As the year draws to a close I find myself looking back at this crazy year and those texts that impacted me the most. For me 2009 has been one of those years in which everything changed, where all sorts of old assumptions and fixations dissipated like so much mist, and where I’ve found myself having to rebuild everything from the ground up. Building, of course, always requires materials out of which things must be built. Consequently, it is not so much that all of those old influences (phenomenology, Deleuze, structuralism, semiotics, Lacan, Freud, Marx, Kant, Spinoza, Lucretius, Hume, etc., etc.) disappeared, it is that my relationship to these forms of thought shifted and suddenly I was asking different questions, dealing with different problems, resituating what was important and unimportant in these earlier influences, while also abandoning a number of the problems that motivated these movements and thinkers. This year has felt like an event in the Deleuzian sense of something that fundamentally splits time between a before and an after where everything is different with respect to the after.

The most fundamental encounter of 2009 was certainly my encounter with Graham Harman. When rumblings about Speculative Realism began, I was inclined to find Harman’s work the least interesting among the big four. This was not out of any familiarity with that work. I hadn’t yet read it. What I had heard about it through Nick Srnicek did not strike me as particularly interesting or far reaching. He was working on Heidegger. He was a phenomenologist. His work did not resonate with what I took to be the most important trends in contemporary Continental thought: Lacan, Zizek, Badiou, and Deleuze and Guattari. Nor was my confidence in his work inspired when I came online papers of his on Latour. “Latour?!? Really? Latour? Does this man have any philosophical taste? Doesn’t he know that the real philosophy is taking place with figures like Badiou, Lacan, and Zizek? Isn’t he interested in formalization and mathematics? Isn’t Latour a sort of crank or the worst sort of ’90s’ postmodern sophist?”

read on!

Again, this judgment of taste was premised on a series of philosophical presuppositions about what was vital and important in contemporary Continental philosophy. In this respect, the work of Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, and Iain Hamilton Grant initially struck me as much more interesting. And why? Because the coordinates of their thought were familiar and could easily fit with pre-existent schemas of thought already at work in my own thought. Meillassoux and his argument from facticity fit well with Badiou’s use of mathematics in ontology. Brassier was working in familiar co-ordinates with Badiou, Deleuze, Lacan, and even Laruelle. If I suggest that Laruelle is familiar, then this is because he fits well with models of critique we’ve learned from deconstruction and psychoanalysis, coupled with transcendental argumentation. As far as I can tell, Laruelle fits the hegemonic model of institutional philosophy as a discussion primarily about philosophical texts rather than about the world. As such, Laruelle fit like a comfortable and well broken in pair of jeans or a soft glove. Nor did it take a leap to see Iain Hamilton Grant’s work on Schelling as a sort of nouveau Deleuzianism, continuing the tradition of French post-structuralist critiques of Hegel and Kant.

Then I read the manuscript for Prince of Networks (I’m not sure why I read it really) and everything changed. Where before I thought Harman was saying little of philosophical interest and that he lacked philosophical taste, I now saw that this initial impression was due to my inability to understand the concepts, problems, and questions he was working with and just how radical they are in revising our inherited philosophical problematics and questions, how deeply they required a revision of our basic ontological and epistemological assumptions, and just how fecund this ontological framework was for concrete research programs in other disciplines. Not only did Prince of Networks show me why I was massively wrong about Latour, how his destruction of the nature/culture divided generates an entirely new ontology, how the nature/culture distinction implicitly governs nearly all contemporary philosophical discussion, and how his radical conception of actants or objects, coupled with his concept of translation, generates a whole new series of questions and ways of thinking, but the second and third part of Harman’s book introduced me to an entirely new, often dizzying, ontology promising a way out of so many sterile debates and opening the possibility of thinking again. Guerilla Metaphysics and Tool-Being quickly followed, implacably rescuing me from my semiotic idealist, holistic, and relationist tendencies through careful argumentation, while simultaneously showing me why we need to rehabilitate the concepts of substance and essence, though in a very new form.

During this period my email exchanges with Harman were intense, consisting of lengthy and multiple emails back and forth daily for a period of a few weeks. We began our discussions diametrically opposed, advocating very different ontological intuitions and positions, yet engaging one another in a spirited yet charitable fashion. A number of my positions fell away under the onslaught of his arguments and I soon found myself advocating very different positions. I was introduced to new thinkers and names that I had never before encountered. Before long I was reading Roy Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science, a text so different in flavor from the Continental texts on which I had cut my teeth for over a decade, so relentless, precise, and compelling in its argumentation, so fecund in concepts, and so transformative for ones thought. Bhaskar’s book is the best sort of work. Despite first being published in 1975, it remains absolutely new and fresh. But if it is the best sort of philosophical work, then this is because it is simultaneously therapeutic, rigorously argued, and pregnant with concepts. If this work is so therapeutic then this is because it relentlessly demolishes all idealisms and correlationisms, while simultaneously producing a workable realist alternative that takes into account the social production of knowledges. If there is one book everyone interested in the various strains of Speculative Realism should read before reading the various Speculative Realists themselves, I would say this is the book to read.

Bhaskar’s Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation quickly followed. This book deepens and expands his arguments for transcendental realism, ferociously overturning idealist assumptions one by one, develops a nuanced and productive account of emergence and the stratification of reality, a strong critique of reductivism, and tackles issues of social and political change, showing how emancipatory politics is impossible in the absence of a realist ontology. Broadly Marxist in his outlook, Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation addresses the questions of freedom, normativity, and emancipatory politics and comes out the other side happily with a non-nihilistic, non-Thrasymachean, account of human emancipation. When I asked whether Bhaskar’s later work is worth reading, a friend once joked to me that it is hard to say given that his prose becomes increasingly constipated with time. This is true. Bhaskar is not easy and his prose only gets worse with his prose after Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. Fortunately, Andrew Collier’s Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy provides an outstanding introduction to his thought, clearly explaining his realist ontology, his epistemology, how he meshes social constructivism with realism, his account of emergence and the stratification of reality, and his social and political theory. And like Bhaskar’s own work, Collier’s book is tightly argued and illuminating on each and every page.

Then, of course, there was Latour. Pandora’s Hope presents a brilliant critique of Plato’s allegory of the cave and how this allegory has persisted in one form or another throughout the history of philosophy, while also developing a powerful solution to the problem of reference, and amazing conceptual analyses of collectives of actants and how they are organized. Latour’s Politics of Nature develops a powerful critique of ecological thought, while also showing what is new and transformative at the heart of ecology. Here Latour develops a new ontology of nature-culture, and completely reworks the fact/norm distinction in ways that dispel a whole host of problems.

The other thought changing works of 2009 were Kenneth Burke’s Grammar of Motives, Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Patricia Churchland’s Brain-Wise, Catherine Malabou’s What Should We Do With Our Brains?, Stephen J. Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Zubiri’s on Essence, Steven Shaviro’s Without Criteria, and Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude. Some of these books are books I’ve returned to again and again over the years, but this year with new eyes. Others I read for the first time. Meillassoux’s After Finitude cured me of correlationism, even if I don’t share his ontology or conclusions. Churchland’s and Malabou’s work introduced me to the importance of neurology and why it cannot be ignored or excluded from the domain of philosophy. Dennett’s book freed me from a number of structuralist and semiotic assumptions with its underdeveloped concept of memes, while also providing me with a number of concepts and arguments for thinking genesis or the production of new forms. Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory is a treasure trove of ontological concepts and categories for thinking emergence and change that are deeply applicable outside the realm of biology. Shaviro’s Without Criteria helped to free me from the ghetto of Continental philosophy through his powerful presentation of Whitehead, filling me with all sorts of powerful concepts pertaining to events, actual occasions, societies of actual occasions, and the manner in which relations can be transformative. Zubiri’s On Essence possesses all the joy of scholastic philosophy, riddled with marvelous distinctions and arguments, while deliciously turning phenomenology upside down to create a highly original realist ontology or philosophy of existence. I will never understand why Kenneth Burke does not get more attention outside the field of rhetoric. The Grammar of Motives is a treasure trove of concepts, arguments, and analytic tools that develop nothing short of an object oriented philosophy. This text will reward anyone who takes the time to work through it and Burke’s “pentad” proves to be a powerful tool in situating forms of thought and their internal logic.

And in the background of all this was the material history of Ferdinand Braudel in the three volumes of Capitalism and Civilization. Braudel’s three volumes have been my nightly bedtime reading for the last few months. Let Harman have his Gibbon, I’ll take my Braudel. If reading Braudel has been such a transformative experience, then this is because he draws attention away from familiar territory revolving around signs, ideologies, texts, norms, and concepts, investigating instead infrastructures throughout history such as the presence or absence of roads, the epidemiology of diseases, diets, trade routes, clothing, forms of energy, etc., etc., etc.. You leave these works with an entirely new set of glasses, seeing the world and why the world is the way it is in an entirely different light. Suddenly things you were focused on in your social and political thought seem to become less important as a consequence of the rather minor role they play in social organization, while a whole host of other urgent questions come to the fore. What you above all learn is that it is extremely difficult to do responsible and valuable social and political theory because all sorts of things tend to be invisible to us due to their ubiquity. I’m sure there are a number of other texts that are escaping my memory right now, but these are the ones that stand out.

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