Interview with Tom Sparrow

© Tom Sparrow and Figure/Ground
Dr. Sparrow was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. July 12th, 2016.

Tom Sparrow holds a PhD in philosophy from Duquesne University and currently teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Slippery Rock University, Pennsylvania. His areas of specialization are speculative realism, the metaphysics of sensation, affect, embodiment and identity. He is the author of The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism, and more recently, Plastic Bodies: Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology.

What attracted you to the academy and how did philosophy change your view of the world?

As someone who didn’t grow up in an intellectual, let alone academic, family, I wasn’t focused on the academy as a kid. And while I always got good grades at school, I can’t say that I became a studious or academic student until I got to college. By the time I entered high school, I was certainly attracted to the popular romantic image of the academy as it’s portrayed in film and literature, but I never presumed that I was the kind of person who could become a university professor. Of course, the academy rarely, if ever, lives up to its romantic image. I’ve gotten glimpses of that idyllic place, but it hasn’t been the norm. Perhaps it is for some. In any case, it wasn’t until college, when I discovered philosophy, that I became attracted to academic life.  Coming from a working class family, I had no clue that I could earn a living on ideas. This prospect was extremely attractive to me and quite quickly became my ideal. Very slowly, I gathered the courage to imagine myself at home in academe and, after much good fortune, I’ve settled there. As for philosophy itself, it confirmed for me, along with the theater of Beckett and Pinter and the literature of Camus and Kafka, two suspicions that were always hidden somewhere in my mind: first, that formulating and defending one’s own philosophical principles was both okay and preferable. Second, it confirmed that the world is remarkably and fundamentally a strange place, and that this is what makes it worth living in.

Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what did you learn from them?

Before I got to graduate school I had a very important mentor at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania called Martin Weatherston. He worked primarily on Heidegger and Heidegger’s relation to Kant. With him I made my way through the history of nineteenth and twentieth-century continental philosophy and came to understand what a productive teacher-student relationship looks like. When I got to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to do my doctoral work, I almost immediately forged a working relationship with Fred Evans, a student of Edward Casey and someone who’s done important work in continental philosophy, particularly Merleau-Ponty. I studied Merleau-Ponty closely under Evans and eventually wrote a dissertation on phenomenology under his direction. My book Plastic Bodies is the revised version of that dissertation. As a mentor, Evans showed me what it takes to be a true teacher-scholar and, moreover, the level of dedication required to direct a student thesis in a meaningful way. At Duquesne, I was fortunate to also forge close bonds with George Yancy, best known for his work in philosophy of race, and Dan Selcer, a historian of early modern philosophy. Like Evans, Yancy and Selcer demonstrated in their pedagogy and mentorship what I would call the “fecundity of affirmation”. By this I mean to say that they embodied a mode of criticism and guidance that, in its example, affirmed the specific power of each of their students. Quite simply, they were always there and willing to work things through with me.

In 2005, Selcer invited Graham Harman to speak at Duquesne. Harman’s talk opened my eyes to some unexpected and provocative ways of inhabiting the field of contemporary continental philosophy, so I began a long-term email correspondence with Harman. In particular, I was taken by the way he wielded the work of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and Lingis. Phenomenology all of a sudden excited me. As I began considering possible dissertation topics and formulating my own theses, Harman was there as a long-distance mentor. His correspondence was always forthcoming and generous. He took my ideas seriously and shared with me his own, as well as his personal excitement upon stumbling across some new book or argument or author. I remember when he first learned of Meillassoux’s Après la finitude and how eager he was to share the discovery with me. Harman has always treated me as a peer, and this helped me to believe that my work could reach a broader audience. Without the mentors I had in graduate school I never would have found the courage to pursue my own work with the vigor I have.

Unlike other members of the speculative realist movement, Harman’s background is in phenomenology. He began his career with a novel interpretation of Heidegger and over the years tried to reconcile Husserlian and Heideggerian phenomenologies under the umbrella of his object-oriented philosophy. You seem to have followed Harman’s line of inquiry to some extent, writing a book with a provocative title, The End of Phenomenology, and taking a critical stance towards Husserl’s movement. Is there a “dialectical” relationship – for lack of a better term – between phenomenology and speculative realism?

Yes, I think there is a dialectical relationship. Just as there is a dialectical relationship to be found between all moments in the history of philosophy. I would not say that The End of Phenomenology pushes that dialectic very far, but rather sets the stage for a dialectical exploration of phenomenology and speculative realism, and invites others to explore further the tensions between them. While I do suggest in that text that speculative realism fulfills at least some of the promise of phenomenology, you will see that the chapters on speculative realism are explicitly concerned with highlighting the points of contact with phenomenology, but they do not necessarily inhabit these points in order to develop them in an original way. Plastic Bodies is a much more dialectical book, I think, insofar as it mobilizes the identity and difference between phenomenology and speculative realism in an attempt to produce something novel. Sometimes phenomenology is presented as an alternative to traditional philosophy, so to speak, as a way of philosophizing that transcends or supersedes or replaces older modes of philosophizing. This is evident when it is framed as a post- or non-metaphysical form of philosophy. This way of presenting phenomenology attempts to remove it from history or, if you like, to escape the dialectic. This is a mistake and one that undercuts the potential of phenomenology, whatever it turns out to mean. It’s only when a philosophy or philosopher is read historically that their intervention can be fully understood and appreciated. This requires us to place phenomenology squarely in the history of philosophy, which is to say, the history of metaphysics, to see what kind of difference it makes. The same goes for speculative realism.

In a recent article, Dan Zahavi defends phenomenology against the criticisms of speculative realism. Since his analysis focuses primarily on your book, perhaps a response from you is in order. In general, how do you assess Zahavi’s understanding of speculative realism?

First off, I have to say that I’m extremely pleased to read Zahavi’s engagement with speculative realism and to see that he’s put more effort into assessing the literature than most critics. That he devoted a section of his article “The End of What? Phenomenology vs. Speculative Realism” to my book The End of Phenomenology was a welcome discovery for me. This kind of engagement, after all, is how scholarly dialogue progresses. While I do not feel absolutely comfortable judging Zahavi’s understanding of speculative realism on the basis of a single article, I can say that he seems to have a firm hold on some of its emblematic features. For instance, he is right to point out that one of the unifying themes of speculative realism, of course, is its explicit confrontation with correlationism, which manifests as a diverse series of attempts to produce thinking that is not ultimately correlationist. Zahavi is also right to note, of course, that a prominent feature of speculative realism is its attempt to illuminate paths out of the anti-realist shadow cast over the continental tradition by Kant and, by extension, phenomenology. These features are well-documented. Where I think Zahavi misconstrues the interface between speculative realism and phenomenology, however, is when he judges that speculative realism is “hostile” toward phenomenology. While there may be some harsh language aimed at phenomenology in the texts of Brassier and Meillassoux, it is obvious to anyone who has surveyed Harman’s texts that object-oriented philosophy is not only indebted to phenomenology (as I’ve tried to demonstrate in my own work), but that Harman is quite often quick to defend phenomenology against overzealous critics and shallow readers. For my part, while I’ve admittedly employed some ironic rhetoric in order to highlight what I take to be the noteworthy tensions and contradictions in the phenomenological movement, I have also made an effort, in Plastic Bodies, for instance, to produce hybrid work that draws upon the traditions of phenomenology and speculative realism. In short, I believe it’s wrong to see speculative realism as a pure adversary of phenomenology, and that it’s much more productive to see speculative realism as a loosely associated series of attempts to draw out the limits of phenomenology in order to open up the field of continental philosophy to new images of thought.

Among other things, Zahavi claims that speculative realism does not found its metaphysical assertions. What are those assertions, in your view? Is there a method associated with speculative realism?

Once again, I think it’s a mistake to see speculative realism as a unified program which employs a singular methodology. No one in the so-called “movement” has ever claimed that such a unity exists. Such is not the case with phenomenology, however, which at various times has laid claim to being a unified science, method, research program, and the future of philosophy as such. It’s certainly true that the question “What is phenomenology?” admits of many answers and interpretations, but unlike other domains of philosophical inquiry named by Zahavi—hermeneutics, analytic philosophy, critical theory, pragmatism, for example—phenomenology is the one that stands out as having announced its discovery of a new method for overcoming the impasses of the philosophy that came before it. Sure, hermeneutics, pragmatism, critical theory, etc. deploy, and might even be said to be defined by, their own methods of analysis. But these methods do not aspire to the rigorous scientificity that marks the tradition inaugurated by Husserl, with its perpetual reflections and refinements of the phenomenological method. One of my claims in The End of Phenomenology is that phenomenology is differentiated from other modes of inquiry by its method of inquiry, not by its object of inquiry. Who doesn’t study the phenomenal world, after all? What phenomenology claims is to study the phenomenal world as phenomenal, and this is what makes it unique; it further claims to do so by means of a particular method that gains it access to this “as.” True, there is endless disagreement about the particulars of the method, but there is agreement that the method is significant if not essential to the program. This is not the case with speculative realism. No one claims that speculative realism is defined by its method. It has no method, but rather a common set of norms (chiefly among them correlationism) against which it deploys novel and creative modes of thinking. And if you look at the texts of Harman, Meillassoux, Brassier, and Grant, for example, you will see that each of them is informed by a different methodology. This diversity of approaches lends itself to a diversity of metaphysical claims, or speculations, if you like. One of which is that objects withdraw from presence (Harman, following Heidegger). Another is that chaos necessarily resides at the heart of being and that this truth is decidedly not dependent upon how humans experience, perceive, think about, interpret, make sense of, or judge the world (Meillassoux). These are not mere assertions, but conclusions drawn from arguments available to readers of speculative realism. Discounting these conclusions requires evaluation of the arguments which support them.

Your latest book is entitled Plastic Bodies: Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology. Going back to the idea of a dialectical relationship between phenomenology and speculative realism, where does your current project stand vis-à-vis someone like Merleau-Ponty, for instance?

I find endless inspiration and resources in Merleau-Ponty. In part, this is due to the pervasive ambiguity that runs through his work and which he, as a rule, celebrates. In Plastic Bodies I tried to seize upon the tension between sensing and perceiving that one finds in Phenomenology of Perception, where we find Merleau-Ponty acknowledging the significance of sensing and sensation, but ultimately backing away from these in order to focus on the phenomenon of perception/perceiving. Without discounting Merleau-Ponty’s thinking, I tried in my book to bring him into dialogue with another phenomenologist, Levinas (among others), and speculative realism (among others), in order to give a more prominent place to sensation in the philosophy of embodiment. I explicitly developed my thesis alongside Merleau-Ponty, rather than against him (or Levinas), so that readers could see that my thesis and its consequences are generated by phenomenological texts, but that phenomenology does not itself draw these out. Since I saw the necessity of engaging in some speculation prohibited, it seems to me, by phenomenology, I turned to speculative realism for support.

If Harman’s object-oriented philosophy can be regarded as an attempt to radicalize the phenomenologies of Husserl and Heidegger, other variants of OOO, such as Levi R. Bryant’s, tend to gravitate more towards Deleuze. Where does your own philosophy –and in particular your latest take on the body – stand in relation to Deleuze?

The Deleuze I draw upon in Plastic Bodies is the Deleuze whose idea of embodiment is almost completely indebted to Spinoza, for whom the body is individuated in the world not by its substance or essential features, but by its contingent relations and the capacities generated by those relations. The body is best regarded, then, as an event rather than a thing (although we could talk about events as things and things as events). I want to think specifically of the body as an aesthetic event, one whose identity is entirely determined by its position within the aesthetic/sensory environment. This, it seems to me, requires a displacement of perception, cognition, and consciousness by sensation, which Deleuze tries to achieve in his work on Francis Bacon. Sensation there gains a certain immediacy or unmediated character that is not fully appreciated by someone like Merleau-Ponty, but which is essential to rethinking agency and embodiment in less humanistic and more ecological terms. I want to think the body as animated by its environment, ecologically animated, as it were. Deleuze can help us do this.

Katerina Kolozova’s recent anthology is entitled After the Speculative Turn: Realism, Philosophy, and Feminism. Where do you see speculative realism in ten years from now?

Unfortunately, I’ve not yet had the chance to acquire Kolozova’s book. Of course, I’m curious to see what comes “after” the speculative turn. I would hope to see not a replacement of the thinking associated with the speculative turn, speculative realism and object-oriented ontology and new materialism, for example, but instead a proliferation of modes of thinking influenced by these forces. There’s a tendency to set schools against one another and to take sides, as if reconciliation, hybridity, or cross-pollination were less desirable than choosing sides and vanquishing the opponents. It seems to me that Zahavi’s recent article on phenomenology and speculative realism succumbs to this tendency. While there is some antagonism between the two sides, this antagonism—which varies widely depending on which authors we’re talking about— need not be construed as “us vs. them,” but instead could be seen as a productive provocation that might push phenomenology and speculative realism in new directions. Territoriality and defensiveness will always thwart this potential. Now, I can’t say that there will be philosophers identifying as speculative realists in ten years—it’s difficult to find any even now!—but the theory of the next decade, both inside and outside philosophy, will be marked by the speculative turn and, with any luck, it will be better for it. Or, at the very least, more diverse and exciting.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve just finished co-editing a collection of essays on the HBO television show True Detective and I’m beginning work, again as editor, on a collection of essays by Alphonso Lingis that will become the Alphonso Lingis Reader. As someone responsible for teaching medical ethics I have expanded my interest in phenomenology to include the phenomenology of illness and medicine. Reading Havi Carel was a bit of a revelation for me, so I’m trying to write something about embodiment and disability. I have an article on speculative aesthetics forthcoming late in the year and I’m trying to finish a piece I’ve been presenting on plasticity, democracy, and education wherein I argue, using Dewey and Malabou, that we should regard neuroplasticity as a public good, like education. As for larger projects, I’m planning a book on what I’m calling “ecological animation,” the aim of which is to show that animate and inanimate bodies are different only in degree, not in kind, and that agency is something generated by the environment rather than something that transcends it.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tom Sparrow
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2016). “Interview with Tom Sparrow,” Figure/Ground. July 12th.
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