December 2009


A great quote from Andrew Collier’s Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy:

If there is a single philosophical idea which reflects more closely than any other this commercial (rather than technological) spirit, it is the epistemic fallacy, which reduces nature to our cognitive appropriation of it, just as this spirit reduces it to our economic appropriation of it. This epistemic fallacy has dominated philosophy for just the same period. In offering us the chance to break decisively with this fallacy, and the consequent anthropocentric world-view…, Bhaskar’s realism makes possible… a much greater respect for the integrity of things independent of us. (149)

This point is far broader than talk about cognition. The same point could be made with respect to linguistic appropriation of the world, semiotic appropriation of the world, social appropriation of the world, historically informed appropriation of the world, etc. There is a common structure among all of these strains of thought. Collier’s point holds every bit as much for object-oriented philosophy, where the realism of object-oriented philosophy opens the way towards a much greater respect for the integrity of things independent of us.

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In response to my recent post, “The Fate of a Signifier“, my interlocutor Dan writes a kind yet critical response worth discussing in detail. Hopefully my response will do Dan’s post some justice as I’m pretty tired and emotionally worn down this evening. Dan writes:

You say, ” The problem emerges when the person arguing in this way shifts from the thesis that our access to the world involves language to the thesis that language makes the world what it is.” I think I agree with this though I might qualify it a way that I think you could accept with provisos, something like “language can be one of the things that makes the world what it is.” I am less sure if you would accept that ” language is a thing that sometimes predominates in human interactivity with other things.” This last is not, I think, your focus since I think OOO wants not “decenter” but — what? — un-center (or a-center) discursive and philosophical practices that were “humanistic.”

Quite the contrary. I don’t at all deny that language is a thing that often dominates in human practice. Moreover, part of my ontology is designed to take account of semiotic entities as real actants in the world. First, I see this as an issue for regional ontology, i.e., how one particular ontological domain (language) translates another. Second, and perhaps more prosaically, I see the focus on language as a covert or implicit Cartesian holdover in the tradition of philosophy. In other words, what we’ve done is replace one “immanence” (immanence to consciousness as in the case of Descartes) with another immanence (immanence to language). What we haven’t thought is immanence as such, or something akin to Spinozist, Bergsonian, or Deleuzian immanence where we don’t have one actor in the field of being hegemonizing the rest, but rather we just have the field of actors within being altogether such that that field is composed of actors like language, consciousnesses, trees, rocks, etc.

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Unfortunately I’ve been unable to respond to other blog posts in the way I would like due to the semester coming to an end and collapsing under piles of grading. Here, however, are some highlights of OOO related things written in the last couple of weeks. Christopher Vitale, over at the new blog Networkologies, has a nice post up discussing OOO and quantum mechanics, referring to some of my early claims in the development of my onticology. I’m immediately in love with whoever might have that tattoo at the beginning of his post. The intrepid and passionate Jacob Russell has a post up continuing his discussion of questions of realism in art that’s very excited about some of the work I’ve been doing recently on the concept of translation. Here he discusses the relationship between OOO and aesthetics. At the risk of sounding cryptic, objects, in OOO, are never directly perceived. This fundamentally distinguishes realism as understood by literary realism and what might be an aesthetic practice informed by OOO realism.

Graham Harman is back from his whirlwind tour of various parts of Europe. He has a couple of nice posts up responding to my recent post on why OOO is hard and also responding to my initial impressions of his work. Over at Hyper tiling Fabio Cunctator has a post up on Arun Saldanha’s review of Meillassoux’s After Finitude that sounds pretty sympathetic to OOO. The review is published in the latest issue of Cosmos & History. Mike Watson of Logical Regressions has a post up on the subject over at Speculative Heresy that sounds like he’s porting his commitments regarding the subject with the framework of OOO. Over at Another Heidegger Blog the tireless Paul Ennis has a series of posts up on Harman’s vicarious causation that are well worth reading (here, here, here, and here).

Via the Penny Arcade:

A Lacanian aphorism states that all communication is miscommunication. Another states that we always say more or something other than what we intend to say. I wonder how much of this has been the case with the signifier “Speculative Realism”. In astronomy black holes are detected indirectly, through wobbles in nearby stars, sudden accelerations in their orbit, curvatures of light, etc. Often the situation is similar in philosophical dialogues. The bone of contention is not something explicitly stated by one of the interloctors, but rather is an absent term that nonetheless presides over the entire discourse.

In a number of debates surrounding “Speculative Realism”, I wonder how much the term “speculation” has played a role similar to that of a black hole. The verb “to speculate” does not have very happy connotations. From Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: spec·u·late
Pronunciation: \ˈspe-kyə-ˌlāt\
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): spec·u·lat·ed; spec·u·lat·ing
Etymology: Latin speculatus, past participle of speculari to spy out, examine, from specula lookout post, from specere to look, look at — more at spy
Date: 1599

intransitive verb 1 a : to meditate on or ponder a subject : reflect b : to review something idly or casually and often inconclusively
2 : to assume a business risk in hope of gain; especially : to buy or sell in expectation of profiting from market fluctuationstransitive verb 1 : to take to be true on the basis of insufficient evidence : theorize
2 : to be curious or doubtful about : wonder “speculates whether it will rain all vacation”

It did not occur to me until recently, but I wonder, when certain others hear the term “speculative” are they equating this with the sense of “reviewing something idly or casually”, or “taking something to be true on the basis of insufficient evidence”? Is this what they believe the speculative realists are proposing and doing… That they are advancing the thesis that we should just make claims without arguments?

This would be a curious conclusion, especially for philosophers trained in the Continental tradition who are steeped in the tradition of textual commentary and interpretation. First, none of the so-called “speculative realists” use the term “speculation” as a key concept in their work. And where they do use it, they certainly do not employ it in the sense of authorizing philosophy to make idle claims without support. Second, it is odd for Continental philosophers, above all, to think that anything valuable can be gleaned about a philosophy from the ordinary language connotations of terms. To determine the meaning of a philosophical term ordinary language cannot be relied on, but rather it is necessary to look at how it is used by the philosopher. Finally third, one wonders about the psychological make-up, one’s way of viewing the world and experiencing others, that would lead to such an uncharitable interpretation.

At any rate, no, the “speculative” of “speculative realism” is not a call to authorize idle speculation without support. Yes, the speculative realists all are committed to the view that as philosophers they are obligated to make careful and rigorous arguments in defense of their positions. The term “speculative” has connotations not of making claims without support, but rather is to be opposed to the term critical, where critical is to be understood in its precise philosophical sense of any philosophy that holds that all philosophical questions are to be posed in terms of our epistemological access to entities such that ultimately all philosophical questions reduce to epistemological questions. “Critical”, in philosophy, does not mean “someone who is always scrutinizing and pointing out flaws in arguments.” I suspect that the term “Speculative Realism” was chosen as the title for the Goldsmith’s event back in 2007 to signify the commitment to posing ontological questions in their own terms without striving to reduce all ontological questions or questions about what things are to epistemological questions. Do those of us who engage in ontology believe that we don’t have to justify our claims, that we don’t have to answer questions of knowledge, etc? No.

It is not unusual, in discussions about Kant, to hear supporters of Kant emphasize that he is an empirical realist and a transcendental idealist. It is important to understand what Kant has in mind by empirical realism and why it is radically different than realist ontologies. At this late hour I will not do this issue the justice it deserves, but hopefully indicate some pointers that will help to clarify the issue. No one is forgetting that Kant claims to be an empirical realist in these discussions, above all those that advocate realist ontologies. Nor are realist criticisms of Kant based on the idea that somehow he is subjectivist or a subjective idealist. Empirical realism is something radically different than a genuine realist ontology. When Kant describes his position as an empirical realism, he is not asserting a realist ontology, but is making a claim about intersubjectivity. What Kant is saying is that the items that populate experience are “objective” in the sense that what we experience is intersubjectively communicable and universal by virtue of the transcendental structure of subjectivity or mind as outlined by Kant. In other words, for Kant we are entitled to say that when the sun warms the rock (here I’m drawing on his famous distinction between perception and experience in the Prolegomena), we’re entitled to claim that this causal relation is an objective truth, i.e., intersubjectively universal.

Nonetheless, while Kant is an empirical realist and this is a commendable thing (was it ever in dispute that he wanted to establish the objectivity of science and mathematics?), he remains a transcendental idealist. In short, Kant’s empirical realism only extends as far as the subject and humans. He nonetheless remains committed to the thesis that what objects might be independent of humans, and whether objects exist as our empirical claims portray them, is something that we can never know and which must be carefully excluded from philosophical discussion. For Kant, even in his empirical realism, there’s always an “asterisks” containing the qualification “for us and apart from us we can never know”.

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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?”

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