Realism

Stanimir Panayotov

Realism is a philosophical category that traditionally captures the relation or the correlation between consciousness and the external “world.” It variously connects with competing notions of the “real” and/or “reality.” However, Realism is rarely seen to reflect reality and is more often seen as a generic platform for insights into the “real.” Realism is generally used to describe thought’s mechanisms of knowing rather than being part of the real and is thus mostly an epistemological rather than ontological ism.

Realism is often charged with sustaining the boundaries of logocentrism and positing an artificial Outside. Post-structuralism with its nominalism reacted to Realism’s misrecognition of its false, male-centric universalism but as a result often absolutized the relativization of the Outside and the role of science. Thus, over time Realism was gradually divorced from its primary epistemological status. From a feminist perspective Realism is almost universally regarded as a master discourse for narrating a male-centric story of what the real is and how we know it. Realism is thus traditionally meant to serve as a prehensile extension capturing the realm of the pre-conceptual (and even the non-conceptualizable) real.

Realism is implicated in a network of -isms and constitutes complex intersections with materialism, naturalism, idealism and rationalism. It is a grid through which theorists tend to also offer insights into matter. As Christoph Cox, Jenny Jaskey and Suhail Malik state: “materialists (who hold that all that exists is matter, material forces, and physical processes) tend to be realists (who hold that reality is fully mind-independent), but the reverse need not hold (since what is real need not be materially manifest, symbolic meaning being a leading example)” (Cox, Jaskey, and Malik, 2015, p. 25). As a result of this asymmetry between real and matter, the first is often regarded as hierarchically higher than the latter. This hierarchy has often been seen as a modern-day extension of soul-body dualism.

Contemporary realisms tend to agree that the real precedes thought (this is especially true after the so-called speculative turn, see Bryant, Srnicek and Harman, 2011). There is a widespread tendency, including in new materialism, to insist on the irreducibility of the real/matter/nature to “reason.” The competing dominant theories are realist essentialism and social constructivism. New materialist writers such as Manuel DeLanda admit that these two often lead to a false third-way theory, a “social essentialism”: “by coupling the idea that perception is intrinsically linguistic with the ontological assumption that only the contents of experience really exists, this position leads directly to a form of social essentialism” (DeLanda cited by Dolphijn and van der Tuin, 2012, p. 98). An opposition between realism and constructivism follows both the logic of non-contradiction and the principle of organization in canonic modern philosophies. With the advent of figures like Gilles Deleuze, Michel Henry, François Laruelle and Donna Haraway the very principle of organization is subverted through their respective and diverging theories of the real.

In late 20th century variations, Realism is increasingly hailed as a political trope capable of both “doing justice to matter” (Dolphijn and van der Tuin, 2012, p. 16) and as an invariant within or transcending the “democratic materialism” that Alain Badiou attacks. The increased conceptual power lent to the “real” of Realism leads to different consequences when compared to post-structuralist and post-modernist reductions of Realism. The social quietism of Realism is diminished because, for example, new materialists’ theorizing of the real includes scientific approaches to reality and entangles these with some relativist varieties of Realism. A tendency within new materialism is to regard Realism as administering flat ontologies that horizontalize anthropic onto-epistemological capacities. For example, Haraway claims that great divides (such as nature/culture) over time flatten to become “mundane differences” (Haraway, 2007, p. 4). Cecilia Åsberg, Kathrin Thiele and Iris van der Tuin ask if the “flat” became the new Absolute and who benefits from it (Åsberg, Thiele and van der Tuin 2015, pp. 148, 164). “Flat ontology” is a term from the critical realism of Roy Bhaskar used in a pejorative sense (Brassier, 2015, p. 65) to describe empiricist philosophies. It was appropriated by DeLanda (2002, p. 47), Levi Bryant (2011, p. 245) and Graham Harman (2011) to articulate a democratization within both realisms and materialisms from the perspective of an a-subjective, pre-human, pre-discursive real.

How then is the material-discursive entanglement accommodated by advancements in contemporary (continental) realism? A perceived divide is the focal point of both the subject and the question of Who is entangled in onto-epistemologies. Historically, the generic answer accounting for the Who is generated by the “philosophies of immanence.” According to Deleuze the real is no longer the duplication of the real or it’s deficient copy (Cheah, 2010, p. 86). In different ways philosophies of immanence rule out resemblance and identity as ruling principles; the actuality (of the real) does not contain singularities. As a result, real entities are not “freed” from a pre-existing container of the possible. In the tradition of philosophies of immanence the real has a predominantly transcendental status, while matter is regarded as immanent and non-transcendent. In William Connolly’s interpretation, immanence accommodates the emergent causality and self-organization of matter (Connolly, 2010, p. 179). In the tradition of immanence there are also perturbations: for example, Laruelle’s theory of the real (or the One, see Laruelle, 2013, pp. 135-153, 208-10) rejects the residual elements of mediation from philosophies of immanence, because we already start from the real, rather than pursuing it.

Versions of immanence reveal different strategies for engaging with the question of the subject. Earlier responses to continental anti-realism can be found in Bhaskar’s critical realism and Braver’s critique of anti-realism (Bhaskar, 1975; Braver, 2008). In new materialism, Realism is predominantly revisited through the perspective of “situated knowledges” (Haraway, 1988; Harding, 1986) and feminist science studies, while in speculative and new realisms it is generally agreed that the subject is irrelevant to the workings of the real. Quentin Meillassoux’s “speculative materialism” proposes to think of the real with a minimal form of representation in the mind, which he calls the “arche-fossil” - a sort of imprint of the real that stands for “ancestral reality” (Meillassoux, 2008, p. 22). Critical theory and poststructuralism can only operate through some form of (reified) representation and mediation. Speculative realism tries to partly do away with the tradition of critical theory, while new materialism retains the subjectivist contextual concern on who connects to the real. Meillassoux’s argument is that we have no means to check if “the reality that is given to us corresponds to reality taken in itself” (Dolphijn and van der Tuin, 2012, p. 72).

However, this a-/anti-theological immanent line does not warrant the legitimation of an a-subjective point of view and, as a result, new materialist and associated writers began responding to this issue. One example would be the work of Katerina Kolozova (2014). In line with speculative realism’s shared anti-correlationist thesis, dualisms are pushed to an extreme where they begin to break down and extirpate the vision of the subject. From a feminist perspective the key problem relating to anti-correlationism and its renewed interest in speaking from (not of) the real is that of autonomy and the agency of both the real and the subject. If we follow Judith Butler, we cannot know the possible/the new outside of the real, which is always already mediated (Dolphijn and van der Tuin, 2012, p. 108). This generates a subjectivist gender pessimism which is easily absolutized in the same manner in which, according to Meillassoux, G.W.F. Hegel’s strong correlationism absolutizes the thought and the subject (Meillassoux, 2008, pp. 65-6).

In Karen Barad’s agential realism, “Agency, on an agential realist account, does not require a clash of apparatuses, (as Butler once suggested) such as the contradictory norms of femininity” (Barad interviewed by Dolphijn and van der Tuin, 2012, p. 54). Åsberg, Thiele and Tuin claim that “Where speculative realists strive for an unmediated, wholly a-subjective real, feminist immanence ontology (in the singular plural) insists on the co-constitutive role of the embedded observer, the perspective and the rich agentiality (multi-subjectivity) of context itself” (Åsberg, Thiele and Tuin, 2015, p. 151; see also Kolozova, 2016, pp. 12-13). According to DeLanda, “new materialism is neither realist nor social constructivist. It is precisely the commonalities of realism and social constructivism that are being recognized, though shifted” (DeLanda interviewed by Dolphijn and van der Tuin, 2012, p. 98). Tuin and Dolphijn have spearheaded the attempt to bridge the subjective and the a-subjective realisms of new materialism and speculative realism by offering to read both of them diffractively (ibid., pp. 163-4); in a lateral way so too have Kolozova (2014) and Steven Shaviro (2009). As a result, Realism is today gradually delinked from its formerly oppressive qualities, but whether or not it could become a platform for liberatory new materialist politics is heavily contested from both the camps of new/speculative realism and new materialisms, and not always for identical reasons.

Keywords: representation, situated knowledge, poststructuralism, speculation
Genealogies: Kant, Hegel, Meillassoux, Deleuze, Lloyd, Haraway, Harding
Antonyms: anti-realism
Hypernyms: the real, representationalism
Hyponyms: reality, experience
Synonyms: pessimism, determinism

References
Åsberg, Cecilia, Kathrin Thiele and Iris van der Tuin. (2015). “Speculative Before the Turn: Reintroducing Feminist Materialist Performativity,” in: Cultural Studies Review, Vol. 2, No. 2.
Bhaskar, Roy. (1975). A Realist Theory of Science. London: Verso.
Brassier, Ray. (2015). “Delevering: Against Flat Ontologies,” in: Channa van Dijk, Eva van der Graaf, Michiel den Haan, Rosa de Jong, Christiaan Roodenburg, Dyane Til and Deva Waal (Eds.). Onder invloed: Wijsgerig festival Drift 2014. Amsterdam: Wijsgerig festival Drift.
Braver, Lee. (2008). A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
Bryant, Levi R., Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (Eds.). (2011). The Speculative Turn. Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne: re:press.
Bryant, Levi R. (2011). The Democracy of Objects. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Open Humanities Press.
Cheah, Pheng. (2010). “Non-Dialectical Materialism,” in: Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Eds.). New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, New Jersey: Duke University Press.
Connolly, William E. (2010). “Materialities of Experience,” in: Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Eds.). New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, New Jersey: Duke University Press.
Cox, Christoph, Jenny Jaskey and Suhail Malik (Eds.). (2015). “Introduction,” in: Realism Materialism Art. Berlin: Setrnberg Press.
DeLanda, Manuel. (2002). Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London and New York: Continuum.
Dolphijn, Rick and Iris van der Tuin. (2012). New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Open Humanities Press.
Haraway, Donna. (1988). “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, in: Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No 3.
Haraway, Donna. (2007). When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Harding, Sandra. (1986). The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Harman, Graham. (2011). “The Road to Objects,” in: continent., Vol. 1, No. 3.
Kolozova, Katerina. (2014). Cut of the Real: Subjectivity in Poststructuralist Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kolozova, Katerina. (2016). “Preface: After the ‘Speculative Turn,’” in: Katerina Kolozova and Eileen A. Joy (Eds.). After the “Speculative Turn”: Realism, Philosophy and Feminism. Brooklyn, New York: Punctum Books.
Laruelle, François. 2013. Principles of Non-Philosophy, translated by Anthony Paul Smith and Nikola Rubczak. London and New York: Bloomsbury.
Meillassoux, Quentin. (2008). After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, translated by Ray Brassier. London and New York: Continuum.
Shaviro, Steven. (2009). Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

COST Action IS1307 New Materialism: Networking European Scholarship on 'How Matter Comes to Matter'.

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With the changing of societies on local, national and international scales owing to economic, ecological, political and technological developments and crises, a reorganized academic landscape can be observed to be emerging. Scholarship strives to become increasingly interdisciplinary in order to grasp and examine the unfolding complexity of ongoing ecological, socio-cultural and politico-economic changes. Additionally, academics forge... Read more or find out Who's Who

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