Graham Harman, Speculative Realism series editor, interviews Markus Gabriel, author of Fields of Sense and Why the World Does Not Exist. It’s a long conversation, and very rich, so fix yourself a cup of tea or coffee, pop your phone on silent, and settle down for a read.
Graham Harman: Let’s start with a topic that is often dismissed as a cliché: the rift between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ styles of philosophy. It seems to me that this split remains very real, at least in institutional terms. Yet you are one of the authors most difficult to classify in terms of this schema: your educational background is a traditionally German one in a ‘continental’ way, but you seem very much at home in the analytic style of arguing, to the point that Fields of Sense in some ways reads more like a book of analytic than continental philosophy. What is your view of the analytic/continental split: how did it originate, is it still with us, and where is it headed?
Markus Gabriel: Until recently, one might have characterized the state of the split in the way John Searle once roughly put it: if you ask an analytic philosopher a question, he replies with an argument; if you ask a continental philosopher, he replies with a name or a book title. If this were generally the case, analytic philosophy would basically just be philosophy as it ought to be practiced whereas continental philosophy would look like a hybrid of philosophy and history of philosophy mixed with some kind of admiration for authorities (the notorious dead white male metaphysics and their bearded contemporary counterparts in their fifties). What I like about the realist turn in continental circles is that in the work of figures associated with Speculative Realism we get arguments embedded in large-scale philosophical visions rather than the kind of fluffy exegesis and endless litanies that critics of continental philosophy identify with the practice as such.
If you read both contemporary so-called ‘analytical’ metaphysics and the debates in Speculative Realism, it soon turns out that both debates converge in manifold ways. Yet, Speculative Realism in my view is more advanced due to its historical context which involves a much more original understanding of the history of metaphysics and its various shortcomings. Both debates are haunted by various kinds of criticisms of metaphysics (Carnap and Quine on the one hand, Kant in between and Heidegger and Derrida on the other hand, say, and Wittgenstein making a comeback to) and all participants offer various grounds to resist the critique of metaphysics.
The debates in metaphysics and metametaphysics, however, are only one important point of overlap which in my view point towards an actual overcoming of the perceived profound distinction between the two overall traditions.
What is happening to ‘literature’ in the digital age? Is it surviving, changing, under threat? How are we to think of works that are ‘born digital’ and hence shaped by modalities and affordances that are either absent in or not central to print literature, such as code, image, sound, video, play, and interactivity of various kinds?
Literature, it is safe to say, has not succumbed to the apocalyptic threat implied in Derrida’s comment on ‘a certain technological regime of telecommunications’. However, it is undeniable that what we mean by ‘literature’ cannot be unproblematic when we speak, for instance, of ‘electronic literature’: a label that no longer represents just a niche interest in literary studies. ‘Electronic Literature, Again’ – the special issue of CounterText (2016, 2: 2), edited by myself and Ivan Callus, – explores these and other questions.
With its focus on the ‘post-literary’ and the ‘countertextual’, CounterText is a forum that is ideally placed for such exploration, allowing for navigation of the spaces that take in new platforms and digital contexts as well as their complex differences and continuities with literature’s institutionality and with mainstream and established understanding of the term ‘literature’. In that spirit, ‘Electronic Literature, Again’ contributes to ongoing dialogue about the futures (but also the pasts, hence the qualifier ‘Again’, in the title) of an exciting form of literature that is attracting increasing critical attention as well as wider readership (if this, indeed, is the word – itself a fascinating point for discussion).
Some of the contributors to the issue, like Stephanie Strickland, Stuart Moulthrop and Gordon Calleja, are well known through their critical and creative work about electronic literature or its immediate relatives (like digital games), but what the issue does is to position their arguments and outlooks in further discussion about the significance of electronic literature for literary studies, the humanities and the arts today. The editors’ own experimental essay – ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at Electronic Literature, or, a Print Essai on Tone In Electronic Literature, 1.0’ – rounds up the issue in a performative framing of some of the irrepressible questions raised by electronic literature. There are further incisive articles by Eric Dean Rasmussen, Steven Wingate and Diogo Marques, raising across their pages questions related to post-digital fiction, textual screens and tropes of circularity as these feature in electronic literature.
The issue will be of interest not only to scholars of electronic literature but also to those who are interested in varying constructions of the presents and futures of literature.
Mario Aquilina is a Lecturer at the Department of English at the University of Malta, where he teaches literary theory, rhetoric and style, and electronic literature. He has published articles and book chapters on experimental literature, style, Shakespeare, Derrida, and Blanchot. He is also the author of The Event of Stylein Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and has co-edited the special issue of CounterText, ‘Electronic Literature, Again’ (2016).
Beyond the Binary of East and West However hard it tries, scholarship in world Christianity does not find it easy to escape the grip of the long-standing historical binary of East and West. The Christianities of Asia, Africa, and even … Continue reading →
The start of the Arab Spring has raised numerous searching questions about the study of the Maghreb. Scholars of the region are grappling with an intriguing and largely unacknowledged paradox: that the theory that arguably did most to blind them to the onset of the unrest has regained much of the relevance which led to its earlier pre-eminence.
By the time the Arab Spring began, North African studies was heavily influenced by the theory of authoritarian resilience which seeks to explain the longevity and endurance of the region’s various dictatorships. As a result, much of it paid insufficient attention to either the causes or possible consequences of the protests, focusing instead on why these regimes were able and likely to survive.
Since then, North African studies has re-engaged with a wider range of theories. In so doing, it has not only reduced the influence of authoritarian resilience, but opened itself up to other ideas and explanations. Yet despite these benefits, this move has occurred at precisely the moment when authoritarian resilience has the most to offer: to explain the survival of the Maghreb’s undemocratic regimes.
Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania are all ruled by the same leaders and elites who held power when the protests began. Libya has broken free of Gadhafi only to become mired in a civil war which shows no sign of abating anytime soon. And Tunisia, the one country to have successfully made the transition to democracy, is at risk of backsliding, of succumbing to old practices and personalities. The failure of the Arab Spring to usher in either the type or scale of political change that many in the region and beyond initially hoped for has drawn fresh attention to the perennial question: why are authoritarian leaders and practices in the Maghreb so resilient?
When addressing this issue, there are considerable benefits to using and applying Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s model for explaining regime transitions. Initially developed to account for the competing trajectories of the world’s undemocratic regimes in the aftermath of the Cold War, their thesis has two great strengths. The first is its subtlety. It makes no assumptions about the direction of political travel but recognises that regimes can remain in and move freely between any of the three conditions (democratic, competitive authoritarian and full dictatorship) that it identifies. And the second is the safeguards its adoption offers against the re-establishment of the authoritarian resilience paradigm as the pre-eminent approach within North African and Middle Eastern studies.
Yet using Levitsky and Way’s model is not entirely straightforward. While the fact that it has never been applied to this region before presents original and exciting research opportunities, it also speaks of some of the functional challenges that need to be negotiated. This adaptation and application has begun already. In my latest book – Democratisation in the Maghreb– I draw on Levitsky and Way’s model to chart and compare the political development of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania over the past decade. I believe that the benefits of doing so have been manifold. In addition to casting new light on why four countries which seem to share so much in common have been affected by the Arab Spring in such contrasting ways, it develops Levitsky and Way’s thesis thereby facilitating its application to a new tranche of hitherto excluded regimes in North Africa, the broader Middle East and beyond.
And in the longer term, I hope that my book has sufficient accuracy and nuance to account for the region’s ongoing political development. The criteria that Levitsky and Way establish provide clear guidance on likely regime outcomes. By identifying and monitoring particular pressure points, insight can be gained into the trajectories of these countries, their respective directions and speeds of travel over the coming years.
J.N.C Hill is Reader in Postcolonialism and the Maghreb in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. He is also an Associate Member of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London and a Visiting Fellow of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is a member of the Board of Advisory Editors for the Middle East Journal and a Fellow of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. He is author of Nigeria since Independence: Forever Fragile? (2012) and Identity in Algerian Politics: The Legacy of Colonial Rule (2009).
Theory is a particular type of practice, with its own set of rules, rituals and sanctions. To participate in its more institutionalised and prominent forms, it is necessary to engage with these norms and to negotiate one’s relationship to them. Far too often, this is done implicitly and non-reflexively, meaning that thinkers more or less automatically perpetuate the ‘normal theory’ of the practices in which they participate. They do philosophy, political science, sociology or literary theory – to take but a few examples – precisely as these disciplines are to be done. Their objects of analysis, methodologies, rhetoric and argumentative strategies conform to common practice and are thereby immediately legible as works of a particular discipline.
Let us call this type of intellectual activity interpretation. It works within the guiding parameters of an established theoretical practice. Interpretations can, of course, be more or less daring in the moves that they make, and they commonly seek to bring forth new perspectives or results. However, their activities always operate squarely within the rules of an extant social game. The central conundrum of interpretive work is how to abide by the norms of disciplinary practice while also producing original results. Whereas rote interpretation will be dismissed as old hat, novel interpretation will be lauded as saying something new (without however changing the grammar of the practice itself).
An intervention, by contrast, calls into question the rules of the game and their institutionalised customs. Unlike an interpretation, it is not immediately intelligible, and it often raises a series of troubling questions: ‘Is this philosophy?’ ‘Is this anthropology?’ The guard dogs of interpretation will almost inevitably lay claim, as vociferously as their institutional power permits, to the territory that defines their right to existence. How dare someone not play by the rules of the game (which is particularly disrespectful to those who have succeeded at precisely these games)? Institutionalised repression and marginalisation tend to be the academy’s interpretation of interventions.
This is in part because theoretical interventions seek to do what has not been done. They advance into uncharted territory, raising deep structural questions regarding condoned practices and authorised practitioners. It is not only that they are undisciplined, in every sense of the word, it is that they are capable of undertaking a counter-cultural archaeology and ethnology of contemporary intellectual work, raising the crucial questions: ‘what has been done?’ and ‘what is to be done?’ They frequently unearth the profound social and political stakes of established theoretical games and their privileged actors, as well as their cultural exclusions. They overturn the stones of Eurocentrism, phallocentrism, classism, institutionalised racism, compulsory heterosexuality, transphobia and the international division of intellectual labour.
Interventions have the capacity to develop new and different games. They are much riskier and even incendiary endeavours, and they are certainly more laborious and time consuming. Whereas one can be relatively quickly equipped for interpretive work, and many of the parameters that are in place favour this, interventions require cutting across disciplines, geographic regions, cultural milieus and distinct practices. This is not simply intellectual trespassing or transitory rebelliousness for it ultimately requires a profound reworking of the systems in place. In extreme cases, where interventions succeed in gaining traction, they reconfigure the very field of the thinkable. Michel Foucault’s poignant description of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud as ‘founders of discursivity [fondateurs de discursivité]’ might be taken as a potential example. Throwing off the harness of well-disciplined interpretive work, they both sought, in different ways, to intervene in order to create alternative theoretical practices, which have had a far-reaching impact.
In the current theoretical conjuncture, in which interpretive work remains the order of the day and interventions are rare or sometimes tenuous, it is imperative to raise the question ‘what is to be done, with theory?’ The answer of interpretation is to do what has been done (although perhaps with slight surface improvements). That of intervention is that theory itself needs to be redone. It opens a perilous path beyond the well orchestrated moves of disciplined and cultured work, which is at once more arduous and devoid of immediate gratification or even guarantees. It might be a path that leads nowhere, at least insofar as the destinations and aspirations of intellectual work are generally predefined by the interpretive-disciplinary matrix. Yet, in spite of the imperatives of our conjuncture and its institutions, can one not help but wonder if it is not precisely our time that is ripe for intervention?
Gabriel Rockhill is a philosopher, cultural critic and political theorist. He is an Associate Professor at Villanova University and the Founding Director of the Atelier de Théorie Critique at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. He is the author, most notably, of Counter-History of the Present: Untimely Interrogations into Globalization, Technology, Democracy (forthcoming), Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics (Edinburgh UP), Radical History & the Politics of Art (Columbia UP, 2104) and Logique de l’histoire: Pour une analytique des pratiques philosophiques (Éditions Hermann, 2010). Follow on twitter: @GabrielRockhill
By Enda Duffy Professor of English, UC Santa Barbara
Fredric Jameson may be the world’s most distinguished literary and cultural theorist living today. His influence since the 1980s on materialist, cultural and literary criticism, from the U.S. to China, has been enormous. He has provided a bridge for Anglo-American criticism from the critical theory of the Frankfurt School: translating the uncompromising mandarin Euro-critique of the ‘culture industry’ of Adorno and Horkheimer into an American critical idiom flexible enough to cover film and pop culture as well as Proust, Wyndham Lewis, and Conrad. He steered the ‘cultural studies’ and ‘new historicist’ movements on to the firmer ground of materialist, not to say, post-Marxist, critique. His has been the most influential reading of ‘post-modernism.’ He has all the time kept the faith with Benjamin’s observation, which he quotes in the epilogue to The Political Unconscious, that “Cultural treasures […] owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He unites his own high aesthetic appreciation for the most rarified high-art productions in any number of genres—music, science fiction, film, architecture and photography as well as literature—with a tough-minded awareness of the contradictions of capitalism. He is an aesthete, and a Marxist. Jameson, for almost half a century, has been the brilliant standard bearer of materialist critique in the humanities.
The question is, whither that critique now? On the one hand, the final end of an already thoroughly discredited ‘actually existing communism’ caused a shock from which late-Marxism is still trying to recover. On the other, the end-game of any number of sixties movements in the west—anti-racism, feminism, gay rights, and some versions of class struggle—have meant a vastly expanded awareness and acceptance of the fruits of what Paolo Friere called ‘conscientization’ and Althusseur ‘ideological critique.’ So the scale of the problems seems to have shifted: from the nation (and anti-imperial nationalisms), to the north versus the south (the days of ‘the third world’) to the planet itself (our current moment of ‘the anthropocene’). ‘Class struggle’ appears to be trumped by the nightmares of planetary armageddon dreamed up in the past only by science fiction writers and nuclear-war generals. Jameson as a theorist has always been more at home with the intricacies of the dialectic of enlightenment than he has been with the practicalities of class struggle. Not for him the declarations of allegiance with the workers that are a feature of some writers from countries with strong union traditions. Can such theory, focused in the first instance on reading cultural productions, matter in the era of the anthropocene?
My answer: we need Jameson now more than ever. The poor still cannot represent themselves, and must be represented, especially because, as any Marxist critic can easily grasp, it is they who will be the first victims, and the most thoroughly victimized by every change in climate and levels of pollution. The millenarianist tone of some ecological thinking begs to be confronted by the hard edge of class analysis and materialist critique. The urgency of ecological thinking has, paradoxically, been comforting for some scholars as it allows them to forget the reality of class differences. And Jameson’s work, even at its most mandarin, never allows us to forget such differences. At the same time, in its own ability to anticipate the new turn in critique to a planetary scale, Jameson’s most important writing challenges us to think beyond traditional versions of class and capital in ways that make it a particularly useful tool for thinking about how to deal with the anthropocene itself.
I’ve recently been rereading Jameson’s central book, the Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981). At its publication, and since, the book was both praised and attacked for its claim that a Marxist or materialist reading of any work of culture was always necessary because it was the only one which could be a total reading, that is, the only one that could see and judge the work as expressive of the whole society from which it came. By appealing to the power of totality, and implicitly to the need for total change or none at all, Jameson might appear to be the most mandarin of Marxists, who will never be content with the small, incremental changes fought for by an activist. But au contraire; what the insistence on totalizing critique allows Jameson to do is to escape the ideological critique, and the identity-politics, that had been the strong point of ‘Western’ (i.e. European) Marxists since Gramsci. Jameson appears to jettison a post-Althusserian ideology-critique in favor of a more materialist one. This brings his critique closer to matter—which is, after all, the concern of the environmental theorists of the present. His work wants to be a materialism of matter, or, if you prefer, of nature (and an analysis of the surprising extent to which nature is culturally formed). How nature—especially human nature—changes, how it has a history, is very much his topic. And he achieves this, I suggest, because the most riveting parts of the book are his repeated engagements with the work of French theoretical experimenters with different versions of history, firstly Foucault, but especially with Deleuze and Guttari. As a shorthand, I’ll call this Jameson’s Deleuzianism. (He has since confirmed his interest in Deleuze in his article, “‘Marxism and Dualism in Deleuze’, South Atlantic Quarterly 96.3 (1997), 393–416.)
Jameson’s Deleuzianism is the result of his quest for a new materialism. Now, when ‘new materialism’ of the neo-vitalist kind advocated by Jane Bennett, and, in a different way, by such figures as Brian Massumi, and even by the new ‘speculative philosophers’ and ‘object oriented ontologists’ is being adopted by ecological critics as a useful philosophy of matter, the influence of Deleuze on humanities discourse in particular is entering a new phase. In brief, ecological thinking about the planet has need of a materialism that thinks of matter in vitalist terms. Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, for example, celebrates apparently inert matter as changing, and—in the grand scale—organic. Ecological thinking on how to deal with the problem discerned also needs a theory of how disparate groups can coalesce in order to bring about change that in different ways will be beneficial to all. Deleuze’s vitalist influence, which he develops from Bergson, and, further back, from Nietzsche and Spinoza, is ideally positioned to help think each of these projects. The centrality in Bergson’s conception of matter of flux and change (as in his term ‘creative evolution’) means it works for thinking of a history of matter itself, and thinking of how it has been worked on by humans. Bergson’s ‘flux’ clearly differs radically from the Marxist notion of ‘the engine of progress,’ and from the idea of revolution: it cares much more about the contingency of matter itself. At the same time, the account of how people change, and how they come together in rhizomic and intense coalitions, provides a useful set of categories for thinking of a coalition-based politics that might include class solidarity. Jameson’s search for a flexible materialism, beyond the prevailing accounts of ideology, led him, I argue to an early engagement with Deleuze. Jameson’s Deleuzianism might be just what we need now, when we have to think at once of global wealth disparities and global ecological disaster.