Monday, April 30, 2012

Carpentry of the Sublime

In response to my post "Rhetorical Carpentry: An Experiment", both Scot and Steve raised helpful and (as this post demonstrates) generative questions about intent and language with respect to carpentry as a means to reveal or engage objects as aliens with ontological weight all their own. I want to continue responding to their questions (and to Scot's question about the sublime in particular) here.

Scot writes:
However, I'm also suspicious, particularly of [Morton's] reading of Longinus and the sublime. I'm just not sure this maps onto OOO very well, at least not without some poetic work on our parts to endow objects with intuitions and the possibility of being surprised or thrown out of synch. For Longinus, the sublime really boils down to language and taste
In response, I want to first spend some time with Morton's reading of the sublime and then come back to what I feel is a key move for OOO scholarship. In short, I think misreading is a fundamental move for object-oriented philosophy. I want to summarize Morton's reading of Longinus and then defend it based precisely on Scot's suspicion of it.

Tim Morton's essay "Sublime Objects" identifies two forms of the sublime that don't work for OOO and one that does (Morton also discuss object-oriented rhetoric there, but I don't want to get into that just yet).
Of the two dominant theories of the sublime, we have a choice between authority and freedom, between exteriority and interiority. Both choices are correlationist. That is, both theories of the sublime have to do with human subjective access to objects.
In this regard, Morton speaks to Scot's uneasiness with the idea of the sublime. Morton continues:
Both sublimes [the Burkean and Kantian] assume that: (1) the world is specially or uniquely accessible to humans; (2) the sublime uniquely correlates the world to humans; and (3) what’s important about the sublime is a reaction in the subject. (217)
This is a sublime that is all about what objects mean for us and not what they might be in and of themselves (or for other objects). The sublime as it works here is uniquely human and it's reactionary. What OOO requires of the sublime is a little less of both. A little later, Morton writes
What we require is an aesthetic experience of coexisting with 1+n other entities, living or nonliving. What speculative realism needs would be a sublime that grants a kind of intimacy with real entities. (219)
Google Earth Building Maker for Saint Louis Arch.
Morton argues that Google Earth counts as Longinian sublime:
"it transports us to real places" (227).
The building maker function within Google Earth is perhaps carpentry of the sublime.
What OOO needs and what carpentry needs to make are intimate relations with other, real entities: more than human reactions and more relations rather than just reactions (in brief, I'm using reaction here to indicate a lack of intimacy). This is the sublime carpentry of Harman with his stress upon allure and vicarious causation. It is not, Morton argues, the Kantian sublime where the "aesthetic dimension is an experiential condom that shrink wraps objects in a protective film" (220). The sublime we (can) get from Longinus, Morton argues, is just the opposite. In the intimacy generated by this sublime we engage with an object's "withdrawnnes" (226). What is in interesting here is that in risking intimacy the weirdness or strangeness of the object shows up. Morton essentially argues that by bringing the object closer we see how really far-out it is.

But all of this isn't exactly an answer to all of Scot's question, which was also concerned with Morton's reading of Longinus. The timing of Scot's question is actually quite nice. Jim Brown will shortly be presenting at The Nonhuman Turn Conference, which looks amazing. The subject of his talk is rhetorical carpentry, and it begins with an explicit misreading of Thomas Farrell's definition of rhetoric in his essay "Sizing Things Up: Colloquial Rhetoric as Practical Wisdom": "Rhetoric is the art, the fine and useful art, of making things matter." We can easily imagine what Jim, and by extension object-oriented rhetoric, could do with this definition, which is not at all what Farrell does or would even want to do with this definition. As I was reading Jim's paper, I immediately thought of what Harman does with Heidegger: he deliberate mis-reads him, or at least reads Heidegger against Heidegger's own grain. I am wondering if we could grant much the same to Morton (I must admit I am not familiar enough with Longinus to assess Morton's reading of him): that is, could we see Morton's reading of Longinus as a productive mis-read?

And from there, we could go on to argue that mis-reading may very well be a key component of OOO, OOR, and carpentry. Farrell's definition of rhetoric, Heidegger's analysis of tool-being, and Longinus's sublime are all objects that most assuredly withdrawal from their authors as well as their readers. We are only ever working with their exhaust. Getting intimate with these definitions as objects that withdraw from us as objects might teach us valuable lessons about the withdrawnness of objects generally. For example, this kind of mis-reading might very well sync with Bennett's recommendation in "The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter": "I have also suggested that a playful, naive stance toward nonhuman things is a way for us to render more manifest a fugitive dimension of experience" (366). OOO's methods must bear some resemblance to it's lessons.


  1. I'm glad we're continuing the conversation. You're right that Morton anticipates my concern in his discussions of Kant and Burke. The problem with these two, as you note, is where the power of the sublime lies or originates. Whether interiority or exteriority, the logic is inevitably correlationist.

    Fair enough. But I wonder, then, about the freedom to mis-read. If it's possible to read Longinus against the grain (and Heidegger too), then why not Kant and Burke? Certainly, doing so would require some effort, but the version of the sublime that we find in these two, however correlationist, seems closer to withdrawal and the ontology of things than what we get in Longinus. Although he doesn't discuss the sublime as such, Mike Bernard-Donals's article on the US Holocaust Museum in the most recent College English proposes just such an ontology in which objects (in this case, objects such as the pile of shoes or the Auschwitz boxcar found in the permanent exhibit) seem to withdraw and bust loose from the historical narrative (or version of historical events) that the permanent exhibit attempts to produce. These artifacts, in my reading at least, could be considered sublime objects, with fairly strong associations with Kant's understanding of the sublime but without, possibly, the need for a categorical imperative.

    Anyway, all of this is to say that I'm excited about the doors Morton's opened for us. And I certainly agree that we needn't take texts at their word (if that's even possible). I would caution, though, against using the term "mis-read," since that's likely to alienate already skeptical readers (and there's lots of those out there right now). Here I'm reminded of a line from Hans Kellner, "getting the story crooked." While OOR attempts to recover the missing masses from our histories and theories of rhetoric, its methods vary and at times require a more inventive/speculative approach--i.e. getting the story crooked.

  2. You are absolutely right about the term mis-read. It's too early in the game to get clever.

    With respect to freedom and "getting the story crocked," which is a great phrase, the constraints on reading against the grain (or at least against the author) would the definition or concept itself as an object, which withdraws from us and its "author" (Barthes an OOO?). As we see with Harman and Jim, it is not so much "misreading" as it is a form of allure. "In all of these cases of allure," Harman writes, "the less essential traits of the object break free more easily into independent life, just a planet's outermost moons are those more easily liberated" (GM 164). Now it might take some time to translate this dense quote for my purposes here, but for the moment think of the word thing in Farrell's definition of rhetoric. By Jim's way of reading, thing is liberated from its "banal servitude" and set loose as an object in its own right (Harman 163).

    In this regard, we could certainly assess the fitness of Longinian sublime and reassess the apparent lack of fitness of Kant and Burke. That is, are there traits of their definitions of the sublime that we could pry free? The freedom we have to do so must necessarily run-up against the text itself, and so the best I can say here is not that misreading is a key move for OOO but that OOO can pry a definition or parts of a definition away from the author. It isn't our freedom that gets expressed in OOO but rather the object's.

    In this way, our freedom or ability to get the story crooked is contingent upon the recalcitrance of the definition and its parts. In the case of Farrell's again, thing is clearly not exhausted by his definition of rhetoric and thus easy to pick-off. As is matter. If Farrell had written "make certain human concerns important" instead, we'd be able to do much less with it, and Jim would be shit out of luck.

  3. I just re-read the following in Guerrilla Metaphysics this morning: "The key role is played not by human freedom, but by the commanding voices of the things" (64). This helped me think about the question of our freedom to mis-read.

  4. SO, is the suggestion that "the commanding voices of things" urge us to misread?

    BTW, I have always liked Longinus' sublime so much more than Kant's 1) since *everything* comes from the object "emerging as the hard-won result not of one thing or two, but of the whole texture of the composition" and 2) because it is precisely at this moment that rhetoric ceases to be persuasive, sliding instead into "transport." It seems to me this might be another point in Longinus' favor - perhaps a line of argument I am not sure Morton takes up: the capacities of object oriented anything, realized or not. We might feel moved because an intimate encounter with a strange stranger is only borne not of its components, but of its whole texture and composition (its ecology?). Our own whole texture and individual composition is brought into relation with another such that a new world is discovered in "sublimity flashing forth at the right moment."

    Makes me think of Dante and how Satan's position at the center of the earth was at that (sublime) point where down becomes up and the route to heaven necessarily begins.