“An Interview with Grant Hamilton”
Andrés Lomeña: In your book The World of Failing Machines, you try to summarize in five short steps what a speculative-realist literary criticism might look like. It would: (1) reject the idea of a privileged reading, (2) refuse to be seduced by what is our trained impulse to interpret a text, (3) experiment with the text and embrace a utopian sense of things, (4) follow the effects released by your “reading machine,” and (5) ask that we speculate and create. Could you clarify or expand these points? For example, what does it mean to “speculate and create” in literary criticism?
Grant Hamilton: I think to flesh out these ideas to the depth they deserve would require me to sit down and write another book! So, perhaps it is best for me to talk here to the spirit of what is being said. These five waypoints are all geared towards the reader taking ownership of the reading process. To do this, we have to relearn to value our responses to a poem or a novel (perhaps over and above the responses of all others). That is not to say that we must willfully ignore what others have had to say about a text; it is simply to say that one must have the confidence to respect one’s own reaction to a text. Now, one way to begin exploring the terrain of our own reactions to a text is to experiment with the text. What this means is that we should feel free to do whatever we want with a text. We can, for example, put one text into conversation with another piece of writing that seemingly shares no common ground in order to see what transpires. What emerges, for example, if we read the writing of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe through the work of Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann? This experimental style of reading has nothing to do with the act of interpretation – which is to say, it has nothing to do with trying to discern the so-called “meaning” of a novel, say. Rather, it is a style of reading that asks the reader to pay attention to what emerges from such conversations. At best, those who pursue an experimental reading strategy like this will perceive new concepts emerging from a book. And when this happens, the reading has been truly creative. This is how one speculates and creates in the act of literary criticism.
AL: You talk about French symbolism at the beginning of the book, and you quote from Mallarmé’s poem “The Sky”: “The serene irony of the eternal Sky / Depresses, with the indolence of flowers, / The impotent poet cursing poetry / Across a sterile waste of leaden Hours.” We see again the disruption between the words and the world, between language and things. So the point is, I guess, to maintain the sense of weirdness and wonder in every “literary object” (a character, a river, a city, a fictional world, and so forth). Is your approach (and correlationism) therefore a sort of new self-conscious way of saying that language is not enough for describing the world?
GH: Yes, language fails to touch the Real. But this is not a new insight! Ferdinand de Saussure lectured his students about this character of language 100 years ago. And what the French symbolists showed us was that even the poetic voice had no access to the essential aspect of the world. This is precisely why Mallarmé becomes so enraged towards the end of his poem – he shouts: “The Sky! the Sky! the Sky! the Sky!” Here is a man with supreme control over language, but it is a control that does not allow him to articulate the essential character of this most quotidian of “objects.” He could have fulminated over the sun, or a tree, or a cat, or any other object of the world. The point, though, is that such an inability to describe the world is not Mallarmé’s failing but rather the consequence of the constitution of our own languages. For me, languages are simulacral systems. And it is precisely because they are simulacral systems that we constantly forget that they bear no direct relationship to the essential reality of the world around us. Scripted language is no different – so we must learn to accept (if not embrace) the provisionality of all our articulations.
AL: Levi Bryant has distinguished between four different types of objects: bright objects (for instance: cell phones), dim objects (immigrants, the queer, the disabled, and so on), dark objects (the subaltern who has not been registered yet) and rogue objects (revolutions and revolutionaries, disruptive technologies). Do you consider his typology fruitful for literary objects? Do you have your own proposal? How can we trace literary (hyper)objects?
GH: I’m a big fan of Levi Bryant’s work. Perhaps the reason why is that we both share an interest in the work of Gilles Deleuze. The taxonomy that he has devised for objects is thought-provoking, but overly complicates the discussion for a literary theorist. I’m predominantly interested in thinking about what kind of object the literary text is. And in order to answer this question I think we have to pay less attention to the distinction between “dim” and “dark” objects than we do the distinction between corporeal and incorporeal objects – which, following Bryant (and Deleuze) I would prefer us to start calling “machines.” For me, the work of literature that we hold in our hands is a corporeal machine. That is to say, the book we hold in our hands is the material fact of something else – and that “something else” is the incorporeal machine that we typically refer to as “the literary text.” The best way to understand this is to recognize that even though I might hold an Umberto Eco novel in my hands, it is merely one copy of the many thousands that he sold across the globe. That is to say, the book that I hold in my hands is simply one iteration of a literary text that can be endlessly reprinted. In this sense, literary texts are something like a spectral force that constantly hunts back and forth looking for a body (a physical book) to inhabit!
The relationship of all of this to Timothy Morton’s notion of hyperobjects is a genuinely interesting question, but again it is something that would take a substantial amount of time to articulate in any meaningful way. However, that said, I will note briefly that the way in which Morton says that we experience the non-locality of hyperobjects in a minimal and very particular way leads to all sorts of interesting questions to ask of the dynamics of the literary work and the act of literary criticism itself…
AL: Eileen Joy and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen wanted to write about Breton Lai and the literature of wonders. Their book Inhuman Actors has not yet been published, and as far as I know may never be published given that they are no longer working on the project. What do you expect from speculative realist literary criticism in the near future? What developments would we need? It seems to me that Matthew Taylor’s Universes Without Us would be a great starting point.
GH: Absolutely! Taylor writes to expose the dangers of a human consciousness that seeks to exceed itself in a bid to encompass all life. He writes to re-establish the distance between things – between myself and the world – as a means of warding off our fascist impulse towards unity (which we should read as “non-difference”). And the result is that we reclaim the ability to breathe again as subjects who have finally realized their actual place in the world. As such, Taylor’s book is a really interesting example of how a literary critic might understand and respond to the issues confronted in speculative realist thought. Evan Gottlieb is another writer who we might like to bring into this discussion. (Of course, Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, and Quentin Meillassoux have written very interesting pieces of literary criticism, too).
But to my mind (and what I try to argue in my book, is that) if one really wishes to see where speculative realist thought takes the art of literary criticism, one must be willing to think again about the very act of literary criticism. That is to say, one must be willing to rethink the assumptions and dimensions of literary criticism as it is practiced today. For example, what assumptions does literary criticism make about authors, texts, and readers? What assumption does it make about the relationship between literary analysis and truth? What kind of thought is denied by the very form of the critical essay? My contention is that for us to articulate our responses to our experimental reading of texts in a productive manner, we have to learn to compose a very different kind of essay to the one that we had always been taught to write in school. We have to learn to write “creative criticism,” which is to say a form of criticism that recognizes the profound way in which the reader becomes writer in the act of critique. Now, the wayward and idiosyncratic essays of the sixteenth century French thinker Michel de Montaigne give us a window on what this creative criticism might look like. But, to be absolutely clear, the work of Montaigne should not be considered archetypal. Literary critics should produce their own style in the act of critique. So it is that my hope for speculative realist literary criticism is that it takes this turn towards creative criticism.
AL: I would also like to ask you about the theory of possible worlds in literature. Fictional worlds (according to Lubomir Dolezel, Thomas Pavel and others) are always incomplete and ontologically homogeneous. In fiction, New York would not be more real than Middle Earth. A flat ontology is coherent in literature. On the other hand, the theory of possible worlds establishes what is “true” in fiction. Have you ever considered this connection?
GH: This is not an area into which I have strayed as part of my own research. But from what you describe here I suspect I would find a good degree of symmetry between the position of Dolezel and Pavel and my own. I’m keen to maintain the fiction of fiction! However, that is not at all the same thing as denying the power of literature to affect the reader in very profound ways. Indeed, one of the interesting dynamics of literature that all literary critics must at some point account for is how these small black marks on a page can have such a radical effect on people. Why is it that governments ban books? What is the actual goal of censorship? If nothing else, these actions tells us how vital literature can be to a society.
AL: Graham Harman chose Lovecraft as a model of weird realism (where there is a separation between the object and its qualities). He also talked about Dracula and Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth. I would choose as my models for speculative realist literature works by Jeff Vandermeer (especially the Southern Reach trilogy) and Kim Stanley Robinson (because they go beyond “human beings” in describing galaxies, stars, life, death, microbes, and so on). What would you recommend to us? Ballard, perhaps?
GH: Ballard is a great writer, and somebody for whom I continue to hold the highest respect. Indeed, given his stature in British literature, I would be amazed if one were not able to peruse a speculative realist reading of his fiction in the near future. But I would caution against developing a canon of speculative realist literature. Rather, I would prefer to think of speculative realism as providing some tools and some language by which to re-engage with all the literature that we thought we knew. Now, we’ve already spoken about Taylor’s book, but we didn’t stress the fact that it goes on to offer some rather novel and interesting points of discussion for canonical American literature. For me, it is this feature of Taylor’s book that is most remarkable because it shows us clearly that if we read texts while maintaining a basic respect for the tenets of speculative realist thinking one is (potentially) rewarded with a very different way into the literature under discussion. Put simply, it is speculative realism as methodology rather than as a means to crystallize a corpus of literary works that will be more valuable to literary studies. I hope that in some small way my book makes a little more visible that methodology. The invitation, then, is for the literary critic to take hold of this methodology in order to see what kind of ideas and concepts emerge from this revitalized encounter with literature.