I’ve been astonished to see SR/OOO suddenly all over the place. It’s appeared at art conferences, medieval studies conferences, rhetoric conferences, in anthropology, sociology, among design theorists, in media studies, among landscape design theorists, and a host of other places. Why has it proliferated so quickly in the span of just a few years? Tim Richardson– who is neither a speculative realist, nor an object-0riented ontologist –and I were discussing this last night in the context of some grumbling from some new materialists about OOO that he reported to me. We were described as macho, ape-like chest thumpers; a description that I think, fails to take into account what participation online is like and the sort of interactions we have with others on a daily basis or how people tend to treat you online (it’s a pretty raw and demoralizing place, these internets, requiring you to have an extremely thick skin where people don’t always keep their cool). I find this characterization frustrating because most of the theorists here have never made the effort to interact with us or enter into dialogue with us (the reverse is not true). Bennett would be a notable exception.
It would be self-congratulatory for me to suggest that SR/OOO has proliferated so quickly due to the content of these positions; though I hope it has something to do with the content. Rather, I think the reasons for the quick proliferation of SR/OOO are strongly material. Here the genitive “of” in the title of this post is important. I am not speaking of SR/OOO’s materialism– not all of the theorists here are materialists, though I am –but rather of the materiality of OOO. SR/OOO is, in my view, a material phenomenon. What does that mean? It means that its growing presence in academic debates has not so much been the result of presenting persuasive arguments– though hopefully it does that too –but the result of how it has unfolded in the material domain of social communications technologies and open-access publishing. In other words, there’s a sense in which, as McLuhan put it, “the medium is the message”.
Print journals and traditional presses are defined by 1) their slow pace, 2) the inaccessibility of their work to large audiences due to issues of price and whatnot, and by the minimization of interaction between audience and writer. Not only are articles and books slow to appear in the print industry because of the differential between time of production and time of distribution, but they also generate very slow development in the views of authors because of the manner in which they create a buffer between audiences and writers. Because the author’s only infrequently enter into dialogue with their audience, their positions are liable to develop at a much slower rate. Moreover, because print works are inaccessible to large audiences due to their cost and distribution, it takes a great deal of time for thought developed in this medium to proliferate throughout the academy. As I’ve argued, texts aren’t simply about something, they are something. They are material entities that travel throughout the world, reaching larger or smaller audiences. In this regard, the medium in which texts are produced and transmitted makes all sorts of important differences. Print media– and I still publish quite a bit in print form –has the advantage of promoting the slow, reflective, and careful development of thought; but it has the disadvantage of circulating very slowly and of creating a barrier or gulf between author and audience. This barrier, of course, has its advantages as well as it tends to promote less impassioned debates, fewer “flame wars”, and more careful consideration of arguments before responding in print.
The use of social media and open-access publishing changes things significantly. Rather than a vertical relation or hierarchical relation between author and audience, the field of communication becomes flattened when people blog (especially when comments responding to posts are allowed). The author becomes written by the audience and the audience becomes written by the author, because the author of the post is now quickly confronted with the positions, observations, and objections of the audience forcing a development of thought even where the author doesn’t respond to the comment. As a consequence, positions begin to develop very quickly and evolve as a result of these constant encounters. Something new is always taking place. The advantage of this is that authors are exposed to arguments, references, and positions that they might not have ever encountered, leading their thought to be enriched. The disadvantage is that this immediate mode of interaction, coupled with the fragmentary and short nature of blog posts, tends to, on the one hand, lead to ill informed responses on the part of the audience. Here someone stumbles on a blog, read a single post, and fails to take into account the larger body of work on the part of the author. Bloggers thus find themselves perpetually starting over again from the beginning, explaining to new audiences, yet again, what their broader framework is. The same arguments have to be made again and again, whereas this happens less in the case of published works. On the other hand, the blogosphere tends to be dominated by the logic of the Imaginary, where people project all sorts of ugly things on to one another as often happens when embodied expression and voice are absent. This generates ugly and endless flame wars between people, where all sorts of nasty things are said. A common critique of OOO is that it has a very ugly tone. Certainly the OOO theorists– myself included –have publicly behaved badly in many discussions. However, I also think this criticism fails to take into account of the nature of the medium in which we have participated and the sorts of comments we encounter in email, in response to blog posts, and from other blogs on a weekly basis. It’s very easy to lose your cool in these sorts of interactions. It’s very easy to be embattled and to shoot back.
The other advantage to blogging is that posts circulate widely, rendering thought more readily available to a vast audience. People do a search for Heidegger, Deleuze, Lacan, Bennett, SR, OOO, Derrida, etc., and they stumble upon theory at work– some good, some not so good –and suddenly encounter sequences of argument, thought, and references that they would not have otherwise encountered. Perhaps they participate in these discussions, perhaps they just lurk. What’s important is that so long as they have an internet connection they have easy access to the obscurities and arcana of theory with little cost to their pocket book. This generates all sorts of unexpected things. It generates conference papers, books, works of art, poetry and literature, new forms of political action, new ways of gardening, etc. It also generates opportunities. In the world of print media, this happens far less often, especially for the audience reading the works of others. People meet one another, think about the work of each other, encounter calls for papers, conference opportunities, and so on. Friendships and antagonisms develop, leading thought along new lines of flight or trajectories that wouldn’t have occurred. Had I not met Nick Srnicek and others who write for Speculative Heresy, it’s likely that I would have never encountered Speculative Realism. I would still be working exclusively on Deleuze, Badiou, Lacan, and Zizek. Had I not encountered Speculative Realism I would have never participated in discussions that led me to discover Latour and the new materialists. It was peculiarities of this medium and the sorts of interactions here that led me to explore these territories hitherto unknown to me. These peculiarities, I think, have played a central role in the proliferation of SR/OOO.
Open-access publishing is a bit of a hybrid between blogs and print publishing. Like blogs, open-access publishing allows ideas to circulate far more extensively, reaching audiences that they wouldn’t normally reach. People can read portions of a .pdf book or journal, decide whether or not they find it interesting, and purchase a copy. By contrast, we are far more leery of buying a print text that we can’t first peruse because while we might have heard things about it, we’re not certain of whether or not it will be of use in our own work and inquiry. On the other hand, articles published in an open-access format lend themselves far more readily to citation because they are accessible, rather than locked up in journals that only universities– which many of us don’t readily have access to –can afford. By contrast, open-access publishing resembles print media because it still has a relatively lengthy time of production, allowing for the development of intricate concepts and sequences of argument.
With social media and open-access publishing there is a communization of dialogue that is far less pronounced in print media. I have heard Tim Morton described as a horrible, self-absorbed narcissist for live streaming his classes. I find this characterization of his practice perplexing and rather mean-spirited. Why not instead characterize this practice as a communization of his work and teaching? For those who care to follow Morton’s classes, he is giving them access to material from a first rate school– Rice University –and inviting them to participate in the discussion and material along with his students. Doesn’t this help to break down the hierarchy that exists between those people who get access because they go to an elite school and those who do not? Do we not see a similar communization taking place through blog discussions and open-access publishing? Doesn’t criticism of these various practices and mediums indicate a not-so-hidden attachment to a form of hierarchialization and a desire to maintain that hierarchy? In a similar vein, I’ve seen Graham Harman criticized for talking about his cat, his various aesthetic impressions, sports, and whatnot on his blog. Again, the criticism runs that he’s an insufferable, self-absorbed narcissist. Of course, all of us who pick up the pen to write and publish are narcissists. If Harman is guilty of a sin– for these people –I don’t think it’s the sin of self-absorption, but the “sin” of challenging that model of the public intellectual as an aloof master without “ordinary human characteristics”, to be obeyed and followed. He presents himself warts and all to the public, and, the story goes, intellectuals just aren’t supposed to do that. In Lacanian terms, Graham’s sin, to these people, arises from revealing the barred-subject beneath the master-signifier (cf. the discourse of the master). And as Lacan said of the hysteric, what the hysteric wants is a master without any split. It is the willingness to openly reveal that split, his own peculiar singularity, that makes him so intolerable for some. In my view, however, this is actually a sign of strength, not a weakness. As Harman has always said, he wants sincerity and to live sincerely. And that means living from one’s split, symptom, and objet a. Again, a communization of thought.
These material considerations aside, I do think that there are elements of content that have contributed to the proliferation of SR/OOO. Luhmann argues that social systems are composed of communications. While I don’t follow Luhmann completely in this thesis– I think social systems are composed of many things besides communications –nonetheless he draws our attention to the key role that communicative interaction plays in our social relations. Where Habermas argues that the telos of communication is consensus, Luhmann shows that while consensus can be one way in which social relations can be produced, dispute, disagreement, and antagonism are just as much generators of social relation and presence as consensus. Indeed, Luhmann argues that because social systems must reproduce themselves from moment to moment through the production of new communications, dispute and controversy might actually be more productive at producing social relations than consensus, because disputes tend to lead to further communicative acts, whereas consensus tends to bring about a cessation of communication.
I think we see this point very clearly in the case of SR/OOO: SR/OOO generates controversy and in generating controversy it calls for responses. People get worked up about it. They get worked up by the characterizations of correlationism, Kant, post-structuralism, and social constructivism. They get worked up by the defense of realism. They get worked up by the distinction it draws between politics and ontology, as well as the distinction they draw between epistemology and ontology. They get worked up by Harman’s thesis that objects are completely withdrawn and that they never touch, by my thesis that relations are external to their terms, by the thesis that corporations and markets are objects, by the thesis that unicorns are objects, and many other things besides. Controversies abound and whenever controversies abound everyone has to say something about it. They say things about it at conferences, in articles, in books, in conversations, in blog posts, on facebook pages, in comment sections. SR/OOO is generative of controversies and as a result it generates communications– which are social bonds or relations –and brings positions into relief in new ways or in ways that were forgotten because they were before taken as obvious commonplaces. This, in turn, plays a role in why this discourse proliferates.