Harman’s “Response to Shaviro”: Whitehead’s God and the Question of Freedom

So, just finished another article in The Speculative Turn, namely, Graham’s “Response to Shaviro.” I’d read Shaviro’s article some time ago, and I was definitely curious to see how he responded to these arguments, which I find in general convincing.

Graham’s got some extreme statements (in contrast to the more ‘modest’ claims of the article by Levi I reviewed in my preceding post): “. . . I hold that ONLY a non-relational model of objects is capable of accounting for both the transient and enduring faces of reality . . . in fact the ONLY way to account for becoming is with a non-relational ontology” (291-2, caps mine, italics in original).

So these are pretty big claims, and far from claiming that OOO is one lens amongst many. What’s more, Graham argues that Whitehead is the true philosopher of stasis. Now, were the sides of Whitehead those which Graham delineates the full story of Whitehead’s metaphysics, he would of course be quite right.

Unfortunately, the reading of Whitehead is extremely one-sided. Harman argues that while Whitehead has a notion of privacy of actual occasions, he does nothing to support this notion. Were this true, it would do all the things to Whitehead’s view of the world that Harman argues, namely, produce a hall-of-mirrors in which change is impossible.

But Whitehead’s explanation of privacy hinges, at least partially, on his notion of ‘negative prehensions.’ This explains precisely how it is that some entities refuse some options presented to them by their prehensions of the world. Why? Because in privacy, there’s more to these actual occasions than meets the eye. But there’s more to privacy than just this. For in fact, actual occasions have another sense of potential novelty, namely, the fact that they have some freedom in relation to their prehensions. They can add something, over and above all the contributions of their prehensions, to what they receive from the world around them. This is accomplished by the manner in which conceptual feelings ingress in actual occasions in a manner which isn’t immediately predictable from their prehensions.

Where does all this potential for novelty come from? For Whitehead, it comes from God, from his primordial nature, that which presents the possibility for allures of non-determined ways of being to any and all actual occasions. God presents freedom, actual occasions simply actualize it. Of course, these are two sides of the same, for the evidence of God’s existence is that actual occasions continually present us with the new, with evidence of their freedom.

The problem, however, is that most actual occasions, even when they choose differently from what they are supposed to, have very few effects. I mean, who has ever heard of a quantum particle’s decision making history?

This depends of course, on the system in which that quantum particle is located. and in the right situation, a quantum event can cascade into others, and potentially give rise to enormous consequences. Isn’t this precisely what is known, these days, as emergence?

Point is, difference is shot through Whitehead’s reality at all levels of scale, and I’m not sure why, but Graham mentions neither negative prehensions nor Whitehead’s very controversial notion of God in his rebuttal of Shaviro. It would be one thing if he provided responses to this side of Whitehead, but in simply ignoring them, I’m not sure exactly what’s going on. Either way, its a very selective reading, and truly distorts the Whitehead I’ve come to know. While Graham relies on the fact that Whitehead argues that actual occasions are the final arbiter of reality (and hence sees no need to go further), this does not mean he has fully described actual entities. For in fact, Whitehead spends large chunks of the later parts of Process and Reality talking precisely about freedom and god. I think Graham needs to speak to these sides of Whitehead before dismissing him.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Graham is quite right about some things in his essay. When he argues that relations are not the same as process, I think he has a point. Even though these terms are often conflated in the contemporary philosophical blogosphere, they are not necessarily the same. I often identify as a process-relational theorist, but this is a major shorthand, for I think my position is actually far different from what these terms often mean to many. For one, I think much of what I believe is strongly influenced by Whitehead. I believe, in fact, that difference and the potential for difference is shot through  what is at all levels. And while I see Graham’s point that it’s possible to do away with the notion of potential/virtual powers if you have withdrawn objects that manifest new relations (and that time may be derivative of this), I don’t think this is the only way to explain change. I think Whitehead’s approach here, to which mine owes a great deal, does fine as well.

And perhaps this is where I find the exclusivity of Graham’s approach in this essay worrisome. Had he said that OOO is one approach amongst many, then perhaps there wouldn’t need to be such a selective reading of Whitehead, one which truly distorts his approach to the world. This is why I maintain that its very possible for there to be relational approaches to the world which don’t REDUCE entities to relations. Maybe this shouldn’t be called relational, any more than OOO should be called objectal. But the fact is, things are, can, and should be a little complex, I think, than presented here.

Don’t get me wrong, I think OOO has a LOT to offer the world. But I think it also shouldn’t do so exclusively, or by ignoring aspects of folks like Whitehead.


~ by chris on January 22, 2011.

5 Responses to “Harman’s “Response to Shaviro”: Whitehead’s God and the Question of Freedom”

  1. Chris, these 2 articles were the first things I downloaded and read as soon as THE SPECULATIVE TURN came out. (I’ve since bought the book.) I agree almost entirely with what you write here. I might only add that I thought Shaviro’s final sections on Harman’s aesthetics were the weakest. Of course, I was also totally annoyed with the way Harman spent almost 1/3 of his essay arguing against Shaviro’s book and Deleuze, instead to the substance of “The Actual Volcano”.

    Shaviro’s strongest points: “For Harman, the qualities of an entity somehow already pre-exist: for Whitehead, these qualities are generated on the fly… Relations are too various, and come in too many ‘different degrees of intimacy’, to be reducible to Harman’s caricature of them as reductive, external determinations”.

    Harman’s strongest points: “In fact, I contend that becoming happens only by way of some non-relational reality. An object needs to form a new CONNECTION [my emphasis] in order to change, and this entails that an object must disengage from its current state and somehow make contact with something with which it was not previously in direct contact”.

    I presume the sentences above have some ‘relation’ to your Networkology? Of course, I don’t agree with Harman that “connections” are non-relational (if that’s what he means to imply?) “Relations are external to their terms” applies only in traditional LOGICAL analysis. It does not apply in the wild between real objects, where relations are always trichotonic (as in co-dependent arising).

    I would like to see Harman do more work to distinguish his private / public polarity from the actual / virtual polarity (if he’s interested in convincing the sceptics?) If he’s assuming there are fewer of these sceptics in the next generation, then he’s probably smart to stick to his guns and blaze a new trail.

    I also really enjoyed your “Thoughts on the Very Strange Process of Writing Philosophy” post. Beautiful essay! Best, Mark

    • Hi Mark-
      I’m curious what you mean here by trichotonic? Co-dependent arising, not sure what you mean here, but it does make me think of the Buddhist notion of conditioned genesis. I’m also wondering, when you say logical analysis, do you mean in terms of the medieval discussion of universals?
      I think one of my biggest objections to OOO is the rigidity of the divide between objects/terms-relations. It is as if no-one had absorbed the lesson of derrida in regard to binary distinctions. I realize the whole spec.realist movement is about moving beyond the limitations of ‘the linguistic turn’ of mid-century, but I still think there are things that need to be different after the critique of binary oppositions that was so foundational to post-structuralism.
      As for networkology, I think it sits between a lot of the OOO binaries. I think withdrawal is distributed to every and all points of the universe. Isn’t this what Whitehead means when he talks about freedom? I think the question really is how we extend freedom in the world, and I think it comes about from an increase in both diversity AND interdependence, namely, complexity. Lots to talk about here, of course, but more’s coming real soon!
      Thanks for the comments!

  2. Chris, I’m glad you asked about “trichotoNic”. This is my own queer hybrid of CS Peirce’s term “trichotoMy” and Negarestani’s “trisonomy” (in CYCLONOPEDIA – as opposed to the genetic-anomaly term). Peirce uses “trichotomy” to refer to his method of semiotic analysis. Reza uses “trisonomy” (IIRC) to refer to traumatic conditions or situations. I use “trichotoNic” to refer to the PROCESS by which “private” or “contingent” factors impinge on some decision or event. It might also be relevant to what you call “self-differing substance”.

    In your “On Decisions” essay you talk about “factors which are unavailable to observers”, even though we may be able to guess or impute some of these factors. The play of these factors may be vicarious or contingent, but may also involve a private choice. Anyway, it’s the play of these factors, that aren’t directly observable, that I’m invoking as (usually) ignored in “traditional LOGICAL analysis” and, often, critical theory. Co-dependent arising certainly refers to the Buddhist concept, but also to what happens in ecologies.

    My sense of ontology is basically Peircean (Firstness, Secondness, Thirdness), and the binaries that many still invoke lead toward tetradic theories that preserve polarities. This may be fun for philosophers, but triadic theories seem more reflective of reality to me. Another term that gets at what I’m aiming for with the term “trichotonic” is “queer causality”, as in Karen Barad’s “Queer Causation and the Ethics of Mattering”, available at Google Books or in the ETHICS OF MATTERING (and this term “mattering” is also a great way to put it).

    I want to read your Laruelle post again, and hope to use it as an entry point to some of the relevant essays in THE SPECULATIVE TURN. Thanks for the discussion, Mark

    • Hi Mark-
      I’ve read most of Barad’s ‘meeting the universe halfway’, and I’ve gotta say, it’s chock full of great stuff – despite the fact that he likes the copenhagen interpretation.
      Yeah, I was gonna say, I’d never heard of ‘tricotonic’ before! Peirce, however, is a huge inspiration and influence on just about everything I do. Unfortunately, seems he wasn’t the nicest guy, but definitely a philosophical genius, though a terrible systematizer, I mean, the guy changed his terminologies nearly every paper, despite the underlying unity of it all. Ultimately he’s a very simple thinker, very elegant, in a sense, but has trouble with organization of it all.
      But I really do think that triplicity, however you phrase it, is essential. The way I frame the networkological project is as follows: the manifestation of the oneand by means of the threeand, that is, the self-exceeding one (Deleuzian-Spinozist substance) in the self-exceeding three (Peircian triadicness, amongst other things).
      I think it’s really important to distinguish mere ‘threeness’ from something bigger, however. Peircian thirdness, in relation to regularity, law, etc., is a start in this direction. But it’s still a rather conservative form of thirdness, I think, still too Hegelian. That’s why for me the threeand is the structure of the network: node, link, ground, network/level, three-and. And multiplicity invades at the get-go, even at the point of the node. There’s a whole metaphysics to this, that’s where my own work is right now. And it will be coming out in print quite soon (speculations 2, and there’s a book deal in the works!).
      But yeah, I think there’s so many ways to apply Peirce’s fundamental insights in the contemporary world. If everything is a sign, then there is representation, and subject-object dynamics, and beyond, in everything. And I think his threes within threes approach (which as a threeand in a threeand I call a triand) hits me as a form of fractal proliferation which is quite powerful. Lots to do here!
      As for Laruelle, I’m just starting with my engagement with him. I’ve read a handful of essays that Taylor has translated over the years, but I just got his first two fully translated books in the mail, which I’m excited about. Can finally dig in a bit. But anything I’ve said about Laruelle is really tentative.

    • UPDATE: I’ve been reading Reza Negarestani’s recent (online) DARK MATERIALISM article, “On the Revolutionary Earth: A Dialectic in Territopic Materialism”, on my commutes this week and, just this morning, got to the section where he does a “reappropriation” of Charles Sanders Peirce’s “ternary logics”. Haven’t finished it yet, but Reza is arguing against traditional dialectics, so it’s very relevant to what I was trying to convey above.. Mark

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