BY Ana Teixeira Pinto in Opinion | 26 MAY 13
Featured in
Issue 10

The Real Deal

Speculative Realism in Germany

BY Ana Teixeira Pinto in Opinion | 26 MAY 13

Detail from VII. The nature of thought by Andreas Töpfer, whose drawings are included in the Spekulative Poetik project (courtesy: Andreas Töpfer,

Reputable German publisher Merve has started a new line of books entitled Speculations, edited by the Berlin-based literary theorist Armen Avanessian. First is Realismus Jetzt: Spekulative Philosophie und Metaphysik für das 21. Jahrhundert, a comprehensive survey of the authors – exclusively from outside Germany, it should be noted – who have come to be associated with the philosophical movement known as ‘Speculative Realism’. Together with texts by its four protagonists, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux, available for the first time in German translation, Realismus Jetzt also includes contributions from the deacon of ‘non-philosophy’ François Laruelle, the Iranian writer Reza Negarestani, a critique of Meillassoux’s Après la Finitude (2006) by Alberto Toscano and – perhaps the most surprising inclusion – a piece by US philosopher Paul Churchland, who rose to some prominence in the 1990s for his physicalist account of consciousness. The volume also comprises a comprehensive introduction by its editor Avanessian, which the neophyte will find particularly useful in navigating the treacherous waters of ‘speculation’.

Avanessian is the founder of Spekulative Poetik, a bilingual English/German research platform on contemporary literature, theory and philosophy, which has been prolific in Berlin over the course of the last two years and based at the Free University Berlin. It can count among its activities an ongoing lecture and workshop programme at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt as well as previous books, either edited or authored by Avanessian, comprising, among others, Aesthetics and Contemporary Art (Sternberg Press, 2011) – co-edited with Luke Skrebowski – as well as several upcoming translations, all loosely connected by the thread of Speculative Realism in philosophy, as well as its emerging manifestations in the related fields of aesthetics and poetics.

What is Speculative Realism? Hard to say. Speculative Realism was the ‘title of convenience’ that emerged from a conference held at Goldsmiths College in London in April 2007 moderated by Alberto Toscano. The conference featured presentations by the already mentioned Brassier, Hamilton Grant, Harman, and Meillassoux. Other than Harman, who – no malice intended – enthusiastically embraces the benefits of branding, none of the authors approve of the designation. In fact, besides a shared aversion for what they term ‘correlationism’, very little unites these four philosophers.

So then, what is ‘correlationism’? Correlationism is a neologism coined by Meillassoux, who maintains that philosophical argument from Kant onwards has been trapped by the following assumption: that any attempt to represent reality represents instead the perspective of the human observer – the ‘correlationist circle’. As Meillassoux puts it: ‘thought cannot get outside itself in order to compare the world as it is “in itself” to the world as it is “for us” and thereby distinguish what is a function of our relation to the world from what belongs to the world alone.’

Is he right? Not entirely. To bundle up phenomenology, German Idealism, and the Frankfurt school into one category misrepresents the positions at play, and when Meillassoux says Kant he most often means Husserl. The problem – how to avoid reducing ontology to hermeneutics – is more aptly phrased the three other authors. Laruelle asks ‘how can we attain a concept of difference if concept – which always presupposes some kind of unity – and difference seem to be mutually exclusive?’ Harman puts forth a critique of the ‘linguistic turn’ which replaced ‘the theoretical model of knowledge with a hermeneutic model’, while Brassier tries to map out ways to avoid ‘collapsing the investigation of being into the interpretation of meaning’. But, since most of the remaining authors directly comment, critique, or refer to his position, Meillassoux remains the unifying vector. For the sake of argument, let’s accept his premises: in order for philosophy to break free of this vicious ‘correlationist circle’ it must be able to posit that reality is not contingent upon cognition; the world exists with or without us and its structure is unrelated to our conceptualizations. Unlike former thinkers – Jacques Lacan, for example, who would say that the real is by definition unknowable – Meillassoux maintains that it is possible to access reality without reducing it to a mere mental image or conceptual scheme.

But is it? The question is rather: how? For Meillassoux, only ‘those aspects of the object that can be formulated in mathematical terms can be meaningfully conceived as properties of the object in itself.’ To wit, Meillassoux argues that it is exclusively through ‘the mathematization of nature’ that physical science indubitably allows us ‘to know what things are in the absence of humans’.

Can an ontology be deducted from (pure) mathematics? Mathematical Idealism was popular in the Victorian Era until logicians stumbled upon what became know as the ‘foundational crisis of mathematics’, i.e. the discovery that mathematics can – and does – generate undecidable statements therefore making it impossible to establish a consistent set of axioms from which all mathematics can be derived. Further, ‘axioms’ are by definition premises accepted as evident. To make matters worse, logical axioms are tautologies and axioms that are not tautological are non-logical. But let’s not digress. Suffice it to say that the relation between mathematics and physics is not a straightforward one and whether ‘nature’ is ‘mathematizable’ is not beyond dispute.

Either way, Meillassoux’s arguments tend to insert an empirical dimension – ‘archi-fossil’, ‘the great outdoors’, ‘ancestrality’ – into an epistemological problem; whilst the effect is suggestive – who doesn’t feel like strapping his boots on when urged to tackle ‘the great outdoors’? – the difficulty remains: how to reconcile the world’s ‘scientific image’ (its scientific description) with its ‘manifest image’ (our human experience)?

Further, as Alberto Toscano points out in his critique of Meillassoux’s position, lurking beneath the discussion concerning the categories of immanent, contingent and transcendent lies a constant dispute between what is philosophy or science proper and what is a function of ideology – that is, the question concerning being is not simply a question of truth but also a question of power. With the current surge of interest in ‘speculation’ and with Speculative Realism sprawling from philosophy to literature and aesthetics through the combined efforts of _Spekulative Poetik_and manifold other initiatives, I cannot help wonder whether, at this of all times, we shouldn’t be less concerned with the truth of ontology and more interested in the social ontology of truth.

Ana Teixeira Pinto is a writer from Lisbon who lives in Berlin. She is currently finishing her PhD at Humboldt University, and is a regular contributor to frieze d/e, Art Agenda and Mousse, among other publications.