This Elemental Life

In response to my recent comments about embodiment and ontology Matt Segall writes:
“Forms can have no cause or effect independently of their realization in and through some actual occasion. But still, form cannot simply be reduced to its material instantiations, either. Forms, in Whitehead's terms, are possibilities of definiteness. They determine (or allow occasions to determine) how an occasion will be characterized. If we dispense with forms as ontologically basic, we have not at all sided with concrete reality over abstraction. On the contrary, without the participation of eternal objects (Whitehead's term for forms in his reformed Platonism), "matter" and "energy" can take on no definite quality. They remain vague abstractions lacking all particularity.”
Here I think Matt is presupposing the function of the term in dispute (i.e.‘form’) prior to explaining why “matter” is incapable of expressing structure of itself. Instead, I argue that ‘matter’ and energy express formal relations via the differential distribution of their primordial properties. That is, energetic-materiality is an expression of primordial activities (the pure difference at the origin of manifestation) which have unfolded temporally to generate a wide range of contingent and dynamic associations and intensive differences. And some of these activities and compositions have further coalesced into highly complex and emergent ‘occasions’.

I want emphasize the self-organizing properties or sufficiency of energy-matter rather than support archaic formulas that posit ‘form’ being imposed on ‘matter’ from without. Matter is a self-sufficient potency that becomes structured according to the primordial cosmological constraints and intensive differences inherent to particular temporal evolutions. The immanent possibilities of actual occasions, then, are expressions of the morphological capacities inherent to the life-trajectory of particular (cosmological and historical) material realities.
"Just as capacities of thought, of being, are made in lived bodies, in complex and delicately conjoined tissues and processes, and just as powers are inherent in all matter, materialism also requires that the capacities of activity, thought, sensation, and affect possible to each composition whether organic or not are shaped by what it is, what it connects to, and the dimensions of relationality around it." (Fuller 2005: 174)
At base, my conception of “matter” only signifies the structural efficacy (tangibility) of cosmo-historical occasions and assemblages as they continue to evolve. How “matter” actually operates and what it involves is still up for debate, but I would argue that it is without a doubt stranger, more active and self-organizing than has hitherto been assumed.

Matt continues:
“To be concrete means less to be material than it does to be some actual occasion with this or that particular shade of definiteness. These shades of definiteness, say the red hue characterizing the sky during yesterday's sunset, are eternal possibilities awaiting and only sometimes gaining temporal realization. In our cosmic neighborhood, matter-energy/space-time participates in specific forms of definiteness constraining what is possible; these can be symbolically expressed via mathematical notation (what Whitehead refers to as the objective species of eternal object).”
I have never seen evidence of any of that. Definiteness is not granted by God nor is it imposed by the eternal laws of nature, but is the result and expression of the inherent potency of matter contingently related. “Matter-energy/space-time” does not participate in forms, it is the very ground upon which participation is possible. Sunsets are not “eternal possibilities” but immanent actualities generated through the emergent activities and collaboration of photons, electrons, hydrogen, helium, oxygen, earth, etc., etc., as they are “stacked” into particular living ecologies. World-flesh is self-sufficient complexity.

UPDATE: Levi Bryant has a great post explaining why hylomorphism just doesn't work: here. Levi writes:
Matter is both structured and anarchic. Order does not descend from above, but is rather always a communistics or anarchistic result… Which is to say it is always the result of the collaborative interplay structured matters that are simultaneously passive and active. It’s hard to overcome our will to mastery (which is really, I think, what hylomorphism is libidinally about), but hylomorphism is metaphysically mistaken, epistemically mistaken, and politically and ethically dangerous. Bergson famously argued that there’s no such thing as disorder, but rather “disorder” is just the absence of order that we’d like to have for the sake of our own action or aims. Simondon and Deleuze make similar points, though in a far more refined way. These arguments continue to hold today, yet they still, I think, have not been heard. Ontology, politics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics have still not become flat… Which is to say, anarchistic and communistic.
Hell yeah anarchistic and communistic... A veritable Wilderness of Being.


Matt Segall said...


Let me try to clarify a bit more...

Occasions decide which forms will ultimately come to characterize the actual world of their experience. Forms are not 'imposed' upon actual occasions from outside. Much of the character of experience, especially for lower grade occasions like electrons and photons, is decided unconsciously through conformal prehension of past decisions. Physical science concerns itself with the general habits of such low grade occasions. But higher grade occasions like ravens, coyotes, and primates, are not so determined by physical prehensions of past actualities, since they have a heightened experience, through conceptual prehension, of future possibilities. In human occasions of experience, this futural perception reaches its near apogee. In Process and Reality, Whitehead discusses our conceptual prehension of eternal objects in terms of consciousness' capacity for negation--to see the facticity of not only of that grey rock there and to know it could have been otherwise, but to see the whole of the visible universe and know the same. The contingency of nature is not mere chance, but the result of will--will which leans toward more degrees of freedom as moves through the series of natural kingdoms, at first an unconscious flow of emotion, only later rising to the level of the symbolic and intellectual articulation of emotion.

You argue that 'pure difference' is at the base of materiality, but I am uncertain what you mean. Wouldn't its supposed 'purity' already be a sign of contamination by identity? Its the old ("archaic"?) problem of the one and the many, of cosmos and chaos. Plato, you'll remember, did not conceive of form in abstraction from matter, but sought to understand how eternity and time, permanence and process, come to be mixed up into the Living Thing that is the Universe. Eros and metaxy, and not ideal purity, are at the core of the Platonic philosophy, at least as I understand it. The challenge Plato left for philosophy is how to think the in between. Contemporary physics, so far as I understand it, no longer studies nature as substance, but as interlocking processes of formation. This is not all that different from the Schellingian interpretation of Plato's Timaeus, as unpacked by Iain Hamilton Grant.

You write: 'Sunsets are not “eternal possibilities” but immanent actualities generated through the emergent activities and collaboration of photons, electrons, hydrogen, helium, oxygen, earth, etc., etc., as they are “stacked” into particular living ecologies. World-flesh is self-sufficient complexity.'

In my prior post, I wasn't referring to sunsets as eternal possibilities, but to a particular shade of red realized in the sunset. "Red" certainly cannot be explained by reference to the physical bodies you've listed, though I would agree about its ecological origins. "Red" is what Whitehead called a subjective eternal object, capable of realization in any number of actual occasions though not reducible to any one in particular or to all in summation. Qualities like redness, and quantities like the number 17, cannot be explained by reference to materiality, since materiality itself would be meaningless without reference to quality and to quantity (which for Whitehead, unlike Kant, are not categories of the human mind, but forms of definiteness characterizing prehension in general).

Michael- said...

I found the following description of book Medianatures: The Materiality of Information Technology and Electronic Waste, edited by Jussi Parikka, i think is relevant to my conception of matter:

"Medianatures picks up from Donna Haraway’s idea of naturecultures – the topological continuum between nature and culture, the material entwining and enfolding of various agencies, meanings and interactions."

Jason Hills said...


When you write "potencies," you smuggle back in what you deny to Matt.

This all goes back to the conversations of some months ago. Are we to be scholastic realists? To anyone who is not, many of these moves do not make sense. For the materialist who would deny the reality of generals or universals, I ask them to explain how specific characteristics are possible without resorting to nominalism. Put that way, many resort to nominalism, which doesn't explain anything so much as claim that we cannot know or there are no real generals.

Jason Hills said...


Matt, Levi is mischaracterizing not only Whiteheads', but also Peirce's position. I've given up trying to defend the notion in the blogosphere; besides, you're doing a good job.

Adam said...

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Hi Michael,

You asked me to give some responses to Matt’s formulation and your take on Matt’s formulation. I’ll try and offer some comments, though I think we are operating from a particularly muddy place with regards to the various positions being espoused, the way other positions are being explained (principally Whitehead in this case), and what, in various ways, are the consequences of each of these positions. The muddiness makes it difficult to both differentiate myself and contribute to the conversation and, given this confusion, I’m not sure we will accomplish much with the foundation we have set up so far. In short I don’t think these are very productive arguments. That said, I will try and offer some comments despite these difficulties.

First, lets start with Whitehead since he’s been marshaled (I think rather incorrectly) as the position that needs to be overcome in favor of what you describe above re: self-sufficient complexity. Your position is much closer to Whitehead’s than one might be led to believe following only these discussions. First, we must recall that Whitehead holds three central metaphysical claims that are abbreviated by: (1) the ontological principle, (2) the centrality of actual entities, and (3) a rejection of the bifurcation of nature. What Whitehead calls “eternal objects” (or formal properties more generically) have to be thought within the context of these three constraints; not outside of them -- so the potter metaphor can be thrown out the window immediately. Second, we have to remember that Whitehead is: (a) not a pre-Kantian scholastic philosopher nor is he (b) espousing a variant of either traditional Platonism or hylomorphism (even as he is in dialogue, as any good philosopher must be, with the folks who tackled similar problems historically). This has always been my view at least, and it’s one that I would differentiate from the other Whiteheads running around in this conversation. In this sense, I’m fine with different readings of Whitehead so long as we can all agree that the readings are each perspectival (and contestable). Anyway…here’s “my” Whitehead on these issues…

Let’s say a little bit about eternal objects. My understanding of what Whitehead means by eternal objects (which I view as the pivot point of this particular discussion) is as follows. First off, there are no externalities that “form” or “shape” the entities in Whitehead’s cosmology (this would violate his ontological principal). Anything that is, was, or might be, counts as “actual” in Whitehead’s view, but only as part of the prehensive action of some actual entity or society (I’ll just use “entity” for short hereafter). Second, Whitehead argues that what he calls “eternal objects” are not transcendental or pre-existing forms. “Red” is an example of an eternal object that has been brought up already so let’s stick with that. How might we consider red as “eternal” -- certainly not as a form sitting in some heavenly storehouse waiting to be dropped into reality from above. Let’s say you have a red apple; the redness is activated by the prehensive action of the apple itself and once you’ve eaten the apple the red no longer exists; but you have not consumed “redness” in itself, you’ve consumed the apple. Redness-as-such cannot be destroyed and will re-instantiate itself again as soon as the properties of some entity generates redness again. Redness cannot exist as red-in-itself but must be instantiated as the redness-of-some-particular-entity. This why Whitehead is at pains to point out that redness is real but not actual.

Adam said...

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Now – the next bit is one we can push Whitehead on and where I start to disagree with his descriptive terminology. He says that eternal objects “ingress” into the activity of a particular entity, but he also says that eternal objects do not exist apart from the prehensive structure of entities. So, we can ask, what exactly does it mean for something that doesn’t exist to “ingress” and where is it “ingressing” from? Statements like this might tempt the shallow reader to throw Whitehead back in with traditional Platonists (is this even a good reading of Plato? I don’t know!), but this misses the whole point of Whitehead’s work on points (1), (2), and (3) I list above. Again, whatever the solution to this problem is (and it’s an important problem), it cannot violate the ontological principle if we are to be rigorous with Whitehead’s cosmology. In the book I am preparing I am referring to this problem as Whitehead’s “Strange Platonism.” My basic conclusion is that Whitehead is, at the end of the day, upholding something like what you are calling self-sufficient complexity but he’s got a bit of a Cartesian hangover in his language.

Now, if I’m wrong about this I say let’s reform it in the very manner that you describe above. However, I have yet to be convinced that Whitehead is one of the people who should be targeted as oppositional to what you are describing. Rather, I think Whitehead is, historically, one of the great allies in thinking through these issues; and I think it’s a strange move to say “Why would I read Whitehead when I’ve already read Deleuze?” (Which people sometimes say). Philosophy works best, I think, in contrasting pluralisms that enrich multiple positions rather than as mutually exclusive principles used to carve out different social groups among philosophers. This is counterproductive and perhaps it’s largely the gravity exerted by the blogging medium but these conversations seem to move way to fast to be productive. Just two cents from somebody who loves thinking with y’all.

Jason Hills said...

For what it's worth, it looks good to me, Adam.

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