Tag Archive: immanence


Complexity theorist Stuart Kaufmann recently gave a talk here from his book Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, which is getting more press these days than most books with a Spinozian/Whiteheadian take on the emergent nature of intelligence, complexity, spirituality, and all that. Talking to him afterwards, I was a bit disappointed to find out that he had never heard of Deleuze, had only just heard of Whitehead as someone he should look into, and knew probably a modicum about Spinoza (he cites him a few times in the book). Not that I should expect that kind of intellectual cross-fertilization to be the norm — it’s not, especially across the Continental-analytical divide (though Kauffman does have a background in philosophy; and it’s also possible that he was being humble). But there’s an obvious resonance and potential alliance to be built here. I’m starting to read Kauffman’s book to confirm or disconfirm Steven Shaviro’s critiques of it. Shaviro is a Deleuzian-Whiteheadian (post)poststructuralist whose excellent forthcoming book on Kant, Whitehead, and Deleuze can be previewed in snippets on his web site.

More “out there” among leading biologists who lean this way (toward emergence, immanence, self-organization, mind-body non-dualism, etc.) is Brian Goodwin, whose book Nature’s Due: Healing Our Fragmented Culture, is being touted as his “biological testament.” It seems unfortunate that he chose such a relatively unknown, or at least non-academic, press to publish it with (Floris Books in England; it’s distributed here by the Rudolf Steiner folks). I haven’t seen it yet, but Arturo Escobar’s review is enough to make me order and eagerly await its arrival. Escobar’s own Territories of Difference is, incidentally, one of those landmark books (a long time in the making) that I expect will redefine environmental scholarship in important ways. I’ll post more about it at some point.

Both Kauffman and Goodwin are profiled in John Brockman’s 1994 book The Third Culture, which can be read on-line. The book also includes chapters on Francesco Varela and Lynn Margulis, alongside the usual Darwinist and computationalist-cognitivist heavies like Dawkins, Pinker, Dennett, Minsky, et al., and the more likeable Gould and Eldridge types — the whole left, right, and center, if you will, of the then-current (circa early-1990s) scientific star circuit. Brockman’s profiles/interviews are a great way of getting some familiarity with these folks; they include them commenting on each other’s work and ideas, so you get a kind of three-dimensional mapping of who’s who in relation to who else. It could use some updating, though, which Brockman’s Edge.org does, in a dizzy, all-over-the-place kind of way…

I took a break from reading John Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline – in which Mullarkey develops a philosophy of immanence drawing on, and critiquing, the respective efforts of Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, Michel Henry, and Francois Laruelle – to have some lunch and browse the latest issue of Tricycle. One of the articles, a personal-confessional story of the kind that’s typical for this popular Buddhist magazine, includes a nice, pithy summary of the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination:

“It’s teeter-totter metaphysics–I arise, you arise; you arise, I arise. [...] You are because you are not something else; therefore, what you are not–the chair beneath you, the air in your lungs, these words–births you through an infinity of opposites. It’s like the ultimate Dr. Seuss riddle: Without all the things that are not you, who would you be you to? There’s no Higher Power in this system to grab onto for support; we are all already supporting each other. Pull a person or people the wrong way, and you immediately redefine yourself in light of what you’ve done to your neighbor.”

Isn’t this the metaphysics of immanence in a nutshell? A two-and-a-half-thousand year tradition of philosophy and practical psychology studies it intimately, while contemporary philosophers grope painstakingly towards it. A handful of philosophers work to bridge the two traditions (David Loy, Robert Magliola, Carl Olson, Youxuan Wang, Jin Park, et al.), but they are pioneers in a largely undiscovered corner of the forest (or wing of the insane asylum). Loy’s most recent books, Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution and The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory are particularly good at communicating, in a popular vein, the more theoretical/philosophical work he had done in earlier works such as Nonduality and A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack. But it’s a little frustrating that this dialogue has not gotten further. (For instance, the parallels between Loy’s Buddhism and Zizek’s Lacanianism cry out for analysis. Only a handful of people seem to be working on a rapprochement between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, e.g., Raul Moncayo, Anthony Molino, Gay Watson, Mark Unno. Zizek’s own writing on Buddhism seems restricted to a superficial, pop-cultural analysis. The blog Something Completely Different has had a bit of discussion about this.)

Incidentally, Mullarkey’s book seems very good at first glance; he’s a clear thinker and writer. And his new book on film and philosophy, Refractions of Reality, looks even better. Its first chapter can be read here.

to come on this blog…

Over time, I’ll be posting snippets of work-in-progress here that arise from the two manuscripts I’m currently working on. The first of these manuscripts pulls together cultural case studies I’ve done over the years into a conceptually unified argument for an immanent-naturalist “multicultural political ecology,” while the second examines cinema from this perspective. The first is really more empirical than it sounds, examining a range of developments in the arts and media and specific struggles over “nature” as it’s perceived, defined, imagined, and lived. Some of this is a development from my first book, Claiming Sacred Ground, which examined struggles over nature and landscape at two sites of ecospiritual pilgrimage (Glastonbury and Sedona), but the current book applies this approach to a much broader range of cultural phenomena. A third volume, still on the more distant horizon, will flesh out the implications of “immanentism” for ecological, political, and religious philosophy.

As I’ve stated before on this blog, the term “immanent naturalism” is political theorist William Connolly’s term, and I’m using it a little hesitantly and experimentally, thinking it through as I speak/write, to see if it makes sense and if it might catch on (with me, with others) or not. Part of my hesitation comes from the dualistic implications of “naturalism” (natural versus supernatural or unnatural, naturalist versus idealist, etc.). Connolly’s point, like the Spinozist and Deleuzian traditions he draws from, is that nature includes everything that is. For Deleuze, it’s not just everything that is, but everything that has the potential to be, that is virtually there in the structure of the universe, i.e., the structure of becoming (whether it ends up becoming actual or not). Naturalism, therefore, doesn’t have to only deal with empirically knowable existing things; it can be a matter of recognizing that the world is process, and that the invisible and unknowable (for partial and situated observer-participants like ourselves) is also part of that world. But conceivably, this “immanent naturalist” rubric might fade into others over time – which makes sense, because it’s intended to cover such a broad range of thinking (“social nature,” actor-network theory, autopoietic systems theory, ecosemiotics, embodied cognition, process philosophy, etc.).

Some of these posts will deal with how these different strands of what I’m calling “immanent naturalism” deal with the dualisms of nature/culture, spirit/matter, body/mind, and real/imagined. These aren’t the only dualisms that have bogged down our imagination – think male/female, black/white, East/West, etc. – but they are the ones that keep in place the sticky log-jam of thinking between the sciences and the humanities that will have to be unstuck and unjammed if humans are to deal effectively with the social and environmental challenges that face us. (Now there’s a big claim! But it’s one that underlies everything on this blog, so if you’re not convinced, well, then, so be it…)

As you can guess, the blog, then, is also a way to keep myself working, to keep myself honest, and, perhaps over time, generate some discussion with like-minded (or other-minded) theorists and researchers.

atheism and immanence

Here’s an interesting conversation developing on nature and immanence on an atheist blog.

Incidentally, I liked Obama’s nod to non-Christians and “non-believers” in his inauguration speech. It felt like a refreshing breath of fresh air in the constricted atmosphere of American public religious discourse. With the recent growth of religious/spiritual discourse on the left – in part propelled by the Obama campaign – we might be turning a corner…

On the surface, “immanence” would appear to favor certain religiosities (paganisms, pantheisms, animisms, earth spiritualities) over others (transcendentalist monotheisms, rigid dualisms, Buddhist “extinctionism,” et al). But its resonance works within traditions as well: towards panentheistic strains of Christianity, where the Christ is seen as in-dwelling, where Easter is the rebirth of nature and life as well as of social relations after the long hard winter, where Mary is the cosmos; or toward a boddhisattvic liberationist Buddhism that cherishes life rather than seeking to flee from it.

Immanentism redirects our attention to what is going on in the moment-to-moment shaping of the world, to our experience and ability to shift things in one direction or another, to karmic conditions as open-ended rather than fixed. When we grasp something (the self, political power, the object of our desire), we lose it. Immanentism redirects us to the between: the grasping, the finding and losing, the power-to and power-with, the swelling current that pushes for change (e.g., in the build-up to the last US election) rather than the icon of change it gives rise to (Obama) though that icon be instrumental to the change.

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Every blog has its reason for being. The idea behind this one was originally to serve as a forum for thinking in and around the Environmental Thought and Culture Graduate Concentration, which I coordinate at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont.

But that idea mutated as I realized that there isn’t yet a place that acts as a forum for a kind of alternative tradition of thinking about nature, culture, process, politics, and the spiritual (in the broadest sense of the word) that William Connolly calls “immanent naturalism” and that he, among others, associates with innovative activity in environmental and political theory and activism today. That’s part of the inspiration for this blog, so some of the thinkers and ideas that make up that loose “tradition” may be popping up a lot, if not in person at least in reference.

(For definitions of terms used here, see “Immanence” and the other links under “About” at the top of the right column on the Main page of this blog. Connolly’s own writings on immanent naturalism include sections of Neuropolitics and Capitalism and Christianity, American Style; follow the highlights in the linked book excerpts. The general idea is that the world itself is richer, more mysterious, and more radically open – to change, emergent complexity, and innovation – than we tend to think, and that by opening ourselves to that richness and mystery, we extend our capacities for deepening the experience of life for ourselves and those we interact with. In a sense, immanent naturalism is another term for an earth- and life-embracing ethic that conceives of the universe as fundamentally open and pluralistic, and that refrains from any form of closure including the closure that thinks it’s figured it all out. Connolly writes of being guided by a “visceral gratitude” and “care for a protean diversity of being,” and his various writings work out the implications of what that might mean for politics and culture.)

But the more practical goal of this blog is to be a means of communication about issues at the intersection of environmental, political, and cultural theory, especially in the disciplinary interstices inhabited by such fungal intellectual growths as ecocriticism , political ecology, green cultural studies, eco-poststructuralism, environmental communication, and so on (biosemiotics, geophilosophy, animist liberation theology — invent your own neologisms). Where culture meets nature meets consciousness…

So I think of it as a resource: for grad students, for fellow scholars working in these areas, for lay folks interested in these ideas (the boundary between scholarship and the wider world of public thinking gets ever more more blurred thanks to the internet), and for myself – to keep working and communicating outside of the usual framework of publishing, research, etc. A blog is, understandably, more laid-back, unrefereed, and stream-of-consciousness than other forms of intellectual work, so this one may get bulletin-boardy and diaryish, or just inactive, at times.

A blog also, like an idea, is only successful to the extent that it grows, connects, germinates, and takes on a life of its own. This one will start out as just me posting, and we’ll see what happens next. The internet is littered with the detritus of dead blogs and broken links, and if this one goes that route, so be it. But hopefully it won’t.