Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Patricia Clough reviews Nature As Event

Didier Debaise. Nature as Event: The Lure of the Possible. Trans. Michael Halewood. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. 2017. 112 pp.

Review by Patricia Ticineto Clough

Didier Debaise’s Nature as Event (2016), like his Speculative Empiricism (2016), adds to more than a decade of focus on the nonhuman that has led many critical theorists, philosophers, and media studies scholars to reconsider Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy, or—as Debaise would put it—Whitehead’s cosmology. In Nature as Event, Debaise specifically takes up Whitehead’s critique of “the bifurcation of nature,” offering what he takes to be a necessary correction to the predominant understanding of it as a critique of dualism beginning with the Cartesian dualism (quoted on p. 3). For Debaise, this misses the originality of Whitehead’s understanding of dualism as dependent on the gesture or modus operandi of bifurcation—a process central to scientific materialism that in its operation leaves in place the presumption that matter is brute, “senseless, valueless and purposeless,” giving nature its identity as bedrock (quoted on p. 9). In Nature as Event, Debaise not only joins Whitehead in recognizing the singular and profound impact of the bifurcation of nature, its wide implications beyond science in defining modernity; he also proposes that the bifurcation of nature still is operating in processes of conceptualization and experimental practices today.

What Debaise finds in Whitehead’s critique of the bifurcation of nature, proposing as it does that matter is not a localizable element distinct from and more concrete than phenomenological qualities or psychic additions, is the motivation for Whitehead’s speculative philosophy of nature, a move from a concreteness of matter to a potentiality immanent to matter, or all actualities, a recognition of their liveliness or intensity. Debaise thus follows Whitehead from his critique of bifurcation to his attributing subjectivity and experience to all actualities, while clarifying the distinction of the speculative from the empirical or experiential with a metaphysics that is not a reflection of or analogy to the human. That is to say, the distinction of the speculative from the empirical underscores that what is necessary for experience to happen cannot be experienced; it is speculative, anterior to consciousness and even to bodily-based perception. To understand then how speculative potentiality is related to experience, Debaise restates Whitehead’s treatment of prehension, or each present activity of feeling that grasps the past as the totality of the universe and which is gathered in concrescence to produce an actual entity eventuating in events or societies (to use Whitehead’s terms).

This present activity of feeling that produces a novel actual entity involves two moments of subjectivity. There is the subject that long has been taken philosophically as the ground of feeling, the subject from whom feeling originates. But as Whitehead proposes, this is only a retrospective construction, because it is in feeling or the present activity of prehension that the subject is actualized. As Debaise puts it: “the subject appears at the moment that its feelings crystallize into a unified experience, a complex of feelings becomes a singular experience” (p. 55). This reversal from subject as ground of feeling to subject actualized in feeling is important and points to the other and prior moment of subjectivity: the superjective subject, what Whitehead describes as the germ of subjectivity, the aim of every prehension or potentiality in feeling. The superjective subject moves nonsubjectivity to the subject’s actualization in every experience in the universe.

Still, further questions are raised: how do these two moments of a metaphysics of subjectivity, of feeling, honor the distinction of the speculative from the empirical or experiential? Or to put it otherwise: what is the source or resource for novelty? For Debaise, following Whitehead, the answer to these questions lies in his understanding of what Whitehead refers to as the pure potentiality of eternal objects, which are ontologically opposed to all subjects or actual entities, but which ingress novelty into each new subject in its actualization (see p. 61). Eternal objects are the condition of novelty beyond all past inheritance of all past subjects. As such, experience is not a derivative of potentiality or speculation. But it is also the case that for Whitehead, eternal objects are dependent on or immanent to the world, or to the present activity of actualizing subjects and experience. That is to say, Whitehead’s conception of ingression is anti-platonic; “it is not possible,” Debaise proposes, “to think beyond the existing world, which is already composed of other subjects that determine the fields of possibilities, and, hence, the actualization of this eternal object or another” (p. 66). Although not all possibilities are actualized, those that could have been remain as potentiality, for which in the ongoing process of actualization of an entity, eternal objects will function to provide novelty, providing actual entities or subjects dimension.

Debaise’s take on the immanence of eternal objects to the world can easily lead to a different reading of Whitehead, one that, as Mark Hansen has proposed, can go further than Debaise's by undermining his understanding of eternal objects while honoring his important insistence on the distinction of the speculative and the empirical, what Hansen has referred to as “the speculative ban.”[1] Moving away from a Deleuzian reading of Whitehead’s potentiality as virtuality, followed by Debaise, Hansen argues for real rather than pure potentiality. He proposes that the potentiality of prehension in the concrescence of an actual entity seeps into the actualized entity from the actualizing entity such that superjective subjectivity or potentiality also resides in what Hansen calls a “worldly sensibility,” or the agency of the environment itself, the totality of the universe (FF, p. 5). After all, the environment or the totality of the universe is subjective and in that sense may be said to continue to include superjective subjectivity, the potentiality or tendencies of a probabilistic universe. For Hansen, real potentiality is in the contrast among already existing actualities, “the real potentiality of the settled world at each moment of its becoming”—becoming different with each new actuality or what Whitehead refers to as “data” (FF, p. 204). However, in order to respect the speculative ban, Hansen turns to Whitehead’s conception of vibration or the “vibratory continuum,” treating it as worldly sensibility or environmental agency that is exercised independently of the actualities that come to be of it—a displacement of Debaise’s treatment of eternal objects (FF, p. 243).

As Hansen is in dialogue with Debaise even as he undermines eternal objects in revising Whitehead’s treatment of vibration and the extensive continuum, what he makes clear is that Debaise importantly initiates a rethinking of Whitehead in terms of environmental agency or a worldly potentiality. This rethinking, for Hansen, is crucial for contemporary criticism of digital media and computational technologies that have made the tendencies of a probabilistic universe, its potentialities, manipulable as such through the various sensing and tracking devices that provide for the mining of massive amounts of data, not to mention the ongoing development of nanotechnology’s reconfiguring what has been thought to be the primary qualities that make matter obdurate.[2]

While digital media and computational technologies operate in a manner that is more often than not troublesome, if not alarming, these technologies also are revealing the pre-affective potentialities of the universe in which all other agencies arise. They are changing the processes of conceptualization and experimental practices today, as digital media and computational technologies no longer reflect a Cartesian dualism of mind and body or software and hardware. In this sense, the bifurcation of nature is becoming unmoored in various domains of science and technology such that matter is understood to be anything but concrete or distinct from phenomenological or psychic qualities or add-ons. As the bifurcation of nature trembles, there is, however, an urgent need to understand “aesthetics as first philosophy,” as Whitehead describes it in his placement of feeling, subjectivity, and vibration at the center of his speculative philosophy, which requires that ontological assumptions of methods and practices of knowledge production be radically rethought. As Debaise puts it: “What is needed is a philosophy that, in its very form, its ambition and its manners of relating to things, can grant due importance to the deeply plural experience of nature” (p. 77). This is the philosophy to which Debaise has opened us in his reading of Whitehead. 

[1] Mark Hansen, Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media (Chicago, 2015), p. 86; hereafter abbreviated FF.

[2] For further discussion of Hansen’s rereading of Whitehead, see Clough, The User Unconscious: On Affect, Media, and Measure (Minneapolis, 2018).