Speculative Realism, Deconstruction. and Post-Structuralism: Can We Start Philosophizing Again, Or Is That Just Naive?
Speculative realism is the first “new” philosophical movement which attempts to “say something” again after the radical critiques of traditional philosophy articulated by late 20th century post-structuralism, as exemplified by the linguistic turn, and especially deconstruction. At some point, a bunch of folks just decided, well, it’s time we try saying something again, rather than just repeating the critiques of saying things we’ve been rehashing for the last 40 years. But can we get away with this? Or did we just ignore the critiques, and are they still valid? This post is directed towards this dilemma, and how it relates to contemporary continental/post-structuralist philosophy, and the possibility of speculative realism as that which is post-post-structuralism.
Articulating the Problem: Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion
All the post-structuralist critiques of traditional metaphysics argue that metaphysics isn’t doing what it says it’s doing. So when Spinoza or Kant or Hegel seem to be talking about Spirit or God or the faculties, there’s actually a slight of hand going on. Perhaps it is just language, playing with itself, producing illusions that there’s something there. Or it’s a play of power, producing new truths, none of which are anything other than strategies in power plays. Or perhaps it’s all desire, filtered through language, manipulating us so that we think we know why we’re doing something, but really, it’s all the unconscious.
Paul Ricoeur famously called these approaches to thinking “hermeneutics of suspicion,” and he rightly saw them as ultimately deriving from the self-questioning reflexivity of the late 19th century critiques presented by Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. Darwin has been added to the list by some. 20th century suspicions of traditional forms of philosophy simply built on those of the late 19th century, and the general suspicions and reflexivities that were unleashed in the culture in general at that time.
The most devious of the critiques, for any attempt to write new philosophy, however, is deconstruction. The argument is pretty simple. All philosophy is written in language. But up until the mid-twentieth century, language was seen as an obstacle for philosophy to overcome, a transparent medium at best, a hindrance to clear explanation of truths beyond language at worst. But then structuralism comes along, in the mid-twentieth century, and argues that language molds what we can say. Deconstruction, and the writings of Derrida in particular, radicalize this argument. Language and its workings are what make us think there’s anything to say in the first place. When we think we’re talking about God, or the faculties, or Spirit, or whatever else, what we’re really doing is talking about language. Or rather, language is talking through us, and all it ever really talks about is itself. Our deepest desires are so imbued with the play of language, that we can’t tell where the mirages created by language begin, and our desires end, or ever if our desires are in some way created by this play of language.
And since philosophy is written in language, any philosophy that doesn’t take into account this play of language is naive. It talks about God, or Spirit, without realizing these are figments of language’s mirage machine. Structuralism made us aware that language impacts what we say, but post-structuralism, and deconstruction in particular, shows us how language is what we say, and nothing more, which is to say, everything more. It’s all text, everything we’ve ever dreamed.
Of course, it’s possible to make similar arguments, using different means. One could say that all philosophy is really the result of evolution, our brains are the result of how evolution has sculpted it, and evolution manipulates us towards its ends. It’s all evolution, and there’s no way to know if we’re thinking what we are because we really want to, or evolution evolved our brains and bodies so as to make us think we want certain things, when really it’s evolution which, in a sense, wants them through us. The body, and that which brought it about, can substitute here for language as the point at which our ability to securely know the world is cut off.
Or we could use our brains. The unconscious, which is socially molded, manipulates us. Or to take a Marxist tack, we could say the economy manipulates our desires. And each of these means then serves to cut us off from what’s beyond it. We can’t talk about anything beyond our bodies, because language is a product of our bodies, and our bodies manipulate us through language. Or we can’t talk about anything outside of our unconscious, and feel secure we’re not being manipulated by our unconscious. Or we can’t talk about anything in society without being manipulated by the economy.
In all these hermeneutics of suspicion, whatever positions are put forth by philosophy are taken apart, as really the play of some manipulating agency, call it the body, the unconscious, power, language, etc., and reduced to the machinations of that agency. Hegel wasn’t really talking about Spirit. He simply thought he was. Really, the economy manipulated him, or language manipulated him, or the unconscious.
The result is a circularity that cuts us off from things. Try to talk about God, or your sense of “self,” and you are circularly thrown back into the economy, language, the body, the unconscious, take your pick. So you can never really talk about God, or the self. These vanish. And all that’s left is the favorite “deeper” level proposed by the given skeptic.
A Detour via Ancient Skepticism, and Socrates
Of course, I use the term “skeptic” carefully here. Because ultimately, this technique is as old as the hills. In the Greek tradition, there were the ancient Skeptics, who believed that any and every belief put forward in words could be deconstructed, and should be. So they looked for arguments to do precisely that. What was needed wasn’t this extreme position or that, but rather, balance between all extremes. Any position that could be articulated in language would take one away from that.
Socrates clearly learned this trick well. Using what later thinkers called his “dialectic,” he talked others into contradicting their own positions. This was his method, you extend someone else’s arguments until they breakdown. But then what? Socrates famously knew that he “knew nothing.” But this somehow made him, according to the Oracle at Delphi, at least, a much deeper thinker than his peers.
Plato saw the opportunity. He used the character of Socrates, and built. He argued that the one thing that could’t be brought to contradiction by this method was his theory of the forms. And so in the “early” dialogues, Socrates seems content to show that people know nothing, while in the later dialogues, he breaks down their positions, and then introduces the theory of the Forms. Critics generally see the first technique as closer to the original Socrates, a radicalized Skeptic of sorts, and the later technique as likely largely Plato’s innovation, added on to Socrates as a “character” in his semi-fictional dialogues.
The technique here is quite similar to what we see in that of the hermeneuts of suspicion. Show the contradictions in the argument of your rival. Then show how your system accounts for the production of their positions, and its contradictions. Your system is then superior. And anything which tries to get around it and talk about anything else is deceiving itself. So your system hides underneath all others, as the foundation of the production of truths themselves, and hence, is a deeper sort of truth.
Deconstruction, however, is particularly sneaky in terms of its skeptical methodology. All philosophy is written in language. That’s hard to deny. Even spoken philosophy comes down to us in written form, and makes use of language anyway, even when spoken. So how would we know that language isn’t manipulating us? For Derrida, the hope that history will be different, the belief that the past is really there, any sense that we can talk about God or the truth, these are all productions of language. And any philosophy that doesn’t start at this insight is self-deceived.
In some sense, Derrida is clearly correct. But he’s not merely correct. All the other hermeneutics of suspicion are, in their way, correct as well. We could all be simply manipulated by our bodies, our unconscious, the economy, language, evolution, the list keeps going. And this is what post-structuralism makes us have to deal with. The fact that there’s never a simple, naive way to talk about things. There are many ways in which we might be deceiving ourselves, in which our very attempts to say something real, are really us manipulating ourselves because we have been manipulated, at a deeper level, by something else.
This is the Platonic strategy. You use skepticism to take apart your rival’s system, and then use this to introduce your own. And the way you take apart your rival’s system is always inflected by the system you are trying to introduce. If you are a Marxist, you use economic arguments to take apart your rival’s claims, and then introduce the economy as the deepest determiner of values. If you are a psychoanalyst, you use psychoanalytic tools to show how the desires of the writer’s unconscious could secretly permeate the text, undermining its claims to validity beyond this. Deconstruction ultimately uses the same approach. The only difference, is that it’s closer to philosophy. Economics, the unconscious, these are located outside philosophy, but language is within it, it is the very means of the articulation of philosophy. I’m using it right now, and it’s this closeness that makes the deconstructive critique so much more devastating.
There is one more twist, however. Since deconstruction is clearly articulated in language, it then deconstructs itself as well. This final twist is part of all the post-structuralist anti-systems. Unlike Plato’s model, they don’t spare themselves from their own critique. Since it uses language, deconstruction is also just a play of the signifier. All of which raises the question of why we should take it seriously. If it deconstructs, then in some ways, it is no better than the ‘naive’ systems it takes apart. However, since it is aware of this, and states this as part of it’s system, it thereby becomes an anti-system, which is better, in some ways, than the naive systems of the past. But since anti-systems self-deconstruct, should their claim of being ‘better’ than naive systems really have any hold on us? But can we simply go back to doing old naive systems, as we did before, without lying to ourselves? Or are all systems, even anti-systems, a form of lying to ourselves?
Anti-Systems, the Current Bind, and a Detour via Lyotard and Nietzsche
This sort of self-reflexive questioning of the value or even possibility of saying anything is precisely the situation that dominated late-twentieth century philosophy. And as a result, people stopped trying to say anything. Rather, philosophers have traced the ways the same anti-systems, these skeptical systems, take apart other systems. Give us a truth, we’ll dismantle it. And the only new type of truth has to be an anti-system of this sort. Of course, these anti-systems wouldn’t be so hard to get around if they weren’t aware that, in their way, they are just as bad as what they are criticizing. Derrida knows that his notion of “language” is a construct, produced in language. Lacan is aware that his notion of the unconscious could simply be, and is, a product of the unconscious. Marx’s theories could be simply one more way in which the economy manipulates us to value certain things over others. The list goes on.
And this is why for the last 40 years or so, since post-structuralism came on the scene around the failed revolutions of 1968, we’ve all been skeptics of a sort. We’ve traced the same anti-systems. A few more have come along, but basically, any attempt to say anything must first reveal itself as at least an anti-system, never a system. And so, any system produced today has to really be about how systems are produced, and how we’re not really saying anything, but simply being manipulated.
Of course, all of this makes sense in the age of late capitalism, and the rise of what many have called postmodernism. Lyotard argues that post-modernism isn’t just a contemporary phenomenon, it’s what happens whenever a society breaks with its attempts to break with the past. That is, societies have values which come from repetitions of the past. At some point, they decide to break with these, and this is what is known as modernism. “We won’t be like our parents!,” people say. But after a period, people come to realize that they aren’t as different as they seemed, and much of what they are opposed to has seeped into their positions, if in reverse. Like a rebellious teen who does the opposite of whatever their parents desire, only to realize that this is being controlled by them in reverse. The result is a loss of modernist and traditional confidence in belief in general. Everything is possible, but nothing really real. It’s all images, lies, simulacra. This is postmodernism. For Lyotard, this happened in the late Roman empire, and any so-called ‘decadent’ period of the past, is happening in what is now often called ‘late capitalism,’ and such cycles will repeat again in the future.
But does that mean we need to deceive ourselves? Lie to ourselves, so we can believe something again? Certainly this is what Nietzsche would have said. In his famous essay on “Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense,” he argues that all language is lies (proto-deconstruction!), and so is philosophy and all thought. The question isn’t whether or not we’re lying to ourselves, because we always are. The question is which lies are better than others. Those who pretend they’re not lying to themselves are the most dangerous liars, they fully believe their own lies. But those who realize they’re lying to themselves can ask the question of which lies they want to believe. It becomes a question of values. What type of world do we want to live in, what colors do we want to paint our world?
Nietzsche tried to them put this program in action. He wrote himself a holy scripture, called “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” in which the giving of values to oneself is the highest of values. But he was lost, in his way, by the fact that any particular value would deconstruct. It didn’t end well. Nietzsche went mad. While this was likely the result of syphilis, there’s no question that his system became an anti-system, and reached its end. While Neitzsche could deconstruct other systems as simply the result of a “will-to-power,” and could get to the point at which he could see the flip side of this deconstruction, namely, the freedom to produce it gives us, he could only find a way to produce the same thing, namely, his system in reverse. He produced one of the first anti-systems.
Deconstruction is similar to this. It’s all language, so write anything you want! Just keep in mind, however, that it will deconstruct. Everything and nothing is permitted, for everything will come back to language in the end. And even language is just a mirror effect. You have complete freedom, but it’s impossible to use it, and as soon as you try to use it for real, you lose it. A catch-22 if there ever was one.
One possibility is simply to argue, with Lyotard, that this is what periods of crises of values do. Post-modernism is, like the late Roman empire, a period of relativism. And this has some very material causes. The traditions we knew are being deconstructed, in “reality” beyond philosophy (if we can even still talk of such a thing!), by massive shifts in our world. Railroads, telegraph, telephone, cars, electricity, airplanes, radio, television, computers, the internet. You name it, its been deconstructed, and not just philosophically. Traditions are being liquidated today faster than ever.
So maybe this is why we’re in such a bind right now? Maybe our philosophies just simply reflect the “deer in headlights” paralysis of a world upended by its own progress? Perhaps the fact that we can’t figure out what to say is simply a result of the fact that we’re traumatized by a world that’s changing faster than we are?
Can One Still Create?
It’s worth noting in all this, however, that the post-structuralists, to one degree or another, did all create, and manage to say something, in their way, by constructing anti-systems. Derrida is perhaps the least systematic of the anti-systematizers, and in this sense, the most skeptical about our ability to say anything. As a result, he is associated with a skeptical anti-method, namely, deconstruction, and a series of “signed concepts,” notions like the tympan, hymen, pharmakon, supplement, differance, etc. These concepts represent the particular way deconstruction articulated itself int he process of parasiting itself on another discourse so as to take it apart. These signed concepts represent the local manifestation of the deconstructive enterprise, a local name. But Derrida feels that local names are all we can ever get, because this movement of deconstructing only traces itself in the local manifestations of what it deconstructs. The result is what religious scholars call ‘apohantism,’ the attempt to “say the unsayable.” often used by mystics to try to describe an undescribable entity like God. Derrida’s writings on apophantism and its concomitant forms of negative theology are complex, but ultimately, there is great affinity between what he’s doing, and what these religious thinkers are doing. Perhaps the only difference is that Derrida realizes it’s a trick of the eye. And hence, rather than describe only God this way, Derrida describes everything this way.
And as such, he is a post-modern form of the Ancient Greek Skeptics. The God-that-unravels is everywhere. Unravelling is a political act, because people get seduced by anything fixed, and fixations tend to cause violence. By deconstructing whatever society keeps sacred, the deconstructionist helps society learn to deal with the instability at the base of its foundations, and the need to make decisions of an ethical nature about what to deconstruct, and why, and when, even as it knows even this will deconstruct. By choosing when to lie to oneself, even if that too is a lie, and when to deconstruct oneself, even though this too is a lie, local truths are articulated in relation to particular situations, and then unravelled in turn. So long as everything is kept in motion, society will be less violent, or that is at least the hope. Unfortunately, since there’s no reason why skepticism might not set in, the other danger is that people will get tired of all this circling around, and might not hanker for certainties of the past, and just go plain irrationalist. Because if nothing’s certain, and it’s all lies, why not some old fashioned lies again? If deconstuction is ultimately no more justified than naive systematizing, then it’s a question of values, right? Openness versus certainty. But some might say, screw this openness, let’s have certainty again! And if this is done consciously, as a form of self-lying, then the deconstructive claim that it is better at least in being conscious of its naivette goes out the window. A self-conscious irrationalism, after all, is precisely what Heidegger was seduced by. Derrida knows this is a danger, and this is why he feels that the ethical relation to the open is what’s needed. And he’s right. But by not building anything at all, beyond a handful of names, Derrida gives up too much. The systems are able to create, and deconstruction, for all it’s ability to create something more than just signed concepts, doesn’t. It remains far too skeptical.
Then there are the true anti-system builders. Lacan and Foucault, for example, build systems that recursively undercut themselves, by showing precisely how they gave rise to themselves, and hence, display a certain circularity. Foucault argues all truth is produced by power, even his model of power-knowledge. And Lacan argues that all is the play of language in connection to the unconscious, even his system. Nevertheless, each produces quite real systems. Foucault has his epistemes of pastoral power, disciplinary power, and biopower, local manifestations of power in particular historical conjunctures. While the very articulation of these epistemes is a new power game, he is able to deconstruct and reconstruct in a way that doesn’t immediately unravel, like Derrida does each essay, but takes its time. Foucault’s arguments deconstruct over centuries, rather than over the course of an essay. Lacan, likewise, produces a hall of mirrors in which the unconscious produces itself from the material of the signifier, even if changes in how humans internalize signifiers, say, shifts in childrearing, could alter all this. Lacan is perhaps the closest to a system builder of the post-structuralists, because while in stray hints here and there he argues that the ego shifted with Descartes, he does believe that, on some level, his myth of his system has a truth to it, despite its simulacral nature.
Deleuze is the most anomalous of the bunch. And perhaps this is why, towards the end of the twentieth century, it was Deleuze that so many philosophers so as a path beyond the crises of post-structuralism. Deleuze felt that all philosophy was a result of the play of the virtual, that which could never be captured by any worldly embodiment thereof. Deleuze’s skepticism was in this sense broader than that of his peers. Rather than see language, or the economy, or power, or the unconscious, as the source of simulation, he sees the world itself as one giant simulation of itself, a world-cinema in which all are images, and all images are real, but none as real as that agency which produces images and yet is captured fully by none of them. The virtual, Deleuze’s name for this force, is everywhere actualizing, but nowhere fully actualized. And this is the opening to freedom. It’s all false, which is why at points Deleuze speaks of the “powers of the false” which is to say, the wonderful power to produce new worlds.
But rather than deconstruct these worlds very quickly, as Derrida does, or let them linger, so long as we keep in mind that they will ultimately self-deconstruct, like Foucault and Lacan, Deleuze is the only thinker in the bunch that emphasizes the freedom and creativity that unravelling brings. Rather than put the emphasis upon the skepticism whereby everything deconstructs, Deleuze puts the emphasis upon giving rise to the new. While sometimes this requires deconstructing the past, this act of destructive shouldn’t be glorified for its own sake. This would be to idealize skepticism, and in its way, death. While death is essential if there is to be new birth, the birth is where the emphasis should be. Creation. And while some have argued that Deleuze fetishizes the new for its own sake, and in this way mirrors the capitalist push for continually new products, Deleuze is quick to show that he criticizes capitalism for not being new enough, for always giving us new seeming versions of the same, which is, ultimately, profit. For Deleuze, the new can never just be more of the same, it needs to be qualitatively new, beyond quantitative increase.
Why value the new? Because the truly new doesn’t fully destroy the old, but reworks aspects of it. Explore the world in all its potentials, rather than simply repeat the same, or get stuck in a death spiral of skeptical deconstruction. Taken to its extreme, Derridean deconstruction leads to repetition of quietism, with nothing to say. But Deleuze never seems to run out of things to say, and that’s because he shifts the emphasis from destruction to creation. When he runs out of things to say, he even takes his own past, and reworks it!
And in the process, Deleuze was always producing new anti-systems, each similar yet crucially different from the last. The systems he produces in Anti-Oedipus and Thousand Plateaus with Felix Guatarri, for example, full of desiring machines and machinic assemblages, are quite different from that which he produces in his Cinema books, or his works on Proust or Leibniz. Each of these systems, and they are systems (ie: movement-image, perception-image, affection-image, time-image…), unravels in the face of the virtual, and yet also was given birth from the virtual. Rather than get stuck saying the same thing, like Lacan’s Real that “always comes back to the same place,” Deleuze truly says “Encore!.” or “again!,” and doesn’t give way as to his desire. He mutates, but not merely quantitatively, but also qualitatively.
Learning To Create Again: For Speculative Realism
And it is in this movement that Deleuze points a path forward for speculative realism. If Speculative Realism is a hope that we can talk about the world again, and not merely trace the deconstructions of anti-systems of the past, we have a choice to speak about the world again naively, or through and beyond the post-structuralist critique. If we are to choose the second path, the one followed by Deleuze, we can talk about the world again, yes, but we need to keep in mind all the myriad ways in which whatever new systems we create can be deconstructed. For our systems will always be written in language, the results of our unconscious, the products of our economic-socio-historical backgrounds, plays of power, cunnings of evolution, etc. It’s all lies and images. But the knowledge of this allows us to ask the question of what we value, and why. And since this too will deconstruct, not only linguistically, but in all the ways outlined above, we need to then be strategic with how we deconstruct them.
It we look at the way the virtual functions in the works of Deleuze, in each work it shows up as the creative force which gave rise to the set of concepts being produced, and that which will mutate them further as they come into conjunction with other aspects of the world. Deleuze’s method is to keep mutating. Rather than be reduced to silence, he takes the other path, proliferation. And so long as there is within one’s system a site for pure proliferation, one which in theory can unravel your system, then you have an anti-system that passes the skeptical attack of post-structuralism. But rather than simply try to name this process of unravelling, and say nothing more in your works than name this process, one can slow down a bit. Say something. Create. Imagine. Dream. So long as there is a navel within the dream that can unravel it, and which connects your dreams in a series of mutations, then there’s a potential for creation which isn’t just naive. But which is dreaming of new worlds, ones which are as open to change as the Derridean system wants to be, but without the self-enforced quietism.
This is, I believe, a roadmap for post-post-structuralist philosophy, and hence, speculative realism. I wrote this post after rereading the intro to Derrida’s Of Grammatology, it felt like time to review the argument. And while what’s said here emphasized some figures in post-structuralism over others, there are ways in which versions of these arguments could be applied to the thought of Baudrillard or Badiou, for example, but perhaps I’ll address these in future posts.