The Universes of Speculative Realism: A Review of Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism

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Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism (2014)

Reviewed by Ben Murphy

Steven Shaviro begins The Universe of Things (2014) promising a “new look” at Alfred North Whitehead “in light of” speculative realism. The terms of this preface ought to be reversed though, since what follows Shaviro’s introduction is actually a “new look” at speculative realism “in light of” some Whiteheadean ideas. This distinction is important: readers should not seek out The Universe of Things for an introduction to Whitehead qua Whitehead or even a “new look” at Whitehead vis-à-vis current issues of cultural and critical analysis. (Indeed, better options along these lines include, respectively, Shaviro’s own earlier book, Without Criteria (2009), and the more recent University of Minnesota Press collection The Lure of Whitehead (2014).) Universe, on the other hand, is better described as an attempt to map the cumulative geography of speculative realism, a philosophical movement which Shaviro stresses should be referred to in the plural: speculative realisms. Speculative realisms (and its sibling endeavors like object oriented ontology and new materialism) are perpetually in search of heterodox traditions and forgotten figures—philosophical antecedents sought for foundational credence and inspiration. And in this sense Shaviro’s incorporation of Whitehead is the latest in a lengthening line: Graham Harman recuperates a certain version of Heidegger, Jane Bennett returns to Spinoza and Bergson (among others), and, more far afield still, Ian Hamilton Grant champions Schelling’s Naturphilosophie. But if these and other thinkers raid the archive to consolidate new and distinct philosophical templates, Shaviro’s survey is decidedly more evaluative than constructive. Working Whitehead into the cracks of speculative realism, Shaviro widens that movement’s internal fractures in order to expose, and at most nuance—rather than overturn, reverse, or revamp—its prevailing assumptions.

Shaviro’s critical take on speculative realism relies on two recurring moves: first, an overarching unification and, second, a subsidiary distinction. First, in the name of unity, Shaviro stresses that speculative realisms hold in common a core desire to step outside what he—following French philosopher Quentin Meillasoux—calls the correlationist circle. As reiterated by Shaviro, the primary target implied by this phrase is Kant’s position that the world is only knowable and approachable through thought. “We” can never grasp an object “in itself” or “for itself” in isolation from its relation to us, the thinking subjects. This insistence means that any account of the world and reality is fundamentally an account of the world and reality as accessed through and by human thought. Speculative realisms are unified in wanting to get beyond this self-reflexive loop. Quentin Meillasoux, Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, and Ian Hamilton Grant (the school’s four founding fathers)—as well as fellow travelers—shed the correlationist straight jacket by theorizing (or, better, speculating) about the real world, the world of the “great outdoors” (another Meillasoux coinage) or, as Eugene Thacker puts it in his “horror of philosophy” series, the world “without us.” (For a very different account which disputes whether “correlationism” refers to a fair or even a meaningful reading of Kant, see David Golumbia’s “’Correlationism’: The Dogma that Never Was,” recently published in bounday 2.) As Shaviro notes, there’s a timeliness to this “anti-correlationist” critique, since casting the philosophical net beyond the circumscribing human mind seems a deadly serious endeavor in the face of impending ecological catastrophe. Still, the warming planet is just the most obvious and palatable hook that initiates what Shaviro calls the “changed climate of thought” (4) recently amenable to speculative realism. And if both new materialism and object oriented ontology are more prone to non- or para-academic environmental and ecological interventions, then speculative realism is more interested in revisiting and recasting the history of philosophy.

A commitment to outfoxing correlationism unites speculative realism, but Shaviro’s second move—that of division—hinges on pinpointing the particular strategies employed to achieve this revisionary project. Repeatedly in Universe, Shaviro splits speculative realism into two main factions. On the one hand, Meillasoux and Brassier pursue lines of thought that Shaviro calls “eliminativist”: for these admittedly nihilistic thinkers, correlationism is undone by the revelation that thought is “epiphenomenal, illusory, and entirely without efficacy” (73)—that thought doesn’t rightly and necessarily belong anywhere in the universe. For Shaviro, Brassier goes further in approaching the “extinction of thought” than Meillasoux, who saves thought from complete elimination by introducing a deus ex machina according to which thought and life emerge “ex nihilo” and simultaneously from a universe previously devoid of both (76). The contrast to this first faction is found in Harman, Grant, Levi Bryant, and Timothy Morton. Instead of proposing that thought is fundamentally inimical to the universe, this coalition of speculative realism wagers that agency and thought are everywhere. Positing the “sheer ubiquity of thought in the cosmos” (82), this position reaches its apotheosis for Shaviro in a panpsychic vision where all things—animate and otherwise—are sentient (if perhaps not exactly conscious). Shaviro places himself in this second faction only after making a further distinction that separates him from Harman in particular. Whereas Harman, according to Shaviro, stresses the withdrawn nature of objects—withdrawn in the sense that the object must always “recede” from its relations (30)—Shaviro joins Whitehead (and Latour) in making a distinction between epistemological withdrawnness and ontological relations (see 105). Where an object may always hold something in reserve from what is knowable to the perceiving mind (as Harman insists), even this measure of the object that is reserved may be affected and changed by modes of contact that elude knowledge and understanding. Because of “vicarious causation” and “immanent, noncognitive contact” (138, 148) (a mode of contact that Shaviro never satisfactorily distinguishes from more popular usages of the term “affect”), an “occult process of influence” occurs that is “outside” any correlation between “subject and object, or knower and known” (148). The object, then, is not so utterly withdrawn as Harman’s narrowly epistemological account suggests. So between eleminativism and panpsychicism as extremes of the speculative realism spectrum, Shaviro says, we’re faced with a “basic choice” (83).

Describing correlationism and the various offerings to get beyond it is standard fare for speculative realism. But what Universe lacks in originality it compensates for with breadth of analysis and consistently careful, patient exposition. Shaviro admirably treats a wide swath of speculative realists (plus quite a few philosophical giants from both continental and analytical traditions), and he does so with a tone perpetually modulated for utter clarity. Absent is any of the obfuscating rhetoric or over-the-top claims that one might expect from someone who sets out to correct Kant. In part Shaviro’s achievement stems from his own outsider status. His rich body of academic work—on everything from film studies to music video aesthetics to sci-fi infused accelerationism—as well as the light touch on display here and throughout his superb and eclectic online presence (see: http://www.shaviro.com/) stand him in good stead as a welcome interlocutor and guide. Approaching speculative realism as a kindred but not coincident thinker, he’s able to recapitulate his own coming-to-terms with ideas in a way that translates well to other sympathetic non-initiates.

Apart from style and tone, though, Shaviro’s approach is also commendable for a self-avowed pragmatism of ideas. In an aside in the first chapter, Shaviro applauds Isabelle Stengers for the insight that “the construction of metaphysical concepts always addresses certain particular, situated needs” (33). “The concepts that a philosopher produces,” Shaviro continues, “depend on the problems to which he or she is responding. Every thinker is motivated by the difficulties that cry out to him or to her, demanding a response” (33). While a fair representation of Shaviro’s own admirably simple and workmanlike prose, these statements also epitomize the generous spirit that urges Universe. Shaviro is careful to explain the fruits and situational benefits of every idea that he treats, perhaps especially those ideas that he wants to challenge—an attractive way of grounding philosophical ideas which, being speculative by definition, sometimes feel quite flighty.

The discussion of panpsychism that spans chapters four and five is the most exciting and original element of Universe. In part this is because it draws on a body of work in cognitive science and the philosophy of biology that Shaviro knows well and that is fresh fodder for discussions of speculative realism. His discussion in this section also has the added charm of giving itself over to the speculative freedoms afforded to speculative realism itself. As Shaviro recognizes, speculative realism is at its best when it joins with speculative fiction in the common task of “extrapolation” (10). Thus in considering panpsychism we’re teased with the notion that slime molds have thoughts (88). Less bogged down by the minutia of distinctions between this SR thinker and that, Shaviro joins a more diverse group of thinkers to consider, for instance, Thomas Nagel’s question about what it’s like to be a bat. Well aware of the absurdities attendant to a truly panpsychic vision, Shaviro lets speculation carry the day, and it’s a pleasure to follow him through a romp that ties the questions of speculative realism to a longer intellectual tradition of sometimes strange twists and turns.

Also helpful and fresh for speculative realism—although somewhat hard to square with the rest of this book—is Shaviro’s first chapter, which shows how Emmanuel Levinas helps us appreciate speculative realism even as Whitehead’s “aesthetic” mode of “contrast” departs from Levinas’ “ethical” encounter with the Other. Where for Levinas the encounter trumps self-concern, for Whitehead both self-concern (or “self-enjoyment”) and “concern” for the Other are poles best understand in balancing counterpoint (rather than conflict). Apart from being the most detailed analysis of Whitehead’s thought—and, indeed, his thought as it changed in his long arc of writing—this opening account is valuable for SR in arguing that a commitment to circumventing correlationism need not be an ethical project in the traditional sense. In other words, in Shaviro’s reading of Whitehead, a philosophy geared towards the object world “without us” isn’t premised on care. The problem here and elsewhere in Universe, though, is the fuzzy usage of the term “aesthetic.” As I’ve suggested, chapter one deploys this term opposite Levinasian ethics in a frustratingly negative mode of definition: aesthetics is said to be what is not ethics. While gaining some clarification in the volume’s titular chapter (see 52-54), the aesthetic remains unclear even when given new treatment in a discussion of Kant that occupies the last ten pages of the book. Here “aesthetic” is set against knowledge (or epistemology) rather than ethics, and, as my discussion of Shaviro’s disagreement with Harman suggests, “aesthetic” comes to mean something like noncognitive contact, or “affect.” If these disparate senses of the “aesthetic” are related or even mutually inclusive, Shaviro doesn’t do enough to show how.

For all its merits, Universe suffers heavily from being stuck between monograph and essay collection. One searches in vain for the absent promise that the book’s chapters can be read collectively or in isolation, approached in order or at random. Such a promise, at least, would admit that the chapters don’t serially build to anything in particular. Lacking this or any other clues from Shaviro, though, we’re faced with seven relatively short offerings that loop back on one another with frustratingly little meta-commentary. Much of the mapping of speculative realism as I’ve described it above via unification and division, for instance, appears essentially verbatim in chapters two, six, and seven. The treatment of Harman—both agreement and disagreement—in particular makes continual reappearance. The same could be said of the discussion of panpsychism, which is interesting the first and perhaps even second time but quickly turns suspect as it is recycled through chapters three, four, and five with only the trimmings changed. The mere fact that bits of argument can appear at the beginning and end of the book in essentially the same form (and with Shaviro seemingly unaware of such repetitions) leaves the reader wondering about the value of a journey that feels constrained to a treadmill. A more cynical reader might look to, and find answer in the book’s editorial meta-data, which reveals that the first three chapters are previously published. Insofar as Universe excels at any one thing, then, it may be at academic entrepreneurialism—a feat of (re)publishing in which a triplet of core essays are surrounded with the sort of rhetorical packing peanuts which actually detract from ideas that would be more forceful as standalone articles. The reader already deep inside the sweep of SR may find plenty in this extended cut edition, but those more casually interested will be better served to read independently (as interests dictate) “Self-Enjoyment and Concern” (on Whitehead, Levinas, and SR), “The Actual Volcano” (Shaviro’s primary disagreement with Harman), and “The Universe of Things” (a broad strokes and bouncy introduction to the promises and riddles of SR, new materialism, and object ontology). Each has gems of insight owed to Shaviro’s exhaustive research, and reading them apart from one another—perhaps even in their original contexts—would lessen the rather tiresome burden of trying to figure out how they all fit together.

Ben Murphy is a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He works on 19th and 20th century American literature, the history and philosophy of science, and critical theory. His essay on James Dickey’s Deliverance and film adaptation is forthcoming from Mississippi Quarterly (2017), and you can also find his writing at ETHOS: A Digital Review of Arts, Humanities, and Public Ethics and The Carolina Quarterly. Website: http://englishcomplit.unc.edu/people/ben-murphy

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