Posted by: Johan Normark | November 8, 2011

What hides inside the black box of speculative archaeology?

The Speculative Turn has begun to affect some archaeologists (including myself). Most of these archaeologists, just like myself, find most of their inspirations in the object-oriented camp. We are beginning to see Harman, Bryant, Morton and Bogost in the reference lists. I have approached the Speculative Turn from the DeLandian/Deleuzian/Bergsonian perspective(s). Most others (such as Christopher Witmore and Timothy Webmoor) come from the Serresian/Latourian/Whiteheadean perspective(s). Witmore refers to me in a forthcoming article that focuses on Whitehead’s actualist approach:

”Whether we are dealing with indigenous (Watkins 2000), interpretive (Hodder 1999), social (Meskell and Preucel 2004) or even processual archaeologies rooted in solid ’facts’ (Binford 1972), diversity has been squarely situated in the realm of competing stakeholder interests, multiple interpretations, beliefs and different social groups; all are to be respected, all are erected on the bedrock of a durable substance or a singular natural world (also see Latour 2003; from a yet another archaeological angle, see papers in Alberti and Bray 2009; also Normark 2010).”

I do not know what he sees in my article (“Involutions of materiality”) that relates to what he says in the quote. I am certainly not proposing multiple interpretations and that all interpretations should be respected. In the article I attempted to take the nonanthropocentric perspective of the causeway.  Is it my earlier use of the concept of materiality he objects against? If so, I did not see materiality as a durable substance because in a Deleuzian framework being is creativity and the actual forms emerge from the virtual (note that I now follow Harman’s decision to erase materialism as a concept in my own work). Or is Witmore referring to the virtual when he writes “a singular natural world”? It is true that Deleuze proposed a monistic ontology but to claim that it is a “natural world” seems misleading.

Harman argues that the philosophers mentioned in the first paragraph either undermines or overmines objects. Instead of distinguishing between realists and idealists Harman suggests we should distinguish between underminers and overminers of objects. When it comes to “my” philosophers they make use of the concept of the virtual which undermines the objects which does not give them a capability of their own. They also ground their understanding of the world from a monistic perspective.

However, Whitehead is not completely an object-oriented philosopher as Witmore argues. Both Whitehead and Latour are overminers of objects. In overmining “the object is treated as a useless fiction-a mere nickname for relations, qualities, or parts that are all tangibly accessible” (Harman 2011:38). This is clear in Witmore’s text where he emphasizes relations. Harman, on the other hand, strives to reach a realism without relationism. His quadruple object withdraws from all relations.

There is, however, more to the Speculative Turn than OOO. Some insights from the opposite end of the spectrum may be important if we are to understand what assumptions hides in the black box of OOO. Harman states repeatedly that he dislikes radical attempts to reduce reality to a single radix. He himself proposes a polarized philosophy (Harman 2011:24). Some of these ideas have been inspired by Latour’s Irreductions where Latour states that “nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else” (Harman 2009:13). However, Ray Brassier suggests that Latour reduces reason to discrimination, science to force, and scientific knowledge to practical know-how. Brassier says that “it is instructive to note how many reductions must be carried out in order for irreductionism to get off the ground: reason, science, knowledge, truth-all must be eliminated” (Brassier 2011:51). Latour makes no distinction between representation and reality, they are all actants. Brassier even suggests that Latour reduces everything to meaning, “since the difference between ‘words’ and ’things’ turns out to be no more than a functional difference subsumed by the concept of ‘actant’” (Brassier 2011:52). Latour’s texts are simply designed to do things, they are supposed to produce an effect instead of establishing a demonstration. This is the way a sophist works (Brassier 2011:53). Hence, Brassier suggests that Latour’s irreductionism is a form of correlationism since correlationism reduces things to concepts and concepts to things. Each reduction therefore facilitates the other. So, for Brassier to reject correlationism one must reinstate a critical nexus between epistemology and metaphysics (which Latour has blurred), between concept and object (Brassier 2011:55). 

Now, of course, Brassier has a particular goal with his eliminativist nihilism and that is to eliminate anything that makes us feel secure. The destruction of meaning is his goal and we can only rely on physics. That is not the way I wish to go. I will stick to the OOO faction but at least keep in mind what hides in the black box.

Brassier, Ray (2011). Concepts and objects.The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Levi Bryant, Nich Srnicek & Graham Harman (eds). Melbourne, pp 47-65.

Harman, Graham (2009). Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. Melbourne.

Harman, Graham (2011). On the undermining of objects: Grant, Bruno, and radical philosophy. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Levi Bryant, Nich Srnicek & Graham Harman (eds). Melbourne, pp 21-40.

Witmore, Christopher (forthcoming). The realities of the past: Archaeology, object-orientations, pragmatology. In Modern Materials: Proceedings from the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory Conference 2009. B. R. Fortenberry and L. McAtackney (eds). Oxford: Archaeopress.

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