Graham Harman’s book on Dante (Pt 1/3)

I recently finished the e-book version of Dante’s Broken Hammer by Graham Harman. I’ve read a lot of his work before, and it often hits the spot for fresh and rigorous ways of thinking through philosophical problems in the humanities. This one is no exception, even (or especially) as it dips into the shark-infested waters of hybrids between human thought and other objects. But it also raises a lot of questions for me that I haven’t quite dug into yet, so I’m going to post on it a few times. This is not a review: go buy it if you’re  familiar with some of Harman’s other writings. I’m going to save most background summary and expansion of my questions for the next post. In this one I will just mention some of my general reactions. I also jotted down sidetracks and quibbles, but I stuck them in their own little section at the end of the post since they don’t belong with a discussion of the meat of the book.

Harman’s two most recent books make great companion pieces. Immaterialism uses a single historical example to introduce an object-oriented social theory and historiography, and Dante’s Broken Hammer (DBH) does something similar with ethics and aesthetics. Harman is also occupied in both books with his favorite living thinker, Bruno Latour. In Immaterialism, Latour’s actor-network theory plays the role of chief antagonist, but in DBH Latour provides the much-needed salve to formalism. For Harman, formalism refers to the metaphysical elevation of special features of the human/world taxonomy. (This makes it a key instance of what he has called the taxonomic fallacy. He briefly explains formalism in this interview.)

I think this is an intriguing conceptual move, so let’s take a moment to appreciate it. In my current neck of the woods (musicology), formalism would normally be associated with attempts to standardize how we engage with a thing’s interior structural relations. It is all about rigor, which I find to be a coherent, tempting goal. The late music scholar Allen Forte long ago suggested that his analytical program aimed for three things: completeness, consistency in application, and repeatability in results. So one would analyze just the phrase structure or pitch content of the song “El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido” rather than, say, its political context. (It might be easier to imagine doing this with composers like Anton Webern or Igor Stravinsky.) In Harman’s hands, however, the elevation of this sort of move into an ideal is not only problematic, but is just one possible outcome of a larger formalist worldview that would purify humans from nonhumans. Reversing course with an “externalist” historicism or some both/and combination would miss the point: it still posits meaningful people on the outside and meaningless material noises on the inside. For Harman, the alternative is to treat ethical units, sculptures, songs, and symphonies as already autonomous compound entities of humans and specific other things.

DBH is fascinating and expansive in scope. At times, though, it seems more oblique than Immaterialism. That’s why I want to jot down the questions it has left me with, and try to work through them in the next couple posts. All of my questions have to do with how Harman believes its three main philosophical topics – ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics – relate to each other. I do have some vague thoughts, but nothing clear yet. Here are my four starter questions.

First, what is the difference between the selective aspect of my comportment toward other things (my ordo amoris) and the metaphysical “style” or sensitivity of any given object to others?

Second, how exactly does ethical failure relate to aesthetics? Harman suggests that the opposition between love and fraud is analogous to successful and unsuccessful aesthetic allure. Fraud falls short of my ordo amoris when I reduce objects to their appearance. A deep pit of Harman’s hell would be filled with sneering manipulators who cynically tune to their environment. Now contrast this with another path to failed sincerity. One might accept the gap between a beloved object and its appearances but ignore its complex tension with its medium. A comedian’s routine reverses into “too soon” after a tragedy, or a police officer enforces a law with blinders on to its wider significance, or an author suited to poetic verse awkwardly tries to tackle similar subject matter and stylistic effects in a novel. What domain does this sort of obliviousness belong to? Also, Harman briefly implies that subject matter itself can be worthy or unworthy. I find this idea fascinating and crying out for further elaboration. It might help anyone looking for the mechanism of contact between ethical objects in OOO.

Third, is it possible to have an aesthetic experience without it also involving an ethical attachment in the amorous sense that Harman discusses? (I think the answer is “no!” but I don’t know exactly why – again, the question is how to relate ethics and aesthetics.)

Fourth, Harman argues that aesthetic experience is different than the allure of the broken hammer. But even given a description of object-oriented mimesis, I still don’t get how exactly the two situations differ. Is it general allure vs. specific aesthetic experience, or one mode vs. another (symmetrical causation vs. asymmetrical symbiosis?), or a matter of degree (momentary vs. prolonged aesthetic contact)? Another way of putting this question: How can the broken hammer surprise me and withdraw into the depths without the element of mimesis that Harman reserves for aesthetic experience?

I’ll just finish up here with some random thoughts that aren’t really relevant to the main content of the book. My big thought is about the future. I think Harman must be starting his own object-oriented version of Latour’s “modes of existence” project, and this means he faces some interesting hurdles. For one thing, his foray into specific regions must remain consistent with OOO (easy enough). He also has to reconcile each regional ontology with the way people and institutions have categorized themselves (e.g., “aesthetics” still doesn’t refer literally to just the arts). Finally, he has to draw the boundaries and build the bridges between the regions: that’s where my questions about DBH come in.

I also hope that in this new stage Harman will end up writing more about science apart from overmining and undermining. While “scientism” is one of his chief enemies, we could say the same thing about “relationism,” and that hasn’t stopped him from putting his philosophy in counterpoint with Latour. I would love to see an object-oriented philosophy of science. Would such a theory play with Lakatos’s “research program” concept like DBH has done with Max Scheler’s ordo amoris? I also think Noah Roderick’s engaging (and for a non-specialist like me, difficult) recent book about epistemology would be a good point of comparison, since his theory of analogy already seems to have something in common with Harman’s theory of aesthetic mimesis. Specifically, Roderick emphasizes what Harman calls the minimal plausibility for metaphorical comparison in DBH (“weak ties” in Immaterialism). Roderick argues for an ontological concept – analogy – to account for this minimal point of connection without reducing it to a granular mixture of sameness and difference (basically, extending Thomas Aquinas’s critique of the binary choice between univocity and equivocity). I still don’t know what Harman would say about this; I’ll go out on a limb and say he would adopt Roderick’s insights for real-sensual contact, but not for the real object itself.

My small thoughts are just some quibbles. The e-book that I bought from Kobo has a noticeable number of glitches (like a missing promised original line from Dante, some added and missing spaces inside of and between words, random word insertions, and hyphen issues). Apart from the publisher, I think Harman himself gets a couple inessential details wrong. These did distract me a bit, but not in a meaningful way. (By the way, I don’t have a good way to cite passages in an e-book other than hints and chapter numbers – sorry for that.)

One such detail appears in the Inferno walkthrough (chapter 1). Dante’s guide, Virgil, mentions that he had visited the main city of Hell once before when the witch Erichtho called upon him “to draw a spirit back from Judas’ circle.” Harman asks in an aside:

Who could have been worthy of liberation from this nethermost realm of souls? Where did they go next? And why would Virgil — a resident of Limbo, after all — be called upon to perform this redemptive duty?

But surely there is no redemption here at all, only ritualistic excess. Dante is describing the nefarious necromancy of a character invented by one of Virgil’s contemporaries (Ovid?), along with a “don’t worry, I’ve been here before” vibe. According to the interwebs, Erichtho might have been a parody of one of Virgil’s own underworld-traveling characters, and Virgil himself was rumored to have magical powers. That opens plenty of space for speculation about Virgil’s role in the spirit heist; it certainly makes him well-suited for playing underworld diplomat to the above-ground necromancer. Maybe someone from the inner circle of Judas had some juicy prophecy or gossip about Jesus and his followers. In any case, I assume reanimating the dead is never liberating or redemptive for the (formerly) dead unless it comes about by the intervention of God!

Another spot where my reading stalled for a moment was in chapter 2, where Harman discusses Michael Fried’s polemic against literalism and theatricality. I love Harman’s argument that theatricality should be preserved. But he introduces it in a way that confused me. He starts with Fried’s explanation of how some critics have wanted to split literalism away from theatricality. Fried writes:

It seems clear that literalism did represent a break with modernism as regards the terms of its appeal to the viewer. In fact, subsequent commentators who have taken issue with ‘Art and Objecthood’ are in agreement with it on that score; where they disagree hotly is with respect to my [Fried’s] evaluation of Minimalist theatricality.

Harman contrasts their viewpoint with his own. He claims they prefer literalism, whereas he prefers theatricality:

Though I agree with Fried’s critics that literalism and theatricality are two different things, my position is the reverse of their own: for me, literalism is the bad term and theatricality the good one.

But as quoted, Fried actually seems to mean that (1) his critics agree with him that the “break with modernism” really happened and agree with him that literalism is anti-modernist. Yet (2) they “disagree hotly” with Fried’s “evaluation of Minimalist theatricality.” Since Fried disdains both literalism and theatricality, the thrust of his statement must be that his critics prefer theatricality. That means they differ from Harman mainly about the inherent value of modernist visual art. Harman for his part challenges the tendency to assign a single background to entire genres of art: “individual content is always more than its surface content, and always contains an inner strangeness that the painter can succeed in summoning.” Given all this, I would rewrite Harman’s opening salvo like so:

Though I agree with Fried’s critics that literalism and theatricality are two different things and that theatricality is the good term, my reasons differ from theirs: neither literalism nor theatricality can be synonymous with minimalism.

That would also put Fried’s earlier critics directly in the path of Harman’s Latourian campaign against the taxonomic fallacy.

Anyway, enough with the details. Next up is stuff about the larger questions raised in this post. Dante’s Broken Hammer is a must-read for anyone interested in Harman’s latest thoughts on aesthetics and his newly expressed theory of ethics (especially for anyone who has believed in the past that OOO can say nothing about human-object interactions), and I’m excited to try to work through its riddles.

Links to Part Two and Part Three.


3 thoughts on “Graham Harman’s book on Dante (Pt 1/3)

  1. Hey Eric,
    Thank you so much for writing this (not) review. I’m still one and a half books away on my list from getting to DBH, but I think your post is really going to help frame my reading. Couple of very quick thoughts:

    1) Coming from a general English Studies milieu, I completely relate to what you said about formalism and its different connotations. In lit studies, for instance, ‘formalism’ has almost the exact opposite meaning as it has in this area of metaphysics. There it means breaking a text down to its most analytical and universal components. The focus there is on aesthetics (as opposed to, for instance, historicism), but the effect is to de-aestheticize the textual object. It’s a bit like Harman’s frequent criticism of Dennett’s preference for chemical analysis over metaphor-laden wine criticism. I’m not sure anybody in lit studies actually does formalism anymore,but the the term is still very much a part of the disciplinary lexicon.

    2) I’m most intrigued by the fourth question you posed of DBH. Again, I haven’t read the book yet, so I might just be talking out of me arse..But I gather that the specific aesthetic experience crosses over into the realm of ethics (?). If so, then we’re also talking about ‘will’ in some form or another. Here, I think there’s a lot of philosophical work to be done in OOO. The answer in Western philosophy has almost always been to anteriorize the will with dialectics. The will of God, along with his ethical attachment to his creation, was thought to begin with his understanding that in order to realize the full glory of his perfection, he had to create imperfection, and so on. Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche tried to think outside of this a bit…and in the process, we got a more expansive notion of desire, but then Lacan recaptured desire for dialectics. It’s high time we revisit this question, perhaps while working our way back from aesthetics.

    That’s it for now. You’ve got an excellent blog here, and I look forward to following your thoughts in the future.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Noah for your kind thoughts — it really means a lot to me.

      It looks like English and musicology are pretty much in the same boat w/r/t formalism! I like the Dennett chemical analysis comparison a lot. That Dennett style may still be alive among music scholars: graduate programs in America starkly divided themselves a while ago between “theory” and “historical musicology” along Harman’s formalist axis (with “ethnomusicology” thrown in to do anthropological work), and everyone’s been complaining about or quietly accepting these disciplinary divisions for about as long.

      That fourth question about the difference between allure and properly aesthetic experience was also the most intriguing for me, and is what compelled me to blog about the book. I’m not confident even after having drafted a response for part 3, so I’ll be very keen to hear your thoughts. Here is a summary of Harman’s idea with a bit of commentary at the end.

      He writes: “In the case of failed Heideggerian equipment, a rift suddenly appears between its palpable qualities and the withdrawn object that, for all we know, may have other unpleasant surprises in store. Our reaction to such incidents is generally surprise or even shock, accompanied by the related feeling of insecurity. Yet this is not quite what happens in the case of metaphor [e.g., the cypress is like a flame], or by extension in other aesthetic situations.”

      Then he lists two points. (1) The metaphor “cannot be either too convincing or too unconvincing.” Its parts can’t be too similar (a cypress is like a juniper) or absurd (a cypress is like a telephone). This is his Guerilla Metaphysics argument, and it also showed up in Immaterialism. As far as I can tell, it also applies to the broken hammer. (2) Unlike failed Heideggerian equipment, the ground of a metaphor is not a real object. The cypress “remains in our midst, in symbiosis with the qualities that have been stripped from the flame and reassigned to the cypress.” Instead, the real object is the beholder playing the role of cypress.

      The trouble for me is that I can’t see this argument as being about the difference between allure and aesthetic experience. Currently, I see the difference (though Harman doesn’t frame it this way) as a point of view thing. When the real hammer breaks, it has a kind of “metaphorical” experience, minimally conforming with whatever in its environment broke it. In other words, I think general allure is about the reality of a contiguous thing in the environment, and aesthetic experience is about an object’s own executant reality undergoing allure.


  2. Thank you for expanding upon this, Eric. Between your response and your “Part 2” post, the question you have about the difference between allure and aesthetic experience is beginning to come into focus for me. It’ll be the primary lens through which I read DBH.

    I really do not want to say anything more until I’ve actually read the book, but your posts have convinced me to jump ahead on my reading list. DBH is up next! I’ll be looking out for “Part 3,” and I hope to have more to say once I’ve read the book.


    Liked by 1 person

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