Steven Shaviro: New Materialism and Whitehead

Whitehead’s ontological and cosmological concerns put him in connection with the speculative realists; but pragmatically, he is closer to those contemporary thinkers who have been called new materialists. Jane Bennett’s “vital materialism” and Karen Barad’s “agential realism” both seem to me to have resonances with Whitehead’s thought, even though neither of them mentions Whitehead directly (as far as I know). Donna Haraway, on the other hand, has spoken specifically about the importance of Whitehead for her ideas about companion species. None of the new materialisms are based on Whitehead’s system or his technical terms, but they share his project of reconciling phenomenal experience with natural science, without rejecting either.

– Steven Shaviro, Interview on Figure/Ground

Quote of the Day: The Blind Passenger

We are here back at the notion of den in Democritus: a “something cheaper than nothing,” a weird pre-ontological “something” which is less than nothing.

– Slavoj Zizek

Notes on Democritus

Obscurantist idealists like to vary the motif of “almost nothing”: a minimum of being which nonetheless bears witness to divinity (“ God is also present in the tiniest speck of dust …”). The materialist answer to this is the less than nothing. The first to propose this answer was Democritus, the father of Ancient Greek materialism…

The Ancient Greeks had two words for nothing, meden and ouden, which stand for two types of negation: ouden is a factual negation, something that is not but could have been; meden is, on the contrary, something that in principle cannot be. From meden we get to den not simply by negating the negation in meden, but by displacing negation, or, rather, by supplementing negation with a subtraction. That is to say, we arrive at den when we take away from meden not the whole negating prefix, but only its first two letters: meden is med’hen, the negation of hen (one): not-one. Democritus arrives at den by leaving out only me and thus creating a totally artificial word den. Den is thus not nothing without “no,” not a thing, but an othing, a something but still within the domain of nothing, like an ontological living dead, a spectral nothing-appearing-as-something. Or, as Lacan put it: “Nothing, perhaps? No— perhaps nothing, but not nothing”;  to which Cassin adds: “I would love to make him say: Pas rien, mais moins que rien (Not nothing, but less than nothing)” — den is a “blind passenger” of every ontology. As such, it is “the radical real,” and Democritus is a true materialist: “No more materialist in this matter than anyone with his senses, than me or than Marx, for example.

Notes on Karen Barad

What quantum physics proposes is … global instability as the basis of local stability: entities within a universe have to obey stable rules, they are part of a causal chain, but what is contingent is the very totality of this chain. Does this mean, however, that at this level of the pure potentiality of the Void, there are no differences? No: there is pure difference in the guise of the gap between two vacuums, the topic of the Higgs field.

Is not the Epicurean notion of the clinamen the first philosophical model of this structure of the double vacuum, of the idea that an entity only is insofar as it “comes too late” with regard to itself, to its own identity? In contrast to Democritus, who claimed that atoms fall straight down in empty space, Epicurus attributed to them the spontaneous tendency to deviate from their straight paths. This is why, in Lacanese, one could say that the passage from Democritus to Epicurus is the passage from the One to the surplus-object: Democritus’s atoms are “ones,” while Epicurus’s atoms are surplus-objects— no wonder that Marx’s theoretical path begins with his doctoral thesis on the difference between the philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus.

… Barad proposes a list of features opposing (“ good”) diffraction and (“ bad”) reflection: diffraction pattern versus mirror image, differences versus sameness, relationalities versus mimesis, performativity versus representationalism, entangled ontology versus separate entities, intra-action versus interaction of separate entities, phenomena versus things, attending to detailed patterns and fine-grained features versus reifying simplification, the entanglement of subject and object within a phenomenon versus the fixed opposition between the two, complex network versus binary oppositions, etc. But is not this very opposition between diffraction and reflection (or between performativity and representation) itself a rude binary opposition between truth and illusion?

…Barad repeatedly deploys the motif of the Cartesian subject as the external agent of disentangled observation, to be replaced by agential entanglement: we are part of the observed reality, the cut between subject and object is contingently enacted, and so on. But the true problem is to explain how this “false” appearance of a disentangled subject can emerge in the first place: can it really be accounted for in the terms of the agential cut within the entanglement of a phenomenon? Is it not that we have to presuppose a more radical trans-phenomenal cut as a kind of transcendental a priori that makes intra-active agential cuts possible?

[Notes on Barad’s diffraction]…duality refers to two aspects of one and the same process: diffraction is a splitting which generates what it splits into two, for there is no unity preceding the split. In other words, we should conceive diffraction not as a liberating dehiscence of the One, but as the very movement of the constitution of the One, as the disunity, the gap, which gives birth to the One. Thus radicalized, diffraction is revealed as another name for parallax, the shift of perspective needed to produce the effect of the depth of the Real, as if an object acquires the impenetrable density of the Real only when its reality reveals itself to be inconsistent: the observed X is real only insofar as it is the impossible point at which two incompatible realities overlap— now it is a wave, but if we measure it differently, it is a particle.

Complementarity in quantum physics (wave or particle) excludes any dialectical relationship, there is no mediation between the parallax gap that separates the two aspects— is this gap the non-dialectical ground of negativity? The old metaphysical problem of how to name the nameless abyss pops up here in the context of how to name the primordial gap: contradiction, antagonism, symbolic castration, parallax, diffraction, complementarity … up to difference. As Jameson hinted, perhaps one should leave this gap nameless, but what we should not abstain from is at least an interim outline of the ontology implied by such a universe.

– Slavoj Zizek,
Less Than Nothing:
Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Reading Karen Barad’s Interview in New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies

“Agential realism is not a manifesto, it does not take for granted that all is or will or can be made manifest. On the contrary, it is a call, a plea, a provocation, a cry, a passionate yearning for an appreciation of, attention to the tissue of ethicality that runs through the world.”

– Karen Barad, New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies

Karen Barad’s agential realism is not about agents or actors in the sense of a Latourian reading of that term. In her new work Meeting the Universe Halfway she describes her use of the term as “an epistemological-ontological-ethical framework that provides an understanding of the role of human and nonhuman, material and discursive, and natural and cultural factors in scientific and other social-material practices, thereby moving such considerations beyond the well-worn debates that pit constructivism against realism, agency against structure, and idealism against materialism” (26).1

In her interview she reiterates many of her basic themes of critical thinking over critique, diffractive methodology, intra-action, feminist theory, and the inseparability of epistemology, ontology, and ethics. “Ethics and justice are at the core of my concerns”:

“Agential realism is not a manifesto, it does not take for granted that all is or will or can be made manifest. On the contrary, it is a call, a plea, a provocation, a cry, a passionate yearning for an appreciation of, attention to the tissue of ethicality that runs through the world… for me, ethics is not a concern we add to the questions of matter, but rather is the very nature of what it means to matter.”

Critical Thinking over Critique

“Critique has been the tool of choice for so long, and our students find themselves so well-trained in critique that they can spit out a critique with the push of a button” (49).2

We can think of critique in the philosophical sense as an analysis that offers by way of the critique method either a rebuttal or a suggestion of further expansion upon the problems presented by the topic of that specific written or oral argumentation. Against this type of methodology Barad offers her own critical approach of the “practice of diffraction, of reading diffractively for patterns of differences that make a difference” (49). She specifies this approach as neither eliminativist in the sense of a subtractive methodology, but rather as a “creative and visionary” investigation or exploration.

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Karen Barad: Quantum Entanglement and Relations

Levi Bryant recently argued against the notion that “relata do not precede relations” as Karen Barad in her recent book, Meeting the Universe Halfway, affirms. For her there is a distinct “ontological priority of phenomena over objects (Barad : 315)”. 1 For her an atom is not a separate object but rather an “inseparable part of the phenomenon”. In her understanding of scientific analysis it is the quantum entanglement between the “object” and the “agencies of observation,” that the key to any adequate ontological theory can be found.

As she states it:

“If one focuses on abstract individual entities the result is an utter mystery, we cannot account for the seemingly impossible behavior of the atoms. It’s not that the experimenter changes a past that had already been present or that atoms fall in line with a new future simply by erasing information. The point is that the past was never simply there to begin with and the future is not simply what will unfold; the “past” and the “future” are iteratively reworked and enfolded through the iterative practices of spacetimemattering-includ-ing the which-slit detection and the subsequent erasure of which-slit information-all are one phenomenon. There is no spooky-action-at-a-distance coordination between individual particles separated in space or individual events separated in time. Space and time are phenomenal, that is, they are intra-actively produced in the making of phenomena; neither space nor time exist as determinate givens outside of phenomena (Barad : 315)”.

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