March 4th, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Tim Morton: Vaya-dhamma sankhara; “All created things are impermanent.”

At the end of his life the Buddha declared: Vaya-dhamma sankhara: “All created things are impermanent.”

Tim Morton of Ecology Without Nature fame seems to be an unhappy camper in regards to the Radical Atheism argued by Martin Hägglund in his new book. Of course, to be fair, Hägglund is supporting a reading of the work of Jacques Derrida and a materialist one at that.  Hägglund along with a coterie of fellow within what is now being termed new wave materialists, because of their concern for ideas surrounding life and the transformation of its connections with the older forms of vitalism as such. (See: Nothing Lasts, but...)

Speculators such as Jane Bennett, who considers herself in line with Hans Driesch and Henri Bergson felt that life is irreducible to matter, and that there is a life-principle that animates matter, exists only when in a relationship with matter, but is not itself of a material nature (NM: 47-48).  As she asked, what ""would happen to our thinking... if we took more seriously the idea that technological and natural materialities were themselves actors alongside and within us - were vitalities, trajectories, and powers irreducible to the meanings, intentions, or symbolic values humans invest in them?" 
Even Tim himself seems - and I do mean seems in the etymological sense of befitting, conforming, in agreement with, or reconciliatory toward the idea of a pansychism of some type. I'm talking about his concept of hyperobjects, which as he tells us in his essay Materialism Expanded and Remixed "causes us to rethink materialism." For Tim this means that even such things as Global Warming can no longer be seen within some outmoded worldview as the old materialism proffered, instead what "emerges in its place is the outlines of what elsewhere I am calling the mesh: a total interconnectivity that goes beyond normative vitalist images of the web of live to include, for example, non-living beings, or beings that do not easily fall on one side or the other of the life–nonlife boundary, such as viruses and artificial life" (ibid. 5-6). Yet, aligning his thought with that of Graham Harman we must understand that against an older pansychism we see a new transformation taking place within object based philosophy: it affirms against the idea of everything is alive, that objects perceive only when in relation, that at all other times they can be just as unperceptive and indolent or withdrawn as James Joyce's idea of the artist:

“The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” 

But to bring us back into focus, what Tim is upset about within Hägglund's work is that he is not "convinced that impermanence implies radical atheism. I keep returning to the possibility, which Hägglund simply doesn't consider, that there is a god, and that she is mortal, and that she created the Universe, or that she is the Universe. Such a god would exist as much as a pear or a floating iceberg exists—not that much, according to this view, but existence nevertheless." Ultimately what Tim is truly upset about is the idea that Hägglund seems to be presenting that temporality (Time, impermanence) is a given, which "implies radical atheism", as if a deep set facticity of Derrida's trace existed within the substratum or totality of the universe just below the threshold of objects.

As  Jean-Michel Rabaté stated the "notion of survival that Hägglund articulates is quite incompatible with immortality, since it defines life as essentially mortal and as inherently divided by time. Mortal life is the possibility for both the desirable and the undesirable, since it opens the chance of life and the threat of death in the same stroke. (Slought Foundation)"

Peter Gratton on his site Philosophy in a Time of Error  criticizing Hägglund tells us that his arguments not only imply that one should not want immortality, but, "contrary to conceptions of desire running from Aristophanes’ speech in the Symposium to Freud, Lacan, and beyond, does not in fact want immortality." Gratton sees this as particularly hubristic and ingenious on the part of  Hägglund "telling people what they don't want." (emphasis mine) 

As commentator Danielle Sands in his review of Hägglund's book tells it "Hägglund’s rejection of religious readings of Derrida in light of the affirmation of mortality entailed in ‘radical atheism’ again highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of his position." [2] Against a reading of Derrida that enforces a "desire for the impossible", such as philosopher Philip Caputo offers us, Sands tells us that Hägglund argues that a "a desire for totalization, would be contradictory as it conflicts with the desire for the temporal spacing which sustains our mortal survival" (DS, 75). Yet, as Sands states it, having "acknowledged Derrida’s denunciation of lack-based desire, he fails to fully pursue both the psychoanalytic implications and alternative theories of desire" (DS, 75). Sands tells us that  Hägglund misreads Derrida and is often not only dismissive of his ideas at times, but also oversimplifies them in ways that distort the underlying arguments thereby weakening Hägglund's own discourse. 
One must confront Hägglund's conception of Derrida's trace, which he tells us in a recent interview (Warning: pdf): "Derrida defines the trace in terms of a general co-implication of time and space: it designates the becoming-space of time and the becoming-time of space, which Derrida abbreviates as spacing (espacement). Spacing is according to Derrida the
condition for both the animate and the inanimate, both the ideal and the material" (61). For Hägglund the concept of trace is "not an ontological stipulation but rather a logical structure that makes explicit what is implicit in the concept of succession." Against a reading of succession as a linear view of time as one thing after another (i.e., a infinite line theory of line stretching from an infinite past toward an infinite future), he offers us the idea of a "constitutive delay and a deferral that is inherent in any temporal event (i.e., the structure of the event implies both a retrospective and prospective view on past events; all that has always-already happened, which leaves its spacings or traces in time.).  

Hägglund argues that succession cannot be thought conceptually without "without presupposing the co-implication of time and space that Derrida articulates in terms of the structure of the trace." His concept of the trace seems to imply a episteme, a theory of knowledge, not grounded in ontology, phenomenology, or science; one that is rather a metatheoretical notion, a sort of fictional construct or conceptual tool that defines succession as dependent for its justification on a notion of spacing "dedicated to making explicit what is implicit in the condition of spacing".  
Another notion of his is "arche-materiality", which he worked out in deference to those who argued that he had made no distinction between life and nonliving matter, and that this new conceptual notion tries to do that. His understanding of the trace seems to be that of a ghost, an absence rather than a presence that ever becomes a solid object or substance. As he implies for time to be an event we cannot have moments suddenly becoming solid as fully developed presence that can be affected by its own sense of vanishing, instead the "succession of time entails that every moment negates itself–that it ceases to be as soon as it comes to be–and therefore must be inscribed as trace in order to be at all." So this trace is a ghostly absence that persists through time as a spatial being, which seems to exist in a wavering movement that is "always left for an unpredictable future that gives it both the chance to remain and to be effaced."   

This strange entity that is demarcated by the metatheoretical apparatus of a posited "arche-materiality" as a ghost that is never fully present, but is situated within the Darwinian cosmos as an "animated intention" of the "mindless, inanimate repetition" of matter, and of the contingent and destructible phenomenal world of living things.  Hägglund's eliminative idealism comes out when he offers us instead of current versions of neo-realism or neo-materialism an articulation within Darwinism that is based on a "logical infrastructure that is compatible with its findings." His epistemological turn shows up succinctly in this passage: 

"Following this logic, one can make explicit that the structure of the trace is implicit both in our understanding of the temporality of living processes and in our understanding of how time is recorded in the disintegration of inanimate matter. That is how I account for how the trace structure can be expressive not only of linguistic and phenomenological experience but also of the temporality of evolutionary processes and material structures."

His use of "our understanding of the temporality of living processes" and the use of expressivity in linguistic, phenomenological, and evolutionary terms implies both a for us and a subject that does the expressing. This concern with finitude and subjectivity is at the heart of his Radical Atheism. For as he states it "radical atheism seeks to demonstrate that the so-called desire for immortality or timelessness dissimulates a desire for survival that precedes it and contradicts it from within." Almost sounding like a postmodern Rilke he argues that "the finitude of something is intrinsic to what makes it desirable. It is because things can be lost that one cares about them." 

Here is Rilke:

Look: trees do exist; the houses that we live in still stand.
We alone fly past all things, as fugitive as the wind.
And all things conspire to keep silent about us, half out of shame perhaps, half as unutterable hope.
     - Second Elegy

Here is Hägglund on care: "If things were fully present in themselves–if they were not haunted by what has been lost in the past and what may be lost in the future–there would be no reason to care about them, since nothing could happen to them. Care in general thus depends on an investment in survival." For him immortality is not life but, oddly, a form of death, because it puts an end to mortal life. And, in a strange reading he tells us not only is immortality unattainable but that it is also undesirable, "since it would eliminate the possibility for anything to survive or anyone to care."

In a future work he seems to be moving toward contestation of both Freud's and Lacan's notions of the death drive, seeking to "demonstrate how the chronolibidinal notion of binding provides a better model for thinking the constitution of the libidinal economy and why the logic of survival is more expressive of the problems of attachment, trauma, and mourning that are at the center of psychoanalytic inquiry." This fusion of temporality with an inversion of the libidinal economy of desire fuses a sort of Ballardian vision of existence that subtends our desire to transcend time in eternity into an investment in a "life that will be lost". So instead of immortality and its desires we have the melancholic nostalgia toward loss and its ramifications.  He tells us that he will develop three key concepts, that together will provide the underpinnings to his theory: "time and space thought together under the heading of archemateriality, life and death thought together under the heading of survival, desire and indifference thought together under the heading of chronolibido."

His concept of survival is the central motif of his radical atheism and aligns him toward all those transhumanist ideologies that seek mortal survival rather than religious consolation. It is the radical drama at the heart of "libidinal being" in "the very bond to mortal life" that is the ambivalent source of all our temporal finitude, and of "what we desire and what we fear, both the desirable and the undesirable."

With this idea of temporal survival in mind we might now understand his need for a concept of succession based upon a "constitutive delay and a deferral that is inherent in any temporal event." For Hägglund this is another way of describing the contingency of any temporal being, no matter if that being be a living system or a nonliving system. The trace becomes just another attempt to describe causation by other means. The problem being that he speaks of clarification, but it seems that he obfuscates the issue through a temporal effusion of both delay and deferral that never does find a resolution.

Tim is right that "Hägglund simply doesn't consider, that there is a god, and that she is mortal, and that she created the Universe, or that she is the Universe." I would also begin to remind myself and Tim that our Buddhism favors a particular term called anicca, which describes impermanence as an undeniable and inescapable fact of human finitude from which nothing that belongs to this earth is ever free.    

Even the Buddha had a concept of entropy stating that "decay is inherent in all component things." In Buddhism time is comparable to Heraclitus's river into which one can step as many times as one likes, but it is never the same river and we are never the same individual. One of my favorite poets Basho once illustrated this point:

Clouds appear
and bring to men a chance to rest
from looking at the moon. 

Yet, Koji, in almost a echo of this master says:

A pattering of rain
on the new eaves
brings me awake.

The subtle persuasion of kensho verse distills the awakening of anicca or impermanence at the heart of existence. Anicca, anatta (the absence of a self), and dukkha (“suffering”) together make up the ti-lakkhaṇa, or three characteristics of all phenomenal existence according to Buddhism. I'll leave it there, for we have moved beyond debates of Hägglund, finitude, or survival with this little excursion.  


1. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics By Diana Coole, Samantha Frost (Duke University Press 2010) 
2. Danielle Sands (DS), PARRHESIA (NUMBER 6 • 2009 • 73-78)