Friday, 12 June 2015

Notes towards a conception of atmospheric diplomacy

More than a few interested parties have, in recent years and decades, detected a certain toxicity in the abstractions by which we think and live. The atmosphere bequeathed by modern thought is nowhere a pure one, nowhere obvious. Nowhere does it achieve a consistency or a simplicity that could condense into a solid ground for a definite 'we.' And yet everywhere are its deep-sunk insinuations felt. Plainly, no one has the authority to regulate or air-condition this pea-souper of concepts. And yet is it not for that precise reason that we might all be emboldened to try? We – that is, all dwellers of the dilapidated faux-palace; all the affected, all the concerned; all those who breathe the damp, questionable air.

For some, this diagnosis emboldens and prioritises the critic. 'We know from whence these toxins came and those satanic mills must be torn down, razed to the ground!' An understandable reaction. But what ground? Like so many castles in the heavy, choking air, there is no outside on which we could be sure to fall safely once the besooted brickwork comes a-tumbling. We are like birds but not 'free-like-a...'. We need an altogether different sensibility in order to work our way out of this kakosmic bind. A sensibility characterised by the prioritisation of obligation and attachment. An ethos of binds and bonds made flexible by their regular exercise.

To the critic's rage at established sentiments we must add the diplomat's patience with them. Not to preserve or celebrate the tawdry and regrettable skyline but to rebuild it – brick by leaden brick.

Was Whitehead a materialist?

S.C. Hickman on the Dark Ecologies blog has a very nice short introduction to Whitehead's Process and Reality, particularly concentrating on its cosmological aspects. He writes, by way of a concluding parenthesis, that this is part of an "ongoing project of developing a materialist philosophy".

This got me thinking about something that's been bothering me for a while: why some often claim Whitehead as a 'materialist.' I'm not trying to pick on Hickman here (he didn't say that Whitehead was a materialist, only that he's using Whitehead in developing a materialist philosophy) but it's something that comes up quite often, one way or another.

My own inclination (no more thought through than that, to be honest) is to say that, in Whitehead's terms, materialism is a philosophy that makes matter its Ultimate. Following that on, Whitehead would have to be (in P&R at least) a creativist; Aristotle a substantialist, etc.

Whatever way matter is conceived (and there are of course indefinitely many ways of conceiving it), 'materialism' must surely be related to matter qua conceptual fundament -- that is, as the thing that explains nothing but is assumed so that the rest of existence can be conceptually constructed (as the Ultimate).

There's a lot of pretty wishy-washy talk of 'materialism' that just says 'things, therefore materialism,' which tends to result in platitudes rather than insights. (Perhaps that's just me being mean; but, then again, maybe not.) It generally presupposes that anything that isn't idealism -- i.e. anything that takes non-human things seriously -- is therefore materialism, which I find to be unhelpful at best (and part of a systematic stupidification of thought, at worst).

This is basically what I was getting at with a post I wrote on 'new materialism' a couple of months ago.

It's a poorly articulated irritation that I'm describing here but it derives from a complacency that is, I think, widespread and real.