Jun 122015

Peter Gratton, Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects. Bloomsbury: London, 2014; 266 pages. ISBN 1441174753.

Reviewed by Rick Elmore, Appalachian State University

Peter Gratton’s Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects is the most complete and accessible critical introduction to contemporary continental realism available. Gratton provides a comprehensive review of thinkers associated with speculative realism (including Meillassoux, Harman, Brassier, and Grant), as well as thinkers of realism and materialism outside this group (Bennett, Grosz, Johnston, and Malabou among others). In addition to these critical summaries, Gratton also charts what he sees as the failure of continental realism to provide a substantive account of time, a failure that endangers the very project of realism, as it risks a static and idealized account of “the real.” He concludes with a brief but provocative account of his own concept of “real time” modeled on Derrida’s notion of writing as both difference and deferral. Thus Speculative Realism is a profoundly timely text, powerfully connecting realism, phenomenology, deconstruction, and hermeneutics, while demonstrating that continental philosophy’s renewed interest in realism is anything but the latest philosophical fad. Each chapter of Speculative Realism deals with a specific thinker or set of thinkers. However, Gratton usefully divides his text into four main themes: (1) the work of Quentin Meillassoux; (2) object-oriented ontology; (3) nature, politics and vitalism, and (4) realist engagements with neuroscience. This thematic organization creatively connects the work of quite different thinkers, such as Brassier and Malabou, while also highlighting common problems that unite this disparate group of thinkers to one another and to post-Kantian critical philosophy generally. Gratton’s prose is clear, accessible, and witty. Written in a style as accessible to specialists as to those simply interested in getting their bearings within the complex and sometimes weird world of new continental realism, Speculative Realism would be an ideal text for a course on realism at either the graduate or undergraduate level, and, I have no doubt, will prove an invaluable resource for scholars interested in realism and materialism in the continental tradition.

The first three chapters of Speculative Realism address the work of Quentin Meillassoux, whose critique of correlationism (the notion that one cannot access thought and world, subjectivity and objectivity in isolation) has become a touchstone for continental realism. (14) Meillassoux contends that correlationism lies at the heart of post-Kantian critical philosophy insofar as it posits the human–world correlate as the starting point of critique. However, on his account, this commitment ultimately condemns post-Kantian philosophy to idealism, as it positions thought as essential to the constitution and articulation of reality, negating the possibility of accessing reality independent of human thought. Although much has already been written on Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism, Gratton usefully demonstrates how this critique resonates with “both sides of the realism/antirealism debates” in phenomenology and deconstruction, and he is critical of what he sees as the “ambiguity” of Meillassoux’s critique, contending that while Meillassoux claims to “refute all correlationism” he only “provides the basis for another correlationism anchored in the real.” (41) Despite these concerns with the success of Meillassoux’s critique, Gratton demonstrates why this critique has been so influential, posing, as it does, the question of how philosophy might account for a “real time that cannot be correlated to a subject or a particular historical community.” (52) Hence, what is powerful about Meillassoux’s argument, for Gratton, is that it directs our attention toward something “real” that could never have been the correlate of any human thought (what Meillassoux calls “the ancestral”). Moreover, he connects this critique to Meillassoux’s claim that contingency is the only absolute necessity and shows how the necessity of contingency leads to Meillassoux’s somewhat outlandish sounding ethics in which “a god to come” might one day “resurrect the dead” and give rise to a world of “perfect justice.” (74–77) Gratton’s work here is particular helpful and lucid, as Meillassoux’s account of ethics is far less discussed than the critique of correlationism, and he does a superb job of showing how Meillassoux’s ethical claims emerge directly from a critique of Kant. (54–57)

Chapter 4 explores Graham Harman’s object oriented ontology. Gratton argues that begins by explicating Harman’s notion of objects can be explicated in relation to Levinas’s notion of alterity; Levinasian alterity, he claims, is “specifically what Harman means by ‘withdrawn objects,’” the notion that objects are irreducible to their relations either external or internal. (88) For object oriented thinkers, objects are the essential elements of reality, a truth that has been obscured by the tendency to either see objects as the product of some more fundamental ontological element (substance, for example) or as the result of relations, power, or force. Harman rejects both these positions arguing that what is real is objects, objects that cannot be reduced either to their elements or to their relations. In this sense, Harman is committed both to a “flat ontology” and “to the ‘alterity of things,’ that is, the ‘transcendence of objects,’ which are anything but immanent.” (94) Gratton is critical of what he sees as Harman’s inability to account for change, since if objects are constantly withdrawn, it is unclear either how objects could ever “touch” or interact (a concern Harman explicitly takes up in his recent work) or how they could “change, either in whole or in part.” (106) In addition, given that, for Harman, time is merely a surface effect of objects, Gratton worries that, on Harman’s account, an object only ever exists in the present, relegating the “real” to a status “outside or withdrawn from time.” (106)

Chapter 5 looks at the intersection between realism and critiques of anthropocentrism in the work of Iain Hamilton Grant, Jane Bennett, and Elizabeth Grosz.  What connects these thinkers is their shared “considerations of nature as having forces of its own beyond and through the human” and their unrelenting critique of “any neat divides between what counts as human and what counts as ‘nature.’” (110–111) However, in a more basic sense, all three of these thinkers “depict the absolute in terms of activities that produce all objects:” they see the real as a process, activity, or relation. (110) For Grant, this depiction takes the form of a sophisticated reading of Schelling in which the “real” is an “ungrounding” that “produces both subjects and objects in the first place.” (115) The real, for Grant, cannot be directly seen in things nor is it an object; rather it is a process of “dethingifying” that produces both objects and thought. Similarly, Bennett articulates the real as a “vitalism” or “power of things” modelled on Spinoza’s notion of conatus. She takes the recognition of this vital power of objects (whether human or not) as the fundamental basis of a materialist ethics and politics. (120) Grosz sees “the real” as at root an “utter chaos,” which, although parsed by human thought, exceeds and fundamentally shapes this thinking. (127) Hence, in all three of these thinkers “the real” is a process, a process that marks the fundamentally anti-anthropocentric character of much new realism, suggesting that the critique of idealism may very well entail a critique of human exceptionalism. Interestingly, although he raises critical questions about all three of these thinkers, Gratton is less critical of the positions explored in this chapter, perhaps because these relational and processal oriented accounts offer a better, if still incomplete, account of the reality of time and change.

Chapters 6 through 8 take up the work of Ray Brassier, Adrian Johnston, and Catherine Malabou, all thinkers interested in “the future of the subject after neuroscience and the death of a certain self.” (137) Gratton’s discussion of Brassier represents the most comprehensive exposition of his project available, no small feat given his dense and specialized prose. Via the work of Wilfrid Sellars and Thomas Metzinger, Brassier argues for a “resuscitation” of nihilism on “rationalist and scientific grounds.” (141) The advantage of this resuscitation is that it provides the basis for a “transcendental realism” grounded on the real indifference of the universe toward humans, while bypassing any traditional notion of human subjectivity, since, as Brassier argues, this “real” indifference is not reducible to the empirical or to experience. (145) Similarly, Johnston’s “transcendental materialism” also rethinks the figure of the subject as less an ontological substrate than an “‘index or symptom’ of a ‘weak nature’ speculatively discovered in subjectivity itself.” (174) Interestingly, Johnston’s preoccupation with time puts his work quite close to Gratton’s own conclusions, although, for Johnston, time is linked to the notion subjectivity in a way that Gratton’s will not be. The final chapter explores the work of Catherine Malabou, for whom the real is “plasticity”: an openness to form, change, and destruction modeled on the neuroplasticity of the human brain. For Malabou, plasticity is at work not only at the level of biological materiality but social, political, and conceptual forms as well. Gratton traces what he sees as the reductive tendency of this concept of plasticity, arguing that, in the end, Malabou reduces the social and political to the biological, risking a naturalizing of the existing social formations of capitalism. (199–200) Hence this final chapter, although one of Gratton’s more critical, raises the key question of ontological reduction within realism, a charge often leveled at ontological projects, insofar as the attempt to link social and ontological realities always risks taking those realities as ontologically necessary.

Having given a comprehensive, critical introduction to continental realism, Speculative Realism concludes with a brief but provocative account of Gratton’s own take on the question of realism and time. The failure of recent realisms to give an adequate account of “real time” risks, he claims, undermining the very anti-idealist nature of these accounts, as a realism that cannot account for time or change remains fundamentally static and, therefore, idealized. Thus Gratton sees the need for an ontological account of the real dynamism of time. He argues that Derrida’s notion of writing, as both difference/deferral, provides a model for thinking this dynamism of real time, as Derrida’s account articulates a “pivot” from a “temporality” of specific text or context to a “real time” that makes possible these particular instances but is not reducible to them. (208) In this sense, Gratton’s conception of “real time” seems similar to the relational realisms discussed in Chapter 5, although, for him, the reality of time does not seem reducible to either a force or an object; rather his account seems akin to what Johnston calls a “weak nature,” insofar as “real time” would be a “real” that grounds instances or moments that cannot be reduced to it. As Gratton puts it, “we have an argument that to speak to the real is to speak to what is timely and works backwards from there—in the face of a future that may be monstrous.” (216) One fascinating aspect of this account is that it takes its point of departure from the work of Derrida, who many would argue represents the very apogee of antirealism. Hence Gratton concludes his excellent, thorough, and thought provoking account of recent continental realisms by arguing for the realism of deconstruction, a claim that illustrates the bridge-building approach of Speculative Realism, one that attempts at every turn to take seriously both the importance of realism’s reemergence in continental philosophy, and the powerful critiques of metaphysics, ontology, and subjectivity out of which it emerged.