Herding CatsThere have been a number of interesting posts surrounding Speculative Realism lately. Over at Immanence Adrian reflects on the significance of speculative realist thought for ecology. As Adrian writes,

I’ve been intrigued by the SR crowd for a while now because they seem to speak a language that resonates with the kinds of complex-network/biocultural-systems/discursive-materialist thinkers I’ve drawn on in my theorizing of socio-natural relations — folks like Bruno Latour, John Law, and the actor-network theorists, technoscience feminists (Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Elizabeth Grosz, et al), Spinozian-Deleuzian political theorists (William Connolly and post-Marxists like J.K. Gibson-Graham), ‘social nature’ and post-representationalist geographers (Bruce Braun, Noel Castree, Sarah Whatmore, Nigel Thrift, Steve Hinchliffe, and their ‘social spatialization’ and eco-Marxist and Lefebvrian relatives), Batesonians and biosemioticists, socio-nature and post-Gibsonian anthropologists (Ingold, Descola, Palsson), embodied/enactive cognitivists (Varela, Thompson) and developmental psychologists (Oyama), eco-world-system theorists (Alf Hornborg, Jason Moore, Sing Chew, Yrjo Haila), political ecologists and postcolonial materialists (like Arturo Escobar, who fits into several of the above categories), et al. It seems that in SR we may be finding a current within mainstream philosophy — as opposed to its fringes and sub-sub-niches (see my post on the interaction between continental and environmental philosophies) — with which to closely ally. That alone is a cause for celebration.

This post is rich in connections so read the rest here.

Paul Ennis of anotherheideggerblog speculates that SR may very well be the first web based or truly digital philosophical movement. As Paul writes,

I’ve been taking something of an interest in the so-called Speculative Realist school associated with thinkers such as Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman , and Quentin Meillassoux. At least part of my interest lies in the fact that the SR may represent the first truly digital or technological philosophical movement. It is transmitted by a central blog, personal blogs such as those of Harman and Levi (Harman’s in particular is a good introduction to SR).

The Latourian in me is fascinated with this issue. Latour is all about tracing networks. In his more empirically oriented studies he’s always focused on questions of how certain relations among actors were formed, how the gained strength, how they shifted from being loose assemblages to black boxes, what tools were used, etc. Latour wants us to open black boxes and see how they’re put together. In this respect, it is interesting to observe interactions among actors as they attempt to form a ramshackle assemblage or network amongst one another.

read on!

Ian Bogosts expands on Paul’s thought, reflecting on the relationship between SR and digital things:

Nearly everything that is being produced for the first time today, from websites to knitting patterns to philosophy, is also being disseminated and discussed on the web. Even scholarly publishing is undergoing a deliberate, if slow, shift to online publishing. Admittedly, open-access journals and books are indeed rarer among a field like philosophy, as are the rapid online publication of recorded lectures. But it seems to me that such resistance will disappear within a very short time. A more digitally-savvy philosphy was inevitable, and had it not been speculative realism that pushed philosophy online, it would have been something else.

This may seem like a pedantic point, but it underscores a more important one, that of the relationship between speculative realism and digital things.


As much as we hae been trained to think it, the digital world is not just a system of forms, interactions, and ideas that facilitate human exchange. Digital media does not just mean blogs, creative commons licenses, and MP3 files. It also refers to the myriad devices involved in such practices: Linksys wireless routers, ARM-7 microprocessors, RJ45 modular sockets, MacBooks, multi-wire planar cables, and so forth. To repeat the injunction Harman issues in all of his writing, digital media is not just a domain of human activity, but also one of objects, objects irreducible to the uses to which humans like philosophers might put them.

The rest of Ian’s post can be read here.

In email today a PhD student studying rhetoric asks:

I hope you don’t mind putting on your teaching hat for a moment in order to answer a SR newbie’s questions regarding the overarching philosophy you so eloquently described in your blog post “Speculative Realism Does Not Exist“.

I am currently a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric at the University of ***. You’ll have to forgive me; ontological philosophy is not my background, although I have enjoyed reading some Heidegger and particularly Levinas in the past. I do work extensively with video games, so I follow Ian Bogost’s blog… which has recently linked to Harman’s blog post regarding yours. (Christ! The tangled shoestrings of the internet are dastardly indeed!)

So I have some very basic questions for you based on your assertions, and I have to admit that these have little to do with my primary specialization in video games (and Bogost seems to do a very light job on explaining the connection between SR and games or game consoles). But I would be delighted if you could take the time to explain some things about the core underpinnings of Speculative Realism, at least as you understand them:

1. You write: “Moreover, Latour, Deleuze, and myself all hold that we cannot study the social in abstraction but that nonhuman objects or actors are key components of the social that make their own contributions and which aren’t simply vehicles for signs or power.”

I’ve always had this problem with the tenets of realism as I have come to understand them, and again, you’ll have to excuse me as I come in with an extremely basic knowledge: How can you divorce semiotic “signs” or “power” from the human mind? Isn’t human agency always the force that empowers an object to “signify” something or create “meaning”? I mean, we all know that on the most essential, materialist level, matter can “act” for reasons that are not human. A plant will seek sunlight whether humans exist or not. But can we call this a “purpose,” a “contribution,” or even an “act” without the mind constructing it as such? We think in terms of causal relationships, and in order for the sunlight to “act” upon the plant, rather than affect it in a way that possesses no inherent meaning but rather only a scientifically-observed process, that which is “sun” must be causally positioned in the semantic mind to act upon that which is “plant.” Certainly, material relationships exist outside of the human, out there in the unknowable “real,” but can a subject/object relationship exist outside of perception?

I know you’re certainly not the first person to tackle this loaded question, and your first desire may be to refer me to several classic writings in the Realist philosophy vein, but I would appreciate any sincere attempt on your part to more clearly define Realism’s answer–and particularly Speculative Realim’s answer–to the above inquiry.

I think the first point worth making is that the variations of Object-Oriented Philosophy advocated by Harman and myself (and our positions aren’t identical), is a very strange sort of realism. The point is not that there is a true reality existing independent of humans which philosophy must reach, but rather that the human is not at the center of all relations. In other words, there is nothing particularly special about humans in the order of things. Both Harman and I endorse the thesis that the manner in which humans translate objects is nothing unique, but is true of all objects. Thus, for example, the plant translates or distorts sunlight no less than the human when perceiving objects. When I defend a realism, I am not rejecting uniquely human forms of translation such as the role played by power or signs, but simply saying that metaphysically this is not the whole story. In the case of media studies, signs, power, perception, etc., are all important and worthy of analysis, but as you have no doubt discovered in your investigations of media, the technology itself is of crucial importance as well. At least, this is part of the significance of McLuhan’s work. These technologies cannot be reduced to vehicles of signification or effects of power, but have a morphogenetic effect on those that use them, generating new forms of cognition, social relations, and new types of collective problems. SR in its Object-Oriented form does not seek to dismiss signifiers, signs, investigations into the nature of perception and cognition and all the rest, but rather to open things up so that other types of objectal relations might be investigated.

My friendly interlocutor goes on to ask:

2. Similarly, with regard to Foucault, you write: “Objects or actors are not explained by reference to power, discursivity, and social forces, but rather the reverse: power, discursivity, and social forces are explained through objects or actors.”

Using the general “actors” in this statement, it seems you’ve acknowledged that Foucault deals with primarily human ways of understanding… the formations of disciplines or discursive systems around the social constructions of sexuality, medicine, etc. However, the distinction you’ve created–that objects and actors explain discourse and social forces, not the other way around–seems to me a bit like the chicken and egg debate. Aren’t the social force and actor explained concurrently, inextricably intertwined as a symbiosis wherein one constantly re-imagines and configures the other, by someone who has been credentialized within a given discipline? Can an object or actor even be conceived outside a discourse? Again, isn’t the discourse what provides “object” or “actor” status to an otherwise arbitrary grouping of matter?

The problem as I see it is two-fold: On the one hand, we appeal to social forces like power to explain particular forms of social organization or configurations, but how is it that power takes on this efficacy? When you think about it, a sign or a discourse is really a rather flimsy thing. The first point to keep in mind is that the terms “actor” or “object” are extremely broad as used by Object-Oriented Ontology. In Latour an actor can be anything from a human being to a rock to a sign to a particular scientific instrument to the sun, etc. An actor is just any entity that acts or enters into a particular configuration or assemblage. From this perspective, a “society” is not a composition of human beings, but is an assemblage that includes humans and non-humans alike.

What an actor-network-theorist wants in an account of a social network is an analysis of the linkages among all these actors and how they manage to “black box” themselves or form a relatively stable assemblage. What is remarkable is not that things change, but that sometimes they manage to hold together. A lot of work has to be done to hold things together, because actors simply aren’t that cooperative, but are always introducing their own differences. Returning to Paul’s thesis that SR is the first genuinely digital technological movement, look at all the work that goes into the production of such a movement. You have Harman tirelessly writing and trekking all over the globe, maintaining a heavy correspondence with other thinkers, blogging, etc. You have me writing all sorts of things on my blogs and forming various alliances. The same is true with folks like Nick, the crowd over at Speculative Heresy, Brassier, DeLanda, Grant, and Meillassoux.

All of this work is done in a philosophical climate that, on the Continental side, is largely hostile to any form of realism equating it with scientism and naive positivism, and on the Anglo-American side that is institutionally hostile to most Continental thought. I can only imagine that Brassier must have had great fun writing Nihil Unbound, as the mere mention of the Churchlands is enough to make most Continentals turn purple with rage. So on the one hand we have all these human actors involved in producing this new formation. And, as the old adage goes, it’s a bit like herding cats. Those of us who participate on the net encounter the dissident actors that emerge, attacking SR and dismissing it. Amongst ourselves we differ markedly as well. There are all sorts of internal battles and disagreements as we mark out our position. Given that we’re mostly all crackpot cranks from the standpoint of mainstream academic Continental and Anglo-American philosophy, we have to deal with finding our way in an institutional milieu that isn’t particularly sympathetic to our projects. There is, then, on top of that, the question of how that institutional milieu maintains its own organization.

However, the human beings and social institutions like universities are not the only actors involved in this motly, ragtag assembly. There are the computers and printers upon which the works are written. There’s the internet through which we communicate. There are the planes and cars through which we travel to attend conferences. There is the internet communication. For example, right now Reze Negerastani who is contributing to our forthcoming anthology is in the midst of all the turmoil in Iran. Internet access has been spotty at best as the ruling government has striven to shut down dissident voices. Will Reze be able to get us his contribution? Will the events of Iran effect what he produces? What network relations are opened and closed by these events?

From the standpoint of Object-Oriented Philosophy, appeals to “power” and “social forces” are just too thin as they describe effects rather than the processes through which an assemblage comes to maintain itself. The actors of such assemblages always move in their own directions and have their own ideas. Take Foucault’s analysis of docile bodies in Discipline and Punish. Foucault speaks as if bodies are just passive matters that take whatever discipline is imposed upon them. Is that how things really work? Perhaps the entirely facile maxim of a network based approach is “trace the connections!” How did it all get put together and how does it maintain itself? Appeals to power are a bit like saying wine makes you sleepy because of its dormative qualities.

Not a bad few days for SR, I’d say.

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