Chris Vitale has a nice post up on Deleuze’s Bergsonian notion of the image as a “slice of time,” or a “slice of the world” — which for Deleuze amounts to more or less the same thing. In a similar spirit, I thought I’d post briefly about a Whiteheadian notion of time.

Normally when we think of slicing into time to depict a moment of it, we tend to think of it as a linear flow. Slicing into time is like slicing into bread: what’s on the left of the slice is the past (for westerners and others who read from left to right), what’s on the right is the future, and the slice itself is where we’re at right now. The world as it appears to us is a cross-section of the loaf.

Or a better metaphor, since we’re in motion, might be a train moving forward on the track of time: the tracks ahead of us are the future, those behind are the past, and the train is us.

A Peircian-Whiteheadian process-relational slice of time, as I understand it — and this means a slice of the universe (or pluriverse), since time is not a container, but only the durational dimension of the things that actually make up the universe — isn’t like this at all. It looks more like a circle or a sphere, the outside perimeter of which is expanding, and the inside of which is being sucked in like a black hole.

(If we prefer to think of time as a train, this train is one that is going in countless directions at once, spreading outward from a center and laying down its tracks, and swallowing those behind it, as it goes. It is a spherical train, a train as Chaosmos.)

The expanding edge of the sphere consists of virtualities (firstnesses, in Peirce’s terms) emerging into actuality (secondness), and actualities emerging into significance, organization, pattern, habit, law (i.e., thirdness). It is these that give shape to the universe: the secondnesses being its outer form, Bateson’s (and Jung’s) Pleroma (which is what science studies), the thirdnesses being its inner meaning, its mesh of distinctions, or what Bateson (and Jung) call Creatura (which is what creatures like us live).

Since we are there at the outer edge, we see only what’s within our perceptual-semiotic orbit; but this is true for all actual entities. (That orbit expands with recording and decoding mechanisms of various sorts such as oral and textual literacies, optical and archaeological technologies, and so on. More on this below.)

If there could be a seer who was able to see everything, he or she would only see that outer edge of the universe, where the expanding circle is continually becoming new. In Whitehead’s system this seer, who is also a feeler and a sympathetic experiencer, is God. I tend to think of it (him/her) as Rigpa, subjectless subjectivation; empty in essence, cognizant in nature, unconfined in capacity. It is the background luminosity of the universe that surrounds the circle we are describing, bathing it in its sympathetic cognizance. (And I don’t mind if you call that God.)

The firstnesses emerge out of the differential structure of virtualities that makes up the interior side of the outer rim of the circle. This structure changes moment to moment alongside the processes of actualization that are its exterior side.

The sucking that occurs in the middle of the circle is that of unactualized virtualities sinking into unactualizability. Actuality is, in effect, always escaping away from the great sucking at the heart of the universe, the dark flow speeding into nothingness. Some virtualities escape into being, the rest escape into nothingness. Which of them go one way and which go the other is something that is determined by the decisive acts occurring all around at the outer perimeter of the sphere.

Einstein said, “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.” For Whitehead, it is at the circumference of the universe where everything happens, where the darkness of virtuality emerges into the light of actualization. At the same time, the actualized world is ceaselessly passing over into objectivity: it becomes object, which means it becomes virtuality, potentiality, stuff from which, or in response to which, other stuff emerges.

It is here, at the circle’s edge, that the world that has been, the brute objectivity of the world that has concresced from previous acts, meets the spontaneously arising awareness that Tibetans call Rigpa, the emergent responsive luminosity of naked, subjectless subjectivity. In countless acts at this Edge of Things, this luminous subjectivity — which is neither mine, nor yours, nor anyone else’s, except that it is the becoming of each of us, subjectlessly subjectivating — selectively takes up the data arriving from the past, the virtual potentialities that are to shape the next moment, and the next, and casts aside those that are not to shape it except by their absence.

At this edge, then, is where the universe constantly folds out into new orchestrations, improvising along a million lines of feelingful decision. In his exegetical account of Whitehead’s Pancreativism, Michel Weber explains why it is that concrescence, which means the becoming of actuality, “does not happen in the World, but at the edges of the World.” It is there that novelty germinates, in and through the decisions that are part of every actual entity coming into being. “When it [novelty] enters the World, it is fully integrated within its existing structure and modifies it” (p. 26).

Weber continues:

Subjectivity, i.e., existence of actuality per se [i.e., becoming], is articulated with objectivity, i.e., being or potentiality. The former is the locus of (free) final causation; the latter of (deterministic) efficient causation. The durational present (i.e., the existence outside physical time) of the free concrescing “actual occasion” is bound with the past experiences sheltered by the transitional actual entities. (27)

Subjectivity arises in intimate embrace with the objectivities that it responds to, which are the bodies cast off by the mental potencies of other subjectivities. Put otherwise, “existence,” which is

actuality in the strong sense of the term — i.e., subjectivity as redefined by Whitehead independently of conscious experience [...] — takes place in an immediate present that does not belong to physical temporality and to its deterministic order. It belongs instead to the durational temporality that has been eminently explored by Bergson and James. Consequently, being, i.e., the World, is always already potential, past, determined, temporalized. (xv)

To say that existence takes place outside the World while being is both “past” and “potential” may strike readers as paradoxical. Past is potential in that it is virtual; it is no longer real except insofar as it provides the conditioning determinations, the differential structures, with which becomings-subject contend with. Existence itself is the contending, the subjectivating, the actual feeling-happening-doing that constitutes all that is really real at any given moment. It is the World in its openness, its freedom, yet it is outside the World-as-already-there, because it is always what World is in process of becoming.

When the actuality-subject is satisfied, it topples into objectivity — it is released into the World in solido –, and becomes available as material for further concrescences (i.e., it starts exerting causal efficacy). There are thus two ways of speaking of the “after” of a concrescence: to speak of “actuality-object” is to emphasize that it is the outcome of a concrescence; to speak of “actuality-superject” (as Process and Reality does) is to underline that it is itself at the root of further concrescences. (27-28)

The “secret of the Whiteheadian ontological reform,” Weber writes,

is quite simple: the actuality-subject grows, concresces, at the edges of the World — beyond the bounds of the world –, buttressing itself on the determinism materialized by the actualities-object. “When” its organic growth is terminated, it topples into objectivity and becomes an actuality-object fully integrated in the mundane plenum. (xv)

Everything in the universe follows this movement, each in its own particular way, with its own degree of freedom/creativity and its own durational and processual character. The percolating rhythm by which actualization occurs, one concrescence after another — a rhythm which differs for everything that is actualizing, but which congeals into patterns across differentiation — is the heart-beat of the universe.

The creativity of the world is the throbbing emotion of the past hurling itself into a new transcendent fact. It is the flying dart, of which Lucretius speaks, hurled beyond the bounds of the world.  (Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 177)


One thing I wonder about: As our tools for digging into the past get stronger and more refined, and as past actualities become more accessible to us, does less of the universe go down the rabbit hole at the center? Can nothinged experience, experience which has sunk into the depths, its affective eddies having long dissipated into insignificance for anyone or anything actual, become retrievable once again?

Of course we can only access that which is still there to be accessed — bones underground, actual recordings made but never released, fossil strata sedimented over millennia of vegetal existence, whose lives are no longer accessible to us except as fuel, not as experience. The thoughts of a proto-human on the African plain from two million years ago, or the expansive feeling experienced by the first multi-celled organism on Earth (aeons ago), are no longer there; they have receded into infinity.

But what if they could be recovered, somehow in the Akashic record of percolations still reverberating somewhere through the universe? How far can we reach into the black hole of unactualized virtualities, to retrieve even the dimmest of possibilities so as to stage its homecoming festival? Is that the messianic promise, the eternal return, that drives all things forward ?







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