Interesting Discussion of Whitehead

Levi is confused by Steve Shaviro’s most recent post, which was prompted by Ben Woodard’s post about process philosophy. (There is a very interesting discussion happening on a number of blogs, I mostly read Levi’s and Steve’s respective blogs, so apologies for briefly ‘jumping into’ an already ongoing discusion.) Levi goes on to discuss how he is using Whitehead’s process philosophy and raises the problem of ‘God’ for those using Whitehead. ‘God’ can happily be excluded from Whitehead’s process philosophy in two important ways, but see a bit further down for what is really interesting in Levi’s post.

First, ontologically, ‘eternal objects’ are better characterised in terms of their virtuality. Religious discourse in this sense was a convenient resource for Whitehead at the time, nothing else. What is the virtual dimension of an ‘eternal object’? Deleuze’s discussion of Whitehead is good on this:

Events are fluvia. […] A permanence has to be born in flux, and must be grasped in prehension. […] While prehensions are always current forms (a prehension is a potential only in respect to another current prehension), eternal objects are pure Possibilities that are realized in fluvia, but also pure Virtualities that are actualized in prehensions. That is why a prehension does not grasp other prehensions without apprehending eternal objects (properly, conceptual feeling). Eternal objects produce ingression in the event. Sometimes these can be Qualities, such as color or a sound that qualifies a combination of prehensions; sometimes Figures, like the pyramid, that determine an extension; sometimes they are Things, like gold or marble, that cut through a matter. Their eternity is not opposed to creativity. Inseparable from the process of actualization or realization into which they enter, they gain permanence only in the limits of the flux that creates them, or of the prehensions that actualize them. An eternal object can thus cease becoming incarnate, just as new things — a new shade of color, or a new figure — can finally find their conditions. (The Fold, 79-80)

Deleuze is largely drawing on Whitehead’s definition of ‘ingression’ (found in Process and Reality (23) and then discussion (290-291)), plus Whitehead’s discussion about the ‘datum’ of a conceptual prehension is an eternal object (240). That is, actual occassions are a process of concresence of prehensions prehending each other, the ingression of an eternal object (actualisaion of a pure virtuality) requires conceptual prehensions. As I noted a few years ago, Harman’s reading of Whitehead does not include any of this.

The field of virtualities — involving a ‘plane of immanence’ and Bergsonian ‘duration’ — is a way to describe the entire universe of ‘eternal objects’ (chaosmos; hence Badiou’s critique about the One-All), but for Whitehead there is a specificity here (as Steve notes in his post). Whether or not Whitehead or Deleuze is correct is determined by whether or not you think the virtual is bound by the possible. Of course, this is Whitehead’s Platonic inheritance…

Second, rather than being ‘God-given’, distributing or allocating the ‘determination’ of prehensions in every situation (except for ‘creation’) is a projection, backformed from concresence by a subject that takes his/her/its perspective as a self-expressive datum. We don’t know how other subjects — human or otherwise — express such directions except through language, etc. and because we don’t know, we assume. I think this is a problem that many critics of OOO have with the approach. From Whitehead:

It is better to say that the feelings aim at their subject, than to say that they are aimed at their subject. For the latter mode of expression removes the subject from the scope of the feeling and assigns it to an external agency. Thus the feeling would be wrongly abstracted from its own final cause. This final cause is an inherent element in the feeling, consituting the unity of that feeling. An actual entity feels as it does feel in order to be the actual entity which it is. In this way an actual entity satisfies Spinoza’s notion of substance: it is causa sui. The creativity is not an external agency with its own ulterior purposes. All actual entities share with God this characteristic of self-causation. For this reason every actual entity also shares with God the characteristic of transcending all other actual entities, including God. The universe is thus a creative advance in novelty. The alternative to this doctrine is a static morphological universe. (Process and Reality, 222)

A ‘creative advance in novelty’ is how I understand Steve’s position (developed in Without Criteria), versus OOO’s ‘static morphological universe’. To put it anoher way, we know that actual entities have a final cause, but OOO assumes what this is based on a projection backformed from the concresence of the OOO-subject and the limits of potentiality actualised as ingression of ‘eternal objects’ (or I prefer ‘singularities’) in perception itself. (To use Whiteheadian terminology, the OOO superject becomes a conceptual prehension and the ‘datum’ of which is a feeling they name as ‘objects’.) An object is an object, I agree, but it is ‘this’ object for ‘this’ subject. To avoid this problem Deleuze draws on the notion of the fourth-person singular in The Logic of Sense.

Besides the God stuff (which any cursory reader of Deleuze and Whitehead would not really be that concerned about due to the relation between virtuality and eternal objects), Levi’s post is interesting for me in that he makes a distinction regarding his reading of Whitehead very clearly:

“it is my view that Whitehead undermines objects by treating “actual occasions” as the ontological foundation of being. For me the minimal units of being consist of what Whitehead would call “societies”. In my view, the structure of objects or their status as dynamic systems is irreducible, and cannot be seen as mere aggregates of actual occasions.”

Indeed, Whitehead certainly undermines objects, because the focus of his cosmological philosophy is not objects, but processes and events. (Jason Hills over at Immanent Transcendence basically makes the same point.) Levi’s take on Whitehead makes a great deal more sense to me now. (As it should be clear from the title of my blog, I am interested in events.) However, I still do not understand why ‘objects’ are interesting. Stating that Whitehead ‘undermines objects’ is to almost state the obvious.

If we are using Whitehead’s terminology, Levi needs to argue the philosophical case for discounting ‘actual occassions’ for a focus on ‘societies’; what is the point of this? And what happens to ‘actual occassions’, if the focus is on ‘societies’; do they not exist? Is there an ontological hierarchy between events and objects favouring objects in OOO? Something like, societies as objects are more ‘real’ than actual occassions as the event-based building block of everything?

In a follow up post, Ben Woodard makes a related observation:

For me, the distinction really rests on whether the object or substance is metaphysically prior to, or important, or however you want to put it, to the processes or powers.

Once someone from the OOO world explains this sufficiently, OOO as a philosophy will make a great deal more sense to (at least) me.

On the other hand, there are various problems wih Deleuze’s account of events. One in particular that I have discussed on here in terms of the problem of (extensive) scale, one way through this is to focus on singularities (the singularities belonging to the ‘wound’ are also of the singularities that belong to the ‘battle’). Jason Hills makes this observation in a comment to Ben Woodard’s above linked post:

Your question implies a substance perspective that event ontologies do not share, because all events occur in a history in which a power leads to an actual event, and actual events lead to emergent powers. There is no absolute priority of events, and any particular priority of powers over actual events is non-necessary.

Deleuze’s discussion of events in The Logic of Sense is somewhat different to the discussion in The Fold. If The Fold describes a process-oriented (or at least process-informed) philosophy of events, then the Logic of Sense is a different beast. Here I am thinking of the “24th Series of the Communication of Events” from TLoS and Jason Hills bringing up Pierce. Guattari’s intervention in Deleuze’s thinking is very useful on this point. But I don’t have the time to go into it.

What is an area of interest?

It is the first week of classes and this week in my Online News unit I’ll be doing the regular introductory spiel, which includes introducing some of the main concepts to be developed with students. The central concept for this week is an ‘area of interest’, which is what an entrepreneurial journalist looks for when devising a strategy to service a community of interest and develop a media enterprise. To introduce the concept of an ‘area of interest’ to students I am using an example provided by a post to Boing Boing last week titled Sunset of a Blog, which provides a narrative of the rise and decline of a special interest site.

The site is Wi-Fi Networking News and it was created and run by tech journalist Glenn Fleishman. It is a useful example for my Online News students to begin thinking about an area of interest. A chronology of the site begins in 2001 when Glenn identified a niche regarding ‘wifi hotspots’ derived from a story he had written for The New York Times. The peak of the site occured in 2006/2007 when Glenn was writing about issues relating to ‘municipal wifi’ and the debate around technology standards.

The forms of content posted to the site fits with what my students will be engaging with this semester (here is some writing of mine that captures some earlier thinking on the subject):
1. News, described as “Mixed straight technology reportage”, i.e. the 5Ws & 1H.
2. Opinion
3. Curatorial, which Glenn describes as “Normal link-to-others blogging”
4. Evergreen, which is not actually isolated as a specific form of content in Glenn’s account, but it is evident from his comment that the “most popular page of all time is how to set a password on a Linksys model that hasn’t been sold for a few years”.

The site was successful enough for Glenn to be able to develop revenue streams of ‘up to tens of $1k per year’ from sponsorship and then later advertising. Ultimately however, the amount of work he was investing into the site was unsustainable. Glenn describes this from the point of view of other similar niche market sites as requiring “at least some moderate recurring income”.

At its peak the site had a market/audience of up to 250k views per month, and this has dropped off to 25k per month. Glenn suggests the decline was due to other media enterprises learning the ‘lessons’ of blogging practice; they “took mojo away from sites that couldn’t market to existing large readerships”. Hence the site lost market/audience share to general tech blogs/sites (Ars Technica, Engadget, Gizmodo, Boing Boing) and “hundreds upon hundreds of similar but inferior sites.

The above is a very basic ‘barebones’ description of an online media enterprise. Over the course of the semester, my students will be developing a case study of an ‘opportunity’ similar to what Glenn Fleishman identified and then acted upon back in 2001. In terms of defining the concept of an area of interest, there is plenty more conceptual detail.

Here are a few ways of understanding an ‘area of interest’ drawing on a couple of different academic areas:

Affective: Interest is one of the primary affects described by clinical psychologist Silvan Tompkins. ‘Interest’ is that moment which the body orientates itself to be attentive to a particular environmental signal. It is a pre-consciousess action of the body. It exists as a functional component of various ‘activation contours’. An ‘activation contour’ describes the process by which affect accelerates in your body turning interest into ‘excitement’, or ‘shame’ concurrently with interest. Content has to be ‘of interest’.

Enthusiasm: Another way to think about ‘interest’ that builds on this basic affective dimension is in terms of ‘enthusiasm’. Enthusiasm is a complex affection (‘affection’ being the experience of the body experiencing itself producing affects). We ‘suffer’ affections, but not necessarily in a bad way. Enthusiasm is interesing (pun intended) because it mobilises enthusiast bodies into action to engage with challenges. Content is characterised, in a general sense, by identifying and describing such challenges. Evergreen content is a prime example of translating ‘know-how’ for engaging with challenges into discourse.

Social: Depending on the context this could be described as ‘socio-technical’. An area of interest is ‘social’ in the sense of enabling the audience/users to participate in a community (imagined/symbolic and/or practical). News-based content serves as a gatekeeping ‘test’ for belonging and, for more extensive engagement, participation. The audience/users participate in economies of competence that may be expressed as allegience (‘fanbois’, political/social stratifications) and authority (‘respect’, authenticity). In Bourdieu’s terminology, an area of interest is a ‘field’, but with some important qualifications, namely it may not necessarily be professional, plus there is a strong ‘horizontal’ set of distinctions that appear to be ‘vertical/hierachical’ from within a field.

Dispositif: For those who read Jay Rosen’s blog, you may have realised that I am assuming that news-based content, above all else, must be useful. Utility of content is contingent on the specific ways that news-based content (re)valorises the interest itself. This is a far more complex point relating to the media operating as a ‘technology of visibility’ (to use Foucaultian terminology) and the way visibility produces valorisation of the news ‘object’ within specific communities of interest.

On Value and Exploitation: London as ‘Comprador Theater’

Danny has raised a point from Spivak’s argument regarding the character of ‘value’ in reply to my previous post and I agree that he makes a good point.

While I agree with the overall thrust of the post, I don’t think that positioning surplus-value as being overwhelmed by the value of financial capital is really tenable in transnational labour of the type that produces the ‘racial’ trope in the London riots. The consumer goods being ‘looted’ should not be dismissed here. As Marx gestures toward in his writings on primitive accumulation, in a certain way the subject is always super-adequate to itself, and this is the origin of surplus value, rather than it being simply the easiest path to any exchange value. The question is who has the monopoly on appropriation of this value. For me a useful investigation of this is Spivak’s “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value” from Diacritics, still holding up pretty well a quarter of a century on:

“even as circulation time attains the apparent instantaneity of thought (and more), the continuity of production ensured by that attainment of apparent coincidence must be broken up by capital: its means of doing so is to keep the labor reserves in the comprador countries outside of this instantaneity, thus to make sure that multinational investment does not realize itself fully there through assimilation of the working class into consumerist-humanism. It is one of the truisms oí Capital I that technological inventions open the door to the production of relative rather than absolute surplus-value. [Capital I 643-54. “Absolute surplus-value” is a methodologically irreducible theoretical fiction.] Since the production and realization oí relative surplus-value, usually attendant upon technological progress and the socialized growth of consumerism, increase capital expenditure in an indefinite spiral, there is the contradictory drive within capitalism to produce more absolute and less relative surplus-value as part of its crisis management. In terms of this drive, it is in the “interest” of capital to preserve the comprador theater in a state of relatively primitive labor legislation and environmental regulation… To state the problem in the philosophical idiom of this essay: as the subject as super-adequation in labor-power seems to negate itself within telecommunication, a negation of the negation is continually produced by the shifting lines of the international division of labor. This is why any critique of the labor theory of value, pointing at the unfeasibility of the theory under post-industrialism, or as a calculus of economic indicators, ignores the dark presence of the Third World.” p84

I recall we’ve had previous discussions about related topics and I have been trying to figure out what ‘value’ is for a while now, see this post. This previous thinking about ‘value’ was in a general sense as it seemed that any essentialist definition, that located it ‘in’ something or ‘standing in’ for something else (worker’s labour, capitalist exchange), was deficient, and I was thinking about it more in terms of a kind of event of normative equivalence that produced the normative as much as the value. Very similar to what Spvak suggests, but in Deleuzian rather than Derridean terms.

To return to Danny’s comment, if I am reading Spivak adequately, the non-correspondence between the use value of the worker’s labour for the capitalist and its exchange value would normally be determined by a materialist excess of the worker (and not, as Spivak warns, an idealist ‘lack’ or individualist psychologisation, i.e. subject of consciousness). I agree with this point, and I also agree with most of what Spivak argues to the extent that I want to suggest that now it is only a partial account. She assumes an “increase [of] capital expenditure in an indefinite spiral”. This is no longer the case (if it ever was), due to the failure of the debt markets to provide the conditions of possibility for indefinite capital expenditure. I am drawing a bridge across the principle terms of her argument (from the agents of multinational capitalism and their puppets in the comprador theater (developing countries and their manufacturing capabilities)) in a different direction to the one she is. She is following a line of exploitation that she rightly argues was being ignored by most academics who were suggesting at the time that the labour theory of value was inadequate for post-industrial capitalism. I want to suggest that with the relative failure of the debt markets there is not a continuation of the relation she indicates in her essay. My understanding of all this is largely congruent with the argument of this essay in metamute. I want to suggest that the relation of exclusion that Spivak isolates is far more porous now than it was when she was writing. That is my first point.

Secondly, the deconstruction of the representation/transformation chain from labour-power to capital that she carries out in the first two fifths of her essay does not include the specific functioning of debit and consumer credit. The ‘mortgage’ as a way of colonising time means that the future state of a given population of workers is transformed. Brett Neilson has written about this. Although the people rioting could be reconfigured along ‘super-adequate worker’ lines, I simply don’t think this is _currently_ the case. The mechanisms of exploitation Spivak is concerned with don’t seem to exist for the rioters; there is not a separation of worker labour and the means of production because there is no means of production in London at the moment! I may be totally wrong about this, some kind of sociological research needs to be carried and probably already has. From everything I’ve read it seems the case. That was my original point above.

Perhaps a better way to think about it from my perspective, following the logic of Spivak’s essay, is that the developing world is being reproduced in small pockets in the over-developed world. (She indicates a relation between British racism and the international division of labour in a footnote, fn 10, p 83, in the context of British Marxist cultural studies, just before the section Danny quotes above.) I need to make several qualifications here.

I am making a temporal not a spatial argument. Debt produces worker-puppets to play out in a ‘comprador theater’ that exists in the future, not a geographical or spatial differentiation of the over-developed versus the developing worlds, but a historical or temporal differentiation of the present production of a surplus of workers (what I called a surplus of humanity) to be possibly ‘realised’ in the future (or not, and used as a political weapon to extract political capital, as I suggest in the revious post, and which I believe is far more likely). I can frame the rationale for this in the terms of Spivak’s argument.

Spivak assumes an ‘instantaneity of exchange’ in the over-developed countries, correlating with the relation of ‘transformation’ between money and capital, and this excludes the relation of ‘representation’ which defines the relation between labour use-value and money, which characterizes the division of labour in the developing world. For the rioting youth of London there is no instantaneity; they are excluded from these circuits of exchange and only have access to the representational logics of consumerism: the riots are a surplus of affective labour without the ‘labour’ (labour value as use-value for the capitalists).

Or to return to Spivak’s essay:

[As] the subject of super-adequation in labour-power seems to negate itself within telecommunication, a negation of the negation is continually produced by the shifting lines of the international division of labour. This is why any critique of labour theory of value, pointing at the unfeasibility of the theory under post-industrialism, or as a calculus of economic indicators, ignores the dark presence of the Third World. (84)

I am definitely including Third World. I am arguing that the international circuit of debt and consumer credit, the disappearance of access to any mode of production for the ‘super-adequate’ subject and the forthcoming draconian realization (by conservatives and capitalists) of labour-power from this surplus of humanity (the rioters) characterizes the horizon of intelligibility for the rioters and their material conditions of possibility. They are promised a consumerist world on the one hand and excluded by racialised and neo-liberal (Thatcherite dismantling of welfare state and annihilation of worker solidarity) divisions of labour from participating on the other. This is a partial reproduction of what Spivak calls the “pre-modern” (86). It is only partial to the extent that primitive accumulation does not happen, only the conditions that would enable it to occur are produced, with the possibility of it occurring in the future. At the current juncture there is a failure of what Spivak calls the ‘economic text’ to produce value.

Surplus Humanity


Most of the cynical left that I am friends with and/or follow through social networks are pointing out that the ‘name’ celebrity academic/activists, such as Slajov Zizek, Antonio Negri or Alain Badiou, will proclaim that the London riots signal the death of capitalism. Capitalism is an event, repeated in different ways throughout history. There is a history of development that describes the conditions by which actually existing capitalism emerged, but even in the unlikely event of a ‘communist utopia’, the event of capitalism will be repeated in different ways. Rather than the death of ‘capitalism’, the London riots, as well as many other events around the world, signal the death of myths around ‘value’. At a macro level, ‘value’ has little meaning.

I’ve been thinking about this as a peripheral issue of a paper I am writing regarding the changes to the industrial manufacturing landscape in Australia in the 1980s. Various conceptions of ‘value’ are no longer useful. The marxist conception of value is not really relevant anymore when there is a massive disjunction between the ‘value’ extracted from the labour that has gone into producing most consumer goods versus that which has been exchanged to buy such consumer goods (with ‘profit’ realised in the exchange, the normative ‘capitalist’ definition of value). Both of these ‘values’ have been utterly annihlated in relation to the ‘value’ of financial markets. That is, it doesn’t really matter how or where surplus value is extracted from workers when the entire ‘value’ of countries is exchanged through speculative markets. But even this is currently troubled, particularly in the exchange of debt. Restricted access to consumer debt means it can’t be used as a method of social control. As Terry Wassall has suggested:

If the main means of social control are fear and debt how do you control people with no fear, no credit, no future and nothing to lose?

On the more nebulus end of the spectrum, there is little ‘value’ in ‘respectability’ (working class) or ‘carrying on’ (middle class) when the situation in a given social context won’t get better. In the context of disenfranchised youth, the ‘value’ of education has been diminished by the lack of opportunities versus the cost relative to the those who have not pursued further education. More often than not, the concept of ‘dignity’ is used as a weapon, if it exists, or it has been destroyed by the existential scorched earth of consumerism. Zygmunt Bauman has descibed the riots as a social minefield made up of defective consumers:

For defective consumers, those contemporary have-nots, non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life un-fulfilled – and of own nonentity and good-for-nothingness. Not just the absence of pleasure: absence of human dignity. Of life meaning. Ultimately, of humanity and any other ground for self-respect and respect of the others around.

That is too easy. Besides a variation of the anomic reactionary values of belonging that in Australia we would call ‘mateship’, consumerism is the only possibility of ‘value’ allowed to most disenfranchised youth. It is not the value in itself they need, but a system of value that is available to them when all others have been ruthlessly destroyed and access denied. This has been a very long process. Decades. All possible social supports are eroded across a range of mechanisms from the architectural design of public housing that is designed for efficiency over community to more topical issues of support such as direct welfare payments. With recent ‘austerity’ packages in various national contexts, the structural conditions of possibility are even further diminished. Surely everyone can understand the rioters are not stupid, but frustrated; they not only understand this, but feel it and live it?

The soft machinery of capitalism will have to produce new ‘values’ and that will be the eventual response in the UK. A group will be isolated as the ‘problem’, become targets and not simply removed but used as a resource for political capital. It is a common pattern for neo-liberal governments who refuse to actually solve problems. The best result will involve the production of ‘value’ at a community-level or maybe even subcultural-level. (This is what needs to be taken from the majestic BCCCS studies of youth; they produced ‘value’ for themselves when they were otherwise also mostly inscribed as surplus humanity.)