Speculative Realism

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NapangatiOver the next few months or so I will be dedicating myself to exploring something that has only recently crept into my critical horizon – speculative realism.

I’m not exactly sure what speculative realism is, other than a product of a particular strain of new work in philosophy that goes by the rather smart name of “object-oriented ontology” or (better) “OOO.”

From a very cursory reading, I take OOO to be a branch of philosophy that takes seriously the object as object-in-itself. The argument proposed by figures such as Graham Harman is that contemporary philosophy has done a great disservice to objects. Either they have been torn apart in the search for elementary constituents (something Harman calls “under-mining”), or they have been understood as merely moments in an unending chain of associations/ relations (Harman’s “over-mining”). Of course, what is seemingly forgotten in these interrogative processes is the object understood as an object.

This all sounds rather problematic to a self-confessed (dare I say it), strident post-structuralist like myself! When Derrida writes il n’y a pas de hors texte it is not without more than a casual wink towards Kant, who, in rather more complicated terms than I can do justice to here, said nothing can exist outside of thought – there is nothing that is not already affected by our mode of thinking. Generations of philosophers and literary critics have been raised on this staple of what we might as well call anti-realism – that is, the belief that the world (in fact, the universe) simply cannot be beyond the way in which we organize it. All is perception; all is mediated. And yet (towards the “realism” of “speculative realism”…)

Isn’t something as ubiquitous in the contemporary literary critical landscape as ecocriticism dependent on there being an “other” to human perception; a world that exists beyond human devising, a world that demands attention and (perhaps deserves) reparation? At the very least, this is where Timothy Morton finds the intersection between the philosophy of OOO and “the real.” His book Hyperobjects is to a large extent a discussion of global warming (he refuses the defanged version, “climate change”) as an object-in-itself that nonetheless makes its presence felt to the human. However, there is a caveat. One can never fully experience or apprehend a hyperobject such as global warming (here then is where one begins to “speculate”). Global warming is not merely a product of human perception, Morton argues, it is; it exists as an “ontological threat” – something outside of the human that nevertheless presses upon it, conditions it, regardless of whether it is conceptualized or not.

At the very least, it’s hard not to be caught in the swell of such an idea – an idea that says the universe will express itself without us. Ultimately, I like the idea of a universe that existed before us and will continue to exist long after we’re gone.

What I plan to do over the next couple of months is try and figure out what all this means for literature. What does literature look like in a world of the restored object? What are the implications? Is there a school of writing that is already asking these kinds of questions? Since there have been relatively few excursions into this literary terrain of speculative realism, I am truly in the dark as to what to expect. If you have any thoughts on this relationship – of the relationship between literature and speculative realism – I’d be happy to listen to them!

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