The Speculative Turn is a massive and inconsistent collection. All of the men in this collection (it literally is all men, besides Isabelle Stengers) disagree with each other’s projects, often in the very pages of this collection. The writing is deeply philosophical, in the sense of the academic discipline—moreover, it’s obtuse and difficult to read by any standard of measurement.
So why read it? It’s a landmark volume in concretizing a philosophical turn that has been deeply influential in the past decade, mostly in the consternation that it’s caused. “Speculative realism” means many things to many people—and one of my projects in reading this collection today is to get a sense of what its various senses are and the strategic differences between its usages.
The second question I’m reading for is the basic one for this entire sub-list: what does this have to do with digital studies? Put another way, what role does (digital) technology play in the development of speculative realist philosophy? What does speculative realism and its associated approaches have to say about the nature and uses of (digital) technologies? Is this approach useful or not? And where does it all lead?—how do other strands of thought in digital studies critique or augment speculative realism?
A plan of attack. This collection is too long to read at once so we need to carve it up. There are a few schools of thought and styles of essay worth noting.
- The Goldsmiths School (Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant, Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux)
- These folks participated in the original SR conference at Goldsmiths in 2006. Many of them have since disavowed the SR approach; all of them are major interlocutors in this volume, even if in absentia.
- The Vanguard (Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, Reza Negarestani)
- These folks are later commentators on the SR school; they have tentacular relations, through accelerationist philosophies, to the CCRU/Land schools.
- The Old Guard (Badiou, Zizek, Laruelle, Shaviro, Latour, Stengers, DeLanda)
- These are philosophers whose work on non-correlationism and the nonhuman precede the 2006 Goldsmiths conference; their essays in this volume do not respond directly to that school but rather recontextualize their prior work in the context of this volume.
1. “Towards a Speculative Philosophy,” Bryant, Srnicek, Harman
- “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” (3).
- What do we mean by “speculation” as method?: “Speculation in this sense aims at something ‘beyond’ the critical and linguistic turns. As such, it recuperates the pre-critical sense of ‘speculation’ as a concern with the Absolute, while also taking into account the undeniable progress that is due to the labour of critique” (3).
- Correlationism (Meillassoux: “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other”) instantiates a “subtle form of [ubiquitous] idealism” (4).
- Worth noting the technical and intellectual infrastructures that promulgated SR work, from the CCRU to Collapse to philosophy blogs (6–7).
- Weird affect: “One of the key features of the Speculative Turn is precisely that the move toward realism is not a move toward the stuffy limitations of common sense, but quite often a turn toward the downright bizarre” (7).
- Critique of politics: “If the basic claim of realism is that a world exists independent of ourselves, this becomes impossible to reconcile with the idea that all of ontology is simultaneously political. There needs to be an aspect of ontology that is independent of its enmeshment in human concerns. Our knowledge may be irreducibly tied to politics, yet to suggest that reality is also thus tied is to project an epistemological problem into the ontological realm” (16).
[Speculative Realism Revisited]
3. “On the Undermining of Objects,” Harman / 4. “Response to Harman,” Grant
- “Grant’s transcendental naturalism follows a long philosophical tradition in its attempt to ‘undermine’ objects by explaining their existence in terms of a deeper material basis: whether it be God, physical elements, drives, or the preindividual. The equally bad alternative to this undermining strategy is what Harman calls ‘overmining’—the attempt to disable individual objects by letting them exist only in their appearances, relations, qualities, or effects. These critiques lead Harman to what he provocatively terms a ‘realism without materialism’” (9).
- “We should oppose radicalism not in the name of sober moderation (for in that case other career choices would be wiser than philosophy) but in the name of weirdness. Radical philosophy is never weird enough, never sufficiently attentive to the basic ambiguity built into substance from Aristotle onward” (24).
5. “Concepts and Objects,” Brassier
- Brassier is a nihilist, so, yeah, do with that as you will. Also was at Warwick during the last days of the CCRU.
- Note that the world in itself has no intelligible meaning: “We gain access to the structure of reality via a machinery of conception which extracts intelligible indices from a world that is not designed to be intelligible and is not originarily infused with meaning” (47).
- I’m throwing in the towel on you, Ray, this is way beyond my training.
[Critiques of Meillassoux]
7–11. Critiques of Meillassoux
- As the title suggests, this next sequence of essays are all various critiques of Meillassoux.
- Johnston correctly detects a pseudo-religious strain undergirding some strands of speculative realism, despite Harman et al.’s strenuous assertions against panpsychism (93).
- Matt assigned the Hallward/Brown sequence in his seminar. Hallward’s summary of Meillassoux helps me realize why the weird is at the heart of this speculative turn: the abolition of contingency produces a surreal space (130).
12. “Capitalism and the Non-Philosophical Subject,” Srnicek
###. 13. “Drafting the Inhuman,” Negarestani
- “With the burgeoning popularity of speculative thought, it is becoming more evident that what is labelled as ‘speculative’ is more an epiphenomenon of the inquisitive renegotiation of human faculties, their limits and vulnerabilities rather, than a counterintuitive foray into the abyssal vistas unlocked by contemporary science” (182); here, in Negarestani’s essay, we finally have observations on the relationship between speculation and technology.
- Contends that capitalism is the “most recurring politico-economic figure of speculative thought” (182).
17. “The Ontic Principle,” Bryant
18. “The Actual Volcano,” Shaviro / 19. “Response,” Harman
22. “Wondering about Materialism,” Stengers
23. “Emergence, Causality, and Realism,” DeLanda
The Absence of Women
Sheldon levies an astute critique of speculative realism’s gender problem. I would also point to Barad’s shared interest in ontology, which then produces epistemology and ethics, as a missing counterpoint to this volume’s picture.