In his by measures, sublime, bizarre, amusing and profound Circus Philosophicus (perhaps the most amusing and accessible introduction to Graham’s thought published yet), Graham writes the following of yours truly:

Even a friendly critic of my philosophy such as Levi Bryant (you know of his blog and his struggles with ignorant trolls) rejects this asymmetry, though he concedes that nothing exists but translation. In agreement with Latour’s philosophy, Bryant contends that no thing makes contact with another without transforming it. Yet he still holds that my theory of withdrawn objects and vicarious causation is too extreme. As I see it, what Bryant and Latour both miss is that translation is also a starting point, not just a result. That is to say, the point is not that fire makes easy contact with cotton, or a horse with a meadow, and that they then translate or distort these entities in accordance with their own perspectives. This would imply an initial direct contact, with a sort of indirect translation then pasted on as a supplement. Instead, I claim that even the initial contact between two entities is only the contact of a real entity with a translated or phenomenal one. (49 – 50)

Perhaps no element of Graham’s thought has been more maligned than his doctrine of vicarious causation. Indeed, of all of Graham’s concepts, his concept of vicarious causation has been the most difficult for me to accept. Nonetheless, I was surprised when I read this passage as, a few months ago, Graham wrote me with great excitement after reading the MS for The Democracy of Objects, exclaiming that I do, in fact, endorse a variant of his account of vicarious causation. And indeed, after reading Graham’s discussion of vicarious causation, I’m hard put to see where we diverge or differ from one another.

read on!

Graham is led to his account of vicarious causation as a result of his account of objects. It will be recalled that for Harman, as for myself, all objects are withdrawn from one another such that they never directly relate to one another. If, then, objects are withdrawn from one another how do they relate to one another? This led Graham, in Guerrilla Metaphysics, to develop his account of vicarious causation. Drawing on the Islamic tradition of occasionalism, Graham develops the concept of vicarious causation to account for how objects can causally interact without directly relating to one another. Harman attributes three features to vicarious causation.

1. Causation is vicarious.

What Harman means by this is that no entity directly interacts with or encounters another entity. As Graham writes, “I [speak] of vicarious causation. A vicar is the earthly representative of something that need not act in person. But the same must be true of causation itself” (48). A lawyer is an example of a vicar. When a lawyer interacts with another insurance company she is acting as a vicar for the person that she represents. Here the person being represented does not directly relate to the insurance company, but rather it is the vicar, the lawyer, that relates to the insurance company.

To say that causation is vicarious is to say that entities only relate to other entities through the intermediary of a vicar. An entity does not relate to the other object directly, but rather relates to the vicar. We get a sense of what Harman has in mind when he remarks that, “[l]ike oil rigs reducing all other entities to fuel, each object reduces every other to a hazy caricature of its deeper plenitude” (49). Graham’s remark here can only be fully appreciated in the context of the elaborate myth of the oil rig that he develops in the preceding pages. However, hopefully the point here is clear enough. The vicar in this example is fuel. The oil rig, in Graham’s portrayal, does not directly encounter the other entities with which it interacts, but rather it encounters or relates to them as fuel. Like John Malkovich who only hears his own name and sees his own face when he goes through the tunnel that leads through his mind in Being John Malkovich, the oil rig encounters everything else in the world in terms of fuel and nothing else.

Qua themselves, all the other objects are withdrawn. Vicars are thus what Graham calls “sensual objects”. In Harman’s diagram of the quadruple structure of objects to the right above, each object is a fourfold structure composed of a real object, real qualities, sensual objects, and sensual qualities. I can’t go through all the details of this structure here, but for the moment it suffices to note that sensual objects exist on the interior of real objects. Putting this a bit differently, a sensual object is what another object is for a real object. For the oil rig, all those entities being sucked up from deep below the ocean floor are sensual objects insofar as they are related to only in terms of fuel.

Perhaps an illuminating, yet somewhat misleading way of thinking about Graham’s vicars and sensual objects would be in terms of Alfred Hitchcock’s concept of “MacGuffins”. If we have to proceed by caution here, then this is because often, in films, the true being of the Macguffin can be discovered, whereas real objects are forever withdrawn from other real objects within the framework of OOO. Stealing from wiki, of the Macguffin, George Lucas remarked,

On the commentary soundtrack to the 2004 DVD release of Star Wars, writer and director George Lucas describes R2-D2 as “the main driving force of the movie … what you say in the movie business is the MacGuffin … the object of everybody’s search”. In TV interviews, Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the object around which the plot revolves, but, as to what that object specifically is, he declared, “the audience don’t care”. Lucas, on the other hand, believes that the MacGuffin should be powerful and that “the audience should care about it almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen”

So how does the concept of the MacGuffin contribute to our understanding of vicars and sensual objects? When you combine Hitchock’s and Lucas’s conceptions of the MacGuffin together, what you get is something very close to Harman’s quadruple object. Hitchock emphasizes the manner in which the Macguffin is withdrawn. Lucas, if he were smart (he’s not to be forgiven after the prequels to Star Wars, emphasizes the manner in which the MacGuffin functions as an object of interpretation. Indeed, many films emphasize how the MacGuffin functions as an object of misinterpretation. As an object of interpretation, the Macguffin is a vicar or sensual object. As withdrawn, the MacGuffin is a real object. The real object is never related to, but only the sensual vicar.

Here we might think of the role of the briefcase in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Throughout the film, the contents of the briefcase are never discovered, yet it organizes the plot of the film, bringing the characters together in a variety of non-intersecting ways. Nonetheless, despite scant evidence for any particular interpretation, the mysterious briefcase has generated a multitude of interpretations in the audience, as they try to figure out just what’s in the briefcase or what it’s symbolic significance might be. These interpretations are sensual vicars or ways in which one real object, the interpreter, translates another object. For Harman (and myself), the key point would be two-fold: 1) this split between real object and sensual vicar is true of all object-object relations, regardless of whether or not it is a human relating to another object (interpretation is a subspecies of vicarious causation), and 2) every object only ever relates to sensual vicars of other objects, never directly to other objects.

2. Vicarious causation is asymmetrical.

As a consequence, vicarious causation is asymmetrical. We are accustomed with the idea that causation is symmetrical from Newtonian physics. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, we say. Yet if it is true that objects only ever relate to sensual vicars and never directly with other real objects, then this no longer holds true. This for two reasons. First, because sensual objects only exist on the interior of a real object, when one real object affects another real object through the intermediary of a sensual vicar, it doesn’t follow that the affecting real object will be affected in its turn. Second, it does not follow that the affected object will be affected according to the nature of the affecting object. Harman writes, “…I claim that even the initial contact between two entities is only the contact of a real entity with a translated or phenomenal one” (50). What the object relates to is not the other real object, but rather the sensual object that exists in the interior of the affected object.

Let’s take an example from the realm of the human as this helps to get at what Harman, I believe, is trying to allude to. A radical upset with Obama’s tax deal exclaims “this bill sucks! it gives way too much to the wealthy, further advancing neoliberal policies!” A gay person becomes furious, and responds “why are you speaking in such derogatory ways about homosexuals?” For the radical the response seems all out of proportion to his statement. “But I didn’t say anything about homosexuals!”, he exclaims, “I just said that the tax bill is a terrible bill!” Graham’s vicarious causation does a very nice job accounting for these sorts of interactions. What the homosexual is relating to is not the radical (a real object), but the sensual vicar that exists within him that takes the form of being a homophobic slur. The radical did not intend a slur against homosexuals, but at the level of the sensual vicar of his statement, reference to “sucking” in derogatory terms was translated here. The response to the statement produces an asymmetrical effect when translated. Before proceeding, the lesson to draw here is not that the homosexual’s complaint should be rejected on the grounds that the radical did not intend this meaning. As Lacan teaches– and vicarious causation is able to give the metaphysical reasons as to why this is the case –we are never master’s of our speech. Or speech always produce effects that exceed what our egos intended. If we’re compassionate people that do not wish to cause others ire, the lesson to draw here is that we shouldn’t express ourselves in this way in the future.

Hopefully this example has not obscured the general metaphysical point. If causation is asymmetrical, then this is because it is the sensual object a real object relates to, not another real object. That sensual object can have a valence within the real object that produces very surprising results and that exceeds any “input” from the other real object. This response will depend on the internal structure of the object relating to the sensual object. What is true here of a miscommunication between two people is true for any relation between objects, whether intelligent or conscious or not. This is the lesson I draw from Graham’s concept of asymmetrical causation. What it calls for us to investigate is the internal structure of objects so as to determine how they relate to specific stimuli. This differs from object to object.

3. Vicarious causation is buffered.

The third characteristic of vicarious causation is that it is buffered. As Harman writes, “[w]hat I mean is that things can be in contact with something else without being fully in contact with them, just as the philosopher loves wisdom without fully possessing it” (50 – 51). Recently I attempted to make a similar point with respect to Uexküll’s analysis of animal umwelts. In the picture to the right above, Uexküll contrasts how humans encounter a field of flowers and grasses (top) and how bees encounter flowers and plants (bottom).

The point here is not that humans are closer to the reality of the other objects that populate the field than bees. The experience of humans is not more true than the experience of bees, but different. In both instances, we have cases of how one real entity (humans and bees) are buffered from others. In other words, both of these pictures are depictions not of real objects– after all, they’re withdrawn –but of sensual objects, i.e., how a real object translates other objects.

It seems to me that Graham and I arrive at very similar conclusions within different theoretical frameworks. As I argue in The Democracy of Objects, objects are systems as understood within the framework of autopoietic theory. As systems, they never directly relate to other objects, but rather relate to objects in terms of their own endo-structure or organization. System-objects never encounter other objects directly, but only ever encounter what Graham calls “sensual objects”. I discuss how this takes place a bit here. As far as I can tell, the major difference between Graham’s framework and mine on this issue is that I allow for objects to be perturbed by other objects. These perturbations are translated into information that selects system-states. It is this information (differences that make a difference) and system-states (sensual objects) that each system-object properly encounters. However, the manner in which objects are perturbed is strictly defined by the object or system in question. I cannot, for example, be perturbed by infrared light (at least not visually).