Sunday, June 22, 2014

"Beatnik Brotherhood": Process just works better than object when it come to possessing an adequate ontology of what is

Fellow process-relational ecophilosopher Adrian Ivakhiv has his latest article published (see HERE) discussing the productivity of a Deleuzio-Whiteheadian axis.  There seems to be, quite oddly, one or two philosophers out there who deny such a coupling – but it struck me immediately why I found this to be so odd.  If one reads the literature and those who have spent years studying the process tradition (Whitehead, Deleuze, but also Schelling, Peirce, Hegel) one finds that without a shadow of a doubt such an axis does in fact work quite naturally.  Just look at the work of Iain Hamilton Grant, for instance.  His books and articles (see his latest Cologne Media lecture or even his interview with After Nature blog) shows that, in theory, such a coupling works indubitably.  Also, more concretely, what about Steve Shaviro?  Or Didier Debaise?  Their work draws together Deleuze and Whitehead in a variety of ways.

Let's generalize abit.  Is it true that "process" is a word that really dupes one into believing the world is some mysterious "underflow" or nothing else?  Hardly.  It's simply a bad read of Bergson, Whitehead, or even Deleuze to say that that is how they conceive process.  Moreover, it's a false dilemma to state that there are *only* two ways to look at becoming: pure monistic flow or are pure plural flow of entities.  This isn't "process" philosophy at all.  At least not any that I've ever read.  Yes, concepts (for Bergson, or Deleuze) cut away from more primal conditions; but primal conditions link to and establish concepts and how they cut.  They aren't relativists, so it is not the other way around.  It is not as if however I cut the flow of the world with my arbitrary concepts that the world is concretely.  No way.

Whitehead states individuals are primary, but not in the sense under discussion in this conversation.  Primacy has different meanings here.  Primacy as in most efficacious, or as in the last things of the world, or eternal objects?  Of course actual entities do not become (in the ways described above), they only perish in the sense that, as actual, they are final things! Actual occasions are not endurances like substances, they are activities. But one only needs to pause a moment and ask why they are the final things of an activity.  Answer?  Creativity.  "The many become one and are increased by one."

To say that there is no becoming in Whitehead?  Come on.  Certainly there is subjective aim, and those grasping desperately for objects avoid this nearly always, what of creativity and time?  What of future temporal relations?  If individual entities are absolutely self-contained then change and future temporal relations becomes a BIG problem.  I've argued about this ad nauseum.  The world simply isn't a composition of static frozen instants,  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Why is this debate so important?  It's what's at stake here: ideas like "substance" or "fully-formed individuals" aren't to be rejected because they are fossilized, they are to be rejected for their reductionist tendencies to foreclose what things are within their own abundant identities, regardless how one's ontology tries to orientate toward what is.  These identities have temporal natures; not frozen and static natures that are magically hidden yet mysteriously revealed through the eyes of a grand wizard with the right ontology.  

Finally, if the Deleuzio-Whiteheadian axis is "non-existent," then I must be suffering hallucinations when I read books like Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson: Rhizomatic Connections; the work of Keith Robinson, Keith Pearson, John Mularkey, Isabelle Stengers, Didier Debaise, Steve Shaviro, or even Iain Grant (a Deleuze-Schelling connection, but I am seeing more and more Whitehead in Grant); let alone other philosophers who have blogged incessantly about process in the past few years regarding this debate (Jason Hills / immanent transcendence comes to mind).  Face it: process just works better than object when it come to possessing an adequate ontology of what is.  I mean, yes, you can clutch and cling desperately to a category of "object," but when it comes time to account for creativity, time, change, or subjective aim, it won't do you much good.

I'll balance the tongue-in-cheek snarkiness of this blog post (in good fun to keep the debate going) with a more sober and careful approach to the debate which is a forthcoming publication that I'll excerpt below.  It's the introduction to a book chapter that will be appearing in November as part of a broader anthology.


"Ecology Re-naturalized”

“Nature is intricate, overlapped, interweaved, and endless.”

-          Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Fate” (1860)[i]

“This isolated line and the isolated fish alike are living beings with forces peculiar to them, though latent….But the voice of these latent forces is faint and limited.  It is the environment of the line and the fish that brings about a miracle: the latent forces awaken, the expression becomes radiant, the impression profound.  Instead of a low voice, one hears a choir.  The latent forces have become dynamic.  The environment is the composition.”

- Wassily Kandinsky, “Writings on Art” (1935)[ii]


I open this essay with the above quotes for a reason.  For too long now recent contemporary philosophy has isolated the objects of the world from their internal (temporal) and external (aesthetic) relations, from their nurturing source(s) of generation (natura naturans or the “producing activity” of nature), from the expressive forms of semiotic communication and the corresponding “overlapped” nature of perspective associated with semiotic expression within environments (natura naturata or the “products” of nature), and most profoundly, from what it means to be an agency within an ecological network among other agencies in general. In short, looking at the fecund agents of the world as nothing more than isolated objects hinders one from accomplishing a truly ecological metaphysics.

Philosophies of nature, reacting against the view that nature is a “whole” or a “container” have become obsessed with the items of the world in an ontological “discretism,” which is to say, for these object oriented ontologies only discreta are real.  While “nature” does not exist, particulars of the world do.  This may be true, however such a reaction has placed so much emphasis on the particulars of the world that it is claimed that there is nothing but particulars in the world.  Excised from these ontologies (in favor of the object alone) are internal and external relations; the complexity of nature founded by the reality of aggregates and compositions that group together agencies into meaningful societies or wholes; the future-oriented temporal nature of any agent’s identity; the contours of nature which are established by nature’s orders and always changing classes of forms; the very powers and agency of the particulars of the world which draw upon a sustaining a-temporal ground of natura naturans (or, at the very least, the nature of agency that is exhibited in the activity of agents themselves); the semiosic processes that govern the communication of perspective between and among agencies; or even the variable relationships or laws that govern agents within larger-scale ecological networks of identity.  These rich facets of the natural world all have been lost when absolute preference is given to the objects of the world alone.

In short, philosophical ecology is no longer truly ecological - it has become categorically “naturalized” in the scientistically pejorative sense of the term, as in nature is “nothing but” (Nature is nothing but matter; Nature is nothing but spirit; Nature is nothing but monads; etc. etc.) where Nature (with a capital “N”) is “nothing but” objects.  Then, what of these objects?  Particular objects of the world are now collected for ontological orientation and analysis and are spoken for (instead of allowing the objects of the world to semiotically speak for themselves).  Any object oriented ontology that sees already-individuated objects of the world as its sole focus necessarily misses out on what nature is: an ecological network of processes, relationships, and agents drawing on sources of generativity, including the ultimate a-temporal ground of natura naturans.  Indeed, these agents’ perspectives may be plural and diverse (“alien”) in the sense that each agent’s perspective is uniquely its own, however for a truly ecological metaphysics to be in place those perspectives must be recognized to be always subsisting within larger networks of activity and relationship; that is, as agents of the world located by other agents’ as much as they actively locate other agents in turn.  Thus, one must always transcend the nature of a particular agent’s identity to establish a more general conditioning feature that establishes particularity qua particularity. Indeed, containing transcendental features, nature is overlapped and interwoven: it is endless in capacious scope of relation, identity, and activity; it contains within it features that are common among and between all or that support and sustain all.  As radical object oriented pluralism cannot accommodate such a capacious scope of the natural nor account for how the items of the world are enmeshed within larger environments.  There may be no “container” of nature but it is impossible to establish that for any agent which exists that that agent is absolutely unrelated or unsupported by at least some other agent or more generally by a cosmic environment (something that is not a particular).  Thus, even though nature is not a “thing” an absolutely “relationless” universe cannot be.

The dangers of the object oriented view and the pernicious form of pluralism it espouses (as opposed to an open and ecological process form of pluralism) are numerous.  Whatever is is already individuated and stamped as an object standing ready for data collection and analysis.  The perspective of a said agent is always filtered through and spoken for by the ontologist orienting their perspective toward that agent (which is just as observer-oriented as the phenomenologies that these ontologists critique).  Moreover, agents of the world are cut off from other agents in any meaningful relationship to affect positive ethical or political change.  It is difficult to see how things affect other things (“magical” forms of vicarious causation must be imported if internal and external relations cannot be accounted for), and it is impossible to establish how communication is possible, for a minimum of some kind of relation must exist for information to transfer from one to any other.  From my perspective, I cannot say that this a truly ecological metaphysics – one that allows environmental philosophy and ethics and politics to proceed in any positive way where change is accomplished in the world – at least according to a view which recognizes objects and nothing else: not the relational features of the universe, not the processive nature of identity that is agencies in process, not the transcendental and generative aspects of the non-particular that enables particulars to be what they are.  This is all to say that one must account for relationships and all that relationships entail in their ontological diversity.  This not only means accounting for any diversity of agents in relation, the processes that structure and permit that agent to be as a particular among other particulars (natura naturata), but understanding those relationships to sources of generativity that permit agents to be (natura naturans).

Of the problems just mentioned, this paper seeks simply to articulate the transactional, related, and nested form of identity that constitutes any particular agent in the world in hopes of providing a fuller ecological metaphysics of nature.  Given the form of identity adopted in this essay, then, it may be better to use the label “process” (as in “human process,” or “creaturely process”) rather than “object” in order to describe the nature of agency and actors within the natural world.  I wish to understand agencies in the world as processes, as embedded creatura or organisms, rather than as inert objects with some isolated, substantial or essential fixed nature toward which one ought to orientate their ontology.  In order to “re-naturalize” ecology, then - in order to better describe nature as an ecological network of agents - I will turn to the value of recognizing relationships and their reality within an ecological metaphysics.  My goal is to simply analyze what these relationships may afford and discern why opting for the reality of relational universe actually may enhance and affirm the notion of agency and identity rather than detract from it. 

[i] Cited in Robert S. Corrington, Nature & Spirit (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992), insert.
[ii] Cited in John J, McDermott, “Deprivation and Celebration: Suggestions for an Aesthetic Ecology” in The Culture of Experience: Philosophical Essays in the American Grain (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 82.