“Ultimately, the thinking of speculative pragmatism that is activist philosophy belongs to nature. Its aesthetico-politics compose a nature philosophy. The occurrent arts in which it exhibits itself are politics of nature.
“The one-word summary of its relational-qualitative goings on: ecology. Activist philosophy concerns the ecology of powers of existence. Becomings in the midst. Creative change taking place, self-enjoying, humanly or no, humanly and more.”
These two short paragraphs close the Introduction to Brian Massumi’s recent, and thoroughly Whiteheadian, book Semblance and Event. They serve as a good epigraph to what I’d like to discuss here, which is the “neo-Whiteheadian wave” I see arising in cultural theory and its connections to ecology and to “speculative realism” (which, in Massumi’s hands, becomes speculative pragmatism; the differences are worth exploring).
In the debate I’ve carried on with object-oriented philosophers, I have sometimes made the point that they aren’t the first to try to break us out of an anthropocentric orbit and into a more democratized, decentered cosmic polity (the resonance with Latour’s and Stengers’ “cosmopolitics” is intended). Ecophilosophers and process philosophers have both been there before.
Levi Bryant, in a recent Facebook conversation, has reminded me that this argument — a form of “we’ve already done this” — isn’t much of a contribution to the debate. To the extent that OOO is reaching new audiences with its supercharged version of anthro-decentering (and it is), I quite agree with him. Coming from within the bowels of post-Heideggerian continental philosophy, OOO is a radically new move, and its growing appeal is all to its credit.
On the other hand, it’s important to examine previous efforts to go beyond the anthropocentrism of most modern philosophy before one confines these efforts to the dustbin. Graham Harman has often nodded in the direction of Whitehead, and Bryant in the direction of Deleuze (whom he wrote a book about), so I’m not faulting OOO for not giving some due to the more processual of contemporary thinkers. But there’s much more there that warrants examination, especially once the ecological problematic comes to the forefront.
This post is intended to highlight a few ways in which ecophilosophies and process philosophies have continued to be relevant to the project of building a common world among humans and non-humans. To the extent that OOO and other speculative realisms share that project — which is the “cosmopolitical” project as Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour have defined it — its supporters would do well to be aware of these commonalities, and of differences.
And for those of us who count ourselves among the eco- and the process camps — which are not just two different groups, but several, but which I hope overlap enough to make common cause here — it’s worth pausing to consider what we have accomplished so far, where we’ve failed, and where we are today.
Needless to say, what follows are just my thoughts, and I’m hardly the most qualified to speak for either of these trains. But since this conversation is not really taking place elsewhere in a form that would engage the new “speculative realisms,” I see no reason not to begin it here.
* * * * * * *
“Ecophilosophy” and “environmental philosophy” are both terms that first came into use in the 1970s and 1980s. Both are more specific than “philosophy of nature,” and less specific than “philosophy of ecology” (philosophy that concerns the objects and methods of the ecological sciences). “Ecophilosophy” was first used (I believe) for a book title by Henryk Skolimowski in 1981, but it has since been appropriated as a generic term that is more or less interchangeable with, albeit less extensive than, “environmental philosophy.”
Both terms have been overshadowed by “environmental ethics,” which emerged earlier and has been more successfully incorporated as a subfield into philosophical ethics. Environmental ethics today is a diverse and very active field that incorporates moral extensionists, holists, humanists, pragmatists, radicals (biocentrists, ecofeminists, socialists, et al.) and conservatives, and analytically and continentally minded philosophers of various stripes.
Environmental philosophy is a broader term than environmental ethics: in its range of applications and interests it includes ethics as well as epistemology, metaphysics and cosmology, cultural critique and advocacy. Ecophilosophy’s impact, however, has been much less visible in academic philosophy departments than in the world at large. This is, I think, by choice.
Here’s a quick round-up of some of the ways it has affected the “real world.”
- Most broadly, the work of such environmental thinkers as Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Goethe, Vladimir Vernadsky, Aldo Leopold, Lynn White, Jr., Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, Thomas Berry, and many, many others has reshaped society’s conception of “the environment” and our relationship to it in profound ways. While most of these figures might not qualify as academic philosophers, their ideas have informed the popular philosophy of the environmental movement and of society as a whole.
- Academic philosophers concerned with environmental and related themes — such as legal recognition for animals and nonhuman organisms, arguments for protection of biodiversity or ecological values, and so on — have also been widely influential. To wit: The single most influential philosopher alive is, by many accounts, Peter Singer, a Benthamite utilitarian whose 1975 book Animal Liberation has sold about half a million copies and was almost singlehandedly responsible for launching the animal rights and animal liberation movements. (Singer’s work, of course, extends far beyond that topic.)
- Others have contributed vitally to policy and regulatory reforms and initiatives. These include, for instance, legal philosopher Christopher Stone, whose classic 1972 article “Should Trees Have Standing?” helped shape legal mechanisms recognizing the value of endangered species and ecosystem management regimes; notions of “environmental justice” (first proposed by sociologist Robert Bullard, but later developed by philosophers like Peter Wenz and others), which are now accepted and utilized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its efforts to curtail environmental risks and hazards through the Superfund and other mechanisms; and efforts on behalf of institutional enshrinement of the “Earth Charter,” a statement of social and ecological principles that has been adopted by hundreds of communities around the planet.
- More radically, Arne Naess’s biocentric deep ecology — a creative synthesis of Spinoza, Asian philosophies, and general analytic-philosophical themes — catalyzed the emergence of the deep ecology movement, which has fueled many actions, protests, demonstrations, and campaigns around the world in defense of nonhuman nature, ecosystems, and ecological sensibility in general.
- Murray Bookchin’s social ecology, a rich theoretical melange drawn as much from Hegel as from Marx and the libertarian (anarchist) tradition, influenced and helped shape Green movements in North America and Europe, especially anti-nuclear coalitions, the anti-GMO movement, and the like.
- And the ecofeminism of Val Plumwood, Vandana Shiva, Maria Mies, Starhawk, and many others has provided a consistent source of ideas, practices, and sustenance to a range of efforts, from the Greenham Common (U.K.) Peace Camp in the 1980s to the Clayoquot Sound (Canada) Peace Camp in the 1990s to many movements in the developing world. Ecofeminist ideas range widely in their philosophical styles, from hard-core analytical to continental and Marxist strands, to theological, process-philosophical, and Buddhist variations.
All of these are just the more obvious points of influence. Taken together, however, ecological thought, in its many philosophical variants, has mobilized many people — millions, by some estimates — to take to the streets and barricades; to defend forests and forest peoples (in India, Brazil, US/Canada), whales and dolphins, wolves and reindeer, endangered species and endangered practices; to govern (in Germany & elsewhere) and develop and pass laws and policy instruments; to put future generations of humans and nonhumans on the map of what should be valued and taken account of; to retreat to the backwoods, the mountains, the deserts, the oceans, the soil, the body; and to dwell in and cherish the present moment.
* * * * * *
Process philosophies have arguably not fared as well in their outcomes, at least not over the last century or so. (They have certainly been around much longer, however.) But it all depends on how we define process philosophy. A broader definition might include many strands of Asian thought (Buddhism, most notably) as well as western philosophers like Hegel, theologians like Teilhard de Chardin, and scientists like David Bohm, Ilya Prigogine, and Stuart Kauffman. (See my summary here.)
But a narrower account would most likely focus on the Whiteheadian strand. Whitehead was the boldest process philosopher of the twentieth century, by all estimations, but his efforts in the 1920s and 1930s fell largely on ears that, at the time, had turned deaf to the call of metaphysics.
Where he did generate a following was among American theologians and religiously-minded metaphysicians, some of whom (like John Cobb, David Ray Griffin, and Catherine Keller) have moved into fairly expansive philosophical terrains. While I’m not sure how deeply those ideas have penetrated from theology “down” to the thinking and practice of specific faith communities, I suspect that influence is there somewhere.
Many metaphysical philosophers have continued a more or less Whiteheadian process tradition — people like Hartshorne, Weiss, Sherburne, Ford, Neville, Cobb, Griffin, Corrington, et al. — but their concerns have generally not been the concerns of most analytic or continental philosophers.
There have been some more widely respected philosophers who’ve taken an interest in Whitehead and/or in the process-philosophical enterprise. Nicholas Rescher, author of some one hundred books of philosophy, is particularly notable for his presenting a fully fledged pragmatic idealism that has come to intersect more and more, and quite explicitly, with process philosophy to the point that he has become something of a spokesperson for process philosophy in recent years. And there’s continued to be a healthy interest in process philosophy among European and, perhaps more, among Chinese and Japanese intellectuals for decades.
But — and here’s where we get up to date — Whitehead is clearly making a comeback, and this time through parallel lines as those being cultivated by the speculative realists and object-oriented philosophers. This new, post-constructivist Whiteheadianism is not at all indebted to the theologians. It stems in part from the work of Belgian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers, whose Penser avec Whitehead (recently translated as Thinking With Whitehead) seems to have triggered a wave of interest among cultural theorists including Steven Shaviro and (I’m guessing here) Brian Massumi, who I quoted above. Whitehead’s influence extends deeply into the work of two of the leading lights in science studies, Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, and was woven, albeit quietly, into the work of Gilles Deleuze.
This “neo-Whiteheadian wave” includes recent work by Shaviro, the Concordia University duo of Massumi and Erin Manning, and other post-Deleuzians like James Williams, Keith Robinson, Tim Clark, and Mick Halewood. It is joined by the broadened Whiteheadianism of Roland Faber (Executive Director of the Whitehead Research Project) and is expressing itself in the work of eminent political theorist William Connolly and gender studies guru Judith Butler.
The connection to ecology suggested in the Massumi quote that I started with can be found among many of the others — Stengers, Latour, and Haraway perhaps most obviously. It’s something I hope will come up at The Nonhuman Turn in 21st Century Studies, at the U of Wisconsin Milwaukee this week, where a number of the names mentioned will be appearing (alongside two of the four OOO stars, Ian Bogost and Ecological Thought and Ecology Without Nature guy Tim Morton). I am looking forward to meeting them all.
And that ecology connection is something I’ve written about here before and will write about more.
* * * * * *
Within the speculative realist conversation, however, it may boil down to something like this: Does it matter whether we start from distinct, stable things (which OOO-ists call “objects”) and examine how they connect with other such things, or if we start instead from events and encounters (including patterns of encounter and interaction) and examine how they develop stabilities and how they disrupt stabilities?
In my experience there are things that happen, and there are matters of concern; they are the starting point, the poisedness by which I meet and respond to others. The responses count, so I need to work through what those responses do, how they vary, what forces they make available, what flows they generate, and what situations and events they give rise to. All of that makes me a processualist, which prepares me to treat others as processualists, too — as actively engaged in responding to things, so as to become, to be different, to change (or preserve) what is.
The preserving (or the saving, to put a Heideggerian spin on it) is as much an act as the changing. Process-relational approaches have action at their center. I like that.
If I were an object, I’m not sure where I would begin and where I would end: there is just too much going on here for me to definitively pick out the alien that isn’t me, or the resident that will always be me (as long as there’s me). I suspect we all would have this same difficulty if we would clear-sightedly face the motion, the dynamism at the heart of every relation, of every event. (Meditation helps with that; it shows me there is no stability except the openness in which it occurs, and that openness isn’t “me” either.)
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a beginning and an end, an envelope of form that maintains itself through the motions, or a part of me that withdraws from every relation (as Harman puts it) — though I suspect it may be a different part with different relations, a changing envelope from one moment to another. It just means that action is at the center — not the same kind of action, but one kind of process or another, one kind of movement or another — and that therefore choice, freedom, and creativity are also there, built-in and inherent to it. That’s a liberating insight.
If that’s the case in my experience, why wouldn’t it be the case (to one degree or another) in all experience, human, nonhuman, unhuman, whatever?
A quick afterthought:
It may seem contradictory that I even use the pronoun “I” to refer to something that I’ve just defined as unstable and in motion. But why? “I” is an invocation, a refrain intended to regularize movement into pattern.
It is an invitation toward others for engagement. I say “I” and you say “I,” so we both direct ourselves toward each other, knowing full well that others will say it in their own ways. Ours is a shared movement insofar as it is a movement outward, each from a different starting point, a point that withdraws as soon as we launch ourselves from it.