Archive for the ‘ Philosophy ’ Category

The Universe in a Nutshell: A Simple Guide to Speculative Realism*


Why do things happen in a predictable way?

Back in the Eighteenth Century, David Hume asked that simple question. In other words, why do some events necessarily follow other events? For example, if you were to hit a billiard ball why wouldn’t it just float into the sky? This is what philosophers call ‘causal necessity’. Causation is important to philosophers and scientists because it is what seems to bind the world together. Think of it as a kind of cosmic glue. If we could not predict how things will behave, if the world had no basic order to it and was an unpredictable chaos, we simply couldn’t exist. The common sense necessary to survive takes causation for granted.

While most philosophers before Hume took a dogmatic approach to the answer: i.e. that nature’s laws are decreed by God, Hume took a skeptical approach: he pointed out the simple fact that the causal connections between things are unobservable; much like the existence of God himself. We think we see event A causing event B, but in fact we have only seen event A and event B – the connection that links the events lacks any observable properties. Hume’s answer is simply that we’ll never know a cause per se (since it doesn’t have any kind of manifestation), we can only intuit causes based on experience: we are sure water will boil at 100 degrees Celsius, an apple will fall out of a tree, the sun will rise in the morning, but there is no evidence available to our senses that these things will happen every time.

So then we have a “dogmatic” answer to this question: nature has laws decreed by God. And a “skeptical” answer by Hume: there’s no logical proof that one event follows another, there is only a guess as to what will happen.

Immanuel Kant read Hume and was disturbed by the logically sound skepticism, so much so he spent twelve years thinking about it. In response to Hume Kant developed an explanation for causal necessity that had all the plausible secular systematic rigor that he became famous for imposing on the world. Kant located the consistency of the world – the causal predictability – in our mind itself. Our senses, Kant plausibly and systematically argued, mediate the world outside and therefore impose order on it. He goes as far as saying that time and space are themselves subjective and located in the mind, not out there in the universe.

The world is neither out there (as “realists” would argue) and neither is it only in the mind (as “rationalists” argue) since both are necessary to be present for Kant’s subjective experience (what is called “transcendental idealism”). We know the world through a synthesis of both world and mind.

This was the best explanation for causal necessity and was so for a very long time. Kant’s explanation of the world as mediated through (and ordered by) mind has underpinned philosophical and scientific assumptions in the several hundred years since he published the Critique of Pure Reason.

Now, the issue here is that Kant is dangerously mixing two categories: There is no world without mind and no mind without world. This is now known as “correlationism”, i.e we only have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either of them separately. As soon as you take Kant’s elegant solution to its logical conclusion, you find that it’s a little absurd. We know, for example, that there was a world before thinking even existed: paleontologists dig up specimens of a pre-human age all the time. Kant’s system for explaining causation – that experience is a synthesis of mind and world – cannot account for the world before the human mind came into being.

But, while we can disprove logically a system that has formed the basis of much philosophical and scientific thought for hundreds of years, we’ve come no closer to positively ‘proving’ that there’s a reality outside of human experience. While we can logically assume that there is a reality that is independent of human thought, we can only speculate as to what it is like. Hence the term: Speculative Realism.

In what ways could we speculate? Well, for one thing we can enquire more meaningfully into the nature of things directly, rather than seeing things as merely representations for us, we can see things as things in-themselves. The world outside experience is not an unknowable chaos, or even a singular nothingness as Arthur Schopenhauer would argue (he called it the noumenal world), but a collection of objects which relate to one another. Objects can have qualities independent of the human senses.

The philosopher Graham Harman reading Heidegger, for example, distinguishes objects by the way they exist for whatever may interact with them. For example, there is Tower Bridge as a tourist attraction, Tower Bridge as a road over the River Thames, Tower Bridge as an object of aesthetic beauty, Tower Bridge as an example of Victorian Gothic architecture. What is important is the “as” in all these relations, there is an “as” that is inexhaustible, a mysterious something that is there. That we can even know with a lot of confidence that that something is there, that it exists independent of thought and that it is set apart from other somethings, forms the basis of a new departure in our understanding of the world.

Further reading: The story here is heavily indebted to Quentin Meilliassoux’s After Finitude, a brilliant and short book. Another great book on the subject is Graham Harman’s Towards Speculative Realism.

*the philosopher Ray Brassier has objected to the “stupidity” of impressionable graduate students with blogs who talk too much about a “speculative realist” movement. This willfully stupid post was written because I’ve never found a simple less-than-1000-words explanation of the turn back to realism in continental philosophy and should in no way be seen as part of a debate or anything like that. In any case, it’s better to be willfully stupid than willfully obscure. “Speculative Realism” should be taken by the definition of Graham Harman: “All it takes to be a Speculative Realist is to be opposed to “correlationism””.

Marketing, Consciousness and Evil

‘If anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself.’

The audience laugh, but Hicks insists that the statement isn’t a joke, that he is ‘planting seeds, you do what you can.’ Urging advertisers and marketers to ‘suck on a tail pipe.’ But the joke does of course come: ‘I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now: “He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar, that’s a smart market.”’ Protesting against this assumption, he corners himself again, “He’s going for the righteous indignation dollar.”

The skit finds him trapped in the bottomless cynical reasoning that no matter what he says, his words will be construed to be addressing a particular market from which he will gain monetarily. Advertisers and marketers, he contends, are unable to comprehend his words in any other way. At the heart of this joke is the notion that so-called neo-liberalism’s insistence on the primacy of markets has subsumed all human activity into some kind of profitable endeavour.

Here Hicks echoes the greed is good ethos expressed by Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Everything worthwhile, even an act of charity, Gekko maintains in a lengthy speech, is done for selfish reasons. While this reasoning can be easily brushed aside, there is a wide public perception that public acts all have a common denominator: personal gain.

In short: a public sphere has become a commercial sphere.

But the reason for this is not because there’s been some insidious take-over by scheming and greedy marketeers. It’s simply that we are surrounded by more media now (billboards, TV, the internet etc.) than ever before. This has changed our consciousness, we identify ourselves as parts of a market and it is that identification -the way we identify with particular publics- through which we largely shape our beliefs and attitudes.

This tribalistic modality is nothing new, what is new is how important a role consumer goods and services play in the way we identify. The consumption of consumer goods and services not only as a way of enjoying ourselves (which is a misnomer) but also as an ordering system is no more or no less rational than, say, animal sacrifices in ancient societies or gift economies of remote tribes. There’s no point in justifying consumer capitalism in a technological society, but there’s a lot of point in recognising that it structures our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Hicks’s moral point is based on a false notion of human consciousness, that there are rational and fundamentally well-meaning people who are actively deceived by marketeers. What Hicks doesn’t recognise is the way marketing and publicity make us what we are.

Marketing and publicity is the oxygen of enterprise regardless of its goals – from an arms maker to a communist political party. Hicks’s reasoning is as flawed as Gekko’s.

Our buying power (I mean this in a more abstract sense “buying in”, rather than a literal sense) is seen as much of a power than our political power as democratic citizens. This is why, to Hicks’s frustration, any public announcement is assimilated into the market, because the people themselves – not the marketeers – do the assimilating.

We Know that Music is Music?

Come Together is a record most British fans of the indie genre would know well as a track that straddles the boundaries of indie rock and acid house music. It’s a remix of a gospel-inspired Primal Scream track that appeared on their critically acclaimed ‘Screamadelica’ album of 1991, a collaboration between the band and house DJ Andy Weatherall. The track embodies the euphoric idealism of the acid house movement in the UK, melding synthesised sounds with acoustic brass and a slow thumping beat and a gospel choir’s refrain “come together as one”.

Its eclecticism mirrors the message of a sampled speech from the beginning which reads as follows:

“This is a beautiful day… It is a new day… We are together, we are unified… and all in accord… Because together we got power… ”

“Today on this program you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music”

The speech sampled is Jesse Jackson’s from the 1972 Wattstax Music Festival in Watts, Los Angeles that was celebrated in the 1973 movie documentary Wattstax by Mel Stuart. The speech, it seems, sits perfectly with Primal Scream’s eclectic music and the unity sentiment of Come Together.

However, if you’ve ever seen the Wattstax speech, you’ll notice some glaring omissions: words among these words spoken by Jesse Jackson that were cut from the sample (rendered here in bold type).

“This is a beautiful day… It is a new day… it is a day of black awareness, it is a day of black people taking care of black people’s business… We are together, we are unified… and all in accord… Because together we got power… and we can make decisions… ”

“Today on this program you will hear gospel, And rhythm and blues, and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music… All of our people have got a soul, our experience determines the texture the tastes and the sounds of our soul. We may say that we are in the slums but the slums are not in us… We have shifted from bed bugs and dog ticks to community control and politics”

Jackson went on to recite the Civil Rights era call-and-response poem ‘I am somebody’ (see a great version here).

From the speech Primal Scream clearly omitted the references to the black community, giving the illegitimate impression of the speech as a universal claim for music and togetherness. When Jackson refers to togetherness and unity he is referring to the Afro-American community which had its own divisions at the time.

Now, the point of this post is not to cry foul at the band’s censorship of some important aspects of the speech but to ask: what can music mean to us?

The edited speech by Primal Scream points to an idealistic universalization of music that all genres are just labels, music is music and it unifies people and gives them power. This fits well with the acid house ethos and Primal Scream’s own eclecticism that borrows heavily from black traditions.

But Jackson’s speech’s message is far from this cosy glow of universal appreciation and empowerment: ‘All of our people have got a soul [and] our experience determines the textures, the tastes, the sounds of our soul’. Jackson’s speech contradicts the universalist message, his message is one of identity politics: he says “our experience determines [our soul]”, not “we have a soul regardless of experience“.

In this sense black music comes from a black (“our”) consciousness that is a result of the struggles of black existence in the US: poor housing, under-employment, prejudice and so on.

Primal Scream are of course white Europeans who could never really know what it feels like to be black and poor in the USA. But perhaps we – all of us – can ‘feel’ the pains and joys of a black consciousness (or consciousness) vicariously in the music of black artists like Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye. So while musical invention can perhaps only be determined by a community experience, its enjoyment – its fulfillment – can bridge the vicariance of community experience.

Primal Scream’s selective borrowing underscores this: a component of experience is lost on us but found in us when we enjoy such music, the same can be said for the music of any time, place or struggle. Knowing it is impossible, but feeling it is for the taking from the music of those that know it.

And that, brothers and sisters, is a recipe for solidarity.

Political Correctness

The singer Kelis has has some harsh things to say about the UK. At a London airport she was called a ‘slave’ and ‘kunta kinte’ and a ‘disgusting Nigerian’. In her words, the UK is ‘behind progression because everything is swept under the rug. People don’t talk about it. People don’t fight about it.’ She hit the nail on the head. If racism is swept under the rug and out of view, people can’t fight about it.

Much of my research concerned people with HIV and AIDS who fought their stigmatisation and fought prejudice against them, in doing so – through their activism – they transformed the way people think about HIV and AIDS. They created a fairer society not only for themselves but for people in similar predicaments. Activism, open debate and challenging prejudice is how to win the war against ignorence, not political correctness.

The very term political correctness was born within the liberty movements of the 1970s where certain modes of speaking were deemed ‘politically incorrect’ in the context of the political programme of a movement. That of course makes sense – a movement isn’t a movement if people are thinking along different lines and especially so if they are thinking along contradictory lines.

The problem is society isn’t a movement, it’s a whole that encompasses a plurality of voices that should never think along the same lines. As the politically active took office in the 1980s they imported their operative rules and, with the best intentions, sought to create a fairer society by shaping language and actively suppressing particular views.

Though it is claimed that this amounts to fairness and decency, it simply brushes prejudice under the carpet through censorship. Our society has definately grown more tolerant, but I don’t believe this is because of political correctness, I believe it is in spite of political correctness. Tolerance has grown as identity activists have broken into the mainstream and transformed what we regard as normal, right or healthy.

Below the surface, however, resentment bubbles and froths, because certain types of thinking have been suppressed in the wider public forum, they boil under the surface and can spread. Holocaust denial is banned in some countries and anyone who denies the holocaust can be jailed in Germany. Not only is this an attack on the freedom of speech, it also does nothing but add credence to the theories it seeks to suppress – ‘they must have something to fear’ is the Nazi retort.

And this is the point: by censoring or suppressing racism, homophobia etc. political correctness does not allow such views to be challenged in the open public sphere because they do not appear in the first place. Instead they bubble away and claim legitimacy and cry censorship. Nasty views should be challenged in open debate within the bounds of law, suppressing them does nothing but good for them.

Political correctness also shares the same grounds of reasoning as racism. It takes the part – or individual – for the whole. It is founded on generalisation since it makes categories in which to put people: black, white, gay. In doing so, it commits the same kind of indifferent violence on the particularities of the individual as racism does (racist: ‘you’re black, blacks are untrustworthy, you’re untrustworthy’, political correctness ‘you’re black, blacks are deemed untrustworthy, we will prosecute people who deem you untrustworthy’) and, in a perverse way, by banning these generalisations it perpetuates them (the identity we subsume you into is deemed this or that).

Kick Racism Out of Football

That's the way to do it: Let's Kick Racism Out of Football

I’ll need to propose an alternative, since I think the authorities should play some role in creating a more decent society. And to do so I’ll point to the tremendously successful Kick Racism Out of Football campaign, which urges people, through appealing to their respect and decency, to challenge racist abuse and dispel racist views among those who do. It has been very effective in places where political correctness could never hold sway (the terraces of stadiums and on the football pitch itself).

To me political correctness is precisely anti-progressive, since it negates open debate and stifles attempts to change peoples views through reason. Activism and open debate, not legislation, is the way forward.

The Smiling Dog (what animals can teach us about being human)

The World Famous Smiling Dog

I’ve already written something around anthropomorphism and it’s a subject that continues to intrigue me since it plays such a central role in our visual culture. Another popular internet viral which has taken my eye is the smiling dog, a happy chap from San Jose which was caught on camera beaming in front of his birthday cake with an uncanny human-like face.

‘Uncanny’ is a good word here since it denotes a kind of uneasiness (it derives from ‘unhomely’), the image is funny, of course, but as I’ve mentioned before, there is an unsettling component inherent in humour. The arbitrary configuration of the dog’s ‘expression’ in the midst of the anthropomorphic ceremony (Dog’s don’t do birthdays, we do) double scores the situation’s futile pathetic-ness (I mean this in the sense of the ‘pathetic fallacy‘ in which human emotions are ascribed to objects and animals), that’s what makes this funny.

I think we laugh, in part, because the utterly real arbitrariness of the universe has impersonally configured the dogs face to look momentarily human, it’s an encounter with the the unmediated blindness and arbitrariness of nature in a highly contrived human environment. The dog’s “humanness” simply underlines it’s unhumanness.


Anger is trending on the anti-social networks. It’s been a long time since it felt so good to be angry, beef has been the bread and butter for many a creative, from Picasso’s wartime contortions to the angry young writers of the British new wave. It’s when the quivering hand welds the brush, camera or pen that spontaneity throttles any pretence on the part of good manners. Take a look at Adrian Mitchell’s reading of ‘To Whom it may Concern’, the rage is palpable in his clunking couplets, this is surely a poem that snapped the pencil’s lead.

Anger is the the most infectious of emotions, it galvinises the most supplicant. Jean-Paul Sartre observed that even a collective as mundane and tenuous as a bus queue can become a force to be reckoned with if the bus is late. For (late) Sartre, anger is the path to becoming truly human, since we spend most of our collective existence in inertia, as a bus queue society. It is when we are angry that we seek the like-minded, it’s more easily shared than happiness. Anger shatter’s delusions and cuts to the chase, it’s a direct route to the audiences raw nerve.

What A Squirrel And An Autofocus Camera Can Teach Us About Humour

Melissa Brandts and her husband were hiking in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada and decided take a shot of themselves with their backs to a spectacular scene of Lake Minnewanka. As the camera autofocussed, a curious squirrel popped up to inspect the source of the whirring noise. The camera automatically focussed on the squirrel and shot it, leaving an amused couple out of focus.

This image circulated the globe as a light relief news item, it made a lot of people smile, if not laugh. But why? Why is it funny?

This question can’t be answered. But we can at least speculate a little on the many reasons in this case. For me, the reasons are based on an uneasiness. In order to explain why, let me get a better handle on the image itself. The image has a random sophistication and reminds me of Velázquez’s Las Meninas. The squirrel is practically in the centre of the image in the foreground, to the right of the vertical squirrel sit a blurred-out couple and in the distance our idylic mountain/lake scene. The other ‘player’ in this situation is the camera which has autonomously focussed and shot the image having been set to do so. The image is an intersection of culture, nature and technology (which I regard as outside of the culture/nature dichotomy – maybe I’ll post on that at a later date).

The squirrel ‘pops’ in the image in a posed yet uncomposed way – i.e. imposing. The couple seem marginalised by the very presence of the squirrel, and they are: not are they just visually pushed to one side by the presence of the squirrel, they are also of course blurred out by the nearer proximity of the squirrel to the camera, which took the squirrel in its blind reason to be the subject of the image it was about to capture. The human, then, has been marginalised by the interplay of an animal and a machine.

This explains what I mean by uneasiness. Comedy is often described as the space between our ambitions and actual achievements. The couple set out to picture themselves in a beautiful scene, perhaps as a momento with a little vanity. The unthinking actions of the squirrel and the camera (and I mean ‘unthinking’ literally – they do not think), is the rude eruption of machine and nature not conforming to the control we try to impose on them and doing so in an uncannily human way. It’s as if the beautiful scene has revolted against its captors.