Some Introductory Remarks

To start off, somewhat paradoxically, with an observation regarding human culture: it has been really astonishing to see how many people have contacted us about Aesthetics After Finitude and demonstrated an interest in this particular type of thought. This is something that is not infrequently commented on by editors of the various journals, blogs, and other publications associated with the ‘speculative realist movement’ (for want of a better term) who all seem to agree that this interest is in response to what could almost be called the zeitgeist of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – a feeling of frustration at the way things are, coupled with a growing impression of human impotence and a nagging sense of theoretical bankruptcy - or at least - repetition of the latter.

The editors of The Speculative Turn – which we mentioned last session – worry that: ‘something is clearly amiss in [the] trends of anti-realist thought’ that have come to dominate our age. For ‘in the face of the looming ecological catastrophe, and the increasing infiltration of technology into the everyday world (including our own bodies), it is not clear that the anti-realist position is equipped to face up to these developments. The danger is that the dominant anti-realist strain of continental philosophy has not only reached a point of decreasing returns, but that it now actively limits the capacities of philosophy in our time.’ (ST3)

Having said that, perhaps the magnitude of this recent interest in speculative realism is not – on second thoughts – that astonishing. But what is astonishing is the fact that we’ve had this kind of response to the proposition of a reading group centred around what is easily the most treacherous and difficult entry-point into the hard philosophical core of speculative realism at it most unforgiving – which is to say as distinct from new materialism and OOO (already both big hits in the art world). To characterise it in broad strokes, the problem for aesthetics and for art-makers of all kinds, is first and foremost the disavowal of the human subject, or of subjectivity full stop – which of course entails the complete dismantling of the traditional subject-object relationship upon which aesthetics is built, and secondly, the critique of secondary qualities – of the entire domain of sensibility. If you take sensory experience and the human subject out of aesthetics, you’re not really left with anything at all.

That said, it is our conviction that thinking these two thoughts together – that of aesthetics and that of speculation as it has been redefined in the context of new realisms – has the potential to lead to something fundamentally new in the way we conceive of and understand representation and aesthetics in the 21st century – and as theorists – might furnish us with radically different methods of understanding the work of our modern (and modernist) forebears.

This question of speculative realism and aesthetics is still a vanguard pursuit in philosophy and the humanities, and although we couldn’t really choose a more difficult terrain to venture into, it is also one that remains completely open, as yet unformed and unbounded.

Introduction February 19th, 2013, Sydney - transcript

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