I am currently writing an extended response to Graham Harman's book, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, but there are some issues related to Harman's underlying assumptions, assumptions directly related to Object-Oriented Ontology/Speculative Realism, that I also need to think my way through even if I don't take them up directly in the response.
These issues concern Harman's critique of New Criticism, specifically represented by Cleanth Brooks. Harman asserts that Brooks was guilty of what Harman calls the "Taxonomic Fallacy," by which he makes an untenable distinction between literature and the discourse of science and philosophy. "For while it is correct to identify a difference between literal content and the unparaphrasable," writes Harman, "there is no justification for allotting these two structures to two different types of human intellectual pursuits--a division of labor in which philosophy and science would be responsible for literal truths, while literature would handle all the irony and paradox."
No justification? That's an awfully unconditional claim, that no. Isn't it perfectly possible to make an entirely pragmatic justification for holding literature as the human activity devoted to creating verbal artworks specializing in irony and paradox, while philosophy and science are activities hoping to discover "literal truths"? Doesn't some such division of labor actually bring definition to these disparate activities, help to justify using these different terms to identify different goals? Harman notes that philosophy and science are sometimes immersed in irony and paradox, but can't we agree that for the most part these are discourses that hope to avoid them, while literature is the discourse that wants to create them? Of course, in the end there is no final, absolute and categorical justification for separating the literary from the philosophical or scientific, but do we need an absolute, metaphysically sealed justification? I think not, but it seems to me that Harman's statement betrays a desire for it, which makes me think that OOO itself embodies a longing for indisputable truth--and which also fits uneasily with his book's encomia to Lovecraft as a writer who illustrates the "gap" between the real and our experience of it.
At the end of his relatively brief discussion of Brooks, Harman claims that Brooks "falls into the Taxonomic Fallacy twice: the first time by distinguishing falsely between the rhetorical status of literature and other disciplines, and the second time by saying that holism is bad when it reduces the poem to its historical context, but good when it reduces it to an internal context of interrelated meanings." Well, so what? Harman clearly believes he has caught Cleanth Brooks (and thus New Criticism in general) in a contradiction, but is it really that devastating to the principles of New Criticism (formalism more broadly) to say that the first kind of holism is bad and the first kind good? If this approach can make for more satisfying reading of works of literature (which I believe it can, although I have to assume Harman doesn't), what's really wrong with it? It's nicely ironic and paradoxical.