A shockingly swift jaunt through Queens and the Midtown tunnel got me to Speculative Medeivalisms II in time to catch most of Kellie Robertson’s talk on the changing fortunes of Aristotle. It was a good sign, a good talk, and a good day. Traffic is not always the dominant reality.
Part of the draw of this event for a non-medeivalist like me — I sat in the designated early-modern row with Julian Yates & Drew Daniel at first, but we were allowed to mingle later — was to finally see the bio-extensions of some famous folks I’ve heretofore known only in e-form, especially Karl Steel and Eileen Joy. Jeffrey Cohen, here pictured explaining how Merlin engineered Stonehenge, also featured in a lively lineup of theoretical, playful, creative work that bubbled up from, and sometimes overflowed out of, medieval studies. I really like the way this group plays the game.
The intellectual crux of the event for me, though, was the presence of Graham Harman, philospher and guru of OOO (pronounciation uncertain) or Object Oriented Ontology, a model that flattens and distributes object-status, agency, and meaning across all objects in every form. Many of the early talks, esp Kellie’s and Jeffrey’s, presented themselves in dialogue with Graham’s work. Liza Blake’s response to Julian Yates’s Latourian reading of cooking in and out of Titus Andronicus — it’s nerve-wracking, Julian reminded us all, to make home-made piecrust, even if you’re not trying to bake your enemy’s children inside it — imagined an unwritten fourth part of Harman’s Prince of Networks that would put OOO’s reformulation of metaphysics in closer touch with the sorts of things we literary types tend to offer. (Autobiographical sidenote: I’m pretty sure I was reading Prince of Networks on the Jubilee Line when Speculative Medeivalisms I was going on in London last January.)
Graham Harman’s talk batted cleanup, & he was smart, erudite, eloquent, and thorough, taking us through the history of the object in modern philosophy and showing why his efforts to de-center and de-privledge humanity flow naturally from a right understanding of Husserl and Heidegger, among others. There wasn’t much time for questions as the day wound down; we were exhausted, the wine was waiting upstairs, many people needed to get to dinner, and I needed to rescue the babysitter in CT. But while driving home I couldn’t help thinking that the question I had was the one I pose a half-dozen times a day to my students: So what? What’s next? What can we do with that insight?
Partly it’s a disciplinary issue: I don’t have a huge stake in the right reading of the history of 20c philosophy, but I am always looking for a philosophical structure or model through which to think about how creatures, including but not only humans, live in a disorderly world. OOO is great on variety and perspective-shifting lists; Graham calls these “Latour lists,” but I think of them as coming first from Borges. I spent a lot of time yesterday thinking about the blind Argentine and Tlön:
The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for truth or even for verisimilitude but rather for the astounding. They judge that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature. (Labyrinths, 10)
In Borges’s story, the astounding as metaphysics is enticing but never really real. Its fictions encroach upon the given world. “The world, unfortunately,” he concludes elsewhere, “is real.” I’m not sure that Borges’s vision, which in Tlön at least is an allegory of mid-century modernism and fascism, quite fits with OOO’s insistent opening up of agency, but I’m not really an OOO-master. I’ve read, thought about, and cited, Tim Morton’s eco-books, and I’ve also enjoyed Harman on Latour, but I’ve not (yet) dug deeply into the sub-field. (Digging may be the wrong metaphor for a model that denies vertical hierarchies.)
The question for me as an omnivorous literary scholar who always wants something to take home from these cross-disiplinary buffets is, what can I do with OOO? I like its post-human de-centering, its claims for the agency and autonomy and respect due to objects like the Gulf Stream or the process of evaporation or the movement of ballast water. Like Latour’s ANT(s), it’s a powerfully descriptive and poetic horizontalizing of the world. I can see why Kellie and Graham both connect it to Aristotle, and I get why Jeffrey and Eileen both dig it.
It’s a good challenge and prod to get outside of humanism, to move to what some other OOO-ers (Levi Bryant?) call the “great outdoors.” But it also seems to me — and perhaps here I risk outing myself as too humanist to sit with the cool kids at the lunch table — that’s it’s not quite possible for literary culture to make this move the same way philosophy does. How far outside our bodies can we really sit when rain and winds lash us and the mad old King “to the skin”? To know that ourselves, our loved ones, our household pets are no more or less objects than veins of coal or moon-rocks or cows being led to slaughter is salutary, and of course it’s essentially, intellectually, fundamentally true. But can literature really live that way? Emotional pulls distort any intellectual field, especially one built around play and pleasure — which is why the question Julian Yates circled around, how do we live a good life?, still challenges or provokes any descriptions of what the real really is. At the end of the day — or so went my espirit d’interstate yester-eve — I don’t need to know what the world really is. I want to know what to do.
Perhaps I’m asking for something to supplement our sighs of OOO. What if we don’t give up all the charms and puzzles of the human in a posthuman object-oriented world? What if we decide instead to combine a recognition of a insistently cascading and circulating world of fluid object-states — what the ecological sciences have been calling “dynamic post-equilibrium” for some time — with the constant, changing, niggling, sticky return of human and fleshy embodiment and its extensions, a persistent recognition of the claims of pain and pleasure and the permeable boundary between skin and world? How might a corresponding AHH moment — an Artifact-Hungry Humanism? — work alongside our OOOs? A way to remember that bodies are both objects and object-makers, both withdrawn into mysterious autonomy and also eagerly grasping and making. I don’t mean this as a resistance or debunking, and I certainly don’t want to re-enthrone human perception or consciousness atop any great chain of understanding. But in the horizontal maelstrom I think one of the things poesis does or wants to do is remember that thoughts come in bio-packages, and they are limited by their limits, hurt by their discomforts, and pleased by their pleasures.
Maybe Graham would say that’s chickenshit phenomenology or backdoor idealim. And maybe it is.
The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature…. I do not know which of us has written this page. (246-7)