All relatedness has its foundation in the relatedness of actualities; and such relatedness is wholly concerned with the appropriation of the dead by the living– that is to say, with ‘objective immortality’ whereby what is divested from its own living immediacy becomes a real component in other living immediacies of becoming. (xiii – xiv)
I have been haunted by this passage ever since I first read it. What Whitehead is, in effect, saying is that all things live from death. While I would not go as far as Whitehead in claiming that all things live from death– I don’t think this is true of rocks, hydrogen atoms, and stars –it is certainly true of organic beings. To live is to live from death, because to live is to eat. With the exception of sunlight and chemicals used in photosynthesis and chemosynthesis, eating is the transformation of other organic matter into the patterned matter of the organism.
Eating is a set of operations that de-forms another organic being and re-forms that being into wood, leaves, bark, muscle, bone, blood, and nerves. Even trees and grass are a kind of carnivore in the way they eat the microbes of the soil. However, because there is no such thing as an unformed matter, a matter that does not have an intrinsic structure of its own, the deformation of organic beings and their reformation into cells for another organic being is never simply the unilateral or hylemorphic imposition of a form upon these materials. That which is eaten contributes something of its own to the machine that eats, contributing form to the organization of the vampire. I will be different depending on my diet. My cells will have different powers, different capacities, depending on whether I live from the death of these organic beings or those organic beings. I will even think differently depending on the death that I live from, this food affecting my moods and ability to cognize in this way, those foods affecting my moods and ability to cognize in that way. Those who suffer from depression and anxiety disorders are advised to maintain a particular diet.
This is what Whitehead means by “objective immortality”. It is not that the organic being is preserved as itself, but rather that its being contributes differences to the being of the being that consumes it. The dead continue to contribute their differences, making the beings that live from them different than they would otherwise be. Days after I had buried my beloved cat Tabby in the back yard, a tiny forest of trees began to sprout from her grave, growing in that particular location and not in others. Something of those trees is Tabby. Had those seeds grown elsewhere, those trees would have a different pattern or structure, their cells would be of a different nature. A becoming-cat of the tree. This “objective immortality” that is carried on in the reapers of death is an instance of what Alaimo calls “trans-corporeality”.
Between Heidegger and Whitehead, we thus have two very different conceptions of death; two conceptions of death that are not necessarily opposed, but which are simply different. With Heidegger we have an individualist conception of death. In Heidegger I know that entropy, dissolution, absence, is my ultimate destiny. I am a being-towards-death, a being that knows that death is my ultimate destination; but above all, I am a being that knows that only I can die my own death, that no one else can die it for me. This being towards death thereby individualizes me. In knowing that only I can die my own death, I come to the realization that all of my decisions, all of my decisions, are my own; that no one else can make them for me and that I can never attribute them or pass them off on someone else. For each and every thing, it was always I that chose this thing. My being-towards-death thus leads me to take responsibility for my being. I’m not here doing Heidegger nearly the justice he deserves.
By contrast, in Whitehead we get a collectivist notion of death. Here my being is not a being-towards-death– though it can be that too –but rather my being is a being-from-death. I am a being that lives from death. And while our being is ultimately solar in the sense that that which lies at the base of the food chain derives its nourishment from the light of the sun, plants as well as us live from the death of countless other beings. Insofar as we live from countless other beings, we are thus a crowd of other beings. There is thus a truth of metempsychosis. We are solar, we are bacteria, we are trees, grasses, cows, lambs, fish, and eels. Even the air I breath is of the trees. It is for this reason that the Japanese, before their meals, say “itadakimasu“, thanking their food, not God, for imparting its life-force on to them. In Whitehead’s being-from-death we thus realize our trans-corporeality, or the manner in which we live from a crowd of other beings. Rather than an individualist conception of death that subtracts us others, this being-from-death draws us ineluctably to the awareness of how we are bound up with others.
It is clear then, that while ethical questions might ultimately be bound up with questions of life and death, they can’t be bound up with the rejection of death. This is because there can be no question of extricating ourselves from death. In our being-from-death we are inextricably and necessarily bound up with death. The question then is not one of whether or not to renounce death, but rather of how we ought to live with death. As Derrida said, it is a question of how to eat well. Perhaps we could say that there is a nihilistic way of being-from-death that betokens “hyper-death” through the bio-catastrophe that it invites: ecological monoculturalization, factory farming, the devastation of fisheries, etc. Then, perhaps, there would be an ethical way of living from death. I scarcely know how to even pose these questions. Eating well does not amount to having a “well appointed” table, but rather would be a way of eating that says “itadakimasu” and really means it, seeking to preserve the biodiversity of the planet and its fecundity for producing difference. It would be a way of living-from-death that does not produce absolute death or the utter annihilation of that from which we live.