The full text of this working paper is available online at my SSRN page.
Abstract: Graham Harman has proposed a counter-factual literary criticism based on his object-oriented ontology. I argue: 1) that this proposed practical criticism collapses into the existing process of literary culture and is therefore empty, 2) that it implies a Platonic conception of the literary text, 3) that it follows from a rejection of Lévi-Strauss’s empirical work on myth that dates back to the mid-1970s and 4) that that rejection defended an intentionalist conception of the text, rather than a mechanistic one. As a counter-proposal I examine Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale using a method inspired by Lévi-Strauss, arguing that the differences between the plots of these two texts can be attributed to different cultural constructions of the family.
Introduction: A Black Hole in the Critical Mind
This collection consists of six posts. Five respond to Harman’s article in New Literary History, “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object Oriented Literary Criticism.” The first, however, responds to a blog post Harman made on Meillasoux’s reading of Mallarmé. There it seems to me that Harman is too indulgent, or perhaps strangely indulgent is the better phrase, of Meillasoux’s apparent critical numerology, which is, after all, a rather old critical gambit.
The burden of the other five pieces is that, as Harman presents it, object-oriented ontology has nothing to offer literary criticism. And that “nothing” is the ordinary nothing as in “there isn’t anything there,” rather than a philosophical capital-N nothing as some kind of pregnant negation that drives the dialectical wheels of the cosmos. His counter-factual criticism collapses into the ordinary process of literary culture and that’s that. It will not tell us anything we don’t already know.
In the process of making various arguments on these points, I tour some classic topics and some hobby horses:
- textual patterning and intention: Harmanian Conjunctions: Meillassoux and the Meno
- the mix and remix dynamic of literary culture: Harman on Literary Criticism, Curious
- the slippery humanistic concept of the text: Is Harman a Platonist? More on his recommendations for literary criticism
- sign and signifier, nature and culture: A Better Text, Really? Shades of Mike Hancher
- Lévi-Strauss on myth and a practical example of a more useful criticism: From Greene to Shakespeare: If Harman Wants to Talk Texts, He Should Learn from Lévi-Strauss
- and a return to a classic topic at the end: Intention and Meaning in Literary Criticism: Or, Another Run at Harman
As I sit here writing this it seems to me that the meat is in the last two pieces, that the others are what I had to work through to get to them. At the same time, the texts I use in the Lévi-Strauss piece, Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale, are texts I’ve been thinking about for years—not separately, of course, but as a pair. I think I’ve made some little progress in that project, progress I owe to the odd stimulus of Harman’s essay.
And that, in turn, prepared the way for the final piece, which is, in effect, about the conceptual and rhetorical role that intention has played in the staging of critical practice. Intention is the hook we’ve used to grab this or that hermeneutic engine and apply it to the text. Lévi-Strauss’s work on myth, with its mathematical analogy and the breath of mechanism (not cranks, levers, gears and pulleys, but mechanisms more abstract) managed just barely to get rid of that hook. And THAT’s why no one made a serious attempt to analyze the canonical texts of the European literatures in the way Lévi-Strauss analyzed the myths of South America aboriginal peoples.
Geoffrey Hartman complained that “modern ‘rithmatics’—semiotics, linguistics, and technical structuralism ... widen, if anything, the rift between reading and writing” (The Fate of Reading, 1975, p. 1972) If he wants to hold those myths at a distance and analyze them, let him do it, we said, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to do that with our texts. No sir, not with our texts.
The deconstructive and post-structuralists dismissed Lévi-Strauss’s by acknowledging their “self-sufficiency,” as Eugenio Donato did in “Lévi-Strauss and the Protocols of Distance,” a 1975 review of all four volumes of Mythologiques he published in Diacritics. Donato then went about analyzing and deconstructing Lévi-Strauss’s intentionality vis-à-vis his materials. What he’d actually done with his object texts, how he’d compared them one with the other, how he exposed their bones and joints through cross comparison, all that disappeared, was neutralized and neutered.
It disappeared into a black hole in the critical mind. Bits and pieces have managed to escape and turn up in cognitive criticism and Darwinian criticism, but only bits and pieces. For the most part, mechanism has been abandoned.
And now, almost four decades later, we have Harman’s object-oriented ontology that extends intentionality to all objects. The intentional object of the phenomenologists has become Harman’s sensual object. Sensual objects exist wherever real objects interact. Thus the object-oriented ontologists avoid the distance threatened by Lévi-Strauss’s mechanistic methods. They avoid objectification of objects, if you will.
If Harman had said, well, of course, we could look for mechanisms, but that’s nonsense because X Y and Z, I wouldn’t have been happy. But I’d at least have known that he’s aware the such things do exist in the conceptual world and that other thinkers are even foolish enough to be interested in them. But no, there’s not even that much awareness.
It’s as though, without any sense of causal mechanisms for literature, Harman has become completely unmoored from any sense that humans create texts for human ends. He seems to have little choice but to talk about texts as though they are self-sufficient Platonic ideals.
And that leaves him with nothing to propose about literary texts, except that they exceed any meaning any critic wants to foist on texts through any of the many and devious stratagems of intention-centric reasoning. He has no analytic or descriptive tools on offer.