Posts Tagged ‘Speculative Realism’

I’m going to spray wildly some thoughts about Weird Council in the hope that some of them cohere, or even more optimistically, attract comments…

We closed with China reading and fielding questions. The story he read condensed a number of the features of his work that make it so rich for research. Dialogue-heavy, it was perfect piece to read: sharp cracks whipped between its two protagonists. Dense and infolded like the chrysalis at its core, it welded commodity fetish to US neo-imperialism, presenting the idea of a deep black-market in numinous dark artefacts of a very contemporary nature: insects used in instruction 9) of the US torture manual for interrogating suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

At the end of the Q&A China remarked that he was surprised not to have been asked any questions about Speculative Realism (heretoforward SR), noting that as an audience we were either too cool or not cool enough. I’d kind of wafted at some of these ideas in my talk so felt as if I’d bottled it a bit: in truth, it hadn’t occurred to ask anything at all; by that stage in proceedings my thinking gubbins had gummed up. With twenty-four hours’ distance it is once again slithering.

On the SR front, then, his story was highly intriguing. Imagined non-human objects had interior lives, biographies, even, and affected the humans between whom they passed with much more than their exchange value: they had agency. This agency had originally been conferred onto them by what humans did (or had done to them by other humans in their presence) but ultimately the insect inserted into a box as a torture weapon reverted to chrysalis form and did not re-emerge: became unknowable, unusable, except, perhaps, as a commodity; yet pregnant with futurity.

I’m wary of any kind of direct reading: this story seems freighted with object ambiguity. One is tempted to correlate numinosity with the noumenal, and I guess this is where my understanding of SR falls short (I suggest that this means I am on-point cool). Because if these objects are perceived as having noumenal lives, inaccessible to human thought, we’re recapitulating Kant and we aren’t doing the work of SR, letting the objects be objects and removing human thought from the centre of the process. Yet granting objects the kind of pregnant form of becoming that is the nature of the chrysalis – not to mention a chrysalis in which the insect pupating is powerfully, darkly magical – is to give them a kind of quasi-knowability perhaps appropriate for what might be quasi-objects. Their agency remains, indeed, their potential agency is metaphorically increased.

Glancing back to Graham Harman’s essay on Lovecraft in Collapse, which is available on his site here (while ‘fessing that I haven’t read his Zer0 book on Lovecraft) he argues that Lovecraft’s unrepresentables and unknowables are exemplars of a ‘weird realism’ that undermines Kant’s noumenal. There’s a lot more to say here. China’s remark that he was interested in totalities and in particular in competing totalities indicates that there would be fruitful research to be done in After Finitude, Badiou etc. There is certainly much for me to ponder about how n-dimensional geometry fits into a philosophy that argues for mathematics as providing us with the tools for escaping correlationism. At the moment my thoughts around this are folding in on themselves like the hypercube animation doing its perpetual rounds below so I’ll not push any further at this right now.

Instead, there’s something I want to add to the discussions on genre theory revolving around Suvin’s definition of sf as a literature of ‘cognitive estrangement’, a discussion very fruitfully engaged by Jon Rieder, Rhy Williams, Sheryl Vint and commented on by Roger Luckhurst and China. I want to push a bit at the idea of cognition and – surprise surprise! – I’d like to use n-dimensional geometry as the lever with which to do it. (Suvin, by the way, is highly approving of Flatland, whose ‘novum’ he deems a lot more radical than it actually was – the ‘novum’ aspect of Suvin’s definition was pretty neatly challenged by Jon Rieder’s more fluid account of genre as something socially and culturally imposed on a text, rather than internally expressed).

The cognitive logic that leads us to n-dimensional space is solid enough in logical terms – we reason it by analogy, as from two dimensions to three, so from three dimensions to four. Just because it is produced through the privileged discipline of geometry, or by analogy, a process of reasoning sanctioned since Aristotle, that doesn’t mean that we find ourselves in a situation any different from a fairyland. Geometry is a model of space governed by a set of axiomatic rules, but we can tweak those rules and produce new geometries. We can then read back from the tweaked model and speculate spaces that conform to the tweaked versions. The process has been led by reason, but a form of reason no different to metaphor, because geometry is a metaphor for space and can be abreal. We’ve just been quite merrily translating backwards and forwards between metaphors and the thing they express.

This insistence on cognition does not seem to distinguish between the types of reasoning employed by supposedly materialist science, even when those forms of reasoning are metaphorical. I’ve had a look at Engels’ Anti-Duhring and Lenin’s Empirio-criticism and in their focus on tracking down idealism, these foundational materialist theories of science go all the way in the other direction. This definitely wants some nuancing and I’m sure Rhys could clarify or correct this and it’s something I’ll try to develop in greater detail, but wanted to post while the conference was still pretty fresh.


Read Full Post »