Speculative Realism


I came across this interesting interview with Brassier by way of Graham’s blog. I was particularly interested in this portion of the interview:

Bram – You were the driving force behind the Speculative Realism conference (London 2007), which brought together you, Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Quentin Meillassoux. The name ‘speculative realism’ was quickly picked up to designate a supposedly new wave in philosophy, but you quickly became more critical of it. Why is that?

Ray – The term ‘speculative realism’ was only ever a useful umbrella term, chosen precisely because it was vague enough to encompass a variety of fundamentally heterogeneous philosophical research programmes. But people have started to pick up on it as though it was the name for a new philosophical doctrine or movement, like ‘logical positivism’, ‘existentialism’, ‘structuralism’, or ‘deconstruction’. In this context, the vagueness which was initially useful is beginning to generate more confusion than clarity. There is no ‘speculative realist’ doctrine common to the four of us: the only thing that unites us is antipathy to what Quentin Meillassoux calls ‘correlationism’—the doctrine, especially prevalent among ‘Continental’ philosophers, that humans and world cannot be conceived in isolation from one other—a ‘correlationist’ is any philosopher who insists that the human-world correlate is philosophy’s sole legitimate concern. Anti-correlationism is by no means a negligible unifying factor—but our alternatives to correlationism are fundamentally divergent and even incompatible in several regards.

Read the rest here. I completely agree with Ray’s remarks here. A lot of confusion has been caused surrounding SR insofar as people have cast about looking for a shared philosophy among these divergent thinkers when really they’re only united by their rejection of the primacy of the human-world correlate. The situation is similar with object-oriented ontology. Clearly I am sympathetic to the work of both Harman and Bogost (as well as the thought of Latour and Whitehead), but it would be a mistake to assume that all of us share the same ontology. While we are more or less united in the thesis that being is composed of objects, we diverge quite a bit as to just what constitutes an object. These differences, I think, will become more clear once The Democracy of Objects is completed– I’ve been feverishly working away at it, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing what Harman has to say. In particular, I retain the category of potentiality whereas Harman does not, and also think that we can say a lot more about the internal structure of objects than Harman allows. However, I’m never sure if these differences between Graham and myself are more a matter of terminology and styles of thought or are fundamental ontological disputes. These differences provide a productive opportunity for a lot of friendly debate and discussion. Returning to the interview, Brassier’s remarks on scientific reductivism are particularly interesting, vindicating, I believe, certainly claims I’ve recently made about his thought.

From Bhaskar’s The Possibility of Naturalism:

What properties do societies possess that might make them possible objects of knowledge for us? My strategy in developing an answer to this question will be effectively based on a pincer movement. But in deploying the pincer I shall concentrate first on the ontological question of the properties that societies possess, before shifting to the epistemological question of how these properties make them possible objects of knowledge for us. This is not an arbitrary order of development. It reflects the condition that, for transcendental realism, it is the nature of objects that determines their cognitive possibilities for us; that, in nature, it is humanity that is contingent and knowledge, so to speak, accidental. Thus it is because sticks and stones are solid that they can be picked up and thrown, not because they can be picked up and thrown that they are solid (though that they can be handled in this sort of way may be a contingently necessary condition for our knowledge of their solidity). (25)

Setting aside the question of what properties societies must have to be known, here we get the basic structure of Bhaskar’s form of transcendental argument. Where the transcendental idealist begins with the question of what our minds must be like for knowledge to be possible, the transcendental realist begins with the question of what the world must be like for it to be knowable.

Object-oriented social and political theory can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s famous Borromean knots. It will be recalled that the peculiar quality of the Borromean knot is that no one of the rings is directly tied to the other, but if you cut one of the rings the other two slip away. In evoking the Borromean knot I do not here intend to give a “Lacanian reading” of object-oriented ontology. Rather, I wish to draw attention to certain features of the social and political world that object-oriented ontology would like to bring into relief for social and political theorists. Consequently, in what follows I will take a certain degree of liberty in how I use the categories of the “real”, the “symbolic”, and the “imaginary” (abbreviated “R”, “S”, and “I” respectively), only loosely associating these with Lacanian psychoanalytic categories. I will not, for example, discuss the real in the Lacanian sense as the impossible, as a constitutive deadlock, as what always returns to its place, or as constitutive antagonism. This is not because I am rejecting the Lacanian real in these senses, but rather because I am here using the Borromean knot for other purposes. I have no qualms with reintroducing concepts such as constitutive deadlocks or antagonisms at another order of analysis. In short, I am using the diagram of the Borromean knot as a heuristic device to help bring clarity to certain discussions in social and political theory.

Thus for the purposes of this post, let the ring of the Imaginary refer to the domain of ideology, signs, group identities, political parties, images, the content of media, the sense or meaning possessed by cultural artifacts such as films, clothing, commodities, certain norms, etc., collective narratives, texts, and so on. It is important to emphasize that in placing these in the ring of the Imaginary I am in no way suggesting that these things are unreal or demoting their status. Here the category of the Imaginary retains some of its Lacanian resonances. Lacan associates the imaginary with the domain of meaning (hence the reference to cultural artifacts, texts, signs, etc). Likewise, Lacan associates the category of the Imaginary with images (visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, etc), as well as the domain of the ego and identity. Hence the placement of group identities, group narratives, and media in this category. By contrast, let the symbolic refer to the domain of laws, institutions, governmental systems, economy, as well as language, and so on. Again certain Lacanian resonances are retained here, especially with respect to placing law and language within the domain of symbolic.

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On his facebook page Shaviro makes an interesting observation about the neurological work of Metzinger and Noe:

Neurophilosophy: Thomas Metzinger (The Ego Tunnel) and Alva Noe (Out of Our Heads) draw opposite conclusions from the same experimental data… Metzinger takes recent neurological research as proof that consciousness is entirely delusional, a false representation of what is going on in our brains, and a virtual simulation of the outside world. Brassier of course picks up on this. Noe, to the contrary, argues for a post-pragmatic, embodied and distributed notion of consciousness, undermining any dualism of inside vs outside, or self vs world. But what makes this even more interesting is that he argues this from much of the same scientific data that are the basis for Metzinger’s diametrically opposed claims.

Here I hope Steven won’t mind that I’ve condensed a couple of his posts together. Bhaskar argues that we must be vigilant with respect to the “nocturnal philosophies” of scientists. I take it that when he refers to “nocturnal philosophies” he’s referring to the specifically philosophical implications they draw from their research, independent of what that research directly shows. Thus, for example, you get nocturnal philosophies among a number of researchers in quantum mechanics, as well as in biology. Now, there is nothing a priori wrong with nocturnal philosophies. It’s just important for us to be aware that they are philosophies and not identical to the scientific findings themselves.

Returning to the specific discussion of neurology and its implications, the question to ask, I think, is whether consciousness has any powers of its own. Here we have a clear criteria for emergence and the individuation of objects. We can agree with both Noe and Metzinger that where there are no brains there is no consciousness, just as we can agree with the chemist that where there is no hydrogen or oxygen there is no water. The ontological question revolves around whether consciousness is exhausted by its neurological explanation or whether consciousness has powers and capacities of its own that while impossible without the neurological are nonetheless unique powers of its own. If consciousness has powers of its own, then it would be an object of its own. If not, then we would be warranted in excluding consciousness from our inventory of what is or what exists. With respect to this latter option, consciousness would merely be an effect and would not be a being in its own right.

It’s important to emphasize here no substance dualism is being asserted here. In entertaining the hypothesis that consciousness is a distinct object in its own right, the point is not to claim that consciousness could exist independent of brains, that it is separable from brains, or that it has spooky powers at odds with its neurological substrate. I would argue that water is distinct as an object from hydrogen and oxygen or even the relation between hydrogen and oxygen. This is because water has powers that are found in neither hydrogen or oxygen, nor in a single molecule of H2O. For example, water can wet paper and slide about on a table, yet a single molecule of H2O does not have these powers. The powers of water are entirely consistent with those of atomic chemistry, but something new emerges when these atoms are linked together and when molecules of H2O are linked together. The question is whether or not something similar is the case with consciousness. Does the emergence of consciousness generate powers that cannot be found at the lower level stratum upon which it is based? That would be the question and would be determinative of whether or not things like subjects are themselves objects.

A Lacanian aphorism states that all communication is miscommunication. Another states that we always say more or something other than what we intend to say. I wonder how much of this has been the case with the signifier “Speculative Realism”. In astronomy black holes are detected indirectly, through wobbles in nearby stars, sudden accelerations in their orbit, curvatures of light, etc. Often the situation is similar in philosophical dialogues. The bone of contention is not something explicitly stated by one of the interloctors, but rather is an absent term that nonetheless presides over the entire discourse.

In a number of debates surrounding “Speculative Realism”, I wonder how much the term “speculation” has played a role similar to that of a black hole. The verb “to speculate” does not have very happy connotations. From Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: spec·u·late
Pronunciation: \ˈspe-kyə-ˌlāt\
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): spec·u·lat·ed; spec·u·lat·ing
Etymology: Latin speculatus, past participle of speculari to spy out, examine, from specula lookout post, from specere to look, look at — more at spy
Date: 1599

intransitive verb 1 a : to meditate on or ponder a subject : reflect b : to review something idly or casually and often inconclusively
2 : to assume a business risk in hope of gain; especially : to buy or sell in expectation of profiting from market fluctuationstransitive verb 1 : to take to be true on the basis of insufficient evidence : theorize
2 : to be curious or doubtful about : wonder “speculates whether it will rain all vacation”

It did not occur to me until recently, but I wonder, when certain others hear the term “speculative” are they equating this with the sense of “reviewing something idly or casually”, or “taking something to be true on the basis of insufficient evidence”? Is this what they believe the speculative realists are proposing and doing… That they are advancing the thesis that we should just make claims without arguments?

This would be a curious conclusion, especially for philosophers trained in the Continental tradition who are steeped in the tradition of textual commentary and interpretation. First, none of the so-called “speculative realists” use the term “speculation” as a key concept in their work. And where they do use it, they certainly do not employ it in the sense of authorizing philosophy to make idle claims without support. Second, it is odd for Continental philosophers, above all, to think that anything valuable can be gleaned about a philosophy from the ordinary language connotations of terms. To determine the meaning of a philosophical term ordinary language cannot be relied on, but rather it is necessary to look at how it is used by the philosopher. Finally third, one wonders about the psychological make-up, one’s way of viewing the world and experiencing others, that would lead to such an uncharitable interpretation.

At any rate, no, the “speculative” of “speculative realism” is not a call to authorize idle speculation without support. Yes, the speculative realists all are committed to the view that as philosophers they are obligated to make careful and rigorous arguments in defense of their positions. The term “speculative” has connotations not of making claims without support, but rather is to be opposed to the term critical, where critical is to be understood in its precise philosophical sense of any philosophy that holds that all philosophical questions are to be posed in terms of our epistemological access to entities such that ultimately all philosophical questions reduce to epistemological questions. “Critical”, in philosophy, does not mean “someone who is always scrutinizing and pointing out flaws in arguments.” I suspect that the term “Speculative Realism” was chosen as the title for the Goldsmith’s event back in 2007 to signify the commitment to posing ontological questions in their own terms without striving to reduce all ontological questions or questions about what things are to epistemological questions. Do those of us who engage in ontology believe that we don’t have to justify our claims, that we don’t have to answer questions of knowledge, etc? No.

As the year draws to a close I find myself looking back at this crazy year and those texts that impacted me the most. For me 2009 has been one of those years in which everything changed, where all sorts of old assumptions and fixations dissipated like so much mist, and where I’ve found myself having to rebuild everything from the ground up. Building, of course, always requires materials out of which things must be built. Consequently, it is not so much that all of those old influences (phenomenology, Deleuze, structuralism, semiotics, Lacan, Freud, Marx, Kant, Spinoza, Lucretius, Hume, etc., etc.) disappeared, it is that my relationship to these forms of thought shifted and suddenly I was asking different questions, dealing with different problems, resituating what was important and unimportant in these earlier influences, while also abandoning a number of the problems that motivated these movements and thinkers. This year has felt like an event in the Deleuzian sense of something that fundamentally splits time between a before and an after where everything is different with respect to the after.

The most fundamental encounter of 2009 was certainly my encounter with Graham Harman. When rumblings about Speculative Realism began, I was inclined to find Harman’s work the least interesting among the big four. This was not out of any familiarity with that work. I hadn’t yet read it. What I had heard about it through Nick Srnicek did not strike me as particularly interesting or far reaching. He was working on Heidegger. He was a phenomenologist. His work did not resonate with what I took to be the most important trends in contemporary Continental thought: Lacan, Zizek, Badiou, and Deleuze and Guattari. Nor was my confidence in his work inspired when I came online papers of his on Latour. “Latour?!? Really? Latour? Does this man have any philosophical taste? Doesn’t he know that the real philosophy is taking place with figures like Badiou, Lacan, and Zizek? Isn’t he interested in formalization and mathematics? Isn’t Latour a sort of crank or the worst sort of ’90s’ postmodern sophist?”

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Today in class we reached the fourth basic principle of Latour’s ontology in Irreductions as depicted by Graham in the first chapter of Prince of Networks. As I formulate it:

The degree of reality possessed by an actant or object is a function of the number of its alliances with other actants.

Latour’s proposed object-oriented ontology differs from both my own and Harman’s in that under his conception objects or actants are defined by their relations. This is evident from this fourth ontological principle. For Latour, the more alliances an actant has the more real it is. Reciprocally, the less alliances an actant has, the less real it is. It seems to me that there are three senses of the term “reality” Latour is evoking:

1) An actant is real insofar as it is resistant to other actants.

2) An actant is real to the degree that it persists and endures through time and space.

3) The reality of an actant is a function of the magnitude and extensiveness of the effects it has on other actants.

According to the first sense of reality, a rock is real insofar as it resists another rock bumping into it. The second sense of reality coincides closely with intuitions we have about existence going all the way back to Plato where, as can be clearly seen in Plato’s divided line, the more fleeting something is the less real it is and the more enduring something is the more real it is. Consequently if simulacra or things like images in ponds are less real than objects, then this is because they cease to exist the minute clouds pass in front of the sun. If mathematical entities and forms are more real for Plato than objects, then this is because objects come-to-be and pass-away, whereas triangles always remain triangles and the Just or the Identical always remains the identical.

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Christopher Vitale has a couple of excellent posts up over at orbis mediologicus and Networkologies. Orbis mediologicus is the blog for the exciting new media studies program (soon to be offering a master’s degree) at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Networkologies is Christopher Vitale’s personal blog. In “What is Mediology?” over at orbis mediologicus, an account of mediology is outlined that could very easily be the preface of The Democracy of Objects or a précis of key onticological claims and aims. “What is Mediology?” especially, outlines a good deal of just why object-oriented ontology and onticology are developing a critique of correlationism and contemporary Continental philosophy in the way that it is, and why these ontological shifts are important. Moreover, it sheds light on just what onticology is doing at the level of theoretical practice and engagement over and above the abstract meta-theoretical level of pure ontology. “Networkologies– A Mini-Manifesto” discusses the nature of networks, their dynamics, and interactions among objects in a way that nicely meshes with my own account of translation and networks. Both are excellent reads, so check them out.

I’m a bit groggy this morning. Last night my three year old daughter smacked her forehead against the coffee table and we had to take a trip to the emergency room. Seven stitches and five hours later we finally got home around one thirty in the morning and then didn’t get asleep until four or four thirty. I’m amazed at how well she handled everything. She was a real trooper. After the initial shock of all the blood– and boy do heads ever bleed! –she was rather nonchalant about the whole thing, making offhand remarks like “I bumped my head a little! I hit my head on table. Blood was everywhere! Sometimes that happens!” in an amused voice and, while calmly playing before leaving for the ER, “I don’t need to see a doctor and we don’t have any bandaids”. We danced in the hospital room and she charmed all the nurses and doctors. After everything was over she actually didn’t want to leave as she was having so much fun. That’s my girl! What a ham and little attention addict. At any rate, hopefully I’ll make some sense in this post.

Responding to a couple of my posts from earlier this week on translation, Nate over at Un-canny Ontology writes:

What is translation? And why do some things get translated and others do not?

Translation is more than a simple replication. Translation always involves a certain degree of interpretation in which what is inputted is always changed or transformed – from photons of light to complex sugars. Objects translate each other, they change each other without encountering each other directly, which means that objects first and foremost recognize each other.

I am pretty uncomfortable with Nate’s talk of objects “knowing” each other and “recognizing” each other as I think this implies a degree of intentionality (in the phenomenological sense) that only belongs to a subset of objects (humans, many animals, certain computer systems perhaps, social systems), not all objects. In my view, it’s necessary to distinguish between reflexive objects capable of registering their own states and relations to other entities like social systems or cognitive systems, and non-reflexive objects that do not have this characteristic. In other words, where non-reflexive objects are in question it’s important to emphasize that intentionality is not required for translation to take place and be operative in relations between objects.

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One common criticism of Deleuze and DeLanda is that their ontolog(ies) suffer from what might be called “virtualism”. It’s important that some might not consider this a failing and that there is, I believe, a way of interpreting these thinkers so that this problem largely disappears. Roughly, virtualism would consist in treating the virtual as the domain of the “really real” and reducing the actual to mere “epiphenomena” that have but an epiphenomenal “being”. In the language of Roy Bhaskar’s ontology, the virtual can roughly be equated with the domain of “generative mechanisms”, while the actual would consist of events take place as a result of these generative mechanisms. Virtualism would thus treat these generative mechanisms as what are properly real, while the actual events engendered by these generative mechanisms would have a subordinate and lesser status.

The problem with this sort of virtualism is that it fails to observe a particular property of groups known as “closure” as described by mathematical group theory. Roughly, closure is the property of a group such that for a group G, all operations carried out on elements of G— say a, b –are also in G. Thus, for example, if group B consists of the numbers 1 and 2, the conjunction of 1 and 2– 3 –is also a member of the group. This point can be illustrated for material systems with respect to fire. A flame requires all sorts of generative mechanisms involving chemical and atomic reactions that are conditions of fire at the level of the “virtual” with respect to the flame as an actuality or event. However, it does not follow from this that the flame is itself an epiphenomenon or lacking in reality. The flame has all sorts of powers, capacities, are “able-to’s” that cannot be found at the level of the generative mechanisms themselves. Put otherwise, a flame is itself a generative mechanism with respect to other relations.

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