Rebels Without A Cause A Pause.

Graham Harman presents his own (semi-serious, I hope) interpretation of the origins of “speculative realism”:

I would argue that Ray [Brassier]’s phrase “speculative realism,” which he now likes much less than I do, performs a similar function. There were lots of frustrated ex-continental types out there, bothered and annoyed by something, but they didn’t quite know what it was. But just give them the chance to say “hey, I’m a speculative realist! Now I know what I’ve been all this time!” then you hold up a candle in the darkness for those who feel like outcasts. And there is really no more generous service that one can perform than that.

This sort of coming-out-of-the-closet interpretation makes one wonder if it really is a philosophical movement driven by ideas or a form of intellectual acting-out, in which case it is a way of dealing with intellectual frustration, and might have a promise of an important future philosophical achievement. Or maybe it’s just a need to belong to a phrase, in which case I recommend something less nerdy than “speculative realism” – if I may suggest, I’d certainly join much faster (and I know many others would do) if the enterprise had a cool label like “nihilistic rebelionism” or “belligirent anti-Kantiansim” or “Timur’s gang“…

23 thoughts on “Rebels Without A Cause A Pause.

  1. Oh, Mikhail. It would have to be “Robustly belligerent anti-Kantianism.” That rebellion seems somewhat misplaced, or at least overblown. I guess it’s rebellious to claim that our so-called uncritical acceptance of the deflationary impulses of Kantian metaphysics has stifled the achievements of philosophy. Yawn. I am not at all un-sympathetic with the notion that we have to somehow break with the stifling historicism of well, philosophy. Badiou writes in “The (Re)Turn of Philosophy Itself” that contemporary philosophy is paralyzed and declares:

    I propose to wrest philosophy from this genealogical imperative…I shall propose a violent forgetting of the history of philosophy, thus a violent forgetting of every historical assemblage of the forgetting of being. ..It is a matter of breaking with historicism so that we may endeavor, like a Descartes or Spinoza, to produce an autonomous legitimation of discourse…Philosophy ought to decide its axioms of thought and draw the consequences. Only after so doing, and on the basis of its immanent determination, should philosophy summon its history.

    I think he’s got a point here, no?

  2. the only response I can muster to the Badiou excerpt is, ‘Meh.’ I mean really, it sounds like one is trying to bring on the Dark Ages so that one can then experience the Renaissance a little later.

    The problem with contemporary philosophy isn’t an historically overburdened philosophical consciousness, it’s a lack of substantive problems. If there’s anything to respect about the Speculative Realists, it’s their attempt to create a problem in and through philosophical history (correlationism/philosophy of access). I’m just not sure that their attempt to identify and pose their problem is successful. I mean how, exactly, are we to climb out of our own skin?

  3. See, I don’t see anything wrong with Graham’s reading of the origins of SR. I mean, hasn’t every major intellectual movement started from a sense that something’s not quite right with the dominant theory? And then the creation of the new movement is the slow and patient articulation of what precisely it was that bothered one about it – discerning where one had an intuitive sense that something was wrong. (Which is also why I’d argue for patience in response to your criticisms – no intellectual movement comes into existence fully formed.)

  4. Nick, I might have to clarify here a bit: I was mainly joking as the section’s clearly taken out of context. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dissatisfaction being transformed into a new philosophical movement. In fact, I think that’s how it mostly does happen. I simply thought the language was a bit affected, but then again I also assumed it was written somewhat semi-seriously…

  5. Alexei, I wouldn’t poo poo the idea of recreated Dark Ages to relive the Renaissance, it might be pretty cool. It seems that SR does have its specific problem to deal with, however, it seems that the problem’s already been raised on several occasions in the history of philosophy and in order to maintain that previous attempts fail one needs to come up with something better than simple wresting philosophy away from things. It’s a kind of Romanticism that I think I can identify with easily – who wants to be sitting in their dusty office writing a small commentary on an even smaller commentary? But I am not nearly as smart as Levi or Harman, I can’t be spending my days trying to formulate a new philosophy – in fact, I’m pretty happy with my old philosophy and its intricacies. My question then would be: should I be coming from the same psychological place to appreciate and understand SR’s argument, or is there an accessible version that a country bumpkin like myself can decipher?

    Again, I thought of the quote as mostly a joke, so take it all with a pinch of salt…

  6. Ha! that image of democritus is awesome — I may have to change my gravatar now –, there’s even a Speculatively real resemblance between it and me. If someone can find an image of Nicholas Cusanus that would be even better!

    Now, about the whole sarcasm thing ….

  7. I can really see the point of trying to bust out of the rut. But then the issue to me is whether the rut is constituted by old answers to the questions, or by the questions themselves. If we can get a better handle on knowledge and/or being than heretofore, that’s worth doing. But it may be that the classical questions of philosophy proper have been answered as well as they can be, and that dissatisfaction with those answers is a kind of childish pique. Then again the point may simply be to refresh the punch by stirring it.

  8. Carl, I’m presently working on a sort of an expression that unites your imagery of stirring the punch and the classical imagery of a baby being thrown out with the bath water – I believe that once I am done, it will be the best turn of a phrase to describe things in general and this dilemma in particular.

    Personally, I find reading Meillassoux (now) and Brassier (past) and maybe even Harman (future, on the desk, ready to be read) to be a very stimulating experience, but not because I agree with, say, Meillassoux – I’ve only recently read it actually – but because I sense the sort of “busting out” sentiment. However, the emotion itself cannot replace the argument, and I don’t think anyone argues that it should, but there’s a sense in which the message is: this is exciting new stuff, it’s daring and unorthodox, away with your old questions and old answers! Fine with me, actually, just don’t threaten to destroy my miserable little life with your new and ever so true philosophy…

  9. Mikhail. Yes, agreed. I’ve been reading a good deal of this stuff with great interest, it’s the passing sloganeering and back-slapping I find annoying. Then again, it’s always the case. On my first day of grad school I recall being asked if I was a “dirty foundationalist” by some balding pseudo-Derridean Lutheran you and I both know. I can’t remember my response, unfortunately. And, I’m waiting for your phrase with an awkward form of anticipation…

    Carl, indeed, but it would be so much better to spike the punch…

  10. Mikhail, joking or not, you misssed the point. Ray and I aren’t the ones who needed the label– we were already well in the midst of our work. It was the others who needed the label. I’m talking about struggling 23-year-olds who are trapped beneath tyrannical mentors or simply competent but dull mentors doing old work. When you’re that age, it’s very helpful to have a geographic atlas.

    Ray just came up with the phrase because we needed a name for the workshop. He’s actually a believer that labels are bad, because they turn groups into big fat targets. I don’t see it that way at all. I think labels are helpful in cutting through information clutter.

    But you seem too obsessed with the Kant thing. It’s getting old.

  11. Graham, I don’t necessarily disagree with you vis-a-vis labels, I’m simply pointing out that speaking of some sort of liberating power of labels is a bit odd, as if there was a bunch of people out there yearning for some sort of articulation of their ideas and, voila, it’s not the years of struggling with ideas and trying to conceptualize your own stand on the matters, but a simple combination of words that, as you say, came together semi-accidentally. Does that mean I deny that labels unite and give power to the people? Not at all. I am simply saying that whether it is “speculative realism” or “speculative materialism” or “object-oriented philosophy” (admittedly the less sexy-sounding of the bunch, no offense), it’s not really that important, what’s important is the ideas, the philosophical discussions – I tend to think that labels should follow philosophical movements, not found them.

    I do sound sometimes as though I take attacks on Kant personally, and it is getting old (both attacks and me feeling bad about it) – that’s why I sort of decided to withdraw from my battle to the death with Levi and simply absorb some of the discussions and read some of the actual arguments. And partly of course I am jealous of all the excitement and simply want to be part of it yet feeling a bit old and left out…

  12. There were lots of frustrated ex-continental types out there, bothered and annoyed by something, but they didn’t quite know what it was.


    I’m talking about struggling 23-year-olds who are trapped beneath tyrannical mentors or simply competent but dull mentors doing old work.

    Just a quick question here – are you saying that “struggling 23-year-olds” somehow managed to become “frustrated ex-continental types” despite their age? I mean don’t most people graduate college around that age and maybe get into graduate school around the same age? How can they possibly be frustrated by their “tyrannical” or even “competent” mentors at that young age? Isn’t it more logical to assume that they are simply young and restless, and therefore don’t really know what they want and therefore will rally to any more or less cool slogan? Are you not in danger of rounding up and exciting these 23-year-olds instead of letting them at least get through grad school, get their jobs, work their asses of in the tradition, and then rebel? You don’t want to be a sort of Peter Pan of philosophy causing all sorts of mischief, letting these kids rebel against their advisors and then see their academic careers being flushed down the toilet because no one wants to hire a now 30-year-old rebel…

  13. I dunno, Tyler. I’m 21, and a historian (in potentio), not a philosopher, and even I sense what Graham is talking about–quite acutely, in fact. I think there are a lot of us who were essentially raised on Derrida and Deleuze and Judith Butler, and while it’s true that many simply take this basic orthodoxy for granted, others of us actually try to engage with the pre-apocalypse tradition as a way of avoiding what seems increasingly to be a cul-de-sac. But the problem is that the issues we run into while reading classical or early modern philosophers are almost always ones that have already been “resolved” by the orthodoxy we’re trying to escape. I think that the more obscure young men who ranged themselves under the banner of Subjective Idealism or Critical Critique, or whatever, often did so more out of the desire for an source of fertile new ground than from blind nihilism or rebelliousness. I think even the label of “speculative realism” (like the label of “visceral realism” in The Savage Detectives) has the potential to shape or guide these efforts, although of course it’s too soon to tell.

  14. Harman makes some sensible remarks about Derrida and Heidegger that are revelant here. I’ll comment below:

    “My gripe here is not with Derrida’s political convictions, but with the sloppy and crowd-pleasing way in which he links Aristotle’s Poetics with a fairly shallow interpretation of universal history. Perhaps a detailed case could be made that the ontotheology of presence is responsible for a good deal of actual political oppression, by some people or nations having been defined as more people or nations than others. . . . Derrida has not actually made his case, any more than Heidegger ever made his case about the link between Vorhandenheit, technology, and the crisis of the West. Anyone who makes a habit reading good, basic historical writing will already demand much better from both of them.”

    Guerrilla Metaphysics, 116

    It’s a good thing that somebody (or somebody qualified) has finally made this argument. The bogus connection that Derrida draws between “white mythology” or the white race and the metaphysics of presence, or between both and political oppression, is crude and not a little stupid.

    There is an interesting book called the Ordeal of Civility, by a sociologist called Cuddihy, which identifies a Jewish intellectual tradition which has as its aim to unmask the pretentions of gentile society (“white mythology”): Marxism, Freudianism, sociology, structuralism, and though the book was written before deconstruction, it certainly belongs to the same line of thinking.

    Cuddihy identifies another tradition, the phenomenological, which does not belong to the same leveling tradition. Heidegger was of course a phenomenologist, and probably for that reason (and because he was a seminary student) was more open to pre-modern philosophy than an orthodox Kantian would have been. Some of Heidegger’s students also tried to revive different versions of pre-modern philosophy, including Leo Strauss.

    The connection between phenomenology and pre-modern philosophy, as I understand it, is that both begin with ordinary experience, or opinion, whereas a modern philosopher like Kant simply takes the results of modern physics for granted and begins there. A non-Kantian is in that respect actually less dogmatic than Kant, but that would requite a longer argument.

  15. Pingback: Growing (and) Factions « Naught Thought

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