Creation Waits

Speculative Realism, Existential Theology, and Apocalyptic Pedagogy

Month: July, 2016

Perichoresis as a Useful Concept for OOO

In Christian Trinitarian theology, the term perichoresis is used to denote the relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while avoiding the traditional heresies of modalism (viz., that these are three modes or aspects of the Godhead) and tritheism (viz., that each are distinct gods). The doctrine of perichoresis avoids these heresies by affirming the “mutual indwelling” of the three persons (An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church).

In his examination of the concept, Oliver D. Crisp argues that perichoresis should be understood as follows:

The persons of the Trinity share all their properties in a common divine essence apart from those properties that serve to individuate one of the persons of the Trinity, or express a relation between only two persons of the Trinity. (“Problems with Perichoresis,” Tyndale Bulletin 56.1, 2005, p. 139.)

I am entertaining the idea that the concept of perichoresis could be usefully appropriated to address the actuality of beings (objects) in general. Let me briefly explain.

Within Levi Bryant’s version of object-oriented ontology, objects are described as “split” between their local manifestations and their virtual proper being. (Here “virtual” is directly derived from the Latin virtus, with its connotations of potency and power.) This allows us to distinguish between those powers which are properly constitutive of an object—i.e., the capacities it has owing to its constitution—and the products of those capacities or powers, which are always manifested locally, in some specific way, as a result of being in relation with other things. The constitutive powers of a being are the “operations” which that being is capable of performing, even if it fails 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 it relate and tend to interact, giving rise to an irreducible existent. For example, the virtual proper being of a specific 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 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 is the precondition for understanding the virtues proper to its being, for it is owing to its internal structure that a being has the capacities that it has. In exercising some, but not others, of the powers of which it is capable, an existent object manifests itself in various specific ways. (Levi Bryant, Onto-Cartography, pp. 40–41 and 75.)

As I understand it, the actuality of an object is a function of the dynamic mediation between these two distinct ontological dimensions (for lack of a better term; see below): (1) internal material structure and (2) external relations. Put slightly differently, an understanding of the actuality of a particular being needs to encompass both its virtual proper being and its various local manifestations. Here, we want to avoid two analogies from theology; viz., modalism and dualism. We should neither claim that the virtual proper being or various local manifestations are mere modes of a being, nor that a being is a composite of two types of beings (the virtual and the manifest).

What I am considering is that the relation between the virtual and the manifest is something like a perichoresis, since this suggests dynamic circulation (perí) and going forth (khōréō). It is, I suppose, the connoted dynamism which I find most attractive about this term. I’ve heard it said that “perichoresis” could be understood as a Greek term for “dance.” I like that: the actuality of a being is the dance or interplay between the virtual and the manifest. Both the virtual and the manifest are real, yet neither alone accounts for the actuality of an object.Only in the dance do we locate the actuality of an object.

As in theology, this term may be useful as a means of avoiding certain locutions which would otherwise be inconsistent with the ontology in which we are working. If we’re being consistent, it seems to me that we don’t want to say that the virtual and the manifest are two parts, aspects, or even dimensions of an object. “Dimension” is arguably the least inconsistent turn of phrase, but even that borrowed term fails to connote the dynamism that the ontology demands.

Furthermore, the term allows us to think of the layers of perichoretic relations that exist between things. I’ve been focusing on the relation between the virtual and manifest of a single object, but we must remember that, according to this version of OOO, all objects are assemblages of objects. Hence, objects, which are themselves constituted perichoretically, enter into perichoretic relation with other objects.

This point reminds me of a passage from John Caputo’s The Weakness of God, in which he states (as an interpretation of a point from Peter Damain’s theology), “a body is less an extended mass ruled by laws of gravity and displacement than a field of happenings in which one event can overtake another” (The Weakness of God, p. 204).

On “Nature” and “Society”

​In his encyclical Laudato Si’ Francis proposes an “integral ecology,” which conceives of our relationships to God, nature, and each other as equally fundamental, thereby affirming that the human and the natural are inescapably integrated. 

I suspect that this approach is too intimately wedded to our existing, technocratically inflected ways of speaking and thinking. In particular, I worry that it makes use of a faulty society-nature dichotomy, since it seems to assume that society and nature are two different things.

If, indeed, Francis’s integral ecology is premised on such a supposition, the objects that it integrates are chimeras. Outside of our imagination, there is no thing that is “Nature” or is “Society.” There are, I grant, non-artificial beings (i.e., beings not produced by human artifice), and there are societies and individuals, but there is not some monolithic thing outside of our minds that is Nature or is Society. If by “integral ecology,” we mean an ecological framework in which Nature and Society are to be integrated, we are operating at the level of fantasy. 

I propose that we treat “Nature” and “Society” in a way that is analogous to how Bruno Latour treats the term “Science.” He argues, persuasively, that there is no such thing as Science. When we use that term as if it denotes an entity, we speak sloppily. There are, to be sure, scientists, scientific hypotheses, scientific theories, scientific practices, and so forth. But there is no such thing as Science. In like manner, there are societies, social practices, etc., and there are humans and non-humans (just as there are squirrels and non-squirrels), but we speak sloppily when we speak of Society and Nature as denoting two distinct, massively large entities in relation.

Particular—nay, singular—beings or objects are the things that are integrated, that are in relation with each other, even as they remain withdrawn from those relations. And various objects can be (are!) parts of other objects. But the objects of the world do not give rise to or constitute two massive objects—Nature and Society—that may be (or may fail to be) integrated.