With Whiteheadian process philosophers and object-oriented ontologists meeting minds in Claremont, Chris Vitale softening up to OOO, Levi Bryant declaring himself a process philosopher — more precisely, that he’s “always been, [is], and will always be a process philosopher” — and Ian Bogost sharing a very sympathetic attempt to develop commonalities between the two schools of thought, one could be forgiven for thinking we might be on the verge of a big philosophical group hug. That said, there remains much to chew on in these developments, and I think (and hope) that many of those involved will be doing that for some time to come. Several of the Claremont talks are now available online in one form or another: Ian Bogost’s paper is here, Steven Shaviro’s can be found here, Isabelle Stengers’ talk and Donna Haraway’s response have been shared here (on a wonderful new blog that not only shares many common interests with this blog, but uses the same WordPress theme, sans my background image), and Graham Harman live-blogged it all here.
Having now caught up with at least some of these, I want to throw out a few quick thoughts of my own on what makes a process-relational philosophical perspective not superior, but just very attractive, to me and I believe to others. It’s one of the pieces of process philosophy that I think is worth remembering in all these debates, and a reason why I believe that Whitehead’s re-entry into philosophical discourse (outside of the milieu of hardcore Whiteheadians) marks a significant shift in philosophy today.
I will start (provocatively, I guess) by picking up on a moment in a couple of recent posts by Levi Bryant and Tim Morton, where each insists that a mouse shot into space somehow remains a mouse, just a dead mouse. Levi writes, “the mouse hasn’t ceased to exist when shot into a vacuum, it has merely lost a very important quality or local manifestation: life. That local manifestation is dependent on relations to be sure, but the substantiality of the mouse remains, though perhaps it has lost some of its singularities.” Shaviro’s paper includes a Whiteheadian response to this kind of example, which is not that different from the common-sense response that while something may continue to exist, once that mouse is dead it ceases being a mouse — a social rodent of a certain kind that runs around, eats food and excrete waste, and so on — and our calling it “still a mouse” tells us more about our labels than it says about what constitutes mouseness. I suspect that Bogost, with his discussion of “procedures” as opposed to “processes,” would agree, since the procedures of mouseness have, for the most part, been terminated once that mouse dies upon ejection from its earthly habitat.
But the point I want to make is a point of style. When an object-oriented philosopher makes the case for a description of the universe that is made up of objects, things that are never fully related and that are always somewhat withdrawn from other things, he (or, in theory, she) is making the case for describing the universe as a universe of things that do certain things, that act in certain ways, and that maintain themselves over time, like Tim’s mouse, unless something happens to change them from the outside. While this may not be equivalent to a Newtonian world-picture — of objects in space moving around and bumping into each other, setting off or redistributing lawful causal effects as they do that — it is, in its overall contours, highly consonant with such a world-picture (minus perhaps the space, and plus a kind of space-time curvature at each node for indicating where the objects might be withdrawing to).
The main virtue and originality of Whitehead’s process philosophy, for me, is that it turned that world-picture inside out. As a result of this shift, the world becomes one of things happening that we experience from the inside, from our subjective feeling about what is happening and what we are doing about it. As a result, we can and ought to appreciate that others experience their happenings in a similar way, also “from the inside.” It’s no longer a universe conceived as a space with things in it; it’s the universe as the perpetual unfoldment of things moving forward as it. We are members of a feelingful universe and our feelings/actions, which are our responses to things we prehend in our midst, are in principle of the same nature as the feelings/actions taken by others, whether they are humans, slugs, or electrons. That’s where the ontological parity is found: not in the qualities of objects, but in the quality of the experiential events that constitute the universe. All of this is much better explained in Shaviro’s excellent paper on panpsychism, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in process philosophy and the OOO challenge to it.
For Whitehead this is still centrally a metaphysical exercise, an attempt to describe the universe. But when we turn to other process-relational thinkers — and here I will insist on a genealogy that Graham Harman may not like, the same “beatnik conspiracy” (as he has called it) that runs from (in my rendition) Heraclitus and Chuang Tzu and Nagarjuna to Bergson and James and Deleuze and Latour — it becomes clear that the central task of philosophy, for these thinkers, has always been not the task of accurately describing the world, but, rather, the task of better living it. Their philosophies are accounts of living, for living. They are existential, intended as aids to a way of life that enriches the universe instead of impoverishing it. They start with the fact that we are always already involved in things, caught up in processes, wound up in matters of concern, facing decisions, navigating currents, moving with and in worlds, and they aim to help us with that.
In his excellent paper on “Process vs. Procedure,” Bogost identifies a notable weakness in the style of thinking underlying Whitehead’s metaphysics (and since it’s style I’m critiquing in OOO, it’s perfectly reasonable to critique it in Whitehead). This is the general sense that for Whitehead reality surges forward like water going through a firehose, one prehension followed by the next without any set of systematic continuities behind, or carrying out, that forward propulsion. Bogost’s term for this, “firehose metaphysics,” is funny and in some ways apt.
Whitehead’s stylistic choice here (presaged by Bergson and James, among others), however, needs to be seen in the context in which it was introduced. Whitehead was taking on — and turning inside out — that Newtonian (etc.) view of the universe as a space containing things that (for whatever reason or out of whatever set of causal laws or programs) move around in it. Once one makes this shift from being to becoming, from a generally static world-picture in which things act (or move, at least) to a lively, inherently creative universe within which things are intrinsically active and creative, the task becomes to articulate the feeling of experience. And that feeling is not just a constant rush forward, a blind motion as that of water pushing through a hose at high speed that would need to be controlled externally by faucets, dials, programs, or, in Bogost’s term, “procedures.” Rather, it is the many different varieties of feeling, decision, concrescence, that make up the universe. The motion is not blind and feelingless; it is feelingful according to the incremental creative assertions of every step along the way.
So if life (or existence, or any piece of the universe) is like water flowing through a firehose, it’s because life is movement. It is inherently temporal; it doesn’t stand still. But there is no hose containing it, and no faucet at the end of it controlling the flow. There is no programmer, no ventriloquist behind the world because everything that’s real is creative in its own becoming. And this is only “magic” (as Levi seems to suggest would be necessary) if one thinks that the things are not inherently creative and active in themselves. Since process philosophy defines them as such — that it’s first principle — there is no need for magic here. (Or it is all magic, which I happen to believe is a better way of thinking about it; but that’s another story.)
Bogost writes that in the Whiteheadian account, “Being does not stop; it can’t even pause.” But I would argue that it does much more than stop or go. Everything (at least, in Whitehead’s terms, every society of actual occasions) has its speeds, its rhythms of movement, its ways of taking place, of relating to things, of acting in response to other things, and to reduce these to the simple propulsion of a firehose is to reduce everything that’s of interest and value in what happens to its common denominator. If this common denominator were empty of feeling — as might be the case (I’m not sure) with the video games and computer programs that serve as some of Bogost’s examples — then we would certainly need procedures, programs, rules, algorithms, or whatever else, to run the show. Process-relational philosophies insist that if there are things running the show, these too would have to be the kinds of processual entities that are possible in a world that’s always in the process of its own becoming.
Stopping the flow of that world, actually, is the kind of thing that we can do if we attain a certain societal/assemblage/ecological complexity — a certain formal and structural (relational) consistency that would allow us to monitor things over time (the changing seasons, the growth of our children), to take pause and put (a part of) the universe on hold while we do other things, and then call back at a later date. This is where continuity occurs in Whitehead: it’s in the things that hold together as they move forward, arranged in larger, coordinated, but similarly active, creative, feelingful unities (Whitehead’s “societies,” or as Steve argues, “assemblages,” though the definitions of these terms vary).
That said, I think Bogost raises a useful critique and that his notion of “procedures” is very good for Whiteheadians to think through. What I wouldn’t want to happen, though, is for a dichotomy to arise between “process” and “procedure.” That sounds too close, for my ears, to the kind of dichotomy that pits programs (what Bogost calls “how things work”) against the activities those programs play out (“what happens to things”). Susan Oyama (in her critiques of biology’s genecentrism, e.g., here), Tim Ingold, and many others have critiqued this very dichotomy, and I fear a backslide into some version of that kind of dualism if we were to take the life out of the Whiteheadian real — the actual entities/nexus/societies that are the reality of the processual universe — and place it somewhere else. It’s precisely that life that draws me to process metaphysics, and that’s something the firehose metaphor doesn’t capture at all.