Time, material and the ethereal


One of the most compelling arguments I encountered in Jane Bennet's vital materialism is what she terms a "theory of relativity (of sorts)", stating as a counter-argument to a view of matter as inert or "dead" that the:

Stones, tables, technologies, words and edibles that confront us as fixed are mobile, internally heterogeneous materials whose rate of speed and pace of change are slow compared to the duration and velocity of the human bodies participating in and perceiving them. Objects appear as such because their becoming proceeds at a speed or a level below the threshold of human discernment. 1

It seems to me that the key player in this ontological framework is time. It is time that is the critical factor in conceiving of materials as having "agency".

Questioning realism with repetition

Another term that depends on time for its ontological placement is repetition. I would personally consider an actual recurrence of anything as impossible. There will, in my opinion, always be variation in any occurrence that is understood(by people) to be a repetition, whether it is repetition occurring temporally or spacially. If it were possible to create an actual repetition, it would still not necessarily be perceived as such because human sensing and perception of the thing being perceived as a repetition would vary. Repetition is more like fields of similarities, each containing the same questions inherent to all things, for example regarding their extents and composition.

Still, the act of perceiving a thing as a repetition changes our perception from something singular to something existing both as one and several. We know that the properties causing us to perceive repetition does not mean that the thing being repeated is the same. It seems evident that two cups standing next to each other are not the same cup, just the imposition of specific properties on each of the two lumps of material. With temporal recurrence, the relation is more nebulous. For example, if we repeat a movement and use language to describe it, we will often say that it's the same movement. All the same, we also know that it's not the same movement, after all, one happened before the other.

We come to understand what repetition is because we experience it. The experience of repetition is facilitated by our sensorium's ability to generate determinations regarding the nature of things and give precedence to something that the sensorium categorises as a pattern made up of the dualistic things that are both the same and different, recognised in several places either spatially or temporally.

For me, repetition is something I generate as an experience for myself independent of the nature of the thing(s) that my sensorium picked up. It exists in me, but I do not consider it to exist in itself, outside and beyond my conception. Thankfully, this does not hinder me from experiencing repetition and make use of it in creating art, trusting that others will also experience it as repetition, all the while holding the view, that repetition is only perceptual. Faith and doubt sharing the same space.

Believing in repetition means believing in objects' existence (if the term object is taken to mean something delimited). That there is a point where one thing end and another starts. That our world is compartmentalised, even if the boundary between one thing and another is liquid and moving. Even ontological frameworks emphasising fluidity are still very much concerned with delimitation (component parts of an assemblage, even if they are continuously modulating their relations and functionalities are still delimited). If objects are considered only temporary stabilities, there does not seem to be a way to have a discourse that does not presuppose the existence of objects in some form or another. For example, in the quote mentioned above, Jane Bennet uses compartmentalisation and objecthood as a basic premise for communicating the idea she promotes. Concerning assemblages, social, physical or otherwise, the component parts' configuration in any collection is variable does not change the concept's thingcentricity. It begs the question if there is anything that can be communicated without employing concepts of delimitation. Can anything exist in our perception and understanding without it?

If the ambition is to achieve a putative understanding of reality, I can understand Nietzsche's ressentiment in the realisation of its impossibility. Maybe the flipside is an appreciation of the vibrancy, possibility and opportunity inherent in accepting that every building block of understanding is in themselves malleable. Accepting that expands the potential for possible insights vastly, with only the minor sacrifice of exchanging the search for a single truth for multiple.

Pursuing lines of thought like these, thinking and speculating about the nature of things brings me to a point where I can not reconcile how I perceive the world to be with what I think it really is.

Everything I know are objects and things, whether physical or conceptual, and almost everything I do or think is based on them being stable. Considering them as temporary stabilities at best but more likely arbitrary borders drawn up by perception is interesting.

What we think and say

Even if we may ask questions such as where one entity ends, and another starts, our use of language habitually relies on a shared perception of how the world is compartmentalised. Our ability to view the world as a collection of unique things creates our reality. It is hard to imagine that it would be possible to navigate our existences without such an ability. In art and music, which is my field, most creative work is premised on there existing some things that are different from other things. Within a collection of perceived things can create "tension" between the various members. Depending on the arrangement of things, we can consider such structures as a composition either in time or spatially.

Jane Bennet argues that matter we perceive as existing as static and inert in reality is vibrant, mutable and changing. It is our perception that is inaccurate in its failure to see the continuous change inherent in all things. She points out that how we experience a thing, in this case, made from matter, is not necessarily very strongly related to the actual nature of the thing.2 Returning to the discussion of repetition, I experience and use it in my work and for all intents and purposes experience as "real". But when thinking about what repetition actually is, I conclude that it is a perceptual and conceptual construction.

To adopt a philosophy of vital materialism, something that I am sympathetic towards, requires a sort of triumph of what you believe, that matter is vibrant and agentic, over what you experience; that a lot of matter is inert and unchanging. For me, it follows that to accept ideas such as those found in vital materialism is an acceptance that how the world is experienced is radically influenced by perception and categorisation and that we cannot have any direct experience of it outside ourselves.

Materiality and ethereality

In the past, I would have considered two main categories of things that are our world, two main ontological categories: The first populated by things material, and the second by things ethereal.

In the first, the central property of things is materiality, so if we talk about such a thing, we will typically describe its materiality somehow. A thing like that is one that I can conceive of as existing outside of time or independent of the passage of time.

The second would be all things where, though probably dependent on matter, the passage of time is the fundamental property—for example, sound. Sound, though being something that acts on and through matter, is variations of pressure over time. A fundamental premise (in addition to the material it operates on) is the existence of, and unfolding in time. No time, no sound.

However, adopting a vital materialist outlook where agency is a prime ontological factor, dividing things in this manner becomes impossible. The agency concept requires time to exist because agency either is or strives for change and change is something that requires time. The idea of a conceptual object that could be conceived of as having an existence that is not dependent on time becomes a moot point. The old (Kantian) idea of the unchanging inert material into which an unknown force "breathes life", or the power of change is done away with.

Yet I can conceive of such a thing. I can imagine that a stone can exist as a lump of matter irrespective of time. I think of it as unchanging; I experience it as permanent.


I consider access to the world in which we exist to be both facilitated and also wholly determined by four factors;

  1. The sensorium that allows us an experiential relationship with the world.

  2. Our perception of the information from that sensorium and how it is influenced by previous experiences, heuristic shortcuts and biases.

  3. Knowledge collated from previous experiences and through formative influences. Jane Bennet mentions our penchant for experiencing matter as inert as an example of one such power originating or given rise to ideas like the Kantian concept of an outside "force" that gives life to otherwise lifeless matter with the essence of matter itself as inert and lifeless.3 Indeed, the idea of an outside force needed to spark life in something seems to be a pervasive narrative in human culture and beliefs.

  4. Our conception, the ability to conceive of a conceptual objects, for example my conception of a piece of matter that could exist outside of time. The distance between a thing and what our sensorium picks up is generally compensated by our brains interpretation of what the sensorium picks up.x It is the combination of what our sensorium picks up, how that is perceived, and how what we know makes us interpret or conceive of that perception. It is minds that make what we experience as reality.

This constant negotiation between what we perceive, how our knowledge and conception shapes that perception and how it is interpreted creates our world for us. I do not experience the changes going on inside a rock in my garden, but from what I have learned from various sources, be that science or philosophy, I believe that changes are taking place. If I try hard to use my imagination in the service of this knowledge, I might even feel that I can perceive, or at least sense the gradual change in the rock.

In the dance vocabulary, Gaga dancers improvise their movement using imagery described by a teacher to shape, guide, or manipulate how they experience the motion. Action is guided by sensing and imaging. For instance, an exercise may be to drop your arms from an elevated position down to your body's sides, focusing on the effect of gravity on the arms. Imagining that gravity is reversed so that the arms will fall upwards to an elevated position from their starting position at the side of the body changes the experience of elevating your arms and influence how the arms are elevated. The movement itself, the interpretation of that action and the understanding of the action, is shaped by the dancer's imagination. For dancers involved in Gaga, such techniques are used as a conscious effort to manipulate the conception. They use mental imagery to influence their own perception and to influence how actions are performed.

To me it demonstrates the flexibility and possibilities inherent in the human mind's ability to consciously shape the interpretation of sensory input and the potential in using such conscious self-manipulation.


Down and up

In his paper Alien Philosophy4, J.S. Bakker points to how we as a species have spent many millennia in speculation about our own nature but claims that this has not really led to a deeper understanding of ourselves. In the paper, Bakker uses the example of a hypothetical alien species with sufficiently convergent biology and claims that they also would experience trouble, as we do, in nailing down a unified ontology. Notably, he states;

"we can presume that 'humanoid' aliens would be profoundly stumped by themselves, and that they would poses a philosophical tradition organised around 'hard problems' falling out of their inability to square their scientific self-understanding with their traditional and/or intuitive self-understanding."

He believes and that this is likely caused by blind spots created by evolution. That we can't escape the heuristic tendencies imposed on us by evolution. An alien species would in effect have their own:

"cognitive 'crash spaces', discourses where their tools, though appearing to work, systematically break down."5

The shortcuts our cognition takes, the variability of the perceived and its interpretation blinds us and makes us incapable of developing a putative conception of reality. Cognition, says Bakker is "heuristic all the way down".6 7

Bakker's problem seems to me to be a heuristic in itself, leading him towards something that looks like Nietzsche's ressentiment. A structuralist outlook dictates that as time passes, and new thinkers build on previous ones, there should be a constant development and improvement of understanding as we get closer and closer to the truth. A post-structuralist such as Deleuze would assume a different viewpoint. The question comes down to what philosophical thought is for, what it is and what it does. The notion that is for finding a stable and unchanging truth of some sort is just one possible answer. The validity of a philosophical system is not necessarily whether it is true or not, and it is possibly more interesting to define different objectives, as Deleuze does, that frames philosophy as creation rather than discovery. Such an outlook seems pertinent to artistic work. Seeing philosophical thought as the act of concept creation addresses and circumvents the problem of the missing truth. If concepts can be created as needed, we evade the issue of the missing truth and instead just create truths relevant to our outlook and understanding at a given time and place. This makes philosophy into a creative act rather than discovery.

Despite this, some of the dismay that Bakker expresses resonates with me but with felicity rather than consternation. Consider our limited or absent ability to create a putative understanding of ourselves and our surrounding and consider the vibrant exchange of ideas that this "failure" sparks: The complex and fascinating cultural artefacts created by the pursuit of such questions, religions and speculative theories. It's back to what philosophy is for, to find or create. If we suddenly were to be able to 'know' the 'truth', all that exchange, all the multiplicity and vibrant variation of how each of us in any moment understands things differently fueled by our drive to ask questions, all that would be lost.