Notes from a talk I gave at CIIS this past March titled “Politics and Pluralism in the Anthropocene”
Here’s the video of the whole panel:
Foucault on Hegel:
“[T]ruly to escape Hegel involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him. It assumes that we are aware of the extent to which Hegel, insidiously perhaps, is close to us; it implies a knowledge, in that which permits us to think against Hegel, of that which remains Hegelian. We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.” (Discourse on Language, Inaugural Lecture at the Collège de France, 1970-1971. tr. A. M. Sheridan Smith)
Begin with Hegel’s claim to have achieved absolute knowledge of Spirit, and to at least foreseeing the becoming concrete of this Spirit in the historical, social, and ethical life of the human community.
Marx read Hegel upside down, but still read Hegel. He was a materialist, but a dialectical materialist who recognized the potential of the human spirit, and this potential’s degradation and alienation from itself at the hands of capitalism. Marx tried to shake human beings awake, out of their slumber, out of the false consciousness that commodifies labor, life, and value.
It is not easy to do better than Hegel and Marx in terms of understanding, diagnosing, and prescribing action to overcome the contradictory situation in which humans find themselves as neoliberal capitalist subjects. But the dawning realization that we live in the time of the Anthropocene is fundamentally changing our situation. We can no longer talk about the nonhuman world, about what used to be called “Nature,” as though it was something separate from us, some kind of inert background or stage upon which human history progresses. As good dialecticians, Hegel and Marx fully recognized this entanglement of the human and the physical world, but they did so in a rather anthropocentric way that still presupposed and celebrated the idea of mastering nature. The Anthropocene signals, yes, the end of history, but also the beginning of (or at least the beginning of human recognition of) what Latour refers to as geostory. From Latour’s point of view, Hegel would never have expected our current situation, where Spirit, after its millennial march of dialectical progress, suddenly finds itself at risk of being suffocated, sublated, by carbon dioxide. As Latour describes it, the ecological crisis is pushing us into a profound mutation in our relation to the world. When the world as it has been known to the Western metaphysical project ends, we are left not with no world, but with many worlds. For Latour, politics is the composition of common worlds through the negotiation of differences. Political negotiation cannot be undertaken with the presupposition that unity has somehow already been achieved. If politics fails, we are left with a war of the worlds. A pluralistic politics asks us to forgo the desire for the premature unification of the world, to accept that “the world” has ended and diplomatic negotiation is the only viable way of “worlding.” Ours is always a world-in-process, and any unity we do achieve is fragile and must be continually re-affirmed and maintained.
Latour has been deeply influenced by William James. James positioned his ontological pluralism against Hegel and Marx’s dialectical monisms. William James was appreciative of Hegel, but certainly he was an counter-Hegelian thinker. As far as Marx goes, James was too American to ever fully reject at least the individualist spirit of capitalism, even if he was suspicious of capitalism’s larger cultural impact and its relation to American imperialism. In a letter to H. G. Wells in 1906, for example, James lamented “the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS.” James thought worship of success, by which he meant money, was “our national disease.” James championed the individual, but an individual who is sympathetic to meeting and being transformed by novel differences, whose selfhood is leaky and perforated by human and nonhuman otherness, whose identity is always in-the-making and open to question and revision.
James on excess: “Every smallest state of consciousness, concretely taken, overflows its own definition. Only concepts are self-identical; only ‘reason’ deals with closed equations; nature is but a name for excess; every point in her opens out and runs into the more; and the only question, with reference to any point we may be considering, is how far into the rest of nature we may have to go in order to get entirely beyond its overflow. In the pulse of inner life immediately present now in each of us is a little past, a little future, a little awareness of our own body, of each other’s persons, of the sublimities we are trying to talk about, of earth’s geography and the direction of history, of truth and error, of good and bad, and of who knows how much more? Feeling, however dimly and subconsciously, all these things, your pulse of inner life is continuous with them, belongs to them and they to it. You can’t identify it with either one of them rather than with the others, for if you let it develop into no matter which of those directions, what it develops into will look back on it and say, ‘That was the original germ of me.’” (A Pluralistic Universe)
James leans strongly in the direction of particular, unique, once-occurrent individuals (even if he does not see individuals as autopoietic, but as sympoietic). In contrast, some historical performances of communism have leaned in the other direction, toward some abstract conception of communal will, and when individuals stood in the way of this abstract will, as we saw in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China, they were crushed. Our capitalist society claims to prize the individual highest, but it is corporate individuality that we really cherish. We human individuals are mere cogs in the labor machine, and Earth is a store of raw materials and a garbage heap. So either way, in either situation, capitalism or communism, human and nonhuman communities and individuals are in trouble.
Our challenge today, in the Anthropocene, is to think individuality and community concretely, to think relation, difference, and particularity concretely. Normally thinking seeks out universals, essences, substances, and to the extent that the Western metaphysical project has sought out universals, essences, and substances that failed to align with the particular contours of the sensory, social worlds that we inhabit, it has done great violence those worlds. As a result of the failure of our ideas and concepts to cohere with reality—that is, to sympoietically relate to the communities of actual organisms composing the living planet—these concepts have functioned to destroy them. Humans, whether we like it or not, are in community with these organisms, our worlds overlap and perforate one another; we touch interior to interior, my inside bleeding into your inside bleeding into all nonhuman insides. But our subjectivities do not just add up or sum to some seamless Globe-like Mind. Gaia, Latour is constantly reminding his readers, is not a Globe! To the extent that we are all internally related to one another, we form a network of of entangled, overlapping perspectives, where each perspective is still unique and once-occurrent, novel; and yet each is also related to what has come before and will be related to what comes next. We are individuals-in-communion, communities whose wholeness subscends the individuals who compose them. Subscendence is a concept developed by Timothy Morton to refer to the way that wholes, like Gaia, are actually less than the sum of their parts. He calls this “implosive holism” and contrasts it with “explosive holism,” the sort of holism that led Stalin to murder millions of individuals for the sake of the Soviet Union, or that leads some environmentalists to emphasize saving species or even the whole planet without paying enough attention to individual organisms (a species doesn’t feel pain; only individual organisms feel pain, etc.).
So the question becomes, how do we think pluralism, difference, and diversity concretely, and not abstractly. Because when we think particular identities or individuals abstractly, we do violence to them, we try to universalize them in an overly abstract way without being sensitive to their unique contours. This is a form of reductionism. We can reduce individuals “up” to the whole, or reduce them “down” to their parts. Pluralism is trying to find a middle path between both forms of reductionism: It seeks a “strung-along” sort of holism (as James put it), not a global or continuous holism where each thing is connected to everything else in exactly the same way. Instead, as Donna Haraway puts it, “Nothing is connected to everything” even though “everything is connected to something.”
Thinking pluralism concretely means stepping out of a sense of exclusively human society, out of the self-enclosed social bubble that used to insulate us from any access whatsoever to something called Nature, or “the environment” standing in wait “over there” for science to objectify into knowledge or for the economy to commodify into money. Thinking pluralism concretely means stepping outside of the monetary monism of contemporary capitalism, where all value is reduced to exchange value in the human marketplace, to instead become part of a democracy of fellow creatures, as Whitehead puts it, where values pervade the biosphere, and “Nature” is no longer just a realm of inert, law-abiding facts but of creative, expressive agencies. Thinking pluralism concretely means walking out of the old Copernican universe, forgetting the mastery-seeking knowledge supplied by the monotheistic gaze of Science, in order to inhabit a new cosmos composed of infinitely many perspectives, more a pluriverse than a universe.
Process and Difference in the Pluriverse
My Spring course at CIIS.edu finishes up this week with a set of modules on Timothy Morton’s book Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (2017). Earlier in the semester, we read works by Plato, William James, Catherine Keller, William Connolly, Bruno Latour, Anne Pomeroy, and Donna Haraway. Below, I am sharing a series of lecture fragments about Morton’s book, as well as a panel discussion formed around the course topics.
I’m sharing the lecture from the first module of my course this semester at CIIS.edu, PARP 6135: Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. The lecture discusses Plato’s Republic, William James’ pluralism, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ critical inheritance of James’ philosophy.
A trailer for my course being offered this Spring at CIIS.edu.
PARP 6135 Process and Difference in the Pluriverse will explore the ethical, social, political, and ecological implications of process-relational philosophy. You could call it a course in applied or experimental metaphysics. We will read and discuss texts by radical empiricist William James, revolutionary sociologist WEB DuBois, pluralist political scientist William Connolly, process theologian Catherine Keller, philosopher of science Donna Haraway, Gaian sociologist Bruno Latour, and object-oriented ecocritic Timothy Morton. Each in his or her own way brings the process orientation down to Earth by articulating it’s relevance to the struggle for social, economic, racial, and ecological justice.
I hope this course provides a space for us to imagine a more symbiotic future together. I doubt there will be any answers that emerge from what we study together, but I do hope we will get closer to asking the right—that is, the life enhancing, creativity engendering—questions. My goal is to infect your political passions with process-relational ideas, to invite you into the role of philosopher-activist. Activism becomes philosophical (in the process-relational context explored in this course) when it affirms an ethos rooted in relational alterity and creative becoming. Such an orientation provides an antidote to the neoliberal ethos rooted in private identity, property ownership, and wage labor.
“From a planetary perspective, truth is seen as the coconstruction of truth regimes. Our understandings of the world and the technologies of those understandings begin to create those worlds that we are persuaded most toward. In other words, one of the reasons modern science became so pervasive is that its truth regime–including the medical, communication, and transportation technologies derived from its way of understanding–is quite persuasive. It gives us results; it gives us things. However, at no small cost: atomic bombs, environmental ills, species extinction, global climate change, and gross economic inequities are just a few…Every truth regime, and its corresponding habits for becoming in the world, has benefits and costs, and this is what it means to understand truth from a pragmatic perspective. From a planetary perspective, the question is not which truth regime is really real, but rather toward which truth regimes do we want to live? Given the costs of the contemporary truth regime of the globalization of free-market capitalism and its modern scientific technologies, I would argue we need ways of becoming into the future that respect the multiperspectival reality of the becoming planetary community” -Whitney Bauman (p. 61)
I’ve been enjoying Whitney Bauman‘s new book (Colombia University Press, 2014). By developing the ideas of thinkers like Michelle Foucault, Tim Morton, Judith Butler, Catherine Keller, Deleuze and Guattari, Bruno Latour, Carolyn Merchant, Donna Haraway, Zygmunt Bauman, Karen Barad, Terry Deacon, Jane Bennett, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and Gayatri Spivak, he has succeeded in furthering the case for a robust ontological pluralism.
Bauman spends much of the book overcoming the various materialist and idealist reifications of human and nonhuman identity that prevent the world’s sciences and religions from having meaningful dialogue with one another.
In an effort to overcome the colonialist pretenses of Scientific Materialism, Bauman re-interprets Western science as itself a form of “traditional ecological knowledge.” He remains a “naturalist,” however, where nature, as his “all-inclusive term,” includes
“humans, cultures, religions, ideas, imagination, atoms, ecosystems, the earth, the universe, and all other levels of reality. Nature is multiscalar [it consists of multiple levels, none of which can be reduced to the other] and emergent [nature is a process by which ‘new’ levels emerge in the course of planetary and cosmic evolution]. Thus nature is a multiperspectival emergent process…” (25).
Bauman’s goal is to re-politicize both science and religion with the help of a new posthuman planetary ethic. Rather than a search for scientific or religious forms of transcendence, a planetary ethic is satisfied with “an open and becoming immanence” (33):
“This understanding of an immanent and ongoing nature provides a viable option for redefining nature as a transformative political space-time of planetary possibilities rather than a transcendent source for foundational claims” (38).
Rather than going along with the standard Weberian reading of modernity ushering in an age of disenchantment (recounted most recently by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age), Bauman follows Latour by arguing that, in effect, we have never been modern. Similar to my reading of modernity (also building on Latour) as a form of “misenchantment,” Bauman writes:
“the enchantment of making the world dead matter is found in the marvels of modern technologies that such a mechanistic truth regime ushers in: the wonder and marvels of skyscrapers, space travel, air travel, the Internet, and the very sciences that emerge out of the mechanistic model of science (even if those sciences contain the ultimate demise of mechanism) are all quite enchanting” (41).
Rather than lionizing the standard heroes of modernization, like Galileo and Descartes, Bauman offers the panpsychic philosophers of immanence Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, and Baruch Spinoza as visionaries of an alternative form of modernity. (Along these lines, I also recommend Arran Gare’s essay “Reviving the Radical Enlightenment: Process Philosophy and the Struggle for Democracy“).
The one bone I’d pick with Bauman concerns his desire to entertain the idea that nature is all naturans and no naturata (44-47). Obviously, I’m on board with the idea that nature is creative process, but natural process gives rise to natural products whose relative individuality should be respected. This individuality is always in-the-making and becoming-with others, and so never an “identifiable essence” or reified substantiality. I think some sense of nature natured must be preserved in order not to overlook the particularities brought forth in the course of the creative advance of nature naturing.
Another exciting aspect of Bauman’s thought is the way he explodes substantialist notions of a linear pre-existent/objective space-time by drawing on Barad’s work (Meeting the Universe Halfway). Barad’s “agential realism” construes spaces and times as “intra-actively produced” by a network of human and nonhuman agents, rather than determinately given once and for all (55). Similarly, the so-called “laws” of nature are re-read as tendencies or “pathways, scripts, or habits that get performed” (58).
Bauman preserves a role for polydox theologies after the death of God by reconstructing theology along poetico-imaginative lines. Theopoetic projections are part of what it means to be human, the meaning-making species par excellence. Further, our theopoems are as much introjected as they are projected: we may be the inventors of our gods, but what creator has ever been left untransformed by his or her creation?
Bauman comes down hard on liberal notions of identity and monogamous family structure. To overcome capitalism, we will need to realize that “identities are all messy assemblages”; we will need to become multiple, hybrid, queer:
“Our subjectivities are multiple in that we are made up of many human and earth others: histories, societies, actions, earth, air, water, fire, other molecules, other plants and animals. We are quite literally not the creators ex nihilo of our own identities, but we are created by multiple earth others. In a very real sense, we cannot cut off our understandings of the self from the whole 13.8-billion-year process of cosmic expansion and 4.5-billion-year process of geoevolution…From this perspective, perhaps planetary technologies of becoming will encourage us to think with earth others–and think with the in-between rather than as isolated thinking things” (120)
“It is not just that we are made of histories and biologies of evolving plants, animals, and minerals, nor that we will become part of future plants, animals, and minerals. Rather, it is that these companions literally make up our multiple, evolving, and open subjectivities. Just as queer theory recognizes our subjectivities as always already multiple, so from a radical materialist perspective we can say that our embodiments are always already multiple. As such, our agency is not just the agency of the Cartesian skin-encapsulated ego, nor are our thoughts and emotions our own. Our actions, thoughts, and emotions are always multiple. They involve multiple histories of planetary becomings or communities of plants, animals, and minerals, all of which are evolving beyond their own boundaries and diffracting into proliferations of subject-objects” (155).
Bauman’s prescriptions are not easy pills to swallow for middle class white people who belong to the elite 1/5th of the world (or really for any of the “global mobiles,” those of us in “the West” who live in a bubble floating atop the rest of the human population, the “immobile locals”). But perhaps our times call for strong medicine.
I absolutely love what he is saying. Really, I dig it. His ontology has style, and I don’t just mean he is rhetorically skilled and so persuasive to us as subjectivities, I mean he has tapped in to the semantic subtext of reality itself. He’s plucking the harp strings of the world. He is speaking as earth’s flower, from the inside of this thing being whatever reality is becoming. He is not outside the world pondering nature, thinking about it without feeling as it. He thinks nature as nature thinking. His metaphors (metapherein in Gk.). express a sense of thinking with and through nature, a nature no longer hidden from itself beneath the traumas of collective human history but conscious of its own destiny. That destiny, even if we learn to live with the earth through the current geological transformation, is still ultimately individual death and collective extinction. Even if life on earth survives for another 5 billion years, at that point, the sun will commit cosmic suicide, taking all the planets with it into the dark abysses of elemental gravitation. In those dark spaces, what once were the metals of mars, earth, venus, and mercury will re-center themselves around a new spinning orb of nuclear light. The atoms who escape the death of our solar system will shine again as the life of some future system. Thinking this transformation of the substance of our being through deep cosmic history is perceiving hyper-time. Death no longer represents a problem in need of a solution, it is simply a return to oneness with the world we only thought we’d lost while alive. Only getting over the death anxiety that drives modern industrial civilization will get us through this ecological emergency.
It’s not that history has already ended, says Morton; its that it is just beginning. If it didn’t start in 1790 when the first layer of carbon was laid down over the crust of the planet, then it was on July 16, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was detonated.
Cause and effect are spooky. We don’t know how they connect because there is a crack in the universe. Contradiction seeps in through this crack in the real to give it life. This isn’t a life opposed to death, it is the undying and ever-born becoming of things themselves.
Reason isn’t necessarily human. Philosophers knew this in the 1790s. Politicians and capitalist have been slower to catch on. Icy reason, for its own sake, makes atom bombs and Vicodin. The human is not special. The whole universe is in a human situation, not just our species.
“Ecology must mean making friends with death.”
An overwhelming conversation indeed.
Adam Robbert over at Knowledge-Ecology has posted a great piece on his conception of an object-oriented ecology. He draws primarily from Graham Harman, Tim Morton, and Isabelle Stengers. I’m re-posting my comment to him below:
Really well written, Adam. You’ve definitely provided an outline for a robust OOE. I agree with your assessment that it promises to overcome the various “-centrisms” hampering other approaches to environmental ethics.
My one concern is the idea of substance in OOO. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but in short, I wonder why we need to bring back substance in order to secure the notion of withdrawal when a process ontology already secures it quite well. Objects withdraw even from themselves, which suggests to me that objects are not fixed substances of any kind, but concrescual occasions perishing into objective immortality just as they open into subjective novelty. Objects are not substances, but subject-superjects. An object’s withdrawal is constituted by the subjective pole of its concrescence, which hides from the environment of the object, and from the object’s own habitual prehension of its past.
Instead of talking of “real” v. “sensual” qualities, I prefer to take Schelling’s route, wherein both the dark and the luminous aspects of entities are equally real:
“Every entity,” writes Schelling,
“everything that is, wants to be in itself and out of itself at the same time. It wants to be in itself inasmuch as it posits or collects itself together as what-is [als Seyendes], as a subject; to this extent it opposes development and expansion. It wants to be out of itself inasmuch as it desires to be what it is in itself once more, and hence externally. In the first case, it is something withdrawn by itself, which sets itself in opposition to what is outside of it; but it sets itself in opposition only in order to reveal and declare itself against this outside as what it is in itself. It cannot, therefore, remain in this withdrawn condition” (Ages of the World).
In short, a process ontology polarizes what Harman et al. seem to dualize. The essence of an object is no more withdrawn than it is apparent; it is essentially the budding pulsation which includes both as moments in its concrescence. With Schelling/Whitehead’s position, we get everything useful about OOO without the, to my mind, unnecessary dichotomy between real and sensual. Perhaps I am just oversimplifying Harman’s position, however.
It is difficult to describe the effects of the blogosphere on consciousness, especially when the information communicated via blogs pretends to be philosophical. The blog, as a medium, has not yet been swallowed as radio by TV, or the printed word by the digital hyperlink, and so gaining perspective on its effects remains difficult. We’re still in it, like a child in her mother’s womb. I think by the graces of, and so cannot yet understand, this electronic medium. I think the obscurity of the blogosphere’s effects are magnified for academic philosophers, since there are no disciplinary boundaries carving it up in order to assure that interlocutors play the same language games (which is what always happens at university conferences). Academic philosophy, as practiced at conferences and published in journals, is usually myopically specialized. Arguments take place within some narrow field of relevance, while the truly important questions of life on earth remain backgrounded. This is, of course, a caricature. But so long as we are caricaturing, let us hear from Alan Watts:
“This is the current movement in philosophy: logical analysis says you mustn’t think about existence. It’s a meaningless concept. Therefore philosophy has become the discussion of trivia. No good philosopher lays awake nights worrying about the destiny of man and the nature of God and all that sort of thing. A philosopher today is a practical fellow who comes to the university with a briefcase at 9 and leaves at 5. He does philosophy during the day—which is discussing whether certain sentences have meaning and if so what. He would come to work in a white coat if he thought he could get away with it.”
Even where philosophy begins not with pretense, but with the love of wonder and the desire to know the nature of things, it remains subject to the effects on consciousness of the variety of species of media used to communicate it. Modern consciousness, despite its claim to have dropped sophistry for science, learns to think only given the cognitive augmentation provided by the alphabet.* Postmodern consciousness, similarly, thinks by the graces of the blogosphere, the apogee of the electronic medium. The democratization of information has now become at least technologically feasible, if not politically actual. I don’t think the rise of the blog signals the end of the university (or at least I should hope not), but it does mean that the individual is now shouldering a good deal more of the weight of human knowledge than before.
I am in graduate school myself, though I attend CIIS, an academically marginalized school started by an Indian yogi in the middle of the New Age capital of the world (Watts was once on the faculty). It is impossible for me to escape this context, even though I aim to think individually much in the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment…” –Self-Reliance
Thought does not take place in a vacuum, however. Philosophy is not best done alone in the woods. Institutions, with all due respect to the likes of Emerson and Thoreau, are an indispensable part of the evolution of consciousness. The blogosphere is alluring to me because it is both individualizing and institutionalizing. It is a distributed institution of localized individuals, each capable of participating in the co-production of a planetary ecology of ideas, images, and symbols unhindered by the disciplinary boundaries of traditional universities.
This is the ideal, at least. All of this meta-reflection on philosophy blogging is by way of introduction to some final thoughts in response to what is by now old news, namely the discussion surrounding nihilism and theology that took place earlier this month amongst OOOers. Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Tim Morton, Adam Robbert, Jason Hills, Tom Sparrow, Leon Niemoczynski, and others all took part.
I have argued that, without some divine function (whether of the theist, pantheist, or panentheist variety), ideas and meanings can have no reality in the universe. I make this claim in order to remain metaphysically consistent, not because I think atheism is immoral. Obviously, atheists can still be ethical people, operating in the world with meaning, purpose, and even humanitarian idealism. I would never dispute this. What I have argued is that atheists who are also scientific materialists/naturalists risk falling into blatant contradiction unless they are able to articulate how thinking, feeling, and willing (faculties normally associated with consciousness) remain possible despite their metaphysical commitment to a thoroughly non-teleological, disenchanted cosmology. If it is the case that the universe operates according to efficient causality alone (as most materialists traditionally assert), then how is it that human beings are capable of entertaining ideas and engaging in meaningful projects? The validity of scientific knowledge rests upon the assumption that the thoughts and purposes of scientists are real. The atheistic materialist is left with two options in order to remain consistent with this assumption: either ideas and meanings are uniquely human capacities not present in the rest of the universe, or human consciousness itself is an epiphenomenal illusion that neuroscience will eventually explain in mechanistic terms. I think both of these options are inadequate: emergentist dualism is too anthropocentric, and eliminativist monism is too mechanomorpic. I maintain that the human soul is not ontologically distinct from the rest of the universe because the universe is ensouled. Whitehead’s panentheist conception of God functions in a way similar to the World-Soul as described in Timaeus; only, instead of actively shaping passive matter as Plato’s demiurge, Whitehead’s dipolar God bends the infinitely diversifying flow of Creativity into the finite occasions of a unifying Cosmos (and is bent, in turn, by these same occasions).
Coffield argues that, despite my apparent support of the anthrodecentric tendencies of OOO, I am “ultimately unable to escape” a human-centric ontology. He continues:
“Even if the noosphere is more putatively sophisticated than the nonhuman objectsphere (a debatable point), it does not follow, from an object-orientation, that the relations of the former should be given precedence over the latter. Instead, as Levi Bryant has previously indicated, existence entails perpetual differentiation, such that to be is to differ. Thus, the very concept of a singular noosphere or inanimate objectsphere is conceptually shaky, and any entity inserted to bridge the sides of this infinitely regressive binary—God, game, golden goose, or Gandalf—is rendered, to borrow Morton’s word, irrelevant.”
Much of the philosophizing I do on this blog reflects my struggle to steer clear of all binaries by weaving Wisdom’s wandering story into a differentiated whole. There are many objects, many perspectives, both human-related and not. In calling them all objects, I aim to think the Absolute, or the identity of identity and difference. My philosophizing is a cosmologizing, and in that sense, all my thinking is in the service of anthropogenesis. I aim to cosmologize the human by anthropomorphizing the Cosmos. Perhaps this sounds tautological, but if we think in terms of process or genesis instead of being or ontos, the Anthropic Principle becomes among the most profound of metaphysical insights. Anthropos is already implicit in Cosmos, not because our particular species represents the supreme achievement of the universe, but because thinking has always been a more than human activity rooted in the nature of reality itself.
“The forces which are at work inside my body”, suggests Rudolf Steiner,
“…are the same as those which exist outside. Therefore I am really identical with the objects; not, however, “I” in so far as I am a perception of myself as subject, but “I” in so far as I am a part of the universal world process […] The universal, primordial Being permeating all humanity thus takes hold of us through our thinking. Life within reality, filled with thought content, is at the same time life in God.” –Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path, p. 98 and 236
I do not think that the noösphere should take precedence over the non-human universe, because I do not conceive of the universe as lacking in νοῦς or ψυχή. The noösphere is a cosmic event, something the whole of Gaia is doing in conjunction with the solar system and galaxy within which it is nested. God, or the World-Soul (ψυχή κόσμου), is not irrelevant to philosophy if the philosopher hopes to think the Cosmos. If, as Bryant suggests, “to be is to differ,” then it is nihilism, indeed, that we are left with. Not that I want to homogenize the individualities of reality; I would just rephrase Bryant’s important insight: “to become is to differ.” Process philosophy is then an attempt to identify and re-enact the divine aim of creative differentiation, to participate in its latent holotropic tendencies by uncovering the divine presence in all temporal things. Only then does the Universe become a reality.
“If nihilism fears really are concerns over the implications of anthrodecentrism (a clever term coined by Segall) for value judgement, then demonstrating the capacity for deriving value under realist conditions may allay anxiety about affirmations of meaninglessness, making the more radical articulations of object-oriented ontology mare palatable. Crafting a coherent variant of anthrodecentric normativity can be accomplished, in one sense, through an appeal to naturalistic realism…[or] a radically flattened version of natural selection [productive of] moral norms consonant with an instrumental social rationality, wherein moral arrangements that impede group interests animate the potential for unrest, creating feedback that promotes the development of norms aligned with social rationality.”
In order to avoid being misunderstood as advocating subject-centrism over object-centrism, or unity over variety, or hierarchy over ecology, I should further unpack my cosmotheandrism. Attempts to naturalize our moral needs/wants in this way seems to me to be a form of greedy reductionism neglectful of the extent to which the ultimate values of the Universe pre-exist the species level, since it is these values (like Beauty, Goodness, and Truth) that provide the metaphysical condition for the possibility of local accomplishments of normativity. Reducing morality to an accident of social and/or natural selection does not lead to moral realism, but to relativism. If we seek an object-orientation in ethics, then value must be rooted in the world process itself. Our human characteristics are microcosmic inflections of the divine character of the macrocosm.
This microcosm-macrocosm relation is not deterministic or coercive, such that God becomes responsible for every decision made by human beings or any other organism. The World-Soul is not a universal tyrant, but a poet, who, “with tender patience [leads] it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).
Whitehead goes on:
“God and the World are the contrasted opposites in terms of which Creativity achieves its supreme task of transforming disjoined multiplicity, with its diversities in opposition, into concrescent unity, with its diversities in contrast […] God and the World stand over against each other, expressing the final metaphysical truth that appetitive vision and physical enjoyment have equal claim to priority in creation. But no two actualities can be torn apart: each is all in all. Thus each temporal occasion embodies God, and is embodied in God. In God’s nature, permanence is primordial and flux is derivative from the World: in the World’s nature, flux is primordial and permanence is derivative from God. Also the World’s nature is a primordial datum for God; and God’s nature is a primordial datum for the World. Creation achieves the reconciliation of permanence and flux when it has reached its final term which is everlastingness—the Apotheosis of the World. Opposed elements stand to each other in mutual requirement. In their unity, they inhibit or contrast. God and the World stand to each other in this op-posed requirement. God is the infinite ground of all mentality, the unity of vision seeking physical multiplicity. The World is the multiplicity of finites, actualities seeking a perfected unity. Neither God, nor the World, reaches static completion. Both are in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty” (ibid., p. 348-349).
*The alphabet begins with A. A is for aleph, א, which to a mystic’s ear symbolizes to the polar unity (or Trinitarity) of God:
“The letter can been seen as being composed of  an upper yud,  a lower yud, and  a vav leaning on a diagonal. The upper yud represents the hidden and ineffible aspects of God while the lower yud represents God’s revelation and presence in the world. The vav (“hook”) connects the two realms.” –Wikipedia
I agree with Morton’s appraisal, that the eliminative materialism that seems to be gaining favor among philosophers (like Ray Brassier) offers little in the way of new theoretical accounts of consciousness or practical approaches to ethics, and so functions only to support conservatism. Eliminativists, of course, argue that “consciousness” is only a word, a meaningless vibration of molecules that makes sense to us because we’ve been duped by our habitual use of folk psychological language. In reality, there is no consciousness, only vectors of neural activation. Philosophers may have traditionally sought out the truth with the help of language, whether prosaic or poetic; but, the eliminativists assure us, human language produces only fictions. There is no such thing as consciousness, just as there is no such thing as a sunrise. Truth can only be found, if at all, in numerical relations derived from the computational activity of synapses.
Whitehead’s entire philosophical adventure is an attempt to avoid the “bifurcation of nature” produced by this sort of scientific materialism. Following his way of thinking nature and culture as different aspects of the same creative process, what is to prevent us from conceiving of neural interaction as semiotic in its own right? Human semiosis may be based in the fictional play of signifiers, and to that extent incapable of finally explaining its own conditions of possibility; but neural semiosis is no less messy and interpretive, no less groundless and playful. Semiosis, so far as I can tell, must go all the way down: meaning is not a human fabrication, but a natural phenomenon.
Eliminativism is the worst kind of reductionism, that motivated by the technoscientific desire to predict and control everything for the sake of a more efficient capitalist market. As I tried to touch on in my last post, there is quite literally a world of difference between a mystery and a problem. Consciousness is not a problem that might be solved through some kind of reverse engineering, but a mystery whose very contradictoriness (it cannot be found since it is that which is seeking, even though this very statement unveils much about its nature) constitutes the worldliness of our lives. Without this mystery, there is no world, no meaning, no aesthetic or ethical value. This is not to say, mind you, that eliminativism is a threat to the meaning of human life. It is itself just another mythos, albeit an alienating and destructive one. It is ironic that, just as biologists are awakening to the current anthropogenic mass extinction event, someone like Brassier, inspired by eliminativism, would embrace a logic of extinction as the only valid form of philosophical reflection (I must thank Adam for pointing this out).
In preparation for a larger speculative project, I’ve been reading a translation by Judith Norman of the 2nd draft of Schelling’s unfinished manuscript entitled Ages of the World (1813). I’ve been intrigued by Schelling’s philosophies of nature and freedom for several years, but never had the time to do a closer study. Iain Hamilton Grant‘s well-researched text Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2008), on which I presented a few months back in a panel discussion on speculative realism, reminded me just how compelling his ideas and methods are. My own philosophical approach remains thoroughly Whiteheadian, though I continue to aspire to deepen Whitehead’s more naturalistic tendencies by bringing him into conversation with the hermetic occultism of Rudolf Steiner. I think Schelling may offer a bridge between the two, since his system has both a processual materialist aspect and an evolutionary spiritualist aspect. Schelling’s direct influence on Whitehead is minimal, if there is any at all; Steiner, on the other hand, clearly felt an affinity with him.
I am drawn to the thoughts of these three men because they offer a picture of the universe, and humanity’s place within it, that preserves the best of ancient philosophy alongside that of modern science. In our now postmodern context, there is no doubt a need to update and amend some of their ideas. Meeting the challenges of the ecological and social crises of our time demands an unprecedented transformation of human consciousness, and with it our philosophy and science. Anthropocentrism, whether that of the religious or technoscientific sort, is perhaps the most difficult conceptual obstacle standing in the way of an adequate form of thinking the cosmos. The universe is far stranger and more alien than we could ever have imagined. Matter, for centuries science’s most dependable and fundamental explanatory category, has become as “dark” and mysterious as spirit.
This darkness, and the need to break free of anthropocentrism, is, in part, the motivation underlying the emergence of object-oriented philosophies like that of Graham Harman, Tim Morton, and Levi Bryant. I am not as familiar with the latter two’s approaches, though I believe Bryant is more amenable to a process ontology like Schelling’s or Whitehead’s than is Harman. For Harman, objects are substantial and not processual. “Time,” he writes in Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005), “is the strife between an object and its accidents” (p. 250); time is not “an absolute constant force that wheels onward regardless of the deployment of specific objects” (p. 249). Whitehead would agree that time is not independent of objects, but rather, as Harman suggests, unfurls within objects. In this sense, every object has its own time. As I’ve outlined, albeit briefly, in another post, Whitehead does not entirely reduce the substance of an object to its relations as he is often accused of doing by Bryant and Harman alike. Time, nonetheless, does seem to play a more fundamental role in the production of objects in Whitehead and Schelling.
In Ages of the World, Schelling unpacks his understanding of material products in the context of a philosophy of time:
Even the smallest grain of sand must contain determinations within itself that we cannot exhaust until we have laid out the entire course of creative nature leading up to it. Everything is only the work of time, and it is only through time that everything receives its particular character and meaning.
Nature, for Schelling, exists in contradiction, and so becomes in time. It is both creative process and created product, influenced both by the powers of forward striving and backward inhibition (novelty and habit). Without the retarding force of habit, time would not exist, “because development would occur in an uninterrupted flash rather than successively…” Nor could time exist without the driving force of novelty, since without it “there would be absolute rest, death, standstill…”
“Every entity,” writes Schelling,
everything that is, wants to be in itself and out of itself at the same time. It wants to be in itself inasmuch as it posits or collects itself together as what-is [als Seyendes], as a subject; to this extent it opposes development and expansion. It wants to be out of itself inasmuch as it desires to be what it is in itself once more, and hence externally. In the first case, it is something withdrawn by itself, which sets itself in opposition to what is outside of it; but it sets itself in opposition only in order to reveal and declare itself against this outside as what it is in itself. It cannot, therefore, remain in this withdrawn condition.
“Thus,” he concludes, “the principles we perceive in time [and nature] are the authentic inner principles of all life, and contradiction is not only possible but in fact necessary.” I don’t think Schelling’s approach here is opposed to that of Harman. Their respective positions may be complementary, if different in emphasis. I am not sure of the German word used above for “withdrawn,” but I found these lines especially significant in this context. Withdrawal is perhaps at the very center of Harman’s conceptual scheme, and indeed it plays an important role for Schelling, as well. But in Schelling’s ontology, withdrawal is only one moment in a polarized process. Beings love to hide, but also to show themselves. This contradiction is what puts existence into motion.
In the context of a process ontology, withdrawal can remain a central concept without becoming ultimate. Objects need not be dissolved into relations, but can be understood to hide from one another precisely because they exist in contradiction and so are always becoming in time. An object, then, withdrawals from itself and from other objects because it is never simply at rest as itself. Heraclitus wrote that “you cannot step twice into the same stream,” but in Schelling’s sense, perhaps we could say that it is impossible to step even once into the same stream.
Knowledge Ecology blogged earlier today about the difference between blogging and publishing books, which has become an issue of contention within “the speculative realist movement,” so called, since Ray Brassier’s disparaging comment in an interview last year. Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, and Levi Bryant all chimed in with responses. Below is my response:
In light of McLuhan’s theory of how new media technologies develop by swallowing prior mediums (similar to Hegel’s Aufheben, no?), perhaps we 20-somethings, whose capacity to think and to communicate can hardly be understood in isolation from electronic media like the Internet, have a unique perspective on the matter.
Were we ever, strictly speaking, literate? I don’t think so. My consciousness may still have been forged by text, but not the printed word of prior generations. Electronic texts are hyper-texts that defy the logic of linear, rational consciousness characteristic of 18th and 19th century literacy. The word has been etherealized by the electronic medium of the blog and is no longer bound to the stubborn materiality of books, nor to the ideological conservatism of the publishing industry.
Hyper-text gives the word greater freedom in time and space, linking it to an increasingly planet-wide network of contexts whose informational resources are available for consumption at the speed of light.
It’s important to recognize, however, the way the Internet represents a sort of culmination of capitalism. On a trivial level, without capitalism and the military-industrial complex, the technological infrastructure that provides the material conditions for our ethereal exchanges would not exist; but on a deeper level, the blogosphere has made truth something to be competed for within a free market (at least free to those who can afford Internet access).
Of course, academic publishing may still provide the necessary hierarchy of expertise protecting well-researched truth claims from the laissez-faire democratization that can occur online. Like the blogosphere, however, these hierarchies are still only justified by the strength of their networks and alliances.
In the end, I prefer to feel the weight of the written word in my hand. Books may not be quite as ethereal a mode of expression as blogs, but their imposing permanence sometimes makes the former seem ephemeral.