Taking Care of SR/OOO and the Generations

In my quiet moments, I find I have a great deal to say about Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology (SR/OOO), although much of it would take me far beyond the generally computational focus of this blog. Suffice to say: not much of it would be complimentary.

At the risk of going too far afield as it is, one of the most disturbing things about SR/OOO and one of the reasons that I find it important to talk about (despite finding again and again that its main figures appear so unserious with regard to the theory and philosophy they claim to have overturned) is the galvanizing impact which SR/OOO has had on students. In the conclusion of his recent and very welcome “A Response to Graham Harman’s ‘Marginalia on Radical Thinking,'” Alexander Galloway mentions that one of the frequent responses he hears to his criticisms of SR/OOO is from students who defend it by “position[ing] themselves as “‘victims’ of a leftist faculty cabal who forced them to read too much Haraway and Butler in graduate school.” I have seen this dynamic too, and even its precursor, which worried me long before SR/OOO, and worries me even more now.

srooo illustration

In a recent posting that responds in part to writings by Galloway, Bryant, Harman, Bogost, and others, “SR/OOO and Political Outcomes,” Alex Reid speaks of a new politics in SR/OOO that might provide “a better basis for political action. That is to say that there is potentially less relativism in a flat ontology than there is in our legacy postmodern views.”

That phrase “legacy postmodern views” really strikes me wrong, and rings in harmony with the “‘leftist faculty cabal’ mentioned by Galloway. Among other things, both phrases sound much like the major buzzwords used by the political right to attack all of theory during its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. (And of course, but for Lyotard’s 1979 Postmodern Condition and Jameson’s 1991 Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, none of the major theory figures embraces the term “postmodern,” especially as self-description).

I want to try to connect these assessments briefly with SR/OOO and computerization via the work of Bernard Stiegler, for my money the deepest and most useful of the second generation of continental theoreticians. In his fascinating Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (Paris, 2008; translation, Stanford UP, 2010), Stiegler writes at some length about the strategies used by techno-capitalism specifically designed to target youthful minds. In that work, Stiegler writes of a range of deliberate mechanisms to grab and control youthful attention, including pharmacological, media, and especially technological means of control. Stiegler brilliantly connects the widespread contemporary diagnosis of ADD/ADHD to these technocapitalist schemes:

Today, attention control via cultural and cognitive technologies (“‘technologies of the spirit [esprit],’ those malignant spirits haunting the adult minor as apparatuses for capturing, forming, and deforming attention), has become the very heart of hyper industrial society; however, it no longer relies on psychotechnics but on psychotechnological apparatuses whose devastation we see on TF1, Channel Y, and so on. Here and now, at the very moment when the worldwide “‘battle of intelligence’ … must be engaged, it is all the more urgent to read what Kant writes–‘as a scholar before the literate world–a public we still are and thus, as adults, have the responsibility of acting in a manner that will permit following generations to assume adult responsibilities as well; it is more than urgent to read Kant on maturity and responsibility–individual and collective–in this battle of intelligence against the inherent laziness and cowardice that also characterize essentially fallible beings. (Stiegler, 22)

One of the real problems with the decades-long hold on humanistic inquiry of cultural studies and poststructuralist theory has always been that this theory was written largely and sometimes entirely in response to a massively traditionalist and orthodox presentation of any number of underlying discourses, which could, especially in the wrong hands, be presented as part of a large-scale quietest, pro-institutional politics that almost always supported the status quo along any number of cultural and class axes. There were no Haraways or Butlers (or Jamesons, Foucaults, Spivaks, or Derridas) to offer those students; they had to write them. Thus the natural anomie and anti-authority (and anti-authoritarian) tendencies of youth could mesh relatively cleanly with the unusually conservative and pro-authority intellectual tendencies of the time, and a hundred flowers bloomed. (Let it be said, not easily: while the big theory figures were published in major university press series, much of the work by US & UK scholars appeared in presses without that level of prestige, and struggled hard for acceptance, in a way that their influence today makes difficult to see.)

I connect this with Stiegler’s analysis as follows: the major lights of theory have been presented by many of us to students as a bloc, as doctrine, or even as dogma: as a way of thinking or even “legacy view” that we professors of today mean to “educate” our students about.

But we should not and cannot be “educating” or “indoctrinating” our students “into” theory. To the contrary: because that work is a diverse set of responses to several bodies of work, more and less traditional and/or orthodox, it can only be understood well when embedded in that tradition. With regard to Derrida in particular, the work simply cannot be understood unless it is viewed as a series of incredibly meticulous responses to major works in the Western tradition, orthodox and heterodox. When Derrida is read as expounding a “doctrine” or even as having particular positive “views” or chided for “not having a metaphysics” I know that what has failed is the teaching of Derrida, not Derrida himself. What has happened is that attention has attached itself to Derrida’s text, when what Derrida wants is for attention to his text to drive deeper attention to the texts that underlie Derrida. An “orthodox deconstruction” is one of the developments that most disturbed and unsettled Derrida himself, and one of the last things he wanted.

For proof of this, one need reach no further than to examine Derrida’s own teaching, which in addition to its public documentation, is now becoming widely available via the two volumes of his seminars so far released, The Beast and the Sovereign, Vol I, and The Beast and the Sovereign, Vol. II. What Derrida’s practice shows so clearly is that what he wanted was not for students to “read Derrida” and “read Deleuze and Guattari” and go home; instead, he wants students to read Kant, Machiavelli, Defoe, Heidegger, Hegel, Kant, Husserl, Aristotle, and so many others. These would be the sort of “mature” and “responsible” acts called for by Stiegler and Kant-via-Stiegler; that Kant is so often the whipping boy for SR/OOO is no accident in its entirety, and I think views like these, in addition to his epistemology and metaphysics, are responsible. Nobody wants to hear that they are being immature or irresponsible or have not read enough–especially those being immature or irresponsible and who have not read enough.

Now, Derrida may be somewhat singular (and somewhat surprising) in his insistence on the importance of the canon (albeit a much broader and more inclusive canon than that of a generation ago), but it is remarkable how much of what was once easily referred to as “theory” depended on not simply reinterpretation of that canon but knowledge of it–even Deleuze and Guattari are, often enough, spectacular and unexpected readers of both marginal and central works of canonical philosophy and literature, and our understanding of these readings is at best partial if one does not have some command of the underlying material.

Yet what distinguishes SR/OOO again and again is both its sweeping dismissal of all that has come before (except where it dismisses the “theory” referenced here as a Big Orthodoxy to be Overturned) and its near-blanket insistence on the fact that its new insights are so immediate and remarkable that they obviate, either practically or conceptually, attention to almost all other existing work.

The problem is that they are simply wrong about this, and in no place is this more obvious than their treatment of one of their fundamental terms, “object.” Reading most of SR/OOO, but especially for our purposes Harman and Meillassoux, one would think that attention to “objects” has been highly marginal in disciplinary philosophy. Similarly, one might think that the putative return to metaphysics sits atop a refusal to talk about metaphysics.

But even a small amount of research that is skeptical about such claims would reveal how wrong they are. Disciplinary (by which I mean analytic) philosophy has been practically obsessed with objects over the past 50 years; the literature is rich, detailed, and subtle, usually making arguments much finer-grained than anything in Meillassoux or Harman. Metaphysics, too, has been a persistent topic, and it is not surprising to find, as far as I know, not a single sustained discussion of the two most prominent analytic metaphysicians, David Lewis and D. M. Armstrong, in the SR/OOO canon, let alone to find the SR/OOO discussions reflecting what these two very smart gentlemen have said about objects and our access to them. Quine and Putnam, two of the most prominent analytic philosophers, frequently touch on exactly the issues that hide under the extremely imprecise SR/OOO neologism “correlationism,” and their writings on the topic are incredibly deep and rich. Quine’s Word and Object (1960) goes deeper into objects and objecthood than does most of the SR/OOO material I have been able to keep down; references to it are vanishingly thin (Harman mentions on his blog somewhere that he considers Quine a bad writer, and Ray Brassier, now excommunicated from SR/OOO in part due to his own insistence on actually existing details and arguments, has an early article, “Behold the Non-Rabbit: Kant, Quine, Laruelle,” Pli 12 [2001]: 50-82, that actually does some justice to Quine, and to Kant too, and so has been promptly forgotten).

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to find these writings, much as it does not take a rocket scientist to discover that, pace the opening pages of Meillassoux’s After Finitude, primary and secondary qualities have been live topics of philosophical discussion for much of the last century (have a look at the Philosopher’s Index if you want the facts, and be sure to search under “properties” as well as “qualities”–there are hundreds of pieces). But if one is committed to the immediacy of attention that Stiegler warns about, one is very unlikely to do this sort of digging: we want the answers now, on this screen, in front of us, and any suggestion that we pause, research, think carefully is to be dismissed out of hand.

Technology is partly to blame; as I have argued repeatedly, the computer teaches us to favor the now, the apparently immediate, that what’s-in-front-of-us, the apparent absolute of the subject-screen connection, over most other forms and relations. But just as much to blame is our own work as educators, when we teach the work of theory and cultural studies as a doctrine, dogma, or end-in-itself. The truth is that some of the SR/OOO folks are thinking about important issues, and because we have so denied them and ourselves enthusiasm for and access to the deep discourses in which they are already at issue, we have made conversation almost impossible. Because they (especially the blogging and grad student fans of SR/OOO) dislike formal education so much, apparently, they have missed finding out that much of what they talk about is not just relevant to disciplinary philosophy today–it is the very subject of much disciplinary philosophy today. (Because Meillassoux is so eager to dismiss Kant, he has failed to discover that Kant was writing exactly about many of the issues Meillassoux appears to want to address–and almost always in much more careful, consistent, and intelligent ways.) The only solution to this is more education; the palpable disdain for “expertise” and “education” heard from some of the SR/OOO quarters, and the specific exaltation of the SR/OOO leading lights as if they have received absolute word from on high, all make me fear that we are not opening the space to actually talk about the issues that appear to be on the table==the status of objects, of our knowledge of the world, of the changes wrought by technology==and instead are gearing up for a conflict of worrying depth and whose stakes are very high.

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