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.”


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.

Joy and laughter, or Why I am So Happy

Nietzsche’s practical teaching is that difference is happy; that multiplicity, becoming and chance are adequate objects of joy by themselves and that only joy returns.  […]  The death of God needs time finally to find its essence and become a joyful event.  Time to expel the negative, to exorcise the reactive—the time of a becoming-active.  This time is the cycle of the eternal return.
The negative expires at the gates of being.  Opposition ceases its labour and difference begins its play.

Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy (Columbia UP, 2002), p. 190.


Drag queens flaunt their perversions and incite our laughter at them. [….] In the moment of laughter, there is transparency among individuals, as if the outburst of laughter gave rise to a single torrent surging within them.
Thus drag queens are the paragons and forgers of public morality.
Laughter freezes when someone who brings death to our friend or to a whole people gets away with it.  Yet Nature does get away with it: the wind sputters through the eyes and jaw of a skeleton.  We understand that we can laugh in the face of death.  We catch sight of the possibility of seeing our death as a joke.  We understand that we can die laughing.
You see our planet set in the orbit of the Sun, which is burning out as fast as it can.  You see our Sun swirling in the cosmic maelstrom of the Milky Way galaxy.  You see innumerable galaxies exploding toward immensities and distances that telescopes are not yet able to track.  New telescopes and spaceship journeys into outer space will extend your vision of the universe ever further beyond the radius of our managed environment.  It will direct our minds with material entities—stars, novae, and black holes—more alien and more forceful than any gods that we had imagined.

Alphonso Lingis, Body Transformations: Evolutions and Atavisms in Culture (Routledge, 2005), pp. 98, 123.

Joyous Cosmology: Chemistry of Consciousness

I spent the day re-reading a classic Alan Watts book, The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (Vintage Books, 1965).  Basically, the book is a retrospective summary account of his experiences with psychedelic drugs (e.g., LSD, mescaline, psilocybin).  It could be described as his version of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.  Indeed, Watts justifies writing his book by referring to Huxley: “since Huxley and others had already let the secret out […]” (20). 

LSD is currently only 73 years old.  Psychedelic chemicals are still a newcomer on the world’s stage (or at least the “Western” world’s stage, as many of those chemicals come from plants or fungi that were already known and used by ancient and indigenous societies).  Huxley and Watts were among the first to respond to the new discovery/invention of psychedelic chemicals, and they did so by bringing honest and thoughtful attention to the matter from two perspectives, that of a literary artist (Huxley) and a scholar of theology and religion (Watts).

What is cosmological about Watts’ joyous cosmology?  He aligns his vision with a “new image” of the human, what I would call an anthropocosmic image, where the human is viewed “not as a spirit imprisoned in incompatible flesh, but as an organism inseparable from his [sic] social and natural environment” (100).  The complex unity of human and cosmos is not only an interesting or astounding fact, it is also an existentially fulfilling realization, such that this cosmology is “not only unfied but also joyous” (ibid).  That’s not unlike Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s description of “the most astounding fact.” 

What is an experiment with psychedelics like?  Well…for Watts, it is “a sort of cycle in which one’s personality is taken apart and then put back together again, in what one hopes is a more intelligent fashion” (89).  Here are a few more quotes that reflect Watts’ thoughts on his experiments with psychedelics: 

It is even now being recognized in the United States that the real danger of psychedelics is not so much neurological as political—that “turned on” people are not interested in serving the power games of the present rulers. (25)

I wish to repeat that drugs of this kind are in no sense bottled and predigested wisdom. (89)

The sure foundation upon which I had sought to stand has turned out to be the center from which I seek.  The elusive substance beneath all the forms of the universe is discovered as the immediate gesture of my hand. […]  Everything gestures.  Tables are tabling, pots are potting, walls are walling, fixtures are fixturing—a world of events instead of things. (75) [Note: later on in the text, Watts rejects the thing-event dualism and contasts it to his vision of a “unified cosmology” (100)] 

This unoccupied gulf between spiritual or brotherly love and sexual love corresponds to the cleft between spirit and matter, mind and body, so divided that our affections or our activities are assigned either to one or to the other.  […] Thus the subtle and wonderful gradations that lie between the two are almost entirely lost.  In other words, the greater part of love is a relationship that we hardly allow, for love experienced only in its extreme forms is like buying a loaf of bread and being given only the two heels. (99)

[E]ach one of you is quite perfect as you are, even if you don’t know it.  Life is basically a gesture, but no on, no thing, is making it.  There is no necessity for it  to happen, and none for it to go on happening. […] There is simply no problem of life; it is completely purposeless play—exuberance which is its own end.  Basically there is the gesture.  Time, space, and multiplicity are complications of it. (77-78) 

It is by no means impossible to set up […] sensible contexts in which nonsense may have its ways. […]  The function of such intervals of nonsense is not merely to be an outlet for pent-up emotion or unused psychic energy, but to set in motion a mode of spontaneous action which, thought at first appearing as nonsense, can eventually express itself in intelligible forms. (94)

One can but hope that in the years to come our defenses will crack spontaneously, like eggshells when the birds are ready to hatch.  (99)