Simon O’Sullivan: On the Production of Subjectivity

From Post-Kantian Thought and the Production of Subjectivity in Contemporary Art

This presentation by Simon O’Sullivan is introduced as a description of the key tenets of his recent book On the Production of Subjectivity: Five Diagrams of the Finite-Infinite Relation. However, his lecture quickly expands to critique work by philosophers associated with Speculative Realism. O’Sullivan develops an argument that is inspired by but also challenges some of their ideas in order to approach post-Kantian neo-rationalist materialist thought via mathematization, with particular interest in the work of Quentin Meillassoux.

Many have criticized such philosophical work for not containing a theory of the subject, and O’Sullivan briefly but rigorously meets such positions with his own model of the production of subjectivity, which he arrives at through the work of Baruch Spinoza, Henri Bergson, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, and especially Félix Guattari. O’Sullivan posits that constructing theories of the subject is crucial to politics, and that art is an important technology in the production of subjectivity, therein providing the potential for its political charge and agency.

O’Sullivan’s work attempts to define the subject beyond phenomenological accounts, but does so by proposing a speculative subjectivity in opposition to “the subject as is.” Here, he pits “the subject as is” (already known accounts of the subject) against the subject as a non-human subject, which takes him through Spinoza’s pre-human state and Nietzsche’s post-human states. By synthesizing these two positions, O’Sullivan is able to propose the body and thought as inextricably linked, which he places adjacent to Speculative Realism’s focus on the object as thought outside of the subject. Here, he is able to take on Meillassoux’s objection to the (Kantian) “correlationist circle,” where (as Meillassoux says) “there are no objects, no laws, no events, no beings, which are not always already correlated with the point of view of the subjective access.” For O’Sullivan, this implies a gap between the finite (subject) and the infinite (object, i.e., the absolute)—a space that Meillassoux seeks to eliminate with the eradication of the subject via scientific mathematizable thought outside of the subject. O’Sullivan’s work, however, approaches this problem via philosophies and practices that refuse any such gap, positing a continuum between the finite and the infinite (or subject and world). In such a continuum occurs a transformation and extrusion of “the subject as is,” demonstrating the mutability of the subject per se, which is ignored by Meillassoux. The medium of this continuum is the body, specifically cast in Spinozan terms: “a body that extends out into the world as part of the world and is more intelligent than we are, and with which the intensities or affects of the body are the world (i.e., they are both ‘of us’ and ‘not of us’).”

O’Sullivan’s lecture essentially asks if there really are only two options in this philosophical struggle: i) a truly scientific mathematizable knowledge of the object that is speculative; or, ii) a knowledge that is always already determined by the subject (i.e., the correlation). Against this dyad he posits his theory of a “speculative subjectivity,” which does not access the outside through knowledge and rationality—mathematical or otherwise—but rather through practice. He follows Bergson’s notion of intuition, not as a form of knowledge, nor as a subjective technology, but intuition as a world devoid of a subjective perspective or intelligence, to propose a method of confronting the infinite via the continuing production of the speculative subject as always and already infinite, and indeed embodying infinitude. For O’Sullivan, this speculative subject exists powerfully and acutely within the occurrences of the practices of art.

Simon O’Sullivan is a philosopher and artist. He is also Senior Lecturer in the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College, London.

The Matter of Contradiction is a series of workshops and seminars initiated by Sam Basu, Fabien Giraud, Ida Soulard, and Tom Trevatt. “The Matter of Contradiction: War Against The Sun” was organized in collaboration with Inigo Wilkins and was held at the Mute magazine offices at Limehouse Town Hall in London, March 1–3, 2013.

March 2, 2015

Matter of Contradiction

Curated by

Matthew Poole