Recently I had the privilege of reviewing a brilliant article on Deleuze and Lucretius that, I believe, pretty much nailed it regarding certain issues pertaining to the whole, the one, and totality. Among other things, the article challenges the tendency throughout the philosophical tradition to equate the whole and the one, or to treat the whole as a totalization. The standard and ancient philosophical thesis is that the whole forms a one that is also a totality. We see this in Plato, we see it in Parmenides, and also see it in Hegel, for example. Lucretius’s argument is very simple. When we claim that a whole is a totality, we’re saying that nothing escapes the whole. We’re saying, as Hegel tried to argue, that everything is actual. This is the meaning of totality. Lucretius, by contrast, argues that while being is always a whole, it is never a totality or one. Why? Because while there are a finite number of types of atoms, there are an infinite number of atoms that can be composed in an infinite number of ways. As a consequence, any whole of atoms that happens to form will never form a totality because atoms in this whole will never exhaust all possible combinations. As Lucretius is careful to note, it is difference that is primary, not identity defined by forms, essences, or concepts. No two entities are ever exactly alike and no thing ever exactly repeats by virtue of the infinity of atoms. For this reason, no whole forms a totality because every whole is only a local arrangement of atoms that actualizes some possible combinations and not others. As a result, every whole is an open and creative whole. There is no combination that could totalize the combinatorial possibilities.
What holds for Lucretius’s thought holds even moreso for OOO and MOO (machine-oriented ontology). (M)OOO rejects the thesis that some fundamental being like atoms is somehow more real than all other types of beings, such that larger scale entities like atoms (as conceived in contemporary physics), molecules, animals, trees, rocks, institutions, galaxies, etc. are mere epiphenomena. As a consequence, there are combinatorial logics at all levels of scale and these combinatorial logics never manage to form a totality. Like Lucretius, (M)OOO argues that no combination never manages to form a totality and argues that new combinations form new entities irreducible to lower-level scales. Being is creative. Combinatorial logics might manage to form a whole– though I don’t think so for reasons of the rate at which information can travel –but they never manage to form a totality.
Here it is worth noting that it has traditionally been theology and idealisms that have defended the identity of the one, whole, and totality, not naturalism. There are notable exceptions here as in the case of the theology of Derrida, if he has one (I tend to side with Hagglund on these issues), but a drive towards totality and the one has been the rule of theological orientations, not the exception. By contrast, naturalism, whether in its physicalist variants (evolutionary theory, cosmology) or its mathematical variants (Badiou’s deployment of set theory) has defended the open-endedness of nature and its inability to reach closure. Thus, on the theological side we have thinkers like Hegel, Leibniz, and Thomas that defend the idea that everything in being has a reason and is divinely ordered in such a way as to form a necessary totality– even if only eschatologically –while on the naturalist side with thinkers such as Lucretius, Galileo (yes, I know he was a priest but he exploded all constraints of his theology), Darwin, Freud, Cantor, etc., in the thesis that nature is profoundly open-ended and never manages to totalize itself. This is not simply a thesis about biological evolution. In cosmology, for example, we learn that natural laws themselves were formed in the initial, infinitesimal seconds of the big bang, that various elements are formed in stars and depend on the size stars can achieve (what would be achieved at larger sizes?), and that there are good reasons to suppose that there are universes with very different physical laws. We encounter something similar in the mathematics of the 20th century. What we’ve discovered is that being is far closer to cultural, historical, and poetic creativeness than the rigid laws of a godlike sovereign designing and structuring being (Spinoza’s God excepted here).
It is naturalism not theology and “transcendence” that allows us to think the ungroundedness of being and its infinite fecundity. Theology and discourses premised on purpose, meaning, design, and transcendence have always striven to tame this infinite fecundity and its power to generate new local “laws” and forms of being. It has perpetually striven to transform contingency– read “creativity” –into plan and necessity. Theological orientations perpetually strive to transform logoi (contingent and open pluralism) into logos (theological necessitarianism). If Melancholia was such a profound film, then this was because it recognized that there’s no necessary reason for us to exist and that there’s no destiny of being that necessarily involves us.