Speculative Realism RG

Tomorrow, a group of colleagues will convene an afternoon get-together at Ypsi’s Corner Brewery to discuss Graham Harman’s recent article, “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism” alongside Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” I’m not sure whether I will be able to attend because of another obligation to be at a textbook publisher presentation, but I nevertheless consider this a good enough occasion to attempt a few reading notes here. I’ll start with Harman even though the priority he places on lit-criticism is for the most part lost on me.

Basically, Harman delivers a simplified introduction to speculative realism2007, contrasts object-oriented philosophy with new criticism (Brooks), new historicism (Greenblatt), and deconstruction (Derrida), and finally sketches what he calls “object-oriented criticism.” Harman succinctly recounts the key question for speculative realism–“does a real world exist independently of human access, or not?” (184)–while suggesting that speculative realists might hold up H.P. Lovecraft as a model intellectual for his patent weirdness. Speculative realists, in other words, have an inclination to the bizarre that continually bears upon and interferes with presumptions about what is real. They would have us check both the prominence of humans and human cognitive processing when accounting for the real (correlationism) and wonder about what is real without deferring to atomism or long-established scientific paradigms, like physics, chemistry, or biology. At least in part, this is consistent with a cautious and heavily qualified decoupling of Kant’s efforts to privilege human-world interactions. And this is object-oriented philosophy, more or less (admittedly less than is available elsewhere).

Harman’s abbreviated run-down of speculative realism is both helpful and adequate as a primer; he introduces key terms from his work, such as allure (187) and overmining (199). The article succeeds in differentiating object-oriented criticism from its well-worn predecessors, and rather than attempt to summarize those sections, which constitute most of the piece, for now–and for Friday’s reading group–I will mention just two moments/questions that stand out.

The first concerns allure, partly covered here:

The broken hammer [whose sudden transformation could not have been anticipated] alludes to the inscrutable reality of hammer-being lying behind the accessible theoretical, practical, or perceptual qualities of the hammer. The reason for calling this relation one of “allusion” is that it can only hint at the reality of the hammer without ever making it directly present to the mind. I call this structure allure, and quite aside from the question of broken hammers, I contend that this is the key phenomenon of all the arts, literature included. Allure alludes to entities as they are, quite apart from any relations with or effects upon other entities in the world.

I’m not sure whether I grasp Harman’s allure, but I think it names what happens when an object is seduced into accepting as ontologically fixed some other object. The hammer’s transformation upsets the trance of so many proximate objects. But I would like to know more about how if this is “the key phenomenon of all the arts,” whether the arts umbrella covers rhetoric, or whether suasive arts fit elsewhere. Allure, as it is framed here, seems to me strain a bit if it must operate for rhetoric, particularly techne or poiesis, but also for what seems to be a consequential relationship between the two or three phases–hammerunbroken‘s, hammerbroken‘s, and hammerwhatever‘s.

The other is the concluding section in which Harman explains what an object-oriented literary criticism would bring about, what it would look like. According to Harman, object-oriented philosophy “hopes to offer…not a method, but a countermethod” (200). Counter to what? New criticism, new historicism, and deconstruction, but also counter to canonicity, axiology, the reduction of texts into social forces. Here’s Harman: “Rather than emphasize the social conditions that gave rise to any given work, we ought to do the contrary, and look at how works reverse or shape what might have been expected in their time and place, or at how some withstand the earthquakes of the centuries much better than others” (201). It sounds a lot like rhetorical analysis to me–an interest in how texts-as-objects prove impactful, shaping expectations, enrolling hosts, enduring. Harman also suggests a value in “attempting various modifications of these [literary] texts and seeing what happens” (202). Reading this, I’m curious how object-oriented criticism is different from the sorts of remakes and genre transformations we commonly see in our first-year composition classes. That is, how different is it, really?

As for the second of the two readings for tomorrow, this one by Latour, I will be quick because it is late and I am tired. Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” is a screed against critique’s distaste for and objections to facts. Critique has sought to undermine facts, but this descriptive tool with its “debunking impetus” has proven futile. Latour does not wish to steamroll facts, nor to get away from them. He asks, “Can we devise another powerful descriptive tool that deals this time with matters of concern and whose import then will no longer be to debunk but to protect and to care, as Donna Haraway would put it?” (232).

My argument is that a certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path, encouraging us to fight the wrong enemies and, worst of all, to be considered as friends by the wrong sort of allies because of a little mistake in the definition of its main target. The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the con- trary, renewing empiricism. (231)

Next, Latour draws together “things” with “assemblies.” Things, extending from Heidegger, are gatherings. But Latour suggest we look not at the simple “pots, mugs, and jugs” (234) philosophers are fond of contemplating, but instead look at more complex things, noting their capacities to assemble and disband (234-235). There’s too much I’m skipping over here, but he brings up Whitehead, who even though he “is not an author known for keeping the reader wide awake” (245), was one of the few who “tried to get closer to [matters of fact] or, more exactly, to see through them the reality that requested a new respectful realist attitude” (244). A “new respectful realist attitude” may or may not fit well with the speculative realist characteristics noted by Harman, yet for Latour, this attitude is akin to compositionism (note: in this CI essay from 2004, BL seeks to reframe “critic” “with a whole new set of positive metaphors” (247), but with “An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto,” he has presumably abandoned reframing for re-naming).

Sklar, “Methodological Conservativism”

Yesterday morning I spent an hour or so finishing up the reading for a philosophy of science reading group that convenes at EMU later this afternoon. The group met a few times late in the winter semester, but their schedule was at odds with mine. I wasn’t able to attend a single meeting. A friend from last fall’s new faculty orientation has organized the group, and for a few different reasons, I agreed to participate. Among those reasons are 1) eclectic reading, 2) cross-disciplinary conversations, and 3) the possibility that I might at some point teach ENGL505: Rhetoric of Science and Technology. Philosophy of science and rhetoric of science and technology are more close siblings than twins, but I see enough resemblances to make these conversations worth checking out.

We’re working through Lawrence Sklar’s Philosophy and Spacetime Physics (1985), the Intro and Chapter One are up for this week’s get-together. The introduction is divided into “The Epistemology of Geometry” (4), “The Ontology of Spacetime Theories and Their Explanatory Role” (8), “Causal Order and Spatiotemporal Order” (15), and “Reflections on These Essays” (19).  In that final section, “Reflections,” Sklar presents a few of key points related to his own methods and how to read the book. First, he nods to his earlier book, Space, Time, and Spacetime, saying readers would find some useful staging there, but adding that the current collection of essays should provide enough context to proceed without needing to begin at some earlier work on these topics.  Sklar adopts “a rather ‘dialectic’ means of investigation” (20), and appears wary of contextualizing spacetime philosophy only in terms of contemporary developments in physics. Instead, he explains, “the essays try to show that the work of theoretical science takes place in a context in which various philosophical presuppositions are, consciously or unconsciously, continuously being utilized to reach theoretical conclusions” (19). Those “philosophical presuppositions,” then, are like trails of crumbs scattered unevenly out of various arcs of thought. The context Sklar prefers would allow us to do a better job of noticing flecks and textures in this mélange rather than deferring to philosophically to whatever is trending scientifically these days. Sklar reminds readers that “a good way to approach this book would be to read through the essays from beginning to end, not worrying about the places where full comprehension is elusive” (21). Noted: not worrying.

C. 1, “Methodological Conservativism”
The chapter begins with a passage from John Barth’s novel, The End of the Road. I’ll share the entire epigraph, since it nicely encapsulates the problem Sklar addresses in the chapter, i.e., how to decide.

Don’t let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you’re lost. You’re not that strong. If the alternatives are side by side choose the one on the left; if they’re consecutive in time, choose the earlier. If neigher of these applies, choose the alternative whose name begins with the earlier letter of the alphabet. These are the principles of Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetic Priority–there are others, and they’re arbitrary, but useful. Good-bye.

There are, of course, dangers in attempting to sum up a chapter like this that so deliberately comes at things from as many angles as possible, but, in effect, the chapter echoes with “continue believing what you already believe” or “don’t fall victim to alluring new theories that are at odds with personal knowledge” (there are moments early on when this reminds me of Polanyi…brief moments).  Sklar offers as an example that “There is nothing, as far as I can see, in the physical theory which existed prior to 1917 which would lead one to prefer a theory of curved spacetime to one with ‘universal forces'” (31). I write this as someone who has never studied physics, and yet the guiding principle, if I can reduce it to one, is that methodological conservativism wards against a breezy philosophical manner willing to believe something new when its warrants are at odds with what one already knows (confirmed empirically, or by direct sense experience).

Sklar writes elliptically (i.e., with oblong orbit) around these terms, allowing for possibilities that concepts like “conservativism” might not be quite right:

Obviously the application of the conservative principle is simpler and more decisive in the case where we are concerned with sticking with a hypothesis which we already do believe than it is in the case of selecting from among a set of novel hypotheses. So let us focus on this situation. Is the adoption of the rule justified or reasonable even in these cases? Clearly the rule does resolve a dilemma for us–it tells us to stick with the theory we have and not to drop it for one of the newly discovered alternatives nor to lapese into a skeptical suspension of belief. But is conservativism itself warranted? (32)

I guess the next question for me would be “What does a standard preference for conservativism obstruct, delay, or waylay?”  Sklar seems to have an interest in the consequences of too willingly believing what’s new, but there must likewise be consequences linked to the alternative he recommends. One clear gain is that methodological conservativism holds skepticism at bay, but I am, after reading, still wondering about the reach of these ideas, their implications.

In Part V of the chapter, Sklar situates conservativism in relation to five different belief justifications.  The justifications are
1. Justification by Intuition
2. Justification by Codification of Practice
3. Justification by Appeal to Higher Rules
4. Justification by Empirical Grounding
5. Justification by Appeal to Means and Ends
Justification itself aligns with a rationalist credo, and, in its philosophical orientation, this work gravitates toward empirical rationalism (I’m almost sure Sklar would trouble this characterization, even describing it as unhelpful “sloganeering”). 

A few more illustrative quotations/terms:
“A hidebound refusal ever to change one’s belief’s is nothing but irrational dogmatism. But the desire to maintain the beliefs one already has unless there is some good reason to change them is as rational as the programmatic commitment to maintain one’s social institutions unless there is some reason to revise them” (38).

lemmata (41): “a subsidiary position or proposition introduced to support or advance a larger proposition”

“I think an argument might go like this. Suppose we believe H1 and then discover H2 which is just as plausible, on all but conservative grounds, as H1 relative to present evidence. What should we do? The conservative tells us that considerations of utility recommend our sticking to our present belief. But that is not necessarily what utility does necessitate.  What we should do depends, first of all, on the relevant utlities in the particular case  of not believing anything, believing something and having it be true, and believing something and having it be false. Just how important is it (on either “practical” or “purely scientific” grounds) for us to have some belief or other? If it is not all that important, then the thing to do is to admit that one just has no idea which hypothesis is true and remain in a skeptical withholding of judgment until further evidence is in” (42).

“Conservativism is not just a minor ‘last resort’ principle invoked only when all other principles have failed to do the selecting job for us. Conservativism is, in fact, so deeply and pervasively embedded in our schema for deciding what it is rational to believe that once we have seen the full role that it plays we are likely to reject the alternatives to it of skepticism, which tells us to withhold belief from any of the alternatives, of permissivism which tells us it is all right to pick any one we choose, or of speaking of our choices as being ‘adoptions’ rather than beliefs” (43).

Sklar develops the idea of “methodological conservativism” for a particular philosophical quandary, but these ideas may very well generalize to other philosophical domains any time something new and something pragmatically known collide.  In fact, for rhetoric and composition, there are resonances here for how people talk about continuing to do what they have always done (Does methodological conservativism help explain current-traditional pedagogy, perhaps as entrenched belief-in-action?).  One other issue I’m weighing heading into this afternoon’s meeting is Why “methodological”?  Is this a method for philosophizing? A method for thinking? A method for deciding what to believe? And what, besides skepticism, permissivism, and semantic reframings are alternatives to this methodological orientation, not only in physics, but elsewhere, as well?

The Steep Approach

I finished up Iain Banks’

The Steep Approach to Garbadale
a couple of days ago. Took me
about a week, and it felt like a faster-than-usual read, though it’s not like I
spend all that much time reading fiction for the sport of it (at least not these
days). Faster than expected, a surprisingly engaging novel, a story well
told–exactly as promised in the approbative cover matter.

The upshot: Alban Wopuld deals with a hiatus from the family circle,
resurfacing at the behest of a cousin who recruits him to stir up dissent among
family members in favor of approving the sale of their rights to a popular game,
Empire!. Alban re-emerges as an influential presence in the family, all
the while coping with two formative events from earlier in his life (and, in
different degrees, these events are at the root of his alienation): his
mother’s suicide and a cousinly love affair.

This little summary doesn’t ruin it. And I fully intend to be getting
along with other novels by Banks just as soon as…one of these days. I only had
time for this one because I am purposefully neglecting the diss for a couple of
weeks while on a back-to-back conferences jag (seriously, it must appear that I
have been shitting around for a couple of weeks now; lazing through some books
about maps, etc.). Anyhow, by this point, I sure I have done enough to pique
your interest in The Steep Approach that I should give a little bit more,
so, then, two passages from dog-eared pages:

Also, third, she tried to quantify how hopelessly, uselessly,
pathetically weak she felt. It took a long time–she was a
mathematician, after all, not a poet, so images were not normally her strong
suit–but eventually she decided on one. It involved a banana. Specifically,
the long stringy bits you find between the skin and flesh of a banana. She
felt so weak you could have tied her up with those stringy bits of banana
and she wouldn’t have been able to struggle free. That was how weak she
felt. (220)

This comes as VG–Alban’s other love interest–remembers swimming near
a reef when the disastrous tsunami welled up from the Indian Ocean in ’04.

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Assorted Preparations

Making preparations for the fall, I have posted the
and in-progress schedule
for the course I will start teaching later this
month. Most of what is posted
comes from the shared syllabus for new
TAs. I decided to use the shared syllabus because it connects with a lot
of the extracurricular programming throughout the fall, it synchs up in
explicit ways (demanding very little justification) with the program’s goals for
this particular course, and it will mean for me just the second time in seven
semesters (since Fall ’04) that I don’t have to prep a course I haven’t taught
once before (the two WRT205s I taught two years apart were very

Yesterday I fused two del.icio.us accounts into one. I set up
dnmexams last summer so that I would
have a dedicated space for tagging and exploring linkages among my notes entries
related to qualifying exams. At a much slower pace, I have continued to
post notes to the Dissarray blog
(formerly "Exam Sitting"), but the separate del.icio.us account no longer made
sense. Reading for exams was relatively contained; reading and notes for the
diss–at this stage–feel somewhat more sprawling and dispersed. Plus,
it’s more convenient to keep just one del.icio.us account and, with it, just one
login. I’ve also switched from subscribing to individual del.icio.us accounts to
subscribing to one feed for my
. With this switch there has been a marked improvement in the
steady flow of materials into the aggregator over the past few weeks.

Finally, in anticipation of a narrow job search in the year ahead, I have been
mulling over my web site at the
behest of our job seekers group. I’m fairly satisfied with the site and all that
it includes, but I would be tremendously appreciative of thoughts anyone is willing to share–recommendations, critical asides, feedback about design,
presentation, navigability, and so on. At the next job seekers meeting we will be
taking a look at
teaching philosophy statements
, but I won’t be able to attend, so I’d love
to hear your reactions to what I say there, too (either in the comments or via

Seasonal Visitors

Early in The Function of Theory in Composition Studies, Sánchez
discusses the differences between applying theory and writing
theory. He refers to Hairston’s "The Winds of Change," as a moment that
inaugurates "an enduring method for ‘doing’ composition theory: take a term or
concept from a more respected or respectable field such as philosophy and use it
to illuminate some aspect of composition studies" (12). The way of
theorizing about writing, according to Sánchez:
appropriate and apply, appropriate and apply. There follows a soft critique:
methods in scare quotes (i.e., "predominant ‘methods’") and, within a few pages,
a discussion of those who "have reasserted the importance of empirically
oriented theorizing" (13). Sánchez echoes
Linda Flower with his interest in ways "that composition theory might generate
new theories rather than retrofit existing ones" (14). I haven’t finished
reading The Function of…, but I’m wondering at the end of the first
chapter whether the retrofit and the new can coexist, whether they are hybrid
and integral.

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Taylor and Saarinen – Imagologies (1994)

In Imagologies, Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen weave and warp through a series of new media (vintage 1994) fabrics. I call them fabrics because the book’s designer, Marjaana Virta, does: “Mediatext: A collection of fabrics…” (jacket). And if we can call Imagologies a “book”–rich ironies here for all their project does to frazzle the paradigms of print–the visual designs and variations are as striking as any of the stuff we might otherwise classify as content. Perhaps as much as any paper-bound book could hope to, Imagologies pushes and
sometimes exceeds the constraints of the bound page.

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