on a passage in Shaviro

September 30, 2009

This is going to be my last blog post for many hours, because I have a full plate for the rest of the day.

Yesterday I was feeling frustrated by the whole Whitehead/Deleuze issue, because it was one of those moments where the facts seemed quite obvious to me, and resistance to those facts seemed perverse. But Ivakhiv’s follow-up post reminded me that there are, in fact, quite a lot of good people who see things that way. And after sleeping on it, I realized that this disagreement is not at all one of perversity, but of a disagreement between two fundamentally different schools of thought (though I may be the only member of one of the schools) and the issues in question may be worth a protracted war for a few years.

In some sense it comes down to a question of philosophical taxonomy. How do you determine which animal species or which philosophers belong together?

Bats and birds both fly, and thus it would seem to make sense to group them together. But flight turns out to look like a superficial similarity between them, given that bats are mammals. I see the supposed Whitehead/Deleuze similarity as at best a case of bats and birds. Ivakhiv and the others he listed are in disagreement. I’ve given the reasons why I think that “novelty” and “becoming” are an insufficient similarity to warrant fusing what I see as two distinct groups.

In fact, as recently as 2006, I saw them all as one big group as well. I began work on a manuscript at that time. It seemed to me that there was a big group of thinkers that, unlike mainstream analytic and mainstream continental philosophy, was relatively indifferent to the centerpiece of Kantian philosophy: the privileged human-world relation. (Note: everyone is “influence by Kant” in some way. My claim was never that there is no influence at all of Kant on Deleuze, Bergson, or even Whitehead. The claim was simply that the the group does not labor in Kant’s shadow in the same way as, say, Husserl and Heidegger do.)

I was going to call the book “School X”, as a still undetermined rigid designator for these remarkably non-Kantian thinkers. And it included the names you might expect: Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson, Simondon, Tarde, James, Latour, Serres, Stengers, and I think a couple of other names I don’t recall at the moment. Oh yeah, DeLanda was in the mix too. But I think there was one more. (Latour himself was pressing to include Nietzsche in the group, but I disagree for reasons I will go into another time. He also thought Darwin belonged in the group, but I disagree again for other reasons.)

The reason I abandoned the project (Prince of Networks emerged from the ruins of it, as a hypertrophied version of the Latour chapter) is because I decided after much consideration that the philosophers listed above don’t actually all fit together. In recent days I have given the reasons why not.

The whole point of Whitehead and Latour is to valorize individual, actual entities. The whole point of Bergson, Deleuze, Simondon is to undercut the apparent philosophical pre-eminence of individual, actual entities. That is such a basic philosophical rift that there is simply no bridging it.

Now in fact, as readers know, I don’t think Whitehead and Latour are right either, because they dissolve individual entities into complexes of relations. What I do like about them is their manner of making concrete individuals the hero of philosophy, just as I do.

But I haven’t even gotten to Shaviro yet, though he’s in the title of this post. I’m still writing my response to him for The Speculative Turn, trying to keep it reasonably short if possible. To this end I was reading more of his very nice Whitehead book this morning, Without Criteria, which everyone should read when they can.

But of course there are a couple of things in the book I really don’t like. I was going to send these to Shaviro by e-mail, but then I realized that we’ve already had a friendly critical interchange in the blogosphere and we can do that again. Shaviro agrees with me in trying to slow down the speed of blog interchanges a bit, so I won’t have to worry that this will turn into a time-consuming dialogue over the next several days. But he may have something interesting to say in response (or rather, he definitely will have something interesting to say, and may have the free time to say it soon).

Two things I don’t like about the book, both of which he already knows:

1. He is too quick to try to turn Kant into an ally. We’ve had this dispute before. Kant is one of the very greatest philosophers ever (I still rank him as #3, trailing only the two big Greeks, whose order of magnitude I can never decide). But I don’t see how philosophy can progress right now without an emphatic denial of the central principle of the Copernican Revolution: the privilege of the human-world relation over all others. Preserve that privilege, and you’re stuck on a Copernican landscape, and that’s why, much as I like Zizek and Badiou, I think their legacy is not the one to follow.

2. Much of the book’s attempted fusion of Whitehead and Deleuze is, in my opinion, wishful thinking. I think the most flagrant case occurs in Shaviro’s reading of Whitehead’s “eternal objects” on pages 38-39.

On page 38, Shaviro says that the eternal objects “cannot be conceived by themselves, in the absence of the empirical, temporal entities that they inform.” While reading this sentence I was shocked, saying “that doesn’t sound like Whitehead to me. I’ll have to go back to that section of Whitehead.”

But then I didn’t even have to go back to it, because Shaviro almost immediately cites the exact passage I was planning to find, even though it contradicts the italicized passage above. Namely (and this is Whitehead speaking):

“any entity whose conceptual recognition does not involve a necessary reference to any definite actual entities of the temporal world is called an ‘eternal object’.”

In other words, Shaviro says that eternal objects cannot be conceived apart from the temporal particulars into which they ingress, while Whitehead says that they must be. The attempt to link Whitehead’s eternal objects to Deleuze’s virtual is, in short, doomed to failure. One cannot just explain away the fact that Whitehead calls the eternal objects “possible”, a term that Deleuze is known to detest.

In the top paragraph on page 38, there are various fancy attempts to show that the eternal objects are more Deleuzian than Platonic, but none of them are remotely convincing.

For instance, Shaviro cites Whitehead’s point that concrete particular facts cannot be built out of universals as evidence that he is not a Platonist. But it is by no means clear that Plato holds that particular facts are “built up” from universals. No one would claim that Whitehead and Plato are identical thinkers, but the eidei/eternal objects pair does not seem to be a point of disagreement. (But speaking of a war between two different schools of thought– in my first correspondence with Isabelle Stengers, way back in 1999, in a web fight mischievously staged by none other than Bruno Latour himself, what made Stengers most furious was my claim that Whitehead’s theory of eternal objects is Platonic. And I still don’t see how one an avoid that perfectly harmless claim, literally endorsed even by Whitehead. The Whitehead-Meets-Deleuze school obviously needs to sweep Plato from the picture to make a Whitehead-Deleuze link more plausible, but I’m afraid it won’t work. Whitehead has a theory of eternal objects that most closely resembles a Platonic theory of universals, and Shaviro’s effort to Deleuzianize Whitehead’s theory is, at best, insufficiently clear.)

I also don’t like this passage on page 38 (my least favorite page in the book so far):

“[Eternal objects] are adverbial, rather than substantive; they determine and express how actual entities relate to one another…”

But they are neither avderbial nor substantive. They are adjectival, a much simpler and truer description that Shaviro never even mentions. And the following sentence is even more wrong:

“Like Kantian and Deleuzian ideas, eternal objects work regulatively, or problematically.”

I’m not even sure what to say about this. An eternal object can be found, say, in the exact sickly shade of lime green of the table on which I am now typing. There is nothing at all “regulative” or “problematical” about this green. It is actually exemplified by this table, right now. It is in no way elusive or impossible to actualize, like the Kantian ideas.

A better candidate in Whitehead’s philosophy for matching the Kantian ideas would in fact be actual entities, not eternal objects. For no one other than God can ever prehend another actual entity in an adequate manner. The concept “object” in my own work is another case where there are reasonably close resonances with the Kantian “ideas.”

But eternal objects and the Kantian ideas? I don’t see how. The eternal objects can go for a long time or forever without ingressing into anything. But they are by no means problematic and adverbial, whether actualized or not. Green is not a regulative idea. It is either present before me, or it isn’t.

I’ll end it here, but just want to emphasize that I do very much like Shaviro’s book and his general approach and attitude. I simply think this Deleuze/Whitehead alliance is a fantasy, and one that threatens to overshadow a really crucial philosophical problem that separates two different schools. To say that “creation” unites them is like saying that flying unites birds and bats: quite possibly true, but not yet at the bottom of things.


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