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 donâ€™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 theÂ 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 diffÃ©rents modes d’existence,Â 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].