Let me explain: I maintain that entities can (and must) have direct causal access to each other's substantial being via causally affective force, but that such access is always limited, partial and precarious due to the differential capacities, sensitivities and vulnerabilities embodied by particular assemblages. Moreover, epistemic capacities, especially in humans, should never be confused for or reduced to basic structural relations (e.g., physical contact), if only because the defining (onto-specific) operations of human thought are not primarily material and causal, but mental, projective and imaginal. Put another way, assemblages can affect, associate, amplify, augment, absorb, and in some cases obliterate each other directly at a non-symbolic level of causal relation, with respect to their defining compositional arrangements (or substantial integrity), despite escaping the totalizing gaze and schematic intentions of conceptual thought as such. Objects can and do affect each other in all sorts of ways while remaining obscure and only abstractly apprehended by symbolic consciousness.
In this post and subsequent related posts I want to circle around my thesis of precarious causation by contrasting this position with Graham Harman's thesis of 'vicarious causation' and object-oriented philosophy more generally. In doing this I do not attempt to definitively refute Harman’s framework but, instead, take advantage of the ongoing discussion about ‘withdrawal’ and objects as an opportunity to render my own conceptual biases more explicit and begin articulating what I believe is a more consistent and empirically grounded realist philosophy. Along the way I hope to address either directly or indirectly much of what Adam, Matt Segall (here) and Jeremy Trombley (here) have recently added to the debate.
As touchstone, here is a characteristic description of absolute withdrawal taken from Guerilla Metaphysics:
To begin with, as stated in my last post on this topic (here), I think the fatal flaw with the thesis of ‘absolute withdrawal’ is that it conflates ‘knowledge’ (epistemic activity) with ‘contact’ (structural relation) in a way that disrupts our ability to think the messy, co-implicated, participatory and complex nature of reality. By inflating phenomenology to the level of self-referential metaphysic Graham Harman deemphasizes the structureality of material instantiation (corporeality) and overemphasizes epistemic inadequacy, leading would-be ontologists through a series strange logical maneuvers and alienating assumptions. [see, for example, Harman’s ad hominem and condescending attack on materialist explanations of causality in Prince of Networks (2009), p.109]“Objects withdraw absolutely from all interaction with both humans and nonhumans, creating a split between the tool-being itself and the tool-being as manifested in any relation. And along with this rift between objects and relations, objects are also split in themselves between their sheer unity as one object and their multiplicity of traits” (p. 5).
Ultimately, I believe, Harman’s fusion of Husserl’s phenomenology of ‘intentionality’ (with all its Cartesian-Lockean assumptions) with Heidegger’s observations on cognitive apprehension serves to con-fuse perspective with proximity and qualitative experience with causal indirection. With this conflation Harman sets to work the assumption that human knowledge is no different in capacity and operation from the structural vicissitudes of material life.
Notice, also, how Michael Austin characterizes Harman’s position in his essay, ‘To Exist is to Change’ (here):
What stands out here is how Austin’s caricature seamlessly slips from a description of what is going on in the mind of an observer when he is witnessing a tree (i.e., moods, intentions, qualitative apprehensions) to a statement about a supposed inability of direct interaction without explaining why simply looking at a tree should be considered the paradigmatic example of encounters per se. On what grounds should we consider the cognitive experience of observation at a distance as the primary mode of access in every instance? None, on my account – and I will explain why later in this post.“When I experience a tree, I have in mind not the real tree, but the intentional tree. The real tree is saturated with detail, the angle experienced, the lighting, my mood, etc, while the intentional tree is stripped of these. Changing any of these details does nothing to the intentional tree in my mind, “which always remains an enduring unit for as long as I recognize it as one.” The real me cannot interact with the real tree, but rather, we interact on a phenomenal level through the mediation of the intentional object. This intentional object relation is asymmetrical however, the real me only ever interacts with the intentional tree and never the tree in-itself.”
There are several assumptions in Harman’s four-fold which I reject, especially the split between the Real and the Sensual (which I will address later), but what I want to emphasize at this point is that Harman is taking what is essentially an epistemological argument developed from particular lines of phenomenological thinking and transmuting them into a series of ontological claims.
Now, I can think of two possible genetic reasons for this “radical” move:
1. I believe Harman absolutizes Heidegger’s account of dasein by arguing that the difficulties inherent in relational cognition (i.e, equipmentality) reflects the fundamental structure of the Being of all beings. That is to say, Harman following Heidegger willfully ignores the characteristic and relevant differences between the particular (onto-specific) nature of human existence and the constituent natures of other modes of existence by privileging supposed (conceptually delineated) ontological conditions and under-estimating sensually disclosed differential ontic actualities. Harman believes bullets interact with clay, or dynamite interacts with bricks, exactly the same way humans experience tools. For Harman the structure of dasein is universal.
2. Harman's epistemic/causal conflation also seems to be a direct consequence of his acceptance of panpsychism via his reading of Whitehead. Panpsychism, of course, is the stance that some capacity akin to mentality or consciousness, or perception is inherent to all things and throughout the cosmos. If Harman does subscribe to such a position then it should come as no surprise he assumes that causal relations operate in near identical fashion as human cognition. Every occasion of relation becomes, under such a view, an instance of intention-laden apprehension, or “translation”. Take for example the indicative title of Harman’s unpublished work, “Intentional Objects for Non-Humans” (mentioned in Austin’s Speculations essay cited above).
It certainly seems appropriate given the mix of these two related sets of assumptions (phenomenological inflation and panpsychism) that Harman would be led to defend an ontology of “hidden” and “absolutely withdrawn” realities. If Being as such is believed to be fundamentally structured the way human-beings are, and if the cosmos is shot through and through with mentalistic capacities and activity, then the limitations of animal cognition and human mental operation can be assumed to be simply one instance of a more universal or transcendental tendency of all things.
To unpack the details of these claims would take a book length treatment in itself, and I’m completely unmotivated to take on such project, because, as I have said, my interest is not in providing a sustained critique of Harman’s work (nor object-oriented ontology generally) but to contrast as sharply as possible his views with my own. As supplement and excuse I will irresponsibly suggest that much of the confusion inherent to the claim of ‘absolute withdrawal’ stems from, I believe, Harman's over-investment of his significant analytical powers in the unsubstantiated phenomenological claims of Heidegger – at the expense of various other methodological practices, informative injunctions, analytical resources and invariant corporealities.
The problems with this investment are many, but we need not accept such “radicalizing” and conflating maneuvers. Instead, I suggest that an empirically-informed position can easily differentiate epistemic ‘knowledge’ from strauctural ‘contact’, as non-identical operations in the world. 'Knowledge' and thought about the world and objects happens via animal memory and abstract signification - with very different processes than those involved in basic physical interactions. 'Knowledge’ involves detached (intangible) linguistically dependent biological imaginings (projections), but ‘contact’ involves material-energetic (tangible) structurally affective catalytics. While both involve multi-scaled causal chains and structural vulnerability, the former process is dependent upon symbolic events, involving memory, signs and abstraction, whereas the latter is primarily dependent upon physical and electric events,
To be sure, I believe ‘knowledge’ is also an embodied capacity activated by brains, but it is not strictly biological in that animal gestures can be externalized, or as I like to say tokenized, through socially mediated linguistic and conceptual markers (schema, metaphor, etc.) in a way that detaches them from rudimentary physical intentionalities, requiring personal negotiation through memory, recursion, plasticity and projection (as imagination, or what I call phantasy). [see, for instance, McLuhan’s ‘extensions of man’ arguments, or the whole corpus of literature relating to the 4EA paradigm in cognitive studies.]
It is important to understand that I am not simply relying on my own implicit theory of human cognition here because I could just as easily suggest bundling the assumptions embedded in that last paragraph into the rather innocuous and singular claim that ‘knowledge’ involves extra-biological, extended or symbolic capacities irreducible to the less complex processes of non-cognitive materials. Thus, the kernel of my main argument here is that human cognition and conceptual thought (‘knowledge’) entail onto-specifically emergent and extended – and withdrawn - capacities that do not obtain at the level of composite base materials. This, I argue, is the difference that makes all difference. And by confusing cognitive events (intentionality and symbolic relation) with causal events (materiality and structural relation) OOP mistakes the ‘absolute’ limitations of perspective and detached, tokenized (form-al) thought for the defining features of causal interaction generally.
Unraveling exactly how this fatal mistake effects the overall logical machinery of OOP is a massive endeavor, best left to the ingenuities of academic scholars, and so will not be pursued here. Instead, what I would like to pursue in this series of posts is what it might come of a speculative realism that takes into consideration more complex and experientially supported (empirical) understandings of embodied life. By circling back on the notions of ‘access’, ‘materialism’ and ‘relation’ I will argue that avoiding the conflation and subtle correlationism at the core of Object-Oriented Philosophy and reintroducing the distinction between knowing (epistemic relation) and being (structural relation) enables us to conceptualize better the manner in which causation is both direct and partial, as well as precarious.