- The Aesthetic (Re-)Turn:Matter and Method, or Objects and Ontology?
For some, the most worrisome thing about the recent theoretical/philosophical interest in things is that it may not be much more than simply that: a thing thing, a fleeting thing for things. A question: have we reached peak thing? Judging by the number of monographs on things from 2014 alone, I would guess no, we have a long way to go until hit Critical Thing.
The not-so-shadowy figure standing behind and motivating two out of the three books under review is none other than the initial purveyor of object-oriented ontology, Graham Harman. Around 2007, or so the story goes, Harman convened with Quentin Meillasoux, Iain Hamilton-Grant, and Ray Brassier to kick off the first international conference on Speculative Realism. The desire to dethrone Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy united the four. Kant, they all claimed, unleashed a harmful philosophical project that Meillasoux has labeled “correlationsim,” which states that the world is not given in itself for humans but instead must be experienced or mediated through some human consciousness in order to exist. Correlationsim must be overcome, they believe, because it has contributed not only to the proliferation of factory farming and allowed for humans to instrumentally destroy the environment, but more egregiously, it has done so all at the expense of us recognizing the uniqueness of every individual object.
Harman’s brand of object-oriented ontology, which is by far the most popular and successful brand of speculative realism on the market today—and which is propped up by Heidegger’s tool analysis, Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory, and Alfred North Whitehead’s proto-religious/panpsychist process philosophy—attempts to remedy the problem of correlationsim by insisting that every thing is an object. Me, you, the tooth fairy, soccer balls, and the sun’s rays are all considered objects in Harman’s program. Subject/object [End Page 507] dualism is demolished in favor of an ontological egalitarianism in which all things, both real and imaginary, stand on equal ontological footing.
In The Universe of Things, Steven Shaviro places Harman in conversation with Whitehead and Quentin Meillasoux in order to tease out his own take on Speculative Realism. However, Harman and Meillasoux ultimately take a backseat to Shaviro’s excellent analyses of Whitehead’s relation to Speculative Realism primarily and object-oriented ontology more peripherally. Shaviro, whose last book Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (2012) began his exploration into Whitehead’s relation to aesthetics, justifies his project by insisting that
Whitehead and the Speculative Realists alike question the anthropocentrism that has so long been a key assumption of modern Western rationality. Such a questioning is urgently needed at a time when we face the prospect of ecological catastrophe and when we are forced to recognize that the fate of humanity is deeply intertwined with the fates of all sorts of other entities.(1)
For Shaviro, Whitehead, and the Speculative Realists, one way to overcome the philosophically toxic legacy of Kant is to delimit epistemological inquiry in favor of metaphysical speculation that posits affective experience as universal and not purely limited to the human realm. Shaviro writes, “Epistemology must be deprivileged, because we cannot subordinate things themselves to our experiences of them. I do not come to know a world of things outside myself. Rather, I discover—which is to say I feel—that I myself, together with things that go beyond my knowledge of them, are all alike inhabitants of a ‘common world.’” (3, italics in the original). We begin to see the broader scope of Shaviro’s project here in this passage in which he attempts to theorize Speculative Realism and affect studies together. Things elude us, Shaviro insists, because they have powers, and these powers “move us, or force us to feel them, and by this fact they elude...