Reality and Determination


For the last several years, through these field notes and my other writings, I have been pursuing a specific form of thought, a diagram of the real. This diagram is a twin, a dual, of being and becoming, void and individuation, reality and determination—neither more originary, neither reducible to the other.

In the final book of the reading club that put this thought into motion, Werner Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy, we saw one of the eminent representatives of modern physics, the father of quantum mechanics, retrace this diagram that structures the philosophies of Anaximander and Heraclitus, Sartre and Simondon, Badiou and Laruelle—different philosophies to be sure, and sometimes even set in opposition to one another, but nevertheless each concerned with the originary dual, viewing its structure from a variety of perspectives. By way of scientific instruments and insights, Heisenberg in turn presents another angle on this diagram of the real, another frame or resolution.

A quotation from Heisenberg’s colleague von Weizsäcker is the first sketch presented in his collected lecture series that hints at the common form being uncovered: nature is earlier than man, but man is earlier than natural science. There is an order of precedence here, what Laruelle would term a “unilateral determination.” In Heisenberg’s words, the significance of this phrase appears common sense: of course that is the case! But that common—or generic—sense belies a profound ontological fact. The real is ancestral to us; it precedes us; and as much as our instruments help us to discern the features and functions of the real, we in turn precede them. Tools feed back into their users, changing how they perceive the world, and so too do these perceptions actively transform the world of which they are originally an impression. But something always escapes. Beyond the horizon there is the region, that which cannot be circumscribed by human knowing. Something always threaten to torque and shatter the syntax of our understanding, something that is, nevertheless, the very support for this syntax.

We determine, but we are determined. We decide, but we are decided. We know, but we are known. This is the cryptic or mystic quality of the real, the saturated field of our being. We are immersed in the common, held in dialogue in the common, entangled with other ones in the common. We are the common—it is all of us, the entirety of us, and still always more than us. It is the universe, the black, the deep. It is the there is and the there will be.

Heisenberg talks about the steady expansion of the frame of modern physics, the emergence of more complex systems from less—from mechanics, to thermodynamics, to electrodynamics, and finally, in his day, to quantum mechanics. He talks about predicted elements of these systems, not yet known for a fact at the time of his lectures, but the veracity of which we can attest to today. He describes in quite practical terms the forcing of the situation of natural science that overturns old paradigms while demonstrating, through that very overturning, that the new paradigm has been here all along. In all of this, he is careful to maintain a distinction between the real and what we know of the real, refusing a dogmatic realism that must reify all statements of knowledge. For Heisenberg, and for the other thinkers in the tradition charted above, there is room for the uncanny in science, for a thought not at home, a thought that enters us but is not us, a thought that is not ours, a thought that could be without us entirely. The concomitant truth of the common is that our natality and mortality are simply events, processes, of the common, and not finally determinative of it. We end, and that which is continues to be.

There is a weight to this thought of thought-without-thought, a weight Heisenberg materially locates in the atomic bomb. Thought made planetary discloses the possibility of a total annihilation of thought, of a scouring of the ground of thought itself. To be determined by the real is to live with the possibility that our determination might end, that our ongoing individuation is necessarily finite and profoundly contingent. This is a sobering reality to embrace, but also one invested with opportunity. The occasion of total annihilation reveals the possibility for any occasion whatsoever, for swerve and action, for impulse and reaction. The involution of the planetary system of control and its apocalyptic puncture by the bomb make way for a new operational modality of tactility and geometry, combination and kinetics. The originary dual is not a speculative model but a generative machine. The bomb, while total, is but one potentiality.

This is the diagram I have been after, a diagram in the end that I can only represent in partialities—a metaphysical elephant, as it were. And yet this effort, to be partial in this way, is precisely the means needed to operate and be operated by the machine of being. Partes extra partes, parts beside parts, each one a line of flight painting a trail of stars across the universe.

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