Thursday, January 10, 2013

Speculative Realism RG

Tomorrow, a group of colleagues will convene an afternoon get-together at Ypsi's Corner Brewery to discuss Graham Harman's recent article, "The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism" alongside Latour's "Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern." I'm not sure whether I will be able to attend because of another obligation to be at a textbook publisher presentation, but I nevertheless consider this a good enough occasion to attempt a few reading notes here. I'll start with Harman even though the priority he places on lit-criticism is for the most part lost on me.

Basically, Harman delivers a simplified introduction to speculative realism2007, contrasts object-oriented philosophy with new criticism (Brooks), new historicism (Greenblatt), and deconstruction (Derrida), and finally sketches what he calls "object-oriented criticism." Harman succinctly recounts the key question for speculative realism--"does a real world exist independently of human access, or not?" (184)--while suggesting that speculative realists might hold up H.P. Lovecraft as a model intellectual for his patent weirdness. Speculative realists, in other words, have an inclination to the bizarre that continually bears upon and interferes with presumptions about what is real. They would have us check both the prominence of humans and human cognitive processing when accounting for the real (correlationism) and wonder about what is real without deferring to atomism or long-established scientific paradigms, like physics, chemistry, or biology. At least in part, this is consistent with a cautious and heavily qualified decoupling of Kant's efforts to privilege human-world interactions. And this is object-oriented philosophy, more or less (admittedly less than is available elsewhere).

Harman's abbreviated run-down of speculative realism is both helpful and adequate as a primer; he introduces key terms from his work, such as allure (187) and overmining (199). The article succeeds in differentiating object-oriented criticism from its well-worn predecessors, and rather than attempt to summarize those sections, which constitute most of the piece, for now--and for Friday's reading group--I will mention just two moments/questions that stand out.

The first concerns allure, partly covered here:

The broken hammer [whose sudden transformation could not have been anticipated] alludes to the inscrutable reality of hammer-being lying behind the accessible theoretical, practical, or perceptual qualities of the hammer. The reason for calling this relation one of "allusion" is that it can only hint at the reality of the hammer without ever making it directly present to the mind. I call this structure allure, and quite aside from the question of broken hammers, I contend that this is the key phenomenon of all the arts, literature included. Allure alludes to entities as they are, quite apart from any relations with or effects upon other entities in the world.

I'm not sure whether I grasp Harman's allure, but I think it names what happens when an object is seduced into accepting as ontologically fixed some other object. The hammer's transformation upsets the trance of so many proximate objects. But I would like to know more about how if this is "the key phenomenon of all the arts," whether the arts umbrella covers rhetoric, or whether suasive arts fit elsewhere. Allure, as it is framed here, seems to me strain a bit if it must operate for rhetoric, particularly techne or poiesis, but also for what seems to be a consequential relationship between the two or three phases--hammerunbroken's, hammerbroken's, and hammerwhatever's.

The other is the concluding section in which Harman explains what an object-oriented literary criticism would bring about, what it would look like. According to Harman, object-oriented philosophy "hopes to offer...not a method, but a countermethod" (200). Counter to what? New criticism, new historicism, and deconstruction, but also counter to canonicity, axiology, the reduction of texts into social forces. Here's Harman: "Rather than emphasize the social conditions that gave rise to any given work, we ought to do the contrary, and look at how works reverse or shape what might have been expected in their time and place, or at how some withstand the earthquakes of the centuries much better than others" (201). It sounds a lot like rhetorical analysis to me--an interest in how texts-as-objects prove impactful, shaping expectations, enrolling hosts, enduring. Harman also suggests a value in "attempting various modifications of these [literary] texts and seeing what happens" (202). Reading this, I'm curious how object-oriented criticism is different from the sorts of remakes and genre transformations we commonly see in our first-year composition classes. That is, how different is it, really?

As for the second of the two readings for tomorrow, this one by Latour, I will be quick because it is late and I am tired. Latour's "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?" is a screed against critique's distaste for and objections to facts. Critique has sought to undermine facts, but this descriptive tool with its "debunking impetus" has proven futile. Latour does not wish to steamroll facts, nor to get away from them. He asks, "Can we devise another powerful descriptive tool that deals this time with matters of concern and whose import then will no longer be to debunk but to protect and to care, as Donna Haraway would put it?" (232).

My argument is that a certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path, encouraging us to fight the wrong enemies and, worst of all, to be considered as friends by the wrong sort of allies because of a little mistake in the definition of its main target. The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the con- trary, renewing empiricism. (231)

Next, Latour draws together "things" with "assemblies." Things, extending from Heidegger, are gatherings. But Latour suggest we look not at the simple "pots, mugs, and jugs" (234) philosophers are fond of contemplating, but instead look at more complex things, noting their capacities to assemble and disband (234-235). There's too much I'm skipping over here, but he brings up Whitehead, who even though he "is not an author known for keeping the reader wide awake" (245), was one of the few who "tried to get closer to [matters of fact] or, more exactly, to see through them the reality that requested a new respectful realist attitude" (244). A "new respectful realist attitude" may or may not fit well with the speculative realist characteristics noted by Harman, yet for Latour, this attitude is akin to compositionism (note: in this CI essay from 2004, BL seeks to reframe "critic" "with a whole new set of positive metaphors" (247), but with "An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto," he has presumably abandoned reframing for re-naming).

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