Looking again at Harman’s Dante book

Many months ago I had a three-part look at Dante’s Broken Hammer by Graham Harman. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.) In this post I’ll reconsider certain points that I keep mulling over. There may be more, but here are five that I thought to list right away.

1. Harman’s books Immaterialism and Dante’s Broken Hammer are anti-Latour and pro-Latour, respectively. This was a throwaway comment in the first post. Immaterialism indeed responds negatively to Latour’s actor-network theory. But it is worth asking how OOO can leave a place at the table for ANT in its own social theory. Right now I have just two ideas. (Note that both still rely on object-oriented judgment calls for the rhetorical placement in the study and the selection of actors.)

First: the elaboration of regimes of stabilization. An expanded version of Harman’s brief history of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) might include carefully researched “snapshots” of a particular everyday moment, or compare snapshots from early and late times in a given symbiotic stage—these could include, for example, the VOC’s internal organization and practices, relevant actors in shipbuilding, spice trade, international politics, weather, technology, and so forth.

Aside from stable organizational configurations, there is also a possible Latourian contribution to causal elements. One of my favorite sentences in Dante’s Broken Hammer is this one: “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.” Harman cannot just be talking about the union of humans with objects, since he is allied with Latour against the nature/culture taxonomy. This point is important for social theory, given the significance of non-human actors even in human “final” causes. In my understanding, technology for OOO outsources an ordo amoris to non-human things, often with unpredictable results. As before, this would mean expanding the history of the VOC, investigating the specific workings of each symbiosis with an in-depth snapshot of their technical means.

Both elements of Latourian thought work by zooming in. The first one captures some flavor of what holds an object together within a particular stage of its life (the “strong ties,” and the strong ties of the strong ties…). The second zoom-in does something similar at crucial moments of change, capturing the style or “ethos” of the most relevant objects once they have been identified.

2. My distinction between obliviousness and fraud. I still believe obliviousness is a useful point of comparison with fraud. However, I now think I was wrong to associate obliviousness with the failure of allure (RO-SQ) and fraud with the failure of theory (SO-RQ).

A bit of background: Harman views attachment as a route to the real and failed/quasi-attachment as mere pretense or fraud. Specifically, he writes that attachment strictly means that the real object’s link with a sensual object “must also shift to the register of the real.” It’s easy to gloss this as meaning that the real object pierces through the sensual object to the reality behind it, impacting it in some way, like a lover reaching past the image of the beloved to touch the real thing. But I think this reading of Harman is wrong. Attachment produces another real object entirely.

Obliviousness means not being aware of the other object’s attachments. It is a kind of “objectification,” in that it draws premature boundaries (albeit sincerely, not necessarily conflating the sensual object with its qualities). Now, within an object-oriented epistemological framework, a more self-aware obliviousness can prove useful as a starting point. This is not a contradiction in terms! By “self-aware” I simply mean that at times I can recognize my obliviousness as such, via an unexpected link with the real. My attachment to an object gets cut off by the presence of a surprise that either alludes to the object’s “submergent” reality (its real qualities), or shifts me up a level to treat the object itself as a quality of something else. In short, my obliviousness becomes apparent through theory below the object or deflection above it. I melt some butter for the first time only to learn that it quickly darkens into a brown nutty liquid and then burns (theory). I enter a room to grab a raincoat and am surprised by a birthday party (deflection).

Fraud conflates the object with its qualities. Yet this does not entirely close off fraud from “shifting to the register of the real” in the productive sense explained above. Sentient creatures in particular seem to have found a loophole. With sentient fraud, one may still shift to the real by treating the false object of attachment as a quality of something else. The formula is, “I could care less about X [the fraudulent attachment], because I did it for Y [the actual attachment].” The teenager who thinks, “I will make her believe I am a great painter” treats painting as a quality of his attachment with his beloved, not as an end in itself. Furthermore, the “fake it ‘till you make it” strategy suggests, insofar as it sometimes works, that fraudulent attachments can indirectly change our ordo amoris and become sincere.

The more generalized or universal fraud is the kind Harman describes most explicitly in Dante’s Broken Hammer, where the real object in an attachment condenses the sensual object and its qualities into a single element—the other thing gets mechanically trampled as a thing for trampling, or burned as a thing for burning. I am not sure this sort of fraud is inherently unethical. Like technology, it just means outsourcing the first (real) object’s ordo amoris, this time to its parts. In fact, this situation seems like a valid candidate for the more holistic reading of Heidegger’s readiness-to-hand. Automatic fraud dissolves into a sleek structure of references and meanings, yet may still be surprised by the real, instantly reversing from fraudulence to obliviousness.

In short, fraudulent attachment is always false in its own right, but (a) its false link might be an aspect of a true attachment to another object, or else (b) it might get surprised into obliviousness (thus reaching the real). Ethical judgment depends on our own view of the worthiness or unworthiness of the presumed attachment. The media savvy politician claims to work for the interests of downtrodden citizens who think he speaks for them (worthy!), but actually just improves the financial prospects of already wealthy corporations and individuals (unworthy!). Etc.

3. The supposed distinction between the broken hammer and the aesthetic (theatrical) object. I contested this before, and I still would. The Heideggerian tool that surprises me with its withdrawn reality is itself an aesthetic tool that I conform to, if briefly. I would only call the hammer non-aesthetic when it disappears again into its references, that is, when the gap between the hammer and its surprising effects closes into a mere functional obstacle. But in this case the hammer is not even “broken,” since it merges into a path of heteronomous ends (the need to get a new hammer, fix the one I have, or find a different blunt instrument).

All I would add is some more explanation. I do see that Harman arrived at the mimetic aspect of vicarious causation somewhat recently. I also understand that one of his goals in this book is to distinguish between the general ontological meaning of “aesthetic” and its more specific artistic meaning. But I think it would be a mistake to treat mimesis as the key to that difference. Even the broken hammer of Tool-Being can only open a gap between its reality and appearance by intruding on the sincerity of whatever contacts it.

I think OOO has to treat the difference between vicarious causation and art as follows: (a) general indirect contact with the real is successful as long as it keeps “breaking” and the distance of the real remains at issue; (b) with specific artistic experience, such as metaphor, the functional/contextual barriers between the aesthetic object and human observer must be limited—that is, the object resists whatever references it does not absorb, and partly conforms with the ordo amoris of the person attending to it. For most people, a belly ache would hardly be artistic, since it reduces to pure obstacle. A novel about the Roaring Twenties is only artistic for high school students if they can ignore its ties to graded assignments. And kitsch (Greenberg) transforms the aesthetic object into pure systematic functionality. Note that such contextual/functional elements are only problems insofar as they are used for “heteronomous” or material ends. If Dante had mainly treated the Inferno as commentary on political scandals, it would hardly be received as a work of art today. That brings me to the next point.

4. The inherent worthiness of some subject matter. I still agree with my half-criticism of Harman on this point, but I could have been clearer. He claims that the subject matter of the Divine Comedy is inherently worthy. But for me, certain conspicuous aspects of Dante’s tour of the afterlife have become less worthy than they obviously used to be, given a secular worldview and a lack of familiarity with the various entities that populate Dante’s vision. It now takes extra work to make me interested in Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, and it takes even more work to draw me into certain details (such as the wailing popes in Hell). I find it hard to shake the sense that an appropriately situated reader would immediately recognize many of the references. Only insofar as these references are aestheticized or made weird by their presentation do they still grab me.

That said, I should have added that Harman’s description of the stakes – “the fate of a great poet’s soul” – does suggest what is inherently worthy in the literal content of the Comedy.  Indeed, as Harman mentions, there seems to be a community ethos at work in widely similar rules against murder, thievery, and such. This notion of “the fate of a worthy soul” certainly seems to count as part of a community ethos. Which brings me to point #5.

5. The role of content: changing & gluing. I like this continuum of what literal content does for both ethics and aesthetics. Metaphor stands on one end of the continuum (changing) and similarity or analogy on the other (gluing). In terms of Immaterialism, it’s the difference between symbiosis (changing) and compromise (gluing).

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