~…Two descriptions are required for an actual entity: (a) one which is analytical of its potentiality for ‘objectification’ in the becoming of other other actual entities, and (b) another which is analytical of the process which constitutes its own becoming.

How an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming.’ This is the ‘principle of process.’ (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23)

arabesque.jpgShaviro’s recent posts on Whitehead and Deleuze (here, here, and here), coupled with a bit of time off from teaching, have convinced me to return to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. I have had an affection for Whitehead since highschool, yet I had forgotten just how strange, beautiful, and exciting his thought is. As I read I find myself unable to sit still with the text for more than a few paragraphs, before I have to get up and manically pace back and forth, mulling over some definition or concept, translating it into the language of assemblages, Deleuze’s ontology, and some of the concepts of populations and constellations I’ve gropingly been trying to develop. For me the value of a philosophy is not so much its truth, but rather the way in which it provides you with a vocabulary or set of concepts to express a problem through which you’ve been trying to think without quite being able to articulate it. Truth is always a function of concepts that one possesses, allowing one to formulate propositions about the world that fail or succeed within the constraints of the universe of reference defined by those concepts. As Whitehead will write, “A proposition can embody partial truth because it only demands a certain type of systematic environment, which is presupposed in its meaning” (11). This is a form of meaning holism that requires one to always infer the field of propositions in which a single proposition is intelligible.

I’m unsure of whether I’ve ever actually read a piece of philosophy, whether I’ve ever been able to ever encounter a text in its own textuality, or whether instead philosophical works function, for me, as a sort of mirror where I see what I’m capable of seeing or find what I already had. Certainly there must be relations of feedback between texts and readers, such that readers produce texts and texts deterritorialize readers from their accustomed territories, yet sometimes I wonder if I only ever hear myself speak even when listening. I’m sure there are some that have frequented this domain of zeros and ones that would attest to this in evaluating me.

It seems that some of what I’m reading is highly relevant to a set of problems N.Pepperell and I have been working through with regard to abstract categories and populations. In a recent post responding to my post on populations and constellations, Nicole wrote:

Tacitly, this formulation is not completely adequate to the framework Sinthome has outlined, which would require an analysis of the constellations or assemblages that give rise to such abstract thought – and, for that matter, to the alternative form of thought that would be oriented to really existent phenomena. Such analyses, however, are difficult to provide within the confines of a blog post and, in any event, the point of this post was to outline concepts, not to put these concepts into play against any particular concrete example to which they might be applied. My comments here are therefore simply placeholders noting where Sinthome’s concepts would point over time.

What I did want to suggest, though – and I must necessarily be very gestural here – is that it may be worth considering what peculiar characteristics an assemblage might need to possess, for it to generate particular kinds of abstract thought as one aspect of its distinctive forms of self-organisation. This is, as I mentioned in another discussion over at Larval Subjects, what I take Marx to have been attempting in Capital. What is interesting in Marx’s analysis is that he doesn’t interpret the abstract forms of thought he analyses as conceptual – as something that result from generalising or abstracting away from more concrete, really existent, phenomena. Instead, he interprets them as plausible expressions of forms of abstract social practice: Marx’s work, as I understand it, suggests the possibility that abstract forms of thought might express a dimension of social practice that enacts an on-the-ground indifference to the determinate specificity of concrete entities – a dimension of social practice that appears as it is, abstract.

In such a case, perversely, only abstract theoretical categories would be appropriate, as the really existing configuration possesses practically abstract dimensions – it generates what I generally call real abstractions. Of course, in this case, those abstract categories would only themselves be adequately grasped once they were no longer understood – as they tend phenomenologically to present themselves – as conceptual abstractions or generalisations obtained by stripping away the specificities of concrete experience. Instead, certain forms of abstraction would have to be recognised as the historical, material specificity of a particular dimension of concrete practice – a recognition that would entail a form of theoretical work like what Sinthome proposes, which would seek to uncover the way in which a particular form of abstraction was assembled through determinate forms of practice.

I think N.Pepperell is being exceedingly generous and charitable in her reading of me (as is her way), and that she is essentially correct in what she here says. Truth be told, I am guilty of the sort of issue she is alluding to here with regard to the distinction between concrete populations and abstractions. Or, perhaps to put it a bit more gently, I have been schizophrenic on this issue, sometimes asserting that these abstract forms are material realities in their own right and sometimes treating them as false illusions to be banished in favor of the dynamics of the population itself. When I’m being consistent in my ontological principles, I take the former route. When I’m grumpy I take the latter route.

For me one of the most exciting moments of theoretical engagement this year came down to two sentences in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It is notable that Zinn uses the indefinite article “A” in his title, underlining the manner in which any history is a history that makes a slice in chaos, a selection that could be told in many other ways. At any rate, there Zinn writes, “Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed)… (10).” I am not sure why I found this sentence so striking. I had already developed abstractly at the ontological level all the resources I needed to have this thought in a number of previous posts. Yet, nonetheless, the thought that nations are fictions, that group unities are fictions that conceal bubbling multiplicities populated by all sorts of other far less visible networks, tensions, and dynamics hit me like a ton of bricks. I found this thought tremendously liberating.

Still, these fictions cannot be so simply dismissed and they do have a material reality of their own. For this reason, it is a mistake to even refer to them as fictions. It is in this connection that Whitehead becomes potentially valuable. here my thoughts are scattered, so I’ll try to mark some placeholders for future thought and discussion. Writing of the purpose of philosophy, Whitehead remarks that,

The explanatory purpose of philosophy is often misunderstood. Its business is to explain the emergence of the more abstract things from the more concrete things. It is a complete mistake to ask how concrete particular fact can be built up out of universals. The answer is, ‘In no way.’ The true philosophic question is, How can concrete fact exhibit entities abstract from itself and yet participated in by its own nature? (20)

The point here is not to dismiss the abstractions, but to show how they are generated out of more basic elements that he refers to as “actual occasions”. In short, for Whitehead these generalities are themselves real. Nor are they simply cognitions. They can themselves be things. These unities and abstractions generated out of actual occasions are themselves actual occasions. As Whitehead will write a couple pages later, “…in the becoming of an actual entity, the potential unity of many entities in a disjunctive diversity– actual and non-actual –[that] acquires the real unity of the one actual entity; so that the actual entity is the real concrescence of many potentials” (22). By “concresence”, Whitehead intends something like an assemblage or a drawing together of a plurality. “…[T]he ‘production of novel togetherness’ is the ultimate notion embodied in the term ‘concresence.’ These ultimate notions of ‘production of novelty’ and of ‘concrete togetherness’ [i.e., a constellation] are inexplicable either in terms of higher universals or in terms of the components participating in the concrescence” (21-22). By contrast, this reference to a “disjunctive diversity” might be taken to refer to the manner in which the elements of this concresence can enter into a variety of different assemblages which themselves “concress” in different and divergent ways. These elements are disjunctive in the sense that they are not bound in one single harmonious unity. For instance, one and the same person can be a part of a political movement and their place of employment, contributing to the two higher unities in very different ways; indeed, ways that can even come into conflict with one another.

In a way that resonates well with N.Pepperell’s remarks, a few pages earlier Whitehead observes that,

Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity. Each actual occasion contributes to the circumstances of its origin additional formative elements deepening its own peculiar individuality… An actual individual, of such higher grade, has truck with the totality of things by reason of its sheer actuality; but it has attained its individual depth of being by a selective emphasis limited to its own purposes. The task of philosophy is to recover the totality obscured by the selection.

It is extremely important to note that Whitehead metaphorically uses the language of psychology, mind, and cognition to describe everything in the universe. I personally feel that this is a language that should be eradicated and replaced by a better vernacular. That aside, individuality, consciousness, selection, and purposiveness can, for Whitehead, just as easily refer to the ways in which a rock maintains itself as a rock in the order of time, as these terms can refer to an individual person or living creature. The point here is that entity separates itself out from totality, while still being dependent on those nexes of relations, to form itself as an enduring entity in time.

My friend Melanie makes a similar point elsewhere. Melanie begins by quoting from my post on constellations and populations and then goes on to provide her own gloss:

Rather than seeing the category as a topological space capable of undergoing infinite variation while maintaining its structural identity, one variation is raised above the rest, becomes transcendent to all the rest, and becomes the measure of all the others. As a result, there emerges a gap between the category and existence.

I’ve been thinking about your quote above from the constellations post. I keep thinking abstract category is like a pure mathematical arabesque that creates an idealized figure, so that the figure becomes more recognizable than the unfolding process of variation. See the image below (at the beginning of the post): the boundaries are created out of the various bits of the unfolding process (in this case, calligraphic writing), yet in order to become recognizable as an image, the boundaries must at some point also delimit the act of unfolding. Writing or math or other forms of becoming cannot continue as a process if we want to create a recognizable image. The gap between the immediacy of the image and the legibility of the written text in an arabesque is like the gap between category and existence.

Although I object to her cognitive language of “recognition”, Melanie makes a good point here. The arabesque is like a unity or a figure that emerges out of a heterogeneous background and maintains itself in time. This would be one way of thinking about N.Pepperell’s abstractions: Namely as unities that emerge in a complex field, that “select themselves out” as it were, and maintain some stable unity in time or against plurality, forming a particularly potent tendency within the field out of which they emerge. All of this is still very vague and the dynamics would differ from system to system and would have to be approached from a variety of different perspectives depending on whether we were talking about social systems, physical systems, psychic systems, etc, but perhaps it is some small start in simultaneously thinking these buzzing networks and the unities, along with the material reality of those unities, that emerge out of them. I end with an enigmatic remark by Whitehead that underlines my thesis that rhetorics aren’t simply about something, but are something: “…[A] proposition is the unity of certain actual entities in their potentiality for forming a nexus, with its potential relatedness…” (24). Note that he does not say a proposition represents the unity of certain actual objects, but that it is the unity of certain actual objects.

Advertisements