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“Speculative Realism”: A quick note on blogging and the spread of ideas

October 19, 2009

For a while now I have been following an emerging philosophical movement called ‘speculative realism’ (SR). The point of this post will not be to discuss its content but to think briefly about the its relationship to blogs, but just to give a brief outline, SR is essentially a branch of philosophy that argues that ‘being’ exists independently of the humans who ‘think’ it, and furthermore that we have some degree of access to that being which is not reducible to some other thing e.g. consciousness, signs, power etc. This is basically a rejection of the basic elements of most 20th Century philosophy, and maybe most philosophy since Kant.

SR is probably one of the first ‘serious’ intellectual movements (that I’m aware of) in which the blogosphere has played an integral role in its development. Though it based on the work of career philosophers who have published books and articles in the traditional way, it has been the internet that has led to its rapid expansion, with blogs (e.g. Speculative Heresy, Object-Orientated Philosophy, Larval Subjects) not only providing forums for highlighting resources, but also as key sites for the generation of original content. Publishers such as Zero Books, Re. Press, and Open Humanities have taken advantage of this rapid growth signing contracts with bloggers, as well as frequently making these books available open source. A general the trend within Speculative Realism is basically a willingness to abandon traditional methods of publication and communication in favour of innovation.

What is it about SR that has lent itself to this kind of blogosphere success? Obviously the fact that it had some prolific and well-known practitioners who blog helped, but generally I think it is also possible to perceive at least 3 superficial features which I would say have helped. SR benefits from being a (relatively) clear intellectual project (and therefore gives some key rallying points for prospective adherents), timely, and for want of a better word ‘sexy’ (the idea of a “turn”, i.e. rejection of predominant trends in favour of something ‘new’, has a particular appeal). Apart from perhaps ‘timeliness’, the other two are replicable.

What has blogging meant to SR? First blogging has increased the speed of exchange (and therefore helps the ideas spread further faster), the breadth of exchange (bringing those ideas into dialogue with a whole range of different people from different disciplines or with different projects), and the openness of exchange (anyone can participate).

The latter has made SR quite ‘democratic’. For example SR’s first anthology The Speculative Turn, currently being prepared for publication, has three editors, two of whom are best known for their activities on blogs. In it professional academics (including at least two ‘superstars’: a contribution by, and interview with, Zizek, as well as an interview with Alain Badiou) sit alongside virtual unknowns, including graduate students, who, as far as I’m aware, have gained status almost entirely via their work on blogs.

However SR began in academia and mainstream academics remain central to its ongoing success. This is at least in part because the traditional means of generating reputations and prestige still holds. Partly this might be an understandable product of the system (for example university students have to study philosophers whose work appears in formal journals or books), but also probably a lot simply to do with such people being the most accomplished, learned and able, and doing the most substantial work. Few of these actually participate in the blogosphere (a notable exception being Graham Harman of Object-Orientated Philosophy).

So the what conclusions to draw?

  • SR would not have existed if it was grounded in mainstream academia, though now exists symbiotically with academia.
  • The key elements of SR that have made it successful in the blogosphere have been a clear, attractive, but broad identity, around which people can rally, and the willingness of proponents to engage in dialogue with people from different disciplines, and with people who have no prior reputation, itself applying a certain genoristy in exchange.
  • The blogosphere itself has added speed, and breadth, as well as contributing to this sense of openness.

There is probably an interesting question to pose about how this has then shaped the ideas of SR itself, but that’s beyond my both my-grade and concern here I think.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. giuseppecaruso permalink
    October 20, 2009 4:37 pm

    Snugglebus i found very interesting that you considered so central to the spread of SR its medium (i know i know the medium is the message right?), but really one wonders what SR has that appeals to people. Is it its esoteric speculative aspect of its reassuring realism?

    Sure there is, there must be, something beyond our perception, you say they say, but do the proponents of SR tell us, i wonder, how it could be possible for “us” to perceive that existence, that reality, without us being involved in its perception and therefore… well you know the argument right?

    Most interestingly i find a rather inspiring echo of SR in the adventures of the young and wild poets of VR (Visceral Realism) in Bolaño’s book “The Savage Detectives” which i warmly recommend (Bolaño himself was part of a poetic movement called infrarealism).

    And after all this what is it that lures intellectuals into the comfort of “reality” in the rather consolidated turn that so many social sciences are experiencing towards some form of “ontology” (another way, very academic indeed, to name the interest in the “real” nature of things)? And no i do not think is the blogs, the openness of the debate (pretty abstruse if you ask me) or the nice assortment of star academics (wot?) and students. I suspect it has something to do with a very precise insecurity and a certain modesty that affects social scientist when they are compared to solid scientists: the former would talk about real, solid, things, the first would just babble away about the sex of angels.

    And yet by taking modesty to its utmost extent and bowing to the prowess of some “serious” hard scientists we could perhaps end up encountering a Nobel laureate that convincingly enough (but this of course is not reality it is just my judgement) states a solid claim for a brain-based epistemology which somehow (i might stretch it here) should allow us to transform the now stale conflict between epistemology and ontology or otherwise put, between realism and constructivism. OK, I must write a post on Edelman! Thank you for the inspiration SB!

Trackbacks

  1. (Speculative) Realism: Reality and the Sex of Angels « err…whaterverz
  2. Speculative Realism, Armies of Objects, and the Social Sciences « Larval Subjects .
  3. Harman on the harmfulness of blogs « Hyper tiling

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