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.

It is well established in Harman’s writings that normal perception breaks down at the same time that allure happens. Fission and fusion “must always go hand in hand,” he explains, because “objects and qualities never exist outside of some bond that must be ruptured if another is to emerge” (Quadruple Object, ch. 7). There can be no free-floating qualities in OOO. And Harman makes the same point in his earlier book Guerrilla Metaphysics, where he describes allure as both the disintegration of the sensual object-quality bond and the distancing of the real object. Now, he does end up untangling the two moments schematically in Quadruple Object—but not ontologically, as I’ve noted, because any broken object-quality bond (SO-SQ) must still go hand in hand with a new one (RO-SQ).

Harman also has good reason for differentiating normal perception from its rupture or fission. After all, fission is what accounts for change in the world. Normally, “dogs and trees display an excess of carnal detail that shifts in each moment without our viewing them as different objects.” But objects can be surprised by their encounters with other things: “there is a momentary breakdown in the former balance between sensual objects and their qualities; the object is briefly exposed as a unified kernel dangling its qualities like marionettes” (Quadruple Object, ch. 7).

In this context, it makes perfect sense to be skeptical that a smoothly shaded excess of detail can occur at the same time as a jerky breakdown in the former balance between sensual objects and their qualities. Here is my response.

Time: Zooming in on Space

First, it is important to clarify the status of both versions of SO-SQ. Normal perception is not the tense balance between an object and its details, but the lack of tension between them. In normal perception, sensual distortion is treated as undistorted or stable, a compression of qualities into identity. Fission means to open this banal unity into genuine tension, not to disrupt an already existing tension. Put another way, to “disrupt” the banal link between a sensual object and its qualities means to produce tension, not to break it altogether. If the latter were true, we will have passed the hot potato of causation instead of dealing with it. We would still need to explain how a ruptured quality transfers to another object without resorting to the muddy assertion that qualities pass between objects like batons or footballs. Qualities are not autonomous go-betweens. Only objects are.

However, I don’t think there is any need to abandon the idea that the disintegration of SO-SQ goes hand in hand with the fusion of RO-SQ. Rather, I think the SO-SQ tension itself alludes to the real. The Heideggerian example of the broken hammer – usually taken as an example of RO-SQ – also seems to perfectly describe the production of a tension between the sensual hammer and its qualities. And what about the “unbroken” or sleekly useful hammer? Although the hammer per se may be a real object, the unbroken hammer in my experience of it is an element that locks into the world just so. It is taken for granted, and even after a moment of allure may sooner or later be taken for granted again. The temporal hindrance of the pragmatic hammer is minimal; any duration that I experience with it is facilitated only by its inescapable underlying reality.

Here’s another way of putting the above. I think Harman’s distinction between normal perception and allure or space should lead us not only to link fission and fusion together but also to distinguish time from normal perception. Furthermore, this necessitates that practitioners of OOO should pay very close attention to levels of scale, for time at one scale can mean space at another.

Let’s try this out with an example from Harman’s book Weird Realism. There, he uses “allusive” moments in Lovecraft for fusion (RO-SQ) and “cubist” moments for fission (SO-SQ). A standard example of allusion is the description of the Cthulhu idol in “The Call of Cthulhu.” Descriptive features of octopus, dragon, and human only allude to the real thing, which nevertheless exceeds the power of language to capture it. The accessible qualities are “not unfaithful to the spirit of the thing,” but fail to grasp the frightful “general outline of the whole.”

Compare this with the typical cubist example of a strange Antarctic city in “At the Mountains of Madness”:

There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped discs; and strange, beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slaps or circular plates or five-pointed stars with each one overlapping the one beneath.

There are two things to notice here, only one of which Harman points out. First, he shows how the passage can be ruined by simplifying it into a short self-consistent sentence, like “The city was made up mostly of truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted.” This simplification has the cost of removing tension between the city and its details. It does not change from simulation to time, but becomes de-timed, a more fully digestible compressed unit. Harman in Weird Realism is clearly aware of this, since he writes: “Usually an object does not seem very different from the sum of qualities it presents to us; this is the grain of truth in Hume’s ‘bundle’ theory.” Time or duration occurs when the banal unity of a Humean bundle comes under strain.

The other thing to notice is the fact that Lovecraft’s cubist mode (SO-SQ) can also be seen as allusion (RO-SQ) at another level. The city has certain accessible qualities and is deemed a single thing, yet it seems impossible to capture it in paraphrase. If we want to know what maintains RO-SQ, the answer is the unfolding of the twisted corridors on its interior, its endurance through the tension of time. The simultaneity of temporal fission with spatial fusion is explained by the fact that the former is the inner life of the latter. Or to put it another way, allure is the background condition of time. Causation is fitful and quantized from the outside but continuous on the inside.

As a followup to this followup, I am increasingly of the view that all four of the tensions occur simultaneously with each other, and that emphasis on one or another in the arts comes down to rhetoric. Allusion, for example, emphasizes RO-SQ, yet it still deals with more than just sensual qualities and a real object. In order for it to really resonate, the beholder must find some depth in the qualities. Take one of Harman’s go-to examples of “the cypress is like a flame.” To be affected by the metaphor, we must imagine that the cypress really is like a flame in some ways. Or consider the Lovecraft example: “If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing…but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.” The three literal qualities only allude to features of the idol lying before the character’s eyes (SO-RQ) insofar as they are “not unfaithful” yet dependent upon an “extravagant imagination.” And the alluded-to real qualities must be taken seriously as somehow fused with the essence of the frightful object itself (RO-RQ).

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