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Lorenzo Chiesa: Notes Towards a Manifesto for Metacritical Realism
Notes Towards a Manifesto for Metacritical Realism
(p. 23 – 37)

Lorenzo Chiesa

Notes Towards a Manifesto for Metacritical Realism

PDF, 15 pages


It is high time to challenge the horizon of finitude that critical philosophy has imposed on thought. This move should not correspond to a reactionary return to dogmatic metaphysics. It should rather resume the latter’s most ambitious and far-reaching questions and offer innovative answers to them. The overall aim of metacritical realism is to develop a philosophical position that shares the anti-critical stance of so-called speculative realism, its claim that thought can somehow access the “absolute” real in a non-dogmatic way, but, unlike speculative realism, advances such a claim by focusing on human nature. This interest in human nature constitutes the metacritical component of metacritical realism.


Quentin Meillassoux’s speculative realism names what has been foreclosed by critical Kantian and post-Kantian “correlationalist” philosophy the “absolute” or the “great outdoors.” Against any latent transcendent or vitalistic temptation, we prefer to call it the “undead,” which initially refers to the fact that from the point of view of the species, individuals are always-already dead, that the individual exclusively serves reproduction as a type, and not as an individual. We consider this notion to be much more effective in countering the influence of the metaphysics of life and mind on real materialism, what Meillassoux himself names a “materialism of matter.” Metacritical realism proposes itself as the only possible materialist materialism. By the latter we mean a theory that thinks matter without recourse to any principle of matter, not even a material one. Materialist materialism’s imperative is that matter as such must be thought as not-one: to think matter as one already surreptitiously presupposes the existence of an immaterial principle.


Metacritical realism both criticizes and recuperates Kant’s critique at another level. It criticizes Kant since it does not postulate any synthetic transcendental ego but fully assumes a subject irreducibly split by language. It recuperates Kant inasmuch as this split induced by language – the Spaltung between self-consciousness and the unconscious cogently theorized by Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis – amounts to nothing else than the transcendental. The transcendental is the faculty of language as such, which cannot be further articulated into a series of a priori categories. At the same time, the transcendental as the faculty of language is the biological invariant of human nature. Biologically, this invariant corresponds to an unsurpassable non-adaptation, or “poverty of instincts” – centered on premature birth and a subsequent disorder of the imagination – that is compensated for but never fully overcome by homo sapiens’s neotenic flexibility.


Language as the generic faculty of man is inextricable from a biological deficit. Language, which is what accounts for the shift from the closure of the animal environment to the openness of the human world as pseudo-environment, should thus be understood in terms of non-specialized – albeit species-specific – potentiality. However, it is important not to confuse the potentiality of the human world with the supposed potentiality of undead nature, a Schellingian absolute that, in its groundlessness, would constitute the primal ground of the real. The latter is a potentiality only through the retroactive effect of the potentiality of the human world.


The notion of human potentiality associated with the faculty of language as the transcendental biological invariant of the species also has a distinctively political dimension. It highlights the fact that the invariant is itself variable. This allows a confrontation between different discourses – understood as symbolic networks that regulate intersubjective relations by way of specific conscious and unconscious ideologies – to hegemonize the transcendental. The latter is thus always also historicized. In brief, we believe that discourses are primarily characterized by the different ways in which they relate to the structural incompletion of anthropogenesis: the more a given discourse assumes the ineluctable persistence of what Lacan called “symbolic possibility” – i.e. the renewal of man’s opening up to symbols – and consequently the transiency of its own suture to the transcendental, the more its politics becomes dialectically emancipatory, that is, voted to radical change.


Metacritical realism gives logical and political precedence to the two over the multiple, since it posits that any primacy of the multiple entails in the end a primacy of the One, the One as primal substance. Privileging the two means giving precedence to human nature as a dialectic between the signifier, on the one hand, and being as void, on the other; or, which is the same, between structure – the symbolic – and the subject – the real of the symbolic. We fully agree with those philosophers who, like Alain Badiou in Theory of the Subject, identify any alleged “process without subject” of the multiple as the metaphysical “epitome of the One.”


We are ultimately concerned with one fundamental ontological question: how should we think the difference between the not-all of the symbolic and the pure inconsistency of the pre-symbolic real? Metacritical realism assumes that the inconsistent multiplicity of the not-all, the real-of-the-symbolic, should be distinguished from the real as such. We believe that there cannot be an ontology of the pre-symbolic real, the undead real, since the inconsistent multiplicity of the undead real subsists without being. On the other hand, the inconsistent multiplicity of the symbolic as not-all is, it is being tout-court. The pre-symbolic real does not have a strictly speaking ontological status as long as it remains a closed, non-lacking, environment. This also concerns the undead real as post and extra-symbolic. More precisely, being cannot be predicated on the undead real since being is the void that emerges in concomitance with the appearance of the signifier, the origins of language. Consequently, ontology should be a discourse on anthropogenesis which is as such, given homo sapiens’s unsurpassable biological deficit, a continuous and unfinished process. Ontology should think being through the productive causality of the anthropological void. This void is the only existing void. Nature is neither a unity nor a totality – the undead real is in this sense “barred” in itself – yet there is no void in nature outside of human nature. While metaphysical dogmatic realism used to think essence as possible existence – and the identification of maximum essence with necessary existence in the case of God – metacritical realism thinks subsistence as possible essence – and their identification, the-identification-of-the-two, in the contingency of the anthropological void.


Biology is a non-ontological discourse that can also be applied to the life of homo sapiens as just another “eternal” species. From this perspective, homo sapiens as an individual animal cannot simply be described as mortal precisely in that he is rather already dead in relation to the “eternal” life of the species – itself subject to genetic mutations and ultimately to the extinction of life. Biological discourse thus runs opposite to ontology’s dependence on the emergence of language and the void, and intersects it when dealing with the issue of the material origins of language. Materialist materialism articulates this intersection.


Both naturalistic materialism and creationism conceive the origins of language as a point in chronological time. Anthropologists, paleontologists and evolutionary biologists tell us that language emerged around fifty thousand years ago, most probably as a result of a genetic mutation in hominids. Similarly, according to “strong” creationists who interpret the Bible ad litteram, God created language a few days after creating the world (including its fossils) sometime between six thousand and ten thousand years ago. In opposition to these views, metacritical realism understands the origins of language as a jump that intersects the anticipation of human nature with its retroaction beyond any possible temporal synthesis. By anticipation we mean the fact that nature always-already contains and resolves language, since the natural order furnishes the material of the symbolic order. Conversely, by retroaction we mean the fact that the symbolic order is retrospectively eternal, and nature will always have been symbolic as it can only be thought symbolically. If taken alone, anticipation and retroaction broadly correspond to the perspectives of naturalistic scientific materialism and “weak” creationism. In accordance with science, the latter believes that language emerged around fifty thousand years ago and the world is much older, yet also assumes that both language and the world were created by God.


In problematizing naturalism’s anticipatory bias, a truly materialistic understanding of the origins of language must also avoid espousing “weak” creationism. This is why we need to insist on thinking the intersection between anticipation and retroaction outside of any synthesis. In other words, nature continues its course despite the emergence of language – which is for it an uneventful occurrence – and language symbolizes nature despite its natural origins. On the contrary, “weak” creationism synthesizes the two perspectives and reduces them to one, which is only apparently that of retroaction. In its Christian guise, not only did God create language suddenly around fifty thousand years ago and thus give retroactive value to nature, but at another point in natural history the divine logos even directly incarnated itself in homo sapiens adding further (redemptive) retroactive meaning to nature. In all truth, this shows that the divine logos was actually present as an ordering “natural” principle from the very beginning of the world: “weak” creationist retroaction is ultimately undistinguishable from “strong” creationist anticipation. As Pope Benedict XVI unequivocally put it in a recent Sunday Angelus prayer, “the human being carries in his genome the deep imprint of the Trinity, of God-Love.” Against this amalgamation, metacritical realism keeps the nature of human nature radically separate from its symbolic humanity – which is inconceivable for any kind of creationism – while articulating their nexus.


The potentially eternal retroactivity of the symbolic is best exemplified by what we could refer to as the extreme “literalization” of genetics, as manifest in the designation of the basic components of genes – the nucleotides of the DNA – with the letters of the alphabet A, C, G, T. Genetics as the scientific discourse on the transmission and variation of life in general – and of human life in particular – aims at explaining the nature of the speaking animal, human nature, in purely anticipatory biological terms (see the so-called genome project). Yet it paradoxically achieves this result only by resolving anticipation into retroaction.


We posit that formalization exhausts symbolization. If we believed that there were symbols beyond the level of formalization, that is, beyond the logic of the signifier, we would inevitably end up postulating the existence of natural symbols. Nature as such would have a meaning, if not a will, and consequently always-already anticipate the symbolic. But we endorse neither the idea of an archetypal sense of nature to be uncovered beneath culture (like Jung), nor that of a blind voluntarism of culture as structured nature (like Lévi-Strauss). Following Lacan, we rather advance that while symbols emerge from images of nature, the latter are formal types, or Gestalten, that are symbolized only retroactively. Culture can thus never directly express nature. Nature and culture remain truly heterogeneous.


We also posit that while formalization exhausts symbolization it does not exhaust the symbolic, since the symbolic is not-all, structurally holed or incomplete. This can be formalized as follows: both the zero-number, i.e. the zero counted as one, and the zero-lack, i.e. the zero as the lack of object, depend on formalization. The zero-lack, the lack of object, is itself only possible from the standpoint of formalized symbolization: there are no absent or present objects in nature. Yet the lack of object should not be confused with the not-all of the symbolic pseudo-environment from which it is derived: the not-all amounts to an unformalizable void, which is also the pure desire of the Other. Or, from a slightly different perspective, as long as it remains materialist, the logic of the signifier never denies the extra-logical character of the real as such.


Thermodynamic energetics allows us to investigate the non-symbolic real beyond a strictly mechanistic Cartesian view – for which, say, a dog is just a “bundle” of extended atoms in movement – without embracing vitalism. Life is, in energetic terms, qualitatively different from a bundle of atoms, yet, before the symbolic calculation of the relation between the input and output of an organism, life does not have any “vitality” as such. Life is initially just a supposed mythical quantity of energy (the libido) about which we do not know – and cannot know – anything. All we can study is metabolism, the computational balance sheet of what comes in and out of this supposed mythical quantity, as well as the way in which the supposed mythical quantity changes qualitatively beyond certain metabolic thresholds. A supposed mythical quantity of energetic life differs qualitatively from a supposed mythical quantity of energetic inorganic matter – for which we also can calculate thresholds of change – on the basis of the former’s higher “stability.” Stones do not undergo metabolic processes of input-output and are, from a mechanistic perspective, more stable than living entities. Yet from the perspective of thermodynamic energetics, stones are less stable than living entities. A stone appears to be more stable when considered from the mechanistic perspective of living entities but is actually less stable than living entities when the latter are seen as just another instantiation of non-living entities.


Through concepts such as that of entropy, energetics enables us to think life as undead, always-already included in the undead, and at the same time to distinguish within the undead living nature from non-living nature. Our notion of the undead thus does not exclusively apply to living nature (the “eternity” of the species) but also to non-living nature, since it sees living nature as ultimately non-living nature (i.e. made of nothing else but atoms) without for this reason obliging us to deny the perspectival difference between the two. Erwin Schrödinger’s question “What is life for physics and chemistry?” remains thought-provokingly complex; answering “life amounts to just another possible disposition of atoms in space and time amongst others” is both correct and insufficient.


Living nature is really eternal only if considered as non-living atomic matter. That is to say, the living undead is ultimately contained by the non-living undead. Conversely, the notion of the undead can be referred to non-living atomic matter since the latter is what constitutes every living atomic matter. The undead, matter as always-already dying, if not dead, is at the same time and without solution of continuity always-already potentially living. Current inorganic molecules could give rise to new organic molecules in the future or on other planets – as a matter of fact, according to the so-called “primordial soup” theory, the basic building blocks of life on Earth (i.e. amino acids) originated from simple inorganic molecules. Similarly, advances in synthetic biology and bioengineering are increasingly blurring the distinction between organic and inorganic nature – robots may well one day be referred to as “skin-jobs.”


Metacritical realism does not only articulate the difference and the relation between the pre-ontological inconsistent multiplicity of the undead, the barred real, and the ontological inconsistent multiplicity of the symbolic not-all, the barred symbolic. It also elaborates the difference and the relation between the undead real and the structural illusion of the Thing. The Thing is not the undead real but rather its alleged reified negation, a supposed transcendent lack whereby the undead real is erroneously conceived retrospectively as an “affirmative” one-all that was annihilated by the symbolic. Unlike speculative realism, we therefore believe that a direct access to the undead real is in principle not incompatible with thinking the past Thing – a Thing is here by definition a past, or lost, Thing – as retroactively dependent on present thought. It is in this precise sense that we claim that so-called correlationalism does not refute realism. The two discourses run parallel and, if we are to avoid any dogmatic pronouncement upon what is real and uphold materialism, even necessitate each other in terms of mutual exclusion.


In addition to maintaining that nature subsists without being, we also advance that as inconsistent multiplicity – as barred real – nature lacks any kind of organization whatsoever. And yet this can only be said of the barred real that is radically outside of thought and language. Metacritical realism draws a distinction between the non-symbolic real as thought from within the symbolic – which can be ontologized even if it chronologically precedes and follows, or spatially exceeds, the symbolic – and the paradoxical thought of a non-symbolic real that is radically outside of thought. The non-symbolic real as thought outside of thought is still ontological. The non-symbolic real as thought outside of thought is pre-ontological. In this context, we could also speak of two kinds of undead real, pure and impure. The impure undead is in the end reducible to the real-of-the-symbolic. Meillassoux’s arche-fossil, a material that is “posited as anterior to the emergence of thought and even life,” and posterior to the origin of the universe 13.5 billion years ago, is clearly just a pre-symbolic impure undead. Through the arche-fossil, Meillassoux thinks – thinks scientifically through techniques of datation – the non-symbolic real as outside of thought. In this sense, speculative realism seems to be underestimating the predominant role of its own “speculative” component and consequently risks falling back into dogmatic realism via subjective idealism. As our friend Alberto Toscano put it, Meillassoux reintroduces idealism at the level of form after having excised it – through the critique of correlationalist critique – at the level of content. We believe that what is needed to counter this formal resurgence of idealism is a realist theory of the subject.


What is the status of that which precedes the so-called Big Bang, the alleged origin of the universe? Should we presume it to be real? How should we account for it in terms of its relation with human thought? These interrogations are far from being naïve and must be taken very seriously. Note that Descartes’s physics as outlined in the posthumous The World and a number of letters from the late 1620s revolve precisely around the question of what lies beyond the “fixed stars.” Are there material bodies in the so-called “imaginary spaces” Descartes asks Father Mersenne, are they real? More precisely, is the “extension of things finite or infinite?” If beyond the finitude of fixed stars the universe is infinite, is it all made of material bodies?


Speculative realism avoids confronting what we may well call the issue of pre-ancestrality, of what precedes the Big Bang as the earliest event anterior to human thought about which science is capable of producing a statement. This enables Meillassoux to unproblematically ontologize ancestrality on the basis of the supposed mathematizable properties inherent to ancestral objects and events as such. But in doing so he fails to tackle a crucial point: what is the ontological status of the pre-ancestral? Either speculative realism sees it as pre-ontological, in which case it would tacitly endorse the split between being and subsistence that we have introduced, or ontologizes it a priori even if it is by definition unmathematizable for science. We can either admit that it is possible to ontologize mathematically ancestral objects and events only because they remain in indirect relation to human thought, and not because they possess mathematizable properties that are in them independently of us, or assume that our ontology is dogmatically metaphysical. Once again, pay attention to the fact that what is at stake is the dependence of ontological discourse on the correlation between human thought and the real. This clearly differs from defending the absolute validity of correlationalism. In fact we posit that pre-ontological pre-ancestrality subsisted as that which preceded ancestrality, unthought and still unthinkable for human nature. New scientific discoveries about the pre-Big Bang will only move the pre-ancestral back in time.


As long as the real is mathematically thinkable as outside of thought, it is not really outside of thought (which is not to say that it cannot subsist independently of thought). What is really outside of thought can only be thought as – currently – unmathematizable, irreducible to science – and if ontology is mathematics, to ontology. Such thought is possible and refers to a real, e.g. pre-Big Bang matter (that will have been further specified scientifically as, say, anti-matter, dark matter, dark energy, thylium, kryptonite, etc…). Either this thought refers to a real – which cannot be mathematized for the time being – or we must think the creation of the universe ex nihilo. If the latter, the theory of the Big Bang would inevitably result in a contemporary form of “strong” creationism. To put it differently, we must either admit that the signifier emerged ex nihilo – by which we mean that the origins of language can only be conceived as a jump, a disjunctive synthesis between anticipation and retroaction – or, more problematically, assume that the universe was itself created ex nihilo. Nowadays, science and common sense generally endorse this creationist view; the theory of the Big Bang is accepted as an explanation of the origins. On the contrary, the question of origins should be regarded as non-original and rather be focused on the material origins of language.


Metacritical realism considers things-in-themselves as thinkable yet scientifically unknowable. Having said this, our position is not Kantian. Not only do we not follow Kant insofar as, for us, the thinking subject is irreducibly split, but, more crucially, insofar as this very Spaltung – which issues from a biological non-adaptation – indicates that human thought, the phenomenal, is ultimately indistinguishable from the undead absolute real, the noumenal. Things-in-themselves are not really things that could be “better” grasped on another level by God’s supposed intellectual intuition: pre-ontological things-in-themselves are ontological only as things for non-adapted homo sapiens. Again, we postulate that ontological things-for-thought are identical to pre-ontological things-in-themselves; there is absolutely nothing else to be “discovered” in them. The only difference between the for-thought and the in-themselves is that things are only for-thought. This is not either a form of extreme subjective idealism since, conversely, things-for-thought are themselves not fully knowable, and the very possibility of knowledge relies on an unknowable real. Things-for-thought ultimately amount to pre-ontological inconsistent multiplicity that contingently happens to be for us. There subsists nothing else than pre-ontological inconsistent multiplicity. The desire of the Other, the not-all of the symbolic as ontological inconsistent multiplicity – the inscrutable fact that my lover seduces me only to reject me – is just as inconsistent (i.e. unknowable) as the chemical composition of a galaxy that will never be discovered.


What we do know about the unknowable pre-Big Bang is that it must be real – otherwise we would need to recur to the idea of a creation ex nihilo of the universe – and made of an unknown – i.e. as yet non-mathematizable – matter. Following Descartes, we can imagine this matter as simply extended. The undead absolute real is extension that has not yet been turned into a res extensa by science. This obviously also applies to the subatomic particles that “underlie” those that science already knows as well as to the new galaxies yet to be known by it (through the calculation of their distance from us). Any other kind of knowledge about the pure undead is mythical.


Meillassoux equates science with mathematics and this very equation with ontology. This produces a kind of short-circuit between the Galilean-Cartesian identification of science with mathematics and the Badioudian identification of mathematics with ontology. Such a short-circuit is untenable insofar as Galilean-Cartesian mathematical science attempts to reduce truth (i.e. the non-totalizability of the symbolic) to knowledge, while Badioudian mathematical ontology is precisely based on the dimension of truth as the not-all, the real void. Meillassoux thus inscribes the realism of mathematical ontology within the idealism of science as ideology. To put it differently, Meillassoux overlooks the fact that science “stretches” the suture of the not-all and ideally tends to foreclose the hole in the symbolic. We acknowledge this process but also claim that the symbolic as not-all, the void of the symbolic, can never entirely be reduced to the real-of-the-symbolic. On the other hand, in spite of a necessary perspectival distinction between the ontological and the pre-ontological, we assume that the ontological symbolic as not-all can at any moment be reduced to the pre-ontological inconsistent multiplicity of the absolute undead.


Metacritical realism resolutely preserves the perspectival distinction between the ontological and the pre-ontological in order to promote materialist materialism against the contemporary alliance of substantialist vitalism and transcendent finalism disguised as materialisms of difference. If nature as neither a unity nor a totality – that is, the inconsistent multiplicity of the undead real – were ontological, if the “absolute” real as such amounted to being tout court, then there would be a logical prevalence of the multiple over the two. But this logical prevalence would itself tacitly entail an ontological primacy of the One over the multiple; nature would inevitably turn into a multiple One, a substantial One of difference, to be understood as the ultimate being-oriented-towards-life, and eventually self-conscious life.


If we privilege the multiple over the two there is no way in which we can discern ontologically the former from the latter. In this case, the two is nothing but multiplicity that, as such, is. On the contrary, if we privilege the two over the multiple, although the two issues immanently from the pre-ontological multiple – just as it is sustained by it and will return to it – this “parenthesis” is discernible as what truly is. In brief, being as the being-different-of-the-two, the only possible being and the only possible difference, is a parenthesis in and of the pre-ontological undead. At a closer inspection, in privileging the two over the multiple, we must always bear in mind that, even from this perspective, there is eventually no way to discern the two from the multiple. The two as multiple remains pre-ontological. Conversely, and at the same time, the multiple as two is. Hence, even when we privilege the two, the two is and is not discernible from the multiple.


It is precisely insofar as we endorse science’s claim according to which the present age could easily be seen as nothing else than the age of bacteria (see Stephen Jay Gould) that drawing a philosophical distinction between the ontological two and the pre-ontological multiple becomes all the more important. This scientific statement about bacteria exemplifies perfectly the idea that the pre-ontological is still-always here. Therefore, unless we intend to subsume the present under the perspective of bacterial life, and collapse homo sapiens into it, we need to distinguish a priori between the ontological two and the pre-ontological multiple, which can only be done by privileging the former. The philosophical antinomy associated with assuming the perspective of bacterial life (Deleuze’s “becoming animal”?), and thus turning pre-ontology into the “real” ontology, consists in falling back into the idea of a self-regulating vital One of difference, which nevertheless tacitly derives the concepts of life, unity, and order from the human mind. On the other hand, the a priori distinction between the ontological two and the pre-ontological multiple supports the idea that life and the one – as concepts of human consciousness – are the contingent results of a highly unlikely, precarious, and virtually unrepeatable set of cosmic accidents. This is the only true materialist anti-dogmatic stance able to oppose vitalism and teleology. In this context, the a priori distinction between the ontological two and the pre-ontological multiple is thus, against appearances, a radical form of anti-humanism, which has a long philosophical tradition.


Descartes’s argument about the “immensity” of the universe (which is actually an argument about its infinity) explicitly relativizes the position of man in it. Descartes’s unexpected anti-humanism, as it emerges in some of his letters to Princess Elizabeth, is not incompatible with his well-known mechanistic physics of the world and the animal. Here Descartes shows how a clear-cut materialist distinction between extension and thought that favors the latter does not necessarily lead to anthropocentrism. In the 1960s, Lacan had already singled out Descartes as a privileged interlocutor in his elaboration of a theory of the materiality of the signifier. He recommended that we “get the most out of the use of Descartes’s impasses.” On Lacan’s tracks, we should insist on the fact that a return to Cartesian realism also necessarily entails a resumption of the Cartesian subject as a subject split between truth and knowledge by the hyperbolic doubt. This split, repressed by the cogito, re-emerges with Freud.

  • ethics
  • potentiality
  • justice
  • emancipation / liberation
  • change
  • politics

My language

Selected content

Lorenzo Chiesa

Lorenzo Chiesa is Reader (Associate Professor) in Modern European Thought at the University of Kent.

Mark Potocnik (ed.), Frank Ruda (ed.), ...: Beyond Potentialities?

Nearly the whole history of political thought is spanned between two poles: one of founding, establishing, and justifying a stable and just order on one side and of justified transformation and necessary break with that same order on the other side. Between institution and emancipation, reform and revolution, the question of possibility is always arising for politics. Are there possibilities to change the order of society? Are there possibilities for a different justice? Where to find them and how to define them? Are they already present in the situation, or do they have to be actively created? Or does one have to rethink collective emancipation in a way that it does not rely upon given possibilities?

The question of possibility is raised in philosophy itself in different terms: as a question of potentiality and potentials but also as a question of the impossibilities of changing political order. In recent political discussions this question is more present than ever and is newly posed in fundamental ways by thinkers such as Agamben, Badiou, and Deleuze, or Lacan and Žižek. The present volume assembles articles that investigate this question and the new guise it took from different perspectives and highlight its relevance for contemporary political thought.