Well, I've waited around a long time for this, and I couldn't be more thrilled... Zero Books have announced the forthcoming publication of my wonderfully talented friend Stephen Mitchelmore's This Space of Writing:
What does 'literature' mean in our time? While names like Proust, Kafka and Woolf still stand for something, what that something actually is has become obscured by the claims of commerce and journalism. Perhaps a new form of attention is required. Stephen Mitchelmore began writing online in 1996 and became Britain's first book blogger soon after, developing the form so that it can respond in kind to the singular space opened by writing. Across 44 essays, he discusses among many others the novels of Richard Ford, Jeanette Winterson and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the significance for modern writers of cave paintings and the moai of Easter Island, and the enduring fallacy of 'Reality Hunger', all the while maintaining a focus on the strange nature of literary space. By listening to the echoes and resonances of writing, this book enables a unique encounter with literature that many critics habitually ignore. With an introduction by the acclaimed novelist Lars Iyer, This Space of Writing offers a renewed appreciation of the mystery and promise of writing.
Those of you who notice these things will have noticed that ReadySteadyBook has been very quiet for a very long time now. Recently, Stephen Mitchelmore wrote: "The main reason I still write this blog is to maintain a contact with the need or condition that drove me to read and write in the first place; a need often misdirected in pursuit of what the industry is talking about. Long silences here report stout resistance to the temptations of disinterested reception. But what is this need?"
My "resistance" is fully compromised, as I work in the industry to which Steve refers; my "long silences" report only that I'm busy elsewhere (currently at Foyles) doing my best to champion the kind of books I first started writing about here thirteen or so years ago. I'm loath to close RSB down, however, as I'm sure I'll soon have the time and energy to report again on what really matters. That horizon keeps receding, but those books that feel vital, axes for the frozen sea inside, remain the reason to maintain this space, and will be the only reason to return back to it.
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As I mentioned last Monday, I'm enjoying Steven Shaviro's new Whitehead-meets-Speculative Realism (SR) book Universe of Things, but before I (hopefully) review it, I should perhaps make a brief comment on why I'm reading it. And that particular story makes better sense if I mention that I'm also reading Peter Wolfendale's Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon's New Clothes (from the always excellent Urbanomic) and briefly mention why I'm reading that...
I read more philosophy books than books on any other topic – and, to be honest, it's probably more than time that RSB reflected that a little more clearly. It's a little difficult suddenly to begin a "justification" for my interests, but I want to start shaping up to providing one, not least because it will help me (I hope) articulate what I find lacking in a number of the works that have been fascinating me of late.
Like many, my head has been (somewhat) turned by the vibrant SR/OOO blogging community. And if you spend any time in this particular pond you soon come across the work of Graham Harman – one of the big fishes.
I find Harman's work... problematic. And I'll come back to that later. But I also find it profoundly engaging, subtle and intellectually exciting. For now, I'll just mention Harman's notion of withdrawal as an example of a technical term that, I think, is particularly fecund.
Levi Bryant defines withdrawal like this: "Withdrawal is a protest against all ambitions of domination, mastery, and exploitation. What withdrawal says is that all entities harbor – as Graham likes to put it – scarcely imagined volcanic cores bubbling beneath the surface that we are never completely able to master or control. It is this from whence his profound respect for things – human and nonhuman – indeed his indignation against those that would try to reduce things to signifiers, concepts, sensations, lived experiences, intuitions, etc., arises. Harman seldom talks about politics or ethics, but who can fail to hear an ethical refrain throughout all his work..."
Harman proposes that no object is ever exhausted by its relations; that an object's real properties are hidden and can never fully be grasped. I find that a fascinating and productive thought. And I find I read so much philosophy because of a love of – and a quest to find – words and phrases, constructions and contortions, that help me form new thought-words and new thought-worlds. Philosophy, for me, is simply a search for better ways to think about the world, and if that means working through some pretty dreadful prose every now and again, so be it. So, when I ask myself why I'm pushing through pages and pages of dry, technical, definitional analysis and forbidding, unforgivable academicese, it's because of the diamonds in the dirt. A term like withdrawal opens something new up for me.
Shaviro's book is useful because it is telling me that 'process philosophy' is able to shed light on Harman's thought, that a dialogue between those two thinkers is helpful to understanding both. It is also bringing my attention back to how very Deleuzian such thought is... all is becoming, nothing is static being, and so you can, I think, map onto that a constant 'flow' between the 'real' and the 'fictional' which doesn't bespeak a 'reality hunger' but more a constant lack in reality which is areadly always 'over-filled' by the fictive, the constructed. Reality is gappy, and thought is real. There are similarities here to Miguel de Beistegui's Proust as Philosopher. (And the car crash of scare quotes in this paragraph is evidence, of course, that further thought is needed!)
What I'm finding missing in Wolfendale's admirable volume, however, is such food for thought. Wolfendale's Kantian/Sellarsian takedown of Harman was waiting to be written. (You can read a 77-page "taster" in Speculations.) And despite Nick Land's recent comments that Wolfendale's book "deserves to be absorbed in very different terms to those it superficially invites," I'm afraid I find myself amongst the superficial. Wolfendale scores some knockout blows, but Harman bounces back up like a weeble. Wolfendale himself writes: "Whatever else can be said about Harman’s presentation of OOP, it is certainly compelling. On the one hand, it attempts to reveal the inherent oddness of the world we live in, by painting us a landscape of a reality in which everything is radically individual, cut off from everything else in almost every respect, connected only by fleeting glimmers of phenomenal appearance. On the other, it attempts to humble humanity by seeing humans as just one more disparate association of objects within the universal diaspora."
Like good fiction, philosophy, for me, doesn't have to prove facts – it doesn't need to limit itself to a theory of knowledge – it needs to open up our minds and make us epistemologically astute. And that starts with fascination, with an aesthetics perhaps. In such a struggle, Wolfendale can't help but come off sounding like something of a humourless pedant. His book does have virtues, however, and, as I said, I do find Harman problematic... but I've written enough for one day.
One of the most interesting trends in recent philosophy is what is sometimes called Speculative Realism. The name comes from a conference in 2007 at the University of London that brought together four very different philosophers who nevertheless were united in their efforts to resurrect realist metaphysics: Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, and Iain Hamilton Grant. Each of them hold quite different metaphysical positions, but all four critique what they name "philosophies of correlation." As a theologian and not a philosopher, I can't help but make a connection to my field here. Just as the Radical Orthodox movement identifies a key moment in the history of philosophy (for RO, this is Duns Scotus' univocity) that leads to its destructive decline, the Speculative Realists point back to Kant's apparently disastrous argument that the thing-in-itself is unknowable. MORE...
I've just started this myself. Lots of Whitehead, and lots of good sense so far...