I’m winding down a cross-country road trip and had the pleasure of talking about it in the context of America’s larger political predicament with Jeremy and Ryan on their “Growing Down” podcast.
A link to the Twitter tiff I mentioned: https://twitter.com/normonics/status/1090672373760692225
In what follows, I offer some reflections on the feminist process theologian Catherine Keller’s book Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (2015). Keller poetically folds her refreshingly open theological orientation into an array of important planetary topics,—including the ethical implications of quantum entanglement (chapter 4), the poststructuralist dissolution of substance (chapter 5) and of rigid gender binaries (chapter 7), the history of the Christian crusades and their relation to the rise of colonial modernity and global capitalism (chapter 8), the retrieval of Gaia as a more adequate name for God than “father” or “king” (chapter 9),—and unfolds from their implications possible sources of hope for our imperiled planet. She traverses these topoi with radical epistemological uncertainty while reiterating their, and our, ontological inseparability with every step.
Self-confident secularists may protest that turning to a theological mode of discourse like Keller’s in the face of our species’ present social, political, and ecological problems is only to regress into the very source of our problems! Why rehash the religious myths of the past if we modern, rational people now have the precision instruments of scientific knowledge, machines, and the capitalist market to guide us into a better future?
First of all, myth is not a childish embellishment upon sociopolitical reality, but the divine ground of individual and collective life. We don’t grow out of myth, we grow out of one myth and into another. Without myth, psyche and polis would have no way of attuning to cosmos. With no attunement to the cosmos, Thomas Berry would remind us that we will find no functional relationship with the ecosystems of the planet.1 Modernity’s rituals of certain knowledge, technological excess, and “progress” are themselves zealously drenched in mythic manna. As Latour taught us, we have never been modern.
Second of all, Keller’s theopoetics are not the divine fiats of Pope Urban II or the violent repressions of evangelical Christian capitalists. She talks God otherwise. She is a process theologian who learned her God-talk from Whitehead: God is “the poet of the world,” a “fellow-sufferer who understands” seeking “with tender care that nothing be lost” by luring the universe from utter loss toward complete love.2 Though in Cloud of the Impossible Keller draws heavily on “ancestral Christian sources” like Nicholaus of Cusa and Giordano Bruno, she explicates from them not the “militant ghosts of premodern omnipotence,”3 but a relational pluralism wherein God is the Supreme Complication, the dark Cloud wherein each is inseparably implicated in All. God is the “Non-Aliud” or non-Other whose name is infinite and so ineffable, and for this very reason enfolding infinitely many names. In Cusa’s terms:
“All the names are unfoldings of the enfolding one, ineffable name, and as this proper name is infinite, so it enfolds an infinite number of such names of particular perfections. Although there could be many such unfoldings, they are never so many or so great that there could not be more.”4
God has many names: Yahweh, Christ, Man, Machine, Capital. All more or less imperfectly convey the divine mystery. Keller performs her pluralism theologically not because she seeks to violently settle a diverse society on a new peace-instilling divine name, but because our “modern” scientific and political perspectives are “inexplicable apart from medieval theological presumptions of a creation good and open to reason.”5 We (the inheritors of European Christendom) can think God otherwise, but we cannot think without God.
In this lecture from a course on pluralism and political theory, I explored Plato’s ploy in the Republic to examine the soul by expanding it to the size of a city; in chapter 4, “The Physics of Nonseparability,” Keller invites us to examine the ethical entanglements of psyche and polis by way of a “contraction to the quantum point of view.”6 But why examine ethics by way of physics? What could be more irrelevant to untangling the ethical significance of human action than the strangely knotted world of quantum entanglement? Keller turns to the surprising and refreshing work of feminist philosopher Karen Barad to lure standard interpretations of quantum theory beyond their anthropocentric conceits. Barad reinterprets Neil Bohr’s more Kantian quantum transcendentalism (i.e., physics doesn’t tell us what Nature is, it only tells us what we can say about Nature) such that it becomes a new relational ontology. She makes no mention of Whitehead in her book Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007), but their projects are clearly convergent. Rather than understanding Bohr’s principle of complementarity as a reflection of the limitations of our knowledge of quantum phenomena, Barad asserts that the undecidability of the pre-observed nature of quantum events is in fact a constitutive feature of quantum reality. Einstein was unhappy with Bohr’s quantum universe, as it’s apparent indeterminacy stood in stark contrast to the strict determinism of his relativistic universe. Einstein went so far as to joke that he’d rather give up physics to become a shoe-maker or a poker dealer than accept that electrons had free will.7 During an evening walk with a close colleague of Bohr’s, Einstein once asked: “Do you really believe the Moon is not there if nobody looks?” From Barad’s perspective, it isn’t that the Moon isn’t there when we aren’t looking, it’s that when we do look, a new Moon, and a new me, emerge in the encounter. It turns out that the idea of separability itself was only ever a convenient fiction, whether we are talking about the level of protons or persons. The very notion of a isolated “thing” (a classical particle or body-bound observer) has been undone by Barad’s “agential realism,” wherein the final realities are “intra-active” agencies rather than isolable entities. These agencies or creatures (to use Whitehead’s favored term) are not dissolved into their relational intra-actions, “rather, the creature emerges within the creative field that it differentiates [such that] the attributes that make one creature different from another [are] acts of differentiation [and not] inherent properties of a discrete substance.”8 Acts or performances of differentiation are what individuate us moment by moment; our identities are always established through intra-active relationship.
Keller blames the instrumentalist Zeitgeist of the post-War US for keeping physicists from pursuing the full import of the quantum enigmas unveiled by Einstein, Bohr, and others. “Shut up and calculate” was the mantra.9 More recently, thanks to physicist-philosophers like John Bell, David Bohm, and Whitehead, the paradigm-shattering implications of quantum entanglement are now more widely acknowledged.10 In Keller’s words, “science…inherited from theology the metaphysics of separate substance, supernatural and natural.”11 But quantum physics has exposed “in broad scientific daylight [that] the minimum unit of the universe [is] a place of active relationship,” and that “each particularity is a distinct recomposition of its world.”12
In chapter 5, “The Fold in Process,” Keller folds together (but not without remainder) the work of Gilles Deleuze and Whitehead, who each in their own ways creatively unsaid the metaphysics of substance to instead celebrate the differential connectivity of the world. Deleuze, like Whitehead, was influenced by William James’ pluralistic and pragmatic orientation to philosophy. “In the Deleuzean work,” writes Keller,
“concepts themselves are multiplied and mobilized. They do not reflect, mirror, or subserve the real; they participate in its becoming. They do not cut the world into abstractions. They ply the world; they apply themselves to its practices.”13
In other words, rather than construing philosophy as a search for the true concepts that would accurately represent or mirror the nature of mind-independent reality, Deleuze engaged philosophy as the creation of new concepts capable of transforming reality, irrespective of any imagined boundaries supposedly separating mental from physical realities. Novel concepts resonate in the world, shaking up its settled order; or old concepts repeat endlessly, shoring up settled natural and social habits. Concepts are not mere mirrors, reflectively uninvolved in the workings of the world. Their value is derived from what they do or make it possible to do.
Keller skillfully unpacks the resonances and differences between Deleuze’s Spinozist pantheism and Whitehead’s thoroughly reformed process-relational panentheism. She wonders if the former’s insistence on pure immanence is the best way to overcome the separative transcendence so characteristic of traditional theology. Whitehead’s theology rejects the tendency so prevalent in the ontotheological traditions of the West to pay metaphysical compliments to God (all-knowing, all- good, all-powerful, etc.). His process-relational God is not the all-powerful exception to but the prime exemplification of creative flux. Whitehead’s God is described as a creature of Creativity. God a creature?: it would be hard to imagine a more heretical statement from the point of view of an orthodox Christian, Jewish, or Islamic theologian. Nonetheless, Whitehead is unwilling to jettison the divine function entirely, whereas Deleuze celebrates the death of God with Nietzschean zeal.
In chapter 7, “Unsaying and Undoing,” Keller enters into conversation with the Kant of Queer Theory, Judith Butler. She differentiates the 20th century social constructionist Butler, who brilliantly deconstructed falsely naturalized gender norms using the tools of poststructuralism, from the 21st century social ontologist Butler, who after exposure to Whitehead overcame her earlier ethical anthropocentrism by articulating a relational ontology that queered reality itself. Keller writes:
“Whitehead, attending to the exclusions wrought by closed systems, hearkens to the nonhuman universe, alive and participant in all our finite human decisions [“We have no right to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the Universe”14]. An attention to the not yet known of the entire creaturely plenum, nurtured by his mathematical involvement in the natural sciences and his love of the romantic poets of his region, now carries the force of ancestral prophecy. The ethical anthropocentrism of Butler’s philosophy, even after the end of the last millennium, counts in this one way as the more traditional.”15
Keller celebrates Butler’s late turn to the queerness of a relational ontology. She criticizes poststructuralism’s prior tendency to over-focus on the way we are constructed by language, culture, and society, while downplaying or ignoring our relations to nonhumans. Poststructural approaches follow the relations and ruptures of linguistic signs with other signs in systems of signification with great precision and insight. Such an approach can and has called out oppressive social structures that shape culture by disguising it as Nature, thus opening pathways toward more ethical human relations. But what about our relations to such nonhuman diversities as fireflies, microchips, polar bears, influenza, plate tectonics, and starlight?
In addition to her encounter with Whitehead, Butler was motivated to undertake her ontological insurrection by way of a meditation on loss, precarity, and mourning. Mourning reveals to us what was always already the case before the loss of a loved one, that our selves are incomplete due to their constitutive relationality. “It is not,” Butler writes,
“as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ is part of what composes who ‘I’ am…Who ‘am’ I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do.”16
Just as with the entangled intra-actions of physical quanta, human souls are stitched together from the inside-out by threads of precarious and promiscuous influence. “Let’s face it,” writes Butler, “We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”17 Keller links Butler’s still human-focused ethics of relationality to Whitehead’s process-relational ontology: “loss belongs to the ecology of becoming,” as all our relations are composed of prehensions of “perishing others as they pass into us.”18 By dying into one another, we create one another. This process of decomposition and recomposition is occurring at every scale of Nature, human and non-, and reiterates endlessly “to the crack of doom.”19 It marks for Whitehead the primary miracle of creation, whereby the dry bones of the past are clothed again in the flesh of renewed purpose and zest for life.20 It is the miracle whereby actual occasions perpetually perish “and yet live for evermore.”21
Butler, speaking directly to Whiteheadians eager to overcome anthropocentrism, warns of the risks of overlooking the profound singularity of loss. Keller amplifies Butler’s concerns: “celebrations of the cycles of life and death may not support the human ethic that suffers individual losses and honors grief…the human difference needs protecting from reductive indifference.”22 We ought to stay as close as possible to such concerns to attend radically to that which is not human. My hope is that it is precisely through recovering a sense of ethical relation with the nonhuman realms that our true humanness will become most apparent. Perhaps it is the very search for some supernatural identity apart from the planet of our birth that has so degraded our humanity.
In chapter 8, “Crusade, Capital, and Cosmopolis,” Keller traces the way the medieval Christian West overcame its internal divisions and discovered a unifying sense of identity through centuries of crusading against Islam. Western self-identity is thus constitutively Islamaphobic. “Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians.”23 Such was Pope Urban II’s rallying cry in 1095, on the eve of the first crusade to push back the Turks and retake the Holy Land.
Several centuries of crusading later, after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, Nicholas of Cusa, a Catholic cardinal, called for a conference of faiths instead of yet another religious war. In place of forced conversion to Christianity or to Islam, Cusa imagined a conversation among representatives of many faiths who, with help from the Logos, might come to agree that though there are many religious or cultural rites the world over (among them Christianity and Islam), there is only one infinite and thus ineffable God. Cusa articulates what could be Christendom’s earliest doctrine of inclusivism. To the Logos, he says: “rivalry [among faiths] exists for the sake of You, whom alone they revere in everything that all seem to worship.”24 While Cusa’s mystical inclusivism may fall short of the radical pluralism I’d prefer, in its time and place at the sunrise of Modernity, it, too, was radical. Perhaps even today, the two biggest religions Christianity and Islam still have much to learn from an inclusivist theology like Cusa’s, since both remain for the most part dead set on exclusivist interpretations of the truth of their own doctrines. Keller’s hope is that a relational pluralism might help exclusivists begin to feel what they share with other faiths: namely, a love of God—Cusa’s “Infinite Complication”—which enfolds all the world’s religious expressions.
Keller goes on to enter into dialogue with Enrique Dussel’s thesis on the origins of Modernity, not in northern Germany with Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation (as Hegel argued), but in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. From Dussel’s perspective, Descartes’ ego cogito was preceded and sustained by an ego conquiro: “if the ego cogito doubts the world around him, the ego conquiro doubts the very humanity of conquered others.”25
In our hypermodern age, the crusader complex has taken the form of global capitalism, “in which oil —and therefore Islam—figures prominently.”26 Keller quotes political analyst Thomas Frank, who in his book One Market Under God argued that sometime in the 90s people came to believe that “there is something natural, something divine, something inherently democratic about markets.”27 What a strange litany of adjectives! The global capitalist market is entirely natural, a consequence of biological evolution, and yet at the same time it is also divine, the only source of human salvation? And “democratic”? Keller admits that capitalism’s “flexible interactivity captures something of the ontological process of entanglement,” and that attempted solutions to our planetary problems via top-down State imposition are doomed to failure.28 And yet, contemporary neoliberal capitalism does not advertise the pluriverse’s participatory matrix of “each-in-each”; rather, it asserts an ontology of isolable individuals counted “ego-by-ego,” pushing a new ruse of separability that stays ‘connected.’”29
From Keller’s process theological perspective, any effective resistance to the God of the global capitalist market must be a religious form resistance. She introduces the political theology of Carl Schmitt, who argued that all supposedly modern political theories of the state were really just secularized theological concepts. Schmitt’s approach led him to a theory of the State wherein political order is achieved through the exceptional right of an all-powerful sovereign. Keller asks instead if we “can have some transmodern rendition of political theology that does not take its cues from the militant ghosts of this premodern omnipotence?”30 She offers Whitehead’s panentheism as a truly democratic alternative to Schmitt’s totalitarian theism. For Whitehead, God is not the supreme exception, but the supreme example, the fellow-sufferer who understands.
In chapter 9, “Broken Touch: The Ecology of the Impossible,” Keller elucidates the hidden meaning of the Pergamon Altar depicting a groaning Gaia reaching out for one of her stricken children beneath a victorious Athena. She reads the scene as a metaphor for the origins of the polis or perhaps even civilization as such: “It would seem that we have to do here with an ancient complex… relation to the earth-home is sacrificed on the altar of civilization—driven into the civilizational unconscious…Might we recognize here a Gaia complex? It lends a face to the more ancient and diffuse fear of the nonhuman universe from which the human is inseparable: call it ecophobia.”31 Keller turns to the climate scientist James Lovelock to exemplify the way a new story of Gaia is being brought forth in our ecologically imperiled age. Lovelock has grown increasingly skeptical of humanity’s chances of averting the worst of climate change and the broader ecological crisis. The time to wake up and take responsibility for the destabilizing effects of human industry on the planet has passed. “I fear,” Lovelock writes, “that we still dream on and, rather than waking, we weave the sound of the alarm clock into our dreams.”32
What is still possible now that civilization has gone so far past the tipping point of planetary catastrophe? Humanity stands face to face with Gaia, and we are dumbstruck. “The entanglement of the human in the crowding nonhumanity of the species and elements of the earth…endlessly [overwhelms] speech—with wonder or horror.”33 Might a renewed attempt at ecotheology help shepherd our species through the coming evolutionary bottleneck? Might we–“we” earthlings, our collectivity delicately composed by our shared planetary fate—find in the face of Gaia a source of numinous meaning powerful enough to heal the ecophobic repression at the root of our civilization? Keller wonders aloud: “how on earth is the earth itself, Gaia, inclusive of all of us, a less apt God- name than the name of a mere bit of the earth, like a ‘father’ or a ‘king’?”34
1 Berry, The Great Work, 84: “ecology is functional cosmology.”
2 Whitehead, Process and R eality, Part 5.
3 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 260.
4 Cusa, De docta ignorantia, in N icolas of Cusa: S elected S piritual Writings, trans. H. Lawrence Bond (New York: Paulist, 1997), 124-125.
5 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 131.
6 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 132.
7 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 134.
8 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 139.
9 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 154.
10 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 155.
11 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 131.
12 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 128, 142.
13 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 174.
14 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 111.
15 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 232.
16 Butler, Precarious Life (London: Verso, 2004), 22.
17 Butler quoted in Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 215.
18 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 225-226.
19 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 228.
20 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 85.
21 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 351.
22 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 235.
23 M edieval Worlds: A Sourcebook, ed. Roberta Anderson and Dominic Aidan Belenger (New York: Routledge, 2003), 90.
24 Cusa, On Interreligious H armony: Text, Concordance, and Translation of DePace Fidei, ed. James E. Biechler and H. Lawrence Bond (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1990), 6.
25 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 257; Dussel and Barber, The Invention of theAmericas, 245.
26 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 253.
27 Quoted in Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 254.
28 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 255.
29 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 254.
30 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 260.
31 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 267-268.
32 Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, 29.
33 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 269.
34 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 281.
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 two lectures recorded for my online course this semester, Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. In these two modules, we are studying Latour’s recently translated book Facing Gaia.
“If we are to accomplish the impossible feat of (re)composing a group from a multiplicity or, equally impossible, making a plurality obey a common order, it is necessary above all not to start with beings with fixed opinions, firmly established interests, definitive identities and set wills. This would guarantee failure, for any work of composition appears only as an intolerable compromise, even a dishonest one, and would break, shatter or annihilate wills, opinions, interests and identities. Conversely, if we set out to ‘recognize’ all affiliations, to ‘take into account’ all interests, to ‘listen to’ all opinions, to ‘respect’ all wills, we would never manage to close the circle–neither one way nor the other–since multiplicities would triumph, doggedly stubborn in their irreducible difference. The only way of making the circle advance, of ‘cooking’ or ‘knitting’ politics, of producing (re)groupings, consists in never ever starting with established opinions, wills, identities and interests. It is up to political talk alone to introduce, re-establish and adjust them. For political life to be thinkable, utterable, speakable, it is therefore necessary for agents not to have fixed opinions but to be likely to change their minds; for them not to have an identity but affiliations that shift throughout the course of the debate; for them not to be sure of the interests they represent but for their wills to waver or, by contrast, to develop as the relations of all the other agents who make them talk and whom they cause to talk, gather together, and change. We can now understand the meaning of that fragile, contradictory, meticulous alchemy that the Sophists called autophuos, and which has nothing tautological about it, despite Socrates’ irony: he who talks does not talk about himself but about another, who is not one but Legion. Nothing less than this constitutes frank, authentic political expression.
If my hypothesis is correct, we can well imagine times when political talk will disappear or at least become so strange that it would immediately be banned. I am not thinking here of the practice of censorship of opinions, of a lack of freedom of speech regarding content. No, what I am referring to is a disease infinitely more serious, which might strike the very substance of political talk. By constantly despising this type of talk, constantly judging it by the yardstick of the faithful and transparent transfer of double-click information or power struggles, we may well end up depriving ourselves little by little of all its resources, as I have shown us to have done with science and religion–like by neglecting a road network we may end up making all journeys impossible and allowing only local relations. In these matters there is no reassuring destiny, as if talk were an inherent of the political animal and we could count on the nature of things for this invaluable form of enunciation to be preserved. Invaluable and fragile, it survives only with meticulous care by a culture as delicate as it is artificial. By replacing distorted representation by faithful representation, impossible obedience by pedagogy, composition of new groups by rectilinear transfer of ‘relations of domination’, we may well finish off politics for good or, in any case, cool it down to the point of it dying of numbness, without even noticing, like a careless pedestrian lost in a blizzard.”
Friday, June 5th at 4:45pm:
Whitehead’s Non-Modern Philosophy: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse
Saturday June 6th at 2:30pm:
Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision
I have a lot to say about some of the questions that came up during the discussion (~58 minutes into the video), especially the issues that Terrence Deacon and Stu Kauffman brought up about life’s pervasiveness in the universe and whether “play” might exist in the non-biological world. I’ll be posting about these questions in the next few days…
[Update 6/11: Stu K. and I had breakfast the day after my talk to discuss the idea of a “physics of play.” Such a physics becomes possible given the panexperientialist basis of Whitehead’s ontology. I’m hoping we can co-author a paper on this… Stay tuned.]
Kastrup is confused by what I said in my original response to him regarding the room that ontological pluralism leaves for both the extraordinary experience of unity and the ordinary experience of plurality.
Ontological pluralism seems more true to experience (both common every day experience AND mystical experience), since it doesn’t deny the possibility of unity, it only denies that things are necessarily unified.
My claim here is pretty straightforward: everyday experience is multifaceted, while mystical experience is unitive. I’m not denying the testimony of mystics as to the unity of reality. Ontological pluralism grants the possibility of such unity. It just also incorporates the obvious fact of commonsense experience, as well. Mystical experiences are extraordinary precisely because they don’t happen all the time. So rather than ignore the plurality of the everyday experiences we spend almost every waking and dreaming moment of our lives in, I want to acknowledge that they, too, have ontological significance.
I’ll quote William James from the essay I mentioned in my original post, A Pluralistic Universe (available online in its entirety). As I said then, I think his arguments against monistic idealism are pretty convincing. They convinced me of the merits of pluralism, at least:
The sum of it all is that the absolute is not forced on our belief by logic, that it involves features of irrationality peculiar to itself, and that a thinker to whom it does not come as an ‘immediate certainty’…is in no way bound to treat it as anything but an emotionally rather sublime hypothesis. As such, it might, with all its defects, be, on account of its peace-conferring power and its formal grandeur, more rational than anything else in the field. But meanwhile the strung-along unfinished world in time is its rival:reality MAY exist in distributive form, in the shape not of an all but of a set of eaches, just as it seems to—this is the anti-absolutist hypothesis. Prima facie there is this in favor of the eaches, that they are at any rate real enough to have made themselves at least appear to every one, whereas the absolute has as yet appeared immediately to only a few mystics, and indeed to them very ambiguously. The advocates of the absolute assure us that any distributive form of being is infected and undermined by self-contradiction. If we are unable to assimilate their arguments, and we have been unable, the only course we can take, it seems to me, is to let the absolute bury the absolute, and to seek reality in more promising directions, even among the details of the finite and the immediately given. (lecture 3)
The cosmic unity intimated by mystics may indeed be the case. All the ontological pluralist argues is that this unity is not necessarily the case, that is, is not the end of the story metaphysically speaking. If we say it is the end of the story, we negate everyday experience, explaining it away as mere appearance. This, to my mind, is the worst kind of reductionism, in that it denies what is most obvious to our experience in favor of some hidden truth accessible only to a special few.
In light of the elitism implied by monistic idealism, a final word on the relationship between politics and metaphysics is in order. Kastrup worries that I conflate two entirely different categories when I say that a monistic ontology carries with it the risk of a totalitarian politics. “Does anyone seriously think that our (political) views and preferences bear any relevance to what nature is?” Kastrup asks. “Personally,” he continues, “I am interested in what is true, not what I’d prefer to be true.” I’d reverse his statement and point out that the way a society comes to terms with what reality is undoubtedly influences they way they compose a common world together (the composition of a common world is my definition of politics). I am not suggesting some sort of relativism wherein reality is decided by an opinion poll. But can anyone really deny the way metaphysical beliefs (consciously stated or not) correspond to the shape a society takes?
I unpack my thoughts on the relationship between politics and ontology in the videos below:
The following was an early draft of a talk I gave in my own track at the Whitehead/Ecological Civilization conference in Claremont, CA. For video of the actual talk, click HERE.
This track has been given the task of re-imagining late modernity, and in particular, of re-imagining what John Cobb has called late modernity’s reductive monism. In my talk today, I want to try sketch a cosmopolitical alternative to late modernity’s reductive monism as part of an attempt to begin preparing us, at least in the realm of ideas and imagination, for a ecological civilization to come. My approach will not be systematic, but pluralistic. I aim to sketch an alternative to modernity by drawing out the metaphysical possibilities opened up by ontological pluralism. My method is one of philosophical “assemblage,” which Whitehead suggests should precede the stage of careful systematization. System comes later, after the owl of Minerva has flown (as Hegel has suggested), when we have time for careful reflection about details. Right now, matters are rather urgent and there is no time to fill in all the details. This is philosophy in a time of emergency. An old story is dying, and we need as many hints about the new one emerging as we can manage. It’s my hope that a people to come will find more room to breathe in the processual pluriverse I’ll attempt to sketch than modern people have found in their incoherently bifurcated and so alienating picture of a materialistic universe.
I will draw, of course, on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead, the man of the hour. But also on William James, one of Whitehead’s most important influences. In addition I will build on the work of the contemporary French Whiteheadians Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour.
Let’s begin by unpacking the title of the track a bit. To better grasp the metaphysical underpinnings of “late modernity,” maybe its best to start by comparing it with “early modernity.” Early modernity was dualistic: on one side of the ontological divide were rational subjects, who by freely entering into a social contract, became citizens in a democratic state; on the other side were mechanical objects, which by obeying universal causal laws, operated as part of a deterministic nature. Human society on one side, nonhuman nature on the other. Modernity thus began with a twin mission, what Latour refers to as the “double task of emancipation and domination” (We Have Never Been Modern, 10). The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was technoscientific: to become masters and owners of nature.
So what has happened? Why did late modernity become monistic, as Cobb describes it? For one thing, the 19th century brought the discoveries of geological deep time and evolutionary theory, both of which placed the human/nature dualism of the 17th century on far shakier ground. A metaphysical decision was made to reduce human beings to one side of the former ontological dualism, and so we have increasingly been understood as only a more sophisticated form of biological machine. The alternative way of establishing a human/nature continuity would have been to re-imagine nature as, like us, in some sense ensouled (an alternative we will explore momentarily).
Even more important in the collapse of dualism into monism, however, was the 20th century failure of communism. What many would consider to be our greatest hope of ending exploitation of humans by humans was outlasted by capitalism, which has since given up on modernity’s emancipatory mission and doubled down on domination. The failure of communism, neoliberal capitalists say, showed once and for all that human nature is basically selfish. Capitalists argue that domination and mastery of both human labor and natural resources through a kind of market monism is our only hope for an albeit quasi-civilized existence. Only the invisible hand of the market can assure the stability of civilization. Everything from politics to religion to education to healthcare should be given over to the free market, as though no other form of self-organization could help order our societies. As the Jamesian political scientist Kennan Ferguson describes it in his book Politics in the Pluriverse, late modernity brought a “shift in political science toward representing political actors as economic consumers. The increasing economism of political science has meant that many of the issues of interest to political philosophers–sovereignty, legitimacy, representation–have been recast as potential choices in a marketplace of ideologies, where voter/consumers are peddled competing brand names” (27). What’s clear is that the 20th century only led modernity to replace one war with another, the Cold War for the Warming War. Capitalism no longer faces another human enemy. It is now at war with Gaia.
As Latour says, “By seeking to orient man’s exploitation of man toward an exploitation of nature by man, capitalism has magnified both beyond measure” (Modern, 8). Our situation as late modern people is stated starkly by Latour: “between modernizing and ecologizing, we have to choose” (AIME, 8).
Ecologizing our civilization will require re-imagining the philosophical assumptions underlying the modern worldview. “A philosophic outlook,” writes Whitehead, “is the very foundation of thought and of life…As we think, we live.” I think I speak for all of us in this track, and perhaps for this entire conference, when I defend the simple thesis that ideas matter. Philosophy is not merely mental entertainment. On the contrary, it is a matter of life and death. As Whitehead argues, the dominant philosophy of every age “moulds our type of civilization” (Modes of Thought, 63). Modern philosophy, largely shaped by Descartes’ understanding of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the free human spirit and an entirely mechanical nature, has been thoroughly critiqued by contemporary environmental philosophers for its ecologically disastrous side-effects. Most serious thinkers no longer consider dualism to be a “living option,” as William James would say. Descartes’ early modern dualism split spirit from matter so thoroughly that it left no room for life. Late modern market monism—by reducing earth to, at best a resource, and at worst a trash bin, and by reducing human beings to cogs in a technocapitalist profit machine—has gone even further, since it not only leaves no room for life, it actively seeks to exterminate it. The currently unfolding mass extinction is not at all surprising as the outcome of modern philosophy. To Whitehead’s statement we must add the corollary statement: As we think, we die. Both dualism and monism have failed us. At this point, as Latour puts it, “we have to fight trouble with trouble, counter a metaphysical machine with a bigger metaphysical machine” (AIME, 22). I’m following Whitehead, James, Latour, and Stengers in proposing an alternative, more ecological metaphysical scheme.
Ontological pluralism is easy to define, but not as easy to understand. It is the metaphysical position which suggests that there are more than one, or two (or three, or any finite number…), of ways of being. Reality is the ongoing composition of a multiplicity of more or less overlapping modes of existence. We are so used to thinking of reality being unified, a finished One, that the possibility of its becoming many may at first seem like a terrifying prospect. To the extent that modern inheritors of the liberal tradition really understand it’s implications, it should be terrifying, since it dissolves all our hubristic certainties about ourselves and the world, about who and where we think we are. Part of the rationale behind the modern bifurcation of nature is that defining nature or matter as inert, dead stuff helped us establish our own identity as free agents. To challenge the inertness of nature, to recognize its agency, is also to challenge liberal notions of individual human freedom. Challenging these notions does not mean dismissing them–we are agents, too; but it does mean re-imagining the very foundations of individual identity and social contract-based politics.
There are less radical forms of pluralism, like cultural relativism or worldview pluralism. Everybody knows there are other ways of knowing, other cultural practices with their own psychological and even perceptual ways of representing reality; moderns accept that there are multiple views of the world. But what nobody doubts is that one world underlies all the views that humans can have of it. Many views, one world; many cultures, one Nature.
Ontological pluralism is not multiculturalism, but multinaturalism. Multiculturalism, as Latour points out, is only the flip side of “mononaturalism.” Modern Western people have for a few hundred years thought of themselves as only a “half-culture,” since unlike all other earthly peoples, they were also the practitioners of something called Science, the faithful servants of something called Reason. Their Science and Reason, so the story goes, granted them access to an objective and universal Nature, an external world “out there” that for so much of human history had remained buried beneath cultural projections and superstitions. Moderns sent their anthropologists to study exotic peoples in far away lands, always assuming that no matter how different those people appeared at first glance, beneath the surface the same universal laws belonging to the same physical nature must be governing their behaviors. Yes, we Westerners also have our subjective quirks, our psychological complexes and superstitions, but still, only we had the good fortune to have discovered a way to uncover Nature, to put aside our cultural idiosyncrasies so as to reach naked and indisputable matters of fact. It then became our sacred duty to educate others about the One True World. Prior to modern European science, medieval European religion had attempted something similar. There was one God, one final divine arbiter who decided what was Good and True for everyone. For modern scientific people, the one major difference is that the one Nature is understood to be entirely disenchanted and meaningless. Latour describes the paradox:
“… modernization compelled one to mourn the passing of all one’s colorful pretensions, one’s motley cosmologies, of all the many ways of life with their rich rituals. ‘Let us wipe away our tears,’ the modernists liked to declare, ‘let us become adults at last; humanity is leaving behind its myth-imbued childhood and is stepping into the harsh reality of Science, Technology and the Market. It’s a pity but that’s the way it is: you can either choose to cling to your diverse cultures, and conflicts will not cease, or, alternatively, you can accept unity and the sharing of a common world, and then, naturally (in every sense of the word), this world will be devoid of meaning. Too bad, love it or leave it.’ One may wonder whether one of the many metaphysical origins of the twentieth-century world wars did not consist of this odd way with which the West sought to pacify all conflicts by appealing to a single common world. How long can one survive in peace when torn by this impossible double bind with which modernizers have trapped themselves together with those they have modernized: nature known by reason unifies, but this unification is devoid of meaning?” (11-12).
Whitehead’s self-entitled “philosophy of organism” provides us with an example of a fully ecologized philosophy. Multinaturalism means neither science nor the universe it purports to study are ready-made unified wholes. There are as many sciences as there are natures. From a pluralist perspective, if wholeness is to exist, it must first be constructed and thereafter constantly maintained. Unity does not exist in advance of such composition. If any science qualifies as the science of “wholes”—and in a pluralist ontology, there are many wholes, not just One—it is ecology, which traditionally has been defined as the study of the relationship between organisms and environments. But in Whitehead’s scheme, the concept of an “environment” cannot just be taken for granted as a fixed, inorganic background. The environment is not, as Latour put it in his Gifford lectures on Gaia, “a mere frame devoid of any agency.” There is no Environment, there are only ever communities of other organisms. In an ontology of organism, physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological. In other words, ecology replaces physics as the foundational science.
An ontology of organism opens us to the possibility of cosmopolitics, a concept originally developed by Isabelle Stengers. Cosmopolitics has been articulated as a protest against what Whitehead calls “the bifurcation of nature,” the splitting off of human consciousness and values from everything physical and factual. We are left by this all too modern predicament, Whitehead tells us, having to somehow reconcile the “dream” of our common sense experience of an apparently meaningful world with the scientific “conjecture” of a mind-independent and so meaningless reality. Ontological pluralism, unlike modern dualistic and materialistic metaphysical schemes, rejects the division of appearance and reality, experience and nature, and instead suggests a panpsychic vision of things: “Everything perceived is in nature,” and everything in nature perceives. There is no bifurcation: to speak crudely, mind belongs to nature, is intrinsic to it.
Whitehead says in Process and Reality, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (50). Whitehead here alludes to perhaps his most significant influence, William James, who famously referred to the experience of pre-egoic infants as a “great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In A Pluralistic Universe, one of the last significant lectures James delivered before his death a year later, he suggested that “The common socius of us all is the great universe whose children we are” (lecture 1). Cosmopolitics calls upon us to recognize that the polis, the city, is not just built by and for us on a planet passive before our projects. We must wake up from the nightmare of bifurcation to our roles as creaturely citizens of an earth community.
If modernity has culminated in the bifurcation of mononaturalist Science and multiculturalist politics, then the emergence of a nonmodern, ecological and so ontologically pluralistic civilization will require the reinvention of both. Not only must ecology replace physics at the foundations of the natural sciences, it must replace economics at the foundations of the social sciences, as well.
Cosmopolitics is an attempt to do just that, to re-imagine scientific practices in more democratic terms, and to re-imagine politics in a way that acknowledges the need to invent ways of coexisting—not just with people of our own color, country, or culture, not even just with other humans—but with all earth’s creatures. To democratize science doesn’t mean facts should be determined by popular opinion; rather, it means recognizing that scientific activity is always undertaken upon a landscape shaped by socioeconomic interests and fraught with political implications. Knowledge is an ecological affair, an ongoing and risky process of buiding alliances and relationships between humans and nonhumans across wide distances; it is not, despite modern epistemic pretenses, the product of an objectifying gaze from nowhere. Stengers points out the tendency many modern scientists and technologists have to “defer to ‘politics’ decisions that would have to be made about the use of data and techniques produced in new labs: that use will be whatever ‘we’ decide it should be. But this ‘we,’ purely human and apparently decisional, will intervene in a situation that will already be saturated with decisions made in the name of technique, science, and rationality. Politicians will demand that experts tell them who ‘we’ are from the scientific point of view.” [personal example with Marvin Minsky from 2007; another example is Francis Collins and Obama announcing the Brain Initiative].
Whereas early modern dualism and late modern monism alike produced “expert” scientists who claimed to have unmasked with objective certainty a truth hidden from common sense experience, pluralism is an intrinsically diplomatic ontology.
The pluralist responds to encounters with others under the assumption that reality is an ongoing and open-ended “geostorical adventure” of “planetary negotiation,” which is to say it is always in-the-making and never at rest in the possession of a isolated heroic knower. The ontological pluralist doesn’t falsely align fetishized ideas of “Science,” “Rationality,” and “Objectivity” on one side and oppose them to “belief,” “custom,” and “illusion” on the other. Instead of in every case sending in “the experts” to tell local populations how to solve their problems, assuming in advance that scientific knowledge is universal and that only science has the right to produce knowledge, every issue is approached diplomatically under the very different assumption that knowledge is relational, its claims conditional, and its construction, risky. Cosmopolitics is not cosmopolitanism, not rooted in the search for some abstract sense of universal humanity. The notion of “human rights” may have functioned in a liberatory way in some cases, but just as often, argues Stengers, it has served as a way of disqualifying those whose unique ways of life fail to fit the universal mold. Stengers criticizes this modern attempt to politically unify all peoples through an all too abstract notion of “humanity.” Such an attempt moves too fast, pretending to achieve in advance what can only be accomplished at the end, after much negotiation. As Latour puts it, “unity has to be the end result of a diplomatic effort; it can’t be its uncontroversial starting point.”
Stengers links the failed notion of human rights to “the curse of tolerance,” the idea that so long as you keep your differences private, we can learn to live together in public. In other words, so long as you don’t take your own cosmology seriously and are willing to accept the strange mononaturalist/multiculturalist double-bind of modernity, then we can tolerate one another’s abstract “right” to exist. So long, of course, as you stay over there, in your own neighborhood, and don’t force me to deal with the dissonance of such a strangely bifurcated image of reality too directly. For this all too abstract form of peace would quickly dissolve if we concretely encountered one another’s differences. If there is to be a future cosmopolitical civilization, it will no longer accept the dichotomy between public and private life. We will have found a way to meet the challenge of inventing a means of living together within the same extended community. We will all have become diplomats, willing to exist in the tension-filled space between worlds, to accept that our own identities are always risked in encounters with others, acknowledging that our own world must be unfinished so long as it leaves “others” outside it.
So what is the take home of this assemblage of nonmodern Whiteheadian philosophical ideas? What is the relationship between his metaphysical scheme and the ecologization of our species, of our civilization?
How can he help us transform our cities from gas guzzling machines into creative contributors to life’s flourishing? How are we to convert his cosmological theory into a cultural and political practice that leads us home again, that allows us to remember that we are earthbound creatures inhabiting and transversing a plurality of interrelated places co-evolving at a multiplicity of speeds. We do not inhabit a unified space-time field determined by universal laws. We are not made of some fantastical stuff called “matter,” the most abstract, insensible, confused idea I’ve ever heard. What I am suggesting is that Whitehead’s speculative cosmovision evokes an alternative form of consciousness, provoking a re-imagination of modern subjectivity; Whitehead heralds the transformation of the American Dream of human individuality and natural property into the Dream of the Earth, as Berry calls it, or geostory as Latour refers to it. Whitehead’s words work upon our souls like alchemical catalysts. His books are a psychedelic pharmacopoeia, a remedy for sick minds. He is a philosophical diplomat: he heals the divisions of our intellectual histories, not by rushing to unify them into a Single System, but by giving each perspective, each contrast, its place in a organic community of interrelated drops of experience somehow managing to hang together as a whole, not by necessity, by right, by divine fiat, but because of the persuasive allure of beauty freely calling all creatures toward harmony and order, toward cosmos.
The natural world, the universe, the cosmos, Nature, etc., is not something we can continue to imagine as apart from, other than, the human world, the polis, society. The cosmos is just as political as we are, just as much a society of agents vying with one another for power, for access to energy, to food, to sex, to status and attention.