On “theory” in Graham Harman’s theory of everything

There’s an interesting new technical point in Graham Harman’s most recent book, Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (part of the revamped series of Pelican introductions). “Technical” unfortunately means I’m jumping right in without much background explanation.
Harman - a new theory of everything
Here’s a preview: In a section of his new book, Harman devotes special care to “theory,” which in his philosophy refers to the tension between sensual objects and real qualities (SO-RQ). He frames his discussion as OOO’s response to the problem of good and bad knowledge, and explains it by inverting another object-quality tension, “allure” (RO-SQ), the aesthetic tension that has so far gotten the most love. He associates theory with the idea of a paradigm, meaning the background structure of intentionality that renders things visible to us. I think a subtle but important aspect of this description misses the mark within an object-oriented framework. I’ll also discuss a related issue. Readers like Jon Cogburn have favored allure as the sole agent of indirect contact with the real in OOO. Yet I think we have good reason to reconsider this view, and it seems Harman believes this as well…

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The Sky Is Yours and genre bending

The “big five” debut novel by Chandler Klang Smith has finally been released! This is a strange, surprising book, and I am confident that it will leave a lasting mark.


My disclaimer is that Chandler is my partner, so obviously I’m rooting for her. But I am also genuinely excited by this book, and have been since its inception many years ago. Reading The Sky Is Yours is like eating an exquisite fifteen course meal, and every page pulls you deeper into its challenging and unique imaginative universe. (For a handhold, though, think of something between A Confederacy of Dunces and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil). No matter my connection with the author, I know I would want to see it get recognized. A more relevant point for this blog: I think I can offer an interesting perspective on it in this strange semi-private public place. One of the main things I have noticed about the book, and what this post will be about, is that it takes major aesthetic risks in the increasingly fearful world of commercial book publishing. (For a summary, the link above has the jacket copy.)

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Stock Musical Phrases

The music theorist Robert Gjerdingen has been pushing his theory of schemata or stock musical phrases since the 1980s, but it was only with his delightful compendium in 2007 (Music in the Galant Style) that he truly became a household name for musicologists. While analyses of eighteenth-century masters like Haydn and Mozart can get away with avoiding specialized or complex theories, schemata hit a sweet spot of simplicity and specificity that makes them difficult to ignore. I’m bringing them up for two reasons here. They will be the first proper musical topic in my attempt to link musicology with Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology. (Chapter 3, following two chapters introducing OOO ideas and methods.) I’ve also recently gotten stuck while working on the preceding chapter about how OOO pans out in methodology, and I’m hoping this post will help joggle me forward.

Schemata in galant music (such as Mozart) are basically just two-part progressions containing around four or so events and lasting for a fair chunk of a musical phrase (a few seconds). If we take Mozart’s famous “easy sonata” K. 545 as an example, the first two measures comprise what Gjerdingen would call an opening gambit. It has just three events. The top part goes from the first scale degree (the tonic or “1”) to the leading tone right below it and back again: 1-7-1. The bottom part goes 1-2-1. In the two bars right after that, Mozart presents the single most typical galant riposte to an opening gambit, which Gjerdingen calls the “Prinner.” Here, the top voice descends stepwise 6-5-4-3 and the bottom voice descends in parallel, 4-3-2-1. Then he simply repeats it in a stretched-out version (four bars) followed by a cadence on the dominant or fifth scale degree. So the opening phrase goes opening gambit, Prinner, Prinnnnnner, cadence.

Cadences have long been recognized as stock gestures, but Gjerdingen’s work is crucial for describing and labeling the vast occurrence of similar formulaic elements elsewhere in musical phrases. In the background to his project is a critique of the idealized view of the artist (or the good one anyway) as a savant who is “liberated” from practical and social imperatives, a view which often goes together with the old assumption that artistic ideas arise from a primordial access to noumena or a welling-up of subjectivity. If you associate this critique – plus the notion of conventionalized schemata – with the art historian Ernst Gombrich (Art and Illusion), then you win the prize! Gjerdingen’s earliest writings acknowledge Gombrich’s influence.

More foregrounded in Gjerdingen’s recent work (including his 2007 classic) is his critique of music theories that would, in his view, wrongly apply modern musical habits to the analysis of past music. He claims modern listeners have become “less sensitive” to the established models of galant music, and his not-so-subtle implication is that we can finally gain access to ancient ears with schemata. “[C]ognizance of the Prinner and other similar patterns need not be irretrievably lost. We can, through an archaeology of musical utterances, dust off the galant schemata and listen to what they have to tell us about this courtly mode of musical thought” (59).
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The Five Tensions Follow-Up

I probably should have titled the last post “The Four Tensions Plus Banality” or something like it to clarify what I was getting at. In any case, to imply that the normal state of SO-SQ is a “tension” is misleading. But more importantly, the end of my last post left some things unexplained. It was holding two ideas together that some might read as mutually incompatible. The first one was my conclusion that Graham Harman’s description of time should apply to “fission,” which I understand to be the production of tension from the normal object-quality bond (SO-SQ). The other idea was that fission occurs simultaneously with the “fusion” that Harman calls space or allure (RO-SQ).

The apparent mismatch between these two ideas comes from the fact that for Harman, time is synonymous with normal perception and seemingly opposed to fission. Time is smooth and continuous, whereas space is jerky and discrete.

To really appreciate this problem, I will elaborate on it a bit more before addressing it.
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The Five Tensions of Graham Harman’s Ontology

Although it’s a short book, The Quadruple Object by Graham Harman probably has more terminology than anything else he’s written. In it, he includes condensed summaries of all his major arguments about Heidegger, occasionalism, causation, correlationism, and levels of scale. Then he introduces new key details about his title theme, the “quadruple object” of real and sensual objects and qualities. As he argues, the main interest of this model is not to be found in the four individual poles but in their possible pairings. That’s ten named permutations.

Four of them are special: the engine of change in Harman’s cosmos. They are the object-quality pairs. He ends up distinguishing between their everyday states and special events that produce tension. That’s eight possibilities!

Or is it? I will argue there can only be five according to the picture of the quadruple object that Harman himself lays out. This will then lead me to make one major-ish claim about his concept of “time” that differs from other critiques of his time/space distinction. (A teaser: I think what he calls “simulation” in some places and “confrontation” in others is exactly what his model means by time.) Keep in mind that I am just trying to come to terms with someone else’s ideas here, and I think of my arguments in Part 2 here as the conceptual version of line editing or fan theory rather than substantive philosophical disagreement. Continue reading “The Five Tensions of Graham Harman’s Ontology”


Not a political post, weirdly enough… I’m headed to Barcelona where a conference on music criticism happens to be taking place in a couple days (it’s not canceled!). I’ll be throwing in a few cents about possible object-oriented contributions to criticism. My  example is a major work by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. (Here’s the program.) The tune is called De Staat, which is Dutch for Plato’s Republic, and was finished in 1976. It is structured around three selections from the Republic. Below is a 2017 performance at Oberlin.

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