Leaves of Grass (a poem for Walt Whitman)

Written at Esalen on Oct. 29 for the 5th Annual PCC Poetry Jam, MC’d by Drew Dellinger. Minor edits on 11/14/2017.

How, with only twenty-six letters,
do poets dare to spell the smell
of even a mere tuft of grass?

How, with only ten fingers,
do poets come to grips
with galaxies as large as gods
and older than the earth
they walk on?

How, with only two eyes,
do poets sing the twice-reflected sight
of moonlight on the ocean waves?

Poets do not pull the grass
from its home
to smell it.
They let it spell itself
from where it grows.

Its home may seem dirt
for digging graves to you and I,
but poets know,
that is where the grass
turns the lifeless back to light.

Poets bend down to the ground
to wet their tongues on drops of dew.
They place their noses near to rooted plants
to celebrate the solar scent of sunlight green’d.

Poets bow to upright blades of grass.
They lay their heads against the horizon:
one ear down to earth
witnesses the whisperings of worms;
the other, up to heaven,
listens to the liturgy of angels.

A hundred-thousand human words
cannot approach
the worth of one earthworm—
each an ouroboric world unto itself.

Each leaf of grass,
a unique universe.
Every blade, a loyal renegade:
sharing a single soil bed,
content to create
without contention or copyright.

Fed freely by the Sun,
these leaves write for fun.

Step lightly, lest you trample on
the children of stars as you go.

Learn from poets
to stand in silence,
to hear the pages of the trees
turning in the wind,
and to read on them
the teachings of Earth’s ages.
Learn to listen as Nature speaks:
Every fallen leaf a eulogy for summer’s passing,
every writhing worm another written word
in the memoir of the world.

Poets do not pull the grass
from its home
to smell it.
They let it spell itself
from where it grows.

The Varieties of Materialism: Matter as the Play of Form

Following up on my contribution to the Latour/AIME reading group, I wanted to say a bit more about the confused concept called “matter.” There are many varieties of materialism, but for the sake of time, let’s follow Robert Jackson by dividing them up into two basic categories: 1) that variety of materialism which understands matter as some ultimate stuff that all emergent forms can be reduced to, 2) that which understands matter as some primordial formlessness, or endlessly differentiating movement from out of which all form emerges.

_snowflakes__by_candymax

While I’m committed to articulating a realist ontology (my dissertation draws on Schelling and Whitehead in pursuit of what you might call an ontology of organism), I’d argue that to be real is not necessarily to be material, especially if matter is conceived of as a fundamental stuff. If we insist on continuing to employ the words “mind” and “matter” in metaphysical discussions, I’d want to construe them not as separate substances in a dualist ontology, but rather as reciprocal poles in an ontology of becoming, where “matter” signifies the accumulated weight of the stubborn facts of the past, while “mind” signifies the novel forms yearning for realization in the future. Every passing moment, or drop of experience, exists in tension between the two poles, fact and form, or actuality and potentiality. Matter, then, is only half the picture. A universe of only material things would be a universe where everything had already been actualized such that nothing new could ever emerge. All that could occur would be the rearrangement of the same old matter. There are plenty of thinkers who would disagree with me. For example, see Levi Bryant’s recent post.

Bryant seems to want to defend a non-reductive version of the first type of materialism. Contrary to my claim that materialistic atomism makes real emergent novelty impossible, Bryant writes:

…it’s difficult to see how this criticism hits the mark with the atomistic materialism of thinkers such as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius.  Lucretius, for example, is quite clear that relations between atoms are every bit as important as the atoms themselves.  In example after example he discusses emergent entities that manifest powers (capacities) and properties only when atoms are arranged [or organized] in these particular ways…certain objects are only possible through certain relations.

I’ve probably got much to learn from Bryant about the Greek atomists. So my response here as much a query as a claim. I am aware that the third necessary ingredient in Lucretius’ scheme (aside from atoms and the void) is the clinamen. Atoms have an unexplained tendency to swerve as they fall through the void. According to Lucretius, without the clinamen, “nature would have never produced anything” (ii. 216-224), since no interaction would ever have occurred between atoms to allow for material organization. Leaving aside the equally puzzling question as to where atomic weight comes from or why atoms should be falling, we might also ask what the cause of this swerve, and so of material organization, is. Why do otherwise inert atoms have such a strange inclination for “curved” motion? Why does matter tend to turn in on itself? Lucretius seemed content to say it was simply “chance.” Chance, I suppose, means “for no reason at all.” Perhaps a strange swerving deserves an equally strange story. But we could tell other stories that make more sense. Dante might identify the cause of the clinamen with the Primum Mobile, the final sphere of the heavens whose divinely inspired motion initiates and sustains the motion of all the spheres it encloses (Paradiso, Canto XXVII). Of course, modern cosmology has outgrown Dante’s ancient geocentric imagination. We need a new creation myth to account for the strange inclinations of matter, a story more credible than the rather mechanical cosmos of revolving crystalline spheres first described by Aristotle and Ptolemy. I imagine Bryant would disagree with the need for a story in ontology, but then again, Lucretius articulated his ontology in the form of an epic poem. When it comes down to it, every metaphysician needs to give narrative force to their ontology by way of some ultimate reason(s) for which no reason can be given (other than givenness itself). For Whitehead, the ultimate reasons are aesthetic (Eros, Beauty), while the main characters in his cosmic plot are Creativity and Actuality. For Plato, the ultimate reasons are moral (Goodness, Truth), while his main characters are Nous and Chora.

Bryant says Lucretius finds relations to be as important as atoms. Does this mean relations are just as real as atoms? If so, perhaps the cause of the clinamen, and by proxy of nature’s emergent hierarchy of complexity, has something to do with an inclination to relate. “Chance” seems to me to be a poor explanation for such an inclination. Throwing our hands up by claiming such an all-pervasive swerve is random seems to me to be a rather anti-metaphysical, even anti-scientific, move. The tendency to relate must have a cause. There must be some account we can give of it that aligns with our understanding and coheres with our experience. Such an inclination, or tendency, may be motivated by what Whitehead, after Plato, called Eros. For Dante, Eros is “the love which moves the sun and other stars” (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, lines 142-145). Love requires freedom, so this story concerning the cause of the clinamen need not neglect the uncertainty of atomic motion. All that I’d want to add to Lucretius’ account of atomic motion is relational emotion. This brings his ontology rather close to Whitehead’s processual atomism. How close depends on whether we are willing to say relations are just as real, and just as primordial, as atoms. Whitehead’s process-relational scheme includes both internal relations and external relations. On Bryant’s reading, Lucretius would seem to leave no room for internal relations: atoms can only collide; they cannot collude (they can only relate externally via efficient causation; they cannot relate internally via erotic play).

I’m hoping Bryant will clear up my queries concerning Lucretius. I’m ready to stand corrected about his lack of a coherent explanation for the clinamen. I would want to argue, however, that Bryant has misunderstood the second type of materialism listed by Jackson. Bryant writes:

Far from materialism being “always deployed against form” [as Jackson claims], materialism is instead the thesis that matter is always structured matter.  If materialism is deployed against anything, it would be against the schema offered by Plato in the Timeaus where it is suggested that, on the one hand, there is a formless material chora, and on the other hand a domain of idealincorporeal forms, and that a demiurge is required to mold this formless matter into formed matter.  What materialism contests is the incorporeality of form and the formlessness of materiality, instead arguing that all matter is structured matter.

Jackson describes the second type of materialism as that which posits an infinitely differentiating pulsation of formless energy at the base of all things. Whitehead’s ultimate principle of Creativity could easily be described this way. He suggests in Adventures of Ideas that Creativity is an adaptation of Plato’s “dark and difficult” concept of the Chora, or Receptacle. Plato describes the Receptacle as formless, but this is hardly the end of the story. The Receptacle is not simply the passive material from which a cosmos will be shaped, but the place within which the cosmos will come to be. Further, it is hardly “passive” at all, since it is abuzz with errant forces winnowing this way and that, grouping trace elements (pre-formed matter?) by their kind like a cosmogenic sieve, only to ceaselessly disturb every attempt at settled placement. When approaching Plato’s Receptacle, Bryant seems to fixate on one descriptor, “formless,” while ignoring the numerous indications in Timaeus that there is more to this choric “matter” than meets the eye. There’s no doubt Plato’s story could use some tweaking given our modern understanding. But let’s not forget he never claimed to be telling anything but a “likely story.” That is all we can hope to do today, even with our improved mathematics and increased data set.

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Last night, I watched a short performance called “The Kepler Story” at the Morrison Planetarium in the California Academy of Sciences. The opening scene introduces Kepler’s essay on the crystalline forms of snowflakes. Kepler played with an ingenious pun between the Latin word “nix,” meaning snowflake, and the German word of the same spelling, meaning “nothing.” Is form really “nothing” at all? Kepler didn’t think so. He wondered why all snowflakes have six-sides, despite the fact that each one achieved its six-sidedness in a unique way. He searched for the “formative principle” of snow crystals. He considered the way water vapor evaporates due to heat. He considered the influence of impurities in the clouds where crystals grow.

“There must be a cause why snow has the shape of a six-cornered starlet,” Kepler wrote in his essay, De nive sexangula: “It cannot be chance. Why always six?” His answer: Hexagonal packing provides the tightest possible arrangement of water droplets. Matter has some intrinsic tendency to organize itself, taking great care to achieve geometrical harmony. Kepler’s conjecture only came to be proven basically correct several years ago. As far as Kepler was concerned, the “formative principle” at play giving shape to the water vapor had no purpose whatsoever. From his perspective, nature is “in the habit of playing with the passing moment.” Its reasons for taking shape are purely aesthetic.

Reflections on Bruno Latour’s “An Inquiry into Modes of Existence,” Ch. 4: Learning to Make Room

I’m participating in a reading group with about 40 other scholars focusing on Bruno Latour‘s recently published book An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2013). This week it is my turn to comment on Ch. 4, which is titled “Learning to Make Room.” I’m going to cross-post my comments here, as well as on the blog we’ve set up for the reading group (aimegroup.wordpress.com). If you want to respond to anything I’ve said here, please do so on the AIME group blog so that all the comments will be assembled in the same place.

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Introducing the Beings of Reproduction,
Instituting ‘A Whole New Diplomacy’ 

by Matthew David Segall

   In chapter 4 of his inquiry into modes of existence, Latour begins the difficult task of appropriately enunciating how it came to be that the Moderns, despite having conquered the whole world, still lack the room to deploy the values––legal, moral, fictional, political, economical, spiritual, psychological––that they so cherish. Even the values of physical science became impossible to localize and equip after the entire earth and sky were submerged in an abstract space-time filled by the mathematical motion of matter-energy. Where, it must be asked, is the Mind that measures, calculates, and understands the infinite system of the Universe standing? On whose authority was this Mind granted access to the Ideas at work in Nature? Latour’s inquiry into the modes of existence cannot even begin until after the Cartesian Constitution leading us to repeat such poorly posed questions has been torn to shreds.

There is hope for the values of the Moderns, if only they are willing to give up all the bad habits and confused composites that come along with the “institution of matter” (118). Ecologizing Modernity will require instituting “a whole new diplomacy” (103) adequate to a pluriverse in which neither Nature nor the Mind can be said to exist. The alternative non-Naturalist, non-Idealist Constitution that Latour is trying to enunciate has summoned many modes of existence to the negotiating table. In chapter 4, Latour introduces us in particular to the beings of reproduction [REP]. He also attempts to disamalgamate the poorly formed composite causing a confusion of the beings of reproduction with the immutable mobiles of reference [REP ~ REF]. This confusion is the “double category mistake” through which “the notion of ‘matter’ emerges” (110). Poor Descartes gets blamed for more than his fair share of philosophical damage (we might at least admire his genius before we shame him for his mistakes), but Latour cannot avoid dating the emergence of the idea of matter to his (in)famous meditations. After Descartes, the Modern world “[begins] to believe that the thought of matter describes real things, whereas it is only the way the res cogitans–itself dreamed up–is going to start imagining matter” (110).

Imagine instead that the nascent, still scattered people of Gaia are waking up from Descartes’ dream. Imagine that the flood of Materialism has receded, and that all the faux battles waged by “spiritualists” against “reductionists” have grown quiet for lack of interest. Imagine you are an Earthling once again, returned from outer space to re-inhabit the solid ground of common sense experience. The interlacing ecological complexity of our common sense world of earth and sky, of plants, animals, and persons, makes the mathematizable quantum and relativistic realms of science look like “child’s play” in comparison (120). The world of common sense experience is more unfathomable, more mysterious, than the micro- and macroscopic worlds described by physicists, since, as Latour reminds his readers, the former “has been infinitely less explored than the other!” Latour wants to re-introduce Moderns––a people so obsessed with their theories of matter that they’ve entirely neglected the material practices that make these theories possible––to the beings of reproduction [REP] that, for several centuries now, have been so rudely silenced by the bizarre institution of matter. One of these beings, Gaia––no longer content to remain the unacknowledged background of human history––is now intruding to return the favor by rudely ignoring the Modern pretension to a risk free, double-click Science that might grant total control over a 3+1 dimensional world, as if this world were made of pure “knowability” (112, 121). Such a world would leave no room for life. Luckily, Gaia is no homogeneous substance or geometrical form, but a proliferating ecology of expressive, inventive, and active beings, each of whom, like us, is at risk from moment to moment of disappearing forever should they fail to be articulate, original, or insistent enough to subsist as themselves in an environs swarming with differences (99-101). Latour introduces us to the beings of reproduction [REP] so that the “matter” of materialism, “the most idealist of the products of the mind,” can be de-idealized (106).

Even the so-called “inert” entities of the inorganic world forcefully insist and express themselves. The concept of “force” that has proven so irreplaceable to physicists in their study of microscopic particles and far away galaxies is, we should remember, a concept that emerges from and gains its meaning only by continual reference to experience, to our feelings of attraction or repulsion, of being forced, in one way or another, by the insistent presence of an other. As Schelling, speaking to the Newtonian scientist, wrote in his Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1803),

“you can in no way make intelligible what a force might be independent of you. For force as such makes itself known only to your feeling. Yet feeling alone gives you no objective concepts. At the same time you make objective use of those forces. For you explain the movement of celestial bodies–universal gravitation–by forces of attraction and maintain that in this…you have [a physical ground of explanation for] these phenomena” (transl. by Harris and Heath, CUP, 1988, p. 18).

In point of fact, experience can grant us no such physical principles, if by “physical” it is meant that which exists “outside” experience, in the so-called “external world” of mute matter in motion. All our scientific knowledge of distant quasars and black holes hits its mark, not because the Mind has correctly represented the formal essences of Nature, but because our organism (equipped with its world-wide network of geometrical notations, telescopes, satellites, computers, and well-trained peers) has succeeded in translating the lines of force at work outside itself into the feelings of life at work within itself. All our knowledge, no matter how abstract, must make its final appeal in the courtroom of experience, since the court of Reason, having disavowed the the facts of feeling involved in all its acts of knowing, has as a result been cut off from its only means of concrete relation to reality. If everything were submerged in abstract “space-time/matter-energy,” science could never follow the threads of experience, could never arrive at the immanence of a truly de-idealized material (106).

It is not entirely clear at this point if Latour is willing to follow Schelling and Whitehead all the way to a full-blown panexperiential ontology. But what is obvious is that the beings of reproduction [REP], whether physical “lines of force” or biological “lineages,” do not mutely persist like undead zombies: to keep on existing as material existents, they must loudly insist that their values matter. Else they risk extinction. There is no “blind necessity” maintaining the substance of these beings. They can never rest inertly in a simultaneous sameness, nor can they succeed at succession through mere inertial momentum. The beings of reproduction must continually re-produce themselves by passing into and through others, taking little leaps to cross the hiatuses punctuating this world at every twist and turn of its becoming. These tiny transcendences force beings to risk passing through each other in order to remain in existence as themselves: “To obtain being, otherness is required. Sameness is purchased, as it were, at the price of alterations” (110).

When Science forgets the beings of reproduction [REP] by confusing them with its own mode of existence [REF], the formal knowledge produced and employed by it begins to seem as though it dropped into the minds of scientists from heaven. Luckily, the careful practice of scientific abstraction can easily be shown to be a concrete job at every step (110). The material universe referenced [REF] by Modern Science is not made up of objective facts that might speak for themselves and so put an end to every human debate (119). Rather, scientific knowledge “is the labor of a whole chain of proof workers, from those whose hands are black with dirt to those whose hands are white with chalk” (110). Science is a local practice, after all. Its knowledge [REF] is relative to the subsistence [REP] of its networks. Scientists––including their “languages, bodies, ideas, and institutions” (102)––are beings of reproduction [REP] contingently composed and recomposed from moment to moment by the same lineages and lines of force they pretend to study as “matter” whenever it appears “outside” themselves. We need not fear the eternal silence of infinite space, nor the mute mindlessness of inert matter. No, we have never been Modern, we have never lived in a geometrical space, and “this whole matter of matter has to have remained just a simple mind game” (117). We can imagine another, more coherent world: a world that leaves us room not only to think, but to breathe, to live. If we grow sensitive again to the multitude of earthly existents within and around us–to the swarming differences articulating the face of Gaia–maybe we can annunciate an ecological alternative to Modernity before it is too late, before the “grave events” (122) already expected of the coming century ramify so severely that the adventure of civilization has its unacknowledged ground pulled out from beneath its feet. Perhaps Hegel was partially right: after several thousand years of self-negation, human history has reached its end. But it has ended only so the Moderns (or the people who come after them) might reawaken to the multi-billion year geostory they have been sleepwalking through.

So, can we follow Latour’s diagnosis of the “sort of coherent madness” (115) motivating Modernity’s mistaken amalgamations and bifurcations? Are we ready to give up the Mind of Science, with its universal Knowledge and its obedient Nature, in exchange for the far messier pluriversal practices of the well-equipped sciences? Are we willing to welcome the lively beings of reproduction back to the negotiating table, or must we continue to drown out their multiplex voices in a Flood of res extensa-cogitans (112)? Are we ready yet to grasp the modes of existence, not as different representations of the same underlying reality (that discovered and described by Science), but as uniquely enacted realities, each in their own right?

Answering some queries about Whitehead

A college student emailed me with some questions about the technical details of Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme as laid out in Process and Reality. I figured I’d post my response to him here since I haven’t been able to blog much lately and don’t want anyone to think I’ve given it up, and because some of this may be clarifying for other students of Whitehead. I didn’t include his questions, but you’ll get the gist of them anyway from my responses.

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1. From Whitehead’s perspective, the World-Soul, like every other actual occasion, has two poles, a mental/active and a physical/passive. Unlike every other (finite) actual occasion, the (infinite) World-Soul’s polarity is reversed, such that the mental precedes the physical. Whitehead refers to the mental pole of the World-Soul as the “primordial nature of God.” It is sort of like the cosmic genetic code, and can be thought of as the source of what physicists call the physical constants and talk about as though they were “finely tuned” just so as to make our universe, with its stars, galaxies, planets, life, and intelligence possible. This primordial genetic code is both mathematical and qualitative. Every last particle or bud of experience includes this genetic code within it, just like each of the cells in our body contains a complete copy of our genome. Whitehead also refers to this code as God’s (or the World-Soul’s) “initial aim.” This initial aim lures every last drop of experience in the universe toward that combination of as yet unrealized potentials that is most beautiful (as originally decided by the World-Soul). So yes, you might say the simplest particles behave as physicists say they do as a result of mathematical and qualitative comprehensions (or “contemplations,” as Plotinus put it) of the World-Soul’s initial aim/primordial nature.

2. I assume you mean to ask if “eternal objects” should be thought of as eternal Platonic forms or as universals or general norms that adjust with the universe’s evolution. For Whitehead, unlike for Plato (at least most of the time–Plato is hardly consistent in his dialogues), eternal objects do not strictly speaking “exist” at all. For Plato, eternal objects are the most real and contain the most existence. For Whitehead, eternal objects are “deficient in actuality,” and so are literally nothing outside of their ingression into actual occasions of experience. In other words, Forms without Facts are empty. As the physical universe unfolds, the way each of the finite actual occasions making it up decides to actualize itself determines which eternal objects ingress. Eternal objects characterize “how” an occasion experiences its world. Whitehead describes eternal objects as “pure potentials” awaiting actualization. In themselves, eternal objects have no agency; they can only be realized or caused to ingress by the subjective decisions of actual occasions as to “how” they will experience the other occasions they objectify.

3. The constituents of actual occasions are other actual occasions. This is the paradoxical way that Whitehead settles the age old question of the one and the many. In the concrescence (or “growing together”) of each actual occasion, “the many become one, and are increased by one.” In other words, each present actual occasion is “made up” of its “prehensions” (or feelings) of other past, already actualized occasions (including itself). Present actual occasions are subjects for whom all past occasions are objects. So a presently concrescing actual occasion is composed of objectifications of past actual occasions. It is a unified subjective “now!” composed out of a past multiplicity of objects, adding itself upon the completion of its concrescence back to the multiplicity as a new object.

4. The building blocks of the universe are actual occasions, which are no more exclusively physical than they are exclusively mental. They are polarities, temporary equalizations of two infinitely opposed powers which we might call the powers of habit and of novelty. This is something like Spinoza’s polar monism, something like Leibniz’s monads, perhaps most like Schelling’s actants.

5. God is unique as primordial/mental, but God’s “consequent nature”/”physical pole” includes the experience of every actual occasion in the universe. Whitehead doesn’t want to exempt God from the same metaphysical categories that apply to all other actual occasions, but he does want to differentiate God (who is infinite) from finite occasions. He does this by reversing the polarity of the divine occasion.