Interview with Steven Shaviro, author of 'The Universe of Things'
Steven Shaviro is a one-man brain trust, currently holding a position at Wayne State University as he broadens hisoeuvre of published work, most recently with The Universe of Things. He graced me with a little Q&A on the areas of his expertise, which I hope you enjoy as much as I did!
1. Wow. This books sounds amazing and complex. Can you dumb it down a little for me? What’s this all about?
The book is about a recent trend in philosophy called speculative realism. The aim of this philosophical trend is to get away from human-centered notions, and to find a way to understand and appreciate things in the world as they exist in and for themselves, apart from their relationship to us. This is not an easy thing to do, since by definition we approach the world in terms of our own needs, interests and concerns. It is very hard to detach ourselves from ourselves, so that we can see things from their own points of view instead of from ours. But given the ecological crisis that we face today, this deeper recognition of the rest of the world might well be the most important thing that we could do.
2. What sort of philosophical or literary tradition does this work draw from?
There are many variants of speculative realism, drawing from different philosophical traditions. What unites the speculative realists is their common desire to get away from a human-centered frame of reference. But they do this in all sorts of different ways. My own version of speculative realism, as expressed in my book, is inspired by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1949), a thinker who was pretty much forgotten for a long time, but who is undergoing a sort of revival today. Whitehead was concerned with what he called “the bifurcation of nature,” the separation between subjective experience and objective scientific analysis. I can talk about my experience of seeing a beautiful sunset, or I can analyze the way the sun produces photons and other energetic particles that stream to the earth and make life possible. Usually people talk about one of these aspects, and dismiss the other as irrelevant; scientists ignore the beauty of the sunset, and poets ignore the nuclear reactions that produce sunlight. Whitehead wanted to find a way that these dimensions could be kept together.