Shaviro on Harman and Whitehead: Process- vs. Object-Oriented Philosophies

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Harman credits Whitehead for being one of the few daring philosophers “to venture beyond the human sphere” (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 190). Both thinkers share a commitment to anthrodecentrism. They de-center the human by insisting upon a flat ontology, a theory of Being wherein every being exemplifies the same set of metaphysical categories, whether that being be God, or human, or “the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Process and Reality, 18). There are no special exceptions in ontology, no “highest being” exempt from reality’s rules (or from reality’s unruliness). Whitehead was already explicit about the need to avoid paying metaphysical compliments to an ontologically exceptional being. Similarly, he sought to untwist the Kantian reversal that made the special cognitive and perceptual modes of access typical of conscious human beings into the transcendental condition underlying relations of all types. On Whitehead’s reading, Kant privileged perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” and ignored or at least sidelined the deeper and more ontologically relevant perceptual mode of “causal efficacy.” “Presentational immediacy” displays reality in a way amenable to representational analysis, showing only the more or less clear and distinct surfaces of the world as they are presented to a reflective subject here and now. It is the end product of a complex process of unconscious prehensive unification in our organism and nervous system. “Causal efficacy” unfolds behind the scenes of this Cartesian theater in the unrepresentable depths of reality, carrying vague emotional vectors from the past into the present. Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is punctual (hence its relative clarity and distinctness); perception in the mode of causal efficacy is transitional (hence its vagueness). Presentational immediacy allows for intentional consciousness, the subjective capacity for attentional directedness toward the eidos of objects; causal efficacy, in contrast, is prehensional, the presubjective capacity to inherit the affective influences of objects. The former mode requires that a mind remain at a distance from things, relating to their essence rather than sensing their causal presence, while the latter implies the internalization of things, the intimate assimilation of their past being into our present becoming. Whitehead’s alchemical distillation of consciousness reveals an experiential structure even deeper than intentionality, a ontologically basic level of experience shared in by all relational beings. If anything is transcendental, it is not human intentionality (as Kant argued), but cosmic prehensionality. As Harman puts it, Whitehead made it possible for us to “speak in the same way of the relation between humans and what they see and that between hailstones and tar” (Prince of Networks, 124).

As Shaviro makes clear, Whitehead’s concept of “prehension” is meant to include both causal and perceptual relations (The Universe of Things, 29). He invented the concept in an attempt to subvert the bifurcation of nature between mental images and material impacts, between nature as it appears before us (“the dream”) and nature as it is thought to be the cause of appearance (“the conjecture”). Prehension allows us to envision, again in Harman’s words, “a world in which the things really do perceive each other” and are not just perceived by us (GM, 52).

The prehensional basis of all object-relations implies that “detached, self-contained local existence” (i.e., simple location) is impossible, since in each act of prehension “the environment enters into the nature of” the prehending thing. This is not to say that things have prehension as a capacity; rather, in Whitehead’s scheme, a thing or actual entity is a momentary unification of multiple prehensions. Actual entities do not have prehensions (as when substantial minds are said to have accidental perceptions); rather, they are prehensions. It is regarding the issue of the interrelation of all things that Whitehead and Harman begin to part ways. While Whitehead defends an image of the universe as a creatively evolving nexus of interpenetrating events, Harman paints the picture of “a universe packed full of elusive substances stuffed into mutually exclusive vacuums” (GM, 76). Shaviro neatly sums up the disagreement: “Whitehead opposes correlationism [and anthropocentrism] by proposing  a much broader–indeed universally promiscuous–sense of relations among entities,” while “Harman opposes correlationism by deprivileging relations in general” (tUoT, 30).

Harman rejects Whitehead’s relationalism for two reasons: 1) he worries it reduces ontology to “a house of mirrors” wherein, because a thing just is a unification of its prehensions of other things, there is never finally any there there beneath its internal reflections of others; and 2) he claims that an ontology based exclusively on internal relations, wherein entities are said to hold nothing in reserve beyond their present prehensional relation to the universe, cannot account for change or novelty. In such a universe, there would be “no external point of purchase from which structure could be transformed,” as Levi Bryant puts it (The Democracy of Objects, 209). As Shaviro is quick to point out, however, Whitehead was well aware of this potential objection (see page 35 of PR, for example), which is exactly why he amended his ontology sometime between his final editing of Science and the Modern World (1925) and Process and Reality (1929) so that becoming was understood to be atomic rather than continuous. A fair reading of Whitehead’s mature metaphysical scheme should acknowledge (despite a few inconsistent statements here and there) that his goal was to strike some balance between internal and external relations, precisely for the reasons put forward by Harman and Bryant.

In response to Harman’s first worry regarding an infinite regress of prehensions, I’d call his bluff and say that a truly aesthetic ontology (which he also claims to be seeking) would leave us with just such an infinite regress of appearances. A thing’s “style” or “allure” doesn’t need to be understood as emanating from some substantial core or fixed essence; we can also understand a thing’s “style” as Whitehead does in terms of the “enduring characteristic” realized by a historical route of actual occasions. There is nothing hidden from view by such outward qualities other than the occasion in question’s moment-to-moment subjective enjoyment of these characteristics. Which brings us to Harman’s second (I believe unfounded) worry about relational reductionism. Whitehead’s dipolar account of the process of experiential realization includes both a public moment of display and a private moment of withdrawal. Every drop of experience begins by taking up the “objectively immortal” data of its past. It then unifies this data into its own singular and private perspective on the world. It is this moment of privacy that most closely resembles Harman’s doctrine of withdrawal. The occasion in question is in this moment entirely independent of its relations. But as soon as this private, never before experienced perspective on reality is realized, it perishes into objective immortality, becoming publicly available for the next occasion of experience to inherit as it moves toward its own novel concrescent realization. “The many become one, and are increased by one.” Whitehead is able to make sense of change and novelty while at the same time preserving a non-reductive account of internal relations. It seems to me that Harman’s insistence on the irrelevance of evolutionary time for ontology is part of the reason he is unable to make sense of Whitehead’s attempted compromise (“The ontological structure of the world does not evolve…which is precisely what makes it an ontological structure” [GM, 24]). In effect, Whitehead’s entire process ontology can be understood as an imaginative generalization of evolutionary theory.

This difference regarding the metaphysical status of evolutionary time represents a deep divide between Whitehead’s and Harman’s otherwise similar ontologies. Shaviro, following Stengers (who was following Deleuze), reminds us that “the concepts a philosopher produces depend on the problems to which he or she is responding” (tUoT, 33). It seems as though the deep divide between Harman’s ontology of vacuum sealed objects and Whitehead’s ontology of interrelated organisms comes down to a question of taste. There is no going behind aesthetic taste to find some more rational justification to prefer one account over the other. As Fichte put it in his Wissenshaftslehre (although in the context of morality and not aesthetics), the kind of philosophy one adopts ultimately depends on the kind of person one is. Harman’s personal problem is to account for how relation is possible in a universe of vacuous actualities, while Whitehead’s was to account for how individuality is possible in a universe of interpenetrating actualities.

In the spirit of attaining to some wider point of view inclusive of both perspectives, Shaviro sums up the situation thusly:

“Harman’s difference from Whitehead, and his creative contribution to speculative philosophy, consists in the ‘translation’ of the deep problems of essence and change from one realm (that of relations) to another (that of substances). These two realms, oddly enough, seem interchangeable–at least in an overall anticorrelationist framework. Given that ‘there is no such thing as transport without transformation,’ the only remaining question is what sort of difference Harman’s transformation of ontology makes” (tUoT, 41).

Given the state of our present world, wherein “we are continually beset by relations, smothered and suffocated by them…where all manners of cultural expression are digitally transcoded and electronically disseminated, where genetic material is freely recombined, and where matter is becoming open to direct manipulation on the atomic and subatomic scales,” Whitehead’s problematic appears more and more relevant to our actual condition (tUoT, 33, 42).

Panpsychism and Speculative Realism: Reviewing Shaviro’s “The Universe of Things”


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“The progress of philosophy does not primarily involve reactions of agreement or dissent. It essentially consists in the enlargement of thought, whereby contradictions and agreements are transformed into partial aspects of wider points of view.” -Alfred North Whitehead, September 10, 1941

It is in this spirit that I believe Shaviro wrote The Universe of Things. Although his name is not in the title, Whitehead is the protagonist of Shaviro’s short book, subtitled On Speculative Realism. Shaviro successfully develops Whitehead’s scheme as an alternative to the other strands of speculative realism. He starkly contrasts Whitehead’s scheme with the eliminativism of Brassier and the mathematism of Meillassoux, but devotes by far the most attention to the differences between Whitehead’s Organism-Oriented Ontology and Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology. I learned a lot from these comparisons. One thing I’d really liked to have seen is a more sustained treatment of Iain Hamilton Grant’s Schellingian powers ontology. Whitehead and Schelling make for an intensely interesting comparison. Of the 4 original speculative realists, Grant’s vitalist variety of SR always struck me as the most intuitively compelling. Harman’s object ontology hit me as more of an intellectual shock that I’m not entirely sure I’ve recovered from yet.

Despite the lack of engagement with Grant/Schelling, what Shaviro convincingly illustrates is the way Whitehead’s philosophy of organism anticipates the most important of speculative realism’s main concerns, in particular SR’s desire to overcome “the anthropocentrism that has for so long been a key assumption of modern Western rationality” (1). Call it “correlationism” or “the philosophy of access”: the assumption of almost all philosophy since at least Kant is that the only reality of any consequence is human reality, reality as it appears or submits to human theories and practices.

“The taste for cosmological vastness,” writes Harman in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “reaches us from Buddhist scripture and the roar of the sea and the probes launched toward Saturn, but the philosophy of human access persuades us to forget these astonishing spaces, or to leave them to other university departments” (255).

In order to overcome the pervasive anthropocentrism of so much modern philosophy, Shaviro argues we would be better served by erring on the side of anthropomorphism. I agree, but with important qualifications. Even if human experience is a special instance of a more general feature of nature, we still need to perform a kind of alchemical distillation of human consciousness in order to determine exactly what is special and what is generic about our experience. What is unique to our way of aesthetically translating the universe, and what is universal? In Whitehead’s estimation, when we perform such a distillation, it quickly becomes clear that not all experience is conscious. There are all sorts of non-conscious experiences causally contributing to our conscious personalities. There are also all sorts of non-conscious experiences occurring beyond and below the reach of human access. As Harman reminds us, “the life of gravel and sandpaper is every bit as troubled by inner ambiguities as human existence ever was” (GM, 257). Both Whitehead and Harman agree on the need to decenter the human. Further, they both agree philosophy must overcome what cultural historian Richard Tarnas describes as “the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind,” namely, “the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self’s own will to power” (Cosmos and Psyche, 41). 

Harman actually denies that he is a panpsychist, since he doesn’t want to install the special features of human cognition into the heart of being. If this is what panpsychism entails, then Whitehead is not a panpsychist, either. David Ray Griffin coined the term “panexperientialism” to better describe Whitehead’s ontology. Harman prefers to refer to OOO as a “panallurist” ontology, building on his aestheticization of causality. “Even if the world were filled with nothing but dust,” writes Harman, “allure would already be present, and the whole of ontology would already be operative” (GM, 244). Just as Whitehead reminds us that, while all consciousness is experiential, not all experience is conscious, Harman states that “all consciousness is allure, but not all allure is conscious” (GM, 245). Whether we call their approaches panpsychist, panexperientialist, or panallurist, it’s obvious that both Whitehead and Harman reject the modern dichotomy between the “conscious images” of minds and the “causal impacts” of matter. According to Harman, images live in the gaps between everything, even particles of supposedly inanimate dust. He enigmatically suggests that we are most closely bound up with the rhythms of being when we are overcome by laughter or worship (243). While I’m not entirely sure what he means, I’m hoping this statement primes my readers to more open-mindedly consider the panexperientialist notion that perhaps the human body can be understood as a sort of monotheistic religion, the god-serving ritual of molecules and cells.

All the components of our body dance in harmony according to the ancient rhythms inherited from their evolutionary forebears, working together to construct and reconstruct the hierarchical structure of our organism. As individual components they have no idea they are participating in creating and maintaining the body of a hidden and unspeakable god. If the cells and molecules of our bodies are so clearly alive, what are we to make of the wider so-called “inanimate” or “inorganic” world?

“The living organ of experience is the living body as a whole. Every instability of any part of it–be it chemical, physical, or molar–imposes an activity of readjustment throughout the whole organism. In the course of such physical activities, human experience has its origin. The plausible interpretation of such experience is that it is one of the natural activities involved in the functioning of such a high-grade organism. The actualities of nature…must be explanatory of this fact…Such experience seems to be more particularly related to the activities of the brain. But…we cannot determine with what molecules the brain begins and the rest of the body ends. Further, we cannot tell with what molecules the body ends and the external world begins. The truth is that the brain is continuous with the body, and the body is continuous with the rest of the natural world. Human experience is an act of self-origination including the whole of nature, limited to the perspective of a focal region, located within the body, but not necessarily persisting in any fixed coordination with a definite part of the brain” (Adventures of Ideas, 289-290).

Panpsychism (or whatever we want to call it), though it has a long pedigree as “a recurring underground motif” in Western philosophy (from the presocratics, to Spinoza and Leibniz, to William James and Whitehead), is only just recently beginning to be taken seriously again. Still, the notion of inherently experiential material strikes many as absurd. Colin McGinn, for example, refers to the idea as “a complete myth, a comforting piece of utter balderdash.” He goes on to ask “isn’t there something vaguely hippyish, i.e., stoned, about the doctrine?” (Consciousness and Its Place in Nature, 93). On Shaviro’s reading, it is not panpsychism that provides us with comfort in the face of an otherwise meaningless and inhuman universe; on the contrary, the comforting modern myth is the anthropocentric idea that all intelligence and purposefulness is safely locked up within the human skull. It gives us a false sense of control over our environments, as though the nonhuman world were just a bunch of dead objects whose blind motion strictly obeys the clear and distinct laws discovered by science. The panpsychist re-enchantment of nature is actually a rather terrifying prospect from the perspective of our hyper-alienated, still all too Cartesian late modern consciousness.

I’ll continue with my review of Shaviro’s book in subsequent posts. Still to be discussed is Shaviro’s rebuttal of Harman’s claim that Whitehead is a relational reductionist. I’ve been arguing against Harman’s reading for years (see here). For many Whiteheadians, the whole issue was settled back in 2010 at the “Metaphysics and Things” conference in Claremont, CA (click here for Shaviro’s brief review and links to other accounts of he and Harman’s exchange at the conference). I’m not sure if Harman remembers, but a few of us from CIIS ran into him at a cafe across the street from the lecture hall just prior to Isabelle Stengers’ keynote. I’d already heard of his OOO by that point, but didn’t catch his name at the time and so only realized it was him after the fact. In any event, despite being gently but consistently scolded by Shaviro, Roland Faber, and other Whiteheadians for his misreading, Harman continues to caricature Whitehead’s process atomism in what I can only believe is an exaggerated attempt to differentiate and so win attention for his own philosophical scheme. There’s nothing abnormal about this tactic in the history of philosophy (I often say, only half facetiously, that the history of philosophy is a long series of caricatures). And the good spiritedness of this particular debate makes it a really great opportunity to flesh out the implications of Whitehead’s ontology. It provides a great example of how disagreement can be conceptually fruitful without degenerating into polemic. As I hope to show in a subsequent post, Harman’s key concept of “withdrawal” provides important insights about causal relation. But I also think Whitehead’s account of an occasion’s momentary privacy gives us what Harman wants without having to affirm the incoherent notion of “vacuous actualities.” Stay tuned…

Speculative Realism, Dead or Alive.

Steven Shaviro’s new book The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism arrived on my doorstep a few days ago courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press. I’m going to provide a bit of context in this post before diving into a review of the text in subsequent posts.

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The press release U of M included in the package describes the book as “an up-to-the-moment critique of a recent turn in philosophical thought.” “Up-to-the-moment” it is not, since Shaviro has been testing much of the book’s content on his blog and at conferences since at least 2010. There will always be an important place for books in academic philosophy, but the principle procedural lesson of Speculative Realism (leaving aside its conceptual contributions for now) is that blogs must be an essential ingredient in any future academic philosophy hopes to carve out for itself. I strike out “academic” here because it is as yet unclear to me whether philosophy has much of a future in academia. If it is to survive the rise of the neoliberal university, philosophy may have to migrate into media ecologies more suited to free ranging public discourse and genuine learning (learning as an end in itself rather than preparation for the industrial workforce). Sometimes I think the blogosphere is able to provide this. Other times, not so much. Back in 2011, Ray Brassier (ironically the originator of the movement’s name and organizer of its first conference back in 2007) dismissed Speculative Realism as nothing more than “an online orgy of stupidity” cooked up to exploit impressionable graduate students. Since then, several dozen books have been published on the subject, including six titles in the past few weeks alone by Peter Gratton, Tom Sparrow, Peter Wolfendale, Dylan Trigg, Markus Gabriel, and Roland Faber and Andrew Goffey (eds.). If we include the last 6 or 7 months, there have also been publications by Levi Bryant and Tristan Garcia. Obviously, there is more to SR than the late night blog musings of a few overzealous graduate students. In Brassier’s defense, however, it is equally obvious that much of the recent activity in the SR blogosphere has been a total waste of bandwidth. It’s a lot of posturing and very little if any philosophizing.

Much of the controversy of late has centered around Wolfendale’s Object-Oriented Ontology: The Noumenon’s New Clothes, which violently attacks the philosophy of Graham Harman. I haven’t and won’t read the 400-page tome, but word on the street is Wolfendale ends up diagnosing OOO as a symptom of some sort of philosophical pathology (it seems the disease infects both admirers and despisers of OOO—why else would Wolfendale write 400-pages on it?).  Brassier makes a cameo appearance in the book’s afterward only to once again announce the nonexistence of the SR movement. Harman has responded to the recent dust-up, somehow managing to keep his cool despite Wolfendale’s accusation that he employs some sort of (in Harman’s words) “devious brainwashing mind-control charisma” to popularize his philosophy.

“I’m not aware of having any such power,” continues Harman, “nor am I aware of having ruthlessly crushed a thousand-flowers-blooming SR blogosphere, as Wolfendale bizarrely contends.”

In preparation for my review of Shaviro’s book, which engages with Harman more intimately than any other SR thinker, I recently re-read the last chapter of his early book Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005). His style really is infectious. And because of the aesthetic roots of his ontology, it is not at all incidental to his arguments. “A style,” according to Harman, “is never visibly present, but enters the world like a concealed emperor and dominates certain regions of our perception” (55). There is nothing naked about his prose. Reading him is perhaps best described as a psychedelic experience.

Like Shaviro, I have certain conceptual qualms with Harman’s substance ontology, as well as with what I believe to be his misreading of Whitehead’s process ontology. But I am fundamentally in agreement with the spirit in which he engages philosophy. His call for less critique and more invention couldn’t come at a more crucial juncture in the history of ideas and the evolution of (post)human consciousness. Echoing other speculative thinkers like Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, he calls for turn toward a more constructive and less anthropocentric mode of thinking: “We seek a form of invention no different in kind from the blossoming of cherry trees or the compression of carbon into diamond” (241). He warns us that “progress [in metaphysics] is constantly threatened with relapse into critique, that most deeply rooted intellectual habit of our time”(237-8), and contrasts critique with curiosity and the capacity for surprise, even going so far as to equate the latter with wisdom itself: “Wisdom means the ability to be surprised because only this ability shows sufficient integrity to listen to the voice of the world instead of our own prejudice about the world, a goal that eludes even the wisest of humans a good deal of the time” (239).

It is in this same spirit that Whitehead endeavored to philosophize, and in “rediscovering” him (as U of M’s press release puts it), Shaviro carries this spirit forward in a constructive way. Harman thanks Shaviro on the back cover for avoiding prose full of “rancor and backstabbing ambition” and praises him as “the most dignified and helpful of Speculative Realism’s critics.” I’ve also often found his work helpful. Particularly helpful was his earlier book Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze and Aesthetics (2009), which was basically my introduction to Deleuze. Also key for my understanding of the stakes of speculative thinking has been his insistence upon the philosophical fork in the road between panpsychism and eliminativism (an issue he takes up again in The Universe of Things). 

I’ll begin my review of Shaviro’s new book in subsequent posts over the next several days…

Ontologies of Work (capitalism) and Play (panpsychism)

Now that the Pluralism Wars have died down, each camp having dug itself in for the winter, maybe its time to change the subject. Let’s talk about David Graeber’s recent article in The Baffler “What’s the Point if We Can’t Have Fun?” He makes the radical (or not so radical?) move of taking play seriously, not only in economics, but in biology and cosmology. What happens when we take play seriously? It becomes apparent that the economy is not composed of rational actors/intelligent designers competing with one another in a brutal state of nature for raw materials. That the biosphere is not just “red tooth and claw” but endosymbiotic: all living things share their bodies with others. We live in and on one other. We eat each other. “Life is robbery,” as Whitehead put it. But why all the carnage if our sensitive existence as living organisms wasn’t somehow worth the pain? Natural selection plays a role in evolution (=death as the judge of which mutations are beneficial and which are not), but so does sexual selection (=eros as the judge of which mutations are beautiful and which are not). We coexist together today because of the ways we have enjoyed coexisting yesterday. Evolution is not a miserly profit calculator; nature is exuberant and wasteful in its transactions (as Bataille taught us). Graeber is asking us to assume for a moment that Blake was right and Newton was wrong: the energy of the universe is not blind matter but “Eternal Delight.”

Steven Shaviro (author of Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics) had nothing but approval for Graeber’s playful proposal of a “principal of ludic freedom.” Shaviro is himself a panpsychist of sorts, though he credits Graeber with helping him zero in on the problem he has with information theories of panpsychism (e.g., Tononi and Chalmers):

I think that “cognition” and “information” have become way overrated in recent discourse, and that sentience needs to be seen first of all as affective (or as involving “feeling” in Whitehead’s sense) before it is seen as cognitive or informational. Affect or feeling both precedes and exceeds cognition or information, in the same way that play, in Graeber’s formulation, precedes and exceeds utility maximalization. What clicks for me especially in Graeber’s formulation is the way that “the free exercise of an entity’s most complex powers or capacities” necessarily involves energetics as well as informatics. Sentience as a power or capacity must thus also be understood in energetic terms rather than only informatic ones (and this is for me precisely where the panpsychist leanings of Chalmers and Tononi need to be supplemented).

Speaking of panpsychist energetics, I posed a related question a few weeks ago about “thermopolitics.” It seems to me that some form of panpsychist ontology is not only true, but that the process theology it entails (here is a Bible-friendly variant) is also perhaps the the most practical and psychologically effective way to motivate modern civilization to ecologize before it’s too late.

Compare the panpsychist theory/practice of a ludic universe with the machine-world of Neil Savage’s blog article “Artificial Emotions”. Savage suggests that human-like robots capable of feeling and emoting are right around the corner. In order to make such a bold technological claim, Savage first has to scientistically reduce the human psyche to a computer program:

Special and indecipherable, except by us—our whims and fancies are what makes us human. But we may be wrong in our thinking. Far from being some inexplicable, ethereal quality of humanity, emotions may be nothing more than an autonomic response to changes in our environment, software programmed into our biological hardware by evolution as a survival response.

What, pray, is an “environmental change” if not a feeling in some living organism’s experiential field? What is an “environment” in the first place, if not other responsible (i.e., experiential) organisms? Savage’s “software/hardware” trope just re-inscribes the same old Cartesian dualism between mind or cognition and dead extended matter. It seems to me that this sort of eliminativist theory of human consciousness, aside from being ontologically false, functions politically as an apology for capitalist social relations. It asks us to believe that life is brutal and that we are all just cogs in the machine toiling to get a little extra before we rot, that life on earth has always been about competition in the marketplace where the only quasi-justice available comes in the form of a mythical invisible hand/natural selector deciding who wins and who loses.

Margulis and the Psychedelic Eucharist

Here is Prof. Corey Anton lecturing on the recently deceased Lynn Margulis’ bio-philosophy.

Towards the end of her book (co-authored with Dorian Sagan) What Is Life?, Margulis offers an  analysis of the role of psilocybin in the evolution of mammalian consciousness.

She brings up the usage of psychedelic fungi in ancient mystery cults just after sharing Socrates’ warnings about the drug-like effects of writing. I’ve written about the relationship between psychedelic (al)chemistry and Plato’s/Socrates’ views on language as a pharmakon recently. I draw on Richard Doyle’s thesis in Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere that psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” in the history of human evolution, carrying natural selection and sexual attraction beyond themselves into religion, and from religion on into scientific discovery and artistic creation. Altered states of consciousness have always been at the generative core of human civilization. Art, religion, and science are novel modes of production never before seen in the history of earth. Humans are doing something new now. Which doesn’t mean we aren’t still things. We are things with powers unheard of in the world until now. We are the thing that thinks things (science) and things thinking (art), and that can, under special circumstances, think itself thinging. Almost always, we remain unable to think ourselves thinging, unable to catch the “I” in the act of  “am-ing.” We simply act without knowing how or why, making up our reason for acting afterwards depending on the moods and emotions that happens to be coursing through us when the need (social/legal or moral/psychological) for a justification of some past action arises. Much institutional religion (in its modern forms, Christian televangelism and the civil religion of 24-hour cable news) seems to function sociologically by providing us with hope and solace despite the existential shame and guilt we feel as a result of knowing we don’t know how or why we act the way we do. We are each of us liars since the first words that came out of our mouths. “I am”? But who am I? The special circumstances that allow the “I am” to experientially concresce (that is, allow the substantial self to emerge and dissolve fluidly–to flow through and across its own and others boundaries freely) are cultivated by carrying ourselves into philosophical modes of mind. Philosophy is a way of life and a way of writing. Increasingly, due to the invisible divine hand of the market, it has been reduced to a way of writing without life, publishing for pay. And often we don’t even get to own our own writing! Philosophers are lucky enough even to finds jobs at all in these waning days of capital.

Yes, we are still things. But we are not just heads of cattle, not just anything. Nothing is just anything. A cow, a blade of grass, a clump of soil, a star in heaven–each is radically different and yet still rhyzomatically the same. Nobody knows what a thing is, how it works, or why it works that way. “No-one knows what a body can do” (Deleuze‘s Spinozist formula).

Margulis quites Maurice Blanchot on page 189 of What is Life?:

Yes, happily language is a thing. It is a written thing, a bit of bark, a sliver of rock, a fragment of clay in which the reality of the earth continues to exist.

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!

Integrating Panpsychism and Eliminativism in Processual Panentheism

I’ve just watched a good chunk of Shaviro’s lecture at OOOIII. I agree with his premise concerning the fork in the philosophical road between eliminativism and panexperientialism created by speculative realism’s anti-correlationism [See Adam over at Knowledge-Ecology’s recent post for a refreshingly novel perspective concerning the supposed courageous soberness of eliminativism]. There is no middle ground here; Meillassoux‘s dilemma concerning the meaning of ancestrality and extinction for human thought can only be resolved through the negation/elimination of thought/meaning or the hypostatization/eternalization of thought/meaning. Shaviro does, however, end his talk by leaving the door open to some kind of integration between eliminativism and panpsychism. He doesn’t make this connection, but to my mind, such an integration would look a lot like a processual panentheistic scheme, wherein the ouroboric universe is perpetually birthing/dying, both wholly and incompletely divine at once (whereas panpsychism proper suggests pantheism–a determined, already completed universe/divinity, and eliminativism suggests atheism–the death not simply of God, but also of Man and Cosmos). I aspired to something like this integration here (see especially the sections on the logics of incarnation and of extinction): Thinking the Correlation with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Owen Barfield

Here is one of my earlier takes on eliminativism: The Myth of Eliminativism 

The Divine Function in Whitehead: Not Your Grandpa’s Occasionalism

In my last post in response Bob Woodard/Naught Thought‘s thoughts concerning the ontological fuzziness of process philosophy, I referred to Whitehead as an “occasionalist” without explaining exactly what I meant. After reading Steven Shaviro/The Pinicchio Theory‘s insightful commentary on the function of God in Whitehead’s cosmology, as well as Levi Bryant/Larval Subject‘s dismissive opinion that Whitehead is “a priori to be excluded” from consideration by academic philosophy (unless his concept of God can be shown to be superfluous to an otherwise coherent system), I felt I should say a bit more about how I’ve tried to integrate Whitehead’s open-ended panentheistic scheme into a livable image of the world.

Stengers’ suggests in Thinking With Whitehead that God is the keystone of his entire system. She also points out that he remained unsatisfied throughout his life with the adequacy of his own thinking concerning the nature of a divine function. When I attempt to “think with Whitehead,” I do not assume his system is fully consistent because I do not assume it is finally complete. His understanding of divinity was always a work in progress. It is open-ended, meant to be picked up and re-worked by students who already find theology somehow important, by those who already agree that contemplating divinity matters. A philosopher’s God-concept cannot be understood in isolation from his soul’s prehension of God. It is fine and well to argue against the incoherency of a particular God-concept, but no one can deny the historical efficacy, psychological and societal, of the spiritual experiences responsible for generating such concepts (and the movements and institutions associated with them). Atheists will deny that the appearance of something in the soul, called by it “God,” implies that this soul-content has any correlate in the real world. But they must acknowledge that, for the vast majority of so-called religious believers throughout the course of human history, God was not a conceptual hypothesis meant to explain the appearance of the world, but rather a living presence felt within themselves (psychologically) and between themselves and others (socially).

When Whitehead sets out to cosmologize, his first task is to correct for the bias produced by his own initial excess of subjectivity. He seeks to situate himself in a more general historical process, one which includes the whole history of human civilization, as well as the evolution of life and the formation of earth and larger universe. Objectivity, for Whitehead, doesn’t simply mean considering the world as it might exist in isolation from human consciousness; it means considering the conditions making possible a world where consciousness can come to be. These conditions are cosmogenic (not simply cognitive, as in Kant). Whitehead’s ontology is as concerned with objects as it is with subjects, and though his is a generative scheme, it gives temporal priority to neither. They are each to be understood as intellectually distinguishable poles in the unifying process of experiential realization. Objectivity doesn’t mean removing the position of the subject from the picture, but including it. If we are able to do so, what matters is not whether a subject comes to correctly represent the objective world, but whether subjectivity is able to respond to the objectifications of itself and the world constituting the creative passage of reality from one moment to the next. Truth is enacted, rather than known a priori or represented after the fact. The universe is a dramatic performance, a myth told by Reason to Necessity to persuade her to play by the rules.

To the extent that a concept functions to increase the intensity of subjectivity’s process of self- and world-objectification (=concrescence), that concept is of value to the universe’s ongoing adventure of ideas. Whitehead’s telos, which is neither wholly immanent or wholly transcendent, is Beauty. Its causal engine in the world is Eros, that which allows for the mutual penetration of every actual occasion (including God). Eros is also a sensible sign of world-transcendence, a moving image of an eternal God. Beauty is loved by actuality not only for what it is, but for what it means, even if this meaning remains sublime and so forever withdraws from comprehension.

In his response to Shaviro’s anti-occationalist defense of Whitehead, Graham Harman writes:

“The point is, prehension is always mediated by the eternal objects, and the eternal objects are in God. It’s hard to be more of an occasionalist than to say that God is the mediator of all relations and that entities exist only as occasions. It’s textbook occasionalism, in fact.”

I think Harman is leaving out some important elements of Whitehead’s admittedly obscure thinking on these matters. It would seem more appropriate to me for Harman to criticize this obscurity than to mischaracterize the struggle for coherence evident in a more charitable reading of Whitehead’s work. Whitehead always characterizes eternal objects as deficient in actuality, which is why they exist both virtually in God and actually as ingredients in the experiences of finite occasions. Outside the dipolar relation between God and the world, there are no definite ideas, no eternal objects. So yes, eternal objects do mediate prehension, but God’s prehension of finite actual occasions is as necessary for God’s as it is for each occasion’s concrescence. So unlike in traditional occasionalism, God is not just the cause of the world, God is also caused by the world. As Shaviro has argued, finite actual occasions are indeed in direct erotic contact with one another. I would only add that this mutual contact also always includes God.

This raises the question of why some philosophers, like Bryant, are lead to dismiss the concept of God as irrelevant to speculative metaphysics. So far as it goes, I’m willing to say I actually agree with him: God is not necessarily of interest if we are dealing with the pure possibilities and perfect generalities of absolute reality abstracted from concrete experience. Even Whitehead designates Creativity as the ultimate, making God its first non-temporal accident. God becomes important only when I begin to cosmologize–when I seek out participatory knowledge (i.e., wisdom) of the order and harmony of the actual world.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think faith has a crucial role to play in post-Cartesian philosophical speculation. I do not know for certain that the the Cosmos (as an ordered harmony) is real, since my Soul must first will this truth before it can become a live option for thought. The only reason metaphysical reflection has become necessary is that the Soul has lost efficacious contact with and so requires intellectual justification for its Cosmic existence. Before Homer put pen to parchment and parodied the gods, the Soul experienced no separation between the world’s logos (=meaning) and its existence (=factuality), and so it had no need of “religious beliefs.” Divinity lived and breathed amidst the creatures of earth and of heaven.

Horkheimer and Adorno from Dialectic of Enlightenment:

“In Homer, Zeus controls the daytime sky, Apollo guides the sun; Helios and Eos are already passing over into allegory. The gods detach themselves from substances to become their quintessence. From now on, being is split between logos–which, with the advance of philosophy, contracts to a monad, a mere reference point–and the mass of things and creatures in the external world. The single distinction between man’s own existence and reality swallows up all others. Without regard for differences, the world is made subject to man…The awakening subject is bought with the recognition of power as the principle of all relationships. In face of the unity of such reason the distinction between God and man is reduced to an irrelevance, as reason has steadfastly indicated since the earliest critique of Homer. In their mastery of nature, the creative God and the ordering mind are alike. Man’s likeness to God consists in sovereignty over existence, in the lordly gaze, in the command. Myth becomes enlightenment and nature mere objectivity. Human beings purchase the increase in their power with estrangement from that over which it is exerted” (p. 5).

Whitehead’s panentheistic theology is meant to correct for the traditional religious view of God as sovereign and all-powerful. His ensouled cosmology is meant to correct the modern philosophical view that Man is separable from Nature. Power, for Whitehead, becomes persuasive because aesthetic, rather than coercive because mechanical. God does not reach in from beyond to design the world at will; nor does human consciousness.

Without a faith in the world’s ability to continue hanging together as a whole, the Soul has no reason but to affirm amoral chaos as the root of all things.

Whitehead: Aesthetics as First Philosophy

I’ve jumped from Meillassoux‘s After Finitude to reading Steven Shaviro‘s book on Whitehead, Kant, and Deleuze Without Criteria (2009). A few thoughts have occured to me…

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism possesses an immunity to post-Kantian skepticism, since it arises out of a radically embodied characterization of sensory experience. Empiricism, for Whitehead, does not mean paying attention only to raw sense data devoid of necessary connections, as in Hume. Like Kant, Whitehead has a more textured conception of fact, or what is given to us experientially prior to cognitive operations of any sort. Time and space, as Shaviro points out, are not categories of the understanding added to experience after the fact, but the inner and outer modes of intuition given as our immediately felt connection with the body and the world. Of course, our intuitions of space and time are not entirely immediate, since we feel these with the body and so experience them through the mediation of our perceptual organs. But these organs are experienced by us immediately, and the flow of sensation through the nerves of our own body is clear evidence of causation. The raw sensa, or bare universals, that Hume mistakenly assumed were the atoms of perceptual experience are actually a later cognitive abstraction. There is no evidence of causal efficacy at this level of conscious experience (what Whitehead calls “presentational immediacy”), since it is here that our human freedom becomes most pronounced. One of the unique features of human consciousness seems to be its capacity to step back from the emotionally saturated causal vectors inherited by bodily organs in order to disinterestedly observe them. Whitehead thinks this capacity for the conceptual prehension of eternal objects (or universals) is present in all organisms to some degree, but it reaches extremes in especially reflective moments of human consciousness.

Meillassoux’s chapter on Hume’s problem might have benefited from Whitehead’s analysis. Meilloussoux asks why the apparent connection between events given to us perceptually should be allowed to trump our cognitive grasp of the absolute contingency of such events. But what if philosophy were to acknowledge that cognition is a species of feeling? Causality, which for Kant was a category added to experience by the understanding, would no longer be necessary, but nor would it be purely contingent. The connective glue between bodies would be habitual, but not in the sense that Hume meant (as though it were only a limitation of the human mind that restricted us from true knowledge of real events). Whitehead’s construal of causal efficacy transforms effects into affects, thereby connecting actual occasions in a sensual matrix in which ordered behavior becomes canalized for the sake of lasting beauty and prolonged enjoyment. There is no necessary connection between events, but things nonetheless have an aesthetic longing to relate harmoniously. Novelty also enters into the causal flow of events to disrupt encrusted formations of order, but it is always checked by the socializing tendencies of actual occasions. The subjectivities composing the universe desire freedom from each other even while they seek to merge with one another, creating a cosmic pulsation always verging on but never falling entirely over into the chaotic mystery at the root of reality.