Philosophical Autobio, and a Question: How did YOU get to Speculative Realism?
Ok, so this post started as a response to Paul Ennis’ reply to mine on Heidegger. I’d wanted to give some perspective on where I was coming from, and it seemed to me that a little bit of intellectual biomade some sense, because it seemed like our training in regard to Heidegger had been so different.
Well, as soon as I started writing, it took on a life of its own. Writing your own intellectual/philosophical biography, as narcissistically fascinating as it is, can actually be a ton of fun! Now, I’m not sure anyone else will find it fun to read, but who knows. But as I’ve been reading more and more of these speculative realism oriented blogs lately, I’m really finding myself more and more curious – how did everyone else get here, meaning, to speculative realism? Because it really seems like a varied set of paths. I found it a ton of fun to write what follows, but I’d also really be curious to see everyone else’s.
So, I’d like to put this out there– will you write yours? Because I’m curious! How did you all get to ‘speculative realism’? What sort of odd twists and turns? Which intellectual figures were big influences on you? What made you want to study philosophy in the first place?
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A Philosophical/Intellectual Autobio: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Speculative Realism, or The Philosophy of Networks, or Something Like That . . .
-HS and Undergrad . . .
I remember in high school English class in junior year, we read ‘Waiting for Godot.’ Around the same time I also started reading the science fiction novel ‘Dune,’ after being enchanted with the movie. Soon I had read all six books in the series, and these and Godot were my first introduction to philosophy. The Dune books today still impress me, saturated as they are with a variety of mystical traditions, neo-monasticisms, and a highly philosophical outlook. At around the same time, I had also encountered T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ in a book of poetry laying around the house. I was absolutely fascinated. There were secrets here. I knew as soon as I got to college, I wanted to take a philosophy class, and I took two my first semester, and I was hooked. The next semester I took more philosophy, and my first Russian literature class, and it was all downhill from there.
My undergrad was in philosophy at one of the few US schools that just happened to have a continental philosophy program (Binghamton, SUNY), so I actually got to Husserl before Heidegger and Derrida, and was introduced to Derrida through his early works on Husserl. I was steeped in Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Bataille, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Freud, Heidegger (a graduate course on ‘praxis/poesis’ with Chris Fynsk) – hardly a traditional philosophical undergrad in the US. I wrote a totally over-the-top 200 page undergrad thesis on what I called ‘virtual theory.’ It didn’t even mention Deleuze, because I really didn’t know much of his work at that point, nor did it deal with virtual reality. It was, however, about coming up with a completely relational philosophy, though I didn’t call it that then. It had everything but the kitchen sink in it, and was wayyyy overboard. Little did I know that my later philosophy of networks would pick up on the intuitions I was working on in my undergrad thesis.
Knowing I couldn’t really pursue continental philosophy any further in the US (due to the prominence of analytic philosophy in most of our philosophy departments), I realized that unless I wanted to limit myself to a handful of continental programs, I likely had to pursue continental thought by other means. I added a double major in comparative literature towards the end of my undergrad, and figured comp.lit. was the way to do continental philosophy with my many other interests, particularly early twentieth century russian literature, film, etc. I started taking some language classes, and when time came to apply to grad schools, I wrote a really philosophical statement of purpose (not knowing this would scare off most comp.lit. departments), and I didn’t really have anywhere near enough language training (except some growing proficiency in German), so most of my applications were denied, except at NYU, which sent my application from comparative literature to their very theory-heavy German dept.
– NYU German, then UC Berkeley, then NYU Complit
I spent a year and a half at NYU German, taking many classes on early twentieth century german thinkers (often related to contemporary French theory) – Benjamin was god there (and I studied him extensively under Eva Geulen), but we also swam in Adorno, Krakauer, Lukacs, Freud, Brecht, as well as figures like Bergson, Foucault, Vertov, Althusser, etc. It was there I took several classes under Avital Ronnell on figures like Blanchot, Derrida, Freud, DeMan, etc. After spending a lot of time studying more German, French, and Russian language, I finally applied to comparative literature departments again, and this time got into both NYU and Berkeley. I deferred NYU and spent a year at Berkeley to see what I thought, studying Deleuze and Lacan under Lacanian film theorist Kaja Silverman (Judith Butler was unfortunately on leave that year), while getting some background in British modernism, before finally deciding to finish back at NYU.
All this time my allegiances were split between my love of theory and philosophy, and my need to have a speciality I could sell to the job market. My specialty was continental and english language modernism in literary and visual culture (lots of avant-garde movements, modernist literatures, lots of early twentieth century cultural history, etc.), with an emphasis on film studies. But my passion remained philosophy and theory. Once I came back to NYU, my longstanding fascination with Zizek motivated me to devote a substantial chunk of my life to finally understanding Lacan. I devoted everything I had to reading everything on Lacan I could lay my hands on, figuring that I’d do a modernism dissertation, but eventually writing a book on Lacan on the side for myself.
– Training in Psychoanalysis
It was about the same time that, in light of a terrifying job market, I decided I needed a backup career if I didn’t want to have to move all around the country in search of a job, so I started to train as a psychoanalyst in one of New York’s many small private training institutes. I did two years of coursework there, and saw patients in the clinic for 1 year under supervision, along with the standard training analysis, etc. The institute billed itself as ‘eclectic’, but I soon learned that they were really a descendent of what Lacan calls ‘Ego-Psychology’, and very conservative, despite being open on the surface to things like Object-Relations theory, Lacan, etc. I was reading voraciously about psychoanalysis, both critical and clinical, in all its incarnations, and it started to be seen as a bit threatening. I particularly found myself inspired by Intersubjective, Relational, and Object-Relations approaches, and was intellectually fascinated by the work of the relatively obscure Scottish theorist Ronald Fairbairn. At this time, several of us in the training program started leaving because some of the second year teachers found we had been really spurred to an existential approach to therapy by one particular adjunct they had hired to teach us object-relations. After that it was only a matter of time until the situation became intolerable, and I didn’t return for the third year of the program, figuring I’d start up at another, much more theoretically pluralist training institute soon.
It was about this time that I was writing my dissertation on a figure in modernist literature and visual culture, in particular, the relatively obscure figure of Richard Bruce Nugent, the only openly ‘gay’ author and artist of the Harlem Renaissance. I was reading him symptomatically against the histories of modernism, of which I was reading voraciously. I was also spending a lot of time catching up on the history of African-American literature and culture so that I could write about the Harlem Renaissance in its cultural context, particularly as things led up to the 1920’s. My thoughts on Nugent were filtered through all the philosophy I was reading, and I really began to see the only way of discussing him in regard to networks. But my advisors kept telling me I’d never get a job in a literature department if too much theory showed up in my dissertation, and nobody gets a job just for theory. So I repressed my real desires, in the hopes that oneday I’d be able to go back to them. Besides, doing the relation of race and queer studies helped me channel my desire to change the world, and my teaching on these subjects really helped me feel that I could do some of that through the classroom. By this time I was writing my dissertation under Emily Apter, a really smart comparitist with expertise in turn of the century French texts, race, queer studies, and Francophone lit. She was an amazing help all the way through.
During much of the second half of my graduate work, I also became very politicized. Living in Berkeley, and in the coops in particular (quasi-hippie communes) had really watered the leftist side of my politics. My own queer identity brought me to the field of queer studies, and I trained extensively in this throughout grad school. I never felt I fit into the standard gay mold, but queer studies allowed me to argue for a gayness with a difference. And it also allowed me to bring in Marxism, and the desire for a better world. Paulo Friere and Alain Badiou started to have a big impact on me. For me, being a queer studies teacher often meant getting young queer kids who were becoming radicalized to realize that its not enough to just want gay marriage rights, but to see that unless you tie these to pushing for rights for immigrants and the fight against racism, that we’ve learned nothing from our own marginalization. For me, queer studies was often about race, and this lead me to my dissertation topic, trying to show how gender, sexuality, and race were inextricable in the modernist period, just as sexuality in the west was consolidating, and how as it is now transforming again due to post-modern capital, it is to this moment that we can look for clues on ways forward. But teaching became really transformative for me, and hopefully my students as well. Queer studies was a way to study how gender and sexuality related to race and culture in a wider sense, colonialism, visual culture, etc. People like Judith Bulter, Jose Munoz (who was on my dissertation committee), Kate Bornstein, Gloria Anzaldua, David Eng, and a variety of other queer studies theorists now occupied a lot of my intellectual time. I also found myself adjuncting teaching literary theory, with a strong cultural studies twist, at Hunter College at this time, and this continued my feeling that pedagogy could be an act of radical resistance to power. Teaching cultural studies and semiotics to students who had never hear of this stuff before, and who were generally the first in their families to go to college, well, it kept me radicalized. I would tell them, ‘these tools are to help deconstruct the bullshit that society tries to sell you.’ And I still believe that.
Then a surprise – I interviewed for a job at Pratt, a local art college with a small liberal arts program, and it turned out to be the job of my dreams. I would never have thought to look at an art college before. But their ad seemed to ask for just about everything I did. It was uncanny, “transnational and/or African -American approaches to modernism, queer and gender studies, film/ film theory, critical theory, ” etc. All my interest in the visual sides of modernism, and its relation to film theory, were oddly suited to the place. To my surprise, shock, and delight, I got the job. I was informed in the interview that it was a ‘teaching first’ institution, no grad program (though we are now starting an MA in Media Studies), and I was told afterwards that my teaching interview (in which I actually stood on a desk to make a point to the students) had a lot to do with being selected. I was thrilled. Oddly enough, it turned out that having all these odd side areas of interest worked in my favor, because they had a small faculty, and needed people who could teach as many possible upper level electives for a creative student body. So, rather than hyper-focussed, they wanted someone who could wear lots of cool intellectual hats. My grad school path, which took 9 years (not unusual with comparative literature, because of all the language requirements, and the nebulous definition of what defined the field in the first place), and by the end and was kinda all over the map, actually worked perfect for this job, where it would’ve likely have been a hindrance if applying to a traditional lit dept.
I felt so damn lucky, and still do, I’m grateful every day for this job. I was on a search committee the year after, and there were so many people who applied for the positions. And I found out that what determined so much of who we spent more time looking at was if the people in question had the odd list of things our department needed. It was about fit. There were so many over-qualified people, that we could be picky. Which is how I know it was such luck that I just happened to have the odd list of specialities they wanted when I applied. There’s a huge aspect of luck in getting to the interview stage. So I feel really, really lucky to have ever gotten to the interview stage. I’d like to think I did well on the phone and teaching interviews, but still, its so hard to get a job these days. The only advice I can give for those looking for jobs is actually look at teaching oriented colleges! Research universities prepare you for research university jobs, and to get those jobs, which might make you miserable, you need to be hyperspecialized. But if you like teaching lots of interesting undergrads students more than pushing out a million journal articles and mentoring grad students right out of grad school, then pursue lots of odd passions, and you just might find a great college that picks you up!
But little did I know how interesting things would turn out to be. Firstly, the faculty was way overqualified for an English dept doing ‘service’ at an art school, mostly because we were in NYC. But big changes were afoot, because there was a relatively new B.A. program in Critical and Visual Studies that I was also going to be teaching in, and our department was in the process of putting together an MA in Media Studies, and in the process of changing its name, hiring new faculty to prepare for the shift, etc. More than just service to the art school was going on. My new chair encouraged me to write on where my passion was. And with colleagues such as Jon Beller and Ethan Spigland, I had a whole new set of influences. Visual studies thinkers who I’d always felt guilty researching, because they took me away from literary modernism, now were the center of what we all had in common. Guy Debord, Laura Mulvey, Eisenstein, Vertov, Godard, etc. It was in this time that my long love of semiotics became a passion again, though I did feel the need to bring it into the twenty-first century. Still, semiotics formed much of the frame for the visual studies classes I was now teaching, even if I played fast and loose with semiotic orthodoxy to fit the needs of my students.
Oddly enough, it was as I was just starting at Pratt that I had a pretty surprising intellectual event occur. After getting burned out defending my dissertation a few months after getting hired, I wanted to do some pleasure reading. So I picked up Antonio Damasio’s ‘Looking for Spinoza’ and Andy Clarke’s ‘Mindware: An Introduction to Cognitive Studies.’ After reading both of these I saw for the first time that my interest in networks had a form, called the artificial neural network, and that it was increasingly being applied to the brain in a discipline known as complexity studies. I was fascinated, and hooked. Soon it was all I was reading. Complex systems science was a whole new venture to me. Fuzzy systems, artificial neural networks, game theory, experimental robotics, etc. It all resonated with so many philosophical instincts I’d long held, but now it seemed to have a new form. Could I bring that all together? In a new project?
It was also at this time that Deleuze reentered my life. I’d read a lot of Deleuze before, but not in a systematic way. But with this new emphasis on networks, and with Deleuze being by far the one thinker all my new colleagues taught on a regular basis (it IS an art school, after all!), I decided to make Deleuze my new teacher. So it was in this period that, like Lacan before, I read everything by Deleuze I could lay my hands on. Lacan was my first real self-shaping project, Deleuze was the second. With my newfound freedom at Pratt – I was given enormous freedom to research and teach most of what I wanted – I was able to go back to philosophy again, and even science. All the repression of philosophy for literature came back with a vengeance. I took Deleuze as my mentor, and anything he found important, I read, from Dewey to Whitehead to Simondon to Scotus to Spinoza and the Stoics. And then I began to fill in the blanks of my philosophical education on my own. My long lost love of Hegel, someone I had never really spent time with, I filled in voraciously, and the same with Schelling and Fichte (German Idealists I’d long wanted to master from my time spent with Lacan and Zizek).
I soon found that the Santa Fe Institute, the place where the complexity sciences were basically invented twenty years ago, had a month-long program in Complex Systems that drew graduate students and new phd’s from around the world to study complexity science. While most were in the sciences, they said that a few from other disciplines would be accepted, so long as you could understand multi-variable calculus and linear algebra. Luckily I’d spent most of graduate school tutoring basic math and science for high-schoolers for side money, so I had some confidence in my math abilities, but I’d never even taken a calculus course in college. How hard could it be, I figured? I started to teach myself calculus from books, and over the next few months, got to point where I could ‘read’ this math like you would read a foreign language. Besides, I wouldn’t be required to ‘do’ the math, just to be able to follow it in the lectures. And all this time, my research in complexity science continued, but now with increasingly more and more math on the pages of research I was reading. I applied to Santa Fe, and was very happy when I got accepted.
By the time I got to Santa Fe, the fact that my future lay in philosophy of networks was clear to me. My goal of absorbing not only Deleuze, but all his sources, was progressing nicely, as was my attempt to read everything I could about artificial neural networks, and how networks fit into complexity sciences. After the month in Santa Fe, with lecture series on everything from non-linear dynamics and econophysics to bioinformatics and social-science modeling software, I knew precisely what I needed to know to go further, and what I was expected to be proficient in to be taken seriously by scientists. Just about everyone else there was finishing phds in things like physics and math, after all! It was also a great time to make great friends, brainstorm out of your discipline, etc.
I came home, and finished the first draft of ‘The Networked Mind.’ Its mostly on the application of networks to contemporary cognitive neuroscience and within artificial neural networks. This book was a preparatory book for me, one which would lay out what Deleuze calls an ‘image of thought,’ one which could show what networks could do when applied to the brain and artificial minds. While it did address the need for a philosophy of networks, particularly in long sections on the critique of binary reason within both philosophy and computing, it didn’t articulate this philosophy. But I did post a networks ‘manifesto’ shortly after this was done, when I started blogging on this issue, and reading up on this new blog movement ‘speculative realism.’ Then I figured I’d send the manifesto to a journal for publication (keeping the fingers crossed), but I figured I’d spiffy it up a bit first. In the process, well, the entire second book has been writing itself in front of my eyes. The ‘manifesto,’ version 2.0, is now 65 pages, and is the nucleus for the whole second book. The whole philosophy of networks, for which the whole ‘Networked Mind’ was to lay the groundwork, just started forming in front of my eyes. And now there’s a whole system, down on paper! Its really exciting. And the first book hasn’t even been fully proofread yet!
Well, that’s where I am now. Having a ton of fun working on networkologies. And trying to remember that, in the long run, it has to work to make the world a better place, as does my teaching, or there’s no reason to keep doing it. I don’t delude myself, philosophy rarely changes the world in any sort of direct or simplistic way. But that’s why I think we need to work on changing the world at multiple levels. My teaching isn’t necessarily on networks, its on many things. And I’ve got a few non-philosophical projects which keep me working on changing the world a little bit in the meantime. But eventually, as the networkologies project gets done with things epistemological, it will end up back with ethics and politics, the analysis of capitalism, etc. But first I need the groundwork done, and that’s what I’m working on now. And its odd, but the networkologies project is really the same thing I was working on in my undergraduate thesis, but now with a LOT more to back it up. But its still an attempt to develop a fully relational philosophy. That’s where things are now.
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I don’t know if anyone is going to read this, or if they do, find it in any way interesting. But it was damn fun to write this. If anyone finds it interesting, write your own! I’m completely curious to find out about the intellectual development of others. Its always such a strange, twisty path, never what we expect. Well, here’s hoping that the next fifteen years of intellectual development are cool too!