Conversation with Meillassoux
A very interesting conversation between Quentin Meillassoux, Robin McKay and Florian Hecker is available in pdf on the Urbanomic website (where, among other things, an interesting-looking forthcoming book on the philosophy of mathematics is announced).
There is a lot of interesting material in it: many topics will sound familiar to those well acquainted with Meillassoux’s work, but the conversation format leads the discussion also towards some unexpected terrain. I really just read it very quickly, and I’ll have to come back to it, but there is a section (indeed, the concluding section) which rather pleased me. Here is a selection from it:
When all your signs are meaningful, you are in deconstruction. Now why can’t Derrida’s deconstruction say anything about mathematics, why can’t it deconstruct mathematics? Because Derrida needs a sort of meaningful repetition, a sign that is meaningful that, if you repeat it, you have differential effects, by the repetition itself.
But if you take mathematics, you have signs without meaning, and you just operate on these signs. So if there are signs without any meaning, all deconstruction, all hermeneutics, goes out the window. Because there is a hole of meaning – no meaning at all. If these signs have no meaning at all, they just iterate, and this iteration can create the possibility of what I call a reiteration: one sign, two signs, three, four, etc.
So mathematics for me are the continent of what deconstruction cannot deconstruct, because it is grounded on meaninglessness. It is grounded on a sign without meaning. Now how can a sign without meaning can be infinite, can be it be general, generally the same? Here, there is something that is eternal but not ideal. Idealism thinks that it’s always meaning or essence that is eternal. For me what is eternal is just that any sign is a fact. When you see the facticity before the reality of a fact, then you don’t look at this teapot as an object that is factual, but you look at it as being the support of its facticity; and the support of its facticity as facticity is the same for the teapot as for this cup or this table … So you can iterate infinitely, that’s why you can iterate it.
In fact, for me, the facticity, the object as a support quelconque of facticity, you can iterate it, without any meaning. And that’s why you can operate with it, you can create a world without deconstruction and hermeneutics. And this is grounded on pure facticity of things, and also of thinking. It is not correlated. After that, you can take some pieces of what you can construct from iteration to construct mathematics, and abstractly apply that to some pieces of world, indifferent to thinking, that’s what I try to demonstrate.
Why was I so pleased? Two reasons: first, it’s one of the very few occasions (maybe the only one in his published work?) where Meillassoux explicitly discusses Derrida (I have to admit that at times I thought that his silence on Derrida was unacceptable, especially when he builds his ‘advent of a fourth world of justice’ argument).
Second, he does this in the context of a (very brief, unfortunately) incursion into his treatment of mathematics and of his approach to it as a formal language manipulating signs devoid of meaning (about which you can read more here). I’ve always read (perhaps idiosyncratically) Meillassoux as standing on a continuum with Derrida’s project (mediated through Badiou of course) and the argument he makes here gives me very good material to build upon (my thesis plan is increasingly going towards a manipulation of the Derrida-Badiou-Meillassoux nexus cum philosophy of science). I do not think that he rejects, or needs to reject deconstruction (I actually think that his argument against the repetition of meaningful signs goes much more against the metaphysical univocity of Deleuzian differential repetition than against the quasi-transcendental Derridean differance, but this is another story…), nor do I think that Derrida would have disliked his conclusions here (a good reading of Derrida, particularly in his engagement with Husserl and the concepts of genesis and structure, demonstrates that he never for a second doubted the universal validity of mathematical logic — so why can’t Derrida deconstruct mathematics? Because he never meant to! Just as Gödel– being the mathematical Platonist-realist that he was — never meant to undermine mathematics, that’s what ‘postmoderns’ thought of him, certainly not Derrida).
What Meillassoux is doing here is to complement the Derridean project, preserving the possibility of deconstructing the semantic sphere of human meanings and the phenomenal sphere of autoimmune materiality. More than this, however, his respect for science (and his Badiouian bildung) leads (perhaps demands) him to identify a link between hyperchaos (the ontological truth about reality) and mathematics (the language in which science actually happens to be able to talk about reality), i.e., the fact every single mathematical sign is a meaningless sign, wherein its facticity inevitably ‘comes to the fore’ if we consider it in its pure formal function, so that, so to speak, the principle of factuality is in-built in mathematics – no need then to wonder about the ‘unreasonable effectiveness’ of mathematics in describing the physical world.
I’ve always been convinced that this is the most fertile (and necessary, if he wants to engage with [philosophy of] science, and not just invoke its results) direction for Meillassoux to proceed after After Finitude and I am happy to see that — ‘divinological’ excursions notwithstanding – he still thinks that there is more work to do in this direction.