The Real Thing: Art and Speculative Realism

The point of departure shared by all four of the original Speculative Realists – Quentin Meillasoux, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman and Ray Brassier – is that the real must be thought independently of its connection to mind or human action. Claims for the autonomy of reality are not new and – within the Anglo-American philosophical tradition – still widely held. However, post-Kantian Continental thought is dominated by an anti-realist orthodoxy which Meillasoux, in his book After Finitude, refers to as ‘correlationism’. Correlationists assume that reality is a way in which things are presented to knowers and experiencers. For phenomenologists, for example, an object is real if it can be presented in infinitely variable aspects. For discourse theorists and post-structuralists the real is defined as a function of interpretative practices. The ‘very idea’ of a thing existing indifferently to our modes of access to it is dismissed as naive metaphysics by the partisans of correlationism! Speculative Realists respond that reality cannot be bracketed by ascent to some higher  or privileged level of description such as phenomenology. For Meillasoux, this retreat into subjectivity entails that scientific claims about events in the pre-human universe – ‘Arche-Fossils’ – must be relativized to claims about the human relation to immemorial epochs. As he points out, this has the absurd consequence that the cosmic emergence of subjectivity itself becomes inconceivable; for, since nothing exists outside it, the correlation can have no history.

While there are many soi-disant realists within the analytic camp, Speculative Realism brings a welcome social and aesthetic engagement, and a willingness to pursue contrarian notions wherever they may lead. Analytic realists, for example, buy into ontological and epistemic independence but are less willing to take seriously the implication that reality might be largely recalcitrant to our best knowledge-generating techniques.

Indeed the newest star in the analytic firmament, Ontic Structural Realism, argues in neo-Kantian style that real entities are entirely relational, with no ‘intrinsic’ properties beyond the reach of formal scientific models. However, if we grant reality autonomy from our ideas of it, how is this sovereignty to be understood? What is the place of experience in our understanding of the autonomy of the real – including the experience of art – once we displace the subject from the centre of philosophical concern?

These questions were explored and discussed to great effect at Urbanomic’s The Real Thing at the Tate Britain, on Friday 3rd September 2010. The event consisted of an exhibition of works influenced by Speculative Realism and an hour long panel discussion between Iain Grant, Mark Fisher and two of the artist contributors, filmaker and theorist Amanda Beech and sound-artist Mikko Canini. The panel was moderated by Urbanomic’s Robin Mackay, whose innovative journal Collapse has done much to inject viral SR into the cultural mainline. Mackay provided a lucid and approachable introduction which was appreciated by philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Grant’s contribution was a typically pyrotechnic fusion of arcane scholarship and conceptual brio. Speculative Realism was treated as a problematic rather than set of metaphysical commitments, which usefully allowed us to review the exhibits in a fresh, questioning light. The panel closed with Beech’s intimation that art may have a contribution to make in understanding the role of experience in relation to a recalcitrantly weird and indifferent universe. I found her suggestion compelling – since it goes to the heart of some epistemological tensions within the Speculative Realist camp.

I haven’t space to consider all the artworks exhibited as part of the event since constraints of time made it impossible to see and hear everything on offer. ‘Extralinguistic Sequencing’ – a sound installation by William Bennett’s+Mimsy DeBlois – using processed samples of spoken language to present the meaningless underside or tain of speech, was suggestive given the questions explored in the panel. Might a realist art consist of new epistemic modules, new ways of exploring the eructation of the real?  Amanda Beech’s ‘Sanity Assassin’, a film which explored the relationship between alienating urban architecture and the violence of language, was also notable in suggesting a visual rhetoric for the exploration of the real, though whether this is the correlationist ‘real’ of the psychoanalytic trauma, say, or the real real of SR remains to be seen.

6 thoughts on “The Real Thing: Art and Speculative Realism

  1. Nice Summary David. I’m interested to know whether during the event the issue of art as an independent process itself was raised in conjunction with SR. It’s all very good for philosophy to consider the world without us, but I remain unconvinced by Beech’s sealing off the future of human experience in aesthetics despite an indifference of the ‘in itself’.

    If artists continue to make works that suggest the ‘real’, whilst pandering to the viewer, then it has already failed to practice what it preaches.

  2. Hi Robert,

    It was emphasized that the artists weren’t simply illustrating philosophical ideas but were using them to escape some dominant conceptions of the role of art – e.g. in relational conceptions of art as engagement. That said, I share your concern and tried to suggest that a purely rhetorical construction of the real is problematic in the light of SR. I think my realist ‘heroes’ would include Xenakis and Bacon, though maybe I’ll take this up in another post!

  3. That the real must be thought independently of its connection to mind or human action suggests to me that computer simulations produced by artificial intelligence would come closer to achieving this objective than philosophical thought. But AI could produce its own artificial fancy as well. I think affect is closer to art than any attempt at anti-correlationism.

  4. Hi Joseph, Thanks for the comment & forgive the brevity of the response – just got back from a 6 hour commute & off to Greece tomorrow…

    I’m also intrigued by the challenge of non-human or post-human ideation as a challenge to correlationist assumptions. A lot of this depends on the whether correlationist thinking can accommodate ‘the alien’, and in what form (another way of putting this is: to what extent is correlationism a kind of transcendental humanism?).

    I’m intrigued by the idea that AI’s could produce simulations that cannot be readily interpreted by ‘us’. Is this a viable or intelligible art practice as things stand?

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