The Meaning of an Object: Vicarious Causation, Vacuums, and the Glue of the Universe

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Meaning— allegoric or symbolic— arises only through destruction, through an out-of-joint experience, or a cut which interrupts the object’s direct functioning in our environment.

– Slavoj Zizek,   Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

“What is peculiar to what is initially at hand is that it withdraws, so to speak, in its character of handiness in order to be really handy. What everyday dealings are initially busy with is not tools themselves, but the work.”

– Martin Heidegger, Being and Time 

The Structure of Objects

Graham Harman argues that Heidegger’s tool-analysis has nothing to do with any kind of “pragmatism,” or indeed with any theory of human action at all, but rather forces us to develop a ruthless inquiry into the structure of objects themselves. (TB, p. 15) Harman will admit that the notion of “tool-being” cannot itself be found in Heidegger, saying:

The term “tool-being” is not to be found in Heidegger’s own writings. It was coined by a close friend of mine almost a decade ago, in joking reference to the dominant status of the theme of Zuhandenheit in my reading of Heidegger. (TB, p. 15)

Harman will then claim that the analysis of equipment gives us the preliminary answer to the question of the meaning of being. The meaning of being is tool-being, and the near future of philosophy may hinge in large part on the further exploration of this Heideggerian insight. (TB, pp.15-16)

The stickler here is the equation of the meaning of being with tool-being. We need to start with this term Zuhandenheit as used by Heidegger. I start with a passage from Heidegger’s Being and Time:

The act of hammering itself discovers the specific “handiness” [“Handlichkeit”] of the hammer. We shall call the useful thing’s kind of being in which it reveals itself by itself handiness [Zuhandenheit]. It is only because useful things have this “being-in-themselves” [“An-sichsein”], sein”], and do not merely occur, that they are handy in the broadest sense and are at our disposal. No matter how keenly we just look at the “outward appearance” of things constituted in one way or another, we cannot discover handiness. When we just look at things “theoretically,” we lack an understanding of handiness. But a dealing which makes use of things is not blind; it has its own way of seeing which guides our operations and gives them their specific certainty. Our dealings with useful things are subordinate to the manifold of references of the “in-order-to.” The kind of seeing of this accommodation to things is called circumspection [Umsicht]. (BT, KL 1129-113*)

So this sense of the meaning of Zuhandenheit as handiness comes about through a kind of seeing, an “accomadation to things” by way of circumspection. Heidegger will take the opposing tack of explaining what is handy by what opposes this:

Unhandy things are disturbing and make evident the obstinacy of what is initially to be taken care of before anything else. With this obstinacy the presence of what is at hand makes itself known in a new way as the being of what is still present and calls for completion. … The modes of conspicuousness, obtrusiveness, and obstinacy have the function of bringing to the fore the character of objective presence in what is at hand. What is at hand is not thereby observed and stared at simply as something present. The character of objective presence making itself known is still bound to the handiness of useful things. These still do not disguise themselves as mere things. Useful things become “things” in the sense of what one would like to throw away. But in this tendency to throw things away, what is at hand is still shown as being at hand in its unyielding objective presence. (BT, pp. 1203-1206)

What is most interesting in the above statement is not this opposition of handy/unhandy, or useful/un-useful but rather the notion of what was once complete is now incomplete, and that its very incompleteness reveals a disturbing presence. Is this not what Zizek when discussing the Real and how the lack (gap, incompleteness) that is revealed in things comes in this very cut or failure between handiness and unhandiness.

Perhaps this gives us a minimal definition of materialism: the irreducible distance between the two vacuums.

– Slavoj Zizek,   Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Harman himself has iterated over and over that we never have direct access to an object in itself which forever withdraws from our direct gaze, but rather we seem to have contact only with its sensual surface through some ill-defined medium. Here is Harman at his best:

Spatial objects are to some extent always relational, whereas objects simply are not. To say that the world is filled with objects is to say that it is filled with countless tiny vacuums, like those bubbles that the Pythagoreans thought had been inhaled by the universe itself. What guerrilla metaphysics seeks is the vacuous actuality of things.3

This notion that instead of substance and relations the world is instead filled with innumerable vacuums seems at first glance an almost diametrically opposite view of objects than the one Harman is usually associated with. Yet, if you read Harman’s works carefully you always come upon the real object not as something that is described in phenomenal terms, but rather as something missing, withdrawn, hidden within a subtracted realm beyond the substantive universe of sense and perception. It hinges on just what substantial form is in itself. Let me just take one classic description of the object from his book Guerrilla Metaphysics:

Object-oriented philosophy has a single basic tenet: the withdrawal of objects from all perceptual and causal relations. This immediately implies a single basic problem: how do relations occur? Despite the unsoundable depth of substances, their failure to express themselves fully even in physical collisions, objects do somehow manage to interact. These relations are the very carpentry of things, the joints and glue that hold the universe together. (GM, p. 20)

Yet, if objects are sealed off in vacuums how do they every relate to each other? Harman tells us that this is the most pivotal issue for object-oriented philosophy. As he states it: “While every object exists in vacuum-sealed isolation from the others, the interior of each of these objects is anything but vacuous—it is a carnival of whirling sensual elements. Here as ever, the problem is sharpened by focusing on the molten or vaporous interior of an object, where relations are no more or less possible than the continued side-by-side coexistence of diverse elements that do not fuse with one another.” (GM, p. 231)

And the need for a new concept grafted from the history of Occasionalist  thought might bridge this gap: so he introduces his concept of vicarious causation, a concept introduced as a modification of the long-discredited notion of occasional cause. As he states it:

If objects exceed any of their perceptual or causal relations with other objects, if they inhabit some still undefined vacuous space of reality, the question immediately arises as to how they interact at all. More concisely: we have the problem of nonrelating objects that somehow relate. Since no causation between them can be direct, it clearly can only be vicarious, taking place by means of some unspecified intermediary. Whatever this third term may be, it already seems clear that it has something to do with the shower of loose qualities that captured the interest of the carnal phenomenologists. (GM, p. 91)

So the need for an intermediary is necessary for these vacuums to interact.  Ultimately this new concept was introduced as a “way of keeping our focus on how isolated substances might communicate, without dredging up any of the historic debates between theologians and skeptics”. (GM, p. 92) What is interesting for me is that Zizek himself will also have need for the Occasionalist turn:

If we replace “God” with the big Other, the symbolic order, we can see the proximity of occasionalism to Lacan’s position: as Lacan put it in his polemic against Aristotle in “Television,” the relationship between soul and body is never direct, since the big Other always interposes itself between the two.  Occasionalism is thus essentially a name for the “arbitrariness of the signifier,” for the gap that separates the network of ideas from the network of bodily (real) causality, for the fact that it is the big Other which accounts for the coordination of the two networks, so that, when my body bites into an apple, my soul experiences a pleasurable sensation.4

But are Harman and Zizek using this term in opposing or complementary ways?

Harman introduces the concept of allure which splits an object from its sensual notes. Further stating: “It cannot split an object from its real notes, since this would require that the object be destroyed. By splitting apart sensual objects, allure generates two byproducts of almost radioactive intensity: the distant real object signaling from beyond, and the sensual notes that had previously been implicit and compressed into a single point of unity, but which are now fragmented and drawn toward the deep real object to which they seem to belong. We also saw that allure must occur even in the inanimate realm, since otherwise causation would be impossible, and the world would be made up of frozen and isolated monads. But even this could not happen, since without allure the levels of the world would never communicate, and without communication no object could ever be built up out of parts, meaning that nothing would have any specific qualities in the first place. Allure turned out to be the key to all causation, which is always vicarious, buffered, and asymmetrical.” (GM, p. 245)

Zizek for his part will discuss the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy, telling us that much more than Berkeley’s God who sustains the world in his mind, the ultimate Matrix is Malebranche’s occasionalist God: the perfect embodiment of the Lacanian “big Other”, the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us.4 This dimension of the “big Other” is that of the constitutive alienation of the subject in the symbolic order: the big Other pulls the strings, the subject does not speak, he “is spoken” by the symbolic structure. In short, this “big Other” is the name for the social Substance, for the agency thanks to which the subject never fully dominates the effects of his acts, thanks to which the final outcome of his activity is always something other than what he aimed at or anticipated.(ibid) The notion behind this is the naturalness of it all, that those poor souls situated in liquid vats like batteries for the hive mechanisms that feed on them are oblivious to the actual world behind the appearances, and have no clue that their actual lives are hidden an away rather than the virtual work-a-day worlds in which they like automatisms participate in a dreamwork they neither made nor can step out of without the intervention or aid of some intermediary force. But it is just this intermediary role of the big Other in guaranteeing the coordination between reality and their mental experience of it that forecloses their minds in a realm where appearances are taken for reality oblivious to the actual state of their lives.

Yet, the key to this for Zizek is that it does not work, the Matrix is unraveling, broken, fragmented and its citizens immersed in its giant game of virtual hallucination at times wake up in this dream and realize they’ve been had, that the truth of their situation is much more real that they at first believed. The fact that the only thing sustaining this illusory world is itself the Machine,  the intricate mechanisms of computerized coordination, homologous to the role of God that guarantee the coordination between the two life worlds. The moment the intermediary is broken, withdrawn, cut from the umbilical cords that tie the citizen to its dream world the ugly truth stands revealed.

So if we take the Matrix as an example of this vicarious medium then Harman will approach it in a substantive way, telling us it is an intermediary realm within which objects interact with one other and with their own qualities and must also provide the space where all the events of the world unfold. He will go on to say if “every object is a vacuum, it is equally true that every vacuum must contain a world—a medium in which distinct qualities interact or at least float side-by-side in some sort of charged ether. By analogy, we might say that every object is not only protected by a vacuous shield from the things that lie outside it, but also harbors and nurses an erupting infernal universe within. The object is a black box, black hole, or internal combustion engine releasing its power and exhaust fumes into the world.” (GM, pp. 94-95)

Zizek will answer for his part telling us there can be no ontology of the Real: the very field of ontology, of the positive order of Being, emerges through the subtraction of the Real. The order of Being and the Real are mutually exclusive: the Real is the immanent blockage or impediment of the order of Being, what makes the order of Being inconsistent. This is why, at the level of ontology, transcendental correlationism is right: every “reality,” every positive order of Being, is onto-logical, correlative to logos, transcendentally constituted through the symbolic order—“ language is the house of being,” as Heidegger put it.(ibid. KL 21381-21385) What is missing in the “House of Being” is the order of the Real. It is this gap between Being and the Real that defines the world.

The argument between Harman and Zizek stems over the notion of the transcendentally constituted world as defined by the Subject. For Harman the world cannot be transcendentally constituted retroactively or in any other way because it just is, substantive and real. While for Zizek this, too, is a retroactive conclusion. For Harman this is the very stance of the Idealist who affirms that the world is transcendentally constituted, that it is constructed by our retroactive work rather than something that exists independent of our very human-centric systems.

Zizek in answer will (and I quote at length) say:

The Real is thus an effect of the symbolic, not in the sense of performativity, of the “symbolic construction of reality,” but in the totally different sense of a kind of ontological “collateral damage” of symbolic operations: the process of symbolization is inherently thwarted, doomed to fail, and the Real is this immanent failure of the symbolic. The circular temporality of the process of symbolization is crucial here: the Real is the effect of the failure of the symbolic to reach (not the In-itself, but) itself, to fully realize itself, but this failure occurs because the symbolic is thwarted in itself. It is in this sense that, for Lacan, the subject itself is an “answer of the Real”: a subject wants to say something, it fails, and this failure is the subject— a “subject of the signifier” is literally the result of the failure to become itself. In this sense, also, within the symbolic space, the effect is a reaction against its cause, while the cause is a retroactive effect of its cause: the subject produces signifiers which fail, and the subject qua Real is the effect of this failure.

But does this mean that we end up in a kind of idealism of the symbolic— what we experience as “reality” is symbolically constructed, and even the Real which eludes the grasp of the symbolic is a result of the immanent failure of the symbolic? No, because it is through this very failure to be itself that the symbolic touches the Real. In contrast to transcendentalism, Lacan agrees that we have access to the In-itself: Lacan is not a discourse-idealist who claims that we are forever caught in the web of symbolic practices, unable to reach the In-itself. However, we do not touch the Real by way of breaking out of the “prison-house of language” and gaining access to the external transcendent referent— every external referent (“ fully existing positive reality”) is already transcendentally constituted. We touch the Real-in-itself in our very failure to touch it, since the Real is, at its most radical, the gap, the “minimal difference,” that separates the One from itself. (ibid., (Kindle Locations 21401-21409)

So that for Zizek the gap between what is transcendentally constituted (retroactive causation) and what is (the Real) is shaped by our very failure to complete the closure between the two. The Universe is open and incomplete, and so are we who constitute its strange realities within the linguistic structures of the House of Being. Our failures open up the truth of the world as it is. We are all stained by our failures to close the world.

1. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (p. 10). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
2. Martin Heidegger. Being and Time (Kindle Locations 1143-1145). Kindle Edition.
3. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (p. 82). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
4. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 7731-7736). Norton. Kindle Edition.
5. ibid. (Kindle Locations 7777-7786).

5 thoughts on “The Meaning of an Object: Vicarious Causation, Vacuums, and the Glue of the Universe

    • Why Piaget? Why not Lacan, Freud, etc. What’s the point you’re making? Let us admit, as Zizek himself has said many time’s: discourse is a bricolage of fragments from different sources. Zizek is in this sense echoing many previous sources for his ideas, examples, etc. In fact, Zizek would be the first to admit his inadequacies. Is this some truth to behold? Or, rather the state of the brain as it plunders the thousands of books in a lifetime’s reading that have become a part of one’s being? Language is communal, not singular; we are multitudes.

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  1. forget that comment, because i forget what was going through my head when my motor neurons wrote that out!

    i guess i am not fully clear on what zizek’s explanans is. with someone like brandom or pippin i least know their explanans when they invoke hegel. but zizek isn’t interested to ground discursive rationality, so what is he doing? this zizek johnstanian denatrualized dehiscence really still just looks a kind copernicianism. i know that lacan felt that origin of language might not be possible to explain from language. this seems incoherent, but could express a deeper insight that you can’t understand the emergence of language if you insist that language is irreducibly intentional. zizek likes to joke about this by disparaging engels “humans have language because they wanted to get together and work on collective projects and all that bullshit”. but zizek appears to think that intentional phenomenon are possible by reference to a formalized intentional crack that is within… everything.

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    • Looks like the Zizek you see is not the one I see… maybe we should leave it at that 🙂 Yea, dialectical materialism isn’t as straightforward as most simple systematic philosophies tend to be. That’s one of the reasons he uses jokes so much, to shock one out of one’s normal mode of apprehension. And, yes, the Hegel he presents is the exact opposite of Pippin’s American Hegel as Abosolut Idealist, etc. The point of Less Than Nothing was to do just that: present Zizek’s revisionist Hegel through the lens of Lacan, etc.

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