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The Metaphysics of Pure Contingency: ‘Things must become what they are’

Peter Thompson 6 April 2011

All philosophy, all thought, all human endeavour is the forlorn attempt to close the gap between the invisible and the infinite on the one hand and the hard reality of real existing conditions on the other. It cannot succeed, however, because the ground of the real is constantly shifting and our limited grasp of it is constantly trying to catch up and make up (in both senses of the word) the distance and the difference. But it is the very impossibility of success that makes the gap so creatively powerful. This gap is what all of the ‘masters of suspicion' in human history have been wrestling with. Indeed, I would argue that the fight with the gap is precisely what human history consists of. If the subsets of human existence are made up of stone, bronze, iron, plutonium and information ages, then the overarching set is that of the conscious age.

Think of it in terms of the expanding universe: How do we know that the universe is expanding? Precisely because we cannot see 98 per cent of it. The light from the stars which are rushing headlong and ever faster into dark matter, thereby becoming part of and helping to creating dark matter, cannot reach us because the universe is expanding at too great a rate. But the very proof and therefore truth of the expanding universe lies in the fact that most of it is not observable. If the universe were not expanding then all the light from all the stars in the universe would have already arrived here and it would never get dark at night. We would be living in a wonderfully bright but terribly static snow globe of a universe - and of course that universe would contain no life, bombarded as it would be with relentless light and radiation with no escape. It is the very darkness of our universe which is proof of constant dynamic movement and change and thus the proof of life and process.

Philosophy, religion, politics, psychology, economics, culture, all of the things that we might think of as part of the superstructural surface of existence are in effect nothing more than our own private Hubble telescopes trying to bridge the gap between subject and object, trying to traverse and transcend the snow globe. As we penetrate both further outwards as well as inwards into space we start to see Nietzsche's dancing stars more clearly. We can now clearly see the great clouds of cosmic dust which are giving birth to those stars and we know that those same clouds which produced us are still at work inside us, producing the dancing stars which are us, our psyches, our will, our drives and desires. We know that what we have is wonderful but that the process is not finished and is not enough. We know that, in the words of Bertolt Brecht, so often quoted by Ernst Bloch, that ‘Something's Missing'. What that something is or might become is beyond our perception and sometimes seems to be heading further and further and faster and faster away from us.

What we need to investigate is the issue of the significance, positive and negative, of the gap between subject and object in human consciousness. Taking my cue from Ernst Bloch as well as Badiou and Žižek this materialist Hegelian psychoanalysis is something which needs to be incorporated into an investigation of the continuing centrality of religion to human thought, against all the predictions of its withering away under the glare of reason. All three are avowed atheists and yet they do not reduce the god question to one of a simple delusion. For all three, the Marxist dictum about religion as the ‘sigh of the oppressed creature in a hostile world, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions' holds true as a basic position, but does not go nearly far enough.

Ernst Bloch once said that what materialist philosophy should be about is the pursuit of the idea of transcendence without the need for the transcendent. Paraphrasing William James, we might say that what all three thinkers are about is demonstrating not how the transcendent breaks in on us from an unknown noumenal realm, but how it breaks out of us to help create the motion towards something as yet unknowable. In Bloch Badiou and Žižek we find contradictions, aporia, unanswered questions, untestable hypotheses and a sort of speculative materialism which seeks to inject uncertainty back into a branch of the discipline of thought too long characterised by dogma. Bloch was very fond of quoting Fichte's response when told that his philosophy didn't accord with reality: ‘Too bad for the facts!' For behind reality for all three of these thinkers there lies a Real; an unfathomable, unattainable and non-existent real which, like a black hole, has attained such gravitational pull that no light can escape it and no enlightenment derived from it.

But this hole is not something which is pure negation nor can it in some way be patched up or filled in. It is not a hole where the whole once was because this hole is part of the whole. Without it nothing would exist and what is more its very existence proves the existence of nothing.
By looking at the metaphysics of contingency in Bloch, Badiou and Žižek we might see how human desire is both the search for a Faustian moment of fulfilment as well as a quest to find our way forward to a home in which we have never been. Our sense of subjective self locates us in our own island bubbles, our own beautiful little snow globes but the sense of safety which that hermetically sealed bubble gives us soon becomes a burden and we seek to break through the (looking) glass, to search for that perfect moment in which we find fulfilment and a new home. And so intellectually we island hop, we expand our mental map of the world and existence in the same way that humanity spread out across the chain of Polynesian islands. No one is forcing us to leave our homes other than ourselves and we are prepared to risk mortal danger in order to find the next, more beautiful, more bountiful island. The next one will be the one, and the next, and the next. Our need for security and boundaries is surpassed only by our fear of being trapped.

One of the great moments of this restless and questioning existence comes at a young age when we for the first time realise that we are not simply just here but ask, as Peter Handke does at the start of Wim Wenders' masterpiece, Wings of Desire; ‘why am I me and not you?' This simple childish question is a search for the bridge between subject and object, but it is a bridge which has to span two moving things; namely, a subject which does not yet know itself and an object which cannot be fully known. As we sit on the train travelling through the growing dusk and watch the complete strangers at work in their kitchens and they look back at us framed in the square of light which is the train window, we are aware of that thought. We are made aware that but for some accident of contingency we might be on the outside of the train and someone else would be where we are sitting. But rather than simply changing places, both of those subjects would of course be different ones. There is no necessity for me to be me and for the other to be them, it just is.

Indeed, following that line of thought we then realise that the people we are, that we take ourselves to be, the subject looking out from the moving train, is already other to ourselves. We could just as well be someone else and our existence is purely contingent. The thousands of generations of contingent couplings which led to us as individual end points were certainly all necessary for us to exist but our existence per se is not necessary. And with that our own existence becomes as counter-factual as the person we never became. As Rimbaud puts it: ‘Je est un Autre', but we are an unfixed Je which constantly wishes to become an as yet impossible and unknown Autre. Everything we do is an attempt to build a bridge between the two.

This is the Metaphysics of Pure Contingency.


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