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

Listening From Afar

Just finished listening to Graham Harman’s lecture “Assemblages According to Manuel DeLanda” [mp3] (given at the London School of Economics and Political Science, on 27 November 2008), as part of my attempt come to grips with just what Graham is saying about causation, and much comes clear as he tries to applaud and criticize DeLanda, forming a critical triangle between himself, DeLanda and Latour.

And there is much that is substantive on cause in this lecture, though it passes in and out as a subject. Graham tries to position himself just right, a Goldilocks between DeLanda’s rather fusing, if genetic, depths hiding beneath actualizing expressions and Latour’s satisfying emphasis upon real, though occasionally isolated, and far too-shallow actors in networks. The lecture is not long, and there is a lengthy thought-experiment driven discussion that follows.

It is here, in the discussion where Graham brings up the reality of the essence of the “McCain Victory Coalition” a very real thing that simply did not come about, was not actualized. I had run into this initially in one of his comments on a blogged post and certainly had trouble with it, in concept, conjuring up far too much reality for a science fiction of “possible worlds”. But Graham’s consistent emphasis on essence got me thinking (he makes a very good point that much of the postmodern baby-with-the-bathwater  treatment of essence is due to a conflationary reading of essence, in particular carried out by Derrida).

The “Neapolitan Volcano”

What really came to mind was the philosophy of Tommaso Campanella and his own treatment of essence. There struck me to be great affinity between Graham’s idealization of essence in a notion of retreating objects, split off from their qualities, and the thinking of the late-Renaissance heretic. So while I have spent too much time attacking Graham’s OOP from the perspective of Spinoza (who admittedly is fashionable these days), it seemed right to come to Graham’s support from an extremely unfashionable thinker, one who had almost vanished from the philosophical canon. At the very least it gives me an chance to put forth some more of Campanella’s thought, and perhaps drawn one more line of affinity between Graham’s OOP and late-Scholastic/Renaissance thought.

Here I post without much comment a summation of Campanella’s treatment of essence and existence, taken from Bonansea’s excellent book, Tommaso Campanella: Renaissance Pioneer of Modern Thought. It begins with a quotation from Campanella  himself, followed by Bonansea’s commentary:

To [Scotus’s] second and third arguments we answer that existence is the limit of essence. Since it cannot be distinguished from what is limited and modified, any more than the extreme end of a line that can be distinguished from the line itself, it follows that existence belongs to the same predicament of essence, or better, to the predicament of quantity which is the measure of substance. I mean transcendental quantity; for the angel too, has a limited quanitity of power, and this limit is from his own existence. However, if one considers the extrinsic terminal factors, existence must be said to be an accident. Indeed, although time, place, and all the surrounding beings are also essences, yet they do not belong to the quiddity of a thing that is thereby circumscribed and located in a particular place and time. They are but accidents which contract a thing into such and such an existence.

Met. II, 6, 2, 4, p. 10a

“Existence is, therefore, neither matter, nor form, nor their composite, but their extreme and ultimate mode. It is a transcendental measure that implies a real relationship to external things. It is the end of being and the beginning of nonbeing; or rather, the connecting link between being and nonbeing. Insofar as it has being, it belongs to essence; insofar as it has nonbeing, it belongs to nothingness.

In these statements we have, we believe, the exact meaning of Campanella’s notion of extrinsic existence as something distinct from intrinsic existence. This notion enables us to understand why the existence of a finite being can be said to be identical with essence and at the same time really distinct from it. In the first case, existence stands for the actual intrinsic entity of a thing; in the second case, it stands for the beings outside of an individual essence which is thereby limited by its own nonbeing. For, it should be noted, although in Campanella’s philosophy existence limits essence no less than essence limits existence, the actual limitation or contraction of both essence and existence is from nonbeing.

…The difference between a thing as it is in the mind of God and the same thing as it is in its actuality consists in this, that the latter case its being is contracted to a definite concrete existence. This amounts to saying that by its creation a thing does not acquire a better existence, but only an existence that contracts to a particular and concrete essence the essence that exists in the mind of God in the form of a universal and nobler idea. Since existence is in turn also contracted to a certain particular essence, no distinction can be admitted between essence and intrinsic existence in finite things, just as no distinction is to be admitted between them as they are in the mind of God. (Theol. I, 3, 9)”

Tommaso Campanella: Renaissance Pioneer of Modern Thought  (180-181)

I find this synthesis interesting, and in keeping with much of Graham’s retreating object essences. Campanella grants a full nobility of object essence outside of causes extrinsic to its concrete existence, and uses the suggestive metaphor of the reaching of concrete existence as the reaching of a limit, like the very end or terminus of a line. The accidents of its concrete existence (what Graham calls its qualities) are actually for Campanella the intersection of Being with Nonbeing, into what he calls a contraction. Concrete existence forms a horizon of this intersection, a particularization, to which the essence of something is not reduced. It is in terms that would be satisfying to Graham, in surplus to this horizon. The intrinsic essence of a man as it becomes concretized through the external causes on which it depends comes into contact with what it is not (not-man), is actually coming into contact with Nonbeing itself. And it is not just the essence that is particularized, but so is existence itself. There are almost three layers coming into contraction.

Aside from simply seeing some homologies in thought (many of these simply being a product of Campanella’s attempted synthesis of Scholastic debates), Graham’s surplus object essences and Campanella’s collision of Being with particularizing NonBeing, it was also his claim that there is such an object as the McCain Victory Coalition (something I still have problems with). But I wanted to investigate the degree to which Campanella would grant just such an object. Here I post Bonansea’s commentary on the status of contingent objects in Campanella’s thought (found in a chapter on the Primality of Potentia (power/capactity), something that Campanella reads as co-constitutive of all Being):

“Just as power is needed for acting, so it is needed for being (Met. II, 6, 5, 1). A being that always is has its power to be ab intrinseco, or else it would have to depend on another being for its existence. Such is the first being, whose power to be is its own esse. Beings that now are but at one time were not, i.e., contingent beings, have their power to be ab extrinseco. They are called possible insofar as they can be made through their causes, and actual inasmuch as they actually exist outside their causes. In the first case they have only an imperfect power to be, since this power rests with a cause outside of themselves; in the second case they have a perfect power to be within themselves, because they already exist (Met. II, 6, 5, 3).

One might think that in contingent beings the power to be precedes their own existence; in fact, many things are possible that do not exist yet. However, this is not true, for what is possible already has some sort of existence. It exists causally in its cause, virtually in the agent, potentially in its power, and really, existentially, in the thing itself when it is out of its own cause. No matter how a thing can be, somehow or other it already is. If it can be perfectly, it is perfect; if it can only be in an imperfect way, it is imperfect (Met. p.21a-21b). To state the something has the power to be and not assign to it any sort of being or existence is highly inconsistent. Power to be is therefore an “essentiaity” of being (Met. p. 21b). It is being itself insofar as it is or will be (Met. II, 6, 6, 7).

Tommaso Campanella: Renaissance Pioneer of Modern Thought (150) 

Not addressed are contingent objects which have not, and this will not now come into existence, such as the one Graham preposes (unless one imagines that McCain’s Victory Coalition could come into play in a next election). But this notion of the potentia/power of a thing that already exists in its causes (ab extrinseco), and in its intrinsic essence yet concretized, seems to be the very concepts that Graham is capitalizing on when asserting that such an object must in some sense exist. I offer from this excentric but beautiful thinker a pillar of conceptual support from across the centuries for Graham’s claim for the existence of non-concretized potential objects, at least as a rough point of affinity.

Inhuman Causation

To turn to a different question, in terms of my discoveries within the lecture on the subject of causation, Graham admits what to me is the rather profound difficulty to explain what causation is at the very level of the inanimate (where we assume the preponderance of causation in the Universe occurs). He is quite fair with this, never hiding this fault. But this is huge. I quote from the discussion that followed:

“It is not exactly clear to me how it happens in the case of inanimate objects. We can it better in the case of human things. We can ask ourselves why some metaphors work and others don’t. Um, why some jokes work and some others don’t. Um, its not entirely clear to me why in the case of certain physical interactions sometimes there is a causal effect, sometimes there is no causal effect when two things meet at all. Sometimes it goes in only one direction….I think what we do methodologically is that we first have to look at the human cases and see why the object is severed from it traits, first, and then we kind of retroactively try to think down to the inanimate level and see how it might work there. That’s why you have to start with aesthetics to get at causation.”

There are two problems that I see with this problem. It is good that Graham excavates the problem itself, trying to point out that for a Realist other supposed solutions to this problem, (how do the buried essences of things touch each other), may not really be solutions at all; something of the problem of cause may have been swept under the philosophical rug (and he provides an excellent critique of DeLanda’s dismissal of determination). Yet to offer a metaphysics of the world which does not even posses a strong, rough-sketch approach to animate interactions, while seeking to undermine the common materialist notions of causation seems to me to point to the insufficiency of one’s essential theory. Graham appears to be saying something like, If you are going to be a Realist of the sort that I claim you should be you cannot accept the generally accepted materialist notions of causation, but…I cannot really give you a coherent replacement description in its stead. One gets the sense that the appeal of the theory in poetic or narrow sense (as opposed to a systematic metaphysics of the world), is supposed to override the requirements of a robust explanatory power. It is something like, if you are going to be a Realist, causation between inanimate objects cannot at all happen like that, but I cannot really tell you how it does happen. This can be the beginning of a tremendous effort of new and creative thought (how to fashion a theory-coherent explanation for a huge portion of reality already well-described by other historical assumptions), or, as in often the case, when so much phenomena and event fall outside of a descriptive theory this is the sign of the death-throes of a theory, an Idealist inspired theory so strained one or more of its basic assumptions much be changed.

But more challenging that this is that the primary focus for Graham’s OOP is objects themselves, that is, objects without human beings. The inability to coherently and powerfully describe the conditions of interactions between two objects without any human beings around is at the very least highly problematic, if not fatally self-contradictory. The very methodology that Graham prescribes, and he is again a very forthright, is that we must start from the human and extrapolate down further and further as far as we can go. What would not make the conclusions we arrive at through such an extrapolation not  a completely human-centered, perhaps outright Idealist creation, I can’t tell. The entire construct is woven out of human experience as exemplar and ideal (hence his projection of rather psychological terms such as “allure” to describe what happens in causation). The consequence of this, and this is just my feeling, the only thing tha would save a non-human centered project result spun from human extrapolation is panpsychism itself, that is, the processes we human beings are carrying out when we actually make such a theory are fundamentally part of the processes that all things carry out (we are not fundamentally a kingdom within a kingdom).  Such a conclusion though would I think require a non-psychological, non-affectuating, non-quality ridden projection, a re-essentialization of just what it is that we are doing when forming this theory and all other things (which would unfortunately require that Graham abandon his otherwise worthy Husserlian/Cartesian/Idealist influence…it would not leave his theory standing).

All this being said, both the affinity of thought come from Tommaso Campanella’s home in a Naples prison, to the apparent road-block of a non-humanizing, human-originated theory of the object and causation, lead me to the anticipation of what Graham will come up with. This is the funny thing about metaphysics. The inherent contradictions in attempts to totalize, explain and describe everything are not simply the sign of its fundamental mistep as an activity, a kind of category error as Wittgenstein or Ryle might have it, but rather work much as the net in tennis, as an obstical to be artfully and gracefully overcome, like the imposed meter in a Alexandrian sonnet. If the obstical is not too steep, and the lines coherent enough, we gaze in wonder at the play.


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

  1. Pingback: more Kevin on OOP « Object-Oriented Philosophy

  2. Pingback: Levi Apparently Has Never Read Harman’s Theory of Causation « Frames /sing

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