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From things to events: whitehead and the materiality of process.

Abstract. The new materialist turn has refocused attention upon the shortcomings, both philosophical and scientific, of styles of thought that figure matter as an inert substance. According to the new materialists, the concept of matter must be rethought in order to account for its own vital capacities. Whilst largely sympathetic to this critique, this paper short-circuits the contemporary focus on matter through a sustained engagement with the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. For Whitehead, the concept of matter represents a failure to think process on its own terms; that is, without invoking an underlying permanence. Whitehead's philosophy is thus of great significance to contemporary debates because it questions what it means to speak of agency, relation, and vitality in a world composed of processual events rather than things. In doing so, it sharpens our sensitivities towards nonhuman processes of existential change. Exploiting this capacity to shift our attention, the paper explores the implications of Whitehead's philosophy by staging an encounter with a peculiar experimental object. By unpacking the key concepts of 'occasion', 'prehension', and 'concrescence', the object in question is gradually transformed from discrete thing to processual event, with a number of consequences for materialist thought.

Keywords: A N Whitehead, process philosophy, new materialism, more-than-human geography, materiality

Prelude: glowing concrete

It is a cold afternoon at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich. With my help, a strange object has been created. Envisaged by architect Manuel Kretzer, coordinator of the materiability research group at ETH, Tong Zi Dan is a speculative experiment in the field of responsive design and was crafted by hand, using a mixture of gypsum and phosphorescent powder. It is, in short, a glowing concrete egg (figure 1). There is a sense that we have created a new material: phosphorescent gypsum, or 'glow-in-the-dark ' concrete.

The exterior wall of the futuristic vase glows with the artificial hue of an electronic display, an opaque surface enveloping a central void. Whilst the outer surface demarcates the object's volume, an inner pocket of darkness betrays this certainty with an impression of measureless depth. "We have created a new material. " Slowly but surely my excitement begins to crumble, eventually giving way to an ominous cloud of cynicism. What, if anything, is 'new ' here? A new object, certainly. But a new material? Surely not. The experiment is simple, the materials are familiar. This doubt lodges in the back of my mind like an irritating splinter. And yet, there is something about this peculiar object, this concrescence of form, texture, and light, which seems to exceed the familiar elements from which it was composed. This 'something 'is barely articulable but palpably present in the object's stubborn persistence. The object 'here ' is somehow more than 'now ': its materiality is a process.


This paper begins by recalling a strange encounter with an experimental object. It does so in order to amplify the sense in which this object is, in its very materiality, a process rather than a discrete point in time and space--a 'happening' as opposed to a 'being'. Moreover, the encounter gives traction to a more general problematic: how to apprehend the world's materiality not in terms of a substance that persists but rather through relational processes of varying consistency? In order to develop this problematic the paper turns to the work of Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher who, perhaps more than any other, felt the need to create a system of thought which would no longer subordinate happenings to beings, and who recognised the profound implications of such a move for exploring a new timbre of thought. Written in the early 20th century, Whitehead's philosophy disrupts the idea that reality can be understood in terms of substances that persist in space and through time. In such texts as Adventures of Ideas (1967), Science and the Modern World (1926a), and Process and Reality (1978), Whitehead notes how the scientific developments of the 19th and 20th centuries revealed the inherent shortcomings of matter as a metaphysical concept based upon an assumption of underlying permanence.(1) The notion of matter with which we have become familiar depends upon an assumption of simple location which tends to reduce materiality to spatial extension. For Whitehead, however, this assumption becomes dangerously reductive when it is no longer recognised as an abstraction from concrete processes.

Whitehead's radical understanding of process is of significance to contemporary cultural geography in three respects. First, it provides a means of apprehending change without the need for underlying permanence. The originality of Whitehead's philosophy lies in its capacity to help us grasp reality not in terms of substance--whether mind or matter--but through concrete processes. His philosophy is thus an essential resource for any geographer interested in exploring the significance of process as a philosophical concept. Second, by prioritising process Whitehead's philosophy complicates and enlivens conventional understandings of agency. Approached through a rigorously processual lens, things never are: they occur. There is nothing in the world, organic or otherwise, that simply 'is' of its own accord. Whitehead's commitment to process thus allows us to rethink understandings of agency, relation, and life without recourse to well-worn lines of ontological cleavage--whether human-world, organic-inorganic, or thought--matter. And third, Whitehead sharpens our sensitivities towards those processes of existential change that risk being overlooked because they fail to live up to the criteria of political relevance. Reading Whitehead's philosophy requires that we reflect upon the difficult demands that a processual ontology places upon our most basic and familiar metaphysical assumptions. Significantly, this involves challenging the reductive binary between thinking and acting that underpins critical human geography and the historical-materialist tradition. For many, then, Whitehead's metaphysics will appear dangerously detached from the pressing concerns of climate change, global inequality, and democratic representation. Rather than dismissing it on the grounds of political irrelevance, however, I want to explore the capacity for Whitehead's philosophy to open up new ways of grasping those material processes that subtend and exceed political representation. It is precisely Whitehead's capacity to amplify the materiality of emerging nonhuman processes beyond overtly political concerns that I wish to make felt in this paper.

The idea that spheres of human concern are thoroughly entangled with a 'more-than- human' world is now central to geographical thought. (Braun, 2008; Braun and Whatmore, 2010). Indeed, human geographers have played an important role in expanding the concept of agency to account for the distributed, collaborative, and thus profoundly ecological nature of material existence. The very possibility of human action requires relations with a host of lively nonhumans, whether biological organisms (Davies, 2012; Evans and Miele, 2012; Hinchliffe et al, 2005), technological assemblages (Ash, 2010; Thrift, 2011), everyday objects (Ashmore, 2013; Bennett, 2010; Bogost, 2012), geological forces (Clark, 2011; Yusoff, 2013), or affective atmospheres (Bissell, 2010; Bissell et al, 2012; Dawney, 2013; Roberts, 2012; Stewart, 2011). This shift towards an ecological understanding of agency has been further elaborated by the recent 'new materialist' turn within the social sciences (Bennett, 2004; 2010; Coole and Frost, 2010). Incorporating insights from science, philosophy, and political theory, new materialists have sought to counter humanist ontologies by developing processual, excessive, and vital understandings of matter. The scientific discoveries of the 20th and 21st centuries have meant that it is no longer appropriate to think of matter as either a continuous substrate or a passive receptacle of form. Indeed, advances in particle physics, quantum mechanics, and, more recently, string theory each describe a material world which is much more lively than materialist schools of thought had previously assumed; a world of "excess, force, vitality, relationality or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable" (Coole and Frost, 2010, page 9).

And yet, this reimagining of vitality has also attracted a degree of concern, particularly when attempting to articulate its political implications. This, I believe, is the point made by Bruce Braun, who warns cultural geographers against a new 'romance of matter' in which a naive affirmation of vitality threatens to overshadow the political engagements of critical social science (2008). Braun's worry is that vital materialism risks confining itself to uncritical demonstration, for "once the vitalist point has been made, it very quickly becomes uninteresting" (page 675). My paper offers a response to Braun's concern, inspired in part by a desire to rethink the 'vitality' of a particular experimental object from a Whiteheadian perspective. But whereas Braun frames his critique in explicitly political terms, my argument engages Whitehead's metaphysics in order to highlight the shortcomings of matter as an ontological category and organising principle for contemporary thought. (2) More specifically, the paper takes issue with a general tendency to think of matter as an underlying substance whose vitality is expressed through the material capacities of individual things. The problem with this approach lies in its inability to grasp the relational processes that constitute and reconfigure our existential ecologies. In order to avoid a romance of matter, this paper calls for conceptual vocabularies capable of emphasising the ontological primacy of these concrete, situated, and singular processes.

Put simply, we must recognise entities such as Tong Zi Dan as singular events constituting the process of reality, and not as expressions of anything more substantial. A world of process does not, in Whiteheadian terms, express the vitality of something permanent that we might call matter. Rather, materiality is inseparable from the processes through which particular entities become what they are. In the context of Braun's concerns, I present Whitehead's philosophy as a mode of thought which grasps the materiality with which we are currently concerned without reimporting a substantive concept of matter--a concept to which we could appeal in order to account for, explain, or justify reality. The point of departure for the following discussion is the experimental object Tong Zi Dan, conceptualised through Whitehead as a creative process in its own right. The paper is set out in two stages, the first of which charts the ontological shift from the concept of matter to that of the event in Whitehead's philosophy. The second half of the paper then draws upon Whitehead's concepts of occasion, prehension, and concrescence in order to apprehend the materiality of Tong Zi Dan, which, as a processual event, is never exhausted at an instant. The paper concludes by reflecting upon the implications of Whitehead's ontology within the context of an emerging vital materialism.

Whitehead and the concept of matter

What do we mean by the concept of matter? The term is undoubtedly a multifaceted one. For Whitehead, however, matter does a have very particular meaning owing to its historical trajectory within metaphysics, natural philosophy, and the modern sciences. Furthermore, this is a definition that has proven difficult to shake off. In Whitehead's terms, matter "is anything which has [the] property of simple location" (1926a, page 69). By 'simple location' Whitehead is referring to the assumption that matter is merely that which occupies a fixed volume of space at any given instant. The idea is a simple one, and yet it is worth exploring in some detail because it provides the main point of departure for Whitehead's philosophical project. By Whitehead's definition, then, the concept of matter assumes the possibility of extension--and thus of existence--at an instant in time. If, hypothetically, we were able to stop time and observe reality, we would supposedly be left with a frozen world of physical matter. The flow of time has stopped, whilst the stuff of the cosmos remains frozen in space.

This way of thinking about the world has, of course, been incredibly productive for the technoscientific advancement of the human species. Problems occur, however, when we extend the power of this abstraction beyond its limitations to make statements about reality as a whole. Writing at a time of scientific upheaval, Whitehead was well aware of the fact that science itself was, so to speak, outgrowing its own abstractions. "Is it not possible", asks Whitehead, "that the standardised concepts of science are only valid within narrow limitations, perhaps too narrow for science itself?" (1926a, page 118). In the case of relativity, Albert Einstein's inclusion of time as a fourth dimension had made the idea of extension at an instant problematic, if not inconceivable. Further discoveries within quantum physics brought with them the possibility of a universe riven with strange relations. In place of simple location, quantum physics substitutes a probabilistic universe where nothing is quite what--or where--it seems. Quantum reality requires an entangled universe shot through with relations that exceed the here and now of Newtonian mechanics. In this regard, the familiar concept of matter was beginning to falter under the strain of science's own advances and the new aspects of reality that it had brought to light.

The problem was perhaps even more acute in relation to living beings, for the matter that formed the basis of the conventional 'scientific materialism' was by its very definition lifeless (Whitehead, 1926a, page 24). Whereas living beings depend upon ongoing exchanges with their environments, the assumption of simple location posits matter as both self-sufficient and self-evident in its persistence. As far as matter is concerned, "there is nothing in the present fact which inherently refers either to the past or to the future" (1926a, page 73). Convention has it that, unlike the living organism, inorganic matter simply persists without the need for an ecology of relations. Left to its own devices, matter simply is; its continuity and persistence are given rather than achieved. The question that inevitably arises as a matter of ontological concern is thus: how is it possible, given this persistence of 'dead' matter, to account for the emergence of living beings, of organisms whose very existence demands a dynamic material relation with an environment (Stengers, 2011a, page 173)? Put simply, how have science and philosophy come to frame the problem of life's emergence according to particular conventions of (materialist) thought; and, perhaps more importantly, how might these conventions be disturbed, reconfigured, or reinvented? (3)

As the contemporary interest in vital materialism attests, these questions concerning the boundaries between matter and organic life remain of pressing concern within geography. Indeed, one could argue that philosophical questions such as these are of greater relevance today, given the increasing pace of scientific and technological change. Whitehead was very much aware of this acceleration and the challenges that it posed for human thought, stating that "the rate of progress is such that an individual human being, of ordinary length of life, will be called upon to face novel situations which find no parallel in his past" (1926a, page 275). One need only think in this regard of the rate at which new technologies are being adopted by present-day consumers, the imminent 3D-printing revolution being a case in point. But despite being animated by similar concerns, Whitehead's philosophy differs from contemporary vital materialism by distancing itself from the concept of matter. What the scientific advances of the 20th century had made clear to Whitehead was the inability of a concept tied so closely to the assumption of simple location to capture existence in its entirety. In the words of Bruno Latour--a social theorist whose thought owes much to Whitehead's philosophy--matter had become a modern institution,(4) delimiting a realm of objective fact to which science alone was granted access (2013, page 118).

From matter to process

Expressing an institutionalised mode of thought, matter overlooks the sense in which materiality is as much a question of dynamic process as it is of spatial extension. Materiality cannot be localised in space because, living or otherwise, no-thing can be said to 'be' at an instant. Things are, only insofar as they are taking place. In granting ontological priority to process, Whitehead arrives at the disturbing conclusion that it no longer makes sense to speak of matter as if it were a concrete thing, defined by attributes such as vitality or vibrancy. Whitehead's reality is certainly material, but only insofar as this materiality is both irreducible to spatial extension and inseparable from dynamic processes. It is precisely this inseparability of materiality and process that underpins Whitehead's assertion that reality is composed not of discrete agglomerations of matter but of imbricated occurrences or 'events'. Egypt's Great Pyramid, to use Whitehead's own example, exists as a complex nexus of events in the sense that its very materiality, its physical presence, is irreducible to spatial extension alone (Whitehead, 2004, page 166). The Great Pyramid is, in short, happening.

Whitehead's ontological shift towards a world of imbricated events is of particular relevance to contemporary vitalist debates, because it refuses to subordinate process to any form of underlying permanence, whether matter, vital force, or divine presence. One of the reasons why his philosophy provides such an important resource is precisely this paradoxical determination to think beyond the concept of matter as a specialised abstraction. The task for philosophy, or so Whitehead argues, is to create concepts that go beyond the specialised 'grooves' of professionalised knowledge practices, in order to amplify "a common sensual form of experience that invites new and shifting ideas" (Williams, 2008, page 82). In a world of process, ontology is a task that must be commenced and recommenced from that which is most concrete. The most concrete fact is not matter but process itself, for "apart from happenings there is nothing" (Whitehead, 2004, page 66). For Whitehead, it is simply not possible to explain the actuality of 'happenings' by referring back to an abstract concept of matter. The primacy of process thus demands a rigorous empiricism if we are to avoid predetermining reality according to ready-made habits of thought. Whitehead's empiricism is not, however, a critique of abstraction tout court, for we are incapable of thinking without abstracting in some sense. Rather, Whitehead's philosophy expresses a refusal to presuppose anything about the nature of reality, including the nature of human thought (Halewood, 2011, page 21).

When it comes to elucidating new aspects of experience, the creation of philosophical concepts is, for a Whiteheadian empiricist, just as important as scientific experimentation. Like new scientific instruments, philosophical concepts transform reality:

"These instruments have put thought onto a new level. A fresh instrument serves the same purpose as foreign travel; it shows things in unusual combinations. The gain is more than a mere addition; it is a transformation" (Whitehead, 1926a, page 162).

In a world of accelerated scientific, technological, and cultural change, Whitehead urges philosophy to consider the very real possibility that its most familiar abstractions are failing to grasp the novel aspects of reality that such transformations are currently making felt. The contemporary concern for vital materialism is symptomatic, I believe, of a growing need for concepts that can apprehend material entities not as discrete individuals but as processual events that exceed the here and now of scientific materialism) (5) As a modern institution, matter has bolstered an anthropocentric conservatism whereby the act of thinking is sheltered from process, surveying the cosmos from the safety of a subject whose existence is too often accepted as given. But once considered as a process in its own right, thought is no longer able to claim this strange independence from the nonhuman world. What Whitehead gestures towards, then, is not a 'more-than-human' politics per se (Whatmore, 2006), but rather a mode of thought attuned to its own nonhuman consistencies.

It is in its refusal to posit a complete transcendence of thought that Whitehead's metaphysics permits us to move beyond any assumption of human exceptionalism.(6) Materiality is composed and recomposed through the relative consistencies of imbricated events, of which the thinking human is but one. Drawing upon Whitehead's concepts of occasion, prehension, and concrescence, the second half of this paper presents one such event in which the world is transformed. The event in question is the opening encounter with Tong Zi Dan--a speculative experiment in the field of smart materials and, in my Whiteheadian reading, a singular moment in the becoming of materiality. Constructed using a rudimentary mixture of gypsum and phosphorescent powder, Tong Zi Dan is understood here as a process whose reverberation "streams away from it with finite velocity throughout the utmost recesses of space and time" (Whitehead, 1967, page 157). In using these concepts my aim is to approach the entity as a process in its own right, resonating with, but also exceeding, human temporalities. This processual excess is apprehended from three temporal perspectives: the singularity of the present occasion, the reverberation of the past, and the anticipation of the future. Taken together, these three perspectives disrupt the notion of matter 'at an instant' and illustrate, I hope, the profound implications of Whitehead's philosophy for materialist thought.

Occasion (or, the present)

For Whitehead, then, the concept of matter is deeply entangled with the problem of anthropocentrism. Whilst the new materialist turn has encouraged geographers to make room for a growing plethora of 'more-than-human' agencies, there remains a tendency to neutralise the full impact of these conceptual challenges by reverting to political-economic terms. The kinds of objects that we wish to engage have certainly changed. Nevertheless, the figure of the human as political animal continues to organise our thought processes and delimit what it means to think. What would thinking entail, asks Claire Colebrook, if it were "detached from the organised body of self-constituting man and placed in relation to other differentials?" (2010, page 152). Occasion, prehension, and concrescence reflect Whitehead's ambitious attempt to think beyond this regulative image of self-constituting man. As the fundamental aspects of Whitehead's ontology, each of the three concepts:

"will not favour or found any particular approach but answer to what is required, both by the organism that endures and by the one that comes undone, both by success and by betrayed trust, both by electrons and by the person reading this sentence" (Stengers, 2010, page 201).

Whitehead's metaphysics is indifferent, not only to the myth of human exceptionalism, but also to the privileging of organic self-maintenance over disorganisation and destruction (see Colebrook, 2010). The purpose of these concepts is thus as much to do with a nonhuman becoming of thought as it is a reconfiguration of political representation.

What, then, is an occasion? For Whitehead, reality must always be understood as a process. It is by virtue of this commitment to a processual universe that the most fundamental entities of which reality consists must take the form of individual happenings, or in Whitehead's terminology, occasions: '"Actual entities'--also termed 'actual occasions'--are the final real things of which the world is made up" (1978, page 18). As a metaphysical concept, the occasion does not correspond to the kinds of physical entity that we might encounter in experience. It tells us something about the nature of reality, but it does not, strictly speaking, represent anything in our everyday experience of that reality. Instead, the occasion should be thought of as defining the smallest possible unit of occurrence: it is a discrete 'drop' of processuality which cannot be broken down into constituent events. Against the assumption of simple location, Whitehead constructs a system of thought in which the most concrete experience is always a 'drop' or 'occasion' of process. The purpose of the occasion is thus to challenge the assumption that the fundamental components of reality are portions of matter, existing at an instant in time and a point in space. Instead, reality is made up of nonlocalisable processes that are nonetheless atomic in nature.

The concept of the occasion therefore allows Whitehead to call into question the ontological distinction between objective matter and subjective mind, for the simple reason that the occasion expresses that which is common to all entities. In this respect, Whitehead's metaphysics finds a certain resonance with the monistic philosophy of Baruch Spinoza (Whitehead, 1978, pages 6-7). Like Spinoza, Whitehead affirms the idea that all entities are composed of the same fundamental stuff: atoms, physical entities, feelings, and thoughts are all processes made up of occasions. But Whitehead's occasions differ from Spinozan substance because each is a singular occurrence and not the expression of something permanent. In Whitehead's ontology, occasions happen once and then perish; they do not endure through time in the manner of a traditional substance (Parisi, 2013, page 59). Through the concept of the occasion reality is, in its most concrete sense, a series of imbricated happenings. These happenings are not the expression of a substance located outside of process. On the contrary, the most concrete aspects of reality are in themselves happenings, which, having happened, cannot be undone.

Whitehead's philosophy forces us to consider physical entities such as Tong Zi Dan in terms of the various events that constitute their actuality. Like everything else that comes into existence, this experimental entity is ultimately composed of occasions. The concept of the occasion emphasises something singular about Tong Zi Dan's presence; something that prevents it from being reducible to specialist abstractions, no matter how familiar these may seem. This includes, for instance, the common sense assumption that we are able to grasp the nature of a physical object by focusing solely on its component materials and their individual properties. The information generated by such an approach would certainly allow us to build up a practical understanding of the particular entity and its behaviour. In the case of Tong Zi Dan, the entity might be analysed according to the structural properties of gypsum (its ability to set hard, to entrain particles, and to take on form) and the visual qualities of the phosphorescent powder (the electric-green glow). We could then understand the being of this entity through reference to the elements of which it is composed. In this conventional reading, Tong Zi Dan is what it is because it expresses something more general.

The concept of the occasion disrupts this conventional approach by stressing the ontological primacy of actual processes. It is not possible, Whitehead maintains, to explain the actual world of happenings by referring solely to abstract categories. The idea that reality can be broken down into an inventory of individual materials is an abstraction from concrete processes. Whitehead always maintains that process is concrete, whilst the static figure of the bounded individual remains a limited abstraction. Of course, this is not to say that individual materials have any less reality than concrete processes. The abstract is just as real as the concrete. Nevertheless, Whitehead asks us to consider to what extent an abstraction has been drafted in to explain concrete processes, and to remain vigilant of this mistake at all costs:

"The only question is, How concretely are we thinking when we consider nature under these conceptions? My point will be that we are presenting ourselves with simplified editions of immediate matters of fact" (Whitehead, 1926a, page 74).

For Whitehead, then, the idea that the world is built up from bits of matter is a simplification of the immediate fact of something singular taking place. In asserting the ontological primacy of the occasion, Whitehead disrupts the assumption that individual materials precede the occasions in which they find expression. Instead, the occasion is a concept that enables us to grasp the simultaneous emergence of the entity and its constituent materials. In considering reality as a series of occasions, abstract material and concrete process are strictly contemporaneous. The relationship between the physical entity and its constituent materials is therefore one of entanglement rather than of cause and effect, and for this reason neither is capable of explaining the singular occasion.

This is a curious turn of events. Considered through the conceptual lens of the occasion, Tong Zi Dan is no longer a passive expression of preexisting materials. Indeed, how could we possibly think this to be the case? Consider art as an example. Vincent van Gogh's sunflowers do not simply express yellow as if it were waiting to be selected from a preexisting palate. On the contrary, yellow is itself transformed in Van Gogh's encounter with the sunflower and the occasion of the brush meeting canvas. The particular hue of yellow, the texture of the oil upon the canvas, the sunflowers standing before the artist--the Van Gogh composition impinges upon each element (Van Gogh included). Nothing emerges from the encounter unscathed. Similarly, it is the singular aspect of the passing moment that Whitehead prioritises through the concept of the occasion. In the case of Tong Zi Dan, the occasion points towards something profoundly unique in the combination of this texture, this particular hue of electric green, and this multifaceted form which prevents the entity from being reducible to a collection of material elements. Something has taken place, the "slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference" (Whitehead, 1926a, page 3). Barely articulable and yet palpably present, this 'something' is what Whitehead wants to emphasise through the concept of the occasion. Prehension (or, the past)

Whitehead's reality is composed not of portions of matter but of singular occasions. Once an occasion has come into being it perishes, forming "an indissoluble event in the flow of time" (Parisi, 2013, page 60). But, as the stubborn persistence of Tong Zi Dan testifies, the universe in which we exist is populated with endurances of various kinds. Regularities emerge between occasions that allow us to intuit different levels of processual consistency: the affective fragility of an event taking hold, the troublesome longevity of a discarded plastic bag, or even the cosmic regularities that underlie the universe's physical laws. Whether of objects, affects, or physical laws, endurance arises through the particular patterns of relation that persist between singular occasions. These patterns of endurance are, moreover, no less real than the occasions of which they are composed (Shaviro, 2010, page 12). The strange entity that perseveres before me is in no sense an illusion of persistence. To these various kinds of endurance Whitehead gives the name 'society': "The real actual things that endure are all societies" (1967, page 204). The difference between occasions and societies centres on the distinction between becoming and change, for whilst each occasion is the becoming of a singular moment, societies alone are capable of undergoing change. Tong Zi Dan has a history: it came into being and will one day cease to be. But the perished occasions can never be undone. They are, in Whitehead's terms, objectively immortal (1967, page 193).

How does a physical entity such as Tong Zi Dan persist as a society from occasion to occasion? Whitehead addresses this question through the concept of prehension. "Actual entities involve each other", he argues, "by reason of their prehensions of each other" (1978, page 20). The concept of prehension describes the necessity for each new occasion to form a relation with the nexus of perished occasions that make up its antecedent world. "A new entity", writes Steven Shaviro, "comes into being by prehending other entities; every event is the prehension of other events" (2009, page 29). For Whitehead, that which endures is never 'given' but instead is achieved as a provisional consistency, and it is through processes of prehension that such consistencies are maintained. We can recognise Tong Zi Dan as a society of occasions because of the particular manner in which it prehends a wider nexus of relations. The occasions that constitute the nexus operate on a variety of scales, from the epochal rhythms of the physical universe to the more immediate environment of surrounding processes. Tong Zi Dan does not reflect an underlying permanence any more than it is reducible to discrete chunks of matter. On the contrary, the entity expresses its particular materiality through the consistency of the prehensive relations of which it is composed.

Whitehead defines prehensions as "concrete facts of relatedness" (1978, page 22), but this does not mean that they can be reduced to spatial relations. Endurance always refers back to relational processes that cannot be grasped in the mode of a representational snapshot. The glowing entity standing motionless before me is 'not quite here' because it is, quite simply, 'more than now'. Tong Zi Dan's prehensive entanglements extend its influence beyond the spatial configuration of the present moment, condensing the utmost reaches of space and time into a new perspective. Through prehension, Tong Zi Dan is, quite literally, occurring. A prehension is thus the point of view in which an entity grasps or contemplates reality as a whole, in its very process of transcending and augmenting that whole. There is, however, no regulative principle capable of subordinating the point of view to the harmony of the whole in Whitehead's theory of prehension. (7) Processes diverge such that dissonance and resonance, discord and harmony, are both expressions of reality's creative advance. Expressed and elaborated through prehensions, the whole is always in the making: it is incomplete. Each entity gathers the world's prehensive threads, adding a new tonality to its world of perished occasions.

Tong Zi Dan is thus a local resonance in a reality composed of intersecting events. It exists as the integration and individuation of an indefinite number of prehensions, enrolling occasions from my own existence in a trajectory which evades my grasp. The entity withdraws from me because I am unable to perceive it as a point of view contemporaneous with my own. One of the most challenging aspects of Whitehead's concept of prehension is that, ontologically, it forbids causal relations between contemporary occasions: "It is the definition of contemporary events that they happen in causal independence from each other" (1967, page 195). For Whitehead, causality is expressed through the physical prehension of actual occasions and is not reducible to spatial relations between discrete portions of matter. Events are 'caused' by their prehension of the past and not by things or forces in the present. At its cutting edge, then, the present is a strictly private affair which no contemporary relation is able to penetrate. The object-image that I see and feel is not the perception of a discrete thing as such; it is rather "the perception of the potential of an object to perceive and be perceived" (Goodman, 2010, page 92). Through perception, I prehend the potentiality of a past that already is. Tong Zi Dan's palpable presence, its strange this-ness, is barely articulable because my perception of it is a process and not an instantaneous affair. My perception of this strange entity is 'caused' by a prehension of occasions which, however close they come to the present, have always already happened. I feel its faceted surfaces with my hands, and yet these hands are in the past (Whitehead, 1978, page 63). The entity withdraws from my grasp to a private present beyond my own.

The concept of prehension allows Whitehead to conceptualize relationality without falling back upon the notion of a substance whose existence precedes its relations. It achieves this by ensuring the insistence of the past in the becoming of the present. All is relation, but only on the condition that this relation is a prehension of the past in the constitution of the present. (8) The challenge that Whitehead's ontology raises, then, is to consider endurance in terms of the emergent relations between occasions, and thus to conceive of relation itself as a constitutive process. What we must not do, Whitehead maintains, is to further perpetuate the idea that "there are bits of matter, enduring self-identically in space which is otherwise empty" (1938, page 179)--a notion which, even in Whitehead's time, had been largely discredited by the discoveries of physical science. In the case of Tong Zi Dan, this would mean shifting the emphasis away from a purely spatial model of relation based on the interconnection of individual things. By focusing on the relations between occasions, prehension allows us to bypass the infinite regress that leads to an inevitable division of the entity into smaller (and supposedly more fundamental) elements: materials, atoms, or elementary particles. Of course, elements, atoms, particles, and strings are all consistencies that we might wish to amplify in order to represent particular aspects of the object's materiality. But as a novel prehension of the past, Tong Zi Dan is ultimately not reducible to those entities that populate its present.

Concrescence (or, the future)

The entity before me oscillates, phasing rapidly between the unremarkable and the alien. The experiment is simple, the materials are familiar. And yet, there is an undeniable sense in which the entity has, through its various prehensions, added something new to the world-something that could not have been foreseen, not even as a possibility. This something, this hint of the occasion, exceeds representation because it expresses an intensive transition across affective thresholds. What, precisely, is at stake in this vibratory movement between recognition and the encounter, the familiar object and the novel occasion? In her monograph Vibrant Matter Jane Bennett conceptualises this oscillation in terms of the difference between object and thing:

"Glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick. As I encountered these items, they shimmied back and forth between debris and thing--between, on the one hand, stuff to ignore, except insofar as it betokened human activity ... and, on the other hand, stuff that commanded attention in its own right, as existents in excess of their association with human meanings, habits, or projects" (Bennett, 2010, page 4).

Like Bennett's debris, Tong Zi Dan shimmies back and forth between a known object whose existence is self-evident in its relation to the human, and a 'thing-power' whose singular trajectory is irreducible to human contexts. It is in this regard that Bennett's unashamedly poetic account seeks to amplify the singularity of the occasion: "a nameless awareness of the impossible singularity of that rat, that configuration of pollen, that otherwise banal, mass-produced plastic water-bottle cap" (2010, page 4, emphasis in original).

There are, it seems, interesting crossovers between Bennett's affirmation of the power of nonhumans "to make things happen, to produce effects" (2010, page 5), and Whitehead's process philosophy. Material entities exceed our ability to know them through representation because, in an ontology of prehensive relation, affection necessarily precedes conscious reflection: "we respond to things in the first place by feeling them" (Shaviro, 2009, page 58). But whilst Bennett chooses to amplify our sensitivity to the power of the thing, Whitehead's philosophy, as we have already seen, encourages us to think in terms of process. The entity exceeds our capacity to know it, not because it possesses a vital power, but because it is a process, a happening. Moreover, and this is what prevents Whitehead's metaphysics from being reducible to physical science, each process is charged "with indeterminations awaiting its own decisions" (Whitehead, 1978, page 224). In agreement with physicists, Whitehead assures us that Tong Zi Dan is a product of its past, inasmuch as its existence requires the prehension of that which is given. But this is not the whole story, for if it were, a predetermined future would be the only future worth speaking of. Rather, all processes-whether organic or otherwise--involve an element of what William E Connolly, following Whitehead, terms "real creativity" (2013, page 75).

A cosmos composed of processes which are truly creative disrupts many of our commonly held assumptions about time, causality, and the power of explanation. Processes do not take place 'in time' because, in Whitehead's philosophy, temporality itself arises through the prehensive processes that constitute the material world. As a consequence, it is no longer possible to posit a universal progression from past to present, or from present to future. In my reading at least, Whitehead offers a more folded, involuted, and contorted image of time; one in which pastness and futurity are always relative to prehensions. Actuality is a creative process that short-circuits our capacity to know the future in terms of the past. For this reason, the present can be neither explained nor justified by focusing solely on what has come before. Which is another way of stating that "the specific actuality that unfolds is not necessarily what it must have been" (Connolly, 2013, page 95). Whitehead develops the difficult concept of concrescence as a way of disrupting the assumption of a universe entirely reducible to linear causality. Rather than being fully determined by the past, Whitehead suggests, the present involves the coming together or 'concrescence' of occasions whose particular form of togetherness was, until that very moment, rigorously unthinkable.

The world exists as a 'real' potentiality in its capacity to provoke novel forms of concrescence. That which is given--what Whitehead calls an object--constitutes the potentiality for each new movement of concrescence. This is Whitehead's principle of relativity, which requires that "it is in the nature of a 'being' that it is a potential for every 'becoming'" (1978, page 22). But as well as objects there are subjects: in the moment of concrescence, the potentiality of the objective world is prehended by a subject. But what exactly does Whitehead mean when he writes of a subject of prehension? The Whiteheadian subject is certainly not the human subject: the self-conscious 'I', the ghost in the Cartesian machine. To avoid parsing the world into distinct ontological categories, Whitehead understands subjectivity and objectivity as aspects of reality taken in its most general sense, each expressing a moment or 'pole' in the course of every concrescence. Whilst objectivity describes the upwelling of a potential that must be felt (that is, the world of occasions as it is given), subjectivity refers us to an unavoidable ingression of indeterminacy that primes each emerging process with an element of real creativity. In retaining the subject as a metaphysical concept, Whitehead does leave himself somewhat open to the charge of a reconfigured anthropomorphism, at least at first blush. However, this would be to overlook what the concept of concrescence enables us to think--namely, that in a world of real potential the passage from past to future is not thinkable in terms of purely objective relations. For in Whitehead's prehensive universe, every relational process involves an element of subjective elaboration which denies the sufficiency of efficient cause, thus calling into question our capacity to reduce the concept of process to "the conceits of closed explanation" (Connolly, 2013, page 95).

We are now in a better position to make sense of Tong Zi Dan's strange oscillation between the familiar and the strange and to add another point of view on Bennett's notion of 'thing-power'. For if the glowing vase before me appears unremarkable, it is on the condition that I disregard the subjective pole propelling it into a future which was not present in its past. What I overlook, then, is the sense in which the actual entity--that is, the process itself--has made a difference on its own terms. In other words, I overlook the capacity of the present to transform the past, or, to paraphrase a Whiteheadian refrain, to value the facts of the world in a different way. Of course, we can always choose to grasp the entity retroactively by focusing solely on the objective conditions that preexist its emergence. The overwhelming success of the scientific method testifies to this immanence of the present in the past. Tong Zi Dan expresses the familiar in the sense that its existence is determined by a past whose causal efficacy is not up for negotiation. Nevertheless, Whitehead maintains that concrescence always involves an element of creative indeterminacy, a moment of hesitation wherein each process must determine the manner in which it will prehend its world and take on its singular actuality. In the moment of determination--what Whitehead calls the 'decision'--each entity becomes as a subject. No longer tied to the image of the knowing human, the concept of the subject comes to express the idea that "self-realization is the ultimate fact of facts" (Whitehead, 1978, page 220). Subjectivity expresses the cusp of indeterminacy that suffuses all of reality, living or otherwise, and is what charges the present with a creativity strictly irreducible to the causal efficacy of the past.


The encounter with Tong Zi Dan highlights, albeit on a small scale, some of the dramatic implications of Whitehead's process philosophy. Whilst his motivating concerns are in many respects similar to those of the new materialists, Whitehead's philosophy is more forceful in reminding us of the need to apprehend process not in relation to an underlying permanence, but on its own terms: that is, to affirm occurrence over essence, and to do so at all costs. This is no easy task, not least because linguistic conventions tend to reenforce the idea that the world consists of discrete things, and that these things somehow preexist the relations that they enter into. This underlying logic of subjects and predicates offers a simplified account of relation which is amenable to human ends (Whitehead, 1938, page 175). This is why Whitehead insists that philosophy must endeavour to 'stretch' words beyond their ordinary usage through the creation of concepts (1978, page 4). There is, moreover, a sense in which thought takes a degree of comfort in the idea of substance, invoking an underlying permanence to avoid the vertiginous and unsettling implications of a rigorously processual ontology. This comfort resides in the subordination of diverging processes to the logic of the whole. There is, I fear, something of this sentiment at work when we invoke a vitality of matter without considering the broader metaphysical implications of such statements. If there is, as Braun suggests, a new romance of matter, it is expressed precisely in this tendency to revert to the permanence of substance in our accounts of process.

In Whitehead's philosophy there is no underlying substance capable of justifying the way things are: the actual entities are themselves the only reasons (1978, page 24). These entities endure as societies, as patterns of prehension that take on varying degrees of consistency depending on their environment. An endurance may have the consistency and durability of a physical object, but this is certainly not a necessity: "some enduring objects form material bodies, others do not" (page 109). As far as materiality is concerned, the difference between the synaptic shimmering of a passing thought and the endurance of a physical entity is one of degree rather than kind. All materiality is a question of relative consistency, of speeds, and of slownesses. In conclusion, then, I would like to sketch out three key assertions that together form the basis of Whitehead's reconceptualisation of materiality. First, an object such as Tong Zi Dan is not just a process: it is this process. Following Whitehead, we can no longer separate the question of materiality from the 'this-ness' of events. Which is to say, materiality is always singular and pluralistic. Second, materiality expresses processes of prehension, some of which stabilise to form enduring objects like Tong Zi Dan, but not all. A prehensive materiality never simply 'is': it happens. And third, materiality involves processes of concrescence that are infected with moments of real creativity, or in Whitehead's terms, an ingression of subjectivity. This subjectivity forbids any essentialist distinctions between matter and life, and troubles conventional understandings of agency by exposing traditional forms of vitalism to a life that is profoundly nonorganic (Colebrook, 2010; Deleuze, 1995).

In emphasising the primacy of actual entities over well-established abstractions, Whitehead reminds us that a processual world precedes our ideas of what matter is or, indeed, might become. Our most concrete experiences tell us nothing of matter, but rather of events that happen and pass: the relentless coming and going of existence. Affirming a processual universe requires, therefore, that we foster a radically open attitude towards questions concerning the nature of reality. As Michael Halewood points out, Whitehead's thought is characterised by "his utter refusal to make any prior judgement as to what constitutes reality or what needs to be accounted for by theory" (2011, page 21). Concrete reality is, by definition, that which can be neither explained nor justified through abstraction alone. It is the tinge of 'this-ness' that, once passed, is never regained. In Brian Massumi's words, it is "the arrival of the new, the uninvited ingress of the singular" that necessarily exceeds our habitual expectations and best calculations (2000, page 182). It guarantees, therefore, that the capacity to wonder will always remain amongst philosophers and scientists alike. Whitehead's thought warns us to be critical of any abstractions that claim a monopoly over our knowledge of reality. But the project must never be limited to critique. We cannot think without abstractions, yet we can create new ones. And indeed, once we accept the ontological primacy of process, it soon becomes clear that there is a certain urgency to this creative task. "The pure conservative", Whitehead argues, "is fighting against the essence of the universe" (1967, page 274).

As thinking beings in a processual universe we therefore have a certain ethical responsibility to foster experimentation with new modes of thought. Whitehead's philosophy provides a vivid example of what a creative philosophy, ambitious and open to the risk of experimentation, might look like. This philosophy does not advocate a retreat from the messy, corporeal world in order to ponder life's metaphysical intricacies at a distance. Not in the least. A world of creative process demands a singular approach to thought; one which is no longer evaluated according to its ability to represent the world as a snapshot or state of affairs, but which instead is valued for the encounters, relations, and consistencies that it makes possible. In refusing any ontological distinction between matter and thought, Whitehead troubles the very idea that thinking and doing refer to different realities. The process of thinking is never merely reflective: "A thought is a tremendous mode of excitement. Like a stone thrown into a pond it disturbs the whole surface of our being." (Whitehead, 1938, page 50). For Whitehead, thinking is a form of doing, such that to think in new ways requires an element of corporeal disturbance, no matter how microscopic.(9) Situating thought within a tumultuous world of nonhuman relations, Whitehead's philosophy reminds us, albeit politely, that the act of thinking is never without consequence. And it is this implication that may indeed prove hardest to swallow.

doi: 10.1068/d13195p

Acknowledgements. Sincere thanks to both J-D Dewsbury and Mark Jackson for their feedback and constant encouragement. I would also like to thank Manuel Kretzer who provided me with a fascinating insight into the 'materiability' research network at ETH Zurich.


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Tom Roberts

School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1SS, England; e-mail:

Received 19 December 2013; in revised form 4 April 2014; published online 6 November 2014

(1) To focus on Whitehead's metaphysical interventions is to follow a particular thread through a complex philosophical tapestry. In emphasising his relevance for the emerging 'new materialism', I have admittedly overlooked Whitehead's understanding of human civilisation (1938), his explorations of religion and religious sentiment (1926b), and his long-standing interest in pedagogical practice (1959). Whilst my engagement with Whitehead is undoubtedly selective, I want to stress from the outset that this paper is not a strategic attempt at 'posthumanising' his thought. Rather, I focus upon Whitehead's metaphysics in order to explore a style of thinking that, in denouncing any ontological privileging of the human, might allow us to grasp our own materiality in new ways.

(2) As Brian Massumi articulates, the conceptual terrains opened up by metaphysical experimentation serve to remind the social sciences that "the domain called politics does not have a monopoly on real existential change" (2011, page 12). One of the central aims of this paper, in engaging Whitehead's speculative metaphysics, is thus to temporarily suspend questions of politics and of political process, so as to avoid overdetermining the modes by which we might come to think, feel, and articulate a much broader range of material encounters.

(3) This question is an ethical one, requiring a position of responsibility towards the creation of new modes of thought. Resituating the question of materiality in processual terms requires the time and space with which "to care for emerging, fragile, and challenging ideas that will not immediately find fertile soil" (Sharp, 2011, page 74).

(4) As a modern institution, matter is often used to legitimise the 'objective' accounts of scientists, whilst dismissing those deemed to be 'subjective' on the grounds of archaism, irrationalism, or mysticism. This is also a recurrent theme running through Isabelle Stengers's 'cosmopolitical' project (2010; 2011 b).

(5) This chimes in certain respects with Gilles Deleuze's assertion that "purely actual objects do not exist" (Deleuze and Pamet, 2006, page 112).

(6) This, broadly speaking, is the challenge currently being posed by the 'speculative realist' philosophies, in a bid to short-circuit the Kantian correlation which has hitherto denied thought of this possibility (see Meillassoux, 2008).

(7) As Deleuze points out (2006), this is the key difference between Whitehead's prehensions and Gottfried Leibniz's monads, the latter being subordinated to the harmony of the whole through the constraint of compossibility. On the contrary, prehensions cannot be justified at the level of the whole because the whole is itself always in process.

(8) Contra Graham Harman (2009; 2010), actual entities are not defined by their relation to 'what is' but by the potential inherent in 'what was'. Luciana Parisi makes a similar point in her meticulous engagement with Whitehead's metaphysics--"even if an object is what it is and cannot be another, it remains an unsubstantial entity" (2013, page 16).

(9) Erin Manning's Relationscapes (2009) explicitly amplifies this relationship between the act of thinking and the micromovements of the dancing body through a broadly Whiteheadian lens.
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Date:Dec 1, 2014
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