However far our gaze penetrates, there are always heights beyond which block our vision.—Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (Corrected Edition), 342
Enough with the throat clearing; let me get down to business with Whitehead. I am not sure how long this is all going to take, or how many posts it will run. Maybe this will take three posts and a couple weeks, maybe it will take eight posts and a few months. Gender transition, too, is something of a wild card in all this, requiring a significant share of my intellectual and emotional resources; I may not always have the time or energy to work on this. This will need to take as long as it takes.
I have already run into some snags. While I am enthusiastic about Whitehead’s model, it is entangled with another century’s academic habits and a blind Christian exceptionalism that bears all the earmarks of empire. Dwelling too much with that runs counter to the trajectory of closing time and it also runs counter to the spirit of Whitehead’s own argument, an argument that presumes the process will constantly break its culturally specific forms.
I have decided on an alternative that strives to talk alongside Whitehead’s work rather than in and through it. I will avoid extensive quotation with the inevitable baggage that comes with it, favoring instead parenthetical citations to the corrected edition of Whitehead’s Process and Reality from which my discussion emerges. I avoid debating with Whitehead’s ghost and transmit more of his vital philosophical legacy.
That legacy rests, in part, on the sentiment expressed in the epigraph. The experience we have rests on the concrete position of our person in space and time, a position whose awareness is limited. Our consciousness is an even more tightly delimited affair, the subjective expression of this awareness. It neither precedes this experience, nor does it make it possible. The experience itself possesses the plasticity we often ascribe to consciousness, because that experience is the expression of a state of affairs in which we live. When we make a conscious choice, we do so by positioning ourselves within the field of actual possibilities available to us. (267)
That’s key, conscious action is the opposite of fantasy. It is connected to a situation that can be transformed only in accord with what we might call the “hard facts.” Fantasy derives from this capacity for conscious choice, but is further removed from the reality of the situation that gives terms like possible and impossible their content.
This has some peculiar implications. Since consciousness and inspiration rests within experience rather than the other way round, and since experience rests within the concrete situation that sustain them, consciousness and experience are expressions of the situation without being reducible to it. The situation isn’t simple; its elements are entangled with each other and with other situations. What each situation reveals is a richer sense of the field of entanglement, both in terms of its limitations and opportunities.
Practical example: It has been an emotionally taxing week. I have been caught up remembering and processing many of the experiences that either led me to closet myself or which were cut short by that closeting. I wake up after a restless, too-brief night of sleep and walk into the kitchen. In the pale light of the early morning, I can see the dishes in the sink from the night before, the mildew creeping around the sides of the basin, the glasses cluttering the counter. I can feel the grit that comes from a week of cooking beneath my bare feet. This is the nexus of feeling, of experience, that I am talking about.
As I stand there, I begin to see it for what it is, the encroaching habits of depression. This isn’t deep, dark depression or constant misery, but it is the beginnings of a mood that could turn me toward that direction, could slip in and take hold without my full awareness. I can see the week of laziness and see both its continuance and its cessation. This is the subjective corollary to that feeling, the stirring of consciousness.
I turn the light on and set myself to washing. I empty the sink, clear some of the counter, put away the dishes. I scrub the mildew, wipe the counters, sweep the dirt out of the door, stepping out into the cool morning to sweep the stoop, push out a little further against the encroaching habits of depression. This is the realization of a possibility that was already present in the feeling, but only activated as consciousness illuminated that feeling before moving outward again to alter the feeling in its actual complexity as a phenomenon within a network of entangled situations.
Consciousness isn’t just in my awareness of that, it is also in my informed response to it. Consciousness sees and makes distinctions, the making being an effort to favor the further realization of one seen distinction over others. This is what I mean when I say that feeling and consciousness are expressions within the entangled situations, and it is through them that we, too, are in and of them and capable of working on our feelings and consciousness by rallying ourselves to action within the “actual” and “real” world. These ‘rituals’ are not empty or arbitrary; they constitute my life.
This relationship between situation, feeling, and consciousness expresses an aspect of the relationship between God and World. What Whitehead describes as God is the patterning tendency of the situation, the underlying aspect of it that makes it amenable to distinction and differentiation, as well as what makes those distinctions and differentiation that which through which one pattern of distinction and differentiation comes into being while another does not.
What Whitehead calls God is that which gives situations their determinate character without determining its character, designating the latent capacity for consciousness to operate within it. It transforms the situation into a potential event to which we can respond. It is not the guarantee of consciousness, but it invites and nourishes it (344). What he designates as the love of God has everything to do with this, with the painful but tender interaction between consciousness and this latent capacity for consciousness, that which is inseparable from suffering (343, 350–51).
This suffering is inseparable from God. When we follow the reflex of our consciousness to bring about a determination within our lives, we are simultaneously working with and against God. With, because any pattern we push toward is made possible by God, but against because God contains within itself a tendency toward realizing those determinations in a specific fashion and what is kindled within our consciousness brings an agency to the situation that is not inherently present in it (345).
And yet, what we manage to introduce into the system of realization that is God, is recognized and taken into God, is ‘loved.’ Whitehead has clear Christian hopes bound up with this, but he is a little too careful to let them carry his account. What he describes as love is distinct from the ethical and the moral as we understand them. His ‘judgment’ saves all that becomes conscious, but what becomes conscious may not rest easily against our values, values that rest in a more immediate world of feeling (346).
The other axis of this operation, the World, bears within itself the materiality of life, the root of fixity that makes change necessary, that makes sequence necessary. The World is that which forces us to select one determination over another, that allows them to come into existence together only when distributed in space and/or time. When we talk about God as the force of determination, the World is that which is determined, that which suffers and is made to yield up to God’s love (348–49).
Through the World, one process initiated by God comes to an end and another may begin. Embedded within the World, we conscious beings must sacrifice and make decisions. The World makes our growth and development possible, yes, but we can’t stop with that; even when it makes possible our most expansive moments, it does so only by a struggle, with effort and, again, suffering. It also makes our decline and death inevitable, it subjects us to affliction. To the extent that God anchors consciousness, the World anchors feeling.
Whitehead is careful to note that simple oppositions circulate between these two dimensions such that we can’t easily assign or distribute them to one or the other in a fixed fashion (348). Even as we want to say that the tendency of things to pass away lies with the World, we must acknowledge that they pass away only by way of the push of God and that push is resisted by the World. We want to identify the World with the plural, but have to acknowledge the plurality that is manifest within God’s determinations and the singularity of the World that receives them. Identify the eternal with God and you are immediately confronted with its dependence upon the World as the means through which divine judgment is exercised and consciousness transmitted into the eternal.
It is through this imbrication of the antitheses that all manner of spiritual transformations become possible, that we can put affliction and feeling into communication with suffering and consciousness, that we can draw to ourselves the light of consciousness and project ourselves into the field of judgment as well as transfer the patterns of consciousness into the unfolding of the changing world. While that often takes place under the auspices of an anthropomorphic projection, it is not the projection that defines the work; it is not a God(s)-as-Big-Man, God(s)-as-Lawgiver, that define the field of judgment.
And unlike how Whitehead imagines this to be a special property of his decorous Victorian Christianity, I can see its operation more clearly in the practices he would identify as superstitious. I see it more clearly in the movements around the globe in which the afflicted transform their lives into a crucible for the healing and transformation for themselves and those around them. Some of those movements are Christian, no doubt, but they are not exclusively or especially so.
But I digress. With the plane drawn, I am ready to talk a little more specifically about the operations that take place upon it. That’s the next post.