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Meillassoux lists three positions that fall under the label correlationism: transcendentalism, phenomenology and postmodernism. This implies that most correlationists are ‘continental’ antirealists. These continental antirealist positions tend to emphasize questions of givenness, human access, and transcendental subjectivity. The correlationist claims that when you speak about objects, events, laws or beings you do so in the sense of the correlationist’s commitment: as given.
When I saw that the author of this book was based in Dublin I got onto the philosophy student grapevine (translation – I sent a text) and within minutes had the full skinny on Paul J. Ennis. Ireland is a very small place. The social scene of former philosophy students is even smaller.
Ennis is here critiquing the theories of Quentin Meillassoux and the Continental Realist school he has come to represent. Nothing less than a challenge to the dominant theories of Immanuel Kant, whose ‘Copernican Revolution’ has infused academic philosophy ever since, this is a fascinating discussion. Focusing on Meillassoux’s ‘After Finitude’ initially, Ennis then expands his book to include a study of the aforementioned Kant, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek and Markus Gabriel, before becoming beached on the lonely shore of Heidegger. There is nothing less at stake here than the relevance of philosophical discourse itself, Ennis providing a candid examination of the opposing sides in this refreshingly modern philosophical debate.
What Meillassoux terms the ‘arche-fossil’ or ‘The Ancestral Realm’, forms the basis of his attack on post-Kantian correlationism – the notion that we can only know the world as it is perceived. As scientific discovery and technological advancement have increased, divisions between mind and body, phenomenological bracketing and noumena have become the stuff of tired academic lessons. Philosophy has become the dogmatic study of ‘ephemeralities’ ghost of thoughts propounded by dead men. The Anglo-American, or Analytical school of philosophy has exhausted the limits of Wittgenstein, who in turn reduced Kant’s legacy to a discussion of statements. The study of thinking, metaphysics, ethics, all become boiled down to a series of logical relations, dependent on science for its existence, which it gave birth to as ‘natural philosophy’ (brilliantly described by Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle).
Continental Philosophy dredged literature and art for its material, following Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School. Meillassoux abandons this retreat, instead insisting on the existence of ‘ancestral time’, a knowable state of the world absent of human life. Ennis summarises one argument as follow, that if “anything in our world can be depended on it is that the sun will rise: that it is necessary for the sun to rise. Meillassoux retorts that the necessitarian inference is a piece of mathematical probabilistic reasoning.“
Should the world suddenly end, the human world, our part in this universe would be over. Meillassoux embraces the scientific perspective of the observer-less model of existence. In effect this change in European thought represents a rejection of post-modernism, an assertion of mathematical absolutes. Philosophy has traded in a sort of backdoor theism for too long, as well as a sycophantic devotion to science (all in aid of preserving its territory over academic discourse) – Meillassoux rejects both in favour of a philosophical model that can accomodate hard science.
This is an excellent introduction to a fascinating new development in philosophical thinking.
With thanks to Zero Books for my review copy.
Things will get better. In fifteen years’ time and that’s such a little space – 90 per cent of the people living in Britain will be over eighty. There won’t be the energy from evil any more than there will be the energy for good.
I have got to stop reviewing books that have been adapted to film. I waste most of the review commenting on the differences between the film and the text. Plus this blog is dedicated to books and yet my love of cinema insists on creeping back in.
Still I was astonished at how much the screenplay based on P.D. James‘ novel diverged from the text. In his commentary on the dvd for Children of Men philosopher Slavoj Zizek comments on how the religious subtext of the book is dropped for more cinematic themes such as terrorism and a breakdown in multicultural society.
Both stories come from the same root, however. By 2021 the human race is doomed by a worldwide epidemic of childlessness that has lasted twenty five years. Theo Faron a fifty-year-old Oxford historian has begun a diary that provides us with an insight into how the quiet extinction of the human race has changed Britain. A new system of governance has taken over in the wake of global panic, ruled by his cousin Xan Lyppiatt, the Warden of England. Under his rule order has been restored to the country due to his wide-ranging policy changes and of course the increasing depopulation. Cities are quiet and safe. Criminals are deported to the Isle of Man. Immigrants from other countries are invited to England to do menial jobs, referred to as Sojourners, but are returned to their countries of origin once they become elderly.
The infertility event is designated Omega, with the last generation of humans born in 1995 known as Omegas. Theo describes them as being over-entitled, spoiled brats, who regard their elders with undisguised contempt. There are even rumours that there are roaming gangs of Omegas in the abandoned English countryside. Their youth is something incomprehensible and threatening to the dispassionate and increasingly listless older population. Some women who were of child-bearing at the time of Omega have never recovered from the psychological trauma. Dolls are wheeled about in prams in imitation of real children. There are even christenings of newborn pets. Animals it appears were spared divine punishment.
Theo’s diary also describes his relationship with Xan and their time spent together as children, which allows him to believe he is untouchable even as his concerns about the nature of his cousin’s power over Britain grows. He is contacted by a small group of dissidents, the Five Fishes, who contact him in the hope that he can use his influence with Xan to repeal some of his policies. Initially dismissive of their utopian plans,Theo is an unwilling co-conspirator, until he is given a reason to hope for a possible future for the human race. It takes nothing less than a genuine miracle to wipe away his privileged sceptism.
At times Theo Faron feels like a character from an Evelyn Waugh novel who somehow became lost and wandered into this listless dystopia. James herself draws attention to this, by having Xan utter the line “How too Brideshead, dear boy. I feel the need of a teddy bear.” The early half of Children of Men is a fantastic eulogy to a dying Britain, with Theo a curator for a culture that will soon vanish, singing the praises of emptying churches, libraries and museums. The violent Omegas are strangely alien to him, remiscent of The Midwich Cuckoos and Burgess’ Droogs (much like Alex’s friends, some are even conscripted into the police). The abandoned villages and seaside holiday resorts transformed into destinations for assisted suicide are beautifully evoked.
However, as Theo becomes more and more involved with the Five Fishes the novel changes, becoming an unusual mixture of thriller and religious allegory. Incredibly P.D. James has fashioned a twenty-first century neo-Nativity. Xan makes for a charming Herod, a politician who acquired ideology to suit his passage to power and finds it difficult to relinquish, even in the face of the end of the world. There is an amusing aside when The Beatles classic All You Need is Love becomes a rallying cry for evangelists.
Children of Men is more a novel of ideas than a work of science fiction, questioning the meaning of life without purpose. Remarkable.