On Speculative Realism and Materialism
…speculative realists …are committed to the view that there is a reality that exceeds the bounds of perception and phenomenological intuition; that human thought is capable of transgressing the limits of phenomenological evidence; and that being is not identical to knowing. In short: speculation, they maintain, is theoretically capable of disengaging objects from subjects in nonarbitrary ways, some of which approximate science fiction but none of which are, in the last analysis, fictitious.
—Tom Sparrow, The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism
Ray Brassier who coined the term Speculative Realism as part of a weekend seminar at Goldsmith’s back in 2007 recently addressed this strange beast quoting Graham Harman from his essay ‘The Current State of Speculative Realism’ in Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism IV (2013), 22:
Though there are still tough tests ahead concerning the breadth and durability of Speculative Realism, it has long since passed the ‘existence’ test to a far greater degree than most of its critics.2
To this Brassier asks: “Has Speculative Realism passed the existence test?” For Brassier the answer was an unqualifiable “no”. For him the originality of SR began with Quentin Meillassoux’s questioning of the Kantian tradition of Continental Philosophy and its Anti-Realist tendencies; otherwise known in Meillassoux’s parlance as “correlationism” (which we discussed in the previous post). So that Brassier will ask: “The question then arising is whether anti-correlationism is indeed a sufficient condition for Speculative Realism. I do not think it can be.” Ultimately Brassier’s dissatisfaction with SR comes from his disagreement with Graham Harman and his brand of speculative realism or Object-Oriented Ontology.
After agreeing with Brassier in that SR was stillborn, and that it has no center or circumference, no school of thought or associated ideas or member constituents but was already pronounced dead of arrival (D.O.A.), Leon Niemoczynski in a recent book – strangely entitled Speculative Realism: An Epitome – tells us that he sincerely hopes “that others will be able to disregard any brand or factional attachments and read the work of these philosophers for the sheer brilliance that it is: focus on the ideas in play and comment upon them, critique and assess them—or perhaps even critically incorporate them into one’s own outlook and work”.3
Having watched these various blogsphere battles, and enraged young academics and their elders both publically and privately debating, castigating, warring over this beast of a brand and label, and its existence since 2007 it has been apparent to me at least that philosophers are “human, all too human” after all. Enough said on that score. For me at least its the individual and singular thinkers and their conceptual output that matters not the disquieting wars over umbrella brands and labels. What truly needs to be defined is not the label, but rather the use of the concepts “speculation” and “realism”. What are they separately, and when brought together what is being done? As Tom Sparrow puts it:
It would be inaccurate to claim that either phenomenology or speculative realism adheres to a standard, univocal method. The various figures gathered under the speculative realist label deploy disparate methodologies, although each in their own way attempts to overcome the antirealist hegemony in continental philosophy. Toward this end they share a willingness to speculate about things metaphysical and, some more than others, to construct original ontologies. (Sparrow, p. 2)
So is this actually just a return to premodern thought? A return to metaphysics? If as Wesley Philips in The Future of Speculation? implies, that SR in its “naturalistic sense of totality and of realism prevents it from relating ‘necessary contingency’ to any (future-oriented) task” then is there even a reason to continue to use this brand/labe.?4 Yet, if of contingency is neither a historical category, nor some Hegelian dialectical move, then maybe SR has an existence after all. The whole point of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency which is the work around which the original conference was held, and brought the four main philosophical players – Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux together, was more concerned with contingency than the problems of correlationism. Ultimately one of the primary goals of Meillassoux’s book was to provide a foundation for scientific knowledge. The absolutization of facticity — the idea according to which Meillassoux posits the absolute impossibility of a necessary being — entails a shifting away from the principle of sufficient reason into an anhypothetical and absolute principle of unreason.5 As Riera remarks:
By claiming that physical laws are contingent, Meillassoux proposed a speculative solution to Hume’s problem of primary and secondary qualities. The author’s treatment of what at first could have passed for an innocuous metaphysical non-problem is implemented in order to transform our outlook on unreason. A truly speculative solution to Hume’s problem must conceive a world devoid of any physical necessity that, nevertheless, would still be compatible with the stability of its physical laws. Here contingency is the key concept that, insofar as it is extracted from Humean-Kantian necessitarianism and thus distinguished from chance, enables Meillassoux to explain how and why Cantor’s transfinite number could constitute a condition for the stability of chaos.
The point here is that Cantor provides the tool for a mathematical way of distinguishing contingency from chance, and this tool is none other than the transfinite, which Meillassoux translates into an elegant and economical statement: “the (qualifiable) totality of the thinkable is unthinkable.” (AF, p. 104) This means that in the absence of any certainty regarding the totalization of the possible, we should limit the scope of aleatory reasoning to objects of experience, rather than extending it to the very laws that rule our universe (as Kant illegitimately did in the Critique of Pure Reason), as if we knew that the these laws necessarily belong to some greater Whole. (see Riera) Ultimately, as a good ephebe, Meillassoux following his mentor Badiou’s footsteps tried completing the Galilean-Copernican decentering wrought by science in stating that “what is mathematizable cannot be reduced to a correlate of thought.” (AF, p. 117) As Riera concludes, for Meillassoux contingency is the crucial concept, and is inextricably linked to Badiou’s conception of the event. (I’ll not go into Badiou’s conception of the event, here!)
Going back to the Great Outdoors of Being
What speculative realism provides in response to the rhetorics of concreteness and the Rich Elsewhere is a realism that multiplies the dimensions of reality by identifying those irreducible speculative moments of philosophical analysis that summon us to assume a realist stance because idealism, correlationism, and the linguistic turn leave us wanting.
—Tom Sparrow, The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism
“Allure, with its severing of objects and qualities, is the paradigm shift of the senses…”
If the above is true then exactly what is this realist stance proposing against all those anti-realist philosophies of the twentieth-century? Instead of reiterating the singular stances of each of the players in the speculative realist movement (if there still is one?), I’ll append a set of previous essay and posts that have dealt the outlines of this. In my post on Graham Harman: An Ontology of Forces and Actions I came to the conclusion that Reality cannot be reduced to Mind, Language, or Scientific description. Reality is an open in indefinable ever-changing realm of metamorphosis within which we are but one among many entities, each impinging upon the other in a carnival of existence. The point of this is that the Real exceeds our explanatory explanandum, and cannot be reduced to any description whatsoever. Instead it needs a speculative aesthetics, a poetry of existence – at once inventive, trope ridden, and empowered to lure what is hidden and unknown out of its dark places. In this sense Harman reminds us that the concept of allure is the central figure-form within any speculative realism,
Object-oriented philosophy is not panpsychist, but only “panallurist,” to coin a ridiculous and linguistically inept term. I have argued that allure exists in germinal form in all reality, including the inanimate sphere. This by no means implies that rocks can think and feel, just as it never entails that mulberry bushes have wings in germ or that sand grains tacitly know how to manage farms or fabricate stone tools. Allure is something far more primitive than any of these revolutions: indeed, allure is the principle of revolution as such, since only allure makes quantum leaps from one state of reality into the next by generating a new relation between objects. Without allure, we are trapped amidst the swirling black noise of any given sensual space. … The ontological structure of the world does not evolve or undergo revolutions, which is precisely what makes it an ontological structure. Only objects undergo revolutions—and human beings make up just a few billion objects among others, and are not special guests at the table of Being whose absence would simplify the universe immeasurably. (GM, 244)6
In an interesting essay in Object-Oriented Feminisms ‘Allure and Abjection: The Possible Potential of Severed Qualities’ Lunning explicates this notion of allure:
Allure, which provides the process for metaphor, does not take us any closer to the object—but merely translates it into object language— redolent with the pull of the now withdrawn object, but engineering a mysterious exchange of qualities that are left in the gap of the conceptual field that is the heart of the metaphor.7
For Harman allure remains a concept that, contrasted with “sincerity,” allows him to account for the way in which objects break free of their sensual qualities.8 As Harman describes this concept in his book Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, in “perception as in allure, the collision of inscrutable objects somehow generates an ether of tangible qualities in which both inanimate things and we ourselves reside. Allure is actually the clearest case we have seen so far in which qualities become visible.”9 (GM, p. 172) He also defines allure as a mechanism by which objects are split apart from their traits even as these traits remain inseparable from their objects. Above all else, it seemed to be aesthetic experience that splits the atoms of the world and puts their particles on display. (GM, p. 173)
This aesthetic dimension of allure seems pertinent to my own concern with dark realism. This is not aesthetics in the sense its used in the arts, rather its the Nietzschean sense of the Real as aesthetic. It’s this aspect that Harman addresses when he says,
…if we now say that the universe has an aesthetic or metaphorical structure, this has nothing to do with the shopworn theme of a conscious human artist projecting values onto an arbitrary perspectival universe. Instead, it is an actual metaphysical statement about the way that raindrops or sandstorms interact among themselves even when no humans are on the scene. The point is not the old postmodern chestnut of “life as literature,” but rather causation itself as music, sculpture, and street theater. When we speak of beauty, charm, humor, metaphor, or seduction, these are no longer perspectivist and humanized terms employed to flog naive realism, but are instead the basis for a haunting new realism more compellingly naive than any that has come before. (GM, p. 174)
This notion of the non-human is at the center of SR’s move against all humanistic philosophies, a de-centering of philosophy from the for-us circle of correlationism, etc. To understand this we might turn from Harman to the Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris who after Meillassoux would affirm that it has been far too long that philosophers have posited that humans have only ever access to the correlation between thought and being, but never to being itself. Instead he like Meillassoux would make the battle cry that it is high time we go back to the absolute: time to go back to the “Great Outdoors”.10 The difference for Ferraris is that he’d been saying this for twenty years in Italy to the detriment of those who were not familiar with his work. So in this sense he was there long before Speculative Realism was even a thought in the mind of its Goldsmith’s participants.
In fact Ferraris’s stance is not to reject the past two hundred years of philosophical speculation, nor to anathematize our immediate predecessors in postmodernism, but rather to shift the problems of epistemology to ontology:
The world’s resistance against our expectations and the surprises it holds for us seem to be excellent arguments proving that there is an ontological reality independent from any epistemological construction. In short, since we live in an intimately deconstructive reality, I believe there is nothing more deconstructive than realism. (NR, p. 10)
In fact, as a student of Derrida, he’ll not dispute the need for deconstruction or even a constructivist approach, only to shift such notions as there is “nothing outside the text” to the more politically and opportune notion that there is the text Derrida is describing is not the totality of the Real but rather of the social. It’s a emphasis of dimensions and levels of reality rather than some totalistic system of referencing everything as textual, etc.
In Ferraris’s new realism he provides three thesis to illustrate its ontological power:
The first, ‘negativity’, is a critique of the postmodern idea that the world is constructed by our conceptual schemes, all the more so as we have entered the age of immateriality and virtuality. I place this first part of my discourse under the title of ‘negativity’ because with postmodernism there was the triumph of negative thinking: it was posited that the world is nothing in itself, and if it is something, this essentially depends on our thoughts and our interpretations. The second thesis, ‘positivity’, proposes the fundamental ontological assertion of new realism, namely that not only (as acknowledged by every realist and, in many cases, even by some antirealists) are there parts of reality that are independent of thought, but these parts are also able to act causally over thought and the human world. Finally, the third thesis, ‘normativity,’ applies new realism to the sphere of the social world. (NR, p. 12)
Negativity, positivity, and normativity. A critique of constructivism, an ontological turn in which the world exist and exceeds our thoughts and is independent of it; and, not only that but it resists and communicates with both human and non-human actants through processes of causation; and, finally, an acceptance within the sociocultural sphere of a new normativity in which a new realism takes up its place within the ongoing public world and its political and social aspects.
What Ferraris shares with many other new realists is the wish to move beyond Kant’s transcendental turn and its legacy in postmodern philosophy, but not through a return to something like metaphysical realism or dogmatic metaphysics. New realists want to reassert the importance of the external world (Ferraris and Putnam), the object (Harman and Morton) or the absolute (Meillassoux): in any case, they want to break out of the relation between thought and being and reach out beyond it, so as to demonstrate that, to refer once again to Bryant’s expression, ‘it is not all about us’. (NR, p. 110)
Ferraris like Tom Sparrow seems tempted toward Hegel and the dialectic. As Sparrow says:
The alternative to strong correlationism, it seems to me, is total submission to phenomenology’s idealist roots. Not the transcendental idealism of Kant, however, or the neo-Kantianism to which Husserl and Heidegger were responding, but the absolute idealism of Hegel, the original phenomenology. Hegel has proven quite tenacious; he has even won over some notable analytic philosophers. A radical retrieval of the meaning of phenomenology as Hegel understood it could yield many unexpected conclusions. (Sparrow, pp. 188-189)
I do not share such conclusions. Like Bataille, Deleuze, and Land I seek a non-dialectical turn, one that is based in horror philosophy; or, what I like to term dark realism, and have in the past termed noir realism (after the realist detectives of that criminalized sub-genre of novels and films). In this sense it is a realism that has as its task to “make an object of the unknown, as the unknown”.11 This sense that there is an absolute Real that we will never have direct access to, and not only that but that it’s alterity is absolute. And yet this absolute realm or multidimensional Real resists us and impinges on our human existence, and is completely unconcerned and impersonal in its relations to both human and non-human alike.
I shall turn to that in my next essay-post…
- Sparrow, Tom. The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism (Speculative Realism EUP). Edinburgh University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Wolfendale, Peter. Object Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes (Kindle Locations 6387-6389). Urbanomic. Kindle Edition.
- Niemoczynski, Leon. Speculative Realism: An Epitome (Epitomes) (Kindle Locations 92-95). Kismet Press LLP. Kindle Edition.
- Philips, Wesley. The Future of Speculation? Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 8, no. 1, 2012
- Riera, Gabriel, A Review of Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2008.10.12
- Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (p. 244). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
- Lunning, Frenchy. ‘Allure and Abjection: The Possible Potential of Severed Qualities’, pp.83-105, in: Behar, K. (Ed.), 2016. Object-oriented feminism. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
- The Allure of Things Process and Object in Contemporary Philosophy Edited by Roland Faber and Andrew Goffey. (Bloomsbury, 2014)
- Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (p. 172). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
- Ferraris, Maurizio. Introduction to New Realism (p. 1). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Nick Land. Phyl-Undhu: Abstract Horror, Exterminator (Kindle Location 851). Time Spiral Press. Kindle Edition.