In my development of the ontology of objects within the framework of onticology I have tried to argue that objects are not their local manifestations or actualizations, but rather a virtual endo-relational structure composed of relations among attractors, singularities, powers, or generative mechanisms. It is this virtual dimension of the object that, in my view, constitutes the proper being of an object. This virtual dimension of the object, I argue, constitutes its substantiality. Consequently, it follows that no object ever directly encounters another objects, but rather objects only ever encounter one another as local manifestations of their virtual proper being. The proper being of the object, its virtual structure, is always in excess of any of its local manifestations.

This model of objects is proposed, in part, to account for the identity of an object throughout its variations. Objects continuously vary or change as their conditions change, yet there is something of the object that remains the same. But what is this something? Certainly it can’t be the local manifestations or actualizations of the object because those local manifestations change with shifting conditions or changes in exo-relations to other objects. It is this insight that leads many, I think, to overmine objects by reducing them to their relations to other objects. Yet as Harman has compellingly argued, this line of thought fails to provide the conditions for the possibility under which these variations are possible. As a consequence, it follows that the identity of an object cannot be something in the appearance (to the world, not to humans), local manifestation, or actualization of an object, but must reside in another dimension of the object. And because the object can undergo variations while remaining that object, it follows that the proper being of the object, its substantiality, must be something that does not manifest itself. It is there everywhere in the object, without ever becoming present in the world. It is the “principle” of the object, its “essence”, its “style of being”, without being something that we could ever find in the local manifestations of the object.

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mapofitalyI sometimes get the sense that when I make remarks about flat ontology and collectives of human and nonhuman actors the points I’m making are so simple, so vulgar, so obvious that others are often confused as to what I might even be referring to. Ghost, for example, remarks,

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s grateful for all the time you’ve spent explaining this stuff. I’m beginning to get a handle on it, but as you describe the differences between a flat ontology analysis and something Zizek might do, for instance, I realise I need to see this ontology in action. A detailed flat ontology analysis might dissipate the feeling for me that the old nature/binary is still there, but now together in a new container.

No doubt I’ve exacerbated the problem because I’ve developed a somewhat abstract vocabulary with mysterious expressions like “there are no differences that do not make a difference”, “there is no transportation without translation”, and “nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else”, all situated in terms like “objectiles”, “actors”, “exo-relations”, “endo-relations”, “attractors”, “phase spaces”, “endo-consistency”, and so on. Faced with this infantry of terms and expressions, it’s difficult to determine what I might be getting at. A good deal of this has been my fault as I seldom give very elaborate examples to develop my claims. Hopefully I can rectify some of this today through the question “how did Caesar cross the Rubicon?”

read on!

newssmokeThe word “object” derives from the Latin prefix ob, meaning “against”, and the word jacere, meaning “to throw”. Presumably there is a relationship between objects, on the one hand, and existence on the other hand. To be an object is also to exist. The term “existence” comes from the Latin term existere (ex and sistere) meaning “to stand forth”. It would thus seem that to be an object is “to be thrown against” or “to stand forth”. Here, then, would be a first reason for conceiving objects in relation to difference. If to be an object is to stand forth or to be thrown against, then it follows that to be an object is first and foremost to differ. On the one hand, we here see why objects must always be attached to a field. If objects stand forth or are thrown against, there must be something from which they stand forth or against which they are thrown. Minimally, then, it must be said that there are not just objects, but object-field relations. There is nothing for the object to stand-forth from if there is no field against which the object stands. This field could be anything and the question of what constitutes a field would be a central question of ontological speculation. Is the field in question the void, as in the case of Lucretius? Is it other objects? Is it a background-foreground relation as in the case of the Gestaltists? Is it the One substance of Spinoza? The question is open. All that can be said is that minimally objects are a differentiating. For this reason objects are necessarily attached to a world; or rather, there are no worldless objects.

125The second notable feature of the etymology of the terms “object” and “existence” is that both contain verbs. “Object” contains the verb jacere, meaning to throw. “Existence” contains the verb sistere, meaning “to stand forth”. The term “object”, of course, is a noun. When we think of nouns we tend to think of something fixed and established. Something that presides. Yet the etymology of the terms “object” and “existence” suggests a verb or action at the heart of objects and existence. If objects stand-forth or are thrown, then there is an activity at work in the object or the existent. In this respect, the Greek concept of φύσις or phusis as that which emerges, grows, or is born would be at the heart of objects. When the Ontic Principle claims that there is no difference that does not make a difference, we get one sense in which objects are. The difference of an object is a difference that is made and constantly remade, emerging from out of a field. Consequently, objects should be thought as events.

g002_pllck2_she_wolfIt is unfortunate that we so often use “difference” as a noun. The differences that constitute an object should not be understood as the properties by which an observer distinguishes two objects from one another, but should instead be understood as difference internal to the object, presiding over the process of how it stands forth from a field or throws itself. Difference should be understood in the sense of “to differ” or “differing“, as the activity by which the objects unfolds, blooms, or emerges against a field. Perhaps the term “differentiating” would be preferable to “difference”, so long as differentiating is understood as what objects do, not what minds do in distinguishing objects from one another. While we do indeed make distinctions, so long as difference is understood primarily as distinction, difference becomes a negative term describing relations between identicals. When we speak of difference as distinction, we here speak of difference in terms of what something is not, rather than affirmatively as the differentiating taking place in the heart or volcanic core of objects. “This cat is black, that cat is not.” Hence Deleuze will remarks that,

The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself– and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it… Difference is this state in which determination takes the form of unilateral distinction. We must therefore say that difference is made, or makes itself, as in the expression ‘make the difference’. (Difference and Repetition, Columbia University Press, 28)

As I argued in a previous post, the epistemic and the ontological are deeply intertwined due to the philosophical tradition, such that we must perpetually struggle to untangle the two if we are to get anywhere. Difference-between is a relation between three terms where, on the one hand, we have two objects that differ from one another (black and white cats) and a mind contemplating that difference or distinguishing these two terms. Such would be difference epistemically conceived. Implicitly this form of difference would involve an observer or mind distinguishing the two objects. However, difference as Deleuze here conceives it would be ontological and strictly an affair of the object itself, regardless of whether any minds were about to distinguish the object from other objects. Here we would have the object distinguishing itself through some sort of internal force or power– an internal difference –rather than objects being distinguished.

read on!

art_whitney_marx-insideN.Pepperell has begun posting chapter drafts of her long awaited thesis on Marx over at Rough Theory. The work that she’s doing is well worth the read and promises to new light on a number of competing approaches to social and political theory. Might we not get an actor-network version of Marx… Including the hyphen and suitably responsive to Braudel? I look forward to watching the text unfold. I do, however, have one gripe. I cannot find a “thesis workshop” tab in her categories section, so it is difficult to follow the order of the text. NP, add a tag stat!


There seems to be a certain inertia to thought, to our dealings with the world, which leads us to a sort of ontological pre-comprehension of the world in which being is apprehended as stable, ordered, reliable, and law-like. Nor is this ontological pre-comprehension without warrant. You can discern this inertia with special clarity in the case of very young children interacting with those with whom they are familiar. The smallest change can transform an easy familiarity into suspicion. The young child reacts with averted eyes, refusing to even acknowledge the existence of the person they were before perfectly comfortable with. A quizzical, anxious look crosses their face. In response to these changes and shifts in what is otherwise stable and familiar, there seems to be a deep “ontological insecurity” against which we defend. And while perhaps there are laws of nature, invariant patterns of being, perhaps our search for such things is a defense against this ontological insecurity (a term I borrow with reservations from Adorno, I think), this need to find identity amidst and underneath change.

Last week I encountered something similar among my students in my Critical Thinking class. We were working through the basic language distinctions that will form all the subsequent work in the class, and I was trying to explain the difference between arguments and persuasion. According to Parker and Moore, an argument consists of a premise and a conclusion such that the premises are presented as support for the truth of the conclusion. Arguments attempt to demonstrate that a particular claim is true. By contrast, persuasion seeks to convince someone else of something, and may or may not use arguments. There are all sorts of things that convince us that have nothing to do with the truth or falsity of a conclusion. We might or might not persuaded because we have a high regard for the person who is speaking to us, or because we are captivated by the beauty or force of their words, because of how they dress, or because the person appeals to our vanity or evokes values such as Nation, God, Morality, etc. In these cases, the language does not function as a reason in support of a claim and has little or nothing to do with whether or not the claim is true or false. Yet nonetheless the speech persuades.

Seeking to illustrate this difference, I referenced modes of dress and job interviews. All of us have received advice about how to dress when going to job interviews, how we should speak, how it’s important to give a firm handshake and look the interviewers in the eye. If one is in academia or perhaps an IT field, this is particularly bizarre as it is unlikely that we dress as we do at a job interview when we are in the classroom or programming software. More fundamentally, the mode of dress has little or nothing to do with ones expertise in the classroom or these fields. In these cases, clothing is an act of seduction, a lure, that compensates for the insufficiency of being able to perceptibly display skill and knowledge.

Thinking this to be a very straightforward and obvious point, I was surprised when howls of protest issued from my students. “But clothing and grooming tell us whether or not a person is responsible!” “Clothing and good grooming tell whether or not a person is a good person!” What the students had missed– or wished to erase –was the manner in which clothing functions as a sign. In this connection, it is perhaps Umberto Eco who best articulates the essence of signs. As Eco writes in A Theory of Semiotics, “…semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie” (7). The students wished to treat these signs as immediate proof of the character and skill of a person, missing the manner in which the sign always differs from that for which it stands. In short, their protests spoke to a desire for a transparent social world where things are what they are and do not differ from themselves (would it be an exaggeration to suggest that politics is always divided between politics of identity and politics of difference, where the former aims after the identical and non-deceptive, whereas the latter allows beings to differ from themselves and their group?) Here one will recall the manner in which the young boy evades capture by his father at the end of The Shining. Recognizing the essential nature of signs, the boy covers his tracks in the snow, creating false tracks that lead in another direction. The boy recognizes that the sign and that for which the signs stand, share no essential connection with one another. In this way he is able to communicate a false trail.

Lefebvre drives this point home with beautiful clarity in the first volume of his Critique of Everyday Life:

And yet there is something in life which Pirandelloism [the form of theatre that presents everything as a relative point of view or interpretation of the world] cannot contain and which escapes it: the action, the event, the decision, the final outcome and the necessity for a final outcome; actions, and judgments about actions, in the sense in which they involve decisions… To play is to transform our point of view into a decision by confronting chance and determinism in the absence of adequate information about our opponent’s game…

We are never really sure where actions, decisions or events spring from. But, in all their stark reality, the results are there. What lies hidden within men and women is beyond our grasp; maybe these hidden depths are only an insubstantial mist, and not a profound substance (a Grund, a nature, an unconscious belonging to the individual or a group); it may only be a myth. Men and women are beyond us… We weigh the pros and the cons, but there is no telling when something new on one side of the scales will come to outweigh the other. So decisions may ripen like fruit on a tree, but they will never fall of their own accord; we must always cut the stem, we must even choose the moment of choice… Hence the infinitely complex, profound and contradictory character of life is given an element which is always new, and which is indeed constantly being renewed by knowledge.

To put it more clearly or more abstractly, ambiguity is a category of everyday life, and perhaps an essential category. (18)

Perhaps, when he asserts that “the big Other does not exist”, Lacan means nothing more than this; that we act and live in a state of ambiguity where we are ultimately unable to calculate the hand of those in relation to whom we act. If the discovery that the big Other does not exist, that the Other is split or barred, proves far more traumatic than the discovery that we, as subjects, are split or barred, then this is because it confronts us with the semiotic nature of the world in Eco’s sense of the term. Not only do we not have adequate information about the others in relation to which we act, but those others do lack this knowledge of themselves as well (for they too are barred and are ignorant of their own desire).

As a result, there is no master-key or algorithm that would allow us to navigate the world. The pre-ontological comprehension of being as governed by invariant laws (whether in the natural world or the social world), would be a massive defense against this ontologically primitive contingency that marks existence. Nietzsche asks what will animates the philosopher’s will to truth. The answer would be found here. Yet as Deleuze claims in his powerful image of the dicethrow, “It is… a question of a throw of the dice, of the whole sky as open space and of throwing as the only rule. The singular points are on the die; the questions are the dice themselves; the imperative is to throw. Ideas are the problematic combinations which result from the throws” (Difference and Repetition, 198). In grasping Deleuze it would be a mistake to assume that we are the one’s formulating the questions or posing the questions. “The imperatives and questions with which we are infused do not emanate from the I: it is not even there to hear them. The imperatives are those of being, while every question is ontological and distributes ‘that which is’ among problems” (199). We are thrown into a space of being that questions and problematizes us, and it is this that we navigate in the individuate our being. We find ourselves thrown into a constellation, a set of aleatory singular points, that form the problematic field in which we are individuated. “the dice which fall are a constellation, their points form the number ‘born of the stars'” (Nietzsche & Philosophy, 32). Yet again and again philosophy striates this space of the constellation, erasing aleatory distributions of singularities, striving to transform being into static, eternal, lawful structures. The question is that of how it might be possible to think from constellations, from distributions of singularities, no longer erasing the non-existence of the Other.


My frustrations from earlier today have led me to think once again of Serres’ discussion of noise in his lyrical work of philosophy, Genesis. There Serres writes:

There, precisely, is the origin. Noise and nausea, noise and the nautical, noise and the navy belong to the same family. We musn’t be surprised. We never hear what we call background noise so well as we do at the seaside. That placid or vehement uproar seems established there for all eternity. In the strict horizontal of it all, stable, unstable cascades are endlessly trading. Space is assailed, as a whole, by the murmur; we are utterly taken over by this same murmuring. This restlessness is within hearing, just shy of definite signals, just shy of silence. The silence of the sea is mere appearance. Background noise may well be the ground of our being. It may be that our being is not at rest, it may be that it is not in motion, it may be that our being is disturbed. The background noise never ceases; it is limitless, continuous, unending, unchanging. It has itself no background, no contradictory. How much noise must be made to silence noise? And what terrible fury puts fury in order? Noise cannot be a phenomenon; every phenomenon is separated from it, a silhouette on a backdrop, like a beacon against the fog, as every message, every cry, every call, every signal must be separated from the hubbub that occupies silence, in order to be, to be perceived, to be known, to be exchanged. (13)

Noise cannot be a phenomenon. Rather, noise is inimical to all phenomenon, an anteriority out of which phenomenality itself emerges like a ghostly ship suddenly manifesting itself out of a dense fog on a dark night. Some of us will remember the haunting image of Carol-Anne before the television in Poltergeist, intoning “they’re here!” in response to voices that only she can hear. The white noise of the television that lulled so many of us to sleep in bygone ages prior to the onset of twenty-four hour television, produces an experience of the uncanny, causes the hair to raise on the back of our neck, by confronting us with the thought of an order impacting our life from within a flat chaos. Bateson will say that “information is the difference that makes a difference.” Noise is the great white indifference. Thus Deleuze will write,

Indifference has two aspects: the undifferenciated abyss, the black nothingness, the indeterminate animal in which everything is dissolved– but also the white nothingness, the once more calm surface upon which float unconnected determinations like scattered members: a head without a neck, an arm without a shoulder, eyes without a brows. The indeterminate is completely indifferent, but such floating determinations are no less indifferent, but such floating determinations are no less indifferent to each other… Difference is the state in which one can speak of determination as such. The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself– and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it. It is as if the ground rose to the surface, without ceasing to be the ground… Difference is this state in which determination takes the form of unilateral distinction. We must therefore say that difference is made, or makes itself, as in the expression ‘make the difference’. (Difference and Repetition, 28)


Some will recall the puerile film Contact, where hidden within the extraterrestrial radio transmission there is a secret code filled with thousands of pages of blueprints for the design of some device. The question is that of how a difference is made. Or rather, it is a question of how something ceases to be noise, chaos, and suddenly becomes salient. For those who remember the film, Contact is particularly nice in this regard; for when the sound signatures are projected onto a visual space, we get a multi-dimension picture where certain differences rise forth from the ground as distinct.

In many respects, this is the core of education. Andrew Cutrofello expresses this point nicely when speaking of Bachelard’s theory of science in Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction:

Just as Bachelard is more amenable than Heidegger to the reconcilability of the claims of science and poetry, so he denies that there is as great a gap between intuition and intellect as Bergson supposed there to be. Intuitions have to be educated by the intellect, that is, by the very specific accomplicments whose philosophical significance Bergson thought had to be assessed from the perspective of a naive or ‘pure’ intuition. For Bachelard, the very capacity to inuit has a history, one that is dialectically informed by developments in science… (58)


Perception is not simply a given or a gestalt, but something that must be developed and cultivated. My friend Carl tells me of his visit to Egypt, and how people drive and walk in the city of Cairo. For him there seems to be no order. Cars zoom about willy-nilly. People walk into oncoming traffic. Yet strangely it all seems to work out well. There is an order amidst this noise of which he is unaware. I have had a similar experience in the Indian-Pakistani part of Chicago, on Devon Avenue. Everything there presents itself as a buzzing confusion for the agent that does not have a “know-how” of this place. In developing a knowledge of psychoanalysis, we do not simply gain new facts, but we cultivate perceptions. Certain items in a person’s speech become salient where before they were merely noise that we filtered out. So too in the case of the physicist, the chemist, the engineer. There is a process of phenomenalization, a breaching of a realm of being, where before there was only noise.

There is thus an anxiety that accompanies all education. In learning– rather than knowing –one confronts the undifferentiated void, where saliencies do not reside. In teaching we bring our students before this noise, confronting them with a field of phenomenality where, as of yet, there are no phenomena for them. Some of us recoil from the passions this anxiety releases, celebrating rote memorization as a way of relieving the anxiety. Here no new field of phenomenality appears. Everything remains at the level of the familiar, doxa. All of us, regardless, must handle this anxiety, administering it in doses, guiding our students through the indeterminate so that the phenomenon might appear, by grace, on the other side. It is a dance that can easily go astray, leading the student to recoil in horror in much the same way that Plato describes in the allegory of the cave, where the escaped prisoner is painfully blinded with each subsequent step he takes. Somehow it is necessary to manage that blinding so that it doesn’t lead to flight. Yet holographically, a phenomenon gradually comes to stand forth from this buzzing confusion… Something becomes distinct and a grammar begins to appear. It might be a grammar of wood (in carving), of sound (in music), of the unconscious, of chemical relations. Where before there was indifference, now there is difference. Yet how is it that something begins to stand out from the white noise on the television screen? Where does the difference that makes a difference come from? Is it possible to think that which precedes the given, that gives the given, and that is anterior to phenomenality? Or must that which is anterior to the phenomenality of the phenomenon– the es gibt –be doomed to be an unthinkable abyss? More to the point, what would a pedagogy that takes this abyss into account and which guides the student to the discovery of singularities within the undifferentiated look like?

~…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.

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