Thursday, November 12, 2009

Allusion and Influence: How to Say and Do Something Without Having to Say or Do It

In Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics Kant argues that:

On the contrary, I say that as objects of our senses existing outside us are given, but we know nothing of what they may be in themselves, knowing only their appearances, i.e., the representations which they cause in us by affecting our senses. Consequently, I grant by all means that there are bodies without us, that is, things in themselves, we yet know by the representations which their influence on our sensibility procures us, and which we call bodies. This word merely means the appearance of the thing, which is the unknown to us but is not therefore less real. Can this be termed idealism? It is the very contrary. (298 - pg.33).

In Prince of Networks Harman states:

When the hammer surprises us with its breakdown, the exact character of this surprise can admittedly be described by various predicates. But note that ‘surprise’ is only the phenomenal result of the previously concealed hammer. The veiled, underground hammer cannot be identified with the surprises it generates, since these merely allude to its existence. (Allusion and allure are legitimate forms of knowledge, but irreducible to specific predicates.) (225)

And in a recent blog post he gives us another statement on allusion:

The point is that you don’t just have the options of saying something or not saying it. There is also a way of saying something without saying it: we allude to it. The same is true of thinking: it is quite easy to think of something without thinking it in the full-blown sense: “The tree that exists outside thought” is such a case. Here, I allude to the tree. As Levi wonderfully put it earlier this fall, my inability to “know” the tree in the full sense is turned from an obstacle to realism and metaphysics into the very condition of it.

For Kenneth Burke in Grammar of Motives, on the crossing over the gap between the phenomenal and noumenal realms:

The thinkable but unknowable noumenal realm, then, was taken [by Kant] as the ground of the phenomenal realm. But we slid over a Grammatical embarrassment. If the phenomenal is the realm of relationships, and the noumenal is the realm of the things-in-themselves (i.e., without relationships), just how could there be a bond between the two realms? … Kant compromised a weasel word, saying that the noumenal “influences” the phenomenal. (198).

My question is, then, what's the point for rhetoric? Isn't allusion just another "weasel word"? If we can't ever know objects by way of language and objects never fully let themselves appear in the first place, what's left? To speculate? On what? To allude to or speak of influences? What for?

Or does this involve the rhetorician becoming a constant mediator? A babbling machine that is always alluding, explicating surprises, and arousing influences? The rhetorician, instead, becomes a stepping stone in the walkway between the thing-in-itself and the language we use to describe it. It seems to me that to practice rhetoric in an object-oriented philosophy is less about persuasion of action, than it is about persuasion of language. To say something without saying it means that we must spend even more time focused in on the words we use, the examples we give, and perhaps objects we choose to discuss - in effect, to bring poetry back into the equation.


  1. You quote Harman asserting that "it is quite easy to think of something without thinking it in the full-flown sense: 'The tree that exists outside thought," is such a case. Here I allude to the tree"

    My first reaction: this is common sense. That's all anyone can do is to think or talk or know about the tree; no one can think/talk/know the tree itself. But I guess that's the point: the tree is something different from my thoughts and speech and knowledge about it. This is surely true also of speculation: I can speculate about the tree, but I cannot speculate the tree itself.

    Does the "aboutness" connect my thought and language and knowledge to the tree itself, or does "aboutness" separate me from the tree? I guess Harman is saying that it's both/and: aboutness conjoins objects to one another at the level of relational properties, but aboutness also separates objects from one another at the level of withdrawn essences. In effect Harman is speculating a realism that's framed in Kantian terms, isn't he?

    In contrast, an empiricist might contend that knowledge-about an object could eventually become complete, with no remainder or permanently withdrawn essence escaping. I.e., knowledge about the tree is knowledge about the tree. Some other variant of SR -- Meillassoux's, for example -- might come up with a speculation about the real that attempts to satisfy the empiricists rather than the Kantians, no?

    Sorry if I'm not thinking specifically about rhetoric here, Nate, but I feel like I'm getting something I didn't get before as a result of your post.

  2. Hey John

    Yes, I think you hit the mark when you say the "aboutness" is a both/and. It's this aboutness that I find incredibly interesting in that it is the point where Harman's objects become uncanny - that is, familiar and unfamiliar simultaneously. For Kant this aboutness was "influence" so that the thing-in-itself never actually touches the phenomenal realm, and for Harman we can only "allude" to the thing-in-itself from the phenomenal realm. Allusion and influence allow for uncanny relations, or relations that "surprise" and horrify. For me this aboutness opens up the argument that words matter - perhaps even more than ever. Maybe this is a way of discussing an "ethics of relations" between objects...just a thought.