On having the last word..

skull-and-crossbones-coloring-pages-free-butterfly-fairy-coloring-pagesIt seems like an age ago since I posted any thoughts on here. Actually, it seems like an age ago since I posted anything on here.

A few reasons for this; as usual, work commitments abound – both academic and professional (a.k.a. my normal day job) – together with looking after my baby daughter and educating myself on how to be a parent, all of which have terminated any free time. Any spare hours or days that were needed to visit conferences, seminars, etc, have been put on the back burner now, whilst I finally, finally finish my thesis and move forward with life. Yet holding a baby in one arm in a fit state of shrieking inconsolability at three in the morning hasn’t precluded me from keeping up with stuff on the blogosphere (for my sins).

Now, there is increasingly aggressive talk on blogs and in forthcoming publications about the “already dead” status of Speculative Realism. Pete Wolfendale’s debut OBJECT-ORIENTED PHILOSOPHY: THE NOUMENON’S NEW CLOTHES comes out next month (including a post-script by Brassier) which is being touted by some, particularly Leon Niemoczynski, as being the final “Truth” nail in the coffin: that SR/OOO has been dead for ages, perhaps from the start, but no-one really knew or believed it. And everyone’s meant to believe that once the final argument has been put in place, once the final reveal of the truth has made its literal presence known, all of its practitioners should acknowledge the change that has taken place, and reject its current popular manifestation (comically dubbed Speculative ®ealism) as a legitimate movement.

Even stronger than this, comes from Leon’s reflections on Brassier’s postscript (and I’m only quoting from Leon’s post because he’s read it – I haven’t) that the sheer existence of an SR legacy has now been put to bed not just as an exhausted and rejected relic of yesteryear: a general acceptance that SR was – as Wolfendale states – “dead on arrival”, but that only one, out of the initial four proponents have ever permanently self-identfied with it.

Less extreme was Ben Woodard’s suggestion that SR’s legacy (in context of conversations held at the Emancipation as Navigation Summer school in Berlin this year) was the “dead elephant in the room”, insofar as those who partook in its burgeoning interest retrospectively lamented the direction it took, together with the community that fostered that direction (I’m thinking here of the rapid change in production that blogging and social media has afforded).

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As an associate editor of Speculations, it might be reasonable to assume that I have a biased interest in saying the opposite, or at least diagnosing something along the lines of a Joker-Batman-esque “I don’t wanna kill you – what would I do without you” kind of relationship. After all, Pete wouldn’t have written a 400 page book on OOO if he didn’t think it was worth doing, or that the philosophy wasn’t worth engaging with. Unless the sole existence of the book is there to exploit attention or some agenda, which I don’t believe is the case. In proclaiming the death of SR, it’s difficult to see how the practice of doing so matches the declaration. In any case, despite the fact that Pete’s taken to publishing the entire debate in book form, he knows that the inevitable fallout of the book will take place, almost exclusively, on blogging sites and escalating Facebook threads: threads which if social media history is concerned, serve no purpose than to mediate ones need to always have the last word on matters (in fact what else is the intellectual use of social media other than a perpetual device to leave public opinion, helpful or not, permanently unsettled? Almost no-one pays attention to how such systems construct the conflicts of public opinion).

**It also seems slightly bizarre on Brassier’s side, since by all accounts, he originally coined the term in the first place in order to set the 2007 symposium up. That’s not to say that a philosopher has no right to refuse, reject or disown their own project for various reasons, (Putnam always seemed to do it) than it is to question why they haven’t taken responsibility for the fact that they jointly set up the original symposium in the first place, together with speaking at the second one in Bristol in 2009. But as I said, I haven’t read the post-script so I’ve leave this hanging.

Sadly my response is a bit more banal than this. If SR’s existence is dead, it makes sense to ask what it is and how it has died, alongside the more pertinent question of dead for whom? To declare the death of a philosophical legacy, or that it was dead anyway, is ultimately tied to where you think it went wrong, or what path it missed. It doesn’t take on the demand of declaring collective agreements amongst like-minded in-groups which everyone else has to accept in advance. I’d like to think there’s a lot more going on to this air of conflict than the ebbs and flows of social discord within various arenas of online miscommunication.

I’d like to suggest that as a movement SR was probably too divergent to continue as a movement. But dead altogether? Not in the slightest, and here’s why. That divergence has slowly emerged as a deep hostility between two very deep and important philosophical-historical positions. This is why the calls to question how one might self-identify oneself as a proponent of SR or not, holds little sway to the notion that SR is dead: largely as I think SR is constitutive of a split so encompassing, and only brought to light because of SR, that no-one can ignore it. As Heidegger is fond of reminding everyone – and especially himself – sometimes the deepest changes are the ones that fail to make themselves present.

For me, SR’s very existence cultivates, and continues to cultivate, an incompatible hostility which feeds the claims and positions being made – even if they happen to be predominantly coming from a neo-rationalist wing which finds the whole affair moribund. Clearly, this includes but does not encompass Accelerationism, which I just take to be a development constructed almost entirely from the rational-scientistic community of SR, and not a movement which either indulges itself in proclaiming the latter’s death (if it does), or thinks it provides an ulterior movement separate to it. As I said in my Dublin talk late last year, SR just simply is the incompatible shredding between two modes of criticism (which I termed Demonstration and Description) both of which radicalise the limits of rational thought very differently, perhaps antithetically.

And what has become increasingly obvious is how this divide has strengthened rather than relaxing into any form of intersection: in part, because if one takes SR to be the rejection of correlationism at its most basic, then rather being known as the name of two symposiums, or a well-known (albeit fringe) brand of new continental thought, or a defining moment where philosophical discussion and promotion exploded on the internet, or a new book series, or the latest thing to read in the art world, or a rallying call to young philosophers and artists hoping to launch a career, or even all of these – then its legacy comes from an unsettled philosophical conflict which arises once correlationism is rejected or adopted differently. A conflict which is strong enough to permeate and resonate through other disciplines of science, art history, aesthetics, law and education. To be clear on the matter, what is fundamental to me, and from what I consider to be important here, is the philosophical source of this conflict: and of what needs to be understood and addressed before one has any right to dictate what the future of the conflict entails.

What I might be saying here then, is that SR wasn’t so much a movement of disparate voices returning to metaphysics, realism and materialism, than the beginning of a renewed split in those domains: Here, one side takes realism/materialism to be reducible to authentic epistemological vehicles of science and mathematics whilst the other side does not: refuting in turn, that the real/material can be known by reason, and that reality is composed of other skeptical-based entities that possess, and are defined by the same limitations. That’s a huge incompatible split: precisely as Kantian correlationism was a foundation which partly reconciled those differences, dispossessing reason from ever knowing reality whilst also dispossessing other entities and life-forms from having a transcendental turn themselves.

Yet, what could not be dispossessed was the general sound for how one approached doing philosophy: should one be enlightened or romanticised? Phrased differently, we might say; what are the limits of reason vs. where are the limits of reason. More and more, this has all the hallmarks of being a 21st Century return to the hostility that surrounds the split between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment (and of its various guises) that have sustained nearly three centuries of intellectual debate. From the primacy of aesthetic experience vs. anti-aesthetic concepts: from the enlightenment deductive science of logic vs. the romantic science of naturphilosophie: from American pragmatism (and neo-pragmatism) to American transcendentalism, from eliminative materialism to outright vitalism, the fruits of this hostility seem obvious to the future of SR, and yet not to anyone else. I’ve resisted writing about the split in this manner for some time now, perhaps because it seemed too simple to me, or too naive, too distant from the problems SR originally raised, or perhaps too obvious to make it stick. Yet, this split plays its hand not just in the ambitious claims one might make of reality as a human response to enlightenment or romantic ideals (and how they might operate differently from their previous iterations in response to breakthroughs in science or art): it also constitutes the opposing claims for what philosophy ought to do as practiced, and how those practices utterly conflict with one another.

If you really think as, (apologies for names omitted) Meillassoux, Brassier and Wolfendale do, that the Age of Reason never finished, that literary words serve little to no aesthetic purpose than to make transparent rational proofs, then anything which characterises counter-enlightenment thinking must be subject to de-romanticisation. If you think, as Harman, Shaviro, Morton myself and possibly Grant do, that the real can never be formalised and put into literal formulae, that literary words serve the ultimate purpose in taste, alluding one’s grasp of the strange mystic qualities of the real without actually doing so, then fragments of the romantic, counter-enlightement tradition must be used to question why enlightened reason alone thinks it has special access to reality: and that perhaps there are other fruitful methods of relating thought to nature, or thought to entity. In the end, the rejection of correlationism was perhaps a catalyst for rejuvenating an unsettled debate, in which a final resolving word was not said, and perhaps will be never said.

A final note: this is why my Demonstration/Enlightenment and Description/Romanticism split does not perfectly coincide with an analytic vs. continental one: a split whose calls for reconciliation are found wanting in my honest opinion. The split doesn’t accurately characterise, but generalise the intentions of all who consider themselves a member of either tradition, and those who do not (think of Wittgenstein’s legacy for instance). And yet clearly, they are deeply related no doubt. Those who preach that the divide has been overcome (in the most recent cases, the Accelerationists) don’t exactly overcome it, than they operate with all the same bad habits that analytic philosophers have done for years in response to continental texts: by thinking that the way to overcome the divide is to de-romanticise all the continental texts and show their argumentative flaws (only with the good grace to take continental texts completely seriously before the de-romantic slaughter can begin). But what if one tries it from the other way as Cavell attempted (and failed) to do in the 60s – 80s: what if the way to overcome, or at least question the analytic/continental divide was to romanticise all the analytic texts?

3 thoughts on “On having the last word..”

  1. Very important points — first, about Demonstration / Description not equaling Analytic / Continental, which I probably should have made explicit in my own posts on this (I called them Critique / Speculation, and I don’t claim this maps perfectly onto what you are saying, but it’s a rough isomorphism). And secondly, about why SR was probably bound to founder upon this reef, since its rejection of correlationism was actually a rejection of a mediating strategy; so the underlying disjunction was only going to become more apparent.

    Your Cavellian suggestion is more or less what I like to try, but I really do believe one should be able to be ambidextrous about these things.

    I think Jacob Sherman was the first to point out the irony in the fact that Meillassoux’s call for (in your terms) Enlightenment was done with a rallying cry to recapture the Romantic “Great Outdoors” (a phrase that I believe Sherman traces back to Keats).

  2. It’s been over a year or so since I’ve had any time to ready any philosophy blogs at all, and apparently in that time SR/OOO has died.

    For me the fascination with SR/OOO has always been primarily about the sociology of knowledge and how blogs where changing how the social act of thinking was done.

    Sociologists of knowledge talk about what they call a “hot center,” which is simply a dynamic in which a lot of activity becomes possible, new creative ways of thinking happen. For me SR/OOO has been a hot center. Will it continue to be in the future? Certainly not forever, but it seems unlikely that it will just suddenly stop being a hot center. It will gradually cool off.

    Secretly I’m probably some kind of idealist. But SR/OOO has spurred my mind and changed what I think. That’s pretty much all I can ask from philosophy worthy of the name. I’m not asking you to convert me, just make me think something I’ve never thought before. Open up new places to be creative.

    What I do think is that blogs might be speeding up the process of digestion. I think it is possible that for many people the initial spur that they can get from SR/OOO is pretty much tapped out. They’ve minded it for what it’s worth and now their ready for a new conversation. There is a rather cynical way of looking at this, as if thinking is not that different from shopping. But there is also a completely innocent way of looking at this. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life having the same conversation. If I go to a party, I don’t want to just talk to one person endlessly. What I can learn by shifting to new conversation partners who are interested in completely different questions?

    One of the features I suspect is going on with the way blogs changes the social dynamic of thinking is simply the rate of digestion. I am actually a certified master composter. Really big compost pits operate quite differently than small little kitchen composts. They burn hot, and the bacteria can turn anything to dirt in 90 days. I saw one giant compost operation that could turn even a full shark carcass into nice rich soil in 90 days (all that was left were the vertebrae). If SR/OOO is “dead” I think it can only mean ideas are able to be burned through faster than they used to be. But dead doesn’t seem the right word. A good philosophy should be good compost/fertilizer for one’s own thoughts. I think the rate from digesting to growing something new is just going to start happening at a much faster rate. New hot centers will spin out of old ones which will spawn even newer ones. This isn’t to fetishize novelty for it’s own sake, or the “next big thing.” It feels more like living in a city where the music scene is a hot center, and bands glow bright and brief but leave more creativity in their wake than they inherited.

    Almost all of the people who are still really excited by SR/OOO are pretty young. There is a lot to do and no doubt people with think differently 10 years from now. I’m pretty excited by that. I can see a pretty big intellectual parting of ways among SR/OOO people, I can also see big shifts within individual’s ideas, “turns” of many varieties.

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