Whitehead in the Clouds: Objects and Relations

Graham Harman and other proponents of object-oriented ontology (OOO) follow Whitehead in taking up the task of articulating a speculative metaphysics, which is a relatively untimely task, situated amidst multifarious post-Kantian prohibitions against metaphysics. In particular, OOO follows Whitehead’s “ontological principle,” affirming the irreducibility of actual entities. The relationship between OOO and Whitehead looks mutually beneficial. OOO benefits by getting support for its metaphysical orientation toward entities, things, i.e., “objects.” [Does it need to be reiterated that this is a general sense of object as entity, not the modern sense of object in opposition to (or participation with) subject?] Whitehead benefits by getting a boost in popularity, making Whitehead more relevant and interesting for contemporary thought. Despite this opportunity for mutual benefit, both partners aren’t totally into it. Harman refers to Whitehead regularly (including in his latest, Immaterialism), acknowledging Whitehead’s unique contributions to metaphysics. How do Whiteheadians respond? Let’s face it. It’s not the mutual admiration club. Guess what, OOO? Process philosophers just aren’t that into you.

Regarding the ontological status of entities, OOO seems willing to learn from Whitehead, but Whiteheadian responses to OOO have had a tone that oscillates between criticisms of OOO and apologetics for process thought. A key issue here is the question of the non-relational reality of entities, which is often referred to in terms of withdrawal (Heidegger’s Entzug) or radical alterity (Levinas).

Harman defines the “objects” of OOO as equivalent to Whitehead’s actual entities, except that Whitehead inadequately accounts for the radical otherness (alterity) of actual entities, in contrast to existential phenomenologists (Heidegger and Levinas), whose works elaborate extensively on concealment, difference, withdrawal, nothingness, and alterity. OOO aims for a synthesis of the actual entities of Whitehead’s process philosophy with the withdrawal or alterity of phenomenology. Whereas Whitehead’s actual entities are thoroughly relational (internally interconnected), the objects of OOO are relational while also harboring a reality that is radically other, withdrawn from all relations. Harman often mentions touch to describe the relational and non-relational aspects of things. For Harman, when objects make contact, they touch without touching. Objects do not touch each other directly. They relate indirectly while the radical alterity of each object remains intact, untouched. For instance, when fire burns cotton, the fire touches the cotton indirectly by relating to its flammable qualities, but the fire never touches the alterity of the cotton. The fire touches the cotton vicariously through its qualities. This mediated contact is what Harman names “vicarious causation.”

How do Whiteheadians respond? Not by celebrating this new synthesis. Not by enthusiastically embracing this opportunity to engage with the existential profundity of people like Heidegger and Levinas. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of process philosophers have simply ignored this new development (which has been going strong for almost a decade, since the speculative realism conference at Goldsmiths in 2007). There are a couple of notable exceptions, one who seems representative of Whiteheadian engagements with OOO, and the other is an outlier who nonetheless—indeed, all the more—expresses a compelling interpretation of Whitehead. I’m thinking of Steven Shaviro and Roland Faber respectively.

Shaviro is one of the few Whiteheadians to seriously engage with Harman and OOO. His book The Universe of Things is a good case in point. On one hand, he admits that there is “no radical alterity” in Whitehead (23). That’s in agreement with Harman. However, on the other hand, he also suggests that Harman’s addition of alterity to actual entities is already in Whitehead, particularly in the “privacy” of actual entities, but also in the “negative prehensions” of entities. So, in sum, there is no alterity, but the mediation provided by privacy and negative prehensions makes up for it. All causation is vicarious, happening in and as aesthetic relations, but there is no intact other exceeding the horizon of relationality. For Shaviro, things touch indirectly, but nothing remains untouched, and this “nothing” is not even nothing (this is oukontic nothingness in Paul Tillich’s terms). When OOO comes courting process philosophy, offering alterity (the nothingness of the real, meontic nothing), Shaviro effectively says, “No, we do not have any, and we have enough already, thanks.”

Taking a quite different approach from Shaviro, Faber argues that it is important to have a concept of the alterity of actual entities, and that such there is radical alterity (i.e., meontic nothing, not just privacy and negative prehensions) in Whitehead’s philosophy. In his essay, “Touch: A Philosophic Meditation,” Faber agrees with Harman that actual entities touch without touching. This is crucial. There is where Shaviro is wrong, and Harman and Faber are right. Touch, when tactful (i.e., touching, not crashing), leaves intact, remains intact. Faber parts ways with Harman and Shaviro in claiming that Whitehead does indeed have a concept of the untouched alterity of actual entities. Arguably, Harman and Shaviro failed to recognize this aspect of Whitehead’s thought because they do not sufficiently engage with Whitehead’s concept of God. Philosophers ignore theology to their own detriment. For Faber, radical alterity can be found in Whitehead’s understanding of God’s function as a lure for the becoming of actual entities. In their becoming, actual entities are thoroughly relational, but the lure of God as poet of the world is not relational. The lure is like the insistent call of the other, which is not present or relational. It shows up in the cracks of the face, the interruptions and ruptures where relationality folds under the unbearable weight of infinity. God sunders all relationality to instantiate each novel occasion, folding entities into a cloud of uncertainty and impossibility as a way of luring actual entities into new relations, actualizing new possibilities. Faber acknowledges that his engagement with the apophatic mysticism of Nicholas of Cusa informs his interpretation of Whitehead’s actual entities. That Cusan perspective clarifies Whitehead’s affirmation of the alluring mystery that remains in-tact when actual occasions make con-tact. Philosophical speculation is thus a learned ignorance (docta ignorantia), a way of finding creativity by living amidst uncertainty and impossibility. Faber’s approach to Whitehead parallels Catherine Keller’s complex contrast of Whitehead and apophatic mysticism in her Cloud of the Impossible.

The relationality and alterity of actual entities can be found in a Whiteheadian “ontology of the cloud.” It’s a cloud that only shows up when you situate Whitehead in relationship to the mysticism that he himself invokes. Followed to its radical culmination (an apophasis of apophasis), Whitehead’s invocation of mysticism is an invocation of the kind of non-relationality to which Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida repeatedly gesture.

The cloud is the place of Derrida’s relation without relation, a desert within the desert, in which every other is wholly other (tout autre est tout autre). The cloud is the place of Timothy Morton’s ecology without nature, which is a mesh of strange strangers, an object-oriented ecology of meontic nothingness. Neither Harman nor Shaviro accounts for this cloud, leading them to a narrow (not adequately apophatic) reading of Whitehead and to an interpretation of actual entities that finds an opposition between relationality and alterity where, with their heads in the clouds, Faber and Keller find a nuanced contrast.

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