Notes on Muriel Combes’ book on Simondon

Here are the notes that formed the raw material for my presentation at SLSA on Muriel Combes' book on Gilbert Simondon (newly translated by Thomas Lamarre, and to be published by MIT Press in October). I guess I don't have the time & energy to write them into more finished form; but hopefully they will give some sort of indication of what I found to be valuable in the book, and how it relates to current discussions about speculative realism, systems theory, ontology, etc.

The book is very short and very dense and concise. I am less interested in asking whether it is an accurate account of Simondon — though it has certainly played a great role in my understanding of Simondon — than in asking what it can do for us, where it can bring us.

The crucial point: Initial non-identity of being. Being is not one. The important question to ask in such circumstances is: Excess or deficiency? In Combes' account, being is always in excess, it is always more-than-one. "Being is constitutively, immediately, a power of mutation… because being contains potential, and because all that is exists with a reserve of becoming, the non-self-identity of being should be called more-than-identity. In this sense, being is in excess over itself." (3) Contrast this excess to deficit or negation in the dialectic. What are the implications of seeing excess, or unfulfilled potentiality, rather than deficit?


This formulation in the opening chapter relates to Combes' critique of Stiegler towards the end of the book. Stiegler sees technics as a prosthetic for an originary deficit. Combes rejects this, since she says that, for Simondon, alienation is the result of excess unrealized potential rather than of a deficit or lack.

Against Stiegler's theory of the prosthetic. This is because each individual's incompleteness is itself something positive, the continuing existence of a reservoir of potentialities. (49-50 & 67ff). "Stiegler does not seem to countenance the possibility that humans share more than default or lack… If human individuals should not be conceived on the basis of fixed bioanthropological nature, I do not see why they should be conceived on the basis of original defect that we then take pains to call originary in entirely metaphysical nostalgia for foundations." (69)

Both Stiegler and Simondon are problematic from a Marxist point of view. One might criticize Stiegler for turning a particular historical situation (that of alienation under capitalism) into an originary characteristic of the human species in general. While much in Stiegler's critique of capitalism is spot-on, he turns cultural symptoms into to basic existential situations, while omitting to consider capital accumulation & exploitation as the motors of capitalism. This is what's weak (although not false) about his saying that capitalism short-circuits vital processes of individuation. In terms of Combes' analysis, Stiegler fails to articulate the way in which all new individuations, and especially group and collective ones, work by undoing or going before previously accomplished individuations. "Any collective individuation wherein a subject is constructed begins with disindividuation" (69).

Of course, Simondon himself (according to Combes' account) criticizes Marxism. He thinks that Marxism is too economistic, and too wedded to Labor, to be able to grasp the transversal relations between human beings and machines, or to understand the real source of alienation (which comes from human beings seeing themselves as either superior or inferior to machines, instead of existing in equality alongside machines). However, Combes adds that "at the very moment he critiques Marx, Simondon is far closer to him than he thinks." (72-73)."

For me, if this is the case it is because Simondon expresses a utopian vision in which "technical activity" becomes a "model of collective relation" (77), in a process of reticularity against hylomorphism (69). A transindividuation involving both human beings and machines, in equality: this to me matches Fourier as a vision of a "socialism" that would be radically different from our capitalist present. — But also, Simondon's vision is only thinkable in a situation of the real instead of merely formal subsumption of labor (and everything else) under capital, together with the sort of machine embodiment of general intellect envisioned in Marx's fragment on machines — in other words, Simondon-via-Combes makes thinkable what I otherwise haven't found convincing: Hardt & Negri's claim that real subsumption & general intellect make a reversal into communism possible. — The point being that this has to be, not the old dialectical reversal, but one that has to do with reservoirs of potential. In this respect Simondon is further away from Hegelianism, and less in danger of reverting to it, than are Hardt and Negri.


Combes' account of Simondon also gives us a different perspective on the arguments about substance and relation which have come up in connection with OOO, and about the functioning of systems in connection with theories of autopoiesis.

Harman would undoubtably say (& I think he does in fact say someplace) that Simondon "undermines" objects by reverting to the primordial undifferentiated flux out of which objects would emerge, and back into which they would revert. — But I think that this is too simple. Simondon complexifies Harman's binaries.

For one thing, I think that Simondon's basic question of where individuals come from, how they come to be, is an unavoidable one. I don't think that OOO answers this adequately (though the best OOO answer would be to say things emerge from Lucretian clinamens — does Bryant maintain this?). Simondon presents an account of emergence that actually works in detail, as opposed to the usual hand-waving invocation of emergence to explain anything that can't be explained otherwise. Becoming, for Simondon, is not a characterless flux (as Bergson's becoming is sometimes accused of being, e.g. by Bloch as well as by OOO people); it is rather a particular and well-defined OPERATION (or series of operations). "Being only is in becoming, that is, by its structuring in diverse domains of individuation (physical, biological, psychosocial, and also, in a certain sense, technological) through the work of operations." (4).

The preindividual out of which an individual emerges is itself a particular energetic state (or metastable equilibrium of states). Because it is metastable, it is extremely sensitive to initial conditions (in this way Simondon prefigures theories of chaos and complexity).

There is an initial nonindividuated state. But I want to argue that this is a situation in which Harman's opposition between distinct entities vs total undermining indistinction doesn't really apply. One can see this even, or especially, in Simondon's explicit treatment of Anaximander's apeiron. This is because, as Combes says, "apeiron, nature indetermined because still nonstructured, is charged with potentials: indetermined is thus not synonymous with undifferentiated" (49). Individuation is a process of DEPHASING (4). This involves the playing out of incompatibilities that are not oppositions, but that unfold in the process of crystallization.

RELATION: "relation would no longer be conceived of as something that "springs up between two terms that are already individuated": in effect, within the theory of individuation, relation is redefined as "an aspect of the internal resonance of a system of individuation" (IG, 27; IL, 29). In this respect, it has a "rank of being" and cannot be considered as an entirely logical reality" (16). — So, for Simondon, being is always relational, but this relationality is not absolute & cannot be pejoratively defined as OOO tries to do (nor can we simply make a division between internal and external relations). Indeed: "Already at the level of physical beings, that relation is constituting means that interiority and exteriority are not substantially different; there are not two domains, but a relative distinction; because, insofar as any individual is capable of growth, what was exterior to it can become interior. We may say then that relation, insofar as it is constituting, exists as a limit. As a function of this constituting power of the limit, the individual appears not as a finite being but as a limited being, that is, as a being in which "the dynamism of growth never stops" (IG, 91; IL, 93)." (20) — so, relations actually constitute the separation of interior from exterior, and guarantee that this border is itself never fixed.

The radical temporality of relations is why Harman's & Bryant's critiques of determining relations does not apply here. Relational processes determine the interior as separate from the exterior, i.e. these relations determine the individual as that which is not pre-defined by its relations.

Against predicates or qualities: "the characteristics of individuation that appear when we study the formation of crystalline forms of a same type (here: sulfur) are not "qualities" insofar as "such characteristics are prior to any idea of substance (since we are dealing with the same body)" (IG, 75; IL, 77). Transparency and opacity in particular can characterize the same form (sulfur crystal) in succession as a function of the temperature imposed on the metastable system at the moment of crystallization. Transparency and opacity thus cannot be thought of as qualities of a substance, but as characteristics appearing in a system undergoing a change of state. We must cease to apprehend being as a substance or a compound of substances if we are to cease understanding relation as that which links, within thought, elements separated within being." (16-17) — Thus relations are real, rather than being mental impositions upon objectively separate mental impressions.
"Being itself now appears as that which becomes by linking together." (17)

Simondon "takes great care to distinguish the notions of adaptation and equilibrium, which he rejects, from notions of evolution and invention" (62); this is why individuation must be opposed to autopoiesis. The linking of individual and milieu in Simondon is reminiscent of, but actually different from, the structural coupling of system and milieu in Luhmann-via-Bryant. Because potential transductively crosses the membrane or boundary, so that there is no question of operational closure. Difference between individuation and either conatus or autopoiesis. (This is a hesitation or ambiguity in Deleuze).


"To perceive is not primarily to grasp a form; rather it is the act taking place within an ensemble constituted by the relation between subject and world, through which a subject invents a form and thereby modifies its own structure and that of the object at the same time: we see only within a system in tension, of which we are a subensemble." (27) — Perception defined in system terms, instead of in phenomenological terms. But this system is quite different from those of the structuralists or from that of Derrida or Luhmann.

"The reality of psyche is transductive, that of a relation connecting two liaisons. This relation, as we have seen, operates in the individual as individualization; and it is operated through affectivity and emotivity, which define the "relational layer constituting the center of individuality" (IPC, 99; IL, 248). By situating the center of individuality in affectivity and emotivity, Simondon distances himself from the majority of conceptualizations of psychic individuality, which rely on a theory of consciousness or on the hypothesis of the unconscious." (30). — The psyche is a double process of (inner & outer) individuation, driven noncognitively by "affectivity & emotivity".

"The liaison between relation to self and relation to the world" takes place in "the affectivo-emotive layer, the domain of intensities" (30). Combes links Simondon's affectivity to Spinoza's "capacity to affect and to be affected" (30-31). This implies "an understanding of the subject wherein relation to the outside is not something coming to an already constituted subject from without, but something without which the subject would not be able to be constituted" (31). The individual needs an outside in order to be constituted at all. It doesn't encounter an outside in contrast to its own constituted insideness.

"Simondon opens a perspective in which "psychic reality is not closed upon itself. The psychic problematic cannot be resolved in intraindividual terms"." (31)

"Affectivity, the relational layer constituting the center of individuality, arises in us as a liaison between the relation of the individual to itself and its relation to the world. As such, it is primarily in the form of a tension that this relation to self is effectuated: affectivity, in effect, puts the individual in relation with something that it brings with it, but that it feels quite justifiably as exterior to itself as individual. Affectivity includes a relation between the individuated being and a share of not-yet-individuated preindividual reality that any individual carries with it: affective life, as "relation to self," is thus a relation to what, in the self, is not of the order of the individual. Affective life thus shows us that we are not only individuals, that our being is not reducible to our individuated being." (31).

"The elaboration of psychic individuality is transindividual… individual cannot psychically consist in itself." (40) "It is not relation to self that comes first and makes the collective possible, but relation to what, in the self, surpasses the individual, communicating without mediation with a nonindividual share in the other" (41). The social "is neither a substance, that is, one term of a relation, nor a sum of individual substances, but a "system of relations" (IPC, 179; IL, 295)." (43)

For this reason, neither psychologism nor (Durkheimian) sociology is valid — neither individuals nor society are preconstituted & self-contained. "In sum, if psychology and sociology misunderstand the reality of the collective, it is because, when they apprehend it from the angle of the individual or that of society, which are but two polar extremes, both of them forget that this reality consists principally of "relational activity between inside group and outside group" (IPC, 179; IL, 295)." (43) — & note that "relational activity" = processes of individuation.

How does this relate to Latour's Tarde-against-Durkheim?

Emotion: "Properly speaking, emotion coincides so entirely with the very movement of constitution of the collective that we may say, "there is a collective to the extent that an emotion is structured" (IPC, 211; IL, 314; emphasis added). The collective, as Simondon understands it, is born at the same time as emotion is structured across many subjects, as structuration of such emotion" (51). — "This reversibility of individuation of the collective and structuration of emotion makes clear that the most intimate of ourselves, what we always experience in terms of inalienable singularity, does not belong to us individually; intimacy arises less from a private sphere than from an impersonal affective life, which is held immediately in common." (51) — Hence an idea of the common (again cf Hardt & Negri)

How Simondon undermines the rigid distinction between life & nonlife (Lamarre). (Cf Hayles' praise of OOO for doing this).

Value Experience

Here is the text of one of my talks from the SLSA conference this weekend. It was for a panel (part of a stream) on "Towards a Stengers-Whitehead Lexicon of the Nonhuman."

Alfred North Whitehead writes in "Civilized Universe," the sixth lecture in his book Modes of Thought, that "we have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe" (MT 111). Isabelle Stengers remarks, rather sardonically, that this "demand" on Whitehead's part is "foolish," because it "challenges philosophy to refrain indulging its favourite sport, catching commonsensical positions into the clutches of "either… or" alternatives" (Stengers Claremont talk, 12). Stengers then goes on to comicaly imagine a Socrates who accepted and even celebrated the "value experiences" of all his fellow Athenian citizens, instead of striving to deface those experiences by proving that none of his interlocutors knew what they were talking about.

Following Stengers, I'd like to consider what it might really mean to refrain from defacing value experiences. I take it that this largely applies to the "value experiences" of others than ourselves. And respecting the value experiences of others is not always an easy thing to do. I certainly don't want religious fundamentalists who deny the theory of evolution and claim that the Earth is only 6,000 years old to be teaching my children. But living as an atheist in a common world with religious believers, I also reject defacing the value experience of those believers, in the way that "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens have done.

I also want to work through the implications of Whitehead's claim that such "value experience… is the very essence of the universe." But doing this demands that we pass beyond the human. For Whitehead's claims here, as always, are cosmological in scope — or as Stengers puts it, cosmopolitical. Other entities aside from human beings also have "value experiences" that we have no right to deface. We need to take some account, at least, of the value experiences of dogs and flies and clams, of trees and slime molds and bacteria, and even of pebbles, drops of water, and stars.

To this extent, Graham Harman and the other thinkers of Object Oriented Ontology are right to regard Whitehead as an exemplary anti-anthropocentric thinker, an anti-correlationist avant la lettre. For Whitehead no less than for Harman, "all relations are on the same footing" (Harman 2008, 4). This means that, for Whitehead just as for OOO, the particular relation that is the obsessive concern of post-Cartesian and post-Kantian epistemology — the relation between human beings as subjects, and the objects that they happen to perceive — does not have any unique or special philosophical status. Epistemology loses its centrality, as the problem of knowledge is just one instance of the more general problem of how entities relate to, and interact with, one another. For Whitehead, physical causality and mental intentionality are just two among the many ways in which entities "prehend" one another. For Harman, similarly, both "vicarious causation" and metaphorical "allusion" are instances of sensual contact. For Whitehead and Harman alike, the problem of relations is therefore ultimately an aesthetic one.

Whitehead's anti-anthropocentrism, shared by OOO, also implies that relations among entities — and, in particular, relations of sensation and perception — cannot be reduced, in the manner of British empiricism, to atomistc "sense impressions" in the "mind" of a human observer — or more generally in the mind of one of the entities in the relationship. Harman rightly insists that we encounter, not isolated impressions, but whole objects. Citing Husserl, Harman argues that an "intentional object" is more than just a "bundle of adumbrations" (Harman 2011b, 24). Even though I may only see particular "adumbrations" of a tree, it is indeed a tree that I am actually seeing. The tree is real; it cannot be reduced to the status of being a mere mental construction (as Hume would suggest), or even the sum of its various actual and possible adumbrations (as Merleau-Ponty argues — Harman 2011b, 24-25). It's not the mind that unites multiple perceptions into the figure of a tree; rather, the tree itself is already doing this. For Whitehead, similarly, our "ideas" are always "determined to particular existents," rather than being ungrounded universals (PR 138). In this way, "an actual entity is present in other actual entities" (PR 50). We do not just receive isolated impressions, which we would then only combine in our minds. In any experience, "the datum includes its own interconnections" already (PR 113).

Indeed, Whitehead goes still further than this. He doesn't just claim that the existence of an entity cannot be reduced to the sum of another entity's "impressions" and "ideas" about it. He also argues, beyond this, that the atomistic perceptions upon which British empiricism bases its account of experience are trivial and unimportant. At best, they are just minor refinements of a much more basic form of experience. And this is directly connected with Whitehead's dismissal of anthropocentrism. It may well be, Whitehead concedes, that the "clearly envisaged details" of distinct perception "exalt men above animals, and animals above vegetables, and vegetables beyond stones" (MT 109). But these "details" play only a minor role in comparison to the vague and diffuse "background" out of which they emerge. "If we forget the background," he writes, "the result is triviality" (MT 108). Indeed, consciousness is a highly specialized and extremely rare form of feeling, which "only arises in a late derivative phase of complex integrations" (PR 162). Most thought, or sentience, or sensibility, or experience — both in ourselves and in other beings — consists in "simple physical feelings" that are not themselves conscious (PR 236).

The upshot of this is that we need to stop congratulating ourselves upon the breadth and subtlety of our consciousness and self-consciousness. We ought to recognize, instead, that "thought" is a much humbler, and much more common, phenomenon than we usually assume. Thought — or sentience, or experientiality — happens in many ways and on many levels. It is not just a matter of concepts, or computation, or cognition. It includes all of these, but also extends beneath them, or behind them. Thought doesn't require rational understanding, or a cogito. It doesn't even require a brain — as recent studies of brainless organisms like trees, slime molds, and bacteria have clearly shown.

Deleuzians — starting with Deleuze himself — love to cite Spinoza's dictum that we do not know what a body can do. But it also true, for a symmetrically opposite reason, that we do not really know what thought can do. For often thought does far less, and operates far more diffusely — than we know. Most thought takes place below our threshold of conscious awareness. Cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind are quite aware of this. The cognitivists are entirely right to point up the importance of nonconscious mental processing. My only problem with them is that they are content to stop with cognition. They need to extend their views to also include noncognitive and precognitive experience. This is what Whitehead calls "feeling" — and what Kant already points to in his discussion of aesthetic experience, or intuitions without concepts, in the Third Critique.

Timothy Morton makes much the same point about thought, in the context of OOO. Morton suggests that, when I perceive a pencil lying on a table, my relation to the pencil is not all that different from the table's own relation to the pencil. If I the pencil is the "intentional object" of my thought, then it is a kind of intentional object for the table also. In saying this, I am of course not making the claim that tables are wont to reflect upon ontology. Rather, I am trying to point out that reflecting upon ontology, or contemplating Being, is not that significant a feature of our own mental lives either. Here Heidegger's critique of thematization, and Harman's extension of this, are as much to the point as are Whitehead's observations on how we overestimate "clear and distinct" perception. Our inner mental lives mostly consist mostly of far more mundane and situated practices than conceptualization. The table holds up the pencil; but I am also holding up the pencil, when I contemplate it, or when I grasp it in order to write.

This line of argument also entails that perception and causality are pretty much the same thing; or at least that they are varieties of the same thing. Whitehead distinguishes between "causal efficacy" and "presentational immediacy" (PR 120-121). The former involves the feeling of being caused, or more broadly of cause and effect; while the latter has to do with conscious representation. But for Whitehead, they are both modes of perception, or forms of prehension. Harman also sees causal relations and metaphorical allusions alike as being ways in which otherwise separate entities nonetheless enter into vicarious contact. Timothy Morton generalizes this, when hee describes the aesthetic as the realm of causal relations. For OOO and Whitehead alike, thought is primordially aesthetic, and ultimately inseparable from physical causality. If A contemplates or otherwise perceives B, this means that B is a cause of A.

Thus far I have been pointing out the similarities between Whitehead's metaphysics and that of OOO. But this discussion also leads us to a crucial difference between Whitehead's philosophy and OOO. And no, I am not referring here to the well-known dispute over what Harman calls "relationism," or what Levi Bryant calls the difference between internal and external relations. Far too much ink has been spilled on this point already, and I do not think the discussion is profitable any more. Rather, I would like to suggest that the really important difference between Whitehead and OOO has to do, not so much with whether and how we prioritize relations, as it does with the ontological status of this humbler form of thought that they both espouse.

Things think, for Harman, but only under certain conditions. Harman rejects panpsychism, according to which — he says — "anything that exists must also perceive." Harman instead argues that "anything that relates must perceive… This means that entities have psyches accidentally, not in their own right" (Harman 2008, 9). Even shale and cantaloupe perceive and think and display intentionality, Harman maintains, insofar as they come into contact with us, or with one another. But according to Harman, such contact is merely contingent. Conversely, even human beings do not perceive and think and intend in their inner depths, but only on their outer surfaces. Thought, for Harman as for the phenomenologists, is always necessarily intentional. To think means to think about something, and therefore to relate to something — and indeed to correlate with something. But as such, thought for Harman is necessarily vicarious, or occasional (Harman 2009, 221).

To state this in other terms, it is always possible, according to Harman, that a particular entity does not relate to anything at all. Harman tells us that "the name for an object that exists without relating, exists without perceiving, is a sleeping entity, or a dormant one… Dormant objects are those which are real, but currently without psyche. Each night we make ourselves as dormant as we can, stripping away the accidental accretions of the day and gathering ourselves once more in the essential life where we are untouched by external relations" (Harman 2008, 9).

When I hear this, I cannot help asking: to sleep, perchance to dream? To the extent that dreaming is internally generated, its very possibility shows us that the psyche exists and functions even in the absence of external perception or stimulation. And, to the extent that dreaming does respond to events outside the dreamer, we have evidence that what Harman calls "withdrawal" is never total or absolute, even when the dreamer is not explicitly conscious of these external events. Harman seems to envisage ontological withdrawal as an impossibly dreamless sleep, one altogether devoid of thought or sensation, and therefore blissfully free from any sort of correlation whatsoever.

Whitehead, in contrast, never envisages such a blank utopia. Things don't need to relate, in order to dream or to feel. They do so intrinsically, as part of their very being. Panpsychism claims that anything that exists must also think; but — contra Harman — this does not necessarily mean that anything that exists must also "perceive." At least not if we understand "perception" as a matter of intentionality and presentational immediacy. If ontological equality means anything, it means that all entities in the universe, without exception, are sentient or experiential. In other words, where OOO claims that everything is an object, Whitehead rather claims that everything is a subject: "apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness" (PR 167).

Now, of course this distinction is not quite as absolute as it sounds. "Subject" and "object" are only relative terms: unsurprisingly, since they form a system together. Subjective experience in Whitehead perpetually perishes, and thereby passes over into the "objective immortality" of being a datum for subsequent acts of experience. Conversely, objects in OOO exhibit their own sort of subjectivity, insofar as "intentionality is not a special human property at all, but an ontological feature of objects in general" (Harman 2007b, 205). For OOO, all entities have their own inner being or "alien phenomenology" (Bogost).

Nonetheless, there is still a significant difference between the two positions. For Harman and Morton, causality and aesthetic experience are restricted to what they call the "sensuous" realm. The deep inner essence of objects remains untouched. For Whitehead, however, the conflation of causality and aesthetics is universal; there is no deep "substantial" (or "real") realm in contrast to the "sensual" one. "Experience" cannot be so restricted, because it is a common, generic feature of all entities. As long as there is something rather than nothing, there is, at the very least, an instance of simple physical feeling. That is to say, "thought" exists — or better, it happens — even in the absence of what the phenomenologists call intentionality, and of what the empiricists call "perception."

My current project is to work out what it might mean to thus posit an "image of thought" (as Deleuze would say) that is nonintentional, and thereby noncorrelational or uncorrelated. I take a hint for this from the way that Deleuze suggests a contrast between Husserl — for whom, as Deleuze puts is, "all consciousness is consciousness of something"), and Bergson — who "more strongly" asserts, Deleuze says, that "all consciousness is something" (Deleuze 1986, 56). As I have already mentioned, I agree with Whitehead that "thought" cannot be equated to "consciousness"; this would require some revision of Deleuze's formulas. Nonetheless, I maintain that the more primordial modes of thought — or of sentience, or experience, or "feeling" — can be something before they are about something, before they establish anything like a correlation with things outside of themselves. Such modes of thought are not solipsistic, because they do not refer back to themselves any more than they refer to other things. They are "vague" and indistinct, as Whitehead says, but for this very reason they are no more self-contained than they are outwardly referential.

A better "image" of this sort of thought might be that which is found in autism. I say this on condition that we cease to regard autism pejoratively, as a failure to adhere to neurotypical norms, or as the medicalized incapacity to develop a "theory of mind." Instead, we must understand autism as an original mode of being in the world — as the neurodiversity movement has advocated, and as scholars in the field of disability studies are beginning to understand (Savarese & Savarese 2012, 1). In working through the consequences of this new understanding, Erin Manning suggests that, in point of fact, autistics are stigmatized for not approaching the world "according to standard human-centered expectations" (Manning 2013, 227). Instead, she says, autistics are in fact acutely sensitive beyond the human. They are responsive to "resonances across scales and registers of life, both organic and inorganic"; the testimony of autistics themselves indicates that, for them, "everything is somewhat alive," and therefore an object of empathy and concern (225-226). We might say that autistics are inherently non-correlationist; they do not focus their intentionality upon particular chosen objects, but exhibit a more diffuse and wide-bandwidth sort of sentience. While there are risks in any metaphorical extensions of aspects of human experience to entities in the world more generally, I would still suggest that autism offers us a more adequate "image of thought" than the one provided by phenomenology.

Manning goes on to suggest that autistic experiences may provide us with "a transversal, ontogenetic concept of the ethical," — one that "can never begin with the human, or with the body as such" (Manning 2013, 255). I would like to suggest that such a concept of the ethical is close to what Whitehead means by "value experience." For value, so understood, in intrinsic to the primordial feeling that is the heart of experience, to some extent at least, for every actually existing entity. It isn't just human beings (or even just human beings and other mammals) who have value experience. Trees and slime molds have values and meanings too; and so even do rocks and stars and neutrinos, at least to a minimal extent. This is why "value experience" is the very essence of the universe, and why Whitehead says that we have no right to deface it. For Whitehead, value is immanent to experience as such. Valuation is a universal activity, rather than a specifically human imposition upon an object-world that would otherwise be passive, inert, valueless, and meaningless.

Whitehead insists upon the immanence of value and meaning to the immediate, everyday experience of all the entities in the world that have experience. This puts Whitehead at odds both with moral absolutists, for whom the only acceptable values and meanings are their own, and to relativists, for whom values and meanings are nothing more than arbitrary, extrinsically imposed norms. Whitehead's ethics is neither categorical and absolute, nor is it merely empirical. Rather, Whitehead subordinates ethics to aesthetics, and derives his ethics only from aesthetics. This is something that many people find difficult to accept. But today, as we come to realize that — in the words of Bruno Latour — "we have never been modern," and as — in the face of ecological and economic crises alike — we are no longer at liberty to ignore what Stengers calls the cosmopolitical aspects of our situation, Whitehead's aestheticist account of value experience shows its full relevance. It is from within Whitehead's aesthetic envisagement, not just of human life, but of the cosmos, that we must understand the ethical injunction I cited at the beginning of this talk: that "we have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe."

Melancholia; and film open access scholarship

Today marks the inauguration of REFRAME, “an open access academic digital platform for the online practice, publication and curation of internationally produced research and scholarship” on film, media, and music. REFRAME is edited by Catherine Grant, of the School of Media, Film, and Music at the University of Sussex; she also runs the invaluable Film Studies for Free blog.

Among other things, REFRAME is publishing Sequence: Serial Studies in Media, Film, and Music, a new, peer-reviewed open-access scholarly journal.

And I am proud to say that the first issue of Sequence features an article of mine about Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia, entitled Melancholia, or the Romantic Anti-Sublime”. This is the most sustained work I have done since my 2010 book Post-Cinematic Affect; it is about 18,000 words long — which is too long for a conventional academic article, but too short for a book. I am thrilled, therefore, that it can now be published digitally, as the online format allows for more varied lengths than is possible with conventional print. I am also thrilled that this publication is open access: which is something that, I strongly believe, all academic work should be. In this way, my essay is available to contribute to future work by others, who may respond to it in all sorts of ways.