Eileen A. Joy: Notes Toward a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism #STU09

This presentation was given on Tuesday, 20th of December 2011, 8 pm GMT, by Eileen A. Joy, Associate Professor of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where she teaches courses in medieval literature, contemporary fiction, cultural studies, and critical theory. She is the Lead Ingenitor of the BABEL Working Group (www.babelworkinggroup.org), Co-Editor of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (http://www.palgrave-journals.com/pmed/index.html), Co-Editor of O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies (http://ozone-journal.com), and Co-Director of punctum books (http://punctumbooks.com). She has published numerous essays and articles on medieval literature, cultural studies, post/humanism, and ethics (website: http://www.siue.edu/~ejoy).

Links to further reading below.


Eileen A. Joy



Welcome to the flow! This is @ozonist, head and founder of The Swedish Twitter University, tweeting. #STU09
In just a few minutes Eileen A. Joy will tweet for us, on “Notes Toward a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism”. Very exiting! #STU09
But first let me just remind you to please tag your question or comment tweets with “STU09 so that everyone can see them. #STU09
Afterwards the discussion and Eileens presentation will be archived on the http://t.co/5SoC1fpF blog. #STU09
That’s all I wanted to say! Now I’m handing the account over… It’s all yours, Eileen. Take it away! #STU09
Thanks to Marcus, our Twitter University Rector, and to all who are here!
I want to dedicate this lecture to its inspirers: G. Harman, I. Bogost, L. Bryant, T. Morton, and S. Shaviro.
First, what happens when we consider that literary characters are not human beings, but more like mathematical compressions of the human?
What happens when we see literary texts as having propulsions of their own, as actants on the same ontological footing as everything else?
The questions matter, because much of literary criticism today is founded on humanist-ethicist principles; hermeneutics are deeply humanist.
How do other things–whether a bat or a literary text–possess an autonomy in which they relate to us but have their own tendencies?
How might literary criticism today try to capture the traces of the strange voluptuosity and singular tendencies of textual objects?
Unlike some interested in the “descriptive,” microsociological turn, I still want to talk about the singularity of literature.
This could be a valuable practice, because it would help us to understand better the fragility of things and our enmeshment with that.
This practice would help us to see objects, as B. Latour avers, as gatherings, the multiplication of which should be our mutual concern.
Let’s also consider S. Shaviro’s idea that sentience might be an inherent property of everything; let’s “de-specialize” thought.
What might emerge: an ecology of literary thought where the human reader is a sort of special tuning station in a great Outside of data.
The idea would not be to “make sense” of a literary text and its figures, but to better render their chatter and noise.
What might also emerge is L. Bryant’s onticology, where literary criticism would illuminate exo-relations: interactions between objects.
The critic, then, is also an object in interaction with other objects, themselves objects all the way down with no bottom. All is implicate.
We choose to seek, then, a non-projective, non-hermeneutic criticism that would multiply and thicken a text’s sentient, bottomless reality.
This criticism would be better described as a commentary that seeks to open and not close a text’s possible “signatures.”
Aesthetics may constitute a domain of illusions, but these illusions posses their own material reality and are co-sentient with us.
As T. Morton has written, the existence of an object is irreducibly a matter of coexistence. How to reckon this state in our commentary?
How to also reckon that every object is also, pace G. Harman, fatally torn between its deeper realities and its always shifting facades?
This means that objects are not only always withdrawing from all other objects, including us, but also from themselves.
Here, then, lies an opportunity: every object, and every system of objects, contains some sort of incoherency within itself.
If texts don’t fully belong to absolute holisms (authors, histories, cultures), something like I. Bogost’s unit operations become possible.
A literary text becomes a spontaneous, complex result of multitudes and unit operations would attend to its discrete, disconnected actions.
We might look for mechanical failures in texts: places where internal errancies pull against the larger system’s propulsive mechanicity.
What is ultimately sought here is a more heightened mode of encounter with literary texts as autopoetic systems.
So, what does everyone think? I feel like I just handed you a list of OOO gnomic statements.
@SvTwuni hi Eileen! great stuff. 1 of the many things I like about your approach is that it gets us past ‘texts have no inherent meaning’
@SvTwuni no more correlationist ‘failures’ that follow on the failures of Formalism to find literariness, because there is a THERE there
@SvTwuni and we know its there because of its effects on us and other objects, textual and otherwise. 1 more idea, then
@SvTwuni we might recognize these objects/texts as we do black holes. indirectly, through their effects. the difference from B.H. though is+
@SvTwuni we have different gravities, different availability, for different texts. the Black Holes affect us all, but not all equally.
@KarlSteel It may be that texts have TOO MUCH meaning, all unruly.
@SvTwuni I like that. there’s certainly MORE there than wee little us have with us when we read. I love the non loneliness of OOO
@glitterfittorna Yes, this is definitely a materialist turn, especially as exemplified in Jane Bennett’s work.
@KarlSteel I love your comments because they allow that different readers bring various “densities” and propulsions.
@SvTwuni YES. thinking pedagogically as I grade: what we do as teachers is try to increase our students’ densities & kinds of densities
@glitterfittorna @karlsteel Please use #STU09 tag so everyone can follow… 🙂
@KarlSteel Yes to the non-loneliness of OOO, although we have to allow something is always hidden from us, as we hide from ourselves, also.
@SvTwuni great dynamic. there’s something inaccessible there beyond what it gives us. objects have reservations! <– a rich metaphor?
@SvTwuni It is very interesting, but mind twisting as it demands a totally new way of considering text as materia.
@glitterfittorna I agree that this is all mind-twisting and this is an imperfect approach as we can’t really stand outside of ourselves.
@KarlSteel And maybe also urge our students to not try to reduce but to amplify a text’s unruly and mixed “messages.”
@SvTwuni keen now, as I’m grading a set of finals on Kafka’s Odradek story…
@KarlSteel It may be that we now teach out students to be “tuners,” as Morton would argue, of a text’s fragile “ends,” its incompleteness.
@SvTwuni and I also want them to be available to be MOVED & shifted, objects to the text’s subjecthood (or mutually moving subject/objects)
@KarlSteel instead of OVER-mastering a text, let it subject US, but everything is also already fragile/dying, so no one masters anything.
@SvTwuni What would you say is the biggest problem with a hermeneutic approach to literary texts?
@KarlSteel So instead of worrying about who/what is being moved by who/what, maybe aim for a mutual incoherency?
@SvTwuni @KarlSteel but how to map incoherency? How to write it?
@SvTwuni sounds good. if I wanna be clever let’s call it mutual in/coherency, since we make sense (partially) through each other
We might also try to rethink literary criticism, not as an operation of deciphering, but of re-making, as well as of sensing.
@jeffreyjcohen @karlsteel How to map/write incoherency IS the issue. One has to think like an engineer, almost, like a cartographer.
@SvTwuni Is there relationship between the techniques/rhythms of writing & the techniques/rhythms of ‘modes of production’…
@SvTwuni …which are also modes of writing/articulation/emergence ..?
@johnarussell I would say, yes, critical writing becomes a new mode of production, of fashioning new objects.
@johnarussell I think emergence is key here: how might lit. criticism be a form of emerging into view: of both critics and texts?
@SvTwuni what is the place of beauty in this system / set of procedures / possible encounters?
@jeffreyjcohen Morton’s answer would be that capturing the fragility/dying-ness of objects is where beauty comes in.
@jeffreyjcohen @SvTwuni you map it, knowing that you map it only partially, that there’s more to you & them that what you do to each other
Please everyone: Try to use the #STU09 tag so everyone can see your questions and comments. /@ozonist breaking in
@KarlSteel @jeffreyjcohen Yes, there can never be a complete map, because that would be like saying there is a way OUT. We’re always IN.
@jeffreyjcohen And as to beauty, I would say that is where we re-envision ourselves as people who make things, who ADD objects to the world.
@SvTwuni there’s something hilariously relevant about my tweetobjects missing their archival mark by lacking the tag #STU09
@SvTwuni @jeffreyjcohen and who are added BY objects to the world, refashioned through their energies. #STU09
@KarlSteel @jeffreyjcohen And as Bogost might say, we also work to shed light on anti-narrativistic operations. #STU09
Anti-narrativistic operations [discrete units within narratives] are important because they take us to the procedural nature of everything.
@SvTwuni Reading a text’s mechanical failure is ethical as it amplifies a character’s dignity from its presupposed reducibility #STU09
To Jeffrey’s question re: beauty, I think that is a very difficult concept/entity to think about vis-a-vis an OO-inflected literary studies.
@SvTwuni can you say more about this? curious about word “nature” there (I haven’t read Bogost, so at disadvantage) #STU09
@KarlSteel Bogost doesn’t think meaning inheres in a system, only in its discrete parts/units. All meaning is procedural, not holistic.
@SvTwuni here’s a local ad campaign that I think gives an OOO theory of BEAUTY: http://t.co/BNxl9XFz #STU09
@SvTwuni cool, thanks. that makes sense.
@NathaNfinitum Thanks for this comment, Nathan! I think withdrawal/irreducibility + errancy are v. important concepts for ethics!
@KarlSteel What would you say is the OOO theory of beauty as exemplified in BAM’s ad campaign?
@SvTwuni @karlsteel I am increasingly convinced that aesthetic power is OOO’s angel, its intermediary sine qua non #STU09
@NathaNfinitum Another OOO concept for ethics is Harman’s idea of the “fatal” split between each object’s deep reality and its accidents.
@SvTwuni having said that I also think beauty is its invisible and unthought conveyor as well #STU09
@NathaNfinitum What this split means is that not-knowing is always built into every object, leaving room open for going astray [novelty].
@jeffreyjcohen @karlsteel And yet, aesthetic power is very difficult to discuss, isn’t it, outside of ideological critique?
@jeffreyjcohen I think T. Morton is the only OOO theorist so far willing to discuss beauty at some length, but in overly-Romanticist terms?
@SvTwuni the way something hits/grabs/continues to affect one. But now I’m not *sure* I can call this force BEAUTY *particularly* #STU09
@SvTwuni @karlsteel lastly – and you’ve given us a good language for this – beauty is the guarantor of coherence but NOT totality #STU09
@jeffreyjcohen @karlsteel And maybe we need a different word for beauty, which is itself incoherent?
@SvTwuni @jeffreyjcohen wondering if we just dispense with ‘beauty’ given its positive moral connotations. force or sublime better? #STU09
@SvTwuni @jeffreyjcohen YES. I think so.
@SvTwuni OOO at last enables the irreduction of beauty to ideology
@SvTwuni @KarlSteel 4 a long time I wanted to throw beauty out along w ethics. OOO enables me to hold onto its force
@KarlSteel @jeffreyjcohen I would not mind a return to thinking about the sublime vis-a-vis OOO; it allows for mystery.
@jeffreyjcohen I would agree with that, but still ask that we try to theorize that irreduction of beauty to ideology better.
@SvTwuni @karlsteel Morton’s beauty is at least also anti-aesthetic plus his hyper objects add to the term’s anti-romantic traction #STU09
@jeffreyjcohen @karlsteel Beauty may have more to do with ethics than previously imagined: because it halts the flow of [critical] thought.
@SvTwuni Meillassoux’s materialism, then, excluding his divinology, speaks to your idea about an effect going astray from its cause. #STU09
@SvTwuni @jeffreyjcohen likewise the sublime. just need to shift it away from, say, mountains. imagine being struck by sublimity of a worm
@jeffreyjcohen @karlsteel We might think here of Bennett’s idea that poesis is like grit halting slide of things into our cooption of them.
@NathaNfinitum Yes, Nathan, thanks for bringing in Meillassoux on that point.
@SvTwuni @KarlSteel Beauty and ethics valuable to extent they are external / non policing. Irreduction is easy to state, tough to theorize
@jeffreyjcohen @karlsteel Maybe we should shift from beauty, tied to taste, to poesis: the craft of making things strange.
@KarlSteel @SvTwuni yes!
@SvTwuni @karlsteel or unbind beauty from taste’s enslavement. #STU09
@SvTwuni @jeffreyjcohen & the way that we are ourselves estranged or recrafted or differently familiar. we can be poetry for objects?
@jeffreyjcohen @KarlSteel Then criticism becomes a form of poesis that seeks to halt thought, to arrest a totalizing hermeneutics.
@SvTwuni @karlsteel making things strange, wonder, queering, weird realism… #STU09
@SvTwuni this is a bit left field. But what do you think is the difference between an artwork and a ‘mundane’ object? #STU09
@SvTwuni @karlsteel I won’t say halt thought so much as stun or astonish it but yes #STU09
@parallax00 This is a great/tough question; how to determine mundane. Harman would say his OOO makes everything weird and non-mundane.
@SvTwuni I agree that criticism becomes a way to halt thought, but would you say there is a way, like Butler’s performance, it also propels?
@Transliterature Yes, Mark, as one is halted one is also re-directed, possibly even backwards. Time gets wonky, as does the self.
@parallax00 Therefore, in the OOO world, there really is not a “mundane”: that’s a too-human tag for the supposedly ordinary.
Hate to sign off on #STU09 but a child at school and Chanukah await. GREAT job @EileenAJoy
@SvTwuni nice response! But making everything non-mundane ruins any distinction between art and non-art. Not that I have an answer to it 🙂
@SvTwuni #STU09 but we’re dealing with artwork as discrete objects, non relational vehicles of aesthetic power. As Levi would say there…
@SvTwuni Maybe this method of lit.crit. needs a non-human critc. Have you ever experimented with a MegaHAL? http://t.co/JmPtAHDM #STU09
@SvTwuni #STU09 … needs to be a distinction. But pluralising that distinction amplifies the paradox.
@SvTwuni #STU09 – Interesting tweets: text reduced to sequence of elements/objects and analysed as a string of unencumbered symbols – maths!
@monki Mike Witmore, who machine-reads Shakespeare and loves Meillassoux, would agree! Shall check out HAL!
@parallax00 I agree: you’re making me dizzy [ha!]. Perhaps we go back to distinctions between “made” and accidental?
@SvTwuni Wouldn’t Latour say that all made things are also slightly accidental? #STU09
@SvTwuni gotta sign off. congrats to Svenska Twitteruniversitet and EILEEN!! for such a great event! Cheers! #STU09
@Transliterature The entire universe is an accident, but there is still some shred of intentionality along with overdetermined relations.
@simonrae Yes, this could all be computational [that’s partly Bogost’s argument], but I want to leave room for non-math possibilities.
@KarlSteel Thanks, Karl! Thanks to everyone! I’ll hang out a bit longer, until 9:30 GMT for any lingering questions!
@SvTwuni I agree! As was mentioned earlier, that distinction also allows for ethics to remain as part of the (artistic) discourse #STU09
@SvTwuni #STU09 that would be a good contender. But I would argue that in an OOO universe, ‘made’ and ‘accidental’ hold no valid distinction
@SvTwuni Congrats and thank you Eileen! #STU09
@SvTwuni Brilliant work, Eileen! Thank-you! #STU09
@Transliterature Yes, because now aesthetics, poesis, lit.crit. would be paying attention to ways OUT of systems.
@SvTwuni #STU09 if a valid artwork were made, its then entirely relational on human appreciation of being made for human appreciation.
@parallax00 I agree; maybe it’s our human propensity to have these distinctions which are themselves artificial, part of our “art.”
@SvTwuni And I shall check out Mike. http://t.co/yU1XOhkU
@monki Look up Mike Witmore’s blog: http://t.co/x6kEtVkb
@jeffreyjcohen THANKS for joining us, Jeffrey.
@SvTwuni Thank you so much for this, Eileen: You owned this format! Also thanks to everyone in the discussion! #STU09
Thanks to you, Marcus, and to everyone who participated. This was a terrific blast!

Further reading

Interview with Levi Bryant on Fractured Politics weblog:

Eileen A. Joy, “Like two autistic moonbeams entering the window of my asylum: Chaucer’s Griselda and Lars von Trier’s Bess McNeill” (pdf)

Michael Witmore, “We have never not been inhuman” (pdf)

Timothy Morton, “Objects as Temporary Autonomous Zones” (pdf)

Ian Bogost, “Unit Operations” (pdf)

Heather Love, “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn” (pdf)

11 responses to “Eileen A. Joy: Notes Toward a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism #STU09

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  3. Pingback: Comments on Eileen Joy’s ‘Notes Towards a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism’ « Scotograph

  4. Awesome!

    Love the TwitterU concept. Great lecture, Eileen. Learned a thing or two today.

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