Academic trends part 1: Speculative Realism

One of the curious things in academia is the ways in which scholars have a tendency to cluster around certain theoretical trends at a particular point in time. Often they start as rather obscure intellectual movements that only a few people catch unto and then slowly emerge as something that still only a few people really seem to master but everyone else wants to be a part of. I guess academia is no different than other parts of society.

The more unknown, obscure, difficult and weird the theories, the more intellectual capital it seems to attract. Of course you need a certain amount of the right people throwing themselves unto the buzz for these things to become trendy and real academic catch phrases. Sometimes they enfold as new intellectual movements through new or newly discovered theoreticians and philosophers and sometimes it starts with a revisiting of old theories, often from another field than that to which it gets applied.

One sort of gets a hunch of these things at seminars, conferences, mailing lists and blogs. All of a sudden “everybody” wants to talk about the same philosopher, apply the same long-gone theories or simply use the same kinds of references in situating their claims and arguments. Movements and trends become brands that become valuable currencies in academic transactions.

This is not to say that these are necessarily useless trends. No, most often they have something to offer, provide new unexpected ways of understanding and illuminating the complexities of the world. Trends are trends, neither inherently bad nor good. They are what they are. However, there is a fine balance that needs to be critically tackled.  Not everybody talking about it knows what he or she is talking about, nor should everybody talk about it just because it is a trend. Not everything can or should be applied to whatever topic. The tendency to apply the right thinkers and right movements gets in the way of the critical work itself. Whenever we encounter these trendy topics we should listen carefully. Why does it get referenced to, what does it have to offer to the topic in question and why now?

In what follows I’ll introduce one of these trending theoretical topics that seems to be on a lot of peoples minds right now. Far from being an expert, the aim here is merely to dig into the surface of some of the academic trends that I see circulating and heavily talked about these days. No more, no less.

Speculative realism

Following a one day workshop at Goldsmiths University three years ago, speculative realism has become an umbrella term for an intellectual movement within continental philosophy that attempts at favouring distinct forms of realism against the traditional idealism of privileging human beings in the ontology and epistemology of the world.

The movement refers originally to the four thinkers – Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant and Quentin Meillassoux – who came together at Goldsmiths in their united antipathy towards ‘correlationism’, the view that thought cannot have access to things-in-themselves, only to things as they appear to human beings.

In an interview Graham Harman describes how the conference was prompted by the appearance of Quentin Meillassoux’s Après la finitude in 2006 (now available in English as After Finitude) and initiated by Ray Brassier. Meillassoux called for a reinitializing of modernity’s response to Cartesian “dogmatism” by breaking away from the kind of “correlationism” introduced by Kant. In general, Kant may be seen as the essential bad guy for the speculative realists by having been responsible for the primacy given to the thought-being correlation in continental philosophy. What they want to steer away from is the view that one may only have access to the correlation between thought and being and never to either one term apart from the other.

Alain Badiou, Meillassoux’s former teacher, describes how Meillassoux has opened up a new path in the history of philosophy that fundamentally circumvents Kant’s claim that the world depends on the conditions by which humans observe it. “Yes, we can think what there is, and this thinking in no way depends upon a supposedly constituting subject” (Badiou in the preface to After Finitude). Maybe not surprisingly then in lieu of being Badiou’s former student, Meillassoux maintains that the real can be rendered beyond sense perception, most fundamentally through the absolute scope of mathematics.

The others on their part also argue for the opening up of philosophy beyond the reign of anthrocentrism. Graham Harman, who writes extensively about his particular take on object-oriented philosophy, argues that the world is made up of entities with specific qualities, autonomous from us and from each other (outlined in Tool Being, 2002 and Guerilla Metaphysics, 2007). Harman advocates an approach to things and objects that relies on a somewhat unusual mixture of Heideggerian tool-being and Latourian metaphysics (see Prince of Networks). Ultimately what counts in Harmans’s object oriented philosophy is that objects are never reducible to relations, that objects exists outside of relations.

Maybe it is telling that one of the biggest contemporary art magazines in the World, Frieze magazine, published a good introductory commentary on speculative realism quite early on. It certainly attests to the trend factor. We can see how nature and things are placed at the centre of the speculative realist epistemology. While Iain Hamilton Grant accentuates a ‘nature philosophy’ (see On An Artificial Earth: Philosophies Of Nature After Schelling) in which nature is the driving force of which human bodies are only its visible effects, Ray Brassier (Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction) takes on a nihilist route.

According to Brassier, who also translated Meillassoux’s After Finitude and works by Alain Badiou, extinction is an inevitable fate of existence that philosophy needs to confront directly. The nihilist route however is not the same as in Nietzsche, it is rather one that quite realistically is undisputable and that presents itself as a speculative opportunity about the thinking of thought in light of the extinction of thought.

It is important to point out that these four thinkers, while united in their disdain towards ‘correlationism’, show at least as many differences as commonalities amongst them. As Harman points out: To be a speculative realist, all you have to do is reject correlationism for whatever reason you please.

If interested, there is a great list of resources listed at Speculative Heresy