Thursday, December 15, 2011

On Vicarious Causation

image borrowed from bing

“On Vicarious Causation”

Mindless atoms and billiard balls.
Autistic moonbeams entering the window
of an asylum.

Fire and cotton.
A hailstorm smashes vineyards,
or sends waves through a pond.

Human consciousness
is on exactly the same footing
as the duel between
canaries, microbes, earthquakes, atoms, and tar.

Resume the offensive by reversing
our curfew in an ever-tinier ghetto
of solely human realities:
language, texts, political power.

Mailboxes, hammers, cigarettes, and silk garments.
We need an everyday relationship with leopards or acids
before staring at them
or developing a science of them.

Yet 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.

Dogs do not make contact
with the full reality of bones,
and neither do locusts with cornstalks,
viruses with cells,
rocks with windows,
nor planets with moons.

A strange new realism
in which entities flicker vaguely
from the ocean floor:
trees, mailboxes, airplanes, and skeletons
lie spread before us.
Real zebras and lighthouses
withdraw from direct access.

Corrosive chemicals lie side by side in a bomb –
separated by a thin film eaten away over time,
or ruptured by distant signals.

We are always conscious of something,
always focused on a particular house, pine tree,
beach ball, or star.
The pine tree stands in relation
to neighboring trees, mountains, deer, rabbits,
clouds of mist.

How do sensual objects manage to couple and uncouple
like spectral rail cars?
A metaphysics of artworks, the psyche, and language,
and even of restaurants, mammals, planets, teahouses,
and sports leagues.
Philosophy clearly differs from activities
such as singing and gambling.

I may be sincerely absorbed
in contemplating glass marbles
arranged on the surface of a table:
this austere, Zen-like spectacle.
The glass marbles themselves
are sincerely absorbed in sitting on the table,
rather than melting in a furnace
or hurtling through a mineshaft.
The marbles are sincerely absorbed with sensual objects.

If we carefully frame the marbles
with bookends or melted wax,
if we heat the tabletop,
or render its surface sticky or granulated
by pouring different materials nearby,
the final question is whether the marbles
can make a distinction
between the table and
its hardness, levelness, solidity,
and lack of perforation.

We do not step beyond anything,
but are more like moles
tunneling through wind, water, and ideas
no less than through speech-acts, texts,
anxiety, wonder, and dirt.
We do not transcend the world, but only descend
or burrow towards its numberless underground cavities –
each a sort of kaleidoscope
where sensual objects spread their colours
and their wings.

Human mortality is just
one tragic event among trillions of others,
including the deaths of house pets, insects,
stars, civilizations,
and poorly managed shops or universities.

An archipelago of oracles or bombs
explode from concealment
only to generate new sequestered temples.
New objects, however, are the sole and sacred fruit
of writers, thinkers, politicians, travelers, lovers,
and inventors.

Until now, aesthetics
has generally served as
the impoverished dancing-girl of philosophy–
no gentleman would marry her,
but all admire her charms.

Graham Harman

Posted over on Poems and Poetics

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