Text as Object: On Style

Meghan says:

In Guerrilla Metaphysics, Graham Harman notes that “[a]s Nietzsche once wrote, the only way to improve one’s style is to improve one’s thoughts; more generally to alter one’s style would be to alter one’s thoughts” (45).  This precedes a turn to the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, the prose of which Harman maintains is luminous.  When I read this statement, though, I confess that my mind did not go to Merleau-Ponty, who I had just finished reading a few hours before.  Instead, it formed an instant association in my mind with the writing of Harman himself.  As someone relatively new and unexperienced in philosophical discourse, I realized that I had been reading Harman’s words for almost fifty pages with a remarkable (although still remarkably relative) degree of ease.  While I read Spinoza, Bergson, even Merleau-Ponty with various degrees of confusion and exasperation, I had relatively little difficulty understanding Harman’s notion of “free-floating qualities, stripped away from an underlying substance,” whereby all of the independent objects in the universe were capable of interaction (20).  I waded through the ether, the flesh, the style of things.  By the time Harman presented Lingis’s idea—only a few steps away from his own—that the proverbial tree falling in the forest would be heard by the myriad animals around it—I felt as though I could have come up with the idea myself if I had simply thought hard enough about it.  I must say, this was a very strange sensation, and it led me to reflect on this notion of style, and how the content of philosophy might be connected with it.

Harman’s philosophy is one of carnal phenomenology, intimate ties to the senses and to perception, that realm of reality most accessible to humans.  Was it because I was dipping my toes in this sensual pool that the philosophical ideas seemed so close to me, so accessible?  Is there a necessary connection between the closeness of the senses, a philosophy of the senses, and an understanding of the philosophy of the senses?  Or did Harman’s constant stylistic appeal to the senses in his writing give me the mere illusion of comprehension—was I duped in my writerly love of language into believing that I understood more than I did?  Conversely, is my actual comprehension merely a sign of the flaws in Harman’s ideas—not difficult enough, and therefore not true enough?

If it is true that to change one’s style is to change one’s thoughts, I suppose that one could say that Harman could not have presented his philosophy in any way other than he did.  Perhaps I have attached myself to a minor philosophical point because it interests me as a fiction writer, this connection between form and meaning.  But I wonder…if Bergson had written his ideas about perception and memory in Harman’s style, with flourishes about cigarettes and circus tents, would I have understood them?  Or would they have become necessarily different ideas?  Or: would the act of translation have been altogether impossible in the first place?

Justin says:

Meghan, your discussion of style (specifically the style of the language-object before you) and of how it impacted your learning experience in this set of readings has pointed me back to a passage in Harman that we can use to talk about the connection between style and education.  Harman says that

“What we see in the style of an object is a certain kind of behavior or way of dealing with situations, just as in the case of humans.  To become acquainted with a new person or new city is to make a series of initial conclusions based on surface-effects, before gradually reaching an unspoken assessment as to the underlying mode of being of this person or city, though surprises will always occur.  The unity of a style is that of ‘a symbolism in the thing which links each sensible quality to the rest.’” (57)

Here, style represents perhaps the deepest understanding we can have of an object. While much of its reality remains obscured, we are not limited to a knowledge of singular surface-effects since those effects gradually reveal an underlying principle that, presumably, could elaborate knowledge that could extend beyond the surface-effects we have gathered first hand.  Harman’s example of the new city is especially resonant for me as a relatively new resident of Pittsburgh.  Upon moving here, I had to gather much particular data about this city-object in order to navigate my various relations with it and its inhabitants.  Gradually, though, a growing familiarity with or feel for Pittsburgh’s style, of its “behavior” and its “way of dealing with situations,” was able to stand in for more specific knowledge of its bureaucracies, geography, moods, and common practices.

What you’ve done above is make a great observation about how this process of adaptation to style extends even to those objects that we have perhaps the hardest time considering objects: arguments, text, ideas.  You show that, just as with relocating to a new city, relocating to a new text involves drawing initial conclusions from surface characteristics until an understanding of style can take over to ease the process of education.  The questions your comments raise for me have to do with 1) why it is that the style of some objects is more easily perceived or more easily adapted to than other objects (Bergson v. Harmon) and with 2) what the role of an object’s creator is in all of this.  That is, with Harman’s text-object, surely he himself is responsible for much of its style, but is he responsible for all of it?  Surely, following Harman’s line of thought, most of his own object remains obscure to him, independent of any design principle he enforced.  Perhaps it is out of bounds all together to talk about creating (or teaching to create, or learning to create) style in Harman’s philosophy.

One final comment, since talking about perception and education makes me think about Matter and Memory: Bergson also talks about the autonomous knowledge or action that can be achieved once one has dealt sufficiently with surface-effects, but instead of describing this as adaptation to the style of an object, he describes it as adapting a habit to repeated sensory experiences.  He says that “our whole life is passed among a limited number of objects, which pass more or less often before our eyes: each of them, as it is perceived, provokes on our part movements, at least nascent, whereby we adept ourselves to it.  These movements, as they recur, contrive a mechanism for themselves, grow into a habit, and determine in us attitudes which automatically follow our perception of things” (84).  Both Harman and Bergson, then, are making remarks about how we adapt our reactions to the objects around us. Is it the same for me to say that for Bergson, the adaptation (“habit”) is entirely internal to the person, while for Harman the adaptation is at least partially external, a response to a style or directive (a la Lingis) that is directive?

~ by minimeg728 on September 18, 2010.