Wednesday, June 1, 2016

On Gaia & Process Thought (two new books from French Whiteheadians)

I am excited to eventually read two recently published books by French Whiteheadians - both of which are currently only available in French. Thanks largely to the important work of Isabelle Stengers in Thinking With Whitehead, Whitehead seems to be on the rise in some corners of continental philosophy, particularly among those conversant with speculative realism, the new materialism, object oriented ontology, affect theory, the philosophy of Deleuze, and so on. My own view is that the recent turn to Whitehead has much to do with an increasing recognition that too much Western philosophy has been anthropocentric and ontologically dualistic. Whitehead's speculative cosmology provides a helpful way beyond these problems by extending genuine reality, value, and agency to the nonhuman (I have written about this here). In the descriptions of both books listed below, these revolts against anthropocentrism and ontological dualisms are in full view.

The first book that I want to highlight is Facing Gaia, written by Bruno Latour and based on his Gifford Lectures. It should be available in English next year. You can watch his original Gifford lectures here, although the published book apparently includes significant revisions.

The second book is The Lure of the Possible (my translation), written by Didier Debaise. It is a relatively short book that apparently involves a very clear reading of Whitehead's metaphysics, as well as a unique interpretation of eternal objects (always a tricky aspect of Whitehead, as I've written about before). You can watch a lecture from Debaise on Whitehead here.

While studying for my French exams, I translated the publisher's descriptions of both books. It should go without saying that these are not "official" translations (the original texts are linked below). But perhaps some readers will find my humble translation efforts useful for getting a sense of what these books are about.

Facing Gaia (by Bruno Latour)

"James Lovelock has not had much luck with the Gaia hypothesis. By naming with this old Greek myth the fragile and complex system through which living phenomena modify the Earth, some have believed that he spoke of a unique organism, a giant thermostat, or even a divine Providence. Nothing was further from his intention. Gaia is not the Globe, it is not Mother Earth, and it is not a pagan goddess. But neither is it Nature as we have imagined it since the 17th century: that which serves as counterpart to the human subject, constituting the background of our actions.

Now, because of the unexpected consequences of human history, what we have grouped together under the name of “Nature” is leaving the background and rising into view. The air, oceans, glaciers, climate, soil – all that we have made unstable – interact with us. We have entered geohistory. This is the Anthropocene epoch – with the risk of a war of all against all.

The former Nature is disappearing and giving way to a being that is highly unpredictable. Far from being stable and reassuring, this being seems to be constituted by a series of feedback loops in endless upheaval. Gaia is the name that suits it best.

By exploring the thousand faces of Gaia, we can unfold all that the notion of Nature had confused: an ethics, a politics, a strange conception of the sciences, and above all, an economics and even a theology."

The Lure of the Possible: The Recovery of Whitehead (by Didier Debaise)

"By beginning with a recovery of a few updated propositions from the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), this essay intends to highlight the conditions of another way of thinking about nature. It takes a pluralistic approach that integrates the multiplicity of ways of being in nature, which are so many ways of experiencing, of feeling, of making sense, and of giving importance to things.

We have entered a new time of nature. Indeed, what remains of the boundaries that modern thought tried to establish between the living and the inert, between the subjective and the natural order, between appearance and reality, between values and facts, between consciousness and animal life? What relevance could the great dualisms that have presided in the modern invention of nature still have?

New stories and new cosmologies have become necessary so that we can rearticulate what hitherto has been separated. This book attempts to present these directly, in the work of William James and A.N. Whitehead, through a pluralistic approach to nature. What would happen if we were to attribute subjectivity to all beings – humans and nonhumans? Why would we not make aesthetics, in the manner of feeling, the stuff of all existence? And what if the sense of importance and of value was no longer the prerogative of human souls?"

Friday, May 20, 2016

Politics of the Trump Phenomenon: Thinking With William Connolly & David Harvey

For many of us, the spectacle of Donald Trump often seems like a terrible dream: is this for real? And how did we get here? How did we go from a far-from-perfect but somewhat more hopeful age of Obama to the possibility of a Trump presidency, with his quasi-fascist, bigoted, nationalist rhetoric? I suggest that we look to the works of William Connolly and David Harvey to gain some conceptual tools to better understand the rise of Trump. First, Connolly’s critique of the nation – in both traditional and secular forms – is prescient. It helps make some sense of the resentment and fear that Trump has tapped into. Second, Harvey supplements this critique of the nation by explaining the rise of neo-conservativism as a sort of correction to neo-liberal globalization. In short, I argue that at least two major factors need to be seriously grappled with in order to understand Trump's political victories: the tensions between secularist and traditionalist accounts of the nation, and the socially destructive forces of globalization.

In Why I Am Not A Secularist, Connolly offers a postsecular critique of the idea of the nation – even in its more tolerant, secular forms. Traditional accounts of the nation see it as a kind of unifying soul of the state. That is, the nation unifies a people around a cultural center, which typically has included religion, morals, language, race, and/or ethnicity. But with the rise of secularism, such accounts of nationhood have often been “thinned out”, as Connolly puts it. For the most part, secularists have not called into question the structure of the nation, but have tried to bend it in a more tolerant direction. Liberal secularists have accomplished this by constructing “the public sphere” as a new unifying center for the nation. This center is no longer anchored by more divisive organizing principles (e.g., religion, race), but rather by more abstract principles, such as general conceptions of rights and/or authoritative modes of public reason. Thus, the secularist way is to refashion the nation with a more “neutral” public sphere as its center. This scenario requires persons to leave their contestable private faiths and convictions at home when they enter “the public sphere”, which is intended to enable greater diversity (for now, I will not go into Connolly’s alternative of a non-nationalist, de-centered, postsecular pluralism - but by all means, get his book and explore his proposals, which I find very helpful).

According to Connolly, one problem with this strategy is that the secular “thinning out” of the nation’s cultural center ends up looking weak. For those constituencies who strongly identify with older forms of national unity, this abstract version of the nation (based on reason, rights, etc.) seems to produce a lack where a more concrete national center used to be. The thin public sphere – the new unifying center constructed by secularists – then provokes certain constituencies to react negatively against this more tolerant (“weak”) style of nationhood, which now has to try to make room for others who did not fit into older styles of unity: feminists, irreligious persons, LGBTQ persons, immigrants, and so on. They then respond by trying to “renationalize” the center, filling it in with more traditional (and exclusive) sources of nationhood: religious, racial, ethnic, and/or linguistic sources of unity.

It should already be clear how Connolly’s analysis is relevant to today’s political scene. Trump's campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again” certainly taps into those disaffected, disoriented, anxiety-ridden constituencies who find too much secular influence in our time to be a source of national weakness. Such constituencies angrily protest against a liberal culture burdening them with “political correctness”; about the rising number of non-white persons who either do not speak English or have another primary language; about the loss of our nation’s “Christian values”; about the rising numbers of irreligious persons; and even about the decline of white majorities and culture. Thus, many desire to re-nationalize the cultural center towards “stronger” sources of national unity. It should therefore be no surprise that a political leader like Trump would appeal to such constituencies: he talks tough, “tells it like it is”, is proudly politically incorrect, and mocks non-white persons and other marginalized persons.

Economic factors are crucial here, and they are closely related to the cultural issues that Connolly points to. One way that Trump has appealed to certain constituencies is by saying that he is going to bring back jobs that other countries (e.g., China, Mexico, etc.) have allegedly “stolen” from Americans. Now, it is true that many American jobs have been lost due to the forces of globalization, and free trade policies in particular. But whatever policies Trump proposes to deal with such job losses, he consistently couples these incoherent proposals with degrading comments about foreign countries, their citizens, and immigrant workers (e.g., he recently claimed that the Chinese have “raped” our country by stealing American jobs). As such, Trump aims to appeal to disaffected, resentful workers primarily through bigoted rhetoric rather than through coherent policy proposals to deal with the challenging forces of globalization. In the process, he taps into the same cultural anxieties and fears that these constituencies have about secular nationhood. As Connolly writes, “Globalization…foments drives by constituencies injured by global market pressures to reinstate the image of the nation to compensate for those losses. The problem is that these compensations typically involve blaming vulnerable constituencies outside the imagined parameters of nationhood for the loss of jobs and so on, when these very effects are generated by global capital forces” (87).

And this is where Harvey’s analysis of neoliberalism and neo-conservatism in his book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, can supplement Connolly’s critique of the nation. For Harvey, the neoliberal (“market fundamentalist”) ideology that emerged in the late 1970s and rapidly became the ruling ideology of our time has had a profoundly destructive social impact. It was always in tension with the very idea of the nation because of its push towards a globalized economy that – at least in principal – requires national identities to become more fluid. However, with its reduction of freedom to the negative freedom of the market, which leaves behind a chaos of competing individual interests and desires, as well as its commodification of everything, neoliberalism has tended to erode many traditional social solidarities. This situation has made some societies increasingly difficult to govern, often producing widespread anomie, social incoherence, and even nihilism. As such, despite the fact that nationalism is in tension with the individualistic, globalizing principles of neoliberalism, it has never gone away. As Harvey notes, the idea of the nation has rather remained an important social force – a “social glue” – within increasingly fragmented neoliberal societies.

To deal with this situation, Harvey argues that neo-conservativism emerged as a kind of internal correction to neo-liberalism. While neocons continue to affirm a highly deregulated, privatizing market fundamentalism, they try to contain the individualistic social chaos that it produces by imposing social order in an anti-democratic fashion. The neocon’s goal is to restore social order by appealing to some national “center”, a “higher” purpose, a “transcendent” set of absolute values. This tends to include reaffirmations of traditional morals, conservative religion (as in the case of the “moral majority”, or the Christian right), so-called “family values”, and/or race/ethnicity. Neo-conservatism therefore tends to resonate with fascist, nationalist, and/or authoritarian populist movements (which arguably apply in varying degrees to the Trump phenomenon). It tends to be antagonistic toward LGBTQ persons, feminists, environmentalists, racial minorities, etc. It takes advantage of anxious, resentful, and even paranoid constituencies who feel threatened by external forces by then pushing toward increased social control through surveillance, police, and permanent militarization to deal with a world in interminable conflict (e.g., with China, “radical Islam”, etc.). And as Harvey notes, permanent militarization is of course highly profitable for the military industrial complex. Thus, if one understands neoliberalism as an aggressive effort to restore or construct capitalist class power – and the evidence does point to this being the case – then the neocon’s anti-democratic, renationalization of societies is perfectly consistent with the primary goal of neoliberalism.

Having unfolded these political analyses, it seems clear to me that Trump does not fit neatly into the labels of "neoliberal" or "neocon", even as he resonates with them by similarly appealing to the virtues of market capitalism and to unifying cultural centers through his nationalist rhetoric. But while there are indeed multiple factors that might help to explain Trump's rise, two stand out for me: first, the tension between liberal secularist accounts of the nation and those of conservative and/or non-secularist accounts; and second, the socially destructive forces of neoliberal globalization. These two socio-cultural challenges have produced intense anxieties and tensions within certain constituencies that Trump is dangerously exploiting with his blend of neo-conservativism, quasi-fascism, and populist authoritarianism. But ultimately, it is difficult to know if Trump firmly stands for anything other than himself - not religion, not the market, perhaps not even the restoration of capitalist class power...that is, at least not in the way that many other conservative Republicans would prefer. And really, what's more dangerous: a quasi-fascist egomaniac or a textbook neocon? While the latter works to re-situate conservative religion and absolute morals as unifying centers of the nation - and thus as mechanisms of order and control - the former appropriates very similar language while placing himself into the center. Both are terrifyingly anti-democratic realities that must be resisted.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us (book review)

REVIEW: The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us (2016, Verso), by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz 

The Anthropocene names both a time and a condition: the geo-epoch after the Holocene and the increasingly fragile intertwining of the human and nonhuman. Since being popularized by the chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000, it has frequently appeared in academia and broader culture, especially in articles and books covering climate change. Although the Anthropocene might seem to be just another word for the environmental crisis, it goes further by naming “a geological revolution of human origin” (xi). Many scientists now agree that we no longer live in the Holocene, the previous geo-epoch of 11,500 years that, thanks to its relatively stable climate, enabled the flourishing of human civilizations on five continents. Today, humanity has become a geological force, and not just a biological one. In The Shock of the Anthropocene, historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz critically examine the profound implications of this turn to the Anthropocene, “the new age of humans.”

When did the Anthropocene begin? Many scientists argue that it started in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution with the growing use of coal, which pushed CO2 levels beyond the Holocene maximum of 284 ppm to 290 ppm (currently above 400 ppm). As Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz explain, this marked a “break…of geological amplitude and not simply was with the power of fossil fuels that human activities so profoundly transformed the Earth system’s biology and geology” (16). Human activity has continued to transform the planet in profound ways: current CO2 levels have not been equaled for millions of years; global warming is predicted to reach levels unmatched for 15 million years; the great extinction of biodiversity now taking place has previously occurred just five times in 4.5 billion years; distributions of species have been hugely modified; evidence of massive urbanization, industrial production, mining, and agricultural activities will likely be inscribed in the stratigraphic record, along with new substances that humans have produced, such as plastics and pesticides. Consequently, millions of years from now, it is highly probable that all of this will leave geological evidence of human activity in ice cores and the sedimentological record.

Bonneuil and Fressoz (hereafter BF) not only provide an excellent introduction to the science, history, and philosophy of the Anthropocene, but they also present a series of powerful arguments against its official narrative. To be sure, they see value in the concept, and ultimately embrace a version of it. The Anthropocene necessarily challenges bifurcating modes of thought that intensified in modernity, because it “abolishes the break between nature and culture, between human history and the history of life on Earth” (19). Such thinking formed “the cultural precondition for the swing into the Anthropocene" by enabling radical anthropocentrism, individualism, and the externalization of nature as virtually infinite – thus rendering planetary limits invisible. As such, modern science became concerned with an apolitical nature while the humanities and social sciences focused on an anatural society/culture

But the Anthropocene overturns these views by signaling “the return of the Earth into the world that Western industrial modernity on the whole represented to itself as being above an earthly foundation.” It magnifies planetary limits, thus giving the lie to economic and political theories that view nature as little more than a place to extract resources and deposit waste. By abolishing the dualism of nature and society, the Anthropocene implies a worldview in which society is shot through with “biophysical processes”, while flows of matter-energy are “polarized by socially structured human activities.” Affirming this worldview, BF note that their perspective is influenced by the philosophies of Whitehead and Deleuze, the science studies of Bruno Latour, and the eco-Marxism of Jason Moore.

Despite the conceptual potency of the Anthropocene, BF argue that its official “narrative of awakening” must be resisted. This narrative goes something like this: humanity is now a decisive geological force, rivaling many of the great forces of Nature in its planetary impact. Scientists are the heroes because they have awakened us to the environmental crisis and our unsustainable ways. While the ‘moderns’ are at fault for initiating this crisis, they did not have our science or awareness that they were destroying the planet. But now we know, thanks to the scientists, and must look to them for solutions.

However, BF argue that this narrative is flawed in multiple ways. First, it implies an abstract conception of humanity, as if all humans are equally to blame for initiating the Anthropocene. They argue that it was “bourgeois and industrial Enlightenment” humans in particular who not only promoted bifurcating, anthropocentric worldviews, but who also erected the extractive socio-economic mechanisms that swung us into the Anthropocene. BF therefore insist on a Marxist and postcolonial grid that emphasizes differentiated human histories (of power, class, etc.). Moreover, just as the causes of the Anthropocene must be differentiated, so the human consequences of the Anthropocene need to be viewed as “common but differentiated.”

Second, BF argue that the official narrative of the Anthropocene falsely asserts that moderns lacked environmental warnings. In fact, “Our planet’s entry into the Anthropocene did not follow a frenetic modernism ignorant of the environment but, on the contrary, decades of reflection and concern as to the human degradation of our Earth” (76). Early modern societies were not uniformly guided by mechanistic worldviews, the authors claim. Perhaps surprisingly, organicist cosmologies and “environmental prudences” that opposed industrial exploitations were apparently quite common. Even so, one must ask: how truly widespread were these “prudences”? And were these worldviews not still anthropocentric in viewing nature as instrumentally rather than intrinsically valuable? Yet the authors are persuasive in their argument that to ignore earlier environmental sensitivities is to depoliticize the Anthropocene. In other words, we must acknowledge that earlier environmental discourses not only existed, but were actively repressed by those in power – many of whom knowingly destroyed the environment. Shockingly, the authors demonstrate that moderns continued their industrial projects despite knowing that they were environmentally disastrous. For example, upon recognizing that humanity faced a choice between “a brief greatness” with dirty coal or “continued mediocrity” without it, economist William Jevons argued for the former in 1866 (195). As the authors write,
“The conclusion that forces itself on us, disturbing as it may be, is that our ancestors destroyed environments in full awareness of what they were doing...The historical problem, therefore, is not the emergence of an ‘environmental awareness’ but rather the reverse: to understand the schizophrenic nature of modernity, which continued to view humans as the products of their environment at the same time as it let them damage and destroy it.” (197) 
The third critique that the authors make of the Anthropocene narrative is that it tends to assume a generalized “modernity”, which needs to be differentiated more carefully. Throughout the book, BF present historically detailed arguments to show that the real roots of the Anthropocene are, more specifically, the forces of industrial modernity: capitalism (“Capitalocene”), modern warfare (“Thanatocene”), consumerism (“Phagocene”), and American and British imperialism. These structural forces and industrial processes have been uniquely powerful in transforming the Earth, which is why the authors insist on pluralizing the Anthropocene narrative that too easily becomes the basis for an apolitical “view-from-nowhere.” Merely critiquing a generalized “modernity” is thus unhelpful and inaccurate. The authors’ call to further investigate how power differentials and social inequalities have enabled the destruction of environments ought to be taken with full seriousness.

Finally, by elevating a small group of scientists above the uninformed masses, BF worry that the official narrative of the Anthropocene could legitimize a “technocratic”, “oligarchic”, and “marketoriented geopower” (49, 288). Without criticizing this grand narrative, which utilizes seductive rhetoric of epochal rupture and novelty, scientists will “hold a monopoly position in defining what is happening to us and in prescribing what needs to be done” (80). Although B&F affirm the importance of contemporary science, a democratic “politics from below” must also be maintained so that other voices can be heard. They argue that we cannot leave all debates about solutions to the “geocratic experts”, especially when so many of them support dangerous geo-engineering projects. Such proposals view the Earth in radically instrumental terms, thereby denying its alterity “in order to occupy it entirely and transform it into a techno-nature, an Earth entirely permeated by human activity” (61). Furthermore, these “techno-fixes” ignore the really crucial questions about the “basic industrial structure of modern society” (94) and its exploitative capitalist system – which are precisely what need to be challenged and revolutionized for the sake of the planet.

This is an important and challenging book that will undoubtedly become a central point of reference in ongoing debates about the Anthropocene. As an interdisciplinary text that impressively blends science, history, and philosophy, it deserves to be widely read. General readers might especially benefit from the first section of the book, which discusses the origins and various interpretations of the Anthropocene. It will also be valuable for philosophers and theologians who are interested in environmental ethics, political theology, and eco-theology.

[This review is not to be cited without permission from the author.]

Friday, February 12, 2016

REVIEW: "Deep Pantheism" by Robert Corrington

This is certainly one of Corrington’s most important works to date. For those who have never read his previous books, Deep Pantheism is an excellent place to start. It is relatively short, clearly written, and his core argument for the theological position of deep pantheism is compelling. What always impresses me about Corrington is how he manages to synthesize so many other thinkers into his religious or ecstatic naturalism. He draws deeply on the American philosophical tradition, especially James, Dewey, Emerson, and Peirce. He also engages the Continental tradition, such as Heidegger, Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Jaspers, along with psychoanalytic theorists like Jung and Rank. In this book, he adds a creative appropriation of the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo. As a Unitarian (post-Christian) philosopher, Corrington also remains in critical dialogue with the broad tradition of liberal theology, from Schleiermacher’s romanticism to Tillich’s existentialism and Whiteheadian process theology.

Regarding the latter, Corrington views deep pantheism as a distinct alternative to process panentheism (or any type of theism, for that matter), which typically views God as the source of ideal possibilities and the all-inclusive whole of the world. By contrast, Corrington views god in radically pluralistic, naturalistic, and immanent terms. Negatively, deep pantheism rejects the monotheistic idea of God as personal, supernatural, creator, etc. As a naturalist, Corrington claims that “nature is all that there is”, so god is a product of – rather than the producer of – nature.

For Corrington, nature is internally divided into nature naturing (“nature perennially creating itself out of itself alone”) and nature natured (“nature’s products”, or “natural complexes”). Nothing transcends nature, so transcendence is always in and of nature itself. Thus deep pantheism affirms a fully naturalistic god on the side of nature natured, which is a natural complex like everything else. It does not represent a being that is any more or less real than other complexes. It is not a unifying, omnipotent god – an Order of all orders that intervenes, guides the universe towards a final goal, responds to prayers, etc. Nor is this a “flat” pantheism that simply views all of nature as sacred. As such, while “deep” suggests the unconscious depths of nature naturing, we might also name this pantheism “pluralistic,” for there are a “million Godheads” (Aurobindo) emergent from nature. And what is the ‘function’ of the gods in relation to humans? As Corrington writes, they can be “felt as a moment of intensity that goads the self toward a more inclusive and robust realization of its ongoing link to the infinite, but as encountered from the perspective of its own inescapable finitude” (16).

Although these multiple divinities lack an absolute source of unity – and thus are capable of partly explaining multiple, clashing revelations and such – they also participate in what Corrington calls “the Wisdom”, which is a new concept for his work (81). The Wisdom is an internally complex “repository of natural wisdom available” to the human process (84). It too is an evolving natural complex (although unusually vast and complex), which is an emergent from nature naturing. It is the natural “font” of god-ing energies, and thus manifests itself as the finite/infinite gods to human selves through the mediation of naturalistic spirits. However ambiguously and inconsistently, the Wisdom can sometimes provide a deeper wisdom or “higher counsel” to the human process. Among other things, it can provoke mindfulness, comfort the afflicted, and undermine racism by opening the human process to more inclusive communities of interpretation. Beyond the Wisdom, Corrington suggests the apophatic concept of “the Encompassing” (Jaspers), which is a “traitless nothingness” that encircles nature as a whole. In the end, Corrington integrates these  concepts into a "new Transcendentalism", which is his attempt to forge a path between Schopenhauer's pessimism and the early Emerson's optimism: "Honoring both perspectives, it sees the richness and sublime power of many of the potencies of nature naturing, while also recognizing the demonic depths of nature" (98).

Whether one ultimately agrees with Corrington’s deep pantheism or not, this is a fascinating and adventurous work of contemporary theology that will stir the imagination. It will especially appeal to post-Christians, Unitarian Universalists, and "spiritual but not religious" persons. I also recommended it to anyone who is more broadly interested in philosophical theology and religious naturalism.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Best of 2015: Movies, Music, Books

Every year I post top ten lists of the movies, music, and books that I loved during the year. I've always been a list-maker, so this is a post that I look forward to creating every year. For a variety of reasons, compiling my 2015 list has taken longer than usual. While I've had my music and book list ready for some time, it has taken additional time to see a broad enough sampling of the most buzzed about movies of 2015. To be sure, I haven't seen all of them - including a number of Oscar nominated films, which I would likely enjoy. Despite these limitations, I managed to see a lot of great movies last year. My final qualification for this list is about my book selections. A number of the books on my list were not technically first published in 2015, but within the last couple of years (although in some cases, they were published in paperback in 2015). Having said that, these are the movies, music, and books that I loved in 2015:

1) Ex Machina, directed by Alex Garland
2) Love and Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad
3) Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller
4) Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray
5) The End of the Tour, directed by James Ponsoldt
6) Sicario, directed by Dennis Villeneuve
7) The Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson
8) The RevenantAlejandro G. Iñárritu
9) The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper
10) Chi-Raq, directed by Spike Lee

Honorable Mentions: The ExperimenterStar Wars: The Force AwakensBridge of Spies; Spotlight; Tangerine; The Martian; Inside Out; Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal; The Gift; Wildlike.

1) Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell
2) Father John Misty, I Love You, Honey
3) Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
4) Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
5) Leon Bridges, Coming Home
6) Kacy Musgraves, Pageant Material
7) Ryan Adams, 1984
8) Coldplay, Head Full of Dreams
9) Josh Ritter, Sermon On the Rocks
10) City and Colour, If I Should Go Before You

Honorable Mentions: Death Cab For Cutie, Kintsugi; Caitlin Canty, Reckless Sunshine; The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World; The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness; Adele, 25; Bjork, Vulnicura; Mutemath, Vitals; Wilco, Star Wars; Of Monsters and Men, Beneath the Skin.

1) Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology (paperback edition, 2015) by Gary Dorrien
2) Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence (paperback edition, 2015) by Daniel C. Barber
3) Reimagining the Sacred by Richard Kearney and Jans Zimmerman (eds.)
4) Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis? by David Ray Griffin
5) Thinking With Whitehead (paperback edition, 2014) by Isabelle Stengers
6) Deep Pantheism: Toward a New Transcendentalism by Robert S. Corrington
7) Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (paperback edition, 2015) by Charles Marsh
8) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein
9) The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, or Awesome? by Tripp Fuller
10) The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord
Older books that I also loved in 2015: The Fragility of Things by William Connolly; A World of Becoming by William Connolly; A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone; Religion and Ecology by Whitney Bauman; Process Theology as Political Theology by John Cobb; Pragmatism by William James; Josiah Royce: Selected Spiritual Writings by Josiah Royce; The New Gospel of Christian Atheism by Thomas Altizer; What is Philosophy? by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari; A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari; Hegel and Christian Theology by Peter Hodgson; The End of Certainty by Ilya Prigogene.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

On Eternal Objects: Whiteheadian Idealism or Empiricism?

What I want to explore in this post is one of the most controversial concepts in Whitehead’s metaphysics: the “eternal objects” (EOs), which he also calls “pure potentials” or “pure possibilities.” In the end, how one interprets EOs largely determines one’s view of Whitehead’s overall system: whether in terms of idealism or empiricism.

At a basic level, EOs make sense of the conviction that “thought is wider than nature” - or better, that potentiality is wider than actuality. For Whitehead, reality cannot be reduced to the actual, which would imply a static world without genuine novelty or creativity. There would be no unrealized potential in such a cosmos. Some sphere of genuinely real possibility is therefore required to make sense of alternatives, contingencies, the “could-have-been-otherwise.”

This sphere is different from – although continuously interpenetrating – actuality. While actuality is intrinsically agential and determinate, EOs are indeterminate and non-agential (i.e., powerless “quasi-causes”). Borrowing Deleuzian language, Roland Faber therefore likes to say that while the actual exists, EOs insist as transcendental conditions for novelty and creativity. Both are real, but differently. As such, EOs

...answer the question of how the creative passage of…becoming can be a passage that is also creative and still escapes these two pitfalls of mere perpetual perishing into worthlessness, on the one hand, and mere eternal repetition of the Same, on the other. (DM, 139). 

More specifically, EOs account for things like sensory qualities (‘redness’), tactile qualities (‘softness’), conceptual abstractions (shapes and numbers), contrasts, relations, patterns, and emotions that differently condition actualities. Without pre-determining anything, EOs uniquely contribute to an entity’s becoming. Although comparable to universals like Ideas, Platonic forms, and predicates, Whitehead denies that EOs are universal essences in any traditional sense. They are not a priori logical structures for the world's particulars, but dynamic conditions for novelty and creativity.

As a radical empiricist, Whitehead argues that concrete actualities are “the only reasons.” As such, one cannot talk about eternal objects as the more ultimate reasons behind things. Actualities are not simply built up out of static universals. And unlike Platonic forms, EOs cannot be encountered outside of actual experience (as in a realm of pure reason or contemplation). As such, Whitehead converts Platonic idealism into radical empiricism. EOs are therefore not the ultimate ground of intelligibility or rationality, for reason/intelligibility refer exclusively to actual experience. This is also a consequence of Whitehead’s further – and deceptively simple – definition of eternal objects:

The first principle is that an eternal object…is what it is (SMW, 159) 

According to Stengers, this implies that EOs are singularities that are not primarily defined as “models” or “analogues” for actual entities. In other words: actual entities do not “resemble” the EOs that condition them. If they did, an EO would then be something other than “what it is”, having instead become a model for something other than itself and thus capable of being “characterized on the basis of some of its privileged cases of ingression” (TWW, 211). But even if EOs do remain in some sense transcendent to actuality, Whitehead strips them “of any ‘eminent value’, to which things of this world owe their legitimacy” (TWW, 208).

With this in mind, Steven Shaviro explains the function of EOs as adverbial rather than substantive: they merely express how actual entities relate to one another, rather than dictating what they in fact become. Consequently, EOs are ultimately unknowable and unnamable, as Stengers notes, because “the verbs ‘to know’ and ‘to name’ refer to (sophisticated) modes of feeling, which presuppose the [actual] determination of the ‘how.’” Again: the only reasons are concrete actualities. Stengers continues:

[EOs] are not determinant, but ‘potential for determination.’ They are what determination requires, the definition of the ‘how’ of each feeling, but no particular ‘how’ constitutes a privileged path allowing us to rise back up toward an eternal object…in other words, they explain nothing, justify nothing, guarantee nothing, privilege nothing, especially not intellectual operations in search of abstraction (TWW, 302-303). 

This interpretation of Whitehead is not the only one possible, and it is not without difficulties. It foregrounds some of Whitehead’s convictions to make sense of a very difficult concept in his metaphysics, but one can go about this in another fashion. I have relied primarily on Stengers, Shaviro, and Faber’s readings of Whitehead, but even these careful readers of process philosophy admit to some ambiguous statements in Whitehead’s texts that favor a more idealistic interpretation – which I should note has influenced a great deal of process theology (see Gary Dorrien’s idealistic reading of Whitehead in Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit). Ultimately, one’s theological commitments will strongly influence one’s interpretation of Whitehead, whether along idealistic lines or through an empiricist lens.

Having said that, the empiricist reading is intriguing to me, in part because it brings Whitehead closer to Deleuze. In fact, Deleuze implies such a reading of Whitehead in his late work, The Fold, where he relates his concept of the Virtual to EOs. Deleuze opposes the virtual to most concepts of the possible, which tend to function as universal essences that the temporal world actualizes as a sort of pre-formatted blueprint that merely lacks reality. As such, the possible is able to explain reality. But as I have tried to show, EOs are more like the virtual in that they do not lack reality, and they are not universal essences that can be experienced beyond the actual. Thus Stengers notes that, like the virtual, EOs take on differential “modes of ingression” within the actual, so it is impossible for an EO to be “conceived in the image of its actualization” (TWW, 214). On this reading, Whitehead's EOs are less like an eternal model and more like conditioning problems; correspondingly, actualities are creative responses to such problems rather than imitations of models.

In another post, I want to begin to think through the theological implications of this interpretation of EOs. Because Whitehead introduces God as that infinite process that necessarily provides a “place” for eternal objects, one cannot rethink the nature of the possible without also rethinking the nature of divinity.

Works cited:

Roland Faber, The Divine Manifold
Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead 
Steven Shaviro, "Eternal Objects" (see also Without Criteria)
Philip Rose, On Whitehead
Gilles Deleuze, The Fold
Gary Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit
AN Whitehead, Process and Reality
------------------, Science and the Modern World

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

My Video Presentation at 2015 Whitehead Conference

Below is the video of my presentation at one of the many tracks at the 2015 Whitehead conference in Claremont, CA. In the paper, I discuss the ways in which Whitehead's philosophy offers an ecological corrective to Western anthropocentrism. I focus on Whitehead's critique of the bifurcation of nature - a problem that was arguably radicalized by Kant and his followers - and that is now being appropriated by so-called "New Realists" like Steven Shaviro, Tim Morton, William Connolly, Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, and others. I also point out the eco-theological implications of Whitehead's theo-cosmology as it has been explicated by John Cobb and David Ray Griffin. Finally, I conclude with a discussion of Connolly's Whiteheadian critique of neoliberalism and his call for secular and religious persons to form "pluralist eco-assemblages" that resist the ecologically destructive ideology of neoliberalism. You'll also see my friend Tripp Fuller pushing me to unpack some of the deeper theological implications of the paper for the last 10 minutes of the video.