The last week has been spent intensively writing an article for Analectica Hermeneutica on immanence and transcendence entitled “A Logic of Multiplicities: Deleuze, Immanence, and Onticology”. I’m extremely excited about this article and pleased by how it all came together in developing my concept of flat ontology and immanence. Hopefully it won’t fall down the memory hole of journal articles when it’s released. In the middle of all this I received a request from the editor of The New Whitehead to put together an abstract on Whitehead. This should be a great collection as it contains contributions from Bruno Latour, Gregg Lambert, Graham Harman, Nathan Brown, Jeffrey Bell, Steven Shaviro, Brian Massumi, Erin Manning, Didier Debaise, Luciana Parisi, Keith Robinson, Peter Canning, and Steven Meyer.
Rather than continuing the endless debate between the Whiteheadians and the object-oriented ontologists, I’ve instead decided to organize my essay around the debts that I owe to Whitehead. At this point my paper is tentatively entitled “Wilderness Thought: Whitehead’s Process Ontology and Onticology.” In my view Whitehead is one of the two great thinkers of what I call “the wilderness” in the 20th century (Deleuze is the other). Wilderness ontology or thought would consist of a radical posthumanism wherein philosophy no longer begins from the standpoint of anthropocentrism, humanism, or the subject-object, nature-culture couplet. The signifier “wilderness”, of course, evokes images of the outdoors and those regions of the world untouched by civilization and humans. Here I’m reminded of Meillassoux’s After Finitude when he writes,
Consciousness and its language certainly transcend themselves towards the world, but there is a world only insofar as a consciousness transcends itself towards it. Consequently, this space of exteriority is merely the space of what faces us, of what exists only as a correlate of our own existence. This is why, in actuality, we do not transcend ourselves very much by plunging into such a world, for all we are doing is exploring the two faces of what remains a face to face– like a coin which only knows its own obverse. And if contemporary philosophers insist so adamantly that thought is entirely oriented toward the outside, this could be because of their failure to come to terms with a bereavement– the denial of a loss concomitant with the abandonment of dogmatism. For it could be that contemporary philosophers have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory– of being entirely elsewhere. (7)
Admittedly, the signifier “wilderness” doesn’t quite get at the concept of “wilderness ontology” I’m trying to articulate because it seems to oppose civilization and nature, the human and the natural. Nonetheless, I like the poetic resonances of the term and can’t bring myself to abandon it despite the confusion it invites. As an ontological concept, “wilderness” should not be taken to signify the opposition between civilization and nature, but rather two distinct ontological orientations: the vertical ontologies of humanist, correlationist thought where being is a correlate of thought versus posthumanist orientations of thought advocated by flat ontologies or immanence. In a “wilderness ontology”, humans are not sovereigns of being, but are among beings with no particularly privileged place. Here, then, while sympathetic to Meillassoux’s discussion of the outside or the absolute that is indifferent to our thought (and signifiers and meanings and norms and values and intentions and uses), wilderness ontology should not be conceived as the absence of humans, but rather in terms of a flat plane of being where humans are among beings without enjoying any unilateral, overdetermining role. Just as the fur trappers of the early European Americas brought culture and civilization along with them while dwelling in an alien nature (what Morton-Badiou would call a nature populated by “intensely appearing” strange strangers) humans dwell in the wilderness without the wilderness being reduced to a correlate of thought or a vehicle for human intentions, meanings, signifiers, concepts, norms, etc. Civilization is a part of the wilderness. Culture is a part of the wilderness. Nature is a part of the wilderness. The subject is a part of the wilderness. The difference is that there is, in a wilderness ontology, no categorical distinction between the natural and the cultural, the human and the natural. There is just a flat field where, occasionally, human creations happen to populate this field in much the same way that we occasionally come across the marvelous architectural feats of termites on the African and Australian plains.
Wilderness thought is thus profoundly ecological, though in Timothy Morton’s sense of the word. Our tendency is to think of ecology as a specialized area of investigation that studies something that’s “over there” called “Nature”. This version of ecology forgets the wilderness, treating the domain of the ecological as pertaining to something other than culture. Yet as Morton argues,
The ecological thought is the thinking of interconnectedness. The ecological thought is a thought about ecology, but it’s also a thinking that is ecological. Thinking the ecological thought is a part of the ecological project. The ecological thought doesn’t just occur “in the mind.” It’s a practice and a process of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings– animal, vegetable, or mineral. Ultimately, this includes thinking about democracy. What would a truly democratic encounter between truly equal beings look like, what would it be– can we even imagine it? (The Ecological Thought, 7)
To this list we can add technologies, institutions, language, cultural ideas, practices, groups, etc. The wilderness, or what Morton calls “the mesh” does not end at the nature reserve, but includes forms of relation everywhere. This is why “thinking the ecological thought” is a part of the ecological project. As I’ve argued elsewhere, my thought itself unfolds in a series of ecological relations involving the technologies I use, ideas that have come before me, the animals and persons I relate to, the world about me, the languages I speak, even the vitamins and foods that I eat.
What’s crucially important to wilderness thought is that humans occupy no particularly privileged or unilaterally determining position within being. We are beings amongst beings and being, of course, would continue were we to cease to exist or die out. This is what marks the greatness of Whitehead and Deleuze and their status as cartographers of wilderness. In The Ecological Thought Morton remarks that “[s]eeing the Earth from space is the beginning of ecological thinking. The first aeronauts, balloon pilots, immediately saw Earth as an alien world. Seeing yourself from another point of view is the beginning of ethics and politics” (14). The mark of wilderness thought is this decentralization and multiplication of points of view. Now suddenly, human points of view are but one point of view among others. The fur trapper contends with the point of view of the grizzly bear and the approaching winter storm. He is amongst beings rather than a being for which all other beings are correlates.
And herein lies the greatness of Whitehead and Deleuze as thinkers of the wilderness. Occasionally they will adopt the point of view of humans and discuss the peculiar manner in which we encounter the world. Yet for them we are always amongst beings. They equally shift to the perspectives of grizzlies, trees, neutrinos, metals, institutions, groups, wasps, markets, and Cleopatra’s Needle as points of view on the world in their own right, irreducible to vehicles for human aims, interests, and meanings. Humans are entangled in these other agencies but are not sovereigns unilaterally determining all of these agencies. Rather, there’s a multilateralism of agencies, a distributed agency, a literal democracy of causes refusing the correlationist gesture. Freud spoke of three blows to human narcissism: the Copernican where we are no longer at the center of the universe, the Darwinian where we are no longer qualitatively distinct from other animals, and the psychoanalytic where the unconscious directs us behind our backs. There needs to be a third blow, premised on immanence, flat ontology, or the wilderness where humans are not sovereigns of beings, but are amongst being. In his narcissistic intoxication Kant and his heirs dreams of an absolute autonomy where we are completely self-determining and self-directing. This fantasy is, to use Kant’s language, the continuing immaturity of humanity for it fails to recognize our amongstness or the manner in which we are also heteronomously determined, such that we only ever act in assemblages that exceed our intentions and aims that we have set for ourselves. This doesn’t spell the end of enlightenment, but calls, rather, for a “dark enlightenment”, where we recognize the manner in which we are entangled. Absent this, we are doomed to poorly understand the assemblages within which we find ourselves and to attend to the strange strangers that exceed our expectations. We are doomed to what Deleuze-Bergson referred to as “badly analyzed composites”. Classical enlightenment was premised on an infantile and narcissistic fantasy of the world as a screen for human intentions where we can go so far as to place Jules Verne-like technologies at the core of the earth to manipulate the tectonic plates themselves, thereby enjoying sovereign power over the greatest forces of nature itself. Dark enlightenment recognizes the Lucretian swerve that haunts being such that we exist in an aleatory universe where we are amongst without being sovereigns.