From a 2016 Full Stop interview with philosopher Eugene Thacker.
As it is for all of us I guess. Though Wikipedia may seem unimportant within academia, pages like “Speculative realism” can give a certain insight into current trends of historicizing cultural theory and philosophy: how we identify with or come to be identified within certain schools of thought, as well as how our work is circulated and discovered outside of us, our institutions, our publishers. How do you think your work found its way there: to “Speculative realism,” subgenre “Transcendental materialism / neovitalism,” and is that a proper placing? More broadly, what are your feelings regarding the frenzy to label and historicize philosophical movements?
My guess is that it’s because of the book I wrote in 2010, After Life, which was very much a straight ahead philosophy book trying to dismantle the concept of “life” in the Western tradition. At the time, there was a turn in philosophy away from regional concerns, especially coming out of the heady ‘90s where so much was compartmentalized, and was about culture and identity and micropolitics and the rest of it. It was very fractured. The pendulum was swinging back toward big philosophical questions, and that was something I was interested in. But there was also shift in the ways those big questions were posed, particularly in the way they critiqued the humanist tradition. They were concerned with this cluster of questions around the horizon of the human—or the inhuman, or unhuman, or whatever you want to call it—and in a way that was willing to follow a thought to the end no matter where it led, even if it meant questioning the most basic foundations of human cultures. And that was something I definitely had an affiliation to.
The rest is just branding. I don’t know how helpful naming all these “schools” and “movements” is, but there is a mania of doing that now… then again if you read the biographies of earlier philosophers, say, during the time that Kant was working and after, you see the same squabbles and infighting, the same vying for attention, it’s so pedantic…
And fracturing into diff erent fields and trends…
…definitely, going all the way back to ancient Greek philosophy, with all of these different schools competing for students, trying to out-do each other. It’s always been there in philosophy, and not just in the West, but in other traditions too—say, in classical Indian philosophy, with all these bifurcations and different sub-schools, competing traditions of commentary on commentaries, and so on. In the process the actual texts and the actual ideas get lost. It makes you wonder if it’s all just vanity at the end of the day. Today, we have this marketplace of ideas and we’re all trying to be heard, and all of us are getting drowned in the cacophony of self-interest and self-importance.
What about in terms of finding one’s own way, sort of like charting a thought-path?
I don’t know. I’m not sure how helpful “philosophy”—whatever that is—is for self-discovery…and to be honest a “self” is really the last thing I want to discover. There’s an arbitrariness to something like the history of philosophy in the West, and the way that history is constructed and created, particularly when you look around you today. You see your peers and colleagues outlining their pedigrees and branding their philosophies and saying, “this is a school.” It would be nice to think that philosophy is open to whomever seeks it out, but the reality is that the histories, the lineages, the genealogies, the “Great Works,” are all constructed by people in privileged positions. There’s nothing written in stone about them.
What’s more interesting to me are the exceptions, not the rules. For instance, a philosopher who is now in the canon and who, during their life, was mostly unknown, a Spinoza maybe, or somebody who always had this antagonistic relationship to the academy, a Nietzsche or a Schopenhauer or a Wittgenstein, or all the philosophers who were certain they were going to be part of the history of philosophy and are now forgotten, or those like Philipp Mainländer or Elme-Marie Caro, who were never known in the first place and are still forgotten now—and how all this is not a uniform, linear thread but rather a lot of happenstance, luck, politics, and nominalism. So if you want to learn about something like speculative realism, or if you’re just interested in Western philosophy generally, you do have to start somewhere, and websites or blogs or podcasts can provide convenient maps. The same goes for the more official histories of philosophy authored by erudite professors and published by university presses and read by five graduate students preparing for their qualifying exams. It’s all fine as long as you understand that it’s just a beginning, and that there’s also a lot of messiness to it.