The Cosmopolitics of Withdrawal
by Adam Robbert
Michael of Archive Fire continues our debate over the ontological status of withdrawal in THIS fine post. I am very much appreciating the tone and complexity of Michael’s thoughts and continue to view his position (which we can now call a kind of “contingent withdrawal”) as a valid thesis that deserves further attention; though finally I still disagree. I see two major points of disagreement that are setting us apart: 1) Michael is arguing for a materialist postion, whereas I see materialism as being only a subset of actuality (i.e., an abstraction); and 2) Michael sees the position of absolute withdrawal as being a problem of human knowledge and cognition, where I see the problem of human knowledge and cognition as an example of problems which face relations in general.
On the first point, I can’t see materialism as providing a complete ontological account (sorry Levi!) of the cosmos. Here I, like Michael, follow Whitehead’s notion of the actual occasion though my interpretation differs from Michael’s. For Whitehead, the actual occasion is not an entity that exists in simple location (no actual entity does for Whitehead); instead an actual occasion consists in three “moments” integrally present within the occasion itself: a subject prehending, a feeling prehended, and a subjective aim by which the prehension occurs. Each of these moments are simultaneous occurrences within each occasion (the outside is always-already “in” in the inside, as it were).
So here’s the rub on why I think Whitehead is not a materialist even though his philosophy is entirely compatible with materialism (its a kind of radical empiricism if you want to go Jamesian). Whitehead is careful to point out that while “stubborn facts” (what the materialist or empiricist would consider as the really real) are a necessary feature of our cosmology, they are finally abstractions that exist in the past as constitutive features in the emergence of new actual occasions (“the universe becomes one and is increased by one” as the famous saying goes). The point is that what is “matter” or “material” is only ever retrospectively defined as such. And here I mean “defined” in a cosmological sense that we can distinguish from a smaller anthropocentric gesture where humans get to “define” what is actually real. In other words, for Whitehead, the material universe qua universe is always the past, historical universe flowing into the present and on into the future. When we think of it this way, materialism is only a temporal subset of actuality.
On the second point Michael writes:
So, the take-away here is that structural encounters are direct by virtue of their causal efficacy, but ‘translations’ of such encounters are necessarily “selective”, obscure and partial: direct but partial. And I believe the notion of “absolute withdrawal” is predicated on conflating the limitations of cognition and representation with embodied experience and causality in general. But intentionality and conceptuality are not identical to contact and experience [I will comment more on this in my next post]. The so-called “rift between essence and appearance” applies to generally to symbolic operations but not necessarily to material relations and structural causality as such.
For myself (and for Whitehead) there is no ontological distinction between those modes of relations that are symbolic in nature and those that are non-symbolic in nature. Relations of any kind have what one could call a semiotic component. This is precisely what Whitehead means by prehension, though he doesn’t appeal to semiotics to make his case. In this sense I follow Harman and Morton in thinking that the rift between essence and appearance is not a feature of a human cognitive deficit, and is instead a feature of all modes of translation regardless of scale or complexity. Here I break with Whitehead (who I think qualifies as an advocate of contingent rather than absolute withdrawal — though of course he never uses this language)
At the end of the day Michael and I largely agree and are almost certainly applying these theoretical constructs towards similar aims: social and ecological justice are most definitely at the fore for both of us. In this sense we are in alliance in a larger cosmopolitical terrain that surpasses our differences here. While we both agree that relations are always contingent insofar as the onto-specific character of any particular set of enacted entities will always be of central importance, we disagree in that I still don’t think that if we added up all the onto-specific relations possible for any entity that that entity would then be *finally* revealed in its totality; there would still be a remaining surplus lurking within each finite, historical moment. Thus it seems to be the case that entities can be fully destroyed (or eaten as in Michael’s example) without be fully revealed. Another strange state of affairs…