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  • The Touch of Things
  • Ian James (bio)
The Universe of Things: on Speculative Realism By Steven Shaviro University of Minnesota Press, 2014

Steven Shaviro's The Universe of Things is both an illuminating critical account of the development of speculative realism to date and a significant contribution to speculative realist thought in its own right. Its principal philosophical engagement is with Graham Harman's object-oriented ontology (hereafter OOO) via the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. As Shaviro himself puts it: "My aim is both to show how OOO helps us to understand Whitehead in a new way and, conversely, to develop a Whitehead-inspired critique of Harman and OOO" (27). Along the way he gives us important philosophical discussions of other leading figures who have been associated with the term "spec-ulative realism," most notably Quentin Meillassoux and Ray Brassier, but also, to a slightly lesser extent, Iain Hamilton Grant and Levi Bryant. This is accompanied by discussions of Emmanuel Levinas and François Laruelle, French thinkers who have influenced the development of some of the different stands of speculative realism. Shaviro also makes some helpful contextual reference to a wider supporting cast including Bruno Latour; "new materialists" such as Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, and Elizabeth Grosz; recent French thinkers (e.g., Gilles Deleuze); and a wider canon of modern European and Anglophone analytic philosophy as well as contemporary philosophy of science (e.g., James Ladyman, Don Ross).

Within this broader context of philosophical engagement, Shaviro makes an argument for the existence of a fundamental thinking that unites the principal strands of speculative realist thought and thereby lays the ground for an assessment of the important differences between [End Page 203] them. His arguments here also raise important questions relating to the political implications of OOO in relation to Whitehead's thought and their different understanding of things. So if objects are to be conceived as isolated substances whose relations with each other are in-direct or vicarious (or, conversely, as constituted only in and through their relations) what might this mean for something like a politics, ethics, or ecology of things? What kind of political demands does a speculative realist ontology of things make upon human thought—if any?

As any reader already familiar with this field will know very well, what supposedly unites this movement is its rejection of the perceived widespread antirealism of late twentieth-century European or continental philosophy. Here Shaviro helpfully cites Lee Braver's work on antirealism in continental thought: "Phenomenology, structuralism, and most subsequent schools of twentieth-century continental philosophy assume one version or another of the antirealist, Kantian claim that 'phenomena depend upon the mind to exist.' … It is this assumption, above all, that speculative realism seeks to overturn" (5). This argument has, of course, been put forward most polemically by Quentin Meillassoux in his 2005 work Après la finitude (After Finitude) with reference to the notion of correlationism. Correlation, Meillassoux argues, is the idea according to which "we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other" (5). Correlationism is, then, intrinsically anthropocentric. It can only think the being of things in relation to the human apprehension of them in such a way that the correlationist is never thinking about things as they are beyond human apprehension or perception. All that can be thought is the primordial human relation to things. Indeed the rejection of correlationism might appear to be the only thing that the speculative realists have in common with each other.1

However, beyond the shared rejection of correlationism, the ontological and epistemological theses developed by the different strands of speculative realism could perhaps not be more different from each other. This has been acknowledged, with some notes of regret, by Harman himself in relation to what he has termed "the vastly different approaches to overcoming correlationism" and "the continued splintering of the speculative realist movement into competing subgroups" (2010, 773). The identification and acceptance of competing subgroups [End Page 204] has led Harman to endorse the division of speculative realism into four strands or "wings": object oriented (Harman), speculative materialist (Meillassoux), vitalist (Grant), and...


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