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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Friday, September 26, 2014

The "death" (?) of Speculative ®ealism™

Last post laid out my claim that philosophy just is realism, is speculative, and is critical. Please note that if you haven't read that post, this one will just be so much occasional reportage. The former post puts it in perspective.

All of that rationale is why, despite some rumor in the blogosphere to the contrary (including a couple from people who I consider friends), I think the "death of Speculative Realism" is being, well, exaggerated. In many of these posts, philosophical engagement and online politics (or worse) go fist-in-gauntlet. To his great credit, Pete Wolfendale has taken things offline and onto the printed page -- onto, as it happens, quite a number of pages. He has thrown down a 430-page gauntlet to Graham Harman. It comes with an afterword by Brassier pronouncing (ostensibly) "the last word" on Speculative Realism, a "movement" which Brassier already characterized notoriously (sort of) as an "online orgy of stupidity," but which he also described in terms that clearly refer not to Meillassouxian extravaganzas on Mallarmé or Iain Hamilton Grant's Schellingianism redux, but specifically to Harman's Object-Oriented Ontology, "actor-network theory spiced with pan-psychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy." Reading Wolfendale's preface, which is all of the book that is currently available online (publication is set for late October, although chapters one and two are developed out of this paper which originally appeared in issue IV of Speculations), it seems clear that when Wolfendale expresses his dissatisfaction with speculative realism, it is not with the "movement" but with the "speculative realist brand," for which, he says, "Harman asserted himself as ... spokesman, and the community’s unique dynamic dissolved as a result." I will be interested to see whether this notion of the philosophical "brand" plays into Wolfendale's criticism of OOO as an epitome of "ontological liberalism," given that he says part of his project is motivated by concern with the spread of the phrase "object-oriented" in various academic settings across a variety of disciplines. But whether or not he takes that tack (I will have to read the book to learn) I have to say, this characterization of Harman as self-appointed spokesman for a brand, a kind of Speculative ®ealism™ (my phrase, so Wolfendale should not be blamed for it), strikes me as not quite fair. Harman reiterates in many places again that his version is only one of a variety of attacks on "correlationism," or "philosophy of access;" he has indeed devoted an entire book to a rival version (three, if you count his two books on Latour). Yes, he's also said that he doesn't think of "branding" as a swear word, but he has hardly appropriated the phrase -- rather, he became an enthusiast, valorized it and championed it, and to my mind rightly, for as I have said, philosophy just is both speculative and realistic.

But as I've insisted, it is also, like Iago, "nothing if not critical." Though he is not very Iagoesque in other respects, those four words describe Pete Wolfendale more than aptly. Not only am I eager to read Wolfendale's book; I expect I will agree with a fair stretch of it, despite my being on record as admiring Harman's work. I suspect this because my reasons for liking his work are fairly un-Harmanian -- are, in fact, almost Rortyan. I think Harman has invented a way of talking that is fecund and interesting, that has generated real insights and above all pointed to a re-ignited wonder at ordinary things; the unsettling awe one feels at the fact that the dust behind the books has just been quietly sitting there, for years, while the life in the room went on unaware of it -- just as the dust in distant nebulae hangs in space, where no telescope has glimpsed. There really is, for me, a kind of poetry to Harman's ontological fantasia. This doesn't mean you can't have problems with it (let alone, need it even be said, with Harman the person, who I imagine is, like everybody I've met so far, imperfect); but of course the big question is, But is it true? Really? A much harder question; but philosophy cannot defer it interminably and remain philosophy. (Which is not to say that there can be such a thing as a definitive and conclusive answer which prevents the question from being genuinely raised again.) The issue is especially hard because the notion of real objects' "withdrawal" places them outside any kind of way of engaging with the "fact of the matter." I think Wolfendale may have found that Harman's account is simply too speculative, in the sense that I am using the term; that it is a contemporary version of gnostic myth; and he brings in turn a sharp and discerning critique to bear. Though he confesses that the book is peculiar in that it "undertakes a long and detailed discussion of a single philosopher’s work, and yet it aims to show that his work does not warrant such serious attention," it is unclear whether Wolfendale, in playing Chomsky to Harman's Žižek (or Adorno to Harman's Heidegger might be better), stops short of accusing Harman of bullshit -- of not caring whether his philosophy is true. Since, like Steven Shaviro, I have long thought that the absolute withdrawal of objects was untenable (even though I admired Harman for sticking to his guns), I suspect that the substance of this part of Wolfendale's critique will not be too hard to take. But I'll know more soon. As for style, my assumption is that Wolfendale will pull no punches, and yet will behave like a gentleman. I fully expect Harman's eventual rejoinder to be fierce, intelligent, and even-handed. I'm not so sanguine about the blogosphere.

But however it plays out, none of that will mean that "speculative realism" as a motivating thrust of contemporary thought should be considered "over;" and frankly, nobody who has felt invigorated by the nexus of questions SR embodied should get bent out of shape about this. I engaged with the "critique of correlationism" partly because that was the entry point to a vibrant philosophical online discussion, and partly because it was (I am convinced) an important question; but the point of the doorway is to be an entry to the house. So far as fashion goes, I agree with the spirit of Timothy Sprigge's doggerel on the history of philosophy:
The truth of all this, it seems plain,
Is philosophy were indeed vain
If its aim were a view
So objectively true
It will not be discarded again.

So cheer yourselves up my good friends
Though it's true that the search never ends
We may each in our day
Have our personal say
And feel free to ignore current trends.
I am not interested in Speculative ®ealism™, the brand. Although I obviously engage with a lot of the same questions (and I named the blog with a nod towards the phrase), I never proclaimed myself a Speculative Realist, not because I'm too cool, but (in part) because, like Bill Vallicella, I'm just dispositionally not a joiner; in part because most of my own main influences (e.g., Wittgenstein, Levinas, Barfield) are far removed from SR's primary genealogies, when not regarded with outright antipathy. It was plain that my own philosophical stances -- that of an ordinary Christian with a commitment to dialogue, a love of beauty, and a suspicion of power -- were not obviously aligned with any of the main trends of the "movement" (significant though these were). But that didn’t really matter, because to me, "speculative realism" is a redundant phrase for a philosophical movement. As far as I am concerned, to call for speculative realism was and is to call for philosophy, pure and simple; to think good and hard about what was entailed in philosophy per se -- and that, I hold, can only be a good thing. All philosophy is realism (yes, even anti-realism is realism), and all of it is speculative.

So fine, maybe Speculative ®ealism™ is dead, maybe not. Who cares? Long live speculative realism.


  1. It looks like you were ahead of many, in writing this post. With books publication, much more discussion of Wolfendale's book is emerging.

    The distinction you draw between the movement and the brand is a valuable contribution to the conversation, especially insofar as delineating what is at stake. I actually hadn't thought about the matter in quite the terms you cast, so thanks for that.

    1. Since I posted it, it has consistently remained in the top 5 posts in the stats; it seems that mention of OOO is a surefire way to boost hits. And yet you are the first commenter, so welcome and thank you. While Pete deserves credit for making the distinction between brand and movement, he deploys it somewhat differently. Of course, I also say (especially in the earlier post) that philosophy just is "speculative realism," which might be taken as aiding and abetting those who claim that the phrase is meaningless, since it cannot define a school of philosophy if it identical with philosophy per se. But I am a perennialist, and see Kantianism and Platonism, Confucianism and Marxism, as contending with the same issues, which is far more interesting than their divergent answers (though some philosophers are more interesting in part because they see that this is so.)

      I hope to do some follow-up after I have digested the substance of Pete's arguments. So far, although I have not followed as closely as I could have, I have found much (not all) of the blogonoise has been somewhat disappointing in terms of real philosophical engagement. (I'm not saying my own was especially deep, mind you).