Speculative Realism


It appears that I’m having trouble falling asleep this evening, which isn’t good as I have to be up early. In response to my last post, Tom of Grundledung was kind enough to remind me of a post I wrote nearly a year ago on the issue of normativity. On the one hand, I’m pleased by this post as it seems that my thoughts have been fairly consistent on these issues since they last flared up. On the other hand, as I review Tom and Pete’s comments, I find myself even more perplexed and wonder if we aren’t just talking about entirely distinct issues (i.e., talking past one another).

In a passage I quote in the post from last year, Pete writes:

I think the best point that can be made here is that there is more to normativity than ethical normativity. There is at least also rational normativity, which is prior to, and a necessary condition of, anything like ethical normativity. I would claim that it is indeed impossible to coherently deny the force of rational normativity. Regardless of the specific content of the fundamental norms of rationality (though we could suggest, for instance, the obligation to divest oneself of incompatible commitments), one must acknowledge that if one is engaged in an argument, then one is bound by norms which determine how the argument should take place, and that they are the same norms that one’s interlocutor is bound by. To put it another way, one may at time make claims like ‘well, I just use the word ‘justice” differently from you, but one cannot claim ‘I just argue differently than you do’.

This fact testifies to the binding character of certain fundamental norms that we implicitly acknowledge insofar as we engage in discourse at all. Some, myself included, think that this provides the possibility of a foundational approach in philosophy, in which deontology is indeed prior to ontology, grounded in that which none of us can deny insofar as we want to say anything at all. Whether or not such fundamental deontology can be extended beyond the theoretical into the realm of the practical and thus the ethical (as discourse ethicists like Habermas and Apel have attempted) is another matter.

I find myself grumbling a bit at Pete’s these that argument is necessarily grounded in certain norms. While I share with Pete a commitment to the principle of non-contradiction and identity, I also believe that we should look to rhetoric and how real life arguments function when raising this sort of question. The rhetoricians, I think, would have a very different perspective on this issue. With that said, I’m willing to follow him here.

For me the problems emerge when Pete asserts that deontology (and again, is this a specific Kantian reference or is “deontology” being used in a broader sense with which I’m not familiar) is indeed prior to ontology. What exactly is being claimed or asserted here? Is Pete making the claim that certain normative commitments are prior to inquiry, or is Pete making the claim that normativity is prior to being. These two claims are very different and have very different implications. If the former, then I don’t think the speculative realist, of whatever stripe, really has much of a dispute with Pete. Such a thesis doesn’t, I would think, commit one to correlationism or undermine realism. The realist here, I think, can simply shrug his or her shoulders and say “sure, there are norms that govern inquiry.”

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Over at Cogburn’s blog I noted that there’s a debate brewing over whether or not Kant advocates the thesis that we can know things-in-themselves. Of course, Kant’s thesis is that things-in-themselves exist, but that we can never have knowledge of them. Consequently, any knowledge we do have only applies to appearances or phenomena, or how things are given to us. Whether things exist in this way apart from us, the Kantian contends, is something we can never know. For example, things-in-themselves might be merely “thing-in-itself”, or a single unitary being without discrete entities. Sometimes it’s suggested that while Kant is a transcendental idealist, he is also an empirical realist. From the thesis that Kant is an empirical realist, it is then argued that Kant endorses the existence of the objects discovered by science as things-in-themselves. This severely misconstrues what Kant means by “empirical realism”. Let’s have a look:

I understand by the transcendental idealism of all appearances the doctrine that they are all together to be regarded as mere representations and not things in themselves, and accordingly that space and time are only sensible forms of our intuition, but not determinations given for themselves or conditions of objects as things in themselves. To this idealism is opposed transcendental realism, which regards space and time as something given in themselves (independent of our sensiblity). The transcendental realist therefore represents outer appearances (if their reality is conceded) as things in themselves, which would exist independently of us and our sensibility and thus would also be outside us according to pure concepts of the understanding. (CPR, A369)

Having carefully distinguished between transcendental idealism and transcendental realism, Kant then goes on to introduce the concept of empirical realism:

The transcendental idealist, on the contrary, can be an empirical realist, hence, as he is called, a dualist, i.e., he can concede the existence of matter without going beyond mere self-consciousness and assuming something more than the certainty of representations in me, hence the cogito ergo sum. For because he allows this matter and even its inner possibility to be valid only for appearance– which, separated from our sensibility, is nothing –matter for him is only a species of representations (intuition), which are call external, not as if they related to objects that are external in themselves but because they relate perceptions to space, where all things are external to one another, but that space itself is in us. (A370)

All “empirical realism” means for Kant is that objects (in the Kantian sense, i.e., as opposed to things) appear in space. However, here we must recall that for Kant, space is not something that belongs to things-in-themselves, but rather issues from mind as the form of intuition. Whether or not things-in-themselves are spatial is, for Kant, something we can never know. Clearly, then, Kant’s empirical realism is certainly know metaphysical realism about objects in space. Whether the world in-itself is anything like the world we know is, for Kant, something that we can never know. The claim that Kant was an empirical realist is not a rejoinder to the sorts of charges the speculative realists are leveling against correlationism.

For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

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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.

For some time now I have evoked the concept of attractors and points in phase space to describe the structure of objects. Since these are somewhat foreign concepts in philosophy and I am using them, I suspect, in idiosyncratic ways, it would be worthwhile to clarify just what I have in mind and, more importantly, clarify what problem these concepts are designed to respond to. In a nutshell, the concepts of attractor and phase space are designed to account for the relation between what I call the local manifestation of objects and objects in their proper being. Attractors and phase spaces belong to the proper being of objects and are virtual, while points in phase space belong to the local manifestations of objects and are actual.

To understand these concepts it is necessary to understand the problem to which they respond. So why am I evoking these concepts? What philosophical work do they do? Objects are substances. Before Continentalists coming out of a Nietzschean and process oriented tradition begin to twitch, it is necessary to understand that the question of what a substance is is very much open. There is no a priori reason, for example, to suppose that substances can’t be processes or events. I won’t get into the details of this point here, but in my view process metaphysics critiques of substance are way overblown. They are right to critique the concept of substance as a bare substratum, but nothing about this critique suggests that we should throw out the concept of substance altogether. It only entails that one proposal as to the nature of substance is mistaken or wrongheaded.

Setting all this aside, it will be recalled that one way in which Aristotle defines substance is as that which is capable of sustaining contrary qualities at different points in time. One and the same substance, say a piece of paper, can have the quality of being smooth at one point in time and wrinkled at another point in time. Being-wrinkled or being-smooth are what I call local manifestations of an object. They are manifestations of an object because they are actualizations of the power of a substance. In other words, they are actualizations of what a substance can do.

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It looks like this is the week of Speculative Realism over at Indieoma. Today Nick has a brief interview up discussing Speculative Realism. I confess that despite my friendship with and admiration for Nick, I have a number of reservations about his remarks that make me want to abandon, in my own work, any reference to “Speculative Realism” altogether and just fully embrace object-oriented ontology and onticology as descriptors. I find some aspects of his characterization just so far off the mark as general descriptions of SR that this seems advisable. For what Nick seems to be proposing is that all variants of SR are forms of naturalism, whereas OOO/OOP has worked mightily to critique precisely this form of realism. What I am objecting to, then, is not these descriptions as descriptions of Nick’s own project, but rather their generalization to all variants of SR. At the beginning of the interview Nick writes:

We’ve been told time and again that our world is socially constructed, that we are bound to our particular place in the world and incapable of universality, and that we’ll never be capable of attaining knowledge of the world… But what if this wasn’t the end of the story? What if, after passing through and accepting the important critiques of universalism and truth, it was still possible to argue that we aren’t limited by finitude? Such a claim would be radical by the standards of most contemporary philosophy, yet a rising movement argues just that. This movement, loosely labeled as speculative realism, attempts to reject the morass and relativism of the postmodern era by arguing that the reality-in-itself (i.e. outside of its particular appearance to us) can be thought consistently. Beyond our finitude, beyond our situatedness, and beyond our particular perspectives, speculative realism marshals an array of logical arguments and empirical evidence to demonstrate that we are not inherently limited by language or conscious experience. It situates itself against the modesty of most analytic philosophy and the hesitancy of continental philosophy. Yet it also retains the clarity of analytic writing and the system-building of much of continental philosophy. It thus situates itself, not as a synthesis of analytic and continental philosophy, but rather as a third alternative – as a movement that increasingly finds itself at odds with both analytics and continentals.

For object-oriented ontology– and here I think I can generalize among variants as diverse as my own position, Harman’s, and Bogost’s –the response to this passage is yes and no. With Nick we’re agreed that metaphysics is possible and that metaphysics is not to be centered on the analysis of the relation of humans to the world or the central gap between the human and the world. Nick’s characterization gets my dander up for three reasons. First, implicit in his remarks and his contrast between postmodern relativism and Speculative Realist metaphysics seems to be a distinction between culture and nature. Second, if I read Nick properly, he seems to be placing reality and being on the side of nature, and treating culture as other than reality. This would entail that it is the natural sciences that tell us what the real is. Finally, third, Nick seems to be claiming that SR, in all of its variants, is championing a correspondence theory of truth, where the thesis is that knowledge is a correspondence between thought and reality.

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Jacob Russell, who for me is a model of both what the artist and the activist should be, this friend of mine whose hands and lips have become life giving, loamy mulch borne of compost, making inhuman adventures and other becoming that can be scarcely understood– one of these days I’ll live up to that model of my gray, bearded friend, to this strange vital energy and affect, in more than writing and will enact what he somehow manages to live all the way down to the fiber of “insignificant” acts such as his cooking and gardening like a strange sort of animated fractal –is reminded of a poem he wrote in response to my recent post on the possibility of an “inhuman” or maybe better yet, “a-human”, or perhaps “poly-actant” ethics and politics I’m very gropingly trying to think and articulate (Lingis– nods to Harman –is going to be crucial here). At any rate, a toast to my inhuman Philadelphia virtual mentor from afar. Here’s the poem (where the poem, coming from poeisis, is among the only artforms that ever existed and is, sadly and ominously, perhaps a dying praxis: This does not bode well for the future of collective existence):

We cannot begin without taking leave
He said when he turned us away
Fire leapt from his tongue

Instead, we gathered the names, leaving the animals
Speechless in the forest brakes, the river’s course.
Only now do we understand the nature of our loss

We cannot begin without taking leave
They were more than we could bear, these words.
They grew fruitful and multiplied

We hung them on every bough.
There were not enough trees to hold them.
They fell to the earth like leaves

We cannot begin without taking leave
Our lips are dry with trying
Our fingers sign what we cannot say

How can we leave
What was never ours to begin with?
How can we ever return what we found
in their burning, silent eyes?

Like Nothing in the World

The world is filled with gods
They are like nothing else in the world
This is how you know they are gods

The gods did not make the world
The gods were made by the world
They are more helpless then they have ever been

I asked them if they were once
Like the gods of our storied past
But they did not answer

Their tongues were made of stone
And their teeth of wool
They neither sing nor speak

I found them one day searching
For change, but my pockets were empty
Everything now must remain as it was

Only the world changes
As stars withdraw to the beginning of time
As we found ourselves at the edge of the forest

Following the animals over the plains
Listening to their lies, their endless
Stories of gods who will not let them be

And here’s the link.

For some time now I’ve felt both ashamed and haunted by a request to participate in The Inhumanities/Speculative Heresy cross-blog event. As announced over at The Inhumanities:

While speculative realism has critiqued anthropocentrism in ontology, and critical animal studies has critiqued anthropocentrism in ethics, there has yet to be many productive connections made between the two. With each offering the other important insights, the question to be asked is, what is the relation between ethics and ontology? Does a realist ontology require the suspension of any ethical imperatives? Can ethics and norms be grounded in something real? Are nonhuman actors capable of ethical relations?

Now if I have felt both ashamed and haunted by this invitation, then this is because, in response to this event, I failed miserably, failing to participate. However, in a number of respects, this failure to participate alludes to a far more symptomatic point in my own philosophical project revolving around the questions of ethics. If I did not see fit to participate in this event, then this is because I sensed in these questions the magnitude of the questions that face object-oriented ontology in relations to the questions proposed above. For the speculative realist turn, while presenting itself essentially as a militant epistemological and ontological intervention in the field of contemporary philosophy, above all raises the question of how ethics and politics must be rethought in light of the speculative turn. In light of the manner in which object-oriented ontology and flat ontology transforms our understanding of the place of the human within the chaosmos, massive transformations are called for within the problematic fields of both ethics and political theory.

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Ben over at Naught Thought has an interesting post up on new trends in Continental thought. Writing about the regnant status of OOO/OOP compared to other variants of Speculative Realism, Ben asks:

OOO/OOP will no doubt continue to grow and I often wonder why (besides having multiple prolific internet presences) it is the strangest/strongest of the SR factions. I think the best explanation is that the approach and even name of OOP reeks (justifiably) of novelty and this is only supported by the fact that Harman and others take what they need from philosophers and move on. This is not an attack but a high form of praise. For instance, it would be hard to call any user of OOO/OOP Heideggerian, Whiteheadian or even Latourian (though the latter would be the most probable) whereas Grant could easily be labeled Schellingian, Brassier Laruelleian (though less and less so over time) and Meillassoux Cartesian, Badiouian or, against his will but accurate I think, Hegelian.

I have a somewhat different theory. While the strong internet presence of OOO/OOP certainly doesn’t hurt, this is an effect rather than a cause. In my view a successful philosophy has to create work for others and for other disciplines outside of the philosophy. This work is not simply of the commentary variety, but of the variety that allows others to engage in genuine research projects according to– I hate the word, but have to use it –a paradigm.

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