Tag Archives: pluralism

The 21st Century Whitehead Will Be Deleuzian

I often find myself thinking with Alfred North Whitehead. I recall that today is his birthday, Feburary 15 (1861-1947). I don’t remember many birthdays of philosophers, but that is one of them. It’s Galileo’s birthday too, so maybe that has something to do with this date sticking in my memory.

I recently finalized revisions for “A Place for Ecological Democracy in Whitehead’s Philosophy of Religious Entanglements,” which is a chapter for an anthology, Greening Philosophy of Religion: Rethinking Climate Change at the Intersection of Philosophy and Religion (edited by Jea Sophia Oh and John Quiring). In a couple of months I’ll be presenting on Whitehead’s ontological principle for the American Philosophical Association. I keep thinking with Whitehead, but I wouldn’t consider myself Whiteheadian. I continue drawing on his philosophy for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I am often inspired by other contemporary writers who engage with Whitehead in new ways that are relevant to contemporary problems. It is the community of those who think with Whitehead who really make Whitehead interesting to me. In other words, the secondary sources are often more interesting than Whitehead’s primary texts. So maybe I’m a secondary Whiteheadian, if that’s a thing. Not just any secondary Whiteheadian. A Deleuzian Whiteheadian.  Continue reading


Rhythm and Trance

My latest piece for my column at Nomos Journal is up.  It’s an analysis of the Afro-Atlantic legacy of contemporary popular music, specifically in light of two interrelated aspects of Afro-Atlantic music: rhythm and trance.  The use of polyrhythmic beats in the spirit possession rituals of Afro-Atlantic traditions parallels the structure of the trance experiences that those beats occasion.  The beats mix two-pulse and three-pulse beats and the experiences likewise manifest liminal mixtures of humans (possessed) and deities (possessors), as well as mixtures between conscious and amnesiac states, between performer and audience members, between ritual and art, between humans and animals (e.g., the horses we become when we are possessed/mounted by gods)….

I’m always bothered by the inadequacy of the terminology of music theory.  Polyrhythm is a better term than syncopation, a striking-together wherein one beat is considered regular or normal, against which the irregular “off”-beat strikes.  Such a hierarchy is missing in Afro-Atlantic music; neither duple meter nor triple meter is heard as primary or regular.  In fact, there is no abstract meter at all, only the play of multiple meters.  Along those lines, polyrhythm seems like a much better term, since it does not assimilate the plurality of rhythms into a hierarchy of regular/irregular beats.  However, as Mikel Dufrenne points out in The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, polyrhythm is still an inadequate concept for describing the phenomenon itself.  It presupposes a mono-/poly- distinction that is not present in the actual performance or experience of the music.

I’m reminded that there is a magic formula that many of us are still searching for, a formula that would equate the singular and the plural, mono- and poly-, the one and the many, monism and pluralism.  My commitment to pop analysis follows along those lines, listening for the truth of to hen in the music of hoi polloi.


The Thing, Withdrawn, Asleep

Jean-Luc Nancy’s tiny book The Fall of Sleep (Fordham, 2009) is simply a pleasure to read.  When I read it, I just read it, no note-taking, no intentions.  But one passage stuck out so much that I feel compelled to make a note about it.  Here’s the passage:

The thing in itself is nothing other than the thing itself, but withdrawn from any relation with a subject of its perception or with an agent of its manipulation.  The thing, isolated from all manifestation, from all phenomenality, the sleeping thing at rest, sheltered from knowledge, techniques, and arts of all kinds, exempt from judgments and prospects.  The thing not measured, not measurable, the thing concentrated in its indeterminate and non-appearing thingness. (p. 14)

By describing the thing in itself in terms of withdrawal from relations, Nancy’s remarks resemble a key feature of Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy: that real objects are non-relational.  Nancy’s sleeping thing and Harman’s dormant objects have a lot in common.  Nancy and Harman are both Heideggerian, so these connections are not particularly surprising.  What really interests me about this passage is that it shows the similarity between Nancy and Harman while also exemplifying an important difference between them: Nancy considers withdrawal indeterminate, whereas Harman’s objects are still determinate even in their withdrawal.  For Harman, a chair in itself is still a chair, not merely a non-appearing whatever.  Furthermore, Harman is clearly a pluralist about objects, whereas Nancy’s reference to “the thing” in the singular indicates that he is more ambiguous about the singular/plural difference (as his Being Singular Plural indicates).  I’m not sure whose side I take.  They’re like my children: I love them both equally.


Multicentrism

A lot of teaching and writing in environmental ethics adopts a geometrical image: the center.  The field of environmental ethics began with numerous and varied critiques of anthropocentric values and practices. Here’s how the story often goes: to center on the human is to marginalize the non-human, and developing an ethic that accounts for the moral considerability of non-humans requires an extension of the center from humans to life (biocentrism) or to ecosystems (ecocentrism).

One problem here is that this moral extensionism still starts from the human.  It radiates out to include organisms and ecosystems, but it radiates out from the human.  An extended anthropocentrism still subordinates nonhumans to humans.  How can we develop ethics that account for non-human centers on their own terms?

Some have argued that centrism as such leads to domination and oppression, whereby the center gains superiority over the periphery (e.g., humans exploiting nature or, conversely, misanthropic environmentalisms marginalizing human social issues).  Val Plumwood’s critique of hegemonic centrisms is an exemplary case in point.  However, privileging acentric systems over against centric  systems is an “uncritical reversal” (as Plumwood would say): the acentric is the new center.

The challenge, then, is this: how to think of nonhuman centers on their own terms while subverting any tendencies for centers to become hegemonic centrisms.  Anthony Weston provides an excellent articulation of this challenge in “Multicentrism: A Manifesto.”  Weston proposes:

a multicentered vision according to which more-than-human others enter the moral realm on their own terms, rather than by expansion from a single center—a vision according to which there are diverse centers, shifting and overlapping but still each with its own irreducible and distinctive starting-point. For a multicentered ethic, then, the growth of moral sensitivity and consideration does not proceed through an expanding series of concentric realms, each neatly assimilating or incorporating the previous stage within a larger and more inclusive whole. No; instead we discover a world of separate though mutually implicated centers. Moral growth consists in experiencing more and more deeply the texture of multiplicity in the world, not in tracing the wider and wider circles set off from one single center.

Weston adds that this approach to environmental ethics is pluralistic.  Most environmental ethics debates about pluralism vs. monism are debates about whether we should have many or one theories.  Multicentrism is a realist pluralism, implying a “much more radical and polymorphous pluralism,” for which multiplicity is a feature belonging to the real world, “to things themselves.”

Biocentrism and ecocentrism are too big (“mega-centrisms”), totalizing and assimilating the things themselves.  Weston is clear that his vision of pluralistic realism is against environmental holism.

Contra holism, though, multicentrism does not assert a single ecological “whole” that is somehow the single, prior ethical center. The multiverse is more mixed and complexly textured, including both ecological “wholes” and individuals of various sorts and levels—species, organisms, biotic communities—all in flux and flow, and none always or necessarily prior.

What does multicentrism look like in practice?

Multicentrism asks us to “take care” with respect to everything, and the sort of mindfulness thus implied can only be called polymorphous too. […]  Imperative is to move from the familiar one-species monologue to a truly multi-polar dialogue. […]  What multicentrism adds is the wider and wilder vision: a sustainable, participatory, multivocal philosophical practice—a way back into the Multiverse.

Multicentrism is a kind of centrism to end all centrisms.  Given the dangers of centric metaphors, Weston considers a couple alternative names for his position.  The first is “multiversalism.”  The second is my favorite.  It’s a term Weston adopts from Irene Klaver: “ex-centric.”