On Precarious Causation – Part 1: Epistemic and Structural Relations

Continuing our discussion on the notion of ‘withdrawal’ in the context of object-oriented philosophy (OOP) Adam Robbert has a fine post up (here) probing deeper into the differences between ‘contingent’ and ‘absolute’ withdrawal. To reiterate, I like this distinction and would certainly count myself as firmly within the contingency camp, with one caveat: I advocate contingent withdrawal at the level of structural causality and complexity, while, at the same time - following Wittgenstein, Derrida, Rorty and others - accepting ‘absolute’ withdrawal at the level of episteme, conceptual knowledge and representation. And the separation here makes all the difference.

Let me explain: I maintain that entities can (and must) have direct causal access to each other's substantial being via causally affective force, but that such access is always limited, partial and precarious due to the differential capacities, sensitivities and vulnerabilities embodied by particular assemblages. Moreover, epistemic capacities, especially in humans, should never be confused for or reduced to basic structural relations (e.g., physical contact), if only because the defining (onto-specific) operations of human thought are not primarily material and causal, but mental, projective and imaginal. Put another way, assemblages can affect, associate, amplify, augment, absorb, and in some cases obliterate each other directly at a non-symbolic level of causal relation, with respect to their defining compositional arrangements (or substantial integrity), despite escaping the totalizing gaze and schematic intentions of conceptual thought as such. Objects can and do affect each other in all sorts of ways while remaining obscure and only abstractly apprehended by symbolic consciousness.

In this post and subsequent related posts I want to circle around my thesis of precarious causation by contrasting this position with Graham Harman's thesis of 'vicarious causation' and object-oriented philosophy more generally. In doing this I do not attempt to definitively refute Harman’s framework but, instead, take advantage of the ongoing discussion about ‘withdrawal’ and objects as an opportunity to render my own conceptual biases more explicit and begin articulating what I believe is a more consistent and empirically grounded realist philosophy. Along the way I hope to address either directly or indirectly much of what Adam, Matt Segall (here) and Jeremy Trombley (here) have recently added to the debate.

As touchstone, here is a characteristic description of absolute withdrawal taken from Guerilla Metaphysics:
“Objects withdraw absolutely from all interaction with both humans and nonhumans, creating a split between the tool-being itself and the tool-being as manifested in any relation. And along with this rift between objects and relations, objects are also split in themselves between their sheer unity as one object and their multiplicity of traits” (p. 5).
To begin with, as stated in my last post on this topic (here), I think the fatal flaw with the thesis of ‘absolute withdrawal’ is that it conflates ‘knowledge’ (epistemic activity) with ‘contact’ (structural relation) in a way that disrupts our ability to think the messy, co-implicated, participatory and complex nature of reality. By inflating phenomenology to the level of self-referential metaphysic Graham Harman deemphasizes the structureality of material instantiation (corporeality) and overemphasizes epistemic inadequacy, leading would-be ontologists through a series strange logical maneuvers and alienating assumptions. [see, for example, Harman’s ad hominem and condescending attack on materialist explanations of causality in Prince of Networks (2009), p.109]

Ultimately, I believe, Harman’s fusion of Husserl’s phenomenology of ‘intentionality’ (with all its Cartesian-Lockean assumptions) with Heidegger’s observations on cognitive apprehension serves to con-fuse perspective with proximity and qualitative experience with causal indirection. With this conflation Harman sets to work the assumption that human knowledge is no different in capacity and operation from the structural vicissitudes of material life.


Notice, also, how Michael Austin characterizes Harman’s position in his essay, ‘To Exist is to Change’ (here):
“When I experience a tree, I have in mind not the real tree, but the intentional tree. The real tree is saturated with detail, the angle experienced, the lighting, my mood, etc, while the intentional tree is stripped of these. Changing any of these details does nothing to the intentional tree in my mind, “which always remains an enduring unit for as long as I recognize it as one.” The real me cannot interact with the real tree, but rather, we interact on a phenomenal level through the mediation of the intentional object. This intentional object relation is asymmetrical however, the real me only ever interacts with the intentional tree and never the tree in-itself.”
What stands out here is how Austin’s caricature seamlessly slips from a description of what is going on in the mind of an observer when he is witnessing a tree (i.e., moods, intentions, qualitative apprehensions) to a statement about a supposed inability of direct interaction without explaining why simply looking at a tree should be considered the paradigmatic example of encounters per se. On what grounds should we consider the cognitive experience of observation at a distance as the primary mode of access in every instance? None, on my account – and I will explain why later in this post.

There are several assumptions in Harman’s four-fold which I reject, especially the split between the Real and the Sensual (which I will address later), but what I want to emphasize at this point is that Harman is taking what is essentially an epistemological argument developed from particular lines of phenomenological thinking and transmuting them into a series of ontological claims.

Now, I can think of two possible genetic reasons for this “radical” move:

1. I believe Harman absolutizes Heidegger’s account of dasein by arguing that the difficulties inherent in relational cognition (i.e, equipmentality) reflects the fundamental structure of the Being of all beings. That is to say, Harman following Heidegger willfully ignores the characteristic and relevant differences between the particular (onto-specific) nature of human existence and the constituent natures of other modes of existence by privileging supposed (conceptually delineated) ontological conditions and under-estimating sensually disclosed differential ontic actualities. Harman believes bullets interact with clay, or dynamite interacts with bricks, exactly the same way humans experience tools. For Harman the structure of dasein is universal.

2. Harman's epistemic/causal conflation also seems to be a direct consequence of his acceptance of panpsychism via his reading of Whitehead. Panpsychism, of course, is the stance that some capacity akin to mentality or consciousness, or perception is inherent to all things and throughout the cosmos. If Harman does subscribe to such a position then it should come as no surprise he assumes that causal relations operate in near identical fashion as human cognition. Every occasion of relation becomes, under such a view, an instance of intention-laden apprehension, or “translation”. Take for example the indicative title of Harman’s unpublished work, “Intentional Objects for Non-Humans” (mentioned in Austin’s Speculations essay cited above).

It certainly seems appropriate given the mix of these two related sets of assumptions (phenomenological inflation and panpsychism) that Harman would be led to defend an ontology of “hidden” and “absolutely withdrawn” realities. If Being as such is believed to be fundamentally structured the way human-beings are, and if the cosmos is shot through and through with mentalistic capacities and activity, then the limitations of animal cognition and human mental operation can be assumed to be simply one instance of a more universal or transcendental tendency of all things.

To unpack the details of these claims would take a book length treatment in itself, and I’m completely unmotivated to take on such project, because, as I have said, my interest is not in providing a sustained critique of Harman’s work (nor object-oriented ontology generally) but to contrast as sharply as possible his views with my own. As supplement and excuse I will irresponsibly suggest that much of the confusion inherent to the claim of ‘absolute withdrawal’ stems from, I believe, Harman's over-investment of his significant analytical powers in the unsubstantiated phenomenological claims of Heidegger – at the expense of various other methodological practices, informative injunctions, analytical resources and invariant corporealities.

The problems with this investment are many, but we need not accept such “radicalizing” and conflating maneuvers. Instead, I suggest that an empirically-informed position can easily differentiate epistemic ‘knowledge’ from strauctural ‘contact’, as non-identical operations in the world. 'Knowledge' and thought about the world and objects happens via animal memory and abstract signification - with very different processes than those involved in basic physical interactions. 'Knowledge’ involves detached (intangible) linguistically dependent biological imaginings (projections), but ‘contact’ involves material-energetic (tangible) structurally affective catalytics. While both involve multi-scaled causal chains and structural vulnerability, the former process is dependent upon symbolic events, involving memory, signs and abstraction, whereas the latter is primarily dependent upon physical and electric events, 

To be sure, I believe ‘knowledge’ is also an embodied capacity activated by brains, but it is not strictly biological in that animal gestures can be externalized, or as I like to say tokenized, through socially mediated linguistic and conceptual markers (schema, metaphor, etc.) in a way that detaches them from rudimentary physical intentionalities, requiring personal negotiation through memory, recursion, plasticity and projection (as imagination, or what I call phantasy). [see, for instance, McLuhan’s ‘extensions of man’ arguments, or the whole corpus of literature relating to the 4EA paradigm in cognitive studies.]

It is important to understand that I am not simply relying on my own implicit theory of human cognition here because I could just as easily suggest bundling the assumptions embedded in that last paragraph into the rather innocuous and singular claim that ‘knowledge’ involves extra-biological, extended or symbolic capacities irreducible to the less complex processes of non-cognitive materials. Thus, the kernel of my main argument here is that human cognition and conceptual thought (‘knowledge’) entail onto-specifically emergent and extended – and withdrawn - capacities that do not obtain at the level of composite base materials. This, I argue, is the difference that makes all difference. And by confusing cognitive events (intentionality and symbolic relation) with causal events (materiality and structural relation) OOP mistakes the ‘absolute’ limitations of perspective and detached, tokenized (form-al) thought for the defining features of causal interaction generally.

Unraveling exactly how this fatal mistake effects the overall logical machinery of OOP is a massive endeavor, best left to the ingenuities of academic scholars, and so will not be pursued here. Instead, what I would like to pursue in this series of posts is what it might come of a speculative realism that takes into consideration more complex and experientially supported (empirical) understandings of embodied life. By circling back on the notions of ‘access’, ‘materialism’ and ‘relation’ I will argue that avoiding the conflation and subtle correlationism at the core of Object-Oriented Philosophy and reintroducing the distinction between knowing (epistemic relation) and being (structural relation) enables us to conceptualize better the manner in which causation is both direct and partial, as well as precarious.


Adam said...

Another great post -- I become a little more convinced each time. I have some initial reactions regarding the difference between contingent withdrawal at the level of causation and absolute withdrawal at the level of episteme. I think this is a genuinely new option on the table (at least in this dialogue) and I'll have to think about it more, but here are some quick thoughts that might help us move forward. I should also like to reiterate that I find this process quite helpful and enlightening as well, its really forcing me to re-consider some of my philosophical commitments; though surprisingly some of these are not all directly related to my thoughts on OOO and Withdrawal, but to older philosophical commitments as well. This I count as a success.

First, I am quite persuaded by Whitehead but wouldn't count myself (or Whitehead) as a panpsychist. I think minds are the property of some beings and not others. Surely mind is a property of all living things and perhaps some fringe entities such as viruses, but there is no need to extend mentality as a uniform property to everything in the cosmos. It is true that Whitehead speaks of the dipolar “mental” and “physical” elements of actual occasions but, when we really look at it, Whitehead is very clear to point out that in simpler causal interactions there is nothing very mind-like going on about, for example, hydrogen atoms. In this sense I prefer the term 'panexperientialism' or 'pansensism' since these avoid some of the problems associated with the "absolutization of Dasein as the fundamental structure of the Being of all beings" that you note above. In short, when I read Whitehead I find that he is cosmologizing the human, rather than anthropomorphizing the cosmos. All entities enact a worldspace, but this is not the same as full-blown panpsychism.

Second, I'm really struck by the case you are making between different types of withdrawal at epistemic and causal levels -- this is a really helpful and strong contribution. However, I also treat the problem of knowledge a little bit differently than how you have outlined it above. You already understand me clearly on this point, but I'll try and explain myself again in another way. In my view, knowledge is not a kind of visualizing from afar (a "detached" mode of perception) but is closer to the sensation of touching than seeing. In this sense, different modes of perception are all different kinds of touching such that: seeing is the touch of photons to the retina; smelling the touching of particles to the olfactory system; hearing the touching and transduction of mechanical vibrations; and tasting the touching of chemicals on the tongue. Touching is an integral sense that makes common all the others.

If I make any radical moves in my own philosophy it’s an extension of this account of perception into the realm of epistemology. In my conception, thinking and knowledge are construed as the interplay or touching of signs, symbols, and meanings in the ecology of mind and knowledge. In this capacity, I have found great value in thinking through the ontological structure of knowledge, rather than just the epistemological capacities of knowledge. Thus while I think there is great merit in what you are doing--which I would consider a strong and necessary appeal to empiricism--I also think there is value in considering the ontological basis of the episteme, thereby uncovering the commonalities (and differences) between casual relations and epistemic relations. In so doing I have actually found a startling number of similarities between the act of knowledge about the world and the causal relations between objects in the world. Thus I think many of the principles that hold true for causal relations (prehension, withdrawal, contingency, recursivity, etc.) are also properties of knowledge and the relation between the knower and the world she tries to know.

More on this to come…

Anonymous said...

very good except I wonder if we might find another term for "withdrawal" that doesn't bring all of its particular baggage, looking forward to future posts.

Unknown said...

Response for ya here: http://footnotes2plato.com/2012/01/25/the-varieties-of-causality/

michael- said...


Another term for "withdrawal"...? What do you suggest? For contingent structural withdrawal I would suggest “depth” as an alternative. For absolute epistemic withdrawal I might suggest......? Let me think on that.

michael- said...

I’m glad you find this discussion as useful as I do. There are a pack of concepts I have been working on in private for years and this process is affording me an opportunity to make these public. ‘Precarious causation’ is a key concept in my thinking, as is ‘onto-specificity’, ‘ontological intimacy’, ‘potency’, ‘phantasy’ and a strange term I casually threw into this last post without any explanation: ‘structureality’, which is meant to signify the ubiquitous contingency and ambience of affective life. Structurerality is the extensive and intensive tangibility of Being.

One of the things I enjoy most about exchanging ideas with you Adam is how clearly you read me. Considering how idiosyncratic my terminology and way of thinking is, generally, I consider this a definitive sign of your intelligence and generosity in all things philosophical.

An excellent example of this is when you clearly acknowledge the difference I suggest “between contingent withdrawal at the level of causation and absolute withdrawal at the level of episteme.” That is precisely my point. Causal relations are structural events afforded by the inherent (immanent) potency (expressivity, plasticity, catalytic functions) and ontological vulnerability of contingent (unique, irreducible) material-energetic systems. Any sort of withdrawal at this level is a result of the emergent endo-complexity of particular assemblages. Epistemic relations, on the other hand, are detached (‘withdrawn’) symbolic abstractions dependent upon biological memory and socially mediated projections - what I call phantasy. And conflating the natural limits and inadequacies of our animal phantasies (epistemic capacities) with the pre-cognitive operations of causal efficacy disrupts our ability to track, engage and adapt to what seems to be a wild, promiscuous and entangled cosmic niche. This is the “fatal mistake” I tried to identify in OOP. It is ‘fatal’ because it effectively illuminates the possibility of realism.

All this, however, begs the question Matt raised tonight about how “mind” and matter relate in the view of things. There are a wide variety of angles from which academic philosophers have tried to tackle this question, however my own response will no doubt deviate greatly in form and emphasis from most of these proposals. [see Gary Williams on materialism, ontology, and the philosophy of mind for a good take on the mess of views out there: http://philosophyandpsychology.com/?p=1463]

I don’t want to give too much away before posting parts 2 and 3 of my current musings, but what I am going to suggest is that “mind” or what I would rather call human phantasy is an embodied, embedded, enactive, extended and affective (4EA) expression generated by humans within a dynamic network (wilderness) of consequential action. Which is to say, I have no use for the archaic notion of “the mind” and the dualism it evokes, but would rather frame discussions about the differences between epistemic and compositional relations in terms of a distinction between the bio-physical capacities and the symbolical capacities as expressed and ‘deployed’ by onto-specific sentience beings (i.e., humans). This, in turn, can all be understood in terms of the determining role of sensitivity, sensation and sensuality have in cosmos. Far from being a mysterious realm of appearance split off from reality, as Harman suggests, ‘the sensual’ is in my view (and in the work of Merleau-Ponty, Alphonso Lingis and Tom Sparrow) a constituent property of the Real. I will say more on this in subsequent post.

michael- said...

@ Adam continued....

With regard to Whitehead, I must admit I do not know enough about his work to dispute any of his more specific claims, but I do know that many people who count themselves as panpsychists or panexperientialists (which I think as synonymous) refer to Whitehead’s ‘prehension’ in their arguments. Maybe you can educate me in this regard, but I cannot support any metaphysics that suggests that atoms or rocks have cognitive-type experiences. Surely atoms and minerals are more or less dynamic assemblages with agencies, catalytic properties and rudimentary sensitivities particular to their onto-specific composition, but in no way does this entail that such entities possess psychical operations. Representational cognition (intellection) and human intentionality is, as I argued earlier, an emergent phenomenon generated in situ by human bodies with onto-specific endo-complexity. As you say, “there is no need to extend mentality as a uniform property to everything in the cosmos.” And I think it is a profoundly anthropocentric move to anthropomorphize reality to assume otherwise.

That said, I don’t want to overemphasize the differences in between atomic powers, mineral sensitivities and the human capacity for experience either. What I am proposing is that the characteristic differences between various entities’ ability to be ‘sense’, react and act in the world is the direct result of differential powers (affectivity and plasticity) particular to each assemblage’s complex composition (depth), as deployed within specific affording circumstances (eco-system). So rocks have onto-specific complexity and powers which determine its limits and abilities, just as human beings have onto-specific depth and capacities (powers) which partially determine their ability to sense, react and act in the world. It is the ‘irreducible’ and contingent depth and power of individual assemblages that I call potency. Thus, rocks, guitars, machetes, individual compositions of H2O, earthworms, rats, uranium, and bonobos are all potent assemblages, but specifically so. And it is the uniqueness of all such material-energetic and emergent potencies that I want to remain sensitive to on the way to cosmo-political/ecological thinking.

I know you have written on “pansensism” before, so I should go back see just how much what I’m saying here might relation to such a notion, because on the surface I think my position on sensation and potent materials might be congruent. Likewise with the notion of a “worldspace”, which seems to me compatible with my view of enaction and collaborative evolution.

michael- said...

@Adam continued....

You write:

“In my view, knowledge is not a kind of visualizing from afar (a "detached" mode of perception) but is closer to the sensation of touching than seeing. In this sense, different modes of perception are all different kinds of touching such that: seeing is the touch of photons to the retina; smelling the touching of particles to the olfactory system; hearing the touching and transduction of mechanical vibrations; and tasting the touching of chemicals on the tongue. Touching is an integral sense that makes common all the others.”

Perfect. I couldn’t agree with you more. Simply put, all assemblages/entities exist within a matrix (wilderness) of potent materials and affective force, therefore every encounter is an embodied encounter involving different degrees and intensities of extensive contact. And I argue that this “touching” is direct contact because elements mix and mingle, forces resonate and reverberate, and energy flows. On the structural-causal level interaction between compositions result in a myriad of effects, redirections, impingements, augmentations, rearrangements, mutations, etc., at various scales. Causation, in this sense, can be considered precarious because of all the ways everything can affect, exchange, align, influence or obliterate everything else. The cosmos is creative because of this ontological vulnerability and access-ability not in spite of it.

However, I also want to suggest (as indicated above re: my comments on phantasy) that perception and sensation are not the same as “knowledge”. Visceral sensation/contact and conceptual apprehension are two separate dimensions (or capacities) of our total experience. Understanding how this is so allows us to avoid falling into the trap I criticized Harman for, namely, conflating causal/structural relation and epistemic/symbolic relation. Conceptuality (symbolical capacity) and sensation (bio-physical capacity) are distinct aspects of human cognition.

The nuances here are seriously important but my simplified argument is that human knowledge entails emergent capacities that supervene on our visceral capacities. Categorization, abstraction and conceptual thought depend in large part on socially determined signs, symbols and representations (culture), the manipulation of external linguistic tokens and context dependent meanings. The recursive features of biological memory (mirror neurons?) allow for learning and the scaffolding of conceptual systems (schema) and detached representations, reinforced through the performance of speech-acts, gestural significations and communication feed-back loops. All this to say: knowledge unlike mere touching because it involves formal abstraction and representation. Animal signs and human semantics absolutely withdraw because they only ever refer and code what are otherwise visceral and non-representational contacts with the world. And, again, it is this linguistic, symbolic, conceptual, supervening and extended capacity that I call embodied phantasy. Hence the ‘extended mind’ thesis in cognitive science.

Hence, also, Buddhist teachings and techniques that seek to suspend conceptual though (the ‘monkey mind’) by cultivating attentiveness to the breath/body. One of Buddhism's key insights and gifts to the world is the practical acknowledgement of the abstract (“illusory”) nature of categorical mentality as distinct from the more immediate and non-representational aspects of visceral experience.

michael- said...

@Adam continued...

You write:

“If I make any radical moves in my own philosophy it’s an extension of this account of perception into the realm of epistemology. In my conception, thinking and knowledge are construed as the interplay or touching of signs, symbols, and meanings in the ecology of mind and knowledge."

I think you would first want to be clear about what you mean by “signs, symbols and meanings”, and whether or not such terms refer to tangible or imaginal objects. My suggestion would be determine what an “ecology of mind” might be if we stop assuming that our psychology has its own environment and begin treating mental activity as part and parcel of the biological and material world. The emergent features of human mentality add no new materials or objects, but instead bring together (extend) existing potencies in novel but intangible (phantasmic) way.

You write:

“[W]hile I think there is great merit in what you are doing--which I would consider a strong and necessary appeal to empiricism--I also think there is value in considering the ontological basis of the episteme, thereby uncovering the commonalities (and differences) between casual relations and epistemic relations.”

Agreed. I think parsing out both the commonalities as well as the differences between causal and epistemic relations is important. This is the work of ‘ontography’ as I understand it. Ultimately, i believe, it will be the application of ontographic insights that will assist us in designing better worldspaces and futures.

michael- said...


I hope my response to Adam clears up a lot of the confusion about my thoughts on "mind". I will try to answer more of your points directly tomorrow, but please note that in no way do I subscribe to dualism in the classical or altered sense. Mental activity is a phantasmic capacity (think 'embodied imagination') of wholly material-energetic sentient animals - but it is a different sort of operation than, say, a chemical reaction. Just as metabolic processes are different than cognitive processes, by virtue of their onto-specficity, or unique, contingent assembly and potency.

Matt said...

Your comments to Adam are very helpful, and I find myself agreeing with much of what you have to say here. You suggest that sensuality is not split off from reality, but a constituent property of it. This is very close to what Whitehead means in regard to prehension going all the way down. An atom's form of prehension is unique to its specific nuclear and electronic organization, just as a human mind's apprehension is unique to its specific neuronal organization. I also believe Whitehead's distinction between "presentational immediacy" and "causal efficacy" is in line with your's between potency and phantasy. Sometimes, due to what he called "symbolic reference," human beings become detached from the real world and so fail to evolve collaboratively with the other members of their oikos. But there remains, for Whitehead (influenced as much by Eddington and Einstein as Shelley and Wordsworth), an alternative mode of mentality capable of experiencing and expressing the potency of things directly. Call it the creative imagination, or participation in the symbolism of organism, or perhaps the intuitive intellect (following Schelling). In this alternative mode of experience--non-ordinary perhaps but not therefore impossible--sensation and intellection (Sinn and Verstand) find their unity in a common root. Here I side with Schelling over Hegel in arguing that any cognition of the Absolute is necessarily poetic, rather than prosaic/conceptual:

Hegel writes: 'The great merit of Schelling is to have pointed out in Nature the forms of Spirit ... [But a]s Schelling has not risen to this point of view [of the Concept – Hegel's point of view], he has misconceived the nature of thought; the work of art thus becomes for him the supreme and only mode in which the Idea exists for spirit. But the supreme mode of the Idea is really its own element; thought, the Idea apprehended, is therefore higher than the work of art. The Idea is the truth, and all that is true is the Idea.' (Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 3,
Medieval and Modern Philosophy, trans. E. S. Haldane and F. Simson, p. 542)

I wrote this essay about the limitations of Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms in relationship to Gebser's understanding of poetry and Schelling's philosophy of organism: http://footnotes2plato.com/2011/12/13/the-spirit-of-integral-poetry-waring-the-symbolism-of-organism/

It helps unpack what I've said here about the common root of Sinn and Verstand, and argues that human beings are not symbolically cut off from contact with the real to the extent that they think organically.

Anonymous said...

"depth" is to the literal point, any terms which shorthand the specific aspects which you are highlighting would be fine, just no reason that I can see to have echoes of the Withdrawal of Being or the Gods or such (including a sense of hiding) if that's not what one is directing attention to. Causes the kind of confusion Levi runs into all the time in his being con-fused with Harman by readers.

michael- said...

an addendum of sorts...

“One is born with forces that one did not contrive. One lives by giving form to these forces. The forms one gets from the others.” — Alphonso Lingis, “We Mortals”

Brian Massumi writes:

"Nature itself, the world of process, ‘is a complex of passing events’ [...] The world is not an aggregate of objects. To see it that way is to have participated in an abstraction reductive of the complexity of nature as passage. To “not believe in things” is to believe that objects are derivatives of process and that their emergence is the passing result of specific modes of abstractive activity. This means that objects’ reality does not exhaust the range of the real. The reality of the world exceeds that of objects, for the simple reason that where objects are, there has also been their becoming. [...] The being of an object is an abstraction from its becoming. The world is not a grab-bag of things. It’s an always-in-germ. To perceive the world in an object frame is to neglect the wider range of its germinal reality." (Semblance and Event, p.6)

Steven Shaviro writes: "Even a seemingly solid and permanent object is an event; or, better, a multiplicity and a series of events." (Without Criteria)

Contingency in light of the Whiteheadian dictum which states that “…how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is” (Process and Reality, p. 23)?

michael- said...


Nice response. I agree with everything you write here.

It also seems to me that so many of Whitehead’s conclusions are in line with what I am trying to work out. Although, all this makes me feel as though I should avoid reading him in depth at all costs, lest I find that he articulates what I’m thinking in a way that i may be incapable of doing. I value my independence in all things philosophical above any type of scholastic motivation. [however, I appreciate so much your efforts to make those connections and citations to the literature because i do follow up on particular ideas or lines of thought, so keep them coming!]

The concern here is that I may be lead down some well worn path or dead end, for-stalling my interest in radically rethinking life, world and meaning. From a certain angle higher academic learning can be considered a form of ‘brain damage‘ that lays down neurological grooves in our otherwise plastic brains guiding and shaping what is possible for thought, values and dialogue. Of course, I have my own unavoidable influences with the likes of Marx, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Latour, Bateson, DeLanda, Ingold, John Protevi (who I cannot recommend enough) and others. I just try to keep a critical distance from anyone I read. The tactic of developing new concepts with alternative connotations helps to remain militantly independent to a manageable degree.

As for ‘detachment’, I agree that we are NEVER actually detached if only because we are ourselves part of the same immanent field of activity that we seek to understand. As you say, our thought has an organic basis. My claim is that conceptual thought is ‘floating‘ on the surface of the material as a projective manipulations of tokenized symbols, and which never completely codes or represents or exhausts the objects of our interest. As Derrida made so clear, the essence of language and signification of iterability and undecidability - an inherent inadequacy or non-completeness to representation. My position is that the symbolic operations of biological thought bring sensation, memory, vision and affect (in the limited sense) together with the affordances of social life (acts of communication, tokens, totems, ideology, Weber’s “webs of signification”) to generate phantasy.

Related to this is your point about how thought/phantasy can lead us astray I would add that while our bodies are never truly detached from reality our phantasies can be more or less adaptive and aligned with ‘Nature’. Again, human phantasy (psyche) is an utterly natural phenomena, expressed in the same way as birdsong among bower-birds, or the complex cognitions of Caledonian crows, but the decidedly symbolic-totemic nature of human intellection allows for a level of abstraction and delusion that can result in serious ideological confusions and dissociative cognitions, thereby conceptually distancing us from more immediate sensibilities and corporeal intelligences. It is in this sense that I would suggest that our technocratic consumerist modes of existence indicate just how insane, deranged, unhinged and mad we have become.

One offshoot to all that is my belief that the differences between the poetic and the prosaic are in many cases insignificant. Sure logic and instrumental reason is an important achievement and highly useful and productive but it is still a limited and inadequate language game at its core. Poetry is a language game deployed for different purposes and with different affects and effects. Both are modes of phastasy oriented towards different activities. And, with regards to Hegel, it is the failure of Ideas to assert their own transience and limitations that leads to dogma. But, from what you say here, I would also tend toward Schelling’s view.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Jason Hills said...


Read Whitehead when you finally run out of ideas. By then, you'll approach Whitehead and likely understand much of everything he's doing and why, and be able to determine what relation you'd like to take up with him. That is, you will approach him as a colleague and not a student.

michael- said...

@Jason - that's a brilliant idea Jason. In a few more years, when my thoughts have mutated and become more coherent (developed,) I will be better able to 'stand on my own' when it comes to evaluating the work of such giants of theory. Perhaps my future self will love Whitehead, perhaps not, but at least I will have developed my thoughts enough to engage without the fear of total contamination.

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