By Jon Cogburn
One of the thrilling things in Graham Harman's Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy is how he instantiates what he terms "the method of ruination":
By discovering how a given passage might be made worse, we find an indirect method of appreciating its virtues.
This ties to a discussion of the paraphrastic fallacy and the relation of literary (and philosophical) form to content which is too wide-ranging to cover in a blog post. But I can gesture at the stakes.
Harman has a really interesting epistemic* perspective. He agrees with Berkeley and Kant that a certain kind of knowledge prized by a certain kind of philosopher is radically limited. Our ability to straightforwardly describe the world in literal terms is so constrained by our own finitude that the metaphor of us being in some sense cut off from the great outdoors is a fruitful one. But only fruitful to the extent that our only access to the world as it is in itself is via literal language and the representational conceptual resources that go along with that language. For Harman, one of the main functions of art is to make salient and increase the manners in which the underlying executant reality of a object is different from the surface properties we capture via literal language. And art here is merely paradigmatic of a sort of quasi-epistemic capacity that all of us possess which allows us to sense these differences.
With the background of this problem space, it becomes clear why the method of ruination is so important. If we can explore the various ways that rendering literal ruins a work of literature we will get much clearer about what the non-literal aspects of the literary**** work are doing. The epistemological hope is that getting clear about this will shed some light on the way our aesthetic capacities grant us a non-discursive grasp of the great outdoors.****
Independent of the big philosophical stakes, it's a fun project. Early in the book Harman considers various personality types that can ruinously literalize Nietzsche's aphorism about Shakespeare, "What a must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon!" These are: the original literalizing bore, the simpleton, the judgmental resenter, the waffler, the self-absorbed, the down-home cornball, the clutterer, and the pedant. If you are familiar with the types, these descriptions are themselves ironically (since the literalizer ruins humor) very funny. For example:
The Self-Absorbed: "What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! But I'm not like that at all. Personally, I take a balanced approach to life and don't feel the need to overcompesate." (Nietzsche's vigorous interest in the outer world gives way to a petty Main Street narcissim.)
The Pedant: "Shakespeare's plays exhibit instantiations of a ludic affect that, as it were, bespeak an inversion of his 'true' state of mind. Much work has been done in this area, but a full consideration lies beyond the scope of this essay. See Johnson 1994a, Miner and Shaltgrover et al. 1997." (This character combines aspects of both teh Waffler and the original Literalizing Bore.)
As Harman remarks earlier, jokes almost canonically lend themselves to ruination by literalization. Consider
Q: How do you get a philosophy major off of your doorstep?
A: Pay for the pizza.
If (original literalizing bore) instead I just cited employment statistics for liberal arts majors (and let me here insist unfunilly that the joke is deeply misleading) the humor goes right out the window. Or (the judgmental resenter) if I instead just resentfully griped about the various things I've had to do for money and how badly served I was by majoring in philosophy, the joke becomes unfunny.
Harman takes it to be important to consider how passages from Lovecraft can be ruined (and improved in some cases) because Lovecraft's own writing displays so much awareness about the very way in which writing allows us to transcend its own discursive form. For Harman, part of what differentiates great art from pulp is that great art is the result of the author's struggling with the genre conventions in which the great art finds itself. Great art renders salient that which bad art leaves implicit. Lovecraft is struggling with the conventions of discursivity itself. And not in the by now hackneyed (post-)modernist stream of consciousness or needlessly contradictory way. Lovecraft's narrators always to some extent fail to chronicle their own ruin precisely because they are struggling to discursively represent aspects of reality that aren't discursively representable.
For Harman, there is an epistemic and metaphysical upshot here. Epistemically, we gain insight into our non-discursive, aesthetic, apprehension of reality. Metaphysically, we gain (for Harman always only ultimately aesthetic) insight into what reality must be like such that it eludes (discursive) insight.
Again though, independent of these very high philosophical stakes and Lovecraft's canonical place, it will be fun to get into the nitty gritty of his method of interpretation. The method of ruination (to be clear, Harman also suggest ways certain passages might be improved) is such a stark departure from the usual post New Criticism methods of crushingly literalizing interpretations. One should at the very least add the Marxist, the Freudian, the Deconstructionist, the Morally Outraged, and the New Historicist to Harman's bestiary of ruiners. Perhaps we also can learn something important from the manner in which great texts manage to elude their literalizations?
[*I am eliding what is perhaps the most interesting thing about Harman's philosophy, that he takes this epistemic point to be an instance of a larger metaphysical one. Harman relentlessly extirpates Kant and Heidegger's anthropocentrisim, the end result being a sense in which the finitude they find between mind and world is seen as a general world world relation holding between any two objects. Quentin Meillassoux does the opposite, keeping the anthropocentrism while trying to reject the finitude.
**Please see previous note! Harman agrees that Heidegger is doing transcendental epistemology. But the view that that's all he's doing (and that's all one can do) was been in some ways the bane of twentieth century philosophy.
***For Heidegger the discursive capacities are designated by Vorhandenheit, usually translated as "presence at hand" or "objective presence" and the practical capacities with Zuhandenheit, usually translated as "ready to hand." Rhetorical well-being demands coming up with a similar sounding handenheity designation for Harman's aesthetic capacities, but my German is not good enough. If Harman possessed an ounce of pretentiousness, he surely would have done this himself.
****Important question. What is it to render literal a picture or a song? The song's notation obviously leaves a lot out (Raffman qualia! improvisation). But I'm not sure that this does the same philosophical work that ruination does with respect to written works. This isn't a philosophical problem for Harman to the extent that we are concerned with how we achieve non-discursive epistemic contact with the world through discursive media. The primary point of music is not to give us non-discursive epistemic contact with the world, while the primary point of literature is to do that. On the other hand I think one can (and should) explore interesting ways that representational pictoral art can be ruined by pictoral literalization. Maybe there's a musical analogue? Perhaps all of the radio friendly "grunge" bands that popped up in the five years or so after Cobain's death?
*****Self-reflexive critique. If Harman were successful here, would that involve doing what Berkeley and Heidegger say can't be done? Wouldn't his description fo these mechanisms just then be a literal discursive account of the great outdoors? I explore this question in great detail (also with respect to lots of other philosophers) in my forthcoming book, Garcian Meditations, showing that this is precisely why Harman takes philosophical sense making to itself be aesthetic. Certain strands of late Heidegger, Deleuze, and Derrida only make sense if one sees them as gesturing towards Harman in this very regard.]