AAAADEskSs8AAAAAAE6XqwOver at the blog err…whateverz. snugglebus I has posted a couple of nice posts on Speculative Realism. Before getting to the actual content of the posts, I’d first like to note that I love it that here in the blogosphere making interesting and thoughtful remarks with names like “snugglebus”. Moving on to the content, snugglebug defends speculative realism against some criticisms by Giuseppe in his second post. As snugglebus writes:

Responding in the comments however, Giuseppe thinks I kind missed the point entirely. As he put it:

what is it that lures intellectuals into the comfort of “reality” in the rather consolidated turn that so many social sciences are experiencing towards some form of “ontology” (another way, very academic indeed, to name the interest in the “real” nature of things)?… I suspect it has something to do with a very precise insecurity and a certain modesty that affects social scientists when they are compared to solid scientists: the former would talk about real, solid, things, the first would just babble away about the sex of angels.

Ok – I’ll take the bait! I’m not an SR scholar, just an interested, but uninvested, spectator, so I might not be the most effective spokesperson, but this will help me start to work out my own thoughts on a group of thinkers who I have been following for a while now.

I think there is a lot more to the success of SR than a reactionary response to the fact that ‘physical’ science is saying ever more concrete things about areas that were once the preserve of social scientists. Just anecdotally SR people (see for example Larval subjects here) seem to be intensely interested in hard science and thinking its consequences (though SR is concerned above all with metaphysics, not philosophy of science). In fact I think it would be more productive to turn Giuseppe’s view on its head: isn’t it actually crude idealism that expresses the insecurity (in a very different, less modest form than Giuseppe meant) of social science? Doesn’t idealism sometimes seem to shut scientific ‘reality’ away, seeing science somewhere between a naïve enterprise at one end of the spectrum (whereas we know that ‘truth’ is a function of consciousness, power, signs etc.), or just a separate field that is at best interesting, but not our concern as social scientists…?

Obviously I cannot speak for all the speculative realists and, in fact, it is impossible to do so as our positions tend to be radically different. For example, beyond a rejection of the centrality of the human, my own thought shares almost nothing in common with that of Brassier’s. Brassier advocates a sort of eliminative materialism that leans heavily on the hard sciences, whereas I advocate a realism. While there is a robust place for the sciences in my ontology, I do not see the sciences as delivering us to “true reality” whereas all the other disciplines investigate things that are epiphenomenal or mere illusions. In this I follow Bruno Latour in his rejection of the nature/culture distinction, the division of the world into two distinct ontological domains– the domain of nature and the domain of the subject –and instead replace this division with collectives of human and non-human actors. This is quite a difference.

read on!

Giuseppe raises a question that the speculative realists, and especially the object-oriented ontologists, have had to address again and again. We’ve made some headway in addressing these assumptions, but I suspect we’ll have to do so many times again in the future as OOO continues to develop. Certain intellectual categories are deeply sedimented in our culture, and this is above all the case with the distinction between nature and culture, nature and society, or object and subject. As a result of this, whenever the term “realism” is evoked there is a tendency to immediately arrive at the conclusion that one is siding with the nature side of this binary and disavowing the “distortions” of culture, society, perception, mind, and thought. In other words, the real is implicitly treated as falling on the nature side of the equation and the non-real on the social-cultural-mental side of the equation.

Image10530This, however, is not the move that OOO is making. OOO is not drawing a distinction between two ontological orders, nature and culture, and then seeking to reduce one to the other or escape the illusions of the latter, but rather is abolishing the distinction altogether. This point can be elucidated through reference to the diagram to the right. Let line AB refer to Nature and line CD refer to Culture-Society-Mind-Language (etc). Within the modernist framework, we have two distinct ontological realms that never touch one another. Within the game of modernist ontology you are thus required to choose one or the other of these lines and show how the other is derivative from that line. Thus, for example, the neurologist or sociobiologist has chosen the Nature line, CD, and sets about attempting to show how all of the formations of Culture are really fetishes and illusions produced as a result of natural causal processes.

If one chooses the AB or Culture-Society-Mind-Language line, we get the inversion of the “naturalists” gesture. Rather than showing how mind and the social are products of natural causal processes, the anti-realist instead shows how Nature is constructed by perception, society, culture, mind, or language. In other words, with the anti-realisms we get the inverse gesture of naturalistic materialism. The conclusion to be drawn is that both naturalistic materialism and anti-realism share the same “meta-ontology” or framework of thought. When I evoke the concept of a “meta-ontology” I am not speaking of the specific ontologies that philosophers such as Spinoza, Hume, or Kant might formulate. A meta-ontology is not attached to any specific thinker, but rather consists of the broad ontological assumptions inhabiting a particular milieu. Meta-ontology is ontologically and epistemologically neutral in that it embodies and houuses contradictory positions while nonetheless remaining the same. What a meta-ontology does is delineate the philosophical possibilities within a particular historical milieu. Despite the fact that Spinoza, Berkeley, Kant, and Hume all have opposed philosophies, their philosophies nonetheless inhabit the same meta-ontology. In this respect, a meta-ontology is a bit like a Foucaultian episteme. It will be recalled that the epistemes haunting the historical sequences investigated by Foucault in his magnificent Order of Things allow for a plurality of different positions in the social sciences.

beach.1When Giuseppe suggests that the speculative realists have turned to ontology and advocated realism on the grounds that we are insecure about the hard sciences, he reveals the meta-ontology within which he is working: That the only possible realism is one in which the philosopher turns towards nature as the real and explains culture in terms of nature or simply ignores the cultural-social-mental-linguistic altogether. But this is not what OOO is doing. In many respects it could be said that OOO is fed up with modernist reductivisms of all sorts, whether they be in the form of eliminative idealist reductions or eliminative materialist reductions. Where the modernist imperative is to reduce something to something else whether we are reducing objects to fields of the subject or the field of the subject to the material, OOO acknowledges dependency relations while vigorously reduction of one entity to another. As I have put it in another context, OOO is a slutty or promiscuous ontology. It does not aim at fewer but rather more entities. Moreover, it places entities of all sorts, whether social or natural, on equal ontological footing. This is not to say that all entities equally make a difference, but that all entities, whether cultural or natural are equally real.

Where the modernist constitution demands that we either choose line AB, or the Nature line, or line CD, the Culture line, reducing one line to the other, OOO draws a transversal line, SP, across both lines, abolishing the idea of two separate ontological domains that somehow have to be brought into contact and reduced to one or the other. In other words, instead of society on the one hand and nature on the other hand, we get collectives of social and natural object that interact with one another.

This brings me to the issue of the human or social sciences. One of the reasons I find OOO powerfully attractive is not because I want to escape the “softness” of the social sciences to the “hardness” of the natural sciences, but precisely because I want good social and political theory. In its obsession with a single gap between humans and world and the question of how these two domains can be related to one another, I believe that social and political theory has been led to a number of unfortunate theoretical decisions that lead to distorted analyses of the social sphere. Treating objects as mere receptacles for social forces, language, ideas, perceptions, etc., that contribute no differences of their own, social and political theory comes to focus almost exclusively on the discursive, the linguistic, texts, norms, social forces, and so on. As a result, it is led to ignore the role played by nonhuman objects the form or pattern that social fields come to embody. For example, as far as I can tell, contemporary sociology and social theory has a very difficult time discussing the role that a particular layout of public transit plays in the social organization of Chicago. Likewise, contemporary social and political thought has a very difficult time discussing the role that rice cultivation, the fact that it could yield three harvests a year, and how those crops had to be planted and harvested played in the social configurations of 16th Century China. Similarly, it has a difficult time discussing the role played by grain production in Europe between the 15th and 18th century and its fluctuations (and there were many) played in the form social relations took. And again, ignoring the rise of the city during this same time period, it has a difficult time explaining the rise of the incredibly strange idea of selling one’s labor as a commodity, because it tends to ignore the fact that city dwellers were no longer self-sufficient like peasants, but rather required money to pay for food, clothing, and housing to live in the city. In all these cases, a focus on mind, culture, society, language, and so on tends to render these other actors, these nonhuman actors, invisible to analysis. As a result we find ourselves resorting, in an almost knee jerk fashion, to “false consciousness” explanations of social relations.

Let me be clear because the modernist that sorts the world into two distinct ontological domains that are autonomous from one another has, I think, a very difficult time hearing what I’m saying when I make these points. The point here is not that we should abandon talk of norms, beliefs, ideologies, texts, and so on, so as to exclusively discuss techniques of grain production, distributions of roads, highways, trains, and flight paths between cities, factories, etc. Such a move would remain within the modernist orbit, asking us to forsake the culture-mind-society-language line in favor of the “nature” line or nonhuman actors. No. What I am calling for is analytic tools broad enough to embrace in its social analysis a variety of heterogeneous actors ranging from the technological, to practices of food production, the availability of food, the layout of roads and trains, the role of mountains, lakes, and oceans, texts, ideologies, narratives, norms, humans, networks of human relations, etc.

The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai– and generally ethnographers are very good on these points, weaving together the semiotic, the “natural”, the technological, the legal, the amorous, etc –makes this point nicely in his book Modernity at Large. There Appadurai proposes the notion of “scapes” that are something like fields of consistency presiding over relations between humans and nonhumans. In this connection, Appadurai proposes ethnoscapes, financescapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, and ideoscapes all interacting in the production of cultural phenomena. To this we could add “naturescapes” and “weather” or “meteoroscapes”. The point is that we must become clear about the role played by these different fields in the formation of planes of consistency or collectives and how these different scapes interact with one another. We must overcome the illusion of thinking that the slice of the real we are investigating– for example ideology –exhausts the field out of which it is drawn. As Luhmann observes, an environment is always more complex than the system that relates to that environment. Theory, I believe, perpetually suffers from confusing system and environment, treating the distinctions operative in the system as exhaustive of the environment and thereby rendering entire fields of factors invisible. Is it our fault that the world is complicated and flat?

In this connection snugglebus, in his first post, already provides a simple object-oriented social analysis of how object-oriented ontology came to be. As snugglebus writes:

What is it about SR that has lent itself to this kind of blogosphere success? Obviously the fact that it had some prolific and well-known practitioners who blog helped, but generally I think it is also possible to perceive at least 3 superficial features which I would say have helped. SR benefits from being a (relatively) clear intellectual project (and therefore gives some key rallying points for prospective adherents), timely, and for want of a better word ‘sexy’ (the idea of a “turn”, i.e. rejection of predominant trends in favour of something ‘new’, has a particular appeal). Apart from perhaps ‘timeliness’, the other two are replicable.

In the same post snugglebus later goes on to write:

So the what conclusions to draw?

* SR would not have existed if it was grounded in mainstream academia, though now exists symbiotically with academia.

* The key elements of SR that have made it successful in the blogosphere have been a clear, attractive, but broad identity, around which people can rally, and the willingness of proponents to engage in dialogue with people from different disciplines, and with people who have no prior reputation, itself applying a certain genoristy in exchange.

* The blogosphere itself has added speed, and breadth, as well as contributing to this sense of openness.

There is probably an interesting question to pose about how this has then shaped the ideas of SR itself, but that’s beyond my both my-grade and concern here I think.

Let me note that this is only a thumbnail or brief example of what an object-oriented social analysis might look like. However, look at the motley army of actors snugglebus refers to in his discussion of the formation of speculative realism (and his whole analysis is well worth reading). Rather than a single obsession with the relation between humans and the world, snugglebus simultaneously treats the internet or technology as an actor in this movement, a particular electronic community (the theory blogosphere), contingent or chance encounters between different humans such as the encounter between Graham, Nick, Ben, Reid, Shaviro, Jodi, N.Pepperell, Jon Cogburn, Mel, Protevi, Mikhail, Nikki, Peter, Kvond, etc., and many others, the ideational, the amorous or libidinal, speeds of communication and exchange, the universities, and so on. None of these actors can be said to overdetermine the other. The internet, for example, did not make speculative realism or cause speculative realism, but in many respects speculative realism would not exist as it now does without the theory blogosphere or the internet. However, while it’s unlikely that speculative realism could have taken place in its current form in the halls of the academy alone, it is now feeding back on that “scape”. Increasingly papers are getting published in this area, various texts by speculative realist thinkers such as myself and Harman are being taught both inside and outside of philosophy courses, graduate students are taking these trends seriously and organizing their dissertation work and conference presentations around these subjects, and so on. Even the dissenting voices serve a role in bringing SR into the walls of the academy.

And not only do technologies, human encounters, ideoscapic features such as “timeliness”, and affective dimensions such as “sexiness” play a role in these developments, but even simple signifiers or signs have been actors playing a significant role in the development of this thought. Thus, for example, the term “Speculative Realism” was more or less an accident. The four philosophers that participated in the legendary Goldsmith’s conference back in 2007, sharing little in common beyond advocating some form of realism and a rejection of correlationism, anti-realisms, or philosophies of access, needed a name for the event and settled on the title “Speculative Realism”. Yet the signifier “Speculative Realism” created the phantom of an entity that has itself played a role in both shaping the reception of these thinkers and the movement itself. The signifier here was an actor.

Likewise, norms have been actors in this movement as well. Back in the day of the notorious “correlationism or Kant wars” that took place on this blog around February, much of the discussion revolved around norms of interpretation, argumentation, and how people ought to engage with one another in philosophical discourse. Here the norms did not precede these encounters– except in perhaps a virtual or potential fashion –but were more or less emergent from the encounter. As Latour observes so beautifully in The Politics of Nature, discussions of normativity tend to arise only when a new actor, a surprising actor, appears within a collective and struggle ensues as to where it is to be placed, how hierarchies need to be re-ordered, and so on. This was certainly the case in the “Kant wars”. In some cases, pre-existing norms were evoked and applied to the appearance of this strange new actor, calling into question both protocols or norms of standard continental argumentation and philosophical engagement. In most of the other cases, norms were being built, enginnering new relations among actors. One of the things that I find most remarkable in these discussions is that where blog posts were previously devoted to exposition over some philosopher’s text, participants began to existentially avow and argue for certain philosophical positions rather than simply engaging in explication de texte. While texts were still endlessly discussed, it was no longer possible to simply “talk about” a philosopher or text, but it now became necessary to elaborate arguments and positions, to take stands. What really shocks me is the rapidity with which this shift took place. Where before we were all simply “referencing out”, evoking this or that philosopher in a discussion, now suddenly we were engaged in tooth and nail debate making claims not about philosophers, but about being, norms, reality, and so on. Semantically the evocation of a philosopher changed markedly. It was no longer a question of elaborating the philosopher, but of evoking a sequence of argument in an existentially committed debate. It’s been remarkable to behold.

Nor would speculative realism exist as it now does without the cross fertilizations of textual backgrounds between the different people that came to participate in these exchanges. Graham, of course, has had a decisive impact on my thought and has led me to read figures such as Zubiri, Bhaskar, and Latour. Mel introduced me to Latour, Kittler, Ong, Bogost, and a whole host of other thinkers. Shaviro got me back into Whitehead. And so on. And to snugglebus’ merit, while he doesn’t execute the analysis himself, he does node to the parity or reciprocity of interactions between these different human and nonhuman actors, wondering how the medium of the blogosphere itself, of the internet itself, might play a role in moulding or influencing the content of speculative realist thought. In other words, we don’t have unilateral determination between human actors or objects and nonhuman actors and objects, but rather have bilateral relations where influence moves in both directions.

Enough for now. Read snugglebus’ posts.

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