The Dignity of the Real: Speculative Realism in LoM
...Or, how I've finally found some kindred spirits
Thirteen years ago, I began my first published novel with the following words:
...Frankenstein's monster speaks: the computer. But where are its words coming from? Is the wisdom on those cold lips our own, merely repeated at our request? Or is something else speaking? --A voice we have always dreamed of hearing?
So begins Ventus, which of course is about nanotech and terraforming; but is also about something else, for which I didn't have a name at that point. I made one up: I called the concept thalience. Thalience is what you get when you find (or deliberately create) entities that are clearly objects, but which behave in ways that are supposed to only be possible forsubjects. A thalient entity is neither object nor subject, or perhaps it's both. The book explores this tension (though not without a few swordfights, battles, betrayals, and romances).
I mention this because, now that Bruce Sterling has talked about Graham Harman's 'object-oriented philosophy' in Wired, this meme appears ripe for becoming a new intellectual fashion. Perhaps it's petty, but I'd like to put a stake in the sand here.
Two terms, speculative realism and object-oriented ontology, have very recently given a name to the thing that I've been thinking and writing about for nearly two decades now (it took seven years to write Ventus). It's been unbelievably gratifying for me to discover these kindred spirits--people like Jane Bennett, Ian Bogost, Andy Clark, Timothy Morton, Graham Harman and Bruno Latour. Latour's been at this for decades, and I confess to only recently discovering him--but the others in this cadre seem to have undertaken their intellectual investigations at about the same time as myself. They are all scientists, theorists or philosophers, of course; as far as I know, I'm the first person to have explicitly built science fiction novels around these new areas of inquiry.
After Ventus, the novel where I jumped in with both feet was Lady of Mazes. In it, the anti-Ariadne, Livia kodaly, wages a one-woman war against what Quentin Meillassoux has now helpfully labeled as correlationism. Correlationism is the belief that the only reality is the object-subject pair--that all I can ever say about anything is that is like such-and-such for me. I can never say what it is in itself; Kant made that impossible. In Lady of Mazes, Livia begins with this belief; as she puts it, "reality is always mediated."
That may be true, but Livia is unsatisfied with the conclusion everybody else has drawn--a conclusion that has direct political and emotional consequences for her and her people. The artificially intelligent systems that create and sustain the consensual realities in which Livia's people live, called manifolds, do not interface with them through speech, or any normal communications medium--they do so by observing our values. At one point in the story, a manifold has become empty because all its human citizens have died. Yet the manifold still exists, because its creators built it around the value of music, and they have left a single drum beating, its tapping driven by water dripping from a rain-catchment barrel. Livia's peers want to retire the manifold and take over its resources--but late one night, she sneaks into the drummers' reality and replaces the ailing drum with a fresh one.
“Each drumbeat sounded clear and distinct. Each one rolled out into the night, reaching nobody’s ears, but real nonetheless. It was a tremble of air, nothing more, yet in that tremble the drummers lived. In that tremble of air was something not of Westerhaven, not preserved by your Government or to be found in the narratives. Call it the Song of Ometeotl, if you wish. It remained in my ears as I stole back through the forest, and returned in secret to my home.”
...“At the time I didn’t know why I did it. It was one of those actions that you can’t reconcile with the person you think you are. But now I understand. I was honoring the existence and dignity of a reality independent of my own."
This is one of the purposes of object-oriented philosphy (or speculative realism if you prefer): to honour the existence and dignity of a reality independent of our own. For me, to have written the above words in 2003 was to expose a nerve that I thought at the time was entirely private and personal--it was to confess to a unique mania that I felt no one else would understand or sympathize with. While the critical reception to Lady of Mazes was very kind, I did get that sense: the book was good, the topic... odd. What is most odd is that now, in 2012, the issues I brought up in the book seem utterly current, even obvious. (I suppose that's one reason why The Atlantic just reviewed Lady of Mazes.)
Livia never abandons the idea that reality is always mediated, but she does abandon the idea that there is nothing real outside of the human-world correlation. She imagines the relationship I called thalience, and it sets her free. She uses her new knowledge to in turn free her people from a correlationist tyranny personified in the novel by the culture known as the Archipelago, and an idealist AI named 3340.
Messianism aside, this pair of ideas--rejection of correlationism and commitment to a necessary mediation between the things of this world--locates me rather precisely in the current landscape of speculative realist thinkers. To be exact, it puts me in substantial agreement with Graham Harman, whose new book The Quadruple Object is compatible, I guess you'd say, with Livia Kodaly's stance. (Of course Harman is doing philosophy, and I am not: my explorations are artistic, though they allow me to create some odd quasi-philosophical entities, such as artificial intelligences designed to make the cracks in correlationism obvious.)
With people like Bennett and Bogost and Morton and Harman writing about this stuff, I'm suddenly overwhelmed with ideas and new perspectives. You can see it in my recent work, in particular two recent stories, "To Hie from Far Cilenia" and "Deodand." There'll be more.
In 2003 I thought I was alone in wanting to wage what Blake called 'mental fight' for what I'd come to call the dignity of the real. Somehow (surely without my influence) an army is coalescing around the issue.
It's great to have discovered kindred spirits.