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Isabelle Stengers, "the most amiable of philosophers"

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I’m intensely grateful to the Graduate Program in Science and Technology Studies (STS) at UBC for inviting Isabelle Stengers to lead a seminar on her reading of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and on what she calls “cosmopolitics.” In practice, she didn’t really lead a discussion so much as aim to foster spontaneous interchange and to interrogate and even challenge some of her own thinking; her recent book is called Thinking with Whitehead (2002, trans. 2011)—rather than thinking about or explaining—and the character and practice of that with-ness, of a reading that involves co-creatively being witha work rather that staging some sort of magisterial (professorial?) exegetical mastery of it, is what I think for Stengers makes philosophy matter.
Still, the seminar involved less mutual interchange—less a practice of collaborative speculation, a discursive echo of the “open ontology” she wants to address—and became more about participants posing questions to Professor Stengers about her work. She had offered two papers for participants to read ahead of time, in the hope, perhaps, of avoiding professing, although given the opportunity of having her present in the classroom, it’s certainly understandable why a rather formal question-and-answer session might happen. Describing, in one of those papers, the emergence of her term “cosmopolitical,” she points to how “gripped by worry,” by what sounds like anxiety over philosophical reach, she “needed to slow down.” That slowing is not a diminution of attention but rather its intensification—an attention, moreover, that remains iterative and hermeneutic, but that also aspires to a reading practice that is co-creative rather than derivative or, in the mundane sense, rather than merely critical. “It’s better to read slowly,” she said in the seminar, “in order not to have understood everything.” Reading doesn’t aim at comprehension, but to actualize the creative potential in careful misprision.

She doesn’t really articulate an aesthetics in Thinking with Whitehead, if by aesthetics you mean a theory of art. But what she calls the “adventure of the senses,” of aesthesis, pervades her meditations on Whitehead’s writing and thinking. What Professor Stengers wants a seminar to become, I think, is something that Whitehead describes, in Process and Reality, as “intense experience without the shackle of reiteration from the past. This is the condition for spontaneity of conceptual reaction” (Process and Reality 105). The active mind slows into the present tense, but that spontaneity—I want to call it improvisation, but Stengers does not—is not without relation to a past, without any iterative purchase on (reading) history. Rather, the active, embodied mind, as one reads, becomes (to borrow a few metaphors from both Whitehead and Stengers) an electromagnetic resonator, an amplifier, an interstitial matrix: “It receives from the past, it lives in the present” (Process and Reality 339). The interstice—the fictive and material space “between the lines” of tissue, of both flesh and text—is a crucial trope for Stengers, marking both a material and a societal openness, a biological and a conceptual betweenness (betweenity?) that offers the condition of possibility for communities of difference, for community as difference, the unresolved and contrary, risky situation of the speculative seminar itself: “speculative presence, and the eventual efficacy associated with it, constitutes the wager of the interstice” (Thinking with Whitehead 514). “Life,” as Whitehead puts it, “lurks in the interstices of each living cell, and in the interstices of the brain. In the history of a living society, its more vivid manifestations wander to whatever quarter is receiving from the animal body an enormous variety of physical experience.” (Process and Reality105-6) Those “vivid” intensities don’t and can’t happen all the time, and I’m not even sure what a seminar conducted along those lines of sustained risk might look like, might feel like, but in the classroom yesterday, what for me was notable was how often Isabelle Stengers laughed. Her laughter was never nervous or imperious or cynical—although she did make it clear that she doesn’t abide thoughtlessness or “stupidity”—but manifest moments of vital warmth, her celebratory enthusiasm for thinking that matters, in the present. I couldn’t help but hear, as well, the nascence of an interstitial poetics, an ecology of writing that attends to some as-yet-unapprehended upwelling of life between its own unfolding lines. 

Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild
Creation of Concepts.  2002. Trans. Michael Chase.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected
edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne.
New York: Free P, 1978.

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