“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Metaphor and the Allure of Objects

I’ve just finished Harman‘s chapters on Metaphor and Humor in Guerrilla Metaphysics. He explores the meaning-making capacities of language and laughter in the hopes that they might help account for how objects are capable of interaction despite their infinite concealment from one another. Through his explorations into Ortega y Gasset‘s ontology of metaphor and Bergson‘s account of humor, Harman develops the concept of allure, which functions as a sort of atom-smasher to reveal the molten core of objects, what he calls their style. Harman marks a difference between normal experience, wherein we habitually assume that an object can be defined by the sum of its properties, and the experience of allurement, wherein “a special sort of interference occurs in the usual relation between a concealed sensual object and its visual symptoms” (p. 150).

In the case of the construction of a metaphor, normal experience leads us to assume that saying “the sky is an ocean” really only means that the sky has qualities (blueness, vastness, etc.) similar to the ocean. But, suggests Harman, this is to reduce a metaphor to a simile, when in reality, what fascinates us about an especially beautiful metaphor is that it brings to our attention a connection between things that are supposed to be separate.

“The result, says Ortega,

“is the annihilation of what both objects are as practical images. When they collide with one another their hard carapaces crack and the internal matter, in a molten state, acquires the softness of plasm, ready to receive a new form and structure” (quoted on p. 107).

In this way, metaphor allows us to allude to the elusive inner core of things, their “I,” as Ortega puts it (which reminds me of how Christopher Alexander describes the I-beings that manifest in certain architectural forms). But the poet cannot actually produce an identity between such things as oceans and skies. The poet is “an audacious liar who claims absolute identity” between different objects, when what has actually been produced is an identification of our feeling for the style of the ocean and the style of the sky. The style or image I have of the sky forms a distinct unity in my experience, as does my image of the ocean. Through the surprise of the metaphor, both these images take on a new formation in my imagination.

“The [ocean] is not only an image sparkling with diverse features, but also a murky underground unity for me, and not just in its inner executant self. And it is from this strange concealed integrity of individual images that metaphor draws its power–not from the genuine reality of each thing, which language is powerless to unveil” (p. 108).

What Harman seems to be saying here, with both his style of writing and the content of his argument, is that an object-oriented view of the world demands a more imaginative view of language that takes metaphor seriously as a form of expression whose meaning cannot be conveyed literally. It is impossible to exhaust the significance of the identification between the ocean and the sky by cataloging the many properties they may share. Something exceeds every attempted reduction of this identification to a list of similar qualities, preserving a good metaphor’s ability to “dig underground into the cryptic life of things” (p. 122).

In short, philosophies of human access seem to have been shackled by simile, comparing properties instead of forging new objects; the return to speculative realism is made possible by the ontologization of metaphor. Normal perception is pushed to the point of a paradigm shift (see p. 152) by alluring objects that forever recede from their appearances. What really makes the concept of allure interesting is Harman’s demand that we

“globalize the rift between a thing and its features, no longer placing it under quarantine at the unique fissure where human meets world, but allowing it to spread throughout the cosmos to account for all interactions, including inanimate ones” (p. 152).

I’ll have to read on to better understand the implications of this more-than-human allure between objects.




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12 responses to “Metaphor and the Allure of Objects”

  1. lacunamusic Avatar

    Beautiful, Matt. I’m in the midst of Cassirer right now, but am reminded by your writing of the immense value of all of humanity’s symbolic forms (metaphor/poetry being an important one) in seeing behind the world of “objects” to a deeper spiritual significance that otherwise eludes our grasp. I’ll have to check out this Harman character of yours!

    ~paul m

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Hey Paul,

      I thought of you while reading last night actually. Harman, and all phenomenology really, have tended to focus on what appears to the eye instead of what appears to the ear. It is relatively easy to say what we mean by a visual object, but what about an auditory object? Harman speaks of the way groupings of objects can become new objects in their own right (a flower becomes a bouquet, which becomes a beautiful photograph when given to a lady in a gown, etc.). With sound, this swallowing of one object by another occurs even more readily, when notes add up to chords. But then notes don’t simply “add up” to chords; the chord is an emergent property greater than the sum of its parts. And we can’t overlook that each note is a whole in its own right, an emergent property of inaudible overlapping vibratory patterns. As Harman puts it, we live in a world of objects within objects within objects.
      You might enjoy his approach, which is influenced by Whitehead. But he goes beyond (or maybe regresses back, as I think Eric might want to say) Whitehead by trying to resuscitate the substantiality of objects, but in a metaphysical, rather than physical sense.

      1. Benjamin David Steele Avatar

        In animistic hunter-gatherer tribes, they are not only preliterate in being oral but also aural. I’m thinking of the jungle-dwelling Pygmies who have such visually-constrained natural environments that they can hunt by sound alone.

        One Pygmy guy was brought out of the jungle for the first time. He asked about why the herd animals were so small. He lacked distance depth perception. Remember that development of perspective in art is considered by some to have been a key development in modern mentality.

  2. Suzan Avatar

    Saved, I love your site! 🙂

  3. Meister Eckhart and the Core of the Soul « Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] but analogically. It is metaphor that carries the mind beyond itself to the inner life of things. Harman recognizes this, as well, going so far as to suggest that not just the human mind, but things themselves come into contact […]

  4. mary Avatar

    hey Matt,

    It’s raining today…very musically, for the notes of the rain are amplified and orchestrated by the gravities of the creek.

    I wanted to say that I think OOO may serve to illustrate an emergence of a description of Steiner’s new organ of perception and indeed has all the qualities of an initiation, as Harmon wishes to dissolve us beyond the habits of thinking of normal perception. I’m not sure what he means by normal, especially in contrast to allure. (p 181) He says “unless we cross a line and become especially charmed by the cardinal on the branch,…”, allure is elusive to normal perception, but the lines (Steiner might say), of these cliche habits of thought, are exactly what transform with new organs of perception ( Intuitive Thinking as Spiritual Path)….Steiner is already there in perception as an embodied metaphysical act, which Harmon posits of OOO in G M.(vicarious causation)

    Harmon’s charm and humor concepts within allure, I see as Ahimsa and Metta respectively. I know Harmon would not accept a reduction, but an isomophism, a gift of the fourfold, perhaps?

    Humor harmon calls superior, but that is only if you accept his “duel” frame…I would call it a “dueldance” …Lila…play… in which the superiority is Metta, compassion..and benevolent towards striving…the way the Dalia Lama is humorous.

    Charm evokes Ahimsa, non violent, having already valued the notes of an object as suffused with the immediacy of it’s sincerity (dignity).

    The irreduction of an object to another is a guarantee and imperative of allure, as revealed when objects of thought in meditation and spiritual practice reveal allure as a “talent” of the Etheric. That is perhaps a neologism Harmon may accept…tools, in percepts to concepts definitely seem to support this creative ground and synairesis (Gebser) would posit that mythologically there is long history of the gods sending objects to be of help to humans in any task of Alchemy. This is the dissoluton of scale and taxonomy that Harmon talks about, opening everything to complete sychronicity (Jung and Harmon).

    I will make another neologism in that I hear and see many “Alexander objects” (Luminous Ground) that serve as thresholds, portals, windows spandrells and chambers (and hammers in their tool being) that serve as connections between Steier and OOO.

    They are perhaps notes played on instruments situated within the same orchestra of the allure.The living grasp of allure is the gate to the spiritual hearing of the music.

    For example, Panikkar is already ther in OOO because he sees the allure behind the aggregate objects of religions; he empaths the allure grace behind the encultured habituated objects and their aesthetic expressed forms.

    As do the Piraha (dan Everett) with their delight and peace with xibipiio, the liminality of spiritthings.

    I am truly enjoying your exploration of OOO and I am enjoying Harmon immensely. And even that is an understatement. You building/composing lovely structures in philosophic thinking is a joy to me for which i am grateful. I am smiling and just here.



    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar


      So glad you chimed in! Always wonderful to hear your insights and to feel the surprising echoes that reverberate within my cranium upon reading them.

      Isn’t it wonderful that the death of the drop of rain into the flowing mass of the creek simultaneously gives that drop a living quality you’d not have otherwise taken note of? Harman is definitely on to something here. The relations between things, when alluring (as rain falling into this particular creek on this particular day seems to have been for you), do unleash the hidden notes that constitute each object’s deeper character. What is the creek, really? Well, we have to wait see what the weather does to it over the course of the year! How else can we tell what is merely accidental to it and what essential?

      Perhaps what for Steiner was the achievement of a new stage of the evolution of consciousness, for Harman remains a fleeting moment sparked by the allure of a good metaphor or beautiful work of art, a enveloped and tempered by long boring stretches of normal positivistic perception of the mere outward husks of real things. The task of re-enchanting the cosmos would then have a lot to do with art and poetry, so as to teach ourselves to make the allurement last, to develop our imagination such that plain facts gain the inner glow worthy of a divinely inhabited universe.

      I appreciate your Buddhist parallels to charm and humor. Perhaps you’re on to something. A more etheric form of participation in the life of objects that grants them the sort of dignity Harman is calling for would indeed lead to more compassionate interactions between humans and other beings, and humor would assure we do not take ourselves so seriously that charm turns into charlatanism.

  5. Literal Metaphor « Hey Prof Bow Avatar

    […] Metaphor and the Allure of Objects (footnotes2plato.com) […]

  6. Thoughts on Tim Morton on the Ecological Emergency | Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] absolutely love what he is saying. Really, I dig it. His ontology has style, and I don’t just mean he is rhetorically skilled and so persuasive to us as subjectivities, […]

  7. Immanent Law, Transcendent Love, and Political Theology « Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

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  8. Panpsychism and Speculative Realism: Reviewing Shaviro’s “The Universe of Things” | Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

    […] ontology. Harman prefers to refer to OOO as a “panallurist” ontology, building on his aestheticization of causality. “Even if the world were filled with nothing but dust,” writes Harman, “allure […]

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