Speculative Realism


Speculative Realism

This is a reading group - begun by faculty and graduate students in the department of Anthropology at Binghamton University - with the aim of reading and discussing the recent literature associated with the "Speculative Turn" in the humanities and social sciences.

Website: http://www.binghamton.edu/anthropology/
Location: Binghamton, New York
Members: 7
Latest Activity: Jan 10, 2014

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Comment by John McCreery on December 26, 2013 at 4:30am

First, a word of welcome and warm thanks for bringing this initiative to OAC. The reading list is already ambitious (keeping up will be a serious problem). Still, I would like to mention two additional works that may be of particular relevance. Grant Harman mentions Alfred North Whitehead as a precursor in Latour. I recently found myself re-reading Whitehead's Science and the Modern World. And while it was published in 1925 it is still, in my view, the best introduction to the issues with which speculative realists are now grappling. I would also like to mention once more John Tresch,The Romantic Machine, to which Keith Hart directed our attention in another context. For those who wish to explore the historical context in which ideas very similar those of today's speculative realists emerged,this book is very rich and stimulating, indeed.

I would also like to add a word about how we on OAC should respond to this project. The word is "ethnographically." Much that is said in the books on the reading lists clashes with familiar assumptions about self and society, nature and culture. But precisely for that reason, it is vital to suspend judgment and open our minds to the issues the authors raise and how they address them. To leap in too quickly with our own preconceptions and attempts at correction will ruin this opportunity to see the world in radically different ways and, just possibly, escape from constantly running around in the same conceptual circles. 

What I write here is not an appeal for belief that assumes that other approaches more familiar to us are wrong. It is, instead, and appeal for the openness that, as professionals interpreting what alien others have to say, we see as necessary for understanding Nuer or Dinka ideas about spirit, Azande magic, Navajo witchcraft, or Daoist ritual, to listen and think carefully instead of rushing to judgment.

Peace and spirited debate be with us.

Comment by Josh Reno on December 26, 2013 at 9:49pm

Many thanks for the recommendations, John, the Tresch book in particular looks well worth a read.

I also would like to endorse your word of warning.  Our goal as a group should not be to "test" these writers against the ethnographic record, but to appreciate their arguments and aims and, perhaps, rethink the ends of anthropology in the process.

Comment by John McCreery on December 27, 2013 at 2:15am

Thanks for the kind words. I agree that Tresch has written a fine book; I wouldn't have recommended it otherwise. But the Whitehead is a better place to start, since it lays out so clearly the fundamental issues with which Latour et al will later wrestle. Here are a couple of notes from page 23 of the ancient paperback edition of _Science and the Modern World_ that I am currently reading. The order of the quotes reverses that in the original text.

Whitehead will trace transformations in science and the scientific outlook from the seventeenth century to his present (1925). But,

“There persists, however, throughout the whole period the fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread throughout space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ’scientific materialism.’ Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived. It is not wrong, if properly construed. If we confine ourselves to certain types of facts, abstracted from the complete circumstances in which they occur, the materialistic assumption expresses these facts to perfection. But when we pass beyond the abstraction, either by more subtle employment of our senses, or by the request for meanings and for coherence of thoughts, the scheme breaks down at once. The narrow efficiency of the scheme was the very cause of its supreme methodological success. For it directed attention to just those groups of facts which, in the state of knowledge then existing, required investigation.”


“The progress of science has now reached a turning point. The stable foundations of physics have broken up: also for the first time physiology is asserting itself as an effective body of knowledge, as distinct from a scrapheap. The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible. Time, space, matter, material, ether, electricity, mechanism, organism, configuration, structure, pattern, function, all require reinterpretation. What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation when you do not know what you mean by mechanics?”

Recall that these words were first published in 1925. Einstein and quantum mechanics have called into question the fundamental premises of classical mechanics. Fascism is stirring in Europe; the Great Depression is less than 5 years away. Watson, Crick and computers are still decades in the future. But Whitehead nails the problem that will later inspire Latour. The success of scientific abstraction and clear focus on a few relatively soluble problems has bifurcated the world along the lines suggested by Locke's primary and secondary qualities, a cold, meaningless Reality and a separate realm in which the senses, meanings, emotions that constitute the stuff of everyday life are somehow less real, less the way things "Really Are."
Comment by Jacobson Zeng on January 7, 2014 at 6:31am

Hi John,

Thank you very much for your recommendation. I've been reading Whitehead, Latour, Harman and other Speculative realists recently. I think it is very productive to compare Latour with different philosophical resources, as Harman and you suggested. And for Whitehead, in regards with Science and the Modern World, I think it is very like authors in French epistemology tradition (e.g. Bachelard and Foucault) than the Latour represented in present Speculative turn. Especially when Whitehead is talking about modern science's presuppositions (of ultimate "facts"), Bachelard is talking about epistemological obstacles and Foucault is talking about epitemes. While Harman regarded Latour not just as a epistemological deconstructuralist but who brought new analytical tools (like his dissection of "fact" into ultimate relations) than aforementioned authors.

However, I'm also very curious about how to locate Latour in the "intermediary" of Science and the Modern World and French epistemologists and the result of it. Latour's relation to French epistemologist is obvious in first glance but not easily to find in texts. I'm considering Stengers and Serres as good "mediators" in this tracing.

Comment by John McCreery on January 7, 2014 at 8:31am

Jacobsen, I am no expert in this area, but my reading of Harman's Prince of Networks suggests that the most direct connection between Latour and Whitehead is that both reject the modern world's ontological bifurcation of the world into distinct material and mental components, the former regarded as primary and the latter as secondary effects. They thus pursue alternatives to reductionist explanations of the latter in terms of the former. Also, if Harman is right, Latour takes pains to distinguish his position from that of materialists (see above), idealists (who try to explain the material as a function of the ideal instead of vice versa), and the postmodernists, whom he sees as creating a total muddle in which everything is simulacrum and illusion and there is no reality, period. I'd be careful, then, before I went too far in tying Latour to any of the French thinkers you mention.

Comment by John McCreery on January 7, 2014 at 8:36am

Also, I must admit that I was confused when I first heard someone mention the title of Latour's We Have Never Been Modern and took him to be advocating some sort of return to medieval scholastic philosophy. Now I realise the force of his revelation that nothing is reducible to anything else. If you don't believe me, just try telling your wife or girlfriend that she is nothing but a particular configuration of atoms of which her feelings are only an epiphenomenon. 

Comment by Frederic Janssens on January 7, 2014 at 7:47pm

Hi all

The human connection between Latour and Whitehead is Isabelle Stengers.

She was inspired by Whitehead since a long time ago, and  wrote "Thinking with Whitehead"


for which Latour wrote a foreword.

Comment by John McCreery on January 10, 2014 at 4:34am

Thanks, Frederic. Stengers was totally off my radar before you pointed us to her. Returning the favour, I note that the latest issue of Hau contains a lot of material directly related to this conversation.


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