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Standing On The Corner: Reality Bites

It’s right on the crease that the thoughts began to emerge. Like standing on the corner of a city block and looking down one side and then the other. Seeing old friends from different times in your life, paths that never crossed—now connected by the happenstance of standing on this particular node in the grid-work of the metropolis. The term standing at this crossroads is ‘realism.’

The initial rehabilitation of the word, for me, came with the discovery of John Brockman’s Within this oasis, Brockman unleashed the congregations of the Third Culture and The Reality Club. These closed circles of the best and the brightest engage in a correspondence on topics at the edge of technology and science. In particular, Brockman was seeking to provide an escape from the swirl of ‘commentary on commentary’ that seemed to be gobbling up much of the intellectual world as it struggled to digest the marks and traces left by Jacques Derrida. Here, conversations could gain traction because the medium was the “real” and the language was the process of science. Even the artists and philosophers included within the circle had a certain scientific bent.

However, recently I’ve begun to feel that the conversations have drifted from scientific to the scientistic. Standing at the edge of scientific discovery is a heady experience. The swirl of the unknown is trapped in the scientist’s nets, sorted out into bits of data, classified and tested. serves as a sort of cross-scientific discipline peer review process. The shaky ground of the barely known is given its best chance to gain traction through an unstinting faith in the real. At this far outpost, anything seems to be fair game for the process. Standing on the firm ground of the scientific real, the conversations begin to stray into explanations and reconstructions of morality, thinking, consciousness and religion. Edifices are not deconstructed, they are bulldozed and rebuilt on the terra firma of scientific reality.

Even within, the question about the ground on which they stand are starting to be asked. Jaron Lanier focuses on why there’s an assumption that computer science is the central metaphor for everything:

One of the striking things about being a computer scientist in this age is that all sorts of other people are happy to tell us that what we do is the central metaphor of everything, which is very ego-gratifying. We hear from various quarters that our work can serve as the best way of understanding – if not in the present but any minute now because of Moore’s law – of everything from biology to the economy to aesthetics, child-rearing, sex, you name it. I have found myself being critical of what I view as this overuse as the computational metaphor. My initial motivation was because I thought there was naive and poorly constructed philosophy at work. It’s as if these people had never read philosophy at all and there was no sense of epistemological or other problems.

And it’s here that faith in the scientistic ground begins to develop fissures. A signal event for me was the appropriation of the word ‘ontology‘ by the practitioners of the semantic web. The word is taken up and used in a nostalgic sense, as though plucked from a dead and long-ago superseded form of thought. The history of the word is bulldozed and its meaning reconstructed within the project of creating a query-able web of structured data.

It was the word ontology that linked me back to realism. And here we are back at the crease, looking down the other side of the block. It’s here that the fast charging world of Speculative Realism enters the fray. The scientistic thinkers on the Edge have begun to notice a certain mushiness of the ground as they reach out to gain traction in some new territories. Indeed, some may stop and ask how the ground could be mushy in some spots, but not in others?

The brand Speculative Realism was founded in April of 2007, at a conference at Goldsmiths College, University of London. The primary players were Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Quentin Meillassoux. While not a cohesive school of thought, these philosophers have certain common concerns, in particular ideas about realism and a critique of correlationism. The branch of the tree of particular interest to me contains the group exploring Object-Oriented Ontology, which includes Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost and Levi Bryant among others.

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.

My formal introduction to the literature was through Graham Harman’s book Prince of Networks, Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. But to get a sense of the pace of thought, you need only look to the blog posts, tweets, YouTube posts, uStream broadcasts of conferences and OpenAccess publications the group seems to produce on a daily basis. The recent compendium of essays, The Speculative Turn, is available in book form through the usual channels, or as a free PDF download. The first day it was made available as download, the publisher’s web servers were overwhelmed by the demand. The velocity of these philosophical works, and the progress of thought, seems to be directly attributable to its dissemination through the capillaries of the Network.

In working with ontology, these thinkers have given the ground on which scientists—and the rest of us (objects included) stand, quite a bit of thought. This is not an extension of the swirl of commentaries on commentaries, but rather a move toward realism. And it’s when you arrive at this point that the border erected around the scientistic thought and conversations of the begins to lose its luster. There are clearly questions of foundation that go begging within its walls. At the beginning of such a conversation, the ground they’ve taken for granted may seem to fall away and leave them suspended in air, but as they continue, a new ground will emerge. And the conversation will be fascinating.

Published in collaboration culture difference network philosophy tribes


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