Quentin Meillassoux, The Number and the Siren, Trans. by Robin Mackay, Urbanomic / Sequence Press, 2012.
"A meticulous literary study, a detective story à la Edgar Allen Poe, a treasure-hunt worthy of an adventure novel - such is the register in which can be deciphered the hidden secrets of a poem like no other. Quentin Meillassoux, author of After Finitude, continues his philosophical interrogation of the concepts of chance, contingency, infinity and eternity through a concentrated study of Mallarmé's poem Un Coup de Dés, patiently deciphering its enigmatic meaning on the basis of a dazzlingly simple and lucid insight with regard to that 'unique Number that cannot be any other'.
Un Coup de Dés jamais n\'abolira le Hasard constitutes perhaps the most radical break in the history of modern poetry: the fractured lines spanning the double page, the typographical play borrowed from the poster form, the multiplication of interpolations disrupting reading. But the intrigue of this poem is still stranger, always resistant to full elucidation. We encounter a shipwreck, and a Master, himself almost submerged, who clasps in his hand the dice that, confronted by the furious waves, he hesitates to throw. The hero expects this throw, if it takes place, to be extraordinarily important: a Number said to be 'unique' and which 'cannot be any other'.
The decisive point of the investigation proposed by Meillassoux comes with a discovery, unsettling and yet as simple as a child's game. All the dimensions of the Number, understood progressively, articulate between them but one sole condition: that this Number should ultimately be delivered to us by a secret code, hidden in the Coup de dés like a key that finally unlocks every one of its poetic devices. Thus is also unveiled the meaning of that siren, emerging for a lightning-flash amongst the debris of the shipwreck: as the living heart of a drama that is still unfolding.
With this bold new interpretation of Mallarmé's work, The Number and the Siren offers brilliant insights into modernity, poetics, secularism and religion, and opens a new chapter in Meillassoux's philosophy of radical contingency."
"One never knows what to expect from the up-and-coming French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux. I certainly didn’t expect his second book-length work to be a “decipherment” of Stéphane Mallarmé’s enigmatic final poem, Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Throw of Dice Will Never Abolish Chance). Still less did I expect it to be so absorbing and thrilling. The Number and the Siren is an erudite work of literary criticism, tackling one of the most difficult of modern poets, and yet I feel compelled to begin this review with a comparatively base warning: Contains spoilers!
Meillassoux’s flair for the dramatic twist is one of those rare coincidences when a philosopher’s style and thought match up perfectly. His entire work is centered on the conviction that the universe is a much stranger place than we ever could have guessed, leaving room for even the most outlandish hopes. In his first major published work, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, he argues for a view of the world centered on contingency rather than necessity — that is to say, for a universe ruled by chance rather than by any foundational laws. If our world appears to be regulated by immutable natural laws, that’s just a coincidence, a state of affairs that could easily change. Similarly, if it seems indisputable that there’s currently no God, that’s no reason to assume a God couldn’t pop into existence at some future date.
It seems natural, then, that Meillassoux would be drawn to Mallarmé’s meditation on contingency and chance, which is included in the original and in a fresh translation in an appendix to The Number and the Siren. As Meillassoux summarizes it, Un Coup de Dés centers on the aftermath of a shipwreck, which leaves a mysterious “Master” with one seemingly meaningless final choice: whether to throw a pair of dice. It is never revealed whether he actually does so, and he is pulled into a whirlpool. Along the way, we are treated to an enigmatic vision of a siren who destroys the rock that presumably led to the shipwreck, and various reflections on “the unique Number that cannot be // another.” The poem closes with the suggestion that a new stellar constellation may, perhaps, have been set in motion by the Master’s dice-throw. All of this is presented in a unique layout, with lines stretching across two facing pages, varied typography, and virtually no punctuation.
In Meillassoux’s reading, Mallarmé is reflecting on the task of the poet in the wake of the “shipwreck” of traditional poetic form occasioned by the rise of free verse. Where he breaks with most contemporary interpreters, however, is in seeing Un Coup de Dés as part of Mallarmé’s attempt to create an artistic form that could found a modern ritual with all the power and meaning of the Roman Catholic Mass. This project centered on the composition of a liturgical poem called “the Book” that would be part of a numerologically structured ceremony of public reading.
Many critics view this ambition of Mallarmé’s as crazy and embarrassing, something that he surely got out of his system by the time he wrote his final great work. Meillassoux, however, not only claims that Un Coup de Dés is a continuation of the project of the Book, but that—thanks to Meillassoux’s own investigation, which effectively unlocks the meaning of the poem—Mallarmé has in fact actually succeeded in an achievement that could found a new poetic religion that would be secular modernity’s answer to Christianity.
Stéphane Mallarmé is, in short, a modern-day Jesus, and Meillassoux is his St. Paul.
* * *
Now when I put it like that, it sounds crazy. When one reads it as part of Meillassoux’s tightly constructed argument, it also sounds crazy, but in a different way: It is undeniable even as it seems impossible. It works like a surprising “big reveal” in a detective story, the kind that prompts a joyful cry of “No way!” There are other similar moments throughout The Number and the Siren, which has the kind of literary quality I have come to associate with French philosophy at its best — above all, the work of Derrida, which abounds in such “big reveals.” The experience of reading Meillassoux’s essay is akin to the experience of reading “Plato’s Pharmacy” and marveling at how Derrida manages to make the little word pharmakon appear to be simultaneously the foundation and the undoing of Plato’s entire philosophical project.
Yet one might justly ask: is there anything more to Meillassoux’s investigation than the pleasure of an interpretative tour de force? To answer that question, we need to look at the other major slice of Meillassoux’s writings to which we have access: the selections from his unpublished dissertation, “The Divine Inexistence,” published in Graham Harman’s study of Meillassoux. These selections, which build off of the argument for contingency found in After Finitude, represent an ambitious attempt to account for all of reality within his philosophical scheme — from matter and organic life to humanity and what might come to supersede it.
Each new level of complexity, for Meillassoux, stems from an unpredictable event that surpasses the horizon of what came before while still formally respecting its laws. Meillassoux argues, for instance, that no one could have predicted that organic life would emerge from inorganic matter. The principle of life is not simply an extension of the principles governing inert matter, though life still rests on a foundation of matter. Similarly, human consciousness is qualitatively different from mere organic life, even though it relies on an organic foundation. One cannot account for the decisive events that brought about life and consciousness in terms of what came before—indeed, a (necessarily hypothetical) observer would have regarded them as impossible.
Nevertheless, Meillassoux believes that we can trace out the shape of the next event that will transcend humanity as we know it. Humanity’s great failing for Meillassoux is the cold, hard reality of death, which keeps human intellect from fulfilling its vocation to grasp the infinite. One might hope for something like the immortality of the soul in order to overcome this obstacle, but this would not fit the pattern that Meillassoux had established for the previous events. All of those transformative events rested on the foundation of the stage before it, while the immortality of the soul would simply leave embodied human existence (and hence the organic and material levels that provide its foundation) behind. The next stage of humanity must be material, must be organic and bodily — but it will be immortal. What’s more, this event will not apply solely to those who happen to be living when it happens. It must overcome the death of all human beings, allowing them to fulfill their vocation.
Obviously all of this sounds suspiciously like the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.Early Christian belief held that Jesus was only the first to be risen from the dead — he was the start of a sequence of events that would lead to the resurrection of everyone who had ever died, who would then come to populate the utopian Kingdom of God. Only later did Christians try to square this idea with the notion of the immortality of the soul, which originally came from Greek philosophers like Plato — the original vision of Christian redemption was not escape to escape from the body so that the soul could live in heaven, but to enjoy a renewed and immortal bodily existence. This impression is reinforced when Meillassoux theorizes that the event will be undertaken by a human being who somehow manages to attain a quasi-divine status that will allow him to perform this unimaginable miracle. One could say, then, that Meillassoux, as represented by these excerpts, is doing something like independently rediscovering Christianity.
Given that his breakthrough philosophical work seemed to most readers to represent a particularly radical form of atheism, this embrace of the resurrection of the dead is, to say the least, off-putting. Admirers of Meillassoux have generally reacted negatively to this particular aspect of his work, viewing it as crazy and embarrassing. Some have even hypothesized that Harman has somehow chosen the excerpts maliciously in order to discredit him. This scenario that is basically impossible, given Harman’s great admiration for Meillassoux and Meillassoux’s own collaboration on Harman’s book, but the fact that it would occur to them shows the sense of betrayal and even trauma this part of Meillassoux’s thought has prompted.
As someone whose academic training is in theology, I was naturally more receptive. This is not because I am a huge fan of actual-existing Christianity, but because my greater familiarity with the diversity and debate within Christianity showed me that Meillassoux was far from embracing anything like the conservative or orthodox position many of his admirers are likely reacting against. First and most obviously, Meillassoux remains an atheist. To the extent that he posits some form of divinity in the mediator figure who will bring about the resurrection, it’s a divinity that he will set aside after achieving the resurrection — meaning that Meillassoux is more akin to the radical “death of God” theology associated with Thomas Altizer and recently revived by Slavoj Žižek.This school of theology, which draws its inspiration from the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, takes a radical stance on the death of Christ on the cross. Traditional theology has viewed Jesus as the incarnation of one of the three “persons” of the divine Trinity, God the Son, and further claimed that, properly speaking, only his human aspect underwent suffering and death. Hegel and Altizer reject that notion: For them, when God became incarnate in Christ, he was playing for keeps. Everything it meant to be God was emptied into Christ, and when he died, that divinity was emptied out into the world. In short, the good news of the Christian Gospel is that God is dead. Secondly, though the resurrection of the dead has always remained “on the books,” its role in popular Christianity is marginal compared to the immortality of the soul. Thus contemporary progressive theologians have attempted to revive the doctrine as a way of combating Christianity’s distrust of physical embodiment.
In short, insofar as Meillassoux is “embracing Christianity,” it’s an extremely weird version of Christianity that almost anyone who currently calls themself a Christian would surely reject. More than that, it follows in the pattern of previous left-wing attempts (by both atheists and believers) to redeploy Christianity in the service of radical politics — a connection that is all the stronger insofar as Meillassoux uses the hope of the resurrection as the starting point for an ethics based in radical equality.
Yet in light of The Number and the Siren, I don’t think it’s really accurate to say that Meillassoux is embracing or appropriating Christianity. What he’s really trying to do is much bolder and, one might say, more insane: He wants to do Christianity one better. He wants to create something more powerful than Christianity, something that would radicalize Christianity’s wildest hopes — and that would deliver, insofar as it’s based on the radical contingency of the universe rather than on the illusion of a transcendent God.
In The Number and the Siren, then, he is not exactly claiming that Mallarmé is Jesus, but that he’s better than Jesus. For Meillassoux, Mallarmé has accomplished something real, showing us that it’s possible for a human being to attain to the infinite. This is undoubtedly a hard teaching—who can accept it?—but it’s just as undoubtedly an audacious teaching, one that is worthy of our attention as it continues to unfold."- Adam Kotsko
"Meillassoux made a major splash in the world of contemporary philosophy with the publication (and more specifically, the English language translation) of his pivotal work, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Ostensibly launching a new realm of thought organized between the titles of “speculative realism” and beyond, the book posited the idea that, despite what the last few centuries of philosophy has decided, there is a world that can and indeed has existed outside of any phenomenological experience of it; to assume that the world is dependent upon the humans who inhabit it ignores the idea that the world turns whether or not we, as humans, exist on it. And to do so it meticulously examines how this is possible with what have been traditionally described as the hard sciences; math, physical science, geology, etc.
The Number and the Siren, on the other hand, turns away from the world and instead focuses on a singular work of poetry that already has a hold over the 20th and 21st centuries—that of Mallarmé’s game changing Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard. Mallarmé’s poem has been an insistent staple in the development of poetry since its publication, but Meillassoux’s approach to the work is both unique and, truly, astounding. When considering the diegesis of a work of literature, we look at a book as its own internal world, in some modes of thought as a self-contained entity oblivious to the outside. This is both an often short-sighted AND revelatory method of reading a text.
Meillassoux’s study, breaking from the general studies and understandings of Mallarmé’s brilliant poem, posits that the poem itself can literally be deciphered, that meaning exists not exclusively in the blatant language or form of the poem itself, but rather that meaning is embedded, coded, within the work. Consider the first line of the book’s conclusion, “Thus, modernity triumphed and we did not know it.” And now, having read that, consider what that line means—the entire trajectory of contemporary literature after modernism, having more or less taken, as its launching point, the failure of modernity and how we can surpass that failure, as a futility. If modernity itself triumphed, instead of failing, and we just didn’t notice, the state of literature right now is clearly outside of the position it would be in otherwise, had we as readers noticed the turns that Mallarmé, in his secret genius, realized.
The great narratives of modernity, posited by other thinkers, from Marx to Hugo to Zola, all of these have failed. And this is so, this is a fact. But if Mallarmé’s grand narrative, outside of the humanist insistence brought about by the aforementioned authors (and a whole catalog more), has secretly succeeded, then the nature of this grand narrative, of course, is essential. And so, by deciphering Mallarmé’s text, this is what Meillassoux sets out to show.
The narrative level of Mallarmé’s poem, very apparent from the poem itself on a surface level (even explicated in its title), of course examines the ideas of infinite chance. Meillassoux says, “How to struggle against infinte chance with a throw of dice if all results amount to the same—that is to say, to its infinity, to its equal absence of sense in perfect verse and in mediocre verse?” And thus is the narrative that Mallarmé seeks to explicate. His idea of the total book, explored in prose fragments before the completion of his master poem, posit this sort of infinite totality found within the book, the Book as life, beyond art, beyond the idea of a total art work, but of life itself.
What’s interesting about Meillassoux’s study is not that he manages to decipher the poem and concludes with such a banalized note of grandiosity (which is a stunning literary move in its own right), but rather that the steps Meillassoux takes to demonstrate to us, as readers, his solution, are exciting. The structure of this book, which could deftly become a chore under less articulated means, composes what is read as a sort of suspense0filled mystery novel, only the speculative nature of the events being looked at have a larger result than that, simply, of narrative.
Despite my regular preaching that “spoilers” are irrelevant when considering the value of a book or movie (narrative, let’s say), I find myself insistently wanting to avoid actually revealing how exactly Meillassoux does this, as the experience of reading the book, at a personal level, brought me a new level of glee, a sort of insistent jouissance—I literally would start giggling on the BART as a new turn was taken, and while it might seem absurd the pleasure of this book matches its overarching success. And with that, I will leave in the silent futility of our hidden modernity’s greatly successful grand narrative." - Mike Kitchell
I wrote, a few months ago, of Stéphane Mallarmé as a difficult poet — difficult to understand, and difficult to translate, perhaps especially into English. What I should have also said then is that part of the difficulty lies in the fact that his poems in verse, as Peter Manson titled them in his estimable recent translation, that is, his Poésies, constitute only one facet of his work. There’s also what Mallarmé called vers de circonstance, occasional verse of which he turned a considerable quantity, and which might or might not be, as it appears, as insubstantial as it is sparkling — that is, it might or might not be in reality what the poet sometimes pretended all his verse was, “Rien, cette écume, vierge vers”: nothing but foam. These pieces arewell and truly untranslatable in their wispy evanescence. Then there’s a mass of prose, ranging from literary criticism to a strange sort of fashion journalism to the scattered notes toward his unfinished, indeed unbegun yet long contemplated project known simply as the Book, Le Livre. Prose poetry is something else, and there’s that too. And finally there’s that famous, prophetic and (despite a century of commentary) barely comprehended work that Mallarmé himself designated, on its title page, a Poème — not a Poésie — though it’s neither in verse nor exactly in prose but in a writing of some other kind that as yet still lacks a name: I’m referring, of course, to Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira pas la hazard, A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance. Only certain dimensions of Mallarmé’s sense of poetry can be gleaned from the poems in verse; to comprehend it more deeply demands an acquaintance with the rest of his writing, and perhaps above all the notes toward the Book and Un coup de dés.
Un coup de dés has been translated a number of times, and the translations on the whole seem adequate, yet while certain arguably superficial aspects of the work have been enormously influential — its typographical experimentation, the theme of chance — one has always had the sense that the work is fundamentally misunderstood. In a different way than the verse, certainly, but to the same degree, it is a difficult text. What does this mean? That can be argued, but as Quentin Meillassoux points out in his recently translated study The Number and the Siren, what most commentators broadly agree on is that it is difficult is not because there is something hidden in it. In the words Meillassoux quotes from Jacques Rancière, “Mallarmé is not a hermetic author, he is a difficult author.” Pierre Macherey is of precisely the same opinion, and explains more fully what he means: “Mallarmé is not hermetic, in the sense of a well-hidden secret that ought to be found out; he is only difficult…. The secret is, finally, that there is no secret.” And as Meillassoux admits, albeit with some irony, this is precisely as we would hope it to be, for to encode a hidden meaning in this way “is basically something rather puerile, whatever its complexity; something devoid of literary value, in any case.” The situation is similar, one might say, to what makes mystery stories a subliterary genre: As Edmund Wilson asked, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?” Not to say that this encoding would necessarily deprive the work of value — but that value would still have to be situated somewhere beyond the code, just as, for instance, the mere fact that a work is constructed according to rhyme and meter would not give it literary value — the poetry subsists somewhere on the far side of that. But nonetheless, Meillassoux insists, Un coup de dès does conceal a secret, and he can tell us what it is. Meillassoux can hardly deny that Mallarmé is a difficult poet, one who, as he says, for instance, “at the turn of the 1870s…developed a writing technique that consisted of losing readers from the outset with an opening line whose construction initially escapes them entirely, it being possible to reconstitute the first phrase only by means of verses sometimes located far into the poem. One has the impression of words that are simply juxtaposed, not which, for this very reason, scintillate, as if they were appearing for the first time in their originary strangeness.” But nonetheless he insists that Mallarmé is also, at least in Un coup de dès and a few others of his last lyrics, a hermetic poet.
But who is this Meillassoux who claims to have found what a century of readers have failed to find, and who is willing to point out a dimension of this foundational modern text that would be so contrary to modern aesthetics — more like a Baroque allegory, perhaps, than any work of modernity ought to be? He is a philosopher teaching at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, a former student of Alain Badiou, and the author of several books, of which one has previously been translated into English, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (Continuum, 2008). He is a leading light of a philosophical trend called speculative realism, whose adherents are mainly active in England. However, and while it’s not insignificant that Mallarmé has attracted the attention of an unusual number of philosophers — Rancière, Badiou, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Paul Sartre are only the first to come to mind — The Number and the Siren is not a book of philosophy but a very close empirical examination of Mallarmé’s poem.
I’ve never before written a review of a book on poetry in which I’ve had to watch out for spoilers, but in this case I think it really would be better if I tell you you’d better go read the book if you want to know the secret Meillassoux claims to have uncovered—and that despite the fact that he reveals it pretty early on in the book. The suspense isn’t so much about what the secret will be but about how he will convince you, if not to believe him, at least to suspend your disbelief. One Mallarmé authority I spoke to said the book seemed suspiciously like the old Douglas Adams novel in which the answer to the great question of life, the universe and everything turned out to be the number forty-two. One reason is that in his decipherment of Un coup de dès Meillassoux never entirely loses himself in its details; in fact, whether or not one accepts Meillassoux’s central contention, The Number and the Siren makes for the best overview of Mallarmé’s poetics that I know.
In particular, Meillassoux makes clear the poem’s relation to Mallarmé’s reflections on politics. This is all the more crucial as the poet is sometimes made to seem nothing more than a fabricator of crystalline literary baubles. Mallarmé was convinced that the civil state had need of a civil religion, what might be called a post-theistic secular Church. “Mallarmé thus considers as impossible a strict neutrality of the public domain that would reserve all spiritual impulses for the personal sphere alone,” Meillassoux points out. “There must be a common elevation.” Though Meillassoux doesn’t mention them, one thinks of the civic festivals promoted by the Jacobins in the wake of the French Revolution — for instance in Strasbourg, 30 Brumaire, Year II of the Revolution, when the cathedral was proclaimed a Temple of Reason and a choir of 10,000 voices sang hymns to this new deity under the sign, light after darkness. The Book of which Mallarmé dreamed—and which he presumably could not write because by nature it would have had to have been anonymous — was to be likewise the instrument of a new godless religion. Poetry, in this dream, was to be “a diffusion of the divine,” writes Meillassoux, “as opposed to its representation (the Greek scene), or its presentation (the Christian Parousia).” What might be surprising is that Mallarmé’s political thinking is directly tied to his position on the “crisis in verse” of his time, the break between classical versification, above all the alexandrine, and free verse, and the attendant ambivalence as to how classical verse should be pronounced on stage. Accordingly, although “Mallarmé sees in meter the condition of a ceremonial and public poetry,” each individual, explains Meillassoux, may “introduce a principle of uncertainty into the reading of the verse.”
Meillassoux traces Mallarmé’s poetics from its broadest socio-theological implications to the most minute details of prosody. Yet his strategy, strange as it may seem to say, depends precisely on maintaining the reader’s skepticism even as he inveigles you into entertaining the possibility that his thesis is correct. For him, the poem is “the most beautiful peut-être in the French language,” and the beauty is all in the conditionality of this “perhaps.” And to see this, as Meillassoux points out, is to understand that our notions of authorial intention may have to be revised. “There is a strong possibility,” as he says, “that Mallarmé basically knew no more than we do about his poem, and even that he did not wish to know more; and this is because the Poem is in itself, in fact, a ‘machine’ for hypotheses — a machine that functions without him, indifferent to his innermost conviction.” It really is a throw of the dice in this sense, that its result is beyond the thrower’s control.
From Lucretius onward at least, to accept the idea of materialism is to accept the primacy of randomness, the clinamen — and therefore to accept meaninglessness, or what amounts to the same thing, the arbitrariness of meaning. The fundamental question for Mallarmé — in this I am entirely in agreement with Meillassoux — is, always, how can an act, poetic or otherwise, have meaning in a wholly secular, wholly material world, that is, a world ruled by chance. “The condition of the new poetry is thus identified as that of the absence of the old divine transcendence,” writes Meillassoux, “but this absence lived no longer in the mode of an infinite mourning, but in the mode of a creative, fecund nothingness.”
It’s interesting to compare Meillassoux’s plunge into the aporia of authorial intention with another recent analysis of one of the glories of nineteenth-century French writing, Michael Fried’s new book Flaubert’s “Gueuloir,” two-thirds of which is given over to an essay on “Style and Habit in Madame Bovary.” Again, as with The Number and the Siren, this is a book whose originality may have something to do with the fact that it comes at literature from a disciplinary tangent, Fried being an art historian rather than a literary critic. Flaubert, like Mallarmé after him, is renowned for the almost obsessive degree of control he exercised over every detail of his text. Gueuloir, as Fried points out, is “Flaubert’s term for his regular practice of reading his sentences in a loud voice, as a means of becoming aware of defects in his writing (assonances, consonances, repetitions of all kinds) that he would then seek to eliminate in pursuit of a new and extremely demanding ideal of stylistic perfection.” Combing through the text of Madame Bovary, Fried points out any number of highly patterned instances of such repetitions—patterns that seem impossible to ascribe with certainty either to Flaubert’s intention or to some lapse; they cannot clearly be seen as willed nor can they be written off as automatisms either.
By contrast, in a second essay, on Salammbô — a text that unlike Bovary or Un coup de dès has had remarkably little evident impact on subsequent modernist writing — Fried endeavors to show the entirely willed nature of the work’s construction, from its overall design to its every detail. In doing so he does not make this rebarbative text any more attractive; copious citations of the reservations expressed by contemporaries like the Goncourts and Sainte-Beuve seem pretty much on the mark. Moreover, it is never clear what justifies Fried’s decision to use “will” as his master category here; one would have thought others, most obviously, “artifice,” might have served as well or better. In showing Flaubert’s effort to evoke an entirely strange and unfamiliar corner of history, Fried inadvertently demonstrates that Salammbô is not a historical novel in the usual sense, but closer in spirit to those science fiction epics that attempt to construct fully realized alternative worlds.
In his analysis of Bovary, Fried propounds a problem for scholars to ponder — and there you have a clause that the gueuloir should have eliminated — while Meillassoux proposes a solution that readers must take or leave, or manage to take and leave at the same time. To one of the world’s strangest and most enigmatic poetic texts he adds a most astounding exegesis. Meillassoux makes us see Mallarmé as a different kind of author than we might have imagined he was—shows us a madness in that we might not have expected. Suddenly he seems more a precursor of Raymond Roussel than of Paul Valéry on the one hand or Pierre Reverdy on the other, though in each of them in his own way, no doubt, we can see in “his ardent hesitation” another attempt “to rethrow the dice of modern poetry.” Likewise, true as it is that, as Maurice Blanchot once wrote, “Flaubert n’est pas encore Mallarmé,” Fried’s Flaubert is not so much a precursor of James or Proust as, he is again, of Roussel — and of books like Dune and The Left Hand of Darkness. The genealogy of literature, too, is subject to further throws of the dice. .
Meillassoux's lecture on Vimeo
Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Continuum, 2008.
"It is no exaggeration to say that Quentin Meillassoux has opened up a new path in the history of philosophy, understood here as the history of what it is to know ... This remarkable “critique of critique” is introduced here without embellishment, cutting straight to the heart of the matter in a particularly clear and logical manner. It allows the destiny of thought to be the absolute once more." - From the preface by Alain Badiou
“This work is one of the most important to appear in continental philosophy in recent years and deserves a wide readership at the earliest possible date ... Après la finitude is an important book of philosophy by an authnted emerging voices in continental thought. Quentin Meillassoux deserves our close attention in the years to come and his book deserves rapid translation and widespread discussion in the English-speaking world. There is nothing like it.” — Graham Harman
"Meillassoux introduces a startlingly novel philosophical alternative to the forced choice between dogmatism and critique. After Finitude proposes a new alliance between philosophy and science and calls for an unequivocal halt to the creeping return of religiosity in contemporary philosophical discourse."
"Rarely do we encounter a book which not only meets the highest standards of thinking, but sets up itself new standards, transforming the entire field into which it intervenes. Quentin Meillassoux does exactly this." - Slavoj Žižek
"Quentin Meillassoux has been described as the most rapidly prominent French philosopher in the Anglophone world since Jacques Derrida in the 1960's."
"In his clearly argued essay, now available in an excellent English translation, the French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux shows that subjectivity and objectivity must be conceived of independently of each other ... It is a truly philosophical work in that it develops the original idea of a speculative materialism with uncompromising passion and great consistency." - Alexander Garcia Düttmann
"An exceptionally clear and careful writer... Quentin Meillassoux launches a stinging attack upon the state of philosophy in general, and takes initial steps towards a form of speculative philosophy which, he thinks, overcomes the shortcomings he has identified.' - John Appleby
"It's easy to see why Meillassoux's After Finitude has so quickly acquired something of a cult status among some readers who share his lack of reverance for 'the way things are'. The book is exceptionally clear and concise, entirely devoted to a single chain of reasoning. It combines a confident insitence on the self-sufficiency of rational demonstration with an equally rationalist suspicion of mere experience and consensus....[this] is a beautifully written and seductively argued book." - Peter Hallward
“After Finitude will certainly play a central role in ongoing debates on the status of philosophy, on questions pertaining to epistemology and, above all, to ontology. It will not only be an unavoidable point of reference for those working on the question of finitude, but also for those whose work deals with political theology, and the status of the religious turn of philosophy. After Finitude will certainly become an ideal corrosive against too rigid assumptions and will shake entrenched positions.” – Gabriel Riera
“There is something absolutely exhilarating about Meillassoux’s argument, and it is not difficult to see why his book has already aroused so much interest. The exposition and critique of correlationism is brilliant and Meillassoux is at his best when showing the philosophical complacency of contemporary Kantians and phenomenologists. The proposal of speculative realism is audacious and bracing, particularly when he defends the idea of nature as a ‘glacial universe’, cold and indeifferent to humans. Such is Pascal’s ‘Eternal silence of infinite spaces’, but without the consolation of a wager of God’s existence. However, by Mellassoux’s own admission, his proposal is incomplete and we await its elaboration in future books. Although, his style of presentation can turn into a sort of fine-grained logic-chopping worthy of Duns Scotus, the rigour, clarity and passion of the argument can be breathtaking.” – Simon Critchley
"Meillassoux addresses the question whether natural laws are necessary, and if so why, raised by Kant and gnawed by subsequent philosophers from Hume to Foucault. He offers a logical proof that the only feature of the laws of nature that is absolutely necessary is that they are contingent. He explores the ethical and metaphysical implications. Brassier translates Apres la finitude, which was published in 2006 by Editions du Seuil." - Eithne O'Leyne
"the fundamental affirmation of SR is an ambitious point of view, a new possibility for philosophy. A new vision. Philosophy can continue. In this sense I am happy that it is not merely a continuation of classical metaphysics nor an end of it. In this sense I am in agreement with the word realism. We are beyond the end of metaphysics and classical metaphysics with the term realism. The question of realism as opposed to materialism is not a crucial question today. What is important is that it is not correlationist or idealist. It is a new space for philosophy, one with many internal differences but this is a positive symptom." - Alain Badiou
"If we look through the aperture which we have opened up onto the absolute, what we see there is a rather menacing power - something insensible, and capable of destroying both things and worlds, of bringing forth monstrous absurdities, yet also of never doing anything, of realizing every dream, but also every nightmare, of engendering random and frenetic transformations, or conversely, of producing a universe that remains motionless down to its ultimate recesses, like a cloud bearing the fiercest storms, then the eeriest bright spells, if only for an interval of disquieting calm." - Quentin Meillassoux
"Empirical science is today capable of producing statements about events anterior to the advent of life as well as consciousness." - Quentin Meillassoux
"...we know by the principle of unreason why non-contradiction is an absolute ontological truth: because it is necessary that what is be determined in such a way as to be capable of becoming, and of being subsequently determined in some other way. ...Accordingly, it becomes apparent that the ontological meaning of the principle of noncontradiction, far from designating any sort of fixed essence, is that of the necessity of contingency, or in other words, of the omnipotence of chaos." - Quentin Meillassoux
"...the fact of the stability of the laws of nature seems sufficient to refute the very idea of their possible contingency... But it is precisely this claim about the real contingency of physical laws that we propose to defend in all seriousness." - Quentin Meillassoux
"Today I’m working on the chapter of the Meillassoux book on After Finitude. Rather than “summarize” a book that is already written with sufficient clarity as it is, I’m going to try to isolate the key pillars in the argumentation of the book. (And I’ll categorize this as a “Composition of Philosophy” post, though I don’t intend to live-blog the writing of another book this summer. Maybe I’ll do it again in the future, but I don’t feel like it this time.)
If you’re writing a book honestly, you’ll always change your mind about a few things while writing it. But at the moment, I would say that the following are the 6 pillars of After Finitude. Incidentally, I am only convinced by point #1. I think the other five are all incorrect, though still very interesting.
1. Correlationism is the enemy. Instead of coming right out and calling themselves idealists, most post-Kantian philosophers choose the watery middle ground of correlationism. “Hey, the subject is always already outside of itself, immersed in a world.” That sort of thing. I call it “idealism with a realist alibi.”
2. There exists a position called strong correlationism that does not slide into absolute idealism. This is key for Meillassoux, because strong correlationism is not just his enemy, but his starting point. Meillassoux’s philosophical project is nothing other than to find the resources, within strong correlationism, for an overcoming of correlationism itself.
3. When strong correlationism is radicalized, what we end up with is the necessity of nothing else besides contingency. This step is the key to Meillassoux’s entire philosophy. If you’re not convinced by this step, you won’t be persuaded by the rest. (However, Meillassoux remains interesting even to the unpersuaded, which in my opinion is one of the surest marks of a genuine philosopher. If no one likes your work except those who agree with you, then you are simply a useful tool for achieving their aims. You are nothing but a surface. Being respected by those who reject your conclusions is the greatest honor there is.)
4. Temporal distance is more important than spatial distance. What I have in mind are two different passages, but especially the one he added to the English version of After Finitude. This is the passage where he rejects as superficial and trivial the claim that ancestrality (that which existed before any humans did) is of the same order as objects so spatially distant that no one can currently observe them. Meillassoux is quite firm on this point, and it has consequences that I will explore in the book. Basically, his rejection of the principle of sufficient reason is too focused on diachronic reasons: e.g., there is no reason why the law of gravity can’t change at random in the next moment. The theme Meillassoux ignores entirely is that of sufficient reason within any given moment: e.g., gold is the way it is because it has a certain molecular structure and the atoms in those molecules have certain properties, the quarks and electrons in those atoms have certain properties, and perhaps so on and so forth. In short, Meillassoux is interested in the contingent relations between events across time, and has no discernible interest in the emergence of wholes from parts in any given moment. If you were asked to write an essay called “Meillassoux’s mereology,” it would be tough to write, because the composition of entities (as opposed to the history of entities across time) is not really on his radar.
5. The contingency of natural laws does not contradict their apparent stability. This is Meillassoux’s own Cantorian moment… Since we can’t totalize the possible number of universes, we can’t be stunned by the miraculous odds that the universe as it is would support intelligent life, because no calculation of probability is relevant here. This is one of Meillassoux’s most shocking arguments, and one that I didn’t find at all convincing at first. But as the years go by I’m warming to it somewhat, and will explain why in the book.
6. Primary qualities are those that can be mathematized. For Meillassoux, the mathematical is the in-itself (he escapes the ambiguity of Ladyman and Ross on this point by denying the Pythagorean option outright: mathematical laws have an indexical relation to the real and are certainly not the real itself, though I don’t think this helps us much more than Ladyman and Ross– it’s simply a bit more frank). Readers of my writings will know that I disagree that the mathematical can be the in-itself.
On the whole, recent rereadings of After Finitude have led me to be more impressed by the book than ever. There is such a fresh feeling to everything Meillassoux does. His wagon wheels never fall into the ruts on the roads. Every couple of pages it seems like he’s reversing some familiar hand-me-down cliché from our view of the history of philosophy. When you read his books and articles, you feel the need to work a lot harder to be able to think with the same degree of rigor that he himself is employing." - Graham Harman
Read the book
Meillassoux’s Virtual Future by Graham Harman
Interview: Q. Meillassoux/F. Hecker/R. Mackay
Interview @ Influeneces
"Notes from ‘After Finitude’ by Quentin Meillassoux" By avoidingthevoid
Review by Gabriel Riera
Nathan Brown: “On After Finitude: A Response to Peter Hallward”
Simon Critchley: “Back to the Great Outdoors (Review of After Finitude)”
Graham Harman: "QUENTIN MEILLASSOUX: A NEW FRENCH PHILOSOPHER"
Dark Chemistry: "Quentin Meillassoux: Benefit and Alterity - Revisioning Metaphysics; or a Dark Materialism?"
Dark Chemistry: "Quentin Meillassoux: On Re-reading After Finitude"
Amod Lele: "Do Speculative Realists want us to be Chinese?"
Quentin Meillassoux: "Spectral Dilemma"
Quentin Meillassoux, "History and Event in the writings of Alain Badiou"
Quentin Meillassoux: “Time without Becoming”"You may entirely disagree with the author's solution (I do) but not with the courage with which he proposes to escape from the prison of discourse and to put the much abused metaphor of the Copernican Revolution right at last." - Bruno Latour