Toward an Ecological Civilization: Whitehead and Ecological Democracy

I’ll be giving a couple of presentations at the upcoming conference, Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization, which is taking place early June in Claremont, California. It’s a massive assemblage of a few different conferences: the 10th International Whitehead Conference, the 9th International Forum on Ecological Civilization, the Inaugural Pando Populus Conference, the Pilgrim Place Centennial Celebration, and the Process & Faith Summer Institute.

I’m on a panel with some of my closest coconspirators discussing cosmopolitics and the Journey of the Universe project. I’ll have more to say about that later. I’m also happy to be part of a track focusing on Alfred North Whitehead’s contributions to the philosophy of religion. Here’s the abstract for the paper I’ll deliver for that track: Continue reading


Multifarious Philosophy

I found the cutting-edge of the creative advance of Whitehead studies.  It’s in the new anthology edited by Jeremy Fackenthal and Roland Faber, Theopoetic Folds: Philosophizing Multifariousness (Fordham, 2013).  It takes its cue from Whitehead’s philosophy, particularly on two points.

First: Multiplicity.
“Philosophy may not neglect the multifariousness of the world—the fairies dance, and Christ is nailed to the cross” (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 338).

Second: Poetics.
Theology is most effective and interesting when it is theopoetics, not only in the sense that poetic speech about God is more accurate than prosaic or formulaic speech, but also in the sense that God is “the poet of the world” (ibid., 336).

This is a must-read book for anybody dealing with Whitehead studies.  Even if you aren’t interested in poetics or radical theology, the book contains a lot of other discussions relevant to metaphysics, cosmology, ecology, and the history of philosophy.  My favorite essays in this collection are in the penultimate section, “The Pluriverse,” which focuses on the cosmological/ecological dimension of Whitehead’s theopoetic philosophy, including pieces from Catherine Keller, Luke Higgins, and Roland Faber.

The piece by Faber presents an “eco-theopoetics” that synthesizes Whitehead and Deleuze in a radical affirmation of wild multiplicity after the “ecological death of God.”  Moreover, “wild” does not refer to any identity or opposition of nature or culture, but is about the necessity of our constitutive contingency in the chaosmos.  Nature and humanity are put back in their place (khora), becoming “eco-nature” and “becoming intermezzo.”

Socrates and Place

Socrates can’t learn from place.  He’s too anthropocentric.  I always think of Plato’s Phaedrus (230d), where Socrates says this:

You see, I am fond of learning. Now the country places and the trees won’t teach me anything, and the people in the city do.

He is fond of learning (philomathes), but country places (chorai) and trees (dendra) don’t help, whereas anthropoi do.  What really interests me here isn’t the obvious anthropocentrism of Socrates, but this: Phaedrus is able to use written discourse as a drug to lure Socrates to the countryside (where he might be capable of learning in place, of place), and after he is drugged-dragged out into place, he asks forgiveness for his anthropocentrism.  Here’s a slightly more complete version of the passage.

Forgive me, my dear friend. You see, I am fond of learning. Now the country places and the trees won’t teach me anything, and the people in the city do.  But you seem to have found the charm [pharmakon] to bring me out.


Place in Whitehead, Deleuze, Derrida

Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida each discuss place by engaging, among other things, the discourse on chora (“place”) in Plato’s Timaeus, where chora is described as a “third thing” that is neither sensible (matter) nor intelligible (form), but a generative relational matrix that organizes and disturbs form/matter interactions.  The recoveries of chora at work in these thinkers draw on their related concepts of creativity (Whitehead), difference-in-itself (Deleuze), and différance (Derrida).  As a locus of creative differences, chora supports their respective efforts to transform or overcome Platonism and its form/matter hierarchy, thereby making room for understandings of place as exceeding the limits of dualistic hierarchies.

This fall, I’ll be presenting papers on this topic on a couple different  occasions, including the 5th annual meeting of the Pacific Association for the Continental Tradition (PACT) in San Francisco and the 17th annual meeting of the International Association for Environmental Philosophy (IAEP, pronounced like “yep”) in Eugene, Oregon.  I’ll discuss the specific ways in which Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida each interprets chora and how those interpretations are indicative of complementary yet antagonistic possibilities for understanding and responding to actual places.  Instead of taking sides, I claim that those possibilities are at their most relevant and compelling when they are brought into a complex contrast with one another.

For Whitehead and Deleuze, chora is described in terms of a positive becoming, whereas Derrida writes about chora as an excluded or marginalized alterity.  Those different accounts reflect different conceptions of transcendence and immanence.  While Derrida maintains a Levinasian tendency to privilege the transcendence of alterity, Deleuze is committed to immanence, notwithstanding their respective attempts to deconstruct transcendental signifieds and liberate events from transcendence/immanence binaries.  Whitehead resolves the opposition by conceiving of a mutually implicative relationship between transcendence and immanence (in theological terms, panentheism).

Although each of these thinkers intends to affirm an ethical commitment to place, that does not necessarily translate into a commitment to some actual place(s).  For instance, Derrida affirms the ethically compelling alterity of place, including human and nonhuman others associated with place, and he does so with much attention to language and ontology but relatively little engagement in natural sciences, thus compromising his ability to account for some specificities of actual places.  That contrasts with the evolutionary and cosmological repetitions of chora given by the more scientifically inclined Whitehead and Deleuze, for whom the task of understanding and responding to places requires an integration of speculative metaphysics with empirical inquiry.  A crucial contrast between Whitehead and Deleuze is that the latter tends to undermine the specificity of actual places by explaining actual entities in terms of an underlying field of virtual multiplicities.  More pluralistically, Whitehead’s ontological principle affirms that actual entities are irreducibly real, such that a place is a field of becoming not in the sense of an underlying virtual field but in the sense of a dynamic network of actual entities in mutually constitutive relations.

This is not to say that Whitehead’s recovery of chora is better than Derrida’s or Deleuze’s.  Whitehead is more attentive to the specificities of actual places.  However, his “God” and “eternal objects” might unnecessarily complicate empirical inquiries, in contrast to Deleuze’s immanent experiments with chora, which are more affirmative of the non-teleological and self-organizing capacities of places.  Among these three thinkers, Derrida is perhaps most well-suited for discerning ways in which different (undecidable) determinations of place involve exclusions and negations, which constitute and disturb the boundaries of language, reason, gender, and species.  In sum, I hope to convey some ways in which Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida contribute to knowledge of and ethical responses to actual places, with the unique benefits and limitations of those contributions becoming apparent amid the creative differences between them.