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Some Guerrilla Metaphysics

March 31, 2013

But in addition to being charmed by objects, we ourselves want to emulate them, and wish to charm the world. It is simply not the case that our fundamental wish is to be viewed as dignified thinking free subjects with a chance to speak at the microphone of the universal assembly. This opportunity is certainly preferable to being a war casualty or a slave, but it does not yet say enough about what it is we want the microphone to do for our voices. The kind of recognition we would prefer is always far more specific, since we often feel ourselves to be so painfully mutable that any specific role will do — the friendly one, the one who cooks, the exotic traveler, the one who sings like Caruso, or just the one who likes to be spoken to in such-and-such a way and not another. The one book that all of us would approach with greatest interest, that no human in history would be able to resist opening, would be a book of anecdotes about ourselves as told by other people. The appeal of such a book would lie not in some sort of grotesque human vanity, but in our wish to be something definite, a desire at least as our urge to be free. There is a profound need to escape the apparently infinite flexible subjectivity within, which feels far more amorphous to us than to anyone else.

Contrary to the usual view, what we really want is to be objects — not as means to an end like paper or oil, but in the sense that we want to be like the Grand Canyon or a guitar hero or a piece of silver: distinct forces to be reckoned with. No one really wants to be a Cartesian subject, but everyone would love to be some version of Isis, Odysseus, Aquaman, Legolas, or Cordelia. While none of us wishes to be a slave, tool, or object of ridicule, we would rather be charmed or charming than be free, as our actions consistently show: we take out large mortgages to buy huts in the forest or the seaside, or we trade our freedom to follow one unique person — and not always mistakenly. We may sacrifice years to thankless study in order to hunt some golden unicorn glimpsed one day in the library, even though it may never enter our grasp and no one else may even believe that we ever saw it. Freedom itself is never an absolute good, and is often a troubling void filled with addiction, hopelessness, confusion, or fantasies of triumph and revenge. By contrast, all great styles charm us even if they deliver us to bondage in repulsive places, whether these be libertine dungeons, Nibelung underworlds, fields of chemical warfare, or outright slaughterhouses.

Along with charm goes the closely allied experience of courage. Although it may sound paradoxical, courage is one of those moods in which we treat ourselves less as free subjects than as objects. To perform a courageous act is not to behave as a free transcendent self thrown out into nothingness: such a self is far too amorphous to stand for anything in particular. Rather, the unshakable core of courage inside you is simply the character in you that does not change, that stands for something, and that would rather be shattered by events  than reconcile itself to any shameful compromise. I am courageous not as a thinking subject, but as the valiant leader or the tough-as-nails bastard that others always knew me to be.

–From Guerrilla Metaphysics (p. 140-41) , by Graham Harman

Back in 2005 I pulled out this book from the new books shelf at Alderman Library, intrigued by the title. Somehow I never did get around to reading the whole thing, but I found certain parts of it fascinating, none more so than this passage. In his charmingly eccentric way, Harman is expressing a truth that I knew, and that I needed, but that had never been articulated to me before. It is a fine experiences in life, to come across words that do that for you.

I cherish this passage as a useful corrective. In our high-minded moral and political thinking we tend toward thin abstraction, and what is meant as an elevated consideration of human life ends up being reductive and empty. We too easily neglect the obstinate particularity that is our truth and our desire as we attempt to gain some mastery of our position and open the way to a utopian hope. Utopia is a wan and fartless place, and no bodied soul could ever find a home there. Any serious reflection on the human good must recognize people as “distinct forces to be reckoned with.” This makes things difficult and messy, but there is no way around that. It’s just the price of reality.

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