Graham Harman’s note reiterating his position that Whitehead, Latour, Deleuze, Bergson, and Simondon (among others) do not make up a coherent philosophical “lump” — “pack” or “tribe” might be more colorful terms here (if philosophers were cats, how herdable would they be?) — makes me want to clarify my own position on these thinkers.

Graham argues that they disagree on “the primacy of individuals, or lack thereof,” a question that “is just about the most important decision you can make in metaphysics,” with Whitehead and Latour lining up on a different side of the fence from the others on this question.

I don’t mind agreeing to disagree with Graham, since we seem to be operating with somewhat different starting assumptions here. And since I’m following the work of many others (from James Williams and Keith Robinson and Steven Shaviro and Michael Halewood to Roland Faber and, I’m pretty sure, Isabelle Stengers and maybe even Latour himself), I’m quite prepared to respect Graham’s view on this as a clearly and thoroughly reasoned dissenting opinion, and mine more as a running with the pack (or a pack, as you’ll see). But I thought it worth reiterating what my view is.

I’m not convinced that the question of the primacy of individuals should have primacy in metaphysics because I’m not convinced that different metaphysical systems define individuals in similar and commensurable ways.

Whitehead’s ontological individuals are “actual occasions” (and “nexus” and “societies”). They are fundamentally processes that together make up a pancreativist universe. (If Whitehead’s philosophy isn’t a process philosophy, I don’t know whose is.)

I think that something similar could be said about Latour’s actors/actants, except that he isn’t really a philosopher-metaphysician in the sense that Whitehead is. He’s a sociologist/anthropologist of science and technology who’s developed a meta-theory out of his empirical research, the ontological implications of which aren’t necessarily as self-evident and self-consistent — which is why Harman has had to tease them out the way he has.

Deleuze focuses on the processes, the activities, by which individuals become; and one of Simondon’s central foci is “individuation,” i.e. the process by which individuals emerge. It’s true that there’s a relational “twang” to most French philosophy of the last half century or more (at least French philosophy for export), and that this twang sounds pretty loudly in Deleuze, but I think it resonates almost as loudly in Latour, once one follows how their respective ideas play themselves out. The main difference is that Latour pays a lot of attention to nonhuman things — things entering into networks with other things (which, in Deleuzo-Guattarian terms, is assemblages assembling). He’s not so much interested in the things per se, though, as he is in the associations and collectives they enter into, produce, affect, alter, inhibit, disrupt, and so on. But since they are nonhuman things — and typically the kinds of things we consider to be inanimate — this makes him both very original and a great resource for the object-oriented turn.

At the same time, just as one cannot deny that Whitehead’s philosophy is a philosophy of relational processes (can one, really?), it is difficult to deny that Deleuzo-Guattarianism — or Foucauldianism, for that matter — lend themselves exceedingly well to what amounts to individualism. All the hundreds of pages they devoted to the assemblage and the rhizome, to becomings, to concepts and affects and percepts and all the rest do not take away from the fact that Deleuze, at least, believed in the immanence of “a life,” a singularity, a haecceity, an event, a becoming. Is this really so opposed to Whitehead’s actual occasion, wrapped as it is in the past it responds to and the future it opens up to?

So if we bracket out our particular assumptions about what an “individual” is and instead follow how the ideas of a philosopher play themselves out, I think there are deep and abiding family resemblances between Whitehead, Deleuze, Bergson, Simondon, Stengers, James, Peirce, et al. In any case, reading Thinking With Whitehead will either convince me, or it won’t, that if there is a single fence separating metaphysical camps, Stengers will line up on the same side of it as Whitehead, Latour, and Deleuze.


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