Thursday, August 11, 2011

Thoughts on Harman's "Vicarious Causation."


Thoughts on Harman's "Vicarious Causation."

"It is not human consciousness that distorts the reality of things, but relationality per se." (193)

I do not see any reason to call this a "distortion" rather than an "extension" of their reality.  For Heidegger, and Harman's statement comes in the middle of a discussion of Heideggerian tool-being, things are always involved in a world first and become encountered second.  Else, they could never come to be disclosed as present-at-hand.  I do not agree with the statement that "Heideger's tool-analysis unwittingly gives us the deepest possible account of the classical rift between substance and relation." (193)  It is not an account of that, because there is no rift between substance and relation; relation is first, and encounter second.  If we reverse this and presume that the thing is first and relation second, then we enter into the very classical conundrum that the tool analysis avoids.  Again, I do not agree that Heidegger had "insight into the withdrawal of real objects behind all relations" (197) as I read the metaphor described in Heidegger's definition of the phenomenon to be one of emanence; "to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself.”   

Later, Harman writes "the pine tree and I are separate objects residing on the interior of a third: the intention as a whole." (197)  I liked this at first because it looks like a triad, and us lovers of Peirce like triads.  But then, he claims that the "real object" is I and not the pine tree, which is "merely a sensual one."  Why not claim that it is all real and have a merry triad?  Why presume that the tree and I are separate objects first that then enter into a relation via a third object that is not real?   

To be fair to Harman and answer my question in part, we are coming from very different academic backgrounds even though we share this basis of classical continental phenomenology.  I can see that much of the vocabulary is borrowed from that tradition, and if I were to give my equivalent rendition, my vocabulary would also borrow from my tradition.  It may be that I'm misunderstanding some of the background and therefore making the wrong inferences about what the text means.  However, agreement with myself from scholars who are deeply familiar with his work lead me to continue and suppose that I am not wholly misunderstanding.  Soon, hopefully, my own revised articles on the subject will be accepted so that I may also be subject to the same interrogation.  May it be fruitful for us all.

Further on, Harman explains that:

"Elsewhere I have used the phrase 'every relation is itself an object', and still regard this statement as true.  But since this article has redefined relations to include containment, sincerity, and contiguity, the slogan must be reworded as follows: 'every connection is itself an object.'" (207)

So, does this means that relations are real?  What constitutes their reality?  Coming from a tradition in which relations are real, because "relation" signifies determinate interconnectedness from which new potentialities emerge, I am willing to accept this unusual thesis.  But what constitutes their reality?  That is, the objective nature  and reality of the real tree, the sensual tree, and the I do not seem to be on par, which leaves me with questions.  Without answering these questions, I wonder if one equivocates when calling a relation an object vs. a real tree, especially since "connections occur only between two real objects." (208)  That makes sense, else the sensation of a tree could wander off and make connections on its own, and we'd be living in a crypto-Berkeleyan cosmos.  Perhaps this is all just a vocabulary issue, but I cannot be sure.

Recently, I have been having a discussion with Levi Bryant of Larval Subjects on how object-oriented ontology account for change.  Hence, I will quote what Harman writes, 

"These accidents ["parts" of objects in the sensual realm] are the only possible source of change, since they alone are the potential bridge between one sensual object and another….  Accidents alone have the dual status of belonging and not belonging to an object….  Accidents are tempting hooks protruding from the sensual object, allowing it the chance to connect with others and thereby fuse two into one." (218)

He goes on to distinguish a difference in part-whole relations between sensual and real objects. (218-219)

In conclusion, I find the first quotation, that relationality is distortion, and the reversal of the Heideggerian encounter/relationality dynamic to be problematic.

One may ask why I study and write this, especially since I do not claim (yet) to be a scholar of object-oriented ontology.  Because I am a scholar of a friendly position, that of pragmatism, especially Peirce and Dewey, that were beloved of Whitehead.  Hence, much of what is novel or powerful in the OOO tradition is not alien to me, since I see it in the writings of Peirce, James, Dewey, Mead, Whitehead, and others.  I am pleased that this sort of thinking is coming to the fore, but it is not the only game in town.  That said, pragmatism is a separate tradition from continental, and thus I should not suppose that those who know one also know the other.  I am not proselytizing for either side, but perhaps for both.

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