Rob Murphy writes about Graham Harman, Speculative Realism and Absurdity
Paul Thek (1933-1988) Untitled 1980 purple & yellow
This response is an expansion on an earlier suggestion made by me on ACW Co-Ordinator Dr. Francis Halsall’s blog. This was in relation to a discussion on systems theory and conspiracy, but specifically, Graham Harman’s ‘False Theory’- a hybrid of practical application and speculative object orientated ontology set out in the book The Prince and The Wolf [Latour and Harman at the LSE], among other texts. In these works Harman describes False Theory as a philosophy that begins in naiveté instead of radical doubt. It is further defined as taking a given hypothesis and forcing it to its sharpest point or logical/illogical conclusion to discover the possibility and potential for that idea, as well as its failings along the way. 
The ‘speculative realist movement’ exists only in the imaginations of a group of bloggers promoting an agenda for which I have no sympathy whatsoever: actor-network theory spiced with panpsychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy. I don’t believe the internet is an appropriate medium for serious philosophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement online by using blogs to exploit the misguided enthusiasm of impressionable graduate students. I agree with Deleuze’s remark that ultimately the most basic task of philosophy is to impede stupidity, so I see little philosophical merit in a ‘movement’ whose most signal achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity .
As a misguided graduate student and an arguably idiotic agendist, allow me to indulge in a debauched speculation – Graham Harman is a contemporary absurdist.
The initial lead to this hunch is present within his weird False Theory method of taking a theory and thrusting it to its furthest possible conclusion through both practical experimentation and theorising [an absurdist tactic that has been used as far back as the 1950’s and 60’s in the plays of Ionesco and Beckett]. He takes the position that he has come to some sort of temporal structured conclusion about another realm that’s non-human centric and lies beyond our consciousness, a shadowy realm of the ‘ready-to-hand’- an extension on a principle of the phenomenological philosophy of Martin Heidegger.
Harman is doing a specific thing for me here. He implies that we can cogitate on this murky world, that we can even ruminate that this shadowy parliament of objects could inhabit their own terrifying metaphysical landscape, with their own transcendental problems and so forth. The object in this case, sits apart from us, it would, speculatively, have its own version of existentialism, its own Kants and Hussurls, and its own Heideggarian hammers with which to beat itself for not getting things. But these contemplations can only ever be based on a human understanding of what a table, a quark’s or a sculpture’s metaphysics may entail, what it could possibly establish as the facts of death, or what it might ponder about the usefulness of philosophy. The point being that pondering, debating, and speculating are all human structures, the only type of system we could plausibly use to talk about the phenomenological constitution of something we can never know but merely postulate. This return to the human ridiculousness that this basic deliberation is exemplifying is what we could consider here as a ‘metaphysics of the absurd’.
Harman does not explicitly state in his version of Speculative Realism that a ‘soul’ does not reside in an object, which is another predilection to the possibility of Speculative Realism being interpreted as a somewhat absurdist gesture. Harman rejects the notion of a panpsychist world view- the idea that any object that exists must also perceive. Instead he proposes a polypsychism- the concept of an object containing many souls, which leads him into an explanation of objects having ‘interiors’ that recede from human knowledge.
All of this might sound like a strange panpsychist alternative to the scientific world view… But what is most remarkable is how it seems to limit panpsychism. Only by becoming a piece of a larger object, only by entering the interior of a larger one, does an entity have anything like a psyche. This means that entities have psyches accidentally rather than in their own right. For our model allows for entities to exist apart from all relations. This makes it not just conceivable, but also necessary, that there be entities at any moment that are at the very top of their chains of parts while relating to nothing further. For various reasons it is good to think of an infinite regress downward in the world, with no tiniest layer of material microparticle bringing an end to the chain of beings.
This could be seen to say that if any given constituent or whole object is irreducible, or has an unknowable inner kernel, it is therefore meaningless in realist terms to human-centric ontology, and by default, any quantifiable metaphysical realism. This position does not quite undo the claim of a ‘realism’ on his philosophies banner, but enhance it when viewed as absurdist. In this reading he undermines relations, translation, concepts of conceivable realist occasionalism and the dasein of the human and object, all with a shadowy absurdist twinge- in the sense that we can’t find logic, meaning or metaphysical realism through our consciousness or empirical reasoning, so the idea that objects may find meaning for us in our absence, or themselves, has the makeup of an absurdist metaphysics.
If the Theatre of the Absurd [Drama that emphasises the absurdity in human life within a meaningless universe by deliberately unrealistic means and intellect subversion] presents the world as senseless and lacking any unifying principle, it does so merely in the terms of those philosophies that start from the idea that human thought can reduce the totality of the universe to a complete, unified, coherent system. It is only from the point of view of those who cannot bear a world where it is impossible to know why it was created, what part man has been assigned in it, and what constitutes right actions and wrong actions, that a picture of the universe lacking all these clear-cut definitions appears deprived of sense and sanity, and tragically absurd.
Under this interpretation, the focus returns to the human once again, and our stuckness at objects. By enacting Harman’s metaphysics, we momentarily transfer the horror of metaphysics to the object until it emerges anew, a beautiful mutant, stronger than ever.
Ray Brassier, as a Speculative Realist and a refusenik of it, may have some insight into the conspiracy of Harman as a contemporary absurdist:
Philosophy… would do well to desist from issuing any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature. It should strive to be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem. Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity.
What Brassier very eloquently develops for us here is that there is a tangible and ontological emergence that takes place when a remarkably complex philosophy like Harman’s is read through speculations of nihilism, and by design, absurdity.
It’s therefore my suggestion that the real object under discussion here should be Speculative Realism itself. It could be ventured that Speculative Realism is an intentional object of the human and object world that has been more self descriptive, transparent, complex, emergent and penetratingly doubtful than any other object of contemporary theory, and with that as a starting point, we can interrogate the reality of everything else.
Rob Murphy, February 2012
Rob Murphy is a Dublin based visual artist. After graduating from IADT Dun Laoghaire with a first class honours degree in Visual Arts Practice in 2011, he became a candidate for the MA – Art in the Contemporary World at NCAD, Dublin.