I’m continuing with my reading of Graham Harman‘s fascinating Guerrilla Metaphysics. Here we find him elaborating on José Ortega y Gasset’s exploration of metaphor. Ortega had selected as an example a line from the Catalonian poet Josep Maria López-Picó, in which Picó says that the cypress tree “is like the ghost of a dead flame.” Harman explores the stripped-down essence of this poetic phrase — “a cypress is a flame”:
If someone tells me that a cypress is like a juniper, what happens is that my attention is absorbed by a set of remarkably similar qualities; I am adrift in a world of attributes of things. But if someone tells me that a cypress is a flame, then I have entered the magic world of a cypress-flame-feeling-thing. Since the two images are unable actually to melt together instantly by way of their truly minimal common qualities, the cryptic essences that my life senses in them remain before me in a kind of permanent collision. My exultant feeling of the cypress and my exultant feeling of the flame attempt to fuse with one another, but without final resolution: their hard carapaces crack as they fill each other with molten plasm. And as Ortega admits, “even when a metaphor is created we still do not know the reason for it. We simply sense an identity, we live exultantly in this being, the cypress-flame.” This new being may be constructed out of feelings, but given Ortega’s object-oriented concept of feeling, it is actually a new thing that has entered the world, and not just a private mental state of mine. To create such an object is to de-create the external images that normally identify it, reshaping the plasma of their qualities into a hybrid structure. What we call a style, says Ortega, is nothing other than a specific mode of de-creating images and recreating them as feeling-things. (p. 109)
I find this explanation of metaphor as a hybrid feeling-object really quite helpful. Though I’m not sure I’d draw quite so sharp a distinction between the pairings cypress-juniper and cypress-flame, this is a relatively minor quibble that actually supports Harman’s case for realism. He says that in observing the similarities between a cypress and a juniper, one becomes immersed in a plasmic medium of attributes cut loose from their objects. But these attributes can congeal themselves into a new merged object called “evergreen.” For that matter, even two separate cypresses become linked together in the plasm of multiply-shared attributes, forming the merged object “cypress.”
A cypress and a flame eject from themselves certain shared attributes into the plasm, most notably the flamelike shape of those tall thin varieties of cypress that so often line Mediterranean roadsides and driveways. Should we assert then the obvious simile: the cypress-juniper object is like the cypress-flame object? I think yes, while recognizing that similarity isn’t the same as identity. The cypress-flame hybrid object is pulled together inside the plasm from attributes of the component elements “cypress” and “flame” and the observant and imaginative mind of the poet. This is one style of assembling a hybrid object. Another style relies on sexual reproduction as a means of transmitting genetic material. DNA carries biochemical attributes that afford both individuation (this tree, that one, the other one…) and speciation (these cypresses).
Some time after human beings showed up on the earth they began reflecting on the things that surrounded them in their environment. These early humans became able to think about individual trees and tree attributes and tree collectives, and together the humans ssigned names to these things. But thinking and naming is only one style for spawning the proliferation of hybrid objects within the plasm. It’s a style that didn’t arrive on the scene until the universe had already amassed billions of years of object-creation successes. One particular genetically-created species of tree and the cognitive-linguistically-created species named “cypress” share many attributes, but they aren’t identical to each other. Human cognition, social construction, genetic reproduction: these are but three of the many different styles for configuring hybrid objects. Different styles generate different kinds of objects which, when again cut loose from themselves inside the plasm of attributes, also share certain similarities with each other. But again, similarity isn’t the same as identity.
I haven’t even finished Harman’s chapter on metaphor, let alone the whole book, but based on what I’ve read so far I presume this is the direction he’s guiding his readers.