World as Medium: Or, How Self-Differing Substance makes strange bedfellows of Whitehead, Hegel, and Deleuze
crossposted at Orbis Mediologicus
Towards the end of his mammoth Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead increasingly uses the phrase ‘world as medium.’ Such a usage of course requires that we rethink precisely what we mean by a medium – medium for whom? Does a medium require a subject which is thereby mediated? We see a similar dilemma at work in relation to arguments which rage within contemporary information theory on whether or not information needs be defined as ‘readable’ by a subject: does a meteor crashing onto an uninhabited planet increase the planet’s information? Of course, this depends on whether or not you are a physicist (answer: yes, because information is defined in relation to the probability of something happening, lower probability is higher information content) or a biologist (answer: no, because there is no creature there to read the data as meaningful).
Similarly, whether or not we can consider the ‘world as medium’ hinges on precisely what you consider at stake with subjectivity. For Whitehead, the world can be a medium for itself on a variety of levels. One of the primary goals of Whitehead’s mature work is to show that mind and matter interpenetrate at every level of existence, and that there is a difference in degree and complexity, but not a fundamental difference in kind, between humans and quantum phenomena. Thus even the most minute physical events have a subjective component, for they have a certain ‘privacy’ to them. For without the postulation of a certain sort of ‘thought’ going on, even of a very simple sort, within the physical world, how can we account for the sense in which quantum phenomenon, and all processes derived thereof, seem to ‘decide’ amongst possible alternatives? Subjectivity, even in the most simple forms, lies in germ within all matter. While humans might be highly developed forms thereof, we are simply blooms of the germ present within all the stuff of the world.
Thus the world is a medium for itself as the world feels and thinks and feels itself. It is able to do this because the world is, in his terms, ‘extended’, that is, the world is distanced from itself so as to create multiple standpoints from which to observe/act (in his terms, ‘prehend’) in/on itself. Space and time as we know it are aspects of this extension of existence from itself. Any objects which observe/act on themselves can do so because of the manner in which existence self-differs from itself in this manner.
This notion that substance is self-differing, and gives rise to subjectivity, is a hot one in various branches of contemporary theory. Certainly the complexity studies argue that mind is an emergent process, the product of micro-agents which give rise to macro-phenomena which qualitatively exceed the mere sum of the action of said micro-agents. Complexity theorists argue that what we commonly call ‘mind’ is something like ‘the wave’ at a baseball stadium, or the intricate patterns made by schools of fish or flocks of birds. Such an approach has as one of its assumptions, however, that there is no difference in kind between matter and mind. That is, there is no binary split in the world between Descartes res cogitans and res extensa. Rather, higher formations of mind are latent as potential within all matter. All that is needed is the right conditions to bring it, and potentially other forms of mind, to the fore. While mind may emerge in leaps and jumps, it must be potentially present within all matter for such jumps be possible in the first place. With our further understanding of the behavior of quantum phenomena, such a perspective becomes less metaphysics, and more physics of the more ordinary, or perhaps extraordinary, kind.
The notion that substance or matter is self-differing, and gives rise to consciousness as an emergent phenomena, is an increasingly common perspective in both the sciences and philosophy. Oddly enough, it seems that proponents of such an idea come from what might traditionally have been seen as opposed philosophical camps. For example, A. Kiarina Kordela’s recent book Surplus: Spinoza, Lacan (2007), masterfully argues that Spinoza’s primary ontological project is to articulate precisely this concept – self-differing substance – and that his contemporary inheritors are Marx (in his analysis of capital) and Lacan (in his analysis of jouissance). And yet, isn’t Spinoza supposed to be the forefather of contemporary Deleuzians, often known for their antagonisms to all things Lacanian? Stranger still, the notion that Lacan might have been arguing for such self-differing substance is increasingly the position being taken by Slavoj Zizek in his more recent works. Adrian Johnston’s relatively new text Zizek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity (2008) carefully details this transition in order to support the claim that Zizek presents an example of the sort of transcendental materialism Johnston sees as the basis of his own project.
In many senses, the idea of ’self-differing substance’ is perhaps forming the sort of consensus which marks the rise of a new paradigm in contemporary philosophy – the most recent work of Graham Harman’s ‘object oriented philosophy’ in particular is a poignant example of the manner in which matter grasping itself requires a new definition of subjectivity so that it is no longer necessarily tied to the structure of the human subject, and rather, potentially goes ‘all the way down’ within matter,
dissolving the fixity of the barrier between matter and mind. Such an approach, founded on readings figures as diverse as Heidegger and Latour (for his most recent formations, see the final section of his text Bruno Latour: Prince of Networks, though a new book is forthcoming) has as one of its fundamental aims to put objects of various sorts on the same, self-differing, ontological level. Immanence giving rise to its own transcendental self-relation, in Deleuzian terms. And as Johnston argues, this is precisely where the arch Lacanian Zizek sees his reading of Lacan progressively tending – towards a transcendental materialist ontology.
But if Lacanians and Deleuzians can learn to break bread, what might happen next – Deleuzians and Hegelians?! And yet, in fact, Zizek’s 2004 book Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences – a largely ignorable book for a variety of reasons – makes one interesting point, namely, that Deleuze is in many ways a closet Hegelian. Of course, Deleuze’s hatred of all things Hegel is well known. But there is little evidence that Deleuze necessarily read that much Hegel – unlike with Kant, he did not write a book, or just about anything, about his other theoretical ‘enemy.’ But what might there be in common with the philosopher of radical difference and the philosopher of totality, in which the subject gains absolute knowledge of the world in which all trace of otherness vanishes?
Few have done more than Zizek himself to show the extent to which Hegel is in fact a much more complex thinker than the caricature whereby his thought is often characterized. And without question, Hegel’s writings are rife with quotations which, if taken out of context, can make him out to be a thinker which absorbs all difference and contingency. Whitehead, for example, refers to Hegel in the most dismissive terms, and like Deleuze, rarely engages with Hegel in a substantive manner. And yet, an engagement with Hegel’s texts today reveal more than anything else that Hegel is perhaps more than anything else a theorist of precisely what Deleuze and Whitehead worked so hard to articulate: self-differing substance which allows for the emergence of its own complex self-experiencing.
Much of this is hard to see if one simply reads isolated sentences of Hegel’s text, but Hegel is perhaps the first true process theorist – as with both Whitehead and Deleuze, an attempt is made to grasp the process of becoming through language, a nearly impossible project. Any given word or even sentence will by its very structure fix things, and privilege stasis and being over becoming and process. What is needed then is a strategic manner of writing which uses language to show what language misses, namely, process. In various ways, Whitehead, Hegel, Deleuze, and Lacan all work to do precisely this, if in wildly different manners. But this perhaps explains partially why Hegel is so easily misunderstood. Another reason, of course, why Deleuze was likely so against Hegel is the way in which Hegel was being deployed in France at the time, and by whom. The French translation of Hegel was still a relatively new event, and the rise of Hegel in France can directly be traced to the influence of figures such as Alexandre Kojeve, Jean Wahl, and Jean Hyppolite. Deleuze’s ‘anxiety of influence’ in regard to Hegel is, within the historical context, more than understandable (for more on the historical context, see Bruce Baugh’s 2003 text French Hegel: From Surrealism to Postmodernism).
But any thorough reading of Hegel can demonstrate that Hegel’s use of language uses a torsion to enact dialectical movement in such a manner that terms can rarely be read as they would in everyday use. Any reader of Deleuze will attest to a similarly performative use of language, and Hegel is perhaps the first thinker to truly employ such an approach to get around the limitations of language, and he is in this sense perhaps one of the first thinkers in Western thought to really attempt to integrate the thought of time and process into the form whereby philosophy is written, and hopefully, read. For example, when Hegel discusses the manner in which the subject at the end of the process of coming to absolute knowledge, comes to absorb all difference into itself – precisely the sort of language that would make most Deleuzians lose their shit – we need to know what he means by these terms at this point in his argument in a given text. For the subject which gets to the standpoint of ‘absolute knowing’ is necessarily the collective subject of existence as such, namely, Spirit. And furthermore, the complete absorption of otherness into such a subject only comes about when that subject realizes that they are nothing but the product of this otherness. Zizek has extensively demonstrated the extent to which Hegel has largely been misread, and this is a claim that this Deleuzian finds pretty damn convincing. Even a cursory reading of the ‘Introduction’ to The Phenomenology of Spirit will convince an attentive reader that Hegel views consciousness, at least of the human sort, as little other than self-differing, and more extensive readings of Hegel will prove that he views matter itself as little other than self-differing substance.
Hegel’s very notion of the for-itself is in fact little other than the radical Spaltung or splitting of substance in the process of grasping itself, and time, space, object, and subject are simply the results thereof. This is what Hegel, in paragraph 86, simply calls ‘experience.’ What we call the individual is simply an epiphenomenon thereof (even contemporary Deweyians should have their radar go off on that one!). In fact, what Hegel describes as ‘experience’ here is nothing less than what Lacan describes as the ‘extimacy’ of consciousness to itself: “Consciousness now has two objects: one is the first in-itself, the second is the being-for-consciousness of this in-itself . . . the moment of transition from the first object and the knowledge of it, to the other object, which experience is said to be about.” (pgh. 86-87). But because Hegel’s true subject always is and always must be Spirit, we realize that individual consciousness is merely a moment of this larger subject, and that it is substance itself which ultimately is extimate to itself, such that subject and substance are little other than differing moments or views on this process of self-differing.
Why then does Hegel get such a bad rap? Hegel, like his inheritor Lacan, sought to dialectize certain terms in circulation, to use them against the grain of their current usage, in order to bring them within his project and resignify their use. Hegel is a fundamentally performative writer. Absolute knowledge is thus the harmonization of absolute contingency and absolute necessity. All binaries eventually dissolve, such as those between subject and object, matter and mind, etc. To isolate and reify any of his statements is to do the motion of his thought a disservice. The same can be said of Lacan and Deleuze. Whitehead is perhaps one thinker of differential substance who does not take a performative approach in regard to his writing, and while he is able to communicate, the ’spiral’ structure of Process and Reality, and the proliferation of terms to describe moments of the same phenomena, or his need to differentiate between genetic and temporal progression, all attest to the fact that Whitehead was dealing with similar issues in regard to how to write his text, even if his solutions were somewhat different (and potentially less elegant).
None of which is to say that Lacan, Hegel, Deleuze, and Whitehead are saying ‘the same thing.’ Badiou and Lacan are still, to use terms put forth by Badiou, ‘thinkers of the two’, which put an emphasis upon the differing of substance from itself rather than the relational aspects thereof. Badiou is a theorist of the cut, while many of the theorists I am mentioning as articulating a position in regard to self-differing substance put the emphasis upon relation, upon what Deleuze would call ‘disjunctive synthesis’. Our age is one of relation, one which needs to emphasize relation in order to penetrate the veil of reifications which contemporary capital uses to direct us from some relations at the expense of others. I see the project of articulating the potential manifestations of self-differing substance as ultimately having the potential to intervene within this set of concerns.
Towards this project, some thinkers will be more useful than others, and there is much to be said of the fine differences between thinkers. But for too long certain thinkers haven’t been seen as resources for those with potentially similar projects due non-theoretical reasons. The divisions within contemporary theory between Deleuzians, Lacanians, Hegelians, and Whiteheadians are perhaps more the result of politicial squabbles and turf wars in the present than the theoretical stakes of these texts themselves. It seems, however, that these turf wars are perhaps giving way around an increasing consensus on the project of thinking substance as self-differing, perhaps the time has come for a change.
The new movement within contemporary theory which has been increasingly called ’speculative realism’ is perhaps the best exemplar of this tendency to start from the presumption that substance is self-differing. And while this movement largely comes from Deleuzians, I’d like to suggest that those of us with strong loyalties to the Deleuzian project rethink our relation to Hegel. Yes, he was the thinker of the Prussian state. But perhaps despite himself at times, and particularly in his earlier works, he truly is a thinker of differential substance, one which can be an enormous resource in our attempts to rethink the present.
And if we are to rethink substance as self-differing, it is precisely the world as medium which is at issue. The world as medium for itself, in its continued process of self-differing, as it extends and thereby gives rise to space and time, perspective and self-grasping, matter and consciousness. This is perhaps the starting place which perhaps can serve as the foundation for a new paradigm within the realm of contemporary thought, a movement which I believe has already begun.