Renewal 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.