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Friday, May 25, 2007

Emergent systems for a robust relational ontology

A recent post over at Larval Subjects calls for a more fully developed account of agency...It is admittedly difficult to call Whitehead a materialist — I would be interested, however, to see how his system works if we cut away what he (unfortunately) named “God” — but both Nancy and Zizek at least profess to be materialists. There seem to be no a priori grounds for excluding them, unless the secret handshake to get into the materialist club is to implicitly believe in an outmoded model of the universe as a gigantic billiards table. Posted by Adam Filed in Butler, Whitehead, Zizek, Lacan, philosophy, Nancy, politics 2 Responses to ““Underdeveloped””
larvalsubjects Says: May 24th, 2007 at 4:35 pm Nice post, Adam. I’m still in the process of developing my thoughts on these issues, so I’m not entirely certain what I’m aiming at either...
Just to clarify, I certainly don’t advocate a “billiard ball” model of materialism, and I’ve expended a great deal of effort trying to think the possibility of things such as emergent systems that would allow for a more nuanced, forgiving, and resolutely anti-reductivist material. Consequently, when I evoke the term materialism, I am not making any sort of call for a reduction to physics, neurology, biology, chemistry, etc. I think there is something irreducible in emergent systems and that they have to be approached in their own terms. For instance, I take it that a social system cannot be reduced to the human individuals that compose it, nor do I feel that language can be reduced to brain neurology.
On the one hand, then, I use the term “materialism” as a synonym for an ontology of immanence, such that there are no agencies outside the world or universe, not subject to history, time, development, and so on. On the other hand, this desire to avoid vulgar (and I think facile) reductivism is what attracts me to relational thinkers such as Hegel, Deleuze, Whitehead, and so on. I don’t know what to make of Whitehead’s God talk and whether his references to God are similar to those of Spinoza. This isn’t really what interests me in Whitehead. Rather, I am instead interested in Whitehead’s accounts of process, relations, emergence, and his critique of misplaced concreteness and subject/predicate based metaphysics.
I suppose you’re right that it is easy to claim that an account of agency is underdeveloped. Given your remarks in this post, it looks like I’m not doing a very good job articulating what I’m trying to get at, so I appreciate the nudge you’re giving me here as a prod to better formulate my worries. On the one hand, I am responding to what I see as reductivist tendencies in some variants of continental theory that reduce the agent to a prop for ideology, a formation of power, and so on. On the other hand, my difficulty with Zizek is not the claim that there is something creative in agency that cannot be deduced from what I called “scene” in the post you’re responding to here– I would be committed to that thesis as well –but rather that he seems to reduce the subject to a void or nothing, leaving no room for the cultivation of a self and identity.
From your descriptions– and from what I gather about her more recent work –Butler would here come a bit closer to what I’m looking for. Also, some elements of the late Foucault, beginning with the second volume of the history of sexuality where we get all that stuff about folding, get closer to what I’m looking for. Here, also, I think Badiou’s subject of a truth procedure fairs better than Zizek as we do get a subject that progressively determines and creates itself as a result of its procedure (something like what Whitehead would call a “superject”). I have next to no familiarity with Nancy, so I’ll have to look into some of the references you provide here when I get the chance.
As an aside, I have no deep commitments to Whitehead. I’ve only just begun reading him again after many years as a result of Shaviro’s promptings (if you haven’t gotten the chance, his posts are well worth the read). I find his thought very beautiful and fascinating, but I can’t say I know where I stand with respect to it. I tend to go through phases where I spend a good deal of time reading any thinker that develops a robust relational ontology. Thus, for instance, I’ve spent a good deal of time with Hegel’s Logic, Peirce’s various semiotic writings (his collected works sit atop my shelf), Marx’s Capital, Luhmann’s systems theory, Deleuze’s various works, Levi-Strauss, Heidegger’s middle priod works, Foucault’s work, Lacan, Derrida’s earlier works, etc., etc., etc. The red thread that runs throughout all these orientations is a relational approach to the phenomena they’re investigating. Basically, then, I’ve struggled to find a vocabulary in which I might express a vague intuition I have about the nature of being.
Adam Says: May 24th, 2007 at 4:48 pm The remarks about billiards weren’t directed specifically toward you — I was probably thinking of a comment thread over at Kugelmass’s where he seemed to be equating materialism with reductionism. But he is not alone in such sentiments! In general, anyone advocating a non-reductivist materialism seems to have an uphill battle in store — constantly facing things like “But that isn’t really materialist, is it?”
Steven Shaviro Says: May 24th, 2007 at 9:10 pm A great post, and involving issues that I am trying to work through. Whitehead is relevant, here, as you suggest, because he accepts scientific accounts, and rejects Cartesian dualism, and yet tries to include a margin for “agency” at the same time. He does this through a kind of double causality, in that every event/occasion/entity has both an “efficient cause” (which is scientific or mechanistic causality) and a “final cause” (which is how the entity “subjectively” responds to the elements that it causally inherits from the past).
Despite the Aristotelian terminology, Whitehead’s argument is closer, I think, to the double causality (freedom/determination) in Kant. But Whitehead, as I have been trying to work out in my own writing, is “naturalizing” Kant’s appeal to the noumenal in a weird way. Though he uses anthropomorphic terminology, he is very serious about insisting that the margin of indeterminacy which is where he would locate “agency” as the manner in which an entity “entertains” or responds to its causal inheritance applies just as much to an electron, a rock, or a tree, as it does to a human being. The structure, with its margin for indeterminacy or agency, is the same in all these cases; it is just that, for a rock or a tree, the amount of activity in this margin is “negligable,” whereas for a human being it is much greater.
As for Whitehead’s notion of God — that is opening an entire other can of worms. I find Whitehead’s God quite interesting, and I think there are structural reasons he needs it in his system — and part of this has to do with guaranteeing what I am calling the margin of agency — but I am still struggling to work all this out, so I don’t have a coherent sense yet of how it might affect the argument.
Brad Johnson Says: May 24th, 2007 at 10:56 pm I’m struck by how your reflections here on materialism resonate with my own posts of late about creativity & love. I’m struck even more by the fact that your reflections are far and away more clear than mine.

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