REVIEW OF WOLFENDALE (3): Correlationism is not Pluralism

Although we share similar experiences of the OOO community, my analysis of Harman’s OOO differs from Wolfendale’s. He tries to reconstruct a single coherent ontology of OOO whereas I think that Harman proposes, as if they were one, at least three different ontologies. I agree on many points with many of the book’s arguments and analyses, but my main reserve about Wolfendale’s critique of Harman’s ontology is that his version of the principle of charity leads him to attribute too much coherence to Harman’s system and to give too much weight to the doctrine of the “fourfold” and its metaphors. This cumbersome doctrine consists merely in a series of metaphorical epicycles linking Harman’s Ontology 1 (unknowable imperceptible unimaginable timeless withdrawn real objects) and Ontology 3 (everything is objects, we are surrounded by objects).

Harman’s talk of “molten cores” etc. constitutes a mediation between these two ontologies, that we may call Ontology 2. So in my critique of Harman, I do not so much disagree with his choice of metaphors as with their position in his ontological geography. A philosophical argument belongs to the space of reasons, which itself belongs to the space of concepts and meanings. One cannot begin to understand an argument without, at least tentatively, situating it inside conceptual space. In the case of Harman’s OOO, his rhetoric of objects creates confusion as to his actual ontological claims and conflates into an ambiguous unity these three ontologies.

In his book Wolfendale argues that “pluralism motivates strong correlationism” (346). He sees the break with correlationism that he desires as constituting also a break with pluralism and a return to universalism (i.e. monism). He thus sees Harman as continuous with the poststructuralists. However he seems to exempt Deleuze and Badiou, both pluralists, from this “bad” configuration of pluralist correlationism and yet to include Latour within it, found guily of “ontological liberalism”.

This judgement, insofar as it is rationally motivated, depends on Wolfendale’s reconstruction of what he calls the “core conceit” of correlationist philosophies:

“We briefly mentioned this core conceit of correlationism at the beginning of the last chapter: the idea that knowledge is irredeemably contaminated by its semantic conditions. We are now in a position to see how pluralism radicalises this conceit, by enabling strong correlationism to claim that the separation of the for-us from the in-itself is effected not simply by the inherent plurality of sensibility (e.g., forms of intuition, sensory mechanisms, etc.), but by the inherent plurality of thought as such (e.g., historical thrownness, language games, etc.)”, (346-347).

The “core conceit” of correlationism that Wolfendale rejects is the thesis of the theory-ladenness of knowledge, and the consequent pluralism of thought and sensibility that this thesis makes possible. The surprising word in this claim is “contaminated”. The semiotic turn in French theory does in fact recognise the pervasiveness of linguistic structuration, but does not for all that reduce everything to language (neither Lyotard, nor Serres, nor Foucault, Badiou, nor Deleuze, nor Stiegler, nor Latour are guilty of that, and even Derrida’s so-called “textualism” is an ambiguous case).

“It is this pluralistic dissolution of semantics into a diaspora of historical, cultural, linguistic, and even biological forms that mutates Husserl’s phenomenological suppression of the noumenon into the quasi-mystical celebration of radical alterity that is the mainstay of strong correlationism in the Continental tradition” (347).

“Radical alterity”, it must be recalled, is another name for what Quentin Meillassoux calls the “great outdoors”. Alterity, in other words, is the name for the non-correlational, or realist, intent and structure of the pluralist thought that Wolfendale is condemning here. The pejorative use of the expression “quasi-mystical celebration” also is also out of place here, and unjustly partisan: if any of these thinkers is “quasi-mystical” it is Meillassoux, with his espousal of the God Who May Be.

In a book whose principal target is supposed to be Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy Wolfendale goes out of his way to associate OOP with the seemingly unrelated idea of pluralism. Thus he conceives the scope of his critique to be much wider than its immediate object:

“The parallel between this critical shift from universalism to pluralism and the sceptical shift from weak to strong correlationism indexes the reigning doxa of the Continental tradition in the latter half of the twentieth century” (348-349).

It would be interesting to know who Wolfendale has in mind when he refers to “pluralism”. Deleuze was a pluralist, and not a “sceptic” in Wolfendale’s sense. Along with Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, and Serres can best be described as pluralist realists. They all criticised “correlationism” and elaborated non-correlationist philosophies long before Meillassoux was even born (1967).

I myself came to Paris in 1980 to get away from the “correlationism” that was taking over in Continental circles in Sydney. When I arrived, Foucault was talking about practices of the self outside the linguistic structures, Deleuze was talking about painting forces (Bacon) and inhuman perception (cinema), Lyotard was talking about the Sublime (the noncorrelational divergence of the faculties) and Serres was discussing the noise outside the systems. It was all pluralist and all non-correlationist. I went on to discover Latour’s emphasis on material networks, Stiegler’s material processes of transindividuation, and Laruelle’s nonphilosophy.

So the major French figures have been consistently “non-correlationist” since at least the sixties up to today. I think that Wolfendale’s problem is that he makes use of a reading grid based on too short a period of time (perhaps 5 years) to interpret a longer and philosophically denser period. This is a fault he shares with Harman, and it gives a very distorted picture indeed of recent philosophical history.

Wolfendale’s conflation of pluralism and correlationism leads him to claim

“this sceptico-critical alliance of strong correlationism and radical pluralism constitutes the reigning doxa of the Continental tradition in the latter half of the twentieth century”, but he continues “that is not to say that it is the only doxa” (352-353).

This idea of a sceptical pluralist-correlationism (or radical relativism) as the hegemonic position within recent and contemporary Continental philosophy is simply false, it merely repeats uncritically Harman’s and Meillassoux’s fictional histories. This historical fiction was invented and proclaimed by them in order to legitimate their ideas and to make their own interventions seem necessary, but it is promoted only at the price of forgetting or obliterating the living core of post-structural French philosophy, i.e. of more than 70 years of philosophical work.

I have often warned against this tendency to rewrite philosophical history so as to present the recent movements of OOO/SR as embodying philosophy awakening from its dogmatic anti-realist slumber and turning at last away from postmodern relativist dreams, orienting itself towards the real that had so long been neglected by our intellectual predecessors. This phantasm of the omnipresence of relativist and anti-realist critical thought and of the abandon of speculation as a means to discover the real is demonstrably false: none of the creative thinkers of poststructuralism (Althusser, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida) were anti-realist and their philosophies were constructed to combat such tendencies.

One of the consequences of this phantasm is that our immediate philosophical past is forgotten or becomes unreadable when viewed through “new realist” glasses. Another is that contemporary thinkers who maintain an informed and positive relation to that past
become unreadable too, while thinkers who present concepts or slogans surreptitiously stolen from that past as if they were major steps forward allowing us to break forever from the dead hand of the erroneous past are taken at face value and held in high esteem. Such falsification of history is to be seen in the very title of the movement “Speculative Realism”, as the Continental pluralists that I have cited are far more aptly described as speculative realists than as anti-realist correlationists.

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