“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Speculative Realism, Dead or Alive.

Steven Shaviro’s new book The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism arrived on my doorstep a few days ago courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press. I’m going to provide a bit of context in this post before diving into a review of the text in subsequent posts.


The press release U of M included in the package describes the book as “an up-to-the-moment critique of a recent turn in philosophical thought.” “Up-to-the-moment” it is not, since Shaviro has been testing much of the book’s content on his blog and at conferences since at least 2010. There will always be an important place for books in academic philosophy, but the principle procedural lesson of Speculative Realism (leaving aside its conceptual contributions for now) is that blogs must be an essential ingredient in any future academic philosophy hopes to carve out for itself. I strike out “academic” here because it is as yet unclear to me whether philosophy has much of a future in academia. If it is to survive the rise of the neoliberal university, philosophy may have to migrate into media ecologies more suited to free ranging public discourse and genuine learning (learning as an end in itself rather than preparation for the industrial workforce). Sometimes I think the blogosphere is able to provide this. Other times, not so much. Back in 2011, Ray Brassier (ironically the originator of the movement’s name and organizer of its first conference back in 2007) dismissed Speculative Realism as nothing more than “an online orgy of stupidity” cooked up to exploit impressionable graduate students. Since then, several dozen books have been published on the subject, including six titles in the past few weeks alone by Peter Gratton, Tom Sparrow, Peter Wolfendale, Dylan Trigg, Markus Gabriel, and Roland Faber and Andrew Goffey (eds.). If we include the last 6 or 7 months, there have also been publications by Levi Bryant and Tristan Garcia. Obviously, there is more to SR than the late night blog musings of a few overzealous graduate students. In Brassier’s defense, however, it is equally obvious that much of the recent activity in the SR blogosphere has been a total waste of bandwidth. It’s a lot of posturing and very little if any philosophizing.

Much of the controversy of late has centered around Wolfendale’s Object-Oriented Ontology: The Noumenon’s New Clothes, which violently attacks the philosophy of Graham Harman. I haven’t and won’t read the 400-page tome, but word on the street is Wolfendale ends up diagnosing OOO as a symptom of some sort of philosophical pathology (it seems the disease infects both admirers and despisers of OOO—why else would Wolfendale write 400-pages on it?).  Brassier makes a cameo appearance in the book’s afterward only to once again announce the nonexistence of the SR movement. Harman has responded to the recent dust-up, somehow managing to keep his cool despite Wolfendale’s accusation that he employs some sort of (in Harman’s words) “devious brainwashing mind-control charisma” to popularize his philosophy.

“I’m not aware of having any such power,” continues Harman, “nor am I aware of having ruthlessly crushed a thousand-flowers-blooming SR blogosphere, as Wolfendale bizarrely contends.”

In preparation for my review of Shaviro’s book, which engages with Harman more intimately than any other SR thinker, I recently re-read the last chapter of his early book Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005). His style really is infectious. And because of the aesthetic roots of his ontology, it is not at all incidental to his arguments. “A style,” according to Harman, “is never visibly present, but enters the world like a concealed emperor and dominates certain regions of our perception” (55). There is nothing naked about his prose. Reading him is perhaps best described as a psychedelic experience.

Like Shaviro, I have certain conceptual qualms with Harman’s substance ontology, as well as with what I believe to be his misreading of Whitehead’s process ontology. But I am fundamentally in agreement with the spirit in which he engages philosophy. His call for less critique and more invention couldn’t come at a more crucial juncture in the history of ideas and the evolution of (post)human consciousness. Echoing other speculative thinkers like Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, he calls for turn toward a more constructive and less anthropocentric mode of thinking: “We seek a form of invention no different in kind from the blossoming of cherry trees or the compression of carbon into diamond” (241). He warns us that “progress [in metaphysics] is constantly threatened with relapse into critique, that most deeply rooted intellectual habit of our time”(237-8), and contrasts critique with curiosity and the capacity for surprise, even going so far as to equate the latter with wisdom itself: “Wisdom means the ability to be surprised because only this ability shows sufficient integrity to listen to the voice of the world instead of our own prejudice about the world, a goal that eludes even the wisest of humans a good deal of the time” (239).

It is in this same spirit that Whitehead endeavored to philosophize, and in “rediscovering” him (as U of M’s press release puts it), Shaviro carries this spirit forward in a constructive way. Harman thanks Shaviro on the back cover for avoiding prose full of “rancor and backstabbing ambition” and praises him as “the most dignified and helpful of Speculative Realism’s critics.” I’ve also often found his work helpful. Particularly helpful was his earlier book Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze and Aesthetics (2009), which was basically my introduction to Deleuze. Also key for my understanding of the stakes of speculative thinking has been his insistence upon the philosophical fork in the road between panpsychism and eliminativism (an issue he takes up again in The Universe of Things). 

I’ll begin my review of Shaviro’s new book in subsequent posts over the next several days…





10 responses to “Speculative Realism, Dead or Alive.”

  1. […] THIS POST is interesting. What I really like is the speculation that […]

  2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

    Alexander Stingl had this to say in a comment on Cogburn’s blog post:

    In more general terms, I think the whole tone of voice in these debates is silly and self-defeating. If this is how we do business, no wonder philosophy departments are the first to suffer in the neoliberal university.

    This is not just the issue here with ‘the people who don’t like Graham Harman’, but it’s what philosophy as a discipline and discourse has been like for a very long time (cf. Adorno, cf. Derrida/Searle, cf. Sloterdijk affair, etc.) and now only reached a more frantic-cum-public stage with the emergence of the blogosphere. Interestingly, each time I point this out, the respective interlocutors from a particular discourse are the first to say how true it is, then add immediately how it’s not that they want to do this but it’s because the bad, evil opponent said or did something first. My only response to this and before anyone feels the need to tell me how it wasn’t them critics of OOO but that Graham Harman did them an injustice by ‘violently ignoring’ a blogpost, or whatever: Certainly, we know, no Kantians here, no?

    What I, humble STS scholar, would wish from philosophers is this: Do some philosophizing again, don’t waste your time with bickering like children. We have bigger problems than this, and too many philosophers waste time and energy on stalking and trolling one another.”

  3. Mark Avatar

    “Harman has responded to the recent dust-up, somehow managing to keep his cool despite Wolfendale’s accusation that he employs some sort of ‘devious brainwashing mind-control charisma’ to popularize his philosophy”.

    You really ought to be more more careful as to whom you are attributing statements. Did Wolfendale use the words “devious brainwashing mind-control charisma”? No! That is Harman’s narcissistic interpretation of Cogburn’s malicious distortions of what Wolfendale says in his preface by way of explaining why he wrote the book.

    You do the same thing when you report that “word on the street is [that] Wolfendale ends up diagnosing OOO as some sort of philosophical pathology”. Again, you are going by what Cogburn says, who took the words “pathological dynamics” out of context from the preface without having first read the book.

    I recommend that you follow all the links I have provided in the comments section to Cogburn’s blog piece (including a link to Wolfendale’s own response) and read what Robin Mackay and others have to say on that thread to get a more balanced picture.

    I guess it should come as no surprise that someone who has bought into Harman’s self-serving advice that rational critique is something one should be on guard not to “relapse” into should take him at his word, entirely uncritically, but at the same time I would strongly advise you not to attribute statements to people they did not make, not only because they are potentially damaging to their reputation, but also because it counts as libel.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I’ve updated the post so it is clear that Harman is speaking. As for the pathological dynamics comment, it seems that Wolfendale intentionally placed the phrase in the preface out of context so as to stir up exactly this kind of shit storm. I will have a look at Mackay’s take and will have more to say in subsequent posts if it seems like I’ve misrepresented anyone.

      I have written 7 or 8 posts highly critical of Harman on my blog. No one said critique is always a relapse. All I’m saying is that it needs to be balanced with constructive fascination.

  4. Simon Avatar

    Would you suggest that it is better to read Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze and Aesthetics before The Universe of Things? I am not familiar with Shaviro but have been enjoying your posts and think I will certainly read at least one of his books. Thanks

  5. milliern Avatar

    Coincidentally, I think Harman’s “cool” and the nature of his response seem a bit atypical to us because we are used to academia’s philosophy culture –i.e., saying nasty things, explicitly or in sotto-voce fashion, to sex-up what is being said and artificially increase interests, while staying relevant by publishing numerous responses in academic journals, when, in reality, nothing new is being said. Good for Harman; he’s got more important things to do, for instance, philosophy.

    The responsibilities of critics, and their value to any discipline, seems to have been long forgotten by most philosophers, no doubt, thanks to the cultural route that academic philosophy has taken. A solid critic permits substantial grounds for thinkers to respond to and make more definite their position, as well as providing, above all, a source of resistance that encourages a thinker to hone strengths of a position and to shore up weakness (or discard weak ideas and reasons).

    So you genuinely feel there is nothing of value to be taken from Wolfendale’s tome? I was thinking of reading it.

    Fine post. Thanks.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Oh, I didn’t mean to discourage anyone from reading Wolfendale’s book. I’m sure there afe some important critiques in there. I was just saying I won’t be reading it. I was never convinced by Harman’s ontology. My first posts after having read his work 3 or 4 years ago bear that out. I am fascinated by his concept of allure. But his understanding of space and time still make no sense to me. The value of his work for me is in his style and in the way he opened the door for more imaginative speculative philosophy. I could care less if the details of his OOO don’t hold up to a 400 page critique.

      1. milliern Avatar

        Okay, I wasn’t quite sure about the motivation. If you haven’t read it, Skoliast has an interesting take on Wolfendale: http://speculumcriticum.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-death-of-speculative-ealism.html?showComment=1414343797130#c1341896073995807102. In fact, I think it may have been mentioned in Cogburn’s blog post, but I can’t remember.

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Terence Blake has also been posting some reviews of Wolfendale. W.’s critiques of “radical pluralism” as a form of correlationism seem off to me. But perhaps the concept of pluralism he is working with is an anthropocentric version (=multiple ways of knowing, cultural relativism, etc.). I never saw this as an especially radical pluralism. I’m curious to know if W. has anything to day about *ontological* pluralism. Maybe I will read some of his book, after all.

  6. […] The above passage comes from a great article by Timothy Morton in defense of speculative realism. […]

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