More Debates

I really worry that one tendency of the blogosphere is towards endless reiterations of the same arguments — because the temptation to instant reply and counter-reply is just too great. This is why I am generally not inclined — even aside from how ridiculously busy I have been recently — to jump into the current discussions/debates between OOO (Graham, Levi) and relationalism (Adrian, Chris — and also me, to the extent that I do jump in). 

I feel energized when I read postings that develop new concepts:  as Levi does when he thinks about techno-assemblages as Mortonian hyperobjects, or as Graham does when, as reported by Levi, he goes into greater depth on how to define objects and differentiate them from mere random sets. It doesn’t matter here that I might not agree with Levi’s and Graham’s conceptualizations; its the working out of their conceptualizations in more detail, and with further (previously unseen, at least by me) ramifications that is important to me. 

But I’m less sanguine about the continual round of debates that have also been going on. I can’t help feel tempted to jump in and join in the polemics — but when I do so I just feel irritated with myself afterwards, as if I had eaten too much candy or popcorn. I wrote one long answer to some of Levi’s and Graham’s recent posts, but then I decided not to post it — I just felt like I was muddying the water with no good reason. (Excuse me here for my mixed metaphors). (And I also hope Levi, Graham, Chris, and Adrian aren’t put off, or offended, by my saying this. For any blogger, you gotta write what you gotta write. Which is why I am putting my negative feelings about arguments & counter-arguments that go in a circle in terms of my own writing impulses first of all). 

So I think I’ll just confine myself to this. At our exchange in Claremont the week before last, Graham made one point that I very much took to heart. He disputed the idea, implicit in what I wrote and said, that “actual entities” in Whitehead are small. And he is right. Whitehead says that actual entities are  “the final real things of which the world is made up,” — but this emphatically does not mean that they are somehow the equvialent of quarks or quantum fields or subatomic particles. In fact, they cannot be — since they are not located in spacetime at all, but are somehow involved in its production. They answer to a different question than the one the physicists are asking when they wonder if, for instance, spacetime is quantized at the Planck scale. It may be that events at the Planck scale are “actual entities” in Whitehead’s definition, but so are my own experiences of the “specious present,” and so is Whitehead’s God (as Graham pointed out). 

I don’t think, however, that this in any way vitiates what I was arguing overall at Clarement — which is precisely that the relation of actual entities to what Whitehead calls “societies” (which are all the things or objects in the world around us) is NOT equivalent to the scientific reductionists’ argument that somehow chairs and cats are less “real” than the subatomic fields of which they are ultimately composed. Chairs and cats are as real for Whitehead as they are for OOO. 

This is crucial, precisely for my way of reading Whitehead on relations (in which reading I closely follow Isabelle Stengers — hopefully her great book on Whitehead will come out in English translation in the next year or so). Graham at Claremont, and Levi on his blog, have both quoted Whitehead on “internal relations” in order to argue for conclusions about Whitehead’s relationalism that I don’t agree with — but that, for reasons stated above, I don’t want to get into an argument about here. Basically, I don’t think that Whitehead means by “internal relations” what Graham and Levi mean by “internal relations.” But demonstrating this depends on a larger argument on, precisely, the reason that Whitehead distinguishes between actual entities and societies, with the latter being “the real actual things that endure,” i.e. that have an extent in spacetime — what OOO calls objects and what I prefer to call things.

There’s a beginning to this argument in the talk I gave at Claremont, and which I linked to in my previous post. The important thing, for me, is not the idea that objects are”withdrawn,” which I cannot make cohesive with any of my own metaphysical intuitions, but rather Whitehead’s notion of privacy (or “elbow-room,” in one of the passages I cited at Claremont). For me, following Whitehead, things are never free of relations; but they are underdetermined by these relations, which is what preserves us from the utter suffocation of being, and allows room for what Meillassoux calls “the great outdoors.” But I still haven’t worked all this through to my own satisfaction. And my sense is that, putting the argument in the negative terms that a reply or riposte to Graham and Levi would require would not be helpful to this working-through; if anything, it would be a hindrance to my working it through in the positive terms that I’d like. I promise that, when I am more satisfied with my own formulations, I will post them here. 

5 thoughts on “More Debates”

  1. Amen to all of this! Despite being one of the offenders here, I fully agree about the futility of these arguments going around and around in circles reiterating the same points. Unfortunately, I find it extremely difficult to resist responding when my position is characterized as Newtonian, or when it is suggested that somehow I ignore perspective or semiotics, despite the fact of having made these things central to my ontology. These are, in my view, egregious mischaracterizations of my work that can’t go without response due to connotations that the term “object” seem to evoke in some. That said, responding to such things is not something I enjoy or take pleasure in. I experience precisely the sort of frustration and irritation you describe and am much happier writing the sort of post on hyper-objects I wrote last night.

  2. Tim, I don’t remember who it was who first suggested equating actual entities with events at the Planck scale (possibly Henry Stapp, a physicist who tries to Whiteheadianize quantum mechanics, in a very different way from Bohm — but I am not sure). Though I am more inclined to agree with Stengers that it is problematic to try to associate Whitehead with any one particular interpretation of quantum mechanics (I can’t find the passages at the moment, but she states this both in her Whitehead book and in Vol 2 of Cosmopolitics — both of which should be out in English within the next year or so).

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