morat-lgA long while back someone asked me– I think it was Jacob Russell –what relationship Speculative Realism has to realism in literature. At the time the question didn’t really register, nor strike me as particularly significant because I didn’t take the ontological position of realism as having much, if anything, to say about literary or artistic movements. In short, I don’t see as ontology– at least good ontology –as legislating what art should be. However, in coming across the little passage from Latour where he remarks that the entire tired problem of correspondence arises from a confusion between epistemology and the history of art (Pandora’s Hope, 78 -9), I find that this question suddenly resonates in an entirely different way.

Perhaps, I reflect to myself, when people hear the word “realism” the first thing that comes to their mind is the epistemological position where mind is portrayed as a mirror like essence that depicts a world identical to how it is and that is characterized by a verisimilitude between representation and represented. This would account for common charges of “naive positivism” one so often hears leveled at the speculative realists. However, this is an odd sort of conclusion to reach when encountering the actual writings of speculative realists. In the case of my onticology, the ontic principle asserts that there is no difference that does not make a difference. As a consequence of this principle it follows that no difference can ever be smoothly transported from one object to another without accompanying transformations as the receiving object will always contribute its own differences. Epistemologically onticology turns out to be very similar to various anti-realisms, with the caveat that it refuses to privilege the human-world relation and that it generalizes this phenomenon of translation to relations among all objects, not just humans and objects. Harman’s position is similar. What could be further from this classical sort of realism than vacuum packed objects that never directly touch one another and where objects translate one another whenever they interact? Similarly, Brassier perpetually emphasizes how radically the real differs from the world as we perceive it, underlining how different the world of neurology and quantum mechanics is from our folk metaphysical world. Likewise, DeLanda’s world is a world composed of vectors and attractors, where objects are but accretions or products of processes that cannot be directly represented. How could anyone who has actually read the writings of myself or these other thinkers conclude that there is anything even vaguely resembling the glassy essence hypothesis of naive realisms?

read on!

If we are looking for literary equivalents of Object-Oriented Ontology or Onticology, we would do better to look at the realisms of Italo Calvino in Cosmicomics and T Zero, or, better yet, the strange world depicted Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String. In The Age of Wire and String Ben Marcus depicts a fantastic reality that is paradoxically more real than any sort of realism we might find in Mark Twain. Here we have a world of imbricated relations between human and nonhuman actors where we can no longer claim that humans are at the center of things, or even where the human begins and ends. In short, what we get is a network of heterogeneous actors forming a collectivity. In the opening “story”– is it a story? is it an entry in a technical manual? is it a definition or a “how-to” guide? –of The Age of Wire and String, we are told about “intercourse with a resuscitated wife”:

Intercourse with a resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery. Electricity mourns the absence of the energy form (wife) within the household’s walls by stalling its flow to the outlets. As such, an impoverished friction needs to take the place of electricity, to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels. This is achieved with the dead wife. She must be found, revived, and then penetrated until heat fills the room, until the toaster is shooting bread onto the floor, until she is smiling beneath you with black teeth and grabbing your bottom. Then the vacuum rides by and no one is pushing it, it is on full steam. Days flip past in chunks of fake light, and the intercourse is placed in the back of the mind. But it is always there, that moving into static-ridden corpse that once spoke familiar messages in the morning when the sun was new. (7)

70107_duchamp_bride_marieeUpon reading this bit of extraordinary poetry our first reaction might be to chuck with a bit of shame and conclude that this is a very sexist double entendre that basically says the housework won’t get done unless you fuck your wife. And indeed, there is a bit of this here. Yet there is much more going on throughout Marcus’ strange book besides. What we find in this short passage is a “flickering”, to put it in Graham Harman’s terms, between the present-at-hand and the ready-to-hand, where the latter is brought forward into the light much to our discomfort. Among Harman’s key claims is that all objects withdraw and disappear from one another in interacting with one another.

When I use the hammer, the hammer itself withdraws into the depths, becoming invisible, reduced to its execution in fastening boards. For Graham this is true of all objects and not unique to the Dasein-object relation. In interacting with one another the other object is always veiled by the first. While I do not share Harman’s way of thematizing these relations, his portrayal of exo-relations among objects nonetheless helps to capture the strange world of Ben Marcus. What Marcus reveals in these passages– whether he knows it or not –is a strange world of assemblages or inter-ontic relations among actors, where no actor holds sway over the others. In this world composed of wire and string– network relations –all sorts of actors are mobilized in relations of veiling and unveiling, withdrawing and appearing, as they flicker in relation to one another.

If the vacuum cleaner slips by without being pushed by anyone, then this is because the resuscitated wife disappears in being resuscitated, reduced to her node in a network that allows energy to flow, toast to fly out on the floor, and all the rest. In certain respects, the world of Ben Marcus resembles the terrifying thermodynamic universe of Reza Negarestani, where wife refers not to a person or a partner, but is rather a generic name for flows of energy (the “energy forms” of Marcus’ little encyclopedia entry) that flow through systems, animating them and bringing about monstrous growths. The animation of the entire network in Marcus’ universe requires these flows of energy that always disappear in executing themselves, such that sockets begin to distribute their power, toasters shoot forth toast, and vacuum cleaners flit by of their own accord. What we get in this realist literature is a strange subterranean and withdrawn world of networked relations and their flows of energy where we cannot discern what is acting and being acted. Such is a realist art and literature.