Tag Archive: ontology


Process-relational theory primer

One of the tasks of this blog, since its inception in late 2008, has been to articulate a theoretical-philosophical perspective that I have come to call “process-relational.” This is a theoretical paradigm and an ontology that takes the basic nature of the world to be that of relational process: that is, it understands the basic constituents of the world to be events of encounter, acts or moments of experience that are woven together to constitute the processes by which all things occur, unfold, and evolve. Understanding ourselves and our relations with the world around us in this way, it is argued, can help us unwind ourselves from out of a set of dualisms that have ensnared modern thought over the last few centuries. In contrast to materialist, idealist, dualist, and other perspectives that have dominated modern western philosophy, a process-relational perspective more explicitly recognizes the dynamic, complex, systemic, and evolving nature of reality.

What follows is a brief summary of the process-relational perspective. It is followed by some bibliographic starting points and by a list of links to some of the more substantive posts on this blog that have dealt with process-relational theory.

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(Warning: This is a long and involved post.)

In reposting Steven Shaviro’s critique of DeLanda’s A New Philosophy of Society, Levi Bryant has reminded me of one of the impetuses (impeti?) that moved me to a Whiteheadian perspective. Steven’s review is excellent, and it prefigured what eventually became his book Without Criteria, which I think of as one of the landmark texts in the post-Deleuzian return of Whitehead.

While I like DeLanda very much, I agree that there’s a schematicism in his writing that detracts from what I like most about Deleuze (his “poeticism,” as Shaviro calls it, though it’s more than just stylistics). But thinking through the scientific concepts underlying/informing Deleuze is important work, and DeLanda at least makes it manageable in a way that Deleuze’s own texts rarely do. Whatever losses in fidelity may arise in the transfer, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy is one of the clearest elaborations of a Deleuzian ontology I have seen. A New Philosophy of Society follows up on it by taking on social-science theory, but I think it suffers a little (as Shaviro and Chris Vitale both argue) from a creeping shift away from thinking of assemblages as events and processes to thinking of them as substances. As Shaviro puts it, “For Whitehead’s actual entities are themselves events; whereas, for DeLanda, as much as he wants to proclaim the importance of (contingent) event over (fixed and closed) structure, events are still things that ‘happen to’ entities, rather than entities themselves.”

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SR, Whitehead, etc.

I’m just catching up with this interesting exchange between Gary Williams (Minds and Brains), Graham Harman, and Tom Sparrow (Plastic Bodies). Williams takes issue with Harman’s and others’ portrayal of Speculative Realism as “revolutionary.” “The narrative of ‘finally’ moving beyond the ‘Kantian nightmare’”, he writes, “is tired and overplayed.” He argues that it’s not a big revelation that there is a world that’s independent of human minds. In reply, Harman and Sparrow defend the Speculative Realists’ originality and claim that Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, and others did not sufficiently break with Kantian “correlationism.”

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actual occasions

Glancing through a recent issue of the journal Subjectivity, I noticed that their very first issue — an impressive debut that featured an all-star cast of relational thinkers including Isabelle Stengers, Annemarie Mol, and Nigel Thrift — is freely available online (to non-subscribers). The issue also included an article by Paul Stenner that provides an unusually lucid articulation of Whiteheadian process philosophy in the context of debates about “subjectivity.”

It’s worth sharing Stenner’s 14-point description of “actual occasions,” which is Whitehead’s term for the most fundamental-level events, the process-relational building blocks of the universe (to use a mechanistic metaphor for something that’s the opposite of mechanism). While it’s full of Whiteheadian jargon, and hardly the most friendly introduction to Whitehead for the non-initiated, even if you’re unfamiliar with his basic terms you could still get a good feel for what they might mean and how they cohere into a fairly simple system. Just keep in mind the basic idea: that the universe, from the most microscopic level up, consists not of substances but of processes or events.

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There’ve been smatterings of commentary on the posts dedicated to specific chapters of Vibrant Matter, but not the kind of extended arguments I had originally anticipated (before reading the book). So I’m guessing we may be wrapping up this cross-blog reading group (though Scu may still post on chapter 8).

To the list of entries, which can be found here, you can add my last two (on Signatures and Partitions of the sensible), and Scu‘s followed by my response to it. I don’t have much more to say beyond what I’ve already said. So instead what I’ll do here is to interleave several quotes from different posts (including Bennett’s own words from her interview with Peter Gratton) to create a kind of unresolved, non-chronological quasi-conversation among them. I apologize in advance for the selectiveness and for any inaccuracies in perception that may result from such a procedure. They’re merely intended to remind us of a few of the things that have been said. A brief summary comment follows.

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Bennett’s conatus

Just as I was getting ready to wind up the Bennett discussions yesterday, Scu posted a substantial piece about chapter 7, and promised more to come on chapter 8. I’m glad to see it, since I thought there could have been more discussion about both (and about some general issues throughout the book).

Picking up on the same lines I had noted (“Since I have challenged the uniqueness of humanity in several ways, why not conclude that we and they are equally entitled? [...] To put it bluntly, my conatus will not let me “horizontalize” the world completely”), Scu writes:

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A glimpse of Armillaria ostoyae, said to be the world’s largest organism (whatever that means)

Replying to me here, Graham Harman explains his objections to relational ontologies, arguing that they fail to make a distinction between the “two sorts of relations” in which an entity is involved. These are not “the famous ‘internal’ and ‘external’ relations,” but are what he “somewhat whimsically” calles the “domestic” and “foreign” relations of an object. (I like this distinction, though I’m not sure how it’s different from internal and external relations.)

GH: “Surely Adrian doesn’t want to claim that the cane toad is a set of all its relations? If Mars were five inches further along in its course than it currently is, would the cane toad be a different cane toad than it is now?”

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cinema, ontology, ecology

I’m on my way this week to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference in LA, where I’ll be presenting, in miniature, the ecocritical/ecophilosophical model of cinema that I’m developing in my book-in-progress. This “process-relational” model draws on Peirce, Whitehead, Deleuze, Bergson, Heidegger, and others, with inspirational nods to psychoanalysis, cognitive film theory (which, to be honest, is a little less inspirational, but to some extent inevitable), and individual theorists like Sean Cubitt, John Mullarkey, and Daniel Frampton. Its ecophilosophical basis is that it is primarily concerned with the relationship between cinema — as a technical medium, a thing in the world, and a form of human experience — and the ecologies within which humans are implicated and enmeshed.

Here’s one articulation of that model.

The starting point: Films, or moving images, move us. They take us on journeys (metaphorical or real) into film-worlds. In this sense, films, like all art forms, produce or “disclose” worlds. These worlds are different (according to medium-specific regularities) from the profilmic or extra-filmic world. They are, for one thing, more dynamic (visually-audially) and more synthetic, insofar as they enable a complex array of fragmentations, juxtapositions, and recombinations of elements, and thus for a condensation and multiplication of meanings.

One part of my analysis is of those film-worlds themselves; a second is of our experience of being drawn into those film-worlds; and a third is of the relationship between the film-worlds (as we experience them) and the extra-filmic world.

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(I love this photograph, so here it is again…)

I think the idea and image of dark flow streaming out of our universe has also been resonating with me because of the work I’ve been doing using Vipassana teacher Shinzen Young’s system of mindfulness training. Young is one of the most erudite and intellectually rigorous teachers of Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation, having synthesized decades of training in Zen, Theravadan, and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions along with what seems a voracious appetite for languages, into an “algorithmic system” that takes what, in other places, seems a morass of mutually incommensurable terms and makes it thoroughly coherent and applicable.

Many meditation teachers teach ways of developing clarity, concentration, and equanimity, but none of them — at least none of those I’ve come across currently living (and, of all places, just down the road from me, when he isn’t traveling) — draws in so many different traditions, East and West, into a system that is very approachable, practicable, and yet somehow thorough and complete. (See links at bottom to his talks and writings.) More than that, his system resonates with many of the ideas I’ve been exploring on this blog, including the process-relational and Naturphilosophical streams of Continental philosophy, and in some respects the Lacanian-psychoanalytical (as I’ll point out below), not to mention, of course, other Asian field-theories such as Daoism, western traditions of Hermetic philosophy and Christian negative theology, and the like.

Shinzen describes human subjective experience as phenomenologically distinguishable into three primary “fields,” “spaces” or “elements”: Feel, which are bodily sensations experienced as emotional; Image, which are internal forms of visual thinking; and Talk, which are internal forms of monologue/dialogue/talk or “auditory thinking.” The three subjective “spaces” in which these arise develop in sequence from infancy: first we learn to feel with our bodies, then we start to see things (once our eyes learn to focus on them) and “image” the world and its relationships through imaginal fantasy, and finally we learn the words and the linguistic-discursive constructs that come to shape both our subjectivity and our world for us. And over time the three kinds of elements (distilled, for simplicity’s and usability’s sake, from Buddhism’s “five aggregates”) become densely entangled and knotted into emotionally-laden force-fields.

In a very interesting sense, these three spaces correspond with Jacques Lacan’s tripartite analysis of the psyche into the Real, a kind of nondual state of nature from which we become separated as we take on the qualities of socially defined subjective experience; the Imaginary, the image-based world of self-other relations and fantasies that emerge through the “mirror phase,” when we learn to recognize the body that appears in a mirror as the same one that others see when they see “me”; and the Symbolic, which is the language- and narrative-based world that “interpellates” or “hails us” into being the kind of subject that would fit into the social world.

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relations vs. objects, part x

I’m glad to see that Steven Shaviro and Levi Bryant have stepped into the fray of the debate over the relative virtues of object-centered versus relation-centered ontologies. (Among others, e.g. kvond, Peter Gratton, Graham Harman of course, and see the commenters to Levi’s posts on Harman and Whitehead). With some of the best blogging philosophers going at it, I’m content to sit on the sidelines and watch things unfold. To be fair, Shaviro and Harman, as well as Bryant, have been going at this kind of thing for a while now, but it’s nice to think that my review of Harman’s book helped to catalyze a little bit of the current flare-up. It’s fine to wait around for the print publication of Shaviro’s and Harman’s critiques of and responses to each other, but blogs are so much quicker at quenching one’s philosophic thirst. (And it’s nice to see Whitehead taking a more central place in this discussion.)