By SR I mean “speculative realism”, by “NFM” new materialist feminism, and the rest. I get the sense that people miss the whole point of the debate between the anti-realists and the new realists and materialists. There seems to be some impression that this is a debate between whether science is right or whether the social constructivists are right. And believe me, I sympathize with the social constructivists and wish to preserve their discoveries. I fully understand that having encountered discourses like eugenics, having seen the way the term “nature” is mobilized in oppressive ideological discourses, having seen the devastation of the ecosystem, the ravages of global capitalism, the atomic bomb, DDT, and a number of other things, people would be suspicious of the term “real”. But “defending science” against “social constructivism” has never– insofar as I understand it –been the point of the new materialists and realists.
I don’t wish to put words in the names of others– so take this as a testament of how other theorists have influenced me –but for me the point has always been the recognition of the role that nonhumans play in the world. The point has never been to show that sciences show us what is really real ™, and that the social constructivisms are full of shit. How would that both I and the new materialist feminists advocate an ontological constructivism where construction and contingency appear at all levels of being? I believe things are constructed at all levels of being, regardless of whether or not humans exist. That makes it pretty difficult to defend the existence of something like “essence”.
No, I think the point has always been to show that humans are not little sovereigns that produce all of being– though clearly we make our contributions –but that we ourselves are partially products of other beings and are incredibly dependent on all sorts of nonhuman beings in order to sustain ourselves at all. The point has been to show that we could not be what we are without things like forests, coral reefs, algae, cows, sheep, grass, microbes, electro-magnetic fields, moons, etc, etc., etc., etc., etc., and that we impact the greater world as well. The point was to show that there’s not a strict boundary between “nature and culture”, but that we are both affected and enabled by the nonhuman world and that we affect that world. The point was to show that these lawns can’t be drawn but artificially. The point was to show that nonhumans matter, that we aren’t gods. and that we’re bound up in these things. The point was ecology.
People sometimes suggest that claiming that beings like sharks and tardigrades are real is somehow the foundation of capitalistic violence and exploitation. To me the truth seems to be exactly the reverse. If I treat other beings as nothing but the product or effect of signifiers, lived intentionality, social constructs, concepts, perceptions, etc., I have reduced these other things to me, because I have said that they are nothing more than my constructs. If, by contrast, I recognize that these other things are real, I recognize that they are not just my reflections, then I also recognize that they are autonomous entities in their own right, that they aren’t just “passive matters awaiting inscription”, that they are characterized by alterity, then I also recognize that they have claims of their own, that they are not just stuff of my own for use, that they make claims– even if they don’t make claims like us –and that we must attend to these claims. It is humanism (human exceptionalism, phenomenology, structuralism, post-structuralism, semiological idealism, linguistic idealism, etc.) that provides the grounds for violence and exploitation by seeing all beings as a reflection of human being and by seeing all being as passive matter for our exploitation, not posthumanism that recognizes the reality of other beings, their independence, and what they contribute to us in terms of our formation and agency.
Some see this as a horrible hobbling of humans that would propose that we should prefer the bubonic plague to humans and that we should prefer the appetite of lions to children. But that was never the point. The point is to recognize how we are dependent for our agency and existence on broader networks of entities, that we aren’t little gods legislating everything in our image, and that if we wish to do well we better attend to these things. The stakes are not to defend science over culture, but to reconceptualize the very nature of ourselves, nature, our duties and obligations. As Adorno argued, the height of violence is to reduce alterity to the concept or human. That is very much the spirit of what’s unfolding with the new materialisms and realisms.