Between the two world wars, a rather brilliant mathematician turned to questions of metaphysics. Alfred North Whitehead, known best for his 1929 text, Process and Reality, spent the 1920s, and even earlier, worried about the status of scientific knowledge and propelled by his sense that valuation is not a subjective intrusion into scientific objectivity, but an ontological category salient to all life.
Valuation is an odd word. In everyday use, it might connote economics (setting a price? speculation on the futures markets?) or arcane moral systems (adjudicating ethical merit? pursuing virtue?) or even crass utilitarianism (determining pragmatic usefulness? deciding if a thing brings us joy?) In each of these examples, valuation implies human agency. It is an act by someone that demarcates and ranks the world by denominating values. Didier Debaise’s careful and extended interpretation of Whitehead argues against all of this. For him, for Whitehead, value emerges from vectors of interest and importance, and subjectivity has to do with association and novelty, not agency.
I admire Debaise’s recently translated, slim volume, Nature as Event: The Lure of the Possible. Like Deleuze’s svelte text, La Philosophie Critique de Kant (1963; translated as Kant’s Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties, 1984), an incredible text that articulates and reframes Kant’s three Critiques in a compressed and elegant 75 pages, Debaise constellates Whitehead’s texts on Nature and subjectivity in an impressive, compelling, and mere 86 pages.
Debaise at first seems most concerned to differentiate Whitehead’s critique of bifurcation from a critique of dualism. Dualism, he says, derives from an already accomplished bifurcation, that between primary and secondary qualities (cf. Debaise, 14). To critique this bifurcation is also to critique the “simple location” of things (19) that forms one of the basic premises of the scientific method. Simple location–the notion that my coffee cup is right here in a graphable place in space and time–is an abstraction, Whitehead asserts. It is a useful abstraction, to be sure, but it is not real. To think of things existing at specific points in space-time exhibits what Whitehead famously called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” The cosmos is not a sprawling mass of assorted things and times but an ongoing pulse of becomings from which science can abstract its reified and limited knowledge.
Whitehead calls the ongoing pulse of the cosmos feeling. The word is used in its doubled sense as both touch and e-motion. An older and simpler way of referring to this doubled sense of feeling is affect. The cosmos is full of actualities (“actual entities”) that feel (are affected by) the world around them and react to (e-mote, move out toward, valuate, or affect) it. Whitehead uses the technical language of “prehension” for this ongoing, evolving feelingness of the cosmos but I like to image the process as an ongoing systole and diastole of sensate sensuality (or sensual sensation) that is not (yet) sentient.
Valuation in all of this links tightly to what interests an actual entity–what is important to it–and this Whiteheadian insight bears much in common with Silvan Tompkins’ focus (in his much more human-oriented psychology) on the primacy of protensive interest in shaping the affective-cognitive psyches of children. (Shame for Tompkins, you will remember, is simply the act of punishing or stopping an interest that cannot not be felt.) Every actual entity feels the cosmos and reacts/responds according to what is interesting or important to it, Whitehead asserts. In this sense, everything is a subject, but this is not the same as saying everything is a psyche or a consciousness.
Debaise clarifies this last point because he is concerned to understand Whitehead’s obscure sentence in The Concept of Nature that “apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness” (39). What might seem like sentience or agency in this appeal to subjects is better understood as the capacity of actual entities to grow and change, a process that requires the ingression of what Whitehead terms “eternal objects.” These are aspects of reality that Deleuze describes as “pure virtualities that come to define the novelty that they carry within events” (64).
I will forego a technical explanation here, but the combination of prehension (the feeling of and by actual entities) and ingression (the insertion of novelty through eternal objects) constitutes the infinite variety of life that Whitehead and Debaise term “manners” of being.
Manners of being are connected to the scale of life or to the societies of actual entities that constitute an individual. The spider and I, for instance, share the same space in this room but we have vastly different milieux that interest us and affect us. We feel (prehend) the same cosmos, but we feel (value) it differently.
Debaise writes, “Whitehead’s gesture consists in making feelings the most fundamental characteristic of nature, rather than a supplement added on to it. The aesthetic becomes the site of all ontology; it is the plurality of manners of being, manners of doing, capacities to be affected, in a word, the modes of ‘feeling’ that are at the center of a theory of the subjects of nature” (58).
The takeaway of Debaise’s careful analysis is a robust and persuasive understanding of the ontology of affect, and affect as valuation–the feeling of the world in its allness and being moved by it according to what is of interest and importance to the societies we are and are becoming.