Processes and Powers

A few days ago, Ben Woodard put up a provocative and interesting post on the intersections between, as well as the differences between, process philosophy and OOO (object-oriented ontology). Ben (rightly) questioned the dismissal of process by OOO folks as “lava-lamp materialism” or as “lump ontologies.” (He could have added, as well, Bogost’s describing process philosophy as “firehose metaphysics.”). But Ben also warned that “there’s a fuzziness” in process metaphysics “that there doesn’t seem to be an urge to qualify.” The danger is that simply calling on “process”  is supposed to answer everything; “this allows for becoming to be utilized as an escape hatch in argumentation.” Ben expressed the need for “a rigorous account of the breaks, the actualizations, the triads or whatever it may be, that show the work of becoming without a human agent making the call, without the human carving out the individuated bits of the world.” And he ended by asking the people on various process blogs (including me) to give comments.

So far there have been answers from Knowledge Ecology, from Immanence, from Footnotes2Plato, from After Nature, and from Immanent Transcendence. And Ben has responded in turn to all of them here. So I would seem to be the only one left, of the blogs from which Ben initially requested a response. So here goes.

First, I agree with Ben that the answer to lava lamp / lump / firehose criticisms needs to be better articulated. These criticisms all suggest that “becoming” or “process” is a one-size-fits-all generalization, used to answer any questions about particular objects or details. And I do think this may well be a sloppy habit that we have sometimes fallen into in the blogosphere. What needs to be emphasized, therefore, is that such over-generalization is NOT the case in the writings of Whitehead or Simondon. I am in entire sympathy with Harman’s interest in what he calls “the carpentry of things”; Bogost also speaks of the “carpentry” of objects in this sense — as when he explicitly prefers (algorithmic)  “procedure” to (Whiteheadian) “process.” But it seems to me that this (metaphorical sense of) carpentry is very much alive in Simondon, especially — as when he critiques Aristotle’s hylomorphism (figured in the imprintation of form, by means of a mold, upon a supposedly otherwise shapeless lump of clay). In no way is the process by which the clay becomes in-formed, as Simondon puts it, through a whole complex series of actions and procedures, merely an indistinct and continuous, firehose-y or lumpy, flow. (I am not sure whether or not this complex process can be described as “procedural” in Bogost’s terms; I’m inclined to think that all procedures are in fact processes, contra Bogost’s opposition between them; but that not all processes are procedures. I leave this aside for future consideration).

Whitehead writes on a much more abstract or “generic” level, of course but part of the reason for his seemingly scholastic multiplication of terms and distinctions is precisely in order to prevent the use of “becoming” or “process” as an undifferentiated, catch-all term. Whitehead is worried, I think, that Bergsonian duration can all too easily become such a term, a night in which all cows are black. And this is precisely why Whitehead adopts “event epochalism” (as George Lucas calls it), in which duration (or becoming) only applies to each individual occasion taken by itself, but not to the universe as a whole, nor even to the more-or-less-stable things (“societies” of occasions, extended in time and space) that populate the universe. (As mentioned in my previous posting — for Whitehead “there is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming”). For Whitehead, becoming or duration is what characterizes each individual Jamesian “drop of experience” — there are also (for both James and Whitehead) the (largely non-conscious) transitions between these drops.

So, for Whitehead (as for Simondon in a different way) “process” really means composition, rather than duration or becoming. There are all these atoms of becoming, which do not change or endure, but which “are what they are,” or become what they are, and then perish. And these atoms (the “actual entities” or “actual occasions”) are not themselves in time and space; rather, they generate time and space, together with generating “the real actual things that endure” in space and time and that Whitehead calls “societies” (Adventures of Ideas, page 204). Again, the point of all this is not to deny the actuality of things (or of what OOO calls “objects”), but precisely to account for their actuality, to show how they come into being, and endure in being (or have a conatus). (Whitehead, the great enemy of all theories of substance. nonetheless says that his own “notion of ‘society’ has analogies to Descartes’ notion of ‘substance’ “).

Now, Harman is perfectly right to point out that this argument distinguishes Whitehead from Bergson (and from Deleuze), for whom there is such a thing as a universal duration, or continuity of becoming, within which all the smaller and more particular becomings are nested. I just think that Harman exaggerates, or overstates, the degree, or extent and importance, of this distinction. He says that it makes Whitehead absolutely on the other side from Bergson and Deleuze of a massive philosophical divide. But I think that Whitehead lines up with Bergson and Simondon and Deleuze, and against Harman and OOO, in that all these “process” thinkers seek to account for how things come into existence, and how they endure; whereas OOO just seems to me to assume that its objects are already there.

The question of occasionalism comes into this, too. Harman requires occasional or vicarious causes to explain how objects can ever interact. But classical occasionalism, to the (limited) extent that I understand it, required a specific occasion, not only for how one object would interact with another, but also for how any object could endure at all. For the classical occasionalists, no entity could perpetuate itslef unless God upheld it anew at every instant. If I think that Whitehead is not an occasionalist, this is precisely because he gives us, non-supernaturally, the “actual occasions” by means of which, and as a result of which, things are able to endure. (This also touches upon my disagreement with Harman as to the role of God in Whitehead’s system — I don’t have the time or space to go into this in greater depth here, but see my last post, and Harman’s response to it). (I should add that my understanding of Whitehead’s God also puts me at odds with most of the other process bloggers who have jumped into the debate — but this is also something that I will need to take up at another time).

In any case, all this is why I think that Harman’s critique of philosophies that “undermine” or “overmine” objects (see the opening chapter of The Quadruple Object) doesn’t rightly apply to Whitehead (and here Harman might partly agree with me), and also doesn’t apply to Simondon or to Iain Hamilton Grant (in The Quadruple Object, Harman explicitly lists Simondon as one of those thinkers who is guilty of undermining; he similarly calls Grant an underminer, and a philosopher of the One, in his article on Grant in The Speculative Turn.) In other words, I am largely in agreement with Ben, when he writes: “the critique seems to be there must be some underlying substance with forces and powers but I cannot see why this must be the case. In many ways it seems to be an obfuscation of the difference between the metaphysical and the non-metaphysical – why if metaphysically there are not individual things why can’t there be individual things at the physical level without needing a human mind to carve them up.”

I’m not sure I entirely grasp what Ben means here by metaphysical vs. non-metaphysical levels.  To a certain extent, I suppose that it roughly corresponds to Whitehead’s distinction between actual entities (the “really real things” that compose everything) and societies (the “real actual things” that can endure and that we experience). More immediately, though, I presume that Ben’s distinction has to do with Grant’s arguments about antecedence. The metaphysical level is antecedent both to a One that would be the Whole and to the plurality of actually existing objects. This is very different from claiming that the One alone is real, and that objects are mere epiphenomena or appearances. The same could be said, contra Harman, of the antecedence of Simondon’s pre-individual. For Simondon, a thing cannot just be given, it must have a genesis. But again, this doesn’t mean that the antecedent pre-individual is either unified, or more real than what emerges out of it. In any case, for Simondon, whenever an individual exists, there is a field of preindividuality that is both antecedent to it — since it is that out of which the individual emerges — and remains contemporary with it — because no individual ever exhausts the preindividuality out of which it arises. Now, there may well be a difference, as Harman maintains, between Whitehead’s atomism of actual occasions and Simondon’s and Grant’s sense of antecedence. But these thinkers are still in accord with one another, and with Deleuze as well, in demanding a genetic and dynamic account of everything that exists. It’s from a dynamic and genetic point of view that we can reject Harman’s claim, regarding Simondon’s preindividual “seeds of things,” that “these seeds are either distinct from one another or they are not” (The Quadruple Object, page 9). Antecedence trumps this exclusive-either-or binarism. On this level, the question is not one of substances, but — as Grant and Ben both say — of ungrounded powers. (I realize that I will need, at some point, to go far more deeply into powers metaphysics, and to consider how such a metaphysics relates to Whitehead’s cosmology — there are obvious differences here, although I take it that both positions are on the same side in opposing the claim for Aristotelian substances, as revived by OOO).

But I didn’t start this blog entry intending for it to be another screed against OOO. Rather, I wanted to talk about a way in which Graham and I — or more broadly, OOO and process thought — are actually on the same side with one another: since this is also part of the point that Ben was making, despite expressing criticisms of both. (This is also why I am not here any further pursuing the differences – which Harman has helped to point out — between Whitehead on the one hand, and thinkers like Schelling, Simondon, and Grant on the other).

what I am starting to think about now — and which Ben’s posting gives me a new angle on — is the following. It has to do with “speculative realism” more broadly considered, rather than just with OOO. If one accepts, as I do, the general critique of correlationism (Meillassoux) or of the “philosophy of human access” (Harman), then it seems to me that one is left with a stark alternative. One must say either 1)that all entities, or things, or objects, are in their own right to some degree active, intentional, vital, possessed of powers, possessed of their own “alien phenomenology,” etc; or else 2)that being is radically divorced from thought, that things or objects must be radically divested of their alleged anthropomorphic qualities. In other words, if you push it far enough, you are driven either to panpsychism or to eliminativism. I think that this is the biggest division among the four initlal speculative realists. Both Harman and Grant approach panpsychism without entirely endorsing it (see their articles in David Skrbina’s Mind That Abides anthology); whereas both Meillassoux and Brassier reject any such ascription of mindfulness to the world (or to the entities in the world), and opt instead for some sort of mathematical (Meillassoux via Badiou) or scientistic (Brassier via Sellars) reduction. Once we abandon the notion that mind and (things in the) world must be primordially correlated, then we must either see mind everywhere or nowhere. Panpsychism sees mind as intrinsic to being, existing apart from any question of what it might be correlated with (for panpsychism, everything has a mind, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is apprehended by a mind) (and also, although the not-quite panpsychism of Grant and Harman does not see mind as originary, it regards mind as necessarily arising from the antecedence of productive powers, in Grant’s case, or as necessarily arising from any encounter or relation, in Harman’s case). At the other extreme, eliminativism sees nothing left but brute matter, or primary substance without qualities (hence Meillassoux’s revival of the separation between primary and secondary qualities), or mathematical structure, once the correlation of mind to world has been rejected.

So here we have Harman and OOO lining up on the same side with Grant, with Whitehead, and with any powers metphysics (I also need to say something here about “physical intentionality” in Molnar). Whereas Meillassoux and Brassier are on the other, “mathematical” side (together with “structural realists” like Ladyman and Ross, whom Harman has criticized for their ultra-relationalism).

Of course, this cannot be all of it, since I need to respect my own stricture above against ultimate metaphysical exclusive-either-ors. So I am tempted to describe Ben Woodard’s own “dark vitalist” position, and perhaps those of Reza Negarestani and Eugene Thacker as well, as combining the extremest tendencies of both the panpsychist pole and the eliminativist pole. Would it be possible to construct a fourth speculative realist position, one that rejects both panpsychist and eliminativist tendencies? So far, I cannot see how one could do this — since I am arguing that the two tendencies are potentials, or consequences, that inevitably arise from the critique of correlationism, it would have to be a position that explicitly rejected them both, rather than merely ignoring them.

I have two public presentations coming up in September, at which I hope to develop these ideas further. At the OOO symposium at the New School in New York City, I plan to talk more about the contrasting panpsychist and eliminativist poles of speculative realism. And at the SLSA conference in Kitchener, Ontario, I plan to talk about the absence of consciousness, and what it might mean to have mindedness without consciousness, as well as without correlation (see the abstract here).

10 thoughts on “Processes and Powers”

  1. Thank you for such a thoughtful response, especially since it addresses and extends many issues.

    The point about process as “composition” is an excellent one, as one of the difficulties of explanation is divesting the reader of the notion that process means “series” or “succession,” like cars on a train, that easily lulls one into mechanistic thinking per efficient causality.

    Another point, per mindedness and consciousness and the lack of correlation. That idea fits in really well with classical/neoclassical pragmatist notions, as they hold a realist, non-representational theory of experience in which freedom is achieved through the realization and mediation of creativity, not a faculty of the will. Hence, being conscious of (intending) something is not dependent upon (free) will. However, if we suppose that a creature is capable of only fixed forms of creative mediation, then there is a sense in which it is not “conscious” as it perceives but not apperceives. It “thinks” but does not “reflect.” And due to the non-representational nature of the theory, what it thinks about is signs (Peircean semiois), but without a creative freedom it cannot mediate, plan, or reflect upon those signs. But it is not entirely a machine; e.g., it feels but does not really feel qualities. Apologies if this is confusing, as it is difficult to explain in a short space.

  2. I think we return to James x Bradley controversy about the nature of relations. But there are somethings new in philosophy: singularities (since Simondon?) and events (with Whitehead). Can Challengers class (Mille plateaux) help us about these questions discussed here?
    Sorry, I cant write english very well.

  3. I attended a talk by Graham Harman at DePaul University in January of this year (2013). During the discussion, Harman swiftly dismissed Deleuze and Simondon; he claimed that they posit objects as emerging from a kind of undifferentiated substance. I was flabbergasted that he would make such a blatant misrepresentation of them, since even a superficial reading of some of Deleuze or Simondon’s works will reveal that this is exactly the idea that they criticize. I don’t really care about the philosophical content of the claim, which doesn’t have much practical relevance anyway. What bothers me is the baldness of Harman’s misrepresentation of his chosen philosophical opponents. It’s hard to believe that he’s doing it out of ignorance; it seems more like he is willfully deceiving his audience. If so, he plays a dirty game.

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