Here’s a version of the theoretical model I develop in Ecologies of the Moving Image. (An earlier version can be found here.) Following Peircian phenomenology (or “phaneroscopy”) and Whiteheadian ontology, that model is process-relational and triadic. (*See Note at bottom for more on the relationship between Peirce, Whitehead, and their leading synthesist, Hartshorne.)

This means:

Everything is three. Or, everything there is can be thought of in terms of three relational processes:

(1) The thing itself, which is a qualitatively distinctive phenomenon. Let’s call it the thing-world, since it is an unfolding of a particular kind, which sets up a formal structure of internal relations and (externally) interactive potentials as it unfolds, and since our relationship to it is generally from its ‘outside,’ though we can enter into a relationship with it.

(2) The interaction of that thing with another. Let’s call this the thing-experience, since we (or others) experience it from the ‘inside.’ This experience is what happens with us when we enter into the relationship with (1). (Other things may be happening with us simultaneously; this thing-experience doesn’t exhaust us. It’s just what we’re trying to understand here.)

(3) The relating of the thing-world and thing-experience with the whole world. To keep things simple, we can call this the thing-world/extra-thing-world relation (with the thing-experience being a subset of this whole relation, and the only piece of it that is distinctly “ours”). Or we can call it the world-earth relation, or the world-universe relation, with the ‘world’ being the thing-world and the ‘earth’ or ‘universe’ being the unencompassable ground (considered either in its earthbound or its cosmic aspect) within which all thing-worlds have their being/becoming. This relation is the full set of connections and interdependencies within which the thing has its action. To map out this relation in its entirety is impossible, but to understand the more proximal and direct parts of it is possible and useful. It is, in effect, the thing come into its fullness: both its full glory and its full dispersion into (other) things.

So, when a dog is taken to a park to play with other dogs, there’s

1) the PARK-WORLD – the world that the dog can enter into and run around in, with its particular layout, boundaries, and affordances, the other dogs that are there to run after, sniff and play with, the rules of encounter and territorial potentials within the park environment, and so on;

2) the PARK EXPERIENCE – the dog’s actual experience of a particular instance in that park, a specific duration of time with its beginning (“Hey, there’s the park! Woohoo!”) and ending (“See ya later!”);

3) the PARK – NON-PARK RELATION – the ways in which going to the park puts dogs into a better mood, gives them exercise and makes them want to eat and drink more, allows them to make new friends (and enemies), allows their humans to make new friends (and enemies), fertilizes the grass in the park (or adds to the pile of dog-poop-filled plastic bags going into the landfill or the incinerator), generates demand for more urban green space, etc. It is the upshot of the entirety of the dog-in-the-park thing.


With the phenomenon of film, there is

1) the FILM-WORLD – which is the world that’s produced by a particular film; this is the film in its qualitative distinctiveness, with its own internal structure of unfolding, intersecting lines of relation and tension, and so on;

2) the FILM EXPERIENCE – which is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to get taken into that world while watching it unfold (the “us” being viewer X whose experience will be different from that of viewer Y, and so on);

3) the FILM – REAL WORLD RELATION – which is the way the Film (Film-World + Film-Experiences) interacts with and affects the WORLD OUTSIDE THE FILM (the real extra-filmic world).


Each of these is a relational process.

The Film-World unfolds by way of what happens in the film, in the particular sequence that it happens. The Film Experience unfolds as we watch and interact with the film in a movie theater or living room. The Film – Non-Film-World Relation unfolds all along, from the beginning of the making of the film until well after the last showing on a screen anywhere… Same for the dog-park-world, or anything else.


Each of these is in turn three.

Let’s start with the dog’s PARK-WORLD, which has three dimensions:

1) GEOMORPHISM: the pure ‘stuff’ that’s out there, the way that stuff is organized in the dog-world (fences, trees, bushes, a river or lake, the perpetually shifting layout of smells and scents, etc.);

2) BIOMORPHISM: the interactive to-and-fro of the running, sniffing, looking, barking, biting, listening, interacting, pretending to be mean, being mean, etc.;

3) CANOMORPHISM: the “becoming-dogness” that drives it all forward (me and he/she/it, the I and the Thou of the dog-world).


The FILM-WORLD, meanwhile, has its three dimensions:

1) GEOMORPHISM: the becoming-objective of things, i.e. the ways in which things take on the character of being there, given and accessible, and the ways this becoming-objective is ‘spaced’ or distributed in things;

2) BIOMORPHISM: the interactive relationality between the becoming-objective and the becoming-subjective, since these are always in process;

3) ANTHROPOMORPHISM: the becoming-subjective of things, i.e., the ways in which subjectivity arises and prehends what is there, opening up to the world around it and acting upon it, and the ways in which that becoming-subjective is distributed in things.

But really everything takes place within the ‘biomorphic’ (inter-perceptive) space, with the Anthropomorphic (the subject-world, the distribution of the Capacity to Act) ‘pulling things forward,’ and the Geomorphic (the object-world, the distribution of the Given) providing the material for the pulling. (This goes for the dog-world, too.)


The FILM EXPERIENCE has its three dimensions:

a) SPECTACLE: the audio-visual-sensual ‘stuff’ of film, experienced in its shimmering, vibratory immediacy;

b) NARRATIVITY: the sequential connectivity of events; stuff happens, setting off chain reactions and making us (who notice the stuff happening) want to see what will happen next;

c) EXO-REFERENTIALITY: the process by which film-events (what is seen and heard) proceed by resonance and semiotic connectivity to generate meanings that connect the film with what is external to it; “So that’s what’s happening here!”


The FILM – REAL-WORLD RELATION also has its three dimensions:

a) MATERIALITY: the material ecologies of the world; the ecologies of the stuff that is there in and around the production and consumption of the film, seen “from the outside”;

b) PERCEPTIVITY: the mental/perceptual ecologies of the world; the ecologies of the interactivity between things in and around the production and consumption of the film;

c) SOCIALITY: the social ecologies of the world; the ecologies of recognition of the “interiority” (subjectivity, agency) of things in and around the production and consumption of the film.

But, again, everything really takes place in the ‘inter-perceptual space,’ with the Social (the desire to DO things, the ways in which the recognized capacity to do things is distributed across the world) pulling that activity forward, and the Material (the givenness of things, the distribution across the world of the availability of things ‘to be done with’) providing the material for that ‘pulling.’

(The dog’s Park-Experience and the Park – Non-Park World Relation can be similarly broken down into triads.)




So, everything starts from the same beginnings, and differentiates from there:

(1) There are things that appear (out of the spontaneously generative fabric of the universe); this is Firstness.

(2) And there are responses to those things as they emerge into relations with others; this is Secondness.

These responses are creative; they are in the nature of what Whitehead calls “prehension.” But their creativity is neither infinitely open nor is it random. The responses are motivated in a particular direction. This directionality is related to what Peirce called “habit,” Whitehead called “eternal objects,” and Deleuze called the “virtual,” though these are far from identical concepts. The directionality is open to the creativity of each actual occasion, but it is selected from out of a virtual, generative field that has evolved over time. It’s not given eternally, as Whitehead would suggest, but is more a kind of force-field relation of habits, possibilities, and potentials from which options are selected.

To indicate this directionality, I refer to the third element as the “subjectomorphic” or “subjectivating”: for humans, it is anthropomorphic; for dogs, canomorphic; for dolphins, delphimorphic; and so on for everything. These terms aren’t intended to contain the process within pre-defined parameters, but only to indicate a directedness to it. Naming them as such may seem to go against the grain of a Deleuzian openness and of Giorgio Agamben’s critique of the “anthropomorphic” or “anthropological machine” in The Open: Man and Animal. But the point here is not that the destination is in any way known in advance. The underlying principle of a process-relational ontology is that the world is in perpetual becoming, so the destination is always open and unknown.

“Anthropomorphism,” then, is simply the morphism undergone by the anthropos, which has no essence in its future, only in its past. It is always becoming human (and never quite getting there), and by virtue of its becomings — by each human’s prehensions and decisions, moment to moment — it is redefining what it means to be human. As Deleuze said, “we never know in advance what a body can do.” Whether that human will appear anything like the human of a thousand years ago will only be something we can know afterward. If at some point it gains another name, so be it. (We’re not concerned with names here, but with processes.)

It’s conceivable, for instance, that the human can become more dog-like and the dog more human-like; and this is, after all, what’s happened over centuries of companionship between the two species. Or the human can strive to “become bear” (as Timothy Treadwell apparently tried). It can also, and today often does, strive to become computer, to become digital, virtual, etc. Success at any such becoming-other will not likely result in a human-bear or an utterly virtual cyber-human. It will, rather, redefine what it means to be human (at the same time as it may redefine what it means to be bear, computer, cyborg, etc.). It will expand the capacities for humanness, the circle of options available for becoming-human, just as it expands the options all around (and potentially contracts them, at the other end). This way of speaking about the human, the “anthropomorphic,” presumes that becoming is in the very nature of things, and that no way of policing the boundaries — which is what Agamben is critiquing — will ultimately hold back the flood of that becoming. Becoming is written into the fabric of the universe at each moment of its unfoldment.

Everything in the living (process-relational) universe is like that – it’s all ceaselessly moving forward. The triadic formulas help us understand three things: what it is that’s driving these processes of becoming forward (the emergence into Thirdness, i.e. the way in which all things ‘move toward’ taking on meaning for other things and for themselves, i.e. they subjectivate as they semiotically flourish); what the stuff is that provides the fuel for that movement (the Firstness, or ‘stuffness’ of things); and how it all HAPPENS (the Secondness of interactive inter-responsiveness).

The basic formula for the ongoing emergence of things, then, is the Peircian phaneroscopic formula of firstness – secondness – thirdness, which might be summarized as:

1: Stuff – - – - >

2: Stuff Happens (setting off chain reactions) – - – - >

3: “So that’s what’s happening!”



*A note on Peirce’s triadism versus Hartshorne’s dyadism:

The best known synthesis of Peirce and Whitehead is Charles Hartshorne’s process-relational ontology, which takes an essentially dyadic rather than triadic character. For Hartshorne, Peirce’s “seconds” always follow “firsts” in a relationship of “asymmetrical dependence,” but “firsts” are also “seconds” in relation to prehensions that preceded them, and Peircian “thirds” are simply the “seconds” of “seconds.” In other words, a 2nd always follows a 1st, and becomes a 1st for the next (set of) 2nd(s).

While this formulation effectively captures the forward movement, the “creative advance into novelty” that characterizes all actuality, to my mind it misses a crucial piece of Peirce’s formulation. This piece is better thought of as a vertical “slice of the world” than a horizontal movement forward: this is the difference between the purely qualitative character of firsts, the existential character of seconds, and the more generalized and regulative character of thirds. In our experience of anything — and our experience (which is relational) is all we can have direct access to — the first is what precedes our experience, or what a thing is at the very cutting edge of its “first impact” upon us; the second is the actual impact itself, the moment of encounter as it occurs, mediated by the membranes in and through which it occurs (such as the senses, the fleshiness of bodies, and so on); and thirds are what result from the encounter as it resonates and reverberates through the layered density of the prehending subject-in-its-world.

In Hartshorne’s formulation, thirds are simply seconds one or more further steps removed from a first. But in understanding our perception of an event or object, it helps to be able to distinguish between the more immediate causal relation (the second) and the “sense” that is made of it (the third). Sense, in this view, comes after impact. This is consistent with what we know about the human nervous system, which “feels” events before it grasps them intellectually. It’s therefore (among other things) a helpful way of distinguishing between the affective and the cognitive and conceptual in our experience of a phenomenon such as film.

For more on this topic, see this earlier post.


Images by Alvin Lau: untitled, Semiosis (2005), and untitled. Many more here. Thanks, Alvin.

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