The Speculative Turn and Studies in Romanticism

It might be fair to say where philosophy goes literary criticism follows, but the current destination is a little unclear.  Today’s graduate students of romanticism work with professors who rose up in academia when philosophical camps presented themselves in plain sight; one was either “influenced” by Derrida’s phenomenology, Foucault’s genealogies, Lacan’s brand of psychoanalysis, or some other wing of continental philosophy.  At this year’s MLA conference in Seattle I listened for hints of literary criticism’s current trajectory.  Mostly, I heard Fredric Jameson’s name but not so much in regards to a future direction.  However, peeking over the disciplinary line reveals a philosophical shift that has gained momentum in the last five years, commonly referred to as the “speculative turn.”

The speculative turn is a turn in the sense that the conversation has moved away from the linguistic one.  Speculative philosophy is generally metaphysical, systematic, and works outside the domain of the hard sciences.  The most recent emergence of speculative philosophy is interesting because of its investment in materialism and realism, and its engagement with the hard sciences.  Steering away from idealism (commonly associated with Kant and his successors), suggests that reality exists independent of human agency.  For many literature students, to declare one’s work materialist in 2012 will sound redundant, because materialist accounts of history in English departments have been prevalent for decades.  But that work was materialism without metaphysics, a discussion absent of the Absolute or the thing-in-itself, for better or worse.

What distinguishes the speculative turn is its posited problem, what Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism” (5).[i]  In short, correlationism is the insistence of the relationship between the concept of a thing and the thing itself, and it is this relationship that prohibits access to either.  Romanticists studying Kant and company know this story well; this “relationship” is what Kant refers to as the “transcendental schema,” a mediator between the object and the mind’s concept of that object (B 177, 181).[ii]  But, in Ray Brassier’s “Concepts and Objects,” included in the who’s who of continental materialism and realism, The Speculative Turn (2011), he says it is taken for granted that the “difference” or relationship between the thing and its concept is anything but conceptual (64).[iii]  To assume the difference is conceptual delimits the relationship to a strictly human imposition.

From the example of how one might interrogate a correlationist situation (Brassier uses George Berkeley to illustrate his point), it is clear that continental materialism and realism pursue further ways of engaging with the world without positioning the human as somehow detached or above the world engaged with.  Such an anti-anthropocentric line has been re-charged in late by Deleuze, especially in his critique of representation.  But if correlationism reinforces the linguistic turn’s abandonment, and hence the abandonment of representation, that does not necessarily mean “language is dead.”  The death of language holds especial concern for romanticists because English departments carry the burden of such a potential death.  Rather, the turn suggests that if an inquiry is to access anything immediately, to begin and end the investigation with language is to never even start.

So how does the speculative turn impact literary studies and studies in romanticism, in particular?  To be clear, philosophy and literary criticism are not the same.  There were many books of literary criticism from the 1980s and 90s “influenced” by deconstruction, but these books merely use a method in order to approach literary texts, which, initially, was not the method’s aim.  In some sense then, the new philosophical turn is quite remote from literary studies.  On the other hand, when the philosophy giant moves, its gravity impacts the academic milieu in general.  The fact that the speculative turn reasserts materialist and realist philosophy undoubtedly encourages a similar embrace in literary fields.  Especially for romantics, this re-emphasis is historically significant because Rousseau (our man!) largely marks the turn away from his hard-lined materialist predecessors.  But Rousseau is a signpost, not a gravestone.

The theories Rousseau sought to overturn did not die so much as criticism has preferred to focus on less thingly topics.  Materialist readings of romanticism have been lost for years, traded in for borderline idealist, dialectical ones. For instance, almost no critical reading of Wordsworth appears without citing the excellent and comprehensive Wordsworth’s Poetry by Geoffrey Hartman (1964), whose bibliography just so happens to dismiss W.H. Piper’s pantheistic materialist account of the romantic imagination, The Active Universe(1962).[iv] Current studies will not merely return to Piper’s history of ideas though.  Taking an object-oriented approach, coined by Graham Harman in his Tool-Being (2002), romantic studies might zero in on the object itself, independent of any relationship at all.[v]

In some sense, this “new” move is as much a return to the old as any new move is.  At the same time, it’s a return with a difference.  Derrida is back on the scene, but Martin Hägglund’s atheist Derrida.  Schelling has a starring role, but thanks to an increase in translations and Iain Hamilton Grant’s focus, the emphasis lands on Naturphilosophie.  In romantic studies, I suspect, given the recent emphasis on the more scientifically inclined Erasmus Darwin (e.g. Dahlia Porter’s work), a renewed interest in Newton and Locke will follow—hopefully, along with some “minor” figures that have gone overlooked.  In other words, if the speculative turn signals anything to us, it’s that we can do more.


[i] Meillassoux, Quentin.  After Finitude.  Trans. Ray Brassier.  London: Continuum, 2008. Print.

[ii] Kant, Immanuel.  Critique of Pure Reason.  Trans. Norman Kemp Smith.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965.  Print.

[iii] Brassier, Ray.  “Concepts and Objects.”  The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism.  Eds.  Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman.  Melbourne: re.press, 2011. Print.

[iv] I was pleased to see an endorsement—not a ringing one—of Piper in Paul Fry’s excellent, Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are (2009).

[v] Harman, Graham.  Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of the Object.  Chicago: Open Court, 2002. Print.

4 thoughts on “The Speculative Turn and Studies in Romanticism”

  1. Thank you once again for your thoughts, Aaron. Having spent last summer catching up on contemporary speculative philosophy and having just returned from the ASECS conference late last week, I find your ideas to be particularly ripe for dialogue.
    If ASECS is any measure of the broader intellectual movements of literary criticism at present (and I’d wager that it is given how its participants constitute a mixture of early americanists, eighteenth-century scholars, and romanticists), I’d have to agree with you. This year’s annual meeting in San Antonio showcased yet another clash of the new historicists and the (new) formalists with each side unabashedly revealing its exasperation with the other’s approach. Yet panel after panel, if one thing became clear in these mudslinging waters it was that neither method was even possible without the other. As the debate ratcheted up with each passing day of the conference, those offering a way or a methodology out of the impossible and reductive either/or scenario (with historicism painted as necessitating unwarranted leaps of “faith” based ever insufficient archival evidence and with formalism presented as a gleefully conservative means of salvaging “what we do best” in the face of the looming/ongoing crisis in the humanities) seem to have stumbled upon just this sort of speculative approach without naming it and without recognizing it’s growing contemporary appeal. Let’s see if they come to recognize it or if we’ll simply continue to argue amongst ourselves, our shrinking audience…

  2. Self-promotion warning!

    I just published an article on “Digital Blake 2.0,” which uses OOO and SR to theorize what I call network materiality. It appears in the recently published Blake 2.0: William Blake and Twentieth Century Art, Music and Culture edited by Steve Clark, Tristanne Connolly, and Jason Whittaker from Palgrave.

    1. Your collection sounds very interesting, Roger. I am quite excited to take a look at it. Thank you.

  3. “neither method was even possible without the other.” So true, Michele!

    And yes, Roger, looking forward to “Digital Blake 2.0.” Looking at your page, I see you’re making the move to Washington–I hope the transition goes smoothly—Good luck!

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