More on Whitehead and Kant

I can’t seem to get away from the subject.

For Whitehead, the great accomplishment of Kant’s Copernican Revolution in philosophy is its “conception of an act of experience as a constructive functioning” (PR 156). That is to say, Whitehead credits Kant with originating philosophical constructivism. Kant denies the possibility (or even the meaningfulness) of knowing “things in themselves,” and points instead to the ways that we are always already constructively involved with whatever it is that we experience or observe. We do not represent, in our minds, a reality that would simply exist out there, by itself, independent of and prior to our experience of it. Nor do we just create the world through our own mental processes or forms of representation. Rather, our experience of the world, of what Whitehead calls “stubborn fact” (128-129) external to ourselves, is itself the reflexive process through which the world, including ourselves, gets constituted. For Whitehead, as for Kant, “the whole universe consists of elements disclosed in the experiences of subjects” – and nothing else (166). As a constructivist, Whitehead is very much a post-Kantian thinker – rather than the pre-Kantian throwback that he is sometimes taken to be.

Whitehead signals his indebtedness to Kant at every turn. Like Kant, he performs a delicate balancing act, rejecting the claims of idealism on the one hand, and of scientific positivism on the other. But at the same time, Whitehead criticizes Kant for exhibiting an “excess of subjectivity” (15). Kant simply claims too much for thought, or for the mind. He says that our minds actively shape experience, by structuring it according to certain extra-experiential “concepts of understanding,” or Categories. “There can be no doubt that all our cognition begins with experience,” Kant writes. “But even though all our cognition starts with experience, that does not mean that all of it arises from experience” (CPR 43-44). For Kant, the Categories of the understanding cannot be derived from experience – even though they can only be legitimately applied within experience. In referring the Categories to “our spontaneity of cognition” (106), Kant in effect reaffirms the cogito, the Cartesian subject separated from, and unconditioned by, the world that it only observes and “thinks” from a distance. Though Kant, in the “Paralogisms of Pure Reason,” demolishes any substantive claims for the Cartesian ego, he nonetheless retains that ego in the ghostly, residual form of the “transcendental unity of apperception” that accompanies every act of cognition. Kant thereby exempts the subject from the (otherwise ubiquitous) sense of “experience as a constructive functioning.”

Whitehead, like many post-Kantians, rejects this exemption or separation. For constructivism to be complete, the transcendental presuppositions of experience must themselves arise – immanently, contingently, and historically – from within experience. Even Kant’s basic “form of intuition,” Whitehead says, must be “derived from the actual world qua datum, and thus is not ‘pure’ in Kant’s sense of that term” (PR 72). The transcendental presuppositions of experience must be processes, rather than fixed logical categories. And they cannot be attributed to the “spontaneity” of a subject that would already be in place. “For Kant,” Whitehead says, “the process whereby there is experience is a process from subjectivity to apparent objectivity.” But Whitehead’s own philosophy “inverts this analysis, and explains the process as proceeding from objectivity to subjectivity” (156). The subject emerges from experience, rather than being presupposed by it. Whitehead thus replaces Kant’s “transcendental idealism” – his “doctrine of the objective world as a construct from subjective experience” – with something more on the order of William James’ “radical empiricism,” or of what Deleuze will later call “transcendental empiricism.”

The important thing for Whitehead about Kantian “critique,” therefore, is neither its determination of the limits of reason, nor its deduction of the concepts of understanding, but rather its constructivist account of the conditions of receptivity, or sensibility. That is to say, Whitehead rejects Kant’s “Transcendental Logic,” according to which “ordered experience is the result of schematization of modes of thought, concerning causation, substance, quality, quantity” (113). But he largely accepts the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” in which Kant gives his “exposition” of space and time. This rendering of “the rules of sensibility as such” (CPR 107) is, for Whitehead, “a distorted fragment of what should have been [Kant’s] main topic” (PR 113). Kant’s great discovery in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” is that space and time are “constructs,” in opposition to “the Newtonian ‘absolute’ theory of space-time” (70-72); but also that space and time, as constructs, are acategorical and non-conceptual. Space is “an a priori intuition, not a concept,” Kant reminds us (CPR 79). Time, similarly, “is not a discursive or, as it is called, universal concept; rather, it is a pure form of sensible intuition” (86). This is why time is “nothing but the form of inner sense. . . the formal a priori condition of all appearances generally” (88). Space and time are immanent conditions of sensible intuition: they indicate the ways in which we receive the “data” that objects provide to us, rather than being logical categories to which the objects providing such data are themselves compelled to conform. Because they are merely forms of reception, space and time are not adequate for cognition. Indeed, Kant says that space and time are “sources of cognition” (92), in that nothing can be cognized apart from them. But space and time are not in themselves enough to authorize the active process of cognition.

This point can be stated in another way. Kant starts out with the Humean assumption of a complete atomism of subjective sensations, “the radical disconnection of impressions qua data” from one another (PR 113). For Hume adheres to what Whitehead calls the sensationalist principle: the idea “that the primary activity in the act of experience is the bare subjective entertainment of the datum, devoid of any subjective form of reception” (157). Kant’s aim, in the Critique of Pure Reason, is to avoid the skeptical consequences of Hume’s position by rejecting this sensationalist principle. He seeks to show how the chaos of “mere sensation” can be ordered, or its elements connected, in a more stable and satisfactory way than Hume is able to accomplish with his appeal to mere habit. In the “Transcendental Logic,” Kant does this in what Whitehead regards as an overly intellectualistic way. Kant appeals to what Whitehead calls “the higher of the human modes of functioning” (113), ignoring the more basic and primordial modes of sensation and perception. That is to say, Kant takes a cognitive approach, rather than an affective one. He also presupposes a dualism of form and matter, according to which materiality, or the “sensible” (that which can be apprehended by the senses alone), is passive, inert, and intrinsically shapeless, and that it can only be organized by an intelligibleform that is imposed upon it from the outside, or from above. In Kant’s account, the understanding, with its Categories, imposes a conceptual order upon an otherwise disconnected and featureless flux of individual impressions.

But in the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” Kant does not altogther adhere to this dualism of form and matter. He does indeed say that space and time are the “pure forms” of perception, and “sensation as such is its matter” (CPR 95). But his discussion also bears the traces of a different logic. Because time and space are not categories or concepts, they do not relate to their objects in the way that the forms of logical intelligibility (“causation, substance, quality, quantity”) do. They are not organizing principles actively imprinted upon an otherwise shapeless and disorganized matter. Rather, space and time are themselves effectively “passive,” since they are modes of receptivity rather than spontaneity. Kant says that sensibility or receptivity “remains as different as day and night from cognition of the object in itself”; rather than being cognitive, sensibility has to do with “the appearance of something, and the way we are affected by that something” (CPR 96; italics added). And this is the crucial point. Even though the “thing in itself” is cognitively unknowable, nevertheless it affects us. And by conveying and expressing “the way we are affected,” space and time establish immanent connections among objects, and especially between the object and the subject. These affective connections are already given in the very course of any experience of spatialization and temporalization. In the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” there is no problem of formlessness, or of disconnected impressions; and therefore there is no need to impose the Categories of understanding from above, in order to give these impressions form, or to yoke them together. As Whitehead puts it, in such a process of feeling “the datum includes its own interconnections” (PR 113).

Nova Swing

M. John Harrison‘s latest SF novel, Nova Swing, is set in the same 24th-century futurescape as his previous novel Light, but it’s a very different sort of book. (Also see Harrison’s blog, here).

Nova Swing could be described, perhaps, as film noir meets Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (the Soviet SF novel perhaps best known as the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s Stalker). The novel and its characters revolve around a place known only as “the event site”, a zone where, as the result of an obscure catastrophe, the laws of physics are suspended. The site provides the background for life in the city (or on the planet?) of Saudade (as it is appropriately named). The characters are a group of anguished refugees, habitues of seedy bars, petty hoodlums, down-on-their-luck hookers, world-weary detectives, burnt-out grifters and con men, etc. Nobody lives in and for the present; nobody imagines any sort of future; instead, they all seem to brood upon past failures, or former moments of glory that proved all too evanescent.

The culture of Saudade is itself a kind of postmodern simulacrum; it is entirely void of vigor or novelty, and seems to be composed mostly of 24th century nostalgic remakes of artifacts from the mid-20th century. The detective rides around in a lovingly recreated simulacrum of a vintage 1952 pink Cadillac convertible; all the hookers have gotten DNA retrofits to become clones of Marilyn Monroe; all the bands play versions of bebop or “New Nuevo Tango.” Harrison’s own noirish stylings for the novel seem similarly hollow and inauthentic; indeed, the invention of a morbid melancholia which persists precisely on the basis of undermining its own assumptions and stylizations is precisely Harrison’s great achievement in Nova Swing.

Noir and hardboiled stylings seemed brilliantly appropriate for science fiction twenty-five years ago, the time of Neuromancer and Blade Runner. They expressed a kind of edgy, alienated energy, and a sort of affirmative sense of style even in the midst of a landscape of physical decay and political or economic oppression. Now, however, there’s nothing left of it all. Our culture’s continued references to the 1950s have become tired, and as empty as they always pretended to be. Harrison paints a landscape of demoralization and debasement, doing for science fiction pretty much what he did for fantasy in his novella “In Viriconium” (the next-to-last of the stories in his Viriconium collection).

As k-punk says in his brilliant discussion of Children of Men: “how long can a culture persist without the new? What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?” Nova Swing deals in its own way with this sort of cultural and social (and also, or ultimately, political and economic) exhaustion. In the world of the novel, “tailoring” (genetic alteration, whether for fashion, or for physical enhancements, or for cyborgian interfacing with machines) is as easy and as commonplace as getting a tattoo or a piercing is today. And about as meaningful. As for the romance of interplanetary traveling, it has given way to tourism for rich people (if it’s Tuesday, this must be Saudade). The critic Darko Suvin famously defined science fiction, several decades ago, as a genre defined by “cognitive estrangement”: in projecting its futures, or in extrapolating from existing social and technological forces, SF leads us to see the limitedness, the contingency, and the bizarre parochialism of everything that we take most for granted, that we regard as “natural” or given. I’m tempted to say that Nova Swing is the exact inverse of this: rather than presenting us with wonders, or making us aware of the contingency of the present, it makes genetic engineering and space travel so banal and commonplace that they do not give us any “utopian” sense of otherness at all. We’re stuck, not so much in an eternal present, as in an eternal past, where our late-capitalist culture of pseudo-nostalgic recycling and imaginative exhaustion becomes a permanent and inescapable state. No “estrangement” (cognitive or otherwise) from this situation seems possible at all. Indeed, the characters’ estrangement, anomie, etc., is itself an inescapable cultural cliche.

The novel’s one source of novelty, invention, or difference is the event site itself, where nothing is stable, nothing happens the way it is supposed to. This is why the event site is such a magnet of attraction for most of the novel’s characters, several of whom are “tour guides” who specialize in expeditions into this realm of the unknown, and several others of whom are police from the “Site crime” division, seeking to prevent the contamination of Saudade by illicit visits to the site, or by “artifacts” emanating from it. Indeed, several of the novel’s key characters end up lost in the event site, wandering around endlessly (or until death) and never emerging. But the event site, although literally a “utopia” in that it is a displacement of all space, and therefore “nowhere,” is not in any sense a source of redemption, or even renewal. What happens there seems to be a reflection of the desire of the person exploring it, but only in the negative sense that it offers mocking reflections of one’s fantasies, and lures or allures one into extended episodes of frustration. People like to fuck when they are there, as if in search of some sexual transcendence or transformation; but none of their experiments ever pans out.

If human beings are always seeking to enter the event site, the reverse is also the case: pseudo-humans are continually emerging from it to explore the “real” world of Saudade. They are invariably described as being eager, full of appetite, yet entirely blank and naive. They are always “trying to have sex” without quite knowing how to go about it, greedily scarfing up whatever drink or drugs or whatever other forms of mind-altering entertainments are on offer, and eventually just fading away or dissolving into thin air. Their blank slates of cheery impulse are the flip side of jaded and culturally saturated (you might say over-written) minds of all the “real” inhabitants of Saudade.

As for the “artifacts” brought back by explorers from the event site into Saudade, they usually turn out to be sources of infection; they seem to offer strange powers, but instead draw whoever has contact with them into distressing metamorphoses, known as “escapes”: it “presented, like the majority of escapes, as a loose, luminous fluid medium sometimes the consistency of rice pudding or lentil soup, sometimes having the visual qualities of a pool full of chlorinated water agitated gently in powerful sunlight; often too bright to look at, and developing intricate internal flows independent of input. If there was code in there, no one knew what it was doing. No one knew how it bound to the substrate of proteins and nanotech. It looked beautiful, but stank like rendered fat. It would absorb you in seconds. Was it an end-state? Was it a new medium? No one knew” (p. 231).

This would seem to be the only alternative offered us to a culture of ultra-commodified recycling and repetition. No wonder the authorities put it into quarantine at the first opportunity. I think the passage I have quoted also gives a good indication of Harrison’s gorgeous prose, with its own rhythms of attraction and repulsion, allurement and debasement. Although I should add that the novel ends (as Light did) on a strangely upbeat note, as those of the characters who do not end up wandering forever in the event site all seem to rejuvenate themselves with bursts of (entrepreneurial?) enthusiasm and energy, whose pathos comes from the fact that these upbeat feelings are in themselves real, even though their object (the idea of a non-lethal “escape,” and of a more vital and interesting life) remains entirely illusory. All in all, Nova Swing is simultaneously a powerful expression, and a stinging critique, of what Fred Jameson somewhere calls “nostalgia for the present”, that affective state where the future has been entirely drained of possibility, the past converted into nothing more than a storehouse of static images, and the present thinned of all duration until it is nothing more than a nearly imperceptible membrane in between such a future and such a past.