impossibility of bypassing the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.[vi] Correlationism is in fact divided into a weak and a strong model.[vii] The first one coincides with Kantian philosophy (not even Neo-Kantian philosophies, would fall into this category), while the second draws from post-metaphysical thought (Heidegger, Wittgenstein, phenomenology, analytic philosophy etc.). The subtle yet relevant difference between the two concerns the relation between the possibility of knowing and the possibility of thinking the ‘in itself’. While, in fact, Kantian philosophy considers the ‘in itself’ as thinkable, although external to cognitive activities, for ‘strong correlationism’ the ‘in itself’ is both unknowable and unthinkable. However, the same argument is put forward by post-Kantian philosophy, which Meillassoux considers metaphysical since it hypostatises an instance of subjectivity by projecting it onto objectivity as a whole.[viii] The post-Kantian’s thesis of the unthinkability of the ‘in itself’, leads thus to the assumption that the philosophical scene will be dominated only by the subjectivation of the correlate subject-object, in all its diverse configurations (from Schelling’s nature and Hegel’s spirit to the various vitalist reductions of Nietzsche and Deleuze). Strong correlationism, therefore, finds itself in front of a new and more fearful enemy, that, on the basis of the transcendental critique of metaphysics, proposes a new absolutisation – not of the ‘in itself’, as in classical metaphysics, but of what, in Hegelian terms, one could define as the ‘for itself’.


Strong correlationism escapes the trap devised by subjectivist metaphysics by applying to it the same strategy employed by weak correlationism against pre-critical metaphysics. As weak correlationism destroys the pretensions of metaphysics by denying the existence of an unconditioned and necessary being which ‘is because it has to be’, strong correlationism destroys the pretensions of subjectivist metaphysics by denying the necessary and unconditional quality of correlationist forms – that is, of the invariants that are supposed to structure and regulate the world (the principle of causality, the physical laws) and the logical basis of its representation (for instance the principle of non-contradiction). To the contingency of intra-wordly objects and events, guaranteed by weak correlationism, we have to add therefore the facticity of the invariant elements that structure the world – its ‘epochality’, to echo Heidegger – which are promoted by strong correlationism. In as much they are ‘facts’, these beings can be conceived as capable of being otherwise, without our knowing, however, if they will effectively become so. The impossibility of knowing if this possibility will become real is, in any case, decisive. It is only in this way that the critique of the principle of sufficient reason – according to which there is a reason why ‘what exists, exists’ – can be radicalised, by revealing the finitude of our being as much as it reveals the finitude of those invariants (the principle of causality and the principle of non-contradiction) that transform the ‘in itself’ into a given.[ix]


Now, what we have looked at is essentially a further and more powerful experience of de-absolutisation. Access to the absolute would appear therefore to be barred. On the contrary, Meillassoux believes that the very facticity of the correlate – that is, the impossibility of grounding its necessity – represents the absolute. However, to demonstrate such a thesis it is not enough to demand a ‘change in outlook’ that leads to the identification of the absence of reason (or cause) as the ultimate property of ‘what is’. A proper argument is called for.[x]


According to Meillassoux, this argument can be deduced ex negativo, by challenging, once again, correlationism. This latter, in fact, argues that maintaining that facticity is a property of the ‘in itself’ is illegitimate, because in this way we would assign to the ‘in itself’ what instead concerns our knowledge. The speculative realist, says the correlationist, acts like a subjectivist metaphysician:as the latter projects the necessity of correlation onto the ‘in itself’, and turns correlation into the only ‘in itself’, the former projects the contingency of correlation onto the ‘in itself’. In a word, according to the correlationist the speculative realist is still completely within the correlationist circle, that is, the process that transforms the ‘in itself’ into knowledge.


How can we break out of this correlationist circle? For Meillassoux one has to carefully reflect on the implications of the facticity of correlation. If correlation is contingent, then we can think its not-being. If, on the other hand, one cannot think the contingency of correlation, the subjectivist metaphysician’s thesis of the necessity of correlation is correct. Now, what is the condition that allows the possible not-being of correlation to be thinkable? According to Meillassoux, this condition lies in the affirmation of the possibility of the independence of existence from thought, that is, in a notion of the possible that coincides with the negation of correlation, with its abolition. This is the very same paradox contained in the thought of death: if our physical and psychological annihilation were conceived as the correlate of an act of thought, we would, once again, transform nothingness into being, and we would prevent ourselves from thinking our nothingness. In order to think death, in other words, we have to think, chiastically, the death of thought.[xi]


From here, Meillassoux deduces what is probably his most famous thesis, according to which, only the contingency of things is not contingent. This has a series of consequences, such as the temporality of chaos and its mathematical conceivability, whose investigation is beyond the aim of this article.


Meillassoux’s discourse is probably one of the most extreme forms of nihilism in contemporary thought. Nihilism, in fact, does not simply amount to the affirmation that existence is worthless. Nor, as Brassier argues, does it have a special relation to disenchantment, to the awareness that reality is something indifferent to our existence.[xii] More radically, nihilism is a conception according to which any being ‘is’ in so far as it comes from nothingness and ends as nothingness. This also means that any conception of being as destined to nothingness is nihilistic. We can therefore conclude that the philosophy of Meillassoux perfectly corresponds to the instance of nihilism, as it is based on a principle – the principle of factiality – according to which only contingency is not contingent, only factuality is not contingent. But to say, for example, that a law of nature is contingent, immediately means to say that there can be a time when ‘it was not’ and a time where it will not be. In other words, it not only amounts to the ‘capacity of becoming other’, but also to the capacity of originating from the other. One can object, echoing Plato, that originating from the other does not correspond to ‘coming from nothingness’, as it could originate from being. However, if this is true, it would be in being that precedes being that one might identify the reason why being ‘is’. In this way the principle of sufficient reason to which Meillassoux objects would be restored. Neither could one employ the argument according to which being can randomly derive from being, for, if this were true, it would mean that there is no relation between being and what follows it. Naturally this is correct only if, as Meillassoux does, we endow that ‘randomly’ with its full meaning and distinguish chance from contingency. That is, we must distinguish what presupposes the existence of laws even though it prompts their infraction from what, on the contrary, presupposes the absolute negation of any pre-existing set of laws.[xiii] If we adopt this specification of the concept of contingency and fully develop Meillassoux’s discourse, we come to the conclusion that what precedes scientific contingent law has to be the ‘nothingness of that law’, in the same way that what follows it will have to be once again its nothingness. The chaos described by Meillassoux precisely refers to this, to a form of reality that interposes nothingness between being and being.


The conceptual problems are not however resolved. At this stage, Meillassoux’s nihilism, seems to turn into its opposite. Why? The question at stake is the difference between nothingness as nothingness and the nothingness-of-the-law. Nothingness as nothingness ends up cancelling itself and any possibility of affirming itself; the nothingness-of-the-law instead is a determinatenothingness, nothingness related to something. But as Hegel very well grasped, whenever nothingness starts to acquire determinacy, it ceases to be nothingness, and it turns into its opposite: being. Thus, if being precedes contingent being, we encounter the same problem we have just described, that is, the impossibility of eluding the question of sufficient reason that regulates the relation between these two moments. Nor, once again, can we appeal to a random derivation of being from being because it is precisely the latter that generates the theoretical problems we are facing.


If the above is correct, the following conclusion is inevitable: Meillassoux’s attempt to ground the necessity of contingency is undermined by the difficulty of demonstrating the absolute negativity of the ‘moments’ that ‘circumscribe’ contingent being. If the ‘moments’ that precede contingent being – and those that succeed it – are nothing but determinacies, then contingent being loses its necessity, since it depends on the relation with these determinacies.


Ray Brassier: Unilateralisation and Negativity[xiv]

A similar problem affects a significant part of Brassier’s theoretical project, namely the elaboration of a non-dialectical logic of negation, inspired by François Laruelle. What is the structure of this logic? Perhaps, in order to answer this question, one must start from the concept of the ‘real’ that Brassier attributes to Laruelle. For Brassier, Laruelle’s conception of the real can be compared to Badiou’s ‘being-nothing’. It does not, therefore, coincide with a negation of being, since this would be to re-constitute it in opposition to something, but rather with its degree-zero. The real is – says Brassier, anticipating Žižek’s latest book – less than nothing, a last instance ‘which is devoid of even the minimal consistency of the void’. In this sense, the real also is what is given without givenness, what subtracts itself from any ‘transcendental’ framework. As such, it is not an object, but ‘that which manifests the inconsistent or unobjectifiable essence of the object = X’.[xv]


But how is it possible to grasp this unobjectifiable essence of the object, the perspective of radical immanence, without rendering it part of what Meillassoux calls the ‘correlationist circle’, that is, without transforming the in-itself into a for-us? Accordingly, how can one frame conceptually the relationship between a real radically separated from the correlationist circle and the various forms taken on by the latter? Drawing on Laruelle, Brassier adopts a complex strategy, which one can more easily approach by starting from the concept of ‘determination’. The unobjectifiable character of the real demands a type of determination that is indifferent to what it determines, while maintaining its radical immanence to what it determines. If we want the real to continue to be not relative to what it determines, one must ‘distinguish immanence as a necessary but negative condition, as sine qua non for the relation of determination, from its effectuation as transcendentally determining condition insofar as this is contingently occasioned by the empirical instance that it necessarily determines’.[xvi]


In what sense can we say that immanence is effectuated as transcendental? For Brassier, it is the same separation between radical immanence, intended as what is already given prior to every separation, and the philosophical thinking that is transcendental: the separation is accepted, indeed, in order to be thought. But how does this transcendentality become intelligible, namely effectively thinkable? Laruelle-Brassier outline the fact that if radical immanence is already-given-without-givenness, then even the separation from philosophical thinking will be always-already-performed. This entails two consequences: the first one is that what Laruelle calls the philosophical decision (philosophical thinking along with its demarcations) will be relative-in-the-last-instance to the real, and will lose its supposed self-positing autonomy; the second one is that the empirical giving of philosophy will allow the real’s foreclosure to be transcendentally effectuated. Why? Because if the autonomy of the philosophical decision is suspended, then it will be given as something only occasional and relatively sufficient.[xvii] It will become


susceptible to determination by a radically necessary but non-sufficient cause: immanence as cause of determination-in-the-last-instance. And this determination of Decision as sufficient but non-necessary occasional cause, according to immanence as necessary but non-sufficient cause-in-the-last-instance, is performed by non-Decisional thought. This effectuation of immanence’s foreclosure to Decision in non-Decisional thought, or Decision’s determination-in-the-last-instance through the non-Decisional effectuation of immanence in thought, is what Laruelle calls ‘cloning’.[xviii]


But, in this way, can we say that non-philosophy as the transcendental function of the real’s immanence leads to a re-institution of correlational reciprocity between immanence and thinking? Laruelle-Brassier say no. It is undeniable that the perspective of radical immanence means separation from all the dyads that characterise philosophical thinking, including the one between the thinkable and unthinkable. Yet, this does not render radical immanence unthinkable. Rather, it is only because radical immanence is separated from the dyad thinkable/unthinkable that the former can use the latter as occasion from which to clone itself as a transcendental identity. Thus, it is the empirical occurrence of thought that allows immanence’s foreclosure to effectuate itself as thought.[xix]


Fundamentally, radical immanence is not correlated with thought because the distinction between


the real’s foreclosure to thought and determination-in-the-last-instance as a transcendental effectuation of that foreclosure is not a dyadic distinction between different reifiable ‘things’. […] There is only one ‘thing’: objectifying transcendence as occasional cause. ‘Between’ the real’s foreclosure to objectification and determination-in-the-last-instance’s foreclosure to objectification there is neither identity nor difference but only an identity-of-the-last-instance occasioned by objectification itself. The real’s foreclosure is effectuated as determination’s foreclosure to objectification on the basis of the latter as occasional cause. Objectification remains the single hypostatized instance here.[xx]


The identity-of-the-last-instance between the real’s foreclosure to objectification and determination-in-the-last-instance as a transcendental effectuation of that foreclosure converts the unilateral duality between immanence and decision into that between non-Decisional clone and its Decisional occasion. In this way, and this is the core of the method of unilateralisation, although immanence’s foreclosure becomes effectuated as non-decisional thinking on the basis of the philosophical decision as empirical occasion, immanence’s foreclosure unilaterally determines, through its transcendental clone, the philosophical decision. In sum, what has occurred is a unilateralisation of both determination and thinkability.[xxi]


One of the main results of the deployment of negativity in Laruelle’s philosophy is the suspension of the sufficiency and autonomy of the philosophical decision. But, by doing this, as we have already mentioned, an ineradicable immanence of the phenomenon in itself, subtracted from every phenomenologisation, is affirmed.[xxii] So, the ultimate articulation of every philosophical Decision is disclosed ‘on the basis of a last instance that is Undecidable only because it is the already Decided irreversibly determining every Decision; a last instance that is Undeterminable only because it is the already Determinate irreversibly determining or cloning whatever remains philosophically Determinable’.[xxiii]


It is certainly possible to test the solidity and the coherence of this peculiar form of ‘transcendentalism’, which passes through the short circuit between determination and thinkability. Nonetheless, what interests us in this context, is to reflect on the meaning of negativity. In order to do that, it might be useful to focus on the last part of the philosophical progression we have just described: the last-instance as something Undecidable and Undeterminable only because it is the already Decided irreversibly determining every Decision. One can say that it is a really radical and ‘abyssal’ negativity. Being-nothing subtracts itself from every process of positivisation, by instituting a type of transcendentality that assigns it to a ‘past’ no longer interpretable as given, and allowing, at the same time, the non-philosophical decision to dismember the correlational syntheses, to annul their capacity to transform every in itself into a for us. The Real’s negativity, therefore, is not pure subtraction from the field of the transcendental synthesis, but it amounts to an active function, though undeterminable, similar to Althusser’s metonymic causality and to Spinoza’s substance.


Since it is always-already irremediably ‘past’ and unilaterally determining but not determinable, Laruelle-Brassier’s negativity does not seem susceptible to be ‘captured’, not even through the clone of the determination-in-the-last-instance. But let’s linger a bit longer on the meaning of being-nothing. Being-nothing is undeterminable and undecidable, in so far as it is the already determinate irreversibly determining philosophical thinking and its demarcations. Certainly, negativity is ‘strengthened’ if we argue that, when the empirical occasion of philosophical thinking appears, it is already determined as given in its being negative. In this way, the unilateral duality seems actually unsurpassable. If being-nothing is given prior to every separation from philosophical thinking, albeit determining it, when thought empirically occurs, it will always be beyond the empirical occasion, in other words, it won’t be determinable. Nonetheless, we still need to clarify if negativity preserves its nothingness when one comprehends that it is indeterminate only in so far as it is ‘the already Determinate irreversibly determining or cloning whatever remains philosophically Determinable’. Saying that being-nothing is always-already given as irreversibly determining does not mean pushing being-nothing toward an absolute determination, that is, toward ‘that which is nothing before being nothing’? Does not the abyssal character of being-nothing paradoxically render its negativity always the same as what it has already been? In this case, to have been as negativity, means to have been absolutely given. But if negativity such, it must not only radically separate itself from the determinable; it must also negate its movement of determination, its effectuating as having-already-been. Otherwise, what remains is only a horizon characterised by, on the one hand, an absolute determination, that of having already been as being-nothing, and, on the other, a relative determination, that of the empirical occurrence of thought. This horizon is paradoxically Parmenidean, as it is marked by a unilateral duality similar to the Pre-Socratic philosopher’s duality between aletheia and doxa, between the path of truth and the path where truth and error are inextricably mixed. Of course, the radical difference between Brassier-Laruelle and Parmenides is that the latter thinks the path of truth exclusively as the path of being. According to Parmenides, nothing is unspeakable and unthinkable. But does not Brassier dissolve negativity into the pure affirmation of being, rendering it always the same as what it has already been?


Graham Harman: the Real Object and Negativity

A philosophy which explicitly claims to be ‘object-oriented’, such as Harman’s, could lead one to think that we must have done with negativity and nothingness or run the risk of falling into an interpretive illusion. But this is not exactly the case, as the question of negativity is deeply rooted in this philosophical project, and prompts – as we will try to demonstrate – a number of conceptual tensions. But before embarking on this argument, one has to recall the content of Harman’s position, brilliantly recapitulated in his recent The Quadruple Object. Harman’s first targets are those philosophical strategies that either transform the object into ‘a mere surface effect of some deeper force’ or into an aggregate of ‘more evident qualities and relations’.[xxiv] Against these strategies, Harman reaffirms the necessity of anchoring philosophy to a strong concept of the object, defined as ‘anything that has a unified reality that is autonomous from its wider context and also from its pieces’. Harman’s object possesses, thus, an autonomous and unified reality.[xxv]


The cosmos is, however, full of many different objects. How can one thus manage to reduce the complexity of the object-world and to inscribe it into some sort of unifying grid? For Harman, the world is apportioned into two kinds of object: the sensual and the real. The first, the sensual object, has been described by Husserl as the intentional object, that is the object of the phenomenal world, which exists in so far as it is perceived. This does not make it equivalent to the set of the accidental qualities that adhere to its surface, however. Although the sensual object appears from the very beginning along with what Husserl calls adumbrations, it is always one. In this way, the sensual object and the sensual qualities generate a tension; a tension that only phenomenology, according to Harman, has been able to take into account.[xxvi]


This is not however the only tension or ‘polarisation’ at work in the sensual object. Once the accidental qualities have been stripped from the object, what remains is not an empty conceptual unity. Every single object differs from the others because of qualities which are essential, in so far as they make the object what it is. In any case, as with the sensual object, the fact that the object isone and the qualities are many, makes the object constitutively different from its essential qualities, and always in tension with them, Yet, the similarities between the accidental and the essential qualities – which Harman renames as ‘real’ – terminate here, since only the accidental qualities of the object can be encountered in experience. How, then, can essential qualities be grasped? Husserl thought that this could be done through a new type of intuition, different from the sensual one, that he labeled ‘categorial intuition’. But this is not accepted by Harman since he believes that one can have access to the real qualities only by way of allusion, whether in the arts or in the sciences.[xxvii] The real qualities are, therefore, withdrawn from all access, and ‘will never be exhausted by the feeble sketches of them delivered to our hearts and minds’.[xxviii]


But the fact that being ‘is’ by hiding itself – to use the Heideggerian expression – for Harman applies also to the ‘real object’. Through the analysis of the concept of Zuhandenheit (readiness-to-hand),[xxix] part of the tool-system described by Heidegger in Being and Time, he arrives at the conclusion that the world is made up of ‘realities withdrawn from all conscious aspect’.[xxx] The broken tool or the earthquake raise our awareness that ‘the usual manner of things is not to appear as phenomena, but to withdraw into an unnoticed subterranean realm’.[xxxi] Every phenomenon of this kind will show aspects ‘that elude me [the observer]’.[xxxii] This makes the real object, unlike the sensual object, independent from whatever encounters it. Quoting Harman, if ‘I close my eyes to sleep or die, the sensual tree is vaporised, while the real tree continues to flourish even if all sentient beings are destroyed along with me’.[xxxiii]


As many know, Harman’s theoretical task in the final part of The Quadruple Object is to connect these ‘tensions’ and ‘polarisations’ to the Heideggerian conceptualisation of Geviert, the fourfold, and to study the different possible permutations of objects and qualities. But what concerns us here are rather the real objects and the real qualities, conceived as something that is insofar as it is withdrawn from access, from its full and ultimate manifestation. It is this point that allows us to talk, once again, of the role played by negativity. But the question we have to raise beyond the one of negativity is the following: why does a philosophical conception that aims to reiterate a ‘strong’ concept of the object, defined as something autonomous and unified, refer immediately to negativity, to a withdrawal of being from its manifestation? Do not negativity and autonomous unity clash with one another?


In Harman, negativity originates from the concept of ‘relation’, or better from the incorporation of relations within the object itself. As we have already seen, for Harman, real qualities are those qualities that distinguish an object from others, whereas real objects are those objects which reveal their inexhaustible character when the relations collapse. Though indirectly, because it depends on a ‘crisis’ of these relations, the real object cannot avoid ‘relating to relations’. But that these relations have, in the last instance, to crystallise in an object, ultimately constituting its nature, is also discernible in Harman, when he argues that any relation immediately generates a new object.


If certain components are arranged in such a manner as to give rise to a thing that exceeds them, in such a way that it can withstand certain changes in these components, then they have entered a genuine relation with each other as real objects rather than merely stroking one another’s sensual facades. It should now be clear that insofar as we somehow connect with a real object outside us, giving rise to perceptions of sensual trees, mailboxes, or blackbirds, we have somehow linked with that object to form a new real object. While it is true that perceptions are transient, not purely physical, and also made up of rather heterogeneous pieces, these points disqualify them as objects only for those who accept needless traditional views of what an object is. For in fact, my perception of a tree does meet the criteria for an object. It is definitely unified, for it is one perception. It is also something new, irreducible to its pieces in isolation, since neither I nor the tree in a vacuum give rise to anything like a tree-perception. And furthermore, this perception of a tree has a reality deeper that any attempt to describe it, which is precisely why phenomenological practice is so tricky.[xxxiv]


This argument raises some questions. For example, given that within Harman’s discourse there is no room for a Hegelian or Marxist contradiction, how is it possible that what gives rise to the new object manages to be, at once, piece and real object? For the moment, however, we want to leave these questions aside, and first to address what we consider to be the main theoretical problem of Harman’s argument. In order to do so we should start from the thesis according to which the object, including the one generated from the relation, is autonomous from its parts, irreducible to them. This implies that it must be different from the parts that constitute it. But the difference emerges only if the poles of the relation are positively characterisable. A difference where therelata are in principle unfinished, as in the case of Harman’s real object, is not conceivable. Two objects can therefore be conceived as different only when the definition of their identity and of their characteristics is fixed. Otherwise, difference would be always insecure and revocable. Now, is this not precisely the case with the distinction between the new object, generated from a relation, and its components? Is this not implied in the impossibility of revealing real objects’ intrinsic nature because they are never exhausted by the plurality of relations? How can one claim that the object is autonomous from its components if their identity with themselves is always to be discovered?


Therefore, in Harman’s conception, the positivity and autonomy of the object do not easily merge with its negativity. Even in his theoretical attempt, nihilism and realism cannot find a context in which to ‘mediate’ one another in a less contradictory and indecisive way.



Considering the multiform and in-progress nature of SR, the conclusions of this article cannot be definitive. Coquetting with Max Weber the sociologist of religion, one can say that what follows is closer to a Zwischenbetrachtung than to a proper conclusion; they are, in fact, intermediate reflections which have to be refined in the course of the on-going debate.


One of the premises of our analysis was to locate Meillassoux, Brassier and Harman under the rubric of ‘nihilism’. To recall the introduction to the article, it is ‘strange’ or ‘weird’ to affirm that a philosophical proposal that claims to be ‘realist’ can be rooted in nihilism. But the concept of nihilism we have taken into account is the Heideggerean one, which we believe has a much more radical meaning than the usual one, since it affirms nothingness as the primary horizon of being. In this precise sense, all the three thinkers we have just examined can be called ‘nihilist’. Meillassoux in fact thinks facticity as what comes from nothing and can return to nothing; Brassier on the other hand conceives being-nothing as what determines being, although it is undeterminable and undecidable; and lastly Harman bets on the possibility of renewing the comprehension of the object-world through the introduction of a concept of the ‘real object’ which is, by definition, withdrawn from access. However, as we tried to argue, it is hard to preserve the radical character of negativity without ‘compromising’ it every time with its opposite. If, in fact, Meillassoux and Brassier ultimately conflate negativity with being, Harman does not succeed in rendering negativity capable of directly structuring ontology. However, what probably needs to be analysed more attentively is their primary philosophical gesture, namely, the violent exclusion of negativity from the field of being.


This is particularly evident in both Meillassoux and Brassier. In Meillassoux, nothingness ‘circumscribes’ being but does not ‘penetrate’ into it, since, if it did, the Hegelian principle of contradiction, which he contests because it implies necessity and not contingency, would be affirmed. In Brassier, being-nothing is what is given prior to any separation from being. We can see a similar perspective in Harman. For him, the real object is, in fact, inexhaustible and withdrawn from access. We might conclude that it is precisely this exclusion of negativity from the field of being that generates the problems we have discussed in this article.


However, we should perhaps be more precise about this: it is the idea of nothingness as the beginning of being that triggers a conceptual tension. In order to confront this conceptual problem – and it is not an accident that Brassier is going in a similar direction in his recent work – it is relevant to reflect on a theoretical contribution which at first sight appears radically different from that of Speculative Realism, namely the dialectical thought of Hegel and Marx.[xxxv] Through an engagement with these authors, the speculative realist might discover that to bypass the problems generated by positing negativity as the beginning of being one must abandon negativity as first principle, transforming it into a second principle. In a word, the correct theoretical sequence is that which leads from the doctrine of being to the doctrine of essence in Hegel’s Science of Logic and from the commodity to value-in-process (self-valorising value) in Marx’s Capital. In these transitions negativity does not precede being, but proceeds from it.


But how does this happen in the Science of Logic and in Capital? Let’s start with the former. In the Science of Logic the determinations of essence, that is, the determinations which express negativity at its purest, come after the determinations of being, namely, the determinations that grasp things as independent, reciprocally external, and devoid of any inner complexity.[xxxvi] But the fact that in the order of exposition determinations of essence are posterior to determinations of being, does not entail that they are conceptually posterior. According to Hegel it is negativity that grounds the determinations of being and not vice versa. This is, however, a very peculiar ground. The determinations of being are in fact posited by negativity only to be negated as independent, external and devoid of any inner complexity. Something similar happens in Capital where value comes after the first stage in the exposition of the categories of capital, at the point where the surface of capitalist society is presented as an ‘immense collection of commodities.’[xxxvii] The chaotic movement of use values that appears at the beginning of Capital, can be reorganised and apprehended only if value comes into play. Value, in fact, negates the reciprocal independence of use values and unveils the internal articulation of each commodity, its being constituted by two determinations, the concrete one (use value), and the abstract one (exchange value).


That said, does not this negation immanent to essence and value risk becoming something ultimately ‘stabilised’, and hence in contradiction with the demands of negativity? I want to suggest here that the self-referential character of this type of negation undercuts such a possibility; and by self-referential negation I mean that essence and value suspend their own subsistence by negating any punctual determination of themselves. As Marx argued, value is ‘the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and of commodities, it changes its own magnitude.’[xxxviii] Similarly, for Hegel, essence is such only if it constantly posits and takes back into itself its distinctions.[xxxix] Echoing Jean-Luc Nancy, we can conclude that the restlessness of negativity is fully realised within value and essence. Nevertheless, the indefinite expansion of negativity leads to a situation similar to the one produced by Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust. The ‘spirit that always negates’ is tantamount to the destruction of finite things, to the perpetual consumption of what Marx would call use value (including concrete labour). Perhaps the lack of interest in the nature of capitalist socialist relations that many impute to the speculative realists derives from this circumvention of the Hegelian and Marxian notion of negativity.


Giorgio Cesarale ( is Research Fellow at the 'Sapienza' – University of Rome. He works on Hegel, Marx and Critical Theory.



Brassier, Ray, 2001, Alien Theory: The Decline of Materialism in the Name of Matter, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Warwick, 2001. A copy of this dissertation can be found here:

– 2007, Nihil Unbound. Enlightenment and Extinction, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

– 2013, That Which is Not: Philosophy as Entwinement of Truth and Negativity, in Stasis, 1.

Brassier, Ray; Grant, Iain Hamilton;  Harman, Graham; Meillassoux, Quentin, 2007, ‘Speculative Realism’, in Collapse, Vol. III, pp. 306-449.

Harman, Graham , 2011, The Quadruple Object, Winchester-Washington: Zero Books.

Hegel, G.W.F., 2010, The Science of Logic, trans. by George di Giovanni, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Magee, Glenn Alexander, 2010, The Hegel Dictionary, London: Continuum.

Marx, Karl, 1976, Capital: Volume 1, trans. by Ben Fowkes, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Meillassoux, Quentin, 2008, After Finitude. An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. by R. Brassier, London: Continuum.


[i] Brassier, Grant, Harman, Meillassoux 2007, pp. 367-368.

[ii] In this regard, Harman has recalled the realism of one of the precursors of analytical philosophy, G. E. Moore (ibid.).

[iii] The heterogeneity of the philosophical strategies of Brassier, Grant, Harman and Meillassoux could make subsuming them under the label ‘speculative realism’ rather misleading. Meillassoux, who prefers to be called a ‘speculative materialist’, and Brassier, who is particularly critical about the very creation of the movement as a philosophical brand, would seem to escape inclusion. Nevertheless, certain philosophical gestures are common to all these thinkers, and we will try in this article to analyse one of these common gestures: the foundation of realism via negativity. In the following, we do not address Grant’s stance, because we do not have room to take into account its historic-philosophical premise, that is Schelling’s philosophy of nature. On the other hand, we think that the relationship between productivity and products, which substantiates his philosophical project, shows problems similar to the ones we will discuss here.

[iv] Meillassoux 2008, p.27.

[v] Meillassoux 2008, p.5.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Meillassoux 2008, p.30.

[viii] Ibid, p.37.

[ix] Ibid, pp.39-40.

[x] Ibid, pp.53-54.

[xi] Ibid, pp.54-60.

[xii] Brassier 2007, p.XI.

[xiii] Meillassoux 2008, p.100.

[xiv] Readers who find this section excessively technical can skip to the following one.

[xv] Brassier 2007, pp.137-138.

[xvi] Brassier 2001, p.180.

[xvii] Ibid, pp.127-130.

[xviii] Ibid, p.130.

[xix] Ibid, pp.131-132.

[xx] Ibid, p.145.

[xxi] Ibid, pp.132-133.

[xxii] Ibid, p.135.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Harman 2011, p.6.

[xxv] Ibid, p.7.

[xxvi] Ibid, pp. 20-26.

[xxvii] Ibid, p.28.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] In Being and Time, the ready-to-hand refers to technology, insofar as its nature is disclosed by its being available for use.

[xxx] Harman 2011, p.37.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Harman 2011, p.39.

[xxxiii] Harman 2011, p.48.

[xxxiv] Harman 2011, p.117.

[xxxv] Brassier, 2013.

[xxxvi] We find a similar, and very clear, explanation of the difference between the Doctrine of Being and the Doctrine of Essence in a recent interpreter: 'The categories of being express the level of simple immediacy, or of the "givenness" of things (quality, quantity, measure). The standpoint of being is essentially naïve, and Hegel’s account of its categories shows how each fails as a provisional definition of the whole, and how each is therefore superseded. In the Doctrine of Essence we have achieved a critical distance from being. Nevertheless, essence does not simply leave being behind. Instead, in the Doctrine of Essence we turn back upon the categories of being and reflect upon them, trying to penetrate to some deeper level of truth. The transition from being to essence thus duplicates the traditional philosophical overcoming of commonsense: having discovered the contradictions inherent in the immediate world of experience, and in our conceptual understanding of it, we seek some truth that transcends that world. (This is the meaning – or one of the meanings – of Plato’s ‘allegory of cave’.) The Doctrine of Essence, accordingly, is a sustained attempt to discover the inner truth that lies beneath appearances: essence is, as Hegel tells us, "the truth of being"'. (Magee 2010, p.78).

[xxxvii] Marx 1976, p.125.

[xxxviii] Marx 1976, pp.255-256.

[xxxix] Hegel 2010, p. 451.