Among its many virtues, Graham Harman’s latest book Art and Objects gives new, step-by-step readings of authors like Immanuel Kant and Michael Fried and unique analyses of dadaism and surrealism in visual art. I’ll just talk about the Kant portion here. In the past, Harman has brought up Kant to introduce formalism or to discuss the thing-in-itself concept in relation to his own philosophical program, object-oriented ontology (OOO). His broad take has left him open to the complaint that he ignores certain nuances that subvert his reading of Kant.
I admire Harman’s concise but thorough answer to such complaints (pp. 34-47). Yet I think he also raises significant new questions about how private preference (“the agreeable”) and charm (the not-quite beautiful) fit into OOO aesthetics. So I’ll discuss the positives in part 1 and the negatives in part 2.
Part 1 of 2: KANTIAN TASTE in FIVE POINTS
I realize Kant divides his discussion of taste into four “moments,” but I’ve organized this a little differently.
1. Overall, aesthetic judgment or “taste” is disinterested, meaning uncontaminated by ulterior concerns and personal desires. Harman draws attention to Kant’s suspicion of Rousseau-style appeals to socio-political context, for example. The ramifications of the thing’s existence for me or anyone else are irrelevant to aesthetic judgment. While Harman approves of this view, it should be noted that he disputes the implication that ethical, social, political (etc.) factors are always and automatically irrelevant to taste: indeed, “human interests” may be components of the object and contribute to its aesthetic success or failure (p. 177).
2. Taste is universal and subjective. It is a subjective feeling of pleasure or displeasure, but not in the familiar sense of “merely subjective.” Private preference, i.e. the agreeable, is actually an example of un-Kantian “interestedness.” Kant tends to associate the agreeable with qualities he believes are formless. For instance, the mere fact that something contains the color green is, on its own, little more than a basis for “material” as opposed to pure “formal” judgment.
A modern Kantian film critic would not mind it when someone says “violent movies make me queasy,” as long as it’s clear that this is merely their personal sense of the disagreeable. But our Kantian does mind it when someone bases their judgment of Goodfellas or Pulp Fiction on their personal attitude instead of on a carefully honed sense of taste to which they attach public significance.
In short, taste is public and intolerant rather than private and tolerant. It ought to hold good for everyone, which is true of Kant’s ethics as well. Proper aesthetic judgment refers back to a “common feeling.” Notice, however, that Kant does not say “common concept“…
3. Taste is irreducible to literal concepts. As Harman points out, the non-conceptual aspect of taste is counterintuitive: “While it is obvious that the agreeable has no concept [because it is private], the beautiful is universal but still has no concept” (p. 37). I usually assume universal aspects of human experience can be easily transmitted with language or something like it. Yet taste for Kant is unavailable to generalizations and a priori principles. (By the way, Kant’s term “universal communicability” just means “true for everyone.”)
Hence, the beautiful is something to be lingered on rather than solved or replaced with true descriptions. Our Kantian film critic might not mind it when an otherwise trustworthy aesthete has trouble articulating their love-hate relationship with Martin Scorsese’s work. But they will bristle at the lazy armchair dogmatist who insists they know precisely why Goodfellas is great and how future movies may also be great (“it’s a more accurate portrayal of gangsters than other gangster movies!”).
4. Taste is based on a singular experience. When I extend my judgment of one rose to all roses, I’m no longer engaged in aesthetic judgment. This helps to explain the apparent paradox of an experience that is both universal and non-conceptual. Personal preferences and concepts are both general, whereas singular experiences resist conceptualization even if we intuit that everyone ought to agree about them.
Sure enough, there is something uber-Kantian about the strait-laced film-goer who generally abhors film violence but deems Casino to be of unrivaled good taste, and not just because other people say so or because Joe Pesci is awesome.
This is also where some people might dismiss Harman’s claim that Kant is too subject-oriented. After all, aesthetic experience for Kant depends on a specific object, or more precisely a specific relation between subject and object (“subjective purposiveness”). Yet Harman answers this demand for nuance with point #5.
5. Taste is not really about the object. As Harman observes (p. 37) Kant repeatedly states in the third Critique that people who treat beauty as “a characteristic of the object” are wrong. Rather, aesthetic judgment “refers the object’s presentation merely to the subject,” meaning “the entire sphere of judging persons.”
The function of the object for Kantian taste is as follows: the object is an occasion for a subjective feeling. (Same goes for the sublime.) Now, remember that beauty is distinct from concepts. This non-conceptual beauty may be prompted by a singular experience, but it properly belongs to the sphere of judging persons, not to the reality of the object or the entity formed by the combination of the beholder and the object. Beauty is about our feeling for the purposive form of the object. It is about the subject.
Another way of putting this is to compare Kant’s model with the OOO model, according to which a real object pairs with sensual qualities (RO-SQ). Kant and Harman seem to agree that aesthetic experience fuses specific profiles of objects with an irreducible reality. And in a way, they also agree that the RO position is filled by the human subject, since according to Harman a beholder must step in to execute the missing reality of the aesthetic object. But the structures are different. In one [=Kant] a subject responds with pleasure to the object. In the other [=Harman] a subject substitutes their own reality for that of the object as it unifies its severed qualities.
I count two major differences. (1) The object-quality tension is key for OOO. Harman might (?) disagree with me in Part 2, below, but I do not yet see the object-quality tension as a core part of Kant’s aesthetics. (2) OOO treats the beholder as an ingredient of the basic aesthetic unit. This unit is the attachment or indirect RO-RO relation. The only relevant reality for Kant is on the subject side of the fence, whereas an attachment is irreducible to the beholder on its interior.
Part 2 of 2: CHARM
Harman discusses charm (p. 39) at the end of the section on Kantian beauty, right after some “loose ends.” Charm is supposed to connect back to OOO by hinting at Kant’s awareness of the theme of objects in tension with their qualities (SO-SQ). While I certainly see a connection between Kant’s examples of charm and the low-information “cold media” that Harman emphasizes at the very end of the book, I nevertheless find this section disconcerting. To me, the topic of charm better fits the earlier discussion of the agreeable vs. the beautiful (pp. 35-36). Nevertheless, it is helpful to understand charm in terms of qualities (as opposed to beautiful form, which might involve something more like object-quality tension). The topic of charm also implicitly raises interesting questions about how the “agreeable” and the “almost beautiful” fit in with OOO aesthetics.
For Kant, charm refers to a beautiful view of an object as opposed to a beautiful object. Instead of responding to the content of the experience, we indulge in the daydreams prompted by its texture. (Harman cites Kant’s examples of flames in a hearth and a rippling brook from the end of his discussion of beauty.) As I understand it, charm arises from an inessential aspect of an experience that is not proper to the beauty of that experience but nevertheless engages our mind as it “entertains itself.” For instance, part of the charm of a barn door might be the glow from the rising sun, the dance of dust particles in the slightly chilly air, the nostalgic hue of the wooden slats.
The good thing about charm in Kant’s account is its one aspect of beauty, namely, the way it encourages “free play” of the imagination. But this free play is not linked to the formal beauty of the object. Indeed, the bad thing about charm (for Kant) is its adjacency to the agreeable. That is, charm takes us outside the sphere of autonomous beauty even if it produces related pleasures.
In Harman’s view, Kantian charm illustrates SO-SQ, the tension between a sensual object and its sensual qualities. “Kant gets it right: the constant arousal of a difference between the phenomenal object and its qualities is something very close to beauty without quite clearing the hurdle” (p. 39).
I have two problems with this description. First, I would question its accuracy. Second, even if we accept Harman’s reading of charm as SO-SQ, I would question the validity of the idea that it is “close to beauty.”
First, I don’t think charm matches SO-SQ. Kant is getting at a pleasure that is unmoored from the specific object. In my view, this better suits a special variant of allure (RO-SQ) that minimizes whatever style the underlying SO contributes, thus linking the “qualities” term almost directly to the beholder. Hypnotism and maybe certain kinds of drug use would be examples. Kant cites material “ingredients” of formal beauty like colors and individual violin tones. This should already be an interesting bridge between Kant and OOO, since so-called “material” charm is, for Harman, not without form.
Don’t just take my word for it. Harman himself adopts the RO-SQ interpretation when he returns to the fireplace example at the end of Art and Objects. His fifth conclusion about “weird formalism” (OOO aesthetics) focuses on the McLuhan concept of cold media. The fire is a low-information medium that is hypnotic precisely because of its pure play on the beholder’s “theatrical” investment of their own reality: “it requires that we add our own reveries to the experience of observing it” (p. 178).
In other words, by Harman’s account elsewhere in the book, Kantian charm should be an example of RO-SQ, not SO-SQ. Furthermore, Kant’s emphatic association of charm with the agreeable is a missed opportunity to put this whole class of aesthetic experience in deeper conversation with OOO. As it stands, Harman provides minimal commentary when he summarizes the difference between beauty and the agreeable. What little he does offer tacitly raises more questions. Specifically, he agrees with Kant that the agreeable is not beautiful, but rejects the doctrine of disinterestedness. As he puts it, “personal interests of every sort must be excluded from aesthetic judgment” but it is “impossible for disinterestedness to count as the aesthetic demeanor par excellence” (p. 35). This implies that personal preference is sometimes but not always superfluous to aesthetic experience. OK, when? Is there such a thing as an object-oriented aesthete who normally feels squeamish at the sight of physical violence in movies but judges Casino or A Clockwork Orange to be truly tasteful? In other words, how does the beholder overcome their prejudices about particular colors, violin tones, etc., in order to more fully invest their being in the aesthetic experience? How do we distinguish the agreeable from the rank-ordering of loves that Harman discusses in Dante’s Broken Hammer?
My second reason for questioning Harman’s interpretation of Kantian charm is that it gives too much credit to SO-SQ. Let me point out my favorite statement in the book, which draws a nice thick line: “I do not see how any literal object (SO-SQ) can possibly count as art” (p. 91). Though I think I see why Kant believes charm is close to beauty (free play of the imagination), I am less sure I understand closeness to beauty in a OOO context. Harman is usually pretty strict about separating banality from allure. For his earlier SO-SQ interpretation to be consistent, he would have to strongly agree with Kant’s conclusion that charm is superfluous to aesthetic judgment. But for his later RO-SQ interpretation to be consistent, he would have to describe charm not as merely “close to beauty” but as the nameless ingenuousness at the very core of beauty.
All of that said, here’s my best guess. My intuition is that “almost beautiful” – “material” or “empirical” pleasure in Kantian terms – would mean the experience of underwhelming part-whole depth, in which an alluring object quickly falls back into SO-SQ. Wallpaper or a violin tone may be almost beautiful because it lacks the internal strata that invite my involvement with it as a medium. The tone’s subtly varying texture in tension with its unity may draw me to it (RO-SQ, not to be confused with its literal cohesion or SO-SQ), but it lacks the tensely linked layers that I usually find in beautiful things and I lose interest.
We add depth to near-beautiful things in one of two ways: either we treat them as qualities in tense relation to another object, or we turn them into background media in their own right. For example, some aspect of the tone might be exaggerated (e.g., lasting a very long time) or the tone might be placed in an environment that is already primed for an aesthetic experience (e.g., Joshua Bell playing it for a rapt audience after announcing a title). These are roughly analogous to the strategies and risks taken by surrealism and Dada (p. 162).