Towards a Tantric Ontology
I would like to begin by bringing up three stories; in fact three short stories. One by the Czech writer Milan Kundera. Another by Lima Barrreto, a Brazilian writer. The third one by the Jewish-American writer Nathan Englander. I will recall the bits that will be relevant for my purposes and no doubt I will distort the plots and the characters. Surely, stories were made to be retold.
The Kundera short story is called “The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire” and it revolves around two male characters who go after women in the streets. They approach them and try to find a way to seduce them and to then proceed to create an erotic atmosphere. It doesn't matter how they manage to do it and Kundera's text itself is not particularly dedicated to convey the environment of comfort and curiosity that they would have to concoct. But they do connect with the women and after some time they feel that they managed to make them feel attracted by them. Attraction, as an element of seduction, has something to do with being directed towards somebody (or something). It manifests itself in different sorts of actual behaviour, it nonetheless clearly lies underneath those behaviours. It is a state of our nerves as those are what disposes us towards doing things – they are not like the bones who do the job, they deal in preludes. So, our two male characters make an effort to create attraction and subsequently to increase its intensity. Seduction is a subcutaneous operation, it affects what one has under one's skin. The two characters endeavour to instil a seductive atmosphere in the women they meet. Eventually they are convinced that there are signs that a degree of intensity has reached a level that they judge sufficient. At this point, they leave the scene. They prompt the atmosphere of seduction and then, unlike the ordinary womaniser, they get out of the picture. They deal in lust, but they promote it and then move away. Surely, the erotic has many uses. Kundera's story is not about seeking a quarry but rather about the process of knitting an erotic atmosphere: the golden apple of eternal desire. It opens with a Pascal quote: the chase for its own sake. Steering desire towards something other than its satisfaction. It is desire, suspended, taken apart from any attempt to act according to it, that I want to invoke with the Kundera story. An important part of it happens under the skin of the characters; the plot itself is about what begins to have the power to happen.
My second story is called “The Man who Spoke Javanese”, written by Lima Barreto. Its main character is a man who allegedly could speak Javanese in the rather monolingual environment of early twentieth century Rio. Surely, there was nobody else around who could talk with him in Javanese and therefore no one could make sure that he actually could utter meaningful sentences in this exotic language. People around him had to decide whether they believe in the man's capacity to speak, in his being able to converse in Javanese were the appropriate circumstances produced – knowing that these appropriate circumstances may never occur. The capacity to speak a language is something that takes place under one's skin, it's manifest when it becomes an act, when one is speaking it and being understood by competent speakers. Our character was in fact a quack, but he had spent sometime in the library and learned the rudiments of Javanese (indeed certainly far more than the Tamil I managed to learn). Capacities come in degrees. To establish how much is enough one has to consider the uses of those capacities. Lima Barreto's character presented himself as a Javanese private tutor and ended up working at a consulate. Capacities have to do with what is inside, with the inner. Linguistic capacities are maybe neural states and the neurons enable our activities, they don't act themselves, but they make it possible, they empower the bones to act. The nervous system harbours our dispositions and our capacities. Capacities have also something to do with being directed towards, they are capacity of something. As a subcutaneous element, a capacity can be put to use by applying it – but this is not the only way it affects what happens. Our character made a career out of his small capacity, without ever meeting the circumstances where the potentiality could become an act in the expected sense of him having the chance to speak Javanese to someone who masters it. Capacities affect the events not only by being exercised. They affect what takes place under the skin of the events. This is what I want to invoke with Lima Barreto's story: the potentiality not in its transformation into a corresponding act, but as a suspended element that lies under what ends up happening.
My third story is Englander's “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”. In a much Baschevis Singer style, we are introduced to another male character who claims to be plagued with urges to cheat on his wife. He then takes his case to the rabbi, who is judge and counsellor for all sort of occurrence, actual or potential, that take place in the community. The rabbi is then faced with something that can be described in terms of a very ordinary ontological issue: is this inner state of affairs – this very state that occurs within this man who came to consult him – a genuine state of urge? Does he feel a genuine urge or is it something of a different nature (maybe a mere desire or a mere impulse, or even a sheer episode of imagination)? In order to proceed in his counselling, the rabbi had to establish whether the urge is a genuine one. Like most ordinary ontological issues, the question becomes complicated as it depends on what distinguishes, in its case, a genuine occurrence of urge. The rabbi is then involved in an issue that has to do with what is under the skin of the man who is seeking advise, the genuineness of an occurrence within the realm of the potential, an urge. Urges have an acknowledged force to disrupt things – they change priorities, they impose a new pace as the urgent cannot wait. Interestingly, Englander's rabbi doesn't ask a recognition question of the sort should I grant this man's inner state the degree of an urge?, or rather, should I treat it as n urge?. He faces it as a purely ontological issue of determining whether or not that is an urge. His treatment of the situation – and the advise he will then offer – depends on a distinction between genuine urges and other states that are also somehow directed towards something. The rabbi's task an ontological one – together, of course, with the more psychological task of finding out how bearable the urge is. He has therefore to somehow deal not with the acts carried out by his interlocutor, but rather by the nervous state that he finds himself in. Something urgent reorganize things, displace them. Urges cannot be contained in the way maybe ordinary desires can, maybe contained urges have far-reaching inconvenient consequences. The rabbi is persuaded that a genuine urge cannot be treated in the same way as an ordinary disposition. This is what I want to invoke with Englander's story: the urge, not as it is actualized, but rather as a suspended potential state, that could be taken as being genuinely different from ordinary desires and dispositions.
Desires, capacities, urges. They appear in our stories as being all too human things. In fact, they appear associated to male characters. We can shove all of them under the carpet of psychology. This is what the various brands of actualism – the view that there is nothing but acts – attempted to convince us. But when it is a hard job to ignore that those powers at at play everywhere. I argue that desires, capacities and urges can be found far beyond human boundaries. They belong in the realm of Shakti, the goddess of empowerment – the female character who bears the dynamic forces in what is fertile. She is the goddess of what is present in embryo, of what is unmanifest and yet goes affecting its surroundings. Her force depends on no one in particular as it is interdependent with the entire universe. Shakti has her bewitchments. Like the fertility of men and women who might never procreate. Desire, capacities and urges belong in potentia, the realm of what could be and, yet, may never be. Potentialities can be found everywhere, nothing is oblivious to Shakti as nothing is indifferent to the play of empowerment.
Capacities can be found wherever there are dispositions. Whenever something is disposed towards something. The Kundera characters endeavour to create an erotic disposition. Dispositional properties are properties in potentia – sugar is soluble, wood is inflammable, boars are huntable. They display a directedness towards something (water, fire, predators) that doesn't need to be around, doesn't need even to exist. Dispositions are what promotes the empowerment of everything, what the Eleatic philosophers associated with being: they host the powers to cause. That there are dispositions associated to any effect made M. Jourdain, of the famous Molière play (Le malade imaginaire) talk about a virtus dormitiva. Surely, the appeal to a virtus dormitiva doesn't quite explain much in itself, but a causal explanation is often no more than the presentation of a chain of elements where one thing passes power towards another. Urges, by contrast, are less dormant. They not only could cause something, but they hold a pregnancy that cannot wait, they disturb things in their surroundings, as they bring about imminent possible events. Urges are everywhere – animals starve, trees grow roots towards paved roads, volcanoes can stay imminently erupting for some time. Also desires belong in this realm with urges and dispositions. They move animals, they set impulses and instincts in parts of living creatures, they take over groups, associations, assemblages, collectives of all sorts. Desire speak to the nerve of things.
Desires, capacities, urges. They are the components of what I call a tectonics. They are not themselves events but they lie under them and in a sense they take place subcutaneously, under the skin of what happens. The tectonic nerve of things. They erupt, they shake, they counter-balance, they enable – and they disable, they cease to shake, they put things to rest. Let me explain my image. I claim that desires, capacities and urges can be taken as lying under the events, under the skin of the world taken as the network of what happens. They are subcutaneous to the events, they belong to a tectonics of what is behind the events. Those are somehow the manifest skin of the universe. My image is that of an underground tectonic activity composed by items like urges, capacities, desires interacting with each other. That tectonic activity affects the events not only by actualizing potentialities, but also in many different ways – Lima Barreto's character made a career out of his alleged capacity, Englander's character would be willing to do anything advised by the rabbi to be rid of the urges, birds start flying far away before the summer gives way to less comfortable seasons. Within that tectonics, some eruptions are prevented by others while some quakes are reinforced by what stand around them. It is an affair of nerve connections.
It is an affair of nerves. In Sanskrit, tant. Looking at this underlying tectonics is looking at the tantra of things. It is akin to worship Shakti's force everywhere, to focus not on the actual events but rather on their preparation. Much has to do with how we view this realm of preparation – and I recommend the view that the world itself has its rehearsing spaces, its drawing board, its dressing rooms. Ontology should include a tantric element: the underlying nerve tectonics of what takes place. Actual events are no more than a tip of a multi-layered modal structure of tendencies, antidotes, propensities and repulsions. A tantric ontology sees the skin of events maybe as a mosaic where different pieces take place but it is a mosaic of magnets where pieces are not indifferent to the position of the others. The tantric dimension introduces the dimension of attraction, of directedness, of potentiality into the mosaic. Just like in seduction there are plots being prepared, tantra is the multi-layered tectonics where possibilities meet other possibilities and start breeding.
It can be described to a large extent in terms of possible worlds but, as Saul Kripke who made the notion legitimate for the contemporary mind once said in a slightly different context, they cannot be viewed as distant planets or foreign countries but rather as something that we access only from the actual world. In fact, the tantric image I rather put forward is that of worlds within a world. Or rather that of a tectonic ground under the surface of actual events. We can never look at the terrain and ignore its tectonics. Even because whatever is meant by “we”, we have a foothold on the underlying tectonics as well as we have nerves connected to the nerves of the events. We get anxious about what could happen, we get agitated (or rather calm) in a tempest, we escape the desiring predator. Plus, there is an underlying tectonic time, that is not the time of Chronos but the time of Kairós, that is not the time of hours but the time of moments, not the time of dates but the time of past and future (technically that means that actualism entails B-ism, which I think is the case), not the time of equally long days but the time of different durations, not the time of seconds but the time of whiskers (that can last years). A whisker is what it takes to bring powers into act, but there are also events that fail to happen by the skin of a tooth – maybe by one, two or three whiskers...
There is a long turbulent history of attempts to cast suspicion on the strength of Shakti's force. The old Megaric school thought that what can happen either has already happened or is going to happen. No unrealized potentialities. As a consequence, no underground event that is not directly manifest in the surface of events. Analogously, Dharmakirti seems to have hinted that non-actualized powers could be dispensed with. The modern criticism of powers – and the defence of an actualist ontology with no room for anything that is not actual – is intertwined with the critique of all metaphysical endeavour. The fate of powers seems to be the very fate of metaphysics. Hume, fighting in both twin fronts, concentrated his fire on the idea of necessary connections in the world. If there are no necessary connections, there is nothing that can be known. I'll not concentrate on the ways Hume's views can be countered (nor will I explore Hume's possible rebuttals) but I'll mention two interesting paths – from the point of view of a tantric ontology. First, it can be said that we can know that there is no necessary connections and therefore that the universe is plagued with contingencies – or rather, with the non-necessary. This is a path that Meillassoux has recently taken in his attempt to defend the knowledge of absolutes against Hume's criticisms. Second, it can be said that dispositions and powers – or rather desires, capacities and urges – can be understood not in terms of necessary connections. In other words, it could be stressed that Shakti doesn't deal in necessities. A tantric ontology is therefore neither an ontology of a mosaic of independent items – perhaps it is a mosaic of magnets – nor is it like a jigsaw either. Tendencies are such that they meet each other but not to fulfil a general plan. It is very common to understand that all modalities – mainly possibility but also contingency and propensity – can be described in terms of necessity. However, it doesn't need to be so. Stephen Mumford and Rani Anjun are recently proposing that dispositions could be rather treated as primitive and, if this is so, the argument against necessary connections will not force us into actualism.
The flaws with actualism, however, could inform us of some further ingredients in the underground tantric tectonics. Actualism holds that there is nothing but the skin to the events. It paints the world without empowerment, without seduction, without fertilization, without pregnancies, without preparation. Or rather, it paints a world where those things are understood in terms of actual events. Contemporary great metaphysician C. B. Martin has elaborated a strategy to argue against it through the idea of finks. A finkish disposition is one that is present but by some reason will never be actualised. Some people are to shy to cry in public, even though they feel like it often. Some dogs are too tamed to bite human meals, even if they are starving. Some wires are constantly too wet to conduce electricity safely throughout, even though they have the capacity to do it. The actualist replies by denying that there is such a thick tectonics underlying the event. So, she would say that there is no more than one disposition – that of the shy crying person or that of the tamed starving dog – and then attempt to understand this disposition in terms of actual facts. The first part of the manoeuvre could seem very ad hoc, as the individualization of dispositions would seem to be artificially gerrymandered. The actualist would have also to bite the bullet that there could be no permanently unrealized capacity or tendency. It seems like a hard path to go. Interestingly, it is a path that denies the tantric tectonics – the actualist could deal with a single layer under the skin, but a whole tectonics seems to be intractable. Martin's strategy of considering finks seem to make it difficult to stop worshipping Shakti and replace her with male actualist gods.
Nor the appeal to something like finks to be able to see the depths of the tantric tectonics is very new. Aristotle distinguished between first and second potentialities (and first and second actuality). I share with all of you the first potentiality of speaking Tamil – we can learn it if needed and then we can and speak it – while some of you have also the second potentiality (and the first actuality) of speaking Tamil – we just have to engage in the act of speaking it (when you do it, you are in the second actuality). The distinction is sometimes quite clear: there is a difference between being able to do it and not do it and not yet being able to do it. Aristotle was cautious with his distinction – not in all cases we can talk about first and second potentialities. As with finks, different potentialities have tectonic dimensions that are still to be uncover – the nerves have themselves their underground nerves. Yet, tantra is not a distant planet or a foreign country, it is the workings of what is under the skin. Tantra is a path – tantric ontology is an attention to what is under construction. And the construction bears many layers.
The recent renaissance of metaphysics has accordingly renewed interest in powers, dispositions and potentialities. An interesting idea in this context is that of pan-dispositionalism: a mirror image of actualism where there is no space for actualities, everything being dispositional (or potential). It is as if there were no goddesses but Shakti. David Armstrong tried to express a frustration with such a view with his image that we would then be always packing and never traveling. In a sense, travelling is also packing for the next trip – we are always in preparation. However, in another sense, a trip is made. There is a skin – maybe a nervous skin but still a skin. Tantra is an attention to the fertilization, to the incomplete, to the building up that could be non-ending. Yet, I would say that it is not all-encompassing. Tantric ontology is not about dismissing the actual. I face its endeavour to be just the attention to the underground tectonics of desire – that attention itself could make the actual dissolve into a crossroad of potentialities. Some skins could be just nerves. But Shakti can also bump into other goddesses, as she bumps into other mortals. She is a goddess of depths, and that makes her a goddess of broad extensions. A single potential point in the tectonics can shake large surfaces. Tantric ontology is also the ontology of interconnectedness. It is not an ontology of everything. Yet it reaches, by a whisker, most of the skin of the world