Object-oriented ontology, and to a lesser degree the other orientations of Speculative Realism, have been described as the first internet driven philosophy. Or, to put it differently, they have been described as the first philosophical movement to develop primarily online. On the one hand, there was the Goldsmith’s event that took place back in 2007 that hosted Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Quentin Meillassoux. It would be interesting to map out the differences between their respective positions using the Greimasian square and I hope to do this for an article I am currently writing for Theory & Event. Collapse played a big role in the dissimenation of this event. However, I have a hard time believing that SR would have taken off in the way that it has without blogs like Speculative Heresy, Accursed Share, Naughtthought, Planomenology, and Fractal Ontology. And then, of course, there was the appearance of Graham Harman in the blogosphere– I kinda persuaded him to start blogging and still feel somewhat guilty about that –with Object-Oriented Ontology. There’s really a whole sociological case study to be written here employing the methodologies of actor-network theory.
In the beginnings, the key players here were Nick Srnicek of Accursed Share and the guys over at Fractal Ontology. Nick and I had been talking for years, ever since the inception of Larval Subjects back in 2006. I was always impressed by his critical acumen, his civility, his ability to remain above the fray and above board, never engaging in ad hominems or speculations about motivations of any sort, his focus on the concrete as far as outcomes, and his general theoretical brilliance. Back in the day, prior to SR, when it was all Deleuze, Lacan, and Badiou, all the time he would ask me some really tough questions. These questions were never attacks, but were issues he was working through as well. Later he would repay me with the tremendous complement of citing a number of my posts in his thesis. Meanwhile, Fractal Ontology suddenly appeared in the web around 2007 or 2008. Suddenly you had these two students, Taylor Adkins and Joseph Weismann translating all this obscure French philosophy that did not make up the canon as it has been appropriated in the United States. At the time Joseph and Taylor were largely Deleuzians, but what made their participation so remarkable was that they were tracking down all these obscure, yet key, Deleuzian references like Simondon, Ruyer, and Lautman, while getting all excited about Laruelle and translating his work as well. This was the first real whiff of Laruelle and I believe it played an important role in drawing attention to the work of Ray Brassier.
Like inverted amoebas, Accursed Share and Fractal Ontology merged, creating a new blog, Speculative Heresy. Part of the success of these three blogs was the tone they employed in presenting the thought of the Speculative Realists. Fractal Ontology was busily churning out translations, while in their original posts they were developing their own ideas in a non-polemical way, presenting them according to the standard Continental philosophy model that characterized lit theory and Continental philosophy departments during the 90s, SPEP, and the major Continental philosophy journals. These were the days– 2007 and 2008 –where Continental philosophy in the blogosphere was still driven by the SPEP/American university Continental philosophy department model of “figure driven” philosophy where philosophy is driven by commentary on figures rather than problems, questions, and positions that debate amongst these positions. It was the philosophical environment driven by hermeneutics of some sort or another that has driven so many bright minds out of philosophy departments and into other fields in the humanities where thought is not merely a reflection on the tradition. At the same time Nick was churning out all sorts of reviews and posts on the major figures in the SR movement. In particular, there were a number of stellar posts on Harman and Brassier early on. Then along came Naughtthought, Austin of Complete Lies, and Reid of Planomenology. Ben and Austin were busily pushing the ontology of Iain Hamilton Grant, while Reid intensified discussions of Laruelle and, to a lesser degree, Brassier.
Finally Harman appeared in the blogosphere by happenstance. Nick’s work had influenced me tremendously throughout late 2007 and 2008 and got me reading Meillassoux and wondering what all this buzz about SR was about. Still working within the framework of Badiou, Deleuze, Lacan, and Zizek at the time I was trying to fit everything into those framworks. Lit up by Meillassoux’s After Finitude, but aware that I still did not know a whole lot about the other thinkers in the SR movement, I one night got the idea of putting together The Speculative Turn collection; which, at the time, was going to be called Post-Continental Philosophy (Latour quickly shot that one down given his antipathy to “posts”). Originally I conceived the project as a sort of Deleuzian rejoinder to the realists in Great Britain working within the framework of SR and Badiou, where the standard critique of Deleuze at that time was that he was a “vitalist” (this wasn’t functioning as a sophisticated conceptual term but as an unthinking epithet). I knew, however, that I needed help and that Nick new far more about SR than me, so I contacted him to be a co-editor. Our original version of the project was extremely modest. However, as we began contacting people we were overwhelmed by the response. Not only did all the participants at the Goldsmith’s conference express a great deal of interest, but figures like Badiou, Zizek, Latour, Stengers, and so on were extremely interested as well. It seemed that in putting together a collection devoted to Continental Realisms and Materialisms we were hitting on the “real” (in the Lacanian sense) of the contemporary historical moment in the world of theory, or touching at the right thing at the right time. I believe that there are all sorts of things about contemporary technology, economy, and politics that make these themes of realism and materialism the timely thought for Continental philosophy.
The Speculative Turn brought Nick and I directly into contact with Harman. Harman clearly has well defined positions and commitments in his work, but one of the things that’s interesting about his work over and above his own commitments, is that across that work he’s constructed his own “counter-tradition” of philosophy, where suddenly the history of philosophy gets read as containing this minor tradition of object-oriented ontologists of one form or another. While we get familiar names in his work like Heidegger, Husserl, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, and so on, we also get all these marginalized names like Ortega y Gasset, Zubiri, Whitehead, Latour, and Suarez. Meanwhile he was making audacious moves like siding with Aristotle and taking the occasionalists seriously. In Zizekian or Hegelian terms it could be said that Harman was “positing his own conditions” in the history of philosophy. He was finding object-oriented ontology as already having existed, while simultaneously giving it its name. Now at the heart of this gesture lies a paradox. For on the one hand, Harman has serious ontological commitments of his own and his own unique form of object-oriented ontology, while on the other hand, Harman holds that object-oriented ontology is broader than his own position. In other words, Harman has simultaneously made a school of thought and is a particular variant of that school of thought.
Here the three main contemporary proponents of object-oriented ontology are Latour, Whitehead, and Harman. Harman argues that both Latour and Whitehead are instances of object-oriented ontologies, while simultaneously critiquing and rejecting their ontologies. Where Whitehead and Latour are both, in Harman’s estimation, ontological relationists in their object-oriented ontology, Harman, in a way that sometimes resembles certain aspects of Badiou, is a non-relationist. At any rate, when I contacted Graham to participate in The Speculative Turn he was enthusiastic and extremely helpful (which is why he became one of the co-editors), and we struck up a very intense email discussion about our respective ontological positions. My encounter with Harman, and it was an encounter in the Deleuzian sense, helped me to focus my thought in a lot of ways, and as a result of that brief two to four weeks where we were mailing back in forth multiple times a day, arguing, critiquing one another, finding common ground, and so on, I came out the other side as an advocate of object-oriented ontology broadly construed. Part of the reason this was possible was due to the counter-tradition Harman had produced that allowed me to simultaneously be my own thinker, not being required to share all of his claims, while participating in that school of thought. Then Harman appeared in the blogosphere which contributed significantly to the intensification of discussions and debates, functioning like a catalyst in a supersaturated solution that generates crystals or a bifurcation point.
Now if I attribute so much to blogs like Accursed Share, Fractal Ontology, and Speculative Heresy, then this is because their blogs functioned as hubs on the internet that mediated between the world of the internet and the outside world. On the one hand, they were rendering all sorts of names, concepts, arguments, and positions available to the internet world. On the other hand, they were spurring discussions in their graduate departments between faculty and students, at conferences, and now in the form of publications. Let’s not forget that Freud’s original crew consisted of between four and six doctors that would meet every Saturday in Freud’s parlor to discuss theory and their cases (off the top of my head I can only remember the names of Adler and Jung, but there were others as well). From this small network and these inconsequential events, though, they created a reorientation of theory and practice that came to span the globe. Those small links led to proliferations, drawing in a number of others who were both opposed to Speculative Realism (always an odd thing to be given that it’s a variety of different positions with only the shared similar of endorsing realism and rejecting the primacy of the human-world correlate) and those who are deeply interested in it in their own work. Suddenly in the last two years, whenever I would go to conferences, everyone was talking about SR, it was on everyone’s lips, and yet no one knew what it was. It was something that had to be responded to, but what was to be responded to was unclear. This was not restricted to the world of philosophy. As a highly interdisciplinary thinker I participate in conferences in a variety of disciplines and I was hearing the same thing across the humanities, cultural theory, and the social sciences.
Of course, the other actor here is not human. When I look back at all that has happened in the last three years I’m struck by how fortuitous or chance driven it’s all been. It really has the form of the “real” or what Lacan, drawing on Aristotle, called “tuche” or “the missed encounter”. Now, the tuche or missed encounter refers to the phenomenological structure of anticipation in our cognition. Tuche is that event that happens when one wasn’t anticipating or expecting it. It can be something like getting in a car accident, winning the lottery, meeting the love of your life, or being hit by lightning. The point is that it didn’t fit the structure of anticipation. And really this has been what SR’s been like. A number of motivated people fortuitously happened to encounter one another and something happened. It could have just as easily not happened. Certainly I was more than happy in my Deleuzian, Badiouian, and Lacanian ways, and I’ve really spent the last years trying to catch up with the changes that have occurred in my thought and trying to build an internally consistent and coherent system along with the arguments for that position.
But the nonhuman actor in all of this has been the internet. Despite the event at Goldsmiths, I do not believe SR would have been possible in 1994 with the explosion of the internet. The academy was simply too powerful and set in its ways focuses on celebrity or figure worship, on commentary and hermeneutics as the primary form of theory, for such a thing to take place. Again, I believe that this is one of the major reasons that so many first rate thinkers have been driven out of philosophy departments in the English speaking world and into other departments in the humanities. The unspoken and unconscious protocols of how philosophy is to be practiced in English speaking philosophy departments are just too constraining for those who are not primarily interested in talking about philosophers, but rather in engaging with problems and the contemporary moment. If the internet made SR possible– perhaps even at the level of the Goldsmith’s event –then this is because it opened a venue or space outside of the hegemony of SPEP that allowed for the emergence of conferences, journals, articles, and books not driven by that celebrity worship industry. I am not making the absurd claim that somehow SR has overturned the predominant ideological and power structures of Continental philosophy as practiced in the English speaking world. Clearly it remains a small and marginal movement. The claim I’m making is that that movement would not have been able to intensify at all had it not been for a medium like the internet. All of this raises questions of how thought comes to be structured differently as a result of media like the internet that are a strange combination of oral culture and written culture and where the book and article as a polished thought holds sway; but also questions of how normativity functions in this space where new collectives are formed, all sorts of riddles about identity emerge, and where there are not established norms to govern interactions. But I’ll save those ruminations for another time.