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Levi Apparently Has Never Read Harman’s Theory of Causation

Who Is Taking Harman’s Theory Seriously?

Levi writes in defense of Harman’s so-called Theory of Vicarious  Causation, after summoning the authority of the Principle of Charity a principle by whose force he tells me that I must assume that Harman actually knows what he is talking about when he proposes a brand new theory of causation. First my description, then his rejection of it:

Do you read as coherent that when a baseball hurls into a windshield it must FIRST send a representation of itself INTO the glass, and then it must brush this “vicar” into a state of phenomenenal breakdown, a breakdown which THEN results in the baseball cracking the glass? Does this make any sense to you? Aside from projecting a human caricature of experience and cognition, in what way does this actually seem to reveal how objects interact without human beings? (which I wrote at anotherheideggerblog)

 Levi’s dismissal:

The characterization of Harman’s position above is clearly absurd. Harman’s thesis is not that objects must first encounter other objects under the form of a “sensuous vicar” and then relate to them. Nor is it an anthropomorphization of relations between objects. Rather, Harman’s thesis is that objects only relate to one another selectively with respect to particular qualities, never exhaustively in terms of all the qualities that an object might possess or be capable of.

This is how Levi characterizes the Principle of Charity, something he feels that I have violated:

Rather, the principle of charity is a necessary condition for philosophical discourse, requiring that we present the positions of other thinkers in the most reasonable and plausible light before proceeding to criticism of that position. Working on the premise that our interlocutor is a reasonable and intelligent person that genuinely wants to get at the truth, explain features of the world, and understand things– a premise that should be granted at the beginning of dialogue and revoked only when proven otherwise –we should ask ourselves, with respect to our interpretations of the positions of others, “is this a position that a reasonable person would endorse or advocate? If our impression of another’s position is that it is batshit crazy insane, then it is likely we have misinterpreted the other person’s position, not that the author is making the absurd claim.”

Kettle Black

Obviously Levi did not follow my string of posts on Harman’s Theory of Causation when I originally posted them many months ago (and linked at the bottom), posts which were more than generous in terms of Charity. I sincerely wished to extract and find agreement with every possible coherence I could find, as one would see if you actually read my exegetic struggles with the said theory. Indeed when I found I could not make full sense of it I blamed myself, as Levi suggests, and this lead me to create diagrams of all the objects and their supposed interactions, and when the theory didn’t make sense even then, I even checked with Harman (with whom I was on good terms with at the time), to make sure that I got all the working parts right. And affirmed that I did. No one that I know of has gone this far in trying to local the sense of his theory. The Charity was immense and willingly given. [It seems though that Levi in making his  assessment of my explication and my criticism has not even bothered to read my posts on the theory, but has simply Uncharitably attributed them to an intitial uncharitable disposition on my part. This is quite common for Levi as he regularly reads his critics in the worst possible light, his rhetoric often rising to literally atrocious levels.]

Harman sans Phenomenology?

But more than this, in his defense of Harman’s Theory of Causation and its supposed non-anthropomorphic nature, Levi does not select a quote from Harman’s theory (the essay which he seems not to have actually read or read closely), nor even from Harman himself, but from Michael over at Complete Lies who presents an ENTIRELY non-phenomenological reading of Harman’s theory.

As Michael writes over at PE, confessing the expermental nature of his take on Harman’s causation:

“This is the gamble I’m making. It may fail, but I’m considering it an experiment in understanding. I want to see if OOP could be presented and understood with no post-Kantian material. This would obviously change things, but I am hoping it will lead to new understandings and clarifications.”

Harman’s theory is whole-hog a phenomenological theory (hello?). In fact the problematic anthropomorphism RESIDES in the phenomenology and the core assumption that Husserl’s Cartesian sensuous objects are explanatory of what non-human causation is. Take out the phenomenology and you go a long way towards taking out the anthropomorphism…you also go a long way toward destroying Harman’s theory altogether. Michael of course admits that by taking out the phenomenology he has performed a great gamble as I cited, but it is absolutely silly to appeal to Michael attempted rescue of Harman’s theory from its phenomenology to explain what precisely Harman himself is claiming. It has removed a core component of the point that Harman is trying to get across, and it is this core component (and how it is said to interact with other elements) which I have described far above with baseballs and windshields. It should be obvious that I am under no obligation to explain how Harman’s own theory might be readable without reference to any post-Kantian material when in fact Harman’s ENTIRE theory is about how post-Kantian Husserl and Heidegger objects are necessary to understand causation in the first place. Michael makes no reference to Harman’s theory of causation essay in his experiment (cool as it is), and the reason for this is that it wants nothing to do with phenomenology or Husserl. Levi’s turn toward a no-post-Kantian explanation of what Harman is claiming in unreserved and exclusively post-Kantian terms is beyond ludicrous, and shows the least respect for Harman’s theory one can imagine, a refusal to take it seriously on its own terms.

It seems I have been unfair in criticizing Levi recently for remaining silent on the incoherence of Harman’s theory of causation because in fact it seems that Levi has NOT actually read it  but only about it (as is evident by his inability to reference the essay in any way shape or form in support of what he thinks it claims, nor recognize those claims when made explicit).  Here is the essay.

As to my uncharitable assessment of the essay’s depiction, my reading is fair and reflects what Harman has asserted in his essay. Levi seems to have greatest trouble with the successive nature of the interactions between real objects as mediated by their sensuous vicars. It is that he thinks Harman is just concerned with selectivity and not the actual relations of which selectivity is made. But this is EXACTLY as Harman describes it, emphasizing this temporal quality of the imagined relations, in fact he speaks in terms of lag and interaction:

“We must discover how real objects poke through into the phenomenal realm, the only place where one relates to another. The various eruptions of real objects into sensuality lie buffered from immediate interaction. Something must happen on the sensuous plane to allow them to make contact, just as corrosive chemicals lie side by side in a bomb – separated by a thin film eaten away over time, or ruptured by distant signals.”

*cited from the essay none of the supporters of the essay seem to want to cite.

And again,

“There is a constant meeting of assymetrical partners on the interior of some unified object: a real one meeting the senuous vicar or deputy of another. Causation occurs when these obstacles are some how broken or suspended. In seventeenth century terms, the side-by-side proximity of real and sensual objects is merely the occasion for a connection between a real object inside the intension and another real object lying outside it. In this way shaves or freight tunnels are constructed between objects that otherwise remained quarantined in private vacuums.”

So, when Levi makes his Charitable appeal to Michael’s non-Phenomenological interpretation of Harman’s Phenomenological acount of causation…

Nor is it an anthropomorphization of relations between objects. Rather, Harman’s thesis is that objects only relate to one another selectively with respect to particular qualities, never exhaustively in terms of all the qualities that an object might possess or be capable of.

This denuded attempt to save Harman’s theory misses the entire failing of the theory itself, its proposed explanation of just what that SELECTIVITY consists of, ie how causation occurs. Where is Levi’s grasp of the nature of the “distant signal” Harman says is sent out from the vacuum-packed “real” object? Where is Levi’s awareness of processes of corrosion that are said necessarily to occur at the level of the “sensuous plane”? Where is the conceptual nature of what a “vicar” is (a vicar is a Representation, hello? Harman also uses the term “deputy”) appreciated or even acknowledged? Can it be the case that the only way to be charitable to Harman’s causation one has to strip it of ALL phenomenological and Husserlian object basis? This is not charity, this is plain old mis-reading, or as I suspect, non-reading. It seems that as Levi appeal to Michael’s version of the essay and not the essay itself, it is quite likely that he has not read the essay he defends, just as he had not read the evolution of my treatment of it. Instead we have in the usual Levi Bryant sense, a wild invocation of a “principle” (he just loves these principles) without understanding either the contexts he is applying them to, or really the principle itself.

Charity and Credit Deferred

To take up the Principle of Charity I go to Donald Davidson’s most famous positioning of it, which argues that the only reason why we can make ANY sense of anyone is through the initial and primary assumption that they are saying, doing, intending, is rational. This is foundational to cognitive, intersubjective relatability. And this we gladly presume, as I am Davidsonian. And one can see of course this is also something to be extended to theories proposed. We have to assume an initial optimality of coherence to as to see what is being attempted, how it all SHOULD work together. But this is not an infinite credit. The reason why one is charitable in this way is so that when testing the coherence of a theory it is against the backdrop of this intial coherence that we come to understand its failings. You try to make it work, and you try to make it work so that when it eventually fails you can say to yourself, “hey, this stuff is non-sense or in need of a radical overhaul”, or hopefully “With a little tweak here it functions smoothly”). 

Now it seems that Levi wasn’t even charitable enough to actually read Harman’s theory, or if he read it he read it so shallowly he didn’t even pay attention to what it was claiming. Instead he distanced himself from it, and did not challenge its merit as an honest friend might do. He doesn’t seem to be familiar with it at al, in factl. Instead he has appealed to an non-Phenomenological secondary treatment of it to attempt a summary which actually dismisses almost the whole of Harman’s claim about the nature of causation, intensional objects, Husserl, the whole ball of wax.  I would certainly agree with Levi that what Harman is trying to do is something of the bedimmed “selectivity” of objects, so to speak, but Harman is trying to stake out the actual mechanism, the means of connectives in selection and interaction upon a very specific armature of relations; primary among these is the Phenomenological intension of objects, and in the case of “vicars” a representationalist conception of interaction. The processes of real objects sending signals to their vicars in other objects, and these vicars being “poked” or “poked through” or “corroding” makes up the actual mechanism of causation that he provides however vaguely. To miss this is simply to abuse his theory altogether, to pretend that it is not what it is. Try not to explain away or simply IGNORE what Harman is trying hard to assert and describe.

Harman is rather explicit in his essay about this, and only a very lazy reading of his essay would miss it. It is the connection between elements that is vital:

“What remains to be seen is how these elements interact, how one type of relation transforms into another, how new real objects paradoxically arise from the interaction between real objects and sensual ones, and even how sensual objects manage to couple and uncouple like spectral rail cars. These sort of problems are the subject matter of object-oriented philsophy: the inevitable mutant offspring of Husserl’s intentional objects and Heidegger’s real ones.”

Levi has it all wrong when he thinks he has encapsulated Harman’s theory of causation: “The point is that there is always more possibilities open to any object than those actualized in any particular relation the object enters into.” This is not the point of his theory at all, only the presumption that drives the necessity of a theory of causation in the first place. The burden is in stating how and why THIS particular relation has been actualized, and not THAT or another relation has been actualized. His entire essay is an argument (and hopefully not just a fantasy) of “how these elements interact” and it is for that reason that the exact nature of their interaction so claimed comes under criticism. Only by vacating Harman’s theory of causation of all content, as Levi does, removing from it any claim for how the elements interact, any reference to the central role of representational phenomenology, do you end up with Levi’s very compassionate but empty reading. It would be really nice if those that claim to be charitable readers of Harman’s theory actually concern themselves with the stated aims of the piece rather than coming up inventive ways of avoiding its explicit content.

I would add that I praise Harman for attempting his theory of causation, precisely in the terms that he attempted it. It was a bold try. The reason one cannot simply ignore what Harman tries, the exact depiction of how causation occurs in particular to the assumption of a Phenomenological core (which Michael at Complete Lies does away with), is that Harman knows that if his four fold is actually to be shown as coherent, it is precisely this kind of theory, THIS theory (or one very similar) that has to take hold. It was just for this reason why Harman attempted it, and is continuing to work on it (as it is merely absurd or tremendously failing as it is). The reason why Levi’s failure to read the essay with any precision constitutes an abuse (as does Michael’s non-Phenomenological reading) is that Harman’s theory of causation is the joint-work of his entire metaphysics. And it is just for this reason that this theory in all of its anthropomorphic splendor, projecting Husserl’s objects and actions into every object in the world, displays the incoherence (or one might say fantasy nature) of his metaphysics. Harman needs his theory of causation to save his Speculation.

A short word about Charity and the extent of it. Levi in the past has accused me of not extending the Principle of Charity to his own wildly swinging theories as if the work of the explanation actually falls upon me, the reader. This is nonsense. Initially one assumes that someone knows what they are talking about, but as one encounters incoherences or rhetorical tendencies at deception (as one does with Levi), critical questions increase, rather than go down. When the car seems to be running fine, you get in and ride in it. When it starts to make a knocking sound, and then wobble a bit when steering, you get out. You presume the car can be fixed, and you try to fix it, but one is under no obligation to presume either that it MUST be fixable, or worse, that it isn’t even in need for repair.

This is the problem with some of the Speculation versions of philosophy operating at the upper end of the internet (because I don’t want to speak of the weightier writers of the now defunct Speculative Realism). Some seem to imagine that the Principle of Charity somehow works as a fill-in for the connective parts of a theory, that the theory itself MUST make sense, all the while remaining in the shadows of mere “speculation” (hey, don’t criticize it, I’m still working on it!). This goes right to the point I made about Speculative Realism and financial Speculative Bubbles which has caused something of a stir. Indeed in financial trading there are principles of Charity which ground and even drive the investment in different products. But one does not wisely invest in ANY financial product, or even accept any form of promisory note, just because one has to be generous. The economy of exchange is founded on the possibility of testing the merit of representational claims, and philosophy is no different. The problem I have had with some versions of Speculative Realism has to do with the difference between “This is a cool idea for a car!” and “This is a car.” The one you speculate, test, think about, maybe model and one day build, the second one you don’t get into unless it shows itself to do what it claims to do. I’m not against the first kind at all, in fact my entire blog (and many of the lower tier Speculativists’ as well) are exactly of this nature: This is a cool idea for a car! But it seems that some want to do the philosophical thing and make the further claim, and in Levi’s case, basically bluff your way into This is a car! with all kinds of references to Priniciples and fallacies, name-droppings, borrowings and science references. Fair enough, if you want to play philosopher, go ahead, but when checking under the hood before revealed a bunch of disconnected wires and old car parts and lots of very gruff “Hey, what do you think you doing in there!” most would pass on checking any further. But in either case,  criticism as to what is being claimed (fantasy car, or real car) is just what is needed to make what we have created better, so it works.

I would say that my criticism of Harman’s causation was the most charitable thing I could have done. And recent pressure I have put on the allies of Harman to actually engage it has done more good for the essay and what it was attempting to do than a thousand tepid avoidances or radical reinterpretations. At least Harman has a chance to renew the incoherence and see if he can rescue it, to speak of “distant signals” and “corrosive sensuous film” with more argumentative force. Levi might actually read the essay this time, maybe Michael’s non-Phenomenological causation gets Harman to change something fundamental. In any case, I don’t believe in black boxes, and presume that the more attention the essay gets the better the chance that Harman’s metaphysics will find the causal explanation that would justify its claims. I’m all for that. In the meantime, when Harman tells us that when a bug hits the windshield of a truck and has absolutely zero causal effect on the truck, an example of one way causation, we justifiably should laugh, and to do so charitably.

For those who would like to read the uncharitable approach I took towards the essay, these were my posts in evolution. Unlike some, I actually refer to the essay – in great detail – and attempt to grasp the specificity of its claims. 

My three overall points to Harman’s Theory of Causation are:

1. Insofar as it does work it is a problematic Orientalization of causal relations through a mediating exotic other (a cultural values insertion).

2. Insofar as it projects Husserlian Cartesian representationalism into every object relation it is one vast anthropomorphization and quite far from being “object oriented”.

3. Insofar as it fails to provide an account of the relations between posited elements it ceases even to be a theory of causation for it lacks the explanation itself.

How Do the Molten Centers of Objects Touch?

The “sensuous vicar” of Causation

More on Harmanian Causation: The Proposed Marriage of Malebranche and Hume

Taking the “God” out of the 17th Century

Spinoza says, “Individual things are nothing more than…”

Graham Harman’s “essence” contra DeLanda, à la Campanella

Vicarious Causation Diagrammed

The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman)

The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert

Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic

Harman’s Object Disorientation: Anthropomorphism At Large

The Unfinished Harman Theory of Causation

[click on picture for larger image]

Another Derrida?

Coincidently, what Harman thinks of Derrida: “Personally, I never had much time for Derrida, and see him instead as a self-indulgent wanker adrift in a sea of signs and boring high-culture collage.”

The discussion on the merits of Harman’s Husserl/Heideggerian Speculation has continued over at Perverse Egalitarianism in the comments section of Jon’s Points. Plenty of opinions abound, and software is distributing comments haphazardly so it makes a kind of grab-bag of objection and counterpoint. But one thing emerged that should be reposted here, Bryan’s limpid response to the passing suggestion that all this talk about the nonsense of Harman’s theory reminds us of the claims of nonsense about Derrida (some of which persist). It allowed a momentary conflation of Graham Harman the speculating philosophy book whisperer, and Derrida, radical critic of philosophy, culture, politics and literature. Bryan’s comments in response are worth reposting because the give context to the kind of sober check needed when philosophy simply has become Speculation:

1) First, I want to briefly cover an intellectual historical issue that has some bearing on this debate: the Anglo-Saxon philosophical-academic reception of Jacques Derrida’s ideas. As pretty much everybody knows, Derridean thought and deconstruction were seen as deliberately obscurantist, particularly by more analytically-inclined philosophers of the day. One might say the rejection of deconstruction in a wide array of philosophy departments is what opened up the field of comparative literature, which became a new critical space to do *real* theory.

I think this historical legacy of conservative skepticism towards the new and obscure is in some ways important, but not entirely relevant in the way that supporters or fellow-travellers of speculative realism view it to be. For one, I am not of the opinion—nor are many of us that are in some ways against OOP—that philosophy should be concerned entirely with examining “the canon,” as so many variations on textual interpretation and so on, the kind of thing that Levi is always ranting about from his bully pulpit at Larval Subjects. I am all for radical new systems, inventiveness, and a spirit of a return to metaphysics and ontology and all of the things that textual traditionalism and deconstruction alike swore off of, considered *Denkverbot*.

But that’s not a real substantive difference, the difference lies elsewhere: even when Derrida was under the fiercest of attacks by his conservative-minded critics, who charged him with nihilism and all the other litany of anathemas and what have you, there was still a large contingent of people who not only took Derrida seriously, but understood many of his most complex ideas. While it is, I think, an open question as to what degree Harman has made a genuine contribution to the field of philosophy (personally, I don’t view his critique of anthropocentrism as entirely convincing nor original, and the same goes for his depoliticized ontological universe of withdrawn objects), not a single person has claimed that they understand Harman’s theory of causation: neither Levi, nor even Latour, the Prince of Networks himself. This is astonishing, and absolutely underemphasized: as Kvond argued, Levi has dedicated his life towards unknotting some of the most
complicated thinkers who have ever lived, including Lacan and Deleuze. So, even though this might not count as direct evidence of Harman’s disingenuousness, it *should* (normatively speaking) elicit some degree of skepticism on our part.

2) Now I’d like to turn to the issue of the initial “faith” when approaching a philosophy for the first time. I am wholeheartedly in favor of this, principally because I reject the alternatives (skepticism, relativism, historicism, empiricism), and also because, at a basic ethical level, we owe it to others to grant them a modicum of respect when assessing their work: to treat it *as if* it has some inherent worth prior to determining whether this be the case or not. If we presuppose from the outset that the philosophical work is not sincere, then all end up doing is confirming our own hypotheses, which—although it often works for the sciences—is not necessarily an effective hermeneutical practice.

Personally, I was excited by Graham’s blog when it was first introduced, as I think were most in the philosophy blogosphere. I would also praise the speculative realist movement as a whole for breaking away from the dominant trends in continental philosophy associated with textual analysis, turning their efforts towards constructing new systems. But this is precisely where we need to distinguish that initial faith with a dose of skepticism. While many have continued their fidelity to the Truth-Event known as Graham Harman, it has become increasingly clear to me and others that his most central, core ideas do not seem to hold weight. This is suggested not only by Levi and Latour’s bafflement with his theory of vicarious causation—a sentiment which is shared just as well by Harman’s vocal critics—but also the extent to which Harman’s very own advice on how to write philosophy reveals a degree of cynicism about giving your work a sense of “shock value” and focusing on “One Great Idea,” painting a “philosophical landscape” using a pastiche of Classical and Contemporary, exotic and canonical, baroque and antique. This “mid-western ethic” of revealing how the game is played suggest a greater awareness on his part of using theories more as a means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves: it is less about the substance of the idea, than about creating networks and assemblages of power, authority, influence, and the “sizzle” of a brand name/identity. This, I think, is somewhat frightening, given that object-oriented philosophy claims to be investigating the question of BEING QUA BEING.

All I can say is that this is something I find myself in complete agreement with, and that my criticism of Harman is something that also grew out of my sincere desire to take him seriously as a thinker (which few seem to have wanted to do). I came to him with a tremendous sense of good faith, and put the long hours into ferreting out what all the claims were apart from his metaphors and allusions. I was genuinely excited, at first, to find as much common ground as possible, something I discovered which actually threatened Harman’s driving aim to be “original”. This need for originality, combined with the One Great Idea/Exaggeration approach, although it has generated interest, has proven to make of his “philosophy” an in-communication. No one understands it, but no one is supposed to critique it because it “is not finished” (and Harman only retreats into Husserl and Heidegger when pressed for clarity). It seems that one can only applaud it and not enter into dialogue with it.

Playing The Churl: Orientalism Good?

In this vein, Tim over at Violent Signs appears to find my questioning of the substance of Harman’s thinking both needed, but also a bit “churlish” (in particular my criticism of Harman’s self-admitted and embraced Orientalism):

The influence of Deleuze upon the principal OOO and SR writers appears marked, and a fuller post in this connection will follow. But in the meantime I want to add a word on what might be going overlooked in the rush to celebrate a (‘novel’) post-Deleuzian philosophy. Largely a blogospheric phenomenon, to suggest that the SR ‘movement’ conceals a sort of problematic Orientalism, and moreover, might amount to an exotic re-packaging of other object-oriented philosophies (something that many would still accuse Deleuzism of) seems nothing short of churlish, particularly given how exciting much of this thinking appears to be and how deeply amenable such materialisms are to ecocriticism, ecosophy or ecophilosophy. But these are thought-provoking and deeply ‘political’ criticisms nevertheless.

Whilst a fuller distinction between relational and object-oriented philosophies will have to remain forthcoming, I’d nevertheless agree wholeheartedly with Kvond that there’s a sort of “blogged responsibility” to comment on such insights/objections, “if only to triangulate and encourage more to post themselves”.

While I share Tim’s passion for an “ecophilosophy” (of which I read all of Spinoza to be), simply whether a movement of thought is friendly to ecocriticism is not the measure by which it should be criticized. And particularly in the issue of Orientalization (Harman’s desire to create a Sensuous, exotic mediating realm, and a cold, isolated “real” real) I am willing to play the Churl, since I find this one of the deepest problems with Harman’s regression back into Representationalist pictures of what makes human beings and what they do possible. And I think it is precisely on the question of Orientalization that ecophilosophy needs to get its ground. It is no more helpful to Orientalize Nature than it is to Orientalize causal relations, as Harman does.

Harman the Arch Critic: Real Objects Like Monkeys and Tornados

In this continuing vein of critique, there is another really well-written and well-pointed assessment of the substance of Harman’s appraisals, appraisals not only of philosophy, but of thinkers and their worth, the way in which he aestheticizes his authority. This is found in the comments section of my post  Harman’s Commodification of Paper Writing. Eli writes:

I think the point Bryan makes about how philosophy for Harman is all about painting pretty canvases is also absolutely spot on. Harman’s attitude toward just about everything is an “aesthetic” one, and he even says that we should regard aesthetics as “first philosophy”. But note that he means nothing remotely sophisticated by “aesthetics” here. Philosophy for him is about liking and disliking things – quite literally – and he views it as a purely aesthetic pursuit – not because he has some theory about how aesthetics judgement supplants all others or what have you; there’s no judgment, no cognitive dimension whatsoever involved: it’s literally as primitive as “x feels good”, “I like x”: hence his love of travelogue, catalogues, lists, photographs with pretty colours: the world is a vast aesthetic sensorium featuring the pleasing and the displeasing and philosophy is the catalogue and guide.

Go and listen, for example, to the lecture he gave in Dublin last year, most of which quite literally consists of him saying “so I like that” and “so I don´t like that”. Consider also all his “advice” posts in which says that bad arguments and non sequiturs are “the most trivial mistakes in philosophy” and that what really matters is that one writes with “style” and uses “vivid” language.

One of the ironies about all this of course is that he then accuses anyone who would base their ontological commitments upon the results of the empirical sciences of “crude reductionism”! Thus, reducing everything to aesthetics and fashion is fine, but it is “reductionism” to concern oneself with actual empirical knowledge. Indeed his whole attitude towards science is also a purely aesthetic one and the value of science for him purely comes down to what kinds of “pictures” it can give us. Amusingly, when accused of ignoring the sciences his response is always to say “I love all the sciences and in fact spend more time in bookshops in the popular science section than in the philosophy section” – flicking through looking at the pictures, presumably, or looking for vivid, colorful descriptions and metaphors.

Thus notice that in one post in which he was attempting to explain why he never draws upon science and yet nevertheless is “a great lover of all the sciences” he says “I love Dawkins for the vast landscapes he paints, populated with weird creatures” – note, not because he might actually learn something about such creatures, or about evolution or biology, but because he finds it aesthetically pleasing! However, he of course goes on to say that he “detests” Dawkins “arrogant scientism”.

Equally amusingly, in the same post he claimed that he wants “to increase exponentially the amount of attention we pay to comets and neutrinos”. But how exactly does he intend to do this? How on earth is one supposed to say anything whatsoever about such things without actually learning some science? – something that Harman informs us in the very same post he is not interesting in doing because “I simply do not have the head for it” and because he has “a remarkable inability to remember anything” he reads in science books (hardly surprising given that he limits this to flicking through them when in his local bookshop!). By “exponentially increasing the amount of attention we pay to comets and neutrinos” does that mean anything more than he will try to remember to include such items on his random lists of middle-sized dry-goods?

He also says that he rejects science because it does not fit in with his intuitive picture of how things are: “I just don’t feel on solid footing with the sciences. I can’t pretend to myself that I feel we’re in a safely solid domain when we talk about physics, for instance, because all sorts of non-physical entities immediately start leaking into the picture for me, and I can’t shut them out.”

What puzzles me most when he gives papers saying how philosophy should forget about epistemology and should instead concern itself directly with fire and cotton, monkeys, tornadoes and quarks, is why no-one just asks him straight out: “Could you give me an example of what a philosopher might have to say about monkeys or comets or neutrinos that’s not covered by the sciences?” What would he have to say? “Errm, well … when a monkey eats a banana, there is actually no interaction between the monkey and the banana, because monkeys and bananas are vacuum-sealed objects which forever infinitely withdraw from one another. No-one has ever seen a monkey or a banana in the purity of their individual essences, and they can only interact on the inside of an intention, and all objects relate to each other by means of intentions”. Why don’t people just start howling with laughter and derision when he says such things?

He also always puts the differences between himself and other “Speculative Realists” (a label that none of the others have ever actually used, by the way) down to purely aesthetic considerations: “My friend Brassier is temperamentally inclined towards eliminativism, but that’s not for me … Grant likes to think of the world as a ceaseless flux that somehow gets retarded to produce individual objects, but my intuition is that the world is carved up into individual objects, so I base my metaphysics on that …” This is not a direct quote but there have been plenty of posts like that, in which he characterises the four positions as if they were alternative pictures of the universe, something like choosing between various pre-Socratic worldviews according to one’s personal aesthetic tastes. For example:

 “When I read my friend Brassier, he’s too much of an eliminativist for my tastes. I don’t want to eliminate Popeye from the subject matter of philosophy, nor do I find it possible to do so” – presumably because whenever he tries to think about the world in terms of physics, pictures of Popeye keep leaking in to the picture and he can’t shut them out!

However, he does like some things in Brassier: namely, some of the vivid language he uses:

 “However, what I really passionately love in Brassier’s work is his fierce poetry of the insignificance of human being. Not the pessimism of it so much, because I am temperamentally an optimist and have a quasi-libidinal investment in even the most trivial objects that pass through my field of vision, and do not enjoy the thought of burnt-out husks of stars and the heat-death of the universe, which Brassier almost seems to viscerally enjoy”.

And ditto for Dawkins:

 “It’s for similar reasons that I often like reading Dawkins, even though I find his anti-fundamentalist tirades to be tedious and condescending …. But his vast landscapes of strange animal ancestors and archaic geological events … this I find highly appealing …”

 Thus, the entire ‘argument’ for his metaphysics goes something like this:

“Is reality divided up into chunks or is it a ceaseless flux? Well, which do you prefer? Which one appeals to you? I like the former. Why? Because my teachers likes all the relational stuff, and I got bored with that. I don’t like monism. Some people do, but my inclinations are different. Some people base their ontology on empirical sciences, but I like Popeye too much to go down that road. Anyway, I can’t remember anything I read in science books, and there aren’t any pretty pictures to look at there – except in astronomy, of course: I love stars and comets! I also love all the landscapes of weird and wonderful animals painted by Dawkins. But it puzzles me why some people prefer to think of gold in purely physical terms, thus giving up its shiny appearance. I find that when I think of gold all that comes to mind is its glittery shiny appearance, so my claim is that gold is metaphysically torn between its appearance and its inscrutable inner core. I guess those eliminativist types just have more austere aesthetic tastes than I do.”

The fact is, of course, that this stuff only appeals to overly impressionable students in the humanities for whom analytic philosophy is just too damn hard and who are constantly on the look out for the next new thing in continental philosophy: something abstract but user-friendly, undemanding, sexy, perfectly pliable for whatever ends they might require (geography, social theory, literary studies, cultural studies, film, business studies …). For such types, reading Harman is an absolute godsend: It’s easy and pleasant to read (lots of metaphors and imagery), deep- and lofty-sounding, doesn’t require them to do any thinking (thus saving unnecessary wear and tear on the brain tissues), it chimes perfectly with commonsense (albeit with some ‘weird’ twists’, which is cool), doesn’t require them to be able to evaluate arguments or learn anything technical, gives them a further alibi for continuing to ignore science and epistemology, gives them license to commit as many non sequiturs as they like (“arguments are the superficial skin of philosophy”, “logical errors are the most trivial mistakes in philosophy”), tells them that the only important thing about writing philosophy is to cultivate a literary “style”, to write “vividly” in bold and eye-catching colors, tells them that poetry is a greater cognitive tool than empirical inquiry, promises a direct revelation of Truth without having to acquire any knowledge … and, in general, it’s ‘fresh’ and ‘bold’ and ‘exciting’ … It’s irresistable!

To my ear Eli’s criticism is devastating to the very form of Harman’s expression, his modes of dismissal and assertion, and the supposed “logic” of his call to objects. The blued paragraph especially strikes me as precisely marking the absurdity of Harman’s call to “objects” as if he is getting us philosophy-minded type back onto the firm ground (as Wittgenstein liked to say).

Grouping Criticism

Lastly in this compendium of contemporary objections it is probably good to put all together the history of my critical objections to Harman. This involves not just criticism, but also my initial repeated attempts to actually UNDERSTAND what Harman was trying to say. The path then alternates between a genuine good faith excitement, and the realization that there is more allure than substance here. Finally I came to see that my objections to Harman operated on several levels, some of them reaching back into the branch of philosophy he attempts to work from, some of them found in his theory and his methodology itself. These thirty posts, presented largely in temporal order, clearly form the most serious engagement with the substance of Harman’s theorizing on the planet (conditioned by the absence of any other such engagement), the significant attempt to both understand and find common ground with the “allure” of his theory, as it positions itself. Any serious embrace of a thinker involves I believe a necessary criticism of that thinker’s ideas, at least the striving to assess just what is being claimed and what is its merit.  I actually consider the pass given to Harman by the halo of people who find him interesting a bit disrespectful.

An attempt to both interpret and dialogue with Harman’s main ideas:

 The “Picture” behind Intention: What Lies at the Center of Perception

The Bounce of the Being of Beings

Harman Brings Central Clarity to the Issue (wink, nod)

Downunder: Central Clarity Consciousness (CCC)

The Harmanic Impassibilty of Monism…Spinoza Sails Through

Heidegger: He Who Doesn’t Enjoy God

Graham Harman’s “Evil Twin”, The Quality-Loving Positor

The Coldness of Spinoza: Was He Really a Spock?

How the PSR lifts OOP out of Occasionalism

Graham Harman’s “essence” contra DeLanda, à la Campanella


Dealing Specifically With Harman’s Theory of Causation, including a critique of its Orientalism:

How Do the Molten Centers of Objects Touch?

The “sensuous vicar” of Causation

More on Harmanian Causation: The Proposed Marriage of Malebranche and Hume

Taking the “God” out of the 17th Century

Spinoza says, “Individual things are nothing more than…”

Vicarious Causation Diagrammed

The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman)

The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert

Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic


Observations on Harman’s methodology and presumptions about philosophy:

The Coming Medieval Scholasticism of SR

Heidegger “Never says…” and Harman says…

Human Competence: Achilles On the Mend

Harman Wants to Know: How Does Lovecraft “Get Away with Racism?”

Its “objects” All the Way Down

The Centers of Sensuous Gravity, and Their Relations: Shaviro and Harman

The Initial “Brilliant” Exaggeration: The Mongering of Brilliance

Throwing A-causal Stones From Theoretical Glass Houses

In Praise of Aesthetics over Philosophy? The Metaphors of Projection

Harman’s Speculative Bubble: The Runaway Capitalism of OOP

Harman’s Commodification of Paper Writing


An associated critique of Latour:

Is Latour an Under-Expressed Spinozist?

The Flatness of Latour’s Concept of Origin and Holbein’s The Ambassadors

The Copiousness of Copies

An associated critique of Heidegger:

Heidegger’s Confusion Over “Truth”

Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr

In Praise of Aesthetics over Philosophy? The Metaphors of Projection

Dreaming Up The “Insides” of Objects

Steve Shaviro has a post up in praise of Harman’s use of aesthetics (metaphors and whatnot) over philosophy, offered in the wake of his recent criticism of Harman’s philosophy: Object Oriented Aesthetics?. I posted a comment on Harman’s creative insertion of human experiences into objects as an explanation for what causation is, and it grew to a length substantive enough to post here.  I’ve written on the problem of Harman’s theory of causation in the past: Vicarious Causation DiagrammedDownunder: Central Clarity Consciousness (CCC), The “sensuous vicar” of Causation and even treated the specific cultural and political problems of the Orientalism of his aesthetics: The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman), The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert, Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic. But drawing the scope at its widest, the problem with Harman’s “aesthetic” solution to the question of causation is that he has just performed one great Anthropomorphic projection of human experiences into all objects in the name of some kind of “object-orientation”. He has, in short, turned objects into caricatures of human beings, and in so doing, not only reduced objects but also mischaracterized human beings. 

“While I would agree that the powers of the aesthetic judgment, the non-”content” weighing of complexity and balance which allow us to recognize a good metaphor or a funny joke, are an extremely useful tool if not our only tool forwards towards new knowledge, but this is not to say that our aesthetic projections INTO objects other than human, AS a theory is a meaningful way to go. When Harman projects intentional objects into dust balls and microwaves, and imagines that because human beings have mental pictures of how the world is (or some feature in it) ALL objects must, as a matter of logic, is straight out absurd (“vicarious causation”). But not only absurd, an outright anthropomorphization of the said objects that are supposed to get their rescue from the reported evils of correlationism. It might make a pretty hallucination that when my car window is crashed into by an errant baseball, or when a butterfly wing is torn off by a be-dumbed child, each receiving object is visited by a “sensuous vicar” that enters its inner realm and allures it into destruction, but this is sheer fantasy space.

When Harman puts aesthetics before philosophy in his thinking on causation, he is simply saying, Hey I don’t even have to make much sense, I can just dream up and project my inner processes (as I categorize them via Husserl) into every object and call it “object-orientation”. To my taste Whitehead does a bit of this, but to a much much lesser degree (thankfully). If indeed what makes Correlationism so bad is that it makes human knowledge the center of importances when thinking about the world (like upper-class aristocrats exploiting poor worker objects everywhere), spreading the fantasies of the human (“Hey, teardrops and microchips are just like us! They receive little sensuous visitors from the outside world.”) and introjecting them into the cores of objects isn’t the salve. Firstly, it simply transmutes the “rights” of our objects into fantasy zones of our own device. Secondly, it mistakes the very fundamental nature of what is human in the first place, imagining that human thought and interaction with the world is accomplished solely through the “sensuous vicars” of intentionality. It replicates an error to infinity. If there is going to be a real esteem for objects, a real ontology that tests the boundaries of the human, it will be one in which the operations of objects, their powers of action in the world, are those that defy our easy assumptions about ourselves, the stretch what we even mean by “human”. In such cases, in such an aesthetic, we discover ourselves to be objects capable of something more objectile than we ever thought. Otherwise we are just spreading the Myth of the Human everywhere, under the auspices of Philosophy, but with the freedoms of a fiction.”

I do feel that the powers of aesthetic judgment are core to human way-finding - it is key to my Chaoplexic approach - and even that much of what is most real in human political, legal and moral fields is accomplished through the organization of the affects, but philosophy is not art, for a reason.

Throwing A-causal Stones From Theoretical Glass Houses

I don’t read Harman’s blog, but directed there by Steve Shaviro I noted this rather odd criticism given toward Shaviro’s theoretical embrace of becoming, apparently only the mere illusion of change in lieu of a real explanation:

GH: “Shaviro claims that his position explains change, but all it really gives us is the illusion of change: like those card decks with stationary cartoons which, when flipped through in rapid succession, give the illusory impression of a dynamic event.”

This of course should be contrasted with Graham’s own theory of “vicarious causation” which not only possesses almost no explanatory value of what causation might be, but actually invents in perhaps a non-Occamian profusion, a host of objects imagined to interact in ways that are yet revealed by their author. The objects are posited, but they are still waiting for their theory. Indeed Graham’s thinking ALLOWS cars to be crushed and ice cream to be eaten, as he proudly proclaims, but his theory of cause and effect seems to fall even below the threshold of “illusion” when it comes to change itself. Instead vacuous objects retreat into ghost worlds connected through subterranean mojo mixed with the mysteries of intention, becoming all the more inapplicable at the level of bowling-ball type objects that the theory is supposed to rescue.

Adventures in Incoherence

Graham recoiled from Steven’s description of his (general) theory as incoherent, and Steven apologized for the word choice, and in fact praises to a strong degree the effect the criticism he has received. But at least in this aspect of Harman’s thinking – his explanation of cause - to this reader, the Harman account is incoherent. Which is not to say that I disagree with it, but rather, it lacks applicable coherence: the theoretical parts match up (Harman’s importation of Husserlian Idealist objects exotically fused to a Heideggerian matrix), to be sure, but they do so in an utterly non-productive way, leaving one to feel that one is just making categories up in some kind of meta-love of the Husserl-Heidegger tradition. There doesn’t seem to be anything to actually disagree with other than that the notion of “allure” (unexplained and largely undifferentiated) explains what causation is, especially given its anthropomorphic projection of human experience onto largely inanimate objects that are supposed to make up our orientation.

There is a thin line between “incoherent” and “the supposed coherence between concepts does not do the explanatory job”. “The hand of Zeus makes it rain” is both coherent (at least I understand what the sentence means), and also incoherent as an explanation. All the explanatory connectives are missing. As far as Whitehead’s causation as becoming I feel we are at least closer to having concepts that when understood contain a kind of explanatory value that is more satisfying. I find it very odd though that Graham would chose causation as the house from which to throw his stone.

In the comments section to the linked Shaviro post I offered a sketch of how Spinoza’s metaphysics might address the breach between these two camps, for what it is worth.

Kant’s Criticism of the Purpose of Spinoza’s God

John Zammito’s The genesis of Kant’s critique of judgment is a compelling book, in particular for those interest in the after effects of the “Pantheism Controversy”. Zammito provides a convincing explanation on how much of Kant’s third Critique flowed from his difficulties with Jacobi, and the need to clarify his own rational position against Jacobi’s attempt to collapse all bravely followed rationality (rationality taken to its rational ends, no matter where they go), results in “Spinozism” something roughly posited as atheistic, fatalistic and nihilistic. Not to address these mischaracterizations of Spinoza here, or even Kant’s position towards them, there is this very nice little bit on Kant’s attack on Spinoza which has interest.

Here Zammito takes up Kant’s somewhat misdirected critique of Spinoza’s “God” along the lines of God’s purpose, a denial of God’s causality through Idea. Kant attempts to apply a truly anthropomorphic projection of purpose, based upon Representation, upon Spinoza’s ultimate ground, Substance, and finds it lacking. In a certain sense Kant rejects Spinoza’s God’s causal force because this God simply is not anthropomorphic enough:

What is interesting about this projection of the human discursive reality, leaving aside its place in the general context of his critique of Spinoza, is the way it seems to reveal in sympathy just what I have always felt is just so anthropomorphic about Graham Harman’s own (misnamed) Object Oriented Philosophy. One can see this most plainly in Harman’s so-called theory of causation, which is whole-heartedly representationalist, even as it tries to describe the events of causation between dustballs, interest rates and summer’s breeze. For Harman each of these must possess within their molten cores representations which link them to the rest of the world. (If unfamiliar with his thinking, here is my summation of the thought, and some of my criticism: How Do the Molten Centers of Objects Touch?; Harman approved of my summation.) The point comes back to me that the general mistake that Kant makes in the above in criticism, applying human discursive reality to the Spinoza non-human, is by Harman multiplied to a true infinity. It is taking an anthropomorphic, representational conception of not only “idea” as actualized by praxis but broadcasting it into each and every object kind imaginable. Harman treats these representations – what he calls vicars - as mysteriously the means of causation, leaving the issue of freedom and action behind.

Spinoza of course denies the kind of human freedom that Kant so theoretically valued, granting freedom solely to God (and his modes in degrees), and he did so by virtue of treating Ideas NOT as representations, but actional, ontological expressions of power and freedom. It is rather from the non-human that Spinoza brings his attack upon the human realm itself, all the while arguing a vigorous ethics of action and an ecology of cares, ultimately effacing the categorical “I” (and the not-I) that would inspire much of Idealism after Kant. In Spinoza an Idea is distinctly trans-human, not as a representation, but as I argue elsewhere, an informational interconnection of expression itself. It seems that if there is to be true object orientation, or appreciation, it can only be arrived at by not grasping at the kinds of representational conceptions that historically have marked out human reality as privileged and unique (for obvious theological reasons). These Kantian notions of representation go deep, as they can even be found in the notion of the internal Umwelt in biosemiosis, talked about here. Even these far flung boundaries defined by internal representational realms need to be opened up and inter-connected.

This is just a passing reflection in my reading, not a whole argument, but I do suggest reading the chapter linked above on Kant’s critique of Spinoza, and the previous one focusing on the “pantheism controversy” influence upon Kant. The link between subject/object representational insistence and the political-theological fears raised in the controversy is no small thing.

Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic

The Gleam of Gold and the Pasha of Causation

Graham was generous enough a spirit to take my cultural criticism of his metaphysics at a distance, and to allow my commentary to largely remain at the level of theory. In my last two posts, The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman), and then The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert I attempted to lay out the bare bones theoretical framework for such a critique, along lines of an essential “invisible but working” and “visible but broken” dichotomy, buried at the heart of Heidegger; and then, stretching into example, to show that the very words, metaphors and topics of Graham’s characterizations of the realm of “sensuous objects” bore a significant resemblance to the Orientalizing descriptions of North Africa, offered by Gustave Flaubert, an author that Graham has strong resistence to, due to his Orientalization of the land of Egypt. My point was that Graham’s Heideggerian and Husserlian essentializations, and in particular his use of them, carry with them a, perhaps historically unconscious, colonialist white/colored dichotomy which operates through much of our social stereotypes of the East and the Exotic, positioning these sensuous “essences” in a problematic role opposite necessarily retreating invisible essences (especially when one buries them in the heart of a universal theory of causation).

This was his response to the offered critique. He at first dismisses it, bluntly, and honestly, but then makes some important and debatable points:

I don’t think much of the connection, to be blunt. But there’s a certain beauty to the post, with its commentary on hilarious phrases that I’d forgotten I’d even written (“like streamers on a maypole or jewels on a houka”) and the always stunning wealth of illustration that is part of Kevin’s package in every post.

But no, I don’t see why binaries or hiddenness lead to orientalism in the bad sense. They do lead to orientalism in the sense of exoticism, and I do love the exotic. But you have to remember that I don’t think you need to be around non-white peoples to get the exotic. You can already get it from a cheap hammer withdrawing into its subterranean tool-effect in places like Logan, Utah and Waterloo, Iowa. I didn’t have to come to Egypt to get that sort of concealment.

Incidentally, I am made very suspicious by the fact that it’s almost always Westerners who accuse people of Orientalism. I’ve never been accused of this by an Egyptian (nor even a Westerner before Kevin). The West loves to accuse itself of horrible, apocalyptic crimes, but isn’t it clear that this is just the flip side of patriotic hubris? It’s a way of making the West a privileged term by saying “if we’re not the best, then we must be the worst.” And when people call themselves the worst at anything, it’s usually a way of fishing for compliments. (source here)

I have to say first off that I cherish the way that Graham is able to laugh at himself, especially when aspects of his old writing are brought back to haunt him. This is a golden capacity. Graham’s prodigious use of metaphor in his metaphysics is something that he savors. I recall him in a recent post being resolutely unapologetic for his metaphors, saying something of the sort, “Should I apologize for writing well?” (it made me genuinely smile). So to have your own metaphors turned against you, or exposed as a kind of “bad writing” (which I don’t really see them as), can’t be all that pleasant. But it is exactly to his metaphors that one is forced to turn. In part, because he uses them profusely, and in part because he leverages his entire theory upon metaphorization itself, folding his style into his content. If the strength of his theory is metaphorical, so there it must be tested.

And it was exactly his metaphorically charged synthesis of the objects of Husserl and Heidegger which exposed for me that hidden cultural, colonialist dichotomy to be found in Heidegger’s invisible-white/colored, working/broken, sense of the world. It wasn’t until Graham started talking about the sensuousness of the Intentional Object world in terms that were to my ear quite tribal and orientializing that the full picture came into view. There remains the larger question of whether Heidegger or Husserl fall to this critique (I believe that in the very least Heidegger does), but Graham Harman’s unique product from the thinking of these two seems specifically organized around a orientalizing projection. One might say that it makes up its allure.

“Good” Orientalism and the Money Changer

But I’d like to take up, anew, his appeal to the exotic through binarism. (I did post a response to his commentary which I will follow to some degree, found again here). He says, quoting from above,

“I don’t see why binaries or hiddenness lead to orientalism in the bad sense. They do lead to orientalism in the sense of exoticism, and I do love the exotic.”

It strikes me that though he explicitly denies my point in the first part, not seeing the “connection” I am making, he apparently does see that there is a connection. Binaries which emphasize hiddenness do  lead to orientalism, just not the “bad” kind of orientalism. This confuses me a bit for a variety of reasons. The first is the seeming outright contradiction (I see no connection, then I see a connection), but secondly as I pointed out in my response, he feels that there is a good kind of orientialism, ignoring the obvious tendency of “good” essentializations of peoples to flip themselves into “bad” essentialization. As I wrote in response, I am forced to state some rather obvious social facts, how a positive “exotic” quickly becomes the basis for a negative “exotic”:

One may eroticize the American Indian, and see them as spiritually attuned to Nature, but this too can animalize them, and make them unfit for self-determination, or in need of Salvation. One can see how great the American Black dances, how much rhythm they have and “cool” they are, and also realize by virtue of this, you really wouldn’t want them in charge of your money market fund.

Is this fair? Is Graham really stating that there are positive exoticizations of persons and cultures but remaining blind to the shadow of such a process? To take a historical example, does he not see that the exoticness of the Jew allowed him to historically stand outside of Christian law in a nether world, and make money through the otherwise un-Christian charging of interest? Is not the “Jew” (and there are so many other kinds of historical examples), an ideal model for Graham’s internalized, mediating Orientalization, becoming in the 16th and 17th centuries the very exo-teric mediating form for Capitalized growth? There is that spectacular story of how in Spinoza’s lifetime English royalty - I’ve forgotten which - had to literally come to the Jewish Ghetto in Amsterdam to secure funds to continue the war. How ex-otic. Talk about Vicarious Causation. And where does the “positive” of this binarization of the exotic stop? When does “they are so good at communications, calculations, accumulations” becomes “they want to rape our women, blaspheme our God, overturn our government”? These are obvious inversions, but I have to raise them if only to understand just how Graham imagines the fully positive role the exotic plays in the world (and I do believe that it does have a positive role). I love the exotic too. One just must realize something of the freight that gets carried with exotic, what processes are involved.

Veiled Whiteness and the Working Tool

Graham rightfully stresses that his notion of the exotic necessarily must be found not only in Bejing, but also in Logan, Utah:

You can already get it from a cheap hammer withdrawing into its subterranean tool-effect in places like Logan, Utah and Waterloo, Iowa. I didn’t have to come to Egypt to get that sort of concealment.

This is certainly an important aspect of his theory (but notably he spends little rhetorical time speaking in such terms to put forth the power of his descriptions). He, even more than his predecessor, wants to get away from actual tools and actual craftsman as fast as possible. Tool use is much more a launchpad for a great binarizing abstraction. And as I argued in Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr, if one paid attention to actually tool and instrument use, and were not governed by such optical metaphors as “hidden” and “veiled” and “invisible” one might end up with a very different metaphysical sense of the world. Rather, because Graham starts with Heidegger’s optically driven rhetoric of objects, he is already caught up in an invisible/colored dynamic, one which provides a near magnetic attraction for colonialist projections of “other” peoples. As I have tried to put forth, the very characterizations of sensuous objects, their properties and difficulties, are racially conditioned. This does not make them unvaluable, but it can make them entreching of binaries better left aside, something to be watched and tested. (And it does put political critique high on the agenda of such an otherwise to be assumed, apolitical ontology).

Because Graham’s comments were no doubt off-hand, I do not have a clear sense of the full grounding of the positive binarization which produces the exotic as solely “good”. Nor can I separate out his own writing, rich with orientializing rhetoric and conception, from that of Flaubert’s Salammbo, to which I draw explicit comparison? Is not Flaubert engaging in the very same “positive” orientalizations of the exotic as Graham suggests result from binarization? Is there a way to separate these out? I am unsure if Graham is denying that his theory is an Orientalizing one, or if he is simply saying that it is Orientalizing, but only in the Good Sense.

The inevitable question of Graham’s biography comes forward. There is the sense that if Graham’s theory orientalizes, then he is an orientalizer? He lives and teaches in a country he truly loves, Egypt. And has come to find his homeland of America more exotic than he does Cairo. I think it important to parse the man from the theory, in part because it is very hard, and actually unfair to critique a man, though much easier and fair to do so to a theory. (Not to mention, Graham seems like the more integrity-laden and intellectually generous of fellows.) Additionally though, I believe we all carry with us into our thinking the opposite for which we might otherwise stand, an importation that actually drives the creative process forward, such that work then allows the occasion to (perhaps unconsciously) engage with the material one objects to, to a give it a place. And as I have said, the importation of the orientalizing exotic in Graham’s theory actually may give us too a means for processing and forwarding the appeal of these rhetorical terms, the very “stuff” of his theory. Personally  I would rather work from different metaphors than those of visual color and hiddenness, especially when we are trying to describe a world beyond merely human conception such as Graham is attempting to do. But if one does engage in the exotic as a means of metaphysics, metaphors of color, wealth, vicars and all the jewels of perception, one should do so consciously, in full critique.

In answer to that path, I believe that when Heidegger begins with a principle trope of invisibility he is partaking in a cultural sense of Whiteness (one that he traces to a perceived whiteness of Greece). And when presencing works to coloredly veil the real being of something, this coloredness inevitably is caught up in the cultural dynamics of skin color and projections of the exotic. It is by the virtue of a primary optical conception of the mind and being that questions of color and visibility occur, and one cannot really separate out questions of color from cultural projections of color. In the 17th century these indeed occurred in a variety of shades and stereotypical fashions. The shade of one’s skin gave it a certain sensuous inner character, and the Asian, the Semite, the Moor, the New World Indian, all had their own internal and exotic qualities. But we also have to stay aware that these shadings which obscured pure and transparent white became entirely polarized by the enslavement of the “black”, particularly for the American consciousness, which re-inscribed the existing invisible/colored binary with an entrenching human limit. “Black” the opposite of “white” became the touchstone of what shading meant. In my opinion all optical metaphors of consciousness have to pass through the historical sieve of how color has been conceived in human beings. And any metaphysics that simply ignores this risks simply re-establishing the radical means by which it is carried out. Part of the satisfactions of the Continental school flat ontologies, ones that refuse a hidden and transparent essence, those of the kind that Graham and I both have some dissatisfaction, is that they have freed themselves to some degree from this white/colored optical projection, and have turned to new metaphors that do not carry so much unconscious and historically brutalizing baggage. Instead of invisible/colored, there are mechanisms, structures, genetic virtuals, networks, intensiities, layers, molarities, planes, etc., etc, etc. 

I do not feel that the recognition of severe cultural mistakes, the way that we have violated some of our most cherished values, is necessarily a kind of “patriotic hubris” as Graham puts it, or even the “fishing for compliments”, though I can see that this is a possibility. It is much more a question of learning from the past, and recognizing where we went wrong, where we have done things we would all be better off not repeating. And part of this recognition is realizing that otherwise seemingly benign conceptions even in the greatest abstraction helped forward certain social judgments to which they did not seem to be immediately connected. The result of a sensitivity to just this kind of connection is not the humorously self-contradictory slogan “Binaries are Bad”, but rather the idea that binaries, fundamental binaries, should be dug into, thought about, and checked.

Vicarious Causation Diagrammed

[or a larger, more readable image: here]

The above is my distillation of Graham Harman’s theory of cross-object-to-object causation as I have been able to glean from his thought-provoking essay “On Vicarious Causation”. I post it here because at times I am a visual thinker, and diagramming out the concepts and the purported dynamics helps me order my thought. Further though, it gives Graham the opportunity to locate just where I may or may not  be understanding him. I have written quite a few vectors of critique of his concept, and at the very least I should present just what I think he is saying.

It also may provide a nexus point for other readers so to better access Graham’s thinking here, or may allow a plateau on which readers may rest as they consider their own possible agreements and objections.

A Few More Questions

As a general thought, aside from my more varied critiques of the theory, after composing the diagram, I am currently wondering…

1. What does the signal consist of? Is it too a real object with sensuous vicars inside it?

2. How is it sent, or, what is its source?

3. What constitutes a clear or unclear reception of the signal?

4. How does the Intention as a Whole determine the causal source of the signal? (Surface of its own receiving skin, somewhere inside its own body boundary, in the vicar itself, in the medium, in the supposed real object, or somewhere further out, beyond the object?)

Graham has made it clear that he is quite busy, and cannot entertain such questions. Rather this is just something that I put out there in the ether for the good of whomever’s thought is also under development on the questions of vicarous causation.

Spinoza says, “Individual things are nothing more than…”

Spinoza and the Rights of Entities

In a brief response to my comment to Graham’s attempt to dichotomize all of recent philosophy into either “radical” or “conservative” forms, he claims that Spinoza is the “arch” radix reductionist:

As for Spinoza, he’s an arch-radix philosopher. You can’t say that there’s one substance and still do full justice to individual entities.

While I sincerely appreciate the future opportunity to have Graham cash out the promise that this will be explained, and I suspect that such a explanation would trade on the concept of “full justice”, from my point of view this claim comes from a very pale reading of Spinoza’s notion of Substance and the modes (Graham risks perhaps a Hegelian misreading of Spinoza’s metaphysics, thinking only vertically and not horizontally, suggesting something of an acosmism.) If Graham means by “full justice” complete autonomy of “individual entities” it would strike me (as it does) that he has retreated into a position that simply gives up the requirement for descriptive, rational explanations, the stuff of philosophy and metaphysics. Entities are autonomous simply because we grant ourselves freedom from the having to explain them, they come into being and then change for no identifiable reason at all (which is thus far is the state of Graham’s theory of causation, at least at the level of the inanimate, those “individual entities” in the greatest need of justice).

(It is interesting that if indeed Spinoza is an “arch” radix philosopher his metaphysics did not make Graham’s top ten seven list of radix philosophies.)

Aside from this, the idea that Spinoza’s metaphysics does not grant full nobility to any modal expression (what he calls “objects”) would have to take into firm account that for Spinoza the modes are that “by which God exists and acts”.  So to say that individual entities are “nothing but” Substance is to not fully grasp the fully concrete authority of modal expression. Without modal expression, God neither exists nor acts. Any “individual entity” is fully rightful in its place in the world. To say that this tea cup here is “nothing more than Substance” (the kind of reduction that Graham seems to imagine that Spinoza has archly performed), is to fail to see that the tea cup is a fully concrete expression of its individual essence, an essence which is particularized and unique in expression (matching Graham’s retreating essences of objects). The big difference is that it is not the sole cause of its existence, it is not autonomous, as it necessarily depends on external causes to bring it into, and to keep it in existence.

To put it roughly (I could draw closer correspondences):

1. Spinoza’s modal essences = Graham’s Heideggerian retreating essences.

2. Spinoza’s extensional expression of an essence = Graham’s real objects in tension with their qualities, composed of inner parts.

3.Spinoza’s ideational expression of an essence = Graham’s Husserian Intentional objects, composed of qualities and accidents.

If Spinoza is failing to grant full rights to entities, I can’t see how Graham does either for they divide up the pie in homologous ways. The only strong difference that I see is that Spinoza explicitly puts forth how these two, the inside and outside of objects, their mental and extensional aspects are related to each other.

“Objects, Objects every where, and all the boards did shrink…”

Graham does respond to my claim that he has simply adopted a metaphysics of two mirror world objects, telling me that these objects can indeed touch each other, across their mirror realms:

They’re not just “doubled in a mirror,” they’re of two different kinds: real objects, and intentional objects, and though two objects of the same kind cannot make contact, two objects of different kinds can. 

Unfortunately, as yet, I cannot tell how he imagines that this happens, other than simply stating that it does, especially on the inanimate level where a representationalist conception of knowledge is more than cumbersome. If he posits a complimentary Hume world and a Malebranche world, and then claims that elements in the Hume world literally touch elements in the Malebranche world, or some such equivalent, the entire claim that these are not isolated mirror worlds rests on precisely the enumeration of the nature of this “touching”. I have a feeling that he has a thing or two up his sleeve and he is waiting until it is more formulated, for he seems quite confident that he can answer the question with some detail. 

Returning to the original point though, the idea that Spinoza has made the modes “nothing more than Substance” (if this is what Graham is saying) would strike me as a deep misreading of even the claims of Spinoza. It would be like saying that for Spinoza natura naturata  is nothing more than natura naturans, an imprecise interpretation that I believe Malebranche also made on the fly when D’Ortous De Mairan begged him to save Europe from Spinozism, which was threatening to take all the miracles out of Christianity.  Such a reduction is explicitly foreclosed in Spinoza’s metaphysics.

I certainly look forward to Graham’s critique of Spinoza which should prove a satisfying groundwork for us finding greater agreement. I would suggest though that failing a rigorous theory of causation, not having defensible reasons why something is they way it is in the world, does not just have the benefit of saving the entity from the possibility of “reduction” (simply, explanation), giving it perhaps the illusion of the “right” to be what it is, to hide from every eye;  it has the very real negative consequence of making an island of it, and imprisoning it from any knowledgeable path towards its own freedom. Any explanation of a condition does not simply pigeon hole something, it also empowers the described if it can be knowing of its causes. The kind of “reduction” that Spinoza makes, insofar as he makes one, the claim that “I” am but an expression of Substance, is precisely the kind of reduction which minimizes none of my status as an “entity” but which directs my attention to the external causes which have made me what I am, and the exact nature of my dependencies. Because it shows me to be dependent, and not perfectly autonomous, it gives me the opportunity to change the nature of my dependencies to the degree that I can, and be given real  freedom, through the imperative that I choose my alliances to other things and persons powerfully.

When there is little explanatory framework, it is the just possibility of this freedom that is cut off from me as an object in the world. Questions of cause are inevitably linked to questions of agency, and Spinoza grants agency to all things. Absolving the question of contact and cause into the poetics of a sensuous realm’s “thin film eaten away over time” as if a time bomb ready to explode, or alternately, it being  “ruptured by distant signals” as Graham so beautifully does in his essay “On Vicarious Causation” actually has the reverse effect of what is intended, in denying objects the justice they require, a path of self-determination in terms of the power to act in the world: the answer to such questions as “How does one get one’s thin film eaten away in the best, most productive fashion?” or, “How does one most benificiently subject oneself to the rupture of distant signals?”

More on Harmanian Causation: The Proposed Marriage of Malebranche and Hume

Let the Nuptials Commence

Malebranche and Hume as One

I have posted several comments in critique of, and at times in synthesis with, Graham Harman’s admittedly provisional theory of Causation, partly because it is so damn alluring, so to speak. It practically begs to be questioned for the very boldness of is claims to explain the weirdness of caustion. Here I examine the final pages of his essay “On Vicarious Causation” because it was thesethat defied me a bit, for it seemed that somehow I had missed just the precise kind of connection that Graham proposes, having understood generally what he was outlining.

Nicolas Malebranche

Nicolas Malebranche

David Hume

David Hume

Two Sides of a Misunderstanding
Below I post from the informative conclusion from Graham Harman’s essay, one in which he seeks to bring Hume and Malebranche into complementary contact with each other in such a way to explain the nature of the result he is after. He seems to feel that if we simply let go of Malebranche’s fear of blasphemous atheism, his occasionalism fits hand and glove with Hume’s empiricism and somehow they would work to explain each other:

Hume and Malebranche face opposite versions of the same problem. Although Hume supposedly doubts the possibility of connection, note that for him a connection has actually already occurred: he is never surprised that two billiard balls lie simultaneously in his mind, but doubts only that they have independent force capable of inflicting blows on each other. In this sense, Hume actually begins with connection inside experience and merely doubts any separation outside it. Conversely, Malebranche  begins by assuming the existence of separate substances, but doubts that they can occupy a shared space in such a way as to exchange their forces – leading him to posit God’s power as the ultimate joint space of all entities. Like Hume, we can regard the intentional agent as the vicarious cause of otherwise separate phenomena. The tree and its mountainous backdrop are indeed distinct, yet they are unified insofar as I am sincerely absorbed with both. But more than this: when the parts of the tree fuse  to yield the tree with its single fixed tree-quality, I too am the vicarious cause for the connection of these sensual objects. Even if I merely sit passively, without unduly straining eyes or mind, it is still for me that theseparts have combined. Here, a real object (I myself) serves as the vicarious cause for two or more sensual ones. In the inverted case of Malebranche, we cannot accept the pistol shot of the deity as our vicarious cause, since no explanation is given of how God as a real object could touch other real objects; fear of blasphemy is the sole protection for this incomplete doctrine. Instead, just as two sensual objects are vicariously linked by a real one, two real objects must be vicariously linked by a sensual one (220)

Graham has indeed identified an important nexus in the split between Idealism and Empiricism, and even brought forth suitable candidates for each school of thought. The problem of course is that I can’t see how he connects these two complimentary visions of the world, but rather leaves them floating there as two mirror reflections which simply do not touch.

One sees this in the paragraph before where he treats the accidents of sensuous objects in our mind. Due to the amphibious quality of accidents of sensuous objects, both belonging to the object and not,  they are the means by which one object able to somehow connect to, and fuse  with other sensuous object in our mind, crossing over whatever buffer had restrained them before:

“Accidents are tempting hooks protruding from the sensual object, allowing it the chance to connect with others and thereby fuse two into one.”

This presumably is happening within the Hume side of the equation (though we will see that it might fit better within Malebranche’s representationalism); yet it should be noted, it seems that here it is not human beings or their minds that are doing the fusing, but that it is the sensuous objects themselves, dangling their red lanterns in our mental street, are doing this. Sensuous objects through the power of their allurements, produce the fusion.

This is inner action is for Graham equally complimented by an occasionalist reality of real objects whose parts are not encrusted to it from the outside, (thus creating that sensuous object), but rather whose parts are on the inside  of them, composing them:

“A real object, too, is formed of parts whose disappearance threatens its very existence. The difference is that the parts of a sensual object are encrusted onto its surface: or rather, certain aspects of those parts are fused to create it, while the remainder of those parts emanates from its surface as noise. By contrast, the parts of a real object are contained on the interior of that object, not plastered onto its outer crust.” 

And how do these real, internal parts cohere together so as to make an object? One presumes through each of them, each part holding an accident-driven fusion of their own inner, sensual objects such that they come in contact with other parts. I.e., inside each extrinsically organized object are other extrinsic parts (the occasionalism of Malebranche); and outside each sensuous object are “parts” which are the qualities and accidents which compose it in the perceptual space of an asymmetrical relation, the Intention-as-a-whole, which is a real object. These internal relations are intrinsic to an object (and at least in the first paragraph quoted, marked by a possible Humean explanation).

What is left behind is the very mechanism which actually connects these two, perfectly positioned but unassailable worlds. What is it that makes the sensuous objects which dangle their accidents in order to produce a fusion/connection with other sensuous objects (a processes exemplified by metaphorization), have traction? What makes one fusion of sensuous objects in our mind more powerful, or better than another? What causes the actions or states of a senuous object (is Graham satisfied with the bundling of qualities)? 

An Answer: The Cleaving of Malebranche and Hume

An answer to this proposed marriage between Malebranche and Hume worlds seems obvious. One has to begin from a place in which both the mental inner activity of objects (the sensuous combination of vicars), and the material, real object combinations, are part of one  expressive relation. That is, the insides and outsides are already powerfully and significantly connected, from the beginning: there is no fundamental split into realms.

In order to see how this is philosophically possible or even likely I believe we need to look at is the first half of Graham’s dichotomy, Malebrache. In particular, it is the extensive Malebranche/Arnauld debate that proves pivotal to explaining how contemporary and creative philosophers like Graham can end up with two halves of a mirror without any connection between them. (I follow here the excellent exposition of the debate written by Steven Nadler, Arnauld and the Cartesian philosophy of ideas (1989)).

Antoine Arnauld

Antoine Arnauld

As Nadler points out it was in their dispute over just how to interpret the concept of “idea” principally in relation to the philosophical innovations of Descartes, that eventually lead to modern philosophy reading “Idea” as a mediating form between the mind and the world, producing the concordant “veil of ideas” problematic that characterizes much if not all of Idealism, including it seems, its distant descendant Object-Oriented Philosophy.

To put it most briefly, Nicolas Malebranche argued that for Descartes, and properly for philosophy, ideas were indeed mediating representations, literally objects before the mind:

The word idea is equivocal. Sometimes I take it as anything that represents some object to the mind, whether clearly or confusedly. More generally I take it for anything that is the immediate object of the mind. But I take it in the most precise and restricted sense, that is, as anything that represents things to the mind in a way so clear that we can discover by simple perception whether such and such modifications belong to them. (Rech. Eclaircissement III: OC III, 44; LO, 561, as cited by Nadler, 61)

Under such a conception we can immediately see the framework for Graham Harman’s vicars, and even the possibilities of his synthesizing, fusing accidental lures. Malebranche though makes a significant distinction when thinking about ideas: they are quite distinct from “sensations”. Sensations leave us only circulating  within the bare parameters of our soul, with no way out. It is ideas are the very intelligibility, the God-given capacities of representation, through which we are able to pierce through our sensations and connect to the intelligible world. So we see from the start that, far from a simple fear of blasphemy, not only is it God that keeps objects in contact with each other in Malebranche’s occasionalism of change, it is divine intelligibility which also allows us to break through the sensual world, the very same sensual world that Graham Harman is trying to connect to the outside world. When you take away Malebranche’s God, not only do objects not connect to each other, but souls do not connect to the world.

As he characterized the debate,

What is the issue at hand? Mr. Arnauld insists that the modalities of the soul are essentially representative objects distinct from the soul, and I maintain that these modalities are nothing but sensations, which do not represent to the soul anything different from itself(Repose V; OC VI, 50; Nadler 82 ).

Antoine Arnauld, a French Roman Catholic theologian, on the other hand argued (with some inconsistency) that ideas were not representations distinct from our sensuous perceptions, not mediating forms of some intelligibility kind, but rather were actions of the mind in direct perception of the world. As Arnauld summed his understanding of Malebranche’s position, we can detect the roots of Graham Harman’s problem of connection:

At first, he [Malebranche] supposes that our mind does perceive material things. The trouble is only in explaining how: whether it is by means of ideas or without ideas, taking the word ‘idea’ to mean a representative entity distinct from perception. After much philosophizing on the nature of these representative entities, after having marched them around everywhere and having been only able to place them in God, the only fruit that he gathers from all is not an explanation of how we see material things, which alone was what was sought, but rather the conclusion that our mind is incapable of perceiving them, and that we live in a perpetual illusion in believing that we see the material things that God has created when we look at them, that is to say when we turn our eyes towards them; and meanwhile seeing, instead of them, only intelligible bodies that resemble them(VFI, 229, cited in Nadler 89 )

Contrary to this, for Arnauld the mind did not look on and stare at mental objects, intelligible bodies distinct from our sensations, but rather ideas were the very workings of a mind connected already to the world, a position which Steven Nadler calls “Direct Realism”. As Arnauld writes, he makes no distinction in kind, but onlly in relation, between a perception and an idea (a distinct that Malebranche maintains as one of kind):

I have said that I take the perception and the Idea to be the same thing. Nevertheless, it must be remarked that this thing, although single, stands in two relations: one to the soul which it modifies, the other to the thing perceived, insofar as it exists objectively in the soul. The word perception more directly indicates the first relation, the word idea, the later(VFI, 198; Nadler 109 )

There are not two different entities here [perception and idea], but one and the same modification of our soul, which involves essentially these two relations; since I cannot have a perception which is not at the same time my perceiving mind’s perception and the perception as something as perceived (VFI, 198 )

Nadler then traces how it was Thomas Reid, a Scotish contemporary of David Hume, who then (mis)characterized all of philosophy stemming from Descartes as lumpedly conditioned by Malebranchean mediating “ideas” between the mind and the world, adopting Malebranche’s veil of ideas (or “palace of idea” as Arnauld called it) interpretation of Descartes theory. Reid saw himself as the first to break from a philosophy that had been thus plagued by the problem of skepticism,

Modern philosophers…have conceived that external objects cannot be the immediate objects of our thought; that there must be some image of them in the mind itself, in which, as in a mirror, they are seen. And the name “idea”, in the philosophical sense of it, is given to those internal and immediate objects of our thoughts. The external thing is remote or mediate object; but the idea, or image of that object in the mind, is the immediate object, without which we could have no perception, no remembrance, no conception of the mediate object (The Philosophical Works of Thomas Reid, 226, cited by Nadler 8 )

“Des Cartes” system of the human understanding, which I shall beg leave to call the ideal system, and which…is not generally received, hath some original defect; that this skepticism is inlaid in it, and reared along with it (Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (Chapter 1, section 7; 1764, Glasgow & London)

Through the bottleneck of Reid’s historical interpretation the very possibility of Arnauld’s or Descartes’ “Direct Realism,” which would feature ideas to be read as actions of the mind and not mediating representations, become lost to Idealism’s Representational Cartesianism, of which Husserl remains a positive exemplar.

The Solution: One World, One Process 

My point to Graham’s Hume/Malebranche compliment of each other is that the very dichotomy that Graham finds himself split over, is of a historical creation, in particular one that imposes a separation of worlds, realms or objects, but one that may not even have traction in Descartes its reported origin. Key to a way forward, when considering the transmission of the Idealist problematic, is the kind of direct realism that Arnauld favored, one in which ideas of the mind are taken to be the actions of the mind engaged in perception. Actions of the mind are distinguishing in such a way that they face both outwardly and inwardly. They are unto the horizon of the object/body recursively defined as “ideas” (or semiotic differences), but also understood to be directly caused through interaction with the world.

Arnauld’s reading of ideas though is still tainted to some degree with the essential notion of idea as representation, a picture or image of reality, a functional difficulty which would remain a problem of the Idealism what would inherit Reid’s characterization. And Arnaud is not really consistent on this matter. While he got it right that for Descartes ideas should be best seen as actions of the mind already directly engaged with the world, what was needed was a metaphysical vision in which the kinds of connections that bind objects together in the real world “out there” were the very same kinds of connections that were going on when mental actions were taking place, binding us to the world, connecting that is “out there” to what is “in here”.

And this is exactly the connection between inside and outside that Graham is seeking to establish, although perhaps the best that can be done within the Idealist framework is simply place Hume and Malebranche on two sides of the same miror, such that they cannot touch. But it seems more that Graham has not only adopted Malebrache’s occasionalism of objects, but also places himself well within the heritage of Malebranche’s “palace of ideas” theory of cognition, robbing each of them of their explanatory lynchpin, the very thing each was designed to fortify…God. One is left with objects that do not touch or change with any explanation, and mental objects which serve as representations, but whose means of connection to the world remains opaque.

It turns out though there wasa philosopher who proposed that Ideas were just that, not representations of the world, but actions of the Mind (in my view, making them semiotic). And because his metaphysics was a metaphysics of panpsychism, our internal events were necessarily already external events, all things had an inner life of mental action (precisely what Graham is seeking to connect in his theory of vicarious causation). This philosopher of ideas as mental actions (what he characterized as affirmations of aspects of the body which manifested a degree of power, reality or perfection), was perhaps the foremost Dutch commentator on Descartes in the generation that followed the birth of that philosophy, at the cusp of a breaking wave into modernity….the marano, ex-communicated Jew and maker of telescopes Baruch Spinoza.

Each perception is already a belief, it does not come into the human mind neutral, but is an action of the mind, and thus the organism, the object. Each perception, or even imaginary conjuration, is a material change in the ontological sinews which connect that object/body to all others, and expresses both the internal relations of that body, and its causal links to the world. One does not have to pierce  through the veil of ideas or even of sensuous vicars, to get to the world, because one is already part of the world, and each mental action is a change in one’s position in it. There is no veil. There is only strength of action.

Conclusion: We Follow the Body, not the Object

Now to be fair, whereas Malebranche  wanted to separate out ideas from sensations because sensations were the animal half of us, and his intelligibility of ideas was meant to carry us beyond the inner limits of our animal bodies. This is the opposite of where Graham wants to go. His vicars, his representations drip with the sensuous. Their very animal richness is that he suspects provides the link between their internal object nature and real causation (though the mechanism of this link remains as yet unexplained). In a sense it is the presence of the sensation, the way that it supersedes the ideal “essence” of the object that it helps construct, that joins the real body to other bodies. It is this priority in Graham’s philosophy, the way that sensation may clue toward the connection itself, that I believe will break through the mirrored universes of objects he has set up. It is my hope that the great tension between his cornerstone discovery of dual objects (Heidegger/Husserl), and the firm desire to give rightful place to all things which are not objects per se, (qualities/accidents), and create a non-human-centric metaphysics giving rights to even the smallest of things, will produce a rift which will force an abandonment of the concepts of mental action as essentially an act of Representation, and isolation/severance/retreat as a fundamental pre-condition of all ontology. The key, I believe, is recognizing the nature of the connections that already exist, a cognizance which empowers, and not looking to pierce through barriers which produce the illusion of dis-connection. Every wall necessarily is a link.

The “sensuous vicar” of Causation

Graham Harman makes a humorous point , asking himself if he ever did use the phrase “sensuous vicar” found in the suggestive illustration I provided in my reading of his essay “On Vicarious Causation” (pictured here):

Graham writes, “I was even laughing at some of my own words as I scanned Kevin’s post quickly. Did I really say ‘sensuous vicar’ in that article? I doubt anyone else has ever used that phrase before or since.”

Illustration of The Real Object of Intention

The Vicar Abounds

I did a quick google search for the phrase “sensuous vicar,” and only his and my posts came up, though I can’t help thinking that some translation of de Sade somewhere contains the phrase, perhaps in great repetition. I then perused his article and found though Graham did not use the phrase (now wishing he had, no doubt, breaking literary ground), he did use these  phrases and which I contingently turned into the concept “sensuous vicar,” moving from sensual to sensuous.

“sensual zebra”
“sensual profile”
“sensual tree”
“sensual vicar”
“sensual noise”
“sensual neighbors”
“sensual facade”
“…the various eruptions of real objects into sensuality lie side by side”
“The confinements of sensuality to the human kingdom must be refused.”
“inflicting their mutual blows only through some vicar…”

Aside from the jest, I think that there is a powerful, perhaps telling under-association working here in Graham’s interpretation of causation, and certainly not a bad one. I had drawn out some of the more Romantic phrases of his essay, and no doubt was led to the vivid image of the “sensuous vicar” as a representative of power because of this, in part because as I have mentioned before it is the qualities themselves that Graham is sincerely interested in ennobling (and not the objects which merely serve as empty anchor points). As I suggested, his Object-Oriented Philosophy (OOP) might be better considered Quality-Oriented Philosophy (QOP). Or, perhaps, Graham’s objects are the only things that allow these qualities, these profusions of sensuality, from running over into each other too forcefully, the things that “buffer” them, as Graham says. (I think that a very strong case can be made in this direction, but also one which then turns to the modulating “buffer” of causation itself which serves as a directional coursing for qualities so profuse: accidents of intentional essences prove themselves not to be accidents at all, but results of consubstantial and causal relations).

“Merkur und Herse” Caraglio (1527)

The Vicar In Vicarious

In fact though, I had consciously latched onto the curious conflation that can be found in the titular word Graham used for his theory of causation. I never before had thought of how a priestly “vicar” resided within “vicarious” and one cannot help but think of the most common use of the word vicarious these days, our voyeuristic tendency towards the Gaze, vicarious sex, or at least having the vicarious enjoyment through others. So I must argue, just this sort of priest, the “sensuous vicar” lies directly at the molten core of Graham’s theory.

This is no small question, for just what constitutes the power of a priest is the sense that he is connected to, enjoys a connection to some power – if not Godly power, certainly an earthly one – which we do not have. The priest in his person, buffered by the restrictions of his office, enjoys God/Church which courses through him, variously. When we come into contact with the priest, we come in contact with some mediated, causal connection to something much greater than ourselves.

So when the “vicar,” the sensuous vicar comes to us in the privacy of our otherwise isolated minds, our inner cores, he is adorned with all sorts of wordly sensual characteristics, (we can see his fine robery and jewels, thing to which we imagine he is not “attached”); but Graham is looking for the means, the mechanism by which we can strip him of his gold and robes, separate out his bare essence from his otherwise taken to be qualities (for what is a priest without his collar).  What is it that connects this fantasy priest to something outside of us/it, to the outer object he represents? Graham seems to say that through the power of allurement (and metaphor), through our seduction to his lovely accoutrement, when we disrobe the sensuous vicar of his profane phantasm he is destabilized, robbed of his wholeness, not even his conceptual nudity holds him together, and the buffering between things mental is broken down…thus enabling the “real” object to poke through…causation. (If I read him correctly.)

I have already argued before that this is a pretty elaborate and fanciful explanation for inanimate causation, for how can these inner lascivious priests work their benighted magic within the horizons of cigarette butts and soda cans. In fact I suspect that it is conceptually impossible to map most of these things aspects down onto the abiotic world, no matter how fantastically or abstractly we make our mapping. But if we stay at the level of the human and the social perhaps we discover something significant in Graham’s presentation of the inner priest: the sensuous vicar who enjoys the sublunar trappings of our mental incrustations and a real, destabilizing connection to an object exterior to us, ultimately a supralunar essence which in the world of real objects is forever in retreat.

The lesson seems to be that when we take apart the intentional sensuous vicar before us, removing the incrustations of phenomena, we realize its apparitional nature, i.e., it is only made up these phenomenal glitterings and the conceptual space he has resided in. This disintegration of the sensuous vicar though does a very strange thing, Graham tells us, it allows the real object of the vicar, out there in the beyond, to actually come through and causally affect us, connecting us to it. It is by destabilizing our visiting priest’s sensuous body, we allow his “soul” (for what else is an ever-retreating, immortal essence) to come through and contact us, our surfaces having been brushed just so. If any of this is what is behind the thinking of Graham’s theory of causation, what an extraordinary, enthralling (yet perhaps absurd) theory it is!

But we need to stay with this sensuous vicar, for there are sensuous vicars of power in the real world (and literature), and how we treat him in a proposed theory of causation may be telling of how we will treat him in the world. There are priests absolving our sins, I.R.S agents negotiating our debts, officers assigning our criminality, celebrities revealing the Good Life, newsmen passing on the truth (to talk only of a class). Our concept of causation, how power connects representatives, is in part of how we read our connection to these powers. In this vein consider the master of the sensuous vicar, Marquis de Sade. His aberrant priests enact an inversion of the representational powers of Church priests. Whereas Church priests through the bufferings  of their office connect themselves to, what for Sade is an illusionary  or at least hypocritical sanctity, his priests also are instruments of another kind of God…the purely sensual and destructive power of Nature herself. Sade sees Church priests as just not instrumental enough. Perhaps de Sade’s vicars expose something about representation and accident.

De Sade’s Vicar of Sensuality

This tension and connection between kinds of priest can be seen in de Sade’s famous Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man , which I only briefly quote here:

PRIEST: Wretched man! I took you for no worse than a Socinian - arms I had to combat you. But ’tis clear you are an atheist, and seeing that your heart is shut to the authentic and innumerable proofs we receive every day of our lives of the Creator’s existence - I have no more to say to you. There is no restoring the blind to the light.

DYING MAN: Softly, my friend, own that between the two, he who blindfolds himself must surely see less of the light than he who snatches the blindfold away from his eyes. You compose, you construct, you dream, you magnify and complicate; I sift, I simplify. You accumulate errors, pile one atop the other; I combat them all. Which one of us is blind?

Nazarín, Luis Buñuel, (1959)

De Sade has purified the inefficiency of the priest’s instrumentation, stripped away dreams and errors, pushing towards an even greater causal expression. The debauchery riddled priests in his stories (“The Bishop” in 120 Days, or the monks of Justine, though all active characters are intercessors) have ascended to a machinery of sensuous mechanism. No longer is the sensuality of a priest an accident of his presence before it, but rather the fullness of his means. In the de Sade priest Graham’s sensuous vicar meets is logical apex.

I want to juxtapose these two:

1.Graham’s sensuous vicar whose phenomenal character disintegrates through allurement into a kind of illusion, its wholeness no longer holding, allowing a mysterious and causal connection to the vicar’s distant soul/essence.

2. De Sade’s perversely sensuous priest who is maximized through the literalizations of his causal connections to the world and other bodies, who to the victim/viewer is made as real, machined traverses of instrumental intensity, each bit of phenomenal accident something he, the victim/viewer, experiences as modulated and directed sensuous-material force.

If my thesis is correct and what Graham is after is the ennoblement of qualities and accidents (which he has provided the positive anchor point of a twin pair of objects), it would seem that de Sade’s sensuous vicar of causation proves superior to his object-orientation path. Causal paths automatically becomes sensual paths of immediate destruction and becoming. There are no shadow objects hiding behind the trappings of the priest, but rather each and every indulging satin robe or bejeweled ring is a directional expression of causal power…one that can be traced. There is no tension with the sensual, no abstraction of the essence (thus no sublunar mental realm, or a supralunar essence beyond the reach of our hands). Each object expresses itself to the maximization of its sensuous capacities, just as representatives of power do. And our mental actions (including what Graham takes to be the sensual objects of our minds), are causally expressive determinations of our own being, representative of all the forces which press down and through us. The question is just one of best, maximal modulation.


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