The Desire Called Speculative Realism

I recently had the chance to dialogue with the Japanese philosopher Masaya Chiba. The text, which we titled "The Problem of Authority: Departing from Speculative Realism," was first published in Japanese in the journal Gendai-Shiso 44-1 (Jan 2016). I'm posting the dialogue here in the first of two parts.

Question 1

tumblr_inline_o03g224QEs1r61lko_400Masaya Chiba (MC): In Japan, speculative realism (SR) and the arguments surrounding it have been taken up seriously since around 2010. Here in this magazine Gendai-Shiso, some important articles by thinkers such as Meillassoux, Harman, Brassier, and Thacker have been translated into Japanese. Within such a context the picture of control society as described in your Protocol was also introduced. I and two colleagues completed a translation of Meillassoux’s Après la finitude to be published at the beginning of 2016. At nearly the same time our correspondence will appear in this magazine.

Since comments and articles about SR have already flourished, and since it may be possible to say the influence of SR has receded just as you say in your blog, we can now measure in various ways the historical position of SR from a sobering distance. As for me, I am especially interested in how to capture the “desire” of SR as one expressed necessarily in a certain stage of our (over-informatized) society. Then, a question; from your point of view, if one considers the specificity of SR in the present state, what type of discourse can be productive and meaningful?

Alexander R. Galloway (AG): The desire called speculative realism—it's an excellent question. Two things strike me as most relevant at the outset. First is the status of desire as such, something that, we must admit, has its own history and its own specificity. I'm thinking of the way in which desire was slowly rehabilitated during the twentieth century, first by way of psycho-analysis and political and feminist theory, and then, more urgently, by Deleuze and his ilk. Here desire is understood in opposition to reason and rationality, not as irrationality or folly, but as a legitimate kind of force in the world. Deleuze and Guattari, with their “nonstratified, unformed, intense matter,” set the standard for what has become quite commonplace today, the usurpation of rational, humanist subjects by swarms of desiring machines. So, while it has a complex history, I now associate desire with the general trend in society and culture toward affect (away from emotion or sentiment), toward horizontality (away from verticality or hierarchy), toward interaction (away from isolation), toward physics (away from metaphysics). In this way it seems natural to speak of such trends in contemporary thought in terms of a desire, since desire is such a powerful structuring force. Continue reading

Chinese Translations

It's interesting to track the exchange of ideas through translation. I just received (what I thought was) the first translation of my work into Chinese, the article "若電影為本體論,電腦即為道德規範" published by Digital Art Foundation in Taipei, Taiwan. It's a translation of an article called "If the Cinema Is an Ontology, the Computer Is an Ethic," published in a volume on Kittler and also incorporated into the introduction of The Interface Effect.

I've studied a few natural languages (and several computer languages), but alas Chinese isn't one of them. There's something wonderfully alienating about a text that is illegible to its author. I was reminded of Spinoza's old story about the poet who, after a strange illness, was unable to recognize his writings as his own.

Of course, out of sheer curiosity, I had to Google my Chinese name, 亞歷山大·蓋洛威. And, unbeknownst to me, I discovered that my piece on speculative realism and object-oriented philosophy titled “The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism” was already translated and published two years ago as "哲學的貧乏:唯實論與後福特主義."

In related news, a Japanese translation of Protocol was licensed by my publisher last year, so that should be forthcoming. And I recently had a dialogue with the Japanese philosopher Masaya Chiba that has been published in the magazine Gendai Shiso, although I have yet to see the text. We titled the dialogue “The Problem of Authority: Departing from Speculative Realism.”

The Colossus of Exchange

althusser-2-1Don’t look at part I, put it aside... Or so goes Louis Althusser’s warning to first-time readers of Marx’s Capital. It is important to skip part I of the treatise, Althusser advised, at least on the first couple of reads. Only when the truth of Capital is fully internalized, its scientific intervention into the “new continent” of history, one may “begin to read Part I (Commodities and Money) with infinite caution, knowing that it will always be extremely difficult to understand, even after several readings of the other Parts, without the help of a certain number of deeper explanations.”

After all, Althusser argued, the same political division between social classes was mirrored within the text as an epistemological division. Part I contains something close to philosophical idealism, followed by the scientific materialism of the rest of the book. Althusser’s advice was thus both practical and political: Part I is not only difficult reading for the young and the uninitiated—Althusser admitted that members of the proletariat would have no problem reading the book because their “class instinct” was already attuned to the quotidian experience of capitalist exploitation—it also risks derailing the reader into dangerously Hegelian and philosophical diversions. “This advice is more than advice,” he whispered. It is “an imperative.” Continue reading

LARB Interview

(Read Melissa Dinsman's interview with me in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

Q: Do you think full engagement with the digital humanities requires programming skills, and, if so, should programming become a requirement for humanities students?

A: Would you trust a book on the French Revolution written by a scholar who didn’t read French? It’s a legitimate question. I’m sure there are brilliant lunar geologists who have never been to the moon. But I maintain that one must learn one’s materials — including computation and coding — in order to be competent in DH [Digital Humanities]. Computer languages might not have the deep history that natural languages have, and they might not have the same kind of cultural depth that natural languages have. But in terms of relevance in contemporary life, in terms of a rich analytical and critical context, machine languages are just as fascinating as natural languages.


A Lesser Amazon

Introspection is often necessary in academic work, not simply concerning the objects of the mind, but also the actual manner in which intellectual work is done. This typically comes under the heading of methodology. Yet the meaning of methodology is not always clear, particularly within the so-called theory disciplines that span Marxism, feminism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and related fields. Some prefer the self-serving and somewhat vain conviction that theory and methodology are one and the same pursuit. Hence “doing theory” would seem to preempt the thorny exercise of methodological introspection, rendering it moot. Why speak of method, when theory is nothing but method? Why worry about other tasks, when theory is king?

Yet the reality of higher education contradicts such pat conclusions. In fact academic halls are teaming with a vast array of different research methods, from the positivistic expediency of quantitative investigation, to the staging of ethnographic interviews, to the narrative reductions of historiography, to the various instrumentalized strains of hermeneutics such as the Marxist reading, the feminist reading, or the psychoanalytic reading. Continue reading

“Like Etsy kissed by philosophy”

Graham Burnett nailed it. More of a tweet than an argument, nevertheless Burnett's observation about cultural theory's current obsession with objects and materiality--that it's like Etsy kissed by philosophy--cuts to the heart of intellectual life today.

Etsy kissed by philosophy. Objects kissed by philosophy. A philosophy of vibrant things. A philosophy of encrusted idols. Philosophy in the age of foodies. Microbrews matter. Baristas matter. Black lives matter--chimes the chirpy white liberal--and thank God they can do the mattering on our behalf, just like all those other vibrant objects. (Mel Chen and Julia Bryan-Wilson both show how such discourse is endemic to whiteness and white privilege.)

48555120677521537Fu8cPdmc Continue reading

A Questionnaire on Materialisms

The current issue of October magazine contains several responses to a questionnaire on the nature of materialism today. My response is pasted below. Read the questionnaire prompt and download all responses here.

Not too long ago, being a materialist meant something rather specific, despite the capacious complexity of the term; it meant one was a Marxist. These days materialism generally means non-Marxism, or some variant thereof. What happened?

As it was formulated in France in the eighteenth century and then more broadly across Europe in the nineteenth century, materialism was concerned chiefly with what Marx called the “sensuous activity” of society and politics, an undertaking guided by strict adherence to the modern if not nihilist mantras of secularity and critique. Today’s new materialism means something different. Methodologically speaking, the new materialism is dog-whistle politics for three things: empiricism, pragmatism, and realism. Continue reading

Demo Media

Like the discourse network of 1900, let us begin in nonsense (so as to end in reason). Consider an image made by Étienne-Jules Marey, not one of the chronophotographic images of decomposed movement that he is known for, but one made as he was playing around in his studio. "I picked up a black stick capped with a white ball at its tip,” he wrote. “By walking and moving it around in front of the black screen I was able to write out my name letter by letter."

"I was able to write out my name letter by letter."

The image is weak and grainy. As author of the word, Marey appears simply as a passing ghost, washing out the right side of the photograph with a broad smudge of white. This is not a photograph in any strict sense, at least not technically. As a photographic record of kinetic change through time it might go by a better name: cinema. Digitality has dominated cinema throughout its history -- discrete photographs arranged in corpuscular series -- that it's difficult to see how radical this image really is. Let's call it by its true name, for here is a genuinely analog cinema. Continue reading

France bookshelf

widgetWhile in France a few weeks ago I had the chance to peruse the local bookstores and noticed some curious turns in French theory. One thing I wouldn't have predicted is an exhumation of the Greek primordial divinities. Meillassoux rediscovered Chaos a few years ago. And now Latour is worshiping Gaia. Stengers has joined the fun as well. In addition to Stengers and Latour, Laruelle also has a new book out in French addressing global warming / climate stuff.

I saw lots of new Badiou books of various shapes and sizes, from short interview books to larger volumes. And I gather he is currently working on part 3 of Being and Event. Achille Mbembe has a relatively new book called Critique de la raison nègre, which I would be eager to see translated. I also noticed a few stores displaying Fréderic Neyrat's Homo labyrinthus, which is on posthumanism and looks quite interesting.

In sad news, La Hune, long a Left Bank institution, closed its doors only to reopen as a soulless purveyor of expensive coffee table books. Other favorite shops are still in business though, including the venerable Vrin. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that the Gibert Joseph on Boulevard Saint-Michel has a huge selection of philosophy books. And the tiny Librairie Le Point du Jour tucked behind the ENS has probably the best selection of Marxist books I've ever seen (hat tip to David M!), all piled up like a hoarder's apartment in that way that French used bookstores like to do.