Difficulty sleeping again tonight despite being exhausted. In my half-wakeful fog I came across this link discussing Speculative Realism in my dashboard. It has been interesting watching how discussions of SR and OOO have developed in the last year. As I recall, and I’m paraphrasing here, somewhere Žižek says that first new ideas are rejected as nonsense and gimmicks, then they are taken seriously and engaged at the critical level, and finally it is declared that they were always obvious and that this is what the tradition was saying all along. Of course, this final stage is a sort of transcendental illusion produced by the fact that the tradition is like a hologram that appears differently depending on the frame through which it is viewed, coupled with the fact that antecedents, analogies, and parallels can always be found between the present and the past. And finally, of course, no philosophical thought occurs in a vacuum, but rather all thinkers draw on the tradition and other influences. The reduction to the obvious and what’s been said all along is the ignoble fate that all new forms of thought must suffer, but at least the concepts get through and modify that tradition.

Among the most vocal critics of SR and OOO here in the blogosphere, I’ve noticed that they haven’t actually read the actual works of the actual participants at the Goldsmith’s conference or that they have read very little of these works. This is sometimes explicitly stated and at other times implicit in the charges being made. At the very least, had these works actually been read it would put an end to the question “but what is SR!” as it would become clear that SR is a genus with different species where those different species are fighting philosophical battles amongst themselves tooth and nail, like categories of Rationalism, Empiricism, and German Idealism where you had tooth and nail battles between Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, and Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, and Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel respectively. I’m not quite sure why this is such a difficult point to get. Nor am I sure how it is possible to make the charge that there are not arguments for the various positions when the actual works have not been read. It seems that philosophers who previously understood that you first have to read works before critiquing them and that you first have to understand the concepts proposed by a philosophy before rejecting them have decided to rely on ordinary language connotations of terms and received conceptions of tradition inherited from a training dominated by anti-realism, to understand a position.

But this is not what I find most interesting about these very vocal critics (VVC’s). What I find most interesting, and I confess gratifying, is the odd obsession with SR and OOO among these vocal critics. On certain blogs we encounter post after post devoted to OOO. Often these posts have between thirty and one hundred comments! Moreover, throughout the theory blogosphere these critics reiterate their charges against, primarily, OOO: “It’s a gimmick!” “It’s all advertising!” (some might call “advertising” argument and the attempt to persuade others, but never mind). “It’s shameless self-promotion!” “It mirrors the inflation of capitalism!” (a personal favorite of mine as the thought is never entertained that perhaps the positions are articulating the right thing at the right time in our historical moment or, as Lacan would say, “hitting the real”). “It’s neoliberal ideology that mirrors the expansion of capitalism!” (I’m interested in how this radical theorist proposes to bring about his social revolution without getting others on board with his political vision). “It hates humans!” (nevermind that perhaps OOO holds that we must discuss the nonhuman to properly address the problems of the social, political, and the human). “It wants to psychoanalyze hummus!” (that was a really good one. apparently the author didn’t get the memo that objects are different, have different structures and properties, and must be related to in different ways). “It’s incoherent and makes no sense!” “It’s hardly worth our time!” “It’s all just poetry and metaphor!” The thing that tickles my funny bone about the VVC’s is that they seem to be against things on general principle: “I don’t know what it is, but damn it, it’s new fangled and I don’t like it! Gimme my old silent films any day! Talkies just can’t capture that level of meaning or expressiveness, that level of art! Society is collapsing, I tell you!” (shakes cane).

read on!

What is interesting here is the amount of time and emotional energy invested in something that suffers from all these flaws, that is incoherent, that is irrelevant, and that has nothing of interest to say. Now that is remarkable! One would think that were a school of philosophy to possess these characteristics folks wouldn’t waste their time writing so much about it and obsessing about the figures involved in that movement. After all, we don’t sit around writing post after post and comment after comment about astrology and faith healing; but to listen to these VVC’s, OOO and SR is the equivalent of faith healing and astrology. Curious. One would expect silence were a philosophy truly a crackpot body of thought.

If I’m gratified by this, then this is because at least OOO and SR is defining the terms of debate. Here I confess I’m indebted to Erving Goffman’s theory of framing. By all lights it appears that OOO and SR are framing the debates. And as I reckon, if SR and OOO are framing the debates, even when our claims are not endorsed we still prevail because we’re defining the terms or coordinates of the discussion rather than being defined by the frames of our VVC’s. As Deleuze might have put it in Nietzsche & Philosophy, the VVC’s become mere epiphenomena, or negative reflections of affirmative differences. And as a result of framing the debate the concepts and categories seep in regardless, even if the labels aren’t endorsed. In other words, those that frame the debate are the active forces the define the field. And, along Marxist lines, the affirmative differences are the motor of history.

All of this reminds me of my first encounters with Derrida at The Ohio State University as an undergrad. Ohio State, of course, is Anglo-American in its dominant philosophical orientation with a strong history of philosophy program. Suddenly “Derrida” was on everyone’s lips. No one had actually read Derrida, but nonetheless Derrida was the threat that had to be responded to. Like a black hole or a strange attractor, Derrida’s radical anti-realism had become The Danger(tm). Eventually folks began to read Derrida and he both became the darling of the theory community and people said “oh, that’s all he was saying?” Prior to that, however, Derrida was a four letter word, a noun rather than a proper name, that functioned as the worst thing a person could be. Imagine the ire when Davidson, Quine, and Derrida were compared favorably with one another as having a number of overlaps! How dare they! What folly is this!

In the meantime, the second stage in the third stage of new emerging philosophical movements has begun to emerge as well. Here we see claims like “but the German Idealists were claiming this all along!” Didn’t Kripke already develop this? Wasn’t Whitehead already saying these things (another clear indication of not reading the relevant works)? And so on. Where it occurs I take that as a good sign as it is indicative of familiar hermeneutic horizons with something unfamiliar.

Who knows, perhaps at some point we’ll actually reach the second stage of new ideas in this discussion, where folks actually decided to read the relevant works, practice their fine hermeneutic skills borne of years of training in the art of commentary, and actually begin to accurately represent concepts, positions, and above all, arguments, as well as the normative issues that motivate these recent trends in philosophy. That will be a welcome day. I don’t know that SR and OOO will ever become positions that pass to the stage of “obviousness”, where people say “everyone knew these things all along!”, but the trendlines of the discussions so far are at least hopeful. If the VVC’s don’t come to accept these positions, certainly their heated rhetoric will attract the attention of enough theorists and graduate students who get curious enough to dig into what all the scandal is about. So thank you VVC’s!