Friday, June 13, 2014

Deleuze & Process Thought

My summer so far has largely consisted of digging into (mostly) secondary sources on the French poststructuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) - specifically those that address recent theological appropriations of his thought. As readers of this blog would likely expect, I'm particularly interested in relating him to Whiteheadian process thought. I've mentioned him before on the blog as a thinker who has revived interest in speculative philosophy/cosmology/metaphysics amongst certain postmodern thinkers. While post-Heideggerian philosophers like Derrida were convinced that all metaphysics are inescapably totalizing and essentializing ways of thinking, which thereby subordinate difference to a higher/transcendent unity, Deleuze called himself a "pure metaphysician" - albeit one who attempted to think difference without any underlying principle of absolute unity or ultimate foundation. So while the poststructuralist tradition of Derrida and Foucault rejected ontology because it supposedly always makes us think that what appears to us is the natural order of things (rather than contingent, constructed, an effect of difference, etc), a Deleuzian poststructuralism calls for an alternative ontology. As Todd May explains, although Deleuze agreed with Derrida and Foucault in their view that difference must not be repressed by ontological identification - as it so often has been in the history of philosophy - he did not agree "with their [anti-ontological] cure" to this perennial problem.

His metaphysics of difference are in a sense a radicalization of Spinoza, who Deleuze called "the Christ of philosophers" because he "revealed" (so to speak) a philosophy of immanence without transcendence more than any other Western philosopher. Yet Deleuze rejects Spinoza's reliance on substance metaphysics and develops a neo-Spinozan pluralistic monism. Spinoza's one absolute substance is dissolved by Deleuze into a pluralized "plane of immanence." He developed a complex metaphysical system that prioritizes difference over unity, becoming over being, and immanence over transcendence. Deleuze offers a truly experimental metaphysics, an "anti-systematic," "open-ended," "acentered," and radically "uncertain" system. He carefully developed his concepts with the goal of affirming this life over any "super-sensible" or transcendent world. In short, he argues that the plane of immanence is filled with innumerable virtual events, constantly coming in and going out of existence, that become actualized on the plane of organization. This is very much like the traditional philosophical distinction between nature naturing and nature natured (as in Robert Corrington's "ecstatic" or "aesthetic" naturalism).

The plane of immanence is like a "chaos" of seething potentialities moving at infinite speed - fully real while neither ideal nor actual. Virtual events on the plane of immanence are also called by Deleuze "pure singularities," "mad particles," "free intensities," and "nomadic singularities." These "molecular" potentialities become actualized into "molar aggregates" or layered "strata" on the plane of organization as what we experience as sensible matter and identities. So like anything else, we as humans are constituted by these dynamic and self-creative molecular events. In the Deleuzian nondual "chaosmology," there is no sharp line between mind and matter, nature and culture, human and non-human, or any other traditional ontological dualism. Identities are only "effects" of difference. Subjects are only relatively stable repetitions of differential relations. Nothing is static. Everything is in constant becoming. No transcendence, absolute presence, representations, hierarchies, dualisms, or clear identities. Everything is immanent, heterogeneous, dynamic processes of becoming, self-creative, and relationally constituted. This is Deleuze "in a nutshell" - if there is such a thing!

If you know Whitehead's philosophy of organism, you're probably sensing a lot of parallel concepts here. In fact, I agree with commentators like Catherine Keller, Roland Faber, Steven Shaviro, and Luke Higgins that the metaphysics of Deleuze and Whitehead are extremely close. This is not entirely surprising since Deleuze believed that Whitehead's Process and Reality was one of the greatest works of philosophy in the 20th century. But where do they disconnect? I'm still working on this question (I plan to work through Deleuze's primary sources more thoroughly this fall), but here are my initial observations:

1) Deleuze seems to reject Whitehead's affirmation of the radically new: although virtual events appear to be similar to Whitehead's eternal objects or "pure potentiality", Roland Faber argues that the virtual is more like Whitehead's "real potentiality." This is defined as the self-transcendence of the beginningless past, the energized potentialities of Whitehead's "extensive continuum" that give rise to the "pluriverse." Both Keller and Faber also connect Whitehead's "creativity" to Deleuze's plane of immanence and the virtual. While Whitehead affirmed a type of novelty beyond the accomplishments of immanent creative processes - the absolute futures of the world - Deleuze only affirmed a type of novelty that was always emerging in large part out of and through actual processes. Whitehead affirms this as "real potentiality", but goes further with his "pure potentiality" - which are grounded in God. This takes us to the second difference...

2) Deleuze implicitly rejects Whitehead's panentheistic God in favor of something more like a pluralistic pantheism: while Whitehead tends to be interpreted as a type of panentheist, it is difficult to read Deleuze along these lines - even though Deleuze looked quite favorably upon Whitehead's notion of God in his late work The Fold. Like Spinoza, Deleuze is more adequately interpreted as a kind of pantheist. When he is appropriated in a theological way by thinkers like Clayton Crockett, Luke Higgins, and Kristien Justaert, "God" is interpreted in close relation to the Deleuzian plane of immanence: the infinite creative forces or unconsciously differentiating multiplicities that the world "expresses." Yet for Whitehead, "God" names the advent of a more radical novelty (the primordial nature), as well as the relationality of all differences (the consequent nature). God is therefore an "actual entity" in Whitehead's thinking as the "ground of [radical] novelty."

For more on this topic, check out these seven good resources:

Deleuze and Theology, by Christopher Ben Simpson
Theology after Deleuze, by Kristien Justaert
Process and Difference, edited by Catherine Keller and Anne Daniell 
God as Poet of the World, by Roland Faber
Without Criteria by Steven Shaviro 
Gilles Deleuze (Routledge Critical Thinkers) by Claire Colbrook
Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction by Todd May

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Four Theologically Transformational Texts

After finishing my first year of coursework as a PhD student at Drew, I've been reflecting on some of the books that have especially challenged and transformed my theology. There are, of course, so many that I could list, but I've narrowed it down to just a few for this post. To be clear, while these are all excellent texts, I am not saying that they are necessarily my favorites. In fact, some of these would not make such a list. Rather, these are four texts that have radically shifted my philosophical theology:

A Christian Natural Theology (1965), by John B. Cobb, Jr: During the summer of 2011, I enrolled in a course on process theology that was taught by Marjorie Suchocki, one of Cobb's former students and a brilliant process theologian herself. This was one of the the required texts for her class. While I had previously read a few books on process theology, this one changed everything for me, leading me to write my MA thesis on Cobb and process theology and ultimately to apply to Drew to study process theology with Catherine Keller (also one of Cobb's former students). It was this text by Cobb that more-or-less launched process theology in the 1960's. Cobb was convinced that process thought provided a superior alternative to the most respectable theological options at the time, including Altizer's death of God theology, Barth's neo-orthodoxy, and Tillich's existentialism. He therefore also believed that the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead was superior to Hegel, Kant, and Heidegger. This book, which is a clear and detailed theological analysis of Whitehead's philosophy, convinced me that Cobb is right. I've been a process thinker - and a huge fan of Cobb - ever since.  

Deconstruction in a Nutshell (1997), by John Caputo: Just as Cobb's book provides the perfect introduction to Whitehead, Caputo provides the ideal entrance into the philosophy of Jacques Derrida with this text. Because of my experiences in the emergent church movement, I was exposed to Derridean deconstruction in the early 2000's - although that certainly doesn't mean I understood it! To be sure, I have struggled to overcome the unfortunately common stereotypes of deconstruction as a relativistic, nihilistic, anti-religious, and apolitical philosophy that reduces everything to mere language. John Caputo came to the rescue with this excellent book, which succeeds in clearly - and vigorously - arguing against these common misinterpretations of Derrida. Caputo persuasively argues that Derrida has always been deeply concerned with meta-linguistic matters of ethics, politics, and faith. Although his theological books on deconstruction are also excellent - including What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, On Religion, The Weakness of God, and The Insistence of God - this text is certainly the best way to get a sense of what Derrida is up to. He covers key topics like the khora, differance, the gift, the messianic, justice, religion without religion, democracy, etc. 

Process and Difference (2002), ed. Catherine Keller & Anne Daniell: Even though theologians like Cobb carved out a viable path for process theology, what is a person of faith to do if they affirm both process theology and deconstruction - or 20th century continental philosophy (Heidegger, Levinas, Deleuze, etc.) more generally? This is not an easy question to answer since Derrida is critical of any form of metaphysics while, on the other hand, Whiteheadians tend to be highly suspicious of philosophers and theologians who do not put their metaphysical cards on the table (because everyone's hiding them somewhere!). While Whiteheadians like David Ray Griffin have argued that process thought is a more radical and constructive "postmodern" philosophy, the contributors to this brilliant volume of essays argue in another "de/constructive" direction. For post-structuralist Whiteheadians like Catherine Keller and Roland Faber, Whiteheadian process thought is highly resonant with the likes of Derrida and Deleuze with their mutual emphases on becoming, difference, and relationality, as well as their shared critiques of representationalism, essentialism, naive realism, and foundationalism. Keller's two essays are classics, both of which I find myself frequently referencing in conversations and papers to connect Whitehead to thinkers like Derrida, Deleuze, and Donna Haraway. Faber's chapter, while dense, argues for a non-ontotheological, non-logocentric interpretation of Whitehead's God. Joseph Bracken's essay is a brilliant comparison of Whitehead's creativity and Derrida's differance. And Arran Garre's essay that argues for Schelling as the common link between Whitehead and continental philosophy is absolutely stunning and persuasive. 

The Predicament of Belief (2011), by Philip Clayton & Steven Knapp: After finishing my BA in religious studies in 2010, I attended Claremont School of Theology to study for my MA in theology and philosophy of religion, largely because I wanted to work with Philip Clayton. His inspiring work was actually the reason that I switched from a focus on biblical studies to philosophical theology. I am convinced that nobody has a grasp on the contemporary science and religion dialogue like Clayton does. After studying in Germany with Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of the great post-Barthian theologians of the 20th century, Clayton (arguably) went on to become the leading theologian of science of our time. In this book, co-authored with his friend Steven Knapp, he succinctly explains his theological method and conclusions as a progressive Christian thinker. His respect for contemporary science, religious pluralism, historical criticism, and deep awareness of the problem of evil has powerfully influenced my own thinking. Fusing a neo-Whiteheadian emergentist cosmology with a distinctly Christian panentheism, Clayton's progressive theology ultimately cuts both ways: against both radical liberals and traditional conservatives.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Karen Barad and Process Thought

Karen Barad is a feminist physicist-philosopher at UC Santa Cruz who has written an immensely important text called Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007). For anyone who knows Whitehead's philosophy of organism, Barad's relational ontology that she develops in response to the mysteries of quantum physics will be familiar. Like Whitehead did in his time, Barad is interacting with the physicist Neils Bohr and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. However, while Whitehead's primary philosophical conversation partners were William James, Spinoza, and Leibniz, Barad engages post-structuralists like Judith Butler and Michel Foucault.

Very much like Whitehead's "actual occasions," Barad argues that the basic constituents of the world are "intra-active phenomena" or "relational atoms." In other words, they agree that everything is agential in some sense, so nature is not divided in two. This ontology also implies a view of nature as interconnected or "entangled." As such, nature is not composed of preexisting entities or individuals but is fully relational and always in becoming. Anything that endures (i.e., sensible matter) only arises out of various relational processes in repetition. There are therefore no substances or essences, which Whitehead identified as examples of "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness" and Barad calls "the metaphysics of individualism." There are only relatively stable patterns of repeating processes, which we might call "habits" (Whitehead) or "sedimentations" (Barad) of nature.

One additional similarity that I will note between Whitehead and Barad is that they each affirm a type of realism. Neither of them are talking about a naive realism, which is the position that we directly experience the world as a collection of external objects in an unmediated way. And they equally reject representationalist realism, which is the dualistic view that we can stand back from the world as an external collection of individual objects and indirectly re-present them to our mind. Instead, Whitehead and Barad affirm relational realism (not their term, but an accurate one nevertheless). This position affirms a real world that is irreducible to our social constructions, and also affirms that scientific theories can provide reliable access to the ontology of the world. But it rejects the basis of representationalism - the notion that there are external and unitary objects that we, as internal subjects, can perceive more-or-less accurately.

What relational realism affirms is that humans, like anything else in a panagential world, are always in becoming and relationally constituted. The traditional realist divides between external world and internal knowing, nature and culture, nonhuman and human, matter and mind, dead matter and lively matter do not hold in this view. Instead, our knowing directly participates in and influences the world - even as the world reciprocally influences our knowing. Knowing is thus a creative event of intra-acting material processes. Knowing, theorizing, or experimenting never take place from the outside in some sort of neutral space but always from within, as material practices. There is therefore no such thing as purely "objective knowledge" because - as quantum physics teaches us - objects only emerge as a result of particular intra-actions. Knowing is always involved in particular intra-actions as much as any other type of activity, human or otherwise. As such, we are responsible for our knowledge claims and cannot separate ethics from epistemology or ontology. Barad thus coins the term "ethico-onto-epistemology."

While post-structuralists are usually identified as anti-realists, Barad goes out of her way to argue for an extremely critical kind of realism that she calls "agential realism." Whitehead calls his similar perspective a "pluralistic" and "provisional" realism. I find this connection between process thought and Barad's new materialist ontology to be encouraging and exciting, especially since Barad never interacts with Whitehead's thought in her work.