SPECULATIVE PHILOSOPHY

 

States and Territories is founded on a series of theoretical principles and premises that are drawn from speculative forms of philosophy. This involves an engagement with speculative realism (Latour, 2013; Morton, 2013; Bogost, 2012; Bryant (2011), speculative materialism (Bennett, 2010; Dolphijn & van der Tuin, 2012; Barad, 2003; Braidotti, 2013) and speculative pragmatism (Massumi, 2011; Dewey, 1934; James, 1978). These three streams of speculative philosophy respectively emphasise objects, materiality and practice, but share certain similarities despite these differences (Bryant, Srnicek & Harman, eds., 2011).

 

 

The primary similarity that unites these philosophical approaches is a commitment to speculation about the nature of being and reality ‘independently of thought and of humanity more generally’ (p. 3). This takes the form of ontological speculation and openness, constituting what has been referred to as both a ‘speculative turn’ and an ‘ontological turn’, in contemporary scholarship and philosophy (Bryant, Srnicek & Harman, eds., 2011; Brown, 2009).

 

Hence, instead of worrying about what may or may not constitute knowledge or truth, speculative approaches are concerned with the ontological conditions from which relationships, interactions, events and transitions can emerge. Speculative philosophy involves working outside of anthropocentric and linguistic understandings of the world, and moving beyond epistemic fallacies that attempt to reduce reality to what humans can know of it (Latour, 2013; Brown, 2009). This also involves collapsing the real into the imaginary, the literal into the figurative, the concrete into the abstract, the scientific into the artistic, and the natural into the cultural (Bryant, Srnicek & Harman, ed., 2011). In all of these ways and more, speculative philosophy describes the kind of thinking that supports the fieldwork, analysis and creative practices taken up in this inquiry. 

 

Ontological Principles and Perspectives

 

            Speculation plays a different role in each of the approaches described by contemporary realists, materialists and pragmatists, although these perspectives also overlap in many ways. A very brief description of each of these approaches is given below:

 

            Speculative realists are often concerned with speculation about objects as irreducible things in the world, as well as the relations that obtain between them (Bryant, Srnicek & Harman, eds., 2011). For these thinkers, reality is composed entirely of objects and their relations across scales of time and space, from quarks, to thoughts, to planets, to german shepherds, to car mechanics, bibles, protozoa and pizzas. In this sense, everything that exists is real but can only be understood through speculation and metaphor, because humans cannot possibly apprehend the true nature of objects and their relations, or what Bogost (20102) calls their unit operations. ‘Speculative realism really does require speculation: benighted meandering in an exotic world of utterly incomprehensible objects... Our job is to write the speculative fictions of their processes, of their unit operations’ (Bogost, 2012, p. 34, emphasis in original).

 

            Speculative materialists are often concerned with the flow and vitality of materials, processes and bodies rather than the discrete objects described by the realists (Bennett, 2010). Materialism generally holds that everything that exists is grounded in some type of material form or body. What has been called the ‘new materialism’ includes approaches based on process philosophies associated with the work of Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson and Spinoza (Dolphijn & van der Tuin, 2012). In process philosophy, being is considered a fluid process of becoming rather than a fixed state of being. Speculative forms of materialism often question the nature of the living versus the non-living, and may extend the properties of life, the soul, consciousness or experience to inert forms of matter. Much like indigenous philosophies associated with animism or vitalism, materialism explores the vitality of geologic formations, and the lives of metals, minerals or elemental forces such as wind, rain and electricity. It is a philosophy that emphasizes and celebrates ‘the shared materiality of all things... of which we are all composed’ (Bennett, 2010, p. 12-13).

 

            Speculative pragmatism is generally concerned with how things and their relations come together in practice to form singular events, situations and occurrences. This approach is founded on the work of the American pragmatists in the early twentieth century, including William James (1978) and John Dewey (1916; 1934), as well as process philosophies associated with Whitehead (1978) and Deleuze (1994). Pragmatism, like materialism, takes existence as a process of becoming rather than being, but locates this becoming in the context of events moreso than flows and materials (Massumi, 2011). The relational events in which things come together into assemblages are essentially what defines them as subjects and objects, and affords their capacity to act in the midst of an event’s unfolding. ‘The speculative aspect relates to the character of potential native to the world’s activity, as expressed eventfully in the taking place of change. The pragmatic aspect has to do with how, in the taking-definite-shape of potential in a singular becoming, the relational and qualitative poles[1] co-compose as formative forces’ (Massumi, 2011, p. 12).

 

Drawing on these three different streams of speculative philosophy, I have assembled four principles that form the ontological foundations upon which States and Territories is enacted:

 

1. The Ontic Principle: ‘To be’ is to make any kind of difference in the world, so there is nothing that exists which does not make a difference. Hence, everything that exists contributes in some way to what is real. ‘Existence, being, is a binary such that something either is or is not’ (Bryant, 2011). This means that ‘everything is ‘real’, according to its own category of being’ (Whitehead, cited in Massumi, 2011, p. 67).

 

2. The Ecological Principle: Existence is always a singular-plural process of being in relation to others (Morton, 2008; Bennett, 2010). Living and non-living beings are interconnected to varying degrees as participants within assemblages, collectives or networks[2]. All the beings that exist in an assemblage, along with the relations that obtain between them, are equally real in the most concrete sense (Harman, 2009). However, not everything in an ecological assemblage needs to relate to everything else, because non-relation is, paradoxically, an important type of ecological relation (Massumi, 2011, p. 19).

 

3. The Aesthetic Principle: All beings express themselves in the ways that they compose, and are composed by, other beings within assemblages. The world is made up of expressions: sensations to be sensed, perceptions to be perceived, experiences to be experienced (Massumi, 2011, p. 25). The objects of art and nature are compositional arrangements that actualize the virtual potential of an event’s unfolding (ibid). Movements, affects and sensations are composed into formations that are either sensible or non-sensible; they are aesthetic ‘distributions between the sensible and the nonsensuous’ (p. 170).

 

4. The Principle of Singularity: When beings enter into ecological (relational) and aesthetic (qualitative) assemblages with each other singular events occur. Every event is a singularity with its own emergent properties and expressions (Massumi, 2011, p. 3). The event is a field of emergence in which latent potentials may or may not be actualised, new connections may or may not be made. Because every thing is potentially connected (virtually), making new (actual) connections always entails making  things differently.

           

These four principles are brought together in this proposed research to support a foundational premise predicated on a flat ontology and a participatory epistemology. These principles also underpin the emergent methodology and methods described as immersive cartography.

 

A Flat Ontology         

 

The four principles described above provide a foundation for engaging with the ontological conditions of the Anthropocene era through philosophical speculation and artistic practice. In moving beyond Cartesian dualism, Kantian correllationism and other binary philosophies, this perspective instead embraces the multiplicity and relationality of a reality that is entirely real in all of its formations and expressions. The fundamental premise is that there are ontological differences between things, but every thing is equally real. This is also to say that the differences between things are what makes them real, irreducible and non-representational beings. As a result, the ontological chasms that have persisted between nature and culture are lifted, along with those between subject and object, the knower and the known, the literal and the figurative, and the real and the imaginary (Latour, 1993; Harman, 2009; Bogost, 2012; Morton, 2013). This perspective is referred to as a flat ontology, a term coined by Manuel Delanda and further developed by Levi Bryant (2011), and which has also been used to describe the ontologies of Latour (1993, 2013) and Deleuze (1994).  A flat ontology means that ‘all entities are on equal ontological footing and that no entity, whether artificial or natural, symbolic or physical, possesses greater ontological dignity than other objects. While indeed some objects might influence the collectives to which they belong to a greater extent than others, it doesn't follow from this that these objects are more real than others’ (Bryant, 2011).

 

Latour (2013; 1993) describes how professors, participants, particles, publics, patterns, paintings, pills and Peter Pan are all ‘things in a world’ that exist, but with very different modes of existence. This is to suggest that ‘the incorporeal and corporeal realms are equally capable of having effects in the world’ (Bryant, Srnicek & Harman, 2011, p. 5). Crucially, it is the ontological differences between things in a collective that renders them useful or meaningful, rather than their capacity to represent each other. A map does not actually resemble the mountain it depicts, because its differences from the mountain are what make it useful. It is only because the map and the mountain embody different modes of existence that the hiker can put them into relationship in order to navigate the terrain (Latour, 2013). In a similar way, encounters in dreams and in waking life both affect daily life, but they do so on different registers of reality that are not reducible to one another (Bryant, Srnicek & Harman, 2011).

 

In a flat ontology, things are not just ‘social constructions’ that exist simply for humans to modify and interpret, but are singular and irreducible beings that lend themselves to the ontological weight and texture of a given collective (Latour, 2013). Neither are things the hard objects of scientific rationalism that can be ‘discovered, documented and solidified through the scientific process’ (Bogost, 2012, p. 13). Both social relativism and scientific naturalism, despite their often fierce disregard for one another, continue to misconstrue the human as the individual knowing subject, and the object as the thing known. In stepping outside the parameters of objectivist and subjectivist ontologies, a flat ontology is a posthumanist model in which ‘humans are no longer monarchs of being, but are instead among beings, entangled with beings, and implicated in other beings’ (Bryant, 2011, p. 44). In order to address the ontological conditions of the Anthropocene, the human must be plucked out of the centre of reality (which it has occupied for much too long), and thrown into the chaotic, ecological web of beings just like everything else that exists.

 

In this inquiry, a flat ontology is applied to academic learning environments in order to open up spaces for speculation, collaboration and creative engagement. These learning environments contain many different types of things: bodies, minds, animals and plants; buildings, books, paintbrushes and computers; even ephemera such as memories, bird songs, and daydreams, to name but a few possible participants (Bennett, 2010, p. 23). Of course, as a researcher it is impossible to account for every ‘thing’ that exists in a learning environment. However, in accounting for one thing in its specificity, the researcher also accounts for untold others through the networked interconnections between them (Davis & Sumara, 2006). Human experience is regarded as just one thread in the fabric of a sensory learning environment, which is tangled up with many other threads of being and knowing (Ingold, 2000). This inquiry can thus be understood as a sensory apprenticeship to the diverse learning environments which comprise a regional university campus (Pink, 2009). More specifically, this involves an exploration of the ontological differences between learning environments as the sites of knowledge production and extensions for the various academic disciplines. In working on the level playing field associated with a flat ontology, the ecological and aesthetic differences between learning environments can become perceptible, in turn allowing for new pedagogical potentials to emerge within those same environments.

 

 

[1] The relational and qualitative poles of the event are respectively equated with the ecological and aesthetic dimensions of the learning environment later in this Chapter.

 

[2] Assemblages (Delezue & Guattari, 1987), collectives (Latour, 1993; 2013) and networks (Latour, 1995, 2013) have slightly different connotations depending on context. Assemblages and collectives are each used in this proposal to refer to relational compositions in which beings affect and are affected by one another. Following Latour (2013), networks describe the relational connections and infrastructure that sustains knowledge production in a particular collective/assemblage.  

 

The video lecture below discusses ways in which speculative realism has infected the various research methods being used in States and Territories.