- Thought, Untethered. A review essay.
In his little book on "the ontology of film," Stanley Cavell imagines that photography satisfied "the human wish, intensifying in the West since the Reformation, to escape subjectivity and metaphysical isolation—a wish for the power to reach this world, having for so long tried, at last hopelessly, to manifest fidelity to another" (21). Individuality had become isolation, consciousness came unhinged from the world, and philosophy had to renounce a concern with the things. From outside the field of philosophy, photography's pictorial realism embodied a new solution, both aesthetic and technological, to a centuries-old philosophical problem that thought itself was no longer capable of resolving. Now from within the field of philosophy, for the last decade or so, a group of philosophers has been attempting a specifically philosophical solution, speculative realism.
Speculative realist philosophers challenge the necessity, even the propriety, of philosophy's renunciation. Citing the rampant decadence of "postmodern skepticism" and the small-mindedness of analytical philosophy's concern with mind, these philosophers amplify, transform, radicalize, and exalt in Husserl's famous slogan, "back to the things themselves!" This movement has gone under a few different names, but has settled on speculative realism after a 2007 conference of that name. It has become institutionalized enough that two new volumes propose to evaluate where it is and how it got there: Graham Harman's collection of essays and lectures, Towards Speculative Realism (Zero Books, 2010), and an anthology edited by Levi Bryant and Nick Srnicek along with Harman, The Speculative Turn (re.press, 2011).
My agenda in this review essay is twofold: to evaluate the broad contours of speculative realist thought as they are presented in these two volumes, focusing on two exemplary philosophers in particular, Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux; and to show that, however far removed from—even antagonistic to—the concerns of aesthetic, political, and cultural criticism speculative realism may be, it has significant if unexpected stakes for contemporary critical theory. Speculative realism explicitly rejects what I want to call the "humanistic" concerns of much of contemporary continental philosophy and its inflection in critical theory of the sort practiced in literature, film, art, and cultural studies departments. But the terms of this rejection, and the problems it entails or discloses, are instructive for those of us whose speculative practices take place within the domains of culture and the arts. In particular, the deep but perhaps obscure affinity between speculation and aesthetics in speculative realism can serve as an opportunity to reopen, and possibly to transform, our ways of understanding our own critical work and the kind of traction it can have on cultural and aesthetic objects.
Graham Harman is easily the most readable of the speculative realists, and TowardsSpeculative Realism is particularly readable. It is a collection of lectures and previously unpublished essays from 1997 through 2009. The great virtue of this book is as an introduction to Harman's thought, and to his object-oriented philosophy as a variant of speculative realism. It presents in redacted and often exploratory form many of the ideas that were the foundations for his monographs, including Tool-Being, Guerrilla Metaphysics, and Prince of Networks. In these books, he often presents his case as though he were reporting incontrovertible results--a style of writing and thinking that is likely a virtue in popularizing a philosophical position. However, because of this, his thinking can feel at times a bit like a conceptual machine which, once you turn it over, keeps going by itself until it runs out of gas (or you do). By contrast, because many of the entries in Towards Speculative Realism come in the earlier phases of his philosophical process, this volume presents Harman's remarkably creative thinking less conclusively, in the course of its evolution over a decade. Less certain of itself, this work shows Harman asking, rather than answering, questions. While there's evidently nothing new in a retrospective volume like this, both the proximity of...