Artistic Contingency Vs. Scientist Contingency:

Mike Watson


Meillassoux's 'Arche-Fossil' as Readymade Artwork.

Contingency is the new black, this season's Deleuzian Fold, or Leibnizian Monad, if you like. The new fingerless gloves of the academic department this winter: Everyone 'wears' contingency, but no one knows what the point of it is. Some people suspect there is no point, but can't be sure.

This pointlessness is a good place to start. A well-worn joke has it that we needn't address the concerns of Nihilism, as Nihilism, by its nature, does not essentially exist. Of course, for the Nihilist this is not a problem as such.

The real problem for the Nihilist is that he does exist, under the terms that existence can be said to - and seen to - exist.

Nihilism and contingency walk hand in hand this season, in the proverbial and perennial abyss, wearing their fingerless gloves. Caught up in the contradictory hoo-ha that has them declaring themselves both non-existent and completely contingent. Nihilism performs a baroque interpretation of its nullity, whilst absolute contingency can only explain itself by acknowledging its own contingency.

The resurgence of Nihilism, though it has arguably been a latent tendency in all post war European philosophy, has come about due to the actions of the 'Speculative Realists' - a philosophical 'movement' of thinkers allied in their disdain for Post-Kantian philosophy; i.e. philosophies that place human life at the centre of existence, as if the human subject were necessary to existence itself.

Foremost amongst these thinkers, in a movement - more a loose school of thought, in fact - less than two years of age - being formed out of a conference held at Goldsmiths College, 2007 - are Quentin Meillassoux (After Finitude, 2008) and Ray Brassier (Nihil Unbound, 2007). Both essentially have it that life has no implicit meaning, or is 'contingent'; a sentiment backed up with a mixture of philosophical reasoning and 'hard' science - hence the 'speculative' and 'realist' elements are entwined.

Possibly most innovative in their thought is their identification of 'Ancestrality' (an initial concern of Meillassoux, later taken up by Brassier) - the fact of there having existed, demonstrably, matter before the existence of all living forms: A point that renders Kant's 'Copernican Turn'; whereby mind is instituted as the central focus and beginning of any enquiry into truth, obsolete.

Taking Ancestrality, as combined with Brassier's observation, that: '... roughly one trillion, trillion, trillion (101728) years from now, the accelerating expansion of the universe will have disintegrated the fabric of matter itself, terminating the possibility of embodiment [...] All free matter, whether on planetary surfaces or in interstellar space, will have decayed, eradicating any remnants of life based in protons and chemistry, and erasing every vestige of sentience - irrespective of its physical basis. Finally, in state cosmologists call 'asymptopia', the stellar corpses littering the empty universe will evaporate into a brief hailstorm of elementary particles. Atoms themselves will cease to exist,' Brassier argues that their simply can be no meaning in life. More so; there is no 'life'! Human 'life' is but a false lacuna in a meaningless, and doomed, universe. The whole of human existence, says Brassier, turns out to be 'but a fly's waking nightmare'!

So, where stands art in this bleak equation? Well, art is given short thrift by Brassier and Meillassoux, so it is left for the artist to decide.

If the artist were to try and institute meaning in life, by dint of the artists own saying so - a sort of Duchampian - 'this is art' - declaration meeting the raising of Lazarus - 'this is life', or 'this', humanity, 'is alive' - Brassier's text would always be there to remind us that, as dreams are wont to, our fly's waking nightmare has take an artistic bent. All human artistic creation is but a phase within a fly's waking nightmare in which things get slightly skewered in a kind of funky art-school way. Anything is possible, reasons the fly: A sort of lacunae of implied meaning forms in a universe of nothingness, as if the fly ate cheddar before bed, and now is having a psychedelic bed-fit. Only, we must reason that the lacuna is as illusory as art itself is. The fly is but a fly.

How would the artist respond to this 'contingency', or, more radically, to their own insignificance, their 'non-existence'?

Well, that same contingency could be instituted as a factor central to arts existence: Art is contingency par excellence - the absolutely meaningless, that declares itself to have meaning by dint of the very fact that it - only art - not politics, religion or science, can embrace meaningless as a factor pertinent to its survival... art, as illusory, is always meaningless, so its 'purpose' can be sustained even in a meaningless universe. The same thought entertained by the politician, scientist or preacher meets always with barbarism. That politics, for example, could continue as 'meaningless politics in a meaningless universe' would loosen it from its moral underpinning. Examples are too many.

So art can survive absolute contingency in a way that the other principle genres that govern human existence can't. However, can it survive the radical non-existence that Brassier expounds?

First, one might ask why art should need to survive this non-existence? If, going on another of Brassier's verifiable claims, we are indeed all random conglomerations of chemical-material processes, who merely think ourselves to have a central core of personality - like a piece of flint stone, that somehow 'got religion' - what power would art have to counter this premise? We return to the fly's nightmare. Such a countering of scientific fact would be registered as the mere flapping of electric signals, the meeting of neurons, the jawing of sounds that pose as words in lecture halls dedicated to the study of a proper noun - 'Art', that is instituted as such - as a noun, as a meaningful existent 'thing' - only in the vocabulary of the self same species that carries on flapping, bending, walking, jawing, in a wonderful 'mimesis' of what life might be like, if it existed.

Art can exist without 'meaning' in life. It continues to exist, - under the terms that we believe existence to be manifest - whether we truly exist or not. So why cling to the notion of implicit meaning? What hope is there if 'hope' is a mere reflexive electro-chemical impulse on the part of the hopeless?

If we were to tow Brassier's line we might well stop there. However, this would be to construe the whole question regarding art and its meaningfulness, its right to 'hope', in a rather upside-down manner. It is not the case that 'hope' is a weak form of thought in a sea of meaninglessness. It is in fact the case that hope can only exist on meaninglessness' watch. You can only hope under the aegis of despair; hope cannot exist otherwise. So hope, and any express intention to construe meaning, is in fact the most honest and true condition that one might conceive of under the aegis of a life lived in the knowledge that that same life does not essentially 'live'... does not exist.

Art exists under the threat of its opposite - Scientist Nihilism.

Both Brassier and Meillassoux talk of the "Arche-Fossil" (initially treated of philosophically by the former). The term 'Arche-Fossil' refers to scientific evidence that pertains to the existence of specific 'things', of 'substances', long before the existence of thinking and feeling beings: the fossilisation of celestial movement, indicating that the assumption of the scientist regarding the independence of objectivity from the subject is a sound one. Now, both Meillassoux and Brassier go a long way in discounting the Post-Kantian notion that this can tell us nothing about the existence of matter prior to the existence of consciousness - being, the Post-Kantian argues, that all it points to is the existence of certain impulses on the part of the scientist who records such data, in conjunction with the data that appears to be presented to him. We will grant Brassier and Meillassoux their counter arguments (which can be found in their above referenced respective texts) to the Post-Kantian arguments, not even because we necessarily believe them, but rather because the most convincing dismissal of their respective accounts may be made on a simple and verifiable basis - and not with recourse to a Kantian reliance on the primacy of mind over substance such as could have us being written off as quasi-spiritualist in nature.

The Arche-Fossil is the material backup for Meillassoux's and Brassier's reliance on the 'Ancestrality' argument. The existence of the Arche-Fossil proves the absolute contingency, or absolute meaningless (when taken with Brassier's statement regarding the end of the Universe), of human existence.

So it is the Arche-Fossil that must be posited in opposition to our notion of art as bringing hope, and meaning to life, indeed, in bringing 'life' to 'life'.

What is most astounding about this point - the Arche-Fossil as 'life's' death blow - is how easily it can be sidestepped; a neat sidestepping that in fact renders Brassier's thought as, well, meaningless, though not in the way that he might have intended: All the artist need do to reinstitute 'meaning' in 'life' upon the realisation that the Arche-Fossil reduces even the artwork and the artist to a dumb cipher for existence - as lifeless as the Arche-Fossil itself is - is to claim the Arche-Fossil as an artwork.

The conceptual artist can claim anything as art (re; Duchamp's 'readymade'), and we are all artists (re; Beuys' 'Social Sculpture'). The declaration of the Arche-Fossil as art is in no way radical as artistic gesture. Moreover, scientifically it cannot be challenged. Philosophically, one awaits objection. Consider it done!

The Arche-Fossil as artwork does not then imply that human 'life' does not 'live', or that there can be no 'hope' in life. The fossil is claimed as art, and thus becomes another cipher for the possibility of there being meaning even in a meaningless world. Note, that this is not to counter the science that Brassier depends upon; it is merely to counter the sentiment which that science inspires in Brassier.

Science, having proven that their was a time before human existence and after human existence - and, indeed, Brassier's above statement regarding the end of the Universe can have its object similarly reduced to the status of artwork, the end of the Universe, declared as art - in no way belittles the import of that existence. Art is, indeed, contingent, but its contingence - its existence as completely illusory, hubristic, duplicitous, even - is proof of the ability of humans to create meaning in even the most adverse circumstances, the circumstances that govern existence itself.

Artistic Contingency is to 'life' as Scientific Contingency is to 'death'.