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Posts Tagged ‘Alfred North Whitehead’

an old enemy made new friend: merleau-ponty’s nature course

In nature on September 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm


quotes from Nature: course notes from the College de France

Maurice Merleau-Ponty from the chapter titled “The Idea of Nature in Whitehead”:

According to Whitehead, it is not possible to think of punctual spatiotemporal existences, nor to compose the world from such insights.  These punctual existences are only the result of a work of thought, of a work of division.  Suppose that we have before us a barge passing in front of the Louvre.  What is given to us is the life of the barge and the life of the Louvre.  We divide the duration, during which the Louvre and the barge are given to us, into parcels of “events,” as distant as possible.  Such a form of thought is not illegitimate, but to think that we can compose Nature from the dust of such events is to place the cart before the horse.  In ‘Nature and Life,’ Whitehead, after having said how much the old conception of Nature remains alive among physicists even though each of the elements that composed it had been questioned, defines it in the following way: “the old conception allows us to make an abstraction of change and conceive the full reality of nature at a given moment…” According to modern views, the “process” is the given.  At an instant, there is nothing.  Every instant is only a nucleus destined to group the givens together.  In this way there is no Nature in an instant: all reality implies a ‘moving on of nature’.

p. 114, Nature.  Northwestern University Press, 2003

The electron is not found where its charge is.  The electron is a certain physical property that plays a focal role, and to which we relate the observed physical events in a “situation current.”  The distinction between action-at-a-distance and action-by-transmission would be grounded if Being were identical, but the electron does not exist in the sense of absolute Being, which is all or nothing: the electron does not reside in a punctual spatiotemporailty; it is an “ingredient” (this word also has the sense of making an ingression) in its whole vicinity, it is the hallway of certain “traces,” of certain “roles” observed by the observer. It is a transspatial and transtemporal being, but not wany more separated from appearances.  According to classical thinking, Whitehead tells us again, the objects are “uniform,” that is, localized at every moment in a point of the duration.  But why would there not be nonuniform objects?  We will meet them in our experience of incarnated subjects, as for example in sound: we perceive it as a whole in a certain duration, but it is at no time of this duration, although the notes that compose it can be localized.  The termporal minima will not be made of indivisible moments of time, but will always have a certain thickness of time.

p. 115, Nature: Northwestern University Press, 2003


maybe William James in Williamsburg…

In what is philosophy? on November 30, 2009 at 10:43 pm

two modes of thought/action crossed paths for me this week:

i have lately been listening to william james’ Essays in Radical Empiricism, available here through Librivox and am increasingly struck by the prescience, timeliness of this work.  as levi bryant makes clear in this acknowledgement of James’ early influence, the feeling of ‘timeliness’ arises from well and carefully constructed ground.  ground that speculative realism, object oriented ontology and other recent and innovative philosophies are tilling, fertilizing and leveraging in productive ways.

at the same time billy, another friend of mine, posted a thoughtful analysis of the ‘farm fresh’ trends popping up in the boroughs of NYC and spreading elsewhere.

i’d like to think these things together.  together à la bruno latour.

which i’m proposing is really together à la james.

not that it matters… and then again…

we’ll start with james in the second chapter/essay of Essays in Radical Empiricism, entitled “A World of Pure Experience”…

It is difficult not to notice a curious unrest in the philosophic atmosphere of the time, a loosening of old landmarks, a softening of oppositions, a mutual borrowing from one another on the part of systems anciently closed, and an interest in new suggestions, however vague, as if the one thing sure were the inadequacy of the extant school-solutions.  The dissatisfaction with these seems due for the most part to a feeling that they are too abstract and academic.  Life is confused and superabundant, and what the younger generation appears to crave is more of the temperament of life in its philosophy, even though it were at some cost of logical rigor and of formal purity.  Transcendental idealism is inclining to let the world wag incomprehensibly, in spite of its Absolute Subject and his unity of purpose.   (p. 40)

idealist philosophies: too abstract.  too academic.  we could add too alienating without changing the implications.  whether we are talking about academic idealism as it appears in post-kantian philosophy or the state of the union on the streets of brooklyn, an ‘unrest’ and ‘dissatisfaction’ were at work in james’ time as they are in ours.  a feeling that wants to get our hands dirty, that wants more of ‘the temperament of life’ – confused and superabundant and closer to home than the huge financial and military/terrorist spans we’ve been disillusioned of… (once again.)

so whether looking at speculative realism – the move out and away from what has, since quentin meillasoux, been called correlationism, but otherwise known as Kantian idealism – or the kids on the streets of brooklyn, new york and elsewhere who are dreaming of moving to the country and farming their days away, moves are being made toward modes of thought and modes of life that reconnect what has so long been split: objects, people, bacteria, dirt, emotions, food, production, imagination… the list is, quite literally, endless.

and this is the whole point, if there is one.  and the point, which is always multiple:

since kant, since heidegger, since existentialism, since humanism, since… dualism, really… we’ve seated the world and its contents inside the human mind.  experience, in this frame, is mediated by mind, categories, labor, language… by any and all anthropomorphic lenses.   you know the culprits.  and i know them as i’ve spent my graduate years delighting in them.  and while this human-centric universe has brought about incredibly important moves, changes, liberations, recognitions, even aporias and humilities, it hasn’t done us any favors as concerns the ‘world out there’.  not that continental philosophy is solely responsible for global warming and the increased tsunami’s of late, but…

with james’ again:

…I seem to read the signs of a great unsettlement, as if the upheaval of more real conceptions and more fruitful methods were imminent, as if a true landscape might result, less clipped, straight-edged and artificial.  (p. 41)

with unsettlement clearly given across almost all sectors of public life, what might this ‘less clipped’ landscape look like?  well, as billy points out, it looks like

the rise of the so-called locavore, who out of both health and environmental interests makes locally-grown products an essential priority. Dovetailing in with locavore-ism is a broader trend towards craft and self-reliance – homemade, hand-constructed, DIY, the sorts of projects found in books like “The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living In the Heart of the City”

and yet, while billy will go on to locate the origins of this locavore-ianism in a loss of authority, i see, in addition, a (literally) grass roots movement going off-grid and inter-network. net-work of the kind latour points to in We Have Never Been Modern.  net-work of the type that stops thinking dualism and starts seeing actions and their always reciprocal inter-actions.  net-work that laces eaters to the animal, mineral & vegetable source of their food.  net-work that laces animals, plants and minerals to their environments.  net-work that laces environments back to and through all of the above as each continually inter-acts with the others, changing things each way, creating new circumstances from endless angles.

levi bryant’s very apt tagline for Object Oriented Ontology (“there is no difference that does not make a difference”), traced from james’ own statement of the sort, beautifully illustrates this movement.  as does james work in the Essays on Radical Empiricism, where he writes:

To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced.  For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system.  Elements may indeed be redistributed, the original placing of things getting corrected, but a real place must be found for every kind of thing experienced, whether term or relation, in the final philosophic arrangement.  (p. 42)

whether we use james and whiteheads’ words… relations.  relating.  relata.

or latour’s… actions.  acting.  actors.

or Williamsburg’s… (suggestions from the ground here welcomed, billy…)

the recognition of our inter-actions is occurring on more fronts that we can, and perhaps even should, count.  the best of which means that even this tidy little post has more going on within and without, acting and interacting in ways i’ve not (and perhaps need not be) logged into…

maybe it’s about time

In difference on October 4, 2009 at 1:57 pm

this december, the Whitehead Research Project will host a conference on judith butler.  if butler and whitehead strike you as an odd mix, levi bryant’s latest post at Larval Subjects, working through shaviro on whitehead, helps make the link quite clear.  while shaviro, bryant and others have lately begun to think object as event, butler has long been at work at this very task.  in fact it might be fair to say that butler’s books all work through ways of understanding, thinking, bodying – performing – the object as event (if by object we are drawing a parallel to what latour calls actors).    take this excerpt from bryant’s post, for example:

This concept of objects as events is the most difficult thing of all to think. Our tendency is to think objects as substances in which predicates inhere. Take, for example, Aristotle’s categories. All of these categories are predicates that can be attributed to a substance. As I have argued elsewhere, in my article “The Ontic Principle” forthcoming in The Speculative Turn, the concept of substance responds to a real philosophical problem. This problem is the endurance of entities through or across time as this object. I denote this substantiality of the object with the expression “the adventure of the object” to capture the sense in which objects are ongoinghappenings or events. In other words, events are not something that simply happen to an object as in the case of someone being granted a degree while nonetheless remaining substan-tially the same. Rather, objects are events or ongoing processes.

writing about gender, butler deconstructed biological categorizations in order to think woman, man, girl and boy not as ‘substances in which predicates adhere’ but as ‘ongoing happenings or events’. ‘the adventure(s) of the object’ are the appearings of any object in question, be this for butler the appearings of man, woman, or otherwise (otherwise always being the case for, as bryant explains, objects as events can be thought as ‘objectiles’ – objects that are difference and insight differences if they are to be thought of as objects at all).

and while it seems counterintuitive to think men and women as objects, bruno latour’s work in Reassembling the Social points directly to this move, situating all factors in a given situtation, or actors in an assemblage as objects that not only receive but also respond and reconstitute the state of things as event.  butler’s work, while striving to give name to those without recognition, without speech, is different in nuance only if we maintain the split that latour’s work so elegantly elucidates and supercedes.  it is not a way of objectifying persons, but instead a mode of recognizing that personhood – defined by agency and response-ability as well as reception – is as a term, part of the grammar of a very problematic dichotomizing process, an anthropocentrism that generates not only an inaccurate read of the world, but also maintains and ensures that all the old bianaries maintain force (nature/culture, subject/object, etc…)

i am excited by the Whitehead Research Project’s recognition of the connections they are making in the upcoming conference and look forward to more discussion on this topic upon publication of the proceedings.