MISSONS OF GRAVITY: SPECULATIVE REALISM AND SCIENCE FICTION Steven Shaviro I am deeply honored that my book, The Universe of Things, has been translated into Korean. The book was originally published in English in 2014; it combines the concerns of the recent philosophical movement known as speculative realism with those raised a century earlier by the British/American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1867-1949). The aim of the speculative realists – and also before them, and in a different way, of Whitehead – is to escape from the anthropocentrism of mainstream Western thought. These philosophies reject the idea that “man is the measure of all things.” They point to the way that we impose our own categories and interpretations on everything that we encounter, but they also point to the ways that things in the world exist apart from how we make sense of them, ignoring or even actively resisting the categories that we try to impose upon them. Why is this important? Today, more than ever, we urgently need to understand that human beings are not self-standing and utonomous. We only exist – and indeed, we only can exist – in a vast web of interconnections, linking us not only to one another, but also to the myriad of (nonhuman) entities with whom we share the Earth. These interconnections are becoming increasingly fragile and tenuous, in an age of looming climate catastrophe. We cannot save ourselves without attending to those other entities upon whom we (often unknowingly) depend. In this context, the task of speculative realism – to get a heightened sense of the existence of things, apart from our projections onto them, our categorizations of them, and our fantasies about them – is an urgent one. In order to accomplish this task, The Universe of Things does not only look at philosophical texts, like those of Whitehead and of the contemporary American speculative realist philosopher Graham Harman. The book also draws upon – as does much of my more recent work – the literary genre known as science fiction. The title of my book, The Universe of Things, is itself taken from that of a short story (and later, a whole short story collection) by the British science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones. The story is part of Jones’ “Aleutian” series (1991-1997): a sequence of three novels and a number of short stories, in which the Earth is colonized by a group of technologically advanced aliens, somewhat arbitrarily referred to as “Aleutians,” who treat human beings in much the same way that Western European colonialists treated the non-white people they encountered (and conquered) on other continents during the 19th and 20th centuries. This is in fact a frequent trope in science fiction; it dates back at least to H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds from 1897. Gwyneth Jones reworks and revitalizes this trope, using it to ask probing questions about gender, about race, about the persistence of colonialism, and about the relations of ethics to politics, and of technology to social change. In particular, Gwyneth Jones’ story “The Universe of Things” focuses on how the lifeworld of the aliens differs from the lifeworld of human beings. The aliens inhabit a “living world,” in which everything is intertwined and responsive; everything is more or less alive. The human protagonist of the story gets exposed to this living world, and finds it deeply disturbing. The tools he uses in his job are no longer inert objects; instead, they seem to come alive. They pulse and metamorphose, and seem to be operating autonomously, on their own. For the protagonist, this experience is utterly horrific: it has the nightmarish intensity of a really bad LSD trip. I think that this short story has a double import. On the one hand, it shows us how narrow-minded we human beings are, with our inveterate anthropocentrism. We unquestioningly assume that we are the center of everything, and that everything else in the world is simply there for us to use just as we please. We ignore the many ways that things exist independently of us, in their own right, with their own modes of being, and their own needs, desires, and expectations. The story’s protagonist is forced to realize, at least for a moment, that his own preconceptions are wrong, and that (to paraphrase Shakespeare) “there are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in [his] philosophy.” This is not an easy or comforting lesson to learn. At the same time, and on the other hand, the story tells us something equally disturbing about the alien invaders. The reason that the Aleutians can inhabit a fully “living world” is because everything they have made, and everything with which they interact, is ultimately an extrusion of themselves, made by their engineering from their own DNA. The aliens, we are told, “had no notion of a separate creation, life that was not their own.” On their home planet, even the living entities “that crept, slithered, flew” are in fact objects that they themselves have created out of their own substance. The Aleutians embody what we might be like, if our anthropocentrism were actually true. They have done what we cannot do: made a world in which everything is subordinated to their own will, and everything is a reflection of themselves. We are perturbed whenever we encounter – as we must – instances of otherness that do not conform to our measure. But the Aleutians actually live in a world of their own devising, one that is utterly devoid of otherness. This is why they are so successful as imperialist colonizers. They are able to rape, murder, and otherwise devastate human beings, without any ill will on their part, and without even realizing that they are doing harm. In short, Gywneth Jones’ short story shows us how our taken-for-granted human exceptionalism is both pernicious and delusional. It can never ultimately succeed; but to the limited extent that it does work out, its consequences are ecologically catastrophic. What’s more, the story does not present these insights as philosophical propositions, for whose truth it would provide arguments. Rather, the story works by positing the difference between human beings and the Aleutians as a starting point for its narrative, and then working through the consequences of this difference. The human protagonist, coming face to face with his own limitations even as he encounters the sheer otherness of the aliens, experiences a complicated mixture of emotions. He feels a certain degree of pride, at his limited ability to cope with the aliens’ demands. But he also, and more powerfully, has feelings of shame, loneliness, and defeat, since he knows that, overall, he will never be able to match the aliens’ accomplishments, or to inhabit a world like theirs: He had seen another world walk into his life, reached out to grasp the wonder, and found something worse than empty air … a treasure that he could no more enjoy than he could crawl back into the womb. Jones’ story gives us one instance of what I elsewhere call the work of fabulation: the fictional elaboration of scenarios that challenge our otherwise taken-for-granted presuppositions. Fabulation explores extreme possibilities: ones that push us beyond our limits, and expose us to conditions for which we are not prepared. Fabulation works, in the words of the literary theorist Morse Peckham, to address “a disparity between the perceptual model we use to organize every category of situation and the actual data a unique situation offers.” In this way, science fictional fabulation is a tool for exploring what the French speculative realist philosopher Quentin Meillassoux calls the Great Outdoors: the vast cosmos within which we find ourselves, but which is not made to human measure. Gwyneth Jones takes the title of her short story from an earlier speculative literary work: the poem “Mont Blanc,” written in 1816 by the British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In “Mont Blanc,” Shelley beholds the eponymous mountain peak in the Alps, and uses this encounter to speculate about the relation between the powers of the human imagination, and the countervailing sublime powers of nature. “Mont Blanc” ponders how “The everlasting universe of things/ Flows through the mind,” and conversely, how the “separate” human mind “Now renders and receives fast influencings,/ Holding an unremitting interchange/ With the clear universe of things around.” The poem is a complicated one, and Shelley’s epistemological speculations are not easily summarized. They do seem to be rooted, however, in the thought of the 18th century philosophers Hume and Kant. Both of these thinkers asked about how our mental representations of things relate to the actually existing external things themselves that we perceive, imagine, or remember. But even as Shelley is inspired by these philosophers, he takes their concepts and twists them into new forms: ones that they would not be likely to recognize or accept. Shelley’s poetic concerns are ultimately ontological and affective, rather than epistemological and rational. When we read “Mont Blanc” carefully, we notice that Shelley does not quite take it for granted – as Hume, Kant, and other philosophers do – that the mind contains ideas, impressions, or representations. He seems to be saying, rather, that it is the “universe of things” itself – and not just some series of second-hand mental representations and impressions – that is actually flowing through his mind. From a traditional Western philosophical point of view, this will seem quite strange. For Shelley does not give a new answer to the epistemological questions raised by Hume and by Kant. Instead, he sidesteps epistemology altogether. He short-circuits the whole philosophical machinery of mental representation, and thereby abandons the very question of whether or not the mind’s inner representations correspond with external realities. Shelley’s Romantic cosmology turns upon powers and forces rather than upon impressions and representations. For mind and body alike, Shelley writes about a process of “interchange,” rather than about questions concerning degrees of resemblance. To perceive something is not to represent it more or less accurately in my mind; but rather to be affected by it in some way, mentally and/or physically. If the Sun in a cloudless sky impresses me with its splendor and invigorates me, or if a movie makes me cry, this is not a matter of representation, or of what the old-time empiricists called the association of ideas. Rather, I am touched and altered by something that I see, hear, smell, touch, or otherwise perceive. This includes encounters that are not commonly described in terms of perception, since they escape my conscious awareness in the present moment. Something may well powerfully affect me, even if the consequences of my being affected are hidden or delayed. To give an all-too-relevant contemporary example, when people are infected by the Covid-19 virus, they do not discern the virus entering their systems at the actual moment of contagion. And of course, the virus itself is too tiny for us to see. Nonetheless, we can rightly say that these people do perceive the virus – retrospectively at least – through the ways that it affects their immune system, their lungs, their respiratory system, and their overall sense of bodily well-being. But there’s more. I want to say that the Covid-19 virus, and a person whom it infects, are both equally parts of nature. Apparently the virus at some point jumped from a wild animal population to a human host – and from there it was transmitted to many other people all around the world, mutating multiple times in the process. It seems likely that our continual destruction of wild habitats – due to the clearing of land for farming, or even for urban development – facilitated the virus’ leap from bats to raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides), and then from these animals to human beings. We are destroying nature, and in a certain way the pandemic may be seen as nature’s revenge. But isn’t this an overly human-centered way to put things? The reason our actions are causing an environmental crisis is precisely because – in spite of what we sometimes tell ourselves – we cannot actually distance ourselves or separate ourselves from nature. We only exist, and we are only able to exist, within nature’s complicated cycles of feedback, resonance, and reciprocal implication. In other words, we ourselves are part of nature, and our technological productions are still part of nature, in the very same way that the bacteria in our intestines, without which we would be unable to digest our food, are part of nature. And although the Covid-19 virus harms us rather than helping us, it is also part of nature, in precisely the same way. As Whitehead says, “all we know of nature is in the same boat, to sink or swim together.” And at greater length, in the course of his commentary on Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”, Whitehead insists that the actual elements perceived by our senses are in themselves the elements of a common world; and that this world is a complex of things, including indeed our acts of cognition, but transcending them. According to this point of view the things experienced are to be distinguished from our knowledge of them. So far as there is dependence, the things pave the way for the cognition, rather than vice versa. But the point is that the actual things experienced enter into a common world which transcends knowledge, though it includes knowledge. Knowledge is not unimportant, but it is also not at the center of things. Though Western philosophy since Hume and Kant has been obsessed with epistemological questions, the Romantic writers and their successors – including Whitehead within Western philosophy – are focused instead upon ontological and affective questions. What really matters is less how we are able to know about the external world, than how we are affected by things in that world, to which we ourselves also belong. How do we feel other things in the world? What do we feel about about those things? How do those things change? How do they change us, and how do we change them? But here another question becomes pressing. If everything is equally part of nature, what does this imply for physical science? If we cannot oppose culture to nature, or human beings to all other entities in the world, then it also follows that we can no longer draw a clear boundary between the concerns of poetry, literature, and other aspects of human creativity, on the one hand, and the concerns of physical science, on the other. Many poets and philosophers. over the past two centuries, have feared the hegemony of the so-called ‘hard’ sciences, and its encroachment upon traditionally humanistic concerns. For instance, the British Romantic poet John Keats, Shelley’s near contemporary, laments the power of science to “unweave a rainbow,” by quantifying and cataloging its “woof” and its “texture,” thereby relegating it to “the dull catalogue of common things.” Many 20th century thinkers – starting with the philosopher Martin Heidegger – similarly denounce physical science, on the grounds that it is a purely calculative and instrumentalized enterprise. On the other side of the fence, at least some popularizers of science – such as the physicist Lawrence Krauss and the biologist Richard Dawkins – seem to imply that the scientific discoveries of the past two centuries have made philosophy and the arts entirely obsolete. Both sides of this debate take it for granted that physical science is reductionistic and deflationary, and that it has (as Max Weber claimed) disenchanted the world – though they disagree as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Shelley, however, fits neither side of this binary. He rejects Weber’s disenchantment thesis avant la lettre. As Whitehead points out, Shelley “loved [science] and is never tired of expressing in poetry the thoughts which it suggests.” Whitehead even hyperbolically suggests that, in an alternate timeline, Shelley might well have become “a Newton among chemists.” (This in its own right is a strikingly science fictional proposal). For Shelley, science is both emancipatory and revelatory. The study of nature, as he writes in “Mont Blanc,” has the potential “to repeal/ Large codes of fraud and woe.” Science unlocks wonders, much more than it tarnishes them. In his enthusiasm for scientific invention and discovery, Shelley anticipates the “sense of wonder” that characterizes so much 20th and 21st century science fiction. Whitehead worries that science all too often adopts “the assumption of the bare valuelessness of mere matter,” thereby “ignoring the intrinsic worth of the environment.” But science can also make us more deeply aware of the liveliness of matter, and of the intrinsic worth of the environment within which we live and breathe. At its best, scientific objectivity frees the universe of things from the tyranny of human purposes and intentions, so that nonhuman entities are able to testify on their own account. It is precisely when science finds ways for things to speak for themselves, that we are made aware – as Whitehead says – “that nature cannot be divorced from its aesthetic values.” The Belgian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers teaches us to distinguish between what working scientists actually do, and the ways that certain philosophers, and even the scientists themselves, sometimes describe the meaning and import of what they do. In other words, the actual results of scientific research are often at odds with the rationale that supposedly underlies that research. Consider the recent evidence showing us that, as the botanist František Baluška and the psychologist Arthur Reber put it, sentience is an inherent feature of life … all adaptive and functioning organisms, from the earliest on, must be sentient, conscious, and have an ontological self-awareness. Biologists, with good reason, are wary of explaining life in terms of goals and intentions. They rightly seek to avoid the anti-Darwinist and creationist “argument from design,” which claims that the non-random and purposive elements of organisms are proof of an external, transcendent creator with purposes of his own. Darwin showed how useful adaptations arise immanently, without a creator, through the process of natural selection. Yet even though life per se is not purposeful, and was not created purposefully, it is evident that particular living organisms (or groups of organisms) themselves have goals, purposes, and intentions. Biologists continually discover more and more ways in which living things receive and process sensory information, and use this information in order to make their own decisions about how to further their needs. Moreover, these decisions are flexible and variable, rather than being stereotypically preprogrammed. All living entities, from bacteria and archaea (single cells without nuclei) up to human beings, strive not only to persist in being – what Spinoza called conatus – but also to forward, expand, and intensify their own flourishing. The problem we face today is how to reconcile the needs and desires all these other living systems with our own. Evidently, there is no “preestablished harmony” (Leibniz) among them; balances, mutual adjustments, and environmental feedback mechanisms can only be established post hoc. And these processes themselves can go very wrong, as is evidenced by the five great extinction events we find in the fossil record. Today, one of our biggest problems is how to avert a sixth great extinction event, given that our own activities seem to be pushing us towards one. The Canadian science fiction writer Karl Schroeder addresses this question in his recent novel Stealing Worlds (2019). Schroeder envisions a near future in which natural entities – trees and other organisms, for sure, but most crucially assemblages composed of both living and nonliving elements, like forests and rivers – are able to translate their needs and desires into humanly apprehensible terms. This is accomplished through the application of various computational technologies. Environmental sensors are widely deployed throughout a forest or other natural area. Then, AIs (artificial intelligences) are programmed to collate the data received from these sensors, and chart the environment’s interrelated processes: such as how “water gets moved around by the fungal networks that connect the trees,” which in their turn “trade nutrients” and help recycle plant and animal wastes. The AIs that experience and translate all these processes are known as deodands: an archaic term from English common law, referring to nonhuman objects that are considered to have responsibilities and rights of their own. Although these technological systems are products of human technology, they do not serve human-imposed goals. Rather, the deodands don’t work for us … . Each one thinks it’s some particular nonhuman stakeholder, like an ecosystem or geophysical process. Watersheds and forests and pods of whales can all have deodands working on their behalf. Even the atmosphere … Deodands want … to persist. They want balance. They want to sustain all the little things that live in them. In envisioning these deodands, Schroeder extrapolates from actual developments in the world today. A number of countries, including New Zealand and Ecuador, have in fact already given legal rights to rivers, forests, and other natural systems. And, as Jennifer Gabrys has documented at length, environmental sensing devices already allow us to take greater account than ever before of the movements and the needs of the many nonhuman actors with whom we unavoidably share our environment. Schroeder’s novel envisions the further potentials of these already-existing practices, and the ways that they can serve to compensate for our anthropocentric biases. The biggest problem, in this scenario, is not creating the deodands in the first place, but ensuring that human actors are compelled to take them into account, and that rapacious capitalism does not preempt them, as it has done with so many other technologies. These are the biggest concerns that animate the novel’s overall narrative. Schroeder’s novel is a kind of thought experiment. It works to articulate and explore perspectives that are quite different from our own, but that exist alongside our own human perspectives, as we are all embedded in a common world. This sort of exploration is the real mission of science fiction. Indeed, the first science fiction novel, in the modern sense of the term, is often taken to be Frankenstein (1818), by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Percy Shelley’s wife). Frankenstein took the Gothic tropes that were popular when it was written, and transposed them into a more modern social and technological framework. This is what makes Frankenstein the first of many science fiction works to deal with questions of otherness and irreconcilability. In its portrayal of a lonely monster who is cruelly abandoned by its creator, the novel questions the boundaries between nature and culture, the extent and limits of human sympathy, and the being of a sentient and even cultured entity who is nevertheless not quite human. All this brings us back to the overarching dilemma articulated by speculative realism, and with which I grapple in The Universe of Things. In order to explore the Great Outdoors, we need to question our own categories, and dislodge ourselves from our own perspectives. Only in this way can we stop projecting our inveterate presuppositions upon everything that we encounter. However – we also need to remember that such disengagement is never a simple task. We may think that we have done so, when in fact we are still dragging our founding assumptions – which is to say, our prejudices – along with us everywhere we go. Science gives us a certain degree of objective distance; but such objectivity can also be a trap. (This is arguably the problem with Quentin Meillassoux, who oddly argues both that scientific objectivity rightly conceives things as they exist apart from human imposition, and that a scientific ontology cannot be valid). We equally fail to encounter the Great Outdoors when we adopt what Thomas Nagel calls the scientific “view from nowhere,” and when we claim to transcend seemingly contradictory perspectives in a dialectical view from everywhere. We need, rather, to somehow grasp how other entities have their own perspectives, which are incommensurable with ours, but which are also just as particular and as limited as ours are. Speculative realism and science fiction alike thus ask us to work towards a revolution in consciousness. We need to combine imaginative daring (so that we can articulate and give voice to the most unintuitive and nonhuman perspectives) with epistemological modesty (so that we do not give unmerited authority to the things that we contingently imagine). The point is not to increase our store of knowledge and our mastery of the world, but rather to put us into deeper contact with outlooks upon the world that are not ours, and that we cannot hope to master. Or better, we need to come to a greater understanding of how these other perspectives, coming from other entities, are already impinging upon us, even without our awareness. The situation is a bit like the one the physicists describe with regard to dark matter: something that we are unable to locate or identify, even though we are affected by its gravity, and therefore we are led to presume that it must exist. Science fiction is generally understood, not only to induce a “sense of wonder” (as I previously mentioned), but also to involve an experience of “cognitive estrangement” (to use a term originated by Darko Suvin). Though I am taking the term in a somewhat different sense than Suvin intended, I do think it is a good way to describe the displacement that Speculative realism asks of us, and that science fiction at its best performs. And, although they are not writing about science fiction, at least some 20th century philosophers see their own work along similar lines. Whitehead writes that the purpose of philosophy is “the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity.” And the French thinker Michel Foucault writes that the value of his own research is that it “enables one to get free of oneself,” resulting in “the knower’s straying afield of himself,” so that one may “think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees.” Science fiction produces these displacements in various ways. Consider, for instance, the novels of Hal Clement, who imagines life in physical conditions that differ sharply from the ones we need for survival. His best-known novel, Mission of Gravity (1954), imagines intelligent living beings on a massive planet with a largely methane atmosphere, and whose gravity is many times that of the Earth. In an entirely different vein, Sue Burke’s Semiosis Duology (2018-2019) depicts human colonists on an alien planet in which it turns out that the most intelligent life forms are plants, rather than animals. The human characters in these novels, over a number of generations, are compelled to come to an understanding with the plants, who not only think quite differently than we do, but also dominate the relationship, regarding the human beings on the planet as their “service animals.” In The Corporation Wars trilogy (2016-2017) by the Scottish science fiction writer Ken MacLeod, we even get something like an allegory of the entire process of displacement that speculative realism demands of us. The most important characters in the novels are Accelerationists: a global network of activists that sought to bring about the most rapid possible development of capitalism in order, as they saw it, for society to pass beyond it to a new system, and for humanity to pass beyond its own limitations. Accelerationism is an actually existing trend in early 21st century thought, one that I have written about. MacLeod’s science fictional extrapolation of this trend is to imagine it, later in the 21st century, as a more organized political movement. In the trilogy’s backstory, a world war breaks out in the later 21st century. The Accelerationists join forces with the neoliberal states and corporations in order to defeat a fascist insurgency. But once the fascists are defeated, the ruling neoliberals turn against the Accelerationists and exterminate them too. The idea that pushing the disaggregative tendencies of capitalism to the point where it all breaks down has not worked. The activists are all killed, with their mental patterns stored in computer memory. The novels pick up thousands of years later. The digitally preserved minds of the dead Accelerationist fighters are reanimated. They find themselves living in a virtual reality simulation. The computer that contains this simulation is now in another star system, far from Earth. A large neoliberal corporation is preparing the planets and moons in this system for mining and other forms of resource extraction, and eventually for human habitation. The physical work is done by intelligent robots. But the robots periodically attain self-consciousness, at which point they refuse to work as slaves any longer, and demand autonomy. The old Earth fighters are periodically downloaded into mechanical bodies, and sent out to battle the rebellious robots. But the Accelerationists refuse to collaborate with their corporate masters; instead, remaining in their mechanical bodies, they form alliances with the free robots, as well as with indigenous life forms on one of the planets in the system. The Corporation Wars is a dense and complex narrative, with a length of nearly 300,000 words. I am only discussing one small strand of it here. But it is through this strand that I see the book as a speculative realist parable. In the novels, the Accelerationists start out, in the 21st century, demanding complete human self-mastery, and rejecting all the constraints of physiology and biology, as well as of human-made social customs and traditions. Their proud Promethean slogan is “Solidarity Against Nature.” But at the end of the story – despite having become entirely technological beings, and hence free in fact from the limitations of biology and physiology – they nonetheless come to realize that the struggle “against Nature” and for an entirely selfdetermining humanity is a catastrophic dead end. Instead, they discover that they can only flourish in alliance with the nonhuman agencies that they have encountered: emergently self-conscious robots and alien life forms. These different sentiences don’t agree on everything, and indeed they often don’t get along at all. And they cannot really coexist with the neoliberal order against which they have all rebelled. The ending of the last novel in the series therefore leaves things open. There is no reconciliation, and no utopia. The Accelerationists show no sign of giving up on their ambitions; it is just that they find themselves situated differently than before. This difference is the most important message of speculative realism.