I’ve always been more of an improviser than a long-range planner, but my job requires that I occasionally dabble in long-range projections of my work. Here’s one.
While a number of concerns have framed my scholarship over the years — ethical, political, cultural, ecological, and theoretical concerns — the philosophical core of it has been solidifying around a certain conceptual machine, which I am setting to work in different contexts.
Ecologies of the Moving Image sets it to work in the understanding of film and moving imagery. Ecologies of Identity will do the same in the study of identity, ethnicity, culture, and globalism. A further volume will set it to work in the understanding of music. Why Objects Fly Out the Window will provide a somewhat popular version of the conceptual machine itself, and a fifth projected volume will (I hope) provide the philosopher’s version of the same.
The machine is born from a marriage inspired, and perhaps seeded by (for me, at least), the spirit of Gilles Deleuze. The marriage is between two of the philosophers Deleuze admired deeply, even if he did not write much about either. Those two philosophers are A. N. Whitehead and C. S. Peirce. Specifically, it is a marriage of Whitehead’s process-relational metaphysics and Peirce’s semiotic architectonic. (There is a third player increasingly figuring into this machine — a particular variant of Buddhist philosophy — but I’ll leave that aside for a future post.)
From Whitehead, I take his turning inside out of Cartesian dualism and of the two philosophical faces it brings together — idealism/rationalism and materialism/empiricism, in their many shapes and sizes. Rather than the subject and the object, mind and matter, being two kinds of substances that either interact in some form of dualism or subsume each other — into idealism or into materialism — Whitehead takes subjectivity and objectivity to be active poles within a single, dipolar relational process. That process happens to be the process that makes up every real entity in the universe, from one moment to the next. Every being is a becoming, and every becoming is an emergent subjectivity “prehending” what has become objective.
From Peirce, it’s his revolutionary (as I see it) reframing of the logical categories found in Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel into a tri-categorial schema according to which everything in the universe is composed of triadic, semiotic process: the firstness of things in themselves, the secondness of things in relation, and the thirdness of relations in relation. Quality, reaction, representation; potentiality, existence, meaning; chance, actuality, necessity; vagueness, singularity, generality.
By means of these categories, Peirce was able to define meaningfully ordered relations between everything else: aesthetics (the Beautiful), ethics (the Good), logic (the True); phenomenology (the study of what appears), normative science (the study of how we ought to respond to it), metaphysics (the study of what it all means); and so on ad infinitum. Far from a mere ordering principle, however, it is a fundamental insight into the order the underlies all things, and a way of ensuring that one of the three does not subsume the others (as Peirce thought occurred with Hegel’s dialectics). Or so it seems to me.
Peirce was a fierce logician and a brilliant mathematical mind, so these categories don’t come cheaply with him; he works on them his entire life. And because that life was marred by professional failure and much of his writing remained, and still remains, unpublished (not to mention difficult to make sense of), his prime discovery remains unsung and underutilized. But there are people working on it, some of whom will gather at this conference next year. (And Cornelis de Waal’s recent Peirce: A Guide for the Perplexed is as good a place to start as any.)
Marrying these two conceptual engines creates a powerful hybrid that I think can help us out of numerous intellectual quandaries that mark our time of social and ecological crisis.
Too much to hope for in a set of ideas? Probably. Worth trying? I think so. Especially as they generate and inform not only a rich assemblage of theoretical tools, but practical tools for living, creating, and decision-making. That’s my hunch, and so I hope to show.
I expect the machine will smash up against a few walls along the way and will have to be rejigged, with the aid of other resources. (In Ecologies of the Moving Image, those resources include Heidegger, Marx, cognitive science, and many others.)
More on the third player (mentioned above) in a future post.