Having let my Dundee experience sediment for a couple of days (that is, having caught up on several hours of sleep) I would like now to attempt to formulate a number of considerations. More than detailed comments on the papers delivered during the conference (you can already find overviews on the blogosphere that go in greater detail than I can offer; see for example here, here, here, here and here), I want to offer something of a meta-reflection on the significance of the event as a whole and of various themes we touched during it.
The title of the conference was ‘Real Objects and Material Subjects’. There is no better place to start than from the title.
But first of all, a general consideration: the average philosopher of just 10-15 years ago would have almost unconsciously labeled a conference with this title, in Dundee Scotland and with a list of speakers mainly from the UK and the US as a conference of ‘analytics’, perhaps discussing their latest metaphysical options. As one of the very few ‘native continentals’ (i.e. not British nor American) in the room I was struck by this irony: a conference about trends at the bleeding edge of continental philosophy organized, and led by Anglo-American philosophers (of course, the spirits of Badiou, Meillassoux and Zizek—just to mention the living, Hegel was perhaps an arche-spirit—were there with us). I am not lamenting the loss of purity of continental philosophy; on the contrary I am celebrating its loss of geographical constraint. I could go as far as claiming that today the UK is probably the most active single philosophical hub in the western world (to me, to acknowledge this is also to recognize more lamentably the lack of engagement of western philosophy with other traditions, but this is another story). The event of this conference was made possible both by those who have actively participated in it and by many of the absent people who contributed to laying out and (re)defining the philosophical themes around which the discussions took place. One criticism though: about 15 speakers and over 30 people in the audience, and I counted 3 maybe 4 women in total (and none among the speakers). I am sure that we must trace back the cause of this to the problems of the greater philosophical establishment (which, as I have discussed with others during the conference, seems to be particularly backwards in this respect, as compared to other disciplines), rather than in the organizers of this conference. However, it can be argued that a reason for this might involve the scarce involvement that (so far?) the speculative realist movement has had with feminist philosophers, a lack of involvement that in the long run could be detrimental for the movement as a whole (and on this note, I regret that Paul Reid-Bowen did not make it to Dundee, since he seems to have been reflecting for some time about the interface between speculative realism and feminist metaphysics).
Back to my textual analysis.
Real – behind this term, probably the most meaning-laden of the four, is concealed the most significant development of the last decade of ‘continental’ philosophy: the reactivation of realism, in particular in its ‘speculative’ variety. In this light, I think that Lee Braver’s monumental recapitulation of the last three centuries of continental philosophy is all the more significant. More than achieving the explicit aim of presenting and explaining to an analytic audience the puzzling ‘world-denial’ at work in continental philosophy, his text embodies an almost Hegelian return upon itself of continental thought and a critical reflection onto its own historical developments. The fact that this conference gathered together a number of young philosophers from different backgrounds (from philosophy ‘proper’ to politics or theology) and with different goals for which nonetheless an interest in the ‘real’ is translated into a prime theme of philosophical inquiry, is both an effect of such a reactivation and the very propulsive force of it. After the detailed diagnosis of the causes and conditions of its anti-realism, continental philosophy seems now ripe for an informed return to realism, one which doesn’t simply configure itself as an historically dubious disavowal of its past (at least when at its best), but that, on the contrary, proceeds from a close dialogue with the great names of its tradition. I have speculated about the possible causes of this renewed ‘thirst for reality’ in the article I submitted to Speculations, so I won’t go further into it right now.
Objects – this term, of course, has been powerfully (and almost single-handedly) thrown back into philosophical language by the work of Graham Harman and its creative synthesis of Latour/Husserl/Heidegger that goes under the name of –precisely– object-oriented Philosophy. I confess to have mixed feelings about Harman’s project, for if I (like many others) have been seduced by his —rhetorically vibrant— exhortations regarding the need for philosophy to break out of its correlationist constraints (the well known ‘fire-cotton’ rhetoric), and by his vigorous and fresh way of philosophizing, I remain (shame on me!) a relationist at heart, finding Latour’s hybrid actors more seductive entities than Harman’s vacuum-sealed objects. One of my main questions (and of others I have had occasion to talk with) regarding OOP is the simple question: ‘what next’? What avenues of evolution can OOP have except from an increasingly refined metaphysics based on middle-sized dry goods? (and, a more cynical critic than I am could add ‘and if the answer is “none” how does this “continental metaphysics” really differ from its analytic cousin, except with respect to its witty and metaphorical language?’). However, I was very glad to hear Harman claim that OOP still has much to offer, and in particular that he has in mind ways to approach the (to me absolutely inevitable) themes of ethics and politics from an object-oriented standpoint, in the near future. I look forward to this, especially after having silently agreed with the pointed critical observations made by Hallward after Harman’s talk: how does the object-oriented metaphysical understanding of withdrawn objects cope with all those properties which an ‘object’ acquires when seen as an integral cog in the capitalist system? Is the ‘substance’ of an object really left untouched when —for example— its market value oscillates? In what way is a water bottle an ‘object’ in the same way as a company share is an ‘object’? (My favourite mental example is a collectable comic book: an absolutely pristine issue of a comic book has a place in the market of comic books. Yet, tear just a little corner of its cover, and this value collapses to zero; even if the ‘object’ comic-book is essentially untouched: to what extent is that the same exact object when it has effectively lost its main reason for existence (its collectable value)? Of course, this is a correlationist objection: it is WE who give that value, it is not held by the object itself nor it is relevant to the table on which it sits. Yet, I think it is still possible to reject correlationist positions without, for this reason being committed to a problematic, unreachable and unchangeable ‘molten core’ of objects). My skepticism notwithstanding, I think that a –perhaps evolved– object-oriented approach will perhaps display its best fruits if applied to other disciplines: Ian Bogost is of course a prime and standard-setting example of this kind of cross-disciplinarity, but I would welcome with interest a future object-oriented history or object-oriented archaeology. To be completely honest, my opinion of Harman the philosopher oscillates between the rhetorical master who skillfully defends an ultimately weak position and the prescient, out-of-the-box synthesizer who pays the price of creating an innovative system by being met with general incomprehension. I heard him claim: ‘the next 10 years or so will be still be subject-oriented, it will take time for my philosophy to acquire general acceptance’. This can equally be the claim of an arrogant prophet as it can be the somewhat sour confession of the miscomprehended innovator. Or it can be a bit of both. Time will tell, and I will witness the developments of his philosophy with no personal bias.
[Let me be very clear here: if I feel free to give my honest opinion is because I want to steer clear from the 'trolling' position: my opinions about Harman the philosopher do include Harman the person only insofar as I think that a radical distinction of the two is as impossible as the modern split between real nature and constructed society. Between this position of mine and one of outspoken and undiscriminate verbal assault there is an abyss of difference. I sincerely sympathize with him for having repeatedly been the target of personal offenses. If anything, I admire his personal engagement in his philosophy: for I believe that such personal attacks have been possible because of his self-acknowledged role of (relatively solitary) innovator].
Material – As one of the speakers commented, many of us expected this conference to be a ‘showdown’ between Harman’s object-realism and Johnston own variety of ‘materialism’. However, fundamental disagreements notwithstanding, the confrontation was a most friendly one. Materialism has indeed been Harman’s target, but the force of his attack was directed at its scientific reductionist form (ground-floor materialism in Harman’s metaphor) embodied by the ‘crypto-scientists’ Ladyman and Ross (not as in ‘disguised practitioners of science’ but as in ‘disguised sympathisers of scientISM’. Funny that there isn’t a word for that). Johnston, on his side, dazzled the audience with a defense of a German-idealism/Lacanian grounded dialectical materialism as the proper philosophical ground for the neurosciences to build onto (which Harman found good but still inescapably correlationist: ‘how did any of his talk deal with relations between non-human objects?’ was his –admittedly, somewhat predictable for whoever is acquainted with his philosophy– comment). As Harman as already noted on his blog, Johnston was a pleasant surprise, being an extremely lively, sharp and friendly person, with an impressive ability to articulate complex and carefully woven responses (and questions) in a matter of seconds. I do have a criticism to make however, addressed to his talk only because it was the most evident example of a general trend in the conference as a whole. On day one of the conference Mike Burns gave us some introductory remarks, among which he outlined the ‘official’ four themes of the conference. Roughly, they were:
- Relation between realism and materialism
- Relation of philosophy with science
- What is a subject?
- Political implications of the above
My issues are with point 2, philosophy and science (the final point was almost single-handedly dealt with by Hallward, but more on that later). During his talk, Johnston argued (I paraphrase slightly): 1) that if according to Badiou mathematicians are really unconscious ontologists, for him neuroscientists are unconscious dialectical materialists (which means, just as for Badiou the role of philosophy is to bring to mathematics the realization of its ontology, I assume that for Johnston another role of philosophy is to inform neuroscience of its true roots); 2) that the time has come for philosophy to storm the gates of science; 3) that (and these are the very final words of his talk) the ‘future is ours’ (where ‘ours’ refers to ‘the philosophers’ —or maybe the dialectic materialists—, as opposed to —I assume— the natural scientists, the neuroscientists etc.). If we add up these almost war-mongering remarks by Johnston to Harman’s comments on the arrogance of scientism and to the rare mentions of philosophy and science made by the other papers, what kind of closing balance do we get regarding the ‘relationship’ between philosophy and science? Let me be clear: I am no scientist (here, in both senses of the word), but it seems to me that, among philosophers, we are today witnessing somewhat of a ‘post-science wars’ schism, clearly reproduced in the internal divisions of the speculative realist movement. It seems that, having repudiated the postmodernist cum relativist cum world-denying excesses of its recent past, continental philosophy is now somewhat broken in two fields: those openly sympathetic to the natural sciences which tend to see philosophy as developing in close contact with them on the one side, and those that even if driven by the necessity of rediscovering a form of robust realism for philosophy to uphold, tend to be dismissive of the natural sciences and do so by upholding a realist metaphysics parallel, independent to, or even foundational of, scientific practice, hence accusing those in the former group of scientism, or of reducing philosophy to be the handmaid of a new, flashier, cousin. What seems most ironic is that in both of these cases, no scientist is actually asked his or her opinion. Austin Smidt, regarding the ‘materialism vs realism’ opposition has rightly observed that
it came across that both sides have much to learn from one another, and that through reasonable disputation each side would find itself challenged to continue to reexamine its own position.
It does not seem that the same can be said about ‘philosophy vs science’. Now, I don’t want to sound like the only one that complains about the organization of an objectively wonderful conference, and indeed my point is more general: why were there none with aactual training in any of the natural sciences among the speakers or the audience? (once again, I have no personal bias, I have previously argued the same, but inverse, point about science conferences). Can we really rebuild a ‘relationship’ with science, from within the walls of conference halls where the only people present are continental philosophers? This lack of cross-disciplinary confrontation, in my view, ends up having very real effects, mainly in the form of a certain caricaturist presentation of what ‘science’ is about and about ‘mathematized’ scientific language (for example, science –as Latour has spent decades showing us– is far from the rarefied, perfect, cold and abstract set of procedures that our use of the term ‘mathematized’ seems to suggest. If pure mathematics can be indeed thought of as that Platonic realm of pure presentation that Badiou’s ontology has philosophically popularized, real science is all but abstract and rarefied, and –applied– mathematics is its language not its goal). Are we not ‘storming the gates’ of science without even announcing to the scientists that we are doing so? Aren’t we perhaps downplaying the extent to which this conflict runs along lines of epistemic privilege as much as along lines of metaphysical correctness?
Subjects – Peter Hallward’s concluding keynote address was a powerful sobering call, stressing the necessity to precipitate our metaphysics onto a most classical historical materialism, intended as that set of socio-material grounds that are the condition of possibility for any social mobilization and any intellectual speculation. His programmatic re-invigoration of the theme of the will (from the subjective level to that collective will which can be the only propulsive force for social change) is, it seems to me, deeply at odds with some radical forms of scientific reductionism (what kind of political will is ascribable to a Metzinger-ian no-One?). Whatever metaphysics or theory of the subject can be derived from Hallward’s Marxist voluntarism, I cannot but make an observation about Hallward himself. What strikes me the most about him, every time I get to see him live, is his seriousness. He comes through as a polite, humble, at times almost shy person, and yet it is sufficient to spend some time observing him listen to someone’s talk or delivering a paper himself to be struck by his aura of extreme concentration, the kind of demeanor that suggests a person who takes ‘theory’ extremely seriously, or —oppositely, but consistently— who is constantly focused on the real priority of revolutionary action. Anyway, my own preference is to keep active a number of explanatory levels, when dealing with general metaphysics as well as when enquiring about the subject. Taking the principle of irreduction seriously means to refuse explanations that reduce everything to just the socio-ideological level and those that reduce everything just to a material substrate/ὐποκέιμηνον (which I guess makes me a ‘mezzanine’ realist, in Harman’s jargon. Shame that my loyalties lie with relationsim).
Anyways, speaking of subjects, I think one of the most interesting by-products of this conference came from –for many of us at least—the fact that it was the first occasion many of us bloggers had to encounter each other in the flesh. There is a peculiar cognitive dissonance in trying to associate a newly encountered face with a colour palette, a font and a blog title. Being the person that I am, I would lie if I was to say that such a close encounter has an intrinsically positive value. I often prefer a long-distance interaction with human beings. Nonetheless, I have to recognize (as others have before me) how generally pleasant the atmosphere during and —especially— after the conference was (I probably did not talk with all the people I could have, nor long enough with those I talked to, but that is because of my limitations when it comes to social interaction, not because of any hostile stance from my interlocutors). I think that this should be a memento for us all, a reminder of the vitality of the philosophical grad-student scene in the UK, and —why not— a reason for pride. Maybe one day we will say ‘I was there in 2010!’.
[About this: today Harman, commenting precisely on the vibrancy of the UK philosophical community, reported a joke by an American con-national about those 'continental' groups which still deliver papers on the 'Otherness of the Other'. Risking to formulate a lame tautology, I think that those 'continentals' still mainly concerned with the 'otherness of the other', are one significant 'other' to the post-continental (or speculative realist, or whatever else we want to call it) trend. To completely and mockingly dismiss this party as hopelessly stuck with a quaint method and passe' preoccupations would be a grave mistake, and once again would operate an unwarranted reduction of philosophy to a self-referential enterprise. I tend to understand speculative realism as an enlargement of the philosophy of otherness: it is not that only other humans who are other to us, but that the whole non-human realm is —equally but not more— interestingly other to us. So just as in the case of science, it is to constructive (even when critical) engagement that we should aim at, not to sneering brushing-offs. Difference and otherness are very real issues in the world, especially when they turn sour into discrimination and exclusion.]
Ok, I think I have said most of what I meant to. It is a partial and personal ‘account’ of the events of last weekend. You should integrate it with the many others comments circulating on the blogosphere and, of course, with the forthcoming recordings of the talks.
Let me close with some pictures (of appalling quality I am afraid, so I had to arbitrarily chose the best ones: I’ve really have to have a chat with my phone’s camera shutter time). Enjoy.
Nathan Coombs and Paul Ennis
Pete Wolfendale’s back, Reid Kotlas (giving an introduction to the conference) and Nick Srnicek’s back.
Part of the audience listening to Hallward’s talk
Graham Harman and Nick Srnicek
Adrian Johnston and Nathan Coombs
Nathan Coombs, Pepijn Van Houwelingen and Nick Srnicek talking with Graham Harman. On the bottom right, Paul Ennis. In the background Mike Burns, Austin Smidt’s back.