If Materialism Is Not The Solution Then What Was The Problem?

That’s the title of my response to Harman’s article Materialism is Not the Solution: On Matter, Form and Mimesis – which was just recently published in the Nordic Journal of Aesthetics No. 47. This was a re-written version of a response I gave for the Aarhus Institute of Advanced studies last October.

With the very kind permission of Jacob Lund (the editor) he has allowed both essays to be hosted by AUC Egypt as one PDF, which can be accessed HERE. If, for some reason, your network can’t access the AUC page (which has happened for some people), I’ve uploaded it on my academia.edu page HERE.

I should also say, having read the entire issue in print, that the whole issue is something rather special. See below for the contents: including essays by Stiegler, Hanson and Goriunova.



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).


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?

Response to Shaviro: Rethinking Intentionality

I’ve finally managed to wrestle an hour away from thesis writing, in order to respond to Shaviro’s wonderful comments on my latest article “The Anxiousness of Objects and Artworks 2”, recently published in Speculations V.

It’s a great, accurate summary, first and foremost: and there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing someone else, (above all someone extraordinarily distinguished as Shaviro) who “gets” those weird intuitions one harbours when writing a long article. What’s fun about this, is that neither of us have any answers to such questions and nor should we. So that’s the first thing.

Secondly – since that article was edited, I’ve broadened the artistic strategy of Demonstration, as I call it, towards a number of different movements that took place alongside Minimalism. Indeed, Joseph Kosuth’s writings on the formal, tautological capabilities for defining ‘art’ are perhaps even more exemplary here: insofar as Kosuth suggests (more strongly than Minimalism) that art’s form guarantees its very truth – and moreover, it demonstrates and establishes the very nature of art as a conceptual system. Art is no longer self-evident in the aesthetic experience of an object, but of its own conceptual logic. Kosuth’s strategy is, self-evidently, anti-aesthetic. Even though some of these ideas might intuitively be associated with Description, i.e. Kosuth’s connection to Systems art, they actually have inherent tendencies evident in Demonstration (especially in the writings of Roy Ascott who effectively merged conceptual systems and methodological cybernetic systems as one and the same). For me, Fried articulates the clearest anti-anthropocentric division between the two, yet it never remains as simple when applied elsewhere.

Thirdly, there’s an unaddressed question: what theoretical aesthetic principles might be revived from the modernist account, if any? What might be left after such a revision? And if these are worthwhile questions, how might speculative realism add, or further, establish affinities to such principles? For me, it is self-evident that Harman’s philosophy has picked out an underdeveloped Greenberg-ian strategy which, if gently coerced, might retrieve dormant ontological insights into how conventions change in art – that is, how novelty emerges in media-specific forms or in works that recede from our efforts to comprehend them. Depth in form, rather than depth in material.

However, one of the problems in discussing high modernist theories such as Greenberg’s or Fried’s is their consequential acceptance of intentionality: the point (altogether separate from its typical philosophical usage) that artists intend to determine meaning in the work, or that the work itself is saturated with a rightness that establishes its autonomy.

Everything that is central to Fried and Greenberg’s arguments on aesthetics and art praxis tends to be justified in intentionality: that the critic or historian can establish arguments for how the artist has made the right decisions, to make that work in that way at that time. Moreover, there is the paradoxical assertion that everything put into the work, every interpretation and reading was intended from the start within that work (this for Fried is what makes the work discrete and subject to presentness, which, as Shaviro alludes, is why such works are partly condemned to be viewed in galleries, or why one work and medium is privileged over another).

It’s immediately clear that if the modernist trajectory continues to be predominantly understood through varying conceptual methods of grasping intentionality, then speculative realist affinities can never work, neither in Description or Demonstration as I’ve defined it. How can speculation be fruitful if every fragment of the work is wholly determined by human deliberation? What might be left of such practices once intentionality is ‘rethought out’, in this way?

This is why I have tended to focus on the ontological consequences of high modernist works vs. minimalist works, which Fried described better than anyone else. Yet intentionality plays a missing part here – because the very reason as to why Greenberg endorses flatness and purity, and Fried with absorption, is that they believe they know what these aesthetic values are, and how they were right at a particular historical moment.

With the later Greenberg lectures (particularly “Taste” from 1983), intentionality starts to become less clear: particularly as he admits a number of times that he regrets writing Modernist Painting as if it was some sort of manifesto for purity, which it was never meant to be. Having understood that the modern aesthetic becomes evident in video, Fried tries to uphold intentionality in new, albeit diluted ways – and part of my pleasure in seeing Fried work through these difficulties, is that even he has to belatedly revise these ontological foundations, crafting modernism into something else, something new.

And fourthly, this is where my interests in modernism come full circle with respect to work which is not typically “high art”. Here’s Shaviro;

“What I would like to think about is, how the tradition of aesthetics traced by Jackson through the theorizations of modernist (and even postmodernist) art historians relates to other forms of visual (and audiovisual) production? I am thinking here of cinema and post-cinema, but also of things like comic books[…]

[…]This is part of a larger question — can we give an account of mid-20th century visual production that takes, say, Jackson Pollack and Jack Kirby equally seriously? What would it look like to theorize art in a way that had as much room for comic-book pictorialism as it had for abstract expressionism? What would happen if we then extended this history, and this theorization, to the present day?”

And inadvertedly, Shaviro puts his finger on the very essence of my dissertation and how these traditions dip in and out of computational art: a form of visual production which has never been associated with high modernism. Here’s what I think: modernist principles missed out on an alternate ontological history that could and should have democratised different modes of visual production (comics, photography, video games), without altogether sacrificing autonomy, radical novelty, discreteness and, ultimately, the art object itself. Whether it remains ‘as’ modernism or formalism is of no concern to me, less it remain an alternative account that isn’t theatrical, in Fried’s pejorative use of the term.

This is not a question which can be answered here: this is, as Shaviro notes, incomplete and it shall remain so, until we experiment with history.

Speculations V: Aesthetics in the 21st Century

The new issue Speculations journal is available HERE. It’s a specially edited issue by Ridvan, Paul, Andreas and Philipp which covers the outcomes of the Basel conference on SR aesthetics back in September 2012 at Basel.

Shaviro, Harman and Hayles are in there, along with a wonderful collection of essays (including my ‘sequel’ to The Anxiousness of Objects and Artworks” detailing further links between Harman / Fried).

Governing Academic Life – Para-academic Life

A quick update here. Just to say that I’ll be in a panel titled “Para-Academic Life: Becoming ungovernable” for the Governing Academic Life conference taking place at the LSE,  June 25th – 26th.

Anne, the organiser, got in touch with me and Paul a while back I think, with the intention of including the work of Speculations and Continent, and we’re thrilled to be speaking about our experiences running para-academic journals in the neo-liberal wasteland of mainstream academia. We’re especially thrilled to have Fintan from DUST  on board plus a live link from Eileen.

My talk is entitled ‘Para-academia and the Education of Grownups’ (another Cavell link). So all in all, an important set of events. You can see the provision programme HERE and the aims of the conference HERE.

Para-academic Practices: becoming ungovernable?
(Convenor Paul Boshears)

Paul Boshears (European Graduate School; continent), ‘Rudderless Piloting, Unwavering Pivoting, Governing without Coercion’
Fintan Neylan, (Dublin Unit for Speculative Thought), ‘The Logic of Para-Organisation’
Robert Jackson (Lancaster) ‘Para-academia and the Education of Grownups’
Eileen Joy (Punctum Books) (by weblink)

Ordinaryism: An Alternative to Accelerationism. Part 1 – Thanks for Nothing

Bit late in the day – but a link to my new Furtherfield article. It’s a two-parter delving into a Cavellian critique of accelerationism. For some reason, there are 1250 odd “reads” so far (discounting spambot reads etc).

If anyone else  is interested in more critiques of accelerationism, Joshua Ramey had a great rejoinder on AUFS last year, coupled with my response.

Erm. So I have a book coming out.

Yeah I have.

Before I get to that though, the academic videogame Twitto-Blogo-Tumblr-sphere went into overdrive this week in response to Brendan Keogh’s solid essay Across Worlds and Bodies: Criticism in the age of Video Games in the newly christened (and open access!) Journal of Games Criticism.

It’s a fine, clever essay, and its entire strategy is to signify a rhetorical break with the dominant, generalised purist study of games studies thus far, in favour of a phenomenological, interrelated ‘bottom up’ approach to specific videogame artefacts. Granted, such a purist position is a bit of a straw man, Keogh knows that: but I’m guessing that wasn’t the essay’s point, other than it was a solidly constructed overview of  critical videogame contemporaneity right now.

Sure Keogh, might eventually be wrong in grouping up formalism as a single world-view, but to quote Fried, it is better to be wrong than to be irrelevant (yes I am aware of irony considering Fried’s medium specificity, but thats complicated in itself)

And yet bizarrely as this went on, I’ve been finishing off the last pages for an upcoming, small book project that I’ve been working on throughout 2013, which might exemplify what Keogh argues for (as he did with Spec Ops: The Line). Whether it does or not, will be up the academic games community, but its funny how related/unrelated things work out like that.

So, the book is called BioShock: Decision, Forced Choice and Propaganda, it’ll be out on Zero Books this year, and it focuses entirely on the BioShock franchise (specifically Irrational’s games BioShock and BioShock Infinite) and how the series might reveal living in, what Jacques Ellul would call, the technological society.

But the exact nature of ‘how’ BioShock reveals this is the contention of the book: because (and this where I probably differ from Keogh), this is not a specific study of what the BioShock games feel like to play, nor does it seek to discuss video game criticism or culture outright. Neither does it stake a critical claim in what sort of existing allegorical message is present in the text for the player to mull over.

Instead, the book asks how BioShock emerges from a political ecology of systems (what I call decisional ecologies), and moreover how that ecology enacts communication, control and propagation: the very hallmarks of its content. What happens to the BioShock ecology once allegorical interpretations are shown to be less than useless?

Blurb and TOC below.

Published by 2K and developed by Irrational Games, the first person shooter videogame franchise BioShock, (comprised of two titles, BioShock and BioShock Infinite) received positive reviews on release. Moreover the series has attained something of a hallowed status as one of the greatest examples of commercial videogame artistry ever made. Its complex moralistic narrative, level of emergent customisation, immersive dark tone and technical artistry all culminate into a series of videogame experiences, somewhat elevated from the usual “cause and effect” shooter.

The BioShock series is often touted as “making the player think whilst playing.” The combination of narrative, game design, politics and philosophy takes place in failed dystopian futures and alternate universes (Randian Objectivism and American Exceptionalism), whilst the player addresses issues concerning free will and ethical consequence. However, Robert Jackson argues that the BioShock series indirectly reveals deeper, cultural meditations on the nature of decision, choice and propaganda on a wider level, within an ecology of systems and decisions. Instead of understanding BioShock as a ‘lesson’, ‘allegory’, ‘meta-commentary’ or ‘reading’ that applies to videogame culture alone, Jackson analyses how the franchise informally propagates and structures ideals inherent to our technological society. 

Spoilers obviously.

Table of Contents


  1. Decision Ecologies: How can a Choice be ‘Forced’?
  2. Decision and Forced Choice Inherent to Videogames
  3. Forced Choice: BioShock and Retroactive Causation
  4. Forced Choice and the Apparatus: Fate, Allegory and Retroactivity in Psychoanalysis.
  5. Decision: The Split of BioShock Infinite
  6. Decision: Propaganda, Turing, Ellul and the Reality of Automated Ideals

Postscripts: The Future of BioShock: The Future of Propaganda.