Even though we didn’t really talk much about philosophy, after visiting Graham Harman in Cairo two weeks ago, I was reenergized to think about philosophy in general and speculative realism in particular.
In the short time since, a number of friendly bonfires have flared up around the web, most of them camps emanating from Graham’s blog and that of Levi Bryant. I’d been culturing my own speculative realism interests in secret, even though I dropped hints about how they connect to my past and future work.
But two recent posts in particular make me feel the need to RSVP to the party more explicitly.
First, in The Rise of Objects Graham invokes the term ontography as an alternate name for object-oriented philosophy. (As will become relevant in a moment, Harman borrows “ontography” from M.R. James, the famous author of ghost stories.) Says Harman,
And isn’t “ontography” a pretty good name for what I’m doing? Geographers who make maps have a limited number of basic personae to deal with: rivers, woods, highways, mountains, and the occasional giant television towers.
Given my concerns about the name object oriented philosophy, I’m more than happy to consider other names. But it is the pragmatic implications of this term that appeals to me. Geographers, to borrow the example, deal with specific sorts of things in their pursuit of the study of the physical features of the earth. (Harman later noted that others, including Michael Lynch, had laid claim to “ontography,” but also notes that it doesn’t really matter. I agree.)
Second, in Realism and SpeculativeÂ Realism, Levi explores the possible relationships between speculative realism and literature. Says Bryant,
If we are looking for literary equivalents of Object-Oriented Ontology or Onticology, we would do better to look at the realisms of Italo Calvino in Cosmicomics and T Zero, or, better yet, the strange world depicted Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String.
Here too, given my background as a comparatist, I’m more than happy to welcome literary examples. But it is the implication of the concrete and representational underworld of objects that appeals to me. Writers, to borrow the example once again, deal with specific situations in their crafting of story, poem, or vignette.
I’d mentioned before that I started thinking about a pragmatic speculative realism in my keynote at the Philosophy of Computer Games conference last summer (indeed, some of this work has already been published in the proceedings); and I planned to continue that work for my November plenary at the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts conference. The subject of both of those talks—and if all goes well the short book into which I hope to develop them—is an object-oriented philosophy that underwrites the consideration of particular objects, without concern for those objects’ relation to or use by human actors. I’ve been tentatively calling this move alien phenomenology, a term I’d argue is largely synonymous with ontography, although perhaps not in immediately obvious ways.
Partly as preview, and partly to put a stake in the ground, here are a few tenets that describe the important aspects of this approach, from my perspective.
First principles invite application
As with any metaphysics, speculative realism is a philosophy of first principles, of basic tenets and axioms that stand as foundations. But foundations invite (although they do not require) the erection of structures atop. In the case of speculative realism, we ought to be able to apply its basic tenets not only to metaphysical concerns, but also toward the consideration of specific objects and their relations.
Specific objects matter
As charmed as I am by Graham Harman’s frequent lists of objects ignored by philosophy (a practice inspired more than a little by Latour), it’s not enough just to name objects. They also ought to be considered individually and together, lest the lighthouse, dragonfly, lawnmower, and barley all collapse into the singularity of example without exemplification.
Scientific naturalism is boring
This is perhaps just a reiteration of tenets already held by Harman and others, but it is worth repeating. It will be tempting to assume that ontography is just a fancy name for scientism, whereby all things reduce to fundamental particles or physical laws. What’s important about this point is not just that naturalism is wrong, but that it’s also boring. The world is more interesting than quarks and brain waves.
Science studies is insufficient
Many of the applied versions of the study of objects, including a large part of ur-object philosopher Bruno Latour’s work, can be found in the discipline of science studies (sometimes also called science and technology studies, or STS). The problem with STS for my specific purposes (not generally, but in this instance) is its overemphasis on social context and human action, relation, and effect.
Phenomenology can be rescued
Speculative realism is automatically suspicious of phenomenology, because phenomenology embraces correlationism almost by definition; it is a field that has always considered human perception primarily, if not exclusively. But it need not be such, and the notion of perception and bracketing can exceed the sole purview of human consciousness. All objects “perceive,” but they all do so differently.
If we take seriously Harman’s theory of vicarious causation, that things never really interact with one another, but fuse or connect in a solely conceptual fashion, then the only access any object has to any other is conceptual. When objects make sense of other objects, whether those objects are humans or toothbrushes, they do so through metaphor. Thus, a pragmatic philosophical consideration of objects involves a series of meta-metaphorizations. This requires creative effort, making object-oriented philosophy fundamentally literary, artistic.
Philosophy involves the construction of a variety of artifacts
This is perhaps the most radical claim. Beyond books, philosophers don’t tend to make things. But that need not be true, and indeed perhaps it ought not. Pragmatism in speculative realism can certainly involve writing, but it might also involve the creation of other sorts of objects as well.
So, that’s a preview of where my thinking is heading. I hope it offers simultaneous clarity and curiosity. But mostly I hope it confirms my intentions to participate in these ongoing conversations.
Since photography will play a role in the future of this work, I want to close with a photo from my trip to Cairo, one that serves as a kind of unconventional summation of the above. It’s shot from the ground, directly up the face of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The perspective shift turns this structure of human ritual and engineering into an ordinary surface, an accident of topography. A mere object.
Update: Harman offers a few responses, all very helpful. I’ll add some responses in the comments below.