Rock Your World (Or, Theory Class Needs an Upgrade)

By Timothy MortonJuly 28, 2015

Rock Your World (Or, Theory Class Needs an Upgrade)

The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism by Steven Shaviro

UNLESS YOU’VE been hiding under a rock, you know that saying things about rocks is now something humanists are allowing themselves to do with increasing frequency. After 60 or so years of talking about how you can’t talk (directly) about reality, only about how to access (or indeed how to access how to access) reality, humanities scholars are talking about rocks, and not just (human) representations of rocks either. Indeed, you might find some of them talking about rocks’ representations of humans.

You might in other words find that some humanities scholars are now speculative realists who try to think outside the normative humanist box, a box whose shape was outlined by Kant and from which we are convinced we simply can’t escape, whether we think we are Kantians or not. Hence the “speculative” part: speculative realism is about how much you can say about anything other than human meanings from inside the Kantian box, without just yelling anything at all. Can you open the lid and peep outside while avoiding religion? Can you infer that your human box is not the only one? These are the two main tactics.

Steven Shaviro opts for both in The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, a must-have study that isn’t just a study, and certainly not one of those infuriating ones about (say) Derrida that confuse you worse than reading actual Derrida. Shaviro has a way of explaining things that really smart people have: he makes it all so lucid and obvious. That alone is worth the price of admission. But his book isn’t just that. The Universe of Things is a full dress, robust example of speculative realism. Please read it. In the words of the ’80s Superman movie ad, you’ll believe a humanities scholar can fly.

Accurately perceiving the magnitude of the novelty of speculative realism (and unnecessarily intimidated by it), NYU media theory scholar Alexander Galloway published an essay in Critical Inquiry in which he threatened, George-Bush-style, that you are either with us or against us. To wit, either you are pro-feminism and anti-racism and pro-Marxism — or you are a speculative realist. That’s an enthymeme, a syllogism in which one term is suppressed, the one that Galloway wants you to hear: If you are a speculative realist, you are a racist or a sexist or a bourgeois collaborator. If you are into objects, you are into objectification.

“Speculative realist” defaults to “talking about nonhuman beings in the humanities.” You mean I can’t talk about shrimp and global warming and be a feminist at the same time? Someone should tell Vandana Shiva. I hear a lot of Dubya-stylings in addition to what I get as one of the dreaded speculative realists (OOO, object-oriented ontology, is my realism of choice). That’s because I talk about ecology, the one domain left out of the New Left consensus in the later ’60s. Ecology was perceived (unlike race and gender) to be a bit “hippie,” already an insult before John Lydon got his mouth around it. It’s interesting and sad how we keep inventing new ways not to talk about polar bears.

The New Left is why we have “theory” class. Perry Anderson did everyone a favor by insisting that scholars talk about how things are constructed. When official social reality is one-size-fits all, it’s a good idea to show how this isn't realistic: It isn’t describing how things actually are. Someone needs to remind the Thatcherite Europeans currently torturing Greece. Not even remembering that Germany was massively bailed out after World War II, not even recalling that Friedman let alone Keynes might not have approved of the serious-sounding “austerity,” means that some European technocrats would benefit from seeing how things don’t have to be their way. It explains why Mark Fisher, a younger Marxist connected with speculative realism, wrote a book called Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

To speak only about human meaning is to have ceded a gigantic area of reality — let’s call it the whole universe — to whatever is the currency of the realm: neoliberalism in the case of political economy, crude reductionist materialism in the case of ontology, possibly with an overlay of cultural relativism. How’s that been working out? Outside the university, cultural relativism has been repurposed, not as a way to say that society doesn’t have to be racist, but as a way to defend the use of the Confederate flag. By refusing to insist on reality — and in some cases refusing even to acknowledge it or demonizing anyone who does — the humanities has in effect acceded to the status quo unconsciously, protestations aside. There is a boring, oppressive gray elephant in the room, and our job is to talk about the 13 different ways of looking at it, and how those ways of looking never change it, or can't — or shouldn’t — or are always already co-opted as quaint decorations for the boring oppressive tusks. Or there isn’t even a boring gray elephant — we made it up by talking about it, just like Wall Street makes up value. Who’s on the side of commodification now? 

There is one thing that isn’t very theoretical about theory class, in the sense that it really goes against being open and reflective. That’s the ritual you have to perform not to look like an idiot — trust me, I’ve taught theory for 25 years, gave the Wellek Lectures in Theory and am, I’m told by bona fide theory people, jolly good at it. (So don’t worry, I’m not an old curmudgeon in disguise.) To perform “I am not an idiot” you have to harsh on “essentialism,” the idea that things have some kind of identity no matter whether you are looking at them or thinking them or making coats out of them or not. The French feminists fell afoul of this tactic to the point where they have all but been erased by versions of queer theory, in which gender is absolutely performance, and performance is absolutely not pointing at reality. “But of course, I’m not one of those biological essentialists” (make ugly face at the italics). Or as one anthropology scholar said to me recently, “I don’t wish to ontologize” (make ugly face tinged with contempt for medieval scholastics). Epistemology is king: You’d have to be Duns Scotus or a German finance minister to have anything to say about reality. And the first rule of Epistemology Club is, you don't talk about Epistemology Club. You might not even believe you are in a club: You might assert that you are a theorist, not one of those philosopher narcissists. Don't beat up on my favorite hobby. Only the wounded narcissist accuses the other of narcissism.

In this sense “theory” is just another word for “dogma.” Amazingly. Part of me can’t believe I’m putting it that way, a Terry Eagleton student who was on the anti-Alan Sokal, I’m-a-friend-of-Andrew-Ross side of the ’90s theory wars. But reality might not have a conservative bias, despite my having been trained in the “it’s all a construct” school of how to undermine oppressive official reality. Gradually such tactics lost their political teeth anyway, diluted to default “the human-meaning-of” talk and the unedifying proliferation of the “Art and … [Money/Knitwear/Lizards]” genre of scholarly publications and grant proposals. To the dismay of some (for instance David Simpson in his book The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature: A Report on Half-Knowledge) this English department mentality was exported everywhere else in the humanities and social sciences, so that it is common to hear about how railways are a “story about” something, rather than something. It’s a strange irony that some scholars insist that you can’t talk about anything except for talking about talking about anything, and that this is the correctly politicized, pro-feminist anti-racist stance, while global megacorporations frack in their backyards. It’s all a jaded sellout anyway, says the extremist version. All sentences are ideological (except for that one). “If it’s depressing it must be true” — tell William Blake at once. 

Then there is the type that sees this irony and converts it to cynicism: Poetry is shit, give me another $1,000 for lecturing to your graduate students about why poetry is shit, and by the way, my new poetry book is on the table at the back. To put it at its most paradoxical, you can be a dialectical materialist on the condition that you don't mess with the default metaphysical materialism that Marx himself tried to obliterate. Leave evolution to Richard Dawkins and realism to the European Central Bank. I’m not sure it’s what Adorno had in mind.

Theory class, in other words, needs an upgrade. Theory class is pretty obviously quite narrow in any case. “Theory” is basically (mostly continental) philosophy or derivatives of philosophy that some (mostly literature) scholar thought was cool sometime between 1968 and now. It’s a record store full of compilations, run by a confusing array of managers who mostly only read emails from other managers about what music is hot at a given moment. Both those facts explain why speculative realism didn't start in an English department and why Alfred North Whitehead is not on the theory radar at all. With the entire universe as his subject matter, Whitehead is definitely not in the record store.

Enter Steven Shaviro, who is both an English professor and a Whiteheadian, and the scintillating The Universe of Things, whose title is an allusion to a poem by Shelley. That poem (Mont Blanc) gets to the crux of the speculative realist matter. “The everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind.” There are things, but how we access them is deeply interlocked with them in a way that we can't untangle. Yet there they are, flowing through the mind — some of them are called thoughts, which we too easily consider ours. Things are thinks, as Alan Watts (another Whiteheadian and indeed a “hippie”) used to like saying. And thinks are things. Shelley's ambiguity hints at what Kant was arguing: A thing is itself yet also an aspect of the mind (or history, or economic relations, or whatever), and we don’t have direct access to the “itself” part. What we have instead is data, which is why a good scientist works in Hume's and Kant’s world, and why (to the endless frustration of activists) global warming scientists have to say that it’s whatever percent likely that humans caused global warming. It’s likely that this bullet you are firing at my head at point blank range will kill me, but I can't say with a straight face that it will definitely kill me. What I see are patterns and correlations within those patterns that point towards the possibility of a causal relation. Scientists don’t just assert things and back them up with threats of violence: That is called religion. 

There is a real; it’s just that it’s not your granddaddy’s real. Science knows this already. Scientists are now waking up to what they call confirmation bias and what we have been calling hermeneutic circle, or what Buckaroo Banzai calls wherever you go, there you are: When you analyze data, there you are, analyzing it — you are entangled with it, which means you need to be careful how you tread. The reason for this is not because there are facts and then we paint them how we like — we keep snapping back to this default ontology despite everything we've learned in theory class, which is there precisely to disabuse you of the idea that you can make anything mean anything. And it doesn't mean there are no facts: That’s just the inverse. The reason for confirmation bias is something deep in the structure of how things are. Things are not exactly as they seem: They are encircled with their very own hermeneutical clouds of unknowing. So we should have a slogan on the front of the humanities building: Got confirmation bias? We have apps for that.

OOO sees things as weirdly un-present, flickering or shimmering without being mechanically pushed, just like quantum theorists. Things are wonderfully elusive, even to themselves: An electron's autobiography would not be an electron. Yet they interact nevertheless in a strangely magical way, as we might have guessed if we had caught up with Einstein: Space and time are not neutral boxes in which things float, but are in fact a kind of liquid that pours out of things. Kant argued that space and time were things that I add to objects. OOO argues that space and time are things that objects add to objects. Flavorless cupcakes of dead matter and furiously spiraling conversations about conversations: As Adorno might have said, these are the two halves of a torn academic whole that definitely don't add up together. It’s okay to defy reductionism and mechanism if you are a theoretical physicist. Just don't try to do so if you are a humanist: Keep on partying like it’s 1699. 

In old school theory class, you can’t say that a spoon is a spoon is a spoon. You can say there isn’t a spoon: It’s just atoms, or just spoon discourses, or spoon positings. You can’t say There is no spoon in a Neo-like mystical paranormal way. You certainly can’t say that a spoon is alive, or conscious. You can hardly say that a chimp is conscious. You can hardly even say that you are conscious, because you have probably acceded to default scientistic materialism with some kind of overlay — so for instance, you claim that consciousness is a product of a discursive formation that decides which things are conscious. Naturally you have ignored the infinite regress (you need an idea of what consciousness is to determine that some things are conscious), or you are convinced that consciousness is a worthless bourgeois construct anyway. So it’s a marvelous and refreshing surprise that Shaviro spends much of a stunningly meticulous, inspiring later chapter arguing for consciousness all the way down to quarks or strings or whatever is down there. Panpsychism is gripping contemporary philosophy, both analytic and continental: It’s no longer taboo to say that consciousness isn’t just human — you can even say, like Shaviro and Galen Strawson, that consciousness is everywhere. Shaviro demonstrates in crystal prose that most of the good logical arguments are on the side of insisting that consciousness is a deep fact about reality, not some special emergent property of neurons or a bonus prize for being highly evolved. Both of those sound rather un-scientific and teleological when you get down to it.

Like OOO, the Whiteheadian goes back to tunes we thought we knew and had dismissed, or had never heard at all: Kant, Whitehead, Heidegger, Idealist, Catholic, Nazi: Let's go there! Like a good jazz musician, the Whiteheadian finds interesting new ways of playing those tunes. Thus we get the delicious flavor of speculative realism: A weird, futuristic taste of something we missed in things we had written off. A crack in the theory through which we see all kinds of nonhuman beings floating about.

Then there is another kind of speculative realist, also woven into the fabric of The Universe of Things. This other type tends to go along with the “it’s just human-flavored candy” interpretation of the humanities. Only this time we need to get rid of the candy altogether, a “pathetic” human stain on the pristine deadness of things. This kind of speculative realist thinks that what to do with Kant is burst him asunder, like an Alien erupting out of John Hurt's stomach, and indeed with the horrified reaction that this eruption entails: Philosophy as horror or as paranoia. To these speculative realists, the Whiteheadian and the OOO thinker are “hippies” just as much as they are for the strict constructivist. To the constructivist, talking about polar bears as if they weren't just constructs of (human) discourse or (human) economic relations or (human) history or (human) subjectivity is a major, unsophisticated faux pas. To the anti-Kantian speculative realist, talking about shimmering objects or cosmic processes is just so much deluded human stupefaction. In a kind of inverted machismo not unlike monotheism upside down, my penny dreadful of a world beyond humans is more horrific than yours, so I’m more intelligent. Not bursting out of Kant’s stomach is called being a phenomenologist, which is for some a polysyllabic version of “hippie.” But Whitehead and OOO are arguing that phenomena aren’t just pretty trails — without dismissing the pretty or the trailing. 

Curiously enough, what scientists do is much more like what literary critics or art historians do: Scientists study patterns. And this suggests that what we explore in the humanities is not just some decorative, pathetic human candy on a rather boring cupcake of unthinking matter. We are too often afflicted with a form of Stockholm syndrome in which we beat up on anyone who declares that there is more to life than what fits the default, dominant materialist reductionism. The aesthetic dimension (the place where patterns happen) is where all the relations between things live (that’s what a pattern is, after all). Taking patterns seriously means that the aesthetic dimension isn’t just a cinema that humans get into sometimes, but rather that what we call “aesthetic” isn’t confined to objects in the Centre Pompidou but is in fact the sensual glue of the universe that enables things to happen. 

One of the big messages of the Whiteheadian and more recent (similar but different) object-oriented (OOO) causality theories is that the sciences are not as technocracy conceives them, with its use of the acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering, math, bundled for maximum neoliberal efficiency), as if everything else were a flower and hence by that logic useless — tell that to a bee, or indeed to a plant, which after all uses flowers to reproduce. No self-respecting scientist would concur with STEM ideology. In a post-Hume, post-Kant world, it is science that is religiously bound never to say anything about what is real, only to notice patterns in data. Only to notice patterns: Like what art critics do. But you never know what patterns will show up next (Whitehead); or patterns don't exhaust the pattern makers (OOO). The humanities are the domains that stick up for the unspeakable, beyond-concept reality of things: Whiteheadian novelty, Harmanian withdrawal

There is a poem, there it is on the page — but who knows how many readings it has? And your reading will never exhaust it. In their different ways even Plato and Derrida are talking about reality beyond concepts. Derrida for instance insists that there is forgiveness, but that this depends upon forgiving the unforgiveable — which is technically impossible, so forgiveness cannot be directly present in every act of forgiveness, yet forgiveness isn’t vengeance …

We humanists stick up for the real. What we definitely don’t do is add nice but meaningless human flavoring to scientistic factoids. Science does appearance, we do reality. We are not flowers, and flowers aren’t just flowers either. And as for art, it’s simple: Art is messing directly with cause and effect. Put that in your grant proposal pipe and smoke it. And cite Steven Shaviro, a lot.


Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University.

LARB Contributor

Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University. He is the author of many books, including Hyperobjects, The Ecological Thought, Ecology without Nature and, with Björk, This Huge Sunlit Abyss From The Future Right There Next To You.


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