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Tag Archives: Orientalism

The Whiteness of Metaphysics: Colored Readings of the Same

The Murderer of Agamemnon

ἆ ἆ, ἰδοὺ ἰδού: ἄπεχε τῆς βοὸς
τὸν ταῦρον: ἐν πέπλοισι
μελαγκέρῳ λαβοῦσα μηχανήματι

Ah, ah, See, see! Hold off from the cow
the bull!  Within robes
blackhorned she seized, by a machina

Agamemnon (lines 1125-1128)

Ἀργεῖός εἰμι, πατέρα δ᾽ ἱστορεῖς καλῶς,
Ἀγαμέμνον᾽, ἀνδρῶν ναυβατῶν ἁρμόστορα,
ξὺν ᾧ σὺ Τροίαν ἄπολιν Ἰλίου πόλιν
ἔθηκας. ἔφθιθ᾽ οὗτος οὐ καλῶς, μολὼν
εἰς οἶκον: ἀλλά νιν κελαινόφρων ἐμὴ
μήτηρ κατέκτα, ποικίλοις ἀγρεύμασιν
κρύψας᾽, ἃ λουτρῶν ἐξεμαρτύρει φόνον.

Argive I am, my father – you fairly inquire –
Was Agamemon, the nautical Riveter of men,
With him you the Troad uncitied Illion city
Claimed. His end was not so fair come
Home; but he blackhearted my
Mother slew, in the dappled game
She hid, the witness of a bath’s murder.

Eumenides (lines 455-461)

[apologies if the Greek fonts don’t come through]

Examples of Greek Otherness

I wish to briefly examine conceptions of othernessas found in the Greek notions of the world, so as to get a grip upon how deviant from these the modern appropriations of the same are in concept, with a particular eye upon Heidegger’s evocation of invisivibility and presence. Above are two descriptions of the method of Clytemnestra’s murder of the returning Agamemnon. The details of which will cue us unto the Greek otherness of “woman,” and relatedly (though she is not Eastern like Medea), the otherness of the East, Persia, Phrygia, and finally perhaps otherness itself: Same vs. Different.

The first from Aeschylus tells us that she smote him with a device, a machine, horned and smothered in a mantel.

Within robes
blackhorned she seized, by a machina

The second is even more interesting, for the wordplay is excelerated:

blackhearted my
Mother slew, in the dappled [poikilois] game [agreumasin]
She hid, the witness of a bath’s murder

We must see in these means and their characterizations the very nature of her own representational otherness, her exotic quality and powers. With grammatical ambiguity she cloaks either herself or her husband in ποικίλοις ἀγρεύμασιν, itself an intricate phrasing. The poikilois has multiple meanings all of which point to things varigated and potentially confusing. To quote the Greek lexicon, “”many-coloured, spotted, mottled, pied, dappled, of leopards, fawns; of robes, wrought in various colours, broidered; intricate; metaphorically changeful, various, diversified; intricate, complex; subtle; of persons, subtle, wily” (LSJ); and the agreumasin, can mean both the hunter’s snares used to catch prey, but also the game animal itself. With remarkable economy of words, Clytemestra hid within and struck by means of the very intricacy of her plans, and a garment, as a dangerous, even technological force camoflaged by the powers of its own complexity. Complexity, folded-in-ness was the mark of a power of otherness. For the Greeks intricacy, such as that which typified the craft skills of Asia Minor, bore in its very profound and natural interconnection the magical danger, the trap and the power of animal forces to both hide and kill. It was not so much the lack of transparency, to be understood in a fundamental binary of invisible/colored, but the actual production of confusion on the part of the viewer, a “how did they do that!” born of the very incalculable implications expressed in variegation itself. A tangle, if betwitching knot of things, labyrinth in need of a “poria” a ford in the river of it. The mention of the labyrinth is not accidental. What is forewarned against is the very Daedalus, work-man skill of the foreign hand, the mythological name taken from the verb δαιδάλλω:

[to] work cunningly, embellish, “σάκος . . πάντοσε δαιδάλλων” Il.18.479; “λέχος ἔξεον . . δαιδάλλων χρυσῷ τε καὶ ἀργύρῳ ἠδ᾽ ἐλέφαντι” Od.23.200; of a painter or sculptor, Opp.C.1.335, IG14.967:-Pass., to be spotted, marked, “σφραγῖσι” Opp.C.1.324.

It was the imported capacity to beguile through complexity that made the Greeks wary. And thus it was this very complexity, into which Clytemnestra as a woman folded herself and executed her action. The last line from the Eumenides above, “…the witness of a bath’s murder” leaves us to feel that it was the intricately woven robe (somehow both animate and inanimate) that alone stood as legal witness to the murder which was folded up into it. It is as if the very fibres and twistings make up the eyes of the action. Complexity for the Greek not only revealed itself in surplus of detail, but any hyper-complex manifestion also was read as its complimentary, a kind of fog, an obscuring haze out of which the unpredictably occurs. In a certain sense the Greek mind did see the world itself as dangerously manifest of variegated complexity, obscurely verging on the threat of a cacophony, much as how a coming storm is both richly folded in cloud-effects, but also fogging to human vision. It is for this reason they sought the harmoniously and to some degree unseen wholes behind it.

Translating “true”: from Greek ἀλήθεια (un-forgotten, un-escaped), to Heidegger’s Alêtheia (un-concealed)

Why do I bring these details of the description of Clytemnestra’s murdering under examination? Recently I have been weighing against the metaphysical inheritance of a fundamental white/colored, colonialist conception that has been passed down to Graham Harman through his continuation of a Heideggerian dichotomy: ready-at-hand  invisibility and present-at-hand  cloakedness. (I have promised to leave off this critique so I will only stay at its specific surface here.) Under Harman’s interpretation of Heidegger the invisibility of working tool-beings carries the purity of object essences, their very whiteness (what he terms as “retreat”), while the colored cloak of “presence” necessarily occludes by virtue of its very shaded deception that invisible white. It is enough to point out that the projections of magical powers of inter-connectivity upon the East did not begin with German Idealism, but as is well known, but in the rough cut of Western culture with the Greeks. Phrygia and the surrounding areas passing all the way to Persia embodied the feminizing dangers of excessive wealth, sensuality and deceptively intricate skill (and it is not without coincidence that the entire Amazonian inversion of Athenian society was projected to the shores of the Black Sea). This is not to lessen the idealizations of wisdom and wealth to the South, Egypt and Africa. Eastern projections, orientalizations, are as old as Western civilization as it is classically conceived.

So as metaphysics proper, as a certain kind of study of the the idea of the Same and the Different, Unitary and Multiple, takes its main root from Greek Society, upon which there can only be a partial mapping of a Anglo-Germanic notions of purity of essence, there is the duty of the tracking of the concept. When taking European metaphysics in hand, one has to ask the cultural question, in tracing the dichotomy of Greek Same-Harmonious/Variegated-Dangerous onto a largely invisible/visible, How White is Metaphysics itself? Can one currently metaphysize upon primary binaries of same/different within a primary optical metaphor of invisible/colored and not be caught up in the historical contrast between white/colored?

From Intrication to Shaded Color

The question otherness as variegation or coloredness is complex for Greek society, for their divisions of Same and Different did not meet the same racial and necessarily optical categories that have been privleged in modern European thought since the 17th century. As I have mentioned, for the Greek there is an emphasis on manifestation, but it is not so much as optical manifestation as a kind of textiled conception of plexity. The world is in a way woven together of elements, forces, powers, and even the Platonic notion of forms is misunderstood if it is only conceived of optically as invisible or hiddenly white. Those modern Europeans for instance were the recievers of a image of the Greek which did not realize that the Parthenon was painted. The plain Greek marble forms were not the full expression of their art. The painted Greek was something that the 19th century wonderful and brilliant Gottfried Semper finally told only to dulled ears.


So when German Idealists pursued the white invisibles of pure Greek perception, they were handicapped in a sense. Not only did they have a historically incorrect view of Ancient Greek concepts of whiteness and form (so prevalent and enchanting are those stripped-away statues and columns, weathered of their colored “accidents” which a Classicists imagined were never there), but the pure, white receding essence of things had to be also discerned within a cultural context imbued with valuations of color which were much more over-determined than any in the Greek city state. The confusions of color, variegation and pattern now had become more shaded. There was the Asian, the Moor, the Jew, the New World Indian; and each of these skins themselves were reconstructed by European poltical and economic dealings. This being admitted, the question remains. Are our own metaphysics spun from the categories of European metaphysics not caught in the very white/colored ethnic projections which include those euphanic eroticizing ones of Eastern idealization (their sensuality, interconnectivity, wisdom, attachments, transgressive gender forms, connection to the world); and are not these concepts additionally polarized by the often suppressed animalizing real of the concept “black”? Did not the 17th century’s rise of black slavery in historical terms re-mark what foreign and mediating color meant in severe economic and ideological terms such that mediations on opticality necessarily carry with them include mediations on race and color?

I am interested in this because I do see how Heidegger’s metaphysics (and its attachments to the East) embody a possibly virulent white/colored dichotomy, [ The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman) ];  and thus I weigh criticism against all philosophies derived from Heidegger’s essential optical terms (including Graham Harman’s as I have outlined here and here). But still, I am an appreciator of metaphysics, and in particular that of the philosophy of Spinoza, and so I am curious as to how closely we can press this criticism to others of the modern metaphysics family.

I have said in the past the I find strong correlates between Heidegger and Spinoza, and that Substance in the latter speaks to Being in the former. Is Spinoza’s unity of Substance, its very invisibility like Heidegger’s, an invisibility of whiteness, an essential whiteness which lies behind colored deception?

The question of white and colored is an interesting one for Spinoza. As someone like Graham Harman would like to make the sensuous, interconnecting, enwealthed kinds, to be kinds of mediation, the 17th century Sephardim Jew serves as quite a likely fantasy space for just such a projection. The Jew, newly freed from really centuries of Inquisitional brutality at the hands of the Spanish, families having hidden within the Christian world as converted merchants, now became the ultimate vicarious mediators of European economics. And Spinoza’s family was part of an epicenter of growing Jewish commercial wealth, his father for a time a very prominent merchant of some standing in the community of Sephardim, who bore their Spanish/Moorish stain in the shade of their skin. It was the un-Christian Jew as the licentious, greedy other, the dirty human oil that helped the rising capitalist machine work. Long had they performed the marginal act of interest-charging usary, the unsaintly making of money on money, something out of nothing but relations. Come from such a mediating people and a merchant family, does Spinoza’s metaphysics also work with bias against the mediation of the colored and varigated? 

Spinoza’s metaphysics certainly keeps to a notion of the Imaginary which is marked by its confusing conflations of images and traces. The colored world of pictures for Spinoza certainly was a beguiling one, one that tricks you into not seeing the true causes of things. But we should temper; it was not so much for Spinoza that very the concrete complexity of the modal world was deceptive or dangerous, but rather that the profusion of inner imaginary associations that defrauded the “eyes of the mind” of greater power and self-determination.

Spinoza and Slavery

The question of color for Spinoza and his time is historically not that simple. In the 17th century not yet has “black” come to embody and polarize “white” such that all deviations from White became aspects of Blackness. Black was still “African” or “Ethiopian” and not yet a pure category, which does not mean that there was not an active white/colored binary informing social and economic structures. This complexity of color can be seen in the question of the role of Jews in the black slave trade, especially as it began to rise almost exponentially in the sugar trade, something the Jews of Amsterdam were thoroughly invested in. There is a notable historical absence of evidence of the direct involvement of Sephardim Jews in the Slave trade, but they were intimately involved the entire economic processes which relied upon it [ Spinoza Doubt? The Sephardim and the Slave Trade; Evidence for connection of the Spinoza family to the Sugar TradeSpinoza Sugar Time Table; The Hope of Israel, and What Spinoza Means by the “Ethiopian” ]. Was this relative abstention of contact with black and indigenous slave trade the respect the otherwise persecuted Jews had for people of color, or is it a sign of their careful buffering through New Christians. It seems history does not know. So there is no clear way to position the 17th century Amsterdam Jew within the white/colored dichotomy that was developing [Spinoza and the Caliban Question ]. In any case the question of clarity and invisibleness had not yet reached a polarizing limit, one in which black and white formed an entire spectrum of opacity and color.

So when investigating Spinoza’s metaphysics in terms of social color we are left without a solid place to stand. His family was likely involved in the sugar trade (a central investment of the Amsterdam Sephardim community), and it may have even been that trade that drove him to the pursuit of metaphysics and lenses (see, the collapse of the Recife colony). Both his brother and sister both later in life moved to Caribbean locals dominated by slave production. But, Spinoza was an excommunicate of his own Amsterdam Jewery; they were forbidden to even stand under the same roof as him. So he was twice removed from the “white” of Same.

Yet, this does not make him immune to the critique that metaphysics of invisible essence embody white/colored social dichotomies. In fact his ostricization may have further propelled him towards the dichotomy’s perfection, as he sought in letters to make himself a citizen of the world, quietly championing a radical democracy of freedoms. His ultimate appeal to the Same of Substance is difficult to assess. But it is notable that he very seldom appeals to metaphors of optical clarity or even to light itself, despite the naturalness of such an appeal. Not only was he a lens grinder and an telescope maker, but the Spiritual Collegiants with whom he had connections regularly used the trope of the light of God to forward their unitarian views. For some reason Spinoza found optical metaphors (in fact all metaphors) misleading. He wanted to speak of how things were, not what they were like, and even the notion of “hiddenness” was unhelpful. He even moved from Descartes’ optically inspired “clear and distinct” rather quickly, wanting to focus on bodily experiences of power and Joy, and the concrete connections between things and ideas. It was all of the body that had to be pulled into view, and not just its eyes. For this reason Spinoza’s is a philosophy of proximity I believe. Nothing is distant.

It is really this reluctance of Spinoza to engage in optical metaphors as the primary means for getting to the radical non-human truth of things that I believe keeps him from falling into the problematic of Same = White. Because most things in the world (objects) do not possess a visual cortex, while optical might make a good rhetorical/conceptual base for a metaphysics of purely a human realm like Heidegger’s, it is hopelessly distorting when trying to describe the dyanamic realities of things that cannot see. Once the colored veil is fully employed, historical notions of color find their anchor point. For the Greeks the notions of freedom and of color were not so determinatively overcoded, even for the Romans, and one might argue even for the 17th century (though I cannot help but see something quite “White” in Leibniz’s foundational reflective monads and his vision of universal rationality in response to the threats of democracy: Leibniz’ “optical” Response to the Theologico-Political Treatise ).

Further, insofar as Spinoza does accept a colored veil of confused “imaginary knowledge” he explicitly does not privilege this of foreign peoples, but sees it as explicitly constructive of the Jewish Nation, not to mention modern European society. The layering of the colored is a question of degree and isn’t one of mediation really. The colored complications of concrete manifestation and our imaginary states are the full-figured expression of God and Substance. Totality expressing itself to its limit. In this way Spinoza is much more in the “distaff tradition” (if I recall the Deleuzian term correctly), the tradition of weaving rather than of appearance.

Indeed it is the entire “veil of ideas” tradition that Idealism took up – carried on through Malebranche’s interpretation of Descartes, and then Reid’s of the same, that came to treat the opticality of ideas (or their phenomenal apperception) as object mediations between the self and the world. This approach to mental objects makes of actions of our minds an intermediary thing which might or might not pass us through to the world.

Distinct from this object-orientation, it is said that the very form of the Parthenon, its high lintel above subtly weightless columns, was readily understood by any Greek in the city to be of the form of the woman’s loom that dominated each and every hearth of the home. Perhaps it with this conception we should consider the internal play of colors and light, understanding that our mental actions not only knot and unknot things in the world, but also are cross-knottings themselves, expressions of the loom we find ourselves in.


Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic

The Gleam of Gold and the Pasha of Causation

Graham was generous enough a spirit to take my cultural criticism of his metaphysics at a distance, and to allow my commentary to largely remain at the level of theory. In my last two posts, The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman), and then The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert I attempted to lay out the bare bones theoretical framework for such a critique, along lines of an essential “invisible but working” and “visible but broken” dichotomy, buried at the heart of Heidegger; and then, stretching into example, to show that the very words, metaphors and topics of Graham’s characterizations of the realm of “sensuous objects” bore a significant resemblance to the Orientalizing descriptions of North Africa, offered by Gustave Flaubert, an author that Graham has strong resistence to, due to his Orientalization of the land of Egypt. My point was that Graham’s Heideggerian and Husserlian essentializations, and in particular his use of them, carry with them a, perhaps historically unconscious, colonialist white/colored dichotomy which operates through much of our social stereotypes of the East and the Exotic, positioning these sensuous “essences” in a problematic role opposite necessarily retreating invisible essences (especially when one buries them in the heart of a universal theory of causation).

This was his response to the offered critique. He at first dismisses it, bluntly, and honestly, but then makes some important and debatable points:

I don’t think much of the connection, to be blunt. But there’s a certain beauty to the post, with its commentary on hilarious phrases that I’d forgotten I’d even written (“like streamers on a maypole or jewels on a houka”) and the always stunning wealth of illustration that is part of Kevin’s package in every post.

But no, I don’t see why binaries or hiddenness lead to orientalism in the bad sense. They do lead to orientalism in the sense of exoticism, and I do love the exotic. But you have to remember that I don’t think you need to be around non-white peoples to get the exotic. You can already get it from a cheap hammer withdrawing into its subterranean tool-effect in places like Logan, Utah and Waterloo, Iowa. I didn’t have to come to Egypt to get that sort of concealment.

Incidentally, I am made very suspicious by the fact that it’s almost always Westerners who accuse people of Orientalism. I’ve never been accused of this by an Egyptian (nor even a Westerner before Kevin). The West loves to accuse itself of horrible, apocalyptic crimes, but isn’t it clear that this is just the flip side of patriotic hubris? It’s a way of making the West a privileged term by saying “if we’re not the best, then we must be the worst.” And when people call themselves the worst at anything, it’s usually a way of fishing for compliments. (source here)

I have to say first off that I cherish the way that Graham is able to laugh at himself, especially when aspects of his old writing are brought back to haunt him. This is a golden capacity. Graham’s prodigious use of metaphor in his metaphysics is something that he savors. I recall him in a recent post being resolutely unapologetic for his metaphors, saying something of the sort, “Should I apologize for writing well?” (it made me genuinely smile). So to have your own metaphors turned against you, or exposed as a kind of “bad writing” (which I don’t really see them as), can’t be all that pleasant. But it is exactly to his metaphors that one is forced to turn. In part, because he uses them profusely, and in part because he leverages his entire theory upon metaphorization itself, folding his style into his content. If the strength of his theory is metaphorical, so there it must be tested.

And it was exactly his metaphorically charged synthesis of the objects of Husserl and Heidegger which exposed for me that hidden cultural, colonialist dichotomy to be found in Heidegger’s invisible-white/colored, working/broken, sense of the world. It wasn’t until Graham started talking about the sensuousness of the Intentional Object world in terms that were to my ear quite tribal and orientializing that the full picture came into view. There remains the larger question of whether Heidegger or Husserl fall to this critique (I believe that in the very least Heidegger does), but Graham Harman’s unique product from the thinking of these two seems specifically organized around a orientalizing projection. One might say that it makes up its allure.

“Good” Orientalism and the Money Changer

But I’d like to take up, anew, his appeal to the exotic through binarism. (I did post a response to his commentary which I will follow to some degree, found again here). He says, quoting from above,

“I don’t see why binaries or hiddenness lead to orientalism in the bad sense. They do lead to orientalism in the sense of exoticism, and I do love the exotic.”

It strikes me that though he explicitly denies my point in the first part, not seeing the “connection” I am making, he apparently does see that there is a connection. Binaries which emphasize hiddenness do  lead to orientalism, just not the “bad” kind of orientalism. This confuses me a bit for a variety of reasons. The first is the seeming outright contradiction (I see no connection, then I see a connection), but secondly as I pointed out in my response, he feels that there is a good kind of orientialism, ignoring the obvious tendency of “good” essentializations of peoples to flip themselves into “bad” essentialization. As I wrote in response, I am forced to state some rather obvious social facts, how a positive “exotic” quickly becomes the basis for a negative “exotic”:

One may eroticize the American Indian, and see them as spiritually attuned to Nature, but this too can animalize them, and make them unfit for self-determination, or in need of Salvation. One can see how great the American Black dances, how much rhythm they have and “cool” they are, and also realize by virtue of this, you really wouldn’t want them in charge of your money market fund.

Is this fair? Is Graham really stating that there are positive exoticizations of persons and cultures but remaining blind to the shadow of such a process? To take a historical example, does he not see that the exoticness of the Jew allowed him to historically stand outside of Christian law in a nether world, and make money through the otherwise un-Christian charging of interest? Is not the “Jew” (and there are so many other kinds of historical examples), an ideal model for Graham’s internalized, mediating Orientalization, becoming in the 16th and 17th centuries the very exo-teric mediating form for Capitalized growth? There is that spectacular story of how in Spinoza’s lifetime English royalty – I’ve forgotten which – had to literally come to the Jewish Ghetto in Amsterdam to secure funds to continue the war. How ex-otic. Talk about Vicarious Causation. And where does the “positive” of this binarization of the exotic stop? When does “they are so good at communications, calculations, accumulations” becomes “they want to rape our women, blaspheme our God, overturn our government”? These are obvious inversions, but I have to raise them if only to understand just how Graham imagines the fully positive role the exotic plays in the world (and I do believe that it does have a positive role). I love the exotic too. One just must realize something of the freight that gets carried with exotic, what processes are involved.

Veiled Whiteness and the Working Tool

Graham rightfully stresses that his notion of the exotic necessarily must be found not only in Bejing, but also in Logan, Utah:

You can already get it from a cheap hammer withdrawing into its subterranean tool-effect in places like Logan, Utah and Waterloo, Iowa. I didn’t have to come to Egypt to get that sort of concealment.

This is certainly an important aspect of his theory (but notably he spends little rhetorical time speaking in such terms to put forth the power of his descriptions). He, even more than his predecessor, wants to get away from actual tools and actual craftsman as fast as possible. Tool use is much more a launchpad for a great binarizing abstraction. And as I argued in Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr, if one paid attention to actually tool and instrument use, and were not governed by such optical metaphors as “hidden” and “veiled” and “invisible” one might end up with a very different metaphysical sense of the world. Rather, because Graham starts with Heidegger’s optically driven rhetoric of objects, he is already caught up in an invisible/colored dynamic, one which provides a near magnetic attraction for colonialist projections of “other” peoples. As I have tried to put forth, the very characterizations of sensuous objects, their properties and difficulties, are racially conditioned. This does not make them unvaluable, but it can make them entreching of binaries better left aside, something to be watched and tested. (And it does put political critique high on the agenda of such an otherwise to be assumed, apolitical ontology).

Because Graham’s comments were no doubt off-hand, I do not have a clear sense of the full grounding of the positive binarization which produces the exotic as solely “good”. Nor can I separate out his own writing, rich with orientializing rhetoric and conception, from that of Flaubert’s Salammbo, to which I draw explicit comparison? Is not Flaubert engaging in the very same “positive” orientalizations of the exotic as Graham suggests result from binarization? Is there a way to separate these out? I am unsure if Graham is denying that his theory is an Orientalizing one, or if he is simply saying that it is Orientalizing, but only in the Good Sense.

The inevitable question of Graham’s biography comes forward. There is the sense that if Graham’s theory orientalizes, then he is an orientalizer? He lives and teaches in a country he truly loves, Egypt. And has come to find his homeland of America more exotic than he does Cairo. I think it important to parse the man from the theory, in part because it is very hard, and actually unfair to critique a man, though much easier and fair to do so to a theory. (Not to mention, Graham seems like the more integrity-laden and intellectually generous of fellows.) Additionally though, I believe we all carry with us into our thinking the opposite for which we might otherwise stand, an importation that actually drives the creative process forward, such that work then allows the occasion to (perhaps unconsciously) engage with the material one objects to, to a give it a place. And as I have said, the importation of the orientalizing exotic in Graham’s theory actually may give us too a means for processing and forwarding the appeal of these rhetorical terms, the very “stuff” of his theory. Personally  I would rather work from different metaphors than those of visual color and hiddenness, especially when we are trying to describe a world beyond merely human conception such as Graham is attempting to do. But if one does engage in the exotic as a means of metaphysics, metaphors of color, wealth, vicars and all the jewels of perception, one should do so consciously, in full critique.

In answer to that path, I believe that when Heidegger begins with a principle trope of invisibility he is partaking in a cultural sense of Whiteness (one that he traces to a perceived whiteness of Greece). And when presencing works to coloredly veil the real being of something, this coloredness inevitably is caught up in the cultural dynamics of skin color and projections of the exotic. It is by the virtue of a primary optical conception of the mind and being that questions of color and visibility occur, and one cannot really separate out questions of color from cultural projections of color. In the 17th century these indeed occurred in a variety of shades and stereotypical fashions. The shade of one’s skin gave it a certain sensuous inner character, and the Asian, the Semite, the Moor, the New World Indian, all had their own internal and exotic qualities. But we also have to stay aware that these shadings which obscured pure and transparent white became entirely polarized by the enslavement of the “black”, particularly for the American consciousness, which re-inscribed the existing invisible/colored binary with an entrenching human limit. “Black” the opposite of “white” became the touchstone of what shading meant. In my opinion all optical metaphors of consciousness have to pass through the historical sieve of how color has been conceived in human beings. And any metaphysics that simply ignores this risks simply re-establishing the radical means by which it is carried out. Part of the satisfactions of the Continental school flat ontologies, ones that refuse a hidden and transparent essence, those of the kind that Graham and I both have some dissatisfaction, is that they have freed themselves to some degree from this white/colored optical projection, and have turned to new metaphors that do not carry so much unconscious and historically brutalizing baggage. Instead of invisible/colored, there are mechanisms, structures, genetic virtuals, networks, intensiities, layers, molarities, planes, etc., etc, etc. 

I do not feel that the recognition of severe cultural mistakes, the way that we have violated some of our most cherished values, is necessarily a kind of “patriotic hubris” as Graham puts it, or even the “fishing for compliments”, though I can see that this is a possibility. It is much more a question of learning from the past, and recognizing where we went wrong, where we have done things we would all be better off not repeating. And part of this recognition is realizing that otherwise seemingly benign conceptions even in the greatest abstraction helped forward certain social judgments to which they did not seem to be immediately connected. The result of a sensitivity to just this kind of connection is not the humorously self-contradictory slogan “Binaries are Bad”, but rather the idea that binaries, fundamental binaries, should be dug into, thought about, and checked.

The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert

A mix from Salammbo and “On Vicarious Causation”

I recently attempted to draw out the implicit white/colored, colonialist conceptualization that I see in Graham Harman’s rather poetically depicted Object-Oriented Philosophy, in particular of its theory of Vicarious Causation. Further, I tried to point out that Graham actually exhibits in the very core of his concept of the sensuous vicar, much of the Orientalism he resents in Flaubert, and I presume Hölderlin. While this comparison to Flaubert may seem dubious, at least to Graham’s own ear, and rested only on my instinct of comparison, I thought it best to dig a little deeper into it, especially for those who have not read his engaging essay on causation, which can be found here [highly recommended]. I do this digging somewhat hesitantly because I have confirmed respect for Graham as I have encountered him, and he has declared Flaubert “unforgivable” (at least as the author of The Letters From Egypt); and in a vexing moment Graham said he would not think kindly on the man’s grave. Even in hyperbole, such a vehemence is not something to be trifled with. But if Graham’s feelings toward Flaubert are sincere, as I suspect that they are, a comparison is perhaps even more in order. In this service I have extracted some of the most oriental of Graham’s points, which, in order to understand my argument must be taken within the larger critique vicarious mediation itself, contained in the post before this.

Besides these I also place selections from one of Graham’s least favorite writers, Gustav Flaubert, taken from the “historical” novel Salammbo, interestingly enough, the work that most marked the author’s departure from the Realism of Madame Bovary. Aside from these juxtaposed citations which form only loose but instructive correlates, I will also comment when I can on the colonial, or white/colored contrast that seems to be evoked by Graham’s depictions of what is real, in the hope that my argument would become even more textually based. This is not  to say that Graham thinks like Flaubert thought of the Egyptian (or Carthaginian), for at most Flaubert was a surface traveler, and Graham an invested resident (a biographical fact to to be cheated); but rather it is to say that in his conceptualization of binaries, as inherited from Heidegger, and perhaps due to his own place and time in history, Graham’s theory of causation partakes in something distinctly colonial in flavor as he characterizes the properties, powers and role of the vicarious realm. This aptitude toward the foreign is a germ of Idealist, largely White, European thinking, the line from which Graham has come. Perhaps any other orientalizing fictional writer could be chosen beside Flaubert. It is only Graham’s stated resistence to Flaubert, and the association within me that this resistance started that brings this precise  comparison to bear.

Gustav Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert

The Place of the Sensuous Intermediary

Generally, if we assume a colonialist stance of the White on behalf of the “real” but retreating object, we have the distinct analogy of white powers communicating with, and inflicting themselves upon, each other, only through some passive and otherly colored mediary, a vicar from the sensuous realm:

GH: “For as I will contend, objects hide from one another endlessly, and inflict their mutual blows only through some vicar or intermediary.” (189-190)

But, as we seek to get a grasp of things, we must acknowledge that both the most primative or pragmatic of relations do not quite capture the hidden essence of things, the retreating whiteness of them. The scientist and the tribesman is deluded by the colors of its use-perspective, something with which Flaubert roughly agrees:

GH: “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.” (191)

Salammbo: All modes of worship, as well as all races, were to be met with in these armies of Barbarians, and consideration was had to the gods of others, for they too, inspired fear. Many mingled foreign practices with their native religion. It was to no purpose that they did not adore the stars; if a constellation were fatal or helpful, sacrifices were offered to it; an unknown amulet found by chance at a moment of peril became a divinity; or it might be a name and nothing more, which would be repeated without any attempt to understand its meaning. But after pillaging temples, and seeing numbers of nations and slaughters, many ultimately ceased to believe in anything but destiny and death;-and every evening these would fall asleep with the placidity of wild beasts.

Though because all of our real object, transparent states are cut off from each other, as isolated white objects, we must meet each other through the vicarious mediation of a third, something of the sensuous kind, those that lay side by side like entwined slaves in a harem. Yet behind this phenomenal incestual mix lies the retreating essence of an absent object, again, Flaubert assents:

GH: “Whereas real objects withdraw, sensual objects lie directly before us, frosted over with a swirling, superfluous outer shell. But this difference seems to give sensual objects the opposite causal status of real ones. Given that real objects never touch directly, their causal relations can only be vicarious. But sensual objects, far from being withdrawn, exist side by side in the same perceptual space from the outset, since we encounter numerous phenomena simultaneously.” (195)

Salammbo: The plain, which was wholly bounded by mountains, expanded around them. Here and there a palm tree leaned over a sand hill, and pines and oaks flecked the sides of the precipices: sometimes the rain of a storm would hang from the sky like a long scarf, while the country everywhere was still covered with azure and serenity; then a warm wind would drive before it tornadoes of dust, and a stream would descend in cascades from the heights of Sicca, where, with its roofing of gold on its columns of brass, rose the temple of the Carthaginian Venus, the mistress of the land. She seemed to fill it with her soul. In such convulsions of the soil, such alternations of temperature, and such plays of light would she manifest the extravagance of her might with the beauty of her eternal smile. The mountains at their summits were crescent-shaped; others were like women’s bosoms presenting their swelling breasts, and the Barbarians felt a heaviness that was full of delight weighing down their fatigues.”

In such a sensual realm, the problem is actually of over-sensuousness, the tendency to run like colors into each other into a muddy mess. For this reason sensuous objects have to be “buffered” from each other, kept off each other. It is the very precosciousness their sexuality that need to restrained:

GH: “If real objects require vicarious causation, sensual objects endure a buffered causation in which their
interactions are partly dammed or stunted.” (195)

GH: “Sensual objects, by contrast, are so inclined to interact with their neighbors that we wonder why they fail to do so at every instant. In other words, the only place in the cosmos where interactions occur is the sensual, phenomenal realm.” (195)

Sincerely Mining the Black Noise For the Invisible Signal

And when the real white objects do indeed pierce through the veil of richness, the result is incendiary. With timely reference to the unexpected bombs in marketplaces and hotel lobbies, real, planning objects that cannot touch reaching across and “touching” each other through the mediating connectivity of a feeling people:

GH: “The various eruptions of real objects into sensuality lie side by side, buffered from immediate interaction. Something must happen on the sensual plane to allow them to make contact, just as corrosive chemicals lie side by side in a bomb – separated by a thin film eaten away over time, or ruptured by distant signals.” (197)

The sensuous people/kinds are actually composed of their qualities and even their accidents which seem to float about them as if in a halo of “noise”. But this noise tellingly is not the noise of whiteness (the unstructured sound of untuned Western television or radio technology). It is a black noise, due to its very structuring, “buffering”, quality. It mysteriously keeps the sensuous types apart and functioning. Again, Flaubert has a taste for the same thing:

GH: “Finally, the sensual tree never appears in the form of a naked essence, but is always encrusted with various sorts of noise. Elsewhere I have called it ‘black noise’, to emphasize that it is highly structured, not the sort of formless chaos suggested by the ‘white noise’ of television and radio.” (198)

Salammbo: A noisy throng of people filled the streets from morning to evening; boys shaking bells, cried at the doors of baths; steam rose from hot drink stalls, the air resounded with the din of anvils, white cocks sacred to the Sun crowed on terraces, oxen bellowed in their temples as they were butchered, slaves ran carrying baskets on their heads; and in the depths of a portico appeared a priest, draped in a dark mantel, barefoot, and with a pointed hat.”

In a colonialist light, Graham draws on the mining metaphor as ideal of causation. Real, transparent objects have to tunnel into the rich sensuous earth in shafts, and draw out the freight of the connection. These contact-starved objects have to almost parasitically draw on the wealth of the intimacies of the colored world:

GH: “In seventeenth-century terms, the side-by-side proximity of real and sensual objects is merely the occasion for a connection between a real object inside the intention and another real object lying outside it. In this way, shafts or freight tunnels are constructed between objects that otherwise remain quarantined in private vacuums.” (201) 

And in keeping with the Orientalist flavor, the mere intentionality of real objects, the way that they are able to hone in on definite sensuous objects with what Graham calls “sincerity” is itself an austerity of Asian source, absorbed into its very contemplation:

GH: “For instance, I may be sincerely absorbed in contemplating glass marbles arranged on the surface of a table. This is my sincerity at the moment, since I forego other possibilities of greater and lesser import to witness this austere, Zen-like spectacle.” (205)

But despite the colonialist rhetoric and conception, Graham denies both the banality of pure white exploitation, making a grey mud of the mined third world, or even the “sexiness” of a fixed melodrama cast against that background. Instead it is an eruptive field of white and colored intermixtures, of cold objects and their warm though foreign intermediaries. The world is shot through with post-colonial shiftings and residues. And here Flaubert too sees the vivacity of sensuous people stirred (wow, one can almost see the conflation of the romantic European traveling through Greecian fragmented cult temple islands, and the modern Westerner threatened by the unpredictable human-bomb, epiphanically Delphic/Al Qaedic, Classical Terror):

GH: “The world is neither a grey matrix of objective elements, nor raw material for a sexy human drama projected onto gravel and sludge. Instead, it  is filled with points of reality woven together only loosely: an archipelago of oracles or bombs that explode from concealment only to generate new sequestered temples.” (211-212)

Salammbo: There were people in the square of Khamon shouting for arms. The Ancients would not provide them, esteeming such an effort useless; others who had set out without a general had been massacred. At last they were permitted to depart, and as a sort of homage to Moloch, or from a vague need of destruction, they tore up tall cypress trees in the woods of the temples, and having kindled them at the torches of the Kabiri, were carrying them through the streets singing. These monstrous flames advanced swaying gently; they transmitted fires to the glass balls on the crests of the temples, to the ornaments of the colossuses and the beaks of the ships, passed beyond the terraces and formed suns as it were, which rolled through the town. They descended the Acropolis. The gate of Malqua opened.”

But within our inner sensous field, our inner and tribal primitive, we search for the lost transparent object on the other side, much as how Hölderlin speaks of  “Fernahnend mit/Dem andern” (sensing-distant with another) as I mentioned in my last post. All of our orientalized inner realm sparkles with but the hints of what lies beyond. And Flaubert too feels this with passion, as he describes the tele-communication of Salammbo to her distant father:

GH: “In the sensual realm, we encounter objects encrusted with noisy accidents and relations. We may also be explicitly aware of some of their essential qualities, though any such list merely transforms the qualities into something accident-like, and fails to give us the unified bond that makes the sensual thing a single thing. Instead, we need an experience in which the sensual object is severed from its joint unified quality, since this will point for the first time to a real object lying beneath the single quality on the surface.” (215)

Salammbo: She did not know what was happening to Hamilcar [her father]. At last, weary of her thoughts, she got up, dragging her small sandals, with the sole clapping against her heel at every step, she walked at random about the great and silent room. The amethysts and topazes of the ceiling made made quivering patches of light here and there, as she walked Salammbo turned her head a little to see them.She would go and take the hanging amphoras by the neck; she would cool her bosom beneath the broad fans, or perhaps amuse herself by burning cinnamomum in hollow pearls. At sunset Taanach would draw back the black felt lozenges that closed the openings in the wall; then her doves, rubbed with musk like the doves of Tanith, suddenly entered, and their pink feet glided over the glass pavement, amid the grains of barley which she threw to them in handfuls like a sower in a field. But on a sudden she would burst into sobs and lie stretched on the large bed of ox-leather straps without moving, repeating a word that was ever the same, with open eyes, pale as one dead, insensible, cold; and yet she could hear the cries of the apes in the tufts of the palm trees, with the continuous grinding of the great wheel which brought a flow of pure water through the stories into the porphyry centre-basin.” 

GH: “In instances of beauty, an object is not the sum total of beautiful colors and proportions on its surface, but a kind of soul animating the features from within, leading to vertigo or even hypnosis in the witness.” (216)

Salammbo: He felt very near to the subterranean deities. It was as the joy of one of the Kabiri; and the great luminous rays striking upon his face looked like the extremity of an invisible net linking him across the abysses with the centre of the world.”

Yet, in this sensuous realm, the realm of the colored, it is the autonomous, need we say White, agent, he that holds court over all these undisciplined types. Over the local customs and their disputes is the law of the subject which trumps all appeals of those types:

GH: “Different sensual objects within the same intention are described as contiguous; they do not melt together, but are treated by the intentional agent as distinct, and this agent is the final court of appeal in the sensual realm.” (217)

Any connection between white objects is enabled solely through the principle of allure, illustrations of which either come from Germany’s pagan past, or the Middle Eastern traditional indulgences of tobacco or cannabis. But is not the object itself, but merely the thing that dangles from or sticks on the eastern “thing” that catches the westerner’s eyes:

GH: “Accidents alone have the dual status of belonging and not belonging to an object, like streamers on a maypole, or jewels on a houka. Accidents are tempting hooks protruding from the sensual object, allowing it the chance to connect with others and thereby fuse two into one.” (218)

Only by becoming sensuous in some fashion does the white object actually bring real causation into being. It must brush and stir the inside of another white object. It must become oriental…tele-kinetically.

GH: “I make contact with another object, not through impossible contact with its interior life, but only by brushing its surface in such a manner as to bring its inner life into play. Just as only the opposite poles of magnets make contact, and just as the opposite sexes alone are fertile, it is also the case that two objects of the same type do not directly touch one another.” (219-220)

But one must not become too indulgent, lost in one’s own eastern driftings. Other real, white objects must be brought into the dulled opium phantasm. One must receive the distant transparent signals. This after all is the need for the sensuous kinds to be cultivated in some sense, to bring their overly connected types into some kind of real connection, real order. Much in the same way Flaubert describes the march of the Barbarians into Carthaginian civility, the inventions of the wisdom of received distant signals:

GH: “But in the case of real objects, the only way to touch a real one without touching it is through allure. Only here do we escape the deadlock of merely rolling about in the perfumes of sensual things, and encounter qualities belonging to a distant signalling thing rather than a carnally present one. The only way to bring real objects into the sensual sphere is to reconfigure sensual objects in such a way that they no longer merely fuse into a new one, as parts into a whole, but rather become animated by allusion to a deeper power lying beyond: a real object.” (220) 

Salammbo: On the following day the Barbarian’s passed through a region that was covered with cultivation. The domains of the patricians succeeded one another along the border of the route; channels of water flowed through woods of palm; there were long, green lines of olive-trees; rose-coloured vapours floated in the gorges of the hills, while blue mountains reared themselves behind. A warm wind was blowing. Chameleons were crawling on the broad leaves of the cactus.

The Barbarians slackened their speed.

They marched on in isolated detachments, or lagged behind one another at long intervals. They ate grapes along the margin of the vines. They lay on the grass and gazed with stupefaction upon the large, artificially twisted horns of the oxen, the sheep clothed with skins to protect their wool, the furrows crossing one another so as to form lozenges, and the ploughshares like ships’ anchors, with the pomegranate trees that were watered with silphium. Such wealth of the soil and such inventions of wisdom dazzled them.

[A response from Graham and my commentary found here: Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic ]