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Credit: NASA/ESO, J. Alves (Calar Alto, Spain), and B. Vandame and Y. Beletski (ESO) NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Traditions

Quentin Meillassoux

Meillassoux’s thinking of post-Copernican cosmic immanence and cosmic delegitimation constitutes a challenge to political theology as still predominantly Ptolemaic in its assumptions and focus

Political theology grapples with structures and operations of legitimation and delegitimation that cut across the secular/religious binary. The production of this binary has been constitutive for Western modernity and its modes of self-legitimation, and political theology has comprehensively interrogated the secular modern world—with one key lacuna. It has rarely, if ever, engaged with the foundational event of modernity that is the Galilean-Copernican revolution or attempted to grasp immanently that event’s nonhuman, cosmic dimension.

Given the post-Heideggerian suspicion toward modern science still prevalent across critical theory, this is perhaps unsurprising, and political theology is not alone in this. In a paradox noted already by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, while modern physics has always been astrophysics, post-Kantian thought has failed to scale up to the cosmic. However, at a moment when the looming climate catastrophe reveals forcefully a more-than-human planetary and cosmic immanence so indifferent as to have no care for humanity’s existence, it is worth asking: What would a political-theological thinking proceeding from the Copernican revolution and the alien cosmic immanence revealed by modern science look like? How would political-theological critique of operations of legitimation function on a post-Copernican cosmic scale?

Quentin Meillassoux (b. 1967) is a French philosopher associated with speculative realism—although he prefers “speculative materialism.” I see his thinking as part of the ongoing late-modern “rediscovery” of the cosmic scale constitutively inscribed into modernity from the outset. What follows is as much an introduction to Meillassoux’s cosmic thinking as a re-contextualization required to uncover its significance for any post-Copernican political theology.

“Cosmic immanence” and “cosmic delegitimation” are the terms that, while not Meillassoux’s own, I take to circumscribe the political-theological dimension of his thought. His is a speculative political theology of cosmic immanence intended to allow for a thinking of the radical otherwise (including resurrection) while apocalyptically delegitimating every claim to necessity and every transcendent legitimation, be it “religious” or “secular.”

Cosmic Delegitimation

Meillassoux’s crystalline prose is permeated with a sense of the contingently catastrophic, opening onto a cosmic immanence that precedes and exceeds the human. This immanence is “unveiled” or “revealed” (two key verbs in Meillassoux’s description of the Copernican event) in the transition from the closed world to the infinite universe—to the decentered, contingent, glacial cosmic void.

To think this cosmic immanence is to unground the standard configurations of immanence and transcendence as too human-centered. To say that the cosmic exceeds the human would seem to invoke transcendence. However, cosmic immanence precedes the human, and global modernity especially imposes itself transcendently upon the planetary immanence of the Earth, an immanence that is one with the immanence of the universe. Meillassoux calls this immanence “ancestral,” indexing a deep time (e.g., of the formation of the solar system) known through statements of science but unexperienceable phenomenologically—yet “dia-chronically” persisting alongside the time of human history, and erupting in a way that is “blindly evident now” (2008, 121). While constituting the presupposition of human existence, cosmic immanence is irreducible to human immanence or divine transcendence.

The irony of the Anthropocene is that, in its demiurgic striving to control reality, modernity has come full circle, now facing the same post-Copernican scale: one that is cosmic and inhuman in origin, incapable of being contained within the phenomenological horizon, uncontrollable and out of control. The shock of the Anthropocene and the shock of the Copernican revolution unveil the one cosmic immanence, and Meillassoux is its foremost contemporary thinker.

In the 17th century, this shock underwrites Blaise Pascal’s invocation of the frightening cosmic silence or John Donne’s sense that, due to the astronomical disorientation, “the Sunne is lost, and th’ earth,” “all coherence [is] gone,” and “this world’s spent.” Meillassoux’s term for this incoherence and perishability is “contingency.” In a way that resonates between the 17th and the 21st-century catastrophic sentiment, Meillassoux writes: “Everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to logical laws; and this is not by virtue of some superior law whereby everything is destined to perish, but by virtue of the absence of any superior law capable of preserving anything, no matter what, from perishing” (2008, 53).

Unveiled by the Copernican revolution is not just the contingency of this or that circumstance, but contingency as the absolute condition: the contingency of all invariants of the world. No law, no order is necessary; if there is an order, it is a mere fact, nothing pre-ordained by a religious or secular authority. It could have been and could be otherwise; nor can it be legitimately inscribed into any narrative of legitimation. The above quotation is distinct from the age-old adage that everything necessarily perishes insofar as it proclaims this necessity itself to be contingent, and even perishability a mere fact that cannot be legitimated through appeal to necessity.

The Copernican event rationally discloses that everything that is is without reason, and this absence of reason, or “unreason,” is the only “absolute” or “in-itself,” non-metaphysical and delegitimating any appeal to a necessary entity. Cosmic contingency is thereby imbued by Meillassoux with an apocalyptic sense. It collapses any legitimation and unveils the in-itself in this collapse—so that, in the cosmic disorientation invoked by Donne, modernity sees the in-itself face to face. This in-itself is the infinite void of contingency, immanent only to itself, an indifferent “hyper-Chaos” of whatever possibility and whatever fact.

For the post-Copernican modernity, the infinite plenum of contingency re-occupies the position of “the veracious God.” It is, in a way, omnipotent too: “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.” This dis-orderly omnipotence that, “far from guaranteeing order, guarantees only the possible destruction of every order” (2008, 51-2), cannot but appear as menacing, underlying the Copernican shock.

What this omnipotence signifies is strikingly minimal: the fact that whatever is is without reason, and thus must be thought as not necessarily the way it is. It is omnipotence as delegitimation. How to think the world without justifying it?—such is, I believe, a central anti-theodical question, and Meillassoux seeks both to think the conditions of possibility of the world and to delegitimate any concealing of immanent nothingness with transcendent necessity.

Contra any Leibnizian attempt to stabilize the post-Copernican universe via the theodical principle of sufficient reason, Copernican immanence is to be inhabited by a reason dispossessed of its desire for sufficiency. “In reply to those metaphysical questions that ask why the world is thus and not otherwise, the response ‘for no reason’ is a genuine answer. Instead of laughing or smiling at questions like ‘Where do we come from?’, ‘Why do we exist?’, we should ponder instead the remarkable fact that the replies ‘From nothing. For nothing’ really are answers” (2008, 110). This material nothingness indexes an immanence decoupled from the world, one that delegitimates the world’s legitimations and transcendences.

Ptolemaic vs. Astro-Modernity

However, although the scientific revolution was constitutive for modernity, modernity failed to stay with the cosmic trouble revealed in the Copernican event. Meillassoux offers a critique of the trajectory of modernity, which I would contextualize as follows.

As Hans Blumenberg shows, at the outset of modernity, the subject asserts itself against the disorder and contingency of reality, seeking to produce order out of groundlessness and chaos. That this project of mastery has now led to the planetary-scale eruption of the contingency that the subject set out to control is one of modernity’s catastrophic ironies.

Meillassoux diagnoses this project as a narrowing of the cosmic and planetary, their scaling-down to the phenomenological structure of the subject-object relationship. In this structure of finitude, reality appears as correlated with the subject, and this “correlationism,” in various guises, characterizes the entire post-Kantian trajectory of thought. The human-world correlation is, furthermore, a structure of domination and antiblackness. Again ironically, what Kant dubbed his own Copernican revolution constituted a “Ptolemaic counter-revolution” (2008, 118): a foreclosure of cosmic immanence. In identifying the conditions of representation with the invariants of the world, the transcendental turn was, one might add, a theodical operation.

Modernity qua correlationism equals not only “Ptolemy’s revenge,” but a structure of loss, even mourning: “bereavement,” “loss” of “the great outdoors” (2008, 7). This critique of the neediness, human-centeredness, and blind narrowness of modernity reconfigures, via cosmic immanence, Christian critiques of modernity in a way that avoids affirming either side of the religious/secular binary. (That Meillassoux draws on these critiques is evident in his reference to Rémi Brague no less than in his too-simple view of modernity as “de-Christianization”—against which see the work of Gil Anidjar or Daniel Colucciello Barber.)

However, “de-Christianization” means for him not a secularization but a “re-ligionization.” Meillassoux takes seriously Kant’s claim to delimit knowledge to make room for faith. By foreclosing the in-itself and absolutizing the limits of finitude, secular skepticism and transcendental philosophy alike “abandon whatever lies beyond this limit to the rule of piety” (2008, 82), producing a “fideism of any belief whatsoever” underwritten by faith in the necessity of the way the world is (identified with the limits of finitude themselves). At this point, secular humanism becomes indistinguishable from belief in providence. Ultimately, the more the “fragility” or “mystery” of the world is emphasized, the more ironclad its grip becomes. What modernity calls immanence, i.e. the subject-world structure of finitude, takes for granted the (transcendent) necessity of the world, thereby mystifying it.

Meillassoux may be said to critique the co-production of the religious and secular—which, however, I view as part of the Christian-modern apparatus of legitimation, not as de-Christianization. To regain astonishment in looking at the universe (2008, 27) means to break through this binary apparatus, and to inhabit nonhuman cosmic contingency immanently without the desire to transcend it, without the striving for mastery and control.

In The Number and the Siren, Meillassoux’s deciphering of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Coup de dés, this immanent inhabitation of contingency points to the persistence of the Copernican event despite the correlationist trajectory of modernity. As Copernican, modernity is diachronically excessive over its Ptolemaic double, ungrounding any pretense of mastery; and Meillassoux’s account of this ungrounding is strikingly Christological, further complicating any de-Christianization narrative. 

To give up the striving for mastery is to deliver oneself to “Chance, the God of the moderns”; and if Copernican modernity indexes the death of God and the sacrifice of transcendence, then to dispossess oneself of any attempted mastery amounts to a sacrifice of sacrifice opening onto a “divine dimension of suffering” (2012, 122-6), a kenotic embrace of nothingness morphing into a kind of secular salvation: a becoming-infinite by becoming-Chance, a salvation de-voided of transcendence.

Importantly, Chance cannot be reduced to probability or calculation, and while Meillassoux insists on the mathematical character of the Galilean-Copernican hyper-Chaos, via the concept of the transfinite and the empty immanence of the meaningless sign, the mathematical, as “the detotalization of number” (2008, 103), opposes the enclosure of possibility via calculation. This makes Meillassoux worth engaging with for anyone interested in a political theology of modern mathematized science.

Instead of seeking mastery, Mallarméan modernity embraces Copernican immanence as crystallized in the perhaps (as unveiling “no longer being, but the perhaps”). Mallarmé’s hypermodern poetics is an astro-poetics in which the poem—“as christic crystallization of Chance” or “Christal of Nothingness” (2012, 222)—refracts cosmic infinity, not unlike the stars in their “evanescent flickering” (2012, 140). In this, Copernican modernity promises “transfiguration” through the perhaps.

Immanent Resurrection

Meillassoux’s Christological account would be incomplete without the perhaps bearing a further name: “resurrection.” 

Considered immanently, “everything and every world… is capable of actually becoming otherwise without reason” (2008, 53). As preceding and exceeding any world-configuration, cosmic “immanence is not of this world” (2010, 468). And while, in this world, God is dead or does not exist, and all death is final, a messianic world is immanently thinkable, a world of divine justice and bodily resurrection envisioned in Meillassoux’s “Immanence of the World Beyond” (a complex essay worth reading in full for its unorthodox speculative reworking of theological and political archives). In this way, the Copernican unveiling (apo-kalyptein) becomes not only negative, as delegitimation and collapse, but positive, as the opening of the otherwise-world. 

One could say that, in order to stay true to the Copernican event, political theology must provincialize the human and (the nomos of) the Earth. Especially now that, in its techno-utopian dreams of life and profit on Mars, global capitalism seeks to expand beyond the planetary, political-theological thinking must proceed from cosmic immanence as the otherwise to the capitalist-modern logics of transcendence concealed under the name of “this world,” an otherwise that opens onto a different logic of inhabiting the cosmic. This means, among other things, that “political theology” must not be fixated on the political identified with the global, but must take seriously the ongoing encounter of the global with the nonhuman scale so as to think immanently from and on this scale—for which purpose the theological, as already implying a more-than-human dimension, needs to be rethought, too.

In his thinking of resurrection, Meillassoux is particularly concerned with those who died a death so violent as to be unmournable. A death whose meaninglessness exceeds any phenomenological scale of mourning coincides structurally with the cosmic meaninglessness unveiled in the Copernican event—as also unveiling the constitutively modern possibility of human extinction, an “absolute” death radically stripped of salvation or mourning.

A straightforward reading of the advent of justice and resurrection in Meillassoux is that it might happen through contingency—which means that it might never happen; or that it might even be contingently reversed, as itself contingent. A more speculative reading would claim that resurrection is the enacted capacity to be anything whatsoever, without reason, and as such could not be reversed since it would coincide with the plenum of contingency itself. A resurrected existence would consist in immanently inhabiting cosmic contingency, without any transcendent telos. In this way, the human would also dis-inhabit the anthropocentrism of the modern logic of self-assertion.

This much is suggested by Meillassoux’s image of the resurrected nomadic non-subject, devoid of self-assertion and as counter-correlationist as can be:

What will we do when we will have become forever what the Middle Ages called a traveler—a viator—a man of the earth and not the blessed in heaven, a viator forever condemned to his living condition, a kind of prosaic immortal without any transcendence or struggle to give meaning to the undefined pursuit of his being? […This] will be a communist life, that is to say, life finally without politics. (2010, 473)

Meillassoux seeks to rethink the political and the theological via Copernican cosmic immanence, without imposing upon it any transcendent legitimation. However, is his post-political a-theology consistent enough? Can one disentangle justice from justification? Does not reiterating the Christological structure turn this into a narrative of justification and redemption? Does not Meillassoux ultimately, in his investment in a new world, convert cosmic disorder into a redemptive order? These are only some political-theological questions that Meillassoux’s thought engenders, and that function across the cosmic and the human, and across the religious and the secular, as part of a post-Copernican political theology (perhaps) to come.


Annotated Bibliography

2008. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Trans. Ray Brassier. London: Continuum.

Meillassoux’s central work introducing his thinking of contingency and his critique of correlationism.

2010. “Immanence of the World Beyond.” Trans. Peter M. Candler et al. In: The Grandeur of Reason, ed. Peter M. Candler and Conor Cunningham. London: SCM, 444-478.

A programmatic essay on immanence, divine inexistence, and post-political resurrected life.

2012. The Number and the Siren. Trans. Robin Mackay. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

A messianic meditation on modernity and Chance through a “decoding” of Mallarmé’s Coup de dés.

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