Book Review: Feed-Forward by Mark B.N. Hansen

Feed-Forward1 is a bold and promising text that offers probably the most novel media theoretic reading of Whitehead since Without Criteria by Steven Shaviro2, but comes about through a critical view of Shaviro’s interpretation. At the core of this work is a renouncement of what Hansen sees as a marginalization of human agency in 21st century interpretations of Whiteheadian scholarship, especially those of the contemporary so-called movement of “Speculative Realism/Materialism”. However, as Hansen points out, this is not so much a correction of interpretation so much as a revision of Whitehead’s metaphysics from the start. As Hansen argues, he believes that while this is a revisionist reading of Whitehead, he thinks Whitehead would agree with his changes. Hansen maintains that in his readings, Whitehead likely intended the conclusions of his arguments rather than the more canonical interpretations of the Speculative Realist and Deleuzian readings of Whitehead. As such, without question, if a contemporary scholar wishes to run the gambit of a Whiteheadian theoretical interpretation of media, the two authors one immediately must respond to are either Shaviro’s interpretation or Hansen’s.

In reviewing Hansen’s work, however, one faces a particularly difficult dilemma: making sense of Whitehead in a brief few paragraphs, and then interpreting Hansen. This is no easy feat, but I think it is worth a try. However, I hope the reader can be forgiving as there is significantly more behind the arguements here than there is space for a simple blog post review to state before even the most patient and curious reader will give up on making sense of the entirety of the point.

In my reading, Hansen’s introduction and first chapter are mostly a primer, motivating why he wishes to make a metaphysical distinction. Namely, he wants to refute what he sees as the contemporary “antihumanism” of speculative realists. While he does this first, his argument against them does not truly begin in earnest until later. His primary metaphysical distinction from contemporary Whitehead, in my read, truly begins by arguing that there should be a distinction between those scholars who interpret Whitehead from the perspective of the Whiteheadian “speculative” relative to the Whiteheadian “experiential”. He argues a confusion about Whitehead’s intentions occurs when one does not separate these two. This, I think, is a very agreeable and obvious point; however the development of this through Whitehead becomes particularly tricky. So from here I will unpack the distinction:

According to Hansen, “The conception that the entirety of the universe is implicated in any new becoming constitutes the most important speculative element in Whitehead’s ontology: without being directly accessible to experience–no perspectival entity can grasp the total situation from which it precedes–this speculative conception explains how activity, and thus experience, arises on the basis of ‘real potentiality’ of the universe at every moment of its development,” (p. 61, emphasis in original text). And thus, it is critical within Whitehead’s own work (not just those who interpret him) that a speculative analysis of datum remain prior to the datum of experience. It is from this point, that Hansen levies a particular interpretation, and even what he sees as a correction, of Whitehead. Hansen insists of what he calls The Speculative Ban: “the prohibition against invoking or appealing directly to actual entities to explain experiential events and societal processes” (pg. 86).

What has been said prior can be unpacked rather simply with Whitehead’s3 terminology. That is, there are “actual entities” which are experientially known and have their own subjective growths (i.e. “becomings”) through datum occurring through interactions with other entities. However, the datum are merely “speculative” so long as the entity which produces it are not referred to in the actual. Referring to such datum appropriately is considered a “prehension” of the datum. However, if one refers to an actual entity to explain the world, it is no longer merely “speculative” but rather “experiential.” He maintains that this is what Whitehead intended to say. That is, for Hansen, Whitehead was a speculative philosopher, not an empirical philosopher as Deleuze and his followers often refer to themselves. That is, if one can attribute the causality of process to the entities producing the data, then it is experiential philosophy, not speculative. He argues that much of speculative realism fails the Speculative Ban in precisely this way. And in fact, it seems this is the way in which the entirety of the critique offered in the introduction and first chapter are analytically predicated.

As a cautionary note, Hansen is making a critically important point. We should not mistake the speculative for the experiential objectification of entities. However, it would seem that Hansen is getting bogged down by a linguistic limitation more so than a philosophical one. Read philosophically, Hansen appears to be erring on the side of a some sort of Positivism. While he might be correct in arguing these distinctions in argument should be made, read as he argues, this means we can simply throw out philosophies which linguistically argue about actual entities of experience as non-speculative (i.e. in a non-Whiteheadian spirit). However, he could have just as simply argued something akin to “we should not take the entities of prehension as actual entities.” Instead, he seems to think we can falsify statements about speculation.

His most strong case for why this falsification of statements is needed is because the things the “antihumanism” of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) speaks of actual objects without humanness, despite our human awareness of them being crucial to their object-ness in Whitehead. That is, OOO rejects phenomenological access of humans to experience that of Graham Harmon’s objects. Instead they have individuated cognitions which are ontological to us rather than phenomenological. This, indeed, is a problem. It ironically anthropomorphizes existances of non-human minds without genuine access. This is in line with a lot of feminist criticism of OOO: OOO puts non-human objects on equal phenomenological footing as humans, despite its lack of ability to access the phenomenology of marginalized people. As such, it perpetuates asymmetry and inequities of society. However even beyond that, for Hansen, it is artificially speculative. This is because one can never refer to “actual entities (real objects)” as being disjoint from our “sensual (experiential) objectifications”.

While one might see Hansen’s Speculative Ban a success in the case of OOO and perhaps even in his own exemplifications (pgs. 97-99), it seems that this lends itself to a particularly odd analysis of secondary Whiteheadian literature. For example, if one takes critiquing “correlationism” to be a central concern in speculative realism/materialism as Harmon and others suggest, the argument is that there’s a vitalist consciousness within subjects. As a vital phenomenology, we cannot directly refer to these subjects without objectifying them. While consciousness is one of the things in these beings, we don’t have access to explain most of their phenomenology. This is the central point of using Whitehead for contemporary speculative philosophy. Any reference to the phenomenologies of sensory subjects (of which all actual entities are) are speculations, delegated to the realm of virtual potentiality. As such, we should always provide our most charitable interpretation of speculative philosophies of experiential entities as speaking to aspects in which language cannot but objectify, but we nevertheless wish to prehend as subjective in a speculative fashion. Proper speculative realism does not confuse experience with prehension. It speculates incomplete, virtual, and vitalist experiences of subjects that we objectify through experienced datum. Over-applying the “Speculative Ban” becomes a procedure where-in linguistic analysis determines a subject of speculation, and then rejects the argument as being non-speculative because the subject is objectified within an experience. This overly determines speculative philosophies within linguistic rules, not philosophical ones.

Instead, if we interpret such speculative analyses to be about prehending the virtual via our experience of perceived objects, we are within the realm of properly analyzing the speculation. That is, we are fully within the critique of correlationism: the rejection that our only access to thinking (that which is delegated to phenomenology) and being (that which is delegated to ontology) through their correlation. Speculative realism argues that for an analysis of cognition one does not need to analyze being (or vice versa). We can speak of our experience of actual entities, for example, without implying a particular phenomenology, and still implying a speculation of virtual entities through this. However, the Speculative Ban suggests we cannot, simply because it overly determines language of experience to undermine real speculative philosophy.

The Speculative Ban can be used to undermine much of the philosophy depending upon developments of new concepts. It does not give us access to speak of the becomings via the virtual except in abstract. One cannot refer to an experience of film to speak of Deleuze’s metaphysics of cinema45 within Whiteheadian speculative philosophy for example. Yet such work has been productive and pragmatic without implying the motivating reasons that Hansen claims for “antihumanism” even among those he points to.

This brings me to a second criticism where Hansen implies contemporary antihumanism is about rejecting humans. That is, he argues that contemporary antihumanist media theory/philosophies tend to “dispense of human experience”. From my readings in several of these texts of which he refers, this is not their intention. Instead, they are arguing something very similar to the “indirect modality” that Hansen subscribes to. However, they do distinguish themselves from some of Hansen’s implications. In particular these antihumanists are not ridding themselves of “human experience”, “phenomenology”, “being”. Rather they are disconnecting and reorienting these terms such that more general aspects of “phenomenology” and “being” can be developed independently from the dominantly human-oriented connections of Cartesian and Kantian philosophy requirements. Hansen’s perspective of Speculative Realism and antihumanism seems reactionary to their projects. While in some special cases, he might be right, I think this is not a charitable way to read these theorists. The idea is not to rid the world of humanness, but rather to suggest that humanness (1) is not central or need to be named within a generalized study of phenomenology nor ontology, (2) is not hierarchically or exclusively privileged in experiencing phenomenology or ontology, (3) that it is not necessary for cognition to be observed for there to be a subject of experience. None of these deny “humanness” exists or has cognition, nor does it imply that humans cannot experience or speculate about the datum of cognitions or existances of other subjective entities. Yet, Hansen maintains it does imply that. While certainly there are examples in which Hansen is right, he overstates the problem of antihumanism and speculative realism/materialism by misstating the underlying argument. The idea is to speculate what subjectiveness is without appealing to what we philosophized as essential to humans; it is not to rid the world of humanness or to exclude humans from experiencing the non-human. Humans still exist and cognize. Further our actualization is not under threat because of these philosophies. Rather the centrality of our subjectiveness is under threat.

As such, at the end of Hansen’s book, I’m more convinced that Hansen is an antihumanist of this sort and does agree with Galloway, Thacker6, and Shivaro despite his contestation. He simply argues that humans are connected to these media. As such, he explicitly denies the claim that “humans do not exist”, and as such he is only a humanist in that sense. However, I think he is warning us to not forget that we do exist in our language about these non-human things, which is an admirable point to make.


Image Attribution: Alexander O. Smith

  1. Hansen, M.B.N. (2015). Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First Century Media. The University of Chicago Press. 

  2. Shaviro, S. (2009). Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics. MIT press. 

  3. Whitehead, A.N. (1978). Process and Reality. Free Press. 

  4. Deleuze, G. (1989). Cinema 1: The Movement Image. University of Minnesota Press. 

  5. Deleuze, G. (1989). Cinema 2: The Time Image. University of Minnesota Press. 

  6. Galloway, A.; Thacker, E. (2007) The Exploit: A Theory of Networks. University of Minnesota Press. 

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