Love, Death, and the Sub-Creative Imagination in J.R.R. Tolkien (revised)

Love, Death, and the Sub-Creative Imagination in J. R. R. Tolkien

csms-1-448d31aWritten March 3, 2013, Revised September 20, 2014

by Matthew David Segall

In the year 1951, as recorded by the calendar of our world, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to a potential publisher of his Lord of the Rings trilogy to describe the origin of his fantasy story:

“In order of time, growth and composition, this stuff began with me. I do not remember a time when I was not building it…I have been at it since I could write” (xi).

The imaginal flowering of Tolkien’s mythopoeic world was never separate from his real life identity. It grew from the soil of his own soul, from out of the wounds of his own real life world. His very sense of himself as a developing personality within a devolving late industrial society was coëval with his feeling for the courses charted by his characters through the story. His autobiography and his archeology of Middle-Earth were as one.

Though Tolkien is clearly an example of what our traditions of criticism have called a literary genius—a man singularly awakened to the world-making power of his Imagination—we must nonetheless grapple with the apparently contradictory metaphysical implications of his fantasy works: Art is not the privilege of a few especially talented human geniuses, but the shared intuition or common sense running through each and every creature in the cosmos. It is not Tolkien’s imagination that created Middle-Earth, just as it is not any particular person’s imagination that has created our earth as it exists in the year 2014. It is the same Divine Cosmic Imagination that has created both, the one through Tolkien, the other through all of us together. A genius inspires every one of us from the dumbest to the most erudite in our thoughts, and in our hearts, and even in our very cells, the molecules organizing our cells, the protons and electrons whose dancing in currents of light grant motion to those molecules. The process of cosmic creation is the locus of primary genius. All of nature is inspired Art. The cosmic imagination has called the human into being. Human Art is nature’s way of becoming conscious of its own creative process.

Unlike every other creature on Earth or above it, our human purpose is not pre-determined by our species. To be human is to lack any such purpose but that we create for ourselves. In a participatory universe such as ours, the only purpose given us by our Creator is to become like him, to become, as Tolkien referred to it, a “sub-creator.”

The subtending power of Imagination over human life is such that, lacking a positive desire for creation, a creative impulse, a sense of self-esteem in our ability to create, we quickly sink into the darkness of world-negating nihilism. Cosmic meaning is never prescribed; we are called instead to participate in its making. The purpose we have been given by our Maker is to participate in His making.

It isn’t that the lack of a creative desire to participate in life dissolves the illusions of Imagination, leaving behind nothing but bare biological survival and the blind and stupid churning of matter. It’s that, for better or worse, with or without such positivity, there is no escape from Imagination: it encompasses the whole of both life and death, body and soul, yay and nay. To be sub-creators is our doom. If we do not use our power of divine likeness to create beauty, we risk destroying it. We are not permitted to abstain, to be spectators on an already made reality. For there to be any reality at all, we must participate in its making, whether positively or negatively.

Reality is never purely what it is because it always comes mixed up with Images. Reality, it turns out, is not a finished unity, but a plurality of interwoven processes. Every supposedly simple and finished reality is but a ego-generated image, a mirage, an idol. What happens is that an ongoing creality is mistaken for a completed reality. This mistake leads not only to nihilism, but to resentment of the world’s becoming.

Resentment or enchantment: these are the two paths open to we earthly sub-creators. Both bring forth a certain shape of subjectivity: the former that of an embattled ego who has externalized blame upon an enemy in order to feel expiated for its own failure to faithfully participate; the latter that of an ego innocently open to the eucatastrophic surprises of a cosmic story still in the process of being told.

Tolkien’s Art invites us to step into our roles as cosmic artisans, just at that moment in world history when the stars have fallen and so much else seems headed for disaster.


Tolkien’s Art is not what it at first appears. More artisanal than artistic, the products of Tolkien’s sub-creation “arose in [his] mind as ‘given’ things.” Always,” writes Tolkien, “I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing’” (xii). Tolkien’s mode of creation is also a mode of discovery. This seeming contradiction is easier to grasp if we consider it alongside Tolkien’s belief that “myths are largely made of truth” (xv). The “wide-spread motives or elements” expressed in the world’s mythologies (known to Tolkien’s contemporary Carl Jung as “archetypes”) are such mythic truths. It is no surprise, then, that these archetypes were in some sense re-discovered by Tolkien in the course of his imaginal descent into Middle-Earth. We need not decide whether sub-creation is true creation, or simple discovery, since Imagination functions according to its own oscillatory logic allowing it to hover indeterminately between pairs of seeming opposites (creation/discovery, self/world, intellect/sensation, spirit/matter, and so forth). It is from this unruly oscillation that all of Imagination’s mysterious power derives.

Tolkien says of all his artwork that it is fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) to Primary Reality (xiii). Primary Reality is the world of daily life, of biological struggle, and, eventually, of death. The sub-creator, in bringing forth a Secondary Reality (made not of mass in motion, but of story and myth, of image and emotion), expresses a desire which not only has no ordinary biological function, but which indeed usually finds itself in strife with these functions (xiii). Despite its spiritual motives, the sub-creative desire “is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it” (xiii). Death, even if imaginary, is no less real for all that. We human sub-creators have, again, two paths open to us upon encountering it.

The first option is to resent death as a curse, and so to “rebel against the laws of the Creator” by employing various devices meant to mechanically stave off the inevitable. This is a fallen form of creativity in service of the denial of death, which cannot but lead to the desire for ever more Power. For Tolkien, this desire for Power can lead only to an obsession with “the Machine.” The Machine necessarily possesses its master (and so inverts the master-slave relationship). It represents a form of black magic that is concerned only to make the will quicker and more effective, a technological magic accomplished by external devices, rather than by the innate power of Imagination.

The second option is to accept death as a gift from God, to sub-create out of sheer love of this world without jealousy or possessiveness. This is easier if we follow Tolkien’s advice by looking at things “through Elvish minds” instead of the human ones we’re used to. The object of Elvish magic “is Art, not Power, sub-creation, not domination and tyrannous re-forming of creation” (xii). Though “it is not the legendary mode of talking,” Tolkien assures us that his “elves” are really nothing more than “an apprehension of a part of human nature” (xvi). No doubt it is the higher part; though of course, the Elves were the first to fall.

“There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall…at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.” (xv)

In the mythic mode of speaking, the Elves are said to be the Firstborn of Ilúvatar, humans their Followers. Taking the Elvish view on things gives we mere mortals the opportunity to raise our attention from the mud into which we have fallen to dwell again at least for a moment beneath the stars in the sky and to contemplate the heavenly mission their light was sent to earth to share with us.

“The doom of the Elves,” writes Tolkien,

“is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain,’ but returning–and yet, when the Followers come, to teach them, and make way for them, to ‘fade’ as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed.” (xiv)

“The Doom (or Gift) of Men,” he continues,

“is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world. Since the point of view of the whole cycle is the Elvish, mortality is not explained mythically: it is a mystery of God which no more is known than that ‘what God has purposed for Men is hidden': a grief and an envy to the immortal Elves.”

From the Elvish perspective, death is Ilúvatar’s Gift to humans. Elves envy humans because our love for the world is, at least potentially, so much more beautiful than theirs. Why? Because we mortals have the choice to love one another, and to love the world, despite death. Eucatastrophe, is the highest of the Arts, the most beautiful of all Nature’s works.

Only by incarnating into the physical world and passing through the finitude of death could God’s Love become truly infinite. This is the Creator’s great secret, kept even from the angels until (if I might risk an allegorical translation) the Christ Event. Until that “turning point in time,” the Drama had remained incomplete…“incomplete in each individual ‘god,’ and incomplete if all the knowledge of the pantheon were pooled…For the Creator had not revealed all.” (xiv)

Embracing death lovingly despite not being certain of its meaning requires a redemptive act of Imagination, a sort of faith, since for Imagination believing is seeing.

The same sort of imaginal faith is required to participate in the meaning of Tolkien’s cosmogony as depicted in The Silmarillion. Tolkien recounts the creation of the world through the musical call and response of Ilúvatar, the All-Father, the One, and his noetic offspring, the Ainur, or Holy Ones. Together, all the Ainur sang in accord with Ilúvatar’s theme:

“…a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.”

But then, Melkor, the Ainur with the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, began to

“interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.” (16)

Not only Elves and Humans, but even Angels are subject to the mythic law of the Fall. Like all evil, Melkor’s fallenness stems from the same root as goodness. He only began to sing out of tune with the other Ainur because he had gone off alone in an effort to fill in the emptiness of the Void where Ilúvatar’s song had not yet reached. His efforts made his heart grow hot with possessiveness. Alas, his will was lost to the lure of Ilúvatar’s music and he turned selfward, instead. Melkor’s rebellion caused heaven’s harmony to falter as many of the other Ainur began attuning with him instead of Ilúvatar. Soon, all about the throne of Ilúvatar “there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war upon one another in an endless wrath.” Ilúvatar contended with Melkor, not by negating his “loud and vain” improvisations, but by weaving even the most triumphant of Melkor’s dissonant notes back into the deeply solemn and for that reason immeasurably beautiful pattern of His cosmic melody.

“Mighty are the Ainur,” said Ilúvatar,

“and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar…And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” (17)

The universe presents human beings with an opportunity to trust the creative process that has birthed them, to trust it even when its path seems dark and difficult, even when its products seem measly and powerless before the weight of the primary world of toil and death. We can embrace mortal sub-creation without resenting the task by realizing that death only appears to the fallen ego to be an enemy. For the ego redeemed by Imagination, death is revealed to be God’s greatest gift to Creation, a sacred secret entrusted not to gods but to humans, those made in His Image and after His likeness.

“The great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world,’” wrote Tolkien,

“are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak–owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama.” (xvii)

*All citations from second edition of The Silmarillion ed. by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

“Expanding and Re-Enchanting the Psyche: The Pioneering Thought of Stanislav Grof”

If you’re a Bay Area local, do try to attend this conference celebrating the work of Stan Grof Oct. 24-25 (Friday and Saturday) at the Hotel Whitcomb. It is being sponsored by the new Center for the Study of Psychedelic Medicine at C.I.I.S. and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.


>>More information<<       >>Registration<<       >>Presentation descriptions<<

This fall, the California Institute of Integral Studies and the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program is hosting a unique conference honoring the lifetime achievements of Stanislav Grof in the several fields to which he has made such major contributions, including consciousness research, psychiatry and psychology, psychedelic studies, religious studies, philosophy, and esotericism. Scholars and researchers from many disciplines will explore and build upon Grof’s extraordinary expansion of our understanding of the human psyche as well as the range and power of psychotherapeutic approaches. Grof will respond to the diverse presentations, followed by open dialogue with the participants. 

Presenters will include:
Christopher Bache, Ph.D.; John Buchanan, Ph.D.; Fritjof Capra; Rick Doblin, Ph.D.; Jorge Ferrer, Ph.D.; Leonard Gibson, Ph.D.; Charles Grob, M.D.; Paul Grof, M.D.; Stanislav Grof, M.D.; Diane Haug, M.A., LPCC; William Keepin, Ph.D.; Sean Kelly, Ph.D.; Ralph Metzner, Ph.D.; Annie Mithoefer, B.S.N; Michael Mithoefer, M.D.; Thomas Roberts, Ph.D.; Tav Sparks; Richard Tarnas, Ph.D.; Kylea Taylor, M.S., M.F.T.; and Jenny Wade, Ph.D.

The Psychedelic Eucharist: Is there an Alchemical Solution to the Ecological Crisis?

Some notes toward a talk I’m giving at Burning Man next week. I’ll be at camp Cosmicopia (located at 3:45 and Ephesus). The talk is on Wednesday at 4pm.


The word “psychedelic” was coined in the 1950s by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in a letter exchanged with the famed author and philosopher Aldous Huxley. Osmond had recently supplied Huxley with a dose of mescaline. Huxley later sent Osmond a rhyme containing his own suggested neologism: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme” (phanero meaning ‘to show’ or ‘make visible’ and thymos meaning ‘spiritedness’ in Greek). Osmond countered with the lines “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.” The word means “soul manifesting” (from ψυχή, meaning psyche or soul in Latin), and δήλος, delos, meaning ‘manifest’). Osmond was among the first medical scientists to study the effects of Albert Hoffman’s recently invented chemical compound LSD-25. He was convinced that the psychedelic state could help psychiatrists understand and treat schizophrenia.

Many burners would probably agree that psychedelics offer treatments for a whole variety of individual ailments, whether alcoholism or addiction, PTSD, depression, anxiety due to being diagnosed with a terminal illness, etc. I want to suggest that psychedelics may also provide us with at least part of the solution to wider social, economic, and ecological problems. They are not a cure all, but given the short time-frame human civilization has to fundamentally transform itself before cascading catastrophe drives our species and many others beside into extinction, I think our only hope comes in the form of a drastic chemical—or better, alchemical—intervention. Only the re-birth of a psychedelic religion can save us now.

The global religion of consumer capitalism is predicated upon the belief that consciousness is fundamentally atomic and individualistic, that it is produced by the brain and contained within the skull. The word capital derives from the Latin word “caput,” meaning “head,” and originally referred to the number of cattle a rich person owned. Today, as always, rich people also own human heads. One of the principle lessons of psychedelics as far as I can tell is that, as Daniel Pinchbeck put it, they “break open the head,” revealing the cosmological ground of consciousness. Richard Doyle, author of Darwin’s Pharmacy, goes so far as to rename psychedelics “ecodelics” because of the way they dissolve the skin-thin boundary between human beings and their earthly habitats. What does it mean that so many plants and fungi contain psychoactive analogs of the human brain’s endogenous neurochemicals? Banisteriopsis caapi, psilocybin mushrooms, ergot fungus, cannabis—even our front lawns contain trace amounts of DMT! The nervous system is an ecologically extended network of chemical interactions. The human brain has been co-evolving with these other organisms for tens of thousands of years. Consciousness is not in the head. Consciousness is an emergent, symbiotic process that is planetary in extent.

It’s no mistake that religion of consumer capitalism requires that these substances be illegal. In order for the global economy to function, we have to continue to believe that we are skin-encapsulated egos (as Alan Watts put it) and that the meaning of life is determined by how much we own. We are raised to believe that human nature is basically selfish, that nature is basically cruel, and death is the end, so we may as well push others out of the way to get as much as we can while we’re still alive. We have to continue to commit what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” by attributing more value to paper or plastic money than to human relationships, human lives, or the lives of other species. Our civilization is willing to destroy the entire planetary ecosystem to maintain corporate profit margins.

Have you ever taken a look at a $20 bill while tripping? Try it next time. I can’t help but laugh in astonishment whenever I do. This is the lifeblood of our civilization? We forget so easily that money is merely symbolic. You can’t eat it, drink it, or make love to it. When we put a bill on the counter or swipe our credit card at Starbucks, we act as though some metaphysical law forces the barista to make us our latte. In fact, we are entering into a social agreement. Capitalism does everything in its power to background this agreement, to background the alienating social relations that are required for the system to function. Capitalism tricks us into thinking that money is the only real measure of value and that this value necessarily determines the course of our lives. I’d wager that American money is green because this leads us to unconsciously associate it with photosynthesizing plants—which by the way are the only truly energy producing organisms on the planet. All the energy on earth enters into the food chain because plants have learned to transform sunlight into carbs. Not to mention the fact that most of the energy driving the global economy comes from fossilized plants.

Capitalism is a form of black magic. It is a dark, soul- and earth-destroying religion. Like all religions, it’s founded on certain rituals: shopping, working, watching TV or otherwise being inundated by advertisements, etc. It has its holy sites: malls, movie theaters, car dealerships. And it has its crusades: wars in the Middle East on behalf of “freedom” and “democracy” (code words for capitalism). Most modern industrial people think of themselves as entirely secular, but no religious believer ever considers their own religion to be just another religious belief system. No, our capitalist civilization, like all prior civilizations, thinks it has found the one true rational way to do things.

The reason I think psychedelics provide part of the solution to our crisis is that they allow our cultural conditioning to fall away, permitting us to re-imagine our values, our symbols, and our stories. They reveal the deeper connections between all things, the way the very idea of property or ownership does violence to the creative and sacred dimension of the universe. They allow us to rediscover the mystery of existence that has always been hidden in plain site. Psychedelic chemicals catalyze the formation of new rituals. Normally, ritualization is an unconscious process that takes many generations to take shape. Unfortunately, we don’t have many generations. If our civilization cannot fundamentally transform itself within the space of a few years, the odds of our survival are slim. Don’t get me wrong, these substances are extremely dangerous. They come with huge risks. Anyone ingesting them risks losing their mind. Of course, the default mind is suffering from a disease. Maybe losing it isn’t such a bad idea.

The Philosophy of Big History

Matthew David Segall:

Sam Mickey on Big History.

Originally posted on Becoming Integral:

I attended the recent conference of the International Big History Association.  The association is oriented toward researching and teaching “Big History,” which aims (as their website says) to “understand the integrated history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity,” specifically by means of “the best available empirical evidence and scholarly methods.”  That opens up the field of history into a comprehensive and cross-disciplinary account of the entire 13.8 billion year history of our universe.

Big History is far from alone in its aim to articulate an integrated and evolutionary vision of matter, life, and humanity.  Multiple scholarly fields and schools of thought share the integrative aims of Big History (e.g., the universe story, the field of religion and ecology, integral theory, ecofeminism, complexity theory, posthumanities, process philosophy).  Big historians still have much to learn from those and other integrative and transdisciplinary sources of evolutionary knowledge. 

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No Newton of the Grass Blade: On the impossibility of scientific genius in Kant’s “Critique of Judgment”

In preparation for a lecture on mind and nature in German Idealism, I’m working my way through Kant’s third of three critiques, the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). Prior to this sitting, I’ve only ever spent time with small sections of this text. For example, sections 75 and 76 in the second part on teleological judgment were major catalysts driving my earliest attempts to counter mechanistic biology by replacing it with an alternative theory of organism (for example, this essay written between 2008 and 2009). At that point, I had paid almost no attention to the first part on aesthetic judgment. Having read over that part twice now in the past few weeks, I realize that I had not fully understood what was at stake in Kant’s attempt to articulate a critical philosophy of biology, i.e., a transcendental study of life itself. The key take away for me was Kant’s denial of scientific genius. Only artists, and especially poets, can be considered geniuses. A genius is nature appearing in the form of the human being giving the rule to art. A genius is someone who, without following explicit rules and so according to a method mysterious even to themselves, is able to give artistic expression to the formative forces of nature. Without the slightest contrivance, as though they emerged merely from the free play of the imagination, genius is able to produce beautiful works that, for those with cultivated taste at least, are suggestive of supersensible ideas and cosmic intelligences.

But the notion of a scientific genius is a contradiction in terms, since for Kant natural science presupposes the lawful system of categories imposed universally upon our experience of nature by the understanding. Science produces conceptually determinant knowledge about nature, principally in the form of synthetic a priori logical and mathematical constructions (which if they cannot be known a priori are sorted according to the sieve of experiment). If a scientist cannot tell you with precision exactly how she came to know what she knows, then she doesn’t know anything. Knowledge production is always such that anyone with sufficient training should be able to grasp it and to reproduce it. Artistic genius, however, cannot be taught. Its products remain forever beyond the reach of mere skill or education. Artistic geniuses gain aesthetic insight into nature, but fail to provide any scientific knowledge of nature. Scientists, according to Kant, can catch no cognitive sight (i.e., they have no intellectual intuition) of the hidden cause of nature’s self-organizing processes.

“It is quite certain,” writes Kant,

“that we can never adequately come to know the organized beings and their internal possibility in accordance with merely mechanical principles of nature, let alone explain them; and indeed this is so certain that we can boldly say that it would be absurd for humans even to make such an attempt or to hope that there may yet arise a Newton who could make comprehensible even the generation of a blade of grass according to natural laws that no intention has ordered; rather, we must absolutely deny this insight to human beings” (section 75).



When it comes to our power to judge whether the apparently teleological or end-seeking aspects of nature (in its products and as a whole) are real causes or merely illusory intuitions, Kant resolves what would otherwise remain an antinomy for reason by denying natural science any knowledge one way or the other. We simply cannot know scientifically, argues Kant, whether nature is truly mechanical or whether higher ends are shaping its products and processes. Science can neither affirm an intelligent cause behind nature, nor deny that, at least for us as human knowers, such a cause may be necessary to explain the unity of nature. The concept of unity, of course, provides the very condition for the possibility of any natural science at all, and so for Kant, although we cannot know whether nature is objectively purposive, we are justified in our subjective assertions of such a purposiveness because our cognitive powers of imagination, understanding, and reason cannot find internal harmony without operating as though this purposiveness was real.

My own work on etheric imagination is an attempt to push Kant’s transcendental aesthetics a bit further than he was willing into a fully blown ontology of organism. That he was unwilling (per his devotion to the Good) to allow aesthetic feeling (the Beautiful) or scientific knowledge (the True) an equal share in critical philosophy’s transcendental foundation follows from his desire to ground the higher faculties of thinking (the Understanding) and feeling (Taste or Judgment) in that of willing (Reason). The moral law derived from his critique of practical reason was Kant’s trump card. He denied knowledge of nature in order to make room for moral freedom.

In my own work, I hope to show that any search for grounds or foundations always begins and ends in imagination (which contains its own sort of freedom, though not always moral). Once we acknowledge the peripheral centrality of imagination in philosophy (we find ourselves always in the middle of it, especially when we have tried most to escape from it), the search for foundations is transformed from means to end, which is to say philosophy returns to its generative roots in the groundlessness of Creativity. We become philosophers once again: lovers of wisdom instead of sophists claiming to be wise; careful inquirers rather than foolhardy instrumentalizers of nature. Attuned to imagination, we become the spiritual soil for nature’s creative expression. Genius becomes the norm instead of the exception. Supposedly common human beings are returned their birthright. We realize, as Hillman described it, the poetic basis of mind. Genius cannot be taught; it can only be remembered (though exemplars can help provoke our memories). Through genius–through the feeling and expression of nature become conscious in us as beauty–we gain access to goodness and truth.

Stay tuned…

On reading Philip K. Dick for the first time…

“…mental illness. It was like a plague. No one could discern how much was due to drugs. This time in America–1960 to 1970–and this place, the Bay Area of Northern California, was totally fucked. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that’s the truth. Fancy terms and ornate theories cannot cover this fact up (Valis, 4).

I started reading PKD’s VALIS yesterday. I understand now where the inspiration for Richard Doyle’s thesis regarding the evolutionary power of psychedelic rhetoric came from. PKD has a way of alphabetically inducing a psychedelic experience. His words lift us out of our ordinary waking consciousness, opening the doors of perception to what Aldous Huxley called “Mind at Large.” I’m only 40 pages in, but PKD has already taken me on a gnostic trip into what at first, to my mini-mind, seemed pure insanity.

From loss and grief the Mind has become deranged. Therefore we, as parts of the universe, the Brain, are partly deranged. [...]  The Mind is not talking to us but by means of us. Its narrative passes through us and its sorrow infuses us irrationally. As Plato discerned, there is a streak of the irrational in the World Soul. [...] The changing information which we experience as World is an unfolding narrative. It tells the death of a woman… This woman, who died long ago, was one of the primordial twins. She was one half of the divine syzygy. The purpose of the narrative is the recollection of her and of her death. The Mind does not wish to forget her. Thus the ratiocination of the Brain consists of a permanent record of her existence, and, if read, will be understood this way. All the information processed by the Brain–experienced by us as the arranging and rearranging of physical objects–is an attempt at this preservation of her; stones and rocks and sticks and amoebae are traces of her. The record of her existence and passing is ordered onto the meanest level of reality by the suffering Mind which is now alone (33-34).

Here is Doyle on PKD:

The Ecology of Ideas: Enacting Worlds Worth Living In

“Every scientific man in order to preserve his reputation has to say he dislikes metaphysics. What he means is he dislikes having his metaphysics criticized.”

-Alfred North Whitehead


Over at Knowledge-Ecology, Adam Robbert has thrown a few fantastic posts up unpacking his vision of the ecology of ideas. Concepts are capacities skillfully enacted in ecological contexts. There is no self or mental substance that “has” concepts–this is not the sort of “capacity” Adam is talking about. Rather, when “I” learn or unlearn a particular species of concept, “I” become other than I was. “No thinker thinks twice,” as Whitehead put it in Process and Reality. Concepts are everywhere swarming through our environments, infecting us like viruses, altering not only the content but the structure of our embodied minds.

In the comments beneath his post, a fascinating exchange continues to unfold between Adam and a few proponents of eliminativism, including the inventor of “Blind Brain Theory” R. Scott Bakker. As I posted there, the eliminativist’s attempt to erase 1st person experience is self-refuting–a performative contradiction!–since the scientific epistemology that is supposed to grant knowledge of 3rd person Nature out there already presupposes a Mind capable of knowing it.

Bakker responded by dismissing Mind and intentionality and experience, etc., as transcendental a prioris because ultimately their existence depends entirely on our willingness to believe in them. In other words, Bakker argues that my defense of 1st person experience amounts to just another religious faith, while his eliminativism is the result of “hard” scientific empiricism. Bakker’s way of demarcating science from religion is a telling one, since it highlights what is perhaps our core point of philosophical divergence. Like Adam, I see meaning as an intrinsic feature of our evolutionary context. All organisms enact worlds and are always already structurally coupled with their environments. They survive, when they do, because they have managed to communicate with their environments in a more or less coherent way. (As will become clearer below, it is important to remember here that “environment” means “other organisms”). The human organism is just one species of meaning-maker among many here on earth. Our form of meaning-making often goes under the name of “religion.” I’m not sure if Adam totally follows me here, but I’d argue that religious fabulation is in this sense inescapable. Adam prefers to speak in the secular terms of “cosmopolitics” instead of religion, but in the context of Bruno Latour’s Gaian natural theology, I think it becomes more clear that the “secular” is already a highly charged religious concept (and it becomes a fetish if we’re not careful). Adam writes that “philosophy must aim for self-care and not just self-knowledge; we must create a livable system of ideas in addition to pursuing critical denouncements of dogmatism.” Human beings have a biological need to create such a livable system of ideas. So, in this sense, religion (or cosmopolitics) has as much ontological significance as science; each is always already implicated in the other’s attempt to justify itself (as Whitney Bauman argues in his new book Religion and Ecology). This, to my mind, is the only way to meet the real challenge of post-Darwinian epistemology: to think truth in an evolutionary context is to give up our belief in the “true world” and to accept the apparent world as the real world (=aesthetics as first philosophy). This was Nietzsche’s challenge to the traditional consensus of Enlightenment philosophers.

I actually agree with Bakker that the transcendental and phenomenological approaches to defending experience are misguided. As I’ve discussed with Evan Thompson in the past, I think his enactivist extension of phenomenology to biology goes a long way toward the sort of experiential realism I’m after. But in the end, it still falls short and remains ontologically underdetermined in my opinion. Taking cues from Whitehead and Schelling, I think life (or a radically deanthropocized “experience” if you prefer) is the more general category than matter. (To be fair, Thompson also draws approvingly on Robert Rosen, who makes a similar argument regarding the generality of life.) Another way of putting this would be to say that ecology should replace physics as the most foundational science. Physical space and time would then not only be relativized, but pluralized: brought forth as various scales by enduring relations between organisms. The universal “space-time” known to physicists is not the pre-given, eternally imposed geometrical background within which the energetic transactions of actual entities takes place, but is itself brought forth by the energetic transactions of the most encompassing society actual entities (the electromagnetic and gravitronic societies?).  Space-time is enacted ecologically, brought forth by the creative intra-action of a cosmic community of actual occasions. (I go into this Whiteheadian conception of space-time in more depth in my essay Physics of the World-Soul).

In sum, I think it is important in a conversation like this to acknowledge off the bat that we are doing speculative metaphysics either way (whether we are eliminativists or panexperientialists). Bakker’s blind brain theory is science fiction, not science fact. But it is no less compelling for this! I appreciate the challenge he is raising, since it is clear to me that the only viable ontological options at this point in the history of philosophy are eliminativism or panexperientialism (as Steven Shaviro continues to argue).

Our philosophical options here are not simply the Scientific Facts of neuroscience versus the deluded fairy tales of metaphysics. Neuroscientific findings can and should inform our speculative grasp of the universe and its processes, but to my mind it is a regressive and forgetful maneuver to pretend neuroscience somehow “purifies” human understanding of metaphysics. This notion that positive science might somehow secure epistemological freedom from speculative imagination so as to deal only with the self-evident facts of physical reality, or whatever, is the worst kind of metaphysics because it is unconscious metaphysics.



Traditions of Unknowing

Matthew David Segall:

Adam Robbert on the ecology of ideas…

Originally posted on Knowledge Ecology:

04-Dennis-Wojtkiewicz-fruit_4[Image: Dennis Wojtkiewicz]

In my last post I offered a two-part description of the concept: the concept-as-tool and the concept-as-capacity. I then suggested both these definitions come together in the learning process. Learning, in this view, is a transition of the concept as an external tool into the concept as an acquired capacity. I concluded by suggesting that the transition into the concept-as-capacity phase reveals the ecological nature of the subject-concept dynamic. In this mode of understanding, a subject is not the kind of being that can simply acquire new concepts while remaining identical to him or herself. Instead, from the ecological view, learning initiates a symbiosis between subject and concept that ends in the merging of the concept with the subject and of the transformation of the subject through its understanding of the concept.

In this post I want to explore the two moments in the life of a concept again, but this time I want to reverse the…

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My dissertation as a Detective Novel and a work of Science Fiction

Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy: Towards a Physics of the World-Soul/an Ontology of Organism 

My dissertation examines the cognitive role of imagination in modern philosophies of nature since Descartes, focusing in particular on the nature philosophies of Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead. I argue that the cognitive organ of etheric imagination grants the nature philosopher epistemic access to a process ontology of organism. Once this etheric organ of perception has flowered, the physical world of isolated objects in empty space apprehended by the reflective intellect is recognized to be merely the outer layer or final fruit (Natura naturata) of a living process that creatively forms itself again and again from the inside out (Natura naturans). 

I will follow Deleuze in construing the work of philosophical writing as part detective novel, part science fiction (Difference and Repetition, xx):

“By detective novel we mean that concepts, with their zones of presence should intervene to resolve local situations. They themselves change along with the problems. They have spheres of influence where…they operate in relation to ‘dramas’ and by means of a certain ‘cruelty.’ They must have a coherence among themselves, but that coherence must not come form themselves. They must receive their coherence from elsewhere. This is the secret of empiricism. Empiricism is by no means a reaction against concepts, nor a simple appeal to lived experience. On the contrary, it undertakes the most insane creation of concepts ever seen or heard. Empiricism is a mysticism and a mathematicism of concepts, but precisely one which treats the concept as object of an encounter…Only an empiricist could say concepts are indeed things, but things in their free and wild state, beyond ‘anthropological predicates.’” 

The detective novel part of my dissertation pursues an empirical encounter with what seems to be the most profoundly mysterious concept to have emerged in the history of philosophy: imagination. Its pro-fundity, or groundlessness, has repeatedly unsettled the major conceptual personas of philosophical history. Though there are notable exceptions (e.g., Schelling, Steiner, Whitehead), modern philosophers have tended to restrain the otherwise unruly force of imagination so as to prevent it from clouding their measured pursuit of clear and distinct truth. My dissertation treats the history of modern philosophy as a crime scene. In effect, modern philosophy since Descartes has committed “imagicide” by severing the erotic arteries assuring the rhythmic circulation between spirit and matter. The philosophical murder of imagination left modern philosophy in an impossible situation: if mind is entirely distinct and separate from nature, soul separate from corpse, I from not-I, etc., how can philosophers pretend to love Wisdom? If no synthesis can be woven between the ideal web of concepts “in here” and our percepts of real things “out there”—if the blood clot preventing the concrescence of thought and sense cannot be dissolved—then there is no love and no Wisdom to be had. Without the subtle mediations of imagination there is only confusion, which takes the form either of an exaggerated idealism (where nature becomes a mere shadow to be sublated) or a mistaken materialism (a materialism in name only that does not recognize itself as an idealistic dualism). These confusions are a result of the bifurcation of nature Whitehead’s adventure in cosmology sought to alleviate between the world of inner experience (“the dream”) and the world of physical theory (“the conjecture”). 

I aim to philosophically encounter the force of imagination not by unduly restraining it, but on the contrary, by amplifying its cognitive potentials. I do so by taking methodological and theoretical cues from Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead.

The science fiction part involves an investigation into the ontological significance of the etheric dimension of nature. Framing my investigation are Steiner’s esoteric ether of formative forces, Schelling’s polarized ether of universal organization, and Whitehead’s mathematical ether of creative events. These ether theories are not “scientific” in the standard sense of being rooted in some experimental protocol. Fortunately, making concepts scientifically operational is not the philosopher’s role. And anyway, the ether theories articulated by Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead were not meant to compete with scientific evidence, but to philosophically interpret it. The concept of an etheric dimension of nature is not a hypothesis concerning a supposedly mind-independent reality that might be experimentally falsified; it is, rather, the empirico-transcendental condition for any scientific knowledge of nature at all (a condition of real, not possible experience, following Deleuze [Difference and Repetition, 285]). The major philosophical goal of my research on imagination and the etheric dimension of nature that it reveals is to assemble the evidences of the special sciences into a “likely story” or mythospeculative cosmology supportive of a non-modern ecological civilization. 

Distilling my dissertation topic—>Etheric Imagination in an Ontology of Organism: Towards a Planetary Philosophy

First, a few orientating quotations from the thinkers I will be boiling together in the alchemical vessel of my dissertation.


“…if we had the choice between empiricism and the all-oppressing necessity of thought of a rationalism which had been driven to the highest point, no free spirit would be able to object to deciding in favor of empiricism. Empiricism itself, then, allows a higher way of looking at things, or can be grasped from a higher perspective than the received, or, at least since Kant, the usual concept grasps it, which expels everything intelligible not only beyond the concepts of the understanding, but originally and first of all beyond all experience. Hence the now usual explanation that empiricism denies everything supernatural, but this is not the case. Because it is empiricism, it does not necessarily for that reason deny the supernatural, neither does it assume the legal and moral laws and the content of religion as something merely contingent, namely in the sense that it reduces everything to mere feelings, which themselves would only be the product of education and habit, as Hume admittedly did, who, by the way, asserted the same thing in relation to the sort of necessity with which we link cause and effect in our thoughts. There is even a higher and a lower concept of empiricism. For if the highest goal, which philosophy can, by general consent even of those who up to now think differently, certainly reach, is precisely to grasp the world as freely produced and created, then philosophy, with regard to the main thing it can achieve, or precisely by reaching its highest goal, would be a science of experience; I do not mean in the formal sense, but I do mean in the material sense, that what is highest for it would itself be something experiential in nature. If up to now, then, that national difference with regard to philosophy really exists, then this rift initially only shows that the philosophy in which humankind could recognize itself, the truly universal philosophy, does not yet exist. The truly universal philosophy cannot possibly be the property of a single nation, and as long as any philosophy does not go beyond the borders of a single people one can be safe in assuming that it is not yet the true philosophy, even if it is perhaps on the way to it…It would be wrong, really wrong, then, to want to call back those other [French and English speaking] nations from the doctrine of empiricism which they pursue to such great advantage in other areas; for them this would indeed be a retrograde movement. It is not up to them, it is up to us Germans, who, since the existence of Naturphilosophie, have emerged from the sad alternative of a metaphysics which floats in the air, lacking any foundation (that they rightly make fun of) and an infertile, arid psychology–it is up to us, I say, to develop the system, which we may hope to grasp and to reach, the positive system whose principle, precisely because of its absolute positivity cannot itself be knowable a priori any more, but only a posteriori, to the point where it will flow together with that empiricism which has been expanded and purified to the same extent” -F. W. J. Schelling, last lines from On the History of Modern Philosophy (~1833).


whitehead“A self-satisfied rationalism is in effect a form of anti-rationalism. It means an arbitrary halt at a particular set of abstractions.” -A. N. Whitehead, from Science and the Modern World, p. 201. 


“Our bodily  experience is the basis of existence. How is it to be characterized? In the first place, it is not primarily an experience of sense data, in the clear and distinct sense of that term. The internal functioning of a healthy body provides singularly few sense data, primarily associated with itself. When such sense data appear, we send fro a doctor. They are mostly aches and pains. And yet our feeling of bodily unity is a primary experience. It is an experience so habitual and so completely a matter of course that we rarely mention it. No one ever says, Here am I, and I have brought my body with me. In what does this intimacy of relationship consist? The body is the basis of our emotional and purposive experience. It determines the way in which we react to the clear sensa. It determines the fact that we enjoy sensa. But the eye strain in sight is not the eye sight. We see with our eyes; we do not see our eyes. The body is that portion of nature with which each moment of human experience cooperates. There is an inflow and outflow of factors between the bodily actuality and the human experience, so that each shares in the existence of the other. The human body provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature…So long as nature was conceived in terms of the passive, instantaneous existence of bits of matter, according to Newton or Democritus, a difficulty arises. For there is an essential distinction between matter at an instant and the agitations of experience. But this conception of matter has not been swept away. Analogous notions of activity, and of forms of transition, apply to human experience and to the human body. Thus bodily activities and forms of experience can be construed in terms of each other. Also the body is part of nature. Thus we finally construe the world in terms of the type of activities disclosed in our intimate experience. This conclusion must not be distorted. The fallacious notion of passive matter has by a reaction led to a distorted account of human experience. Human nature has been described in terms of its vivid accidents, and not its existential essence. The description of its essence must apply to the unborn child, to the baby in its cradle, to the state of sleep, and to that vast background of feeling hardly touched by consciousness. Clear, conscious discrimination is an accident of human existence. It makes us human. But it does not make us exist. It is of the essence of our humanity. But it is an accident of our existence. What is our primary experience which lies below and gives its meaning to our conscious analysis of qualitative detail? In our analysis of detail we are presupposing a background which supplies a meaning. These vivid accidents accentuate something which is already there. We require to describe that factor in our experience which, being a matter of course, does not enter prominently into conversation. There is no need to mention it. For this reason language is very ineffective for the exposition of metaphysics. Our enjoyment of actuality is a realization of worth, good or bad. It is a value experience. Its basic expression is–Have a care, here is something that matters! Yes–that is the best phrase–the primary glimmering of consciousness reveals, something that matters. This experience provokes attention, dim and, all but, subconscious. Attention yields a three-fold character in the “Something that matters.” “Totality,” “Externality,” and “Internality” are the primary characterizations of “that which matters.” They are not to be conceived as clear, analytic concepts. Experience awakes with these dim presuppositions to guide its rising clarity of detailed analysis. They are presuppositions in the sense of expressing the sort of obviousness which experience exhibits. There is the totality of actual fact; there is the externality of many facts; there is the internality of this experiencing which lies within the totality. These three divisions are on a level. No one in any sense precedes the other. There is the whole fact containing within itself my fact and the other facts. Also the dim meaning of fact–or actuality–is intrinsic importance for itself, for the others, and for the whole. Of course all our terms of speech are too special, and refer too explicitly to higher stages of experience. For this reason, philosophy is analogous to imaginative art. It suggests meaning beyond its mere statements. On the whole, elaborate phrases enshrine the more primitive meanings.” -A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, p. 114-118


“What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream.

Another way of phrasing this theory which I am arguing against is to bifurcate nature into two divisions,

namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness. The nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature. The meeting point of these two natures is the mind, the causal nature being influent and the apparent nature being effluent.” -A. N. Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, ch. 2.


Rudolf-Steiner4“Our earth today has a quite particular configuration and form. Let us go back in the evolution of the earth. It once had a completely different form. Let us immerse ourselves…still further back: we come there to ever higher temperatures, in which metals were able to flow all around as water runs along today. All the metals have become these veins in the earth because they first flowed along in streams. Just as lead is hard today and quicksilver is fluid, so lead was at one time fluid and quicksilver will one day become a solid metal. Thus the earth is changeable, but man has always participated in these various evolutions. In the ages of which we have spoken, physical man as yet was not in existence. But the etheric body and astral body were there; they could live in the higher temperatures of that time. The sheaths gradually began to form with the cooling process, enveloping man. While something new was always being formed in man during the earth’s evolution, something correspondingly new had also been formed outside in nature. The rudiments of the human eye had first arisen in the Sun evolution. First the etheric body formed itself and this again formed the human physical eye. As a piece of ice freezes out of water, so are the physical organs formed out of the finer etheric body. The physical organs were formed within man while outside the earth became solid. In every age the formation of a human organ took place parallel with the formation of a particular configuration outside in nature…One only understands man when one can recognize the connections between the human being and the forces of nature. ” -Rudolf Steiner


My aim in this dissertation is to draw indications from each of these thinkers in an attempt to articulate an alternative ontology unhampered by the bifurcation of nature plaguing modern thought. Modernity need not be rejected; rather, an alternative form of modernity is possible, rooted not in Kantian skepticism or Hegelian idealism, but in Schellingian naturalism and Whiteheadian radical empiricism. Drawing on Steiner and the Western esoteric tradition, I will argue that the Kantian limits placed on human understanding and experience can be overcome through the cultivation of new organs of perception. The ontological insights of a process-relational ontology of organism are achieved through the higher speculative empiricism of the etheric imagination. Etheric imagination grants the process philosopher perceptual access to the formative forces unfolding organized beings from the inside out. Etheric imagination is in this sense not in the business of fantasy or make believe, but is an organ of genuine conceptual and perceptual import in tune with natural processes that unfold below the level of ordinary rational waking consciousness. The mechanical ontology underlying scientific materialism stems from misplaced concreteness, whereby abstract models of physical activity are made to fill in for the experienced reality of said activity. Such a scientific materialism, though it claims to be empirical, is really a confused idealism, in that it dismisses experiential reality as a mere dream, replacing it with an explanation based on the conjectured mechanical processes lying beneath experience that somehow cause it.

Along with Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead, I plan to draw on several other thinkers, including Gilles Deleuze , John Sallis, Bruno Latour, and Michael Marder.

Rough breakdown of dissertation

1. Historical Outline on emergence of bifurcated image of nature in modern philosophy beginning with Descartes (through Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Locke, Kant, Fichte, Hegel). Argue for alternative modernity building on Bruno, Cusa, and other esoteric thinkers discussed by Steiner in Mystics After Modernism.

2. Epistemology of etheric imagination as an esoteric organ of perception. Build on phenomenology, enactivism, and participatory theory as epistemic first steps toward an ecological ontology, or ontology of organism.

3. Ontology of organism reveals the plant-like (or etheric) texture of experiential reality. Build on Marder’s vegetal metaphysics, Whitehead’s panexperientialism, and Sallis’ elemental phenomenology of earth and sky.

4. Cosmological significance of etheric forces underlying physical phenomena. Unpack Schelling’s, Steiner’s, and Whitehead’s ether theories.


“Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic” by Whitney Bauman

“From a planetary perspective, truth is seen as the coconstruction of truth regimes. Our understandings of the world and the technologies of those understandings begin to create those worlds that we are persuaded most toward. In other words, one of the reasons modern science became so pervasive is that its truth regime–including the medical, communication, and transportation technologies derived from its way of understanding–is quite persuasive. It gives us results; it gives us things. However, at no small cost: atomic bombs, environmental ills, species extinction, global climate change, and gross economic inequities are just a few…Every truth regime, and its corresponding habits for becoming in the world, has benefits and costs, and this is what it means to understand truth from a pragmatic perspective. From a planetary perspective, the question is not which truth regime is really real, but rather toward which truth regimes do we want to live? Given the costs of the contemporary truth regime of the globalization of free-market capitalism and its modern scientific technologies, I would argue we need ways of becoming into the future that respect the multiperspectival reality of the becoming planetary community” -Whitney Bauman (p. 61)

I’ve been enjoying Whitney Bauman‘s new book (Colombia University Press, 2014). By developing the ideas of thinkers like Michelle Foucault, Tim Morton, Judith Butler, Catherine Keller, Deleuze and Guattari, Bruno Latour, Carolyn Merchant, Donna Haraway, Zygmunt Bauman, Karen Barad, Terry Deacon, Jane Bennett, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and Gayatri Spivak, he has succeeded in furthering the case for a robust ontological pluralism.

Bauman spends much of the book overcoming the various materialist and idealist reifications of human and nonhuman identity that prevent the world’s sciences and religions from having meaningful dialogue with one another.

In an effort to overcome the colonialist pretenses of Scientific Materialism, Bauman re-interprets Western science as itself a form of “traditional ecological knowledge.” He remains a “naturalist,” however, where nature, as his “all-inclusive term,” includes

“humans, cultures, religions, ideas, imagination, atoms, ecosystems, the earth, the universe, and all other levels of reality. Nature is multiscalar [it consists of multiple levels, none of which can be reduced to the other] and emergent [nature is a process by which 'new' levels emerge in the course of planetary and cosmic evolution]. Thus nature is a multiperspectival emergent process…” (25).

Bauman’s goal is to re-politicize both science and religion with the help of a new posthuman planetary ethic. Rather than a search for scientific or religious forms of transcendence, a planetary ethic is satisfied with “an open and becoming immanence” (33):

“This understanding of an immanent and ongoing nature provides a viable option for redefining nature as a transformative political space-time of planetary possibilities rather than a transcendent source for foundational claims” (38).

Rather than going along with the standard Weberian reading of modernity ushering in an age of disenchantment (recounted most recently by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age), Bauman follows Latour by arguing that, in effect, we have never been modern. Similar to my reading of modernity (also building on Latour) as a form of “misenchantment,” Bauman writes:

“the enchantment of making the world dead matter is found in the marvels of modern technologies that such a mechanistic truth regime ushers in: the wonder and marvels of skyscrapers, space travel, air travel, the Internet, and the very sciences that emerge out of the mechanistic model of science (even if those sciences contain the ultimate demise of mechanism) are all quite enchanting” (41).

Rather than lionizing the standard heroes of modernization, like Galileo and Descartes, Bauman offers the panpsychic philosophers of immanence Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, and Baruch Spinoza as visionaries of an alternative form of modernity. (Along these lines, I also recommend Arran Gare’s essay “Reviving the Radical Enlightenment: Process Philosophy and the Struggle for Democracy“).

The one bone I’d pick with Bauman concerns his desire to entertain the idea that nature is all naturans and no naturata (44-47). Obviously, I’m on board with the idea that nature is creative process, but natural process gives rise to natural products whose relative individuality should be respected. This individuality is always in-the-making and becoming-with others, and so never an “identifiable essence” or reified substantiality. I think some sense of nature natured must be preserved in order not to overlook the particularities brought forth in the course of the creative advance of nature naturing.

Another exciting aspect of Bauman’s thought is the way he explodes substantialist notions of a linear pre-existent/objective space-time by drawing on Barad’s work (Meeting the Universe Halfway). Barad’s “agential realism” construes spaces and times as “intra-actively produced” by a network of human and nonhuman agents, rather than determinately given once and for all (55). Similarly, the so-called “laws” of nature are re-read as tendencies or “pathways, scripts, or habits that get performed” (58).

Bauman preserves a role for polydox theologies after the death of God by reconstructing theology along poetico-imaginative lines. Theopoetic projections are part of what it means to be human, the meaning-making species par excellence. Further, our theopoems are as much introjected as they are projected: we may be the inventors of our gods, but what creator has ever been left untransformed by his or her creation?

Bauman comes down hard on liberal notions of identity and monogamous family structure. To overcome capitalism, we will need to realize that “identities are all messy assemblages”; we will need to become multiple, hybrid, queer:

“Our subjectivities are multiple in that we are made up of many human and earth others: histories, societies, actions, earth, air, water, fire, other molecules, other plants and animals. We are quite literally not the creators ex nihilo of our own identities, but we are created by multiple earth others. In a very real sense, we cannot cut off our understandings of the self from the whole 13.8-billion-year process of cosmic expansion and 4.5-billion-year process of geoevolution…From this perspective, perhaps planetary technologies of becoming will encourage us to think with earth others–and think with the in-between rather than as isolated thinking things” (120)

“It is not just that we are made of histories and biologies of evolving plants, animals, and minerals, nor that we will become part of future plants, animals, and minerals. Rather, it is that these companions literally make up our multiple, evolving, and open subjectivities. Just as queer theory recognizes our subjectivities as always already multiple, so from a radical materialist perspective we can say that our embodiments are always already multiple. As such, our agency is not just the agency of the Cartesian skin-encapsulated ego, nor are our thoughts and emotions our own. Our actions, thoughts, and emotions are always multiple. They involve multiple histories of planetary becomings or communities of plants, animals, and minerals, all of which are evolving beyond their own boundaries and diffracting into proliferations of subject-objects” (155).

Bauman’s prescriptions are not easy pills to swallow for middle class white people who belong to the elite 1/5th of the world (or really for any of the “global mobiles,” those of us in “the West” who live in a bubble floating atop the rest of the human population, the “immobile locals”). But perhaps our times call for strong medicine.

Notes for a Sunday Evening Cosmology Salon

If you’re a San Francisco local, I’ll be speaking with a few friends at Cyprian’s Episcopal Church on Turk and Lyon this Sunday (4/27) at 7pm about community-building and the cosmopolitical importance of play in the aftermath of capitalism. Our salon-style panel discussion is part of a larger community festival in the Panhandle neighborhood.

Here is the blurb:

Cosmologies of Work and Play: Community in the Making  

Slavoj Zizek has recently suggested that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. For those aware of the seriousness of the ecological and social crises of our time, imagining the end of the world may not seem all that difficult anymore. But perhaps it is not the world, but a world that is ending. For perhaps the first time in the modern age, the anti-cosmology of global capitalism is losing its ideological grip on the collective imagination. Exploitation of the human and nonhuman earth community for the private profit of a few has now become so intense, that apologists for capitalism can no longer divert our attention from the injustices it requires. Though the crises of our time are indeed serious, re-creating a more viable world will require at least as much play as it will work. Join us for a conversation building on anarchist anthropologist David Graeber’s recently proposed “principle of ludic freedom,” which not only, as he suggests, “gives us ground to unthink the world around us,” but also provides a means of composing a more cosmologically grounded community from out of the compost of capitalism. 

And some of my notes: 

Why is cosmology relevant to community-building? Because cosmologizing is the most fundamental form of political action.

Nowadays, in our scientific age, when we think of cosmology what comes to mind are things like energy, matter, space-time, and so on. But for former pre-modern and contemporary non-modern thinkers, cosmology had/has also to do with more concrete realities, like the place of human values in the scope of the wider community of living beings on earth and in the sky. In the modern age, scientific cosmology became separated from its own ecological and political ground here on earth beneath the sky. The enchanted geocentric cosmology of the ancients was replaced by the abstract heliocentrism of mathematical physicists. This sort of modern conception of a static sun-centered universe obeying eternal laws is of course more than a century behind the discoveries of today’s scientific cosmology, with its evolutionary, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories. The problem nowadays is that physics has become so overwhelmingly mathematical that the average person has no hope of actually understanding what it is supposed to have revealed about the cosmos. Like with the medieval Church that only gave mass in Latin, contemporary science has grown too esoteric for the common person to consciously participate in. Science has come to treat the universe as though it had no fundamental connection with the presupposed values of civilized life. Science treats the universe as if the shape of the Milky Way galaxy and the rhythmic orbits of the planets overhead were entirely irrelevant to our individual and collective human experience. Though physicists have devised several stunning mathematical models that bear some resemblance to our measurements of the physical world, they have provided no functional cosmology to the human species. If we have a popular cosmology today, it is “market cosmology.” And if, as Thomas Berry suggested, a functional cosmology is synonymous with an adequate ecology (i.e., a theoretical and practical sense for how we are best to inhabit our habitat), then clearly market cosmology is dysfunctional. 


Cosmopolitics! — Let us be done with the Modern constitution that bifurcates Nature from Society, Science from Politics, Facts from Values.

Cosmologizing is an integral activity, as much artistic, as religious, as scientific (I, We, It). 

Cosmology is always in the making, a fragile process of collective world-creation; always an ongoing activity, an ever-contested endeavor whose completion is only ever intimated and never finally assured. Cosmology is fiction crafted in public, political poetry (as Shelley said, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”). 

“The creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.” -Whitehead (Aims of Education). 

To cosmologize is to re-imagine how space and time are experientially distributed. To cosmologize is to hack the social imaginary, to reshape the imaginative background or unconscious speculative ground upon which the conscious values of a civilization are based. In the capitalist world, under “market cosmology,” space is property and time is on loan. That is to say, for most of us, time and space are made to seem scarce commodities. Our society’s cosmology divides up space into real estate and measures time as though human beings were perpetually “on the clock.” “Time is money,” as Ben Franklin put it. 

Are there any non-modern cosmological alternatives to market cosmology? Yes. Whitehead for one. 

“We have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe. Existence, in its own nature, is the upholding of value intensity.” -Whitehead (Modes of Thought)

For Whitehead, philosophy begins in wonder. Wonder is the vague feeling we all have all the time that hovers just beyond the horizon of workaday consciousness—the intuition of being embedded within the grand adventure of a larger universe. Wonder is the all-pervasive (and so largely taken for granted) sense we have of the wholeness and the totality of things which embraces us. Wonder is the sublime feeling of being awash in the value-experience of other living creatures, astonished by the insistence of their existence, the way they press in upon us and demand our care and attention. Philosophy is the attempt to respond to this equal parts erotic and eristic experience of the values of the universe streaming in to us from every direction. Philosophy is the attempt to become faithful to the earth and to the sky, to become responsible for the way our humanity joins in their ancient cosmic procession.

How are we going to re-imagine lived space and lived time after the spatiotemporal matrix of global capitalism dissolves? We must run experiments >> 

Latour’s Space-Time Experiment: Thinking with Whitehead

Watch Olafur Eliasson and Bruno Latour re-enact the debate between Einstein and Bergson about space-time and the polarity between art and science. 

Though I first heard about Latour’s re-enactment of the Einstein-Bergson debate several years ago, I only uncovered the videos of this conversation while engaging in a FaceBook thread yesterday about Einstein’s bloc universe. Einstein famously claimed that time as we experience it is a mere psychological illusion. If we want the fact of the matter regarding real time, we must accept the verdict of the positive sciences. Einstein didn’t fess up to the covert metaphysic of bifurcation he was employing, and although Bergson wasn’t able to get through to him on this point during their debate in 1922, other philosophers were listening.

Alfred North Whitehead agreed with Bergson’s critique of Einstein, though not with Bergson’s philosophical reconstruction of relativity. Whitehead developed his own alternative (philosophical and geometrical) formulation of relativity in a 1922 book The Principle of Relativity:

It follows from my refusal to bifurcate nature into individual experience and external cause that we must reject the distinction between psychological time which is personal and impersonal time as it is in nature (66).

Whitehead’s reformed principle of relativity is based on the metaphysical priority of actual facts, or occasions of experience, from which the geometrical order of spatiotemporal extension is derived (Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 5). Through an abstractive process of logical construction rooted in the coordination of the somewhat fragmentary nature of individual occasions of experience, the general character of space-time holding true for our cosmic epoch can be produced (Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” in The Aims of Education, 162-163). While Einstein’s proposal of a universal and a priori space-time implies a taut, already fully woven fabric whose spatial curvature is modified by the material bodies situated within it, Whitehead’s alternative theory of a coordinated plurality of space-times implies a fraying fabric always in the process of being repaired by the dipolar physical-mental concrescences of organismic occasions of experience. In this sense, contrary to Levi Bryant’s dismissal of Whitehead as an armchair philosopher who concocted “just so” stories with no empirical grounding (see the FaceBook thread), Whitehead’s innovation was to translate many of the properties that Einstein’s general relativity defines a priori into empirical, or a posteriori facts (Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 168). Instead of privileging the misplaced concreteness of an abstract space-time that would “[separate] an organism from its environment” such that “the endurance of the former and the patience of the latter [is defined] in terms of right [or “law”], not of fact,” Whitehead emphasizes the contingency of the evolved habits currently holding sway over the ecology of organisms shaping our cosmic epoch, no matter how general or universal they may appear at this time (Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 169).

Whitehead terms the general character of space-time “the uniformity of the texture of experience” (Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 163). “The physical world [i.e., the extensive continuum of space-time],” he goes on, is,

in some general sense of the term, a deduced concept. Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world (Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 165).

Here, Whitehead directly contradicts Einstein’s famous statement that our immediate experience of temporality, while perhaps necessary for civilized life (or for biotic existence in general, for that matter), is in reality nothing but a persistent illusion no longer to be believed in by professional physicists. Whitehead’s reconstruction of relativity theory so as to avoid the social and ecological perils of the bifurcation of nature is not based on a denial of Einstein’s physical formulations, but a denial of the unconscious imaginative background shaping Einstein’s metaphysical interpretation of these formulations. Following Stengers, it can be said that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism aims not to belittle or deny the abstractions of the scientific intellect, as Bergson seems to, but rather to articulate an

ecology of abstraction…that creates the possibility of a mutual aesthetic appreciation between specialists of precision and adventurers of generalization (Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 141).