Born in the ruins of philosophy

The new book "Realism Materialism Art"
 Venus’s Flower Basket  (Euplectella aspergillum)
 Detail of RMA table of contents. Illustration by Matthew Ritchie
 Eileen Quinlan, Top Down , 2013; Courtesy of the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York
 Arthur Schopenhauer; Image source: Hans Wahl, Anton Kippenberg: Goethe und seine Welt, Insel-Verlag, Leipzig ,1932

Voluminous and heavy, a new anthology brings together 37 texts on speculative realism and its ramifications on the arts by the likes of Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Steven Shaviro, Manuel DeLanda, Diedrich Diederichsen, Reza Negarestani, and many more. Paul Feigelfeld wades through and finds an overly present absolute, and philosophy that has become a tourist attraction.

Philosophy has become gutsy again and takes itself way too seriously. And it does so through the perfidious trick of pretending to think about things ancestral or aeons in the future, of pretending that it is - in fact - not about itself. Let’s be realistic: This doesn’t make sense, and no one needs it. Whereas some thinkers of technology or the anthropocene have actually replaced egocentrism with a new and very productive kind of geocentrism (see e.g. Jussi Parikka, John Durham Peters, Benjamin Bratton et. al.), the protagonists of this Speculative Turn-Off talk about very little but themselves and each other, having established an intricate network, a citation cartel keeping itself afloat; starting off with a negation, shortly to be followed by an affirmation how "things really are"; a strain of philosophies which have realized their own futility (as perhaps the futility of philosophy in the technocene altogether) but continue not nevertheless but precisely because of that, in the manner of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: "You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on". While Beckett, however, succeeds in failing, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Steven Shaviro, Reza Negarestani aim at installing what they call an "undogmatic absolute", effectively rendering themselves philosopher-gods in control of totality and thus immortality, gazing into Meillassoux's sacrosanct archefossil, his so-called "zircon". In terms of the 1963 film The Pink Panther, this zircon is exactly the obscene pink diamond of occidental, Kantian, absolute thing-in-itself-ness, craved by David Niven playboy speculationist cat burglars - while this reviewer thinks we should be more like Inspector Clouseau, clumsy and brilliant, obliviously wrecking things and leaving behind only the noisy mess that is the Lacanian "réel". There is a risk of becoming short-lived when aiming at the absolute. Contemporary and timeless is a fragile thing when it comes to art and theory.


"[Philosophy] got bored with the double binds of the subject; but rather than lift its gaze toward this world, it conjured up another - the world of the absolute object." As McKenzie Wark writes in his text "Absolute Spectacle", arguably the best text in the book at hand. Let's have a look at this book as an object in this case: This book, edited by Christoph Cox, Jenny Jaskey and Suhail Malik at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, contains a staggering 37 texts, not including image spreads and index, on over 400 pages. It has a solid weight that feels good in your hand or bag, and the slightly too dark Cosmic Latte cardboard cover gives it a sturdy look that gets even better when slightly "worked". The binding, however, leaves many things to be desired: RMA is certainly not made for the contemporary cosmopolitic critic, with the glued covers breaking apart when knocked around just a little bit in your carry-on luggage. A book, as Eugene Thacker writes in "Pessimism and Realism", "born in the Ruins of Philosophy. At any given moment in time, the pillars of philosophy are nearly indistinguishable from ruins. They may still stand, but they serve less as functional architecture and more like tourist attractions."

There is little about art in this book. The texts explicitly addressing art theoretical or historical topics remain quite conservative. What hides itself in a few of the chapters – namely in Object, Concept, and Scale – however, is a glance at what the prima philosophia speculativa ignores: Wark calls it the apparatus, Nick Srnicek computational infrastructure, Mikko Canini noise, and Trevor Paglen seems to be the only one who has ever read Peter Galison's seminal works on space and time and their material aspects of synchronization, annihilation and connectivity in infrastructures, as described also in Wolfgang Schivelbusch's The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century. When we think about art, we have to think about artificial intelligence as well, or about climate change and the reality of simulation, algorithmic trading and ubiquitous computing. Without wanting to sound too Kittlerian, it still seems many discourses in this book have completely forgotten that there has been such a thing as media theory over the past 20 years, and ignore technology, or use it only in an alienated, metaphoric way. Sad but true: For many protagonists of Object-oriented ontology, not only is object-oriented programming something they never heard of, but "thing" can often simply be replaced with "Apple product".

As Wark writes: "It hews close to the problems that such an apparatus detects as the problems of the moment - such as climate change. It makes no claim to be the trustee of a portal between this world and another. It makes no claim that either it, or its subject, is a rare event. It seeks only to equip everyday life with the tools for its own sustenance and elaboration. It has no interest in rendering the contemplative spectacle absolute and eternal. It has an interest only in dispensing with the spectacle entirely. In this it does not hesitate."


To review this volume in its entirety is a problem of totality. It certainly is an impressive collection of theories and approaches that will yield valuable material for artists and scholars alike, while it might fall victim to its own volume and scope when it comes to the editorial concept. This might be symptomatic of the discourses contained within, and their relation to the landscapes of academia and the art world – they are overly complex here, and aim to simplify into an absolute there. Thacker again speculates about this in the most funny, pessimistic fashion: "One imagines universities with undergraduate courses in 'Voluntary Extinction' (with a lab section); erduite, curmudgeonly professors with titles like 'Schopenhauer Chair in the Study of the Worst'; the publication of massive Germanic tomes of systematic philosophy entitled The Philosophy of the Futile." Before the table of contents, the first thing you see when you open this book is a mind map relating all the texts with each other. This kind of thing we all had to draw in high school. But this one, gravitating towards its own center, is already so dense that it looks like pen scribbles, which illustrates one central problem of this book quite clearly: You can only go so deep when putting together highly complex texts in the form of a book before becoming obscure. While single texts in this volume are absolutely brilliant, their combination and convolution often obfuscates the whole and the sum of its parts.



Paul Feigelfeld is a media theorist, writer and translator living in Berlin. He works at the Digital Cultures Research Lab and writes for a variety of publications.


Christoph Cox, Jenny Jaskey, Suhail Malik (Eds.): Realism Materialism Art, SternbergPress, 408 pages

Deutsch: Armen Avanessian, Suhail Malik, Christoph Cox, Jenny Jaskey (Hg.): "Realismus Materialismus Kunst", Merve, 288 Seiten