The Twilight of Becoming (and Process)


One of the rhetorical disadvantages to philosophies of process, or dispositions, or becoming (or however else you want to couch them) is that there’s a fuzziness that there doesn’t seem to be an urge to clarify. Part of this is the fact that these philosophies are non-common sensical and are therefore ontologically fuzzy – one cannot pick up a flow of time, or becoming itself like one can grasp an object. This twilight of becoming has led to several connections between process philosophy and other forms – for instance discussions of phenomenology and in particular sensibility are common since experience or affect is an easy way to attempt to quantify or at least make process registrable in an intensive (if not extensive) sense. I think for similar reasons the theological connections are unsurprising.

Furthermore, for quite a few theorists, it’s comfortable to reside in the middle ground or way station of materialism because it allows one to work with vitalism, dynamism, becoming etc without any attempt at explaining formalization, persistence, or any other occurrence which seems at odds with process, flow, power, and so on.

And it is here that Meillassoux is interesting. Meillassoux’s philosophy has more in common with Grant and Brassier than with OOO/OOP. What many critiques of process and advocates leave out is the question of modality. What Meillassoux does in fact assert modality (at least in the form of non-contradiction) over becoming as a purely positive or self perpetuating form of becoming. As Iain Grant’s recent work (such as the response to Harman in The Speculative Turn) has shown is that there is no reason to think that powers, or dispositions, or processes undermine actuality in fact, this explain actuality as they explain generation, decay, change, and so forth. As Meillassoux makes clear his hyper-chaos is becoming beyond becoming in so far that it is a becoming that isn’t always becoming – it is not merely an indefinite engine of swerves, fluxes, flows, rivers, and so on and so forth. It’s a modality of modalities – namely that things could be otherwise.

It’s along these lines that I have never quite been able to make sense of Harman’s (and other OOO/OOP folks) dismissive use of so called lava lampy materialism or by calling philosophies of process lump ontologies (see p 160 of Harman’s Prince of Networks). Similarly, when Harman refers to Grant as a philosopher of the One ( that would seem equivalent to calling Laruelle a philosopher of the One or calling Meillassoux a philosopher of possibility. In other words, the critique seems to be there must be some underlying substance with forces and powers but I cannot see why this must be the case. In many ways it seems to be an obsobfuscation of the difference between the metaphysical and the non-metaphysical – why if metaphysically there are not individual things why can’t there be individual things at the physical level without needing a human mind to carve them up. This is also why Meillassoux can have hyper-chaos and science, it is why there can be breaks in flows as was already discussed at length here against the throwing of the lava lamps. And, as I’ve stated before, this seems to be what Jane Bennett is hoping to work on in future projects. DeLanda also has a relevant piece here.

That being said, there is quite a bit of work to done. Too many thinkers who work with becoming or process are okay with operating in the twilight of becoming this allows for becoming to be utilized as an escape hatch in argumentation. The need for some degree of  formalization is needed and it is appeals to thinkers such as Peirce which make this desire evident. This is also apparent in Reza’s scientific universalism and its connection to Peirce. Again, part of this is the role of metaphysics and non-metaphysical philosophy. Once one starts talking about vitalism, for instance, I believe this is the realm of the affective, the existential, the phenomenological and so on. I think if thinkers of process and becoming want to relate this to processes and powers and becomings, there needs to a rigorous account of the breaks, the actualizations, the triads or whatever it may be, that show the work of becoming without a human agent making the call, without the human carving out the individuated bits of the world.

Despite the messiness of this I want to know what the Process/Relational folks think: Immanence, Knowledge Ecology, After Nature, Immanent Transcendence, Footnotes 2 Plato, and Steven Shaviro.

Update: Leon of After Nature responds here.


16 Responses to “The Twilight of Becoming (and Process)”

  1. Mr. Woodard,

    I appreciate the invite, though I should come straight with my position so that you know where I’m coming from. Like Leon of After Nature, I dual-specialized in pragmatism and continental (mostly history and classical phenomenology, as Tony Steinbock loves his Husserl), but in my case I work in pragmatism and join this discussion as someone versed in continental and interested in branching out into SR, since we’re really doing the same things. But I’m not coming from this Deleuzian/Latour/Badiou/etc background that is assumed by most discussions and am not well versed in it, and thus I can say little about Meillasoux. I hope that my difference is constructive, as I will likely have quite divergent assumptions, e.g., I recently posted about the act-theoretic nature of a Deweyan/Peircean understanding of potency that is a reverse of Bryant’s, but that reversal threads through every aspect of a Deweyan view, e.g., meaning is an activity and not propositional or referential in nature (Frege et al can bite me.). Or, “experience” is the interaction of existents in nature that under rare conditiosn may emerge into consciousness, and thus consciousness-of (intentionality) is of an existential transactions in relative disequilibrium. I expect this to be strange, but let me continue and address the question.

    I also have the sense that there’s a “twilight” or fuzziness in the discussion, and thus I have been discussingthe issues with Matt of Footnotes2Plato, Leon of After Nature, Adrian of Immanence, and Adam of Knowledge Ecology as well as a delightfully helpful talk with Bryant, where we came to an understanding.

    What might be lacking in SR and is present in Peirce is synechism, i.e., the theory of the continuity of nature that preserves his realism, and his generative ontological categories, i.e., the triad of firstness/secondness/thirdness that is also the basis of his evolutionary metaphysics, etc. Connectivity and its variation is spelled out in agonizing detail in Peirce–with logical rigor.

    I have been taking some to task both explicitly and implicitly, especially Harman of late, because they *appear* to run into the classic problems of the external/internal relatiosn debate, explaining change in a substance metaphysics (Plato’s Parmenides says it all), explaining the modalities of being (something Spinoza has over the Parmenidean problem), etc. But, given my introduction, I cannot say anything definitive as I am not an SR scholar. I do see answers to these issues, but the level of detail and formalization of what I’ve come across seems lacking, especially in comparison to Peirce or Whitehead.

    • 2 Ben Woodard

      Hi Jason,

      Thanks for the reply – and I didn’t mean to infer that everyone who has discussed process is the same or coming from the same place just that Bergson/Deleuze/James/Whitehead are the dominant figures there with Peirce a bit on the side. I myself have more of a german idealism background and try to look at formalization in relation to process as it appears in thinkers like Schelling, Schopenhauer before going into anti-philosophical territory (Nietzsche). So not knowing much about Dewey or Peirce I’m interested in your work – particularly how it applies to process and how experience and non-experience can be parsed (or not) etc.

      Is there a text of Peirce you can recommend for Synechism as I’m not sure how his continuity relates to substance or monism and process?

  2. 3 Leon

    To follow up. You are right. One can easily imagine SR/OOO trying to sidestep the issue of internal/external relations by denying its importance (though lately an aesthetic SR/OOO theory has been developing that *somewhat* addresses the problem, but such a theory currently only seems to be in “twilight”). And I am still perplexed as to how “actualist” OOO accounts for change or process altogether, per your comment about substance metaphysics. Now there I am lost – I am not sure that vicarious causation can find its way out of that. No way.

    True, “actualist” OOO must have intuited that many of these issue would be problematic, and so it’s no surprise to me that something like a theory of modality is going to save the day: enter Latour. I’m willing to bet that one can take Latour’s x number of modalities and use a Peircean categorical distinction to break them down into three. Lo and behold.

    Leon / after nature

    • 4 Ben Woodard

      Hi Leon,

      One thing I’m trying to do in this post is separate 000/oop from SR – as there are many other thinkers who are associated with SR who are not pursuing OOO/OOP and there are several of us interested in process, becoming etc. I’m interested in trying to see where we stand vis a vis ooo and sr in relation to other forms of philosophy process/pragmatism/Deleuzian or whatever they may be

  3. 5 Leon

    Hi Ben,
    You are right. I should be careful to refrain from lumping together sr and everything else. Noted!


  4. 6 Adam Robbert

    Hello Ben, Everyone,

    Thanks for initiating this discussion, Ben. I’ve just had a chance to read over your post, and some of the responses. I have a few thoughts, which have been brewing anyway- I’ll be posting them up later today. I think, as Jason is right to point out, there is a certain fuzziness even in assigning people positions in this discussion. I, for example, found myself defending the object-oriented position within the process-relational crowd the other day, whereas today, it seems, I am in the process-relational camp. I am very appreciative of the efforts being made to further refine these distinctions, and certainly recognize that there are important differences between OOO and speculative realisms/speculative materialisms (in addition to those between processes and objects). More to come shortly.

  5. Ben,

    I mention my background so that people have a sense of how to take my questions. Recently, I have entered conversations where my interlocutors presume that speaking from a continental position or, e.g., know Deleuze. I just want to avoid misunderstanding and to emphasize the tentative nature of my remarks. That said, I can speak to my own position in fairly neutral terms that may be informative, although full explanations might be best left to blog posts; please in the future feel free to ask.

    As for the best text on synechism, I will defer to Leon, since I had library copies and had to give them back after moving to Houston. I would refer to a compendium, since Peirce published a small fraction of his works, and there are multiple incompatible compendiums. The critical edition is stalled, too. However, I can refer you to an excellent, referenced online dictionary. It should be sufficient to start. By the way, the search function doesn’t always work, so use your browser’s search function.

    I offer the following quotation, where “EP” is the Essential Pierce colelcted volume,

    “There is a famous saying of Parmenides {esti gar einai, méden d’ ouk einai}, “being is, and not-being is nothing.” This sounds plausible; yet synechism flatly denies it, declaring that being is a matter of more or less, so as to merge insensibly into nothing. [—]
    Synechism, even in its less stalwart forms, can never abide dualism, properly so called. [—] In particular, the synechist will not admit that physical and psychical phenomena are entirely distinct, — whether as belonging to different categories of substance, or as entirely separate sides of one shield, — but will insist that all phenomena are of one character, though some are more mental and spontaneous, others more material and regular. [—]
    Nor must any synechist say, “I am altogether myself, and not at all you.
    Synechism refuses to believe that when death comes, even the carnal consciousness ceases quickly.” (‘Immortality in the Light of Synechism’, EP 2:2-3, 1893)

    Synechism is the heart of my own position, and Peircean and Whiteheadian SR. It implies that relations neither be thought as external nor internal, strictly, and gets to the heart of many issues about relationality.

    As for Peirce not being a dominant figure, that might be true in continental circles, but not pragmatist ones, just as Deleuze is “a bit on the side” for us. Again, just pointing out traditional differences and not making valuative statements.

  6. Leon,

    My talk with Levi leads me to believe that his position does not have the problems that Harman’s does qua vicarious causation. In Levi’s case, I’d like to know how the actualization of potentialities works and how identity is related to “having” potentialities–I presume you saw that discussion. For my part I just need to read more, I suppose.

    This is a different issue from relationality. It’s the question of identity that I discussed, almost German Idealist style, on my blog. Why does this entity “have” those powers; how do they become activated; why can we claim that some are active while some are not, etc. These are classic questions that have been discussed in various forms since Aristotle. The danger to avoid is arbitrariness, among others. I call this a question of “identity” to distinguish being a determinate entity from merely being an entity. It roughly parallels the Aristotelian form/matter distinction, i.e., determinate structure vs. actual individuation. Again, why does this entity have these powers, which we might even claim exist (have being) without being active?

    How does modality save the day? What modality?

    In writing this, I was tripped up by my own Peircean distinctions between the modalities of being, e.g., pure possibility, existence, and determinate existence (1st/2nd/3rds), which don’t quite map to Aristotle.

  7. Very interesting discussion (which I, unfortunately, don’t have time to get involved in right now, though I’d like to). Thanks for starting it, Ben.

    Here’s just a little contribution:

  8. I have reposted a short attempt to get very clear on the issues you raise at my blog, which was also a comment at Adam’s Knowledge Ecology.

  1. 1 Response to Naught Thought « Knowledge Ecology
  2. 2 In Defense of Wonder: A response to Naught Thought on Whitehead’s Philosophy of Dawn « Footnotes to Plato
  3. 3 Interesting Discussion of Whitehead - event mechanics - event mechanics
  4. 4 Some Thoughts on Process: « Order of the Black Mark
  5. 5 The Divine Function in Whitehead: Not Your Grandpa’s Occasionalism « Footnotes to Plato

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: