Moving along the Plane

With the two interpenetrating domains in play, it’s time to turn to the wind-up that ends Whitehead’s account by focusing on what the most intense expressions of the interaction between God and World looks like (350–51). It’s a dynamic process (no surprise), but Whitehead does suggest a basic fourfold pattern that describes it. It is along this axis that complex and durable spiritual entities form, most importantly our selves. That process (not the subject of the process) loops back upon itself, the result being the initiating element in another dynamic process.

It is that looping that makes the process as a whole intelligible, that makes what would seem an abstract beginning into something more concrete; we have to follow the cycle out once to appreciate it, though, so bear with me as I begin with what may seem vague. Let me say ahead of time, that this is also the point that I most want to qualify the conclusions Whitehead draws. The fourfold model sits beneath his most robust apologetic for Christianity and his eagerness to seal his work with his personal faith is where he goes most astray.

So, first I’ll try to give a fair shake to Whitehead’s account, then I will try my hand at criticizing and modifying it.

On Whitehead’s account, everything begins with “conceptual origination,” a structuring elements that makes possible manifest structures. There is obviously a kind of intellectualism at work here, a sense that there are formal qualities that define the world as we experience. It is the strength of Whitehead’s account that these patterns don’t have to be conscious. The way in which atoms interact rests on a kind of conceptual structure without having an anthropomorphic super-thinker that thinks them consciously. That said, conceptual origination can occur at the level of consciousness and here refers to plans that introduce direction and intention to a situation.

While conceptual origination makes possible all manner of specific manifestations, those possibilities pass into “physical origination” only through a process of becoming delimited. An atom joins with other atoms to become a molecule, but does so according to the presence or absence of other atoms in a specific state. A plan put into action must address the situation into which it is deployed. Compromise and failure enter into the picture.

As this process of physical origination develops, it grows ever closer to a state of “perfected actuality” or “everlastingness” in which the interplay of forces occurring in physical origination clarify and qualify each other such as to describe a full and total situation that becomes its own unity without undermining the individuality of the people that compose it. A chemical reaction transforms atoms but in so doing reveals some fundamental truth about those atoms. A plan put to the test reveals the shape of a situation into which it is launched.

What Whitehead means by everlastingness is difficult to get at, but I take him to mean that the loss of ambiguity that accompanies embodiment improves the concept and transmits it from the previous conceptual register into a higher register of fact. We might say that God doesn’t quite know what it contains in its concepts until those concepts are clarified by embodiment. Once embodied, they can return to the conceptual as a guiding force.

I can find no way to talk about this that doesn’t border on the numinous and it is for this reason that it is well-suited to this blog. The conceptual force that rises through the world becomes a kind genius or intellective force on the other. The structural patterns of the cosmos are partly the geniuses born of earlier concepts having been put to the test. This isn’t entirely impossible to reconcile with modern physics, especially if you think about the ways in which many models argue that very early interactions in the formation of our universe had a determining impact on the nature of constants that define our physics.

At the level of human life, this is also the point at which we can talk of ancestors and peoples. A people are a community that puts plans to the test, and from this situation histories take shape, and from these histories the patterns of culture are defined and transmitted. On Whitehead’s account, at least, all of these are equally everlasting, though on different scales.

As everlasting, they transcend their temporal source and become a fact that can reappear within the world as an immediate conceptual operation. What has come before can reappear. They are higher concepts, suited to more efficient forms of physical origination for having already been tested. For Whitehead, this is the source of “objective” immortality, a conceptual essence that can readily influence the processes of physical origination. Moreover, because this process will have encompassed everything in which it has operated, it carries with it the immortality of everything with which it developed. There is a snowball effect in play, until that was and is and will be at the level of physical origination is immortal and everlasting.

This return of an objective immortality is what Whitehead calls proof of God’s love. That’s sweet, but it has more than a few problems. It is a form of “love,” for example, that is indifferent to the fact that some of the patterns that repeat are profoundly destructive and deadly. If Whitehead wants to embrace the death camps and the gulag, the attempted genocide of Americans and chattel slavery, as signs of God’s love, then sure, we can probably grant him that, but I can’t imagine he actually wants that.

Similarly, those horrors necessarily possess their own immortality, too. They were real situations into which forms of conceptual origination were put into play and developed. The barbed questions launched at Socrates in Plato’s Parmenides—are there forms of dirt or fingernails—come back to haunt Whitehead all the more as he grants the totality of human and natural experience a sort of objective immortality. Pop music runs ahead of all this theorizing and asks harder questions. Cue up your “Blasphemous Rumors,” or maybe Tori Amos’s “God” and XTC’s “Dear God”; if this is God’s love, well.

And those things DO have the sort of objective immortality that Whitehead imagines our social worlds to have. The long experiment that the United States carried out in murder and empire directly inspired Hitler’s ambitions, springing from place to place like an unholy ghost. While I have seen some mad apologetic efforts to find virtue in those things, usually in some nonsense about being a goad and furnace in which virtue is tested, no one who looks at human suffering can be satisfied with that.

Whitehead’s objective immortality does not provide an anchor for ethics. We can derive an ethic only by attending to human life and consciousness, an ethic that must look at these moments as the most monstrous dimming of consciousness and hope, as moments that nothing can justify, which we may only answer with the inadequate but necessary struggle against these terrible influences.

It is an effort that begins by rallying forms of origination in opposition to these, medicines and weapons with which some of this may be countered, some corner held. It is to leapfrog, grasping at the dimming lights and taking whatever we can into our moment. The hope lies not in a forgiveness and love always granted, but in a struggle to prevent these monstrous immortalities from providing the final situation within which the dimmed and smothered souls exist. It is a struggle to keep opening the fold, speaking and working toward a more humane world in which the light of consciousness may flash brightly between souls.

We can use Whitehead’s model so long as we don’t make his apologetic mistakes. We can use it as a model for what we need to strengthen and fortify ourselves, for understanding what it is that we draw upon, but we can’t assume that anything which has objective immortality is what we need to be calling upon. Some forms will eat us up, not just because they are ill-suited to us, but because they are inherently wretched and inhuman, alien to life and consciousness even as they inhere within them.

We also need to grasp that their is something more than the concepts at play. There is a great body of the cosmos, a dense network in which embodiment transpires that doesn’t disappear when the concept passes from origination into everlastingness. There is a necessary movement and undoing that operates within that domain which makes that process possible, but also abbreviates and shortens it. This makes suffering inescapable, even as it makes change for the better possible.

Okay, this is a good place to stop. It is about time to switch up toward Deleuze & Guattari before coming back to all these issues. Working to find a place that provides escape and opportunity requires understanding the levels of manifestation with which all these processes are entangled, processes that they address more clearly.

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