Here are a few reflections on last Fridays event “Here Comes Everything: An Introduction to Speculative Realism.” Video of the event will be posted later today (hopefully!).
The evening was split roughly into two halves with three presentations on each side of a short break. The first three, as you shall see, focused heavily on the Latour-OOO branch of Speculative Realism, with the second half focusing on Buddhist dialogues with Speculative Realism as well as excellent treatments of the work of Iain Hamilton Grant and Quentin Meillassoux.
The evening started off with Sam Mickey and myself (Adam Robbert) recounting our own version of “The History of Access” a little piece riffing on the many facets of the post-Kantian scene in philosophy. Fortunately for everyone, Sam is one of those people who can summarize a book in three words, an auspicious asset considering that we gave ourselves only 25 minutes to explain the major philosophical insights gained since the late 18th century.
Correlationism is of course the centerpiece of any attempt to introduce Speculative Realism to those unfamiliar with the disparate and divergent movement. Charting the history of philosophy, Sam took us through the multiple adumbrations of correlationism including German idealism, phenomenology, deconstruction, analytic philosophy and their assorted subgenres, showing how correlationist thinking has left anti-realist and anti-metaphysical philosophies in its wake.
My own task in this introduction was somewhat easier and focused on the relevant strands of philosophy that, in their own way, had continued a tradition of speculation, ontology and metaphysics despite their increasing unpopularity throughout 20th century philosophy.
Where Sam articulated post-Kantian prohibitions against speculation, I focused on those figures that I felt had admirably maintained an avid love of speculation. William James seemed an obvious choice, as it was he who had such an impact on both Whitehead and Latour. There is something about James’ phrase “everything is ever not quite” that I felt captured so well both the desire to articulate an ontological position, and the inevitable failure of any attempt at complete metaphysical description. James in this way anticipates central figures to speculative realism.
Where Whitehead sought to systematize James’ ontological pluralism, and Latour so adequately applied both the Jamesian notion of radical empiricism and the Whiteheadian metaphysical love of process, one could also read into James’ “ever not quite” a hint of what Heidegger would later articulate as the withdrawn nature of the tool- a position that, as anyone familiar with OOO knows, would become a cornerstone of Harman’s articulation of the ontology of objects.
Though the connection between James and Heidegger is perhaps not canonical in any recognized philosophical sense, the tie between the “withdrawn” and the “ever not quite” seems to situate both thinkers in a way that makes both the phenomenological background of Heidegger and the psychology of James as important precursors to at least the OOO branch of Speculative Realism. Of course, “ever not quite” and “totally withdrawn,” are phrases from different traditions with notable distinctions; nevertheless an evasive ontological quality is present in both.
Whether or not Speculative Realism is still a term that can be used to describe the work of people as diverse as Ray Brassier and Graham Harman is a matter of contention. Our own group seemed ambivalent about the distinction, but it seemed clear that OOO and Speculative Realism, though historically related, are growing further apart.
Our introduction rounded out with further reflections on the use of speculative philosophy in connection with other movements in thought that occurred during the 20thcentury. In addition to the psychology of James and the cosmology of Whitehead, we also noted the contributions of Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stenger’s with regards to the “Parliament of Things” and the “Cosmopolitics,” respectively. Donna Haraway’s work in feminism, science studies and her work on companion species were also noted. Haraway seems to be the figure most rooted in both the 20th century critical continental scene drawing on the likes of Foucault, as well as exhibiting a strong connection to Whitehead’s own speculative philosophy (on a side note, her capacity to hold these distinct positions is one of the reasons she is such a hero of mine).
That Stengers and Haraway were both central to the Claremont conference “Metaphysics and Things,” which was attended by three of the six panel members at our event was noteworthy as well. Haraway and Stengers are not, strictly speaking, members of the original four speculative realists (which most now know consisted of Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman and Ian Hamilton Grant), nevertheless their ongoing contributions to philosophy, anthropology and science studies make them central figures in the ongoing need to articulate not only new ontologies, but also new political and ethical systems of practice in relation to the work of metaphysics. One of the recurring themes and questions at our Friday event centralized ethics, the problem of evil and practice. There seemed to be an air of question as to whether the potency with which Speculative Realism has approached ontology has left it vulnerable, at least at this stage in the game, to political, ethical and moral criticisms (are we forsaking crucial considerations vis-à-vis praxis in the rush return to metaphysics?) Important questions abound here.
Our brief introduction was followed by the work of doctoral student Elizabeth McAnally, whose recent return from India gave her presentation a concrete and direct feel for us all to engage with the value of speculative realism in general, and with the philosophy of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman in particular. Having written her MA thesis on Latour, her ability to describe the value of actor-network theory with confidence and ease was apparent. The Ganges River in India, her particular site of study, afforded everyone with the opportunity to explore just what an object-oriented philosophy could perform in terms of on the ground research. The Ganges is a goddess, a river, a sewage canal and much more. That religion, politics and ecology are intertwined with the river goes without saying, the problem lies in allying these disparate perspectives into a kind of “water democracy” that adequately situates each perspective. Latour’s notion of “irreduction” was particularly prescient here as it becomes easy to see that any mode of abstraction (be it religious, scientific or political) has the capacity to reduce the Ganges to a particular set of relations, something that both Latour and Harman provide robust grounds for arguing against. Elizabeth’s presentation highlighted the value of Latour’s work in terms of religious, ecological and political praxis.
Next, Sam Mickey was given the floor once again to explore “The Astonishing Depths of Things,” a philosophical exegesis that opened us into the philosophical roots of Graham Harman’s philosophy. Mickey, once a devout Heideggerian, explained how through reading Latour he was able to break the Heideggerian circle and return to “the things themselves” through both Latour’s critique of Heidegger in We Have Never Been Modernand Latour’s political musings in The Politics of Nature. Anyone familiar with Harman will note Sam’s historical kinship with him. As a student of the works of Heidegger, and then of Latour, Sam was uniquely positioned to understand Harman’s position perhaps better than any of us. A simple synthesis of Heidegger and Latour was not, however, Sam’s highlight. In my opinion, Sam was at his strongest when articulating a “philosophy of touch” as both an integral philosophy (from the etymology of “integral” meaning “untouched”) and an object-oriented philosophy following, for example, Whitehead scholar Roland Faber’s comments at the Claremont conference that Harman’s is also a “philosophy of touch.” Drawing on Harman’s concepts of vicarious causation and allure, Sam argued that all objects are both always already touching every other object in the universe and are always withdrawn from all relations, planting him firmly in Harmanian grounds. I am definitely looking forward to see how the project of touch unfolds in both integral and object-oriented philosophical modes.
I will abstain from producing an account of my own talk for the panel as I have already posted the paper I delivered for the event HERE. My own notions of an ecological realism and a fourfold research method are nascent, but suffice to say that they at least seemed well received.
Shifting gears in the second half (after food and some wine), Aaron Weiss, doctoral student in the Asian Comparative Studies department regaled us with an account of both Buddhist cosmology and Harman’s chapter in Circus Philosophicus entitled “The Ferris Wheel.” Aaron is another one of those rare scholars that is as funny as he is deep. Starting with a description of the god-king Indra’s jeweled net –in which each faceted gem is connected to an infinite amount of other gems strung together through an n-dimensional array of threads- Aaron invited questions that could be considered alongside of Harman’s own accounts of objects as they rotate above and below ground, traveling as they do upon a gigantic Ferris wheel. Praxis was also a central theme of Aaron’s talk. We had heard about touch, we had heard about actors, objects and networks, but what are the practices associated with these ontological musings, asked Aaron. As a practitioner and scholar of Buddhism, practices are central to both Aaron’s studies in general and to his reading of integral philosophy in particular. The “Latourian Litanies” –those lists of cheetahs, leprechauns and patriot missiles for which Latour is so famous (and from which Harman seems to have learned so much) are for Aaron, modes of mindfulness where one can consider the interconnections of disparate things. Aaron’s talk seemed to me a call not just philosophize, but also to consider philosophy alongside non-philosophical modes of practice, to which philosophy (being that it cannot be its own self-contained island) must remain in relation to.
Thus far in the evening a disproportionate amount of attention had been paid to the likes of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman, so much so that I had a creeping feeling of anxiety that we should have named this event “Introduction to Object-Oriented Philosophies” rather than the more general title “Introduction to Speculative Realism.” It was true that we had centered Quentin Meillassoux’s work and his term “correlationism” in the introduction (and again in a brief recap after the break for those folks who had arrived late). Sam had also on more than one occasion invited us to explore and try out not just nihilism, but Ray Brassier’s more sophisticated “transcendental nihilism.” Nevertheless with four out of six presentations complete, the original speculative realist crew seemed ill represented. Our final two presenters, however, would serve to help remedy this imbalance as both Dr. Jacob Sherman and philosophy doctoral student Matt Segall would take us through the works of both Quentin Meillassoux and Iain Hamilton Grant, respectively.
Matt Segall’s ambitious presentation sought to argue the well taken point that, although speculative realism may be new in name, the mode of philosophizing advocated by speculative realists is as old is Plato (Segall’s blog, named FOOTNOTES2PLATO after Whitehead’s famous comments about the history of philosophy being “footnotes to Plato” gives you a sense that returning to Plato is a common practice for this young philosopher). Working through three central texts: Kant’s Critique of Judgment,Schelling’s Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, and Plato’s Timaeus, Segall sought to justify and explore the insight of Iain Hamilton Grant’s own contributions to Speculative Realism in Nature after Schelling. Aside from all the heavy philosophizing, Segall has a background in cognitive science and biology, which gives him the unique power to move between philosophical and scientific discourse in a manner unfair for someone of his age. Alongside of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, one finds Segall’s talks peppered with references to geology, evolutionary theory and in particular, a love of the work of Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson. “There will never be a Newton of the grass blade,” remarked Segall, echoing Kant’s famous phrase. For Segall, following in Grant’s footsteps, correlationism is overcome by a reversal of the Kantian position that ‘all of existence must be grounded in the mind.’ No such thing is necessary, argues Segall. Rather, the earth itself is the transcendental ground that anchors consciousness and not the reverse. Segall’s tagline could have been “no earth, no geology” a quick phrase that demonstrates the thesis that were there no earth prior to mind, no experience as such would be possible by any human. In this way Segall persuasively argued for Grant’s “geocentric realism,” and that questions of the “thing in itself” need also consider that “the thing itself thinks!” In other words, for Segall and for Grant, there is more to the phenomenal realm which renders it immune to any simple distinction from the noumenal, as the two can be seen to act concordantly in all living things, with our without human mediation.
After repeated criticisms of correlationism from the prior presentations, our keynote speaker Dr. Jacob Sherman’s presentation returned our attention to the origin of the problem of correlationism in modern philosophy, including insightful overviews of the philosophies that led up to Kant’s Copernican turn (including Locke, Berkeley, and Hume). Focusing on After Finitude, Sherman introduced the penetrating arguments and refreshing style that have helped Meillassoux gain a wide readership. Honoring the elements of “participatory realism” in Meillassoux’s response to the problem of correlationism, Sherman called for “two cheers for Meillassoux.” Instead of offering a third cheer, Sherman raised some critical concerns about Meillassoux’s mathematical understanding of real (primary) qualities.
In an odd turn of events, Sherman opened his talk with the verse of Wordsworth, but perhaps this was not so strange when considering some of Meillassoux’s choice words inAfter Finitude. Meillassoux’s “great outdoors,” or “absolute outside,” that aspect of the world to which no human correlate need correspond, is for Sherman a central component of the original Romantic project. Sherman traced the original coinage of the phrase “the great outdoors” to Keats in 1819. The Romantics, Sherman noted, were not concerned with producing mathematical descriptions of primary qualities “outside” of human experience, but rather sought explicitly to explore the sensible qualities that pervaded, with a strange uncannyness, not just the great outdoors, but also, to quote Sherman’s phrase “the great indoors.” For Sherman, Meillassoux has offered just critiques of correlationism in general and of Romanticism in particular, critiques that should and must be heeded by the continuation of any Romantic project.
It is better to watch Sherman so carefully take us through his arguments than it is for me to try and reproduce them here as I can do them no justice, however, Sherman’s final remarks are noteworthy. Meillassoux, who is so eager to a think a world apart from the mind, to consider the arche-fossil as a serious challenge to any honest correlationist position, and who wants, and may have succeeded, in producing a mathematical proof of existence before manifestation, still leaves Sherman wanting. If we are thinking qualities, and not maths, does this not imply that we are also thinking interiority, asked Sherman. And if so, are not the sensual relations, qualities and stories what we want to break free from the correlation? Sherman ended with a challenge for us to thinkqualities non-anthropocentrically.
During the Q&A that followed, it was mentioned that Harman’s metaphysics provides ways of discussing real qualities without mathematicizing them. The rest of the brief Q&A touched on a variety of big topics for speculative realism, including beauty, time, and the future of philosophy.