Levi Bryant has posted some reflections on the deployment, evolution, and potential shortcomings of the term “correlationism.” It’s an interesting read that covers some of the more baffling developments and associations that have become attached to this oft-quoted term, and the post has me reflecting on the impact that correlationism — and its adjacent speculative realist movement — has had on my own thinking. Now, I don’t use the term correlationism very much, almost never actually, and I don’t really consider myself to be a “speculative realist,” whatever that might mean, but I have been involved in my fair share of discussions surrounding both so it’s not like I’m divorced from these terms either.
In the first place correlationism is, for me, a problem that I have to get into rather than one I have to get out of. This has to do with the fact that my two largest intellectual influences — the sciences of ecology and speculative philosophy — both start off from a radically different position than those for whom correlationism is a problem, and for whom the critique of it is an innovation. That’s not to say that correlationism doesn’t usefully describe a particular set of philosophies, or that the responses the concept has generated are simple, unnecessary, or unhelpful. Rather, I’m trying to emphasize that correlationism is a concept that has emerged historically within the context of a very specific set of discursive circumstances, and that there are other discourse communities, other ecologies of thought and ideas, for which correlationism wasn’t the problem or tradition of thinking that needed to be challenged or overcome. I just happen to belong to one of those traditions within which correlationism might never have emerged as a topic of consequence.
But if correlationism is not a term I readily use, and not a problem I was trying to solve, what has correlationism done for the work I am doing? The answer is that it has made possible a greater variety of discussions with a greater variety of people. The concept of correlationism has redistributed discursive relations amongst philosophers. In my case it has increased my ability to dialogue with people working within continental philosophy, and made it possible for me to engage these traditions in a much more complex way than was previously possible. However, even here the contribution of correlationism has to be thought within a larger ecology of knowledges, and within a movement towards speculative philosophy emerging in continental circles more generally. This movement seems to have had something of a slow build over the past few decades, but surely we can point to a kind of Deleuzian moment with an epicenter radiating out somewhere around the publication of Difference and Repetition in 1968 (and even earlier with his recovery of Henri Bergson in Bergsonism). Surely a more robust genealogy would reveal an even more distributed build through time.
The situation today is quite different. Indeed, we can now name a whole litany of new speculative texts in addition to those directly associated with speculative realism. Here we can mention Isabelle Stengers’ book Thinking With Whitehead, which has clearly had a huge impact on the way Whitehead is read in France and elsewhere, as well as Steven Shaviro’s book Without Criteria, which as had a very profound effect on my understanding of Kant, Deleuze, and Whitehead, and has opened up new avenues of discussion between continental and speculative philosophy. We’ve also seen works like Nature and Logos, which draws connections between Whitehead’s speculative philosophy and Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophical research. There’s also been a renewed interested in older texts like Gabrial Tarde’s Monadology and Sociology. And There’s still much more on the horizon — the english translation of Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence for instance. There are countless more examples we could list.
All of these works point to an interesting shift, not just in continental theory, but in the ecosystems of thought that are now capable of interacting and mutating with one another in general. A new phase of parasitism and symbiosis has begun, and I think that the truly interesting syntheses of these disparate figures still lay ahead of us. Within this broader shift towards speculation correlationism has acted as a kind of rallying point in otherwise loose ecological zones. Here the object “correlationism” must be thought of as a conceptual actor with the agency to produce different kinds of discursive effects structurally coupled with different kinds of media. So even if it’s not a concept I hang my hat on every night it is one that has directly impacted the ecologies of knowledge in which I participate. At the end of the day it’s the increase in dialogue with a more diverse group of thinkers, a dialogue that I can attribute to this word “correlationism,” that I think has had the most impact on my work, rather than the problems to which the concept itself refers.