okay, this is the text of a paper I gave last night in Sheffield. It is still very much in an initial stage, but have a look at it and please comment on it to help me along.
The Metaphysics of Contingency
A small book about everything and nothing
The Metaphysics of Contingency:
Everything That Has Happened Didn’t Have To Happen, but Now That It Has It Did
What I want to do in this paper is to try and figure out the relationships between contingency, necessity, the positive affirmationist stance of much contemporary continental philosophy and the role of negativity within that context. This is very much a paper which represents work in progress will form the basis of a book I hope to do for Upper West Side Philosophers in New York called the Metaphysics of Contingency: a little book about everything and nothing, so I would be very grateful for any pointers as to where I might be going wrong and what might be usefully brought in to untie some of the knots which I think I’ve created for myself in places, although of course I’d like to untie them in a constructive and affirmationist way, it may well be that the knot has become so Gordian in nature that the only way to untie it is with the sword of negation.
Firstly then what do I mean by the metaphysics of contingency?
It could initially be stated in the words of Robert Musil who has young Törless say:
Alles Geschieht: Das ist die ganze Wahrheit. (Everything happens: that is the whole truth)
This phrase actually encapsulates the Metaphysics of Contingency: On the one hand we have the blank statement in the first two words that everything happens – to reduce it down to its Zizekian excremental and express it in contemporary vernacular: shit happens – Things are because they are. We are not given any reason for why these things happen in this phrase, merely that they have. This is a statement of contingency, nothing more, and by contingency I mean here that an event that prevails among one of an infinite number different possibilities. What leads to that event prevailing is a mixture of objective and subjective factors (Aristotle’s kata to dynaton and Dynamei on, as I discussed in my last paper) and in Aristotle’s treatise on Rhetoric for example, he stresses the centrality of contingent because it is not possible to deliberate on the necessary or impossible – the first is going to have to be done anyway and the second is, well impossible. He believed that the “unavoidable and potentially unmanageable presence of multiple possibilities” or the complex nature of decision-making from within that unmanageable presence creates and invites rhetoric. By this he means that in order to understand the contingent we have to develop a narrative of contingency which turns it into necessity so that what we do comes to appear as the only thing that could be done. As a species we find it very difficult to actually believe that our whole existence depends on entirely contingent, random and coincidental effects. We like to think that they are the product of some conscious process and that we have within us either a fragment of a world spirit or an untrammelled sense of free will. This is what also forces us to create foundational myths in which the contingent events add up to something larger than their parts in an inexplicable way.
This then brings us to the second part of Musil’s statement, that the fact that contingent events happen is the only truth. By introducing the idea of truth into contingency here he goes beyond the purely contingent to discuss precisely the possibility of necessity and the impossible. He introduces a metaphysics of truth, something which we have learned to become suspicious of as a concept at least since Kant, which is however based in contingency. This means that that which is the shit that has happened, now becomes the shit that had to happen. And this is what is meant by my subtitle to this talk: Everything that has Happened didn’t have to happen but now it has it did. Musil’s great philosophical hero Friedrich Nietzsche put it in Ecce Homo in the following way:
Nothing that is can be subtracted, nothing is dispensable. Ecce Homo
In other words, all of the things that add up to this moment are the cumulative product of all of the things that have added up to every previous moment in history. To put it in the bloodless language of philosophy this then forms the basis of nature’s doctrine of Amor Fati namely, that in order to become more than what we are, it is necessary to accept the absolute link between contingent events, contingent processes and retrospective necessity. To say yes, in order to become the Overman, means not simply to say yes to everything that is going to come towards one, but to everything which has already passed. Friedrich Nietzsche of course then compounds this acceptance with the idea of eternal recurrence in which accepting our fate means that we have to accept it in perpetuity over and over again for all eternity. Here we get our first glimpse also of the Nietzschean influence on Ernst Bloch in the idea of both Ungleichzeitigkeit (non-contemporaneity) as well as the Dunkel des gelebten Augenblicks (darkness of the lived moment) non-contemporaneity in that the possibility of contingent events that did not succeed in the past still remains open as a potential and as a tendency and latency within history, and the darkness of the lived moment in the sense that here in the moment that we are experiencing it is not possible to be absolutely sure what is the correct thing to do. This can only be decided retrospectively – once it is a done and has become a necessity – and our actions going forward (and I mean this in the original sense, rather than the way it is irritatingly used at the moment) can only be decided on the basis of this purely contingent moment. This moment becomes the necessary jumping off point simply because, as Musil puts it, it has happened. What happens next, however, is only partly determined by what has happened in the past but also partly by a voluntaristic attempt to shape the future. To put this in Marxist terms: we may well be able to interpret the past (though that is also shaped by the contingency of the current dark moment); the point is to change the future. Luckily we don’t (yet) live in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s world in which things can come back from a non-existent future to make sure that the future they are coming back from never happens.
Contingency therefore means that everything that happens did not have to happen. I, for example – and I stand here as an example for each individual – am at the end of a long process of contingent events, namely the procreative activities of thousands of generations of people before me going right back to my ancestors the amoeba, and ending up with my mum and dad making a terrible one night mistake and producing me. If they had taken proper precautions, both before or after the act (which I believe also took place in a very dark lived moment) or indeed had never met, I would not be here. Now that I am here, however, all of those contingent couplings which went on during the last 4 billion years of organic evolution on this planet and which led to me become necessary. Strange as it seems – or maybe not – that makes me the pinnacle of evolution on this planet; but only in philosophical terms. This means that each contingent event, each one of the infinite number of contingent events which take place at any given moment is, as Aristotle points out, at the same time its own Telos. However, an event does just not arrive from nowhere, but has its own evental chain. What Aristotle calls rhetoric in this context, I would prefer to call a metaphysics of the contingent evental chain.
Of course in order for shit to happen (and here I am taking the word shit literally rather than as simply a stand-in for stuff) there has to have been a metabolic process (in German a Stoffwechsel or change of matter) involving organic materials – both in the form of the subject who consumes as well as the objects which are consumed – which have turned into shit. This is, if you like, a metabolics of contingency. To put it in Brechtian terms “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral” (first comes the eating, then morality). We might change that in the context of this lecture to “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann das Scheissen, dann die Moral” (first comes the eating, then the shitting, then the morality).
Thus, to define it further, contingency is therefore the relationship between events which could be otherwise but which add up through a metabolic process to the creation of the next contingent moment. Necessity, on the other hand, is the relationship between events which could not be otherwise. But unless we believe in fate or a preordained Telos then we must recognise that it is only retrospectively that all contingency can be seen as a necessity. At the moment of the emergence of the contingent event it is not necessary. A further level of definition means that there are therefore two layers of necessity. There is unnecessary necessity and necessary necessity. The first of these relates to the fact that it was necessary for my mother and father to meet and have sex for me to exist (i.e. this is necessary necessity) But it was not necessary for my mother and father to meet in the first place (this is then an unnecessary necessity). Of course there are necessary relationships between contingent events such that one event could not happen without the previous events, but the necessity itself arises out of the sort of primal or ancestral chain of contingencies. To put it in the way that Bloch quoted Hegel, it is not the falling roof tile that kills the man, but space and time. He happened to be in the wrong space at the wrong time. The death of the man, however, does not mean that I stop to exist because he no longer perceives me. Maybe he never perceived me before, did not know of my existence, and therefore for him I didn’t exist. But I do, regardless of whether he has been killed by a falling roof tile, or time or space or any other concrete or abstract notion.
In order to make sense of my existence therefore, there are different ways we can approach it. On the one hand there is the approach that I prefer, which is essentially a realistic and a nihilistic one. There is no reason for my existence, it remains an unnecessary necessity. At the same time my existence is “the only truth”. This subjectivist epistemological truth takes on an ontological character, however, when we consider that of course there is not only me in the world. The question then therefore arises as to whether there can only be epistemological, de-centred and relative truths? Are there no truths which stretch beyond the truth of my existence? If, as I have just argued, my existence is not necessary in any ontological sense, then surely my truth is also not necessary, let alone necessarily true. This is the basis, of course, of Nietzsche position as the father of post modernist perspectivism. For him, famously, there is no truth, there is only perspective. But the very truth of the obvious fact that there is only my perspective on the real from within the snow globe of my own existence is, at the same time, proof of that fact that there is more to the world than perspective, unless we wish to believe that everything else that we perceive in the world is purely a projection of our own subjectivity.
Our attempt to understand the position in the world gives rise to a metaphysics of existence in some form another. Our self-identity, our essence, our soul, our capacity for free will, whatever it is that one wishes to describe it as, has from within the material basis of our existence a nonmaterial expression. In his forthcoming book, Less Than Nothing, Slavoj Žižek argues that this intermingling of the material and the nonmaterial is precisely what gives rise to metaphysics:
how is thought possible in a universe of matter, how can it arise out of matter? Like thought, the subject (Self) is also immaterial: its One-ness, its self-identity, is not reducible to its material support. I am precisely not my body: the Self can only arise against the background of the death of its substantial being, of what it is “objectively.” So, again, how can one explain the rise of subjectivity out of the “incomplete” ontology, how are these two dimensions (the abyss/void of subjectivity, the incompleteness of reality) to be thought together? We should apply here something like a weak anthropic principle: how should the Real be structured so that it allows for the emergence of subjectivity (in its autonomous efficacy, not as a mere “user’s illusion”)?”
That even here, we should note, the metaphysics he is alluding to is a materialist metaphysics, in which subjectivity emerges out of the material and then goes on to speculate about its own materiality or non-materiality. This then is the essence of speculative materialism, that it is, like the famous Vietnamese village, necessary to destroy metaphysics in order to rescue it.
Quentin Meillassox In After Finitude Meillassoux maintains that:
by destroying metaphysics, one has effectively rendered it impossible for a particular religion to use pseudo-rational argumentation against every other religion. But in doing so – and this is the decisive point – one has inadvertently justified belief’s claim to be the only means of access to the absolute. (AF 45-6)
Of course religion gets around this logical problem simply by stating that individual subjectivity and perspective is really just a working out of the mind of God or the world spirit or the absolute, and if we were to follow that back entirely logically, we end up back with Bishop Berkeley who maintained that nothing existed other than the mind of God and that our individual perspective is merely an attribute of the substance of the universe which is God and thus by nature insubstantial and unknowable.
But can they really only be accessed to the absolute through faith? And does this faith have to be a religious faith? What Bloch does is to point out that religious faith itself is merely a self misunderstood appreciation of our inability to obtain the absolute because of its present inaccessibility. (We might say that this is similar to Kafka’s Wunsch Indianer zu werden in which we find the search for the absolute on the back of a non-existent horse)
But what follows from the inability to achieve the absolute is the creation of a utopian stand- in, that is a need to posit a process of transformation which can make the absolute least imaginable by fixating on a graspable objet petit a (to bung in some Lacan). For Bloch this represents the central importance of Utopia as a concept. However, again as I have discussed before, Bloch’s Utopia is explicitly a concrete one, using the Hegelian sense of concrete as con crescere or a growing together or concrescence of contingent events into something greater than the sum of their parts. Now, this implies also a faith in the future and indeed requires faith in the power of transcendence, but this transcendence is one which exists without any recourse to the transcendental because the absolute as a pre-given totality outside of our own perception of the universe is replaced by an absolute which is the product of the process of its own realisation.
I was asked the other day what I thought was the reason for the revival of concepts of Utopia in much philosophical and academic debate these days and I think it lies precisely in that point, that in a period when we have a crisis of negation, i.e. it seems impossible to imagine anything other than the Fukuyaman universe in which we have reached the end of history with liberal democracy and capitalism – as Henk de Berg argued in his last paper here – then we once again have to project our hopes for the future onto a place where that which we remembered from the past (namely our childhood, in the famous last paragraph of Bloch’s principle of hope – see also Kafka’s Heimkehr) can be projected into the future as an ideal, absolute, and organic society in which the autonomy of non-exploited individuals can be realised within a system of non-antagonistic social relations. What we mean by that sociological jargon, is of course, the impossible absolute of communism. What then leads on from this is that an ontology of existence per se as external to subjective existence can only be perceived from a Heideggerian position of Dasein (or literally Being There). We are here, but there is no here without us. Or as it might also be put; everything exists but there is no everything.
This “correlationism” which Meillassoux defines as “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” (AF 5) But there is, as Graham Harmann lays out, a spectrum: what he calls Meillasoux’s Spectrum, along which the correlation between what we perceive and know and objective reality stretches from:
Very strong correlationism
These speculative materialists, although there are differences between them, are essentially united in their attempt to overcome correlationism and replace it with an acceptance of pure contingency without falling back into dogmatic or naive realism. (Although in Less Than Nothing Žižek criticises the Speculative Materialists around Meillaassoux of precisely this.)
Alain Badiou is attracted to this position, although critically, and states that although this is based in Husserlian phenomenology, it also contains and objective dimension:
The point of divergence is that finally Husserl reinstitutes correlationism which is: everything is referred to consciousness and all the movement of time, and so on, is referred to consciousness. And I negate the same thing because, finally, there is properly no history of the world as such; there is a history of Dasein, and the history of Dasein is also the medium by which the world is always the horizon of subjective experience. And so this is why I speak purely of an objective phenomenology, a phenomenology which assumes that there is no subject at all. It is naturally paradoxical, it is a paradoxical expression, but it is my attempt. And so it is the idea that appearing and the existence of the world is not constituted by subjective experience but it is a manner in which the world exists as such and that we have to (and this is why I agree with the realism of my friends from London), we must be realists, that is, a proper or true relationship to all that, which must be free of any deference to constitutive subjectivity.
The problem with the correlationist position is that it actually leaves us in an entirely passive situation in which, we end up accepting our fate, not in the Nietzschean affirmationist sense, but as merely tools of some higher purpose. A belief in contingency and the emergence of contingency out of contingency before it can become necessity returns a sense of purpose to our actions. In this sense, paradoxically, a nihilistic belief in the non-necessity of our own existence, or indeed the existence of anything at all, is the precondition for a constructive belief in the creation of something different to that which we have at the moment. This, is what is at the base of Ray Brassier’s book Nihil Unbound, or Ian Hamilton Grant’s transcendental materialism which argues that rather than trying to overthrow Platonic concepts of matter, or what he (Plato) calls a “physics of the all”, we should try to do away with the Kantian idea that we can never know the all. Speculative materialism therefore means an acceptance of matter as a pre-existing ancestral reality but I would take this further and use Bloch to state that matter itself is an unfinished potentiality about which we are forced to speculate. This of course is very much Bloch’s position about matter, that beyond mechanistic matter as simply a Klotz (lump) there comes a transformative and speculative dimension. (In fact, as far as I’m aware, Bloch may actually have invented the term speculative materialism, or at least Habermas used it in 1960 as a description of Bloch.).
I would say that its weakness perhaps lies in the fact that the acceptance of pure contingency tends to equally do away with the possibility of active transformation and thus also leads to passivity. If you believe that all is contingent and that all events emerge out of pure contingency then it is hard to posit a position whereby events have to be constructed out of active processes. I think this is why Alain Badiou, for example is attracted to the speculative materialists because for him the event becomes the most important thing, rather than the process which gives rise to it. He tends to reject the Hegelian idea of the dialectic of quantity into quality, that is the point at which a massive contingent events at up to a qualitative leap forward, in favour of a literally unprecedented and irruptive voluntarist rising. Demanding the impossible is all very well, but the impossible needs to be possible as well.
Bloch states that matter itself is something which is in transformation and that we are ourselves transforming it through the process of understanding and working on it. By speculating about “the all” from a materialist base we actually create a materialist base because the materialist base is not separate from our speculation about it. This means that there is an onto-epistemic linearity to existence in which knowledge of the world is not only based in existence but is both a part of and constitutive of the absolute, or the all. In that sense the exteriority of our subject perception becomes part of the object of perception.
In this context in chapter 1 of his forthcoming book, Less Than Nothing, Žižek also calls for a return to Plato, but this time transforming the idealist base of Plato’s eternal truths into a materialist dialectic in which it eternal truth and values emerge from contingent reality as an expression of the human desire for Exodus and liberation. Alain Badiou calls this the Communist hypothesis and Ernst Bloch’s term for this was the “invariant of direction”. First Žižek points out that Plato has been attacked from just about every philosophical and political position that has existed in modernity and post-modernity. He divides this opposition into six different groups of anti-Platonism: 1. vitalist; 2.empiricist-analytic; 3.Marxist; 4.existentialist; 5.Heideggerian; and 6.”Democratic”. Then Žižek puts it like this:
“Plato’s position is thus similar to that of Descartes: “Plato” is the negative point of reference which unites otherwise irreconcilable enemies: Marxists and anti-Communist liberals, existentialists and analytic empiricists, Heideggerians and vitalists… So why a return to Plato? Why do we need a repetition of Plato’s founding gesture? In his Logiques des mondes, Badiou provides a succinct definition of “democratic materialism” and its opposite, “materialist dialectics”: the axiom which condenses the first is “There is nothing but bodies and languages…,” to which materialist dialectics adds “…with the exception of truths.” One should bear in mind the Platonic, properly meta-physical, thrust of this distinction: prima facie, it cannot but appear as a proto-idealist gesture to assert that material reality is not all that there is, that there is also another level of incorporeal truths. Badiou here makes the paradoxical philosophical gesture of defending, as a materialist, the autonomy of the “immaterial” order of Truth. As a materialist, and in order to be thoroughly materialist, Badiou focuses on the idealist topos par excellence: how can a human animal forsake its animality and put its life in the service of a transcendent Truth? How can the “transubstantiation” from the pleasure-oriented life of an individual to the life of a subject dedicated to a Cause occur? In other words, how is a free act possible? How can one break (out of) the network of the causal connections of positive reality and conceive an act that begins by and in itself? Again, Badiou repeats, within the materialist frame, the elementary gesture of idealist anti-reductionism: human Reason cannot be reduced to the result of evolutionary adaptation; art is not just a heightened procedure for producing sensual pleasure but a medium of Truth; and so on.”
There is a truth, and not everything is relative—but this truth is the truth of the perspectival distortion as such, not a truth distorted by the partial view from a one-sided perspective.”
To paraphrase Orwell: All truths are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Again, we can see here an attempt to overcome dualism through contingent dialectic in which the Ding an Sich is not distorted by an external experience of perception but that the distortion that our perception and experience is actually part of the Ding an Sich. Both Žižek and Bloch in this context refer to Einstein’s theory of relativity in which it is not something external which is curving space but the universe itself which is curved space. In this way distinction between idealism and materialism, the gap between those two things, becomes the very thing which transcends the apparent contradiction between the two. Idealistic eternal truths and a commitment to the maintenance of those eternal truths become re-functioned as part of the dialectic of process and emergence out of immanence. Idealism and materialism in this view become merged into transcendence, but transcendence based in but also seen through the lens of objective reality. Again, contained within the real are glimpses or pre-illuminations (Bloch’s Vorscheine and Whitehead’s “Prehensions”) of something else which can only be understood as part of that which exists and not external to it.
All of this is, of course, designed as a hefty sideswipe at post-modernism and “dogmatic relativism”, as Christopher Norris called it, in an attempt to re-establish a grand narrative of history, but this time one with only a contingent and retrospective teleology. It is on the basis of that which has become that we can make some predictions about we might want to see, but we can in no way predict what might actually come about as a result of our actions in the face of contingent reality. The materialist dialectic returns, in this sense, to one of processual autopoiesis, in which rather than heading towards some sort of teleological endpoint the Telos emerges out of its own creation. The theory of the Metaphysics of Contingency is therefore my attempt to present a way to restore the grand narrative but in a non-teleological form in which what will become always already exists. The project Žižek has set himself in his book is to prove that that is what Hegel and Marx were doing all along…
There are a number of variables within any contingent moment which mean that the outcome of that moment could be different. This is what Bloch means by the multi-verse and the concept of the darkness of the lived moment. It is dark because of the clash of transfinite numbers of contingent variables at any given moment and the past is multiversal in the sense that at any point in history things could have been different and those different things, those unrealised contingent eventualities still exist in at least metaphysical form as undead zombie-like potentialities. We call this counterfactual history. For example what would have happened if my mother and father had never met? However, once the contingent clash has produced a reality, an event at a specific moment in time, then all of the contingencies which led up to that moment have become necessary. The fact is that my mum and dad did meet, did have sex, and I was born. The whole of evolution and existence in the past 13.7 billion years was necessary to reach the point of my birth. But my birth was not necessary.
So, everything that has happened to put me here did not have to happen, but now it has it did.
This is what I mean by the metaphysics of contingency; namely, that in order to make any sense of existence as a concept we are constantly required to take contingent events and put them into some sort of necessary framework. It becomes properly idealistically metaphysical when we project forward from the darkness of the lived moment, and, on the basis of any patterns within contingency which we might have noticed we, (as pattern seeking animals who – in the words of Nietzsche – think we have invented knowledge), tend to extrapolate a future necessity from past contingent patterns. Religion’s attempts to go against the nihilistic implication of radically pure contingency; namely, that existence is meaningless and purposeless, make it necessary to posit it as a necessity and, more than that, an absolute necessity rooted in a transcendental element which has its existence outside of real existence and shapes our real existence in its own image or intent.
This means that it is the very nonexistence of God which requires the creation of religion and the nonexistence of God which therefore proves his existence.
And this of course brings us to the question of negativity and negation, something which Benjamin Noys claims has been squeezed out of continental philosophy in favour of the affirmationist logic which stretches from the austere Platonism of Badiou to the joyous Spinozism of Antonio Negri (Noys ix). I think he is largely right in this but I am not sure about the conclusions he draws from it.
The acceptance of the reality of contingency and the death of the Telos of Utopia requires an acceptance of negativity and, as Žižek points out this raises the question of how we “transpose revolutionary negativity into a truly new positive order” (Noys 162)
What Badiou maintains is that we are suffering from crisis of negation in that it seems impossible to get beyond capitalist permanent revolution. What he means by this is not simply an acceptance of the negativity of existence, in the way that I have discussed above, but the acceptance of the end of the ability to negate the negation, in its Hegelian sense, which is really at stake. It is not a commitment to negation and negativity itself that is important, but a commitment to the negation of the negation which is the capitalist affirmationist logic of eternal expansion. In Marx of course we know that the proletariat would only have succeeded in bringing about a new society, a truly new positive order, once it had abolished itself by negating capitalist relations of production. This double negation of both the subject class as well as the object system is, in this sense, the transposition of revolutionary negativity into a new order. As Bloch points out, it is therefore a Genesis which comes at the end of the process of the negation of the negation and not at the beginning. The positive, bright, utopian, organic, non-alienated community which Kafka and Bloch dream of is one which can only be created through an acceptance of the dialectical nature of the Metaphysics of Contingency, on the one hand, the negative nihilism of the reality of pure contingency and on the other hand the speculative affirmationism of the utopian project in negating that negativity. All we have to do is work out how to get there.
 Robert Musil: Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß