The Rise of Realism


The Rise of Realism

Every Sunday I dip into ongoing works. I read on a rotational basis rather than gulping everything in one log sitting. I’ve always found that if one reads a little at a time, then sits down and cogitates and works over the passages this way and that, turning them toward other thinkers, writers, etc., then applying them to one’s own conceptual framework and even debating this vs. that from one’s own angle then from the angle of the Other one eventually comes to a truce. What does this mean? One makes it one’s own either accepting or rejecting it, and in doing that one makes it a memory – mimetically applying it by light or shadow in one’s thought.

Today was reading some passages in Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman’s book where they both agree that many process thinkers and others have a difficult time with an Object based philosophy always accusing them of reducing things to inanimate objective fact, facticity, etc., when in fact both see things and events within a temporal historical scaling that applies various speeds and rhythms to the life of objects: seeing an object as both cause and effect, but at different timescales – some cosmological.

As DeLanda asks Harman,

A process (or mechanism) would in turn be a series of events, though not necessarily a linear series. I have heard remarks that in your ontology events are not acknowledged, but I have the feeling that this is just a terminological quirk. I think that your concept of object encompasses both things and events, both considered to be objective. Is that correct?1

Harman will answer, saying,

It is merely a terminological issue indeed. Why do people have such a hard time seeing this? Events for me are encompassed under the term “object,” which I’ve retained simply to express my debt to the old Viennese discussion of objects (in Brentano and his students, including Husserl). Many people assume that “object” must refer only to inanimate physical solids that last for a very long time. But to return to my earlier point, some Deleuze-inspired authors like to speak in terms of a single matter-energy, with objects merely forming transiently as swirls out of that energy. An example would be Jane Bennett (2012), whose ideas I like very much despite this pretty big disagreement.

In a final passage DeLanda sees a similarity,

I myself have expressed a similar idea. In A Thousand Years (1997) I do assert that organisms are transitory coagulations in the flows of energy and matter coursing through ecosystems, and, more generally, I deal in that book with flows (of lava, biomass, memes, norms) treating objects as temporary structures appearing and disappearing within this fluid reality. This makes sense to me, but only as long as we keep in mind that a mind-independent reality possesses a variety of significant time scales. Across very long time scales (i.e., much longer than a human lifetime) many objects disappear from view and you would only be able to “see” flows, that is, becomings. At shorter time scales, many of these becomings can be grasped as semi-permanent beings. To use a different formulation: we just distinguished things from events, but over a long enough time scale many things can be treated as events: at the level of geological time scales, in which a significant event such as the clash between two tectonic plates may take millions of years, an entire human life becomes a bleep on the radar screen – that is, an almost instantaneous event. [my italics]

This blurring at timescales of objects and events at differing rhythms, speeds, scale seems to lead to a sense of memory rather than either thing or event. Sometimes I think of objects as congealed memories and Time is the keeper of these memories, almost like fragments of a ongoing ghost story in which the philosopher or scientist slowly unbinds the memory (physical or mimetic trace) of thing or event across its timeframe or lifetime. I mean when a physicist speaks of looking at events out there across the voids of space they always speak of looking back in time at events that happened billions of light-years in the past. Some of the light of galaxies we see from Hubble existed at timescales of 13 to 15 billions of years ago and yet we see their traces here, now. It’s these congealed memories of the past that we can unfold from the light-beams of distant events that in themselves are as well physical objects, so that both object and event are part of a vast cosmological recording marked on light. Maybe in the end we need new terms for this combination of light, object, time, memory, event; a meta-concept that would be inclusive of all these concepts.

If Speculative Realism has a future then it will need – like the earlier naïve realism of the nineteenth century, its shadow reflection in art and literature. Literature itself or at least novels began in a revolt against the Medieval romances in the fruition of such end products as Cervantes Don Quixote, which was itself a work that pushed the old romances to parody and farce, and yet through the debates and colloquies between Don Quixote and his faithful servant Sancho Panza we see this rise of realism out of the world of romance fiction. In this way the latest versions of SR are themselves to be seen against a backdrop of this whole history of the rise of realism out of renaissance thought along with the culture of Enlightenment and the sciences.

Too many times I see people castigate humanistic learning for being too anthropomorphic, etc., and yet they miss the other wider framework within which this cultural project was carried on: the multiplicity of views onto history, literature, philosophy, science(s), art, and aesthetics. Some dismiss such worlds as if the great learning of say an E.R. Curtius (European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages), Eric Auerbach (Mimesis), Gilbert Highet (The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature), Robert Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy), or any number of learned works from other or specialists disciplines no longer have a place in current or contemporary thought. And, yet, without these past works we’d be mongrels and barbarians in a world of stupidity and unreason, shifting this way and that in our private silos of data without any aesthetic sense of its overall design on our lives and minds.

As Fredrich Jameson recently put it,

I have observed a curious development which always seems to set in when we attempt to hold the phenomenon of realism firmly in our mind’s eye. It is as though the object of our meditation began to wobble, and the attention to it to slip insensibly away from it in two opposite directions, so that at length we find we are thinking, not about realism, but about its emergence; not about the thing itself, but about its dissolution.2

I have to admit this is my conundrum: there are so many facets to the various emerging realisms, and yet Harman and DeLanda seem to hold two of the most important threads in it. Both seek unlike naïve realism an indirect path to realism rather than the direct empirical or idealist transcendental; both seek a non-human as compared to human-centric approach; and, both seek to expose the temporal scales and dimensions of the real which form the thing-event. So in many ways one needs to define what it isn’t in literature: let’s say the anti-realist and irrealist traditions of the last few decades: those of the irreal such as John Barth, Italo Calvino, Jorge-Luis Borges, and many others would be the opposition in literature. Next one has to define the base conceptuality.

For Harman it starts with the withdrawn ‘real’ object as compared to the sensual or appearance we have through our empirical sense-baring senses – and, yet, it’s not Kantian inner turn either… it is dualistic, but not based on some centered transcendental Subject Idealist or Materialist (Badiou, Zizek). Kant and his inheritors would divide the world into appearance (phenomenon) and noumenal (unknown, impossible, outside). While the materialists either non-dialectical or dialectical would seek the appearance in appearance, but would agree that there is nothing behind the mask of appearance – appearance was all. The only difference being that non-dialectical materialists, the scientific and empirical traditions would hold to the known and physicalist, and in our time the more immaterialist materialisms of quantum theoretic. While the dialectical materialists would bring in history, time, memory, event in oscillation between appearance/event.  

SR is not part of the Analytical realisms nor the various moral realisms nor the Neo-Rationalists and deontological, etc. As for who fits this I haven’t really begun to place any current writers into this category… but in many ways for me it would start with film noir and the noir tradition in sub-genre which has always dealt with that withdrawn and indirect under the surface tensions of thing-events. Harman has written of H.P. Lovecraft and Dante in regards to his own OOO. I’m sure DeLanda if pressed would have literary purveyors who would fit into his variation of SR. 

So then to know what SR is one almost needs to decide on that wavering in-between the emergence and dissolution of the naïve realism against which it pits itself. This post was not meant to go this far, and I want. I’ll save such thoughts for a future post(s).

  1. DeLanda, Manuel; Harman, Graham. The Rise of Realism (Kindle Locations 1126-1129). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  2. Jameson, Fredric. The Antinomies Of Realism (p. 1). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

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