Reality as Communion of Beings
by C.S. Lammer-Heindel
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis claims, “we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion” (Francis 2015, sec. 220). Like all things, we stand in complex relations with the other beings of the world. While this may seem like a poetically worded platitude, Levi Bryant has argued that the “ontology of everyday life” (OEL)—that is, the theory of being which we implicitly adopt and within which we normally operate—serves to conceal the complex networks within which beings exist. More precisely, Bryant argues that the OEL turns on something analogous to Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism: just as commodities come to be thought of as mere objects, independent of the vast networks that produce them, under the OEL every being is thought of as “discrete and divorced from the dynamic relational networks or ecologies that sustain them” (Bryant 2015, p. 47). He illustrates this point by noting that our default way of thinking is to assume that emissions are benign, having no impact on the ecologies within which things dwell, or that the things that we consume and throw away more or less disappear, having no impact on other beings (Ibid., pp. 54 and 56-57). Operating within different philosophical frameworks and using different terminology, both Francis and Bryant call on us to recognize that this is an erroneous way of thinking. Whereas Francis calls upon us to recognize that all things stand in communion, Bryant speaks of a “democracy of objects” (see Bryant 2011).
In a later post, I will explore the differences between these ways of speaking, for they are not simply terminological differences. For the time being, let’s simply pay attention to the points of commonality: to affirm that reality is a communion, fellowship, or democracy of beings is, at the very least, to reject the aforementioned ontology of everyday life, which is blind (and which blinds us) to the networks of relations within which things exist. It is also to reject the less common supposition that beings are nothing more than their relations. Authentic communion between human beings does not undermine, let alone reject, the individual existence of the people who are brought into relation. (Indeed, Christian thought affirms that it is in communion that individual human beings find their fulfillment.) In a like manner, the more expansive ontological fellowship considered here does not undermine or reject the individual existence of particular beings. Rather, it affirms that the various things which exist enjoy a certain amount of ontological autonomy, or independence, while nevertheless affirming that each being is situated within a dynamic network of relations.
We have then, two interrelated theses which are central to Bryant’s non-theistic object-oriented ontology and which I think could be brought into relationship with Pope Francis’s theistic integral ecology: (1) all (worldly) things stand in communion, but nevertheless (2) all (worldy) things are ontologically independent from one another. Francis clearly adopts (1), and I think he should adopt (2).
Thesis (1), that reality is a communion of beings, draws our attention to the fact that no (worldly) being is the ground of all others. Rather, the various things of the world, including ourselves, all equally and more or less autonomously exist while also standing in various relations. Thesis (2), the ontological independence of beings, suggests that we cannot reduce the being of a genuine existent—be it a spiny toad, a fellow human being, a social entity, a molecule, an astronomical body, or so on—to its relations with other beings. But we must proceed carefully here; far from advocating that each thing is completely withdrawn from all of its relations, Bryant’s object-oriented ontology explicitly calls upon us to recognize that independently existing beings nevertheless interact with other beings, with the result that how a particular being is actually manifest will be a local matter, contingent on its relations. I believe that Francis’s integral ecology is implicitly committed to the same.
(NB: Bryant develops the notion of “local manifestations” by arguing that, with respect to any being, we can distinguish between those powers which are constitutive of its being—what he calls its “virtual proper being”—and the products of those powers, which are its local manifestations or qualities. The constitutive powers of a being are the “operations” which that being is capable of performing, even if they fail to exercise them, and these powers are a function of that being’s internal structure—i.e., the way in which the objects or entities that compose a being relate, giving rise to an irreducible existent. For example, the virtual proper being of a human being, which is itself an irreducible being, is a function of the organization of the various beings that compose it, including all of its organs, cells, colonies of microflora, and so on. The organization of these constitutive beings is what gives rise to the various powers that the human person has, including the powers of locomotion, digestion, imagination, logical reasoning, and so on. To consider a being as an “assemblage” of other beings with unique powers is to consider its being in the proper sense. Of course, in exercising the powers of which it is capable and in relating to other beings, an existent manifests itself in various ways. See Bryant 2014, pp. 40–41 and 75.)
It is worth pointing out that the thesis that reality is a communion of being has been given expression by various writers in ways that seem to contradict each other, but which are ultimately compatible. For example, the title to Bryant’s book, The Democracy of Objects (2011), and one of his central theses—namely, that human subjects are themselves objects—seems to call forth the exact opposite view as that promoted by the late Catholic thinker, Fr. Thomas Berry, who argued that we must “realize that the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects” (Berry 2010, p. 17; emphasis added). Despite the superficial terminological disagreement, both Bryant and Berry, as well as Francis, can be understood as arguing that we must move beyond an anthropocentric view in which things are defined in terms of their use-value to human beings and made susceptible to human domination. Mary Evelyn Tucker has described Berry’s project as an attempt to foster “a new understanding of reciprocity, reverence, and respect for the vast diversity of flora and fauna that graces our planet” (Tucker 2006, p. 646). This would be an apt description of Bryant’s project, with the addition that he calls upon us to recognize the reciprocity that exists between an even greater diversity of beings, including those which are inanimate and non-living. Roads, power lines, volcanoes, and meteorites impinge upon the flora and fauna of our planet just as surely as human beings, beavers, and oak trees. To conceive of reality as a communion of being is to acknowledge and take seriously that reality is truly a plethora of beings, and any particular being enters into relations with a vast number of other beings and impinges itself upon them in various ways (Bryant 2014, p. 5).
Berry, Thomas (2010). Evening Thoughts. Counterpoint.
Bryant, Levi (2011). The Democracy of Objects. Open Humanities Press.
——— (2014). Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media. Edinburgh University Press.
——— (2015). “For an Apocalyptic Pedagogy.” Chiasma: A Site for Thought 2, no. 2 (2015): 46–60.
Francis (2015). Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home. Vatican Web site, 2015.
Tucker, Mary Evelyn (2006). “A Communion of Subjects and a Multiplicity of Intelligences.” In A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics, edited by Paul Waldau and Kimberley Christine Patton, EBook. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.