“How vividly I remember the first moments of my vocation as a clown!”
– Michel Huellebecq, The Possibility of an Island, 2005
Because my grounding in philosophy is shallow, I’m subject to being blown by the shifting winds of philosophical popularity. When the winds die down, so does my enthusiasm. Is it just my limited attention span, or is the whole object-oriented thing starting to run out of gas? I’m not militantly dysphoric about it: it doesn’t piss me off sufficiently to debunk it, even if I had the skills to do so. Instead, it’s just starting to leave me cold. My sagging passion for the objects isn’t, I don’t believe, reducible to a waning attraction/repulsion exerted by the main practitioners — though I don’t deny that’s part of it. Also, I’ve not become a convert to eliminative materialism or antiphilosophy, in part because I don’t really know enough about these alternative visions of speculative realism or have enough depth to evaluate them critically.
I think it’s my respect for depth that’s dampening my enthusiasm.
The object-oriented approach has introduced me to ontological and metaphysical topics about which there is a long history of speculation and critique. I’d never been strongly attracted to these investigations before: why now? Partly it was the blogging buzz: the flurry of posts and counter-posts, the personalities, the alliances, the feuds. These psychosocial impetuses have about run their course, at least for me. Do I have what it takes intellectually to dig a deeper foundation? Do I have the desire? The commitment? The sense of calling?
When I started paying attention to the speculative realism discussions they struck me as good material for fiction. One theorist projects himself into an arche-world before the evolution of humanity; another theorist goes the other direction, into a world from which man has fallen extinct; a third imagines a world populated by autonomous objects bumping into each other. Then there are the accelerationists and the singularity enthusiasts and the anti-speciesists and the apocalyptists, who appear from time to time on the periphery of my attention. It wasn’t the ideas of these people that captivated me but the posthuman metaphyical scenarios they conjured, with their resolute realism veering into otherworldly weirdness.
I just finished reading Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island. Clearly he’s been captivated by these ontological speculations:
“Their aim, of course, was first to do away with money and sex, two pernicious factors of which they had been able to recognize the importance through the collective human life stories. It was equally a question of casting aside any notion of political choice, the source, they write, of ‘false but violent’ passions. These preconditions for a negative order, indispensable as they were, were not, however, sufficient in their eyes to enable neohumanity to rejoin ‘the obvious neutrality of the real,’ to use their frequently cited expression; it was also necessary to provide a concrete catalog of positive prescriptions. Individual behavior, they note in Prolegomena to the Construction of the Central City (significantly, the first neohuman work not to have a named author), was to become ‘as predictable as the functioning of a refrigerator.’ Indeed, while writing down their instructions, they acknowledged as a main source of stylistic inspiration, indeed more than any other human literary production, ‘the manual for electrical appliances of medium size and complexity, in particular the video player JVC HR-DV 3S/MS.’” (pp. 312-313)
The ontological speculation worked for him too, at least to an extent: he’s able, by the end of the book, to bring the prehuman and the posthuman, the raw biological instincts and the sheer technological efficiency, into stark contrast. He’s a novelist: he doesn’t have to choose sides in the philosophical debates; he can run thought experiments and see where they lead, letting the ambivalence run its course. And he doesn’t have to be a full-on philosopher to do it either. But he does have to be a full-on fiction writer. He had to devote himself to writing that novel, immersing himself in that fictional world long enough to bring something coherent and compelling out with him. As I said, to an extent he succeeded. And he did remind me of something in the way he treated these ideas. Or maybe he reminded me of someone. Is being a novelist no different from being a clown, a shallow and cheap entertainer who jumps haphazardly from one schtick to another? Is it possible to regard clowning as a vocation?
Nuclear physics and astrophysics and evolutionary biology captivate me from time to time, but I know I’ll never sustain enough passion, enough intellectual commitment, to become a pro. It’s the same with philosophy for me: stimulating, challenging, even captivating for awhile, but then it drifts into the background, its call on my attention receding into background noise.
Right now it’s the noise itself that I hear. When it recedes like that, noise becomes nearly indistinguishable from silence. If I listen carefully enough, or maybe if I stop listening too carefully, something distinct will begin to emerge. Hopefully.