The videos below are philosophical dialogues, first with the artist and YouTuber Mike Vahl and second with Professor Corey Anton. Both a relevant preface for the third video on pluralism and process-relational cosmology, which is largely a response to the recent blogosphere pluralism wars:
Levi Bryant recently called for a cross-blog discussion concerning what he perceives to be the problematic relationship between ethnographic pluralism and ontological realism. His call was instigated by Jeremy Trombley’s post on the so-called “ontological turn” in contemporary anthropology and ethnography. Trombley articulated what might be described as an ontology of the concept, wherein concepts are not representational frames that mirror (or fail to mirror) the world, but participatory interventions that dis- and/or re-assemble our thoughts and practices. Trombley writes:
“a concept or conceptual assemblage – ontology, feminism, queer theory, post-colonial theory, etc. – enables us to understand differently, and in understanding differently, it enables us to also be differently… What the ontological turn does is…[allow] us to reflect not only on the way we represent, but on the way that we exist and the kinds of relations we compose through our practices.”
Before I get into what such an anti-representationalist ontology of concepts does to our understanding of Truth (hint: Truth is not pre-given but enacted), I should mention a few other bloggers who have already jumped into the conversation. Phillip of the blog Circling Squares (which I need to explore more!) responded to Bryant’s original post by pointing out that thinkers like Latour and Stengers (and Whitehead before them) have been articulating a rather robust form of pluralistic realism for some time now (i.e., cosmopolitics). Terence Blake of Agent Swarm also chimed in, arguing that Bryant’s “realism” seems to be no more than old-school scientism, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it is so difficult to square with pluralism.
Bryant believes that the social constructionist turn of the 90s was politically valuable in that it improved the social standing of many oppressed minorities. But he rejects what he perceives to be the extension of such constructionism beyond politics into ontology. Bryant writes:
“In arguing that everything is a social construction, the pluralist undermines the possibility of public deliberation about truth. Everything becomes an optional narrative or story about the world, an optional picture of reality, where we are free to choose among the various options that most suit our taste. It’s not a surprise that so much of the philosophy during the 90s in both phenomenology and post-structuralism culminated in a theological turn. For where everything, including science, is just a narrative or story about what being is, why not just go ahead and take a leap of faith?”
I’m not sure if Bryant intends to include cosmopolitical thinkers like Latour and Stengers in his punching bag category “social constructionist.” I don’t understand how he could. If he does insist on labeling them as such (which seems to me to just obscure their true positions–but if he insists…), then, building on Whitehead’s categoreal scheme, I’d retort that “society” for these cosmopolitical thinkers has to be understood in the most general sense as an ontological category, not simply a human “construct.” The human organism is already a society of cells, each of which is itself a society of organelles, each of which is a society of molecules, each of which is a society of atoms, each of which is a society of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and so on… Realities are decomposed and recomposed by associations between and among actual occasions–occasions which are never simple unities but are always multiple and so always “in the making.” Which brings me to the concept of “construction”: if we are working within a process ontology, construction also needs to be ontologized. Biological evolution is a gradual process of construction wherein what begins as psychological desire later becomes physiological reality (to take the example of evolution by sexual selection). The physical world is itself continually constructed by what physicists are now calling “geometrogenesis.” This is not to say that the physical world is a human construct, mind you. The picture that is beginning to become clear as a result of contemporary physical cosmology is that space and time are the co-emergent products of the real activity of pure energy, something both non-human and pre-physical/pre-extended (Whitehead called it Creativity; physicists call it the quantum vacuum). If the physical world (as described by contemporary physics) is a network of relations always “in the making,” and not some collection of pre-given particles obeying eternal laws, then a “true” understanding of it must also always remain open-ended. There is no Science or Universal Reason that might once and for all pronounce upon the nature of the Real. There are many sciences, many methods, many rationalities. Science as it is actually practiced now and in the past has always already been a pluralistic enterprise. As Latour showed in Science in Action, what ends up being called “Nature” is always a consequence of some more or less temporary settlement of controversies. Every new generation of scientists stirs up new controversies about what the aging generation thought was settled.
The cosmopolitical perspective that I’d want to defend certainly does not “undermine the possibility of public deliberation about truth”–it is (once we accept an enactivist account of truth) the condition of its possibility! It is Bryant’s position that rules out such public deliberation by insisting on declaring war on all those human societies that reject materialism. Latour has plenty to say about the vacuity of the notion of “matter,” which I’ve discussed elsewhere and won’t get into here. Accepting a cosmopolitical form of ontological pluralism doesn’t at all require that we think of all beliefs and belief-systems as created equal. Nor does it imply that social groups “freely choose” their beliefs simply as a matter of “taste.” The ontological commitments of any given society typically emerge out of long multi-generational processes of historical development. They aren’t just made-up on a whim by individual members. Further, the world view of a social group is as integral to their their livelihood and well-being as their food, shelter, and water, not simply an optional aesthetic veneer. As Trombley suggested, belief-systems enact ways of being and are not just representations.
Ontological pluralism is a commitment to multiple realities, many of which overlap, but some of which remain (at least for now) irreconcilable. It is not a commitment to tolerance of multiple perspectives on a single reality. This latter option, as Bryant points out, would be a rather trivial form of pluralism. It is also a rather colonialist and scientistic take on the Real. Anyone trying to argue that contemporary science has somehow provided us with a unified account of an objective reality that holds true for all people in all places and times has their work cut out for them. Several hundred years of “modern” science has only succeeded in making the world stranger, more dangerous, and more multifarious than it was for ancient and medieval peoples.
Am I saying that a ayahuasca shaman’s encounter with the spirit of the jaguar is just as real as the particle physicist’s encounter with the Higgs boson? Yes, most definitely. In fact, the shaman’s encounter is way more concrete and direct than the physicist’s, since the latter has to wait for a world-wide network of supercomputers to process the information for him, which only after many repeated trials, journal publications, and so on becomes what most (but not every!) physicist will agree is something like a Higgs boson. Even after all this painstakingly detailed mediation (“science in the making”), the Higgs boson remains now and forever a theoretical construct. The ayahuasqueros’ encounter with the jaguar spirit is anything but. Sure, a cognitive neuroscientist might claim to be able to explain the shaman’s experience as a “brain malfunction” brought on by the ingestion of a psychedelic plant brew. But this remains a reductive etic description and not a complete explanation. The neuroscientist should participate in an ayahuasca ceremony for himself before he goes declaring war on the shaman. At least, this is what a pluralist ethics would entail. Such shamanic practices have functioned quite well in their own tribal context for thousands of years. Instead of assuming from the get go that anyone who doesn’t describe the world in your favored language is deluded, try to get to know them, to understand not only what their world is like, but how their world is brought forth. Follow the injunctions through which they enact their world. Then, once you’ve explored it from the inside, by all means judge their enactment, contest it, translate its features into other terms to show why it is unethical, dangerous, or misguided.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from an essay of mine on the ethical implications of enactivism and the need for a pluralistic planetary mythos (Logos of a Living Earth):
One consequence of the enactive approach is that the Cartesian quest for epistemological certainty becomes but the expression of a particular cognitive domain made possible by the abstract languages of mathematics, precise measurements of machine technologies, and controlled laboratory environment. If the nervous system is operationally closed, its function cannot be to modestly mirror an external, objective reality, even if the modest witnesses are highly trained scientists allied with powerful instruments that extend their sensory reach. The operational closure of the nervous system forestalls a representational account of its activity, as its role is maintaining coherence, rather than correspondence, between organism and environment. New techniques may open up previously hidden worlds, as when Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky and revealed the moons of Jupiter in 1610, or Hooke first recognized cells through a microscope in 1665, but one cannot speak of finally discovering the real as if it existed independently of our bodily and inter-bodily experience of its meaning.
As Haraway has suggested (p. 199, 1997), “…objectivity is less about realism than about intersubjectivity.” She yearns for us to come to see objectivity as a way of “forming ties across wide distances” (ibid.), instead of as the privileged and modest perspective of self-invisible European men who remain somehow unpolluted by their ambiguously situated bodies (p. 23-32, ibid.). If science can claim relative epistemological privilege, it is not the result of transcending culture, but of the ever-accelerating, ever-expanding mobility and combinability of the traces scientists and their cyborg surrogates have constructed within their networks. Outside of these special networks of labs, machines, shared languages, and centrally controlled policy initiatives, scientific facts have little relevance. As Latour put it, “we might compare scientific facts to frozen fish: the cold chain that keeps them fresh must not be interrupted, however briefly” (p. 119, Latour, 1993).
Levi Bryant just posted on what he is calling “thermopolitics.” He wants to shift the discourse in philosophy away from its exclusive focus on linguistic analysis and the critique of ideological superstructures toward the energetics of the universe that provide the condition for their possibility.
This is not a metaphor. At this very moment as I write this post I am both burning calories and fossil fuels. This blog post is– as Negerastani might put it –ultimately “solar”, in that all of that energy is ultimately captured from sunlight, is ultimately transformed sunlight, concentrated sunlight, like the orange concentrate you buy at the supermarket, that was first transformed into a solid by plants, and then other solids whether in the form of fossil fuels or in the form of animal bodies that ate these plants. All living and social being is solar in its origin.
I can definitely get behind Bryant’s call for a thermopolitics. We are all children of the Sun, indebted to its self-immolating generosity. But then what is energy, anyway? After several hundred years, techno-science has achieved wonders through the instrumental mastery of energy. But what is it? How is it that the energy studied by physics becomes the libido studied by psychologists? If we are to take thermopolitics seriously, don’t we also need an account for how free action is possible in a world described by physics as (at least statistically) deterministic? If it is all just the playing out of the laws of thermodynamics, where is there any room left over for politics? It seems to me you want to marshall a discourse surrounding energy on behalf of a movement for political liberation. But for this to make any sense, aren’t we going to need to define energy in a more general, perhaps more speculative way than the instrumental definitions of physicists?
Even the Christian mystic Teilhard de Chardin granted that “To think we must eat.” “The highest speculation and the most burning love,” he continues,
must be coupled with, and must be paid for by, an expenditure of physical energy, as we know too well. Sometimes we need bread; sometimes wine, sometimes the infusion of a chemical element or hormone; sometimes the stimulus of color; sometimes the magic of sound passing through our ears as a vibration and emerging in our brain in the form of an inspiration…But on the other hand, so many different thoughts come out of the same piece of bread! Just like the letters of an alphabet, which can produce incoherence as well as the most beautiful poem ever heard, the same calories seem to be as indifferent as they are necessary to the spiritual values they nourish.” (The Human Phenomenon, p. 29-30).
Teilhard is committed to the rejection of any dualism between physical and spiritual energies, and he dismisses the idea that these two might somehow transform one into the other. He ends up articulating a form of evolutionary panexperientialism, which rests on the same family of process ontologies articulated in detail by Bergson and Whitehead. There is plenty to be suspicious of in Teilhard’s thermopolitical framework, but nonetheless, he recognizes the profundity of the problem.
Here is Teilhardian evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme relating the thermodynamic expenditure of the Sun to the ethical life of human beings:
For more on Teilhard’s contribution to a thermopolitics, see my essay Seeing With Teilhard: Evolution and the Within of Things. Also see my short essay on the thermodynamics of capitalism and Burning Man.
[Addendum (1/19/2014)] Having heard from Bryant that I misrepresented his position, I should probably amplify my statement above that I fully agree with him regarding the need to focus not simply on semiopolitics (discursive regimes/ideological illusions, etc.), but also on thermopolitics. To be clear, Bryant wasn’t claiming that semiopolitics should be ignored in favor of a focus on the energetic basis of discursive practices. I don’t think I implied this in my initial response and question for him. My question has to do with how we are to think about the relationship between human meaning-making and physical energetics. Bryant has dismissed both the Peircean pansemiotic and the Whiteheadian panexperiential approaches to this question, which is why I am curious to know how he avoids an unscientific dualism.
I was first clued into the physical/energetic dimension of global capitalism by Alf Hornborg’s The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001). Reading his book lead me to write this long essay on the relationship between mechanistic biology, thermodynamics, and techno-capitalist economics.
Following up on my contribution to the Latour/AIME reading group, I wanted to say a bit more about the confused concept called “matter.” There are many varieties of materialism, but for the sake of time, let’s follow Robert Jackson by dividing them up into two basic categories: 1) that variety of materialism which understands matter as some ultimate stuff that all emergent forms can be reduced to, 2) that which understands matter as some primordial formlessness, or endlessly differentiating movement from out of which all form emerges.
While I’m committed to articulating a realist ontology (my dissertation draws on Schelling and Whitehead in pursuit of what you might call an ontology of organism), I’d argue that to be real is not necessarily to be material, especially if matter is conceived of as a fundamental stuff. If we insist on continuing to employ the words “mind” and “matter” in metaphysical discussions, I’d want to construe them not as separate substances in a dualist ontology, but rather as reciprocal poles in an ontology of becoming, where “matter” signifies the accumulated weight of the stubborn facts of the past, while “mind” signifies the novel forms yearning for realization in the future. Every passing moment, or drop of experience, exists in tension between the two poles, fact and form, or actuality and potentiality. Matter, then, is only half the picture. A universe of only material things would be a universe where everything had already been actualized such that nothing new could ever emerge. All that could occur would be the rearrangement of the same old matter. There are plenty of thinkers who would disagree with me. For example, see Levi Bryant’s recent post.
Bryant seems to want to defend a non-reductive version of the first type of materialism. Contrary to my claim that materialistic atomism makes real emergent novelty impossible, Bryant writes:
…it’s difficult to see how this criticism hits the mark with the atomistic materialism of thinkers such as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. Lucretius, for example, is quite clear that relations between atoms are every bit as important as the atoms themselves. In example after example he discusses emergent entities that manifest powers (capacities) and properties only when atoms are arranged [or organized] in these particular ways…certain objects are only possible through certain relations.
I’ve probably got much to learn from Bryant about the Greek atomists. So my response here as much a query as a claim. I am aware that the third necessary ingredient in Lucretius’ scheme (aside from atoms and the void) is the clinamen. Atoms have an unexplained tendency to swerve as they fall through the void. According to Lucretius, without the clinamen, “nature would have never produced anything” (ii. 216-224), since no interaction would ever have occurred between atoms to allow for material organization. Leaving aside the equally puzzling question as to where atomic weight comes from or why atoms should be falling, we might also ask what the cause of this swerve, and so of material organization, is. Why do otherwise inert atoms have such a strange inclination for “curved” motion? Why does matter tend to turn in on itself? Lucretius seemed content to say it was simply “chance.” Chance, I suppose, means “for no reason at all.” Perhaps a strange swerving deserves an equally strange story. But we could tell other stories that make more sense. Dante might identify the cause of the clinamen with the Primum Mobile, the final sphere of the heavens whose divinely inspired motion initiates and sustains the motion of all the spheres it encloses (Paradiso, Canto XXVII). Of course, modern cosmology has outgrown Dante’s ancient geocentric imagination. We need a new creation myth to account for the strange inclinations of matter, a story more credible than the rather mechanical cosmos of revolving crystalline spheres first described by Aristotle and Ptolemy. I imagine Bryant would disagree with the need for a story in ontology, but then again, Lucretius articulated his ontology in the form of an epic poem. When it comes down to it, every metaphysician needs to give narrative force to their ontology by way of some ultimate reason(s) for which no reason can be given (other than givenness itself). For Whitehead, the ultimate reasons are aesthetic (Eros, Beauty), while the main characters in his cosmic plot are Creativity and Actuality. For Plato, the ultimate reasons are moral (Goodness, Truth), while his main characters are Nous and Chora.
Bryant says Lucretius finds relations to be as important as atoms. Does this mean relations are just as real as atoms? If so, perhaps the cause of the clinamen, and by proxy of nature’s emergent hierarchy of complexity, has something to do with an inclination to relate. “Chance” seems to me to be a poor explanation for such an inclination. Throwing our hands up by claiming such an all-pervasive swerve is random seems to me to be a rather anti-metaphysical, even anti-scientific, move. The tendency to relate must have a cause. There must be some account we can give of it that aligns with our understanding and coheres with our experience. Such an inclination, or tendency, may be motivated by what Whitehead, after Plato, called Eros. For Dante, Eros is “the love which moves the sun and other stars” (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, lines 142-145). Love requires freedom, so this story concerning the cause of the clinamen need not neglect the uncertainty of atomic motion. All that I’d want to add to Lucretius’ account of atomic motion is relational emotion. This brings his ontology rather close to Whitehead’s processual atomism. How close depends on whether we are willing to say relations are just as real, and just as primordial, as atoms. Whitehead’s process-relational scheme includes both internal relations and external relations. On Bryant’s reading, Lucretius would seem to leave no room for internal relations: atoms can only collide; they cannot collude (they can only relate externally via efficient causation; they cannot relate internally via erotic play).
I’m hoping Bryant will clear up my queries concerning Lucretius. I’m ready to stand corrected about his lack of a coherent explanation for the clinamen. I would want to argue, however, that Bryant has misunderstood the second type of materialism listed by Jackson. Bryant writes:
Far from materialism being “always deployed against form” [as Jackson claims], materialism is instead the thesis that matter is always structured matter. If materialism is deployed against anything, it would be against the schema offered by Plato in the Timeaus where it is suggested that, on the one hand, there is a formless material chora, and on the other hand a domain of ideal, incorporeal forms, and that a demiurge is required to mold this formless matter into formed matter. What materialism contests is the incorporeality of form and the formlessness of materiality, instead arguing that all matter is structured matter.
Jackson describes the second type of materialism as that which posits an infinitely differentiating pulsation of formless energy at the base of all things. Whitehead’s ultimate principle of Creativity could easily be described this way. He suggests in Adventures of Ideas that Creativity is an adaptation of Plato’s “dark and difficult” concept of the Chora, or Receptacle. Plato describes the Receptacle as formless, but this is hardly the end of the story. The Receptacle is not simply the passive material from which a cosmos will be shaped, but the place within which the cosmos will come to be. Further, it is hardly “passive” at all, since it is abuzz with errant forces winnowing this way and that, grouping trace elements (pre-formed matter?) by their kind like a cosmogenic sieve, only to ceaselessly disturb every attempt at settled placement. When approaching Plato’s Receptacle, Bryant seems to fixate on one descriptor, “formless,” while ignoring the numerous indications in Timaeus that there is more to this choric “matter” than meets the eye. There’s no doubt Plato’s story could use some tweaking given our modern understanding. But let’s not forget he never claimed to be telling anything but a “likely story.” That is all we can hope to do today, even with our improved mathematics and increased data set.
Last night, I watched a short performance called “The Kepler Story” at the Morrison Planetarium in the California Academy of Sciences. The opening scene introduces Kepler’s essay on the crystalline forms of snowflakes. Kepler played with an ingenious pun between the Latin word “nix,” meaning snowflake, and the German word of the same spelling, meaning “nothing.” Is form really “nothing” at all? Kepler didn’t think so. He wondered why all snowflakes have six-sides, despite the fact that each one achieved its six-sidedness in a unique way. He searched for the “formative principle” of snow crystals. He considered the way water vapor evaporates due to heat. He considered the influence of impurities in the clouds where crystals grow.
“There must be a cause why snow has the shape of a six-cornered starlet,” Kepler wrote in his essay, De nive sexangula: “It cannot be chance. Why always six?” His answer: Hexagonal packing provides the tightest possible arrangement of water droplets. Matter has some intrinsic tendency to organize itself, taking great care to achieve geometrical harmony. Kepler’s conjecture only came to be proven basically correct several years ago. As far as Kepler was concerned, the “formative principle” at play giving shape to the water vapor had no purpose whatsoever. From his perspective, nature is “in the habit of playing with the passing moment.” Its reasons for taking shape are purely aesthetic.
- The Universe as a Work of Art: Images of the Cosmos in Plato, Descartes, and Kepler (footnotes2plato.com)
- Reflections on Bruno Latour’s “An Inquiry into Modes of Existence,” Ch. 4: Learning to Make Room (footnotes2plato.com)
- The Role of Imagination in the Science of the Stars (footnotes2plato.com)
- The Poetics of Copernican Cosmology (footnotes2plato.com)
Something of a response to Levi Bryant/LarvalSubjects on “hylephobia.”
I’ve copied my response to Levi below:
I’m glad you are not reducing all religion to the sort of literalism we’re both trying to critique (you from a scientific standpoint aimed at religion, me from a spiritual standpoint aimed at scientism). Regardless of what the majority of “believers” may think about the ontological status of their religious propositions (neither of us can offer anything but anecdotal evidence on this point), what I’ve been attempting to do in our discussion is shift us away from the sort of representationalist paradigm that would construe religion in terms of “true v. false” belief. Deleuze does thematize the modern turn away from certainty toward belief, but his discussion of belief is set in a pragmatic context where what is most important is not whether the object of the belief is fabricated or factual, but whether the effect of the belief is life affirming or nihilistic. A belief in the divinity of Jesus may be totally fabricated, but from my perspective, this is irrelevant. The important question to ask is how the “fictional force” of such a belief works to transform individual and social behavior and experience. The important question to ask is not “is religion true?” but “what does religiosity make possible?” I know this is part of the way you want to analyze the question of religion, as well. You tend to emphasize the negative effects. I recognize that certain expressions of religiosity are socially, politically, and ecologically damaging. But I also recognize other expressions of religiosity that have positive social, political, and ecological effects (e.g., Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who just yesterday spoke at our commencement here at CIIS). It is not at all obvious that the negative outweighs the positive; and even if it did, I question whether it is really possible to purify ourselves of religiosity, be it of the ancient, animistic sort or the modern, scientistic sort. Myth and symbol are inextricable features of human cognition, whether we are scientifically trained or not. I know of no scientific theory that is utterly free of narrative structure. Even mathematical formalisms share the metaphorical structure of poetry in their use of an “=” sign. I am not trying to equate scientific with mythic modes of experience; I think the scientific method is a sort of technological and empirical refinement of our innate story-telling capacities. I also think that we need a new form of spirituality today, one not limited by ancient or modern forms of literalism. My essay on Whitehead and Deleuze tries to spell out how we might proceed on this front.
What confuses me about your approach is that, as Jason and others have pointed out, you seem to ignore the important ground that was laid (or perhaps the ground that was demolished) by Nietzsche’s philosophical hammer. I’m sure you’re familiar with his short piece on the “true world” becoming a fable. If this “true world” is no longer tenable, what are we left with? Not the apparent world, surely, since the meaning of “mere appearance” is scrambled unless there is an original truth that appearance is a better or worse attempt to copy. So what are we left with? We are left with two choices: negation or affirmation. The latter choice requires admitting that we are world-creators as much as world-discoverers, that all our techno-scientific knowledge is but another genre of poetic expression (an extremely powerful genre!). Affirmation means accepting the participatory nature of all our supposed reflective knowledge, that it cannot grant us access to a ready-made Reality waiting to be “truly” or “falsely” represented, not only because knowing is always already performative/enactive, but because no such unified, ready-made Reality exists. Different modalities of knowing call forth the realities they desire to know. So let us not continue to pretend that the expression “True world” has any one precise meaning. The true world died along with God. What is left for us is artistic expression, song and dance, ritual and celebration. If Philosophy is to remain relevant today, it cannot do so as a form of ascetics, but must unground its traditional representational basis so as to become a kind of conceptual artistics (i.e., a creation of concepts, as Deleuze would call it).
Levi Bryant initiated a string of blog posts on nihilism with his “axioms for a dark ontology.” Attempts at Living followed HERE, and Bill Rose Thorn HERE. Both of them accept Bryant’s ontological purposelessness, but raise the important issue of developing a “post-nihilistic praxis” (see this great post by Michael/Archive Fire from last year on what comes after nihilism, and this more recent post at his new home, SyntheticZero). I do not accept Bryant’s axioms, of course (he and I have argued about this several times over the years). I think religious institutions and spiritual experiences will always be intrinsic to human individual and social reality, even if they are called by other names. Without a sense of cosmological orientation brought forth through the sort of mythospeculation shared by all religious traditions, human civilization simply would not be possible. I think the axiomatic approach Bryant articulates reflects a certain literal-mindedness that makes the religious imaginary inaccessible to him. Certainly, this literal-mindedness infects not only those of a more materialist persuasion, like Bryant, but also those of a religious bent. When religion becomes dogmatic, based upon lists of unassailable axioms and commandments written on stone tablets, the creative life of the human socius is threatened. An education in the power of imagination is the best cure for either form of literalism.
My dismissal of Bryant’s “dark ontology” is not a dismissal of the merits of immanence in philosophy. My recent essay, “Worldly Religion in Deleuze and Whitehead: On the Possibility of a Secular Divinity“ (accepted by the 9th International Whitehead Conference later this year–hopefully I can find the funding to get to Poland! for a PDF of the essay, click HERE), is an attempt to articulate a philosophy of religion compatible with modern standards of belief and practice. Religion, like science, is about more than just belief in certain propositions, of course. Both religion and science are complex assemblages which include ritual practices (meditation, prayer, experimentation) and communal experiences (liturgy, peer review). Certainly, the aims of science are different from those of religion (one is largely descriptive, the other largely prescriptive), but from my Jamesian pragmatic perspective, the philosophical test of each is not to ask about the truth or falsity of their propositional claims (can we please be done with the dogmatic representational image of thought already?), but to ask about the effects of their practices on living organisms and their (noetical and physical) habitats.
Nihilism of the sort expressed by Bryant in terms of axioms like “there is no meaning to existence or anything in the universe” is itself already a sort of religious response to human life, a mythopoeic way of coping with the mystery of being, even if it is in this case a scientistic religious response whereby the epistemic limits of the scientific method have been hypostatized into a mechanistic-materialistic ontology. There is no reason to construe the facts of science in the atheistic, anti-teleological way that Bryant does. There are other interpretations of contemporary scientific cosmology, most notably that offered by Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism (for a PDF of this essay, click HERE).
Levi Bryant is pulling his hair out about vitalist philosophy (a title he gives to the work of Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze, among others). I read all three as materialists, though of course it is a rather strange sort of materialism replete with God-making machines, physical feelings, and alchemical metallurgy. Nonetheless, their philosophical work, especially Whitehead’s, couldn’t be more consonant with 20th century physical science.
No doubt, Whitehead has his more enchanted moments, as well. For example, in a discussion in Process and Reality about the enduring relevance of some themes in Plato’s Timaeus following the discovery of evolutionary theory, Whitehead writes approvingly of the ancient Greek conception of “animating principles” in nature, astrological and elemental forces that form the physical order of our cosmic epoch in the wake of their ongoing creative encounter with aboriginal chaos (95-96). Whitehead’s cosmology is indeed, as Anderson Weeks, writes, an “attenuated Renaissance ‘animism’” (Process Approaches to Consciousness, 165).
As for vitalism, I think it is worthless as a biological or embryogenic theory. There is no need to add an extra bit of magic to matter in order to bring it to life. Matter is already magical. Life is just a more sophisticated spell.
If there is to be any use for vitalism, it must become a full-fledged cosmology, a theory of the Cosmic Organism. As Jakob Böhme the theosophist saw, we must come to see, that “the powers of the stars are the fountain veins in the natural body of God in this world” (The Aurora, 2:28).
“Above all, we must awaken to and overcome the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind: the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self’s own will to power” – Tarnas
Dempcy goes on (and I largely agree with his analysis here):
Human narcissism and nihilism go hand in hand. The nihilistic existential worldview of an indifferent, cold universe devoid of meaning (except for what ostensibly human meanings we project onto it) is hand-in-hand with narcissism. It is certainly an appropriate phase when one is 19 or 20 years old. Everyone needs to “pass through” nihilism and become post-nihilistic — to remain pre-nihilistic is to remain stuck in the Imaginary bliss of oceanic merging, fantasies of dual relations with the (m)other and so on. Yet to remain stuck in nihilism is stunted at a developmental phase which could do nothing better than outgrow it self.
And here is Tarnas again, writing a few lines after Dempcy’s excerpt:
Contrary to the coolly detached self-image of modern reason, subjective needs and wishes have unconsciously pervaded the disenchanted vision and reinforced its assumptions. A world of purposeless objects and random processes has served as a highly effective basis and justification for human self-aggrandizement and exploitation of a world seen as undeserving of moral concern. The disenchanted cosmos is the shadow of the modern mind in all its brilliance, power, and inflation.
I’d like to follow up on Jonah’s (and Tarnas’) point that the modern tribe’s disenchantment of the cosmos is the real anthropocentric conceit–not ancient people’s animalization of it–by adding another point about the mechanistic image of the cosmos. The west has believed the earth to be a giant machine with externally related and so blindly colliding parts for several centuries. This idea, this root image, has been tremendously successful (in economic terms). Even if Gaia didn’t start out a machine, she has been all but entirely transformed into one after a century-and-a-half of techno-industrial capitalism. Even if it wasn’t true before, mechanomorphism (as ideology) has made itself true (as biospheric force) through its sheer economic might.
I’d want to offer a different root image from the machine. An organic image, of course. More specifically, I’d offer the root, itself: the universe is an inverted tree.
Böhme writes (Mysterium Pansophicum, 1:1-4):
The unground is an eternal nothing, but makes an eternal beginning as a craving. For the nothing is a craving after something. But as there is nothing that can give anything, accordingly the craving itself is the giving of it, which yet also is a nothing, or merely a desirous seeking. And that is the eternal origin of Magic, which makes within itself where there is nothing; which makes something out of nothing, and that in itself only, though this craving is also a nothing, that is, merely a will. It has nothing, and there is nothing that can give it anything; neither has it any place where it can find or repose itself…We recognize…the eternal Will-spirit as God, and the moving life of the craving as Nature. For there is nothing prior, and either is without beginning, and each is a cause of the other, and an eternal bond. Thus the Will-spirit is an eternal knowing of the unground, and the life of the craving an eternal body of the will.
*Transl. of Böhme by Basarab Nicolescu in Science, Meaning, & Evolution (1991).
- Böhme and Schelling’s Cosmogenic Theology (footnotes2plato.com)
- Reflections on the Astrality of Materiality (footnotes2plato.com)
If a pushy philosopher were to back me into a corner and force me to choose one or the other, naturalism or supernaturalism, I would choose naturalism. But I’d find myself wanting to ask, as Socrates might, what is meant by “nature”?
Physics becomes metaphysics as soon as the word–”nature”–is pronounced. The logos of language of its own accord compels conscious creatures like us to ask the fateful question: “What is nature?” I’ve heard many definitions, each with its own interesting implications for any attempt to interpret experiential reality. Plato suggested that nature was the life of the All. Aristotle posited that nature was the sum total of phenomenal/physical beings. Descartes thought it was energetic vortexes circling in an extended plenum. Newton thought it was atoms colliding in the void of space (space, meanwhile, he considered to be the omniscient sensorium of God).
We might also reframe the question by asking about the proper relationship between the logos which asks and the nature which responds. From this there may emerge important epistemological, aesthetic, and ethical queries, none of which are anything like the pursuits of the specialized natural sciences. These methods of inquiry pose their own kinds of problems and devise their own kinds of solutions, solutions which, though they are relevant (we hope!), still differ greatly from the kinds of solutions sought out by physicists and chemists.
“The recourse to metaphysics,” says Whitehead, “is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena” (The Concept of Nature, 29).
Once the question of nature has been asked, it seems we come to find ourselves in a strange and imaginal land. Appearances can no longer be taken for granted as real. Knowledge comes to seem unfounded. Plato wrote from such a mythical place of not-knowing in the Timaeus, even daring to offer several names for it including chora, matrix, receptacle, nurse, and nurturer. He depicted this matrix hovering between the being of invisible forms and the becoming of visible matter, able to take on any definite form and thereby grant it birth into the physical realm, while itself always remaining formless. I interpret Plato’s nurturing “third kind” between the eidos and chaos not as a fantasy land, but as the event-place of reality’s eruption into concrete experience. Necessary ideas and contingent matter are both abstractions from the real. The real comes to be always in-between.
To even frame a polemic around the dichotomy “naturalism v. supernaturalism,” no matter whether one’s aim to choose the atheistic or theological option, is already to implicate oneself in a logic of transcendence, since each term is defined only by its exclusion of the other. A more friendly inquiry (born out of intellectual philia rather than intellectual polemos) was that of Spinoza, who thought not in the exclusive terms of either God or Nature, but in the integral terms of both God and Nature.
Approaching the metaphysical problems posed by naturalism philosophically, rather than polemically, allows one to delight in the multiplication of possibilities and in the intensification of wonder, rather than in the rush to simplify and explain.
Levi Bryant recently offered some thoughts, and some fighting words, on behalf of the naturalistic interpretation of reality (Skholiast has responded in a way that contextualized Bryant’s remarks for me quite nicely). Bryant’s real enemy in these posts is the Continental tradition of philosophy, which he suggests was founded in the 19th century as an anthropocentric reaction against the tremendously technologically successful (but psychologically traumatizing) scientific naturalism first developed in the 16th century. Bryant’s naturalism has three major requirements: 1) no supernatural causes, 2) no metaphysical telos, 3) culture must be natural. A implication of these requirements is that materiality and insensate efficient forces are to be the only real factors operating anywhere in the natural world. Bryant also rejects the idea of nature constructed in the imaginations of reductionists, eliminativists, and positivists, preferring his own “machine-oriented ontology.”
As I said at the beginning, if the dilemma were posed as such, I’d also want to pursue naturalist over supernaturalist accounts of reality. I think Bryant has rightly avoided the blunders of the other ideas of nature floating around among materialists. His alternative materialist ontology is of great interest to me, if only because on some level I do enjoy the creativity that can be unleashed by polemic (“War is the father of all things…” Heraclitus). For the past four of five years of my graduate study at CIIS, I have had a handful of guides helping to shape my initial approach to questions concerning the nature of nature. Of this handful, I’ve grown most familiar with the voices of Alfred North Whitehead and Friedrich Joseph Schelling. As far as naturalisms go, I’d toss as many of their books into my metaphysical wagon as my horses are able to carry. Spare me your universal acids and logics of extinction, I’ll take an originally duplicitous nature animated by a mytho-logic of creativity.
Of course, the journey through the dessert of the real cannot be completed only by imbibing the spilt ink of dead names. Thoughts must boil up from out of the heat of my own blood and words must be uttered from out of the air of my own lungs. I’m working on it… But let us not forget this is also a conspiracy. Though we wage war with symbolic soldiers on paper battlefields, we still think our thoughts, breathe our words, and take our earthly steps together. There need be no polemic between a machine- and an organic-orientation toward reality if we are able to approach their proper relation in a friendly (i.e., a philosophical) way. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an attempt to account for both the appearance of mechanism and the reality of organism. He writes:
the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists (On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and DevelopmentVI, 70.)
Similarly, from the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, physics and chemistry do not study the non-living components of living ecologies; rather, they are themselves the study of living ecologies at scales other than the biological, tracking the migratory behavior of electrons and protons rather than gnats and zebras. I hearken back to the original meaning of the Greek word physis here, which did not refer to the motion of dead stuff through empty space, but to the growth of living form in teleological time. “Life,” in the context of the organism-oriented ontology I’m trying to construct, is not bios but zoö, where the latter comes to designate existence as such. What exists as such are living organisms.
Bryant denies to naturalism anything but material and efficient causality. I am not aware of any coherent interpretation of quantum physics based solely on material and efficient causation. Nor am I aware of any coherent explanation for biological phylo- or ontogenesis that does not employ at least formal if not also final causes. Unless we are willing to ignore much of “what we are aware of in perception” (Whitehead’s definition of the nature studied by science), it is hard not to grant more than the blind conveyance of forces to nature. To be fair, Bryant does think biological purposes can emerge on accident out of the evolutionary algorithm. Human ideals are emergent realities, new features of the world. I’d argue that telos is no accident, but rather, like life, it is of the very essence of existence. To exist is to be a reason. Nature is not aimless, but nor is its telos designed by a transcendent demiurge. Nature is a creative process of birth and perishing persuaded into enduring patterns of harmony by a participating Eros. Harmony is not a metaphysical necessity, though both Creativity and Eros are. Cosmic harmony is an achievement, the contingent result of the values of a society of organisms characteristic of a particular cosmic epoch. Cosmos need not always emerge from chaos; yet it tends to.
Bryant leaves open the possibility that the world’s great religious teachers might have important metaphysical lessons to teach us. One of my projects has been to try to argue for the relevance of religious imaginaries in combatting precisely the sort of anthropocentrism that Bryant claims naturalism vanquishes (see for example this essay on a Christian spiritual response to the social and ecological crises of our day).
Graham Harman has jumped in offering his own response to my recent comment directed at Levi Bryant regarding his interpretation of Whitehead.
The core issue, for Harman, is whether Whitehead’s position is ultimately reducible to some form of relationism, wherein an actual occasion is no more than the sum of its prehensions, or whether Whitehead’s accounts of an occasion’s self-creation and self-enjoyment are enough to preserve some sort of individual withdrawal, thereby allowing genuine novelty to erupt in the course of cosmogenesis. Without such withdrawal, says Harman, there could be no change at all, much less novelty, since each actual occasion would always already be related to every other actual occasion. Without points of rupture in the continuum of relations, nothing new, nothing different, could ever emerge. Harman writes:
Change obviously occurs, and in my view Whitehead has a surprisingly difficult time accounting for it, despite the common impression that he is a philosopher of process and change (he is actually a remorseless philosopher of static instants, just like Heidegger– another philosopher who is wrongly viewed as a thinker of time). You can’t just say “of course Whitehead knows that things change,” and then hypostatize that awareness by positing concepts such as “concrescence” and “enjoyment” and dodging the question of whether they are prehensional or something more than prehensional (both of which lead to severe problems for Whitehead).
I’m honestly not sure what Harman is getting at by saying Whitehead is a remorseless philosopher of static instants. As far as I’m aware, Whitehead is a process philosopher, such that the relational flux of the cosmic nexūs is the foreground of his cosmology. His understanding of the universe of classical physics is similar to Bergson’s: physical science had become increasingly adept at spatializing time, allowing it to view nature denuded of value, quality, and duration. This lead to all sorts of metaphysical paradoxes, the results of badly analyzed composites and abstract bifurcations.
On the other hand, Whitehead was unwilling to follow Bergson’s anti-intellectualism. Picking up where Bergson left off (with his important critique of the philosophical tradition’s habit of backgrounding fluency in favor of the clear and distinct stasis of abstract categories like “extension”), Whitehead employs his own form of intellectual intuition to further differentiate fluency into two kinds (PR, 210):
1) concrescence (=”the real internal constitution of a particular existent”; i.e., the individual final causes of the universe), and 2) transition (=the perishing of a particular existent’s process, thereby “constituting that existent as an original element in the constitutions of other particular existences elicited by repetitions of process”; i.e., the transfer of inherited efficient causes through the universe). The continuity of the universe is preserved by the process of transition, while the withdrawal of individual occasions, and therefore the potential for novelty, is preserved by the process of concrescence. Unlike transition, concrescence is not simply prehensional. “Each actual occasion defines its own actual world from which it originates. No two occasions can have identical actual worlds” (210). Concrescence is the process by which any given actual occasion prehends the many occasions of its extensive continuum into some new definite form of unity (=achievement of subjective value) to be added to the ongoing advance of nature.
This differentiation between concrescence and transition allows Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, despite its generally processual orientation, to remain nonetheless explicitly atomic. This comes through clearly enough in Process and Reality, where Whitehead writes: “the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism” (35). He is lead to this conclusion largely as a result of the discoveries of quantum and relativity theories concerning the nature of time. 20th century science was forced to reject two ideas that had long provided its metaphysical first principles: 1) the idea of nature at an instant, and 2) the idea that the universe had a single continuous time flow.
On this point, Whitehead writes (35):
“There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming. The actual occasions are the creatures which become, and they constitute a continuously extensive world. In other words, extensiveness becomes, but ‘becoming’ is not itself extensive.”
He concludes, as I quoted above, that atomic discontinuity is an ultimate metaphysical truth. The continuously extensive world with its universal relationality he considers an accident, not a metaphysical necessity: “continuity is a special condition arising from the society of creatures which constitute our immediate epoch” (36). The advance of nature involves an inheritance of rhythmic pattern from one concrescent occasion to the next. Between occasional beats, intervals are opened up, leaving room for improvisation.
Let me just add that, while I’ve obviously been influenced a tremendous amount by attempting to think with Whitehead, I realize that he is not infallible. My disagreement with Harman’s and Bryant’s critique is not a result of my wanting to protect a sacred cow from blasphemers; it is rather a result of wanting to be clear about the specifics of the metaphysical scheme that Whitehead has left us. I’m all for finding flaws and hacking the system to make improvements and to keep it relevant. But in this particular case, I just don’t think it is at all fair to Whitehead’s scheme to claim he reduces individuals to the flux. It seems like a simple mistake to me, easy enough to correct with a moderately careful reading his texts. Perhaps there is something deeper to the critique that Harman and Bryant are leveling, but they seem to have aimed it poorly; at least, I haven’t felt the force of the blow yet…
P.S.- Aside from Process and Reality, another good place to turn for Whitehead’s account of “forms of unity” and the relationship between the two kinds of fluency is chapter 5 of Modes of Thought, “Forms of Process.”
- The Poetry of Philosophy: Wordsworth’s Poetic Vision of Nature in Light of Whitehead’s Cosmological Scheme (footnotes2plato.com)
- Whitehead’s Endo-Theology (footnotes2plato.com)
- Whitehead’s Divine Function (response to Knowledge Ecology) (footnotes2plato.com)
- Whiteheadian thoughts on the thingliness of ideas (responses to Archive Fire and Knowledge Ecology) (footnotes2plato.com)
Re-posting my comment to Bryant’s recent criticism of Whitehead and process-relational thought below:
I’m not so sure treating an actual occasion as a “bundle of prehensions” is at all faithful to Whitehead’s scheme. Maybe you arguing that some other aspect of his thought forces him into an inconsistency on this point? If that’s not what you’re suggesting, then I fail to understand how an actual occasion’s process of concrescence–which Whitehead insists is self-created and transcends the whole of the past universe in a moment of private self-enjoyment–could be reduced to a “bundle of prehensions.” Don’t forget Whitehead’s formula of Creativity: “the many become one, and are increased by one.” It seems to me you’re selectively ignoring Whitehead’s emphasis on the distinct and novel oneness produced by each occasion’s concrescence.
I think Bryant is making the same mistake about Whitehead that Harman makes. See my earlier post in response to Harman.
Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects has laid down a clear and clarifying plumb-line definition for a contentious word that finds itself being thrown around the OOO blogosphere from time to time: Correlationism. It has a fascinating biography. Harman recently offered his version of its history and conceptual origin.
Bryant’s was a very helpful post for me. His shift in emphasis from internal/endo-relations to external/exo-relations is definitely the sort of provocation contemporary thought needs to stir it from its humanist dreams and awaken it to the painful light of climate change and mass extinction. I wonder, though, if he means to include Whitehead among those internalists who fail to offer an adequate account of how ruptures in reality (sudden separations or novel connections) are possible…
I’d argue the fundamentally atomistic nature of actual occasions, as well as their capacity for negative prehension and conceptual reversion, makes room for the kind of creative/destructive relations among relata that Bryant wants to preserve. Whitehead’s remains an internally related universe, there’s no doubt about that. But its a universe just as clearly perpetually dividing from itself (Creativity=many become one, and increase by one).
In further agreement with Bryant, for Whitehead, no society is finally safe from disintegration. Enduring relations are fragile in the extreme. But when societies do manage to endure, they are not just bundles of qualities projected on the screen of bare sense-perception; rather, they become self-creating subject-superjects, real individual actors in the world in possession of their own unique and definite characteristics.
Where Bryant and Whitehead probably begin to differ rather starkly is on the issue of how to account for the qualitative character distinguishing each complex society of occasions as the individual that it is (in Circus Philosophicus, Harman calls this an object’s “style”). Whitehead has recourse both to the unique telos of each occasion’s subjective aim, and to the ingression of some relevant set of eternal objects. The initial relevancy of eternal objects to any finite occasion’s situation is a result of the harmonizing attunement sung by divinity at the origins of time.
Whitehead’s God is not the creator or designer of the world, however, but the fellow sufferer of its ongoing re-creation by Creativity. The song and the singer who tunes our universe is an accident of Creativity.
Time is a moving image of eternity originating in the tension between the poles of beginning and ending, what Whitehead calls the primordial and consequent natures of God (two adjectives, one noun). If the beginning is God’s act of finite decision amidst infinite creative potential, the ending is the fact of God’s recollection of the diversity of actualities as a whole.
While any given society will surely some day pass away, each and every occasion of experience composing it achieves objective immortality in the eternally resurrecting body of divine memory.
- Whitehead’s Divine Function (response to Knowledge Ecology) (footnotes2plato.com)
- Whiteheadian thoughts on the thingliness of ideas (responses to Archive Fire and Knowledge Ecology) (footnotes2plato.com)
- Anthrodecentrism – the genesis and meaning of a word (footnotes2plato.com)
I’m going to attempt to clarify my own position in relation to that of Levi Bryant’s on the issue of the potential role of religion in revolutionary politics. Bryant has toned down the diatribe, offering two substantive posts over at Larval Subjects, as well as several comments to me here at Footnotes. I’ll try to lay out the way he has framed the problem first, then offer my own position. There seem to be areas of overlap, but also of friction.
In his first post, “Some Theses on Religion, But Not Really: A-Theology,” Bryant begins by suggesting that what is at stake in this discussion is not ontological, but logical. That is, the core issue is not whether reality is finally material or divine, natural or supernatural; the issue is whether we employ a logic of immanence or transcendence. This focus on logic follows from Bryant’s distinction between the structure and the content of a worldview. There are plenty of worldviews structurally organized around a logic of transcendence that nonetheless remain secular or naturalistic in content. Bryant prefers to utilize the abstract notation of the Lacanian matheme when describing the structure of a worldview, since it minimizes the potential for diverse contents to distract us from the underlying logic at work. The independence of structure from content is mirrored by the independence of the intention or belief from the function of a person’s actions. Bryant gives the example of going to a grocery store with the intention of providing food for one’s family: though one’s intention is not to re-enforce the structure of capitalism, that is in fact how one’s intention ends up functioning. The same is true of those who attend church with the best of intentions: from Bryant’s perspective, they only re-enforce the structure of oppression that any institution founded upon a logic of transcendence is fated to create. Why is any social structure founded upon such a logic fated to be violent and oppressive? Because, argues Bryant:
it is formally impossible to generate a totality or a whole, yet this is precisely what such structures aim for. Every attempt to generate a totality or a whole generates a remainder or an accursed share– what Lacan calls an “objet a” –that marks what the structure cannot integrate or the failure of the totality. Participants within these systems see this remainder not as an ineluctable and necessary consequence of attempts to form a social and intellectual totality, but as a contingent accident. The next step is then to eradicate this remainder as that which prevents the social order from being instantiated so that social harmony might be produced. In other words, structures of transcendence, exception, or sovereignty necessarily generate a friend/enemy logic.
The aim of political transformation, then, should be to establish anarchical forms of social organization not premised on the insider/outsider logic of transcendence. Transcendence, according to Bryant, is the first form of violence, since it denigrates the world by claiming it is not enough. Such a logic leaves all worldly things vulnerable to exploitative violence. So far as it goes, I can’t disagree with Bryant’s reasoning here. He goes on to suggest that religion need not necessarily obey the logic of transcendence as he has laid it out. Even some variants of Christianity are able to
see Christ as an ordinary man (not the son of God), who died on the cross showing that God, the patriarch, is literally dead, and who was not resurrected, and where the holy spirit is nothing but a metaphor for the activity of a community based not on law, but love, and not on a label or tribal identification (“Christian”), but where anyone– atheist, Hindu, Jew, pagan, etc. –could participate.
Bryant is here moving a bit closer to the possibility I am trying to argue for, but I must take issue with his dismissal of spiritual metaphor as “nothing but” (see my post last year on Graham Harman’s ontologization of metaphor). The spiritual power of metaphor–that is, the way metaphorical language can function to carry beyond or transfer both its speaker and her listeners into another world–is precisely why I take issue with Bryant’s complete rejection of transcendence. The religious significance of logics of transcendence need not necessarily be predicated upon a rejection of worldliness per say, but rather upon the rejection of the present state of the world in the service of bringing forth another world. In Faith of the Faithless, Critchley contrasts the spiritualities of Paul and Marcion to bring into relief the sense in which Paul’s rejection of the fallen world as it existed under the rule of the Roman Empire was simultaneously a Messianic hope in a future world redeemed by Christ’s love. The future world would be one in which human beings existed in societies of free association, not because they had overcome their fallenness and achieved some transcendent state of guiltless self-mastery. Quite the contrary, the society of love envisioned by Paul was the result of each human being realizing their helplessness before God. The conversion brought about by faith reveals that the transcendent love that Jesus called us to practice is an infinite demand that remains entirely beyond our ability to achieve on our own. It forces a realization upon us: “You are not your own,” as Paul put it (1 Cor. 6:19). Critchley reads Heidegger’s existential analysis of Dasein as a phenomenological translation of Paul’s religious metanoia, but stops short of Heidegger’s seeming aspiration towards the totalized wholeness and autarchy of the authentic Self. Critchley writes:
The human being is essentially impotentialized in its relation to the Messiah. The decision about who I am is not in my power, but only becomes intelligible through a certain affirmation of weakness. Authenticity is not so much a ‘seizing hold’ as the orientation of the self towards something that exceeds oneself, namely the hetero-affectivity of an infinite demand that calls me. Freedom is not something I can confer upon myself in a virile assertion of autarchy. It is something that can only be received through the acknowledgement of an essential powerlessness, a constitutive impotence. Freedom can only be received back once one has decided to become a slave and attend in the endurance of love–for love endures all things. (p. 182)
The Marcion heresy, on the other hand, must be rejected for precisely the reasons that Bryant lays out. Unlike Paul, who saw how the whole of creation was “groaning in travail” alongside the human community, waiting together with us for redemption, Marcion rejected creation as irrevocably evil. Critchley retells the story of an elderly Marcionite who used his own salvia to wash himself each morning so as not to be contaminated by the evils of the created world (p. 198). As Critchley argues: “[Marcion's] dualism leads to a rejection of the world and a conception of religion as a retreat from creation…[becoming] a theology of alien abduction” (p. 202). Critchley goes on to draw inspiration for his thesis concerning the revolutionary potential of faith from Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. Kierkegaard describes the difference between the Old Testament conception of law based on “worldly love,” wherein “you do unto others what others do unto you and no more,” and the New Testament conception of love without law, wherein, as Critchley describes it, one “engages in a kind of transcendental epoche of what others owe to me, and instead [quoting Kierkegaard] ‘makes every relationship to other human beings into a God-relationship’” (p. 248). Kierkegaard continues:
Worldly wisdom thinks that love is a relationship between man and man. Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, that God is the middle term. (WL 112-113).
In this sense, divine transcendence is made to participate in the down to earth ethicality of face to face engagements. When I truly love someone–truly in that I engage them according to the logic of a gift rather than the logic of exchange–it is because I have transcended myself, making room within my soul for the divine to act in the world through me. “Not I, but Christ in me,” as Paul put it (Gal. 2:20). Is this just a metaphor? Perhaps it is metaphorical, but let us not underestimate the power of words to re-imagine worlds.
My own attempts to re-imagine the way religion functions by arguing that 1) there is no neutral ground outside religion from which to critique it (we are all ineluctably mythic creatures, our individual and collective identities being necessary narrative in structure), and 2) faith can and has functioned as the motivating factor underlying revolutionary political action lead Bryant to accuse me of being what Deleuze called a “state thinker,” someone who attempts to both naturalize and sanitize hierarchical religious social structures by (even if unintentionally) justifying the logic through which they operate. Bryant singles out theologians (those for whom the logic of transcendence is operative) as especially guilting of “state thinking,” since they always idealize how faith could operate without paying due attention to how it has actually functioned in the world among lay people. While I think there are plenty of real life examples of faith operating as a tremendously effective weapon in the fight against state violence and oppression (e.g., Gandhi and MLK in the 20th century), I will still admit to idealization. I find it extremely important to defiantly journey beyond the walls of my city of residence, like Socrates in the Republic, not only to critique the obvious injustices of the day, but also to “dream another city in dialogue,” as Critchley puts it (p. 93). Critique of existing structures is not enough. We must also construct a new view of the world. Further, as Plato also discusses in the Republic, I believe the city (the collective) and the soul (the individual) must become transparent one to the other. If we are to become capable of enacting a genuinely anarchic society not ruled by any exceptional sovereign, super-rich class, or miraculously representative body (Madison’s “refined democracy”), we must find a way to relate to one another collectively that is no longer bound by the self-serving capitalist logic of exchange. Perhaps the “logic” of love engendered by faith is such a way.
In his second post, “Transcendence and the Problem of Boundaries: A Confession,” Bryant asks the most pressing and all-important question: “is it possible to form a community of strangers without identity and to still really have a community?” “Without identity,” because if a community names itself, it creates outsiders, reproducing the logic of remainder and leading to the violent elimination of that remainder as discussed above. Bryant suggests that the social form practiced by the historical Jesus may have been such a community. Unfortunately, the institutionalization of Christianity lead it to become “the greatest of conspiracies against Christ (we fetishized his death to obscure the trauma of the socio-political philosophy he proposed).” I couldn’t agree more. But what of the form of transcendence I defended above? I don’t think it is unique to the teachings of Jesus, but like Bryant, this is the tradition I know best: Jesus’ teaching that love supersedes the Mosaic law broke open the closed community of Israel, with its unique relationship to a transcendent deity, such that all peoples, regardless of class, creed, or color, were to be treated as friends, as fellow members of the communal body of Christ. This universalization was so far reaching that Jesus said even those who wish to do us violence should be treated as friends: “Turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39), “Love thy enemies” (Matt. 5:44). Jesus realized that this would be the only way to break the cycle of violence and revenge characterizing human history back to its origins.
But again, a love as transcendent as that taught by Jesus just doesn’t appear to be a realistic possibility for normal human beings. Those who are members of oppressed and colonized communities would seem almost to have a psychological need to seek vengeance upon their oppressors. Is there any other way for them to reclaim their stolen humanity? “It is through violence against the colonist,” writes Critchley, “that colonized subjects can rid themselves of their deformed inferiority and liberate or literally remake themselves” (p. 238). Critchley grants that the case of the colonized makes any sort of a priori pacifism seem entirely inadequate, but he still remains skeptical of the glorification of violence by thinkers like Slavoj Žižek. Critchley examines the meaning of the commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” asking whether it should be interpreted as an absolute prohibition or “impersonal, coercive law.”
The commandment is a more fragile, but insistent, guideline or plumb-line for action, addressed in the second person…[C]rucially, the force of the commandment is non-coercive and requires our assent…[I]t is an ethical demand that requires approval. By virtue of its non-coercive force, the commandment of nonviolence is a guideline for action with which we are obliged to wrestle in solitude, and, in certain exceptional cases, to take responsibility for ignoring. (p. 16)
Following Critchley’s Levinasian analysis of the ethics of violence, I’d want to argue that the transcendent character of divine love is never something that can be easily put into action by finite human beings. It remains beyond our individual power to actually follow Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek” in every case. This doesn’t mean we are off the hook, however. Political engagement is messy and requires taking responsibility for the difficult process of negotiation regarding the commandment not to kill. But what of the role of faith in allowing for the possibility of “mystical love,” a faith described by Critchley (p. 20) as “that act of spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate the old self in order that something new might come into being”? Perhaps this form of transcendence–namely, self-transcendence–remains ineluctably violent. But it is a violence done only to oneself, to one’s selfish ego, such that genuine love for one’s neighbor becomes possible.
[Update: further thoughts...Perhaps holding the immanent and transcendent together requires an imaginative logic, or logic of imagination. As Schelling suggested, it is only through imagination that "we are capable of thinking and holding together even what is contradictory" (System of Transcendental Idealism, 1800). Infinity may be the better word than transcendence here, since, as Schelling and Hegel realized, one cannot oppose the infinite to the finite without thereby limiting the infinite. The finite is not other than the infinite, just as the immanent is not other than the transcendent. Better yet, the geologian Thomas Berry coined the term "inscendence" to describe the way the world itself is bathed in noumenal light, its immanence pierced every so often by ecstasies. This raises the question as to whether logic and ontology, thought and reality, can be as neatly separated as Bryant has done. What, exactly, is the relationship between politics and ontology? It is the question with which all of this began earlier in the week. It remains to be answered.]
- Experiments in Political Theology and Dialogical Blogging (footnotes2plato.com)
- Meister Eckhart, Philosophy, and Soul-Making (footnotes2plato.com)
- Meister Eckhart and the Core of the Soul (footnotes2plato.com)
The first clause in the title of this post is the subtitle of Simon Critchley‘s newest book, The Faith of the Faithless (2012). Critchley is a deep ethical thinker who had until a week ago managed to fly under my radar. This isn’t all that surprising, since the admittedly still diffuse research methodology of my dissertation is rather like wandering backwards through an ancient and ever-growing bibliographic labyrinth of academic and para-academic publishing. Every week or so, I trip over one of the books tossed about on the floor, have a look, and discover another author whose thinking seems to be converging with my own. It’s not like these texts are randomly arrayed: I’ve been following a thread that I can see knots together those texts I’ve already read; it’s just that I’ve been walking backwards as I pull it.
Critchley’s book is, as he describes it, an experiment in thinking the strange and scary relationship between politics and religion. It is a relationship, much like that between religion and science, that is fraught with controversy and spilt blood. It has always been this way, and remains so today despite our modern pretensions to enlightenment and rational discourse. Emotional polemic is the name of the game in this arena, the teams neatly divided into the evangelical atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, and Sam Harris and the fundamentalist theism of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ken Ham. I mostly watch this game play out from the stands, but every once in a while one of my sideline protests is heard and I get drawn into the field of debate (never with any of these individuals themselves, but with their wider community of supporters). I much prefer conversation and dialogue to polemical debate, but it has proved extremely difficult to have a civil or philosophical discussion about the relationship between politics, religion, and science. My forays into PZ Myers‘ blog Pharyngula have, on the face of it, proven completely fruitless, as have attempts to dialogue with Levi Bryant at his blog Larval Subjects. I say “on the face of it” because I remain optimistic about the effects of these conversations on those who may be reading silently in the background. Blogging is a public forum, one of the few remaining political sites for a democratic people to work out their self-authentification and self-governance. The Internet remains a virtual environment, but in our catastrophic epoch of the post-human and post-natural, reality itself is increasingly endangered, making virtuality a necessary haven of withdrawal. Those explicitly involved in these online arguments aren’t necessarily the only significant nodes of mutual influence. It seems to me that most often, it is those remaining silent who are influenced most significantly by the dialectic unfolding on screen. Even if their thoughts remain at the level of pre-discursive feeling and imaginal strain for the time being, the stress of silence acts as an alembic forming truly new thoughts that will no longer be trapped in the tug-of-war of old polemics.
All of us who blog religiously have a mission, that is, a religious mission. We are seeking to instigate political transformation. From Critchley’s perspective, politics may be conceivable without religion, but it will never be practicable. He justifies his claim by looking into the political thought of Rousseau, who “arguably provides the definitive expression of the modern conception of politics” with his 1762 treatise The Social Contract (p. 8). At first glance, Rousseau’s political theory seems to provide
an entirely immanent conception of political legitimacy…an egalitarian conception of association rooted in popular sovereignty (ibid.).
A deeper look at the composition of Rousseau’s Geneva Manuscript (later renamed The Social Contract) reveals that he made a rushed edition to the text just before sending it to the publisher in 1761, “scribbled in an almost indecipherable hand” despite the rest of the manuscript’s perfect penmanship (p. 28). The edition was a chapter titled “On Civil Religion.” Rousseau ends up seeming to contradict his immanentist account of political formation by pointing out the need for what Critchley calls the “fictional force” of a political religion.
Rousseau acknowledges the motivational inadequacy of a purely philosophical account of politics and offers the picture of a political religion…there is a need for fictions other than philosophical in order to unite the general will with the interests to act on that will… (p. 34).
“Philosophy,” in this context, should be understood to mean the rational, dispassionate discourse expected of modern, enlightened individuals. Rousseau recognized that logical argument alone was not sufficient to persuade a people to behave in the interests of the common good. Something else was required to overcome individual alienation, something like faith. The faith of a political religion is not about blind belief in the externally imposed doctrines of a priesthood, but rather concerns remaining open to the possibility of “a transformation [in our own] manner of existence,” or what Rousseau referred to as a “change of [our] nature” (p. 39). Critchley describes the transformation brought on by the enactment of faith as one of mystical love, an “act of spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate the old self in order that something new might come into being” (p. 20).
Rousseau’s “social contract” is a very strange kind of contract, since unlike every other kind of contract, the freely acting independent parties involved don’t even exist until after the agreement. Prior to the contract, the freedom required to justify its legal authority has not yet been created. The contract, at the time of its formation, is essentially a fiction. It is a fiction that the subsequently formed free individuals must conspire together in an act of mutual faith and trust in order to realize. This mutual act of faith–the”rare but ever-potential force…to give oneself in an act of association with others”–is the basis of any civil religion and so self-governing society. It follows that the primary purpose of engaging in political activity is not to persuade people, but to form a people in the first place. The formation of a people depends upon an experience of mystical love, an experience that begins as a fictional force but ends in a new communal reality.
Critchley’s is a civic faith without religious creed, based not on
the abstraction of a metaphysical belief in God, but rather [on] the lived subjective commitment to an infinite demand…a declarative act…an enactment of the self…a performative that proclaims itself into existence in a situation of crisis where what is called for is decisive political intervention (p. 13).
Critchley’s “infinite demand” emerges out of his study off Levinas’ ethics of otherness. Rather than the individualistic ethos of liberal modernity, Critchley’s ethical theory is rooted in what he calls “dividualism,” the existential process whereby
the self shapes itself in relation to the experience of an overwhelming, infinite demand that divides it from itself–the sort of demand that Christ made in the Sermon on the Mount when he said: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you’ (Matt. 5:44) (p. 6-7).
Critchley’s experiments in political theology draw upon a rich history of radical mystics and religious revolutionaries, but he begins the book by unpacking what he calls “Wilde Christianity,” the faithless faith articulated by Oscar Wilde while in prison for two years (~1895-97). Wilde could not bring himself to believe in any church religion, but the symbol of Christ nonetheless remained compelling to him. Critchley reads Wilde’s imaginative engagement with the figure of Christ as a kind of “soul-smithing,” where through the fires of sin and suffering, one forges a new identity. We are to imitate Christ’s ultimate creative and artistic act: “the incarnation of the inwardness of suffering in outward form” (p. 5).
“To the artist,” writes Wilde,
expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all. To him what is dumb is dead. But to Christ it was not so. With a width and wonder of imagination that fills one almost with awe, he took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain, as his kingdom, and made of himself its external mouthpiece (quoted by Critchley, p. 5).
Politics, then, is as much a religious as an artistic endeavor. Religious in that it requires an act of self-giving akin to faith, or mystical love; artistic in that, as Wilde put it, “its symbols must be of my own creating” (p. 4), smithed in the caldron of my own soul rather than received externally.
Christ is the incarnation of love as an act of imagination, not reason, the imaginative projection of compassion onto all creatures (p. 5).
A political religion is a religion based on the fictive force of love. Love, whatever its potential power, is hard to come by in this world. It is indeed mostly a fiction. But on those rare occasions when authentic political activity is allowed to emerge, it can only be the result of this fiction becoming a reality.
I’ll have more to say about Critchley’s experiments in political theology in subsequent posts. I found it a happy coincidence that he was brought to my attention just before Bryant’s inflammatory response to me regarding the role of religiosity in public life. I didn’t recognize myself in his “response to a new age nut,” nor do I think I’ve mischaracterized his Lacanian-Marxist perspective on religion and politics. I am not sure what exactly threw him into such a rage… maybe if I were more studied in Lacan, I’d be able to offer a psychoanalytic explanation. But I’m not. When I look at how religion has actually functioned in the world, I see a far more complex picture than Bryant does. I agree with a commenter at Larval Subjects that the detestable violence and oppression of the past cannot so easily be pinned on “religion,” since in that case we may as well blame “science” for the horrors of the 20th century industrialization of war. Yes, some religious institutions have and continue to violently oppress people, but perhaps this has more to do with the symptomatic evils of institutionalization itself than it does with something intrinsic to religious faith. But rather than trying to directly respond to Bryant, which seems pointless, I thought further fleshing out where I am coming from would be most productive. That’s what I’ve attempted to do here.
*[Update]*: Bryant just posted a response to another commenter that further clarifies his own position:
My criticism of your claims is not that beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes are irrelevant, but that you’re working at the wrong level of analysis and are not discerning the nature of the system at issue and why it functions as it does. I think this poor analysis arises directly from your background in phenomenology and Kierkegaard that emphasizes the subject and belief and that is therefore blind to large scale systems and how they function. It’s also noteworthy that all the things you suggest can be changed in these systems (hearts and beliefs) ***and*** the system can still function exactly as it did before. Why? Because hearts and beliefs weren’t the cause of this functioning in the first place.
Bryant has a point, of course. My own desire to experiment with political theology is not the result of being blind to this sort of Marxist analysis. It emerges because, after the revolution, I don’t think it will be possible to re-construct a people or a world for them to live in out of the ashes of neo-liberal capitalism without engaging with what have traditionally been religious issues. Yes, capitalism is largely a structural issue and it must be dismantled on that level. But if we succeed in dismantling it, there remains the project of composing a public, what Critchley calls a “work of collective self-creation where I am the smithy of my own soul and where we must all become soul-smiths” (p. 4).
- Schelling and the Nature of Human Freedom (footnotes2plato.com)
- Notes on the Occupation from the Mountaintop (footnotes2plato.com)
- Cosmopolitical Reflections on Society, Economy, and Religion (footnotes2plato.com)
- Conversation with Critchley about The Faith of the Faithless (readysteadybook.com)
Levi Bryant has had a lot to say in the past several months about the relationship between politics and ontology. HERE is his latest. Essentially, he argues that academia is too caught up in symbolic and cultural forms of resistance to capitalism, when in reality what changes history are not shifts in consciousness but transformations of material conditions. The global non-locality of contemporary hyper-capitalism makes it especially difficult to resist, since, for example, if factory workers in America decide to strike and/or bargain collectively with their corporate managers and shareholders, the corporation can simply re-open a factory overseas where workers expect less. This is largely the story of the last several decades, as post-industrial America shifted away from manufacturing to become a nation of consumers.
In the comments, Bryant got into it with Tim of Fragile Keys over whether it is material conditions or habits of the heart that finally transform society. Bryant took his characteristic anti-religion stance, while Tim argued that, even with the best of material conditions, human beings still need proper enculturation in order to live in harmony with others and the universe. Religion, therefore, will be central to any social transformation. Bryant certainly has a point when he suggests that the evils of capitalism are structurally rooted, and not simply a matter of individual greed. However, I don’t think that changing the legal structure of our economy can happen without a transformation in individual and social values. But in the end, I wouldn’t want to claim the true cause is either one factor or the other. Change would seem to emerge as a result of both factors becoming effective simultaneously. I must also say that Bryant’s grasp of history is just wrong when he suggests that religion has most often functioned as a conservative force to maintain dominant power structures. I think the facts of history present a far more complex relationship between religion and politics, there being as many religious radicals as there have been reactionaries (my last post on Bruno’s radical politics and heretical religion being an example of this complexity).
On a related note, I just stumbled upon a 2010 issue of the journal Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy devoted to “Poetics of Resistance.” Here is an excerpt from the introduction:
The register of individuality and subjectivity that is linked with the term poetics, and the evocation of collectivity and community through the term resistance, places the practices and works under discussion in a tension between these categories. It encourages an analytical approach that considers the relationship between the work of art, the subjectivities of its creator(s) and of its recipients, and the social movements or political ideologies with which it is linked. The place of the work of art in the tension field between the subjective and the collective, and the relationality that the existence of this tension field necessarily entails, has emerged as one of the most important foci of the work of members of the network.
The term ‘resistance’, in the way it is used by the network, needs further explanation. We use it with specific reference to neoliberalism, as one recent form of capitalism, while also maintaining an interest in practices of creative resistance to pre-neoliberal regimes of capital. This focus was chosen to facilitate the response to a very particular situation which is characterized by the implementation of a specific set of ideologically based policies while, at the same time, the existence of the ideological dimension is disavowed by policy makers. As Eagleton points out, proponents of conservatism (we may apply this more concretely to neoliberalism) are wary of acknowledging its own ideological status, since ‘to dub their own beliefs ideological would be to risk turning them into objects of contestation’. Neoliberalism thus pretends to be pragmatic rather than ideological; interested in policy rather than ideology. This pretence is made easier by neoliberalism having originally emerged as an economic theory. David Harvey writes:
Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. … But beyond these tasks the state should not venture.
This ‘theory of political economic practices’ does, however, have ideological underpinnings which are crucially important to an understanding of neoliberalism’s impact on the arts, and also on scholarship. Those ideological underpinnings have become ever more obvious as the economic theory proves to be flawed, inadequate, and destructive. Since the crisis of 2008, it has become ever more necessary for neoliberalism’s proponents to maintain the appearance of its overall coherence and effectiveness. Ideology is indispensable for this. Other actors—not politicians—have to step in and provide the justification for the continuity of neoliberal politics. This justification draws on the previous ‘construction of consent’, as Harvey calls it, and this draws increasingly on the pretension that ‘there is no alternative’. Culture in the widest sense plays a part in translating the ideological points outlined by Harvey into more generalized assumptions, discursive figures, and commonly held beliefs. Thus, neoliberalism creates imaginaries that can then inform the creative imagination or that, conversely, are projected through works of art without this necessarily being the intention of the artist. The potentially complicit functions of art and scholarship and their co-optation, are important areas of interest of the members of the network. At the same time—and this interest is more prominently represented in the articles collected in this issue—the members of the network explore how works of art can effectively resist the imposition of neoliberal ideology and the absorption of art by neoliberal politics, either by creating alternative imaginaries or by contributing to and interacting with political projects that stand in opposition to the neoliberal model. This sometimes implies seeking spaces of artistic praxis ‘outside’ neoliberalism, but frequently involves entering into discursive, and sometimes financial, negotiation with neoliberally-informed social, cultural and educational structures. For those of us working in higher education, as we will see below, such negotiation is an everyday reality.
The essays in the issue focus on the power of art and culture to disrupt and transform the social imaginary concocted by the PR managers of neo-liberal capitalism. As an academic, I can’t help but believe that the maintenance and creation of culture can change society. I am of course still willing to put my body on the line in the few remaining sites of political rebellion. But this willingness is a side-effect of my convictions. As a philosopher in pursuit of a philosophical religion, I believe that when the opportunities for seizing history and bending its arc further toward justice do arise, the role of inspired and charismatic individuals and devoted communities should not be underestimated. Rebellion and resistance must happen on the ground and in the streets, but after the revolution, art and religion will still be necessary for civilization to construct and re-construct livable worlds. And while we are still imprisoned in the capitalist oligarchy, art and religion are the most effective weapons we have for combatting the consumerist imaginary beamed to every television and pasted on every billboard in the world.
Cornel West is another good example of a radical political activist whose radicalism emerges chiefly for religious reasons:
[Update: Bryant has responded, both below and at Larval Subjects. He is rather peeved and accuses me of intentionally misrepresenting him in order to score rhetorical points. I've responded below, but let me also add here that I fully agree with him concerning the heinousness of the religious right in America. I don't so much blame the people, but the power brokers manufacturing their opinions both through economic oppression and propaganda. I've learned much in this respect from Chris Hedges]:
- Philosophy, society, politics and the decline of America (footnotes2plato.com)
- Cosmopolitical Reflections on Economy, Society, and Religion (footnotes2plato.com)
- Remembering Creation: Towards a Christian Ecosophy (footnotes2plato.com)