Levi Bryant offered some ideas about materialism earlier this week over at Larval Subjects. I read and commented on his post while screeching through the BART transbay tube on my commute home from work. My comment, asking about “ontological constructivism,” was rushed and ill formed. Now that I’m moving more slowly, and have a keyboard large enough for all ten of my fingers, I wanted to take the time to further expand and contextualize my question.

Bryant’s reflections on the paradoxes of materialism spoke precisely to some of the problematics emerging recently in a reading group I’m participating in at CIIS with Adam Robbert and others. We just finished Mark Taylor’s reader Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy. Prior to DiC we read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and prior to that Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. (Next is Deleuze and Guatari’s What Is Philosophy?). Bryant’s materialism is meant as a direct challenge to the authors excerpted in Taylor’s anthology. With Kant (with whom the reader begins), there began a line of thinkers committed to transcendental philosophy. This lineage has more recently been pejoratively renamed correlational philosophy by Meillassoux and other Speculative Realists. It may not be entirely fair to identify Derrida (with whom Taylor’s reader ends) as a transcendental thinker. But I do think I can say that, as a careful reader of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, his work must be understood as a respectful but nonetheless critical response to this tradition. You could almost say that Derrida’s texts were an attempt to out critique the critical (or transcendental) philosophers by bringing to attention that which is even more a priori than concepts and intuitions: namely, writing. As Derrida wrote in Of Grammatology, “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”–usually translated as “there is nothing outside of the text,” but perhaps best translated as “there is no outside-text.” For object-oriented thinkers like Graham Harman and Bryant, Derrida is public enemy number one (though for slightly different reasons). For Bryant, Derrida must be read as a linguistic correlationist, as one who denies the reality of anything outside the contextual domain of semiogenesis. We must, of course, remember that the play of différance prevents an author from finally fixing the meaning of the text (I almost said “of their text,” but textual ownership is precisely what Derrida is taking issue with). Derrida’s correlationalism is not, then, the sort that would place all objects in relation to a transcendental subject, since as I understand his deconstruction of traditional metaphysics, the subject itself (along with the objects it represents) only becomes possible in and through writing. Nonetheless, meaningful signs, even if infinitely contextual, for precisely this reason only ever point to themselves. There is no “Great Outdoors,” as Meillassoux says, that writing might grant us cognition of.

Derrida owes much to Saussure’s binary semiotic theory. I prefer a different starting point in regard to meaning-making: the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce’s triadic semiotics redistributes meaning beyond human signs, inviting us to consider the various ways other beings interpret and refer to themselves independently of us. Peirce, and other thinkers in his lineage like James and Whitehead, seem to me to stand outside the framework of Bryant’s post. These thinkers qualify as what I called “ontological constructionists” in my original comment. Unlike “social constructionists,” it is not merely we human beings who create all meaning. Rather, all beings, in becoming-with one another (and so becoming-other than themselves), are generative of meaning. For this reason, Whitehead generalized the notion of “society” such that it included organized collectivities of any kind (not just humankind).


As Bryant frames the correlational paradox, any thinker claiming to be a materialist necessarily “proceeds through concepts.” This despite the fact that materialists understand themselves to be “[attempting] to grasp that which is other than the concept.” Bryant wants to place matter beyond and before all thought as “absolutely exterior” and unrepresentable. This is all fine and well. The clear and distinct concepts of reflective self-consciousness cannot in any way touch the darkness of materiality. But I’d like to suggest that attending to the imaginal tides of affect and aesthesis as they flow to-and-fro across the fractal edges of conscious experience may help bridge the otherwise gaping chasm between mind and matter. Attending only to thought and conceptuality, or to transcendental structures of intentional directedness toward the eidos of appearing objects, artificially widens the gap. Dwelling instead upon the way emotional vectors vibrate through and between bodies, we begin to realize that the old abstract categories of mind and matter no longer hold any water. They leak. By entering into an aesthetic–or better, poetic–rather than a conceptual time-space, we no longer need to shroud matter behind the representational mirages projected onto it by a mind which, as materialism would have it, can only be conceptualized in absentia, as not present, as somehow both identical with and yet alien to materiality. I qualified the term “aesthetic” with “poetic” above, because it is all too easy to define aesthesis according to the misplaced concreteness, so prevalent among modern philosophers of both the empirical and rational schools, which has it that our primary form of sensory experience is of bare patches of qualia free of all relations. Whitehead called this mode of perception “presentational immediacy,” contrasting it with the more foundational mode of “causal efficacy.” When I refer to entering an aesthetic or poetic time-space, I mean attending again to the causality of sensuality, to the way aesthesis links us up with real currents of energy in our cosmic, biotic, and psychic environs. This is James’ radical empiricism, adapted by Whitehead following his protest against the bifurcation of nature. I’ve written about this in a short essay on the importance of Wordsworth’s nature poetry for Whitehead’s account of perception. For Whitehead, nature is “what we are aware of in perception” (The Concept of Nature):

“For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyze how these various elements of nature are connected.

In making this demand I conceive myself as adopting our immediate instinctive attitude towards perceptual knowledge which is only abandoned under the influence of theory. We are instinctively willing to believe that by due attention, more can be found in nature than that which is observed at first sight. But we will not be content with less. What we ask from the philosophy of science is some account of the coherence of things perceptively known.

This means a refusal to countenance any theory of psychic additions to the object known in perception. For example, what is given in perception is the green grass. This is an object which we know as an ingredient in nature. The theory of psychic additions would treat the greenness as a psychic addition furnished by the perceiving mind, and would leave to nature merely the molecules and the radiant energy which influence the mind towards that perception. My argument is that this dragging in of the mind as making additions of its own to the thing posited for knowledge by sense-awareness is merely a way of shirking the problem of natural philosophy. That problem is to discuss the relations inter se of things known, abstracted from the bare fact that they are known. Natural philosophy should never ask, what is in the mind and what is in nature. To do so is a confession that it has failed to express relations between things perceptively known, namely to express those natural relations whose expression is natural philosophy. It may be that the task is too hard for us, that the relations are too complex and too various for our apprehension, or are too trivial to be worth the trouble of exposition. It is indeed true that we have gone but a very small way in the adequate formulation of such relations. But at least do not let us endeavor to conceal failure under a theory of the byplay of the perceiving mind.

What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream” (29-30).

The post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman treats this issue brilliantly in Emotion: A Comprehensive Phenomenology of Theories and Their Meaning for Therapy

“If energy were the underlying substrate of the universe, i.e., its ‘truth,’ and if emotion were the way in which it manifested itself to the mind, then the creative artist through his emotion would be apprehending this truth from within” (68).

So in summary, while I agree with Bryant’s criticism of the variety of transcendental, phenomenological, and (Saussurean) semiological philosophies of access for the way they reduce the mode of being of the non-human to that of the human, I do not think his bifurcated materialistic alternative provides us with a more coherent ontology. We’re left, instead, with irresolvable paradoxes (like the hard problem of consciousness, for example).

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

Several months ago, Michael (who blogs at Archive Fire and contributes to synthetic_zero) posted a comment on a post of mine about philosophical vitalism.

I’m just now getting around to responding to what for me were really helpful questions as I try to further flesh out my thoughts on etheric imagination.

Michael writes:

I like your point about a root image of a root, but from my view I think part of our problem to begin with is that we rely too heavily on metaphors when we should be attending to the particular characteristics of things and strata and complexity as they occur. That is to say, why do we need a root image? What cognitive work gets done by understanding everything as “machines” or “objects” or “organisms” beyond what particular situations express naturally?

My desire to encounter and interact (cope?) more or less directly (in terms of consequence) with the brute actualities of life and the possibility spaces afforded among such contingencies (differences) comes from a deeply unsettling realization of the limits of language and signification. I think there is a philosophy or three of embodiment and ethics that could be gleaned from a closer relationship with matter-energy and its emergent orders as it continues to evolvebeyond the effects and masks and affordances of decisional philosophy.

In response, I suppose I don’t see an alternative to working with the play of metaphor and imagery. It’s not that we need “root images” (Goethe called them Ur-Phänomen; Jung and Hillman called them archetypes; Tarnas calls them planetary aspects), its that we could not do and never have done without such images. It isn’t possible to ‘need’ a root image because we are always already being imagined by the root images of the cosmos. Its a matter of inverting what we usually think has creative agency, of turning the neoliberal concept-wielding subject inside out so that a new kind of non-representational, imaginative cognitive regime comes to discover the way real images (imago vera) are rooted in and grow out of the things themselves. The subject cannot choose root images like it might choose concepts; rather, root images chthonically emerge from the vitality of matter-energy itself.


The ur-images of earth and sky always already encompass us, as the ur-images of light and warmth always already pervade and enliven our bodies, as the ur-image of the (n)one cosmic life, or world egg, expresses itself as this or that particular body. The life of the cosmos is not just The Tree of Life but every single twisting vine, every leaf, every flower, every fallen petal and rotten fruit and freshly planted seed in the soil.

These images are the necessary roots–not only the transcendental but also the physical conditions–of our coming to consciousness of an agential self or a lawful world. How else can a speaking animal understand its sensori-motor intra-enaction with all the other living bodies around and inside it without dwelling in the play of imagery? If it’s the particular characteristics of complexly stratified matter-energy processes that we are hoping to depict accurately and to transact with compassionately, through what medium but imagination could we possibly hope to do so? Is the real creative chaos underlying the ideal cosmos accessible to deductive reason, to scientific observation, to mathematical computation, or even to Zen meditation alone? Perhaps sometimes it is. Perhaps on those occasions, its because reason, or science, or math, or meditation has been mixed with a strong dose of imagination? I would say that without the underlying play of images (whether explicit or unconscious) like “machine” and “organism,” no cognitive work can be done at all, period. Without the play of imagination, the understanding falls limp and goes to sleep. This is Kant’s really important discovery, the discovery it took him three critiques to make.

So I’m all for direct encounter and immediate coping. But not because I think language/signification is limited. Perhaps this is because I don’t think language is primarily a matter of signs and signals. Rather, language is symbolic. Language does not and cannot designate things, though it can pretend to. It is precisely in this pretense that the symbolic intensity of language erupts into physical expression. A symbol points only to itself; it is “tautagorical,” as Coleridge put it. So root images are not propositional signs pointing at things, nor are they transcendental concepts conditioning the categorical possibilities of things. They are not ghostly forms traced upon solid materials or mere human abstractions projected onto earthly realities. The root images described here are not meant to stand in for, or to represent, the flow of actual matter-energy. What I’m claiming is that the spatial flow of matter-energy has a naturally occurring imagistic dimension, and that by experimenting in this mundis imaginalis we may discover new forms of embodied praxis in congruence with the universe, new ways of being-on-the-earth and materially-energetically transacting with one another.

I don’t know what you mean by decisional philosophy, exactly. But I know I try to stay as far away from philosophical decisiveness as I can. I prefer experimental philosophy to decisional philosophy, in the sense that I reserve the right to change my mind about anything at any time if it turns out I was wrong or that a more creative or compassionate response is possible. I’m not here to complete the absolute system or to publish the encyclopedia of philosophy. I’m here to try to uproot the conceptual sources of misplaced concreteness and to re-plant the most resilient image-seeds I can find growing in my earthly habitat (image seeds, or root images, like trees, sunlight, flowing water, etc.).

Michael over at Archive-Fire has a new post up distinguishing his notion of epistemic withdrawal from Harman’s ontological withdrawal. While claiming to hold tight to an embodied account of mind, Michael nonetheless wants to carve out a distinction between two kinds of interaction: mental and physical. Mental interaction is always detached and abstract due to its linguistic and imaginal intangibility, while physical interaction is direct because it involves structural contact between entities. Michael accepts the generally Kantian construal of the real as existing forever beyond human knowledge: things withdraw absolutely, but only from our knowledge. Physically, when I grab my coffee mug, the atoms in my fingers are in direct physical contact with the electrons orbiting the atoms of which it is composed. Such physical relations, according to Michael, are causal, while mental relations are symbolic.

I discussed the difference between realism and materialism in this post last week. I affirmed an organic realism, and tried to explain why I reject both materialism and idealism, since each seems self-contradictory on its own. Follow the former to its final conclusions and you end up with the latter, and vice versa [For example, if our knowledge is forever limited, when we speak of the electron orbitals of atoms, are we not speaking of our conceptual models of matter, rather than matter in itself? If we can’t know what matter really is, what justifies our speaking of direct contact? Isn’t this just a subtle form of idealism?]. Michael describes his position as a kind of non-reductive materialism, leaning on the concept of emergence to account for mentality. I find emergence an indispensable concept for understanding evolutionary leaps like that from molecules to cells, or from single cells to multicellular life; but these are examples of organizational/structural emergence. I do not think emergence can account for mind in an otherwise merely material universe (“merely” material as in not the prehensive matter of Whiteheadian ontology). The emergence of mind would not simply represent the emergence of a more complex organizational structure, but an entirely new ontological domain. Is it really sufficient to say that mind emerges from otherwise insensate matter simply because that matter is structurally organized in a new way? I am unconvinced.

Instead of defining mind as essentially a linguistic phenomenon, as Michael does, I’d suggest that mind is primarily affective in nature. That is, thinking is an especially refined kind of feeling (a feeling of feelings, if you will). Rather than separate cognition and causality, I’d follow Whitehead’s illuminating distinction between “presentational immediacy” and “causal efficacy.” Whitehead critiques Hume’s account of sensory experience using this distinction: Hume’s analysis of his experience of, say, a glass cup in terms of raw sensory universals like “whiteness,” “roundness,” etc., Whitehead argues is actually derived from a more fundamental, causal mode of experience. Hume’s analysis of sensory experience remains on the level of “presentational immediacy,” which for Whitehead is a very rare, high grade mode of experience especially perfected by reflective, language-using human beings. Most of the time, we interact with the world via bodily perception, which is to say, we feel the causal force of the world directly and respond without having to break up that world into its raw sensory components. Hume’s analysis of experience is too abstract, which is why he ends up having to jettison causality all together. Whitehead notes Hume’s realization that we see the cup with our eyes, suggesting that he was close to grasping the causal efficacy of the body. But alas, Hume did not think through the implications of the causal efficacy of his body, the way causation was the condition making possible his abstract analysis of experience in terms of sensory universals. [See this post for a more in depth account of Whitehead’s response to Hume].

“Mind” and “matter” are dreadfully vague words, but when I speak of “mind” above, I am referring to everything from sensuality to conceptuality. Mind is anything that requires awareness. Surely, there are forms of awareness that are not linguistic. The feeling of another’s gaze, or of the wind moving the hair across your forehead, for instance. On the other hand, from the perspective of a pansemiotic paradigm (Peirce, or more recently, Hoffmeyer), all relations could be construed as sign interpretation.

Michael mentions Whitehead’s panpsychism as one of Harman’s “background assumptions,” but I don’t think its quite fair to call this an assumption. On the contrary, adopting some varient of panpsychism is the result of much conceptual struggle with mind-matter dualism.

Knowledge takes place at the level of abstract significations. And signification involves very different processes than those involved in basic physical interactions.

This has been a standard distinction since at least Descartes. But when faced with the intractable issue of having to account for mind, or even just basic sensation, in a universe otherwise composed of dead matter, what is to prevent us from re-thinking our ontology (a la Whitehead)? I’ve offered some reasons for rejecting the emergentist account of mind; I’d be curious to know Michael’s reasons for rejecting the panexperientialist account.

Meaning is infinite because language is indefinitely recursive, because “world” is a word, such that “word” has no world to refer to. Words refer only to themselves, except Yours, your Name, who is the Word but mustn’t know it. “Reality” is a word referring to a set of alphanumeric-audiovisual symbols inherited from an ancient alchemical cult. Sense is infinite because even as we reach out and touch the world, it continues to recede away from us, to withdraw from our ears and eyes into darkness behind a veil beyond the silence of all horizons. The sensory world is sublime, infinite. “Nature” is our differentiated hyperbody, our shared space of bioeconomic (re)production and cosmopolitical (re)action.