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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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4 responses to “The “sensuous vicar” of Causation

  1. Pingback: morning laugh « Object-Oriented Philosophy

  2. Pingback: More on Harmanian Causation: The Proposed Marriage of Malebranche and Hume « Frames /sing

  3. Pingback: Vicarious Causation Diagrammed « Frames /sing

  4. Pingback: The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman) « Frames /sing

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