Terence Blake discusses OOO and convergent and divergent readings of an important new book on speculative realism and literature.
FALLIBLE DIVERGENCES: literary theory after speculative realism
Grant Hamilton, The World of Failing Machines (Zero Books, 2016), 144pp.
Grant Hamilton poses an interesting and topical question in his book The World of Failing Machines: “What would a speculative-realist literary criticism look like?” (1).
In order to answer this provocative question, Hamilton – a professor at CUHK – first gives a brief sketch of the history of speculative realism and of its main variants, before finally deciding to restrict his discussion to one of these variants, Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (9). Hamilton does a good job of resuming the history and principal tenets of speculative realism, acknowledging that there is a ritualistic aspect to this gesture as “nearly every book on the subject began with a reprise of the movement’s genesis” (1). Yet, this introductory gesture is perhaps not the strongest part of the book: the ritual obligation is discharged skilfully but uncritically, as something like a recitation of the official doxa.
Hamilton’s originality can be seen when he begins to spell out what this official story means for literary theory. Just as Hamilton sees the contribution of Speculative Realism as arising from its “moments of divergence” from the Kantian dualism of things-in-themselves and our phenomenal experience, I would argue that the worth of Hamilton’s text lies in its moments of divergence from the Harmanian speculative realism he builds on.
Speculative Realism, according to its own myth of origins, denounces the hegemony of subjectivism in the last century of Continental Philosophy, and proclaims a return to the real as it is, outside our discursive mediations. Applied to literary theory this engagement leads to a problem with meaning, which according to Hamilton is located neither in discourse nor in the real, neither in the subject nor the object. Hamilton uses the model of translation to suggest that meaning lies in the gap between subject and object, or between words and things.
This gap entails that our knowledge is “imperfect”, “incomplete”, “unreliable” and “uncertain”, “multiple”, a “plurality”, always “ripe for re-negotiation and re-evaluation”, in other words fallible, plural, and perfectible. This pluralist fallibilism means that there is no objective or subjective foundation for meaning, and that to bridge the gap between language and reality we must rely on speculation. Speculation, for Hamilton, is not mere fancy, but imagination under the conditions of rational argument and empirical observation. Meaning is not a pre-existent substance to be discovered and ratified but a speculative construct to be proposed and tested by “the reader herself who is responsible for constituting the meaning of the text” (111).
Hamilton does not mention that this pluralist fallibilist account of hypothetical knowledge without certain foundations is precisely the account elaborated by Continental Philosophy from Nietzsche, Bergson and Bachelard to today, and not at all a new invention of Speculative Realism. Despite subscribing to the official narrative of Speculative Realism, i.e. that it diverges from post-structuralism’s loss of the real due to the latter’s confinement to discursivity (19-20), Hamilton goes on to refer to noted post-structuralists Deleuze and Guattari at length in order to explain the concept of speculation as an integral part of a realist process of enquiry (23). This influence leads to Hamilton’s key thesis:
“it must be the job of the literary critic to speculate on the text. That is to say it is the job of the literary critic to become a (Deleuzian) philosopher” (25).
This thesis is reiterated a few pages later:
“The literary critic must become more like a (Deleuzian) philosopher than a traditional literary critic” (30).
This Deleuzian thread is continued in later chapters where Harman’s object-oriented ontology is replaced by Levi Bryant’s Deleuze-inspired “machine-oriented ontology” in order to define both the literary text and the reader as (failing) machines, the two coming together in a new assemblage called the “reading machine”. This turn leads into one of the the most interesting sections of the book, where Hamilton seeks to define a speculative realist reading practice. Unsurprisingly Hamilton yet again diverges from Harman’s own practice, criticised as involving a one-sided fetishization of the weird (108). He replaces the Harmanian account with a Deleuzian account of literary criticism as exploring the multple “effects” of the text on a reader. This is clearly a pluralist point, as the “weird” is treated as just one effect amongst many.
Grant Hamilton’s The World of Failing Machines is an interesting text about renewing literary criticism on the basis of a (mostly) good set of philosophical ideas derived divergently from a (mostly) unsatisfying philosophical movement. His definition of acts of speculation as “moments at which a particular system changes and becomes something new” (23) can be applied to his own mode of thinking and exposition, insofar as it regularly diverges from its initial foundation in “speculative realism” to explore a wider intellectual space.
The book can be read as intended, convergently, for its useful and informative account of speculative realism and of object-oriented ontology and of their possible application to literary theory, or it can be read against the grain, i.e. divergently, for its articulation and defence of literary criticism as a (Deleuzian) speculative practice arising out of a pluralist fallibilist vision.
Terence Blake is an Australian philosopher living and teaching in France. His principal research Interest is epistemological and ontological pluralism.