There are two questions that I want to address in these notes.
- What are the organizational approaches we can take to this corpus of texts? And corollary: what value does “speculation” hold for thinking about the Anthropocene?
- What relationships do these texts have for digital studies? How do their questions and insights help us develop digital studies or force us to think it differently? And corollary: what does digital studies refract back on these texts?
We can roughly categorize four different approaches:
- New materialisms and feminist science studies (Barad, Bennett, Coole/Frost, Haraway, Sheldon, Tsing et al.)
Let’s be clear: none of these approaches are coherent and everyone represented within them would contest them for good reasons and not just academic contrarianism and iconoclasm. I agree with Sheldon that the masculine/feminine heuristic between new materialisms and speculative realism is unnecessarily reductive. Rather, I see the split between them as indicative of broad disciplinary distinctions, which then are also gendered in particular ways.
New materialisms begin from a desire to bring the insights of contemporary (feminist) science along with a self-conscious return to premodern ideas of matter and materiality to bear on contemporary theoretical systems. They are what Morton peremptorily dismissed as “lava lamp materialism”—a grave error on his part. New materialisms are interested in relation, entanglement, and mutual constitution. I would say that the “new materialisms” are in fact the unspoken default position of much contemporary anthropological work in/about the Anthropocene.
New materialisms also extend digital studies’ concerns with networks and politics. Indeed, it is in this collection of texts that we find some of the strongest political programs in this list—notwithstanding Bennett’s training as a political theorist. New materialisms are also potent vectors for thinking about affect.
Note that there’s a bit of cleavage between those who bring in insights from physics (Barad, Bennet) and those from biology (Coole/Frost, Haraway, Tsing et al.). In general, I think the biologists are in ascendance, which we could link back to the communications studies interest in techno-biology, genetics, and neurochemistry. There are many understudied links between the new materialisms and cybernetics. Thinking relationally also has consequences for doing infrastructural work.
Finally, one thing to note is the uneasy hierarchy the new materialisms impose on the sciences and the humanities. Generally speaking, even as these scholars propound mutual constitution and co-infection across the disciplines, the insights of science seem to more deeply inform the humanities than the other way around. Thinking about inequalities in disciplinary transference is vital for humanistic work in and on technological systems, whether biological, digital, or both. (We can also think about the unfortunate platform studies approach toward valorizing technical knowledge as a key toward unlocking the object’s “inner mysteries.”)
- Speculative realism and object-oriented ontology (Behar, Bryant et al., Harman, Meillassoux)
Where the new materialisms emerges from feminist technoscience, speculative realism and object-oriented ontology (together, the speculative turn) emerge from a strictly philosophical background. Sheldon has written persuasively about how the speculative turn’s autobiography self-consciously excises women; we can also note how it excises work from the literary humanities, e.g. Bill Brown’s “thing theory.”
The speculative turn, like media archaeology, is mostly dead. I am less interested in stripping it for parts and more doing an autopsy to see why it rose the way it did and what rhetorical use its corpse continues to play in contemporary work on the Anthropocene. Notably, unlike the new materialisms, speculative philosophers rarely engage the Anthropocene directly. This is part disciplinary convention, as these essays are more interested in metaphysics than specific analyses. But it also, to my mind, indexes how this turn is perhaps best thought of as a symptom of the Anthropocene, as a cultural object in its own right, rather than a philosophical approach with much to say.
What does the speculative turn hold? Construed broadly, its branches argue that, through thought, we can achieve some sort of access to “the real.” And this “real” tends to be far weirder than philosophy, mathematics, and science (the humanities mostly keep out) hitherto expected. Why “speculative”? To be honest, this is a little muddy, even after taking a whole seminar on it. In this sense, the speculative philosophers seem to be indexing a methodological approach: that we need to speculate on the real rather than defer to empirical findings because these empirical findings are necessarily limited.
The speculative approaches have a deeply entangled relationship with digital technologies, even as they frequently refuse to historicize themselves in that relation. There is very little on the actual stakes of “object-orientation” in for OOP/OOO. There is also little of actual critical substance on the shared object-orientation or speculative imagining core to media archaeology. The work that does exist tends to note similarities and move on from there. But in many ways, the tactics of the speculative turn co-evolved with media archaeology. Note that both struggle to articulate a politics even as they evince a metaphysics. What were the historical conditions of this emergence?
- The Wreckage of the CCRU / SF and Horror (Bryant et al., Negarestani, Peak; small bits of Haraway but through a different legacy)
This section ties together a number of loosely articulated threads: the role of the CCRU and Nick Land in the development of early speculative philosophy, and the continued (though subsumed) influence of accelerationist and eventually far right ideas in this school of thought; the rise of “theory-fiction” as a viable or desirable way of doing academic work in the Anthropocene; and the popularization of horror/weird/speculative/science fiction, both as a subject for theorists (like Haraway) and as a method in itself (Negarestani).
The CCRU’s connection to this tradition deserves a fuller critical biography. Land’s and Negarestani’s work share a post-Deleuzian interest in technoscience and capitalism as a war machine; they are deeply mediated through digital systems (see the importance of shadowy blog networks to Cyclonopedia); they are also, and problematically, powerful undercurrents of contemporary online-mediated far right discourse as well as certain strands of curious techno-leftism. (Note: another anxiety to index through these readings is the viability of technological solutions to the material crises of the Anthropocene. Tech wrought it; can tech fix it?)
In renewed interest in horror/weird/SF aesthetics, “strangeness” is ascendant as a cultural formation. We can note this also in the insistence on the “weird” in speculative and to a lesser extent new materialist theory. We are constantly reminded that our reality is now or always already weird, uncanny, and out of joint. And perhaps it is. But little attention has so far been paid to the roots of this out-of-joint-ness. Whether it exists or not is an interesting but not empirical question: there is clearly a cultural sense that’s worth pursuing.
- Speculative design and technoscience (Kraus, Rosner, Tsing)
Finally, there’s a small stub of folks interested in speculative design, which speaks to alternative ways into “speculation” as a category of doing analysis and also connects back to the design focus of some infrastructure folks, e.g. Bratton.