Robert Anton Wilson, Finitude, and Realism

The late Robert Anton Wilson has been a person of interest to me for a while now, and although his thoughts are very sporadic and aphoristic (being spread amongst his numerous novels and speeches), his contributions to Discordian thought have been vital. More specifically, however, a quotation by him in The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles has held my attention for a long time. In Nature’s Godwriting as Sigismundo Celine, Wilson says the following:

“Is,” “is.” “is” — the idiocy of the word haunts me. If it were abolished, human thought might begin to make sense. I don’t know what anything “is”; I only know how it seems to me at this moment.1)Robert Anton Wilson, Nature’s God: The History of the Early Illuminati (The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles Vol. 3), (Las Vegas: New Falcon, 2007).

Clearly channeling the general semantic theory of Alfred Korzybski and its later incarnations as E-Prime (topics that will no doubt be written about in the future),2)Indeed, in later posts on general semantics and E-Prime, which ‘is’ we’re talking about must be sorted out as the ‘is of identity’ — for example, “Max is a dog” — is, arguably, ontologically different than the ‘is of predication’ — for example, “Max is diabetic.” the quotation has a certain ring of idealism to it. Indeed, while I think Wilson’s comment is insightful, I’ve been hesitant to fully accept his disdain for the word ‘is’ insofar as such an acceptance seems, at first glance, to relegate one to a strictly phenomenal (and arguably, consequently idealist) understanding of the world. While I’m unsure whether or not I’m willing to jump aboard the ‘anti-is’ train, I do think there is a way to reconcile Wilson’s view with ontological realism by utilizing both a brief discussion of what Quentin Meillassoux calls “finitude” and Graham Harman’s ontology of objects.

The issue with the word ‘is,’ for Wilson, is the inverse of the issue that Meillassoux diagnoses as the “finitude of the transcendental subject.”3)Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingencytrans. Ray Brassier (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), 24. Finitude, understood in the Meillassouxian sense, is, in a word, the limit to human knowledge. Indeed, as Daniel Sacilotto notes,

the thesis of finitude designates fundamentally an epistemic limitation in the possibilities open to the transcendental subject. This constraint has at least two salient characteristics. First, it exemplifies what Immanuel Kant designates as the facticity of thinking, and which marks the foreclosure of thought given the conditions of the categories of understanding. Thus, although we can have a priori knowledge about the twelve categories that structure the understanding, and consequentially the way in which things must appear to us in judgement, we are in principle barred from knowing why we have twelve categories and why things appear in the way they do. These conditions are merely given and accessible to us, but we are foreclosed access to the reasons for why these conditions obtain thus.4)Daniel Sacilotto, “Finitude,” in The Meillassoux Dictionaryed. Peter Gratton and Paul Ennis (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 74.

In other words, the finitude of knowledge is a condition whereby certain elements of the world are foreclosed to us and we, in theory, cannot have total knowledge of the world. Mapping this on to Wilson’s view of ‘is,’ finitude can be read as the limitation to the certainty one can have when confronted with an ‘is’ statement. For Meillassoux, idealist ontologies (more specifically for him, correlationist ontologies) lock human cognition in a box that is ultimately always separated from the world as such. Indeed, Meillassoux wants to push back and affirm the absolutization of the ‘is,’ insofar as he believes that humans can, at least in theory, have total knowledge of the world (the infinitude of knowledge); Wilson, on the contrary wants to affirm that we, in the weakest version of his argument, have no knowledge of the world as it is, and in the strongest form, can have no knowledge. In other words, Meillassoux would be the Aaron Burr to Wilson’s Alexander Hamilton.

In trying to ensure the infinitude of human knowledge, Meillassoux rejects idealism by trying to revive a realist ontology that can know the world as such. Realist ontologies are not intrinsically tied to an acceptance of the infinitude of human knowledge, however. Indeed, while Wilson’s condemnation of ‘is’ can be read as an affirmation of idealism and complete phenomenalism, it need not be. Adopting an object-oriented approach to ontology gives us new ways to reconcile subjectivity and objectivity by way of a “gulf” between objects. In other words, by utilizing object-oriented ontology, we can maintain both the seemingly radical subjectivity of Wilson as well as affirming an objective existence of a world of things outside our own experience.

By embracing a Harmanian ontology, we also embrace a view of objects wherein they recede from complete relationality with one another. This means that the cup atop my desk not only withdraws from the relation it has with the desk, but it also withdraws from the relation it has with me. Indeed, only specific, salient features are foregrounded. In the context of a ‘base-reality,’ this means that my interaction with the Real will always be caricatured by the salient features of that specific interaction; I cannot have perfect translation. As Harman notes in opposition to the onto-theologization of images, “[r]ealism is not realism if the reality it describes can be translated without energy loss into human knowledge” as, for him, “realism requires an absolute gulf between reality and relation.”5)Graham Harman, “The Return to Metaphysics (2011),” in Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism (Washington: Zero Books, 2013), 12.

Viewing the human relation to the Real with this in mind allows us to note that our experience of a given object does not — indeed, cannot — exhaust that object’s reality; the object ‘is’ only as it seems to me at the moment.

The obvious issue this view raises (apart from the issue of finitude above) is the question of the certainty of a stable, objective reality. If “realism requires an absolute gulf between reality and relation,” how can we ever know that there is an objective reality to begin with? Further, how can be know that such a reality is stable or consistent? While Harman deals more thoroughly with this issue in “The Return to Metaphysics,”6)Harman, “The Return to Metaphysics (2011),” 8-30. a brief analysis (indeed, one that takes a different approach from that of Harman) must be done here.

If we take the Harmanian view at face value, it appears to reject even an “asymptotic approach” to knowledge of the Real wherein we cannot even get immeasurably close to knowing the real Real. Indeed, when Harman rejects the onto-theologization of images and the privileging of epistemology as first philosophy, he notes that even an “asymptotic approach” to the infinitude of knowledge is a point to be rejected.7)Ibid., 11. His reasons for thinking this are numerous and need not be explained here — indeed, it is Harman’s argument to defend –, but the view must at least be represented. What I want to do is dial the Harmanian knob back a few notches and affirm an asymptotic view of epistemology. More specifically, while embracing the understanding of realism described above requires recognizing a gulf between the Real and our perceptions of the Real, that does not foreclose partial knowledge of the Real as such. Indeed, one can still affirm the finitude of human knowledge without falling into absolute idealism or skepticism.

The asymptotic approach to epistemology can best be understood via a metaphor. Imagine you are in a pitch black room and you have no light source. You begin to wander about the room, bumping into chairs and tables, walls and doors, and engaging with each object for a given amount of time. As you make your away around the room, unable to see, your interactions change and while, at T1 you were engaged with the chair, at T2 you are now engaged with the table, and the chair has receded from your field of experience. This recession serves as an analog to the withdrawal of objects when they are not in use or when they are functioning properly insofar as while the objects may not be noticed, they do not cease to be. As you continue your bumbling around the room, a mental map is formed and while you cannot see the walls or the table, you nevertheless have some understanding of what they are like. Your knowledge of them is, of course, not as “complete” as it would be were a light to flick on, but regardless, you have some knowledge of them. No matter how much you touch the chair, your knowledge of it will never be “complete” because, in this scenario, you lack a crucial piece of experience: sight.

The infinitude of human knowledge of the Real is akin to a fully illuminated room — you have successfully reached the ‘infinite’ limit of what can be known by knowing everything about the room you are in. Conversely, the darkened room represents the finitude of human knowledge and your bumbling around, creating a mental map, and thinking about the room is always an example of you striving for the ideal of infinite knowledge but never being able to get there; it is necessarily asymptotic.

Translating this to a discussion of the Real; while we can only ever interact with simulacra of the Real and only ever engage with different, salient features of objects, that does not preclude us from making a mental map of reality that, while incomplete, approaches the limit of knowledge. Our mental map of the Real is, effectively, the inverse of Borges’ map; as hard as we try, we can never create a map that will ‘touch’ the Real, it always approaches it.8)As Korzybski said, “the map is not the territory.”

Although it may seem that we are eerily close to Kant’s noumenal/phenomenal distinction wherein idealism is affirmed and we should not (indeed, cannot) talk about the Real as such, Harman’s rejoinder to Wittgenstein’s famous last line of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “[w]hereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” provides an alternative out. Harman says that

I say instead that things are never directly knowable. No artwork, indeed nothing that happens in the world, can be paraphrased in a series of clear propositional statements. Any statement is merely an abstract version of what it talks about: or stated differently, a translation. I can write the most detailed book ever written about dogs, yet there will always be something more about dogs that I haven’t said. We are often given a false alternative between knowing something directly or not knowing it at all. But philosophy was always supposed to be a third option, at least in the Greek tradition in which Western philosophers work. According to Socrates, gods have total knowledge and animals have none, while humans are somewhere in between. The Greek word philosophia means not wisdom, but love of wisdom. Philosophers love wisdom because they don’t have it.9)Graham Harman, “Interview with Gitanjali Dang (2012),” in Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism (Washington: Zero Books, 2013), 130.

Ultimately, it seems as if we can take the Wilsonian stance of rejecting quasi-objective ‘is’ statements in favor of subjective ‘seems like’ statements without necessarily rejecting realism and embracing idealism and constructionism. Indeed, realism of a certain flavor — let us call it ‘asymptotic realism’ — can still be affirmed within the framework of the finitude of human knowledge as, not only are our interactions with the Real indirect, but our interactions with the Real also only caricature the Real in and of itself; reality as such withdraws.

References   [ + ]

1. Robert Anton Wilson, Nature’s God: The History of the Early Illuminati (The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles Vol. 3), (Las Vegas: New Falcon, 2007).
2. Indeed, in later posts on general semantics and E-Prime, which ‘is’ we’re talking about must be sorted out as the ‘is of identity’ — for example, “Max is a dog” — is, arguably, ontologically different than the ‘is of predication’ — for example, “Max is diabetic.”
3. Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingencytrans. Ray Brassier (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), 24.
4. Daniel Sacilotto, “Finitude,” in The Meillassoux Dictionaryed. Peter Gratton and Paul Ennis (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 74.
5. Graham Harman, “The Return to Metaphysics (2011),” in Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism (Washington: Zero Books, 2013), 12.
6. Harman, “The Return to Metaphysics (2011),” 8-30.
7. Ibid., 11. His reasons for thinking this are numerous and need not be explained here — indeed, it is Harman’s argument to defend –, but the view must at least be represented.
8. As Korzybski said, “the map is not the territory.”
9. Graham Harman, “Interview with Gitanjali Dang (2012),” in Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism (Washington: Zero Books, 2013), 130.

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