Tag Archive: Peirce

(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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DeLanda, Peirce, etc.

Larval Subjects and several other blogs have begun their reading group of Manuel Delanda’s small but ambitious book A New Philosophy of Society. It’s not my favorite of his books — that remains the brilliant A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, followed by the drier, but useful, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. But I think New Philosophy is worth a re-read. (I had offered to participate in the group-think-thing but somehow my comment didn’t make it up on Levi’s blog, which is all to the good, as this week and next are hellishly busy for me. Levi is right, though, in suggesting that I’m developing an assemblage theory of my own. As are a lot of the post-ANT Deleuzians like Protevi, Berressem, et al. With the emphasis on the verb, as in the French “a-ssa(m)-blazh.”)

I also enjoyed the (rather inconclusive) recent discussions of Peirce on Larval Subjects. My hunch, as I suggested there, is that Peirce’s “firstness” has some commonality with OOO’s “withdrawing objects”: firsts withdraw from relation (so to speak), seconds are relations, and thirds are the destiny of relations (again, so to speak). But ultimately I think Peirce is far too processual-relational thinker to be incorporated into OOO without a serious struggle. I admire Levi’s attempt to grapple with him, in any case. The Peirce wave is only beginning, as more of his stuff gets published and worked over. We haven’t seen nothing yet. (OK, anything. Anything yet.)


It’s been slow here because I am hard at work on the manuscript of Ecologies of the Moving Image, which I had hoped to finish this summer. The first three chapters are complete or close to it; the last three and final epilogue are in various stages of semi-completion. Until they are complete, blogging may continue to be slow. (And the current heat wave, hitting 90+ F. (30s C.) temperatures in Vermont’s Green Mountains, and encouraging swimming rather than writing, doesn’t help.) Here’s a little information about the book. (This has been slightly modified from the original post, to clarify a few things.)

There are six chapters, a brief Foreword, and a brief-to-medium length Epilogue. Chapter titles, at the moment, are as follows:

1. Introduction: Journeys into the Zone of Cinema

2. Ecologies, Morphologies, Semiosics: A Process-Relational Model of Cinema

3. Territorialities: The Geomorphology of the Visible

4. Encounters: First Contact, Utopia, & the Ethnographic Impulse

5. Anima Moralia: The Ethics of Perception

6. Terra, Trauma, & the Geopolitics of the Real

Epilogue: Digital Life in a Biosemiotic World

As the Introduction suggests, the journey metaphor looms prominently in the book. This is because I conceptualize the cinematic experience as a journey into cinema worlds. The book presents a philosophy — specifically an ecophilosophy — of the cinema. It brings a “process-relational” approach (indebted to Peirce, Whitehead, Deleuze, and others) to three sets of relational processes: (1) the constitution, becoming, or “worlding” of film-worlds themselves (conceived as morphogenetic processes), (2) the processes by which viewers are drawn into film-worlds, and (3) cinema’s interaction with the extra-cinematic earth-world.

Each of these is a triad, conceived more or less along the lines of Peirce’s categories. With the film-world (#1), there is its geomorphism, the givenness of its objectscapes; there is the biomorphism of its interperceptual dynamics, which include the seeing/hearing/feeling that is at the heart of cinema (i.e., its relational event-ness); and there is the anthropomorphism, by which agency, the capacity to act, is distributed within the film-world. With the film-event (#2), there is its spectacle, its immediate, shimmering ‘thisness’ and ‘thereness’; there is its narrativity, which weaves us into its causal-effective web as it surges forward in time; and there is the semiosic productivity or signness of the meanings that proliferate out of the encounter between us — with our prior experiences, expectations, desires, and so on — and the film. And with the earth-world (#3), there are its material ecologies (for which cinema is a material process), its perceptual ecologies (for which it is a perceptual process), and its social ecologies (for which it is a social process).

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The following are some working notes following up on my previous post on the relationship between Charles Sanders Peirce and Alfred North Whitehead, specifically on Peirce’s logical/relational/phenomenological categories (firstness, secondness, thirdness) and Whitehead’s notion of prehension and the “actual occasion.” It’s become clear to me since writing that post that any rapprochement between the two requires going through Charles Hartshorne (which is something I had been resisting due to the theological cast of many of Hartshorne’s writings, but I’ve come to see that it’s unavoidable).

Hartshorne (pronounced “Harts-horn”) was a close student of Whitehead’s and an editor and archive keeper of Peirce’s work at Harvard. From what I can tell, Hartshorne is the most important philosopher directly related to both CSP and ANW to have attempted a synthesis of the two. The most thorough and final elucidation of that synthesis seems to come in his 1984 book Creativity in American Philosophy [note: this post originally incorrectly identified the year of his death as 1990; it was actually 2000 - Hartshorne lived to the ripe old age of 103].

Hartshorne has great respect for Peirce’s phenomenology (a word Peirce uses somewhat differently from Husserl, being empty of what we would now call Husserl’s “correlationism”), which in his account begins to set us on the right path of metaphysics, but doesn’t quite get us all the way there. Whitehead’s metaphysics, on the other hand, for Hartshorne, tower over all recent rivals in their “conceptual clarity and relevance to our total intellectual situation” (103). Within Whitehead’s system, it is, for Hartshorne, the concept of “prehension” that is “one of the most original, central, lucid proposals ever offered in metaphysics” (109). As Hartshorne defines it, prehension

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between Whitehead & Peirce

The case has often been made — by John Cobb, David Ray Griffin, and others — that Alfred North Whitehead’s process metaphysics provides an account of the universe that is, or could be, foundational to an ecological worldview. This is because it is an account that is naturalist (or realist), relational, evolutionary, and non-dualistic in its overcoming of the subject-object and mind-matter dichotomies. For what it’s worth (this part probably isn’t necessary to an ecological worldview, though it may be attractive to some of its proponents), Whitehead’s philosophy is also more or less panexperientialist or panpsychist, which means that it acknowledges mind or mental activity, defined at least in a very minimal sense, throughout the universe; and, if one cares about its theological stance (which many classical Whiteheadians do), it is more or less panentheistic, recognizing divinity as both immanent in the world (i.e., pantheistic) and transcendent of it (in that the divine acts to lure creation/creativity/evolution forward to greater novelty, complexity, and beauty).

While the relations between Whitehead, on one hand, and Deleuze, Bergson, and others I’ve written about here (including even Madhyamika Buddhism) on the other, have all been explored in various places, it’s surprising to me how few comparative studies there are of the metaphysics of Whitehead and of Charles Sanders Peirce. On the face of it, the two shared more than the other pairings. For one thing, Peirce’s Collected Papers were housed, edited, and first published at Harvard where Whitehead was a professor at the time, and Whitehead’s student Charles Hartshorne was one of the first editors and commentators on Peirce’s oeuvre. In sensibility, there is much overlap and resonance between the two: both were strongly empirically grounded philosophers, logicians and mathematicians no less, whose interest in metaphysics was first and foremost an interest in accounting for reality as we know, perceive, and live it. Both took sharp aim at Cartesian dualism, so both anticipate the critique of anthropocentrism that characterizes a lot of contemporary environmental thought. And both are, broadly speaking, philosophers of process, becoming, and evolutionary change. (On this shared processualist background, see Nicholas Rescher’s Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues, Browning and Myers’ Philosophers of Process, and David Ray Griffin’s Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Peirce, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne.)

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I’m looking forward to Graham Harman’s forthcoming review of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and I’m glad to see that this discussion between object-oriented philosophy and Bennett’s vibrant materialism (and, by extension, the other theoretical impulses she draws on, which this blog, for the most part, enthusiastically shares) is getting underway. That discussion will no doubt continue over the summer as this blog, Critical Animal, Philosophy in a Time of Error, and maybe a few others engage in a collective reading of Bennett’s book. (Perhaps that should be followed by a group reading of Tim Morton’s new book, The Ecological Thought.)

While Graham’s argument that relationism is “a spent force” is obviously not one that will convince the growing number of scholars drawing in productive ways on relational theories (Whitehead’s, Deleuze’s, Bergson’s, Simondon’s, Latour’s, Serres’s, Stengers’s, et al), he’s entitled to make that case. He summarizes his objection here in this way:

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I like to follow extended think-fests (such as conferences) with brief flights away from cerebrality, at least for a couple of days where possible. So following the SCMS, I visited the Santa Monica Mountains, which included a hike up La Jolla Canyon and Mugu Peak at the northern end of the range, and another up Solstice Canyon and the Sostomo Trail/Deer Valley Loop. Both were beautiful, as it was a great time to be there — warm, sunny, breezy, their chaparral and riparian vegetation in full bloom this time of year. Then I drove up from Malibu via Mulholland Highway to Hollywood — having recently re-read Mike Davis’s case for letting Malibu burn (in The Ecology of Fear) in preparation for it — and then walked from Griffith Observatory to the top of Mount Hollywood to get a great view of the whole LA area, somewhat muted by smog but not nearly as much as it would have been several years ago.

(As for letting Malibu burn, well, some of the monster homes did remind me a little of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, although (a) burning and exploding are not the same thing, (b) there’s still a fair bit of land set aside in the public/private patchwork of the area to keep environmentalists at least somewhat happy, and (c) I might even consider living there myself if I could afford it ;-).)

The irony, and this is part of the point, is that getting away from thinking tends to trigger new synaptic connections for thinking. This time the connections revolved mainly around two sets of foci, one having to do with the raison d’etre of my teaching, research, and writing (which I’ll leave aside for a future post), and the second having to do with aesthetics and Peircian phenomenology. I’ve been thinking a lot about the latter recently — especially Peirce’s classification of experience into firstness, secondness, and thirdness — and wondering why it was that, for all the thousands of pages he wrote during his prolifically unpublished life, he had very little to say about aesthetics and ethics. In fact, he often admitted his ignorance of both of them, even as they fit into important places within his philosophical system. (He took aesthetics and ethics to be two of the three divisions of “normative science,” the third being logic, and the three corresponding, respectively, to the beautiful, the good, and the true.)

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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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The Biology Blog’s post on shadow biospheres intrigued me in part because I’ve been reading Charles Sanders Peirce, for whom semiosis is writ large (and small) throughout all things. Musing philosophically about the search for life on other planets, the author, cyoungbull, writes, “Unless we know how to interpret the signs of such life, we may not be able to distinguish it from the natural background.” For Peirce, signs of life are everywhere. Indeed, signs are everywhere, as are meanings, at least for those equipped to bear them. Just as for Whitehead it’s experience all the way down, for Peirce it’s semiosis all the way down. (There are other parallels between Whitehead and Peirce; more on those in a future post.) Whether we can read them or not is the question — a question made all the more poignant when they destroy homes and topple buildings, as in Haiti recently or Chile this morning.

The Bioblog piece links to an Astrobiology article on the signatures of shadow biospheres and to an old Nature article by chaophilic scientists and SF writers Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, which includes the following (entertaining) list of “canonical answers” to Enrico Fermi’s 1950 question “if intelligent aliens exist, why aren’t they here?”:

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