My knowledge of Object-Oriented philosophy is certainly imperfect (and thus open to correction), but I think I understand it well enough to assess Graham Harman's article, "The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism," on the relationship of OO philosophy (or "speculative realism" more generally) to literary criticism. I find his discussion fascinating, full of potentially useful application, even if I can't ultimately agree either with his critique of New Criticism or with his suggestions about what an appropriately object-oriented criticism might attempt to do.
First of all, I do not think it is accurate to say that the New Critics conceived of the poem (the literary text) as "encapsulated machines cut off from all social and material context." It would be absurd to say that a literary work is literally "free" of the social/biographical/cultural context in which it was written. The New Critics just believed that this context had little to do with the reader's experience of the poem, and it is the experience of reading that the New Critics wanted to emphasize. Consideration of "social and material context" is a distraction from the reading experience, at least in our initial encounter with the work.
Using Cleanth Brooks's The Well-Wrought Urn as his representative work of New Criticism (a good choice), Harman approvingly describes its "hostility to paraphrase," casting this as the "object-oriented side" of New Criticism. Brooks's emphasis on ambiguity and paradox correctly signals that, in Harman's words "the literal rendition of the poem is never the poem itself, which must exceed all interpretation in the form of a hidden surplus." But Harman believes this excess "haunts all human dealings with the world," including all other intellectual disciplines. While Brooks opposes poetry to the discourses of science, "regardless of aspiration, the irreducibility of reality to literal presence applies as much to the sciences as it does to poetry, "Harman writes.
It seems to me that here aspirations are everything. Science and theology aspire to communicate directly and unambiguously, even though, given the inaccessibility of the "objects" of which they speak (but which exist, nevertheless) they are prevented from doing so. This is a condition against which such discourses fight. Poetry aspires to avoid such direct and unambiguous claims, depending on the inability of language to always convey transparent meaning for its very existence. Conceding poetry this "separate zone" in which paraphrase is actually antithetical to the purposes of poetry may be merely a convention, without anchor in the protocols of speculative realism whereby objects are never fully present for description, but this convention serves a useful enough purpose in human reality by making "literature" possible as something other than undifferentiated "writing." It seems to me that insisting it be treated like any other form of discourse suggests a sensibility that ultimately has little actual use for poetry.
I do not say that Graham Harman possesses such a sensibility, since he writes frequently about literature, and with obvious respect for it. However, I do think he is being overly literal-minded in his reading of Brooks, both in discussing the claim for a "separate zone" and in his further criticism of Brooks for regarding the text as "a holistic wonderland in which everything is defined solely by its interrelations with everything else." Here Harman finds fault with the New Critics' contention that a literary text must be understood as self-enclosed, its "meaning" to be derived from the way elements of the text interact with other elements internally, not with referents outside the text. "There is no reason," Harman writes, "to descend the slippery slope and posit a general relational ontology in which all things are utterly defined by even the most trivial aspects of their context."
That slippery slope might indeed be hazardous, but I'm not at all sure Cleanth Brooks and most of the New Critics descend it. I don't think Brooks really suggests that "all things" have equally important significance in our assessment of the poem's parts, merely that the parts have significance only when considering the whole as an "autonomous" creation. We can only enter the "gates" of the poem, as Harman describes the boundary markers of the poem's separate zone, once we acknowledge there are gates. Once inside, we might judge that some of what we find is more revealing or important, but I can't see why the argument for this sort of autonomy does other than indeed "open a space where certain interactions and effects can take place and not others." These interactions are what we choose to call literary interactions, which require that we attend to the way the "elements" of the poem work to make it a poem rather than, say, a newspaper article.
When a New Critic such as Brooks uses terms such as "harmony" or "balance," he is not asserting that they define the essential nature of a poem. These are terms of judgment, not ontological claims. Not all poems are harmonious or balanced, or succeed in "making" a poem out of the interrelationship of its language: far from it. Most poems (and most works of fiction as well) are inharmonious and unbalanced, many all-too-eager to compete with science and theology in dispensing wisdom, in "saying something." Again it is the aspiration of poetry as understood by the New Critics--to contribute autonomous aesthetic "objects" to the world--that, in my view at least, ought to be honored. That the goal can't be reached metaphysically seems to me beside the point.
Harman's criticism seems accurate when directed toward the New Historical approach to criticism, which, as Harman does indeed point out, eliminates all boundaries and makes the literary text a thoroughly permeable excuse to consider everything else. The New Historicism at its most dogmatic seems to posit that, if a literary text is not autonomous, the only alternative is to turn it into nothing at all. Harman also considers the poststructuralist approach of Derrida, which Harman considers along with New Criticism and New Historicism the three main lines of contemporary literary criticism, at least in the academy. I have always considered Derrida compatible with New Criticism in their common emphasis on "writing" as a self-sufficient subject, not what the writing is about, but Harman's critique of Derrida here is cogent enough. If all writing is equally without moorings in some "deep" bedrock of reality, however inaccessible, then science and theology are indeed no different than poetry in their efforts to communicate about that reality, although I do have trouble understanding why Harman would say that Brooks "shares" with Derrida the inability to recognize that "the thing is deeper than its interactions." What "thing" is deeper than the poem? Some Platonic form of the poem?
Suffice it to say that Harman thinks all three approaches to literary criticism are inadequate for incorporating the insights of Object-Oriented philosophy. And I ultimately find myself in complete agreement when Harman declares that the "literary text runs deeper than any coherent meaning, and outruns the intentions of author and reader alike," a fact Harman believes too much current literary criticism ignores. However, it seems to me that he unnecessarily discounts the possibilities of the object-oriented approach by explicitly trying to sell it as "the next big thing" in academic criticism, displacing previous approaches destined to be ephemeral. If the literary text "outruns" intentions, it does so always, and a criticism focused on careful (if inevitably incomplete) description, without closing off interpretive possibilities, would always be relevant.
Harman is also right in noting that to "call someone 'a product of their time and place' is never a compliment; neither should it be a compliment when aimed at a literary work," suggesting further that we should attend to "how works reverse or shape what might have been expected in their time and place, or. . .how some withstand the earthquakes of the centuries much better than others." But I can't see how Harman's final proposal of a "method" for critics to try out either reinforces these insights or, finally, would lead to a method of literary criticism at all. Instead of just writing about Moby-Dick," Harman writes,
why not try shortening it to various degrees in order to discover the point at which it ceases to sound like Moby-Dick? Why not imagine it lengthened even further, or told by a third-person narrator rather than by Ishmael, or involving a cruise in the opposite direction around the globe? Why not consider a scenario under which Pride and Prejudice were set in upscale Parisian neighborhoods rather than rural England--could such a text plausibly still be Pride and Prejudice?
This project is not an exercise in criticism but a further experiment in object-oriented ontology, a philosophical, rather than a critical, move. Harman seems to want to prove that OOO is correct, using the literary text as vehicle. How is this different from using the text to do politics or sociology?
Graham Harman thoughtfully replied to my response to "The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism," and I would like in turn to make a few comments about that reply..
Harman thinks that my insistence the New Critics simply contended that the reading experience required no "context" outside the text to be fully satisfying fails to address "whether they sufficiently accounted for the context in their theory." But my point is that they did not need to "account" for context. At its core, New Criticism holds that my reading of poem X can proceed entirely without reference to context and still be a perfectly coherent and self-sufficient reading. It's not required that I do this, and to the extent the New Critics maintained it is, they were wrong. The true "logical consequence" of the "theory" of New Criticism is that context need not be considered in reading poems and novels, although it could be. However, since, as OOO itself tells us, context is always incomplete if not finally inaccessible, bringing in the context does not make for "better" or more thorough reading. Pragmatically speaking, the context-free reading is good as any other, and, since its purpose is actually to stick as closely as possible to the actual experience of the text as read, it's a more concerted effort to do justice to the "literary."
Thus the reading experience itself is really the only "context" the critic needs. Harman cites the "paradox" that New Criticism rejects "rules," but this isn't paradoxical. If one strategy works better here and another there, this is because they each occur in a different context--the context of reading that work or looking at that painting.
I do think of the literary text as a "holistic unit," but I don't think it "must be" taken as such, as Harman alleges. You can certainly think of it in some other way if you want, but if you're thinking of it as a way of validating a particular philosophical perspective, I really don't understand how it's different from thinking of it as a political document or a sociological "case." Nothing prevents you from doing this, and I can't plausibly say you're wrong to do it, but if the goal is to read literature more sensitively, I can't see how a "counter-factual literary criticism" accomplishes that. Perhaps we don't finally share the same goal, and if so, I'm fine with that.
I confess that when Harman says that "Not only do authors fail to master the infinite dissemination of their texts, they probably don’t even put the text in the right shape in the first place," the discussion has gotten altogether too mystical and metaphysical for me. If these authors actually "should have written better texts," then those texts must exist in some Platonic realm to which I neither have nor desire access. I still accept that OOO can be usefully applied to literary analysis, and for that matter I'm actually looking forward to reading Harman's new book on Lovecraft in which he apparently defends some of these more radical claims, but for now I'll stick to the text at hand.