Whitehead


A very interesting discussion is shaping up between Harman and Shaviro concerning the ontological status of objects and relations in Whitehead. Shaviro’s latest post defending Whitehead can be found here. At the outset, it’s worth emphasizing that Whitehead is essential reading for OOO. Whitehead is perhaps the greatest realist and object-oriented philosopher of the last century. In many respects, Whitehead is the most resolutely anti-idealist thinker in the last two hundred years. Unlike those poor cowardly souls that advance arguments to the effect that the distinction between idealism and realism is meaningless (translation: they’ve sided with idealism), or that seek to escape idealism by deconstructing the self-transparency of the subject while still treating everything in terms of the signifier, power, signs, etc., Whitehead resolutely speaks of the objects themselves without conflating the ontological and the epistemological register, leaving the reader with no doubt that he’s perfectly happy to speak of the being of beings that have no relation to the human whatsoever. As Harman has recently noted, this is the litmus test of whether or not one is an idealist:

Stated differently, you can’t say: “I’m not an idealist. I believe the human subject is a passive recipient of the world, not its constitutor,” or “Human and world are co-produced,” or “world produces the human.”

Why does the human need to be involved all of these cases?

Even worse is when the game is played of replacing the human with falsely neutral-sounding terms such as “subject”, “thought”, “Ereignis,” or any equivalent thereof.

If people always have to be involved in any situation being discussed in your philosophy, then you’re an idealist. The problem is that it’s become such a reflexive assumption that the human must be one ingredient in any situation under discussion that people immediately scream “positivism!” as soon as you start talking about inanimate relations. So much contemporary continental philosophy has been built as nothing but a firewall against the natural sciences, and unfortunately Husserl (a truly great philosopher) is one of the worst violators on this front.

If you find yourself immediately talking about language, signs, subjects, co-constitution, power, the nature of inquiry, etc., then you are an idealist. There is no ambiguity here. The implicit thesis in all these moves that the being of being cannot be even entertained independent of the human. Whitehead passes this litmus test with flying colors. For Whitehead humans are one being among many others, one event among many others. All philosophical questions do not revolve around the human. Nor is there any conflation of questions of access in Whitehead with questions of ontology. The question of how we have access to such and such a being, say a rose, is irrelevant to the question of what constitutes the being of beings. I find myself utterly baffled as to why philosophers seem to have such a difficult time distinguishing these two issues. They should know better. Everyone who teaches ethics knows how to debunk the students claim that values are purely subjective and whatever beliefs a person possesses within minutes. In other words, everyone who teaches ethics knows that the question of what values are, how we deliberate about right and wrong, etc., is independent of the question of our access to values and norms. Yet oddly this same simple insight isn’t carried over into the realm of ontology.

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In recent discussions here and elsewhere surrounding neurology, I get the sense that many approach neurology with a highly specific set of assumptions that very much color their reaction to this field. Turn the television to the Discovery channel on any given evening and you will find documentaries dominated by the theoretical orientation of psycho- and socio-biology. Within this theoretical orientation, any particular human practice, psychological phenomenon, or form of social organization is explained in evolutionary terms as a biological adaptation that promotes reproduction and survival. As a result, this form of psycho- and socio-biology ends up naturalizing and essentializing human practices, social organizations, and forms of subjectivity in ways that can only be described as reactionary.

Those of us who have developed intellectually in the milieu of the last century’s revolution in the social sciences– whether in fields like ethnography, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, linguistics, etc –cannot but encounter this form of theoretical explanation profoundly ignorant by virtue of the way it is commonly unaware of both the findings of ethnography where we discover that if you can imagine it there is probably some group of people somewhere or somewhen that have organized their social, exchange, and kinship relations in this way, and, as a consequence, ideologically debilitating as it ends up naturalizing the contingent forms of subjectivity, social organization, amorous relations, etc., that characterize our contemporary historical and cultural moment.

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02turtleubirrAs I sit here regarding the eighty student essays I have to grade over the course of the next few days– essays that I’ve already had in hand for too long –I naturally cast about for ways to procrastinate. Having completed my posts on Meillassoux’s argument against correlationism (here, here, and here), and having, over the last few days, had an intense, though very productive, discussion with Mikhail surrounding these and related issues (here, here, here, and here), I find myself wondering just how damaging Meillassoux’s argument is. Does Meillassoux’s argument really land a fatal blow to correlationism? I think that depends.

If we are to understand Meillassoux’s argument from ancestrality and against correlationism, it is necessary to understand why he focuses on time. To do this, we need to recall a bit about Kant and how Kant solved the problems of space and time in the Critique of Pure Reason. That is, we have to look at what Kant actually says about the nature of time. If Meillassoux chooses to stake his claim for realism on the issue of time, then this is because primary qualities, qualities that are said to be “in the thing itself” and not dependent on us, are generally understood to be mathematical properties. All that I can know of mathematical properties, the story goes, are those aspects of these properties that can be mathematized. Thus, as Descartes said, “this class of things [primary qualities] appears to include corporeal nature in general, together with its extension; the shape of extended things; their quantity, that is, their size and number; as well as the place where they exist, the time through which they endure, and the like” (Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, Hackett, Fourth Edition, 61). What are we speaking of when we speak of the mathematical properties of an object if not the spatio-temporal properties of the object? Meillassoux, of course, wants a much broader domain of primary qualities than shape, size, mass, duration, etc., so as to make room for new properties discovered in science. The point is that when he speaks of primary qualities he is basically speaking of spatial and temporal properties that are subject to mathematical representation. The claim isn’t that the property is a number, but rather that it has a mathematizable structure discoverable through measurement, experiment, observation, etc.

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70106_duchamp_nude_staircaseIn many respects Whitehead’s actual occasions or actual entities are analogous to what I call “objectiles”. I have adopted the term “objectile” for objects to capture the sense in which objects are dynamic and ongoing activities unfolding or producing themselves through time. Thus the word “objectile” is a portmanteau word combining “object” and “projectile”, so as to underline the sense in which objects are not fixed points in a spatial location, but rather spatio-temporal processes over time. Like Duchamp’s famous Nude Descending A Staircase, objectiles are not to be thought as stationary substances composed of fixed qualities or predicates, but rather as this very unfolding and movement through time and space. Objectiles are not the now in which they are, but are this very adventure across space and time.

duchampdescendingSo too in the case of Whitehead’s actual occasions or actual entities. Actual occasions make up the ultimate building blocks of Whitehead’s universe. As Whitehead puts it in Process and Reality,

‘Actual entities’– also termed ‘actual occasions’ –are the final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real. They differ among themselves: God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space… The final facts are, all alike, actual entities; and these actual entities are drops of experience, complex and interdependent. (18)

Whitehead’s ontology is thus atomistic in character. The universe, for Whitehead, is not composed of one substance, but of an indefinite number of substances, and, moreover, new substances are always coming into being. However, unlike Lucretian atoms that are eternal and indestructable, such that they never change and such that each one always possesses exactly the same properties for all time (i.e., they are immutable), Whitehead’s atoms or actual occasions are complex multiplicities or manifolds that become. “…[H]ow an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is… It’s ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming'” (23). In his earlier work Whitehead thus referred to actual occasions as events. An objectile, actual occasion, or actual entity is an event. And like all events it is therefore temporally elongated.

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108-519Jacob Russell has written a very nice response to my post on Margaret’s Pepper Principle, translating this principle into the domain of aesthetics. The money quote comes at the end:

From my earlier POST (a chapter in my novel-in-progress, Ari Figue’s Cat, I wrote (with some alterations)

Until the first word is written everything is possible. … We may, of course, erase as we write, circling back to a new starting point–speaking to ourselves, as it were, but that all comes to an end the moment the page is read, and in truth, even the freedom of erasure and revision is an illusion. Every word added to the next forecloses an infinite array of possibilities.

If you set out to tell a story you quickly find that you cannot go just anywhere. The more you write the more the words take charge, reducing the writer to a mere instrument playing out theme and variation over sets of ever more determinate patterns, and yet, it is seldom clear what those patterns are.

Busily translating (viva la difference!) from ontology to the aesthetics of process: all the elements of memory, association, ideas and language that we work into a written form are like the grains and eyes in the piece of wood. Like whitling the head of a duck, writing a novel is a process of negotion with the material at hand and every act, each engagement with that material translates both material and our intention. When reading and interpreting a literary work, it is useless to appeal to the author’s intention, not because we have no access to the author’s mind and are limited to the text–but because the author’s intentions have been in a continuous process of translation along with the writing as it evolves. What existed in the beginning, and at every point to the completion of the work, is a continuum of difference that moves both forward and back. We cannot get there from here without changing both here and there.

This has actually been a pet project of mine for a long time and is one of the key themes of my book, Difference and Givenness. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze calls for a new transcendental aesthetic that would be capable of overcoming the split between aesthetics as the doctrine of sensibility or what can be sensed and aesthetics as the theory of artistic production. The first form of aesthetics might be traced back to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason where the transcendental aesthetic refers to the a priori forms of sensibility or intuition defining, as it were, the frame within which any object must be encountered or experienced. baezThe mind imposes the forms of space and time upon objects, giving them sensible structure or form. Consequently, as Kant brilliantly argues, space and time come not from the world itself, but are rather imposed by mind on the objects of the world. Were this not the case, Kant argues, we would be unable to explain how geometry and arithmetic are possible. Here Kant is assuming that mathematics is based on intuition or pure sensibility. It is important to note that this is an exceedingly controversial thesis in the philosophy of mathematics and a thesis that is strongly challenged by the subsequent development of new forms of mathematics that appear to be unintuitable by humans. At any rate, why doesn’t Kant think we’d be unable to account for mathematics were we not to suppose that time and space are forms of intuition mind imposes on the world? Simply put, we would not be able to explain why the truths of mathematics, truths we can reach through thought alone, 1) hold for all times and places despite the finite limitations of our ability to verify this, and 2) apply to the objects of intuition themselves. This latter point, I think, is the far more profound and challenging argument. That is, why is it that something that we merely think again and again happens to also apply to physical objects in the world? This simple observation is one of the more convincing arguments for Kant’s transcendental idealism.

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Shaviro has another excellent chapter posted from his book on Deleuze, Whitehead, and Kant. Well worth the read.

I’m well behind the curve on this one, but Shaviro has an outstanding review of DeLanda’s A New Philosophy of Society. An appetizer:

I like DeLanda’s basic argument: which is to insist on the exteriority of relations. Traditionally, positivist, atomistic thought has pretty much denied the importance of relations between entities: the entities themselves are the absolutes, and all relations between them are merely accidental. Thus neoclassical economics adopts a “methodological individualism” according to which “all that matters are rational decisions made by individual persons in isolation from one another” (4). On the other hand, what DeLanda calls the “organismic metaphor” (8) asserts that entities are entirely defined by the totality to which they belong, entirely constituted by their relations: “the basic concept in this theory is what we may call relations of interiority: the component parts are constituted by the very relations they have to other parts in the whole” (9). Hegelian thought is the most powerful example of this tendency, thought Saussurean linguistics and the “structuralism” influenced by it could also be mentioned.

Now, the partisans of both these views usually claim that the two opposed positions are the only possible ones: there are no alternatives. Partisans of methodological individualism simply deny the existence of units larger (or smaller, for that matter) than that of the “individual” (or at most, the patriarchal nuclear family): they see such formations as being metaphysical abstractions with no objective validity. Hence Margaret Thatcher’s notorious statement: “There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals and families.” Of course such “methodological individualism” is absurd, since it is contradicted by everything in our minute-to-minute and day-by-day experience. We are never as isolated as methodological individualism assumes, and we probably couldn’t survive for very long if we were. The very fact that we use language, that we use tools and techniques that we didn’t invent from scratch ourselves, let alone that we use money and engage in acts of exchange, belies the thesis. It’s a curious paradox that the most rabid partisans of methodological individualism tend to be free-market economists and rational-choice political scientists and sociologists, since their entire logic depends upon denying the very factors that make their arguments possible in the first place. But if you press the more intelligent methodological individualists, they will admit that their presuppositions are, indeed, “methodological” rather than ontological, that they represent a kind of abstraction, and that such a methodology, and such an abstraction, are necessary in order to avoid getting stuck in top-down, totalizing theories (their aversion to which is often justified with citations from Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, or Friedrich Hayek on the dangers of totalitarianism).

But on the other side of the divide, Hegelians and other proponents of the “organismic metaphor” are just as insistent that their systematic (or “dialectical”) ways of doing things are the only alternatives to the absurdities of atomistic reductionism. I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve had with Marxists, Zizekians, and others over the years, who insist that my Deleuze-inspired objections to the very notion of totalization, or to the idea that events occur only through a dialectic of negativity (usually up to and including the “negation of the negation”), is untenable: they claim that, to reject these “relations of interiority” is ipso facto to lapse into the absurdities of positivism and atomistic reductionism. The same is true for partisans of various sorts of systems theory (all the way from followers of Niklas Luhmann, to devotees of the Lacanian Symbolic order), who tell me that I cannot escape their system, because anything I say against it already presupposes it, and is already positioned somewhere within it. (Hardcore deconstructionists, despite their denial of the very possibility of totalization or a coherent system, are nonetheless also in this camp: as they argue — just like Lacanians — that one can never escape the presuppositions and aporias of Language. Deconstruction is entirely a theory of relations of interiority, even though it recognizes that such relations are never completed but always still in process).

What DeLanda says — which is indeed what Deleuze said before him — is that we need not accept either term of this binary (nor need we be stuck in the aporia of shuttling endlessly between them). What Deleuze and DeLanda offer instead is not the golden mean of a “Third Way,” but rather a move that is oblique to the very terms of the opposition. What does it mean to affirm the exteriority of relations? As DeLanda explains it, an entity is never fully defined by its relations; it is always possible to detach an entity from one particular set of relations, and insert it instead in a different set of relations, with different other entities. For every entity has certain “properties” that are not defined by the set of relations it finds itself in at a given moment; rather than being merely an empty signifier, the entity can take these properties with it, as it were, when it moves from one context (or one set of relations) to another. At the same time, an entity is never devoid of (some sort of) relations: the world is a plenum, indeed it is over-full, and solipsism or atomistic isolation is impossible.

I particularly appreciate the way he navigates criticisms of Deleuze coming from Zizekians, Lacanians, Hegelians, and Badiouians. Read the rest here.

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