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

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.

Deleuze and Wolves

Between Deleuze’s individually written works and his co-written works (with Guattari), he deploys a swarm of concepts.  With that supernumerary distribution of concepts, one might think that there are thus many entry points into readings of Deleuze.  However, some concepts seem to stand out and receive more attention than the others.  The obvious example would be the rhizome.  Everybody likes to bring up the rhizome, whether favorably or critically (e.g., Badiou’s “The Fascism of the Potato”).

It seems like Deleuze’s affinity for human-wolf multiplicities (i.e., werewolves) is another favorite.  I can think of three examples off the top of my head.  First, Catherine Malabou’s “Who’s Afraid of Hegelian Wolves” brings up D&G’s affirmation of wolf multiplicities to criticize Deleuze for doing to Hegel what Freud did to the Wolf Man: homogenizing and totalizing his encounter with plurality and difference.

Second, Jacob Sherman (“No Werewolves in Theology?”) brings up werewolves to critique Deleuze’s rejection of transcendence and to offer an alternative vision for which contemplative engagements with transcendence provide the sort of liberation of becoming that Deleuze was seeking.  In short, becoming-wolf is much closer to becoming-divine than Deleuze admits.

Third, in When Species Meet, Donna Haraway brings up becoming-animal and becoming-wolf to criticize Deleuze (and Guattari) for privileging wolf-human becomings over dog-human becomings (privileging the wild over the domestic, smuggling in a wildness that looks way too much like transcendent divinity).  She thinks that becoming-animal should be much more affirmative of domestic companions, mundane reality, and old women with lapdogs.

Interestingly, Haraway is the only one to challenge the wolf trope and thus challenge the fascination that the rest of us have with Deleuzian wolves.  Malabou and Sherman seem to say that, contra Deleuze’s critiques of Hegel and theological transcendence, Hegel (Malabou) and contemplative mysticism (Sherman) are just as good as Deleuze (if not better) at becoming-wolf.  Haraway, on the other hand, suggests that looking for wolf multiplicities might not be a good way to valorize a philosophical or theological position.  We should be attending instead to the ontics and antics of companion species.

Whether Hegelians and contemplative mystics can get along well with companion species is a question to which Malabou and Sherman surely would respond masterfully.  In any case, the point here is simply that the alarm that gets our attention need not be “There are wolves!”  It reminds me of a fable about a scholar who cried wolf.