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, January 12, 2010

Speculative Realism, just for starters

Having dropped the phrase Speculative Realism a few times, I should probably provide some background and a few links. This is nothing you can't track down yourself with an hour’s research, at most, and of course I will inevitably leave gaps, so feel free to fire back anything else you find.

S.R. is a label of quite recent coinage, and is usually applied to the work of four central thinkers: Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, and Iain Hamilton Grant. I seem to have discovered these guys in a way different from the usual—that is, not as a group. (Indeed, this grouping as gang-of-four strikes me as more happenstance than anything else, but for the moment, it's convenient).

I found Graham Harman quite by chance when his book Guerrilla Metaphysics came through the used book shop I worked at. I read it in about three days and realized that here was something new. For one thing, his sources were idiosyncratic. Yes, he clearly knew his Heidegger, but he also cited Xavier Zubiri, possibly the most under-appreciated major philosopher of the 20th century, an absolute giant in the old style; as well as Alphonso Lingis,
(under whom he has studied, I learned later); and he had some beautiful words for Jose Ortega y Gasset, certainly not on everyone’s short list today. Most important, Harman’s arguments were both out-of-left-field and impossible to dismiss out of hand. He contends, very simply put, that whereas nearly all Western philosophy since Kant has seen the human being as having to negotiate a chasm separating him or her from the rest of reality (e.g. Husserl’s subject regarding the intentional object), this chasm in fact obtains everywhere, in every single interaction whatsoever—the light hitting a photographic plate, the match scraping along the hearthstone, the needle in the record groove and the spermatozoon finally gaining the egg all alike encounter their “intentional object” across the same “gap” that lies between the human being and the world at any moment. From here he proceeds to develop a whole ontology.

Well before reading Harman, I encountered Quentin Meillassoux in an article in Philosophy Today, while browsing at the newsstand around the corner from the bookshop. As it happens, the article was by Harman—but the name meant nothing to me at the time, and I’d forgotten it by the time I found Harman’s book. Meillassoux’s notoriety comes in large part for his having, in After Finitude, launched a sweeping indictment against almost all contemporary philosophy as having capitulated to the forces of unreason, whether it knows it or not. “Correlationism” is Meillassoux’s name for his enemy, and he defines it as “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” This idea is not synonymous with Kantianism, but it is an inheritance from Kant’s firewall between the subject and the unknowable
ding an sich. Once you have conceded that one has no access to qualities that inhere in the object itself, irrespective of the observer, you have abdicated the place of reason. In the place of reality, you are left with a correlation between an unknowable object and an irreducible subject, whether that is a noumenon and a transcendental subject, or power and society, or reality and language, or… and so on. Meillassoux’s critique is twofold. He claims that Kant inaugurated a counter-revolution against the Copernican de-thronement of Man, by reinstating the (human) subject as a privileged center of a phenomenal world. And he claims that this move has necessarily entailed making human finitude thematic, a development we need to undo. (Hence his title).

Ray Brassier I knew first as the translator of Alain Badiou. His essays on Badiou made me at first think of him as a commentator—a very helpful one. But the more I read the more I realized that Brassier saw in Badiou (as well as Meillassoux--he also translated
After Finitude), vital allies (of a sort) for a project that is his own: a thinking-through of nihilism “to the end.” This, one might say, is a kind of immanent critique of nihilism, staring the bleak heat-death of the universe in the eye. Brassier wants to follow the ramifications of extinction and the utter absence of any shred of teleology. This means confronting the mere happenstance of thought—its origins in aleatory material processes—and its eventual total disappearance from the whole Universe, when, as Nietzsche wrote, “the clever animals ha[ve] to die.” This takes Brassier from a prolonged engagement with neuroscience, to the confrontation with the eventual death of the last sentient being. This is “Being-unto-death” with a vengeance. The starkness of the void in Brassier's book Nihil Unbound is absolute-zero cold, unflinching and comfortless. Early in the book, Brassier declares: “Nihilism is…the unavoidably corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality which…is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the values and meanings which we would drape over it.” His opponents are described at the outset: “Philosophers would do well to desist from any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature.” There is a sense in which nihilism is thought itself for Brassier, and a sense in which it is thought’s shadow. “Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity,” he says in the same preface, and he capitalizes on the opportunity for about 300 pages.

Of the four, it is Iain Hamilton Grant about whose own positions I am still most uncertain. I chanced upon Grant during research on Schelling’s reading of the Timaeus, to contrast with Badiou’s style of Platonism. A web search turned up Grant’s book Philosophies of Nature After Schelling. I soon realized that I would have to make reading this book a separate project of its own. It proves fascinating (and very difficult) reading. He makes a very strong case for the philosophy of nature as the core of Schelling’s thought, and for Schelling, as opposed to Hegel or Heidegger, as the thinker for our age. Schelling provides us with a robust and emphatically non-anthropocentric philosophy of nature, an especially timely contribution at our present ecological impasse. Grant also reads Schelling as the representative of a Platonic and neoPlatonic tradition against Kant (By now you may notice an oft-remarked anti-kantian theme running through S.R.). But to put it like this too easily gives the impression that Grant wants to make a case for the kind of re-enchantment that Brassier contemptuously dismisses. This is too simple, though I do think Grant's work (perhaps despite his intentions) can be turned to the re-enchanters' purposes more readily than can Meillassoux or Brassier. However, it is still early to tell. Because this is Grant’s most substantive book so far, it is easy to mistake him for an explicator (mush as I thought of Brassier). But Grant will, I expect, emerge as much more than an interpreter of Schelling or of anyone else.

There is one more figure who I think deserves some mention: Levi Bryant, whose blog has been one of several online centers of the S.R. storm in the past few years and who has done a tremendous amount of original writing and immediate publishing, rather than sending things through the usual academic channels. Bryant’s ontology, while closest to Harman’s, is different from that of any of the other thinkers presented here. He has just published Part One of an Object-Oriented Ontology Manifesto on his blog Larval Subjects, in which he makes, among other points, the claim that Kant’s Copernican turn inevitably imprisoned philosophy, and willy-nilly all the humanities, in a corral of human discourse, while the sciences, which simply ignored this ghettoization, carried on investigating the world it naively assumed to exist independently of the mind. (This suggests that the “Two Cultures” dilemma diagnosed long ago by C.P. Snow has its roots precisely in Correlationism). Bryant has his detractors, and some see him as a poseur. I think this is simple bad manners; even if you’ve had online run-ins with him, you should respect someone as indefatigable as Bryant. Again, I speak as an outsider; I’ve had no conversations with any of these guys, so I have no idea how easily a flame-war can arise.

Also, precisely because I am an outsider and do not know all the players, no one should take my summary here as definitive. There are several other significant sites in this story, more or less closely involved with S.R. (and not uncritically): k-punk, planomenology, Speculative Heresy, Deontologistics , anotherheideggerblog, and Grundlegung, among others. What emerges from some hours' cruising around on these sites is a whirl of mostly-left politics, cultural commentary, and (on Graham Harman's blog) the occasional sports vignette, as well as a lot of philosophical controversy. I might add, there are several other sites that engage with SR even more critically, and these I will mention next time (though if you spend much time with these links, you'll find them yourself).

I’ll go on record and say that I think that, the trendiness and occasional bad manners of its online discussion aside (and yes, there is some of both), S.R. is a genuinely challenging set of approaches that could go a long way towards snapping philosophy out of its Buridan’s-Ass paralysis between the Continental and Analytic hay-bales. To be sure, I’ve a number of reservations about this rather lose movement, which I’ll put in another post. But (and this is about as polemical as I'm gonna get about this) anyone who doesn't recognize this as real philosophy (maybe not a wholly new thing under the sun, but of indisputable quality) is either kidding themselves, or not really interested in the first place. It may not be what you're into, but this is, and is about, the real thing.


  1. That we are not into it is 'our' fault. You do make this all very interesting for me! You know that I am a Universalist (a small 'u' universalist; that is, any Universalism is better than no Universalism) and as such, a metaphysical monism could be quite appealing to me.

    Of course, it would be a monism of 'difference' and becoming...

    Regarding Kant, my real commitments are to the difference between human types, not to the phenomena-noumena distinction. If this were not the case I would consider Cosmology (and not, as I do, Psychology) the 'Queen of the Sciences'. But you know, of course, that I think Cosmology irrelevant to the City. (Only the 'City' has 'Rulers'!)

    Human Finitude and lack of Knowledge will always be the Real foundation of the City, of any City...
    And, in all Reality, the City is our greatest concern.

    Thus “Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity”; but this sort of speculation (as Plato, Averroes, Kant and Nietzsche knew) must be irrelevant to (and hidden from) the City! I especially like, btw, the notion of Schelling as (something of) a Platonist. I will try to get my hands on that book.

    Now, how does Speculative Realism differ from Nietzsche's privileging of Becoming over Being? (Or, for that matter, from Bergson or Whitehead?)


  2. Joe,

    As regards Meillassoux, I'm not sure it *does* fundamentally differ. The end of 'After Finitude'--a beautifully succinct book, incidentally (almost deceptively so--by which I mean that it can charm one a little)--does lay out a vision of a completely contingent reality which exists *for no reason.* (M. expressly rejects the principle of sufficient reason, and then rather ingeniously argues that one must however accept the principle of non-contradiction *because* one rejects the principle of sufficient reason.)

    However, I'll respond as regards Harman since he is the member of this foursome I know best. (I hasten to add, that is not so well... I have read only Guerrilla Metaphysics and a number of his online articles, plus following his blog). In one of his most recent and most substantive blog posts--I'll include a bunch more links in my next SR post-- Harman responds to Pete Wolfendale's Deontologistics blog and notes that he feels quite close to Whitehead (and certainly draws upon him), as opposed to Bergson (or Deleuze). Harman has explicitly distanced himself a little from the other SR'ists, (though he does endorse the label) and calls his own approach Object-Oriented Philosophy (or Ontology), in part because of this very difference. Delueze's influence, as you know, has been remarkably widespread in the past couple of decades, and Badiou's (somewhat idiosyncratic, it is true) interpretation of Deleuze has certainly impacted Meillassoux and Brassier at least. But Harman (quite plausibly, I think) sees Deleuze and Bergson as favoring (in ontology) the continuous over the discrete; Whitehead (and Harman following him) opts for the discrete. As one who has wrestled with Levinas I can only applaud this on Harman's part, as I hold that *encounter* is phenomenologically prior to identity. (Ontologically things are different, and I could be mistaken for a correlationist myself in ontology--though I am not quite willing to concede this; but *my own* views are always in flux).

    As for Nietzsche.... Harman doesn't address N. much in Guerrilla Metaphysics, but his central insight comes from N's self-appointed interpreter Heidegger. This (and I should say I found this quite simply a *beautiful* piece of philosophy when I read it, recognizing it with a sense of "of course!", the way Emerson says we recognize our own rejected thoughts), is a certain reading of the zu- and vorhanden in the famous hammer-episode in Being and Time. Harman says (I think) that just as the hammer, when it breaks in our hand, is revealed as a mute and mysterious something (think Sartre's tree root in 'Nausea,' maybe, but without the nausea, and, importantly, as a *specific* something and not just a slippery protoplasm), so *any two* (or more) objects are always 'retreating' from one another, so far as their *being* is concerned. Objects always appear to each other merely by sending little glimmers, as if from the bottom of sea; they *never* act upon each other directly. To use one of Harman's favorite images, the fire "acts upon" a single aspect of the cotton (its flamability), and cotton encounters only a single aspect of flame. Beyond this glancing, tangential reltationship, fire remains 'unknown' to cotton and likewise vice-versa.

    That is, if I am fire, I only ever encounter a 'phenomenal' cotton--even though it is the *real* cotton that is burned! Of course, the obvious question arises, if real objects never touch, how does any encounter *ever* happen? To answer this question Harman invokes the old chestnut Occasionalism, a la (e.g.) Malebranche. So as to your question-- what about Nietzsche?-- it would be quite interesting to ask about vicarious causation as the Will to Power.

  3. I've finished reading Nihil Unbound. I enjoyed it. I sort of got the sense that the author had gathered us around under the stars to tell us ghost stories. He seems to assume that we fear both the dark and the ghosts. In my case he's at least a little right, enough that I found it engaging.

    Much of the material he discussed was new to me so I'm a very poor and biased reader. I confess that I've not been much blessed by the post-Nietzchean philosophical tradition, mostly because it offends me. Especially the continental thinkers seem to me overly addicted to jargon and the conceit that they hold some secret so precious that I would take my time to undress them. Esotericism is justified in the writings of thinkers who live under real oppression, whose ideas may cause them social or physical harm if they are spoken too clearly. Obscurity in the writings of the post-modern writers seems to me an affectation, they use it to give themselves cred. In reality they could clearly have said whatever thought crosses their minds and nobody would bat an eye. So they dress themselves up to look like their oppressed ancestors like white boys trying to do rap. In the end, I have viewed most of it as academic careerism.

    I am happy to have an author like Brassier make me rethink these prejudices. Although at times I sense that his exasperation may exceed my own, mostly because he didn't just walk away.

    The great thinkers that most affected the 20th and 21st thinkers have not been those recognized as doing "Philosophy" per se. Darwin is clearly the greatest of them all. Freud, Jung, E. O. Wilson, Gould, Einstein, Marx, Keynes, Hayek--I think you can see my biases. Phenomenology just hasn't floated my boat.

  4. PART II

    I was more equipped to follow Brassier's discussion on Nietzsche's failed attempt to overcome nihilism. I must say I've always read
    Nietzsche for his critique and psychological insights rather than what he tried to build up. Part of me has always felt a little disappointed with "eternal return". It barely coheres as a mathematical idea much less as a deep foundation for a new philosophy. So I probably didn't take it seriously enough. I found Brassier's criticism of it illuminating. Nietzsche felt the need for a new Moses but I think he knew he wasn't up for the task. Nietzsche was no Joseph Smith or even an Elrond Hubbard and the religion he was looking to found was of a different sort. I don't know the citation but someplace he said what was needed was a scientific Buddhism. Not until I read this critique did I realize that he was trying to do just that with the "creative" agenda he had set for himself.

    The contradiction Brassier points out is that eternal return:

    "It exterminates all known values because it is the assertion of absolute eternal indifference, without even a "finale of nothingness" to punctuate the sequence or to distinguish between beginning or end"

    To my ear this sounds a lot like the emptiness that is neither born nor dies in Buddhist thought. It is all meaningless suffering. But Nietzsche posits an affirmative "redemption" by willing the world
    to be exactly what it is. Brassier goes on to point out that this affirmative act that "divides history in two" completely undermines the previous devaluation of eternal return (as it was intended to do) and
    makes the whole agenda very problematic. I think that's an interesting and well argued attack. But what struck me while reading this is how similar the moment of affirmation is to the sometimes repeated myth of the Buddha's enlightenment. Some Buddhists maintain that when enlightenment happened for the Buddha it actually happened to the whole
    world. Enlightenment was not only a personal experience but a cosmological one.

    I don't "believe" that particular myth but I found it be an interesting parallel. It would not surprise me if Nietzsche was mindful of this parallel. I think Nietzsche was well grounded to think that scientific Buddhism may be a good candidate for the post platonic world view. Currently however, it looks like the upper hand goes to a sort of constitutional capitalism, a fascism-light.

    One last thought on this topic. The work of Genpo Roshi sort of follows this pattern. He calls it Big Mind and it uses Jungian psychoanalysis with Zen practice.

  5. Sorry for the weird line structure. I had to copy and paste and ran into some format issues.