The first issue of Speculations, a new journal of “speculative realism,” is available here. The journal joins a growing list of online, open-access, peer-reviewed, refereed journals to appear in the past few years (though it is also available as a pdf to download and in an on-demand print version), which is an encouraging development. Even more interesting is that all of the writers and some members of the editorial board have an online presence through personal blogs (some of which I have added to the links on the right), which reinforces the notion that serious research, scholarship and discourse is more than possible via new media.
Philosophically, it is significant that the journal is promoting a realist philosophy at a time when (depending on how radically one defines realism and in what discipline one primarily operates), realism is often seen as too rigidly outdated. Though this may be changing. Latour, a constant reference throughout the essays here, can be interpreted as a realist. In “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Latour calls Whitehead a realist, Manuel Delanda can be read as a realist, and in his A Philosophy of a Society, he even interprets Deleuze as a social realist. In Difference and Givenness, Levi Bryant has argued that Deleuze is also a philosophical realist.
There is clearly a lot of work to be done to persuasively argue in favor of realist approaches to the humanities or that it is possible in the twenty-first century to practice realism without repeating the past mistakes of a more vulgar variety. However, this issue of Speculations is an interesting contribution to the discussion, and at the very least it suggests that realism can serve as a much needed check on other strands of thought, reminding us that concepts need to be continually re-evaluated, reconnected and put to new uses.
I have read the introduction and first essay, which I will comment on here, but I hope to have more thoughts about subsequent essays and sections in the future. In his introductory editorial, Paul Ennis refrains from defining speculative realism but points out its loose conglomerate of participants. He writes:
This is the first journal dedicated to speculative realism and despite the obscurity of that term I think we all understand it as a handy label under which weird realists, continental metaphysicians, object oriented ontologists, transcendental realists, vitalists, and Lovecraftians can unite.
This amalgam of approaches seems a little too diverse to create a strong identity or clearly defined terms. Moreover, some of these approaches or genres of thinking seem overtly anathema to realism. Vitalism, most notably, and its focus on the one, would seem to be inherently opposed to realism and its focus on the many. However, the recognition of the importance of issues such as change, agency and relations that emerge throughout the issue suggests a realism very different from the one against which a vitalist like Bergson, for instance, argued.
The first essay by Fabio Gironi, “Science-Laden Theory: Outlines of an Unsettled Alliance” may provide a hint of what is at stake in speculative realism. It begins with the all important question:
What is speculative realism? Many readers of this journal will already have a more or less precise understanding of the defining traits of this movement, while other—perhaps more sceptical—readers will want to get a better grasp of what the fuss is all about. My aim in this paper is not so much to give a definite answer to this question, but rather to propose a sketch of the causes, conditions and the network of actors which has led to the generation of such a diverse—and at times seemingly contradictory—philosophical trend.
Gironi continues with a brief history of speculative realism’s brief history, a notable early part of which was a 2007 conference entitled “Speculative Realism”, organized at Goldsmiths College in London, the announcement for which reads:
Contemporary ‘continental’ philosophy often prides itself on having overcome the age-old metaphysical battles between realism and idealism. Subject-object dualism, whose repudiation has turned into a conditioned reflex of contemporary theory, has supposedly been destroyed by the critique of representation and supplanted by various ways of thinking the fundamental correlation between thought and world.
But perhaps this anti-representational (or ‘correlationist’) consensus—which exceeds philosophy proper and thrives in many domains of the humanities and the social sciences—hides a deeper and more insidious idealism. Is realism really so ‘naïve’? And is the widespread dismissal of representation and objectivity the radical, critical stance it so often claims to be?
This workshop will bring together four philosophers whose work, although shaped by different concerns, questions some of the basic tenets of a ‘continental’ orthodoxy while eschewing the reactionary prejudices of common-sense. Speculative realism is not a doctrine but the umbrella term for a variety of research programmes committed to upholding the autonomy of reality, whether in the name of transcendental physicalism, object-oriented philosophy, or abstract materialism, against the depredations of anthropocentrism.
It is clear that speculative realism, in addition to arguing for a certain stance, is also arguing against others. Kant is a clear target, but of course he’s the target of everyone these days. Much of post-structuralism, post-modernism and social constructivism is also an apparent enemy of speculative realism. The conference announcement, as well as many of Gironi’s comments, its critique of hidden idealism and anti-representationalism would also seem to implicate Deleuze and process philosophy (though, as mentioned above, this too is a bit ambiguous). However, the lack of specificity or agreement on how to define and categorize speculative realism might be part of its appeal. It’s a philosophy in the making, rather than a pre-existing one. It’s an opportunity to define views in relation to issues rather than individuals. Gironi continues with a clearer and more concise definition:
it seems legitimate to assume that the minimum common denominator of any philosophy that can be christened ‘speculative realist’ could be summarized in a reaffirmation (which can be formulated in various ways) of the autonomy of reality (which is implicitly a rejection of the commonplace assumptions of much of recent continental philosophy) [...] Within speculative realism, a science-friendly attitude is explicitly associated with the rejection of a certain kind of (post-critical, human-centred, phenomenological—in a word—correlationist) philosophy.
Gironi readily admits that the term speculative realism is already misleading, since it has spawned divergent approaches that are not always commensurate with each other, but he suggests Latour as a common denominator among all participants as well as someone who has developed a useful methodology. Gironi, more than anyone else in the issue is also determined (as evidenced in the quote above) to promote a renewed connection between philosophy and science (though at times this proposed relation almost seems like one of philosophy’s subservience to science). He continues:
My guiding thesis here is that the movement grew as it was fuelled by a certain necessity, internal to continental philosophy as whole, to confront itself with the growing epistemological prestige, metaphysical strength and even popular appeal of the natural sciences.
Gironi takes inspiration from the internal developments of science during the past half century, as well as from its level of public engagement. This may be a disciplinary difference, but in architectural practice and studies, the sciences have long enjoyed superior prestige – epistemological and just about every other kind. In fact, it could be argued that one role of theory, epistemology and ontology is to combat the hegemony of science, the search for determinative, quantitative reality on which to base judgment and decisions. The continual linkage between speculative realism and scientific approaches also runs the risk of conflating philosophical or social realism with scientific realism.
It is true that science has made itself more strongly felt and needed through blogs, popular media, attention in the news, so perhaps it offers some useful lessons. However, copying its research strategies or applying its metaphysics seems a step too far. However, if Big Bang Theory, a primetime network sitcom about a theoretical physicist, an applied physicist an astrophysicist and an engineer can become a top-ten program, maybe there’s something here. When was the last time any film or program featuring an architect actually followed him or her to the office, much less used the specifics of an architectural project as a plot point or topic of humor (Inception does not count for reasons I will address at some point)?
Much of Gironi’s argument is based on the conviction that contemporary philosophy is boring. This seems dubious as a sweeping indictment of all philosophy and ignores the myriad ways in which philosophy could be made more entertaining without recourse to scientific discourse. What is too often missing from architectural discourse (this is not speculative realism’s concern, but it is mine) is a means for addressing the beyond of quantitative data, including processes of discovery and creation, means for addressing contingencies and flux within the natural and built environments. Process philosophy (if it is admittedly growing a bit staid and repetitive) played an important role in moving beyond the tyranny of deconstruction and for actively (re)conceptualizing the genesis of thought, the act of creation and the importance of relations in design. To neglect this contribution is to risk obviating philosophy altogether.
And this lingering question I had throughout the first half of the essay – what is left for philosophy? – is partially answered in the second half. One divergent strand of speculative realism (Meillassoux and Brassier, who are both absent from this issue) does apparently (or at least potentially) obviate philosophy. (As a note, I am not terribly familiar with either of these authors, so I cannot confirm this interpretation). Another strand of speculative realism, on the other hand, poses an approach that refuses to conflate science and the real and offers a goal that many of us in theory can easily support in theory if not in specifics:
The ‘object-oriented’ philosophical project does not open up spaces for the question of survival of philosophy to emerge since—even after having, with Harman, diagnosed contemporary philosophy as chronically boring—it can (indeed, it must) clearly state that the task is to claim back for philosophy all that has been unwittingly left to the natural sciences, a confinement which has had the effect of leading philosophical work into increasingly sterile pastures
This notion of reclaiming space from science rather than adhering to its agenda and methods seems much more promising. Even more promising is another potential facet of this object-oriented approach:
As Bryant clearly puts it, Object-Oriented Ontology ‘agrees that the natural sciences investigate realities, but it vehemently rejects the thesis that these realities are exhaustive of being or reality’.
This brief passage suggests an encouraging and ongoing role for the excess of thought and being or becoming (still not sure which one SR promotes), and this line of speculative realism is developed much more in the subsequent essays.
Gironi, however, falls back on the notion that philosophy suffers a paralysis of envy toward the natural sciences, which enjoy greater prestige and influence. He writes:
If such a claim might be hasty, what I think is indeed the case is that continental philosophy, as a whole, is going through an internal restructuring of beliefs, surely caused by the changes in our society but also deeply motivated by a necessity to propose an intellectual production capable of doing constructive work and of having an—albeit indirect—practical purchase on social change. Paraphrasing Marx (and doing an injustice to Derrida) one could say that continental philosophy now feels that it is not enough to deconstruct the world, but that it is time to find a metaphysical ground from which it can be changed.
While I may disagree (or at least be unsure) of the specifics here (how exactly does he conceive of social change? isn’t deconstruction as an opponent a bit of a straw man at this point?), I could not agree more with his goal, but, again, his recommended strategy seems dubious:
And the main channel through which this renovation of philosophy is to be accomplished is that of a new regard towards the natural sciences (just as Badiou’s philosophy grounds the possibility of change into a mathematical ontology) those sciences that recent (critical) continental philosophy has so far dismissed because of—in Harman’s words—‘fear and arrogance’, ultimately caused by an ‘inferiority complex’.
I would argue that (at least in architectural studies, but probably to some extent in the humanities at large), science is continually privileged because of an inferiority complex in which anything beyond immediately quantitative strategies, including reductive and sterile strategies of programming and sustainability, are more popular than extended historical and theoretical considerations of context and space because they are viewed as superfluous, an unnecessary and irrelevant luxury. The recognition of a distinct and equally important role for theory lies in the realm of conceptualizing a productive excess beyond what science tells us. However, some of my issues with Gironi’s approach may also have to do with different experiences with science or different means of defining the field. He writes:
If, in the face of this possible fusion of the ‘two cultures’, philosophy is to conserve an identity this means retaining the possibility of doing metaphysics, while rejecting its post-critical vetoing. This will be possible by either constructively challenging its scientific reduction or by rejecting the ‘phenomenological stalemate’ by injecting more scientism into philosophical speculation. Along the way we must carefully avoid the opposite reactions to the common ‘inferiority complex’ of philosophy which can take the shape of either an arrogant dismissal of science, or of a shamed and somewhat craven apology for philosophy’s blindness to the power of science. Consequently, it seems that the question that ‘speculative realism’ attempts (variously) to give an answer to (and in fact to be an answer to) is: how could a ‘new philosophy’ be built through a mature relationship of mutual exchange with the natural sciences? If the development of these questions has to remain the task for a work to come (or already in progress), what I hope to have delineated in this paper, are some forces in the cultural network in which a new generation of philosophers—whether we call it a post-continental or a speculative realist one—is today developing. For the time being, my suggestions here are merely speculative.
Here his suggestion that philosophy realize its potential in order to productively confront and work alongside, as opposed to merely adapt to, the natural sciences, has positive implications for architectural theory. Gironi goes on to draw connections between speculative realism and both ecology and economics. A new approach to ecology or environmentalism seems useful and promising in so far as it (again in concert with Latour’s recent agenda) obscures or dismisses any boundary between nature and culture or, according to Gironi who references Zizek, recognizes that “The concept of Nature as a harmonious and seamless Whole” does not exist.
Gironi also invokes Mark Fisher’s work in Capitalist Realism (which is also a really good read). He writes:
Today’s young philosophers have to confront themselves with what Mark Fisher has defined as ‘Capitalist Realism’, the general feeling of inevitability regarding the capitalist structure, the ‘widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it’.
This echoes the pessimism Tafuri expressed in Architecture and Utopia almost 40 years ago. However, unlike Tafuri whose conclusion is that the best architecture can do is stand in silence as “objects that ‘exist by means of their own death’” (148), speculative realists have not abandoned hope, and part of the appeal of their philosophies might be strategic, methodological and new approaches for addressing economics. And there certainly is a sense of informed optimism running through speculative realism. Gironi writes:
the speculative realist movement is able to accommodate both a tendency for the celebration of the richness of reality (well exemplified in the rhetorical power of the so-called ‘Latour litanies’) in order to found a new—and ontologically richer—philosophy, and a tendency to embrace this barrenness, towards a philosophy which pushes the human to recognize the nihilism of being and of meaning which underlies the world, as a ‘speculative opportunity’. It is the tension between the desolation and the richness of the Real, which gives rise to either a barren or a promiscuous ontology.
Despite some misgivings, the end of this rather meandering review is to suggest that the first issue of Speculations is worth a read. I think what is missing and hopefully yet to come is an extended analysis of an object to better comprehend exactly what is at stake in the privileging of independent things over events, the real over the virtual. An exegesis of a building or a space would seem a good project for revealing the dynamics of this approach. Like the design of any building, the most optimistic part is the early conceptual phase when anything is possible and constraints can be held at bay while the imagination, hopes and ambitions come to the fore. This seems to be where speculative realism is right now, but perhaps the dedication to reality, constraints and all, will allow new productive and creative strategies of design and thinking to emerge.