The philosophical movement increasingly known as Speculative Realism is starting to get attention in these parts of town (the town being Academe, or at least its digital suburbs, and these parts being its ecocritical/biocultural/animaphilic ghettoes). News about the forthcoming re.press anthology, The Speculative Turn: Continental Realism and Materialism, has been circulating for a few days now. The publisher’s blurb announces that
“Continental philosophy has entered a new period of ferment. The long deconstructionist era was followed with a period dominated by Deleuze, which has in turn evolved into a new situation still difficult to define. However, one common thread running through the new brand of continental positions is a renewed attention to materialist and realist options in philosophy. […] All of [the authors represented] elaborate a positive ontology […]. […] the new currents of continental philosophy depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself.”
Scu at Critical Animal posted several beginners’ questions to the movement on Friday, and both Levi Bryant, a.k.a. Larval Subjects, and Graham Harman, a.k.a. Dr. Zamalek posted responses Saturday (Bryant’s providing the more detailed and, for Harman, “perfectly” agreeable replies). The speed of their responses shouldn’t surprise us; Scu aptly begins his post with the phrase “For an intellectual movement that has such a strong internet presence”… Indeed they do, as Paul Ennis at anotherheideggerblog points out, calling them “the first truly digital” philosophical movement, for the extent of online conversation and open access publication that goes on in the SR milieu.
I’ve been intrigued by the SR crowd for a while now because they seem to speak a language that resonates with the kinds of complex-network/biocultural-systems/discursive-materialist thinkers I’ve drawn on in my theorizing of socio-natural relations — folks like Bruno Latour, John Law, and the actor-network theorists, technoscience feminists (Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Elizabeth Grosz, et al), Spinozian-Deleuzian political theorists (William Connolly and post-Marxists like J.K. Gibson-Graham), ‘social nature’ and post-representationalist geographers (Bruce Braun, Noel Castree, Sarah Whatmore, Nigel Thrift, Steve Hinchliffe, and their ‘social spatialization’ and eco-Marxist and Lefebvrian relatives), Batesonians and biosemioticists, socio-nature and post-Gibsonian anthropologists (Ingold, Descola, Palsson), embodied/enactive cognitivists (Varela, Thompson) and developmental psychologists (Oyama), eco-world-system theorists (Alf Hornborg, Jason Moore, Sing Chew, Yrjo Haila), political ecologists and postcolonial materialists (like Arturo Escobar, who fits into several of the above categories), et al. It seems that in SR we may be finding a current within mainstream philosophy — as opposed to its fringes and sub-sub-niches (see my post on the interaction between continental and environmental philosophies) — with which to closely ally. That alone is a cause for celebration.
Or is this (their emergence our of the philosophical mainstream) an illusion fostered by the movement’s heavy web presence? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Having laid out the above list, I have to wonder what it is I’ve listed. Are these intellectual movements, schools of thought, Lakatosian research programs, scraps of paradigmatic experimentation that might one day congeal into a paradigm to overturn the ones currently regnant in the social sciences and humanities (and, god knows, maybe the natural sciences too)? (And what are those ruling humanistic/socio-scientific paradigms — social constructivism? representationalism? “correlationalism”, as the SRs have it?) How do they all, including the SRs, fit into the sociology of knowledge — for instance, what would Randall Colllins do with them? (See Collins’ stunningly ambitious “sociology of philosophies,” with its focus on the formation of intellectual networks around a limited set of discursive junctures, in contexts as divergent as ancient Greece, India, and China, early modern Europe, and nineteenth century Germany.) Are they held together by ideas, or by sites textual and/or real (Parisian cafes, academic or semi-popular journals, scholarly associations, factions gravitating around a few key personalities, or — as may be the case with SR — online blogs)? Or are they patched together in the same discursive-materialist-networked way that Latour et al. claim the whole world is (with Harman et al. as its “obligatory passage points,” as Latour would say)?
Several things interest me about speculative realism. (The following can be read as incipient questions to the SR crowd or just as a register of my own curiosity.) The anthology includes names well known in cultural theory circles (Žižek), continental philosophy (Badiou), and science and technology studies (Latour, Stengers), who were influential voices in other movements (Lacanianism, Marxism, actor-network theory) well before there was any SR “movement,” and I wonder how they are being incorporated into a movement that’s arisen to some extent around them, but to a greater extent independently of them. With his Hegelian-Kantian ontological underpinnings and his commitment to a nebulous Lacanian Real, can Žižek count as a “realist,” or is he being included to grease the movement’s wheels? (I guess we may get a better sense of that when the book comes out. By the way, I like that Lacanian Real; I’m just not sure how well it stacks up against traditional notions of “realism.” But reworking an old philosophical term like “realism” can only be a good thing, and for eco-theorists it’s an important task to work on, especially given the blood shed in the realist/constructivist “nature wars” of the 1990s.) Latour, on the other hand, has long been taken up among eco-theorists, so it’s good to see him given attention among philosophers.
Is SR something that will take over from actor-network theory, social nature, etc.? Is it the next wave of a kind of Deleuzianism (as the re.press reference to Deleuze and the inclusion of Manuel DeLanda suggests) but operating from a much wider base — and therefore a cross-disciplinary enterprise akin to cybernetics, semiotics, cognitivism, and other such intellectual waves? Or is it just a philosophical moment, generated by a relatively small group (Harman, Meillassoux, Grant, Brassiere, Bryant, Toscano), supported by a publishing node or two, and destined to be washed over by the next philosophical moment? Where do other Deleuzians, post-Deleuzians, and materially inclined continental philosophers fit in (I’m thinking of Ansell-Pearson, Bonta, Protevi, Shaviro, Massumi, Mullarkey, Grosz, Alliez, Lawlor, Buchanan, Herzogenrath, et al)?
Speculative Realism’s taking on of ecological and nonhuman/animal issues warms my intellectual heart. (Harman admits he’s fully on board with the animal agenda, while Bryant cites the ecological crisis as one of the things about the contemporary landscape that older schools of philosophy are so ill equipped to deal with: “[It’s] difficult to imagine something less relevant than phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, or deconstructive textual analysis to the sorts of issues posed by the ecological crisis. Ecology just requires a very different set of conceptual tools.”) Up to now, ecophilosophers have always been on the fringes of philosophy, carving out the sub-niche of ‘environmental ethics’ and struggling to develop a coherent ecophilosophy, but making progress less with questions of epistemology, ontology, or politics than with their debates over ecocentrism versus anthropocentrism versus pragmatism, deep ecology versus social ecology versus ecofeminism, and so on, in ways that never seem to get outside the eco-ghetto nearly as much as they should. (But that’s a bit of an outdated characterization, too, which I hope my previous and forthcoming posts can help dispel.) How do and will “our” philosophers — the tradition of folks like Arne Naess, Val Plumwood, Murray Bookchin, J. Baird Callicott, Michael Zimmerman, Jim Cheney, John Dryzek, Andrew Light, Holmes Rolston III, Mark Sagoff, Cate Mortimer-Sandilands, Paul Taylor, Bruce Foltz, Rosemary Radford Reuther, Bryan Norton, Mick Smith, et al. — relate to the ontological commitments of the SR crowd? The answer is: it varies, but I certainly think there’s useful stuff to be taken on board from them, and I look forward to more exchange between these (somewhat) potentially convergent efforts.
The clear rejection by Speculative Realism of phenomenology, hermeneutics, and semiology, however, suggests perhaps too radical a break here with the interpretive and communicative traditions. I’m guessing this may be a temporary juncture within a broader debate, where a realist ontological position is making a stand by hinging itself in opposition to something that’s been overdone (hermeneutics), but risking going too far in the opposite direction. If, as Levi’s reply to Mark Crosby suggests, eco/biosemiotics, with its suggestion that the world is communicative “all the way down,” is to be somehow allowed into the SR picture, then surely the embodied and interpretive dimensions that are at the heart of hermeneutic phenomenology should also be part of the frame. Or does that make things too complicated? I’m thinking, for instance, of Don Ihde’s phenomenologies of technics, which do a kind of pre-Latourian network analysis of how we engage the world in and through our technological extensions. Does that fit with Harman’s Heideggerian-Latourian program? I know I will have to read Harman, and promise I will do that soon.
Scu mentions “decolonial philosophy and the philosophy of radical women of color” as two currents that reshaped his relationship with “continental philosophy,” and my suspicion is that these strands are, like environmental philosophy, outside the mainstream of philosophical thought and therefore a little invisible to SR. So far. But in a similar spirit I would like to express the hope that metaphysically/ontologically inclined philosophers will deal with the social world(s) — in all their post/neo/colonial, historically shaped and globally and locally uneven textures — as an integral part of the object-world of their concerns. The sheer difficulty of doing that, I think, is what keeps philosophy the noun somehow ‘pure’ and thus a little removed from what we non-philosophers do. I’m including myself among those who philosophize (the verb) while engaging with real-world empirical issues, concerns, communities, sites, and collaborative milieus. (That’s something Latour, the anthropologist rather than the metaphysician, has always done, which is why he hasn’t been thought of as a philosopher before, until Graham Harman came along and made the case for that). The philosophizers I lean toward and model myself after (Connolly, Escobar, Haraway, Latour, as well as Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze/Guattari in their moments of engagement) are usually busy doing that, building movements that are not just movements of philosophers (though those can be consequential, too, as Collins shows) but movements of worldly forces swelling and circulating well beyond the safe shores of intellectual exchange. I do hope that happens with SR. And wish them every bit of success with it.
A final note in response to Critical Animal’s question about Latour (what to read of his): While “Politics of Nature” has some good sections, I would recommend starting with “We Have Never Been Modern,” because — despite its oversimplifications and heavy-handed characterizations of other thinkers and movements, which can sometimes be grating — it’s still the most clear and graceful exposé of Latour’s basic ideas and their significance. “Re-assembling the Social” tries to do that, but is more wordy and muddled, I think (as I’ve related here). I would follow that up with some of his more empirical writings such as “Laboratory Life” or the “Circulating reference” chapter in “Pandora’s Hope.” His “War of the Worlds” is also a quick and provocative read that may be of particular interest to eco/bio/animal studies scholars. And for a critical animal perspective, it’s indispensible to read Haraway (e.g., her “Promises of monsters”) alongside Latour.