Sunday, August 17, 2014

After Speculative Realism: On online philosophy, academic blogging,exclusionism, and how the academy is changing

Bill Benzon at New Savanna blog has a write up HERE on how he perceives the academy to be changing - specifically the academy understood as "the old university system."  Benzon believes that as the economy changes learning will too.  He states that with this change learning will take place elsewhere, such as online rather than on a state or privately funded campus.  Afterall, it is the the thinking that matters and that will survive, while official institutions come and go.

Benzon then goes on to cite the revolution "taking place" (perhaps more accurately something that "took place") called "Speculative Realism."  Stating that "the blogosphere is critical of these people," he goes on to notes that some of the primary discussions within speculative realism (so-called) takes place on blogs.  I would quickly add that "Speculative Realism," understood as anything coherent or as anything of a theoretical entity that someone might try to refer to (meaning, an independent theoretical entity beyond mere topics collated during the initial Speculative Realism workshop of 2007), began on blogs, for better or for worse.  Yet, also, in another way, it arguably ended at the workshop, for what subsequently began on blogs was, well, a monstrous embarrassment for those involved.

Benzon concludes that the old university system is dead, but doesn't know it yet.  The post concludes by insinuating that academic activity - or perhaps thinking about ideas - will transition fully to an online life, whether blogs or whatever new variety of social media is established and popular at the time. He uses "Speculative Realism's" blog activity as an example of this.

I respect Bill's blog and his viewpoints, and I enjoy his photography.  I enjoy his biographies and discussions of his own writing.  But I do believe he has a few things wrong in his post.  Perhaps not wrong per se, but the post suffers from some illusions of grandeur, I think at least.

Social media, including blogs, is less than an ideal place for philosophy to occur as an open and free exchange of ideas, even if the learning found in the old university system (or current system of liberal arts colleges, etc. etc.) is to be replaced.  If learning transitions to social media as its main source of exchange (not just websites or other media, etc. etc.), I fear that we are in for a dark time of "learning" comparable to that of the dark ages.

The more popular social media, like Twitter, is motivated almost exclusively by the buzz of euphoric trend-like crazes and mob rule.  Small insular war-like tribes battle each other in a kind of fear-of-witches castle warfare; all the while each castle remains plugged into its own specific affective continuum "dedicated to the cause." Battles have raged through hearsay and gossip rather than reason and debate, if one castle even acknowledges the other. But also, more sickening full on personal attacks have taken place.  Demagoguery of self-proclaimed celebrities reigns supreme (the real kings and queens, or the religious leaders of the castles, if you like) and those who want power take it by killing off the careers of others, assassinating their character, intentionally ignoring them even in the most ludicrous cases of where an other ought to be mentioned, all in fear that one might "lose their spot" in the castle, or that their holy castle itself might falter and fall. On numerous occasions "bad online behavior" has led to individuals confronting one another "in real life." Most publicly this happened in the case of Crispin Sartwell, where an online dispute led to unfortunate consequences for him, albeit temporary as it was. And in a very clandestine way it also happened to the person behind the blog Perverse Egalitarianism where he was harassed "in real life" by online thugs. How is such morally reprehensible -behavior born online - even possible, you ask?

In the blogospher, Twittersphere, etc. etc. thoughts and emotions are affectively duplicated and amplified in a feedback effect as many Twitter users/blog users become nothing more than neuro-livestock; used by the larger, affective continuum of production and profit.  Human beings become "meat capital."  Any meaningful exchange of substantive, slow and careful reasoned content becomes nothing more than spectacle (and in the above cases a spectacle of violence), while individuality and privacy, as well as human dignity and decency, are all sacrificed for the currency of belonging to a tribe and attention supplied by online "friends" (people whom you've never met before in real life and would rather spend your time with by staring at your phone instead of going outside; or, at best, when you are outside, it is all filtered through the stories you report through your phone). Attention but also emotion in the form of narcissistic reinforcement is thus the neuro-resource.

Facebook, while more personal, is also motivated by these cliquish in-group and out-group dynamics, all affected by the drippy affect of "likes" and other attention-grabbing and emotional-reinforcement tactics.  Twitter is much the same way: how many followers do you have and will you retweet me?  Can I have more followers than the number that I am following?  I am not sure that all of the above described dark-age environment is where enlightened, reasonable, open-minded learning and education would be able to take place. From what I've been describing, it is hardly possible. I have seen careers destroyed, lives ruined, more than I have seen any enlightened "learning."

Given the collapse of the modern educational system, the "academic" system, Benzon turns to blogs as the last outpost of ideas.  However blogs do not hold the same sort of institutional credibility or, yes, even open-mindedness, that one typically finds in a more formal, controlled, objectively evaluated, and thus protected educational setting, especially those settings found in the liberal arts colleges that are prospering as opposed to the financially obsessed larger state schools, who, while under attack today and are constrained by economic issues, nevertheless far supersede the blogosphere as an appropriate medium for real learning to occur. And again, I hardly doubt that one will find some of the sick individuals battling over 'Speculative Realism" behaving in such ways on a college campus. It may occur as an infrequent occurrence, but it would never be the norm as it is online.

For learning to occur, ideas must be exchanged.  And for ideas to be exchanged participants must be open to receiving new ideas and actually look/confront others' ideas, some of which may be uncomfortable or against the views one currently holds.  It isn't, as is the case with so many blogs, a politics and deliberate exclusion of others whom we simply dislike.  For most blogs (hopefully not mine) this is the rule, rather than the exception.

Benzon then cites two bloggers in the world of "Speculative Realism" as a case in point.  I think it is important to note that there is literally one person on this planet who self-identifies with the label "Speculative Realism."  There is *one* open-access, online, (mostly) graduate student run journal on Speculative Realism that publishes again and again many of the same authors; and now just two books on the subject in the close to ten years that have passed since the original (and only) "Speculative Realism" qua label conference. And what of the book series dedicated to "speculative realism"? Well, remember the castle? The authors published there are those within the castle who hail that particular king. And let me add, only those who are willing to kiss the ring of the king enter.

What of books about Speculative Realism? One is from Minnesota UP and the second from Bloomsbury I believe - but each is deficient by overlooking and omitting (whether intentional or not) several of the most active voices commenting on "Speculative Realism"  - voices including Terrance Blake, Jason Hills, Alex Galloway, Pete Wolfendale, and many, many, many others.  Those who did make the cut into this recent literature are, you guessed it, part of the established online castle factions, as small now as those SR influenced factions are becoming (I should note that fewer and fewer young people are even talking about it and have simply "moved on.")  Speculative Realism exists in no philosophy departments, in no philosophy graduate programs, and we do not see philosophers walking about calling themselves "Speculative Realists" as we might find those waving a banner of, say, phenomenology.

 Further still, I would say that the original philosophers often associated with Speculative Realism (the three good philosophers, who, interestingly, themselves never associated with the label - namely Brassier, Meillassoux, and Iain Hamilton Grant), all have continued on with their own projects and never looked back to the hackneyed label that "Speculative Realism" has become.  So, and I am saying this genuinely, good for them.

I mention all of this because "Speculative Realism" - frankly - is, itself, dying or dead, much like the old university system as Benzon suggests. It is ironic that Benzon concludes that the old university system is dead, but doesn't know it yet. Speculative Realism is in a similar state much the same way, although many of those who have name-branded it do not realize it.  It is, to use Ben Woodward's phrase (incidentally an early player in whatever speculative realism was), the "dead elephant in the room."  To cite Armen Avanessian, we must begin to think what now comes after speculative realism.

Speculative Realism is passing or has passed, for many of the same political reasons that the old university system died. It refused to allow in the notorious "Other" into its own ranks, it refused to allow proliferation in the name of clutching "spots."  But also, for SR, there was gate-keeping and the stupidity of posturing.  Most interestingly for SR, there simply were no good arguments or real, slow and careful debates and exchanges of ideas to be had: essential for any learning environment with a free and open exchange of ideas.  These political reasons boil down to the simple formula of power-play politics that killed, again, to cite Woodard and Avanessian both, "what could have been" in that brief possible beginning of 2007.  It essentially collapsed into the narrow vision of one or two master Internet Philosophy Wizards who courageously deem themselves the chosen ones who must carry the torch, guard the gate, stay in the office, long after all of the others have left. Frankly, it is hilarious.

To Sum: lack of acknowledgement quickly becomes lack of engagement.  Academically speaking, in terms of quality scholarship and honest literature review, that is mainly why speculative realism suffered and died a rather quick death, say of five years or less.  Larger and larger holes of philosophical integrity became blatantly apparent to everyone, and everyone moved on, save for those still desperately clinging to the label.

Indeed speculative realism was a curious odyssey.  But mainly it showed what philosophy as an online activity accomplishes, which is, to use a by now infamous phrase that is fairly incontestable, not much more than an "online orgy of stupidity."

This is not to say that the initial, and remember accidental meeting, of the four original philosophers often associated with the label didn't provoke change in the continental philosophical world.  They did.  But I am saying that labels propagated online by one or two politically motivated blogs can hardly pass as a new way to do philosophy or exchange ideas in the spirit of a liberal arts education, or education in general.  I find that to be a wanting claim, at best.

Remember, education, or better, learning, is about new ideas and it requires an unbiased, open mind.  That's hardly what we find in the blogs that Benzon cites.  It's hardly what we find on the majority of social media, period. But I've focused on speculative realism because it is the most emblematic example of the impossibility of online learning to occur through some last bastion of blogs.

A final thought.  I do not want to appear to say that all of social media, or all blogs in particular, are somehow bad or evil.  I am simply saying that if we are to say that the education and learning behind the academy today is to be transferred to blogs or some form of social online life, then we ought to be very careful about and conscientious of the blogs and social media that we do use to learn, because for the most part, many social media sources do succumb to the same forces that for better or worse pushed "Speculative Realism" to its demise.