Inside Out

by cominsitu

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Marx famously described capitalism as mad and inverted. Daniel Spaulding re-examines speculative realism through an Adornian prism to disclose a thought of ‘the great outdoors’ beyond capital that is very much immanent to a world not only upside down but increasingly inside out 

In his book After Finitude, published in France in 2006 and in English translation two years later, Quentin Meillassoux refers to what he calls the ‘Great Outdoors’: the wilds of the Real to which philosophy may achieve direct access once it frees itself from the correlation between thinking and being. The Great Outdoors is Meillassoux’s term for everything that philosophy stands to gain from the reversal of Kant’s Copernican Revolution. Except, it turns out, it isn’t, since the original phrase is, rather, le Grand Dehors, which means something more like ‘the Great Outside.’[1] Le Grand Dehorshas no vernacular resonance in French; at least, it is devoid of the woodsmanly connotations of its English (or American) counterpart. The difference, slight as it is, may have led certain Anglophones to fantasise about camping trips to the vales of the Absolute, where marshmallows, thinking their marshmallow thoughts, roast in their ineluctable withdrawnness over the flames of unfettered speculation. Le Grand Dehors by contrast sounds rather less adventuresome. Perhaps, also, more intimidating: the dehors is a placeholder for the beyond of all sensuous experience, akin to Pascal’s terrifying infinite spaces. Gemütlich it’s not.

I mention this only because the ‘Great Outdoors’ has come to be something like a structuring trope in a broad swathe of recent philosophical thinking, in which, often enough, Gemütlichkeit returns with a vengeance. We have, over the past decade, been invited to take seriously the prospect of an ‘object oriented cookery’ that would grant full honors to non-human agents in the kitchen (that is, everything but the chef – marshmallows presumably included).[2] We have been informed, of inanimate things, that ‘the same charm is present in foreign cultures, and for all the endless diatribes against ‘Orientalism,’ objects themselves are a perpetual orient, harboring exotic spices, guilds, and cobras.’[3] We have also been told, in a meditation on the September 11 attacks, that an ‘explosion is frightening because it’s ontologically uncanny.’[4] And we have seen the rehabilitation of H.P. Lovecraft as an evidently major figure in the history of speculative thought, as well as much else passing as philosophy that seems straightforwardly reducible to kitsch: Carl Sagan-esque paeans to the wonder and weirdness of the cosmos, for example.

How to make sense of this conjunction between the familiar and the strange – cuteness combined with terror? What is it that its consumers expect from it? My answer is necessarily oblique. As an art historian rather than a philosopher I tend to read this literature with a sense of bemusement, if not bewilderment. Surely no one can care this much about whether objects are ‘fourfold’ or ‘virtual proper beings’?[5] – But then, surely nobody could care all that much about a splatter of paint. I have come to write this essay by way of a collision between adjacent realms of the abstruse.

I can sketch my picture only in very broad strokes. At the moment, the ambient theoretical climate in the art world seems to split the difference between an overheated revival of Enlightenment Prometheanism (this position goes by the name ‘Accelerationist’), on the one hand, and on the other hand a passel of theories that might most succinctly be described as inanimate liberalism: the project of extending bourgeois rights to things (Bruno Latour being the most explicit about this). Then there is the more recent, meme-like ubiquity of the Anthropocene: the earth itself spinning out of control on account of human foolishness;[6] finally, too, the basso continuo of anxiety about capitalism, the state, and the general shittiness of the present order. I don’t mean to impugn such trends in whole, since there is a high degree of differentiation within each of these fields. I do, however, want to point out – as others have already – that hyper-rationalist Prometheanism and object philosophies find their real, rather than conceptual, reconciliation in everyday experience: a world in which things behave rationally, yet irrationally; under control, yet out of control. That is to say, the world of commodity fetishism. And it is this particular inversion of subject and object that in turn best explains the catastrophes that round out my list: the social and the environmental.

One reason for the appeal of the new speculative thinking – in and out of the art scene – is that it claims to be better equipped not only to conceptualise, but also to do something about our current predicaments. And in fact this seems plausible. The twentieth century’s fantasies of control mostly meant just that: seizing the levers of creation and submitting nature to mankind’s conscious command. We contemporaries are not so sure of ourselves, nor of our goals; our modernist revivals are hollow. Reality no longer splits cleanly between what is human and what is not; cognition is no longer the prerogative of the singular subject but is rather distributed through vast networks; we are all aware, to one degree or another, that we are not the sole agents in the universe. The various theories I am discussing have no trouble recognising these conditions. They even have a certain advantage in describing the grotesqueries of the commodity-form, since phantasmagoria and uncanny animation are their home turf. What perhaps needs explanation, then, is not that the movements took root, but rather that they have, so often, turned out to be disappointingly flimsy. Ultimately I think this is a matter of class, for reasons that will I soon try to make clear.

Once upon a time these philosophies were ranged under the labels of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology – useful shorthand, if dubious. It should be evident to even a casual observer of the scene (such as the present author) that these projects have lately been thrown into disarray. Some of their partisans are scrambling to the shores of Accelerationism.[7] Others have doubled down on the principles of withdrawal, flat ontology, or what have you, albeit with diminishing returns. The specifics are not at issue here. I am operating instead with a heuristic that is, strictly speaking, anti-philosophical. I take it that bodies of philosophical speculation, to the extent they have some meaning to us beyond what can be strictly formalised, generally are sets of metaphors that allow their thinkers to mediate conditions that are, for lack of a better word, material – meaning, external to thought. Well, fine: the speculators and the new materialists agree; the point, after all, is to think things as they are, independent of the mind. The only trouble is how to do it. Nonetheless it seems to me that most of the new theorists want to have their materialist cake and eat it, too. Their version of materialism is defined fundamentally by its opposition to Kant and to the tradition of critical philosophy to which his precedent gave rise, though also – in most cases – to the materialism of Karl Marx (which remains uncouthly anthropocentric in its emphasis on praxis, that is, the mediation between thought, human action, and the stuff of the world). The fundamental metaphor that unifies this field is perhaps that of the outside brought in, or the Great Outdoors made gemütlich. That is, if it isn’t the other way around. Things withdraw into their non-relationality (yet there are relations, or rather translations, after all). Objects are independent of the human mind (but they might very well think for themselves, and we ought to imagine what that thinking would be like). Or, the arche-fossil exists beyond all cognition (yet is cognisable). Et cetera. Individually, these claims are not contradictory, because the philosophers who propose them are too intelligent to literally contradict themselves.[8] But they are expressions of a wish: that the world be utterly outside of and different from our puny human minds, and yet knowable by those same minds – moreover directly, in ways that often appear to border on magic, revelation, or terror. (Christ or Cthulhu? Take your pick. The more respectable alternative is, of course, mathematics.) The privileged terms in the new speculative philosophy thus carry an immense load of normative desiderata. This is how theory dreams, perhaps. The ‘object,’ the ‘thing,’ ‘non-correlation,’ ‘non-anthropocentrism’ are not so much concepts as they are figures for a rejigged (non-)relation between the self and the world. Freud would call this a process of condensation.

My intent is not to bash Kant over the heads of SR/OOO’s protagonists.[9] It is not even to do the same with Hegel or Marx. It is rather to ask what, in the current coordinates of social reality, might account for the widespread enthusiasm for these ideas, which seems to have reached its peak in close proximity to the financial crisis that erupted in 2007-08. And it is also to ask what explains the strange thinness and fragility of much of that discourse. I have mentioned already that commodity fetishism serves as a convenient gloss for the movement’s preoccupations. But this allegorical ju-jitsu, satisfying as it is, will not suffice: I doubt that the commodity’s reach has extended so greatly over only the past decade or two such that it can explain the emergence of an entirely new style of philosophy, given that commodities have existed for much, much longer.[10] At any rate we ought to know, after Lukács, that there can be more than one flavor of bourgeois thought, each, perhaps, with its own antinomies.[11] Kant, on his own, will not provide an adequate corrective. We will have to keep looking for a standpoint for our parallax view.

In any case I have no interest in delivering a specifically philosophical critique of SR/OOO. Because I am an art historian, I will instead take refuge in aesthetics. The problem is that of mapping a complex body of theory, or, one could say, of producing an image that reduces its complexities to something manageable, perceptible. If one were to choose an image to correspond to a given philosophy, what would it be? Not a fair question, of course. But not entirely frivolous, either. Adorno, for instance, chose exactly this mode of presentation in his first book, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic.

Kierkegaard, in Adorno’s reading, denigrated the concept in favor of ‘objectless inwardness’ (objektlose Innerlichkeit). Thus he hoped to escape from Hegelian mediation. In fact he did not overcome Hegel’s philosophy of identity; instead, ‘Hegel is inverted, interiorized.’[12] An immanent dialectic now occurs between subjectivity and its ‘meaning.’ The entirety of Kierkegaard’s philosophy thus unfolds within the bounds of the subject. But this retreat produces its own dialectic by which inwardness itself expresses the outside:

The harder subjectivity rebounds back into itself from the heteronomous, indeterminate, or simply mean world, the more clearly the external world expresses itself, mediatedly, in subjectivity. The course of this process is the same as that of Kierkegaard’s own development. Only when its immanent dialectic is repelled by external reality – where it is still tolerated as aesthetic immediacy and as the ‘middle reality’ of the ethical – does reality enter into the dialectic and the dialectic plastically reproduces the contours of the external world.[13]

The image of Kierkegaard’s thought – and here we come to the point – is the bourgeois intérieur of the nineteenth century. This is ‘the real space that sets free the categories of the philosophy.’[14] Theintérieur is the refuge of semblance – the aesthetic – at the center of a philosophy that aims to leap over both the aesthetic and the ethical to the religious. This specific historical situation relates in turn to the sociological fact of Kierkegaard’s belonging to the rentier class, that is to say, not the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie in full flower, but an unproductive class, economically independent but excluded, also, from the accumulation of capital. (His father had risen into the higher bourgeoisie through commerce; the son took no part in that activity but rather passively enjoyed its fruits.) That Kierkegaard was incapable of elaborating a philosophy of praxis is not incidental but essential to his project.

What does all of this have to do with SR/OOO? Nothing, at first glance. All three positions in the dispute are equally foreign to it (Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Adorno).[15] Thus none of the variables add up. My claim is not, of course, that we can apply Adorno directly to SR/OOO; it is rather a question of method. The bourgeois intérieur belongs to the genealogy of Walter Benjamin’s ‘dialectical image.’ It is not a straightforwardly representational concept; indeed it is not quite a concept at all, but rather a flash of the sensuous – an aperçu raised to the dignity of philosophy – that illuminates a given constellation of thought and its social basis.[16]

My hunch – with the caveat that it is preliminary and anything but ‘rigorous’ – is that it is possible quite simply to invert Adorno on Kierkegaard in order to arrive at an effective characterization of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology. How so? By taking note of changes in the reproduction of the class relation between Kierkegaard’s time (or Adorno’s) and our own. Kierkegaard was a rentier. He stood at the side of the emerging antagonism between labour and capital in the early nineteenth century. We, however, stand at the opposite end of the classical workers’ movement; at the opposite end, too, of the growth and subsequent dismantling of the welfare state that had emerged, in part, to blunt the onslaught of that movement. Kierkegaard wrote from a position in which it was not necessary to worry about the means of one’s own reproduction. It was possible for him to live from a store of accumulated wealth that was essentially static. The philosophers of SR/OOO, on the other hand, for the most part occupy the fringes of academia. They have made themselves known through blogs rather than peer-reviewed journals; they shuffle from grad school to the adjuncting treadmill to footholds in programmes under threat of defunding and casualisation. More than a few have day jobs in other lines of work, such as programming. (Granted, all of this is not necessarily true of the biggest names, but I am speaking of the field as a whole now.) These specifically academic circumstances are only a variant of conditions that have taken hold in the field of social reproduction at large. Where the Accelerationists dream of a revived mid-century social democracy (but with 3D printers, one supposes), SR/OOO turns to a different ‘other’ of contemporary capitalism: its included exterior, or immanent outside. The Great Outdoors, that is.

I am arguing that the Outside of SR/OOO ‘plastically reproduces,’ to use Adorno’s phrase, the progressive exteriorisation of social reproduction in the long crisis of the postwar welfare state since the 1970s. Vast populations are being ejected from the compact reproductive unit that is family; they are also being ejected from the system of social reproduction that was once the welfare state, or at least its promise. The wage, too, has become a more tenuous mediation, as secure full-time employment becomes ever more the exception than the rule worldwide.[17] But the effects of these trends are not distributed equally. They are especially acute for graduate students and young academics now facing the horrors of the job market – the class fraction from which SR/OOO’s younger enthusiasts have for the most part been recruited. The ‘Great Outdoors’ is perhaps nothing other than this social exteriority raised to the level of theory. The movement itself, it is worth noting, can be interpreted as an improvisation meant to secure mutual intellectual if not material aid in the ruins of the tenure-track world. Blogging is easy; living is not.

Here it will be evident why I spoke of an ‘inversion’ of Adorno’s Kierkegaard. For Kierkegaard, praxis was irrelevant because it was possible for him to ignore the social metabolism of class society. His thinking was cocooned within the intérieur, but it bears the traces of its confinement. SR/OOO, on the other hand, is conditioned by the spectre or limit of an absolute outside to social reproduction. The spectre of non-reproduction, in short. This in itself might even be radical. To think the outside of capitalist reproduction is to think of a different form of life, to which present social mediations may no longer apply. And in these worlds, indeed, ontology might well be ‘flat’; it is capitalism, unfortunately, that is incurably anthropocentric, thanks to its need for labour power. Capital has need of humanity, but it is indifferent or worse to the populations it exploits or excludes; it reproduces labour power even as it constantly assaults real human beings. It is therefore humanist and anti-humanist simultaneously. There is no reason why a form of life that comes after capitalism might not be as indifferent to hierarchies between human and non-human, subject and object, mind and reality, and so forth, as the best of the new philosophers. But this will not be a real rather than a merely speculative potential before the concrete negation of capital’s inherent anthropocentrism – its mechanisms of reproduction. The limit of the recent speculative thought is therefore the horizon of abolition: of one’s self as a member of a class (or, say, as an academic), as a subject reproduced by capital, and ultimately of class society as a whole. Or else the nihilistic version: extinction, radical anti-humanism, death.[18] I believe that the most interesting figures in the new speculative philosophy gravitate to this second pole, which at least has a kind of black metal glamour. But for the most part I don’t see them escaping the trap of Gemütlichkeit.

Meaning, the reversion from outside to in. The destruction of the intérieur was a decisive fact of the first half of the twentieth century.[19] Its reconstruction occurred under the new sign of universalised petty bourgeois domesticity after World War II. This order in turn has gradually been chipped away from the 1970s to the present – a development that is coterminous with the retreat of the great reproductive state apparatuses and working class organisations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[20] It seems that in philosophy this new exteriority and contingency of social reproduction, in which disciplinary institutions, such as those Foucault described, give way to diffuse but pervasive power (or Deleuze’s ‘societies of control’), has come to be metaphysically conflated with the flat ontology of the network. The non- or anti-human element that is operative in social reproduction is no longer so much the grid of representational or disciplinary powers, but rather the automatic, asignifying logic of the capital relation, which also constantly sloughs off its own exterior. (An exterior that manifests most dramatically in the growth of surplus populations – the subaltern of the discourse of SR/OOO, one might argue.)

This is new, of course, but it is perhaps less new than some recent theorists would claim. The postwar boom was aberrant in capital’s longue durée. The system’s brutality in the present is quite typical of it. Moreover it is not clear that new conditions require entirely new philosophical tools. The twentieth century’s great theoretical discourses (Marxism, psychoanalysis, ethnology, phenomenology, structuralism) were all already theories of otherness and of the non-human in the human; they were all, to differing degrees, anti-humanist, in that they decentered or debunked the singular bourgeois subject. To take just one example, the point of Saussurean linguistics is exactly not to say that everything is a ‘social construct’ and hence anthropocentric. It is rather that language is a sort of machine that operates in ways that are not remotely under our control. These discourses – all of which built on the Kantian legacy in fundamental if divergent ways – were able to think about otherness seriously, because they were concerned to map as carefully as possible various mediations between inside and out, subject and object, the strange and the familiar, the determined and the undetermined. They were able, at times, to offer a theory of praxis with real anti-capitalist teeth. Correlationism is too convenient of an original sin. It allows its detractors to avoid work they ought to be doing. I, for one, find it hard to grasp what exactly is the problem with the fact that the twentieth century’s thought offers ‘less a critique of humanity’s place in the world, than a less sweeping critique of the self-enclosed Cartesian subject,’ to quote an influential anthology of the new speculative and materialist thought.[21]We are still subjects of capital. It is perhaps the case that the old discourses have become more rather than less useful as capitalism strips away some of its veils. By contrast, what I find objectionable about much of the new philosophy (not all of it, to be sure) is that it tends to belie the genuine uncanniness, exteriority, and terror of the capital-relation, and instead makes weirdness into a sort of orientalist bauble.[22]

This is bad news. The phenomenological stance par excellence of the present-day philosopher – eyes a few inches from a screen; connected, yet disconnected from everything and everyone – is the contemporary inversion of Adorno’s image of the intérieur. It is a stance from which it is possible, through the mill of discourse, not to deny, but to convert the brutal separations that are the substance of capitalism into a viable intellectual product. When that happens, an uncanniness that is social and historical becomes ontological instead. And this means that the bleeding edge of a real antagonism has been captured by theory. Interiorised, made gemütlich. The danger here is that the boundary between the inside and outside of social reproduction will come to look like a matter of philosophical speculation. It is not. It is a matter of life and death.

NOTE

I am grateful to Benjamin Noys, Jason E. Smith, Daniel Marcus, and Benedict Seymour for their responses to this essay, the faults of which I’d like to attribute to my failure to take good advice.

FOOTNOTES

[1] I am indebted to Daniel Marcus for pointing this out. Within the French intellectual tradition, the ‘dehors’ is an important term for Blanchot and Foucault – thinkers whose work, however, is very different from Meillassoux’s.

[2] John Cochran, ‘Object Oriented Cookery,’ Collapse, vol. VII: ‘Culinary Materialism,’ 2011, pp. 299-329.

[3] Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, Peru, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 2005, p. 140.

[4] Timothy Morton, ‘Object-Oriented Ontology Talks 9/11,’ 9 September, 2011:http://arcade.stanford.edu/blogs/object-oriented-o….

[5] Terms used by Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, respectively.

[6] Timothy Morton has recently closed the circle by declaring, in a paper entitled ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Term Anthropocene,’ that ‘the Anthropocene is the first truly anti-anthropocentric concept.’ (Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 257-264. Emphasis in the original.)

[7] A movement, if it’s that, that seems to have accumulated at least as many pages of hostile critique as original theory: fitting enough for an -ism that was named by one of its most dedicated opponents (Benjamin Noys).

[8] Meillassoux, notably, retains only the principle of non-contradiction as a necessary law of nature; all others, he claims, are contingent. Timothy Morton, however, abandons non-contradiction.

[9] Though I acknowledge the efforts of those who do. Andrew Cole’s much-circulated critique of Harman et al., for example, was a welcome intrusion into the art world’s precincts, though his critique flattens the difference between Harman and other figures in the SR/OOO camp. In particular, he misses the point that even if his unmasking of Harman as a crypto-Kantian hits the mark, this does not invalidate the critique of correlationism tout court but rather highlights differences between Harman’s position and that of, for example, Meillassoux, whose anti-Kantianism is arguably much more extreme. (Cole, ‘Those Obscure Objects of Desire,’ Artforum, summer 2015, available athttps://artforum.com/inprint/issue=201506&id=52280.) Other, more bulky assessments of SR/OOO have appeared recently (Pete Wolfendale’s Object-Oriented Ontology: The Noumenon’s New Clothesand Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, for example), but I am not about to spend all of my idle time catching up with them.

[10] Of course the style is not entirely new, since it builds on Whitehead and Deleuze (and also, in some of its iterations, on Heidegger, Badiou, etc.). I should also mention those dissidents, such as Ray Brassier, who are among SR/OOO’s fiercest critics despite frequently being lumped in with the movement themselves (Brassier’s nihilist rationalism is light years from Harman or Latour), as well as outliers such as François Laruelle, whose ‘non-philosophy’ is a sort of limit-case that haunts the margins of the continental scene. Of course it can’t be too hard to be a non-philosopher since billions of people do it every day.

[11] Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s theory of real abstraction, formulated during the heyday of German Neo-Kantianism, offers another and indeed far more radical interpretation of the link between the commodity-form and bourgeois philosophy (or even abstract thought per se). Though I’m happy about the revival of Sohn-Rethel’s reputation in the last few years, there may be a danger that his fixation on Kant leaves us ill-equipped to smoke out other manifestations of reified thought.

[12] Theodor Adorno, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p. 32.

[13] Ibid., p. 38.

[14] Ibid., p. 41. In his Foreword, Robert Hullot-Kentor draws the obvious analogy to Adorno’s theory of art: ‘Just as in Adorno’s aesthetics the art work is socially interpretable not because it represents society but because it acquires social content through resistance to society and is thus the unconscious writing of history, so Kierkegaardian inwardness, the spiritual intérieur, gains its determinations through negation.’ Ibid., p. xviii.

[15] Though Ray Brassier in fact has an extended discussion of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment in his book Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[16] The device (which Fredric Jameson, in Marxism and Form, named the ‘historical trope’) is not found only in the Kierkegaard book. In Search of Wagner, for instance, contains this astonishing example: ‘It would be rewarding to examine the heaps of rubbish, detritus and filth upon which the works of major artists appear to be erected, and to which they still owe something of their character, even though they have just managed to escape by the skin of their teeth. Shadowing Schubert is the figure of the tavern gambler, with Chopin it is the frequenter of salons, a type very hard to pin down; with Schumann it is the chromolithograph and with Brahms, the music professor.’ (Trans. Rodney Livingstone, London and New York: Verso, 2005, p. 18.)

[17] For a concise overview of these dynamics, see: Aaron Benanav, ‘Precarity Rising’,https://viewpointmag.com/2015/06/15/precarity-rising/.

[18] That thinking is conditioned by extinction, or non-being, rather than being is Brassier’s fundamental thesis in Nihil Unbound. This is promising, which however makes it all the more disappointing that he does not pick up on the connection between abolition and his own brand of nihilism in a recent text on Accelerationism and communization theory (‘Wandering Abstraction,’http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/wanderi…).

[19] At least if we believe the art historian T.J. Clark. See his Picasso and Truth: From Cubism toGuernica (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), which I have reviewed, at somewhat excessive length, here: http://theclaudiusapp.com/6-spaulding.html

[20] Not, however, the decline of the state as such, but rather of certain of its ways of ensuring social reproduction. The error of much commentary on neoliberalism is that it mistakes this phenomenon for the state’s replacement by the market, full stop. This is wrong: capitalism and the state remain interlocked, and capitalism remains dependent on constant state intervention; it is only that the state has, at the same time, shed some other of its (arguably more benign) functions.

[21] Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds., The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Melbourne: re.press, 2011, p. 3. The recent volume #ACCELERATE: The Accelerationist Reader (edited by Arman Avenessian and Robin Mackay, Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014) adopts a similar format and perhaps supersedes the earlier collection (one of whose editors – Srnicek – is now a leading Accelerationist himself). A sort of dynastic succession?

[22] We have already seen that Harman openly acknowledges this.

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