Whitehead’s Process Atomism (response to Graham Harman)

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.”


Levi Bryant Misreading Whitehead?

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.

Whitehead’s Endo-Theology

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 ancient 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 consequential 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 into 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.

Immanent Law, Transcendent Love, and Political Theology

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 se, 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. Is 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

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.

Critchley continues:

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).

Related articles

Poetics of Resistance: Radical Politics in the Waning Years of Capitalism

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’.[4] 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:[5]

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

Jason/Immanence Transcendence brought my attention to this critique of Graham Harman‘s Object-Oriented Ontology. The critique, written by Alexander Galloway, complains that OOO’s lack of a political dimension makes it a nonstarter as a groundwork for philosophizing in public. In today’s global context, where neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have collided (and colluded) to bring Starbucks to Baghdad, I’d agree with Galloway that “a philosophy without a political theory is no philosophy at all.” Other thinkers associated with OOO, like Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects, have written about political questions far more extensively than Harman (which Galloway mentions), but I remain unconvinced that either Bryant’s politics or his ethical theory necessarily follow from his ontology. Bryant and I have discussed this underdetermination in the past in relation to his appropriation of Brassier’s ontology of extinction.

A rather boisterous discussion erupted among commenters beneath Galloway’s critique. Some were upset by Harman’s dismissive responses (HERE, HERE, and HERE), and took the opportunity to vent their frustration with how some in the OOO blogosphere seem unable to play nice with others. Jason made several substantive comments about moral nominalism in response to Bryant. His comments reminded me of a post made late last year on the same issue. Both are worth reading.

On a more personal note, since Tuesday I’ve been visiting my mother’s side of the family in Cincinnati, OH. I live in a bit of an political bubble in San Francisco surrounded by an eclectic mix of eco-Marxist radicals and psychedelic shamans. My trip to the post-industrial wasteland that is the tri-state area (Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky) has given me an opportunity to reflect on the sad state of American society. I visited my cousin and her two young daughters Tuesday evening and ended up talking politics and religion with her husband until 3AM. He served in Iraq with the Army for almost a year back in 2004-5. Despite his desire to continue to serve in some capacity, a knee injury prevented him from being redeployed to Iraq. His commanding officer gave him an ultimatum: suffer through the pain in combat or get the hell out of the Army. He was discharged, but not before being diagnosed by military doctors with “axis-2 PTSD.” Axis-2 is APA-speak for a form of PTSD compounded with a personality disorder of some type, which in my cousin-in-law’s case involves “sociopathic tendencies.” These tendencies were less noticeable to me this visit than they were 3 years ago (my last visit), but clearly he still hasn’t adequately re-adjusted to civilian life upon returning from war. One clue was the way he checked to see if a few Hot Pockets were cooked all the way through: pulling them out of the oven, he found the largest knife in the kitchen and preceded to forcefully disembowel them. Another clue is the room-sized armory he keeps behind lock and key upstairs.

He is certainly not an anomaly. At least 20% of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are diagnosed with PTSD. Particularly disturbing is the fact that, among female soldiers, more than 70% develop PTSD as a result of being sexually assaulted by other soldiers. I suggested to my cousin-in-law that the prevalence of PTSD is no surprise, since even before stepping foot in a war zone, basic training is in large part designed to prepare recruits for a sociopathic situation. He preceded to describe the rules of engagement issued to every soldier on a small laminated card. Basically, no one is to be trusted: even innocent looking women and children could have bombs strapped to them or have been instructed to shield shooters in public areas. Soldiers must be ready to kill anyone at any moment.

Our conversation drifted to domestic politics by way of my outrage over defense spending (if you include the “police actions” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East, defense accounts for more than half of all government spending). My cousin-in-law is rather conservative, though I have a feeling his political opinions come straight out of the mouth of a hand full of AM radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. For the most part, he is against anything and everything the big bad “government” wants to do, aside from build bombs and wage wars. I brought up the ecological crisis as something states, corporations, and individuals cannot respond to adequately without some sort of top-down influence from government. He was willing to admit that the EPA should regulate some forms of pollution, but he doesn’t think human beings are capable of changing the climate of the whole planet or driving other species into extinction. That scientific consensus considers climate change and mass extinction to be plain as day facts verified by empirical data hardly matters, since such scientists are just part of a vast liberal conspiracy to destroy the American dream and take over the world.

Needless to say, I was frustrated by the content of our conversation, even though the form was cordial enough. It’s made me realize that political discourse is way messier than most ontologies let on. I think the panexperiential process ontology I’ve been trying to develop on this blog with help from Schelling and Whitehead certainly has political implications [see Adam/Knowledge-Ecology’s recent post on panpsychism and politics], but how am I to justify these implications to someone who could care less about the abstract forms of reasoning characteristic of metaphysics? What do the negative determinations of the understanding or the constitutive relationality of finite actual occasions have to do with securing a job and raising a family? Blue collar Americans are more skeptical of the intellectual classes than ever before. I think Rick Santorum was basically correct when he said that a college education leads to liberalism. Unfortunately, college is too expensive for most blue collar students, and anyways, liberalism rests upon some Enlightenment assumptions about Reason and its relationship to Nature that make absolutely no sense to me philosophically. Indeed, these assumptions seem to be causally related to the social and ecological ills of our civilization. I just don’t know if we have another 300 years to wait for today’s subversive ontologies to trickle down into our legal and political discourse.

I think the philosophically-inclined political activist’s best bet is something like what Bruno Latour is doing with “political art.” As Schelling argued long ago, art is the eternal organon of philosophy, since only it is capable of making reason sensuous and mythology rational.

Reflections on the Astrality of Materiality

Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects has a few new post up (HERE and HERE) about the contingently constructed concept of “nature” and about his own flavor of monistic materialism.

Bryant and I have argued in the past about his materialism and its lack of formal and final causality. I’ve been claiming that ideas and purposes are real, while he continues to argue that only corporeal things, their causal interactions, and the void in which they interact constitute real things. From his perspective, what we call qualitative forms or deliberate intentions are either alternative names for what are really entirely material activities (gene transcription, electro-chemo-neural synchronization, economic exchange, information transfer, etc.), or they are nothing.

I side with Whitehead in affirming the reality of eternal forms, not as existing independently of time and materiality, but as always already involved in what we scientifically know and religiously feel to be the process of cosmic animation. Materiality is animality. In every moment this actual universe is repossessed by the past and resurrected into the eternal possibilities of the future. We participate each second in the life divine, a cosmic life with total ethical memory and perfect aesthetic values, even if without demiurgic omnipotence (i.e., the divine that we all are has no transcendent power over a soulless materiality, since the divine simply is the soul of this universe–the divine may be omnipotent in another sense, only because it both affects and is affected by everything else which exists [see Plato’s Sophist, 247e, where he writes that “the definition of being is simply power”).

Our collective existence here on earth beneath the sky (as humans, dogs, cows, rats, snakes, banyans, ants, prokaryotes, proteins, molecules, etc., etc.) participates in more than what is materially present in some simply located separate slice of the Einsteinian space-time loaf. We exist in excess of any mathematically calculable grid. Each moment of actual becoming–each drop of experience–is temporally open to past and future. Each drop is the genetic precipitate of remembered acts called forth beyond habit into the life of everlasting divine forms and values. Every moment arises amidst the ingression of new possibilities given what it has already actualized. The present is pervaded by past and future, the soul linked materially to what it has been and spiritually to what it might become.

Form is not alien to matter, but is its very soul, the fire which animates it. Levi himself recently used the image of fire to describe materiality. This is a metaphor I am willing to follow quite far, so far as to suggest that embodiment acts as the soul’s athanor, and that the intensity of a body’s astrality (its ensoulment) depends upon the temperature to which it can be raised without too quickly consuming itself in the flames of its own metabolism. Bryant draws on the philosopher-poet Lucretius when he describes his ontology as consisting of nothing but material bodies, their interactions, and the void. I’d draw on Böhme and Schelling to suggest, in contrast to Bryant, that creative productivity, rather than this productivity’s arrested products or corporeal excretions (natura naturata), is ontologically fundamental. Productivity (natura naturans) is the ungrounded ground; not a substance or multiplicity of substances, but an unspeakable tension is at the base of all logos and all ontos. Schelling and Böhme describe this groundless source as a triune polarity between gravity and light. The polarity can become balanced, producing a star, a soul. The star shines outward even as it consumes itself from within. It can last for billions of years. This balance is a formal possibility actualized in the time of its shining. It dies when its time runs out, when its light sinks again into darkness. But in its death, the form achieves objective immorality and is passed on in the form of new forms: heavier elements which again, through the tension of gravity and light, come to life in ever new ways. Form is forever infecting everything with novelty.


Update: Bryant responds HERE

I’ve been reading Jason Wirth’s The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2003). He describes on page 87 in Schellingian terms what I’ve argued here and in comments under Bryant’s response in Whiteheadian terms: that nature is not designed by a demiurge, since nature itself is the demiurge. Here is a link to p. 87 via Google books.

Formal Causality and Materialism

There have been a flurry of responses recently to an exchange between Michael/Archive Fire and I regarding formal causality (also, be sure to read Adam/Knowledge Ecology‘s comments over on Archive Fire for a nice defense of Whitehead). Jason/Immanent Transcendence posted some of his reflections, relating the issue to the old debate between realists and nominalists. Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects also chimed in, arguing that my Whiteheadian articulation of formal causation is just hylomorphism in drag. In my exchange with Michael, however, I explicitly rejected the notion that forms are imposed by a transcendent God upon passive matter. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an attempt to preserve formal (and final) causality while jettisoning the unhelpful notion of a transcendent designer. His ontological principle prevents us from conceiving of eternal objects/forms as the causes of anything. Forms are said to “ingress” into actual occasions, though not as a potter’s design is imposed on formless clay, but as a poet’s verse might invite new possibilities into manifestation. The decision to actualize any such possibility remains always in the hands of the actual occasion in question.

Here is my second response to Michael:

Occasions decide which forms will ultimately come to characterize the actual world of their experience. Forms are not ‘imposed’ upon actual occasions from outside. Much of the character of experience, especially for lower grade occasions like electrons and photons, is decided unconsciously through conformal prehension of past decisions. Physical science concerns itself with the general habits of such low grade occasions. But higher grade occasions like ravens, coyotes, and primates, are not so determined by physical prehensions of past actualities, since they have a heightened experience, through conceptual prehension, of future possibilities. In human occasions of experience, this futural perception reaches its near apogee. In Process and Reality, Whitehead discusses our conceptual prehension of eternal objects in terms of consciousness’ capacity for negation–to see the facticity of not only of that grey rock there and to know it could have been otherwise, but to see the whole of the visible universe and know the same. The contingency of nature is not mere chance, but the result of will–will which leans toward more degrees of freedom as moves through the series of natural kingdoms, at first an unconscious flow of emotion, only later rising to the level of the symbolic and intellectual articulation of emotion.

You argue that ‘pure difference’ is at the base of materiality, but I am uncertain what you mean. Wouldn’t its supposed ‘purity’ already be a sign of contamination by identity? Its the old (“archaic”?) problem of the one and the many, of cosmos and chaos. Plato, you’ll remember, did not conceive of form in abstraction from matter, but sought to understand how eternity and time, permanence and process, come to be mixed up into the Living Thing that is the Universe. Eros and metaxy, and not ideal purity, are at the core of the Platonic philosophy, at least as I understand it. The challenge Plato left for philosophy is how to think the in between. Contemporary physics, so far as I understand it, no longer studies nature as substance, but as interlocking processes of formation. This is not all that different from the Schellingian interpretation of Plato’s Timaeus, as unpacked by Iain Hamilton Grant.

You write: ‘Sunsets are not “eternal possibilities” but immanent actualities generated through the emergent activities and collaboration of photons, electrons, hydrogen, helium, oxygen, earth, etc., etc., as they are “stacked” into particular living ecologies. World-flesh is self-sufficient complexity.’

In my prior post, I wasn’t referring to sunsets as eternal possibilities, but to a particular shade of red realized in the sunset. “Red” certainly cannot be explained by reference to the physical bodies you’ve listed, though I would agree about its ecological origins. “Red” is what Whitehead called a subjective eternal object, capable of realization in any number of actual occasions though not reducible to any one in particular or to all in summation. Qualities like redness, and quantities like the number 17, cannot be explained by reference to materiality, since materiality itself would be meaningless without reference to quality and to quantity (which for Whitehead, unlike Kant, are not categories of the human mind, but forms of definiteness characterizing prehension in general).

Purpose in Living Systems

Levi Bryant and I have been going back and forth over at Larval Subjects about the role of formal and final causation in the explanation of living systems. He argues that Darwin forever banished teleology from nature, or at least showed how the apparent purposiveness of organisms is a result of an entirely non-teleological process. I’ll paste my latest response to him below:

You are still construing the argument I referenced at #6 [it is not so much “my” argument as it is Varela and Thompson’s (see “Life After Kant,” 2002, and Mind in Life, 2008)] as though it refers to the purpose or function of distinct traits or variations. That was never my claim. I fully accept that the function of an organ or a trait usually comes after its formation, and that in the course of evolutionary history, the same organ can come to have entirely unforeseen functions. The argument has to do with the immanent teleology of biological individuals, not with the contingent function of their parts. Darwin’s genius was to discover a non-teleological mechanism to account for speciation at the phylogenetic level due to chance variation and inheritance at the ontogenetic level. There is nothing in his theory, or in any additions to his theory in the last 150 years, that explains the existence of biological individuals with immanent purposes. Systems theory has offered descriptions of biological individuals in terms of attractors, but these are descriptions of behavior and not causal explanations. Efficient causality cannot offer a complete explanation for the sentient behavior of living beings. It is of course part of any explanation, but cannot be the whole explanation unless we are willing to ignore the distinct phenomenology of living systems by reducing them to the neutral language of physics (neutral in regard to the taking into account of the perspective of the system one is studying). As Etienne Gilson brilliantly argued (see From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, 1984), no defender of teleology in nature has ever done so in order to deny the role of mechanism (efficient causation); it is only the mechanists who deny teleology. From Gilson’s perspective, while mechanistic biology can perhaps explain the specifics of the functioning of individual organisms (which is what you have been arguing), they cannot explain the existence of such individuals as such. To account for the existence of biological individuals requires a principle of immanent teleology. You’ve made reference to the reductionistic promissory notes that eventually an explanation in purely efficient terms will be provided for how DNA and RNA replication got started, thereby bypassing Varela/Thompson’s argument about the explanatory priority of autopoiesis; but as I understand the arguments of systems biologists like Stuart Kauffman (see Reinventing the Sacred, 2008), any account of nucleic acid autocatalysis, due the inherently recursive nature of such reactions, will already be in terms of formal and final causes.

Centropy, Entropy, and Ethics in the Universe

Levi Bryant recently posted about Entropy. He writes:

Entropy is the measure of order in any system. In this regard, to take a rough and ready criterion, the more probable it is that a particular element is located anywhere in a system the more entropy that system embodies. By contrast, the more improbable the location of an element in a system, theless entropic that system is. Thus, systems characterized by high entropy are highlychaotic or disordered, while systems characterized by low entropy are highly ordered. Finally, those systems that maintain the improbability of the location of their elements over time are referred to as “negentropic”. “Negentropy” is a sort of portmanteau word combining “negation” and “entropy”, signifying “the negation of entropy”. In other words, negentropic systems like my body or a corporation are systems that maintain their order.

I posted a comment which read:

I’ve always been somewhat confused by definitions of entropy in terms of probability. It makes perfect sense if I think about molecules of gas in a closed chamber; but on the scale of the universe as a whole in space and time, why is it that entropy is assumed to be more probable than “negentropy”? In the universe we observe (which includes ourselves as observers), there seems to be no reason to assume that disorderliness is anymore probable than orderliness. I see more reason to assume the opposite. Clearly, objects tend to age; but in the case of organisms, the process of aging is also (for the first half of life at least) a process of development and complexification. Phylogenically, organic life has moved from the very simple (prokaryotes) through various stages to the very complex (social mammals). I’ve read complexity theorists who account for this negentropic movement in terms of the tendency of matter to seek equilibrium of energy gradients. But what produces these gradients in the first place? Doesn’t matter also have a tendency to congeal, to fold in upon itself, to complexify? If so, why do we refer to this tendency in the negative, as if it were incidental to the dominant entropic tendency of nature? What about the more neutral term “centropy”?

To which Bryant responded with:


The thesis is not that entropy is more probable in the universe, but that the degree of entropy in a system is a measure of probability in that system. Your questions about gradients suffers from the same problem as intelligent design arguments in biology. You’re basically saying that if there’s order there must have been a designer or an author and are unable to conceive emergent order without authorship.

To which I responded with:


I certainly would not want to conjure up a transcendent designer. That is why I spoke of matter itself having the tendency to complexify. My comment was not an attempt to suggest we need a designer to account for cosmic order. My point was that order seems no less probable than disorder on the cosmological scale. This makes the term “negentropy” seem inappropriate, since it defines order as if it were the accident and entropy the necessity. If we assume something like the big bang model is correct, then leaning on entropy to explain away all the order in the universe as an accidental by-product requires positing that the universe began in a state of hyper-improbability/zero-entropy.

Instead of positing something so improbable because of what seems to me to be an extra-philosophical commitment to nihilism (where everything inevitably is blindly running down towards heat death), why not posit a tendency to life/organization right alongside the tendency to death/dispersal? More appropriate terms for the former tendency might be “centropy,” or “exergy,” which could be understood to operate alongside entropy as the two poles of some more basic, ineffable power/energy underlying the creation and destruction of everything.

Later in the same post, Bryant links his thoughts concerning entropy to Ray Brassier‘s ontology of extinction. I quote Bryant at length:

In many respects, the role that entropy plays in my thought places me close to the metaphysical, political, and ethical conclusions of Ray Brassier. In Nihil Unbound, Brassier argues that the ultimate truth of existence is extinction. In making this claim, he’s not simply pointing out that we all die, but is claiming that at some point the human species will become extinct and that the universe itself will undergo heat death…Brassier argues that the thought of radical extinction carries with it an enlightenment. What might this enlightenment be? Why might this horrific thought of erasure, extinction, be enlightening and ethically invigorating?…I must know the nature of physical reality to answer the question of how best to live, how best to organize society, what to aim for, what to hope for, etc. Lurking in the background of all materialist thought is the hunch that one of the central sources of human suffering is, on the one hand, the “two world hypothesis”, and, on the other hand, what might be called “messianism” and salvation…If we situate Brassier’s radical nihilism in this context, we can see why it is a sort of enlightenment. The truth of extinction is not the gloomy thought that all is pointless because everything is going to be destroyed anyway. Rather, the thought experiment of radical extinction hopefully accomplishes three aims. Insofar as the truth of every person’s life is death (i.e., there’s no afterlife), we should not direct ourselves to an afterlife, but rather should devote ourselves to this life. How can we live in relation to ourselves, to others, and to the earth in order to best live this brief spark that we possess? How should society be transformed and organized to maximize this existence? Second, the truth of extinction with respect to the existence of the human species has the effect of decentering us. We can imagine a world where we are absent. As a consequence, we are not at the center of existence. We are one being– certainly important to ourselves –among others, and we are a being like the others destined to pass away. This discovery encourages us to both respect other beings, but also to recognize the fragility of ourselves and the world we rely on and therefore attend to the preservation of that world. Finally, the extinction of the universe cures us of messianism. There is no apocalypse, no final revelation of the truth, no final salvation, just this world. As such, we should squarely direct ourselves at this world and the work required to maintain this world, not at a world to come or an afterlife.

It’s somewhat easy to tell “just so” stories about how one metaphysical position or another will effect the general public’s common sense ethical beliefs and practices.  Bryant’s story is isn’t entirely improbable, but His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example, would tell a story about reincarnation and karma that might be even more ethically compelling to those who experience it as true. Rather than the horrific thought of erasure, Tibetan Buddhist accounts of reincarnation suggest what may at first appear to be the even more horrific thought of endless suffering. Though the doctrine of non-self is difficult to square with that of reincarnation, I don’t believe it is entirely wrong from the perspective of this tradition to suggest that all “I” really am in this incarnation is a collection of dependently co-arising causes and conditions. In other words, I am karma. My suffering as as separate self is the result of accumulated karma; further, I should not hope for extinction, since this same karma, “my” suffering (which is also the suffering of every sentient being), will continue to reincarnate forever. Forever, that is, unless the inherent emptiness of all supposedly self-existent things is realized here and now. From this perspective, one is lead to compassion for all presently existing beings (human or non-) precisely because any of these beings could be the reincarnation of one’s own mother.  Similarly, one is lead to compassion for all future beings because that in us which doesn’t die (i.e., karma) will be present in and as them.

After Finitude and Fideism comes Speculative Christianity?

Quetin Meillassoux is an important philosopher, according to Graham Harman,

“not from the fact that he is plausibly right about so many things, but because his philosophy offers such a treasury of bold statements ripe for being radicalized or reversed. He is a rich target for many still-unborn intellectual heirs, and this is what gives him the chance to be an important figure.”

Leon Niemoczynski (After Nature) has recently posted about the theistic implications of Meillassoux’s work. He asks why so many Speculative Realist have ignored the religious aspects of his anti-correlationism. Adam at An und fur such pointed out Meillassoux’s ontology of radical contingency, taken to its extreme in The Divine Inexistence, leads to a reformed Christian incarnationalist scheme, where human value is derived, not from a past act of incarnation, but from our hope for future resurrection.

In an earlier post on this issue, I suggest that Meillassoux “dismisses fideism to re-affirm its object through the apotheosis of reason.” Philosophies of the Absolute cannot avoid inquiry into divinity. Whether explicitly atheistic, like Ray Brassier’s eliminativism or or Levi Bryant’s materialism (Larval Subjects), or explicitly theistic like Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, metaphysical systems cannot simply ignore the presence of divinity in the universe. They either have to explain away spiritual experience by reducing it to religious indoctrination, and explain away the persistance of religion by reducing it to biopolitical, psychological, and/or ideological factors, or they have to discover God in cosmogenesis. If a scheme of thought choses the prior reductive route, it would no longer seem to be in pursuit of a comprehensive picture of reality, but merely of a subsection of it. It would no longer be properly metaphysical, in other words, since it has prejudicially disqualified the miraculous in favor of the mundane. Metaphysics is the (perhaps endless) pursuit of a systematic discourse concerning both the limits (immanent, finite aspects) and the freedom (transcendent, infinite aspect) of the Absolute. Immanence and transcendence are not properly thought of as opposites; rather, transcendence is the superlative of immanence. The infinite is not opposed to the finite, but contains and indeed implies it.

Meillassoux’s conceptual recourse to the contingency of facticity in After Finitude leads him eventually into the ethical issues surrounding the contingency of the Act of creation itself in The Inexistent Divine. If everything is absolutely contingent, then this world-creating Act, too, was gratuitous. Creatio ex nihilo: creation for no reason whatsoever. For this very reason, everything remains possible, even for our seemingly irredeemable world. Our world. Despite the anthrodecentric gesture of his’ After Finitude, Meillassoux seems to affirm in Inexistent that man “is born to be [nature’s] ultimate end,” as Kant supposed. “Such an end, however” Kant goes on to warn, “must not be thought in nature” (CoJ). Such an end seems to imply the divine’s entrance into the world, or at least its earthly birth within the incarnate human soul.

The Creative Potency of Toroidal Time

Levi Bryant (Larval Subjects) recently unpacked his position that object’s are “spacetime worms” (HERE). It got me thinking about the arguments that thinkers like Bergson and Whitehead had with Einstein regarding the philosophical implications of his equations. Bruno Latour spoke about this issue HERE. For Bergson, “time is invention or it is nothing at all,” while for Einstein, time is merely “a stubbornly persistant illusion.” Bergson experienced the universe as a creative evolution, while Einstein bracketed the evidence of his experience in favor of mathematical transformations on the Cartesian coordinate grid. Jayveeaitch posted a comment to Bryant’s piece wherein he linked to a wonderful essay about the precursors of relativistic time in Kant and Schelling (HERE). He unpacks Schelling’s position regarding the dynamic evolution of Nature in terms of Spirit’s self-externalization. The position requires that Schelling temporalize the eternal. After quoting Schelling’s Freedom essay,

[wherein Schelling writes:

Although man is born in time, he is created in the beginning of creation (the center). The act by which his life in time is determined does not itself belong to time, but to eternity, nor does it precede time, but moves through time (untouched by it) as an act by its nature eternal. Through this act man’s life extends to the beginning of creation; thus through it he is beyond creation as well, free and himself eternal beginning (259)],

Jayveeaitch responds with:

In Ages of the World, Schelling expansively elaborates on this inchoate conception of the ground or the center of creation firstly by stating that in the ground the individual creature originally exists in the mode of an archetype, as a kind of spiritual image, a pure determinate potentiality of body, spirit and soul awaiting, or rather, yearning for actualization. But the archetypes cannot actualize in the ground because there is neither space nor time in it to do so. As Schelling describes it, there is no true up or down or left or right or before or after in the ground. Rather, it is a kind of dimensionless, infinitely involuted singularity, a black hole within which three divine potencies (corporeal, spiritual, and psychic) circulate in an unending rotary motion, literally fighting over the locus of being. However, the very dynamism of the annular drive suggests some kind of temporality, and therefore some kind of before and after. As Edward Allen Beach points out, in the incorporation of “genetic principles into the very core of [his] ontology,” Schelling undertakes the temporalization of the eternal and the essential (P 112).

Schelling reads time, then, not as another extended dimension like space, but as the very potency of a spiritual process hidden in the core of every extended being. The 4th dimension isn’t an extended spacetime dragged behind or thrown out ahead of a being; rather, it is the internal principle of its genesis, the archetypal form “yearning for actualization” in a living body. The invisible form can never finally achieve full actualization (that would be death), and so instead it exhibits itself as the entelechy of the creature. This process of archetypal incarnation makes it appear in the physical plane of extension that the creature is always becoming other than itself, its material parts constantly replaced in time; but on the spiritual plane, the creature remains what it is because it dips into the eternality at the root of time. When in the Timaeus, Plato refers to time as “a moving image of eternity,” he is hinting at something very similar. We think of time as the universal background by which we measure the succession of events or the motion of objects; but if time is really eternity, and eternity is in all things, then time is the creative potency–the I AM!–powering the free decisions of every creature in the Universe.

Autopoiesis is a description, in physical terms, of a process that must also be understood spiritually (i.e., in archetypal terms). A living system possesses an identity that cannot be understood in terms of its parts alone. It is not just a machine, but a locus of self-concern [See Varela’s last paper, Life After Kant (2001), where he distances himself from the “machine” metaphor while arguing for the need to bring purposes back into biology]. The apparent wholeness of the organism is more like a “black hole” whose archetypal power maintains the being’s inner identity despite the ongoing chemical and physical transformation of its body. From this “hole,” infinite freedom enters the world to take on definite form. Rather than a spacetime worm, I’d offer the image of a torus to understand what organisms (or objects) really are. [For more on the relationship between toroidal dynamics and embodiment, see Logos of the Lived Body].

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Rumi put it,

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

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

God and the Chaosmos: Thinking with Catherine Keller

Several months ago, a discussion erupted across the SR/OOO blogosphere concerning the implications of various forms of nihilistic and theistic realism. Some of my critiques have since ended up in a Wikipedia article. In one of my responses to Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, I toyed with the idea of Whitehead’s panentheism as a kind of “wilderness theology.” A quick google search reveals that theologians have been playing with this idea for some time. Just recently, I’ve been reading Catherine Keller’s exquisitely written Face of the Deep: Toward a Theology of Becoming (2003). The book is a meditation on the first few verses of Genesis, specifically the meaning of the phrase “tohu vabohu” in the second verse. Keller disputes long established interpretations by some Church fathers who claimed that these verses depict an omnipotent God’s free creation of the universe from absolutely nothing. Creatio ex nihilo. She argues that there is no biblical basis for the ex nihilo doctrine, that Genesis in fact describes a far messier, polytonal, and co-creative event. Creatio Cooperationis.

The first two verses of Genesis are usually translated as:

1In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Keller cites the 11th century French-Jewish grammarian Rashi, whose translation of bereshit preserves its literal meaning as written without an article (not “in the beginning,” but “in beginning,” implying that God’s “beginning” is not an absolute start, but a “beginning again”). He also preserves the plural noun Elohim, usually translated by nervous monotheists into the singular God. Further, Rashi’s hermeneutical care leads him to suggest that the first verse is not a complete sentence, but a dependent clause, making the second verse a parenthetic clause and the third the independent clause (114). The first three verses, then, should read:

¹When Elohim began to create heaven and earth²–at which time the earth was tohu vabohu, darkness was on the face of the deep and the ruach was moving upon the face of the waters–³then God said, “Let there be light…”

Keller dwells rhapsodically (173-182) upon the meaning of Elohim, which is plural for Eloah (not a personal name, since it can be used to describe any deity). The plural noun is accompanied by a singular verb, bara, “create.Some interpreters, like the 11th century Spanish-born poet Abraham Ibn Ezra, have claimed that Elohim refers to God’s angels. Indeed, there is a rich tradition of hermeneutical heretics that draw upon angelology to refute the ex nihilo doctrine. Keller’s Whiteheadian understanding of God as a persuader rather than commander shines through when she writes regarding the implications of the Elohimic plurisingularity:

Crowding and complicating the hermeneutical time-space, the turbulent swarm of godhood has always transgressed any possible boundaries between the One Original Creator and the many derivative creatures…According to this imaginary of bottomless process, the divine decision is made not for us but with and through us. Amidst the chaosmic committee work of creation, what work remains for a creator to do–aside from its decisive delegations (“let the earth bring forth,” etc.)? Can we say with process theology that the creator emits an eros…to which every creature willy-nilly responds? …Some respond more responsibly than others to the cosmic desire. Committees and democracies make a lot of messes…Our responses…generate our own plurisingular inter-subjectivities–out of the multiples of elemental energies, codes, socialities, ecologies that any moment constellate our cosmoi…Elohim arises out of those unruly depths, over which language catches its breath. The creator, in creating, becomes. In singular plurality (178-182).

Keller is a skilled hermeneut, capable of holding her breath long enough to dive into the polysemic depths of scriptural meaning, and of surfacing to tell the story of her journey without superficially collapsing it into a monotone theology or exploding it into relativistic jelly. She carefully unwinds the palimpsestic threads woven into the poetic phrase tohu vabohu to discover evidence of a goddess’ murder. The Hebrew poet who wrote Genesis was clearly influenced by the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which depicts the warrior God Marduk’s slaughter of Tiamat (related to the Semitic Tehom, “abyss”). The traditional interpretation of the phrase, under the monotheistic pretense of demythologization, denies all agency to the Tehom. The ex nihilo doctrine requires that God be alone in the beginning, the sole creator of everything, even that out of which creation is shaped. Keller reads into tohu vabohu and uncovers its prepatriarchal significance enfolded just beneath the surface. Rather than traditional commentators, who point to the monotony (“God said…God said…God said…”) of the creation narrative as evidence of its utter transcendence over any other merely mythic event, Keller focuses on the “flirtatiously alliterative wordplay” (116) of these same verses. The “monotonotheism” (Nietzsche) of the ex nihilo tradition is replaced with the participatory eroticism of Elohim’s creative persuasiveness: let the earth produce (tadse) vegetation (dese) (1:11); let the waters produce (yisresu) sea creatures (seres) (1:20). Tohu vabohu is read with the “shinning wake” of its animistic origins in tact, such that the precreation elements are read not as “formless and void,” but as active participants responsive to God’s angelic call to cosmos. In effect, Elohim had to ask permission before creating.

These exegetic exercises, I hope, help further the cause of a wilderness theology. In my own recent effort to bring forth a creation imaginary in service of wildness (Remembering Creation: Towards a Christian Ecosophy), I argued that some form of theological realism will be necessary in order to counter the nihilistic myth of the market. Theology, though marred by the “light supremacism” of its patriarchal past, must be resuscitated, less the chthonic waters of the unhinged psyche continue bubble up and reap havoc upon the earth. Theology of the traditional sort may be impossible, but theology of some sort remains indispensable. Theology, without denying its scientific aim, must also become poetic. It is crucial for anthropoiesis, for humanity’s ongoing political struggle to compose a cosmos, a collective dissipative structure, between the infinity above and the entropy below. Following Keller (and other feminist theologians like Luce Irigaray), we need not merely dress theology in drag, but rather simply queer its (te)homophobic roots, such that they bring forth blossoms of an earthier hue.

And the sea can shed shimmering scales indefinitely. Her depths peel off into innumerable thin, shinning layers…And with no end in sight. -Irigaray