Levi Bryant, in a recent blog entry, argues against the reductionist critique that would see only subatomic particles as “real,” since they are the building blocks of everything on a larger scale. [...]
I prefer Whitehead’s account to the more recent “object-oriented” one. Whitehead fully recognizes how a thing, or an object, is independent of, and irreducible to, its causes, components, and supports or preconditions or milieu. But he goes to great lengths to prevent this independence from being hypostasized as an enduring substance. A Whiteheadian “actual occasion” (or “actual entity”) is in fact independent of everything contemporaneous with it (just as Bryant and Harman claim);No entity is merely a passive result of what precedes it, because every entity makes a “decision” with regard to the “data” that it “prehends” (perceives, touches, is affected by, etc.). Indeed, the independence of an entity/occasion in the present is precisely the consequence of its “decision” with regard to its past. Contemporaneous decisions made by different entites do not influence one another, which is why things can be different, and the new can be produced, even within a common environment or a common set of antecedents.
However — such an “actual entity” is not a substance (in Harman’s sense) or a subsisting object (in Bryant’s sense), because it precisely does not endure. That is to say, it is a process rather than a substance. Once it happens, it is done; it is now dead, or (as Whitehead likes to put it), “objectively immortal” — it is now a mere datum for other processes to come. In this way, the entity is not independent of its antecedents and consequences. It comes out of those things that it makes a decision about, and it influences the rest of reality as something about which other entities must make a decision. It cannot be completely prehended or apprehended by any following entity — it is always grasped only partially and incompletely, just as Harman requires of objects in relation to other objects. And yet it is in its essence relational, because it arises out of already-given data and donates itself to the future as data.
In other words, the punctuality of Whitehead’s actual occasions, the fact that they are “perpetually perishing,” is what gives them over to temporality — in contrast to the way that time remains necessarily secondary and external for the “object-oriented” thinkers. Or, Whitehead’s doctrine of actual occasions does in fact meet all the criteria of Harman’s and Bryant’s object-oriented thought, while at the same time being essential temporal and relational in a way that their notion of object-independence is unable to compass. Harman and Bryant are right in what they require of objects; but there is more to it than they are willing to compass. Whitehead doesn’t contradict the “object-oriented” argument, so much as he places it within a wider context of relations. What Harman and Bryant see as an opposition, is for Whitehead rather a contrast.
I am not really saying anything different from what I say in my formal article critiquing Harman, which I will be delivering tomorrow as a talk at the SLSA conference in Atlanta; and which will appear, together with Harman’s own spirited rejoinder, in the forthcoming volume The Speculative Turn. But I think that Bryant’s formulations in his latest blog posting have allowed me, or spurred me, to make one aspect of the argument clearer than it was before.
[Note to self: this is still incomplete. I need to write also about how Whitehead conceives "societies", which can be objects that more or less endure through time, like myself or a tree. Societies are composed of actual entites, but not in the way that physical objects are composed of subatomic particles; there is a crucial "mereological" argument here, one that I still need to work out better -- but that differs from Bryant's account of parts and wholes. Also, I need to broaden the sense in which Whitehead's approach bridges the gap between object-orientation on the one hand, and the emphasis on becoming and transformation and crystallizations of the actual out of the virtual that one finds in Bergson, Deleuze, and Iain Hamilton Grant. Harman regards this as an irreconcilable opposition -- for him, there is no middle ground between the object-orientation of his own thought, Bryant's, and Latour's, and the process orientation of the above-mentioned thinkers. But Whitehead precisely undoes this dichotomy -- and that is something else that I still need to work out more fully and cogently].
I also deny outright Shaviro’s claim to occupy the high ground in explaining becoming. I’m going through Aristotle’s Physics right now, and there (in Book V) it is made clear enough why we can only speak of change when there is something capable of bearing opposite qualities at different times or in different respects. I realize that Aristotle is not viewed as especially interesting by today’s continental avant garde, but that’s no concern of mine. When you relationize everything, you lose change. What you have instead is generation, with new things generated in each instant.
Shaviro claims that his position explains change, but all it really gives us is the illusion of change: like those card decks with stationary cartoons which, when flipped through in rapid succession, give the illusory impression of a dynamic event.
Objects in my philosophy, like primary substances in Aristotle’s, are perfectly changeable and perfectly destructible. The fact that both Aristotle and I contend that things can withstand changes to some extent while still remaining what they are does not make us the oppressive Philosophers of Stasis that Shaviro contrasts so negatively with Whitehead and Deleuze (who, incidentally, have much less to do with one another than current fashion holds– Whitehead is a philosopher of occasions, and Deleuze definitely not; the truth is this: Whitehead and Latour vs. Bergson and Deleuze, and the sooner that is seen, the better).
There is nothing “static” about my philosophy. I allow objects to be crushed by bulldozers and trucks, melted in furnaces, generated from forebears, heated and cooled by central air systems, and so forth. But Shaviro has the odd notion that if anything is allowed a non-relational sort of reality, and is allowed to last even for 3 to 5 seconds, let alone a few decades, that somehow we have fallen into a “static” ontology.
Why? What’s so “static” about allowing someone to live for 80 or 90 years, saying that they are the same person despite many changes over that period, and that they then die?