brief SR/OOO tutorial

July 23, 2010

An increased amount of email has started to pour in over the past few weeks, much of it quite gratifying.

One thing I’ve noticed from a lot of the mail is that SR and OOO have started to bleed together in many people’s minds. For example, Meillassoux is sometimes being referred to as an “object-oriented philosopher,” which isn’t true. So, for those who are new to this part of the blogosphere, here is a renewed summary of what the different terms mean.

“Speculative Realism”

This term was a Ray Brassier coinage. It was his idea, in 2006, to assemble the two of us along with Meillassoux and Iain Hamilton Grant for a single event, which then happened in April 2007.

Initially we had a very hard time coming up with a good term for that group of people. At first I was prepared to cave in and let it be called “speculative materialism,” Meillassoux’s term for his own philosophy, even though I am an anti-materialist myself. But at some point a few months before the event, Brassier came up with “speculative realism” instead, and I loved it. He and Meillassoux both eventually soured on the term, for different reasons, but I’m still quite fond of it.

“Speculative realism” is an extremely broad term. All it takes to be a speculative realist is to be opposed to “correlationism,” Meillassoux’s term for the sort of philosophy (still dominant today) that bases all philosophy on the mutual interplay of human and world.

Please note that the speculative realists don’t even agree about what is wrong with correlationism! For example, what Meillassoux hates about correlationism is its commitment to “finitude,” the notion that absolute knowledge of any sort is impossible. But he doesn’t mind the correlationist view that “we can’t think an X outside of thought without thinking it, and thereby we cannot escape the circle of thought.” (He simply wants to radicalize this predicament and extract absolute knowledge from it. Meillassoux is not a traditional realist; German Idealism is his true homeland, just as it is for Zizek and to a slightly lesser extent Badiou.)

By contrast, I see the problem with correlationism as the exact opposite. I don’t mind the finitude part, which seems inevitable to me. What I hate instead is the idea that the correlational circle (“can’t think an unthought X without turning it into an X that is thought”) is valid. I see it as flimsy.

In any case, speculative realism survives as a useful umbrella term for many different kinds of new realist-feeling philosophy that work in a generally continental idiom, but the original group of four will have no repeat meetings. The intellectual divergences are now simply too great.

“Object-Oriented Philosophy”

This term is my own coinage, dating to 1999. (If anyone used the phrase earlier than that, I was unaware of it but would be happy to credit it if it is brought to my attention.)

None of the other original speculative realists do object-oriented philosophy. In fact, they are all rather anti-object, each in his own way. (Even Grant, whose position is much closer to mine than those of Brassier or Meillassoux, does not think the world is made up primarily of individual entities. These arise for him through obstructions or retardations of a more primal global energy.)

Object-oriented philosophy can be viewed as a subspecies of speculative realism (even though it’s 7 or 8 years older). To be a speculative realist, all you have to do is reject correlationism for whatever reason you please.

To be an object-oriented philosopher, what you need to do is hold that individual entities of various different scales are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos. Note that this includes both Latour and Whitehead as well; I define the term in such a way that Latour’s actors and Whitehead’s actual entities (and possibly even societies) also count as “objects” in the widest sense.

But then I criticize both Whitehead and Latour for reducing these individual entities to their relations. And I continue to maintain this point despite an increasing number of claims that Whitehead and Latour do no such thing. I’m willing to keep fighting this battle, but I really don’t see how the point can be avoided. Both of them not only reduce entities to their relations, but do so quite proudly and explicitly. Indeed, both of them consider this to be among their own major innovations.

In short, object-oriented philosophy involves a fairly general set of minimal standards that leaves a good bit of room for personal variation. You can agree with Whitehead rather than me and still be an object-oriented philosopher. My own version has not just one, but two basic principles:

1. Individual entities of various different scales (not just tiny quarks and electrons) are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos.

2. These entities are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by their sum of all possible relations. Objects withdraw from relation.

The rest of my philosophy follows from these two points, I think.

As for the related term “Object-Oriented Ontology,” this was coined by Levi Bryant in July 2009. Ian Bogost, Levi, and I, along with Steven Shaviro and Barbara Stafford (more as friendly in-house critics, the latter two) kicked off the OOO movement in April 2010 at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

I hope that helps clarify the difference between the two terms.

Yes, I consider myself both a speculative realist and an object-oriented philosopher, just as I consider myself both a U.S. citizen and a permanent resident of Iowa. OOO can be seen as one of the “states” within a larger speculative realist union.

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