Over at Immanence, Adrian Ivakhiv has announced that Stenger’s Thinking With Whitehead is now available. This is an exciting event and I’ve ordered my copy for next day delivery. Less appealing, however, is Adrian’s post. Ivakhiv writes:
The publication of the English translation of this tome, a long nine years after the French original, is a genuine Event in the world of process-relational philosophy (or whatever you’d like to name the “beatnik brotherhood,” as Harman calls it, of philosophers of immanence and becoming — a brother/sisterhood that Harman asserts does not constitute a counter-current to the hegemonic alliance of philosophies of essence, substance, and onto-theological transcendence, but that Deleuzians and others would like to think does).
With its Foreword by Bruno Latour and its thorough fusion of Whitehead, Deleuze, and science (Stengers was a student of Deleuze’s, and is a philosopher of science and collaborator of Ilya Prigogine’s), I suspect the book may reorient the post-Latourian world away from its current infatuation with objects and back to the processes that produce, sustain, and destroy those objects.
(Them’s fighting words! I’m having fun, of course; salty flavor very much intended.)
In the case of my own work, there is no opposition between processes and objects. Things are processes and processes are things. At this very moment trillions of cells are at work in my body, sending signals and materials to other cells, working over all sorts of chemical materials they receive from other cells, and engaging in all sorts of internal processes by which they are both produced and do they producing. My body is doing trillions of different things right now. As light changes my pupils contract and dilate. As I write this post all sorts of muscles tighten and loosen. Chemicals and electric pulses shoot through my brain. As my body digests the food that I ate last night plays a role in how my cells develop and even shifts my moods and thought processes as a result of the hormones it causes to be released. The air conditioning kicks on and my skin prickles, causing the hairs on my arm to stand up. Each movement that I make, each thing that I write, simultaneously leaves a trace in my body, feeding back into all these processes, becoming causal factors in subsequent processes. Once I have written this post and, indeed, in the very process of writing this post, I become. I become other than I was. The post is not a trace of my thinking but is the thinking itself. It pounds inchoate thoughts into a particular form and modifies the subsequent train of my thoughts. Yet still, I am. I am this process, these processes, this history and the future this history opens me to.
This processual nature of my being as a thing is not unique to living things. I have often waxed poetic about my blue coffee mug. While my mug is certainly not capable of things as interesting as my body, it is nonetheless in motion and process in all sorts of ways even as it sits here on my desk. Trillions of particles swirl about and interact in my mug. All sorts of atomic-chemical processes currently take place in my mug as it traces its adventure through time or duration. Perhaps, at this very moment, the blue of my mug is in a state of decay, becoming paler or faded even though I’m unable to notice this. Moreover, just as my skin prickles as the cool air of my air conditioning washes across it, the mug shifts across all sorts of shades of blue as it interacts with photons of light coming from without and bouncing off of it. The mug is both a substance and a process. It’s substantiality is its singular style of processuality and its singular style of processuality is its substantiality.
In my view, the real opposition is not between substance and process, nor between substance and relation, but between anthropocentrism and immanence. Since roughly Descartes– though with a few important exceptions –philosophy has had a largely anthropocentric reference. The focus has been largely on how human thought and language molds the world about it. The things of the world have been conceived largely as passive vehicles for human thought and practice. Here the world and our relation to the world becomes something like a fun-house mirror in which we don’t recognize ourselves. What appears in the mirror are things. The mirror itself is the materiality of the world apart from us. And what appears in the mirror is really ourselves, but in a form we don’t recognize. The work of theory is then to surmount this lack of recognition, to show how the things that appear in the mirror are really ourselves, and to explore the mechanisms by which these “things” are formed by our thought, language, and practice. As a consequence, these “things” really have no agency of their own, but rather are just our own agency at one step removed.
Under this anthropocentric index, only humans really have agency. The world is here conceived like a canvas upon which we encounter our own agency in unrecognizable form. In the case of immanence, by contrast, we have a very different model. In immanence humans are conceived as among things rather than above things. Humans are indeed one agency, yet the world is populated by all sorts of other agencies as well. Humans do indeed project all sorts of things on to the world– the fun-house mirror theory isn’t entirely mistaken –yet things contribute all sorts of differences that are irreducible to human projections. Heidegger, in Being and Time, talks about how our moods, our attunements, color the whole world. When I am in a state of boredom– to take his brilliant analysis from The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics –I encounter the things of the world about me in a particular way. None of the things of the world capture me, enchant me, or seduce me. All of them seem to fall into a dull, featureless, homogeneous gray gook. This is an example of the fun-house mirror theory where it is my moods that are coloring the world.
Yet there are cases where mood or attunement seems not to arise from me. When I drink hearty red wines I often experience a fundamental transformation of my mood. I become, in many instances, aggressive, irritable, angry, anxious. When I drink a pinot grigio or a chardonnay, by contrast, my mood tends to become light, sentimental, gregarious, amorous. Am I the origin of my moods in these instances? What is doing the doing here? What is the origin of my actions here? Here we are thinking in terms of immanence. I am not a sovereign standing over and above the things in the world, projecting my intentions, moods, and affects upon them; but neither am I a mere passive stuff in the world lorded over by active entities such as nice robust reds or pinot grigios. Rather, I am among things on a plane of immanence populated by a variety of actors or agencies. Sometimes the lion’s share of action comes from me, at others times I am reduced to almost complete agency where I am purely “used” by other things for their own ends as in the case of a cold virus that uses me as an apparatus for its own reproduction.
There are also, of course, times where we enter into assemblages that oscillate between the two states as in the case of the intertwined bodies of lovers where one now reduces himself to passive matter for the enjoyment of his partner only to next enter the state of active agency as he enjoys his partner as stuff. The two intertwined lovers explore a cartography of oscillating agency-matter, seeking out both those glimmers of agency, of subjectivity that escape material passivity in the other and surrendering ourselves to the other as passive materiality. If so many of us sometimes cry while making love then this is because we encounter this strange, fraught, paradoxical couplet at the heart of our being of transcendence-materiality where we encounter the mystery of our embodiment that is both a thing of this world and a subject that transcends things in the world. In transcending things of the world we seem to miss and lose them. In being reduced to materiality we seem to disappear and cease. The sweet frustration of the intertwined bodies of lovers is the necessity of these overlapping impossibilities, of appearing in transcendence only for the other disappear and of disappearing in materiality only to have the other appear. This would be why sexual acts such as the one night stand and the visitation to the prostitute are so dissatisfying. In these instances the fraught conflict of oscillating transcendence-materiality seems not to take place at all, leaving us only with a solipsistic transcendence that misses the encounter with the other by virtue of the absence of ourselves descending into materiality. Perhaps it is something like that that Lacan has in mind when he cryptically remarks that “love is desire that condescends to jouissance.”
In my view, “thing thought” is absolutely crucial to ecological thought. As Morton reminds us in Ecology Without Nature and The Ecological Thought, ecology refers not to a thinking of “nature”. No, ecology is everywhere insofar as imbrications of objects take place everywhere. The anthropocentric index of contemporary thought has had the tendency of blinding us to ecology by locating all agency in human minds that project meanings, uses, and intentions on to objects. To investigate the world here amounts to investigating our externalized selves. As a result, we do not ask what things themselves do. Yet if it is true that being is characterized by immanence, this will not do. We need conceptual resources that will also draw our attention to what computers do to us, and not just how we use computers. We need conceptual resources that lead us to ask what chemical processes are taking place in landfills, and not just how landfills are effects of our consumption and the compulsion that arises under capital to perpetually consume new and different things. We need conceptual resources that expose thought to the differences that things themselves contribute. Thing thinking draws our attention to these strange strangers in our midst and helps us to avoid the habit of seeing them merely as vehicles of our intentions or societies intentions.