Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Evan Gottlieb reviews The World of Failing Machines

Grant Hamilton. The World of Failing Machines: Speculative Realism and Literature. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2016. 144 pp.

Review by Evan Gottlieb

This slim volume has something of the structure, although neither the satirical motive nor the deadpan delivery, of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”; it begins reasonably enough, but one eventually wonders just how far its logic should be followed. Grant Hamilton starts by capably guiding the reader through some of the principal arguments and methods of speculative realism; his discussions of Quentin Meillassoux’s concept of correlationism, Graham Harman’s notion of withdrawal and Levi Bryant’s machinic version of object-oriented ontology are all clear and illuminating. Notwithstanding their sometimes idiosyncratic examples, these early chapters effectively survey a wide range of modern and contemporary literary and critical attempts to treat texts as objects worth attending to on their own terms. Hamilton is especially convincing when, adapting Harman’s terminology, he discusses how most modern and contemporary literary critical approaches tend to swerve away from texts by either undermining them (reducing them to their component parts, à la both structuralism and post-structuralism), “overmining” them (reducing them “upward” to ideologies or forces, à la Foucauldian new historicism), or a combination of both.

When Hamilton pivots to outline his vision of an “object-oriented literary criticism,” however, The World of Failing Machines takes a series of decidedly off-beat turns. Leaning especially heavily on Bryant’s machinic ontology, Hamilton posits both texts and readers as machines best understood in terms of inputs and outputs. Such machines, however, inevitably operate on the brink of a series of failures: failure to fulfill the reader’s expectations, failure to cohere internally, sometimes even failure to launch. Following Bryant’s ontological lead further, Hamilton then puts reader-as-machine and text-as-machine together into another assemblage, which becomes a new object of critique: “the object-oriented literary critic is primarily interested in tracing the private products of a particular reading machine” (p. 111). Eventually, this leads Hamilton to promote a species of “creative criticism” (p. 117)—but it’s an oddly truncated kind of creativity, one in which the reader can experience a Montaigne-like critical liberty only with regard to her putatively “private” reading experience. This may be Hamilton’s way of honoring Harman’s insights concerning the radical autonomy of every object, but the end result seems more restrictive than liberating for the would-be object-oriented critic.

To his credit, Hamilton is explicit that his vision of object-oriented criticism is meant to supplement, not supplant, already existing versions of literary criticism and theory. Yet in his genuine desire to map out a new kind of reading based on speculative realism, Hamilton seems to lose sight of the very speculative dynamic of the movement on which he so ably draws. By restricting object-oriented criticism to what is essentially creative self-reflection on the reading experience, moreover, he comes oddly close to reviving old-fashioned humanist notions of reading as an introspective, individualistic, and essentially apolitical activity. Whatever future outputs are produced by the assemblage of speculative realism and literature, this seems unlikely to be the most significant or productive.