While I find much to admire in Tim Morton’s writings (and in him personally, as I’ve recently related), I’m sure he knows that his writing on what he calls “lava lampy materialism” leaves me unconvinced. (I’ve discussed that topic here, here, and elsewhere.)

I haven’t read his Realist Magic yet, so I can’t comment on the book’s arguments as a whole. But I’ve read some sections of it, including those which reiterate Morton’s critique of Whitehead’s “lava lampy” process philosophy. And, as before, I have trouble following these arguments. I would have eventually articulated a response to them, but Nathan Brown has spared me that trouble with his review (pdf warning) of Realist Magic in the latest Parrhesia.

Both Morton and Ian Bogost have reiterated the argument — originally, I believe, Graham Harman’s — that Whitehead’s philosophy entails a static notion of time, with processes taking place within a fixed temporal frame that is itself not processual in nature. (Bogost referred in this context to Whitehead’s “firehose metaphysics.” My response was here.)

Brown points out — accurately, I believe — that this is simply wrong. His discussion of this disagreement is found on pages 66-67 of his review, and his footnote 13 is worth reproducing in full. That note reads (I’m breaking it up into paragraphs for readability’s sake):


Time is not, for Whitehead, a uniform static frame in which processes take place; the attribution of such a position to him is flatly incorrect. In the chapter on “Time” in The Concept of Nature, he writes:

“We have first to make up our minds whether time is to be found in nature or nature is to be found in time. The difficulty of the latter alternative—namely of making time prior to nature—is that time then becomes a metaphysical enigma. What sort of entities are its instants or periods? The dissociation of time from events discloses to our immediate inspection that the attempt to set up time as an independent terminus for knowledge is like the effort to find substance in a shadow. There is time because there are happenings, and apart from happenings there is nothing” (66).

It is integral to Whitehead’s philosophy that time is constituted by particular durations, and

“a duration is discriminated as a complex of partial events, and the natural entities which are components of this complex are thereby said to be ‘simultaneous with this duration.’”

Whitehead specifically corrects the sort of misunderstanding promulgated by Morton:

“The word ‘duration’ is perhaps unfortunate in so far as it suggests a mere abstract stretch of time. This is not what I mean. A duration is a concrete slab of nature.” (53).

Morton suggests that “if you really want to do an Einstein, time has to emanate from the object itself” (167). Whitehead’s philosophy meets just this criterion: time is not a static frame in which processes occur; as the passage above states: time is composed of durations, durations are complexes of partial events, and natural entities are the components of these complexes. Moreover, Whitehead holds that there is more than one time series in nature (70-73) while specifically criticizing modern materialism for viewing nature as an aggregate of material that exists at successive extensionless instants of time (71).


Whitehead’s critique of static ontologies, including static notions of time, makes more or less the very case that OOO-ists seem to be wanting to make, while avoiding OOO’s ontological rift between static and unchanging things (called “objects”) and relations between them. That makes it, to my mind, much more interesting and productive an ontological starting point.

All that said, I like Morton’s idea that “The aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension,” because this is very much Whitehead’s argument as well — though I think there are differences in what they mean by that. And I love the multiplicity of references — to Buddhism, to various artistic works, and so on — that Morton weaves into his writing. I will give Realist Magic more of a chance than Brown’s (rather caustic) review suggests I should.



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