Thoughts on Identity, Multiplicity, and Withdrawal
by Adam Robbert
I’m writing the following in response to Levi Bryant’s most recent post on “Some Scattered Thoughts on the Problem of Substance.” There is much to read in Bryant’s post and I am only going to focus on two of his points here. First, Bryant wants to emphasize the multiplicity of entities over and against their unity or identity. Second, Bryant is arguing for a distinction between ontological withdrawal and epistemological withdrawal. Being as influenced by Whitehead as I am, I find natural affinity with many of Bryant’s arguments (implicitly I think Whitehead and Bryant hold similar positions on many issues), however I’ve long been arguing for the acceptance of identity and withdrawal (a la Graham Harman — though I suspect that my position may be too Whiteheadian for his tastes). Interested readers may also want to check out THIS post which nicely sums up some of the discussion so far. In what follows I will attempt to sketch out my own position regarding Bryant’s points in terms of some ecological principles I think we should be attentive to.
(1) Levi wants to distinguish between epistemological and ontological withdrawal, and I agree that there are two (recursively linked) domains operative to distinguish — though whether these are ontologically distinct is up for debate. Levi also rightly points out that the perception of unity for any entity is achieved after a process of enactment. This implies that within the perceptually unified field of an organism, there is actually a multiplicity of processes, functions, and events occurring. No disagreements here. However, where we differ, I think, is how we relate the enactivist paradigm to ontology. I read Whitehead’s ‘ontological principle’ and ‘prehension’ as ontological arguments for why enactivism makes sense. In other words, rocks and tables ‘enact’ a world in the same way that humans and squid do. Of course enactivism is a theory that responds to issues in cognitive science, and prehension is an ontological theory dealing with issues in metaphysics. However, I think bringing the two together as variations of an analogous activity is a tenable position and has some consequences for the distinctions Levi is drawing between epistemic and ontological withdrawal:
(i) In the enactivist paradigm, it is the whole organism’s body that is involved in enaction rather than a specific set cognitive/neural processes exclusively (surely the nervous system is key here, but so is the fully embodied organism in question). This in turn means that it is the organism’s being that relates to its environment, rather than a cognitive/perceptual subset of the organism operating abstractly. In other words, organisms do not have knowledge of their environment, organisms are fully integrated with their knowledge of their environment. I see enactivism as an ecologized version of McLuhan’s statement “the medium is the message;” organisms are what they know and perceive; deploying this knowledge as the enactment of a specific world configuration.
(ii) Given (i) it seems that enaction is primarily an ontological process of relations, rather than an epistemological one. For me, this analysis fits quite nicely with Whiteheadian prehension (which posits three moments nonlocally participating in each actual occasion; the occasion, the datum, and the subjective aim). In short, then, enaction is more like an ontological principle of relations than an epistemological one (and here I break with how the enactivist paradigm has been concieved historically, which has mostly been in the realm of cybernetic approaches to epistemology). My hypothesis here is that enactivism is a biological version of Whiteheadian prehension (which is an organismic cosmology anyway…) This leads me to further suggest that;
(iii) While it is true that epistemology can be considered a distinct realm of philosophy that shouldn’t be collapsed into other areas per se (e.g., ethics or metaphysics) it is also true that — if we except something like enactivism or prehension as ontological principles — epistemology starts to look more like an ontological theory of knowledge wherein knowledge itself enacts different world configurations (and recursively constitutes different kinds of bodies) given different sets of knowledge ecosystems. Thats a short way of saying that knowledge (or epistemes in this case) are embodied in specific media (e.g., brains, books, and bytes), are not “other than” those media and, in this way, also share the same ontological qualities as ‘physical’ interactions between, say, tornados and barn doors. Thus I think prehension and enactivism lead us to an ontological understanding of (a) beings; (b) beings relations to each other; (c) the relationship between beings and knowledge; and (d) the relationships between different kinds of knowledge enacted by different kinds of media. With these points in mind, I would argue that;
(3) Object-oriented philosophy’s account of withdrawal holds true for both ontological and epistemological domains, where the ontic and the epistemic can be distinguished analytically to perform certain philosophical tasks, but are ultimately integrated in the embodiment of beings such that epistemic and cognitive ecosystems are ontologically real in the same way that other ecosystems are. This leads me to suggest that;
(4) Positing the withdrawal of identity on ontological and epistemological levels is actually a move to secure the integrity of individuals through their irreducibly real character (contra Levi’s claim that a focus on withdrawn identity necessarily leads to marginalization or oppression). What is essential to highlight here is the hugely important role Levinas plays in object-oriented philosophy’s account of relations. Recall that in object-oriented philosophy the Levinasian face, understood as an ethical imperative that calls forth and constitutes the subject, becomes radicalized such that all beings (human or nonhuman) issue ethical imperatives based in an infinite alterity, rather than a subsumable political essence which can be totalized through political acts of subjugation. (Of course subjects can be subjugated regardless of philosophical ideals, but I would argue that this is true whether we think the subject as singular or multiple. Thinking that positing subjects as either singular or multiple will determine the political outcome of those subjects ignores the ecological character of knowledge and also presupposes that oppression is somehow based in logical thinking, when clearly such a thing has never been the case). This also has some consequences;
(i) In the case of ecological ethics, for example, we are tasked with ‘speaking for’ (in the Latourian sense) beings for which our current political legislatures and ethical practices cannot account for. Thus we find the political task to be centered around preserving the worlds of beings who meanings we cannot fully translate. The crucial imperative is thus to build political structure around the needs of individuals with actual identities and real needs rather than multiplicities that cannot be accounted for in the space of the social.
(ii) In other words, an ontological concept of individuality and identity, rather than being regressive moves to essences that can be policed on the basis of proximity and marginilization, can move us into a political structure where the center/periphery dynamic is broken into an account of agency distributed throughout individuals that are variously human/nonhuman or biotic/abiotic. In this sense it is the social collective that is better aided by being thought of has a multiplicity rather than the specific individuals that constitute that collective.