Spool Five


#philosophy Gilbert Simondon Process Philosophy

The term ‘concrescence’ was coined by Alfred North Whitehead and figures strongly in his systematic account of process.

Roughly, it means the coming together of multiples into a unity.

Someone once explained the concept to me using the Donna Summer hit ‘I feel love’. As a moment in music history, the piece represents a fusion of two, previously separated, streams - experimental electronic music on the one hand, and pop music on the other. The machine and the human. Its identity is not fully settled; is it a club ’track’? Or, a pop ‘song’? The ‘concresence’ it produced, echoed strongly throughout the 80s, and is still alive today, where the fusion of computer music and the human voice is barely something to pass remark on. An even better example might be the history of Italo Disco.

The point is that a concrescence is a kind of ‘mixing’ of disparate streams into one.

The problem that Whitehead was trying to solve is one of the oldest in philosophy. If we live in a world where everything changes, how is it possible for something to have the same ‘identity’ at two points in time? How can we say that the ‘you’ that you were when your were 10 years old, and the ‘you’ that you are now are the same person? Or that the name ‘Ireland’ refers to the same country that it did 100 years ago?

The classic (Platonic) solution to the problem is to suggest that there is some higher metaphysical order which holds identities together throughout the variations. In this sense, changes and variations are just ‘shadows’ or imperfections hiding the true form of the thing. Those wrinkles that have appeared on your forehead are not really a part of ‘you’. The real ‘you’ is something more eternal, locked away in some metaphysical space.

Whitehead’s solution is no less metaphysical, in some senses. However, instead of accepting that the true form of things is something fixed and eternal, he instead suggests that, even at the level of ‘form’, things are always in motion and flux.

What allows an identity to persist through time then?

Processes, by their nature, don’t stay fixed. But this is precisely the quality that allows them to also not remain separated. From time to time, process bump up against each other and form new processes. This new process is a ‘concrescence’. A concrescence is not eternal, it exists as an actuality within time, therefore, it too will eventually decay and inform further concrescences. Something’s ‘identity’ is just this period of relative stability within time.

The coffee that I am now drinking can be thought of as a concrescence - multiple processes fed into this one identity which now brings me pleasure and comfort. The beans were planted and formed somewhere in Columbia (if the packaging is to be believed), it fed through some kind of supply chain (the capital process) and eventually branded by Tesco (another process) and sat on a shelf in one of their Irish locations. I bought it with money I made through a wage, and prepared it using a filter and hot water (which depends on the electrical grid). The milk in it comes from a biological and industrial process of its own. It is held in place by a mug, which was once part of the earth and soil, and which will eventually break and end up on a rubbish heap, and then who knows where. And so on, ad infinitium.

In other words, what both appears and is as a stable identity to me (cup of coffee) is really a mixture of disparate processes coming together. We can’t really say that the resulting object (cup of coffee) was somehow ‘designed’ or ‘planned for’. Instead, it is the result of a spontaneous, ’natural’, growing together of many factors.

Random Note