To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
.......................................again
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Graham Harman: A Latour Litany, with commentary by John Bloomberg-Rissman


“On Vicarious Causation”

Mindless atoms and billiard balls.
Autistic moonbeams entering the window of an asylum.

Fire and cotton.
A hailstorm smashes vineyards,
or sends waves through a pond.

Human consciousness
is on exactly the same footing
as the duel between
canaries, microbes, earthquakes, atoms, and tar.

Resume the offensive by reversing
our curfew in an ever-tinier ghetto
of solely human realities:
language, texts, political power.

Mailboxes, hammers, cigarettes, and silk garments.
We need an everyday relationship with leopards or acids
before staring at them
or developing a science of them.

Yet the tribesman who dwells with the godlike leopard,
or the prisoner who writes secret messages in lemon juice,
are no closer
to the dark reality of these objects
than the scientist who gazes at them.

Dogs do not make contact
with the full reality of bones,
and neither do locusts with cornstalks,
viruses with cells,
rocks with windows,
nor planets with moons.

A strange new realism
in which entities flicker vaguely
from the ocean floor:
trees, mailboxes, airplanes, and skeletons
lie spread before us.
Real zebras and lighthouses
withdraw from direct access.

Corrosive chemicals lie side by side in a bomb –
separated by a thin film eaten away over time,
or ruptured by distant signals.

We are always conscious of something,
always focused on a particular house, pine tree, beach ball, or
     star.
The pine tree stands in relation
to neighboring trees, mountains, deer, rabbits, clouds of mist.

How do sensual objects manage to couple and uncouple
like spectral rail cars?
A metaphysics of artworks, the psyche, and language,
and even of restaurants, mammals, planets, teahouses, and sports
     leagues.
Philosophy clearly differs from activities
such as singing and gambling.

I may be sincerely absorbed in contemplating glass marbles
arranged on the surface of a table:
this austere, Zen-like spectacle.
The glass marbles themselves
are sincerely absorbed in sitting on the table,
rather than melting in a furnace
or hurtling through a mineshaft.
The marbles are sincerely absorbed with sensual objects.

If we carefully frame the marbles
with bookends or melted wax,
if we heat the tabletop,
or render its surface sticky or granulated
by pouring different materials nearby,
the final question is whether the marbles
can make a distinction
between the table and
its hardness, levelness, solidity,
and lack of perforation.

We do not step beyond anything,
but are more like moles
tunneling through wind, water, and ideas
no less than through speech-acts, texts, anxiety, wonder, and dirt.
We do not transcend the world, but only descend
or burrow towards its numberless underground cavities –
each a sort of kaleidoscope
where sensual objects spread their colours and their wings.

Human mortality is just
one tragic event among trillions of others,                               
including the deaths of house pets, insects, stars, civilizations,
and poorly managed shops or universities.

An archipelago of oracles or bombs
explode from concealment
only to generate new sequestered temples.
New objects, however, are the sole and sacred fruit
of writers, thinkers, politicians, travelers, lovers, and inventors.

Until now, aesthetics
has generally served as
the impoverished dancing-girl of philosophy–
no gentleman would marry her,
but all admire her charms.

Commentary

While it is common for visionaries to find themselves immersed and perhaps lost in a cosmic and transcendent One, it is perhaps a bit less common for them to find themselves transformed by a vision of absolute immanence and irreduction. Yet one day, in 1972, while driving through Burgundy, that’s what happened to Bruno Latour. He was 25 years old, highly educated, and destined for success. Yet he found himself utterly at odds with all he was expected to accept. As he describes it, he pulled over to the side of the road, and

I … simply repeated to myself “Nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else.” This was like an exorcism that defeated demons one by one. It was a wintry sky, and a very blue. I no longer needed to prop it up with a cosmology, put it in a picture, render it in writing, measure it in a meteorological article, or place it on a Titan to prevent it falling on my head. […] It and me, them and us, we mutually defined ourselves. And for the first time in my life, I saw things unreduced and set free.

According to Graham Harman, “The term ‘Latour Litany’ … was coined by Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech in reference to the long lists of entities found in many works of object-oriented philosophy.” Latour Litanies are Whitmanesque in that they contain multitudes. But they are distinctly and purposefully and politically non- (not anti-, simply non-) anthropomorphic. They propose and exemplify what’s been called “the democracy of objects” – humans, of course, constituting an object among others, none of which are in any way privileged. Perhaps the Latour Litany is a very appropriate type of vision for our time, which has been called the time of the “hyperobject”. Timothy Morton, who coined the term, writes, “Hyperobjects are phenomena such as radioactive materials and global warming. Hyperobjects stretch our ideas of time and space, since they far outlast most human time scales, or they’re massively distributed in terrestrial space and so are unavailable to immediate experience. …” Perhaps the Latour Litany is an appropriate poetic form for us living through this precarious era in which everything we don’t notice, everything we thing we’re above or below, could lead to unutterable destruction.

Perhaps (Harman again) “This is why Richard Rhodes finishes his description of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima with the following colossal Latour Litany:

Destroyed, that is, were not only men, women and thousands of children but also restaurants and inns, laundries, theater groups, sports clubs, sewing clubs, boys’ clubs, girls’ clubs, love affairs, trees and gardens, grass, gates, gravestones, temples and shrines, family heirlooms, radios, classmates, books, courts of law, clothes, pets, groceries and markets, telephones, personal letters, automobiles, bicycles, horses—120 war-horses—musical instruments, medicines and medical equipment, life savings, eyeglasses, city records, sidewalks, family scrapbooks, monuments, engagements, marriages, employees, clocks and watches, public transportation, street signs, parents, works of art.”

[Short bio notes] Though Bruno Latour specializes in the anthropology of science, his work has always included philosophy, history, sociology and politics, and has been influential in a wide range of arts and disciplines. He "is currently occupied mostly with the AIME (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence) project and with the SPEAP (Experimentation in Arts and Politics) program at Sciences Po, which brings together a small hybrid group of students from the fields of art, design, architecture and the social sciences to tackle the three domains of representation practice: science, politics, and the arts." The quote is from his website, and has been slightly modified (http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/8).

[Graham Harman is an object-oriented philosopher who, in addition to his own recent works such as Circus Philosophicus and The Quadruple Object, has written books on Heidegger, Latour, and Meillassoux
.]

1 comment:

fullness said...

great, i've been anticipating something similar to this. i have seen a couple of philosophers make similar attempts (ooo+poetry), but the content was/is too specific, which i would say is the case for this piece, for the most part.

some questions. i am aware that whitehead influenced olson, which shows in the content of his work. did whitehead influence olson's theory of projective verse? following, how do you think ooo could, or should, affect the form of a poem?

i initially had the idea of a very loose form, in which the reading could be multi-directional, with movements, or connections, being made at the conjunction of letters/word/phrases as they appear during the reading. the goal would be a realization of an ending as choice, or, as a never arriving at the end or poem as object.