Graham Harman’s book on Dante (pt 3/3)

Following Part 1 and Part 2.

Let’s get into my questions about Dante’s Broken Hammer in more depth. I am going to do some inference and speculation, so here’s where I warn that I don’t mean to speak for the book. This part is the most fun, though.


Ethics vs. Metaphysics.
What is the difference between the structure of my values and the intentional style of any object whatsoever? One response is that my ordo amoris is just a human version of intentionality in general. But the spirit of the question has more to do with whether some objects are capable of being sensitive to the uniqueness of things while others are not. I am skeptical of this possibility, since it conflates the accident of dormancy with a lack of ethos. In OOO, an object’s selectivity partly defines its form prior to any particular encounter.

But that still leaves open the question of what is proportionally different between a rock, a lizard, a child, and a T-1000. Perhaps the difference between “properly ethical” beings and other objects has to do with insincerity. We might even imagine an object-oriented psychology where repression and the unconscious arise from the buffer of frauds that stabilize the conflicts between our attachments. As the last post mentioned, Harman once claimed humans are more object-oriented than other things. Now the strange thought occurs to me that certain traditional targets of OOO (irony, insincerity) might be implicated in the attempt to reconcile our numerous attachments. (Indeed, Ian Bogost claims in Play Anything that reflexive irony is a product of surplus…)

All of this is another way of saying that after its introduction in DBH, fraud or insincerity can use more attention in OOO’s young ethical theory.

Ethics vs. Aesthetics.
The ethical bridge to the real does not quite work like the aesthetic bridge of allure (RO-SQ: the tension between real object and sensual qualities). Unlike allure, the properly ethical disposition aims at the real without becoming part of it or “ceasing to be this one delimited being” (Scheler). Ethical attachment engages with the beloved object’s elusive specificity. In my understanding of DBH, that means it must be the domain of theory in Harman’s ontology (SO-RQ).

Maintaining an amorous attachment is surely difficult, since it tests my devotion to an object. Theory opens up new sources of fascination by constantly drawing my gaze elsewhere: that is, the search for the hidden inner truth of a beloved object sends me off to more objects. Theories of music can lead (or mislead) my attention to chords, scales, pitch classes, conventional patterns, tonal hierarchies, polyrhythms, influences, performance constraints of theremins and saxophones, clannish groups who know all the music I don’t, cosmic or snobbish or populist ideologies, psychologists, philosophers, acousticians… anything, it seems, but the music I love. Similarly, a friend’s love of forests pushes her onto trails and over crumbling bridges, toward poison ivy, edible and poisonous mushrooms, fallen trees, flowers, bugs, maps…

Remember fraud and obliviousness from part 1? Harman argues that fraud equates attachments with appearances, objects with qualities. I have also noted that obliviousness contracts the tension between figure and ground into a depthless given. It should now be clear that in the visual terms of the quadruple object (and here’s another cool hand-made version), something “diagonal” is missing from both fraud and obliviousness. Fraud is the failure of theory (SO-RQ) and obliviousness is the failure of allure (RO-SQ).

Connecting Ethics and Aesthetics.
How do the two situations compare? One way forward is to consider how each one provokes compassion. For instance, the difference between a friend’s knowing laugh at a carefully timed wink and my own clueless disregard (failed allure) might draw the friend’s attention to ethical features of my underlying being, inspiring something like pity, humor, frustration, or disdain. As for fraud, that only seems pitiable on the basis of the person’s prior failure to notice the aesthetic gap between a real object and its outward features.

Failed allure enjoys a wide spectrum of reversible responses, ranging from sympathy to scorn. Remember, the ethos at fault for being oblivious is itself only ever accessible indirectly, so that individual cases of obliviousness are not essential but accidental. Consider how aspects of a person’s character that make them lose sight of the background in some situations can be understandable or even preferable in other cases. It makes sense, after all, to seek a consistent thread between Slavoj Zizek’s past insights and his strange (qualified) support for Donald Trump. Now consider fraud. Though a person’s ethos can be changed by aesthetic contact, the ethos itself does not just amount to the totality of alluring fusions between a conscious human mind and the world. The emergent depth of any particular ethical object means that only in certain cases will the link between fraud and past symbioses be foregrounded. Hence Shakespeare’s compelling backstories for his villains, or the sad tales of troubled youth and recent disaster that follow outbursts at parties.

Ethics and aesthetics have a couple things in common. One is obviously the attachment (RO-SO). Another is a meaningful tension with time (SO-SQ), which Harman has called “simulation” and “confrontation.” I can lose sight of an object as my perspective winds around it like a vine and probes for its core. The object can also transform into something other than the seductive magnet it once was. Finally, as Harman argues, the fact that my own structure of values occasionally changes is thanks to symbiotic allure. This addresses the apparent paradox that I am both partly defined by my intentional disposition and occasionally changed by my attachments. (Whether or not it happens consciously or even for a human being is beside the point, I think.)

Harman suggests in DBH that the basic prerequisite for aesthetic contact is a selective and unstable attachment. Why is this so? Well, without unstable love, the object becomes little more than a banal mechanism or quality of something else. Without selective love, any alerts to the broken hammer’s reality never reach me: I am too quickly convinced of its complete difference from its previous state, or else immediately certain of what caused it to break. Either way, I perceive the broken hammer as little more than an impediment in need of a solution. The ethical broken hammer, on the other hand, is capable of “remaining in our midst” with the glimmer of its reality.

Aesthetics vs. Metaphysics.
Harman argues that the surprise of the broken hammer differs from aesthetic experience. This contrast has been, for me, one of the most difficult points to understand in DBH:

The cypress-object does not simply withdraw from view like the broken hammer, but remains in our midst, in symbiosis with the qualities that have been stripped from the flame and reassigned to the cypress. (ch. 3)

Might this mean aesthetic experience comes about by exterior symbiosis and non-aesthetic allure by interior breaking? On the contrary, the broken hammer could be just as “aesthetic” as metaphor. When I spectate the hammer’s brokenness (apart from its usefulness in a project), I have already risked conforming my own being to its nature. As far as I can tell, the radar blip of the broken hammer really, truly is an aesthetic or ethical blip, and successful as such for as long as I remain concerned with the rift between the hammer and its qualities. I’ll say it again, since I am not certain if this is a case of Old Harman vs New Harman: the broken hammer is an aesthetic hammer, even if only for the briefest instant. Otherwise, it is just a functional obstacle of wood and metal.

Ethical and Aesthetic Content.
We have seen two kinds of failure so far: obliviousness to an object’s tension with its medium, and fraudulent betrayal against the particular form of one’s attachments. Another kind of failure, as Harman explains, has to do with the specific content of an attachment. What makes something inherently worthy or unworthy? Harman notes that the accessible content of an attachment is implicated in ethics no less than the underlying ordo amoris of the agent (or for that matter the emergent “destiny” of one’s values as a whole). For example, he claims that the Divine Comedy would remain worthwhile (though not the same) without Dante’s fascinating lyrical patterns and poetic sensibility.

This indicates that the greatness of Dante, as with so many epic poets, can be found in no small part in the grandeur of his subject matter. When we open our volume of Dante, we find that Hell, Purgatory, Heaven, and the fate of a great poet’s soul are ‘at issue’ for us, in the selective sense of intentionality…[T]here is no denying that some topics more easily command human respect than others. (ch. 3)

My own inclination is to agree with Harman’s theoretical intuition. But for that very reason I would also question whether Dante’s subject matter has the same grandeur or worthiness it once did, even if it retains the respectable spark of its creator’s attachments. Recall that the aesthetic object is a compound entity. Only when retrieved as a relevant archetype of amorous ethics, or when enjoyed for its luxurious images of now-unfamiliar spiritual fates, or when combined with the enhancement of its historical reputation might biblical characters in paradise and sorrowful late Medieval popes in their circles of hell command as much respect from me, anyway, as more recent tours of high and low such as in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

Or to put it as a question: What topics command respect, and how do we know? On this question I would draw attention to some ethical-sounding implications raised at the beginning of The Quadruple Object and Weird Realism, and implied again in Dante’s Broken Hammer when Harman distinguishes between good and bad criticism. To judge the worthiness of an attachment, we might ask whether the subject matter helps to produce new gaps in the world – that is, whether it somehow expands or facilitates the world of objects for other ethical units. It seems that, whatever it is that makes something worthy for one person, an attachment becomes significant for others (including larger communities) by way of its literal content, just as several people can refer to the same Haydn theme or philosophical position of Kant.

And the transformative power of allure means that composite ethical objects can change by the accidents that accompany them, such as may have happened with the worthiness of a tour through the afterlife following the rise of secularism or of a Wall Street career after 2008, or in the other direction, of kale chips and electric cars (yep, also after 2008). Ethical forms can also fuse through shared content into a larger community ethos that exceeds its slogans, rules, and dress codes. Either way, notice that the transformation or unification of ethical objects has analogous processes in the arts. The quivering timbres and enticing melodic figurations of a single musical phrase may influence the way we judge the phrase after it, and recurring ornaments can provide a kind of thematic glue that gives the tune its singular consistency and style. In the end, that brings me back to Harman’s paraphrase of Dante:

Awakened by the image, the soul can turn steadfastly towards the object with love, and then the nature of that object unites with the soul through beauty. In short, love and beauty offer a path to the real that does not fall short, as does perception or knowledge, of the inner substantial forms of things.


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