I have finally read Meillassoux’s After Finitude, and I am deeply impressed. At the same time, I am distressed by the ways I see him being received in blog circles, because I have almost never experienced such a yawning gap between the way a thinker is presented and the way he seems to be “in himself.” It seems to me, however, that this gap is rooted in Meillassoux himself — it corresponds to the gap between his actual argumentation and his rhetorical positioning. The blog reception seems to be dominated by his more programmatic statements, which in my mind are often overblown and actually obscure what’s going on in his argumentation.
It seems to me that there is a kind of serendepity linking together the main “theoretical” works I’ve read in the last few months — the Gabriel/Zizek book, Rose’s Hegel Contra Sociology, and Meillassoux’s After Finitude. Though I read them all for different reasons, all of them obviously deal with the aftermath of Kant, and despite Meillassoux’s programmatic statements, he seems to take things in a very similar direction to Rose (whose refrain that the Hegelian step beyond Kant requires the absolute to be thinkable) or Gabriel (whose inclusion of Meillassoux in a discussion of the consequences of German Idealism seems much more appropriate and even obvious after actually reading Meillassoux rather than relying on second-hand accounts).
Drawing on Rose, I would claim that Meillassoux’s “correlationism” is essentially neo-Kantianism and that Meillassoux’s own work is an attempt to go back behind neo-Kantianism and recover the “missed opportunity” encapsulated in post-Kantian Idealism. Indeed, Meillassoux essentially says that the only way out of correlationism is through, and that to find that way out/through, we need to look at what the post-Kantians did: “they turned the correlation itself, the instrument of empirco-critical de-absolutization, into the model for a new type of absolute” (52). This is exactly what I’ve characterized again and again as a “Hegelian” move, and it’s exactly the kind of thing the Meillassoux carries out so satisfyingly in the pages that follow. Obviously Meillassoux wouldn’t agree that this move really is “Hegelian” — he has a more standard reading of Hegel, which is totally defensible and fine — but on the level of the actual substance and argumentation, it’s essentially the same thing.
Meillassoux does characterize the Kantian turn as a disaster for thought, etc., but it’s clear from his actual argumentation that Kant really did render all metaphysics impossible — Meillassoux has absolutely no interest in going back to pre-critical metaphysics, though his rhetoric seems to have convinced some readers that we can be done with Kant and do the kind of thing pre-critical metaphysicians did (“skip straight to” the object without thinking our way out of the correlate, etc.). Instead, he wants to go further than Kant along the path that he initially set out, without getting caught in the cul de sac he calls correlationism and others such as Rose probably would call neo-Kantianism rather than Kantianism proper. This path seems to me to be very, very similar to the path that, for example, Zizek takes in Tarrying With the Negative and other works, where he derives the ontological non-All from the Kantian problematic.
The way he continues the Kantian revolution is really innovative and satisfying and thought-provoking, though it’s clear that a significant amount of work needs to be done — above all, actually deriving Cantorian set theory from the principle of factiality (i.e., demonstrating his key claim!). It’s so thought-provoking that it almost inclines me to work my way through Badiou, whom I had largely written off as irrelevant to my main concerns. But there’s a real discrepancy between this level where Meillassoux is innovative and seductive and great and the other level where Meillassoux is making unsupportably simplistic claims about the history of philosophy, claims that actually don’t do justice to his own argumentation.
What’s ironic to me is that this programmatic rhetoric has enabled people who are so “refreshed” by the way Meillassoux opens up new paths for us to get beyond commentary on figures and discourse directly about subject matter (for instance, Levi) to get stuck on the history of philosophy issues — we need to get rid of Kant, because Kant is bad, etc. No, it seems to me that for Meillassoux, Kant really did open up a radically new stage in philosophy by rendering metaphysics impossible, and we now need to push further. People who get stuck on the critique of correlationism — including the extremely simplistic methodological claims that referring to humanity or to anything human-relevant is a symptom of correlationism, and the obviously wrong claim that the way out of correlationism is simply to ignore the correlate rather than to work through it as Meillassoux himself effectively does (and again, yes, I’m talking about Levi here) — are in danger of getting stuck in yet another cul de sac, are in fact in danger of simply slipping back into pre-critical metaphysics.
I can forgive Meillassoux for being programmatic and hyperbolic in this “opening salvo,” and I fully expect that as he develops his project in a more systematic way, a lot of these battle lines will turn out to be much less clearly defined. I can also forgive bloggers for latching onto the more programmatic and hyperbolic aspects of his work, since that’s the stuff that seems to fit best into the blogging genre. Still, both of those elements together seriously obscure what, for me, is most valuable about Meillassoux’s work. This whole experience makes me seriously question — or, more accurately, solidify my preexisting suspicions of — the possibility of philosophy as an internet phenomenon: the things that work best as combative blog memes are taken up, whereas the core of the argument is cast aside and even directly contradicted.