It looks like this is the week of Speculative Realism over at Indieoma. Today Nick has a brief interview up discussing Speculative Realism. I confess that despite my friendship with and admiration for Nick, I have a number of reservations about his remarks that make me want to abandon, in my own work, any reference to “Speculative Realism” altogether and just fully embrace object-oriented ontology and onticology as descriptors. I find some aspects of his characterization just so far off the mark as general descriptions of SR that this seems advisable. For what Nick seems to be proposing is that all variants of SR are forms of naturalism, whereas OOO/OOP has worked mightily to critique precisely this form of realism. What I am objecting to, then, is not these descriptions as descriptions of Nick’s own project, but rather their generalization to all variants of SR. At the beginning of the interview Nick writes:
We’ve been told time and again that our world is socially constructed, that we are bound to our particular place in the world and incapable of universality, and that we’ll never be capable of attaining knowledge of the world… But what if this wasn’t the end of the story? What if, after passing through and accepting the important critiques of universalism and truth, it was still possible to argue that we aren’t limited by finitude? Such a claim would be radical by the standards of most contemporary philosophy, yet a rising movement argues just that. This movement, loosely labeled as speculative realism, attempts to reject the morass and relativism of the postmodern era by arguing that the reality-in-itself (i.e. outside of its particular appearance to us) can be thought consistently. Beyond our finitude, beyond our situatedness, and beyond our particular perspectives, speculative realism marshals an array of logical arguments and empirical evidence to demonstrate that we are not inherently limited by language or conscious experience. It situates itself against the modesty of most analytic philosophy and the hesitancy of continental philosophy. Yet it also retains the clarity of analytic writing and the system-building of much of continental philosophy. It thus situates itself, not as a synthesis of analytic and continental philosophy, but rather as a third alternative – as a movement that increasingly finds itself at odds with both analytics and continentals.
For object-oriented ontology– and here I think I can generalize among variants as diverse as my own position, Harman’s, and Bogost’s –the response to this passage is yes and no. With Nick we’re agreed that metaphysics is possible and that metaphysics is not to be centered on the analysis of the relation of humans to the world or the central gap between the human and the world. Nick’s characterization gets my dander up for three reasons. First, implicit in his remarks and his contrast between postmodern relativism and Speculative Realist metaphysics seems to be a distinction between culture and nature. Second, if I read Nick properly, he seems to be placing reality and being on the side of nature, and treating culture as other than reality. This would entail that it is the natural sciences that tell us what the real is. Finally, third, Nick seems to be claiming that SR, in all of its variants, is championing a correspondence theory of truth, where the thesis is that knowledge is a correspondence between thought and reality.
If this is a fair reading of Nick’s characterization of SR, I find that none of these three theses fit well with object-oriented variants of SR. With respect to the implicit distinction between nature and culture and the placement of reality on the side of nature, it cannot be repeated enough that for OOO, this distinction and way of thinking the real is just not operative. OOO, following Latour, is just not interested in reinforcing the artificial(cultural)/natural(real) distinction that has governed philosophical thought for the last three or four hundred years. There is just reality and this reality is a pluri-verse, a plurimose, composed of heterogeneous objects of all sorts. Some of these objects are of the sort that we would normally refer to as “natural” like trees. Other objects are objects that we would normally refer to as “cultural” like governments, armies, groups, brand names, money, persons (as opposed to biological bodies), and so on.
This point is so fundamental to object-oriented ontology, so distinctive of its claims, that it cannot be repeated enough. Within the framework of my onticology, this is what I refer to as “flat ontology”. Flat ontology is not the thesis that there is only one type of being such as, for example, matter or atoms. Quite the contrary, if the beings composing the multiple-being of the flat pluri-verse or pluri-mose are anything, this flat world is a hetero-verse composed of an infinite variety of different types of objects. In this context, there are two key points to be made: First, there is for OOO no question of “reaching” or “getting at” reality because we’re always-already up to our necks in the real. The whole problem with the Modernist/Enlightenment tradition that has governed philosophy is that it conceived us as being in one sort of thing that is other than reality (mind, culture, language, or discourse), that we must somehow escape to get to another kind of thing, reality. This other kind of thing is then equated with nature. This is not the game that OOO is playing (a game which is strictly epistemological, not ontological). There is no question here of treating the objects investigated by the natural sciences as true reality. OOO, of course, agrees that the natural sciences investigate realities, but it vehemently rejects the thesis that these realities are exhaustive of being or reality.
Second, for this reason, OOO rejects the Modernist/Enlightenment thesis that the cultural is really a product of the natural or that the natural is really a product of the cultural. It rejects both the naturalist strain of Modernist thought and the hermeneutic strain of natural thought, simultaneously disavowing the naturalist thesis that culture and mind is just nature that doesn’t know itself as such and the “hermeneuticist” thesis that nature is just culture that doesn’t recognize itself as such. These positions are both mirror images of one another and it seems to me that Nick is simply repeating this opposition in his characterization of SR in drawing a contrast between postmodern relativism and realism. No, for OOO social or cultural entities are no less real than planets, particles, or neurons and are autonomous and independent objects in their own right. In no way is OOO attempting to effect a naturalist reduction of cultural objects, institutions, signs, discourses, etc. In Latour’s language, a signifier is no less an “actant” than a rock, a planet no more an actant than an army. In other words, OOO is not a scientism. While it holds that natural science indeed discloses real beings, it does not hold that natural science discloses real being. Note the difference between the plural and the singular. In short, the domain of being is broader than the domain of the natural. The universe is a pluri-verse or hetero-verse, not a mono-verse. And in this respect OOO stands opposed to any naturalistic mono-ductions. The suggestion that atoms are somehow more real than corporations is a bit like claiming that stars are more real than bonobos.
And this brings us to Nick’s opposition between relativism and universalism in the domain of ontology and epistemology. For ontological reasons, this distinction simply isn’t operative within the framework of OOO. In more candid moments, Harman has remarked that far from being a refutation of Kantianism, OOP is a hyper-Kantianism. Where Kant sees something unique in the manner in which the mind distorts or transforms beings in relating to them, thereby treating this as an epistemological feature unique to humans, Harman ontologizes this thesis, arguing that this is true of any relation between two objects, regardless of whether humans are involved. The the flame “distorts” the cotton no less than a human mind perceiving an object “distorts” that object. What you thus get is a sort of generalized ontological correlationism. Within the framework of onticology, my position, this point is expressed in the thesis that objects translate one another. A translation is always different than the original. Translation is not unique to human-object relations, but pertains to any relation between objects. Finally, as Latour so dramatically puts it, interpretation is not the unique domain of readers relating to texts, producing something new in the process, but rather is a phenomena that pertains to all inter-ontic relations or all interactions between objects. All objects are “hermeneutic” in their relation to other objects, or, rather, all objects interpret one another. And from this it follows that the proper being of any object, its “objectness in-itself”, is always in excess of any of its manifestations to another object.
OOO contends that these ontological features of objects are thinkable metaphysically, but certainly this cannot be a correspondence or adequation between thought and reality. What we call “knowledge”, far from being an adequation of thought to reality (adaequatio rei et intellectus), is instead an allusion (Harman), or within the framework of onticology, knowledge is the ability to act on objects in such a way as to manifest or actualize powers within them. However, the object is never equivalent to its manifestations, but always harbors a reserve far in excess of any of those actualizations. At any rate, from this it is clear that knowledge cannot be correspondence. The mistake of traditional modernist epistemology was always actualism or the confusion of an objects manifestations in properties with the being of the object itself.
For a while now I’ve argued that “speculative realism does not exist”. Among the four major thinkers within the SR movement, the only overlap is a rejection of epistemological correlationism, a critique of anthropocentrism in all its forms, and an affirmation of some variant of realism. Apart from that, the various positions are quite opposed in the specific claims that they make. With Brassier, for example, you get a robust Modernist naturalism. Not so with OOO. With OOO you get an ontology composed of objects where humans, cultural beings, natural objects, etc., are all equally treated with the dignity of being real. With Grant an ontology composed of powers where “somatism” (the treatment of being in terms of objects) is treated as a metaphysical error. With Meillassoux you get a hyper-chaos that is somehow segmented or stratified. These are all radically different ontological proposals.