I have been overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity of the people of Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. It was a deep honor to give a Keynote for this conference and to be given the opportunity to teach a seminar on Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology. The conference, Speculative Realism and Cultural Studies, was deeply inspiring, with animated discussion about what speculative realism brings to the table for media studies and what the political implications of object-oriented ontology and speculative realism might be. In particular, I went away with the sense that despite it being the core of my work, I need to do more to theorize the imbrications, the foldings, the knots and intertwinings of the signifying/semiotic dimension of media and the material dimension of media. In many respects, this has been the core of my work: how to preserve the advances and contributions of post-structuralism, postmodernism, semiotics, and semiology, while making room for dimensions of materiality that act not by virtue of what they signify or mean, but by virtue of their powers or what they do.
In this connection, I drew heavily on my borromean critical theory which seeks to think the knot of the phenomenological or how different types of actants– human, animal, plant, technological, etc –are selectively open to their environment, the symbolic or semiotic, and the material. As I understand it, the ambition of new materialist object-oriented ontology as I develop it is not to choose something like the material and nonhuman actants/objects over humans, but rather the interrelation of all these orders and how they modify one another. The three orders are a sort of swirling vortex interpenetrating one another and producing all sorts of effects on each other. In this regard, all of the resources of deconstruction, semiotics, hermeneutics, ideology critique, discursive analysis, etc, remain just as they did before, but they are modified by their relations to each other. Here it’s crucial to note that we can read the relations between the different orders both in terms of where they overlap, but also in an oriented fashion.
For example, in thinking the relationship between the semiotics or signs and matter in the case of technology, we can investigate technology from the direction of signs to materiality or materiality to signs. Under the first approach, we would be looking at how textuality, discourses, beliefs, desires, and so on influence the formation of technology and infrastructure. Thus, for example, years ago I was told of a city where the bridges were too low to pass in a particular part of town. Sadly I can’t recall where I came across this reference (though whether this really occurred is irrelevant to the example). This part of town was, not surprisingly, where the poor ethnic minorities lived. The low bridges prevented them from using public transportation to get to the beaches or jobs outside of their part of town. Here we have an instance of the semiotic (in the form of prejudices) affecting the form that materiality takes.
Moving in the opposite direction, we can explore how forms of materiality impact the semiotic or domain of signs. Here we’re looking at how material features of beings affect discourses, narratives, cognition, ideologies, etc. Thus, for example, the smart phone and the nature of the platforms structuring social media belong to the domain of materiality. We can explore how the smart phone, by virtue of what it is and does, affects our phenomenological way of encountering the world. Here, for example, there’s been a lot of ink spilt as to how texting, hyperlinks, and short burst social media such as Facebook are potentially shattering our cognition, reducing our ability to follow long chains of reasoning or structures of textuality such as novels. We can also explore how these technologies affect the way we relate to others, generate new forms of ideology, transform the world or system of references (Heidegger’s sense of “world”) and so on by virtue of the nature of these platforms. Here we have analysis proceeding from the domain of material to the symbolic and phenomenological. Walter Ong and Friedrich Kittler are both excellent examples of this style of analysis.
Above all, I argued, we need agile theory. It is not a super theory or theory of everything I’m angling after. Super theory, I think, is impossible by virtue of the theory of distinctions I advocate and which I draw from Luhmann and Spencer-Brown. An agile theory, by contrast, is one that’s capable of moving from theoretical frame to theoretical frame so as to encounter phenomena from a variety of different perspectives and to analyze how these different frames modify and impact one another. Not a logic of either/or, but a logic of both/and; a logic of the between. As Gzergorz Czemiel reminded us in his discussion of Harman’s theory of metaphor, the real, as Lacan remarks in Four Fundamentals, is traumatic because it is a missed encounter. Here, perhaps, I find some agreement with Harman’s thesis regarding withdrawal. Even though we are everywhere– even in the domain of signs –in the thick of the real, it is everywhere withdrawn. It is that which always seems to slip away. Perhaps it would be that about which my three orders or circles swirl. The real perpetually disrupts and surprises each of the three orders. Maybe the best we can do is approach it asymptotically and to always maintain a space, a sort of a priori recollection, of the real as that which eludes every discourse.
Above all, I took great care to underline the fact that neither speculative realism, nor object-oriented ontology, are unified terms and to draw attention to the work of the new materialist feminists that have worked on a very similar set of issues and who have gone very far in developing the political and ethical implications of materialist thought. I’ve noticed a disturbing tendency to equate speculative realism with object-oriented ontology as if they’re synonyms, and to treat object-oriented ontology as if it were synonymous with Graham Harman’s object-oriented phenomenology. However, these are genus, not species terms. Speculative realism is a term like “mammal”, not like “bengal tiger”. The same is true of object-oriented ontology. These are positions in dialogue with one another, arguing with one another, and both terms contain a variety of different positions in dispute with one another. For this reason it is perhaps best to abandon these labels altogether, instead always referring to the proper name of the thinker you have in mind with these positions. Equating speculative realism with object-oriented ontology does a great disservice to the thought of Meillassoux, Brassier, and Grant, none of whom are object-oriented ontologists and some of whom even reject the existence of objects. Likewise, my positions are not those of Harman’s, so treating object-oriented ontology as a synonym with his object-oriented philosophy risks attributing claims to others that are not their own. This is always the danger of signifiers. They take on a life of their own and treat as the same that which is different.