An Unpleasant Introduction to Speculative Realism

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.

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3 responses to “An Unpleasant Introduction to Speculative Realism

  1. Hi Grant,

    The rhetoric of the post was intended in a light-hearted and playful fashion, not an abusive one, though I can certainly see why you might take it as abusive. The rhetoric of the post arises from a specific context of debates that have taken place online over the years– often with Hegelian dialecticians –that vigorously objected to putting thinkers such as Lacan and Deleuze together in the course of developing a concept or argument. These debates often called for pure fidelity to a particular thinker, refusing to combine their work with other thinkers. Often these calls were used to denounce any mixture of thinkers– say Althusser on ideology and Foucault on power –and to roundly dismiss claims and positions without entertaining those claims and positions in their own term. In other words, they practiced the sort of rhetorical dismissal you rightfully denounce in your post here.

    I personally don’t share your views on deduction; especially with regard to James and Whitehead. Whitehead, for example, is quite clear that all actual occasions or entities are bundles of prehensions (i.e., bricolages). James makes similar points about the nature of experience. Setting aside textual issues of how these thinkers ought to be interpreted, take an example like Euclid’s Elements. We get what appears to be a smooth and deductive system without any bricolage, where every proposition and proof seems to follow seamlessly from what preceded without any extraneous elements. Is that how the system was reallly produced, however? Probably not. Many of the theses of the text arose from the practical knowledge of handymen, inspirations for proofs were taken from elsewhere, there were probably heated discussions of how to proceed, order the theorems, and what to include and what not to include, and so on. In other words, the text, in the process of its production, was a product of bricolage. The final product was what Bruno Latour calls a “black box”, where the process of its production was erased or rendered invisible, and the illusion was created that this work sprung forth in the world like the head of a hydra. That formalization process is, of course, important, but if we take it at face value we’re missing quite a bit about how the work came to be.

  2. Hi Levi,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response and for clarifying the intent of your rhetoric. I certainly agree with you that anyone who claims that one can’t marshal several different theorists in support of an argument is simply not doing good philosophy. It seems to me that genuine novelty is produced by the confluent synthesis of different modes of thought, which seems coextensive with saying that we are all bricoleurs whether we know it or not.

    On the issue of whether James and Whitehead argue deductively, I think it’s clear that we all employ deduction to the extent that we hold specific beliefs that often subtly and implicitly inform our decisions, both philosophical and otherwise. As Whitehead writes in “Science and the Modern World”:

    “[The] quiet growth of science has practically recoloured our mentality so that modes of thought which in former times were exceptional are now broadly spread through the educated world. This new colouring of ways of thought had been proceeding slowly for many ages in the European peoples. At last it issued in the rapid development of science . . . The new mentality is more important even than the new science and the new technology. It has altered the metaphysical presuppositions and the imaginative contents of our minds; so that now the old stimuli provoke new response . . . that slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference” (2).

    Whitehead’s “metaphysical presuppositions” seem to me precisely the premises on which we base our beliefs, which, in turn, deeply condition the way we act. For instance, the question of whether nonhuman entities can possess agency makes a real difference in our relation to the world. If we believe the earth is dead matter without agency, an “it,” we are perfectly justified in cutting the rainforests and poisoning the air; it’s our life and we can destroy our environment if we want. But if we believe that animals have agency, that something like the figure of Gaia (as Latour suggests) possesses agency, a “thou,” we will treat her and her creatures with the respect and care we would give our own mothers and siblings. This is one example among many possible instances, but my point, as I said in the post above, is that I don’t think we’re faced with an either/or decision between deduction from premises and bricolage; we all must deduce from premises, our often implicitly held beliefs, and we all always already engage in bricolage. In fact, it seems to me that our premises are elements of our bricolages or, expressed another way, our affectively motivated conceptual beliefs combine with all of our experiences, including our experience of autonomous will, to produce our lives, our actions, our identities. Each of us is an emergent synthesis of a multiplicity of agential entities, both human and nonhuman, both conceptual and affective. And furthermore, for those of us who find the concept of bricolage useful, bricolage itself is one of our premises. Thus, bricolages and premises are intimately imbricated for, as John Stuart Mill writes in “Coleridge”:

    “All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.”

  3. Pingback: President Obama’s Implicit Philosophy | Rock and Roll Philosopher

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