“Realism’s Phantom Subjects”
This talk considers realism as it is split down the husk—referring, in philosophy, to the rejection of the proposed identity of reality and mind; and in art, to a mode of representation that affirms its mimetic tie to the world “as it is.” My inquiry begins by drawing into focus a curious aspect of modern philosophical realism—namely, that it establishes as “real” only that which can withstand my absence (where the me behind my is a hypothetical, universalizable subject of experience). I trace this conceit—of imagining the subject’s vanishing in order to deduce what is real—as it manifests across a range of media and genres: in Bertrand Russell’s refutation of idealism; in Virginia Woolf’s treatise against the mechanistic realism of Edwardian writers; and in Antonio López-Garcia’s painting “Lavabo y Espejo.” With this brief genealogy in place, the lecture goes on to argue that the aesthetic-philosophical conceit of the phantom subject re-appears, although newly aggrandized, in rhetorics of the Anthropocene, as well as in more recent “speculative” variations of philosophical realism. These investigations constitute an effort first, to show how early aesthetic and philosophical discourses of realism were already discourses of human extinction; and second, to ask how the primacy of the phantom subject introduces yet-to-be-acknowledged limitations, which determine how climate change is able to appear in the political imagination.
Michelle Ty is an Assistant Professor of English at Clemson University. She received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in Critical Theory and English.