Katerina Kolozova and Eileen A. Joy, eds., After the “Speculative Turn”: Realism, Philosophy, Feminism. New York: Punctum Books, 2016; 200 pp. ISBN: 978-0998237534.

Reviewed by Bogna Konior, Hong Kong Baptist University.

Moving back and forth, spinning around and adding more threads, the spider strengthens its web, creating a pattern. We are told that spiders are born with the knowledge of how to spin, that the turning of the web is encoded into the motion of their limbs rather than emerging from that dubious receptacle of will. In the last two decades, critical theory has had its fair share of turns: anthropologists, boldly marching into the territory of philosophy, speak of the ontological turn, instructing us that there are many worlds, rather than many worldviews. Rolling out on the waves of the worn out élan vital is the (new) materialist turn, supplementing the post-structuralist focus on language and discourse with an attentiveness to matter itself. The nonhuman turn, where the non is taken as a modifier of the “human” or a reaching beyond it, is the common thread underpinning the diverse interests of the Anglo-Saxon intellectual circles in the early 2000s. With the publication of The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (2011), which famously included only one female contributor, the focus on existence beyond the faulty correlation of ontology and epistemology asserted itself as the focal point of philosophical inquiry. When the spider spins its web, it weaves some of the lines from the center outward—these are called radial. Threads that go around are called orb lines. To the speculative turn, feminism is not a radial line, something that extends from within the centre, but an orb. It is an act of enclosure as revealing: those who proclaimed speculation were too busy weaving their webs to see that they already lived inside an insect colony.

The apparent periodization of the title of Katerina Kolozova’s and Eileen A. Joy’s edited collection, After the “Speculative Turn”: Realism, Philosophy, Feminism might seeming confusing. This “after” has to be taken with a grain of salt, as the book soon demonstrates that the challenges of the post-Kantian speculative realism were already prefigured by feminist thought, which has been continually developing a “speculative turn” away from the spotlight.

If we are to talk of a realist feminism, we should understand it alongside Kolozova’s own scholarly inclinations to move beyond the social-constructivist and culturalist approaches in gender and feminist theory. (9) Its interlocutor is not chiefly the “speculative realist” and “object-oriented” thought, but rather the dominant strand of feminist theory today, particularly new materialism. If in Material Feminisms (2008), Susan Hekman and Stacy Alaimo selected contributions from within the field of ecofeminism, feminist science and technology studies and post-humanism, Kolozova and Joy desire a more explicitly political focus, which means dispatching troops into the territories that disciplinary feminism might have constructed as forbidden: the real, the universal, the reasonable, the human. In the times when, as Patricia Clough writes, “we have seen difference and identity become the currency of biopolitical governance and financial capitalism” (61), it is an important task for feminism to reclaim realism without falling back onto the tedious shrine of the anthropos, which often masquerades geopolitical particularities as universal. What is at stake, for example, is a feminism without relativism that pays virulent attention to the fact that “economy and the power of the nation-state as the main means of women’s subjugation” (11) cannot be addressed solely by the two methods that the new materialism excels at: renouncing our reliance on the nature and culture binary and producing new, ethical onto-epistemologies. While the collection intersects with this effort, often drawing on the new materialist toolbox, the contributors mostly put forth self-standing realist and materialist theories, rather than responding to philosophers directly associated with speculative realism and object-oriented ontology (hereafter SR and OOO).

Some essays proceed from the well-established feminist focus on the body, positing that the self-projected universality of SR/OOO stems from a somatophobia, the fear of the female bodily form and the subsequent tendency toward the abstract. Clough’s poetic reflection on her own experiences with psychoanalysis, dance, memory and sociopolitical trauma exemplify the dominant relational focus of the contemporary feminist thought, where political power can be located in the way that we “dissipate into the surrounds to become with other bodies, things, objects, environments […] making beautiful speculation about these traumatic times of violence within and without the family [or] the nation-state.” (61-62) If there is a underlying somatophobia to philosophy at large, the essays also bring out the (it seems unintended) fetishism and eroticism of SR/OOO, where it is “objects” as ontological units of existence and the real that are configured as inaccessible, exotic but titillating others. This rhetoric of forbidden access is filled with sexist metaphors, such as Graham Harman calling aesthetics the “impoverished dancing-girl of philosophy—admired for her charms, but no gentleman will marry her.” (36)

This blissfully unaware sexism is taken up explicitly by two authors. Katherine Behar’s goal is to create an object-oriented feminism—a debatable if interesting attempt to save the unsalvageable. Behar walks the tightrope between objectification and feminist politics, seeking to radicalize the fetishism—what she calls the exoticism of objects—of OOO and turn it inside out. How can a tool be a master of itself, or how can women weaponize the objectification that is bestowed upon them by claiming it as their own? Behar also draws on the (new) materialist, or even ecofeminist vocabulary of permeable boundaries and prioritizes the dissolution of humans into the nonhuman, arguing that women could eroticize social work in a way that invalidates the capitalist drive to produce oneself as a subject.

Following similar tropes, Frenchy Lunning’s somehow troubling essay on the crush repeats, rather than challenges, the offences of Harman’s own ill-considered rhetoric of voyeurism if not assault. The seemingly uncolonizable weirdness of objects—in OOO, this category includes humans—might not be so wholly inaccessible after all. The male intellectual libido attaches itself to the vacant hole (nomen omen) it establishes as the essence of the withdrawn, inaccessible human-thing. Drawing predominantly on Harman and Timothy Morton, Lunning thus presents an object-oriented view of causality, where the desire to residually apprehend somebody’s aesthetic qualities can be traced back to the object/human itself, rather than the desiring eye of philosophy/patriarchy. How this reduction of humans to the “allure” of sensual qualities and the subsequent locating of desire within the desirable object (rather than the one who is desiring it) does not repeat the very same logic that remains the crux of violence against women globally is not explained. Both of these engagements with OOO could supplement their theoretically stimulating propositions with the analysis of the systemic performances of objectification within specific politics. While rewriting ontology to subversively fit the patterns of sexed objectification is a daring move, Lunning’s argument that “the object made me desire it” is—through its uncritical embrace of Harman’s own voyeuristic sexism—a tad too close to victim-blaming to be convincing, while Behar’s celebration of the nylon red-light district should openly confront philosophy’s desire to make feminism its trophy wife (see Harman’s, Girls Welcome!) before it openly embraces the figure of “the other woman.”

The most explicitly political contributions come from non-Anglo-Saxon theorists. Jelisaveta Blagojević’s beautiful close reading of Foucault conceptualizes thinking itself as the great outdoors, showing how feminist thought finds politics in its own undoing and the ongoing self-annihilation of the stable subject: “experiencing the invisibility of women’s thinking” proves that there should be no way to ask critical questions without “being desubjugated” by that very gesture. (95) She gives us feminism as politics rather than feminist politics and takes up the SR challenge to think the unthinkable by pushing for the radical outside of thought across governmentality, gender, and ontology. Marina Grižnić’s feminist decolonial critique of the politics—or the lack thereof—in SR is convincing in its scathing denial. Perhaps SR and OOO were—to coin a neologism—art-washed and embraced for their aesthetic thrill rather than politics, thus culminating in the anesthetization of humanity, realism, and materialism themselves. Grižnić argues that an actual materialism “exists only within a discourse the would take into account the international division of labor and brutal exploitation that is geopolitically and racially distributed.” (113)

While Grižnić’s is a critique, the persistence of denial and the negative is a running thread through some of the remaining essays. Joan Copjec’s layered uncovering of the neglect of negation in Foucault’s reading of Freud is a highly specialized treatment of both. Those well-read in the SR literature will find in it a pertinent effort to address the problem of correlationism, if they manage to work through an expert treatment of psychoanalytic theory. Parallel to the Foucauldian non-thought is Nandita Biswas Mellamphy’s pagan (m)other matrix, where (w)omen as “abysmal stigmata or wounds” confer a nihilist rejuvenation of philosophy. (135) If Behar’s object-oriented feminism is seductive, elastic, and alluringly nylon, Biswas Mellamphy’s trades in pessimist deception, an inhuman poisoning of philosophy itself that would find its SR interlocutor in Ray Brassier. Feminism is here not as much in dialogue with SR/OOO as it “bleeds it dry.” (143) Philosophy can only regain momentum by allowing itself to be cannibalized by feminism.

On a broader scale, several essays address the place of rationalism within feminist thought, which is (still) often assigned to the realm of the affective—a placement that has been both rejected and embraced. Nina Power refuses the tired figuration of feminism as affective and emotional and therefore incompatible with reason. She points her readers to the recent attempts at overcoming the banal pairing of male/universal/reasonable and female/particular /emotional, namely the Gender Nihilism Anti-Manifesto and the Xenofeminist Manifesto, both of which she sees as arguments for a rationalism and (anti)identity, without the residue of these foregone conventionalities.

The greatest treat and the greatest challenge for an English-speaking reader, however, is Anne-Francoise Schmid’s contribution, printed in French, which reaches impressive depths of engagement with rationalism by forcing a paradigm shift within epistemology itself. Schmid’s non-epistemological (pace non-philosophy) proposition is to think feminism scientifically, rather than produce feminist studies of science (cf. Sandra Harding’s The Science Question in Feminism, 1986). The most radical gesture is her departure from the dynamic of difference and identity as distributed along the axes of masculine and feminine, which then configure scientific practice according to the qualities that we philosophically ascribe to them. Philosophy, Schmid writes, needs “the woman” to close itself off as a system, thus the task of non-standard philosophy is to underdetermine her to the extent that she cannot be captured in the ravenous and deterministic apparatus of representational thought. (44) This generic space with woman as an underdetermined “x” thinks feminism by way of science, where “the real is postulated without attempting to explain our relation to it, the opposite of how philosophy operates.” (47) As such, Schmid is most directly and comprehensively responding to the tasks that SR hopes to achieve.

What are the thoughts of the spiderweb? The web is an extension of a spider’s sensorium. The thought apparatus weaves itself into a silky orb. Responding to SR/OOO, the contributors work horizontally, undermining prerogatives, challenging dogmas, reproducing fallacies, and—most importantly―producing autonomous work, no matter if it is comfortably nested under the SR/OOO banner. For the newcomers to the scene, Michael O’Rourke’s closing position paper skillfully frames the online and academic debates, highlighting SR/OOO’s inherent intersections with gender, queer and feminist theory, serving both as an excellent genealogy of the volume itself, as well as a guidebook for further reading. Yet, the volume cannot be tamed as simply a response to the philosophical movements of SR/OOO, even though it addresses the anticipated issue of sexism, covering both the idea that concepts can be sexist by nature and that a discipline can be sexist by socio-cultural omission. The excitement lies rather in the contributors’ attempts to think themselves out of cultural constructivism into a realist vector, transversing through the general trends in feminist critical theory today, especially within the nonhuman and materialist turn. In this, the book will satisfy not only those who study SR/OOO but also those who want to encounter stimulating, contemporary theory.  

Additional Works Cited

Graham Harman, “Girls Welcome!!!” Doctor Zamalek 2 (blog), December 3, 2010. https://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/?s=girls+welcome

Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism. (New York: Cornell University Press, 1986).