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.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What "We who are dying" need

I have read D.G. Myers' Commonplace Blog for years off and on, and always found it full of wise and sharp insight and incentive to read the books he was engaged with. Myers' posts, generous and enthusiastic, contentious and plain-spoken, appeared on my blogroll here, but for a few months he had not published; yesterday a final notice appeared, saying he had died last Friday.

Before that, Myers' own last post had stood at the top of the blog since last July. it is a courageous, honest account of gratitude for life, a life that is short. Instead of embarrassed or empty encouragement to "hope" or "fight," Myers admonishes,
We who are dying need from you what we should be demanding from ourselves — responsibility, honesty, the courage to face reality squarely.
We do well to remember that "we who are dying" does not just mean those who have received an official medical verdict. We have all already received a diagnosis, and we all require reminder and help to live in this light.

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.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Realism, speculation, critique

As is well known, Aristotle held that philosophy was akin to myth, in that its roots were in wonder. Wonder is more than curiosity. Curiosity is expressible as a question: "hmmm, how--?" Wonder is not a question, but an exclamation. It may be quiet or loud, but the feeling is the same: Wow!

But within the context of this Wonder, philosophy has its inception -- not its entire trajectory, and certainly not its culmination, but its precise point of origin -- in a particular question. That question is not "How?", nor even the child's "Why?" Although reducing mythology to aetiology is foolish, still it is clear that "Why?" can be, and frequently is, answered in a mythical register. Philosophy is distinguished from myth -- though not as a "rival discourse" simply, for myth is not merely critiqued by philosophy. Rather, philosophy (as opposed to mere skepticism) is the discourse which aims to keep open the access to the experience to which myth pointed but which, in the face of critique, it begins to fail to deliver. (The nature of that experience is a kind of identification of oneself both with wonderand the object of wonder. I have called this participation, following Levy-Bruhl and Barfield (and Aquinas and Plato), but this post is not directly about that.) That critique -- the condition, necessary though insufficient, of philosophy -- is contained in nuce in the question I mean, a question comprised of a single word -- not "why", not "how," but, "Really?"

"What a sunrise. Oh, Wow."
"Thus Helios drives his chariot, pulled by glorious fiery steeds, out of the gates of dawn."
"Cool, but... Really?"

This question, by its very existence, breaks with myth. Myth does not operate in the register of the distinction between the ostensible and the true. This distinction plays a part in myth, so to speak (there are stories that make use of the notion of deception, or false appearance, and so on) but strictly speaking, once the question "is it really so?" has arisen, we have one foot outside the world of myth. The question "Really?" puts the entirety of previous discourse potentially under scrutiny.

Philosophy is concerned with the matter of Truth (so Plato, and so Badiou, and I willingly follow). Once the question "Really?" has been raised, there are any number of moves that can follow, including denying that "Yes," or "No" are the only options. You can try, if you want, to move on to "How?" or "Depends on what you mean by...", you can admit to "We don't know" or insist upon "We can't know" or even try weirdly to go to the wall for an ontological "Maybe." I am not denying that pragmatism or positivism or various subjectivisms can be serious philosophical positions. What I am insisting on is that none of them dismiss every instance of "Really?", though they may have various accounts of why, or in what circumstances, they feel obliged to meet its challenge.

What this means is that every philosophy is a "Realism".

This does not deprive the term of significance, as if it were thus too broadly pertinent, for the work does not end there; nor is it sufficient for a discourse to wrap itself in the mantle of Realism to qualify as philosophy. Realism is not merely "animal faith," nor is it Bismarkian realpolitik or the neoliberal "realism" of the privileged. The "demand the impossible" of the soixante huitards and #Occupiers is, as Situationism proclaimed, also realistic, and far more so than Thrasymachian cynicism. Philosophy is is a contestation of the term "Real". (This is one of the reasons Laruelle is so interesting -- he completely up-ends this contestation. Or does he -- really?) And one might add, this means that philosophy cares, as ultimately the alternatives do not, about the answer.

But how does philosophy enact this contest, this agon? Since Kant and Marx, the explicit answer has been the word I used above: "Critique." Critique is already the raising of the question, as well as those questions to which it gives rise -- questions like "What do you mean by X?" "How do you know?" and even, "What motivates this argument?". Philosophy cannot continue, qua philosophy, without engaging in critique. But as the post-Kantian generations re-discovered, and as Plato had already demonstrated, critique is self-defeating unless it is twinned with an answering motion in thought, akin to the mythopoetic tropes it opposes. In Plato, this aspect of thought sets in motion a number of "likely stories" and gedankenexperiments. In Schelling and Hegel, among others, this move is called speculation.

Speculation alone, because it harks back to a pre-philosophical matrix, runs the risk of seeming not to care whether what it says is true -- the risk of being taken for bullshit, or even, in worst case, becoming bullshit. Critique alone, on the other hand, risks becoming or at least being taken for a kind of tunnel-vision concern with "being right" -- i.e., with winning the argument, either with one's opponent or with the world.

(Don't assume I put much weight on this dichotomy. Pairs of this sort are always a little too easy to invent -- and therefore to find fault with. Very roughly, speculation generates ontology, and critique, epistemology; but I don't think I've just proposed a key to the history of philosophy here. We could do a little quick-'n'-dirty deconstruction showing how every critique is speculative and vice-versa. I would even insist upon it. But a glance at the masthead of this blog will remind you, speculation and criticism are not the whole of philosophy for me. I am leaving entirely to one side, for instance, an alternative subversion of myth which goes by the extraordinarily contentious name revelation).

Either motive -- speculation or critique -- can, left to itself, drive philosophy into the ground. In Plotinus' polemics against gnosticism we can discern a recoil from speculation run rampant; and the pedantry and hairsplitting which the humanists mocked in the late scholastics are the signs of a decadent critique. These temptations are perennial. I would say that the Sokal hoax called out a kind of irresponsible speculation; and the dead-end yawn of so much current analytic philosophy is the desiccation of critique and nothing but critique.

All of this is why I think the talk of the end of Speculative Realism as a "movement" is overblown. I'll go into that next post.