July 21, 2010

Speculative Realism (SR) and Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO)

For those of you who know me, you'll know that I've had a spectator's interests in SR/OOO for some time. I've read Quentin Meillasoux's After Finitude, an excellent promissory text, where the central problematic of this field is defined (though a solution or alternative is only hinted at). I've also, obviously, read a small bit of Graham Harman's work in both Tool-Being and Guerilla Metaphysics. Harman's philosophy is built upon an extensive analysis of Heidegger's analysis of tools and the shift that takes place when they break down. From what I can tell, both of Harman's texts are of the highest quality, though Heideggerians are likely to get pissed off if they read him.

The other major coordinates of this emerging field are Iain Hamilton Grant, whose work I am wholly unfamiliar with (as I think there isn't all that much of it available) and Ray Brassier, whose text Nihil Unbound looks very interesting from what I have skimmed (it's something of a fundamentally nihilist scientism?). Apparently Brassier has a discussion of Badiou in there, though I didn't come across it myself. All of the main "coordinates" of this field, as I call them, are kinds of ontological realists (the position that we can know about objects as they exist independently of all traces of the human, and not a thesis about how we can know objects). I will come back to this.

There are, of course, other thinkers who've been very influential on this field either directly, in the case of Badiou on Meillasoux (the latter was a student of the former) and Latour on Harman, or indirectly in the case of Whitehead, the Ancients and Early-Moderns on everyone.

I would contend, from what I know of SR/OOO, that there is a fifth major coordinate to this field, though he is a little known philosopher - if a very well known blogger (to many hip continental leaning graduate students): Levi Bryant. He is the source of the term "Object-Oriented Ontology", and calls his own ontology "onticology". His version of OOO is what he calls a "flat ontology" in that:
there are [not] two worlds, the real natural world and the ideal mental world of meaning, but that there is only one level: reality. Onticology thus draws a transversal line across the distinction between mind and world, culture and nature. Culture is not other than reality or the real, but is an element of the real. Since onticology begins with the hypothesis, wishing to know where it will go, that there is no difference that does not make a difference, it proves impossible to exclude the human. Why? Because humans make a difference. What onticology objects to is not the thesis that humans are elements in the real, but the thesis that every relation is a human-world relation.
How badass does that sound? I'll tell you what, I've started reading the unpublished manuscript of his forthcoming The Democracy of Objects, and it is still just as intriguing.

The central problematic for all of the Speculative Realists is the problem of "correlationism" outlined by Meillasoux. He says,
by 'correlation' we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never either term considered apart from the other.
Perhaps the problem isn't as obvious as it would seem. Their concern is not strictly with mind/world relations. It is more general and pervasive. The problem is that all of our thinking of Being is thinking Being sutured to something of the human subject, whether is be mind, language, culture, or what have you. Further, the correlationist need not be an idealist. They don't deny the existence of a world apart from human subjectivity and all its traces. They simply think we cannot know things in themselves, and thus they turn every effort to know objects into a study of the study of objects (that is, a study of objects conditioned by human subjectivity). Shame on them!

Bryant draws on Foucault's concept of the 'episteme' to describe the bias away from ontology and toward epistemology that I often rant about. I've often said that everyone today begins with the epistemological question, in one form or another, ignoring the ontological. This is because correlationism has become a kind of "historical a priori" that defines the space in which we do philosophy. The realm in which we can disagree about anything is defined by certain things we must share in common, and take for granted. The Speculative Realists argue (convincingly) that this is a correlationist time and place.

Instead of thinking the being of objects sutured to human access, can we think the being of objects as such? These strange realists think so. I will post more about this as I read on.

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