Speculative Realism

Many of us discovered Speculative Realism through the blog Larval Subject. I remember seeing a photograph of the participants at the 2007 conference, with a caption something like “so begins a dark new age of philosophy…”.  The prospect of new philosophy was irresistible.  After reading a few of the books, my thinking came under the powerful influence of this movement. I found its logic working into my everyday thoughts, as though I’d been slipped some strange designer drug!  That was five years ago. Since then I’ve learned to distinguish my own thinking again. These are a few paragraphs on my tangential encounter with speculative realism, and how I moved beyond.  

SR satisfies a common longing of philosophy students. It overcomes a textual bias by opening a capacity to think about almost anything philosophically. Whether it is common everyday things, or astronomical bodies, this is fresh air for the intellect. Reason departs from academic conventions and returns to the world after a dreary monastic exile. The basic formula is strange realism. This is an ethos of encounter with the inhuman. There is reality, but it’s bizarre. We only get limited encounters with reality. There is always more we are missing. For me, this is the kernel of SR. This is a pill that can take us in various directions. We can move empirically to explore strange appearances. But there is always a bracketing that posits an unknown beyond that eludes our awareness.

In my mind, this ethos has two remarkable advantages. First, it imposes modesty on intelligence. When reality is assumed to be inhuman, then we only limited and tentative claims. This leads to careful coherent thinking, and is conducive for academic rigour. SR is naturally adapted to institutional conservatism, and to dialogues with science.  But, this school also has an opposite advantage. When thinking is merely speculative, then it is free to explore the most incredible chances. The speculative is a form of modal bracketing that opens the wildest contingencies which are inconceivable for conventional disciplines. So it has this dual capacity for both rigor and adventure. This dialectical advantage seems implicit in any philosophy that is both realistic and speculative.     

It seems that SR is a singular event where philosophy attains a distinct form of consciousness. But perhaps any consciousness could be folded back into self-consciousness. This is the direction that takes me “beyond SR”.  Once we start exploring the movement’s self-consciousness, then it seems we are beginning something different. This departure begins when we start folding the movement back onto its cultural and historical context. There are two arguments that initiated my departure.  First, SR is a reconstruction of Kantianism (or German Idealism) in the wake of 20th century science.  Second, this reconstruction is inhibited by residual ethical presuppositions from post-structuralism. The first argument can be straightforward, and I wonder if anyone would even disagree. The second argument is probably more controversial, and will likely be considered idiosyncratic. Taken together, these arguments are a vehicle that have delivered my thinking beyond the limits of speculative realism.

SR is an updating of critical philosophy which repeats Kant’s fundamental gestures. Where Kant responded to Newtonian physics, SR updates his philosophy for more recent developments.  This is not just an epistemological response to science, but a mediation with the uncertainties surrounding technology and finance.  Historically speaking, SR would be where critical philosophy responds to 20th century science. This turns on the section titled “anticipations of perception” in Critique of Pure Reason, which introduces the theme of “reality and negation”. The widespread opinion that SR is anti-Kantian reflects misunderstandings that have surrounded this section for centuries. When Kant discusses das Ding (or related terms like realitas and noumena) he is not positing an inaccessible reality independent of our awareness. Rather, he is analyzing how we represent reality that we have not yet perceived. This I think is the thought-germ that SR has reawakened, and cultivated in the environment of contemporary techno-science.

Some proponents of SR have suggested that they are doing something fundamentally different. It’s sometimes claimed that Kant was only considering how reality is represented for a subject, whereas SR considers reality itself somehow more directly. I do not find this convincing, and believe SR is much closer to Kant then has been implied. Maybe this is readily admitted by proponents (if there still are any), or maybe it would require lots of work on my part to convince anyone. To explain SR as a reconstruction of critical philosophy, the factor that needs to be emphasized is uncertainty. As uncertainties have increased (i,e. with quantum physics, information science, bioengineering etc.), that has forced augmentations in the categories of representation.  The categories get disfigured by the prospect of  bizarre contingencies like vicarious causation or alterations in physical laws. SR then is what happens to critical philosophy following the radicalization of scientific uncertainty.  

Proponents might dislike this simple account for various reasons. The movement has its own history that emphasizes the novelty of guys like Whitehead and Schelling. It depicts them as “realists” who thought against the insularity of mainstream Kantianism. This history is fruitful in how it highlights the encounters of thought with not-thought. However, this realist rhetoric excludes some so-called “idealist” thinkers, such as Herman Cohen, who could make important contributions to the discussion. There is a danger of sliding back into a 19th century style debate between camps of realists and idealists. My inclination is to move beyond SR by integrating it with neo-Kantianism.  

My second argument concerns the cultural and historical background of the movement. I believe SR is inhibited by an ethics inherited from post-structuralism. Simply put, this is a privileging of the external. This is an ethical bias towards “the outside” ingrained in the humanities, which is a legacy of  ‘68 thought.  This strain of philosophy is aligned with cultural biases that go beyond academia. This is a responsiveness to social pressures that the market places on the humanities. External encounters are favoured by the commerce of novelty experience. This is fundamental to how markets work.  Something is more exchangeable if it can be exchanged by more participants. Mass markets favour external relations, in that they favour rapid exchanges between strangers. For instance, the “Latourian litany” is a serial form of media related to advertising.  My intention is not to scandalize anyone by associating them with neoliberalism. I am not worried that this philosophy may be implicated with the crimes of capitalists. Incidentally, I can only wish capitalism were smart enough to invest in something like onticology! My concern here is to think beyond SR, not because I have any dislike of that movement, but only because that is where I feel inclined to go.  

This externality is a complex legacy which hasn’t received much attention. I previously considered this topic in the post Deleuze at Home. This tendency coincides with the overall market orientation of the humanities. This strain of liberal idealism also accompanies US imperialism, where it connects humanitarianism with the logic of free markets. This is the ethics of alterity that predominates in NGO circles. This is a moral ethics that values marketability and novelty experience. Externalization also responds to social anxiety, and the fear of getting left out from the market. Levi Bryant’s onticology exhibits this sort of external orientation at a formal level. Speaking ontically maximizes the chances for exchange. Everyday speech is the most readily translatable, and intelligible to the widest audiences. Object modelling is a form of universal representation that is consistent with the modularity of markets. It’s easy to see how this kind of theory developed in the promotional culture of the blogosphere. To do philosophy ontically seems like thought’s capitulation to the social symbolic. This strain of thought seems to operate on the principles of a market Hegelianism which pursues the universal rationality and exchangeability of the object form.  Again, this critique is not even slightly dismissive, and I consider all of this highly admirable.  And note this criticism isn’t addressed to explicit doctrines, but to how the movement is valued in the culture of the humanities.

Any realism would probably have doctrinal tendencies towards an external bias. However, SR does have conceptual resources to resist this tendency. Most obvious is Graham Harman’s discourse on withdrawal which posits a monadic interior. This withdrawal into the inside of objects might be a gateway that exits from realism. It seems our access to internal relations is rather limited, and perhaps we only have access to our own internal relations. My thinking is inclined in this direction, and to consider how internal relations can overcome their alienation in external relations. So it’s the objectivist division of internal relations from external relations that is my main contention. This division can lead to an oscillating discourse where we are either talking about self-reference or other-reference. Johann Fichte developed solutions for this problem, but SR would avoid that direction as human self-representation. It prefers to consider the generic objectivity of anything whatsoever. The  four-fold dialectical model Harman derives from Heidegger allows him to avoid humanist representation. I appreciate the rational behind this object cosmopolitanism, but I feel it’s exterior orientation leads it into an aimless austerity.  It seems to open a deserted flat ontology which is a legacy of post-structuralism I find unappealing.  

What I prefer is the tracking of practical singularities, which can involve humanistic representation. My problem is how interiors can be suited for current environmental conditions.  This work is like a digestion, or some other chemical process, where exteriors are absorbed into interiors. In ethological terms, this is analogous to nest construction. Clinically speaking, this could be called practical autism, or what the neurologist Oliver Sacks calls “monadic diseases”.  For samples of writing experiments in this direction, just click back to read any posts on this blog.

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