Now that a very busy semester has ended, I can return to the constructive speculative-metaphysical strand of this blog, in which I work out the process-relational philosophy I’ve tentatively labelled Ecosophy-G. A suitable acronym for this project might be “pre-G” (process-relational ecosophy-G), pronounced “pree-jee,” with the “pre” also indicating that the philosophy is a form of pre-articulation, a work in progress, and the “ge” referring, among other things, to the “Ge-” of geography, geophilosophy, and geode.
The “process-relational” moniker is intended, in part, to ally it with all manner of process philosophies, especially the Whiteheadian and the Peircian, and relational ontologies, including Buddhist, feminist, and ecological ones. As an “ecosophy,” it explicitly places itself alongside the ecosophies of Arne Naess, Felix Guattari, and the Deleuzo-Guattarians plying their onto-ethico-aesthetic philosophical trades. This makes it “applied” rather than “pure” philosophy, a way of thinking informing a manner of living that takes account of the world and its potentials and its capacities, but starts from one’s own emplacement within the contextual field of those relations.
As a speculative realism (alongside others, including object-oriented ontologies, which take a very different strategy toward similar or overlapping ends), it takes the actuality of the world seriously and speculates about its construction, the rules or patterns shown in its workings, and the capacities enabled by those patterns. It speculates in the sense that it formulates concepts to account for situations that are always somewhat new, with the world changing in front of our eyes; and so the concepts must always be somewhat new.
And as a speculative pragmatism (a term that allies it with the speculative pragmatisms of Brian Massumi, Robert Cummings Neville, Sandra Rosenthal, and the “pragmaticism” of C. S. Peirce), it takes ideas about the world seriously, but is more interested in what those ideas do than in what they stand for in themselves.
Ultimately, it is intended also to help me make sense of the kinds of empirical phenomena I’ve been studying for the last couple of decades or more (in fact, since my Master’s work on ecology, culture, and identity in post-Chernobyl Ukraine and elsewhere). These are phenomena in which the relationship between human experience and the extra-human world is at stake, undergoes profound change, or affords the possibility of radical reimagination in the midst of deep conflicts of interpretation.
One entry point into Ecosophy-G is the one that is closest to what is central to our own experience as human bodyminds. Let’s start with that here.
Finding a foothold in experience
In starting from one’s own emplacement within actual relations, pre-G looks for a foothold in actual experience, because experience is the form of actuality that it takes as being central to things. This focus on experience is something that pre-G shares with Whiteheadian, Peircian, Buddhist, and many other process-relational and pragmatic(ist) and liberationist philosophies.
It finds that foothold in something that, for starters, we might call “the moment.”
In Ecologies of the Moving Image, I argue that the central, median-level unit in our experience of a film is the kind of thing captured by words like “moment,” “scene,” and “episode.” Episodes are only “episodic” in the context of a longer narrative arc, with that narrative constituting the way a series of secondnesses (experiential encounters or events) are connected together into thirdness (meaningful coherence). Scenes are the kinds of moments that arise within a form of experience that is witnessed but not (particularly) participated in — such as watching a film.
Moments, on the other hand, are basic units of experiential coherence, attaining toward a unity within the multiplicity of elements that make them up and the ambiguity of those elements’ involvement in them (since those elements usually precede the moment and continue on after it has ended).
I should mention something about the relationship between moments and “actual occasions.” The latter, in Whitehead’s system, are atomic units making up the process structure of the universe. They are microcosmic units, and their unity and atomicity is an issue that requires more elaboration. There is debate about whether, or to what extent, atomicity is required by Whitehead’s system and how it compares with others (such as Bergson’s or, in some ways, James’s and Peirce’s) that take process to be more continuous in nature. This problem of atomicity-versus-continuity is one that likely requires a complex resolution, and is perhaps akin to physicists’ conundrums with particle-wave duality.
In any case, a moment of our experience is something occurring at a mesocosmic level and is already much more complex than Whitehead’s actual occasions — complex enough that atomicity of that sort necessarily eludes it.
(The “mesocosmic” level is that where one finds the entities that Whitehead called “societies,” that is those mega-occasions, so to speak, made up of the coordinated activity of many actual occasions, in which a certain guiding unity is felt or experienced. Human bodyminds, to the extent that these are unified continuities of experience, are such societies. Other organisms, as well as rocks and non-sentient entities, are also particular kinds of societies, different in significant respects from humans and from each other, but not entirely different in principle.)
Understanding a moment of such experience is useful for the bearer of it insofar as it allows one to get a handle on what is happening here and now and what one can do within this set of happenings. Isolating or slowing down a moment allows us to analyze more precisely what the range of action is for me here, now.
It also enables us, ultimately (with dedicated practice), to begin to see the nature of experience as a dynamic flow characterized by the mutual co-arising of subjectivity and objectivity. And, in turn, a more accurate understanding of the nature of reality contributes to better engagements with that reality.
The remainder of this post will focus on this co-arising of subjectivity and objectivity. A future post will deal with the question of what it is that experiences and what does not. Other issues will come to the fore afterward.
Objectivation, subjectivation, and withdrawal
As mentioned, for Ecosophy-G experience is a dynamic flow — or, really, something more like a dynamic oscillation, an alternating-current kind of percolation or interactive exchange — characterized by the mutual co-arising of subjectivity and objectivity.
In this sense, the object-oriented ontologists’ term “object” — the designation for all actually existing entities — is not very helpful for pre-G. But then neither is a “subject-oriented ontology” — the rival idea that everything is a subject — which is how Levi Bryant characterizes Didier Debaise’s metaphysics. (I’m not sure to what extent Debaise’s philosophy actually qualifies as that, though it does appear to focus on the subjective pole of experience; see “The subjects of nature“–pdf warning.)
Rather, for pre-G, everything is object-subjectivation (or subject-objectivation), and any attempt to separate out one or the other of the poles of this dynamic is not particularly helpful. Object-subjectivation is a process characterized by a vector structure that moves, in a sense, from the emergent-subject to the emergent-objects and back, with the subject-superject then becoming object to the next set of arisings.
Neither a subject nor an object stand still, except insofar as their movement is slow enough for another emergent-subject that in the perception of that other the first appears to be standing still. Ultimately, there are no subjects or objects; only subjectivation and objectivation, which co-arise at the microcosmic level of an actual occasion. The effects of this microcosmic process create the appearance of subjects and objects at the mesocosmic level to those operating at that level that misperceive themselves and others as “standing still.”
Subjects and objects, then, are misperceptions or misapprehensions. Subjectivation and objectivation, on the other hand, are real, conjoined microcosmic processes that elicit effects at mesocosmic levels. Those effects, in turn, build emergent structural patterns that are real. These, too, are patterns of subject-objectivation made up of coordinated sub-patterns of subject-objectivation.
Back to the moment, then.
A moment can be characterized in two primary ways. Firstly, it can be analyzed into its firstnesses, or things in their in-themself-ness, their thusness, their haecceity; its secondnesses, or actual encounters between firstnesses; and its thirdnesses, or triadic relations taking account of secondnesses.
To take a simple humanly experienceable moment: walking outside yesterday with my son on my back, (1) I heard sounds that struck me in their very thusness, simply as they were; (2) I responded to these sounds with an affective thrust — a quickened heartbeat, a prick of the ears, a sudden stop, an unpremeditated gesture to Z to listen or look in that direction; and (3) I recognized some of the sounds in thoughts such as “There’s that thing I heard before, which sounds like a woodpecker, and I wonder what sort of woodpecker has made its way over here this week,” or “It’s a beautiful spring here this year.”
While my hearing the sounds was already a second, the sounds in themselves can be considered a first; the unpremeditated reactions were seconds; and the thoughts, or the meanings arising from those reactions, were thirds.
Secondly, a moment can be characterized by the dynamic co-arising of subjectivity (which is a thirdness), objectivity (in and through secondness), and withdrawal.
The first of these three co-active elements, subjectivation, is what occurs when I recognize sounds and make some sense of them: “I wonder what sort of woodpecker that is” and “It’s a beautiful spring this year” contribute to the narrative timeline I have of living here, of recognizing birds (as poorly as I do) and noticing their comings and goings over time; of living (and constructing) my life in the context of seasonal changes, debates over global warming, and much else. At the same time, my gesture to Z becomes an invitation for his subjectivation; my stopping and listening to the bird becomes an invitation to that bird’s subjectivation, wherein it might notice me and sing in some particular way in recognition of a new listener.
The second element, objectivation, is the other thing that happens when I recognize sounds and make some sense of them: that sound becomes “that woodpecker,” a sequence of seeings and hearings becomes “this spring,” and so on. Things become pinned to labels (verbal or other kinds) whereby they can be stitched into a fabric of habitual responses, incorporations, harnessings. They, like any commons, can be “enclosed.”
And thirdly, withdrawal is the other other thing that is happening in this moment, though it is happening outside my recognition (except insofar as I recognize it must be happening). It is what occurs with firstness that is not incorporated into the production of secondness and/or thirdness, and with secondness that is not incorporated into thirdness or into further secondness. It is, in other words, what happens with virtuality that remains unactualized.
Such withdrawal constitutes the imperceptible background of the moment, or at least part of that background. It is what is lost to experience, or to future experience (though these are not identical destinies), what is removed from “my” moment after having been available to it, in potential at least, at the outset.
* * * * * *
There’s much more to be said about both of these characterizations of a moment. What I’ve described is really just a tiny fragment of a moment. And it is not really an actual moment, since I am only describing it from the perspective of one participating experiencer of a moment. So I am distinguishing here between experiential moments, which belong to a single experiencer, and actual relational moments, which are more complex, more (infinitely) difficult to define and describe. But those are for another discussion.
The two analytical tacks I’ve taken above constitute the Peircian and Whiteheadian strands, respectively, of pre-G analysis, and articulating them in a coherent synthesis is a project that I will need to continue working on, since Ecologies of the Moving Image did not really do that to any level of satisfactory philosophical rigor.
An initial application of pre-G, from a slightly different angle, to the capacities of the human bodymind can be found in the three posts beginning here. Starting with that human bodymind, again, makes sense because it is what we have some direct access to and because it is at the center of our own experience, which for us is a median-level phenomenon: it is the kind of experience that takes account of things that are both much smaller (such as the parts or sub-systems that make us up) and much larger (such as the social, ecological, and other systems in which we participate) and similar in scale.
More on all of that to come.
(Note: I made a couple of very minor changes since this was first posted.)