December 2011


I can’t wait for this book from Punctum:

Queering Speculative Realism

Michael O’Rourke

Queering Speculative Realism is the first book to explore and fully work through the as yet under-acknowledged points of connection between the disparate fields of Queer Theory, Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology. The book is composed of ten brief chapters that mine what might be called the “proper objects” of queer inquiry. The opening chapter sets out to define, or rather complicate the need to define what queer theory is and does and to cultivate the associations between the weird, the unheimlich and queerness via a reading of Cixous on Freud’s Uncanny. The main argument in this chapter and the book as a whole is that queerness is undefinable and that its very provisionality is what makes it such a fertile site for speculative thinking. Chapter Two gives some background to speculative realism and the four major figures (Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Ray Brassier) and concepts (correlationism and non-anthropocentrism particularly) associated with it. It also advances the idea that speculative thought is, like queer theory, both promissory and undefinable. Chapter Three introduces one of the most regnant sub-fields of Speculative Realism, which has been variously termed Object Oriented Philosophy (Graham Harman), Object Oriented Ontology (Levi Bryant), and Alien Phenomenology (Ian Bogost). The major claim here is that OOO (Object Oriented Ontology) is the most promising place to stage a discussion of gender, sexuality, queerness and objects because of its focus on openness, democracy, flat ontology and incipience. Chapter Four meets Christopher Vitale’s challenge to speculative realists to pay attention to queer theory (as well as gender, class and race). It seeks out resonances between the work of the four major figures (Harman, Meillassoux, Brassier, Grant) and queer thinking, and also discusses the queerness which lies at the heart of the weird philosophy of Reza Negarestani and his concept of the ( )hole complex in particular. Chapter Five advances the argument that the four major thinkers associated with OOO (Harman, Bryant, Morton, Bogost) have always already foregrounded questions of gender, sexuality and queerness, with a particular focus on Bryant’s democratization of objects and his take on Lacan’s graphs of sexuality as well as Timothy Morton’s ecological thinking that emphasizes the Levinasian-Derridean notions of arrivance and the strange stranger. Chapter Six introduces and discusses one of the most promising tentacles, Object Oriented Feminism, which has grown out of OOO and anatomizes other potential crossings between Object Oriented Philosophy and neovitalist and materialist feminisms. The work of Elizabeth Grosz on animals, art and temporality and the writings of Karen Barad on quantum theory, agential realism and posthuman performativity play an important role here.

The next three chapters of the book discuss major figures from the field of queer theory whose work has not, as yet, been considered by either speculative realists or object oriented philosophers. Chapter Seven looks at Judith Butler’s writing that has been dismissed as being too caught up in the linguistic turn to have anything to say about objects. On the contrary, Queering Speculative Realism argues that a vibrant materialism has always animated her philosophy and, further, that one can detect an increasing turn toward ecological thinking in her attempts to formulate an ethics of global connectedness and precarious co-inhabitation of the world. Chapter Eight makes a similar claim for the work of Leo Bersani and argues that his writing on sexuality and aesthetics has always been preoccupied with objects, the universe, and that he advances an ethical system in which we not only care for the world but that, ontologically, it cares for us. Chapter Nine examines the later writing and textile art of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and discusses how pertinent her later fascination with objects, breathing, and weather are for OOO.

The book ends with a Coda that argues, through a reading of Michael Warner’s seminal introduction to the collection Fear of a Queer Planet, that it is precisely “fear of a queer planet” that has stifled the potential dialogue between queer theory and speculative thought. The book offers some speculations about where future conversations between queer theories, speculative realisms and object oriented philosophies might take us.

Michael O’Rourke lectures in the School of Psychotherapy at Independent Colleges, Dublin, Ireland and works mostly at the intersections between Queer Theory and Continental Philosophy. He has published over forty articles and book chapters, has co-convened The(e)ories: Advanced Seminars for Queer Research since 2002, and is the series editor of the Queer Interventions book series at Ashgate Press and of the Cultural Connections: Key Thinkers and Queer Theory book series at the University of Wales Press.

Quite an extraordinary discussion has erupted surrounding Eileen Joy’s Swedish Twitter University lecture on SR literary criticism and my follow-up post. Over at Digital Digs, Alex Reid has a post building on the discussion in terms of rhetorical analysis, emphasizing reading as composition or building. At Fractured Politics, Kris Coffield has a great post discussing why there is no object-oriented literary criticism, though not for the reasons you would expect. Building on Alex’s post, Timothy Richardson of Objet (A)thenticity has a post describing the process of writing as building a “thing”. Finally, in comments to my post, Eileen wrote the following wonderful response building on her axiomatics in the Twitter lecture:

Levi, thank you very much for your post here and also everyone else for a very lively set of comments. Since the constraints of the Twitter Univ. lecture allowed for only 25 tweets at 140 characters each, while that certainly allowed me to crystallize some of my thinking relative to what a speculative realist literary criticism might look like [it allowed me, further, to try to develop some "axioms" for further work], it also meant that I wasn’t allowed to unpack all of the cognitive work that has gone into my own personal project of developing new reading modes influenced by certain strains of SR and OOO work [esp. that of Levi, Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, Jane Bennett, and Steven Shaviro--and these are not necessarily compatible thinkers: but I like to cobble]. Also, I might change my mind at any given moment relative to one or more of my Twitter Univ. “axioms” [everything in the humanities, I would aver, is always a work in progress, and unlike -- perhaps -- in philosophy, I'm not personally aiming for anything systematic here so much as I am seeking to expand my toolkit for literary analysis].

I can’t speak to everything in Levi’s post [much of which I agree with] or the comments here, but here are some clarifications I would make relative to what I have read here today:

1. in my own work — and as someone who works in medieval studies, this is partly an outcome of certain historical investments I have — I am actually interested in re-fortifying humanism, but through post/humanist and object-oriented and vibrantly materialist means, in order to make that humanism less oppressive, more ethically capacious, more critically flexible [Andy Mousley and Martin Halliwell coined the term "baggy humanism" in their book "Critical Humanisms"]. I define humanism through a kind of pared-down, bare bones description: the practice of reading, reflection, and writing with the belief that texts offer critical resources for reflection and that [my/our] writing is enworlded and might have some effect on what happens in the world [here, I borrow from the late Edward Said's idea of "worldly" criticism]. Human beings have some important work to do and the university is an important site for continuing to raise, as Bill Readings once argued ["The University in Ruins"], what the questions of “being-together” might mean, as well as to place thought beside thought, without preconceived notions of what it is “proper” to do, or not do, intellectually. This is also similar to Derrida’s “university without condition,” where we ought to have the right to say anything, and to publish it, even under the heading of fiction. I see this as important, *humanist* work., BUT:

2. It might be important at this particular juncture within the humanities — and under the aegis, perhaps, of new strains of post/humanist thought, including SR and OOO, but also network/media studies, critical animal studies, systems theory, cybernetics, avant garde poetics, and the like — to re-tool traditional humanist practices, like literary criticism, such that they might start to take account of a wider register of the enworlded enactions and effects of things like texts [and please: I know some CURRENT and OLDER reading modes have attended to this, but ... keep reading]. Here I would pause for a moment to say that we should try not to get to hung up on the language of which methods [traditional or newer] of analyzing texts supposedly “close” them down or “open” them up. I myself do not want to argue that literary criticism up until now has been mainly intent on closing down texts: I think there are LOTS of ways in which traditional reading modes [whether New Critical or deconstructist or New Historicist or psychoanalytic] have *thickened* our understanding of what texts actually do in the world, as *actants* [after all, isn't New Historicism interested in the ways in which a text dispenses and circulates certain social energies beyond the intentionalities of an author?], BUT: these critical frameworks have also often only been interested in getting us to see texts in relation to how they are supposedly produced and received by and circulate in human-centric networks/contexts of exchange, meaning, etc. Now, these human-centric networks and contexts matter a great deal, and I would never say to stop paying attention to them [that is why New Historicism, as well as symptomatic/psychoanalytic + skeptical-ideological readings have illuminated so much for us, and will continue to do so, regarding the role of literary texts in history as *actants* in the world that are importantly enmeshed with human life--political, religious, aesthetic, whathaveyou], but I think we can also add to these productive reading models other models for reading that might help us to discern better what might be called the uncanniness, or, folllowing Ian Bogost’s forthcoming book, “alien phenomenology” of literature.

Perhaps this also allows us to revisit Derek Attridge’s “Singularity of Literature,” where he asked us to think about developing a responsible-creative reading that “does not … aim only to appropriate and interpret the work, to bring it into the familiar circle, but also to register its resistance and irreducibility, and to register it in such a way as to dramatize what it is about familiar modes of understanding that make them unable to accommodate this stranger” [p. 125]. This might also be to extend Eve Sedgwick’s formulation of a practice of reparative reading that would seek to find in texts a “plenitude” that could then be bestowed on an “inchoate” reader-self [this is obviously still very human-centric].

3. We might also remind ourselves that a literary text is a special object of *mentation* that relies upon its situatedness within cognitive and other “platforms” and “systems”–human and otherwise–that help to make it intelligible. I’m personally not interested in cognitive approaches to reading literary texts [such as the evolutionary psychological approach to Jane Austen novels seen in the recent work of Joseph Carroll, although I find his project and others like it fascinating--it's just not "my thing"], BUT, having said that, I have a sneaking suspicion that our cognition is co-extensive with literary texts and in ways we do not fully perceive at present, so I’m pretty sure we should also think about texts as autopoetic systems enmeshed somehow with human autopoeisis, and as Aranye Fradenburg once put it in a lecture on Chaucer, “how do we know where the self ends and Otherness begins”? As Judith Butler put it recently in “Giving An Account of Oneself,” it is precisely because I do not fully know myself, that ethics can begin. I would extend this to say that if I cannot fully know myself, neither can a text fully know itself [which is also like saying: the author is never in complete control of a text], and literary criticism today might work a bit harder to analyze this state of affairs, and OOO and SR are helpful because, in Harman’s theory of objects, for example, his theory of withdrawal helps us to see how everything in the world [us included] is fatally torn between its deeper, autononomous “reality” and its accidents and continually shifting, sensual facades: working/mining the rift between the two is what intrigues me, especially when I consider Harman’s comment that it may be precisely because of this rift that anything [space and time] happens at all. As a medievalist, I’m thus also interested in the temporalities [emphasis on the plural] of reading this opens up.

In her recent lecture “at” “The Swedish Twitter University” Eileen poses a series of questions raising the question of what a speculative realist literary criticism might look like.

First, what happens when we consider that literary characters are not human beings, but more like mathematical compressions of the human? What happens when we see literary texts as having propulsions of their own, as actants on the same ontological footing as everything else?

Joy distinguishes this point of view from what she refers to as “humanist” literary criticism. As she remarks,

The questions matter, because much of literary criticism today is founded on humanist-ethicist principles; hermeneutics are deeply humanist.

As she continues,

We choose to seek, then, a non-projective, non-hermeneutic criticism that would multiply and thicken a text’s sentient, bottomless reality. This criticism would be better described as a commentary that seeks to open and not close a text’s possible “signatures.” Aesthetics may constitute a domain of illusions, but these illusions posses their own material reality and are co-sentient with us.

There’s a lot more in the lecture and discussion, so be sure to follow the link. Perhaps Joy’s rendering of the distinction between humanist literary criticism and object-oriented literary criticism can be rendered gnomically– as is her style in this lecture –as the distinction between styles of criticism that are “before” and “after” the text. This would correspond to the distinction Joy draws in the quote above between strategies of criticism that strive to close the text and strategies that strive to open the text. What do these metaphors imply?

The central premise of what Joy rightly calls humanist criticism– which is nearly all existing criticism today –is that texts are primarily vehicles or carriers of meaning. As a consequence, meaning is something that is before the text in either the temporal or the transcendental sense. Meaning is that which is prior to the text such that the text is but a carrier of meaning. Like a crypt that hides what lies in rest within it, the text is thus something to be decrypted, deciphered, so as to discover its meaning. If this is necessary, then it must be because there is something of a strife between the materiality of the text, its inscription in paper and other mediums, and the meaning of the text. Meaning is always withdrawn from the surface of the text on paper (and here not in OOO’s sense of withdrawal), while it is the inscription on paper, in the most literal sense, that presents itself to the reader. If there is a strife, in this framework, within the work between meaning and the text, then this is because there is always an excess of potential meaning in the text. In the analytic setting a patient relates to me a dream in which he is joyfully frolicking with a deer in his brother’s back yard. Why this dream? The analyst notes that “deer” is a homonym for “dear”. They are both pronounced ‘dir. Perhaps the patient is in love with his brother’s wife? At the textual level, the speech of the analysand allows for a variety of different interpretations. Is the dream merely about a deer or is it really about his “dear”? The question will be decided by what is before the text or dream, by the latent content behind the manifest text.

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Over at Machinology Jussi Parikka has a nice post up raising some questions about OOO. Here my remarks will repeat some of the points that Paul Caplin raises here which is also well worth the read. Jussi writes:

I wonder if there is a problem with the notion of object in the sense that it still implies paradoxically quite a correlationist, or lets say, human-centred view to the world; is not the talk of “object” something that summons an image of perceptible, clearly lined, even stable entity – something that to human eyes could be thought of as the normal mode of perception. We see objects in the world. Humans, benches, buses, cats, trashcans, gloves, computers, images, and so forth. But what would a cat, bench, bus, trashcan, or a computer “see”, or sense?

I think there are two responses to this point, the first ontological and the second socio-political. Regarding the ontological, it simply is not the case that object-oriented ontology privileges mid-lined objects about the size of aardvarks, boulders, spatulas, etc. These are objects, but objects come at a variety of different levels of scale. At the heart of my own work are considerations of mereology or relations between parts and wholes. Objects are always wholes, but they are wholes that are composed of other objects that are, in their turn, independent objects in their own right. Cats are no less objects that cells and atoms, and cells and atoms are no less objects than aardvarks. Likewise, social systems like cities and markets, and large objects like galaxies are no less independent objects than persons. Clearly these large and small scale objects are neither stable nor easily perceptible. Yet within an OOO framework they count as objects every bit as much as spoons. In my view, these relations between parts and wholes raise all sorts of analytic questions that are almost completely unaddressed in critical theory.

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This afternoon I had a long discussion with Mel where she directed me to this excellent episode of Radio Lap concerned with cognitive loops. Over the course of the radio show there’s a discussion where a woman has suffered brain damage that still allows her to speak. As I listened to the daughter interview her brain damaged mother, I experienced a growing sense of horror. The mother would ask her daughter a question. The daughter would respond with the answer. The mother would then respond again. And then, after the sequence had completed itself, the mother would ask the same question that initiated the sequence all over. For the mother this exchange seemed like an absolutely new discussion every time it occurred, while for the daughter and the rest of us we could see that the same exchange was simply repeating itself over and over again. The woman here is trapped within a cognitive loop 1) of which she is not aware, and 2) from which she cannot escape. She is doomed to go through the sequence of this loop again and again.

The spectacle of this woman repeating herself in this way without awareness that she’s repeating herself is terrifying enough, but what’s truly horror inducing is the possibility that we are caught in similar loops. The woman’s loop is relatively easy to recognize because of the rote, mechanical nature of her repetition and the short temporal duration through which it cycles. Yet in our own case it’s difficult to imagine that we too live within such loops for these loops, if they do exist, have a greater complexity, subtlety, and temporally elongated cycle. Like language where the grammatical rules of language are finite while nonetheless being able to generate an infinite number of sentences, so-called “normal” loops would have a very simple basic structure while nonetheless generating an indefinite number of variations of this structure. Nonetheless, like this woman, we would be trapped within these loops, unable to see them for ourselves, and tragically destined to repeat them ceaselessly.

This was Lacan’s thesis regarding the symptom. In Seminar 23, RSI, Lacan observes that there is no subject without a symptom. The Lacanian symptom is a form of repetition, an ineradicable structure, that the subject is perhaps doomed to repeat. It is for this reason that Lacan describes psychoanalysis as a tragic discourse. This thesis significantly distinguishes the psychoanalytic conception of the symptom from many psychotherapeutic conceptions of the symptom. A number of psychotherapeutic conceptions of the symptom tend to conceive psychological symptoms on the model of medicine, such that the symptom is a sign of an illness to be removed. The symptom is a deviation from normal functioning. Yet if Lacan is right– and he argues that there are structural reasons that this must be the case –then the relationship between the symptom and the subject is biconditional. That is to say, it has a structure such that “if there is a subject, then there is a symptom and if there is a symptom, then there is a subject.” To eradicate the symptom would be to eradicate the subject. I’ll get to the therapeutic consequences of this in a moment.

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I hesitate to write this post because often discussion of these issues generates highly unpleasant firestorms, so at the outset I should emphasize that I’m not taking a position here one way or another. Lately I’ve been thinking a good deal about Spinoza and, in particular, the Theoligico-Politico Treatise (warning .pdf). Following Nadler’s A Book Forged in Hell, the treatise is truly one of the least read classics of modern political thought. Three central claims of the Theologico-Politico Treatise are that 1) sacred texts impart no knowledge of the natural world or being (the stories depicted in these texts are not to be taken as accounts of the world), 2) the primary function of sacred texts is to convey moral truths or truths about how to live, and 3) that because the prophets that formulated these moral truths lacked knowledge, these moral truths are formulated in the form of commandments (e.g., “thou shalt not eat shellfish”) and prohibitions rather than causal claims.

With respect to this third claim, Spinoza’s idea seems to be that the more causal knowledge we have about our bodies, our psychology, world, and how the social world functions the more we’ll be able to dispense with ethical commandments. Here it’s important to be clear. Spinoza’s thesis is not that the more causal knowledge of body, mind, world, and society we develop the more unethical we’ll become. Rather, Spinoza’s claim is that as we acquire knowledge of body, mind, world, and society our reasons for doing things will change.

To understand Spinoza’s thesis it’s best to draw on examples that aren’t ethically charged. Suppose I go to my doctor and he tells me that I need to cut things like fried okra and similar foods out of my diet. If I live in a state of ignorance, I will encounter this statement as a commandment or prohibition. My reasons for ceasing to eat fried okra will be because I respect the authority of my doctor and because I fear reprimand and punishment from him if I eat fried okra. However, if I have causal knowledge of my own body and okra and how my body and okra interact, my deliberation about okra will now change entirely. My reason for not eating okra will now no longer be that my doctor commands it, nor that he will disapprove of me eating okra and punish me accordingly. Rather, I will strive to cease eating fried okra and fried foods in general because I understand that by virtue of how these foods combine with my body they raise my cholesterol causing health conditions like heart disease.

Based on the foregoing, Spinoza’s understanding of ethics can be described as “deflationary” or “eliminativist”. For Spinoza, deontological ethics or ethical commands and prohibitions such as we find in sacred texts are heuristic devices we use in the absence of knowledge about causes and effects. For example, Mosaic law dimly sensed that shellfish are potentially dangerous for our health (a contentious claim), but lacked causal knowledge of how or why this is so. For this reason, it formulated the principle of not eating shellfish in the form of a commandment or prohibition, rather than as a causal claim about what’s likely to happen.

The advantage of norms or commandments is that they are able to motivate behavior in the absence of the person possessing causal knowledge. The person who lacks knowledge of shellfish and how it’s likely to interact with the body will, if they accept the authority of the person or deity issuing the commandment, avoid eating shellfish. The problem with deontological approaches to ethics is that in their structure as commandment they tend to foreclose any way of evaluating commandments to determine whether they are well founded. The prohibition against eating shellfish makes this point clear. If my reason for not eating shellfish lies in God’s command, then anything I might learn about the properties of how my body and shellfish interact is irrelevant to whether I ought to eat shellfish. The prohibition is absolute and there are no circumstances under which I should eat shellfish. However, if it turns out that moral commandments are really dimly perceived causal claims, then it follows that further knowledge of how my body and shellfish interact, coupled with the development of safe ways of preserving shellfish and of evaluating whether they’re safe to eat could lead the community that formulated this prohibition to abandon it. Something along these lines seems to have taken place in contemporary society surrounding prohibitions against premarital sex, sex outside of marriage, and sex for the sake of pleasure. In a society where there’s no reliable birth control, these prohibitions make good causal sense. However, with the development of reliable forms of birth control, they no longer make sense.

Spinoza’s ethical project could thus be described as deflationary or eliminativist. His aim seems to be the replacement of ethical commandments, prohibitions, and norms with action motivated by a knowledge of causes and effects. Such a project– shared by the Epicureans –would be an “elimination” of ethics. To eliminate ethics does not mean that we become “unethical”, but rather that we choose what to pursue and avoid not because of norms or commandments, but based on a knowledge of causes and effects in the domains of body, mind, world, and society. Ethics would be a branch of medicine and ethicists would be similar to nutritionists; where we consult with the nutritionist to determine the best diet for living well and we consult with the ethicist to determine the best way of living well (and there are obviously all sorts of daunting questions here as to how this is determined; but there are daunting questions in more traditional ethics as well). The greater our knowledge of body, mind, world, and society is, the more we would witness a disappearance of ethics in the form of imperatives or commandments. So what do others thing? What are the problems with Spinoza here? And in posing that question, I would encourage readers to avoid the knee jerk reaction of proclaiming that we can’t drawn an “ought” from an “is”. Certainly when affect is taken into account this is far less of a daunting problem than has traditionally been suggested by ethicists.

The .pdf version of The Democracy of Objects can be found here.

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