Does Speculative Realism Exist?

Does Speculative Realism exist? Many would answer in the negative. The (anti)party line today is that the term is one of convenience, marking a shared opposition to ‘correlationism’ and its philosophical avatars. Yet the commonalities end there, or so we are told. Every exemplar of this fuzzy aggregate follows a starkly unique trajectory away from onto-anthropology, and while these zig-zagging lines of flight may occasionally cross or run parallel, they never do so for long before again departing. Speculative Realism is nothing but a point of departure, a launchpad from which one cannot deduce the course a commenced flight will take.

I believe there is something wrong with this increasingly common sense. Speculative Realism is more than a temporary hold-up harboring refugees of Man, that great despot whose Empire of Thought is said to encompass the whole known world. Yet a unified theory of Speculative Realism cannot rely on the conceptual consistency of its theoretical ‘species’, as they have demonstrably incompatible anatomies. So what exactly is it that makes Speculative Realism an intelligible and tangible genera or genre, if more than a pragmatic and opportunistic alliance amongst competitors?

I think the unary trait must be sought not in the content of their theories, but the form of philosophical practice or the way in which philosophy is used. This formal solidarity has not, to my knowledge, been explicitly laid bare, and so we cannot yet say that it amounts to a full-blown theory of philosophy – neither a philosophy of philosophy, or metaphilosophy, nor a non-philosophical theory of philosophy. In this sense, I think Levi is a bit hasty in proclaiming to be onto a post-non-philosophical philosophy. I think he is factually correct, but I don’t think there is an adequate theorization of how such a philosophy works or how to identify it.

We cannot characterize such a philosophy by its content, its substantial claims about the world, because non-philosophy itself makes no claims vis-a-vis content; it is strictly a theory of philosophical form, function, or use. Non-philosophy does not critique this or that philosophy because of the claims it makes. Rather, it equally grasps all of philosophy insofar as it is practiced in a certain form, the decisional form, and hence functions in a certain problematic manner. Non-philosophy attempts to transform the problematic character of decisional philosophy from a negative to a positive attribute, by implementing a new form whose sole content is decisional philosophy re-marked as such. Ray Brassier, in the fifth chapter of Nihil Unbound, is critical of non-philosophical method insofar as it restricts understanding of philosophy to its decisional form, refusing to accept the possibility of a ‘spontaneously’ non-decisional philosophy, or in other words, the possibility that decision does not exhaust the potential forms in which philosophy can be practiced. Due to this limitation, non-philosophy can only hope to suspend the efficacy of a given philosophical doctrine by exposing the artificiality of its form. It cannot imagine a philosophy that accepts its own artificiality, and that functions in and through this artificiality.

Whereas decisional philosophy reflexively accounts for its own legitimacy or natural relation to the Real, and non-philosophy exposes the fraud of this legitimacy by denaturalizing philosophy in the name of the Real, what is required now is a philosophy that reflexively accounts for its illegitimacy or non-legitimacy, its indifference to the inscription of its claims within the coordinates of legitimacy and illegitimacy; a philosophy that revels in artificiality without naturalizing it, instead accepting the artificiality of artificiality itself… We need a reflexivity that does not close upon itself in a circle, but that avoids any return to the origin in favor of a swerving motion into unknown territory, zeroing in on the ground and thereby penetrating it at an incisive angle, drilling down into an interior that is identical to the very hole that now hollows it out. A reflexivity that returns to that which, in the thing, is no longer that thing, that which is in-and-not-itself, the Insider whose Identity exceeds the ipseity of identification. Derrida has claimed that the circle of ipseity has already been a broken circle all along, but the sort of non-reflexivity we invoke knows nothing of circles; it is that circling or curving operation of the vortex, into which we read all manner of sick and healthy circle after the fact.

Whether such a philosophy can possibly exist, and whether one actually does exist, cannot be confirmed until we have rigorously explicated its definitive traits. We have already said that such a philosophy cannot naturalize itself, or in other words, claim a privileged relation to the Real; and that it must function by way of artificiality or ‘illegitimacy’, rather than by way of their disavowal. How can we begin to elucidate a positive sense of artificiality, no longer defined negatively against nature, but rather recognized as the Unnatural nature of nature, the encompassing set of which really-existing nature is an unextraordinary member?

The name is a good place to start. What does speculative mean? Speculation is basically a relation to the future: a speculation is a claim about what will happen. As such, speculation has positive and normative dimensions. The positive dimension is concerned with that which might happen, or whatever can possibly happen. From this set, we then determine what possibilities are most likely to occur. Yet this is inseparable from the normative dimension which, more than simply prescribing which possible futures should happen, enters in our very capacity to make speculative claims. The normative dimension of speculation concerns what we should say might happen, what we should say is likely to happen, and what we should say ought to happen. Hence, normativity in this respect is an epistemological dimension, prescribing – not what we can know, how we know we know, et ceterea, but – what speculative claims we ought to make.

We ought to make claims that conform to what will actually happen. This implies that our claims may or may not possess such conformity, and that the veracity of a thought is contingent. Yet what is the measure of this veracity? Precisely the content of the future itself, which, while inaccessible to thought so long as it is still in the future, must nonetheless necessarily be what it will be. The content of the future must be identical to the content of the future present, or in other words, this content must be conserved in passing from the form of the future to that of the present. If, at any given moment, the future is not necessarily what it will be, or is not already determined, then there is no way of securing a given speculative claim as prescribable – there would be no reason to prefer claim x to claim y. Speculative claims are predictive, they attempt to deduce the future present from the latent futurity of the present present. In this regard, they are already either true or false, really prescribed or not, before this normative value is made manifest to thought. One thing will in fact happen, and a speculative claim ought to be made insofar as it predicts what will happen.

Philosophy, conducted under the yoke of normative security, is reduced to such a submissive affair. A philosophical claim is presumed to be either true or false, prescribable or not. Of course, philosophy does not often make predictions the way scientific theories do; its truth-value is submitted to the obscure criteria of introspection: a philosophical claim either ‘seems right’ or ‘seems wrong’… The future event that collapses the speculative structure of a claim is hence the event of being read, being reabsorbed into a new speculative claim against which it is measured. Philosophy, in this way, rides an endless circle away from itself toward itself, continually feasting on its own flesh. Such a solipsistic affair rightfully receives much derision in an age when introspection itself is increasingly exposed as a sham.

This structure depends on normative security, or the capacity to suture a claim in the present to its latent truth-value, which will necessarily manifest in a future event. In other words, it needs the future to become what it was all along. Yet what if the future is not necessarily what it will be? What if there is no such fixity of the future? What if a speculative claim is not already true or false, but will only receive such a value in the future? In other words, what if the ontological status of the claim itself is not dependent upon a more fundamental reality obscure to thought? What if thought does not more or less accurately reflect on a more fundamental process, but actively contributes to this process?

The wager here is that speculative claims do not simply attempt to predict the future, but rather contribute to the production of the future. Speculative claims are not measured by their truth or falsity, but by their efficacy, their capacity to make the future. Normative security entails that one future will happen, and thought simply reflects upon this necessity. Yet Speculative Realism demands that thought and the Real cannot be so separated and sutured as distinct ontological spheres. Rather, thought is already in the Real, part of it and contributing to its futuring. The future is really contingent, and cognition is simply a name for a source of contingency, or a source of new information (capable of extracting new patterns from background noise). Speculative claims do not attempt to deduce the necessity of the future; they demonstrate and exacerbate the contingency of the future. For Speculative Realism, concepts do not attempt to describe the true structure of reality, they actively engineer reality.

Thought does not exist in sterile remove from reality, but contaminates it and makes a mess of it. Speculative claims are themselves real, a part of that about which they speculate. These are the consequences of the fallout of correlationism and onto-anthropology, which seeks to sequester Man in a distinct and impassive sphere separate from, but nonetheless coextensive with, the Real. Once this partition is leveled, thought leaks out into the things it once only gazed upon from a distance: into the brain, the body, objects, environments… Cognition is no longer confined to man’s mysterious inner sanctum, and instead drifts and distributes itself throughout the world. (While there have been flirtations with panpsychism as a consequence of this drift, I’d hestitate to identify the two, as psyche seems to imply that thought is individuated and possessed, rather than unbound, unfixed, and no more ‘in’ man than ‘in’ other objects.)

Onto-anthropology is defeated not simply as a philosophical position, but as the very form under which philosophy (realist and anti-realist) is conducted. This is what Brassier sees as the crucial non-philosophical corrective to Meillassoux’s immanent critique of correlationism. Moreover, as a transformation in the way in which philosophy is used, the whole history of philosophy is open to appropriation in the name of engineering the Real; concepts and doctrines are no longer to be taken or left on the basis of their veracity, but are selectively incorporated into new conceptual machines for the effects they might produce.

Now Really Existing Speculative Realism may not always conform to this functional transformation of philosophy, as the theory of philosophy it implicitly demands has not been explicitly formulated, at least not in its entirety. Hence we still find all manner of traditional philosophical tropes amongst the writings of Grant, Meillassoux, Brassier, and Harman. Nonetheless, we find all the necessary components dispersed amongst these disparate bodies of work. Harman claims that intentional relations are not limited to those between humans and the world, but in fact occur equivocally between all objects in relation. Meillassoux and Grant, in different ways, both insist on decentering human cognition by emphasizing its genesis in natural processes, its heteronomous determination by a Real with which it is not coextensive, but of which it is only a contingent outgrowth. Brassier, by way of Churchland and Laruelle, explains how cognition, theories, and concepts are not ontologically distinct from the world, but are identical to the abstract information processing systems material instantiated in, amongst other substrates, the neural architecture of the brain (although this is a bit crude, because there is no clean way of separating this architecture from its bodily and environmental extension). In principle, we can say that a beach as equally an exemplar of cognition as man, insofar as it processes input and produces output.

A crucial series of questions arises at this point: 1) If cognition really is distributed, why do I nonetheless experience thought as discretely limited to my individual being? 2) Why has philosophy for so long acted out of sync with the true nature of thought? 3) Moreover, doesn’t the claim that cognition really is distributed reintroduce the normative suture by way of prescribing this claim?

  1. The crucial point about distributed cognition is that it is engineered, that it has a certain mechanical composition that determines the manner in which it functions. This composition is manifest in the neural structure of the brain, the muscular habituation of the body, the social and linguistic networks into which these are plugged (semiotics of all types: political, religious, amorous, scientific, cultural, economic…), the material environment itself, including the objects, structures, ecosystems, and so on with which the body-brain system interfaces… The particular experience we have of ourselves, or the particular recursive systems by way of which cognition fixates on individual human beings as narratively-continuous entities, are not natural or necessary. They have developed into this specific composition over millennia of evolutionary selection – not only genetic evolution, but semiotic or memetic evolution more generally. The particular conceptual articulation by way of which cognition makes itself isolated in discrete human chunks is the result of a praxical constellation – bodily, social, linguistic, and neural praxes. These concepts are generated in practice, and whether or not they ‘accurately represent reality’ or we ‘believe’ them is moot – concepts do not represent reality, they produce it; they are not matters of belief, but are effective in practice no matter how we ‘feel’ about them. Here we can see the crucial contribution of the Marxist lineage in the form of ‘abstract realism’, formulated most effectively in the work of Nicole Pepperell.
  2. The solution to the second problem follows from the first. If cognition is really engineered in such a way as to disproportionately fixate on human beings, then of course philosophy – as one layer of the collective cognitive machinery of which man is a part – would largely support and reinforce this structure. Cognition is plastic and can be constructed into an infinity of possible structures – and it is in fact structured in a certain way, one with which we are all intimately familiar. Philosophy has remained decisional and onto-anthropological insofar as it has in practice served to reinforce this structure, to insist upon its necessity. Yet there are countless instances throughout the history of philosophy – and the history of human cognition more generally – in which small challenges have been posed to this structure. The problem, however, is that it is not enough to change philosophical conceptions of the world. While the latter are fully real, embedded in reality and influential upon reality, they are only one small part of the practical mechanics that produce and reinforce the existing structure. Changing philosophical concepts won’t do much if we don’t strive to make corresponding changes in the concepts materially embedded in our brains, bodies, habits, environments, languages, economies, institutions, technologies…
  3. So does this reintroduce normativity? Here we must allude to the point made earlier about the ‘artificiality of artificiality’: this plastic and distributed cognitive infrastructure cannot simply be held up as the ‘true’ description of reality – it must be demonstrated. The question is not whether this conception is right or wrong, but whether it is effective, whether it can have a real impact. While distributed cognition may be the real default structure of reality, this is totally unimportant unless we transcendentally effectuate this structure by redistributing cognition, by unbinding its fixation on man and enacting its plasticity. There is no correct or incorrect way to represent the real, because any representation of it is equivocally given or determined by it. The Real does not prescribe any specific representation, because every representation equally makes the Real, engineers it in a certain way and is therefore ‘objectively valid’. The Real is utterly indifferent to what we think about it or what we do with it. We can only embrace this indifference as a force capable of undermining systems that reinforce the existing structure, challenging their claims to necessity or their prescriptive valence.

Speculative Realism may not nominate a consistent philosophical position, but it does encompass its incompatible avatars as a common form of philosophy which significantly breaks with its onto-anthropological lineage. It signifies a heretical use of philosophy that is shared by otherwise incommensurable doctrines. This functional transformation of philosophy renders debate over which branch of Speculative Realism is the most accurate meaningless: the various species are divergent ways of engineering a common machinery, which may compete at times and collaborate at others. The crucial point is not the truth or falsity of their positions, but the unique engineering programs they pioneer – programs that might begin in philosophy and impact minimally contemporary philosophy and its historiographical self-image, but that might spread into other disciplines (humanities, arts, sciences) and other semio-material fields (political, economic, ethical, habitual), potentially infiltrating and undermining cognitive machineries anywhere.

Speculative Realism might not only change what we think, it might change how we think, it might lead to novel configurations of the means of cognitive production – and it might do so because it fundamentally challenges the existing mode of production, the onto-anthropological mode, in which Man is the sole proprietor of cognitive machinery. By ‘Man’, I don’t mean you or I insofar as we are human, but the abstract algorithm which we all exemplify and unconsciously maintain – just as when I say ‘Capital’, I don’t mean capitalists themselves, but the algorithm that operates through them all to a given degree and within certain well-defined limits. I have claimed before that it is no coincidence that Speculative Realism is the first real philosophical ‘movement’ of the ‘Internet Age’ (or at least its second age, so-called ‘Web 2.0’). The Cloud is the most significant mutation of the cognitive infrastructure in a long time, one which provides tangible evidence against anthropologically-fixed cognition and for distributed cognition – the evidence being a significant redistribution of cognition by way of digital technologies. Yet this redistribution only exemplifies the already distributed and machined nature of cognition, which has for so long remained stable within the limits of onto-anthropology.

The question now is in what direction will this mutation go? Will it be redirected back between its former limits? Will it lead to significant and potentially emancipatory upheavals? Will it engender even more terrifying forms of suffering and oppression? The future is not determined, it is contingent upon many things, and we are one of those counter-actualizing factors. While nothing can be prescribed and normativity cannot be secured, we must nonetheless do something, we must take part in this blind groping, or else forfeit to whatever force happens to win out. Speculative Realism is already doing much to ensure an ongoing experimentation in the philosophical infrastructure, but this is only one zone of contestation amongst many. SR may still betray sustained experimentation in the name of prescription; it may isolate its experimentation in philosophy, refusing to allow the contamination of other fields; it may collapse under the weight of overwhelming opposition from inside or outside philosophy. The future of philosophy, and of cognition itself, will depend in no small measure upon what we do now.

This may sound apocalyptic, and it is. If every generation likes to imagine itself as the advent of great upheaval, this is a testament to their complicity in the maintenance of a fragile world. We are perhaps poised, better than our ancestors have ever been, to leverage this complicity in the name of heretical betrayal, not in the least because this fragility is increasingly tangible. If we do nothing, then things may ultimately stay the same, or become unimaginably worse. For this reason, we cannot shirk of the potential importance of our work. If Speculative Realism does not exist, then we must make it exist, or else risk reinforcing the fatal sterility of philosophy for the last time.

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7 Responses to Does Speculative Realism Exist?

  1. Pingback: “speculative realism does exist” « Object-Oriented Philosophy

  2. Paul Ennis says:

    It is worth noting that I also made the same claim that speculative realism is the first ‘truly digital or technological movement’: http://anotherheideggerblog.blogspot.com/2009/07/speculative-realist-turn.html

    Your post contains so much food for thought I can only step back for the moment and mull it over.

    • reidkane says:

      Thanks for directing me to that post, great stuff. I’ll be eager to hear your thoughts if you decide to share them!

  3. Benoît says:

    Was I waiting for this all along? Was this what I’d wished to provoke out of Levi in my quarrels with him?

    It’s not as if Levi nor myself didn’t realize the full implications of speculative realism (should we even use this term anymore, any term/categoryization/comparmentalization?), but, as Levi so pointed out, though maybe without actualizing the force of his claim himself, our practice was ignorant.

    “Our practice was ignorant”

    For myself, everything changes in typing this sentence, now no longer just a sentence. Sure, life changing thoughts come along all the time, but usually in the vein of a new disorientation and dizziness, being spun in a different direction really, a new source of nausea. Perhaps I’m still spinning, but at least now I can control the direction.

    Obscure elation for an illuminative post. Thanks Reid.

  4. Pingback: Some Updates « Naught Thought

  5. Pingback: Oversikt « Purpurnatt

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