[This article contains numerous spoilers for the LISA trilogy]
Although they have existed for decades now video games still struggle for proper artistic recognition. One reason for this is that many video games simply fail to live up to the title of art. There are various economic reasons for this: games typically must have a mass appeal. The industry is expensive and competitive, and this creates an environment which pure entertainment value can override artistic aims. Yet they have also been misunderstood as a medium. The defining feature of video games is often perceived to be their interactivity, but that is not quite what makes them unique. Now, video games do have unparalleled interactivity when compared to other mediums, but interactive art has existed since long before video games. Even books and paintings are something we interact with in minor ways; we can view a painting from many different perspectives, and our reading of a book or painting will always be applying our own personal categories and experiences to it, actively generating the artistic experience.
The essence of the medium of the video game then is not its interactivity. The thing which video games are uniquely able to do as a medium is to represent decision-making or choices artistically. Not only can it represent them, but it can make us live through the choices we make. Even regular games are all about the choices and strategies we make and living with the consequences of those choices throughout the game. In the ideal game, it is through the choices that we make as players that the game expresses its unique themes, experiences, and styles. A video game cannot be good art if it just contains good art. A game can have beautiful environments and a fascinating plot told through cutscene movies. It can even have entertaining gameplay and still not be good art. In those cases, it just contains good art in the form of the movies, environments, et cetera. In order for it to be good art, the game must unify these elements and knit them all together so that each element of the game enhances and is deeply tied to the others.
No game does this better than the LISA trilogy. The most famous entry in this series is LISA: The Painful RPG, which tells the story of Brad Armstrong, a martial artist in a post-apocalyptic world. In this world, a mysterious event caused the death of the entire female population. One day, though, Brad discovers a female infant and brings her home, raising her and hiding her from the world with his friends, naming her Buddy. When Buddy is inevitably discovered and kidnapped by a warlord, Brad begins a violent quest to “protect” his adopted daughter.
One of the most immediate ways in which this game handles choice is through Brad’s addiction to the powerful drug Joy. Joy is an in-game item, and using Joy regularly makes the game significantly easier, for it makes you significantly stronger for a short period of time. However, Brad faces Joy withdrawal at intervals which become shorter and shorter the more Joy you take, and these make him significantly weaker. The only way to cancel withdrawal, other than waiting it out (and possibly being killed by an enemy because of this) is to take more Joy. The fate of all Joy addicts, though, is to eventually mutate into horrific and terrifying monsters, and the player faces these Joy mutants as some of the toughest enemies in the game. The game makes the vicious cycle of Brad’s addiction, and its inevitable consequence, a feature of the gameplay itself.
Brad is also faced several times with brutally unfair choices. For example, near the beginning of the game, he is given the choices of either having one of his party members killed or losing an arm and all of the abilities which required that arm. The attachment the player has to their party members similarly grows out of the way the player comes to need them to progress in the game. The characters have personality, and it is expressed not only through non-gameplay elements like dialogue, but through their unique abilities and fighting styles as well. This makes the decision between losing a party member and losing an arm something significant to the player, not merely because of number-crunching utility. The world forces Brad to lose pieces of himself just to continue. In another situation, Brad is forced by an enemy to either give up all his items or to give him his arm. The player has a third choice here: to ask why this is being done to him. This attempt to understand and reconcile with someone, however, leads to Brad losing both his arm and his items.
Over the course of the game Brad is shown to not be the hero he thinks he is. It implies that Buddy was not kidnapped, but she rather escaped. Buddy wants to join the warlord and to help rebuild humanity. Brad is blinded, though, by his own trauma. The game makes clear from the opening cutscene that Brad had an abusive drunk for a father. Images of the titular Lisa, his sister who killed herself because of abuse, constantly haunt an increasingly more deranged and violent Brad. One of the most significant moments of the game is when it denies us a choice near the end of the game, Brad finds that his abusive father Marty has miraculously survived, and furthermore that he is sheltering Buddy. Marty seems to have become a docile and kind old man, who is nothing like the abusive and lecherous father he knew. The player is given a choice whether or not to kill Marty, but the choice does not matter. Brad is overtaken with rage and kills him regardless, even when Buddy tries to protect him, and the player can only watch helplessly.
Cruelty, unfairness, self-destruction, loss of control, and addiction are all themes that reach the player purely through the choices made during gameplay. The player is not a third party to a decision-making process that is outside of their control, like the audience of a play, but instead lives through the choices made. When the themes of the game as an artwork and the choices that the gameplay requires align, the game is a true work of art. In many games, especially RPGs, the story and themes are almost completely divorced from the choices the player makes, reducing it to a “choose your own adventure” movie with bits of gameplay in between. LISA is different. The choices made in LISA have little impact on the outcome of the story, yet that is not what matters. The choices are significant because of what they make the player feel and understand. They force the player to empathize with the conflict at hand. The last decision in LISA is Buddy’s choice. She can choose whether or not to hug Brad as he is dying, having pointlessly killed everyone in his path to “protect” someone who did not want or need protection. This choice has no impact on the ending whatsoever, yet it is perhaps the most important choice of all: to comfort a failure or to leave him.
You can try to be a good person and make a small impact on the world of LISA, but Brad will ultimately fail to be a good person no matter what the player decides. He will die pointlessly, hurting everyone around him. But the point of the choices in the game is not to tell us that we can just overcome any adversity if we are virtuous or if we make the right decisions; rather, the game wants to tell us that we can make decisions and that they do matter even if they do not change the world entirely. You can protect and care for your party members, you can sacrifice yourself for them, and you can even help a few people here and there. You can try even if everything is against you. In this sense, the choices in LISA are extremely significant for the story, in a way that only a video game can express.
When We Cannot Choose
There is a flipside to all this, and another LISA game, LISA: The First, exemplifies it. Through use of meaningless choices, or the exclusion of choice, A game can bring us directly into the situation of someone who is helpless, who has no choice. This first game puts us into the role of the titular Lisa and is the only game in which we see her view of things. Lisa is a small child living in the terrifying world of Marty’s abusive household. Much of the game is exploring the young girl’s surreal interpretation of abuse, both physical, mental, and sexual. Lisa’s deranged and damaged mind sees her father Marty everywhere. Every single character and enemy in the game excluding Lisa herself bears the face of Marty and forces Lisa to complete arbitrary, pointless, and cruel tasks, navigating through Lisa’s frequently terrifying dreamworld to find items for the various manifestations of Marty. Vomit, blood, broken beer bottles, and Marty’s face stain the floors and backgrounds of almost every environment. Every interaction with the various Martys leads to something bad for Lisa. The player has no choice but to truck on.
Eventually, the player is able to attempt what seems to be an escape, but as Lisa runs, the very background of the world is a mosaic of Marty’s face, and the player receives a game over. There is nothing you can do to stop this.
Yet, there is one other ending, albeit an even bleaker one. If the player collects all of the tapes hidden throughout the game, Lisa seems to encounter her mother in her imagination during the final escape. Her mother tries to comfort her, telling her she loves her, yet when she turns around, even she bears Marty’s face, crying that she did not mean to die. Every positive memory of Lisa, even of her seemingly kind mother, has been replaced by Marty. There is no outside for Lisa, and there is no choice she can take to make it better. There is no law except Marty’s. The player understands this because to play the game, they become Lisa. To play the game is to become helpless. The video game is the medium best suited for this. In fact, it is the only medium suited for this. Choice, then, is the true artistic essence of a video game.
One of the most difficult concepts that Deleuze discusses is his concept of the dice throw. He dedicates portions of both Difference and Repetition and Nietzsche and Philosophy to discussing this seemingly obtuse and difficult concept. Deleuze places a bizarre emphasis on it, and furthermore links it to what appears to be an extremely heterodox interpretation of the eternal return while acting like it is obvious. In order to understand it, we have to closely examine both Deleuze and Nietzsche.
Firstly, we need to understand how the concepts of power, truth, and being relate in Nietzsche’s philosophy. A famous section of The Will to Power reads:
“[D]o you want a name for this world? A solution for all of its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?— This world is the will to power—and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power—and nothing besides!”
The will to power is twofold: it is the will to endure, to continue to be, and also a self-overcoming and striving towards increase. Power is exactly the ability to continue to be and to be more. Being is power. What cannot endure and self-sublimate will cease to be, whether by disease and decay, or even in a more radical denial of life in the form of suicide. What is at the moment is necessarily able to endure, and as soon as it can no longer endure, ceases to be. We can see how being and power link with truth now if we consider truth firstly in the sense of a true friend. We say that the true friend endures and reaffirms his friendship when hardship tests it, while the false friend falters. He cannot endure the test.
The ultimate test of this sense of truth is found in the eternal return:
“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ . . . Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ (The Gay Science §341)“
To affirm the eternal return is to truly affirm all actions that we take. The true friend, along with the true being, is able to affirm the eternal return (and thus, the eternal return of his friendship), the test of power, being and truth. To extend the concept of truth to the propositional sense, the true proposition is the one which proves to allow us to endure, and to expand our power. The link between Spinoza and Nietzsche becomes clear when one examines Spinoza’s idea of joy, the expansion of the powers of a body. The joy or cheerfulness identified in The Gay Science (also known as The Joyful Wisdom) similarly comes from the excess of powers. In Twilight of theIdols, Nietzsche says:
“To stay cheerful when involved in a gloomy and exceedingly responsible business is no inconsiderable art: yet what could be more necessary than cheerfulness? Nothing succeeds in which high spirits play no part. Only excess of strength is proof of strength” (§343).
Perhaps it is not wrong to further extend our chain of identifications, adding a fourth term of joy. We can continue on, and add creativity and life, and continue ad nauseum, but we have enough to understand the dice throw. It should also be noted that this does not necessarily lead to a ridiculous Hobbesian war of all against all, even if it can be argued Nietzsche desired that. It is perhaps useful to recall the distinction Deleuze draws with Spinoza between morality and ethics. A morality is something transcendent, given from beyond by God, the state, etc. An ethics on the other hand, is not transcendent, but it is not relative either. Rather, ethics is particular, dealing with the ways in which bodies can relate in ways that are healthy for them.
The Throw of the Dice
“The game two moments of the game are a dice throw: the throwing of the dice, and their return…”(Nietzsche et la Philosophie 39, translation mine).
This is how Deleuze begins his discussion of the dice throw. He is obtaining this metaphor from a passage of Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
“O heaven over me, pure and high! That is what your purity is to me now, that there is no eternal spider or spider web of reason; that you are to me a dance floor for divine accidents, that you are to me a divine table for divine dice and dice players” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Book III, 48).
There are two tables which Nietzsche identifies: the sky and the earth. Deleuze identifies these with the two moments of the game, “The earth where one throws the dice, and the sky where they return” (ibid). Deleuze is careful to emphasize that these are not two different worlds, but only two different moments of the affirmation of the event, the affirmation of becoming and the being of becoming.
Furthermore, Deleuze makes another strange insistence. The player cannot be someone who throws the die over and over again to get the same combination. On the tables of life, the good gambler is the one who affirms chance (hasard) and places everything on the single throw (ibid 40). This is affirming the necessity of the chance.
“…[I]t suffices to play the affirmation of chance once, in order to produce whatever number the dice throw brings… Knowing how to affirm chance is knowing how to play” (ibid 41).
Perhaps the player who throws over and over again to obtain the result they desire is the nihilist, who has an idea about how the world should be and judges the world based on their image, rather than playing the game and affirming this world and life. The good gambler does not have hope for an expected result, but an amor fati.
“To abolish chance and to expunge from it its causality and finality, to count on the repetition of throws, and in place of affirming necessity, expecting a goal: There are all the actions of a bad player” (ibid 42).
Staking everything on the single throw of the dice opens us up to change and chance. The bad player throws the dice, discarding the change each one would bring until he gets his desired result. He subordinates the random to the same. Yet the good player does not only affirm chance and the necessity of the throw, but the necessity of the change brought by the contingent result of the throw. Pirates and revolutionaries provides an apt metaphor:
“We want to play our favorite game, perhaps tennis. But our only available player is a child too young to learn all the rules at once. We play anyway. We know that the game we will end-up playing will not exactly be tennis, but it will probably be just as fun. We leave it up to the child’s whims to make new rules. In this way, we throw him the dice. By the end, we are playing a siege game with cannons and barricades. Never had we that much fun since childhood. Tennis was its own reality. But it became siege war. The dynamics of one game changed to those of another, which itself was still evolving.
Without the child’s influence, we would be playing a game. With him along, we were really [truly] playing a game. For, we played a game with the game. We submitted the rules of one game to the lawlessness of chance, which created the rules for another game, also vulnerable to new dice throws.”
We affirm the throw (chance), and we affirm the fatal result of the throw (necessity), and will that result eternally. The true player, the powerful one, will eternally affirm both moments of the game, the throw on the earth, and the throw on the sky, no matter how many times it faces him, for the good player understands that this is the only way to endure and to be. That is the test of the true player. The player who affirms both moments endures and supersedes, both creating, and creating new ways of creating, spontaneous and innocent in their creativity. The bad player is cynical in the modern sense, not believing in the game, but seeing the game as a means to an end. Yet as Nietzsche tells us in The Will to Power there is nothing beyond the game of the world, the innocent game of becoming:
“And do you know what “the world” is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without increase or income; enclosed by “nothingness” as by a boundary; not something blurry or wasted, not something endlessly extended, but set in a definite space as a definite force, and not a space that might be “empty” here or there, but rather as force throughout, as a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms striving toward the hottest, most turbulent, most self-contradictory, and then again returning home to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord, still affirming itself in this uniformity of its courses and its years, blessing itself as that which must return eternally, as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self- creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my “beyond good and evil,” without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal; without will, unless a ring feels good will toward itself— do you want a name for this world? A solution for all of its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?— This world is the will to power—and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power—and nothing besides!”
Note: It is worth considering how this relates to instrumentalist worldviews. When this website was founded, it was originally the place for my delusional and half-psychotic ramblings of a vaguely transhumanist bent. To wash my hands of the affair (as undoubtedly those writings are still floating around somewhere out there), I renounce all of it. The bad player in Deleuze’s dice game is the instrumentalist as well as the nihilist, seeing the world as a means to an end. Technological and rationalist worldviews (Deleuze constantly talks about the “spider” of rationalism and compares it to the bad player) seem to desire to eliminate contingency and chance from the equation entirely. Many people who hold such worldviews, as I once did, are even determinists. The logical conclusion of such a views is a kind of nulliverse, in which there is no meaning or matter to any kind of happening, no law, no creativity and no certainly no dice rolls.
The term “process” in philosophy is a meaningless, confusing phrase which should be abandoned quickly. Now, that does not mean that I renounce any of my philosophical positions, but rather, that I believe this piece of terminology does more harm than good, along with the word “becoming” in the abstract, especially when opposed to “being’ in the abstract. Every time I hear such things I cannot help but roll my eyes. It seems that any philosopher who puts in a good word for Heraclitus, from Nietzsche, to Whitehead and Deleuze, or even Heidegger, all are welcomed into the great pantheon of philosophers who “emphasized flux” and are “process-oriented.” Wikipedia’s page for Process Philosophy says:
The vast disagreements philosophically between such figures should make such a division immediately suspect with only a moments thought. Those who follow me on Twitter might know me for my (sometimes violent) engagements with Hegelians. Perhaps Deleuze and Whitehead are worthy of being linked, but Deleuze inherits from Whitehead. It is hardly accurate I think to enthrone Whitehead as the “philosopher of process” even. It brings a host of misunderstandings about his metaphysics to newcomers, and greatly confuses people about Whitehead’s project.
Whitehead in fact, insists on the reality of permanence and eternity, despite them lacking ultimate status. Whitehead’s “flux” of motionless atoms is a far cry from Deleuze’s Spinozism, and an even further cry from Hegel’s apotheosis of consciousness. Whitehead’s project is not so much to defeat the notion of persisting things but rather to fight Aristotelian notions of substance-attribute metaphysics and the bifurcation of nature. The mistake that people make in reading “Process and Reality” is to make process itself something substantial, and in this they lose Whitehead’s truly interesting move, which is to affirm the process which the substantial entities take part in as the ultimate explanatory fact to be appealed to over and above the entities themselves. This process is Creativity, and it is the process which is reality. It fills the place which substance would, without being something substantial. The process of Creativity though is a very distinct process, and it involves stops and breaks as much as flows and flux.
Recognizing this is where we can begin to make some useful distinctions between the various “process” philosophers. Whitehead and Deleuze are perhaps best described as empiricists, in a sense which they both assigned themselves:
I have always felt that I am an empiricist . . . [My empiricism] is derived from the two characteristics by which Whitehead defined empiricism: the abstract does not explain, but must itself be explained; and the aim is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced (creativeness). (WP 7)
This term can also lead to confusion, but perhaps calling Deleuze and Whitehead “Radical Empiricists” à la William James might remedy this.
Becoming appears at the beginning of Hegel’s Science of Logic as merely one moment of a logic whose process ultimately affirms substantialist modes of thinking, albeit in a different manner than Aristotle. I do not know enough to comment on Heidegger, or on German Idealists other than Hegel, but it is clear enough that whenever these different thinkers affirm things like becoming they mean different things, and often have an entirely different goal or approach. To continue attempting to give them more unproblematic labels, we could separate all of these “process-oriented” further.
Anti-substantialists include thinkers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, Whitehead, and Deleuze. Nietzsche is difficult to place into a further category, so I will refrain (Deleuze and Heidegger might become jealous if I placed them with one or the other). They can further be split between the empiricists, Deleuze and Whitehead, and the ontologist Heidegger. Deleuze and Whitehead can be further split, the latter being an atomist and the former being a monist (in simplified terms). The German Idealists on the other hand, are dialectical and concerned with processes of consciousness and subjectivity, (as is Heidegger to some extent). There is enough scholarship on how the German Idealists divide internally that I will refrain from commenting.
So now we can do away with lumping people together, we can start to strip away terms like process and becoming and use something more accurate. Whitehead is concerned with Creativity, Deleuze with creativity specifically as morphogenesis via difference, Heidegger with Being and Time, and Hegel with the development of consciousness, or the Phenomenology of Spirit, among other things.
The reason for such hostility is that the word process becomes a kind of shibboleth or magic wand used to wave problems away, or as a kind of rhetorical device that stupefies actual thought. It also obscures what philosophers might actually be talking about. It bothers me when starry-eyed beautiful souls talk about the wonders of Whitehead’s philosophy of process and how it focuses on how the world is “dynamic and changing.” Well, Aristotle doesn’t expunge change from the world either, and neither does Plato. It is true that he rather makes creatitive process the primary, but what is truly unique about Whitehead is that he tries to provide a rigorous account of the conditions for creativity while at the same time accounting for the continuity of things, their permanence. He never throws up his hands and says “it’s all flux!” but rather attempts to explain both poles of experience, flux and permanence, as things in a complimentary contrast. To characterize Whitehead as someone who attempts to abolish one thing or another in certain dichotomies is to fundamentally misunderstand the goal of his philosophy.
In short, the term not only blurs the distinction between philosophers, but makes it unclear what each philosopher really attempts to accomplish.
[Please note that this post is merely airing some frustrated thoughts, rather than attempting to present a rigorous position in earnest.]
Whitehead has some of the most conceptually liberating notions for thinking about time, space, and extensionality, but unfortunately, they can be difficult to grasp. Whitehead places space and time, as well as any other possible dimension, on what he terms the extensive continuum. This is the widest possible field which we are able to imagine. The bare extensive continuum is merely a field of potential that can be filled by actual entities through extensive connection.
Any kind of extension, either through space or time, takes place on the extensive continuum. Any kind of dimensionality is a form of extension, and the forms of extension which we bear witness to are not the only ways in which actual entities can and do manifest themselves. The three spatial dimensions which we are used to could be different. It’s entirely possible for there to be a society of entities which live in a “flatland” for instance. This notion of time as one type of extensive connectedness allows for thinking about becoming and process outside of notions of pure time.
What is meant by extensive connectedness deserves some clarification. When an entity extends through space or time, this fundamentally has to do with the way in which the entity is situating itself in a scheme of relatedness. The different modes of extension are part of what determines how an entity interacts, or connects with other entities. It can do this spatially or temporally, or any other numbers of ways which we cannot conceive. An entity that is highly extended is strongly related to many entities compared to one which is less extended. With this in mind, we can begin to think of time as just one form of extensive connection. The process of becoming is atemporal for Whitehead, time merely illustrates certain effects of becoming. What is more fundamental in talking about past, present, and future for Whitehead is determining the causal order of things. What we see as time merely illustrates some aspects of the causal relationships in a given entity’s becoming.
The extensive continuum also represents the potential divisibility of things. Everything on the continuum can be divided or split into parts by examination, but is found as a unified solidarity, hence continuum.
Now, what would this actually look like? The actual world of a given actual entity for Whitehead is causally in the past for that entity. That is, the entity is causally dependent on the entities in it. The things which this concresence is causally independent of are its contemporary entities. Though Whitehead is not clear on this, the way in which an entity extends temporally would determine which entities in its causal future are dependent on it and which are independent, while matters of space would deal with the “location” and importance of its connections to entities in this timeframe.
Thinking of becoming outside of time allows for a great expansion of the imagination. It lets us to reconcile notions of eternity and permanence inside of an ever-novel and changing universe, and also makes the discoveries of empirical science—like relativity, quantum entanglement, et cetera—more easily reconcileable with our categories of thought, though I am hesitant to make any sweeping claims on this matter without doing further research.
In my philosophical and political circles, general schemes of reality have been accused of being unimportant. That is, in attempting to expand towards what lies beyond human experience, it ensures that whatever it adds to our worldviews will be irrelevant to any of our practical endeavors. I hope to dispel such notions.
As an analogy, let us imagine a group of physicists are measuring the behavior of an atom. These physicists develop a model to understand how this type of atom will move about when placed in certain conditions. In normal, earth-like conditions, they develop a model that explains its behavior in every case. However, they discover that this theory is limited: it cannot explain how the object behaves in extreme conditions. For this example, the atom behaves strangely at high speeds.
If these scientists were to announce, “No, the current model is completely fine, there is no need to develop a general one,” we would certainly be surprised and scold them for such behavior. Then, someone presents to them a general theory, and they respond, “This is just irrelevant! It does not present anything that matters for human engineering or technology! Do you not care about how things are for us?” People who acted like this would be treated as bad scientists in an ideal world, for if people acted this way, we would certainly never have made the discoveries that we have and the advances that we previously thought impossible. We would certainly consider it unjust if when the first person looked up at the stars and wondered aloud if they could be reached he was scolded by his peers and told to keep his mind on more practical things. Thanks to the work of the curious, we have discovered a great hope for our species in space travel.
Yet in philosophy and the more philosophical sciences, a similar attitude is not only pervasive, but dominant. Quoting Matthew T. Segal Quoting Graham Harman:
“The taste for cosmological vastness,” writes Harman in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “reaches us from Buddhist scripture and the roar of the sea and the probes launched toward Saturn, but the philosophy of human access persuades us to forget these astonishing spaces, or to leave them to other university departments” (255).
While Kant or Hegel will go to great lengths to make such spaces unreachable or nonexistent respectively, what we are dealing with here is a purely pragmatic objection. The non-human exists, but it does not matter. Objects may interact with each other and have a life of their own so to speak, but it is irrelevant to us, so there is no need to talk about it. This line of thought is as absurd as saying that because I have never opened and never needed to open a certain cabinet in my house that I never check what is inside. Checking what is inside will not hinder my ability to check the other cabinets, just as being able to talk about the nonhuman will not hinder my ability to talk about the human. It can only help it.
Refactoring your ontology is a little more complicated than opening a cabinet, but that does not mean it is terribly difficult. It never hurts for a theory to be able to talk about more things, as being able to talk about new things does not exclude what we were able to talk about before. It is especially critical when navigating human society and politics that we have as general a scheme as possible. Human society is situated in a world—a world which is for the most part nonhuman. We must speak about the nonhuman when discussing human society, and when we do so, we have to do so in a manner that is coherent. There is no avoiding ontology in this regard; there is simply doing ontology and pretending you have not. Winging our ontology will inevitably result in something reductionistic and limited.
One of the most important fields where the understanding of the nonhuman is important is ecology. For a long time, environmental concerns were ignored in politics and philosophy, yet our ignorance of how such things interact has led to one of the greatest crises to ever face humanity. It is important to understand the nonhuman here because we do not know the line where “affecting humans” ends and where “irrelevant” begins. I am not suggesting that the solution to the climate crisis is that we all become object-oriented philosophers; I am saying that our sciences and theories must have methodologies and theories which are not hopelessly skewed towards the human. We have nothing to lose from doing so except at most some hours of our time, and we may gain ways of thinking about our world which are more flexible, coherent, and expansive. It is common sense that such a thing is beneficial. Only when we do so can we put our more special endeavors into context and understand how they interact.
Philosophers, scientists, and political thinkers have long criticized the attitude that “if it does not affect me or my friends, then it does not matter.” Why then do they not purge themselves of the last vestige of this mode of thought? Philosophy has been irrelevant for so long because of this attitude writes Bogost:
“The problem is not the humanities as a discipline (who can blame a discipline?), the problem is its members. We are insufferable. We do not want change. We do not want centrality. We do not want to speak to nor interact with the world. We mistake the tiny pastures of private ideals with the megalopolis of real lives. We spin from our mouths retrograde dreams of the second coming of the nineteenth century whilst simultaneously dismissing out of our sphincters the far more earnest ambitions of the public at large—religion, economy, family, craft, science.”
The sooner we rid ourselves of such an attitude, the better. No more skewed theories; no more faulty instruments.
In Lecture 4 of Modes of Thought, Whitehead claims “the essence of life is to be found in the frustrations of established order. The Universe refuses the deadening influence of complete conformity.” The subtitle of this blog is based on a possibly apocryphal quote by Whitehead. “Life is an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the universe.” If the essence of life for Whitehead is the frustration of the established order, then the essence of life lies in Creativity, the refusal of complete conformity. Indeed, creativity is given the status of “category of the ultimate” by Whitehead in his categoreal scheme. All of the creatures of Whitehead’s philosophy, from God to space dust, are creatures of Creativity. Now, that is not to say that a cloud of space dust is really a creative and inventive artist. It is merely pointing out the fact that things do not remain the same. It is the constant advance of novelty, however trivial it may be.
One might want to dub this “becoming,” but Whitehead refrains from doing so, as the word becoming is reserved for a particular characteristic of actual entities, and creativity is not an actual entity. Furthermore, becoming in Whitehead’s philosophy is something intermittent. Becoming is not temporal for Whitehead, but rather temporality is something that becomes. There is not a continuity of becoming, but a becoming of continuity. However, there is a continuity of creativity, as continuity itself emerges for creativity, yet creativity is not something that is substantive. Everything in the Whiteheadian universe is taking part in creativity, but creativity is something actual only in virtue of entities that are able to condition and characterize it, i.e. actual entities.
Creativity is found in the fact that the world is never the same twice, and the temporal world—and, for Whitehead, the world in general—is constantly producing something new. Even space dust does not merely conform to the past. If there was no creativity—no novelty being introduced by entities—there would be no change. Even space dust is floating about, sometimes clumping together, sometimes breaking apart, and always undergoing some small change. Life itself is something that is one of the greatest agents of creativity, for it allows for complex types of entities to emerge. Bacteria react to their environment and maintain themselves. Early lifeforms are some of the first things to exhibit complex selective behavior, transforming, reducing, and reacting to the flow of information that they are fine-tuned to receive.
Yet bacteria are not great poets. Their creativity is still trivial, and a bacterium is almost entirely determined by its environment. It is highly limited in its individual capacity to change itself and determine, and the means by which it transforms its experience are primitive. Yet compared to space dust, the bacterium is much more independent of its environment because of the very fact that it resists conformity. It is an active order of events, and the species that it belongs to is as a whole even more dynamic, able to adapt over time in ways of which previous types of entities were simply incapable. It is clear that creativity for Whitehead is not something that floats in from nowhere, but something that develops out of a social environment. Every entity has a conformative period in which the past fills it, and each entity then issues forth from the past a novel satisfaction, something new and different. In a sense, an entity is an interpreter of the past. Every act of interpretation is novel creation and vice versa. Again, if an entity did not introduce anything new into the equation, there would not be a new entity! Rather, there would simply be more of the same.
Humans are, as far as we know, the most advanced organisms in regard to novelty-production due to our complex mental abilities. We are able to imagine, theorize, and plan for the future. Yet like bacteria, we do not create ex nihilo. We exist in a society which conditions us to a large degree. Great poets often do not choose the language in which they write. When John Keats sat down to write Ode on a Grecian Urn, the title alone reveals that he was working off of a past culture and society that had placed ideas into his head. There is an urn which inspires him, one that was created by an artist who, like Keats, was conditioned and shaped to a large extent by his culture. Yet the poem is not merely the sum of Keats’ education, with a mere description of the urn; it is something that has never existed before. However small it may be, Keats does indulge in an act of creation that brings something new into the world through his imagination. There would be no Keats without English culture, no Ode without the ancient poetic traditions, and without Greece, no Grecian Urn, yet it is only through Keats creative capacity that they are able to be tied together and something new emerge. This is, in a large part, interpretation, but it is a creative act nonetheless. Keats is able to be creative precisely because there is a basis of past creativity from which he pushes off and differs himself. Think of the artist who made the Grecian urn in question: they themselves engaged in a similar act of creation which provides a basis for future novelty. Furthermore, the English culture itself emerged through a process of evolution and creation, millions of people and elements contributing to the creation of something that did not exist before, despite the influence and inheritance of the past. Creativity is freedom, and just like there is no pure creativity, there is no absolute freedom, but there are shades and degrees.
What really leads to something coming from nothing, though, is the position that all of this merely evolves entirely out of past states. The claim that everything is merely deterministically conforming to past events is all that happens is not only denying that entities can be creative, but is tantamount to rejecting that there is any change or creation at all. If one admits that there is true novelty, we must explain how it is able to emerge without merely waving our hands to an incoherent system in which things simply pop in from non-things and without submitting to the equally incoherent idea of a perfect being which, for reasons unknown, merely unfolds itself out. We must explain our experience, but we cannot explain it away. That is the chief disease of philosophy, to paraphrase Whitehead, and it must be avoided at all costs. The philosophy of organism is merely an explanation of the most basic fact of novelty. Creativity is not something incoherent that floats in from nowhere, unique to genius individuals, but the most basic and ultimate notion of the universe.
This is not to say that creativity is always something valuable. Keats’ poems, for example, are not valuable to those who cannot read them; they are irrelevant. Aliens on some other planet are, for now, irrelevant to humans. When Whitehead speaks of creativity, he is not making a value judgment. Creativity is not good in and of itself, but rather a condition for the possibility of value. Value emerges based on the ways in which other entities experience and interact with each other, rather than as some absolute factor of creativity. Things of little consequence or value to anything happen more often than not. A single photon flying through empty space is, for all intents and purposes, valueless. Creativity is not valuable per se, but value is something that is created.
It must be remembered that the environment which makes creativity possible is only one side of the story. The past presses down upon the present, but never completely. Even when humans are long gone, this creative advance shall not cease.
“O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Note: Some have asked me why Whitehead uses the term creativity rather than something more traditional like “becoming.” The most concise way of putting this reason is that becoming for Whitehead is ontic, it is something that happens to individual things, while creativity is not a thing or entity, but a description of the general process of reality.
Whitehead is an intimidating figure in the history of philosophy. He is obscure, and his influence, where there is any, appears trivial and esoteric. Few people are aware that Whitehead was a philosopher. His most well known work with Russell, the Principia Mathematica, firmly cemented his reputation as mathematician. Furthermore, the failure of that work lead many to dismiss Whitehead entirely, even though Whitehead’s mathematical career has little to do with his philosophy. Dubbed “The Philosophy of Organism,” Whitehead attempted to do away with the notion of substance in philosophy, formulating a system of organic philosophy which would finally give process its proper place in philosophy, rather than offer mere lip-service to Heraclitus. Whitehead’s problem is somewhat deeper than that though. He really sets to respond to a problem he coins “The Bifurcation of Nature,” the demolition of substance being merely one thing necessary for the abolition of the Bifurcation.
This is the splitting of the world into primary and secondary qualities. That is to say, qualities which are inherently in objects, such as figure or molecular structure, and features which are inherently subjective, like color. The latter, in much of metaphysics, does not exist without someone to view them. Color literally drains out of the world, and our own experience becomes less real than what we have posited from our experience. Humans are irrevocably cut off from the world. The bifurcation leads to a host of other philosophical problems, like the mind-body problem, idealism, scientism, among others. Whitehead is a radical empiricist, and he seeks to explain every factor in experience, leaving nothing untouched.
“Philosophy destroys its usefulness when it indulges in brilliant feats of explaining away. It is then trespassing with the wrong equipment upon the field of particular sciences. Its ultimate appeal is to the general consciousness of what in practice we experience. Whatever thread of presupposition characterizes social expression throughout the various epochs of rational society must find its place in philosophic theory. Speculative boldness must be balanced by complete humility before logic, and before fact.It is a disease of philosophy when it is neither bold nor humble, but merely a reflection of the temperamental presuppositions of exceptional personalities” (Process and Reality 17).
Whitehead refuses to explain away anything. Philosophy must explain without explaining away, and the bifurcation is at the root of all explaining away. Whitehead, then, is at his core an anti-positivist, yet a unique one. Whitehead does not seek to do away with science; in fact, his philosophy is rather pro-science. His problem is with scientism, or what he called “scientific materialism.” An example of this is when someone concludes that conscious experience does not exist because it is not accounted for by scientific models. These models are in turn built off of conscious experience. Scientific materialism commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness in that, upon building abstractions based on concrete experience, it asserts the abstractions to be concrete and thus undermines itself. This fallacy can only occur in a bifurcated world, in which subjective experience is entirely torn from the objective and vice versa. Whitehead does not make polemics against science, but rather politely, and with a bit of English humor, explains the problem and provides a possible solution. The solution however, as Isabelle Stengers frequently notes, must not butcher the problem in the process!
How do we prevent the splitting of the world into an inescapable dualism? That is the question Whitehead seeks to answer, and the answer requires twisting philosophy in delightful ways—making metaphysics speak of what it typically fails to—of change, experience, the body the ultimate relativity of all viewpoints, and many more. Whitehead leaves no stone unturned in his quest to purge philosophy of the twin maladies of substance and dualism. In this journey, he takes everyone from Descartes to Kant and turns them right-side up, finding arguments for experiential causality in Hume and arguments against dualism in Descartes. The adventure of Whiteheadian metaphysics ends with a system which, while based entirely on radical empiricism, does not fall into materialism on one hand or transcendental idealism and subjectivism on the other. He avoids anthropocentrism and builds a flat ontology where everything from space dust to living beings take an active part in creation.
Putting all this aside, the personal appeal of Whitehead for me is that he is the first philosopher who caused a complete change in my worldview. I had been an idealist for quite some time and had taken a passing interest in Whitehead. It was around two p.m. in the morning, and I was struggling desperately to get through one of his discussions of Hume and Kant in Process and Reality when it all snapped together. I nearly shouted “By God, he’s right; causality is a part of experience!” Whitehead’s ingenious arguments about causality, perception, and experience in general completely shifted the way I viewed the world, and I was not even expecting it to happen. Whitehead did not win me over through tricks, rhetoric, and polemics, but by simple and polite discussion. There is no obscurity of method or a hidden agenda; indeed there is hardly ever a hint of antagonism or of dramaturgy in Whitehead’s writing. He is plain and to the point, bumbling along in a somewhat pedantic and academic tone and saying the most profound things left and right without blinking. Moreover, Whitehead never self-aggrandizes his work – quite the opposite. Whitehead is humble from the beginning, constantly reinforcing the incompleteness of his, and indeed, any philosophical scheme for sounding the true depths of reality. He never proclaims an end of philosophy, or of anything, for doing so would be antithetical to the nature of his philosophy, which deals with understanding the ceaseless production of novelty. His tone is not that of a moralizer or a prophet, but simply that of an enthusiastic and sincere teacher wishing to share his knowledge. Whitehead is a good philosopher because he simply does philosophy rather than seeking something beyond it; he is a true lover of wisdom.
Difficulties in Reading
The largest barrier to Whitehead is probably the vocabulary. Very few terms used by Whitehead retain their original meaning, and if they do, they retain the original meaning only as a special case of a wider phenomenon. The term“feeling” is a good example of this happening. If one is not careful, a page filled with seemingly familiar words can become nigh-incomprehensible. The fastest way to grasp vocabulary is to act as if each technical term you encounter in Whitehead is something entirely new. Forget any previous idea you had of it, and try and figure out what Whitehead means by it. It is also essential to go through with a glossary of Whitehead terms such as those in this excellent book. Many of the words in Process and Reality do not make sense until you see how they fit into the larger scheme, but a glossary can help you start to piece together the main ideas. By far the most important idea to understand in Whitehead is the concept of “prehension.” Once you understand how prehensions work, you have a solid base upon which to build your knowledge of Whitehead. Understanding what eternal objects and the “primordial nature of God” is is also key. Keep in mind that the word “God” in Whitehead is a technical term too, not some transcendent entity brought in to bring together what cannot be brought together.
Whitehead, rather than suffering from a vagueness of terminology or description, suffers from an overabundance of detail. This is a blessing and a curse. Whitehead is nothing if not explicit, but the nuance of his investigations can be overwhelming. Compounded with the above vocabulary, it can be easy to get brain-fried if one is not careful. This can also be frustrating, as Whitehead can seem to pontificate about things whose importance is not quite clear. Take things slowly: Whitehead thought long and hard about each discussion in his writings; he would not have put these thoughts in his books if he did not think they were important. When Whitehead begins listing the characteristics of something, be sure to pay close attention and make sure you really understand what is being said. If you are unable to piece things together, do not stress over it, but move on and come back to it later—eventually it will make sense.
This leads into the final difficulty: the structure. This is both a blessing and a curse. Process and Reality is a labyrinthine book, and Whitehead’s philosophy eludes a linear explanation. Unlike philosophers such as Hegel, where there is a definite step-by-step progression, Whitehead’s philosophy is much more like a web. This is good in that Whitehead can circle around and explain things multiple times, shedding new light on them each time. The downside is that, well, he circles around and explains things multiple times, having to shed new light on them each time. It is very difficult to get a foothold and penetrate, for there is not really a good place to start with Process and Reality.
In order to get around this, I suggest that you don’t start with Process and Reality. Instead, by getting a preliminary idea of the important ideas in Whitehead’s philosophy in his less systematic texts, approaching his magnum opus will be much easier. I suggest this order.
The excellent chapter of Adventures of Ideas entitled “Objects and Subjects.” This may be one of the best introductions to the key ideas of Whitehead despite it being in the middle of a book. It can be read with a glossary and without the context of the rest of the book. I recommend finding a PDF of the book rather than buying as the chapter is only 15 pages.
After this, reading chapter 1 of Process and Reality may be a good idea, as he lays out many of the goals of his philosophy. It is highly accessible and requires no advanced knowledge to read.
The book Modes of Thought can be found online here. This is an excellent survey of Whitehead’s ideas, and with the knowledge provided by the above chapter, it should hopefully seem more than just a collection of platitudes. It is where I began, and while it was interesting, the subtlety of the concepts introduced in here required me to revisit it after reading Process and Reality. The concept of importance is actually foundational to his philosophy, though I did not notice it until rereading. This was his last work, and one of his best. Furthermore, it is quite short!
If it interests you, Science and the Modern World is an introduction to his earlier thought with some more direction as to the applicability of his philosophy. It should be noted, however, that his philosophy is significantly altered from this point on.
Afterwards, I recommend trying to read Process and Reality armed with your glossary. If you find yourself getting bogged down and confused, there are several secondary texts that can help you. I personally used A Key to Process and Reality, though I would actually recommend Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead, for it provides a close reading of Whitehead’s entire corpus.
This can be read before or after the previous entry, but whenever you choose, return to Adventures of Ideas. This is Whitehead’s mature work, written after Process and Reality and extends many of the discussions of that book, as well as developing a philosophy of history.
Whitehead’s other books are not nearly as gargantuan and intimidating as Process and Reality. With this list, you can be eased in to his vocabulary and style. In his less systematic works, he is a much better writer, and his personality and humor shines through the rigorous language. The most difficult parts of Whitehead can hopefully be avoided or softened by this strategy. Once you are able to speak Whiteheadese, and it all starts to snap into focus, it will be a pleasure to read and think with Whitehead.
The world of societies and nexūs (plural of nexus) is the world that we typically experience and live in. The world of rocks, trees, and humans. Aggregated actual entities form complex beings that endure over time. From here on in, things become much more intuitive.
This will probably be the last post in this series. This does not mean I will cease to write about Whitehead, quite the opposite. After this article, the series should be complete enough that anyone reading future posts I make about Whitehead could read these and have a reasonable understanding of how things function. Future articles about Whitehead’s theories of perception, consciousness, causality, etc. will not be numbered in a series, but their own independent articles.
A nexus is the most basic kind of aggregate in the philosophy of organism. The way that a nexus emerges is through a process called “transmutation.” This has nothing to do with alchemy (damn) but merely with disparate datum coming together to produce one complex novel feeling. The many being felt as one. The many disparate entities are prehended not as an aggregate, but as a unity. The doctrine of transmuted feelings allows Whitehead to overcome a problem inherent to monadic metaphysics. If everything is ultimately composed of singular monads, then how do larger objects emerge? Why do we see the world in a macrocosmic manner instead of simply monads? Where Leibniz brought in an ad-hoc and inexplicable doctrine of “confused perception” Whitehead brings in his rigorous category of transmutation:
“The Category of Transmutation. When (in accordance with category (iv), or with category (iv) and (v) one and the same conceptual feeling is derived impartially by a prehending subject from its analogous simple physical feelings of various actual entities in its actual world, then, in a subsequent phase of integration of these simple physical feelings together with the derivate conceptual feeling, the prehending subject may transmute the datum of this conceptual feeling into a characteristic of some nexus containing those prehended actual entities among its members, or of some part of that nexus. In this way the nexus (or its part), thus characterized, is the objective datum of a feeling entertained by this prehending subject.”
To translate out of Whiteheadese, this is essentially saying that many disparate feelings that share a common eternal object, (for example, being red) can be grouped together by the subject and felt as a unity due to this common characteristic. This is quite intuitive. The disparate datum have been transmuted into one complex datum. As such, a feeling of a nexus is a termed a “transmuted” feeling. The physical feelings of the separate entities give rise to a common conceptual feeling, and merged into a nexus.
It must be considered though that the eternal object is not always a simple conceptual feeling. It could be derived by conceptual reversion, and as such, error can be introduced. However, this is also how novelty can be introduced. Possible patterns can be introduced through prehending a nexus with a reverted conceptual feeling. The possibilities and potentials of combination bleed in from the eternal.
A nexus is able to provide the kind of systematic order that allows for the universe to be felt as a community rather than as purely chaotic multiplicity. Whitehead tries to make it clear that there is no such thing as an absolute order. There is no far off event to which all things are moving towards. Order is always order in regards to something. The society of “a ball of mud” has order regarding it’s shape, components, etc. The order can shift in multiple ways. The order of the ball can completely collapse, in which case the society of entities as a ball collapses, though the mud-society would persist.
A society is a nexus with an order that is not merely imposed from the outside. The members of the society mutually condition each other, and possess a route of inheritance that allows them to sustain and persist along the lines of a single characteristic. As this is about the philosophy of organism, let’s use the example of a single-celled organism as a society. The cell can, within reason, be placed in any environment and sustain itself. The cell is engaging in autopoiesis, and each part of the cell is actively engaged with the others in operating as part of the society. Furthermore, the cell, like almost all societies, has numerous sub-societies and/or nexus within itself, in addition to be part of a society itself. Societies to Whitehead always are always like Matryoshka dolls. Each opening only reveals another layer.
A cell’s organelles, however, are not societies, Whitehead contends. Rather, each organelle is a subordinate nexus of the cellular society. This is because the organelles, while being complex groupings of actual entities, are only able to persist functioning as part of the cell. A rock on the other hand is “corpuscular” society. Corpuscular is a term used to describe how independent the parts of a society are from the society. If I cut a rock in two, I will end up with two rocks, which will not cease to exist or transform into something entirely new. The rock is made up of countless societies which are able to persist independently and stably of the others without losing their pattern. Similarly, certain plants may have a shoot cut off of them, and have that shoot grow into an entirely new and independent plant. A human is less corpuscular than a plant, for a human possesses a centralized center of control, a “regnant society” in their brain. The destruction of this one society leads to the breakdown of the entirety of the rest of the body.
The ideally corpuscular society is made up entirely of what Whitehead terms “enduring objects.” An enduring object is a society composed of a single “strand” of actual entities perpetuating themselves over time. In this manner it enjoys what Whitehead terms a “personal order.” There are no contemporary entities, and at any point in time there will only be one entity of this society in existence if it enjoys a personal order. A rock might appear to be this perfectly corpuscular society, composed entirely of enduring objects, but when we reach the atomic level, we discover atomic societies which may be further broken down. Corpuscularity is thus always a gradient in reality. One of the major points that resonates throughout Whitehead’s work is to always be aware of the level of abstraction we operate at. When we generalize, detail, important or unimportant, is lost. Generalizations are powerful and vital to the operation of not just human life, but the world at large, and indeed, the formulation of the widest possible generalities is the goal of philosophy for Whitehead. Understanding what generalizations or abstractions we operate with, and how they work, is vital to both nation-states and dogs. Nevertheless. We must never mistake the map for the territory.
The Extensive Continuum.
Whitehead builds a rough image of our “societal location” in Process and Reality. We are in an electromagnetic society of atoms, molecules, and the laws of physics as we know them. This itself is situated in a society of geometric entities. Each society requires the society in which it resides to provide an environment that sustains it. If the geometric society broke down, presumably the electromagnetic society would too. Whitehead eventually reaches the widest possible generality, that of the extensive continuum. The dominant characteristic here is as it says: “extensive continuity.” This is merely the feature of entities to be extended in some manner, spatially or otherwise, and their connection with other entities. This is the furthest we can ontologically see, and sadly, where this guide will stop short. The chapters of Process and Reality dealing with this directly are some of the hardest in the book, perhaps in the entire western cannon.
Our next article then, will be the conclusion, which will provide advice and recommendations on how to tackle Whitehead’s labyrinthine philosophy. Supplementary books, lectures, and other resources, many of which have been helpful in writing this series, will also be noted. Lastly, I hope to provide an enticing portrait of what the philosophy of organism means in the context of philosophy at large, and all of the important problems which it can provide answers to.
Whitehead’s method of deriving his system may seem somewhat obscured to the reader at first. In many sections of Process and Reality, he prefers to merely set down his rules rather than talk about how these rules have been derived. This can be frustrating for many readers, myself included, who find themselves having to accept atomism, God, relationalism, and a myriad of other claims seemingly without justification to understand Whitehead. Absolute Idealists, for example, accuse Whitehead of not being able to self-ground and actually give a full account of experience. As Whitehead is not always clear on these matters, either not having had time to respond to such criticisms, or not finding them worthwhile, this article will attempt to explain as well as speculate a possible answer.
As has been noted elsewhere, Whitehead is a radical empiricist in the vein of William James, though he also takes from Bergson. Radical empiricism holds that we do experience relation between objects, causality, etc. directly, in an attempt to undermine the Humean-Kantian conception of empiricism that had to hold that these must be imposed by the subject. Rather than asking what our minds must be like to experience, Whitehead essentially asks what the world must be like for us to experience it. Whitehead’s anti-Kantian account of experience will have to wait for a future article. If Whitehead can justify radical empiricism, he may continue with his project without fear of attack.
But the mere positing of radical empiricism seems to spring the correlationist-idealist trap. “Whitehead is using thought! He has no reason to trust thought, and thus if he cannot provide something akin to a Hegelian phenomenology of thought, he is helpless. As pure experience cannot self-reflect and develop like thought, the building of a self-necessary system is impossible and Whitehead may be consigned to the dustbin. If reason is employed, then we must be given reason to trust reason.”
It’s important here to note the extreme disconnect that is drawn between thought and the rest of our experience by the idealist. Reason has hermetically sealed itself off from the rest of the world, as if forgetting what gave it life and where it comes from. For an absolute idealist, thought must lift itself by its bootstraps in order to justify itself and place itself into the world. In order to justify us being things in the world, we must blindfold ourselves to it and find our way back out through the development of concepts. Perhaps Whitehead saw this as not worth responding to because he rejects this methodological dualism out of hand along with the bifurcation of nature. If reason, experience, passion, and the world are not separate to begin with, one flowing into the other seamlessly, this problem is a non-problem. But justifying this seems to require reason, and thus the regress continues.
Escaping the Trap
Where Whitehead seems to begin with his place himself behind both thought and pure experience into the perspective of attention. Let’s cut everything out of the picture, even the subject, and simply pay attention to attention. When attention discerns something, everything else is oriented around the point of attention. The point of attention may be anything: some object outside of us, an emotion, or a thought, or a prick of pain in the foot. The field of attention is a point of view with relative focus, but it does not necessarily include within it some subject viewing. All that is present in the point of view is merely a duration of feeling with measured importance Now we seem to be assuming much here, but attention appears to be prerequisite to any accusations against it. In order to think and posit a counterclaim, I must draw an argument/thought into my attention. The most ready objection is that attention is itself a thought/concept and thus falls into the idealist trap.
The counter to this is that if attention, or its concept, is required for conceptualization. We end up in a situation akin to saying that, until cooking is invented, we are unable to pull carrots from the ground. If we cannot conceptualize without attention, and attention is a concept, then we will always be caught in a sort of dependency loop. If, like digestion, attention is something precognitive requisite to its own cognizing, then we are safe to climb from the swamp of thought to the aeroplane of attention and begin our escape from methodological dualism.
The second line of idealist defense is that while attention may be precognitive, anything we can say about it and what it says must involve thought, and thus we trigger the trap. But attention is its own ground of validity, and thought must answer to it, not attention to thought. Now that attention is decidedly precognitive, thought is relegated to the realm of representation, and it need not ask whether it can be trusted. A representational scheme of thought is successful if it is able to successfully direct attention to some feature disclosed in experience. For example, divisibility as attention is able to focus more or less specifically on what it is attentive of. All of these claims, using thought, are now able to be justified on precognitive grounds, as the claims are not being made and justified the perspective of thought, but are being presented to attention. If a thought indicates some possible element of experience, attention does not need to ask “can I trust it?” and can merely discover for itself. If it fails to find what thought indicates in experience, then the thought may be dismissed. The “true method of discovery” may be revealed now:
“The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation” (Process and Reality 5).
Thought is hobbled and unable to strike back, for to do so would be to undermine itself, if it has admitted attention to be a requisite precognition. In fact, thought is not even a distinct kind of feeling for attention, merely one kind among many. Radical empiricism, combined with Bergsonian direct realism, may be established from this foothold, avoiding the pitfalls of “natural consciousness.” Thought is relegated to being a speculative and communicative tool, and one that is limited. It must always appeal to the facts disclosed in attention. When we speak and formulate principles, we are merely putting forth symbolic representations that we admit cannot sound the true depths of experience.
What is disclosed to us is not true or false, but important. Attention is always to something with relative importance or relevance to attention. While truth may be relevant and important—for example, when one observes a scientific experiment—it is quite the opposite when one sits down to watch a play, walks down the street, or hugs their child. What is not true in the strict sense is often a matter of the utmost importance and something that can attract much interest. We can learn much from examining the way the half-truths and fuzzy instincts convey vivid information from our environment. The philosopher’s disdain for all which cannot be “knowledge” has ironically caused a poverty thereof. I do not mean to be a romantic, that all that is necessary is to simply hearken to beauty, but we must understand the emotional tinge to all that is, even the calculations of reason. We are not attracted to concepts not because they are true, but because we find them important. If there is concern for truth, it is always that, concern. We value truth precisely because we find it important, and importance cannot be cognized.
Importance is in a sense a pragmatic gesture, but it is not utilitarian or asking about the “use” of something. Importance in experience is more than that. Importance is just the quality of an experience that makes it relevant to attention, what allows it to be discerned in the first place. If we are attentive, more important facts may be disclosed. Saying that something is “important” does not necessarily grant it some permanent status above others, it is merely what is able to be noticed, and what is found interesting. It may become entirely irrelevant in one moment, replaced by something previously thought irrelevant, perhaps because something new and interesting was pointed out.
Importance is impossible to adequately cognize. Importance is fundamentally emotional and aesthetic; we may have our reasons for feeling things to be important, but any sufficient inquiry will reveal that we merely feel things to be important. There can be no other explanation for this which will not enter into either performative contradiction or infinite regress. When we speculate and create concepts, we do not need to see if we can “trust” them. There is merely the simple test to see if they can refer to something important enough for attention to notice it. To that end is where Whitehead is pointed—towards the understanding of the importance of things and the expansion of our attention so that what was always before us can be discovered:
“The use of philosophy is to maintain an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system. It reverses the slow descent of accepted thought towards the inactive commonplace. If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken. But the purpose of philosophy is to rationalize mysticism: not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coordinated.”
Memes are commonly understood to be discrete units of culture that spread in a manner analogous to genes, mutating and spreading by selective processes. Memes that are best able to spread and continue out compete weaker memes, and thus only the most virulent memes survive. Memes can range from religions, to melodies, to Internet images. Richard Dawkins, who coined the term in The Selfish Gene is largely responsible for the development of the field of memetics which attempts to study these memes in a way analagous to Genetics. Richard Dawkins, in his essay “Viruses of the Mind,” tried to examine religions in particular as memes. What I would like to do here is to add a corollary to Peter Sloterdijk’s proclamation in You Must Change Your Life that “religions do not exist.” Namely, that memes do not exist.
That is not to say that there are no cultural units that spread by vaguely selective processes – far from it. But just as Sloterdijk said of religion, wherever we see a meme, or a meme complex (memeplex), we truly discover a deformed anthropotechnic structure. That is, a structure for the training of humans to act in a particular manner. What is necessary here is to shift our perspective further out to discover the set of exercises. Memes are seeds for anthropotechnic structures of exercises for transforming human activity. The way that memes are currently understood in the general consciousness leads to behavior somewhat like trying to understand trees by only focusing on the seeds. This is ignoring the fact that a discrete unit of culture cannot really be located. Wherever we find a meme, we find a memeplex, and this memeplex can be better understood as a training regime for shaping human beings. The problem with the genetic analogy is that, rather than adapting to it’s environment, what we typically call the culture gene, a meme, creates an environment. This is why a meme is not a meme, but an anthropotechnic mechanism: an exercise.
Due to the inherent difficulty of collecting real data about this, I admit this is largely composed of anecdotal “case studies.” I must also reiterate that I am not original in this examination, but rather expanding Sloterdijk’s hypothesis to Internet memes. Through an analysis of several cases, the usefulness of the anthropotechnic examination should be made clear.
/pol/, Kek, and the Doge
The infamous 4chan board /pol/, which stands for “Politically Incorrect,” has a controversial history as being a gathering place for racists, Nazis, political extremists of all kinds, and other types the average person might consider rather unsavory. The way that these types of people appeared is more subtle than one might first imagine.
The most disturbing /pol/ meme might be their creation of a religion around a cartoon frog. Yes, really. That frog. The one Hillary Clinton claimed was a white supremacist symbol.
They even have a name for the deified version of Pepe: Kek. An Egyptian chaos deity identified with the cartoon frog. Tara Burton writes:
“Most of the people posting about Kek don’t actually believe that Pepe the Frog is an avatar of an ancient Egyptian chaos god, or that the numerology of 4chan “gets” — when posts are assigned a fortuitous ID number — somehow predicted Donald Trump’s presidential victory. (Theodør K. Ferrøl goes into more detail about that claim here.) It’s a joke, of course — but also not a joke. As one self-identified active member of the alt-right told me, “I don’t believe in God. But I say ‘Praise Kek’ more than I’ve ever said anything about God.”
She goes on to explain how, beginning as a “joke” Kek became a real phenomenon with influence through its followers. It doesn’t matter if Kek is real, he may as well be. The general form of Internet anthropotechnics is revealed in how a joke becomes reality. As Voltaire said: “Any community that gets its laughs by pretending to be idiots will inevitably be flooded by actual idiots who mistakenly believe they are in good company.” This is not the whole picture though, and it does not explain why idiots really flock to these communities.
/pol/ begins with somewhat ironic racism, for example. There are some actual racists mixed in. The complex of “racism-training” emerges as the community begins to spawn humorous images that contain racist ideology. The humor and message does not really transmit a “meme.” That is oversimplifying things. The message contained is always an exercise, something that is repeated by the human and alters them. Someone might laugh at the ridiculous anti-semitic image of the merchant, or a cartoon chaos god, and share it with friends, or post it again on /pol/. The meme is not only copied, but the exercise of “copying” is part of a larger process of ensuring repetition of the exercise, and the drawing of the human into a training regime.
Someone who posts /pol/ memes on the Internet a lot is, unsurprisingly, likely to visit /pol/ and be further drawn into the training regime. Not only are actual racists attracted into the website, but ordinary people looking for dark or edgy humor are also attracted. Repeating a meme is not a transmission of the meme, but an event that restructures the minds of the people who repeat it, drawing them towards new exercises that are a part of a larger complex. Other members of the complex can then introduce newer exercises – ones that can be much more harmful. Before you know it, you have a full-blown “ironic” Internet Nazi. As has been noted earlier, memeticists have identified “memeplexes,” but a successful memeplex is always structured in the form of a training regime, whether it be religion, ordinary meme sharing, Internet Nazism, or consumerism. As Sloterdijk observed, the common imperative “You must change your life!” is a constant. Memes must be understood as just one way of drawing people into training regimes. It doesn’t matter who they think they are, what matters is their training-plan.
Furthermore, unlike genes, memes tend to rapidly “die” over time and become old—particularly Internet memes—especially if they are hugely successful. Biological analogies such as overpopulation can apply here, but this misses the essence. The “Doge” meme which swept the Internet a few years ago appeared rapidly and has now almost vanished. Myself and my friends, in fact, cringe at the mention of it. An example is below. It featured a Shiba Inu dog (“Doge”) with comic sans captions in ironic, deadpan tone, typically in broken English.
It’s impossible to understate how Doge had a meteoric rise and then, just as quickly, became unbearable. This Google Trends chart should do the talking:
Why is it that a meme can become annoying and suddenly discarded? It is not because a meme is “unable to evolve.” A meme cannot be understood in such simplistic biological terms. We must examine the training regime. What training structures could poor Doge really introduce people into? It was not connected to any larger training structures, so when people had exhausted the exercise of repeating “wow” and posting the dog, they grew bored, and it failed to provide new avenues of exercise. This is why religions and ideologies are capable of extended propagation and Doge was not. A religion has exercises that can be repeated over and over again because they are entry points into a larger system of training with exercises, such as prayer, which can be endlessly repeated. First one is initiated; then one learns of the greater mysteries and contemplates them. In a similar fashion, /pol/’s memes remain virulent because they function in a similar way to initiation rituals. They introduce people into a training mechanism and as such are kept around with the new converts. When an exercise fails to provide further use to the trainee, they move on to something else. Building a theory of culture from memes is like trying to build a theory of swimming by examining diving boards.
Doge didn’t survive hitting the mainstream, because when it spread, it did not create “Dogeans.” Someone says it merely because it’s funny, and it spreads without creating a larger culture of appreciation, training, and production. Christianity on the other hand, creates Christians, churches, and pontiffs. That is an overly ideological example, however, as the same kind of thing can occur in sports. If a sport, game, or toy, doesn’t create a culture/training-regime that is different from the default one in the larger culture, it loses it’s value and fails to become virulent. Doge is to Christianity as Moon Boots competitions are to Football.
/pol/’s anthropotechnic structure is one that uses Internet humor as a medium of planting initiation exercises into the minds of unsuspecting users. These draw them into the “Internet extremism training regime.” The point of this regime is to create Internet extremists, the exercises are in place. Whether or not one bodybuilds “ironically,” one will still grow muscles. In this way, a community of people pretending to be idiots will not only flood itself with idiots, but transform everyone in it into real idiots.
General Form: The Irony Complex
Ironic complexes are a very general phenomenon, though they generally appear as “dead memes” that are resurrected and posted in an insincere manner, to annoy or mock. They develop a mean character. There are really two types of ironic regime. One is purely defensive, like in the above example, where it allows the covert deployment of exercises in a manner where the poster is able to always step back and say “It was just a joke!” Though humor can be used to tell difficult truths, it can also unfortunately be used for harm. How often have you seen people joke about anxiety or depression?
The other form of ironic regime is offensive and critical, used to destroy and discredit opposing training regimes. This latter form could vaguely be described as “satire.” Being a ubiquitous and historied genre, it should not be necessary to provide examples of satire, but on the Internet, memes typically labeled as “ironic” are of this second kind. A specific example of this are “Dank Memes,” which Know Your Meme describes as:
“an ironic expression used to describe online viral media and in-jokes that are intentionally bizarre or have exhausted their comedic value to the point of being trite or cliché. In this context, the word “dank,” originally coined as a term for high quality marijuana, is satirically used as a synonym for ‘cool.'”
The point of using ironic memes is that they eliminate damaged or dying training regimes by making them obnoxious and insincere. It is the scorched-earth strategy of training regimes. Satire is used in a similar manner. An idea or practice is parodied and brought to its logical conclusions, and it thus is eliminated. Consider how satire such as Don Quixote has literally destroyed anthropotechnic structures like chivalry. As Lord Byron noted, “Cervantes smiled Spain’s chivalry away.” The military doctrine of ironists is twofold: burn the crops of the enemy and replace them with your own, shielded by a veil of irony which makes it difficult to tell whether what is harmful from what is helpful.
Wholesome memes are a relatively recent kind of meme that—as far as my research has revealed—originated on the Reddit board /r/WholesomeMemes. The general form of wholesome memes is an attempt at subverting the negative and ironic character of many memes to create a positive, sincere form. Here is an example from the subreddit:
The wholesome training regime is simple. One spreads sincerity and positive actions, feels good, and is brought into a training structure which attempts to construct a kind of upward training spiral. Pure, unironic love and support. The first few weeks I encountered these, it was liberating and exhilarating. David Foster Wallace predicted a kind of “New Sincerity” in his essay E Unibus Pluram, which these kinds of memes might be an expression of:
“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels.”
For a while, I was on board with this. Then it grew stale, very stale. What had happened to wholesome memes for me was the same thing that happened to Doge for everyone else. It ran out of possible exercises. There is only so much posting of “love and support” that you can do before you run out of expressions, and it collapses into kitsch sentimentality. We simply do not have a large enough vocabulary for a sustainable training regime of single-endendre principles, free of absurdity. Furthermore, the punchline is always the same, just like with “dank memes.” It becomes predictable, and you have already extracted everything you can in the first view. Furthermore, it seems the real “New Sincerity” is emerging as something much, much darker than Wallace could have expected. An anti-humanist (not that I am a humanist) embracing of reactionary politics and totalitarianism. Я Сам Asylum writes:
“What DFW did not predict was that the rebels of new sincerity would risk far more than ridicule. Cries of Sexist, Racist, Misogynist, Fascist, Nazi, Deplorable; threats of doxing; loss of employment; banishment from social media… Attacks were made by all levels of the establishment to stop and silence the rebellion. But their attacks were all in vain. They did not realize that their tactics were relics of the 20th century; of outmoded media.”
Asylum is perfectly correct in his assessment. The methods which are used to fight newly sincere movements, which emerge from an irony complex in a return to single-entendre principles, with a fully healthy and armed training structure, are completely outdated. The problem that I really have with /pol/, the alt-right, or whatever you might call them has very little to do with racism. New Sincerity, despite it’s cries, is just as much a form of modern cynicism. What at first appears to be a life-affirming step out of irony really becomes a nihilistic, Kierkegaardian leap of faith. The ironic ones are at least, sincerely cynical. They’re distrusting of the motivations of those in power, at the very least. The sincere ones are cynically sincere. They act sincere because they bought into the cynical narrative. Cynicism, in its modern form, is a far deeper problem, one that is far more dangerous than any liberal buzzword could be.
The only solution I propose, is a kind of counter-memetics. What Wallace did not realize that the true path forward for culture, the only way that subjective freedom, creativity and individual health could be reconciled, was not a return to single-entendre principles, but to take a path blazing forward into zero-entendre principles. A training mechanism which merely trains people to maintain, or to return to some past state, will always be outcompeted by advanced training mechanisms which embrace the new, and embrace a constant will upwards and onwards. Creating culture that is entirely new, entirely unique, and incorruptible. Perhaps it could even allow an avenue for what Sloterdijk called “Kynicism,” the original form of cynicism.
/s4s/ and Post-Irony
We return to 4chan, to a board that is quite different from /pol/ (NSFW. Also, please don’t touch the wildlife). At first glance, it appears to be a stream of meaningless stupid shit. Closer inspection reveals a complex training regime with dozens of subroutines and exercises. There is the mysterious Cowe, which people deliberately do not post in, so it can “walk to the last page” of the board and thus get removed (4chan threads that are not posted in fall lower and lower until they are removed). People who do post here always post “cowe.”
There’s also the strange and pointless game of “beaning” which may or may not have originated on /s4s/. It has little point on a website in which you cannot tag people, or even have an identity, but it is nevertheless constantly repeated.
Then there is “Le Millenom Girl,” an important example as it is seemingly a parody of “rage comics,” but only in appearance. Le Millenom Girl is posted in threads sometimes 200 times in a row without interruption, and there seems to be nothing more to the process, yet it occurs on a regular basis.
Without a doubt though, the most successful character of /s4s/ is “the bury pink girl.” She affirms what is, undoubtedly, the truth about /s4s/, posted typically with the phrase “This is nice board.” She is the embodiment of the spirit of the board, something which is affirmative and creates kindness and creativity amongst seemingly meaningless repetitions of content. The image below contains a picture of her, and a variation on a pseudo-quote originally attributed to René Descartes:
While ironic memes can create a downward spiral of hate and loss of identity, /s4s/ embraces the diversity of meaning in its variety of memes which tell nothing. Furthermore, the lack of definite meaning or mechanism turns these into a sort of projective test. The memes here are empty; they don’t carry an exercise of their own. They are a call to apply an exercise. They are zombie memes that disembowel things that once had meaning, and instead of refilling them, they leave them filled with an emptiness that decries being filled. One merely sees a nice girl saying “this is a nice board.” How do you respond? With niceness in return, but the exact form of the exercise is always interpretative. Even on recurring threads where the same thing is posted over and over again, there is a kind of manic freedom in that there is not a single shred of irony. People legitimately fine-posting “lol” over and over again on this board to be hilarious. As this chart made by an /s4s/ denizen shows, it is a kind of absurdist sincerity.
Not only does /s4s/ produce seemingly meaningless “drivel,” they also have a bandcamp page. They produce avant-garde music of varying quality, but they’ve produced more than a dozen albums and counting. Some of the music, while affirming banal themes like “birds are not important,” manages to be good for a group of people who are working together anonymously and whose only mode of communication is self-imposed broken English and emoji.
/s4s/ presents such liberationary power because it’s contentless structures aren’t even recognizable as memes to enemy training structures. How do you satirize something which doesn’t seem to have any message. Anyone who appears to attack these things becomes equally ridiculous. There is a kind of total loss of structure into a chaotic freedom, but instead of being an irrecoverable state of ennui, it creates a new ground of authenticity, one which is able to resist the pull of irony and equally to resist the development of hatred through universal positivity.
The people here are actually nice. They have their own radio show where the host spends hours reading posts, settling seemingly meaningless disputes and telling people to “stay hydrated my sicc dudes.” He gives advice, tells people he loves them, and is endlessly creative, just like the rest of the board.
The point here is that they have created a training regime which infects others and subverts them for a positive end of promoting simple fun, kindness, and affirmation. Where /pol/ asks you to pretend to hate minority groups for “fun,” /s4s/ asks you to just “pretend to be fun, nice, and creative.” And like that, it gets you. Even “rude” posts here can’t help but make one smile. Listening to one of the /s4s/ radio broadcasts left me feeling ecstatic for days, from being in such an unconditionally positive environment with boundless methods of expressing that positivity. This is not done through some “return,” but rather a radical uprooting – not of the postmodern ironic kind, but one of free creation. The very thing that makes /s4s/, the leading example of post-ironic humor, so revolutionary and subversive is that it says nothing. It has no rituals of initiation, no formal exercise structure, only a rallying cry around some principles that the user must find for themselves. There is merely exhilarating freedom of making your own sense. This is a zero-entendre game.
It provides a model for a kind of counter-memetics. The post-ironic meme, when understood in the scheme of anthropotechnic structures of training, is an exercise that, rather than cynically destroying other regimes for its own agenda, presents itself innocently and crafts simulacra of other structures – ones that can overtake the originals and bring back the dead. Not for some ulterior motive, for there can be no motive without definite message, but for enjoyment. Remember Doge? There is a thread about Doge almost every day on /s4s/, and there is no comic sans or irony. People legitimately just like the dogs and share pictures of them. If this model of post-irony cannot revive and reanimate a creative, positive culture, then nothing can. But that is exactly what these post-ironic memes seem to be: nothing.
These cannot be corrupted by politics or cynicism, or co-opted by a mainstream entity, for they’ve been turned inside out. Sloterdijk claims that the transition from antiquity from modernity, work became about works. That is, creating objects rather than a kind of self-cultivation or continuation. Labor, rather than being directed inwardly primarily and outwardly secondarily, is flipped around. Production, while it is a kind of training, takes priority over regular training. It is training-for-other rather than training-for-self, in a sense. The positive potential of post-irony lies in how it stochastically creates niche-communities in a non-ideological manner via divesting them of informational content. What really makes a meme a meme in our context is it being an exercises that carries a bit of information with it, like a joke. These don’t really have “jokes” in them. If there is a joke, it’s never clear or conventional, and only able to be appreciated after a significant amount of training and acculturation has occurred. The jokes are not jokes relative to something else either, but jokes on their own ground, funny only in their surreal context. In a post-ironic training-regime, the exercises are primary, one changes themselves and creates an understanding. In the previous types, one understands, then changes themselves. It may be enough to say that these are kynical memes, they deface the currency of memes, break customs, and thumb their noses at any who would seek to bash or corrupt them.
Examining memes, and meme complexes, as anthropotechnic training regimes allows for a more rational and properly scaled view. Memes are seeds and tools of a training regime. Rather than genetic units which are more or less passive, they are imperative exercises which demand repetition and change in their host which draw them into a structure of further exercises. A meme is really a special kind of training mechanism, and by being aware of this, we can consciously control and subvert the way that training regimes—whether cultural or physical—affect us. By understanding them, we can propagate and draw ourselves into upwardly-spiraling training regimes which can protect themselves from irony and cynicism and provide a creative drive towards the future.