The Autonomy of Religious Objects at the Speculative Turn

By: Jacob Taylor
on for GS330

Continental Philosophy is the name often given to philosophic movements originating in Europe for around the last 200 years. It has been defined broadly by Kant-derived postulates; it rejects science as the best or only source of knowledge, it embraces relativism of experience and recognizes that experiences are shaped by the observer's historical perspective, it embraces the lessons of structuralism – namely that actors in a structure have agency to change that structure, and it engages heavily in metaphilosophy – or navel-gazing – about whether or not Continental Philosophies can even be successful in their pursuits. Structuralism is the most recent production of Continental Philosophy, focusing on the relationship between actors and the various structures of power they interact with and operate within. Though recent, this relationship – between subject (actor) and object (power structure) – sets the stage for much of the historic focus of Continental Philosophy, and also one of the primary relationships that Speculative Realists reject. In this, I will give an overview of Speculative Realism (hence the "Speculative Turn"), and the different branches of it, as well as apply a combination of Speculative Realism paired with the Object-Oriented Ontology it is predicated on, to investigate the analytic usefulness of Speculative Realism for the autonomy of religious objects.

Speculative Realism is a philosophy initially elucidated by Quentin Meillassoux, in 2006. In 2008, it was translated to english by Graham Harman for his book Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making. Despite having only been around for a few years, it has successfully transitioned from nigh unknown to diffuse zeitgeist without clarity in-between. There are five main branches of SR (each one associated with a particular philosopher), but between them are shared a core concept. It primarily rejects what Speculative Realists call Correlationism, which is defined by Meillassoux as:

By "correlation" we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.[1]

This rejects what western philosophy since Kant has been wont to do, which is to consider the epistemology (how do we know what we know? What is truth?) before any other philosophic questions. Correlationists (properly named: epistemological realists[2]) seek to avoid any discourse in which there is freedom from a historical, experiential, or phenomenal reference point. Kant argued, and many continue to argue, that we can never know the truth of something, but merely the correlation between our observations and an imagined truth. This is where the term correlationism comes from. That truths are, at best, statistical correlates between what we observe and what we imagine to be its truth. This posits that the Real can never be known insofar as it can be described in relation to the observer. The critique follows that because continentals sought to do one better than idealists by framing all things as a subject-object relationship (and thus having a dual- and not single-origin for all relations), it's anthropocentric. Everything in Continental Philosophy will thus almost-inevitably boil down to the observer's capacity to perceive, or their language to articulate that perception (and the latent cultural, historical, and social aspects of that language)[3].

Speculative Realists such as Meillassoux argue that yes, you can in fact consider the truth of something outside of observation of that thing, that existence is not based on our capacity to observe or articulate that observation. The classic test case is the aphorism "If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?", where Continental Philosophy responds that we can only imagine that there was a sound, but because nobody was present, we can never Know. Speculative Realism, on the other hand, suggests that of course there was a sound because the tree doesn't need a person watching it fall, to have its existence validated – that we can know what happens when a tree falls even when we don't observe the individual action directly.

The next thing that's crucial to understand about Speculative Realism is that it's based in an Object-Oriented Ontology. In an OOO, everything is an object; "hallucinations and the idea of purple are also objects, though perhaps of a different kind than toilets and ozone."[4] This is derived from the rejection of correlationism, and more specifically a rejection of the subject-object relationship that continentals use to define how we interact with reality. Subject-object relations are anthropocentric, which is to say the way we'd describe all reality is through human experience, be that historical, social, experiential, or linguistic. Speculative Realists argue for a turn back to ontological philosophy, or metaphysics, where we return to being concerned with the Real, and not our individual human perceptions thereof. In that vein, an Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) allows for this analysis to take place on an even (flat, ontologically) playing field, not privileging human experience over the experience of the environment in which we live, of Nature, of Matter. This leads to SR's rather bold assertion that we can know both Thoughts and Objects, and know them separately (thus, not merely the correlation between the two). This is possible within an OOO, because everything is an Object. Being able to know the truth of the existence of a chair is not contingent upon being able to see the exact chair in question, but to the knowledge that there are chairs, and that they exist, even if we cannot see one around us. What this does for SR, and more generally as an analysis framework, is it allows analysis to be done without denying autonomy to anything. It doesn't capture Objects and the things they do, within our human structures of power (a la structuration).

When combined with the limitations of (human) observation, Harman extends this OOO to what Morton refers to as the "strange strangeness" that is a feature of Objects in Object-Oriented Ontologies. Morton calls this the "withdrawn" nature of objects, because our perceptions are not very good, and so for example you can hold a coin on one side and the other side is in shadow until you flip in over (which of course then means "that" side becomes "this" side), forever creating another shadowed and unobservable part of it. This is a feature of subject-object relationships from continental philosophy that Harman extends into object-object relationships (OOO), with the implication that objects observing other objects (we're just another type of object in OOO, after all) can never fully observe the other, that objects "encounter each other as operationally closed systems that can only (mis)translate one another"[5]. From Morton: "Strange [strangeness] names an uncanny, radically unpredictable quality of life forms. Life forms recede into strangeness the more we think about them, and whenever they encounter one another--the strangeness is irreducible." An OOO extends this onto non-humans. That's why it's called a flat ontology, because existentially everything is equal (though there are different kinds of existence, of course). This makes "human being just one way of being".

The more we know about a strange stranger, the more she (he, it) withdraws. Objects withdraw such that other objects never adequately capture but only (inadequately) "translate" them. This doesn't simply mean that there is more to a glass of water than my drinking it. It means that even if I could exhaust every single aspect of the glass of water (melting, smashing, evaporating, shooting the silicon atoms around a particle accelerator, writing a story about it, pretending it's a glass of liquid gold, ignoring it), it would still withdraw. Even if every other object in the entire Universe were to exhaust every single aspect of the glass, it would still withdraw. This is what "irreducible" means.[6]

The main thing this articulates is the inaccessible nature of objects. They will always withdraw from observation. This is staunchly counter to Correlationism's implicit position that everything nonhuman is both for human perusal and fully accessible – both positions rejected by an OOO. The irreducible quality is a bit beyond the scope here, but it bears keeping in mind for later, so that the innovation of speculative realism is somewhat more obvious, and to retain as a crucial differentiating quality of an object-oriented ontology versus correlationism.

So, with this basis of rejecting correlationism rooted in an Object-Oriented Ontology, let's go over some of the different ways Speculative Realists focus on this issue, the nature of existence, and what the implications are for the authors. The big picture of SR's rejection of correlationism is that it allows for a `continental metaphysics`, by virtue of its partial (I'll get to that in a minute) rejection of other parts of continental philosophy.

Meillassoux, who sort of started Speculative Realism with his work "After Finitude", rejects correlationism, adopts an object-oriented ontology, and assumes one principle: the principle of non-contradiction. He actually bases his object-object relation on human observation, a cornerstone of continental philosophy. The postulate he begins with is that we return to a time of primary and secondary qualities, because insofar as a candle is hot when burning, your finger when near it is the one which experiences burning, and not the candle. "Remove the observer, and the world becomes devoid of these sonorous, visual, olfactory, etc., qualities, just as the flame becomes devoid of pain once the finger is removed."[7] The principle of non-contradiction, as Meillassoux argues, is rooted in the idea that (using an Aristotelian concept called an anhypothetical principle, a principle wherein to disprove it you must first start by presuming its truth) "no one can think a contradiction, but he has not thereby demonstrated that contradiction is absolutely impossible."[8] This owes to the distinction between what we can think, and the potential difference that may have with what is possible. This nuance is very important for Meillassoux because it shows that not everything that is possible, can be thought. The difference between those two is what Meillassoux calls contingency, the concept "that physical laws remain indifferent as to whether an event occurs or not", and that it "consists in knowing that worldly things could be otherwise". So you know that in any object interaction, things could have been different than what happened – this you can know, but not what that difference is. This leads to the possibility of thinking about the absolute, but not knowing it.

Ray Brassier, on the other hand, objects to what he sees as the reductionism present in continental epistemology, whereby all possible apprehensions are only correlated to that particular observer's interpretation (a sort of reductionist relativism of epistemology). This makes it impossible to create a single epistemology, which Brassier finds objectionable, and he argues is caused by "misconstruing a contingent relation as a fundamental feature of reality, typically, but not exclusively, subjective or phenomenal experience."[9] This is part of why Meillassoux finds it so critical to recognize contingency as a critical concept outside human observation, because our capacity to recognize contingencies is less than what is possible of those contingencies.

"Correlationism is subtle: it never denies that our thoughts or utterances aim at or intend mind-independent or language-independent realities; it merely stipulates that this apparently independent dimension remains internally related to thought and language. Thus contemporary correlationism dismisses the problematic of skepticism, and of epistemology more generally, as an antiquated Cartesian hang-up."[10]

Showing here how Continental epistemology is contingent upon the thoughts and language of the experiencer, denying that they can reach any sort of truthful conclusions about reality because of the historical narrative, language, time, et cetera, that they're embedded in.

Harman, who has done quite a bit of work in Objects and OOO's, objects specifically to the correlationist fixation on epistemology, which reduces all philosophical questions to their epistemological preconditions, which is to say human knowledge. This is problematic for him because Objects exist outside our capacity to perceive them. He also objects to the anthropocentrism that is inherent in this bias of human relations with objects over all other types of relations; that the world is defined only by how we perceive it and ignores all other relations; and that the only two types of reality are human and everything else, and everything else's existence is in relation to ours – subservient to.[11]

Morton, who falls somewhat closer to Harman than others, is an ecocritic and OOO'er, who birthed the idea of Hyperobjects into the world. Hyperobjects are objects which transcend time and space due to their large size and time presence, and their irreducibility into smaller functions or actions. Climate change is one such example: it's larger than any sunny day or monsoon, but has existential effects on humanity. He also rejects the correlationist structuring of existence around human accessibility. Morton combines ecocriticism with OOO to reject the very-human concepts of Nature (as in ecology) and Matter (as in stuff you can kick) as tired correlationist concepts that should be retired because they no longer capture the world that we're in (and indeed, he argues that they never did).[12]

Grant takes Harman's object oriented realism a step farther, applying Meillassoux's dual characteristics to a very pure OOO, where ''conditions'' upon which a given object's existence depends ''do not belong to that object—they are not 'its' conditions but conditions that 'possibilize' it''. Grant argues further that, ''Since conditions exceed the object, they are equally the conditions involved in other existing objects'' and thus, not only do such conditions not belong to any object as such, but they also do not end with the production of any particular object. He considers these "conditions" to be the powers underlying the real of existence, where like history (or functions) doing and being are inseparable – they become themselves, but also act upon the future of the objects and themselves just the same.[13] As illustrated by Grant himself: "The Idea is external to the thought that has it, the thought is external to the thinker that has it, the thinker is external to the nature that produces both the thinker and the thought and the Idea."[14]

Bryant names his Object-Oriented Ontology "Onticology", where he takes OOO in another direction – towards a "relational" model of object existence. The existence of "difference" between an object and another object, and the relation between the two, are what define existence for Bryant. He expresses these relations as other-than-human, as "the being of difference is in no way dependent on knowledge or consciousness". Thought does not define existence, only the existence of difference in a relation.[15] As he writes:

"there are [not] two worlds, the real natural world and the ideal mental world of meaning, but that there is only one level: reality. Onticology thus draws a transversal line across the distinction between mind and world, culture and nature. Culture is not other than reality or the real, but is an element of the real. Since onticology begins with the hypothesis, wishing to know where it will go, that there is no difference that does not make a difference, it proves impossible to exclude the human. Why? Because humans make a difference. What onticology objects to is not the thesis that humans are elements in the real, but the thesis that every relation is a human-world relation."[16]

Each of these authors reject certain core aspects of correlationism, but embrace others. Because they are defined often by what they commonly reject (as opposed to a positive definition of what they all share), they can still be usefully lumped together. Meillassoux's ancestrality is a sort of quasi-naturalism, but even that is interpreted differently by each author – that is, their bar for how they define their version of it is slightly different and tinged by their particular interests. "For Brassier, "naturalism" means complete materialism; for Harman, one must go beyond naturalism to reach an ontology where all levels of the world would be equally real; for Grant, nature as a power of creation and irreducible transformation becomes the absolute."[17] This focus on metaphysics changes how the assumptions undergirding correlationism are treated by the rest of philosophy – previously they were held to be correct, but now there can be a renegotiation of their truth. And, rather than ignoring or attempting to overcome metaphysics, continental philosophers now have space to take on metaphysical questions as they really are, instead of first having to justify the approach (in opposition to an epistemological approach, as has been the norm).

Of course, as interesting and potentially useful as Speculative Realism and an Object-Oriented Ontology are, they are not without criticism. Žižek has criticized Speculative Realism, because of its Object-Oriented Ontology, for having great difficulty with or being potentially unable to talk about subjects. Morton argues that this isn't actually a problem, that what this objection suggests is the need to throw out Nature as a concept, and the human as a subject – not retain them. He says "this subjectivity is profoundly ecological and it departs from normative Western ideas of the subject as transcendence. Thus we see off Nature and its correlate, the (human) subject."[18] He argues also for the expulsion of "Matter" from continental philosophy as well (just because I can kick it doesn't mean it should get special treatment – kicking it is not an argument in favor of its existence).

So, let's see how useful Speculative Realism is as an analytic tool. Take the case of Divine Intersections: Hindu Ritual and the Incorporation of Religious Others by Kathinka Frøystad[19], wherein the author describes the inter-religious practices of a Hindu family. This family in particular has a Hindu worship that includes the religious "Other", which is to say they have integrated symbolism/imagery, practices, and paraphernalia of other religions (Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism) into the traditional Hindu home shrine, as well as their weekly rituals. It's noted that there would be symbology from Islam as well, but they considered that a family friend would object, so it was omitted. The article also details different modes of inclusion, especially of Jesus into Hindu stories.

So, what would Speculative Realism have to say about this exchange? What sort of analysis can be done (if any)? I would say that this family, through the integration of outside religious figures is straying towards an object oriented ontology (just a little bit!). These religious objects are, in continental philosophy, subject to transcendence (it isn't a property of them), and the autonomy they are granted in this situation between their original religious context and their new integrated one is put upon them by humans. In the context of SR I would suggest that these religious artifacts represent Hyperobjects (a la Morton). The reason I suggest this is because we project transcendence onto them, but in the spirit of a "Speculative Turn", it would become a characteristic and not something they are merely subject to. This classification change to Hyperobject would remove the anthropocentrism from their existence, even if, as in the case of Jesus on the Cross, it was quite literally the figurine of a human. The inherent problem with this is that once you remove anthropocentrism from their context, they are objects like any other – they lose all religious significance, and thus they also lose their transcendent qualities (projected upon them or otherwise). The only further thing to do in a fully object-oriented ontology, is to objectively classify them as useless. In other scenarios, trees, bugs, and even bricks, have uses to the ecology outside of human existence – but if that human existence is eliminated from the analytic context, then these religious objects retain no other usefulness than their ability to degrade back into the earth.

Concluding – This does not preclude Speculative Realism as an analysis tool, but it is a poor one for religious objects. It does, however, show extreme promise for what has been termed the coming "Internet-Of-Things", where computers embedded in everything will exhibit certain (and differing) levels of autonomy to us, and currently continental philosophy is completely unprepared for things that most certainly function outside of our ability to perceive that functioning.

1: Morelle, Louis. "Speculative Realism: After finitude, and beyond?." In Speculations iii. S.l.: Punctum Books, 2012.

2: Bryant, Levi R.. The democracy of objects. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2011.

3: Morton, Timothy. "Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology." Qui Parle 19: 163-190. link.

4: Ibid. 3.

5: Ibid. 3.

6: Ibid. 4.

7: Meillassoux, Quentin. After finitude: an essay on the necessity of contingency. London: Continuum, 2008.

8: Ibid.

9: Morelle, 244.

10: Brassier, Ray. Nihil unbound: enlightenment and extinction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 53.

11: Morelle, 245.

12: Morton.

13: Pfeifer, Geoff. 2012. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman (Eds): The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism: Re.Press, Melbourne, Australia, 2009, Human Studies. 35, no. 3: 465-469.

14: Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux, "Speculative Realism," in Collapse, Vol. III, 340.

15: Ibid.

16: Vizeau, Brent, and Levi Bryant. "Major Philosophy." : Speculative Realism (SR) and Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). link (accessed May 16, 2014).

17: Morelle, 246.

18: Morton, 6.

19: Frøystad, Kathinka. "Divine Intersections: Hindu Ritual and the Incorporation of Religious Others." Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Journal 4: 1-21.