“Beatnik Brothers? Between Graham Harman and the Deleuzo-Whiteheadian Axis”

June 22, 2014

We haven’t heard from Adrian Ivakhiv in this part of the blogosphere for awhile, so I was glad to see THIS POST about his new article in parrhesia, whose title can be found above as the title of this post.

I’m in the middle of something else and so haven’t read the article yet. “Beatnik Brothers” is presumably a joking reference I once made to a “Beatnik Brotherhood” of process philosophy, though I can no longer remember where I said it.

But to repeat, I don’t think there is any such thing as a Deleuzo-Whiteheadian access. Indeed, I think that Deleuze and Whitehead could hardly be more polar opposites. They are oil and water. They are matter and antimatter.

There are plenty of people who disagree with me about this– Ivakhiv seems to be one, Isabelle Stengers and Steven Shaviro are two others. But I make the contrary case in a book chapter coming out within the next few months:

“Whitehead and Schools X, Y, and Z,” in The Lure of Whitehead, edited by Nicholas Gaskill and Adam Nocek. (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2014.)

To summarize, I think those who see a Deleuzo-Whiteheadian access as existing are being duped by “process” and related words.

There are two ways to look at becoming. One is to say that becoming is an indivisible, primary movement not really composed of individual states. The states are merely abstractions cut away from the primal movement. Here we have Deleuze and Bergson. And here we also have Aristotle in the Physics, some may be surprised to hear.

The other way of looking at the world is to say that individual states are primary. This is nothing if not Whitehead’s central claim. Actual entities do not become, they simply perish. Why do they simply perish? Because an actual entity is completely concrete, completely defined by all of its positive and negative prehensions, and once those pretensions shift in even the slightest manner (as they do constantly) then the previous actual entity is deceased, and replaced by a close successor. There is only perishing, no becoming, because there is nothing left over that could become. The word “process” and haggling over terms such as “subjective aim” cannot be allowed to obscure the basic fact, central to Whitehead’s philosophy, that it is a philosophy of perishing, not of becoming. In other words, an instant is ontologically self-contained for Whitehead. This is the occasionalist tradition of “continuous creation” of the world in every instant, which could hardly have less to do with Bergson and Deleuze (and with Aristotle, for that matter).

Bruno Latour is another comrade of Whitehead here. We see this at the beginning of his career, in Irreductions, where he says that a thing exists in one time and one place only. We see it more recently, in An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence, where one of Latour’s modes is Reproduction [REP], meaning that nothing continues in its existence, and everything must be recreated in every instant. It’s the occasionalist tradition again (with the big difference that Latour, unlike Whitehead, does not call upon God to do any causal work). [ADDENDUM: For some reason I typed “Repetition” for [REP] the first time. Thanks to the trolls for picking up the error. They’re great free proofreaders.]

Finally, let me add the name of Martin Heidegger to those of Whitehead and Latour. For the same mistake of classing Whitehead with Deleuze was anticipated by the much older mistake of thinking that Heidegger is literally a philosopher of time. He isn’t. Heidegger has nothing at all to tell us about time in the sense of change, becoming, motion. His concept of time applies perfectly well to a single static, frozen instant. For Bergson, it would be ridiculous to think of a single frame of time and ask what is going on there– you can’t really decompose time into instants in that way (the same for Aristotle in the Physics).

But for Heidegger, you can certainly ask about what’s going on in a single instant (and not just in the privileged Augenblick, but more generally). Can you do this for Whitehead? Of course you can. An actual entity always can (and should) be analyzed into its pretensions, and a thing’s prehensions [stupid auto-correct keeps changing it to “pretensions”] have nothing inherently temporal about them. They are happening right now. The ones that come later will actually belong to a slightly different actual entity, not the one that currently exists and is exhaustively deployed in its prehensions. For Latour, can you analyze a thing in terms of its current relations? Of course you can. That’s the whole point of Latour’s philosophy.

So, why do I have such a hard time convincing people of the ideas just expressed in this post? My theory is that people so badly want the philosophical enemy to be “stasis,” “substance,” “fully-formed individuals,” “the now,” and related topics, that they want to lump everyone together in a big team who seems to reject these apparently fossilized traditional terms. But in doing so, I hold, they are misdescribing the landscape of friends and enemies, and thus failing to make the crucial distinction between the “Deleuzo-” and “-Whiteheadian” parts of what is really a nonexistent axis.



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