Saturday, November 8, 2014

REVIEW: "The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism" by Steven Shaviro

Before jumping into my review of Steven Shaviro's new book, I want to provide a quick summary of the philosophers that he is engaging throughout the text.

One of the most interesting trends in recent philosophy is what is sometimes called Speculative Realism. The name comes from a conference in 2007 at the University of London that brought together four very different philosophers who nevertheless were united in their efforts to resurrect realist metaphysics: Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, and Iain Hamilton Grant. Each of them hold quite different metaphysical positions, but all four critique what they name "philosophies of correlation." As a theologian and not a philosopher, I can't help but make a connection to my field here. Just as the Radical Orthodox movement identifies a key moment in the history of philosophy (for RO, this is Duns Scotus' univocity) that leads to its destructive decline, the Speculative Realists point back to Kant's apparently disastrous argument that the thing-in-itself is unknowable.

Meillassoux defines correlationism as "the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other." This created a tendency in philosophy to privilege epistemology (how we know) over ontology (what is known), which for SR is particularly evident in phenomenology and deconstruction, both of which at least "bracket" ontology - and in some cases reject ontology or metaphysics entirely. The four members of SR agree that post-Kantian philosophies of correlation are deeply anthropocentric because of their obsession with epistemology and their corresponding refusal to speculate about what is real. Particularly in our time of ecological crisis, they believe that it is time to push back against the extremism of the linguistic turn in philosophy, to resist the excesses of social constructivism, and to once again speculate about the "great outdoors" in order to give nonhuman nature its own genuine reality. Today, SR has continually expanded with a number of younger thinkers following in the wake of the original four philosophers.

While I'm not quite sure about the debate over correlationism (John Caputo has recently come out to partly defend it against what he believes is a serious misunderstanding by SR), as a Whiteheadian, I certainly appreciate the move toward speculative philosophy, critical realism, and anthrodecentric metaphysics. This is why Steven Shaviro's new book The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, which puts the philosophy of Whitehead in conversation with SR, caught my attention. Perhaps some philosophers will have problems with certain aspects of this text, but I found it to be a very helpful overview of SR. Shaviro's work on Whitehead in his previous publications was interesting to me because he completely bypasses process theology and just works with a nonreligious, atheological reading of Whitehead (inspired by Isabelle Stenger's approach). While this is obviously not my own approach, I appreciate this move because it offers fresh insights into process thought from a more secular perspective.

The introduction to the book gives an excellent summary of SR, noting its similarities to the New Materialism and connections to the thought of Bruno Latour and Gilles Deleuze. The first chapter stages an interesting encounter between Whitehead and Levinas in order to show how the latter wrongly privileges ethics and transcendence over ontology, aesthetics, and immanence while Whitehead essentially does the opposite. Chapters 2 and 3 bring Whitehead into conversation with Graham Harman's Object-Oriented Ontology, partly in order to show how the latter can help us read Whitehead's work in a new way, but also to defend Whitehead's focus on relations and events over Harman's focus on objects as substances. Shaviro ultimately sees the two thinkers offering contrasting rather than totally contradictory ontologies while admitting he is still more persuaded by process thought than OOO.

Chapters 4 and 5 are fascinating explorations of panpsychism as a possible response to correlationism, thereby giving all things a degree of 'mind' in order to decenter the human. This is something I've written about before in my engagement with the New Materialism and was thrilled to see a parallel move in Shaviro's work. It was helpful to see that Harman and Grant are open to this move while Brassier and Meillassoux resist it by totally eliminating subjectivity, as opposed to redistributing it throughout nature with something like panpsychism. This also has the effect of making the latter two much more radically nihilistic in their thinking. Chapter 6 extends Shaviro's argument for panpsychism into a debate, primarily with Meillasoux in order to show he is not anti-correlationist enough in his eliminativist ontology. Chapter 7, the final part of the book, unpacks Shaviro's ultimate effort to develop a new strand of SR with Whitehead (and a bit of Deleuze, as well as Kant - perhaps surprisingly) that he calls "speculative aesthetics."

As a theologian who is always trying to engage cutting-edge philosophy, I'm grateful for this book's readable way in to the Speculative Realist discussion. I realize that there is much debate about SR as a "movement" and deep hostility between some of the original four SR philosophers, so I will remain cautious in my future engagements with these thinkers and whatever becomes of SR in the future. It is, however, encouraging to see a metaphysical turn in contemporary philosophy and to see philosophers that I appreciate, like Whitehead, Deleuze, Schelling, Latour, and Barad all being drawn into this ongoing conversation. Shaviro is not a professional philosopher, as he is always quick to point out, but is actually a cultural critic. As a side note, I was able to attend his book release at the New School in New York City last night and found him to be not just an impressive thinker and gifted speaker, but actually very humble, gracious and respectful of others. Even when the tense politics of SR came up, he avoided name-calling or speaking ill of anyone. Let's hope that kind of attitude can be a model for the future of this conversation amongst the new realists.


  1. Thanks for the review Austin.

    I have listened to the Caputo lectures you link to and it seems to me like he's doing some real heavy duty backpedaling. He likens his brand of theopoetic "still to come" deconstructionist postmodernism to pragmatism, but I tend to think a more accurate description would be straight up agnosticism, i.e. we can't know so let's not talk about it...(I feel like I've heard Clayton make that criticism somewhere...)

    Don't get me wrong, I love Caputo and was glad to hear him say Continentals need to engage science more. Very exciting stuff, very exciting time.

  2. Jesse,

    Thanks for chiming in. Caputo's debate with the SR is a difficult issue to tackle, but his argument is stated with greater clarity in the third section of Insistence of God. Indeed, he sounds very much like a pragmatist there - not very far from Peirce, in my opinion! The thing is, it seems to me that SR defines correlationism in a way that Caputo will not accept. For him, it doesn't preclude a kind of realism and it does not lock one into an anthropocentric worldview. Yet Caputo is also tricky in that part of the book because he sure sounds like he's arguing for a Process/New materialist type of ontology to me - and still saying he's not. I've been working with Caputo all semester and am getting ready to write on his work in the next couple of weeks. I'm sure I'll share it at some point.

    On Caputo's "agnosticism", there's some truth to that, and indeed, Clayton''s said something along those lines about Caputo's position. However, I think he's more clearly a death of God theologian in the new book because he's not even "bracketing" the question of an ontological referent to "God" anymore (as he did in Weakness). In the recent book, it's quite clear that God names the impossibility of anything becoming fully present - whatever "is" is always "to come", transcending full comprehension.

    At any rate, that's my opinion. (: And I love Caputo too. I just want to argue with him about a few things.