24 July 2009

Microphonic Conifer

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:27 am

“Nearby, a bulbous conifer tilted like a giant microphone awaiting a quote from the sky.”

Earlier yesterday I had been trying to remember how Graham Harman’s theory of metaphor works. Then, reading before going to sleep, I came across this sentence on page 6 of Glen Duncan’s Death of an Ordinary Man. It’s a simile we’re dealing with here, but no matter: the same principles apply. According to Harman’s theory, no object ever encounters another object directly: the encounters are mediated by the sensual surfaces of the objects coming into proximity with each other. In Duncan’s simile the sensual conifer takes onto itself certain notes of the sensual microphone, thereby alluding to notes of the real conifer. It’s not just that the conifer and the microphone share similar sensual features — their shapes and tilts. Rather, the metaphorical object alludes to the depths of the real conifer hidden beneath the sensual surface. Deploying Harman’s language from his Collapse II article, the metaphor points to the microphone-soul of the conifer looming in the darkness and magically hovering beneath the surface, animating the conifer and illuminating it from within.

Does the hidden essence of the conifer possess properties it shares with a microphone pointed at the sky? The implication of the metaphor is that there’s a voice in the sky — God, presumably — speaking into the conifer. As glimpsed through the metaphorical allusion, the conifer has the property of amplifying the Voice coming down from the sky, a way in which God reveals himself through earthly media. I suppose that really is the idea of the metaphorical relationship: the shared sensual properties of conifer and microphone allude to a deeper property of the microphone, which in turn points to a deeper property of the conifer.

Is the audio-ampifying property of the microphone a more essential feature than its conical shape and its tilt? I’d say that’s true. But now we’re getting close to equating essence with function: the tool-ness of the microphone is its essence, the shape and tilt are inessential surface characteristics. Equating essence with function is, I’m pretty sure, something that Harman doesn’t want to do, based on my reading of second-hand discussions of his book Tool-Being.

The sensual conifer possesses conical shape-notes and positional tilt-notes. It doesn’t possess microphone-notes. However, the metaphorical relationship produces a new object: a metaphorical conifer. This merged object does possess microphone notes. And I think that’s true: a metaphor is an object, even if it’s not a distinct material thing. The metaphor was created in the author’s imagination and deposited onto the manuscript of his book. It has multiplied its presence in all the printed copies of the book, and it has left its trace in the minds of all those people who have read that particular sentence on page 6 of the book. Imaginations, books, minds — these are distinctly human objects. Isn’t metaphor also a distinctly human kind of object? As best as I can tell, no metaphorical object can come into existence except through the mediation of human thought and language. The only other possibility I can imagine is that a Voice from the sky announces the reality of the metaphor into the microphones of our consciousnesses.



  1. , no object ever encounters another object directly: the encounters are mediated by the sensual surfaces of the objects coming into proximity with each other.

    And WHAT? Everybody’s read carlos castaneda’s experiments with mescaline and aldous huxley’s doors of perception and i know myself i once felt that i have the properties of a pebble in the ceiling. what’s the news?


    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 25 July 2009 @ 12:18 am

  2. I think the encounters are direct, because the surfaces of an object is part of the object itself. Harman wants to replace body/mind dualism with surface/depth dualism, and he’s explicit about that. Certainly the flat, shiny, slick surface of a polished wooden floor offers different “notes” from its mass or the species of tree from which it was constructed or its molecular composition. But this isn’t the surface/depth distinction Harman has in mind. The floor’s woodenness permeates it all the way through, but from the perspective of a fire it’s the woodenness that’s alluring. The shininess or flatness or beauty of the floor don’t concern the fire: these notes recede from the interaction. The fire enters into a relationship with the floor only through the surface characteristic of the fire’s flammability.

    The surface/depth distinction seems a relative one. What’s surface for the fire is depth for the cinematographer, who uses the floor’s shininess in lighting a scene but who couldn’t care less about its flammability. I suspect that Harman agrees: not just features that present themselves in a given interaction are surface, but any feature that could potentially present itself in any possible interaction is surface. Until modern science came along it would have been impossible for the wooden floor to present its molecular structure to interactions with microscopes, chemicals, spectrometers and so on. Did the wood’s molecularity shift from depth to surface after science was invented? No, because molecules and atoms and so on present themselves to one another at the microlevel even when scientists aren’t watching. The electron presents its charge etc. to the neutron as surface features of itself.

    What about the beauty of the shiny floor — is this a surface property of the floor itself? Did it exist in the floor before there were beings who appreciated aesthetic value? Or is beauty just an extension of the allure that all objects exert on other objects that come nearby? I.e., is the woodenness of the floor beautiful to the fire; is its mass beautiful to the earth’s gravitational pull? That seems reductionistic, discounting the uniqueness of different classes of objects and the kinds of relationships they enter into. But then, in Harman’s system, don’t you have to assert that an object’s beauty has always existed in the object as a potential surface property, even when no aesthetically-attuned creatures were around to perceive that beauty? Or is the beauty of an object something that exists not in the floor itself, but in the merged floor-aesthete object, inside the aesthetically-charged interaction between aesthete and floor? If so, then surface properties never exist in the object itself, but always inside the “molten plasm” of object-object interactions. At that point we start moving away from object-oriented ontology in a significant way, or so it seems to me.

    So, we define as “surface” any property of an object that does now or could potentially enter into relationship with any other object. What is depth then? We can never name it or describe it, because naming and describing are themselves interactions with the object. We can’t encounter it outside of language: that too is an interaction. All we can do is speculate: there must be something deep about that wooden floor that escapes all possible interactions with itself from now till doomsday.

    I think there are properties of a wooden floor that are intrinsic to its identity as a wooden floor: its woodenness, flatness, horizontality, weight-bearing solidity, and so on. Other properties — shininess, beauty, cost, etc. — have meaning only in relationship with other objects. But now it seems we’re to something like Heidegger’s tool-ness: an artifact essentially is what it was made for, its intentional utility. Harman says no: even the designed utility that caused the object to come into existence in the first place isn’t its essence.

    So now I’m stumped: what sorts of properties can an object possess that assuredly could never enter into any sort of relationship with any other object, including, e.g., God?

    Oh, and by the way, it seems that the fire, though only shallowly attracted to the floor’s flammability, enters into a very direct relationship with the floor.


    Comment by john doyle — 25 July 2009 @ 6:38 am

  3. But this isn’t the surface/depth distinction Harman has in mind. The floor’s woodenness permeates it all the way through, but from the perspective of a fire it’s the woodenness that’s alluring. The shininess or flatness or beauty of the floor don’t concern the fire: these notes recede from the interaction. The fire enters into a relationship with the floor only through the surface characteristic of the fire’s flammability.

    well thanks for that explanation, but again, what is the consequence for the HUMAN OBJECTS? does the Temptress state any examples in her magic books? Is this science for the betterment of humanity, or for the betterment of floor tiles?


    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 25 July 2009 @ 9:02 pm

  4. Can you, VOPR, give me your interpretation of antihumanist, posthuman, accelerationist tendencies in contemporary thought? Harman’s shift from subject to object follows this trajectory.


    Comment by john doyle — 26 July 2009 @ 4:17 am

  5. Is it worthwhile attempting to translate object-oriented metaphysics into some form of human-oriented praxis? What shape would it take? The idea that nonhuman objects exert influence on humans is part of Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis, though they don’t elaborate on how they would go about doing it. What interests me more about objecthood occurs within the human sphere of influence and the interrelationships between subject and object as well as between subjects. So, e.g., a pilgrimage is a kind of object — a designated route leading to a venerated site — that exists independently of those subjects who undertake the pilgrimage. A character in a movie is an object existing independently of the filmmaker and the viewer. The objects of vision exist independently of the viewer. And so on. While it’s well-recognized these days that a film is to an extent uniquely created by each viewer, there’s still the film itself as an independent artifact. Does the essence of the film always withdraw from any viewing experience (per Harman), or can the viewer see it for what it is? This alludes to our discussion of Becoming Visionary.


    Comment by john doyle — 26 July 2009 @ 9:01 am

  6. antihumanist, posthuman, accelerationist tendencies in contemporary thought

    well already the neo-psychoanalytic shift is away from the human, because the subject becomes decentered, and is then i guess further decentered by deleuze?

    i don’t know if i mentioned ever but at the university of belgrade there was this professor of perception psychology, predrag ognjenovic, who made a research, later included in the textbooks, and which stuck with me, where he was examining the relationship between the ”object” and the ”I” in different constellations. he had defined five or so categories, e.g. ”object and I each unto ourselves” or ‘Í for object” and ”object for I”. You’d notice in the research that increased interaction with the object, as in a man tending to his car, led to a kind of a objectification, for example the man would completely dedicate himself to the car and lose his ”I” in the process / become the car.

    i just read dr. sinthome’s latest self-apologia (i hate it when my favorite texan bear top shows insecurities) and figured from the text that the idea is to de-privilege the subject, which is overprivileged by continental theory, so that all vectors, all players, all perspectives get the light of the day. the cat explains this with a lot of pomp and pizzazz, but she’s been saying it since at least 2007 and by now it sounds like a not-so-exciting riff on the nature vs nurture diatribe, which once made me abandon the social sciences as I realized there will NEVER be a way out.


    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 26 July 2009 @ 10:33 pm

  7. I understand the decentering in terms of dethroning the ego. I understand the critique of the illusion of irresistible personal agency and free choice that fuels both production and consumption in today’s marketplace. And I understand that, from a bird’s eye view, humans aren’t that special: empirical science has long taken this point of view. What I wonder about is the convergence on the posthuman, assembled from strands of the structural inevitability of Marxist and capitalist idealisms, the libidinal liberation of Reich and Lyotard, the biopower of Nietzsche and Foucault, the immanent lines of flight of Deleuze, the AI/biotech singularity of Kurzweil. There’s a sense in which the posthuman is also inhuman, stripped of selfhood and and especially of intentional agency on the part of individuals and collectives. Presumably the human needs to get over himself as someone who can resist or even shape biological or sociocultural forces. Go with the flow, ride the lines of flight, become an object instead of a subject.

    I have some hope for Dr. Sinthome’s version of object-orientedness in his emphasis on interactivity and difference. In his flattened ontology I’d rather see him talk about the proliferation of multiple realities rather than a single unifying reality. So, e.g., what makes a difference in a subatomic reality makes no difference at all to us humans living our lives. If we can acknowledge that, while humans aren’t special from a transcendent POV, we’re special to ourselves and to each other. Human realities are nested: subjective, intersubjective, universal. But because of the flattening that Sinthome talks about, my own personal reality isn’t any less important than Einstein’s cosmic reality.


    Comment by john doyle — 26 July 2009 @ 11:21 pm

  8. become an object instead of a subject.

    well yes i think it boils down to becoming an object, as in the Temptress becoming even more wooden than she already is and mummifying herself for some permanent expo in Cairo, Egypt, and the like


    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 27 July 2009 @ 7:11 am

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