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.’ 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). 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.’ We have also been told, in a meditation on the September 11 attacks, that an ‘explosion is frightening because it’s ontologically uncanny.’ 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’? – 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.