Return of the real, part three: The Speculative Turn

the-speculative-turnRenewal and reinvigoration has never been more urgent for the Left, yet with a few exceptions, mostly in Latin America, it is everywhere in retreat and on the defensive. A serious intellectual realignment – while of course not sufficient – is necessary. It is my contention, as I’ve argued in the two previous posts, that we need to move beyond our obsessions with language and semantics, and the critique of ideas. For this to happen we need a radical change in intellectual climate; a change that may, at last, be underway.

The anthology The Speculative Turn (available in paperback or for free download) brings together essays from many different and sometimes opposing materialist and realist positions, that nonetheless reject what speculative realist Quentin Meillassoux has dubbed the dominant paradigm of the twentieth century, ‘correlationism’, in which reality appears, as the introduction puts it, ‘only as the correlate of human thought’. That such philosophy is ill-equipped to understand science may be a problem only for philosophers; that it enables the erosion of public confidence in the very real and dangerous facts that threaten our existence, and undermines the arguments for emancipatory politics and ecological sustainability, is a problem that affects us all:

In the face of the looming ecological catastrophe, and the increasing infiltration of technology into the everyday world (including our own bodies), it is not clear that the anti-realist position is equipped to face up to these developments. The danger is that the dominant anti-realist strain of continental philosophy has not only reached a point of decreasing returns, but that it now actively limits the capacities of philosophy in our time…. This general anti-realist trend has manifested itself in continental philosophy in a number of ways, but especially through preoccupation with such issues as death and finitude, an aversion to science, a focus on language, culture, and subjectivity to the detriment of material factors, an anthropocentric stance towards nature, a relinquishing of the search for absolutes, and an acquiescence to the specific conditions of our historical thrownness. We might also point to the lack of genuine and effective political action in continental philosophy—arguably a result of the ‘cultural’ turn taken by Marxism, and the increased focus on textual and ideological critique at the expense of the economic realm.

For a non-philosopher like myself, it is sometimes hard going to follow these fast-moving currents, but something new is opening up in the field of contemporary thought. After decades of critical engagement with sign, text, discourse and culture, the shift of focus to the real is like switching morphine for adrenaline.

One of the most important distinctions between the ‘correlationist’ mainstream standpoint and speculative realism is the restoration of ontology (the study of what is) to a central position, rather than privileging epistemology (the study of knowledge). Successive schools of thought have emphasised epistemology, while metaphysical speculation came to be seen as naive, confused and irrelevant (as in Wittgenstein’s dictum ‘About that which we cannot speak, we must be silent’). As epistemology came to be seen to have primacy over ontology, the distinction between things in themselves and things as they are for us is collapsed: a process that began with Kant but has become increasingly solipsistic over time. As the sciences opened our understanding to a universe whose vastness we struggle to comprehend, the humanities locked us back into the narrow confines of discourse, the subject, and the sign. Peter Hallward puts it in The Speculative Turn:

Correlationism figures here as a sort of counter-revolution that emerged in philosophy as it tried, with and after Kant, to come to terms with the uncomfortably disruptive implications of Galileo, Descartes and the scientific revolution. Post-Copernican science had opened the door to the ‘great outdoors’: Kant’s own so-called ‘Copernican turn’ should be best understood as a Ptolemaic attempt to slam this door shut.

The political consequences are enormous, and mostly bad. Thinking about the world as a consumer turns it into one huge repository of resources for us, and of significance only in terms of how best they can best be exploited, is what has sent us hurtling towards extinction. To change course, we need to think about the non-human world in a radically different way.

Prioritising knowledge over being has automatically inflated the importance of critique. Timothy Morton describes the syndrome in typically vivid style:

If you’ve ever been in this kind of argument, you’ll know how intense it can get. Going meta is a great way to sneer at someone. You remove the rug from underneath the other’s feet. Their mere immediacy is always false. It’s the deep structure, the numinous background, the possibility of the possibility of the horizon of the event of being, that is more real, or better, or just more rhetorically effective, than anything else. In this mode, the egg of potentiality comes before the chicken of the actual.

Restoring ontology to its proper place stops the game of ‘going meta’, of which ideology critique is a symptom, dead in its tracks. Speculative realism turns correlationist thought on its head, exposing the insistence that any discussion of territory is actually a discussion about a map of that territory, as an empty and indefensible game of words. As Meillassoux points out in After Finitude, if we interpret the activity of science as a discourse that is ultimately centred on the human subject, we miss the whole point (see also Ray Brassier’s essay in Collapse), and fall into the ‘epistemic fallacy’ that Roy Bhaskar describes in A Realist Theory of Science: ‘it is not the character of science that imposes a determinate pattern or order on the world; but the order of the world that … makes possible the cluster of activities we call “science”.’

The relevance of this move to political issues, we can see in a post like this from Larval Subjects, in which Levi Bryant (one of The Speculative Turn’s editors) draws the distinction between the actual state of things, and our experience of them, in relation to class:

The question, then, of how we experience or are conscious of class is distinct from the question of how class exists…. Class can exist and function just fine without anyone identifying with a class or being aware that they are caught up within the mechanisms of class. How else could so many act contrary to their class interests, going so far as to even deny that class exists, if this weren’t the case?… Here the issue is similar to the one Morton raises with respect to climate as a hyperobject. Part of the problem with climate is precisely because, as withdrawn, we aren’t even aware of its existence and therefore are unable to act on it. We are aware of weather without being aware of climate. Climate requires a sort of leap and a detective work that ferrets out all sorts of traces. So too in the case of class.

By now, I hope it is obvious that, while grounded in philosophy, the move away from correlationism has profound consequences for political thought. I’ll quote once more from The Speculative Turn, this time from the essay by Isabelle Stengers, writing about the imperialist implications of vulgar scientistic dogmatism à la Dawkins:

It would be a catastrophic mistake, I believe, to recognize the importance of Vandana Shiva’s struggle against capitalism while associating her protest against the paradigm of contemporary biology with words like holistic, traditional or romantic. Hers is a call not for ‘an other science’, but for a relevant science, a science that would actively take into account the knowledge associated with those agricultural practices that are in the process of being destroyed in the name of progress…. The thesis I am defending—that materialism should be divorced from (academic) eliminativism in order to connect with struggle—does not deny that elimination may have been utterly relevant, when it entailed struggling against the allied powers of state and church, for instance. Today, however, the situation has changed. Elimination has become the very tool of power. It is not only a tool for capitalism, but also for what I would call, together with Hilary Rose, ‘bad science’.

One does not have to subscribe to any particular school of realist or materialist thought to see that our current circumstances urgently call for new ways of thinking the real; to broaden the scope of analysis from discourse and ideology to the actors – human and non-human, individual and collective – in our world and its becoming; to go beyond critique, and begin to build. The Speculative Turn is an important step on that journey. It’s free: go download.

Bhaskar, Roy 2008, A Realist Theory of Science 3rd edn, Verso, London.
Brassier, Ray 2007, ‘The Enigma of Realism: On Quentin Meillassoux’s “After Finitude”’, Collapse II, pp. 15–45.
Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds 2011, The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, re:press, Melbourne.
Meillassoux, Quentin 2008, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Continuum, London.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Joshua Mostafa is a writer and critic living in the Blue Mountains.

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  1. Thanks for that. Very interesting. Just wondering, though, what you see as the prospects for these debates to escape from the academy. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot: on the one hand, we now have a university system less engaged in the public sphere than ever before; on the other, the social movements (or what are left of them) are almost entirely atheoretical. How is this to be overcome?

  2. I don’t know. I’d like to say that, inasmuch as the focus on discourse rather than on real things-in-the-world exacerbates the problem, returning to the Real might be a corrective, but that’s probably just wishful thinking.

    More likely, it’s not to be overcome from within academia, but from something external; not necessarily anything benevolent. It may be, for instance, that the cuts to universities in the UK, and the occupations that have taken place as a result, will radicalise the student body, form a sense of solidarity with workers also suffering from the cuts, and start a new dialogue between theory and praxis.

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  4. The Speculative Turn marks something of a watershed in the history of philosophy: I believe it is the first work of ontology ever to crash a website. Apparently the free PDF was so popular it crashed re.press’s server after serving several thousand downloads on the day of release.

  5. “As epistemology came to be seen to have primacy over ontology, the distinction between things in themselves and things as they are for us is collapsed: a process that began with Kant but has become increasingly solipsistic over time.”

    How can a process be solipsistic?

    Epistemology is not primary vis-a-vis ontology, it is preparatory and methodological – “how do you know what you claim to know?” is the question. Ontological propositions cannot be evaluated (as true or false) without proper epistemological explanations – otherwise it’s my word against yours, i.e. chaos of nonsense. Scientists argue about methodological issues as much as folks in humanities – this idealized picture of brave scientists forging ahead is naive (and false), and one often finds it precisely among non-scientists. Scientists needs to show how they know what they claim to know (epistemology) as much as anyone else.

    “By now, I hope it is obvious that, while grounded in philosophy, the move away from correlationism has profound consequences for political thought.”

    It’s actually not obvious at all – you seem to imply that “correlationism” is responsible for the fact that we treat the world as “depository of resources for us” but you give no explanation as to how this is the case. Firstly, there is no such thing as “correlationsist thought” and, secondly, if you blame Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy and its insight that our mind is active in the process of getting to know the real world in somehow leading us all into the future of ecological catastrophe, then it would be nice to see some examples (not just hyperbolic exaggerations).

  6. As an intruder here E.P. appealed to me.Neither Micro or Macro more how many calls from this Speculative crow!?

    • Thanks for your suggestion. I have in fact read Meillassoux’s book – where exactly does he say that we must not do epistemology and proceed directly to ontology? Or that “correlationism” will kill us all (does Meillassoux not in fact say that his position is correlationist as well?) He certainly provides a good critique of Kant’s epistemology (but never rejects epistemology as such, does he?), and it’s nuanced enough to avoid such horrid vulgarizations as “restoring ontology to its proper place” and “not going meta” – answer me this simple question: how do you know that your ontological pronouncements (“being is X and Y” or “reality is such and such”) are correct without first reflecting on the issues of knowledge/truth? I’d really like to know.

      I also find it interesting that you say nothing about Ray Brassier’s essay in the collection under review.

      • It’s what Meillassoux describes as ‘strong correlationism’ – Wittgensteinian rejection of metaphysics as nonsense, dismissing metaphysical questions as malfunctions of language – that conflates ontological statements with epistemological ones. Not sure which part of my post you interpreted as ‘we must not do epistemology’ or that we have unmediated access to truth. The point I was making is that, in the process beginning with Kant but intensifying during the 20th C, questions of interpretation, subjectivity, perception dominated in such a way as to obscure the point of inquiry. This is not to say that epistemology is unnecessary, merely that not every question should be reduced to an epistemological one. Levi Bryant: “It is possible to advocate an anti-realist epistemology and a realist ontology” http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2009/11/04/realism-epistemology-science-and-scientism/

        • “Not sure which part of my post you interpreted as ‘we must not do epistemology’ or that we have unmediated access to truth.”

          How about this one: “As epistemology came to be seen to have primacy over ontology, the distinction between things in themselves and things as they are for us is collapsed: a process that began with Kant but has become increasingly solipsistic over time. As the sciences opened our understanding to a universe whose vastness we struggle to comprehend, the humanities locked us back into the narrow confines of discourse, the subject, and the sign.”

          Clearly if epistemology somehow interferred with ontology and locked us down within the narrow confines of discourse, then it must be bad, we must do ontology, not epistemology. No?

          I’m not familiar with Levi Bryant’s work but I will surely check out the link. You haven’t really answered any of my simple questions (okay, you don’t deny the need for epistemology, but you deny it’s ‘primacy’ therefore you seem to be claiming you can do ontology without serious epistemological effort first). As much as I appreciate new ideas, linking me to books and websites is not what I generally consider to be a sign of a productive conversation.

          If I may suggest some reading materials in return, I would say you need to actually read Kant and Hegel (judging by your opinions here, I doubt you had a chance to do so yet) to discover that epistemology and ontology are not enemies and that whatever “process” you are describing (“questions of interpretation, subjectivity, perception”) was not as straightforward and hegemonic as you think.

          • I have, actually, read some Kant and a little Hegel – although the tendency I’m describing towards obsession with subjectivity, discourse and critique is, as I described in the earlier posts, mostly a 20th C phenomenon. But as I mentioned in the posts, I’m not a scholar of philosophy (I’m a student of literature). Moreover, I deliberately tried to write for a general audience – the aim was to make accessible without oversimplification, and it may be that I have achieved neither, I’ll ruefully concede. None of this is my own original thought; I’m more of an enthusiastic spectator than a speculator. What prompted me to write these posts was the glimmer of hope I see in these new schools of thought for a way out of the impasse Sloterdijk describes, as described in the first of these posts.

  7. Citing, for example, “speculative realist” Ray Brassier:

    5. Thus the metaphysical exploration of the structure of being can only be carried
    out in tandem with an epistemological investigation into the nature of conception.
    For we cannot understand what is real unless we understand what ‘what’ means, and
    we cannot understand what ‘what’ means without understanding what ‘means’ is, but
    we cannot hope to understand what ‘means’ is without understanding what ‘is’ means.

    What do you make of this?

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