Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Rocks in Your Head

Timothy Morton is an English scholar at Rice University. He is also a "speculative realist." That's fancy theoretical talk for "bullshit artist." He would have you believe–and I chose this word carefully–that there's a new way to see the world. He is wrong. The same nonsense he and his kind peddle has been around for centuries. Don't be fooled with the new name: this is the New Coke of English Departments.

In his "essay" for the Los Angeles Review of Books (link above), he first insults you if you don't already know about the latest fad in "theory." (I'm using quotes around "theory" to indicate its specialized use, particularly among English professors, when it denotes a set of "theoretical" approaches to literary and cultural texts.) According to him, you'd have to have been hiding under a rock not to already know about speculative realism.

I'd like to add: you'd have to have rocks in your head to believe any of this.

Moreover, you'd have to be a jerk to insult the non-academic world in such a jerk-ass way. Thankfully for Morton, I am both a philosopher and an anti-academic snob-hater. I would be happy to school him on proper thought as well as on manners. You're welcome, world. Now let's begin.
After 60 or so years of talking about how you can’t talk (directly) about reality, only about how to access (or indeed how to access how to access) reality, humanities scholars are talking about rocks, and not just (human) representations of rocks either.
"Reality," "rock," "human," "representation" are empty signs signifying other signs. Even if these terms were, like some good Platonic ideal, fully invested with the content that they purportedly signify, any such reality would dissolve among the pages upon which they were scribbled. Therefore, it behooves any person claiming to be a scholar to specify exactly which, within this context, "reality" he is referring. Is it that which appears to be physically real, which would throw us back into the sham of positivism? Is it the noumenal or phenomenal world? You can't just spout "reality" and have it mean something. Unless, of course, you're still fully ensconced within the "the normative humanist box" which Morton himself derides.

Here Morton describes the main strategy of speculative realism: "speculative realism is about how much you can say about anything other than human meanings from inside the Kantian box, without just yelling anything at all. Can you open the lid and peep outside while avoiding religion? Can you infer that your human box is not the only one?" This is the saddest and most deficient view of human understanding I've come across in a long time, at least outside of religion. Anything such a disembodied (hence, abstract) human would perceive would necessarily be through the lens of human understanding.

It's like when I go grocery shopping. Because I am a native speaker of English, I encounter the world through the lens of English. That is, I'm aware when English is not proper to the task at hand. For example, when I drive down Garland Rd, I know English won't help me read the signs. But I can resort to Spanish because A) I know Spanish, and B) Spanish is another human lens through which to encounter the world.

Morton, however, seems to propose that the human mind is first capable of knowing when it is "outside" the realm of human understanding, and that the human mind can somehow make sense of that "outside." If I encounter a language I don't know, or a person who speaks only gibberish, my experience is still one of human English comprehension: I know that the person is not speaking English, I know I don't know that language.

Even beyond the limits of human perception, our knowledge of that beyond is fraught with human perception. Our mind does not comprehend ultraviolet radiation, for example, but we've designed technology that can interpret such radiation in a perceivable structure for the human mind. That is, we still impose our human perception on the imperceivable, the imperceptible. I hope Morton sends a postcard once he makes it outside our clichéd "box." I won't read it, of course, because it will be illegible. Return to sender.

And speaking of clichés, thanks for dragging out poor dead Derrida to serve as your whipping boy/straw man. If I were a snob, I'd write something like, "Just because you didn't understand Derrida when you read him, or when you tried to read him, or when you pretended to know the least bit of information about him, doesn't mean that there's some of us out here who actually read and understood him. We understand Derrida because we didn't read him as a 'theorist' but as a philosopher, as someone deeply invested in the history and discipline of philosophy." But I'm not a snob. I'll instead propose that "scholars" avoid bringing up Derrida when it's obvious they don't know what they're talking about.

Morton arrogantly laments, "It’s interesting and sad how we keep inventing new ways not to talk about polar bears." Yes, but it's equally interesting and sad how you talking about polar bears is still very much within the confines of anthropocentrist violence and injustice. Come to the dark side: learn the ways of deconstruction. I'll let you in a secret: deconstruction does what it does without human volition. All texts–even your precious polar bears–deconstruct themselves! It's self-reflexive and doesn't require human agency or intervention and projection. Or a flawed and narrow view of "reality" or "theory." And despite its self-reflexivity, deconstruction doesn't even require a self!

But just when I'm getting bored with Morton, he turns into what Nietzsche would refer to as "an interesting animal." Well, not that interesting. He just starts ranting and railing against the system in which he's built his career. Praising Alfred North Whitehead because that's cutting edge "theory"! He ends his hissy fit by utterly dismissing religion. What happened to the essay structure that has a thesis statement and support for an argument? Hell, wasn't this supposed to be a book review?!

Morton here goes rogue, jumps ship, leaves his good sense back in the "box." He jumps for joy that scientists are now catching up to his view of "reality." So cutting edge, so avant-garde, this Morton is! And now he disses art critics for "merely" noticing patterns. When will such insight stop?!

Just because Morton and other failed thinkers separate the world into a false binary of theory and practice does not mean there aren't those of us lightyears away from such a sad, diminished "box." Nonetheless, I do appreciate a good rant. And his arrogant rant against others of his ilk ("theorists" in university English departments) and their own cheapened bête noires and bugaboos is top notch. What's even better: each of them really earns his–and yes, I chose this word carefully–tenured salary.

In the end, his rant becomes more elevated, more unhinged: "Science does appearance, we do reality." Still never defining this "reality." In other words, I read Morton's diatribe so you wouldn't have to. And I can say with great confidence that you also don't need to read Steven Shaviro's The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, the text that this "essay" purports to review.

Only the title of Morton's "essay" makes any sense: Theory Class Needs an Upgrade. I couldn't agree more. You're welcome, world. Class dismissed. Welcome to reality.

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