Last week I had the opportunity to visit in Cairo with philosopher Graham Harman, someone whose work I’ve known and admired for some time now. It was nice to meet him in person for the first time, not to mention having a local guide for getting around this enormous, insane city.
I also got to deliver Graham’s first copy of his just-printed book on Bruno Latour, Prince of Networks. Harman’s thinking and writing is smart and refreshing to read, as supported by the fact that I was able to read most of Prince of Networks on the plane.
As it happens, this week also witnessed an interesting conversation among the “speculative realist” community with which Harman is often associated. The Critical Animal blog posted 10 questions for speculative realists, to which Levi Bryant responded, as did Harman. The rapidness of their answers prompted Paul Ennis to observe that speculative realism “may represent the first truly digital or technological philosophical movement.” Says Ennis,
It is transmitted by a central blog, personal blogs such as those of Harman and Levi (Harman’s in particular is a good introduction to SR). … whenever a SR talks anywhere in the world one can find an audio link with days, perhaps even hours. There are right-to-the-middle discussions regarding the very nature of the subject that are going on now…often outside the traditional texts although even the texts are often available to read as open access downloadable PDF files.
There’s some truth to this observation. For example, I think Graham first got in touch with me after discovering that I’d cited his book Tool-Being in my book Unit Operations. I know he didn’t have the book yet when he contacted me (books aren’t as readily available in Cairo), because I had MIT send him one. While I haven’t asked Graham how he found my citation, I’ll bet that it was either through Amazon.com’s or Google’s search results—probably for his name or for the phrase “object-oriented philosophy.” (If you didn’t realize it, in addition to title and author matches, an Amazon.com book search also returns results from mentions inside of books.) So-called egosearches are hardly a matter of simple pride; they offer a logical and helpful way to discover how people are talking about one’s work.
But one might also observe that none of this should be very surprising. Nearly everything that is being produced for the first time today, from websites to knitting patterns to philosophy, is also being disseminated and discussed on the web. Even scholarly publishing is undergoing a deliberate, if slow, shift to online publishing. Admittedly, open-access journals and books are indeed rarer among a field like philosophy, as are the rapid online publication of recorded lectures. But it seems to me that such resistance will disappear within a very short time. A more digitally-savvy philosophy was inevitable, and had it not been speculative realism that pushed philosophy online, it would have been something else.
This may seem like a pedantic point, but it underscores a more important one, that of the relationship between speculative realism and digital things.
Despite the fact that I now usually call myself a videogame scholar, I have a longer history as a philosopher. Unit Operations is a book about philosophy at least as much as it is one about videogames. Persuasive Games is a book about rhetoric. But it is my latest book, Racing the Beam (co-authored with Nick Montfort), that most signals my interest in speculative realism.
As much as we have been trained to think it, the digital world is not just a system of forms, interactions, and ideas that facilitate human exchange. Digital media does not just mean blogs, creative commons licenses, and MP3 files. It also refers to the myriad devices involved in such practices: Linksys wireless routers, ARM-7 microprocessors, RJ45 modular sockets, MacBooks, multi-wire planar cables, and so forth. To repeat the injunction Harman issues in all of his writing, digital media is not just a domain of human activity, but also one of objects, objects irreducible to the uses to which humans like philosophers might put them.
Racing the Beam took up one of these objects, the Atari Video Computer System, by looking closely at the system as a platform as well as the components that comprise it (the MOS Technologies 6507 microprocessor, the custom-designed Television Interface Adapter graphics and sound chip, the paddle controller, and so forth). Interestingly, the study of digital media as objects has remained unpopular within disciplines related to both computer science and the humanities, a curious breach that Nick and I hope to remedy partly with the Platform Studies book series of which Racing the Beam is the first example.
That book is also the first example of what I hope will be a more direct engagement with speculative realism. I’ve hinted at this interest before (in a post about some possible issues with Harman’s phrase object-oriented philosophy), and in my keynote at the Philosophy of Computer Games conference last year in Potsdam. I’m looking forward to working on such a project more deliberately (one which will include a few objects of digital media) in my November keynote for the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts conference. I’ve given the title “Alien Phenomenology: A Pragmatic Speculative Realism” to that talk, a title that I will perhaps retain for the subsequent, longer project that I’ve been working on since the Potsdam conference.