Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Speculative Realism as Kantian Deconstruction.

[I originally titled this "More thoughts on Speculative Realism, w/ advance apologies to Graham Harman for suggesting he might be a Kantian Deconstructionist," but that was just too over-the-top.]

I issued some promissory notes a while ago, including one for another post on Speculative Realism, dealing with some reservations I have about it. Since this is really too broad a topic, and I don’t think the pro-and-contra approach is actually very enlightening, I’m going to modify it somewhat; but I do want to start by taking back my boring fourpack presentation that I made in that post. As I re-read it, I realize that presenting a new trend in philosophy as represented, even “primarily” represented, by four or five Usual Suspects, is misleading, and, worse, lends itself to a kind of readymade canonical version that doesn’t need any help from me. Of course, no one’s getting their canonical history from me anyway, but just for the record: besides Bryant, and some others who I mentioned in my post, there are Steven Shaviro, Ian Bogost, and any number of others, some of whom will be included in a forthcoming anthology, The Speculative Turn, [ http://www.re-press.org/content/view/64/40/ ] which should give the lie to any notion of the “movement” being a unified front; and though these guys do all read each other, they are not treating anyone as honored patriarchs. So why should I? (Note: I haven't seen any previews, I'm just judging from back-&-forth in the blogosphere).

That said, while I’m thinking of a number of SRists as I write, the name I’m going to mention here most is Harman’s, because I have read him most. In fact, since I came upon Guerrilla Metaphysics, I have read and re-read it, as well as every other essay I could get; next to read is Prince of Networks. I’ve not spent so much time with a thinker since I read Badiou. I spend concerted effort on thinkers for a variety of reasons, but one reason is that they elaborate a vision that is clearly mostly right—but with something about it that bothers me, unsettles me, or leaves me itching to set it straight. (Note, not “leaves me dissatisfied”—this happens with writers too, but I don’t find it compelling, and I don’t usually go back for a second helping). I see Harman as being right, right, right, and then wrong, and I want to understand that wrong step (about which I can’t quite be articulate yet, but it has something to do with his stance on relations)—so I may over-concentrate on this and miss other things (including important things). On the other hand, I am indeed reading him in the context of this loose confederacy of S.R., so I might make an occasional mistake and mis-attribute to him a position he doesn’t hold.

One other point about Harman—he has a beautiful no-punches-pulled but completely civil online style that I deeply admire. So when I voice any critique here, while I am far from assuming he needs to care what I think, I also am fairly sure he won’t assume I’m just out to score cheap points or promote myself by attacking his well-deserved success.

One thing that puzzles me about certain S.R.ists—not just Harman—is their anti-Kantianism. It strikes me as clearly a rhetorical ploy: part of the p.r., not to say the propaganda, but certainly not an essential part of the content. For every pronouncement against Kant and his supposed anthropocentrism, you can find at least an implicit concession, not just to Kant’s status as a great thinker (Harman for instance goes out of his way point out frequently his high regard for Kant as philosopher even as he attacks the Copernican turn), but for Kant’s positions. Read the first half of Guerrilla Metaphysics, if even that, and see if you don’t find yourself thinking: but this is just Kant, pushed “all the way down.” Where for Kant the distinction is between the rational mind and the things-in-themselves, Harman radicalizes, ontologizes, the noumenon-phenomenon divide. This is so evident I don’t feel the need to argue for it very strongly. I understand that—and, I think, also why—Harman doesn’t want to make this his emphasis; but he can do his own presentations. My job is to read him and see if this helps me think. And I find that thinking of Harman as providing a strange new reading of Kant is more helpful to me than thinking of Harman making an attack on Kant. Maybe this is my own irenic strain coming out. Fine. (Shaviro also has a take on Kant a la Whitehead that is quite amenable to S.R.; Harman demurs.)

More seriously, I think there is a tendency in Harman, among other SRists, to misread Kant as a hyper-anthropocentrist. I think this is either unfair or sort of pointless. I don’t have Kant’s Anthropology here with me, but my sense is that when Kant speaks of the bounds of reason, he’s mainly got rational agents (qua rational agent) in mind, and really could not care less if we are speaking of his fellow Konigsbergians, or the Ottoman Turks, or Martians, or hyperintelligent white mice, or some Turing-test-acing Deepest Cobalt Blue Mach VII.

This is more than just an exegetical point. Harman, for instance, makes a great deal out of emphasizing that the human/world “split” is just one of an infinite number of such divides, because literally every object “encounters” everything that is not-it from across just such a chasm. The teacup holds the tea, but its “containing” of the tea, its being warmed by it, its being slightly discolored, and so on, does not remotely plumb the depths of the tea-in-itself. Well and good. So too with the laser scanning the compact disc, the electric current forcing its way through the tungsten filament, the cat playing with the mouse. But—and here is the point of my pro-kantian spin—we cannot talk to the laser, the electricity, the cat. Language is an arena in which we attempt to set up comparisons of experience. If we could understand the Martian, we would be able to compare its experience with ours. Of course, one could say that laboratories are like enormous Babelfish apparatuses, where we try to decipher the messages of cat, electricity or laser. But what I want to suggest is that Kantian “anthropocentrism” is really a symptom of being able to elide a certain difficulty in communication about experience. Doubtless this elision is problematic. One could read Quine as arguing that the difficulty in understanding the cat also obtains between Konigsbergian and Turk; Marx held that it holds between a capitalist and a worker; Derrida suggested that it holds between any two Frenchmen whatsoever, or indeed, between one Frenchman and himself. I think all of this and more is relevant. But one can read it is contradictory ways. On the one hand, it reiterates Badiou (“differences are just what there is”). On the other hand, far from undoing the “linguistic turn,” it radicalizes it; it’s not just language that always misses the referent; it’s every relation whatsoever.

American Stranger and Contaminations both have recent posts up (Contaminations has more than one) about the possibility of reading post-structuralism as Speculative Realism or vice-versa. So it's possible that this reading of S.R. is a meme that's spreading. Which probably means I'll have to change my mind about it soon.


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  2. Thanks for this.
    The link to the anthology "The Speculative Turn" fails with the following error:

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    The book can be found here:


    Now, my sense of things is that the annoyance with Kant stems from his (and also the [neo-]Kantians) tendency to make such a big deal out of the phenomena/noumena split. (After all, where would Nietzsche be without the closing chapter -'The Standpoint of the Ideal'- of Lange's "The History of Materialism and Criticism of its Present Importance"?) Badiou's “differences are just what there is” seems to be the way to go. (I mean the way to go for Speculative Realism.) The other way merely, as you say, 'radicalizes' the “linguistic turn.” - Perhaps 'materializes' the “linguistic turn” is closer to what you mean?

    To me, what is at stake here is an attempt to make an end run around Nietzsche's 'Psychology is the Queen of the Sciences' remark. If the phenomena/noumena split is correct all we can ever know is the human reception of the "given"; that is to say, all we know is human fashion. If Badiou is right, “differences are just what there is”, then we are seeing 'reality' itself. That is, if Badiou is right, then cosmogenesis (the philosophical study of the Whole), not psychology, is the Queen of the Sciences!

    Is that what is at stake here?

  3. Susan,
    thanks for the kind words and I'm glad to have you reading along. I look forward to your comments as you see fit.

    Thanks for the heads-up re. the link; I put the URL into the post but it looks like it needs to be pasted into the address bar.
    Still owe you a real reply to yr last remarks; have been a bit backed up.

    Yes, "materializing" the linguistic turn is a good way to put what I see going on. Reading Merleau-Ponty today (the seminar on Nature) I saw it a different way: just as non-Euclidean geometry generalized the concept of space, making flat 3-D just one instance of a whole range of possible spaces; just as Copernicanism ultimately made the Earth and Sun just one of a whole range of possible star-systems; just as Darwinism makes the history of the biosphere one of a huge range of possible histories (as do various multiverse theories with the universe as a whole), so too Badiou and Harman in different modes universalize the subject-object rift.

    Badiou would not want to say that Cosmogenesis is Queen, sinnce for him it is an axiom that there can be no study of the Whole because there is no Whole. Likewise Harman, I think-- at least this is how I take his image of the bottomless sea with 'dormant' entities at the top... see his article Intentional Objects for Nonhumans,

    And this comes fairly close to the point that troubles me. I am more of an out-of-season neoplatonist, and think that the Whole has been too easily shrugged off. Derrida had the good conscience to acknowledge that shrug it off though we might, the aspiration to grasp the Whole would keep coming back. It's 'human nature', you might say (against Badiou)... I'm perfectly willing to generalize this beyond humans. Maybe this amounts to your 'end run around Nietzsche', or maybe it's generalizing Psychology... I could see it either way. What do you think?

  4. a follow-up: An end-run around Nietzsche? Maybe not; Nietzsche was, as all too often, there ahead of us, "like the hedgehog in Montaigne."

    This from a notebook entry in 1886-87: "Fundamental question: whether the perspectival of the essence, and not just a form of regarding, a relation between various beings? Do the various forces stand in relation to one another, in such a way that this relation is tied to the viewpoint of perception? This would be possible if everything were essentially something that perceives." (see Heidegger's Nietzsche: Will to Power as Art; p 213).

  5. Yes, I suspect you are right, 'speculative realists' do not want to talk about the Whole. But I also suspect that eventually they will.
    The problem, as you say, involves 'generalizing Psychology'. Just as the German Idealists moved beyond Spinoza by making Spinoza's Substance = Spirit. And now, the free-floating (sub-philosophical) 'new-age' movement has stepped beyond this and said that this Substance/Spirit is (that is, all beings are) always (becoming) a self-conscious 'god'. - Now, how's that as an attempt to 'universalize the subject-object rift'?!
    But before we get to this point it will have to be accepted that the Whole always becomes more than it is. (In the computer language 'C' we say that x = x + 1, so in a new metaphysics we would say that the Whole = the Whole + x; forever!) Of course, all this would make Psychology and Cosmogenesis exactly the same.
    Heraclitus said the way up and the way down are the same.
    This new way of thinking would maintain, perhaps even in the same gnomic spirit, that the way 'in' (to ones unfathomable depths) and the way 'out' (to an unreachable, always expanding Reality) are the Same.

  6. Meillassoux actually does venture that a becoming God is possible; but any teleological drive towards God a la the Newage would be very foreign to him, since he eschews any thought of necessity in the whole. I mention a little of this-- a very little-- in my Badiou/McClain paper. You can read Meillassoux's paper here:
    I agree with you, however-- the question of the Whole will not be dismissed. This is philosophy, after all.