I’ve just started looking into the relatively new philosophical movement of speculative realism after having immersed myself in older philosophy and music criticism for the last few years as I completed my dissertation. To this end, I thought I’d check out the blog of Levi Bryant, an editor of The Speculative Turn (along with Graham Harman), and apparently one of the movement’s leading theorists, in the hope that I’d learn something new and interesting. However, I was unpleasantly surprised to find his latest post, “There’s Only Bricolage,” which seems to me callously alienating and deeply contradictory.
There are a number of comments from others on Bryant’s post, and I’m surprised that no one has remarked on what seems to me a glaring inconsistency, though perhaps Bryant only approves positive comments. Put simply, I find it deeply ironic that Bryant so harshly condemns those who believe “that thought somehow follows deductively from a single premise or set of premises” and then turns around a few paragraphs later and calls anyone who doesn’t agree with his “single premise” that “there’s only bricolage” “assholes” and “ridiculously ignorant.” I think bricolage is a useful concept, and I certainly don’t believe that thought only follows from premises, but I also think that the premises we hold make a real difference in our relation to the world. William James and Alfred North Whitehead certainly believed that, and I don’t think they would appreciate being called “assholes.” As James particularly understood, the rejection of premises is itself still a premise, just as disbelief is still a kind of belief. James writes in The Will to Believe:
Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, “Do not decide, but leave the question open,” is itself a passional decision,—just like deciding yes or no,—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth (2010, 13).
If I understand Bryant correctly, he describes “bricolage” as an activity with the potential to produce novelty partially through avoiding defining itself by adherence to one theorist’s supposedly complete and self-sufficient system, which appears closely related to the “passional decision” to “leave the question open” that James articulates. Of course no philosopher’s system is final and complete, but setting this debate up as a dualistic, either/or decision between dogmatism based on fixed premises on the one hand and a hodgepodge assemblage of entities on the other hand is absurdly simplistic. Isn’t it obvious that genuine novelty is produced by the negotiation between different, seemingly incompatible premises? Yes, we cannot escape holding premises as soon as we speak, and yes, we are all bricoleurs attempting to birth new entities through the Frankensteinian, “aleatory multiplicity” of our influences, both conceptual and affective.
However, having argued with Bryant’s ideas, my primary issue remains with his rhetoric. Shouldn’t philosophical discourse be oriented towards persuading others of our views rather than alienating anyone who disagrees with us? In my opinion, it’s best to avoid calling people names, especially if their only sin is thinking differently than us about a relatively esoteric philosophical concept. Bryant closes his vitriolic assertion that “there’s only bricolage” by implying that we should be “generous” in our philosophical endeavors. It seems to me that he would benefit greatly from taking his own advice.