Fascinating interview with philospher Graham Harman. Excerpts:
Tom Beckett: I’m interested in intersections, crossroads, points of connection and departure. Is there a place, for you, where poetry and philosophy meet?
Graham Harman: At times I wonder if they are different at all. This statement causes outrage for scientistic philosophy, with its insipid model opposing real facts outside the mind to arbitrary, decorative, poetic fictions inside the mind. I reject this scientistic model not for the “postmodernist” reason that everything is a poetic fiction inside the mind, but rather because everything is a poetic reality outside the mind. In other words, I don’t see the real world as the brutal collision of physical chunks monitored by tough-minded researchers in white coats, cheered on by their philosophical sycophants. Instead, I see the physical world as riddled with cracks and fissures of the same sort that is generated by poets, and the great scientists know this as well. There is obviously something quite poetic about the ideas of Einstein and Bohr, for example.
We read lots of material during our education, but now and then there are books and essays that have the sound of doors opening onto strange new corridors. This is the special privilege of the young, and they don’t appreciate it enough, not knowing how soon it will be lost. One of those moments for me came as a college freshman, eighteen years old, when I read an essay-length introduction to a book of poems by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset from his collection Phenomenology and Art. The seeds of my philosophy are in that essay, which I read before ever finishing a single book of Heidegger. Its topic is metaphor.
Ortega distinguishes between the reality of things as perceived, and their “executant” reality as just being what they are. The direct (“executant”) experience of a toothache cannot be translated into any descriptions of it, no matter how detailed. Reading a 1,000-page Proustian novel about a toothache is not the same thing as experiencing that toothache first-hand. This point is now fairly standard among philosophers of mind who defend first-person “feels” against the hardcore eliminativists who want to reduce everything to objective third-person descriptions. But the important point with Ortega is that he did not limit this to human or animal consciousness. Instead, he says in the essay that everything in the cosmos can be viewed as an “I”– there is an “I box,” an “I candle,” and an “I star.” Ortega was no panpsychist and didn’t think that these things had feelings. He was simply making the point that nothing, not just conscious experience, can be fully translated into outward descriptions. The executant reality of things forever withdraws from access. The greatness of art, in Ortega’s view, is that it gives us a special kind of simulated access to executant reality.
The essay is quite atypical of Ortega, and he never developed its themes any further. Most of the time he was a bit too obsessed with the mutual dependence of human and world. But in this one essay he touched upon a radical metaphysics that wasn’t just interesting to my 18-year-old self, but deeply engrossing. For perhaps the first time, I felt myself in contact with a genuinely unexplored philosophical idea, and it seemed obligatory always to keep it in mind. The best essay I wrote as a freshman used Ortega’s essay to interpret Paul Verlaine’s poem “Pierrot.” Only when writing Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005), which contains a whole section on that Ortega essay, did I finally force myself to start putting my thoughts about it into words. That was nearly 20 years of incubation, and I reread the essay countless times along the way.
For me, art in general is a special way of breaking the bond between an object and its own qualities, and I believe it is now the central mission of philosophy to theorize the deformations and breakdowns in this bond. As I see it, they come in either four or ten forms, depending on how you count them. In this sense, aesthetics is first philosophy; aesthetics is not lipstick and jewelry worn by sober truths that can otherwise be stated as discursive propositions. Many literary critics already knew this, of course, but they tended to think that this was a special property of literature as opposed to science or philosophy (see Cleanth Brooks, for example). But in fact, not even science or philosophy are doing their jobs properly if they dish out nothing but straight literal propositions. The world is not made of propositions, but of animals, chemicals, sports teams, and bombs.
None of these things can be translated into words or perceptions without significant energy loss.
On the connection between wanting and becoming:
There is a widespread tendency to think that if anything is moved in any way by ulterior impulses, then it must be entirely corrupted by those impulses. For instance, John Dean of Watergate fame came to lecture in Cairo six years ago. He was presenting himself to some extent as a hero for turning on the Nixon people and testifying against them in Congress. A rather cynical friend of mine said: “So what? He only did it to save his own skin.”
To which I should have replied: “So what to you too?” The fact that something is guided initially by self-interest does not reduce it utterly to that aspect. For example, the initial reasons for St. Thomas Aquinas becoming a Catholic may have been something petty like the wish to please his parents and be treated as a good boy. Well, that hardly matters, does it? The origins of a thing do not always contain its truth. Supposing young St. Thomas wanted to please his parents, then enjoyed the praise he received during his studies, who cares if these were his original motives for extreme piety? Over time, it became something much more. We could say that the original incentives lured him into the profession, but then the profession became much more to him than the original lures.
To give another example, about twenty years ago I dropped by a co-worker’s house after work. He had a number of ballet books on his coffee table, and in no way was he the ballet-loving type. I asked him about the books, and he candidly admitted that he had met a ballet dancer, found her extremely attractive, and was reading about ballet to impress her, out of purely sexual motives. He even chuckled about it in a way I found unpleasantly cynical.
Whether or not he succeeded with the young woman I don’t know, but I’m sure he went nowhere in his knowledge of ballet. But what if he had? Let’s say he had become fascinated by the books, forgotten the woman, and realized his vocation and become the world’s greatest expert on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” It wouldn’t really matter how crude his initial motives were, would it? Aristotle is very clear about this. We become good by imitating good people, meaning that we’re fakes and frauds in stage one, and become genuine only later. This is the main reason that it’s unfortunately difficult to trust young people, because they’re often at a stage of imitation or play-acting as a way of becoming the real thing, and you can never be sure if what you think you see before you is the genuine item, or just an assumed costume that will be reversed the next week under different impulses. Over time, we all become more and more who we are.
There has now been a long assault on objects, objectivity, essence, substance, and so forth. The cutting edge opposes these concepts and the supposedly gullible, oppressive patriarchs who champion them, and seems to think they are superstitions that must be put behind us forever. But history doesn’t work by putting things behind us forever. It puts things behind us for awhile, and then they resurface in some non-archaic form suited to the new conditions. Who really thought thatpirates would return as a major threat to the world, for instance? Who in 1965 would have guessed that political Islam would reappear on stage, at a time when the Arab world was in a socialist and secular phase? Who could have thought in 1646 that someone was being born that very year who would write great philosophy by retrieving the substantial forms, which modern thought was supposed to have exterminated? If you want to see the future, look for the supposedly naïve theories that have just been debunked, and try to figure out some futuristic way to modify them so that they would be feasible under the new conditions without being mere relapses.
Via The Browser.