Tilting at windmill materialism: Towards an Ontology of Organism (OoO)

Adam at Knowledge-Ecology has posted some reflections on the issues at stake in the confrontation between philosophical realism and philosophical materialism. Levi Bryant (Larval Subjects) and Michael (Archive-Fire) place their bets on materialism, while Graham Harman (Object-Oriented Philosophy) and Steven Shaviro (Pinocchio Theory) prefer realism. This isn’t the whole story, however. When we shift to the issue of withdrawal (i.e., the accessibility of things), Shaviro, Bryant, and Michael all line up in opposition to Harman by arguing for the contingent, rather than absolute untouchability of things.This way of slicing the ontological opinion pie means that I remain most sympathetic to Shaviro’s way of thinking things.

I reject absolute materialism for the same reason I reject absolute idealism: these -isms only function semantically as productive concepts when they remain in dialectical tension with one another. Ultimately, they represent a coincidentia oppositorum, which is to say that, if you carry materialism to its logical conclusions, you only end up arriving at the premises of the idealist, and vice versa. As abstractions, these -isms seem mutually exclusive; but in practice, you can’t have one without the other, at least not if the philosophical sensibility in question is to avoid tilting at windmills as if they were the fiercest of giants. The physical sciences, for example, continue to assume a materialist ontology even while the majority of the mathematicians responsible for its theoretical structure remain committed Platonists. Similarly, the deep structure of Hegel’s supposedly absolute idealism provides the conceptual engine that still powers much contemporary Marxist materialism. Not to mention the profound influence on Hegel of Jakob Boehme’s incarnationalist doctrine of Geistleiblichkeit (that cosmogenesis is the ever-more adequate corporeal expression of divinity).

Adam is careful to avoid playing into any simplistic bifurcation of materialism from realism by suggesting that both -isms have shown themselves to be capable of successful deployment in the proper circumstances. At times, he seems to lean towards the realism of strange materialism. This leaning would seem to put Adam shoulder to shoulder with Bryant, who deploys a rather paradoxical materialism. The concept of matter succeeds, Bryant argues, precisely because neither philosophy or science have any idea what matter really is. I am not sure whether Bryant means to suggest that philosophy/science will never have insight into the nature of matter, or whether these simply do not have such insight as of yet. If he doesn’t mean the latter, then I fail to see how his position ultimately differs from Harman’s concerning the absolute withdrawal of things. If the “matter” of Bryant’s materialism withdraws from all attempts to think it, why call it materialism?

I affirm a relational ontology, but I do not do so in order to deny the reality of withdrawal. Following Whitehead, I am in pursuit of an ontology of autonomous organisms always already in relationships of mutual transformation. Organisms are radically open and promiscuous objects, always touching others as they are touched themselves; but even amidst this intersticial flesh of ecosystemic relations, individual organisms withdraw again and again in creative moments of subjective satisfaction. If this were not the case, the freedom and novelty of individual decision could not exist, since everything would be entirely conditioned, overwhelmed by its contact with everything else. A world where everything is fully deployed in its relations is a world where nothing happens to anybody because everything is happening everywhere, all the time. Instead of a naive holism, I seek to describe an ontology and enact a cosmos where hetero-erotic objects exist in transformative relation to one another’s auto-erotic subjectivity. Such dances between organisms (an organism, I’d suggest, could be thought of as both a subject and an object of experience) are perhaps best described ecologically (here I follow Adam). I may have more in common with the Whitehead of Science and the Modern World than that of Process and Reality, since rather than an ontology divided into actual occasions and eternal objects, I’d want to preserve a more concrete account of the real in terms of organism [on the other hand, we could just say that the division between actual occasions and eternal objects is metaphysically basic, while organism is cosmologically basic]. The life that emerges between organisms is where all the action is, whether that action is abstractly characterized as exclusively psychical or physical. Psyche and Physis ought to be complementary, rather than contradictory elements in any coherent cosmology. What Harman calls “endo-ontology,” I might characterize as the study of the way subjects transform one another into new objects. Such productive transformation is a result of the generativity of organisms, their tendency to reproduce with one another.

My organismic/ecological ontology has theological implications. I reject the notion that speculative philosophy should imagine itself to be made in the image of a spectator God (a “Kosmotheoros” to use Merleau-Ponty’s term) who stands above the world to observe it as if from outside. God is an organism like every other, suffering and celebrating the ongoing birth of the cosmos just as deeply as any other living being. The only difference between God and finite organisms is that God suffers the whole. It is not impossible, however, for a finite organism to experience its infinity in a gesture of cosmic compassion, since the panentheist God here depicted is all in all.

As Rumi put it,

Let the drop of water that is you
become a hundred mighty seas.

But do not think that the drop alone
becomes the Ocean—
the Ocean, too, becomes the drop!

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5 thoughts on “Tilting at windmill materialism: Towards an Ontology of Organism (OoO)

  1. It might be just me, but I think you’re posts are becoming more sophisticated. I hope that the same can be said of mine. Good job.

  2. Pingback: Strange Materialism and Cosmopolitics | Knowledge Ecology

  3. Pingback: The Varieties of Causality | Footnotes to Plato

  4. Pingback: Whitehead and the Role of Ideas in the Universe: A Psychedelic Experiment « Footnotes to Plato

  5. Pingback: John Caputo on Speculative Realism | Footnotes 2 Plato

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