February 2010


After the hectic week I’ve had I’m not firing on all cylinders this evening so hopefully I’ll be somewhat coherent here, but I wanted to draw attention to Peter Gratton’s interview with Paul Ennis where he heavily discusses speculative realism. Already Ennis’s post has generated a lot of discussion (here, here, here, here, and Complete Lies well thought out remarks here). Without repeating Harman’s own remarks, I wanted to zero in on a particular passage in Ennis’s interview. Ennis remarks,

Hegel, and I think Meillassoux quotes him on this, said we cannot sneak up on the ‘thing itself’ to see what it is really like or put differently consciousness cannot get around itself to know the really real (the correlationist circle in Meillassoux’s terms). Hegel has a wonderful solution to this problem in the Phenomenology of Spirit. He simply says that discussions of the ‘in itself’ is something that is only ‘really’ happening for consciousness so when it comes down to it the ‘in itself’ is ‘really’ a feature of thinking and so, technically, there is no in itself object out there to be understood. The ‘in itself’ is not something consciousness is unfamiliar with – it is something that belongs to thought itself…

I more or less agree with Harman’s analysis to the effect that this thesis expresses the quintessence of what OOO opposes. However, approaching Ennis’s remarks from another angle, I also think it is suggestive of the wrong sort of question. In other words– and here I’m not trying to single out Ennis by any means –we have to ask if Hegel is a wonderful solution to a particular problem, what is the problem and question to which this solution responds? And here I think there can be no doubt, the problem to which Hegel’s “solution” responds is the epistemological problem of how it is possible to know the thing-in-itself.

However, it is precisely here, among other sites, that Hegel and OOO parts ways. While it is certainly true that there are variants of speculative realism that are almost entirely concerned with questions of epistemology (Brassier comes to mind), when OOO defends realism what’s at stake is not epistemology but ontology. In other words, it’s of crucial importance to an understanding of OOO that we distinguish between epistemological realism and ontological realism. Epistemological realism is a thesis about knowledge to the effect that objects out there in the world are “really like” our representations of them or that there is a correspondence between intellect and thing. Ontological realism is the thesis that objects are independent of human culture, language, cognition, and perception, that they would be what they are regardless of whether we regard them through any of these agencies, and that they exist in their own right rather than simply being constructions of humans. For OOO the question and problem is not that of how we know entities or the in-itself, and this because all objects already withdraw from any relation they enter into such that they are in excess of these relations.

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We’ve now completed compiling all the articles for The Speculative Turn so the manuscript will be sent off to Re.Press in the next day or so. Nick tells me that the MS comes in at around 400 pages. I have to say that the articles in it are fantastic and I can’t wait to have the finished material version of it in my hands. It’s been a long trudge but we’re finally getting there. Hopefully this volume will serve to spur a good deal more debate and discussion. With any luck it will be out by June.

What’s really amazing is that the three of us, and the participants, managed to pull this together without ever meeting. It’s enough to throw me into a vertigo of objects such as Graham describes with his infinite submultiples of multiples. Here you have all these objects, the people involved, mixing with yet other objects, the articles submitted, grocking with yet other objects (fiberoptic cables, computers that go awry– one of mine had a meltdown two weeks ago forcing me to go back over all sorts of stuff –programs, blogs, email accounts, telephone poles, servers, tired bodies and brains, recalcitrant neurons more interested in sex, food or drink at a particular moment than the intricacies of principles in Aristotle, technicians of all sorts that we’ll never meet, three year olds knocking their feet on laptop keyboards as they lay across you creating strings of meaningless letters and symbols in the middle of what you’re doing, interrupting your train of thought as they ask for you to help them go potty), etc., etc., etc., all enlisted in bringing yet another object into the world (the finished text), that will then enter into all sorts of other objects and assemblages when it is discussed in blog posts, other articles, other books, and so on. It’s amazing anything ever comes into being, yet somehow things do. The Speculative Turn has not yet passed through all the trials of strength required for it to stand and abide on its own, but it’s a hell of a lot more real than it was when I first contacted Nick and Graham with the prospect of such a collection.

It’s Scu’s birthday today. From one Aquarius to another, happy birthday! Give him some love as he’s much beloved.

For some reason Bogost’s post today got me thinking about what perfect object-oriented and flat ontological horror would look like. This, in turn, got me thinking about two science fiction/horror films I found particularly unsettling or uncanny: The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. In fact, to this day I still occasionally have nightmares about War of the Worlds, though oddly I can’t resist watching it whenever it’s on and actually own it (why I derive so much more pleasure from watching a film when it happens to be on rather than simply popping one in my DVD player is a mystery I won’t plumb this evening). Both films, I think, share a common characteristic, hinting at something like a new theme in the science fiction/horror genre. Of the two, War of the Worlds comes closer to embodying this theme, while there are certain respects in which it is more overt in the first half or two thirds of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In both cases there’s a way in which humans are ontologically de-centered or ousted from pride of place in these films. And it is this, perhaps, that accounts for the unsettling and uncanny feeling one has when watching these movies. There is a sort of unconscious correlationist assumption that pervades nearly all horror films and alien invasion science fiction films: That humans are the addressee. “Of course”, the narrative seems to say, “any aliens that invaded planet earth would focus on the humans.” The unsettling sense produced by The Day the Earth Stood Still, before it degenerates into the usual pap of how we’re intrinsically worth preserving, is that the aliens are not there for us, but rather to save all other creatures on the planet. The centrality of the human is here deeply devalued. If War of the Worlds is, of the two, the superior film (apart from the obvious reasons… The Day the Earth Stood Still is, overall, a poor showing), then this is because the invading aliens are more or less completely indifferent to us. We, like everything else on the planet, are more or less furniture that has to be cleared away for their occupation. They hold no hostility towards us, nor any particular esteem, and do not see us as arch-rivals to be defeated. Rather, we’re just like cows and trees: something that’s in the way. Indeed, unlike anthropocentric films like Independence Day where the issue is one of establishing the superiority of the human against any other intelligent lifeform, it is bacteria that ultimately defeat the aliens. Much of human import (the father renewing his relationship with his children) occurs in War of the Worlds, but it is certainly not a triumphalist yarn about “man as a prosthetic god”.

There are, of course, precursors to this ontological vision. Readers might recall Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the aliens are destroying the planet in a desperate attempt to communicate with whales. Here we have a similar dethroning of the centrality of the human. I make none of these remarks to suggest that this de-emphasis of the human is a good thing or to imply that the human should be treated like something that’s merely in the way to be cast aside. No. Rather, what interests me is the effect of the uncanny that this quintessentially anti-humanist cinema seems to produce in the viewer (at least, to produce in this viewer). One reels before the jaw-dropping flatness of such a universe, where humans are treated as one other being among others, rather than a privileged center to which all other entities must necessarily address themselves. Who knows, perhaps there’s even the possibility of renewing the genre of horror through the exploration of the flat and a-human, where humans are caught up in events beyond themselves but are not at the center. Yet perhaps there is also an enlightening social and political message in this rejection of any narcissistic comfort and centralization of the human. Can readers cite other films that are structured in similar ways?

One of the more compelling themes that punctuates Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is the linkage between the rise of certain mental illnesses and post-Fordist capitalist modes of production, identifying it as a key site of the political (at least virtually). Now, for readers familiar with French inflected social theory, this thesis will not, in and of itself, appear new. In An Introduction to Marcel Mauss Levi-Strauss had argued something similar with respect to schizophrenia and psychosis, going so far as to suggest that in certain “primitive societies” this phenomena doesn’t exist. Canguilhem suggested something similar, as did Foucault. But in each of these instances the emphasis was put on the social and discursive production of mental illness. If one adopted these accounts of mental illness, then it became necessary to reject materialist or neurological accounts of mental illness. The story goes that either one adopts the neurological account and is thus subject to an ideological illusion that de-politicizes something that is in fact social (mental illness), or you adopt the social account of mental illness and reject anything having to do with the neurological or psychotropics as ideological mystifications. Fisher’s analysis, by contrast, is far more subtle. As Fisher writes,

The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low seratonin. This requires social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism. (37)

In many respects, Fisher’s analysis of affectivity here mirrors Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism. Just as commodity fetishism treats relations that are truly between person’s as if they were relations between or to things (when I buy a diamond I think I’m just relating to that commodity and not enmeshed in a set of social relationships), “affectivity fetishism” could be construed as treating relations that are, in fact, social and political, as relations to mere neurons. The instantiation of certain neuronal structures and relations is here confused with the cause of these instantiations. Here I would express what I take to be Fisher’s point a bit differently by referring to Aristotle’s four causes. The problem with neurological accounts of mental illness is that they confuse what Aristotle referred to as the material and formal cause of a thing with its efficient cause. Depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia are all certain structures of mentality (formal cause) that are embodied in a certain stuff (material cause), but this in and of itself does not account for why these particular embodied structures come to exist as they do (efficient cause).

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Towards the end of Capitalist Realism Fisher puts his finger on the central reason for my reluctance to discuss issues of normativity. In the chapter entitled “There’s no central exchange” Fisher compares contemporary capitalism to the bureaucratic universe depicted so well by Kafka.

The supreme genius of Kafka was to have explored the negative atheology proper to Capital: the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it. It is not that there is nothing there– it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility. (65)

What we have here is a sort of “transcendental illusion” that emerges when mereological relations are crossed in such a way that it seems as if we’re dealing with one object when, in fact, we’re dealing with quite a different object. Fisher deftly illustrates a similar point with respect to bureaucracy. Like Kafka’s famous Castle or Law, you never directly encounter the castle or the law. Rather, we only ever encounter spokespersons or surrogates of the castle or the law. Many of us will be familiar with this is the case of bureaucracy. Suppose you’ve just been promoted and that this promotion was a very public affair, announced before all the staff and faculty at the bi-annual beginning of the semester meeting (our version of this event here at Collin is called “All College Day”). Perhaps you’ve been appointed Provost of your campus or Dean of Student Affairs. Whatever.

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As I read Fisher’s (aka of K-Punk fame ) brilliant Capitalist Realism, I find myself wondering just what constitutes radical theory. And the conclusion that I come to is that radical theory is not so much a body of political propositions as it is a repudiation of actualism of that being and the actual are identical to one another. Radical theory is any theory that treats being as in excess of what I have called “local manifestation“. Wherever being is treated as identical to local manifestation we have thought serving as a handmaiden of the State. It is only where local manifestation is treated as fissured by an excess where the possibility of the new, only where the actuality of local manifestation is actively sought to be fissured– a question so vital to Fisher’s analysis of hedonic melancholia –that something like radical theory is possible. Here it matters little whether the thinker makes determinate political prescriptions. Rather what matters is that demonstration of the contingency of the actual, that it could, in principle, be otherwise, that is important. And in this respect, Fisher punches a hole in the real and speaks truth. The aim of theory is not to provide the answer but to rigorously establish the possibility. Read this book.

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