December 2009


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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Today in class we reached the fourth basic principle of Latour’s ontology in Irreductions as depicted by Graham in the first chapter of Prince of Networks. As I formulate it:

The degree of reality possessed by an actant or object is a function of the number of its alliances with other actants.

Latour’s proposed object-oriented ontology differs from both my own and Harman’s in that under his conception objects or actants are defined by their relations. This is evident from this fourth ontological principle. For Latour, the more alliances an actant has the more real it is. Reciprocally, the less alliances an actant has, the less real it is. It seems to me that there are three senses of the term “reality” Latour is evoking:

1) An actant is real insofar as it is resistant to other actants.

2) An actant is real to the degree that it persists and endures through time and space.

3) The reality of an actant is a function of the magnitude and extensiveness of the effects it has on other actants.

According to the first sense of reality, a rock is real insofar as it resists another rock bumping into it. The second sense of reality coincides closely with intuitions we have about existence going all the way back to Plato where, as can be clearly seen in Plato’s divided line, the more fleeting something is the less real it is and the more enduring something is the more real it is. Consequently if simulacra or things like images in ponds are less real than objects, then this is because they cease to exist the minute clouds pass in front of the sun. If mathematical entities and forms are more real for Plato than objects, then this is because objects come-to-be and pass-away, whereas triangles always remain triangles and the Just or the Identical always remains the identical.

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In response to my post on Nature and Its Discontents, Joseph C. Goodson posts a terrific comment on what he sees as the significance of OOO/SR. Joseph writes:

Precisely. As Gould puts it, the history of our evolution is a history of catastrophes, one after the other. I wonder, thinking along these lines, that in the wake of the death of God, this transcendentalizing of our fissures, breaks, discontents, etc, was done in such a way that the effect was one of making the human (so to speak) another exception (even if this exception is fundamentally “negative”). “Man” was still allowed this exceptional place even though the theological backdrop was lost. Part of what is exciting about SR and OOO in particular, and why the continuing backlash against it is so interesting, is that it takes these fundamental antagonisms of Marx, Freud, Lacan, et al, completely seriously — if anything, *its* wager seems to be that we have not taken them far enough, and that the death of God must imply, at one and the same time, the death of a theological concept of nature (this self-consistent sphere which would allow the -1 of humanity to appear).

Another very productive thing I have noticed about OOO is that, even in order for this ontology to begin, in its positivity, it also critiques much of these unsaid philosophical prejudices which, even in some of the most critical philosophies, still operate. This often subtle culture/nature hierarchy is one such prejudice that is very nicely displaced in a flat ontology.

Joseph here gets at one of the key aims or ambitions of the flat ontology I’ve tried to formulate in my version of OOO. I restrict this flat ontology to onticology because Graham, in the past, has expressed reservations about just how flat my ontology is. This difference, for example, comes out in our respective differences with respect to fictional entities. Graham draws a distinction between sensual objects (roughly intentional objects) and real objects. The latter are, if I’ve understood Graham correctly, dependent on minds to exist. In my case, however, symbolic entities are real actants or objects no less than rocks or stars. In my view there are collective entities like symbolic entities, pure mental relations, and nonhuman objects or actors like technologies, stars, quarks, cells, etc. I do not think that symbolic entities can be properly thought by reducing them to a mind-intention sort of relation. This, I suppose, is part of my debt to structuralism and semiotics. If I’m interested in fictions and the ontological status of fictions then this is not out of any sort of perverse wish to say that fictions are real, but rather because fictions provide a sort of exemplary case of a purely symbolic entity that is not a representation of something else. As a consequence, fictions shed light on what symbolic entities are in general. Hopefully Harman and I will work through some of these issues together at the Object-Oriented Ontology event at Georgia Tech in April (please come if you’re able! You’ll get to see me, Shaviro, Harman, and Bogost go at it!).

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