Object Oriented Aesthetics?

I delivered my paper critiquing Graham Harman at the SLSA conference the other day. But here I want to address one of the ways in which I have been stimulated by Harman’s ideas.

In one of his recent posts, Harman usefully critiques the correlationist claim that you cannot think the unthought, or that “to think things-in-themselves converts them into things-for-us,” because by the very act of referring to something ostensibly outside thought you are therefore bringing it within thought. [This claim is parallel to the equally facile claim that you cannot coherently affirm relativism, because by the very act of affirming it you are thereby making an absolute, i.ee. nonrelative, statement].

But Harman points out that “you don’t just have the options of saying something or not saying it. There is also a way of saying something without saying it: we allude to it.” In this way, we can reference, or refer to, or “point to” something that we cannot access directly, cannot see or say. We are never really stuck with the early Wittgenstein’s dictum that “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” — because in practice we actually are always speaking in various ways towards, around, and about “what we cannot speak about.”

One can relate this to Levi Bryant’s recent suggestion that the object-oriented ontology espoused by him and by Harman consists in an anti-realist epistemology coupled with a realist ontology. Another way to put the common correlationist claim is to say that anti-realism in epistemology (or the simple recognition that things are not altogether as they “naively” appear to us) entails anti-realism in ontology as well. But the possibility of allusion, or of metaphor, or indeed of any non-literal use of language and of other modes of expression (pictures, musical sounds, etc.) allows us to escape the correlationist claim, and to be realists about “things in themselves.”

In his book Guerrilla Metaphysics, Harman writes of allusion and metaphor, and this leads to discussions of humor, tragedy and comedy, and charm, and allure. These aesthetic discussions are among my favorite things written by Harman. Aesthetics, as Harman develops it, is both a way to break out of the charmed circle of correlationist epistemology, and a broader way of discussing how objects interact with other objects on all scales. That is to say, aesthetics is not just a human attitude, but a primordial form of relation and interaction. And this leads Harman to suggest, in a lovely (and justified) hyperbole, that “aesthetics becomes first philosophy” (“Vicarious Causation, in Collapse 2).

Now, I find this sort of approach useful and liberating from my own Whiteheadian point of view. Aesthetics describes what Whitehead calls feelings: i.e. the ways that objects affect, and are affected by, other objects, even (and especially?) when there is no cognition going on. The failure of epistemological cognition does not mean the impossibility of ontological interaction. Aesthetic modes of expression correspond to “vicarious” (in Harman’s sense) as well as to noncognitive (in a Whiteheadian sense) modes of interaction — they are ways of positively expressing “what we cannot speak about.”

So I find Harman extremely valuable on this point of aesthetics — even though I see objects as continually jostling up against one another, “prehending” one another, i.e. primordially relating to one another and defining themselves by means of the multiplicity of their relations — a view which (as I have noted before) is very far from Harman’s vision of objects packed away in vacuums, unable to touch one another except “vicariously.” But Harman’s vicarious relations and Whitehead’s promiscuous ones can both be described aesthetically first of all; the difference between them might even be seen as a difference in aesthetics (a suggestion that I begin to make at the end of my paper, and that I am extending here.) Bruno Latour writes of the different modes of existence; what’s needed, similarly, is an account of the different modes of aesthetic expression, which would also point to different modes of object interactions. In the past I have tended (like most aestheticians) to fall back upon the old opposition between the beautiful and the  sublime (an opposition that Kant codified, but that long pre-existed him); but I think that we need a more nuanced and varied account of aesthetic modes (and presumably, one that would not presume to enumerate all the possibile modes of aesthetics a priori, but would instead work simply by listing and describing, with the understanding that it might always be possible to add new items to the list.

[I should note that the Latour article I linked to above is an account of a long-out-of-print book, Les différents modes d'existence,  by the long-forgotten French philosopher Etienne Souriau; and that, thanks to the efforts of Latour and Isabelle Stengers, the book has just been republished, for the first time in years -- I ordered my own copy just the other day -- unfortunately, in French only for now].

17 Responses to “Object Oriented Aesthetics?”

  1. glen says:

    I am not convinced by Harman’s recent blog post critiquing the “correlationist claim that you cannot think the unthought”. He misrecognises what he calls the correlationist critique and offers a soft version backformed from his fixation with objects.

    Forget the unthought: thinking itself cannot be thought! I think about the world/whatever, but I cannot think about thought itself BECAUSE of the unthought (in the Deleuzian/Foucaultian/Massumian sense) that already resides in thought. I follow Deleuze to suggest that thought is an event, and like any event it cannot be exhausted, only differentially repeated. The relation between ‘unthought’ and ‘thought’ in thinking is repeated in different ways with every thought process.

  2. kvond says:

    While I would agree that the powers of the aesthetic judgment, the non-”content” weighing of complexity and balance which allow us to recognize a good metaphor or a funny joke, are an extremely useful tool if not our only tool forwards towards new knowledge, but this is not to say that our aesthetic projections INTO objects other than human, AS a theory is a meaningful way to go. When Harman projects intentional objects into dust balls and microwaves, and imagines that because human beings have mental pictures of how the world is (or some feature in it) ALL objects must, as a matter of logic, is straight out absurd (“vicarious causation”). But not only absurd, an outright anthropomorphization of the said objects that are supposed to get their rescue from the reported evils of correlationism. It might may a pretty hallucination that when my car window is crashed into by an errant baseball, or when a butterfly wing is torn off by a be-dumbed child, each receiving object is visited by a “sensuous vicar” that enters its inner realm and allures it in destruction, but this is sheer fantasy space. When Harman puts aesthetics before philosophy in his thinking on causation, he is simply saying, Hey I don’t even have to make much sense, I can just dream up and project my inner processes (as I categorize them via Husserl) into every object and call it “object-orientation”. To my taste Whitehead does a bit of this, but to a much much lesser degree (thankfully). If indeed what makes Correlationism so bad is that it makes human knowledge the center of importances when thinking about the world (like upper-class aristocrats exploiting poor worker objects everywhere), spreading the fantasies of the human (“Hey, teardrops and microchips are just like us! They receive little sensuous visitors from the outside world.”) and introjecting them into the cores of objects isn’t the salve. Firstly, it simply transmutes the “rights” of our objects into fantasy zones of our own device. Secondly, it mistakes the very fundamental nature of what is human in the first place, imagining that human thought and interaction with the world is accomplished solely through the “sensuous vicars” of intentionality. It replicates an error to infinity. If there is going to be a real esteem for objects, a real ontology that tests the boundaries of the human, it will be one in which the operations of objects, their powers of action in the world, are those that defy our easy assumptions about ourselves, the stretch what we even mean by “human”. In such cases, in such an aesthetic, we discover ourselves to be objects capable of something more objectile than we ever thought. Otherwise we are just spreading the Myth of the Human everywhere, under the auspices of Philosophy, but under the freedoms of a fiction.

  3. [...] whatnot) over philosophy, offered in the wake of his recent criticism of Harman’s philosophy: Object Oriented Aesthetics?. I posted a comment on Harman’s creative insertion of human experiences into objects as an [...]

  4. Not to say that he’s wrong, but Harman’s so-called “critique of the ‘thing-in-itself’” as you’ve described is nothing but Hegel’s. If Harman’s claiming that it’s his original argument, then shame on him, but if he’s just re-iterating or repackaging Hegel’s claim, then I think that should be noted.

  5. Graham Harman says:

    Bryan, I’m not critiquing the thing-in-itself, I’m *affirming* it. That’s just about the biggest misreading I have ever seen! Shame on YOU.

  6. If I could butt in here, it’s obvious that the comments displayed have no idea what Harman means by using the term ‘allure’. Although here, he evidently is using the term to break from Meillassoux’s conception of correlate, (to allude to objects outside thought, even if approaching them is impossible), he is reducing aesthetics to their barest ontological domains between objects. Specifically, when the qualities are split from the object itself, it produces an transcending unending allure. To incinuate an object in aesthetics is to mediate a possible connection between 2 or more material or immaterial objects. All Harman is arguing is whether objects in themselves perform this mediation. Convincing enough for me.

  7. Give me a break. Here’s Shaviro’s quote:

    “Harman usefully critiques the correlationist claim that you cannot think the unthought, or that “to think things-in-themselves converts them into things-for-us,” because by the very act of referring to something ostensibly outside thought you are therefore bringing it within thought.”

    So Graham, as my comment obviously suggests, I’m not really familiar with your work, hence I qualified it as I’m going solely on Shaviro’s summary. If I’ve woefully misinterpreted you as critiquing rather than “affirming” the thing-in-itself, I look forward to hearing back about how to interpret that quote by Shaviro… you know.. that whole… “critiquing the unthought” part magically meaning “affirming the thing-in-itself.” Perhaps my silly, facile reading of Shaviro is clouded by my inability to peer into its vicarious sensuality, or whatever.

  8. Henry Warwick says:

    Something for your edification and amusement that is oddly on topic.

    http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/lego.png

  9. [...] the topic of Steven Shaviro and Graham Harman’s recent conservation/debate about object-oriented aesthetics, Mikhail [...]

  10. Graham Harman says:

    “Harman usefully critiques THE CORRELATIONIST CLAIM that you cannot think the unthought, or that ‘to think things-in-themselves converts them into things-for-us,’ because by the very act of referring to something ostensibly outside thought you are therefore bringing it within thought.”

    Critiques THE CORRELATIONIST CLAIM, not the thing-in-itself. The two are *opposites*.

    Be more careful next time.

  11. No Harman… you’re still… getting it… wrong. I’m going to try and be very, very patient here, despite your tone. First off, we’ve already moved past the fact that the active verb in the sentence is “critiques”… not “affirms.” So.. Harman critiques… but what does he critique? Shaviro’s sentence is a bit complex, so let’s break it down.

    Harman (subject)
    critiques (verb)

    Now, for the direct object… what do we have?

    >THE CORRELATIONIST CLAIM that you cannot think the unthought, or that ‘to think things-in-themselves converts them into things-for-us,’

    Okay, so Harman critiques the correlationist claim, yes! What IS the correlationist claim? Oh, I see: that you cannot think the unthought, thinking the unthought is impossible, thinking the unthought converts it into things-for-us, etc. In other words, you’re critiquing… THE AFFIRMATION OF THE THING-IN-ITSELF!

    Now, slowly, what follows this? It’s a subordinating conjunction starting with “because,” which will help us to clarify and substantiate your own position with respect to this critique. So, let’s quote it:

    “because by the very act of referring to something ostensibly outside thought you are therefore bringing it within thought.”

    In other words, Shaviro is attributing this argument to you: that your critique of the correlationist claim of “unthought” relies on the argument that the act of referring to something outside thought brings it within thought. In other words, it’s Hegel’s argument that to establish a limit is to transcend it.

    Now, with all of that, let’s go back to my original quote:

    “Not to say that he’s wrong, but Harman’s so-called “critique of the ‘thing-in-itself’” as you’ve described is nothing but Hegel’s. If Harman’s claiming that it’s his original argument, then shame on him, but if he’s just re-iterating or repackaging Hegel’s claim, then I think that should be noted.”

    So, hilariously, maybe you ought to take your own advice!

  12. Hmmm, on second thought, I now see where I may have misread Shaviro, or at the very least where the confusion is coming from.

    His “because” clause has some degree of polyvalence to it: one could read it as saying that by bringing the unthought into the mind, we transcend the thought-unthought division and therefore have some knowledge of what that unthought is, even if it’s just a pure abstraction (Hegel), or it could be read more traditionally as an extension of correlationism: that whenever we try and “think” the unthought, we convert it to thought because the act of thinking thereby transforms it. Both readings now appear to me to be possible, and it really depends on whether or not you attach the subordinating conjunction to the subject (Harman) or the direct object (that which is being critiqued).

  13. Grammatically speaking, it would be more plausible to anticipate an elaboration of the nature of the subject-verb relationship through the subordinate clause, rather than of the direct object, but I can see how the content better fits with the latter now.

  14. Henry Warwick says:

    “In one of his recent posts, Harman usefully critiques the correlationist claim that you cannot think the unthought, or that “to think things-in-themselves converts them into things-for-us,” because by the very act of referring to something ostensibly outside thought you are therefore bringing it within thought. [This claim is parallel to the equally facile claim that you cannot coherently affirm relativism, because by the very act of affirming it you are thereby making an absolute, i.ee. nonrelative, statement].”

    ========================================

    OK, then, define universe. Give me three examples.

    Any evidence for some other world is in this world – therefore, there is no other world. This world is all there is, including claims or even evidence to the contrary. Therefore, the world (universe) is simply very very weird. And that’s fine.

    cheers!

    HW

  15. [...] aesthetics is first philosophy, perhaps we should replace the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” [...]

  16. Victor says:

    Is it to late to comment on this?
    I’m reading some of the SR and OOO books for the past three months. I still have a problem with their critique of correlationist claim that “to think things-in-themselves converts them into things-for-us.”

    Let’s change it to “to talk about things-in-themselves converts them into things-for-us” -Bryant does mention this as a variation on the argument and this is what somehow Wittgeinsten is talking about. Now, the correlationist could argue that the moment we’re talking about things, these things “converts into things-for-us”. (Theologians have had fun with this problem for centuries: when we humans talk about God, God becomes a human thing.)

    If Shaviro is right about “in practice we actually are always speaking in various ways towards, around, and about “what we cannot speak about;” there should be a way of answering this problem by “in practice … speaking in various ways” or without speaking or using any language. As you could see, this argument is akin to the relativist one. (Would Paul de Man invoke here his “Aesthetic Ideology”?)

    I still need to read Meillassoux, but any help with this will be really appreciated.

  17. Todd Gawans says:

    Why is “the correlationist claim that you cannot think the unthought, or that “to think things-in-themselves converts them into things-for-us,” because by the very act of referring to something ostensibly outside thought you are therefore bringing it within thought” facile? I’m not sure Harman or any of his followers have ever really adequately addressed that claim, even in the post that you link to. (Though I confess to not reading everything in the field.)

    The Bryant quote that Harman provides could be taken straight from a number of correlationist thinkers — that block to “knowing” the tree in the full sense provides the condition for not realism, but what you guys call correlationism.

    And further, the Obama example actually twists the initial “correlationist claim” about thinking the unthought. You switch verbs — from “think” to “understand”. Imagine the same claim: “I can’t think about Obama…” Of course you can, you just did!

    I still don’t understand why the correlationist claim is facile.

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