In recent days there’s been a flare-up of discussion about speculative realism and politics. It’s a more mild and reasoned one than previous debates, with contributions well worth reading.
The argument generally goes like this: philosophies need to include political and ethical positions to be complete. Privileges (like race, gender, and class) make it easy to ignore certain assumptions, and the whiteness and maleness and heterosexism of philosophy writ large automatically infects speculative realism, for it is a product of institutions propped up on those privileges.
Levi points out that this institutional privilege might not be as universalÂ as it seems, using himself as an example. He goes on to explain that issues of ontology and epistemology help get at politics and ethics in new ways (this is a common position of we OOO folk, that ontology is ground).
In the later part of Vitale’s post he says the following:
My approach to philosophy has always been that if its not engaged with the wider world, its dead. And that means the life-world, but also the horrible injustices in our world. And it does seem to me that all the folks working within speculative realism are firmly committed to social justice in a wide variety of ways. So this is not an attack. I too am fascinated by the scientific aspects of the movement. But part of it does seem a seduction, perhaps too far away from the pressing needs of our world today.
I’ve written about this before (in the Turtlenecked Hairshirt and in We Think in Public), but I almost always find intellectual appeals to “the world” and “the public” to be disingenuous. For one part, who are we, holed up like we are with our French theory and our espresso, to talk of being “political?” If it means incanting Foucault and Å½iÅ¾ek at one another, then that’s not politics. If it means blogging about injustice to a group of twenty friends and acquaintances, then that’s not politics. If it means gasping about injustices at wine bars and gallery openings, than that’s still not politics.
I’m not just picking on Vitale here; I think this is a sickness that runs throughout all of the humanities, and has done for many decades. Being “engaged with the wider world” is a virtue worthy of our aspiration. But I’d hardly describe critical theorists as having even the most basic of relationships with the wider world.
There’s a tendency in contemporary theory to talk about “politics” as if it is a general category. But in these contexts, “politics” is usually a code word for a very specific kind of Marxist leftism. The social justice of which Vitale and others speak is often just as exclusive of its opponents as it claims to be inclusive of marginalized groups.
For me, the turn to objects is itself a part of the path toward a solution, of paying attention to worldly things of all sorts, from ferns to floppy disks to frogs to Fiat 500s. We can understand this attitude is as an indictment of the very idea of “politics” or “social justice” itself. What if we’re obsessed with some the wrong “pressing needs” in the first place? Or at least, what if we’re missing some thanks to our own sequesterism? Then the very idea of making ontology couple to politics would be a mistake. At least if politics means politics as usual.
Political and ethical positions in philosophy and theory are thus, I would argue, fucked (to use a term that is truly populist). Just as the proponents of theory accuse purportedly apolitical thinkers of being complicit in global capital or heterosexism or whatever, so those very proponents remain mired in their own blindered worldviews, so disgusted by those who don’t already agree that they resolve simply to ignore them, to pretend that they do not exist. This despite the claims for inclusiveness and justice that supposedly motivate political theory in the first place. Perhaps I have a special purchase on this disgust, since I am not a Marxist, and thus often find myself unknowningly marginalized among my “enlightened” brethren.
If that’s politics, you can have it. I’ll take frogs and Fiats for now, for communing with them is sure to make me more attuned to the diverse world of things—among them the Marxists, the evangelicals, and the cynics, among so many others.