Speculative Realism Is Speculative Aesthetics (Three New Books on Speculative Realism)
Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things ends with a pair of telling sentences. After ticking off the names of some of the most prominent thinkers of and interlocutors for the new realisms, Shaviro notes that they alone cannot constitute the work of speculative aesthetics he envisions. “Such a speculative aesthetics is still to be constructed,” he writes. “Kant, Whitehead and Deleuze only provide us with its rudiments” (p. 156). Were this the end of the book, it would place us in the familiar philosophical territory of the call to the future, which beckons us toward incipience at the same time that it marks its formlessness. But the book doesn’t end there; it goes on for another two sentences: “Indeed, since every aesthetic encounter is singular, anything like a general aesthetics is impossible. And so, rather than offer a stirring conclusion, I had better [End Page 403] leave it at that” (p. 156; italics his). This is the true end, the final words of the book: “I had better leave it at that.”
When I first came to this moment, after several days of intensive reading, I felt a little irritation but mostly wry amusement at Shaviro’s puncturing of the inflated romantic mood of the call with a little shrug-shouldered bathos. The more I thought about it, however, the more it seemed clear that it was itself a bit of wry amusement. After all, the singularity of the encounter with the aesthetic is exactly what such a call to the future looks to preserve from the systematizing maw of general theories, very much including the one offered by The Universe of Things and the school of speculative realism with which it is engaged. This is not to suggest that we should take these concluding sentences as representing important pressure points in Shaviro’s profoundly invigorating book. I point to them, instead, because of their startling congruence with the contemporary theoretical landscape. In their wry irresolution, those telling sentences ask us to imagine a mosaic of singular responses and their potential for systematization without collapsing the former into the latter.
The same tension characterizes the profusion of new theories and methods in the humanities and social sciences. Compared with the pinnacle of poststructural critique in the late twentieth century, the theoretical landscape today is populated by a motley crew of challenges, turns, and methods that circulate alongside symptomatic reading practices.3 While bound by their oppositional stance toward past practices, these movements nonetheless emerge from distinctive originating concerns, engage a range of interlocutors, and offer widely divergent responses. They may not even share an audience. An advocate of Heather Love’s thin description4 may or may not be familiar with Karen Barad’s agential realism5; digital humanists in the maker mode might practice something that resembles Ian Bogost’s philosophical carpentry6 without realizing it, while Bogost and his colleagues in object oriented ontology may or may not be aware of the tangency of their polemic to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s blistering critique of paranoid reading7 in her 2003 book Touching Feeling. And while Bruno Latour’s little essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”8 has become a common touchstone, the meaning of the central term is as variegated as the movements that have arisen to replace it. The profusion of new methods marks the fecundity of our moment. At the same time, it indicates a certain jittery unease. Struck in imperative mood, these methods belie the very effects of dispersion and dissemination to which they also respond. After all, critique presumably ran out of steam on its own and not just because of Latour’s speech act. Yet even the least proscriptive of these methods, the ones most invested in crafting room for [End Page 404] surprise and inviting in vulnerability, advocate for a new set of theoretical norms and a generalized system in which to cast them. The very profusion of named movements, then, might be understood as an intense demand for some new consensus.
It is into this conceptual milieu that Tom Sparrow, Peter Gratton, and Steven Shaviro have delivered their new books. True to their moment, each conducts his engagement with speculative realism through the patient work of exegesis and field mapping, modes that ground what they seem merely to explain. This is to be expected; the field has been around long enough to warrant critical overviews. But it is also entirely typical of speculative realism’s tendency toward empire building. In its revolutionary moment, this tendency took the form of naming itself the sole instigator of the turn away from critique.9 In its current landed version, empire building takes the more stately and didactic mode of the chronicle.10 Like a chronicle, each of these books retells the field’s origin story about a small group of pioneers who gathered in London to plot ways out of the correlationist circle. And each restages the foundational position of speculative realism: the commitment to realism about the power of human knowledge structures, and the concomitant shift from questions of epistemology to encounters with the ontological. In their different ways, in other words, these books systematize the thing they all also claim doesn’t really exist: an orthodox speculative realism. Yet under the cover of faithful summary, each appropriates the origin and its still-propulsive energies in order to serve its unfolding. In what follows, I will rapidly retrace the torsions these books effect and then speculate on the horizon they form when considered together.
One of the many anxieties that attend moments of profusion such as our own is the worry that the lines around established categories will blur and reveal previously hidden resonances. Tom Sparrow’s The End of Phenomenology works against that tidal draw. Sparrow’s book seeks to narrow what counts as a meaningful engagement with the real so as to exclude phenomenology, whose potential confusion with speculative realism he sees as endangering how speculative realism is understood beyond its own borders. In the introduction, Sparrow describes his task as the decisive sweeping away of the breadcrumb trail that might lead unwary readers back from Graham Harman to Heidegger or Husserl, with whom Harman frequently dialogues. This is a danger precisely because the two schools do share a commitment to the world of things. As Sparrow demonstrates, however, that similarity is only superficial. Where speculative realism asserts “that what exists can exist without the thought that represents it or the foot that boots it down the sidewalk” (p. 93), phenomenology’s commitment to human consciousness and perception makes it a form of “strong correlationism” (p. 86) and therefore anathema to realism. As an account of the embodiment of consciousness, phenomenology is attuned to the rich impingement of the concrete world. In its careful recording of the impress of that surround, it argues forcefully for the inextricability of perception and reality. And therein lies the problem. The insight [End Page 405] that “we are engaged in, embedded in, and reliant on reality, not detached and indifferent spectators of it” suggests that “our position within the world forbids our knowledge of the world as it stands without us” (pp. 94–95). The world’s objective reality is inaccessible; thus phenomenology, for Sparrow, is not ontological at all, still less a form of ontological realism.
Sparrow’s effort is in barring the way back to past heuristics. The very confusion of moments like this one, however, also opens the opportunity to thread together ostensibly distant thinkers. Both Peter Gratton and Steven Shaviro undertake this suturing work, drawing together thinkers and schools of thought severed by the vehemence of speculative realism’s early polemics, though to different effects. These sutures are not explicitly posed as recuperations or restitutions of prior divisions but as new tangencies opened by speculative realism.
Peter Gratton’s Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects is particularly sly in this regard. The closest to a textbook in design, its neatly labeled chapters on movements and subheadings on scholars are in the service of reassembling a surprising catalog of thinkers spanning the new realisms and the new materialisms. Gratton takes his warrant for this big tent approach from their shared critique of the linguistic, so he starts, logically enough, with Meillassoux and stays with him for some sixty pages before turning to examine the object oriented ontologists (the American wing of speculative realism, principally Graham Harman, Ian Bogost, Timothy Morton, and Levi Bryant). All of these are uncontroversial choices. It is in the following chapters that Speculative Realism begins mixing field histories. In “The Power of Things and the Nature of Politics” Gratton bridges Timothy Morton and speculative realist Iain Hamilton Grant to feminist new materialists Elizabeth Grosz and Jane Bennett in order to outline the common privilege given to the nonhuman after the “end of anthropocentricism” (p. 110). Following from that are chapter-length treatments of Ray Brassier, Adrian Johnston, and Catherine Malabou that center questions of meaning, subjectivity, and consciousness on the ontological implication of neuroscience. This is a wide array of people who hold diverse and not always friendly commitments. While Gratton acknowledges the oddity of this choice, his book never offers a theoretically robust explanation for it. By the conclusion, however, the purpose becomes at least a little less opaque. In “Time for a Conclusion” Gratton makes good on his introductory claim that speculative realism will only stand the test of time if it has an account of the reality of time (p. 10). He finds this temporal realism in a surprising place—Jacques Derrida, whose position in speculative realism is far more often that of the negative exemplar of correlationism at its worst. For Gratton, however, this is a misunderstanding. His Derrida is a metaphysician and a realist of the future, though in his own way and time. Gratton ends the book by staking his own “speculative gambit” (p. 216) on the monstrous unknowability of the future implicit in Derrida’s to-come.
Gratton’s argument, then, is for a kind of ecumenicalism that treats internal fissures (processes versus objects, for example) as differences of degree rather than of kind. In The Universe of Things, Shaviro continues an argument he has been making across his career: that the correlationist consensus has long been haunted by insurgent strains of speculative thought. The recollection of this genealogy then problematizes the binarization of epistemology and ontology that grounds anticorrelationism. Like Gratton, he uses the new thinking in speculative realism in order to posit as properly realist a concern outside its sphere: the inseparableness of knowing from being, feeling, relating, affecting, and prehending. As this last term makes clear, his primary reference is Alfred North Whitehead but he also tracks through Jamesian radical empiricism and Simondonian ontogenesis. For Shaviro, this rethinking of knowledge cuts in two directions. On the one hand, he argues in a panpsychist vein that there are modes of knowing [End Page 406] that are not cognitive and that don’t rely on knowledge OF something. For this he offers the moon as an example: “The moon is not a model or a representation … but a kind of contact-at-a-distance … My contact with the moon is an ongoing process of adjustment or Latourian ‘translation.’ That is why my encounter with the moon runs deeper than anything I can know about it” (p. 118). This aesthetic contact (or aesthesis) “happens in the first instance outside knowledge, on a level beneath the threshold of conscious perception” and “outside of any correlation” (p. 148). On the other hand, the sphere of causality is not limited to full and masterful cognitions but is an ongoing process of impingement. As he renders this point, “there are limits to our knowledge of the moon but also—and much more importantly—there are limits to our independence from the moon” (p. 137). For Shaviro, this is an aesthetic engagement, and it is the genesis of thought and action. In speculative aesthetics, Shaviro makes the space for a third member of the binary of epistemology and ontology, what he (borrowing from Kant) calls “intuitions without concepts” (p. 156)—what I might want to render as the feeling of knowing.
Shaviro’s speculative aesthetics, like Gratton’s temporal realism, is not orthodox. Unfaithful to the stakes that drove Meillassoux and Harman, Grant and Brassier, it responds instead to the surplus vitality that escaped those original systemizations. And so, to adapt Shaviro’s telling sentences, The Universe of Things reminds us that anything like a general theory or a once-and-for-all systematization is undone by the singularity of every theoretical encounter, each of which will leave a trace that will iterate out in directions that cannot be anticipated. And so I had better leave it at that. [End Page 407]
Rebekah Sheldon is Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her recent publications on speculative philosophy and speculative fiction may be found in the collections The Nonhuman Turn (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) and The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction.
3. Reparative reading, surface reading, distance reading, the nonhuman turn, new materialism, and anticorrelationism are a few of them, though more emerge all the time.
4. See Heather Love, “Close But Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” New Literary History 41:2 (2010): 371–391.
5. See Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
6. See Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
7. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
8. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30:2 (2004): 225–248.
9. My essay “Form/Matter/Chora” takes aim at this claim to priority made widely in their early days; see Rebekah C. Sheldon, “Form/Matter/Chora: Object-Oriented Ontology and Feminist New Materialism,” in The Nonhuman Turn, ed. Richard Grusin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), pp. 193–222. However, since that tumultuous period, it has become clear that the force and sweep of speculative realism’s claims did act as an important catalyst. Through the auspices of Quentin Meillassoux’s indictment of correlationism—or “the idea according to which we only have access to the correlation between thinking and being and never to either term considered apart from the other” (p. 5)—something inchoate turned bright and scalpel-sharp.
10. This is the term Gratton uses (on p. 6) to characterize his book.