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Shaviro and the Lévinasian challenge to Whitehead

I'm well impressed, as many people are, with Shaviro's new book on Whitehead ("The Universe of Things, PostHumanities, Minnesota UP 2014). It makes the awaited movement of explicitly connecting Whitehead and the current discussions among the speculative philosophers and in the new materialim scene. When I first got in touch with the speculative realists, through Harman´s first book on Latour, I thought the movement revolved around an aggionamento of process philosophy that I myself was expecting and working towards. I soon realised that there was much more at stake, specially because of the way Meillassoux maps the available post-correlationist positions and because of Hamilton Grant´s take on nature and Naturphilosophie. But, to be sure, Whitehead was in the center of the stage and Shaviro nicely places him explicitly there. Plus, it is a good contribution to the growing contemporary literature on Whitehead; it focuses on interesting concepts and on suggestive meta-philosophical moves Whitehead deploys and enables.

One of these concepts - and meta-philosophical moves - is associated to the idea of "contrast". Self-enjoyment, for instance, is thought in terms of a contrast with concern, in the Quaker sense, as Shaviro´s first chapter stresses. It is also based on a contrast between the public and the private in a way that something has to be negotiated at all stages. Shaviro then argues that concern is to be accommodated within self-enjoyment - and ethics within aesthetics, the transcendence of the other within immanence. He invokes Lévinas to talk about the issue of the appeal of the other and the priority of concern over self-enjoyment (and therefore of the appeal of the other over one´s freedom). The contrast between Lévinas and Whitehead is sharp and I have myself been struggling with it. I think Shaviro´s remarks there are a bit frustrating for there is no room for more than Whitehead´s impossibility to deal with Lévinas´ concern in any way that is not ultimately reductive. Lévinas would be doing no more than pointlessly insisting on a "grand narrative" (23) that privileges concern over self-enjoyment. Once concern is properly placed side by side with self-enjoyment well understood, Lévinas worries simply fall into an overvaluation of the Other as the locus of an absolute capable of desmantling the expanding ego.

I couldn´t help but remembering the painstaking efforts of Derrida in his "Violence et métaphysique" to understand the friction between Lévinas and Husserl. He starts out saying how much of a stranger Lévinas is in the Greek context where Husserl (and Heidegger) speak. Lévinas is offered, by Husserl, a quite reasonable - in Greek terms - and quite respectful account of the Other - and quite a monadological one - in terms of an alter-ego. Derrida makes clear that if the Other is not an alter-ego, there is little sense in talking about victims and perpetrators, no sense in talking about violence. The monadological approach offered to Husserl is the best one can do to understand that the Other has the force of the Ego but comes from outside, from a Great Outdoors. The Other has her own self-enjoyment and, to be sure, her own sense of concern, at least in the Quaker sense, where concern is coupled with self-enjoyment in a way that there is no real tension as one complements the other. And yet, Lévinas finds this not satisfactory and indeed violent. There is no Other that can be both ethically appealing and structured in the same way as the Ego. The appeal of the Other is, Lévinas would say in his heavy-accented Greek, incompatible with understanding her in terms of an alter-ego - even though this could be the only way that an ontology of violence is possible. Lévinas just insists that ethics precedes ontology, precedes even any ontology of violence. The monadological approach has no room for the Other as an absolute other. Indeed, the point is close to that of Meillassoux: monadologies are subjectalist, there is no absolute apart from the subject. Lévinas (and Meillassoux, for different reasons) is looking for something entirely different.

My Lévinasian friend Adriana Menassé (we have a debate about all this coming out soon) would have that monadologies - and I think Whitehead is playing this game, as I claim in my forthcoming book Being Up for Grabs - are too pagan for Lévinasian sensibilities. There is no absolute that appeals for any Other is understood from a common structure of everything. Monadologies are too close to panpsychism to have a genuine role for something different and too close to generalized immanence to have a room for genuine transcendence. To be sure, I tried to think the appeal of the Other beyond human terms. This cannot be done in straight monadological terms - Husserl is not enough, Whitehead is not enough. And yet, this tension is an important one to attend. This was, I guess, the point of Derrida: Lévinas´ accent brings in something that the Greeks on their own could not think through.

In my book Excessos e Exceções I proposed a way to understand the appeal of the Other as absolute in terms of escaping singularities. The idea was to understand singularities in terms that would be akin to contrast, to friction between what tries to be attained by a thinker and what is already established. This friction and this contrast could be understood in Whitehead´s terms. But that would require more than just accommodating Lévinasian worries in a general Whitehead scheme. In the anarchai discussion group where Lévinas is always coming back, we have been also toying with the idea of a Lévinasian restricted economy, in Bataille´s terms. In any case, I think Shaviro dismisses Lévinas too quick; not in terms of few pages, but in terms of not deploying what is at stake when Whitehead deploys the idea of contrast (between self-enjoyment and concern, for instance). There is, I believe, more to contrast than just plain accommodation.


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