Steven Shaviro’s new book teaches us how to navigate in a world where objects are peers
Midway between the two Ishiguros, the cover of Science announces: “Special Issue: The social life of robots: From Automatons to co-workers and companions.” Flipping to Richard Stone and Marc Lavine’s story, we learn:
Most of the robots we know today—unglamorous devices like robotic welders on car assembly lines and the Roomba vacuum cleaner—fall short of those in science fiction. But our relationship with robots is about to become far more intimate. Would you be comfortable with a robot butler, or a self-driving car? How about a robo-scientist toiling away next to you at the bench, not only pipetting but also formulating hypotheses and designing experiments? As robots become more sophisticated, psychological paradoxes are coming into sharper relief. Robots that look human strike many of us as downright creepy… while robots that act human—when they are programmed, for example, to cheat at cards—somehow put us at ease. And no matter how uncannily lifelike some of today’s robots may seem, the resemblance is skin-deep.
It is this Jetsonian shop floor—and the dilemmas it elicits—that the philosopher and critic Steven Shaviro addresses in his marvelous new book The Universe of Things. Why do we so often seek to blot out the technological beings that sit beside us on the figurative workbench, grasping eyedroppers and dropping liquids into beakers? Why is it so disturbing when that work of blotting-out fails us?
On Speculative Realism
University of Minnesota Press
To help us navigate this landscape of latency and lossiness, Shaviro engages critically with some texts from the new philosophical movements called Object-Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism (following philosopher Paul Ennis’s lead, we can combine the various movements under the banner of “Continental Realism”). At their best, Continental Realists show that “all the entities of the world are deeply interrelated and mutually dependent even in their separation from one another, and how nonhuman agents, no less than human ones, perform actions and express needs and values.” Against modern philosophy’s claim that phenomena depend upon the mind to exist, Continental Realism affirms the reality of the object in itself. Continental Realism does not let us dismiss the experiences of our robot co-workers’ experiences as any less valid than our own. Continental Realism reminds us that we are objects for the “beach-ball of death” as much as it is an object for us, and that Pango’s withdrawal from my world is no less real than my withdrawal from hers.
Inescapably, such arguments lead us to the realm of “panpsychism”—a position usually restricted to the pages of the books sold in health food stores or offered as prizes during Pacifica radio fundraisers. Nevertheless, a serious engagement with objects and ontology requires us to think about objects as things that “have experiences”—though not necessarily in the same way that subjects “have experiences.” Shaviro quotes one important Continental Realist: “humans have no privilege at all; we can speak in the same way of the relation between humans and what they see and that between hailstones and tar.” In such a revision of ontology, aesthetics assume a special centrality as a mode of contact between all beings, not the “special metaphysics of animal perception”:
If all entities inhere in the world “in the same sense,” then we must describe this inherence in the same way for all of them. I must accept that the categories I use to describe myself are also valid for the hailstone. It has its own point of view, just as I do; and that it somehow feels the tar with which it comes into contact, much as I do.
Leftists often treat such speculation as deadly to the project of analyzing the real relations of power, inequality, domination, and exploitation. Against such a reflexive refusal, Shaviro’s take on the “object turn” offers up some clear points of connection between the new Continental Realism and the concerns of Marxist politics and aesthetics. But in order to think clearly about what Shaviro is up to, it will be useful to review some recent intellectual history.
Meillassoux’s main conceptual innovation is the critique of a certain analytic syndrome called “correlationism” (the idea that we only ever have access to the encounter between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other). Meillassoux laments in After Finitude that “correlationism”—which encompasses just about every philosophical text written after Kant—cuts off access to “the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory—of being entirely elsewhere.” Fortunately for us, Meillassoux promises, modern mathematics and science grant a certain kind of access to the “thing-in-itself,” although the form of this access is occult: something called “hyper-chaos.”
In The Universe of Things, Shaviro empathizes with Meillassoux’s yearning for the “great outdoors.” But Shaviro reminds us that there is another portal to “that outside.” This portal may be accessed via the writings of the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Like Meillassoux, Whitehead’s metaphysics begins with a rejection of philosophy’s initiatory, constitutive binary split: the “bifurcation of nature.” Like Meillassoux, Whitehead is invigorated by recent research in science and mathematics. But, as Shaviro emphasizes, the similarities end there. For Whitehead, much of the recent work in Continental Realism would have been of limited interest, too static and atemporal, too sloppy in differentiating between different levels of abstraction and concreteness.
The Universe of Things also attends concertedly to the work of Graham Harman. In particular, Shaviro shines a light on the usefulness of Harman’s Heideggerian insight that the image of the “broken tool” grants us access to the inner world of objects. “When a tool, or a thing, fails to function as expected,” Shaviro writes, “the excess of its being is suddenly revealed to us.”
What is this “excess of being?” It might be easiest to think of it as a mathematical remainder. The “excess of being” is what is left after we subtract things from themselves. In the aftermath of the many revolutions of modern physics, we know that if you take, say, a chair, and subtract from the universe that chair, you are not left with nothing. The “something” that is left over—however resistant it is to analysis—is the “excess of being.” A scientist would likely tell us that the “something” merely alerts us to a problem with the way we have framed the question. A psychoanalyst might situate this remainder at the level of fantasy or invoke the language of object relations. A deconstructionist might point to the “hauntological” traces of the chair and its ghostly afterlives. Depending on the chair’s status as property, the law might take an interest in it; a lawyer might pursue pain and suffering compensation if the chair had sentimental value for someone. The chair might be part of a Collateralized Debt Obligation (in the lead-up to the crash of 2007-2008, many office chairs were), and thus remain “existent,” into the future, as far as the hedge fund or bank is concerned. The chair might be in pieces, in a box on a shelf in IKEA, and thus constitute a pre-chair—a not-yet-chair, a hypothetical chair—which its destruction would not fully cancel out in any straightforward way.
The “excess of being,” then, points us to the inner core of objects, to the ontology of objects for themselves, objects independent of subjects. If we know how to dial in the correct settings, this object-oriented perspective yields psychedelic bewitchments, like Harman’s “uprising of distinct elements . . . a surge of minerals and battle flags and tropical cats into the field of life, where each object bears a certain demeanor and seduces us in a specific way, bombarding us with its energies like a miniature neutron star.”
In order to extract this vital strain of Harman’s project, Shaviro is forced to effectively re-master Tool-Being. Shaviro follows Tool-Being through its opening gambit—the proposal that the “broken tool” might tell us something meaningful about the ontology of everything—but then quickly cauterizes the text. Shaviro seeks to discard Tool-Being’s later chapters, where Harman takes the reader to a “world of objects that exist in vacuum-sealed isolation… each object both disappearing into and emerging out of its own inaccessible vacuum.” In this chilly landscape, the check written early in Tool-Being—the promise that with this approach we will gain awareness of the sensuous actuality of things—turns out to be impossible to cash. If there is something of value here to be recuperated, it needs to be salvaged from this Lovecraftian end. (It is not surprising, perhaps, that Harman harbors a penchant for making joking references to Shaviro as his “nemesis and tormentor”).
Continental Realists are not, of course, the first writers to engage with objects and things. The analysis of objects has been a particularly active concern for Marxists. Historical materialism is, in its own way, object-oriented: with its conceptual creation “the commodity” and its diagnosis of the thingly maladies of capitalism: objectification (when the sale of units of labor-power in discrete chunks of time makes us feel too much like inanimate objects), reification (wherein the fluidity of life is frozen, as in a wax museum), and alienation (which happens when our identification with objects distances us from our human-ness). In 2015, however, it is easy to become restless with these analytic categories of objectification, reification, and alienation. They have long since begun to function as clichés, incapable of telling us much at all about capitalist subjectivity, to say nothing of capitalist objecticity. Shaviro’s work proposes that within Continental Realism we might discover the tools with which to renovate Marxist aesthetic theory.
This can be seen most clearly in the central section of The Universe of Things: a series of experiments in inverting the “uncanny valley.” Shaviro doesn’t coin a phrase, but we could call the phenomenon that interests him “the uncanny mountain,” meaning something like: “a human agent’s rise in vitality as it becomes increasingly object-like.” Whitehead serves as Shaviro’s guide in navigating this “uncanny mountain.” In The Universe of Things Shaviro looks in particular at Whitehead’s close reading of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1817 poem Mont Blanc. By way of Whitehead, Shelley also provides Shaviro with The Universe of Things’ title
Reading Mont Blanc with Whitehead, Shaviro finds a vivid description of real objects in their thingly voluptuousness. Objects confront the observer as vivid presences, not simply representations of associations or symbols. “We do not just passively receive a series of bare, isolated senses,” Shaviro writes, “rather, we actually do encounter Mont Blanc, with its surrounding glaciers and woods and waterfalls.”
The passion that Shaviro seeks to explore here is not the oceanic feeling of interconnectedness at the heart of the Romantic sublime, but rather the Whiteheadian concrescence of “satisfaction,” summoned forth when an entity fully constitutes itself into “determinate matter of fact.” A poem like Mont Blanc reveals the way that all of the various entities in the universe are always performing a double movement of allure and metamorphosis, bursting forth and slipping away, “displaying their absolute singularity and retreating into a maze of references and transformations.” We find ourselves, as Whitehead wrote, “within a world of colors, sounds, and other sense-objects, related in space and time to enduring objects such as stones, trees, and human bodies”:
The double movement of withdrawal and belonging is what makes possible a “democracy of objects” (as Levi Bryant beautifully calls it). Or, as Whitehead puts it in Process and Reality, in a phrase that both refers back to and expands upon William James, “we find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.”
The reader here might be tempted to ask: why is this not simply an ordinary example of pastoral veneration of nature? Is this not the same old Romantic desire for fusion with lakes, meadows, and hills? My guess is that Shaviro would counter such a question by reminding us that the pastoral poem is not bad because it describes nature. If a given eclogue, for example, is bad, it is bad because it works to affirm the patriarchal power of the shepherd or landowner, to reify the class character of agrarian society, or to diminish the reader as it aggrandizes the holy peasant. And however bad the eclogue might be, it does not erase the fact that fields and rivers and streams and sheep do really exist, out there, in the “great outdoors.”
If such concerns can be put aside, we can recognize the great contribution made by The Universe of Things to the project of renewing radical aesthetic theory. We have long lacked an adequate vocabulary for talking about objectal aesthetics: about shimmering surfaces, the allure and luster of materials. Shaviro helps to restore to poiesis its properly antic and slapstick materiality.
It is in his discussion of aesthetics that Shaviro threads the needle, offering something new and invigorating to Marxism and other strains of radical materialism while remaining open to the value of Continental Realism’s interventions. His analysis echoes that of the philosopher Ernst Bloch, whose debate with his old friend György Lukács remains the classic example of Western Marxism’s approach to aesthetics and politics.
The German intellectual historian Anson Rabinbach stresses that Bloch’s quarrels with Lukács in fact had quite a lot to do with objects. Bloch chafed against the way that objectification, reification, and alienation rested upon the distinction of the “authentic” from the “inauthentic.” Bloch’s work “demonstrates a radical indifference to the problem of objectification in culture,” Rabinbach writes, “and therefore to the problem of whether or not objectification constitutes the timeless fate of humanity or the historical condition of a particular epoch, a question which for Lukács remains decisive.” In opposition to Lukács, Bloch insists that truth resides at the “deepest dimension of being,” a dimension that we access mostly by aesthetic and spiritual means. Here, there is an important resonance linking Bloch and left Continental Realism—a passion, however paradoxical or mystical, for the noumenon.
Bloch’s aesthetic theory is radically anonymous, prioritizing the collective and unsigned over the canonical and authorized. Bloch loved the form of the inventory: the seemingly arbitrary list of objects guided by the ideal of comprehensiveness rather than taxonomization.
This seems to me substantially congruent with Shaviro’s project: both in The Universe of Things, and in his many essays on contemporary aesthetics: particularly his sparkling and brilliant reading of Jerry Lewis’s impossible final film, Cracking Up. Like Bloch, Shaviro seeks a “vital materialism” (to borrow a term from Jane Bennett): an engagement with the world of objects that presumes that every thing is “entelechial, lifely, vitalistic.” Life, in such a world, would be “a matter of degree, of a more and a less” which could only be identified “relatively and situationally.” Shaviro observes that there are many “intermediate cases between life and nonlife,” and as our experiences with Geminoid and Pango suggest, we cannot draw firm lines in the old fashion:
Even the simplest physical processes are more lively than we often realize; and even the most unambiguously living processes are always embedded within, and inextricably entangled with, comparatively nonliving ones. Vitality is unevenly distributed, but it is at work everywhere.
The desire to understand this spooky quality of connectedness motivates Shaviro’s discussion of a science fiction story by Gwyneth Jones, also called “The Universe of Things.” Jones’s story is a sort of speculative labor ethnography: a thick description of an evening in the life of a human car mechanic enlisted to fix an alien’s car. The Universe of Things is organized, I think, around the preparation of the reader for an encounter with this story. Shaviro’s engagement with “The Universe of Things” stems from a certain frustration with Continental Realism’s engagement with “tools.” For all of its endless “tool” talk, Continental Realism is apparently uninterested in the very relation that tells us what a “tool” is and what a “tool” is not, whether we are a “tool” for another or another is a “tool” for us—the employment relation. If capitalism is a religion, the employment relation—the employer, employee, and the state as regulator or umpire—is its Trinity. To talk about capitalism’s “tools” absent the employment relation is tantamount to describing the sacrament without mentioning the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Labor historian Christopher Tomlins reminds us that “employment” derives from the Anglo-Norman imploier: “to make use of (a thing).” It is the semantic overlap between this “employment” and “employment” as the crux of capitalism as a mode of exploitation that Shaviro wants us to confront as he performs a close reading of Jones’s “The Universe of Things.”
“The Universe of Things” is set on a planet that has been colonized by an alien race called the Aleutians. One afternoon, an Aleutian whose car has broken down calls upon the services of the story’s protagonist, a human auto mechanic. The job fills the mechanic with anxiety. Why has the alien singled him out? The Aleutians’ technology is far superior, and humans are not usually enlisted for such tasks. Wanting to maintain the “mystique of craftsmanship,” the mechanic “turns off all the machines that usually do the repair work in his shop and resolves to fix the alien’s car by hand.”
In the course of a long evening, as he works on the car, the mechanic has an epiphany—or a hallucination. He experiences, for a moment, what the aliens’ “living world” is actually like: his own tools seem to come alive. The experience is disconcerting, to say the least: “He stared at the spanner in his hand until the rod of metal lost its shine. Skin crept over it, the adjustable socket became a cup of muscle, pursed like an anus, wet lips drawn back by a twist on the tumescent rod.” The living world is obscene and pornographic. Existence is suffocating and unbearable. Everything is suffused by “living slime . . . full of self, of human substance, but somehow rendered other.” This is what happens when you have “succeeded in entering the alien mind, seen the world through alien eyes. How could you expect such an experience to be pleasant?” The mechanic is terrified and nauseated. All he wants is to return to the loneliness and security of the customary human world: a world in which objects remain at a proper distance from us, because they are dead, and safe.
Shaviro reads “The Universe of Things” as an allegory about the “liveliness of objects.” It is a reminder of the traumatic gap that separates our everyday experience of the world and cognizance of the strangeness of the inner lives of things: “that is, at the ways that they exist without being ‘posited’ by us and without being ‘given to’ or ‘manifested’ by us. Even the things that we have made ourselves possess their own bizarre and independent existence.”
Jones’s story—and Shaviro’s reading—is about more than the “liveliness of objects,” however. What makes “The Universe of Things” especially eerie is the way it allows us to witness the narrator becoming conscious of his own “tool-being,” second by uncanny second. As the “employee” of the Aleutian, he realizes, he is a thing that is “employed,” made-use-of. His own repulsive object-ness is no less troubling to his Aleutian boss than the previously concealed fleshliness of his implements and gadgets is to him. Forced for a moment to juggle between his own perceptual position, that of his employer, and that of his tools, the mechanic becomes privy to the strange and troubling internal world of the noumenon.
One model might be located in particularly moving rendition of the “uncanny mountain” from the dissident Marxist tradition. I am thinking here of the short and beautiful text that appears on the copyright page of the texts published by the radical dockworker Stan Weir’s Singlejack Books:
The term singlejack originated with the hard-rock miners of the American West. The drilling of holes for the insertion of dynamite was a tough and dangerous job. The miners worked in pairs, with one kneeling to hold erect the steel drill, which he would turn slowly as his partner drove it into the rock with blows from a sledge (or singlejack) hammer. They would switch tasks now and then, and because the job demanded as much mutual trust as skill, many lasting friendships were formed. Around the turn of the century, on-the-job organizers for the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World brought additional meaning to singlejack. They used it to describe that method of organizing where dedicated advocates are developed one at a time on a highly personalized basis—as between partners.
Stan Weir’s description of the singlejack’s “uncanny mountain” overlaps substantially with Continental Realism’s “flat ontology”: the razing of bulbous reality to a single plane upon which each entity has exactly as much reality as every other entity. Weir’s world of Wobbly intimacies even takes the mountain seriously as a lively actor, attending to the specific resistances and attractions, the precarious toeholds, the smashing and blasting, the resistances and pressures of human-object interaction.
Shaviro asks: is it possible that from such sources we might plot a path towards a “democracy of objects” that is also a “democracy of fellow creatures”—a polity or rabble that encompasses the rockface as well as the miner, the Nintendo anteater as well as the philosophy professor? If these entanglements of objects already form the texture of our everyday experience, surely we should find a way to orient ourselves within them? We probably need to find a way to say yes to this question. The Universe of Things prepares us for this act of affirmation.