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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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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Eric Salem on Aristotle and Harman

I just read through Eric Salem’s contribution to the new book Contemporary Encounters with Ancient Metaphysics, a chapter titled “Object and Οὐσία: Harman and Aristotle on the Being of Things.” The book has a lot of Deleuze stuff going on, including a new translation of a Deleuze essay from the early ‘60s about Lucretius. While I mainly concentrated on Eric Salem’s chapter, I would certainly recommend Adriel M. Trott’s chapter, “Does It Matter?” She asks whether the difference between form and matter in Aristotle is itself to be conceived in material or formal terms, and links this problem to sexual difference. Trott arrives at the strange conclusion that material in Aristotle is “inscribed with form” insofar as it is capable of leading to distinctions such as sexual difference. It’s an interesting reading of a work by Aristotle that I’ve never read before, and seems to have a vital materialist aspect.

The Salem essay examines the connection between Aristotle and Graham Harman from the perspective of an ancient Greek scholar. In a brief aside, Salem mentions that the problem of how to distinguish arbitrary aggregates from genuine objects is a sticking point for him about Harman’s philosophy. This actually relates to what I consider a genuine blind spot in Salem’s understanding of Harman, explained in bullet points below. Overall, though, I find the essay refreshing and vividly executed. Within the context of speculative realism commentary, it’s like coming in from an unending Edge of Tomorrow war zone to play a game of chess and drink a smoothie. Continue reading “Eric Salem on Aristotle and Harman”

Musicology and Peter Wolfendale

There are two reasons I am bringing up Peter Wolfendale here. One is that I was just reminded of him when I noticed that a fellow named Louis Morelle has recently applauded Wolfendale in an article titled “The Trouble With Ontological Liberalism.” Wolfendale, the confident anti-follower of Graham Harman, need no longer proclaim in a published book that his voice has been silenced, since it echoes unchanged in the hills of France.

My second reason has to do with my own project in musicology. At a baby shower in Brooklyn some time ago, I met a philosophy graduate student who had glanced through Wolfendale’s article “The Noumenon’s New Clothes.” He said he thought it did a good job, even though he was not up on speculative realism. (In other words, the article plays its role well for non-readers of its target.) “Very rigorous,” he said, and did I know it was expanded into a whole book? I was appreciative. I wanted and still want to avoid writing a dissertation that applies object-oriented ontology (OOO) to musicology without incorporating some good criticism. My own evaluation of what it does and doesn’t do for musicology would then get strong support…

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Ce n’est pas un cliché banal. Continue reading “Musicology and Peter Wolfendale”

Session report: Adorno

As I mentioned a while back, I’m auditing a class on Adorno. Following the first two class sessions on his interests and influences, session three went deep into his theoretical labors with the essay on “Subject and Object” and chunks of Negative Dialectics and Aesthetic Theory. My feeling at this point is that Adorno has an interesting vision, his rhetoric is annoyingly difficult to follow, and his ideas about art are inspired but with a dash of paranoia (just like his attitudes about everything else).    Continue reading “Session report: Adorno”

Ptolemaic or Copernican?

I just ran across an old brief article (1913) by Norman Kemp Smith on the famous analogy between Kant’s philosophy and the Copernican revolution. He starts by describing the most common criticism of the analogy:

The reader very naturally conceives the Copernican revolution in terms of its main ultimate consequence, the reduction of the earth from its proud position of central pre-eminence. But that does not bear the least analogy to the intended consequences of the Critical philosophy. The direct opposite is indeed true…[Kant’s] aim is nothing less than the first establishment of what may perhaps be described as a Ptolemaic anthropocentric metaphysic.

This complaint still comes up today. Quentin Meillassoux revives it in After Finitude, for instance, and proposes that we replace the term “Copernican revolution” with “Ptolemaic Counter-Revolution.” He footnotes Alain Renaut’s 1997 book, Kant aujourd’hui, yet the specific phrase “Ptolemaic Counter-Revolution” seems to come from Bertrand Russell’s Human Knowledge,* and even Smith in 1913 presents the terminological quibble as more or less well worn. He mentions a late nineteenth-century work by Thomas Hill Green, for example, which I’ll get to in a second.

Usually the purpose behind a sentiment like “this has already been done” is to belittle the authority of recent variations, and to sound the familiar battle cry of setting the record straight against ignoramuses (Mikhail Emelianov wants to score a point against Meillassoux and “neo-realists,” for example.) But that’s not what I’m after here. Aside from outlining the two basic approaches to the analogy (we’ve now seen one of them), I’d like to think about what dismissing or defending the Copernican analogy might reveal about the author’s motivations. The way old arguments about semantics such as this one get updated speaks to real changes taking place just underneath.
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A block on dialectics

Mistakes and forgetfulness happen all the time. But sometimes a metal screw-cap lodges right in the part of my brain that would allow me to coherently appreciate and practice something simple, like playing Tetris, organizing laundry, or making small talk. Dialectics (in the Hegelian/post-Hegelian sense) definitely falls into that category for me. I’m told it really isn’t so bad, once you get used to it.

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How do I sublate this damn thing??? Continue reading “A block on dialectics”