Consequences of Panpsychism
by Adam Robbert
[Update: it seems that the paper Harman was referring to was Shaviro's paper from the recent Milwaukee conference, and not the paper of the same title from the Claremont conference. I'm not sure whether or not the two papers are identical, similar, or different.]
Steven Shaviro’s paper from the 2010 Claremont Conference is available online HERE (hat tip, Graham Harman for reminding me about the essay in a post from earlier today). The essay is notable for a number of reasons:
(1) It is written in Shaviro’s characteristically lucid style. Shaviro has the ability to draw from a large number sources and synthesize them within a single paragraph. This gives readers the advantage of a broad sweep of the territory in question, whilst not confusing them with bewildering prose.
(2) The essay provides the most succinct dialogue between Whitehead’s speculative philosophy and some of the charges leveled against it by object-oriented ontology I have yet to find. Shaviro rallies a fair reading of the critiques of Whitehead raised by Harman, and a response to those critiques that successfully defend Whitehead against the charge of relationism.
(3) Shaviro picks up the topic of panpyschism with seriousness. A great example would be the following passage:
“Whitehead, at least, encourages us to redeﬁne thought or mentality in terms of affectivity (or what he calls “feeling”) rather than in terms of cognition or computation. Conceptual prehension – or thought as affectivity – is prior both to life and to consciousness; and it is through Whitehead’s analyses of conceptual prehensions that we may best grasp the genesis, or emergence, both of life and of consciousness. In the second place, this might well lead us to displace and reframe current discourses on biopower, and on the definition and management of “life.” If life is derivative of feeling, rather than the reverse, this forces us to think of our ecological position in the world in a deeply altered way.” (p. 13).
We can break down this paragraph to discover: (a) a theory of mind where computation is derivative of affectivity, rather than the reverse; (b) a theory of life likewise derivative of affectivity, rather than the reverse; (c) that panpsychism has something to tell us about biopower (i.e., there is a politically subversive dimension to panpsychism that is almost completely underexplored in contemporary research); and (d) that all of the above have significant consequences for what the word “ecology” means.
(4) Picking up on points (c) and (d) from above, Shaviro’s discussion of panpsychism forges an opening within which panpsychism can be politicized in a way that is, to my knowledge, very unique to the history of panpsychism itself. Here Shaviro’s discussion holds some affinity with the work of Brian Massumi — whom also takes up Whiteheadian themes alongside Foucault’s notion of biopower — though I must admit that Massumi’s wandering style leaves me feeling wanting. In this respect I much prefer Shaviro’s ability to provide clear, multifaceted dialogue between sides over Massumi’s stylistic pull towards a certain “blending” of philosophical positions.
The important point is that Shaviro is taking up panpsychism within the context of economic exploitation (“Today we are beset by the overcodings of ubiquitous ﬂows of capital, as well as by the demands that all the entities we encounter impose upon us, the claims that they make for our attention” (p. 11) and this is central to any discussion that involves panpsychism and ecology.
(5) A final point here. There is a great deal of humility presented in Shaviro’s writing. This is a style that I also find in Graham Harman (despite recent commentaries on the latter which, quite frankly, leave me wondering to what extent such commentaries are even engaged with the person in question). For example, Shaviro writes, “Whitehead, I think, is more balanced than either Harman or myself. He understands the need for both relation and separation; his metaphysics posits both of these as equally crucial requisites” (p. 11).
While I am inclined to agree with Shaviro’s comment about Whitehead’s capacity to hold a balanced position, I also want to add that with regards to Whitehead, Shaviro, and Harman, the former (Whitehead) has the advantage of being read from the perspective of a fully developed and mature philosophical position, worked out over several decades. In the case of the latter (Shaviro and Harman) we are witnessing the emergence of new philosophical modes of thought; and, if what’s already been achieved by both of these thinkers is any indication of what’s to come, I think it’s safe to say the future of speculative philosophy is in good hands.