The Politics of Everything

What to say, to a book about more than everything—more than what we thought we were talking about when we used to say “everything”? A book that introduces us to the entangled complexity of what we might call the politics of everything, Rubenstein not only charts the dizzying swells and speculative history of cosmos-talk, but also occasionally and artfully pulls back—back from the incomprehensible magnitudes of years, talk of dimensions, and tens to the innumerable powers—giving us glimpses of the human all too human drives at the heart of the discussion, at the root of our star gazing, at site of the stake where dear Bruno was burned.

What does this or that everything commit us to, where “us” is those with distinct stakes in the stars?

What unbound teeming bed of worlds, for the ancient Lucretian, might work to “clear away all theistic cosmogonies?” (43) What muscular mathematical ontology, for MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark, might (quite literally) make everything exist, such that we might rest well that God does not? What combination of accident and (actual or potential) infinity might be set center stage to kick big bang theology out of the play?

MaryJaneRubenstein-WorldsWithoutEnd-coverInversely, by what myth or math might we secure singularity—the Oneness of the universe—in the face of its always-bubbling manyness? How might the sovereignty of God (the omnipotency so precious to many traditional theological cosmologies) be secured, the One before the Many (metaphysically and/or temporally)? For the Platonist and Thomist alike, where “oneness equals power,” the model must proceed tidily from the One, such that “the order of the universe mediates the singular God down through the hierarchical ranks of the singular cosmos.” (31, 76) Which entrenchment of design and finitude might give us the cosmological constancy starter we need to keep a cosmic God at the center and the start of (at least) the first act, giving us our beginnings and multiverse speculations their end?

The incisiveness of Rubenstein’s allusions to, and occasional treatments of the messiness of these politics—the muddy mixtures of science, theology, and philosophy we churn together—was the truly generative treat, for me. Together with a terrific historical survey (I repeatedly marveled at just how much cosmology she waded through and wrangled into readability), she has given us the beginnings of a diagnosis of what we might call the interconnectivity condition of cosmological thought.

If theology is the domain of things hoped for yet unseen, the multiverse runs headlong into it, sticky with its faith and hoped for-edness, in ways Rubenstein details deftly. By the same condition, marked by a kind of pluri-phobia (save Cusa and the unfortunate Bruno), the theologian’s anxious bridling of speculation and hunger for the singularity of this universe, this one finite site of telic directedness toward the infinite and eternal God as that sole extracosmic point, betrays a kind chastity that derives from a philosophical privileging of the One and the simple as the paragon of power (for Aquinas—to play with the book’s title a bit—worlds without end are worlds without ends in the teleological sense). The God’s eye view must be a singular outside view. The view from nowhere—a well-fitted scientific drive!

Throughout my reading, in an admittedly puzzling way, I found myself repeated piqued to think this uni-multi-pluri-verse question alongside the question of the self (some of the little old inhabitants of this nous ne sais quoi), a startling case of myopia for sure. But why? Narcissism? A failed post-humanism? Or perhaps a strange resonance between the politics of everything and the politics of the self.

Maybe it was the early discussion of Plato’s Timaeus, that got me thinking of his claims therein that the individual is a microcosm (micros kosmos) of the universe, a sentiment iterated throughout history in different contexts, from scholastic thought, to poor Bruno’s explicit invocation of it, and up through the Renaissance. Perhaps it was the way in which the mere mention of the Atomist’s infinite kosmoi “left as sovereign a character as Alexander the Great unhinged,” dis-unfied, feeling altogether un-sovereign at the mere thought of it. (52, emphasis mine) Or maybe it was the tellingly mundane analogies used by cosmologists and physicists for the most speculative of processes: the natal (for Mersini-Houghton), the familial (for Smolin)—those most creaturely of substrates here underpinning their most wild speculations.

This all made me wonder if the question of the self-same human, the autonomous subject, maps more closely onto the struggle for a self-same singular universe than it may appear at first blush. If being one is the site of sovereignty (whether human or divine), being multiple, being a one-and-manyness-mixing (whether cosmos or demos), appears to be the site of exposure and vulnerability.

Augustine—arguably the inventer of the concept of a private inner self no less—betrays this self-conscious anxiety with his inability to bear the thought of the Stoic-Nietzschean repetition of worlds (eternal return), such that souls might have to slog through the cosmic merry-go-round without rescue, again and again. As Rubenstein I think rightly pinpoints, it is precisely Nietzsche’s non-substantial, enactive ontology of the subject, making the “I” eventive and indelibly entangled and ensnared with every other, that makes the very affirmation of the return affectively constitutive of a difference in future worlds and the ensnared selves therein. In other words, it is perhaps Augustine’s inner autonomy, or rather his presumption of it, discrete and longing, that makes the Stoic multiverse a nightmare of a self-same subject passively enduring it all again, waiting for repose.

Think also of Plato’s embattled Timaean cosmogony—the wrangled mix of mixes, all distilled in a necessarily singular cosmic creature, the plasticity of the undifferentiated khora, “the nurse of all becoming,” safely ushered away by the time we reach the micro kosmoi in their polis where the strata of the social ordering has every Republican self in their right place. (28) One cosmos, one order, each individual mined for their minerality, the plurality of the soul ordered under the One, led by those leaders best suited for pursuit of the One (the form of the Good). This is, again, the site of hierarchy and sovereignty. It is no surprise the selves are suited to the ends (in both senses) of their worlds. The demos befit their cosmos.

Lastly (and I know I am merely dusting us with what might appear strained resonances perhaps more honestly a reflection of my own interests in philosophical and theological anthropologies than anything else), I was struck by Laura Mersini-Houghton’s natal imagery of the multiverse bath (in chapter 6). Here, the plastic, undifferentiated nurse of all becoming makes contact with many patients, such that many cosmoses are born from the bath, striking off on their own trajectories, but always marked by their primordial bath, always (however faintly) non-locally entangled with the multiple from whence they have branched out (and might well collapse back into). I could not help but see profound resonances here with Deleuze’s virtual—that preindividual transcendental field. Building on the concept of metastability in Gilbert Simondon, this field is a metastable site of potentiality, much like Mersini-Houghton’s bath as “the ensemble of all possible initial conditions and energies,” from which a subject is informed—a pucker or a patch which has individualized—but retains an indelible mark or degree of the preindividual. (186) These are worlds and selves bound up with others, anything but autonomous.

Whether cosmos or demos, these accounts eschew the “oneness equals power” paradigm, entangling ones with manysin ways that make selves and ­­uni-multi-pluri-verses not sovereign but entangled and therefore exposed, even vulnerable. Whether biologically or ontologically, cosmologically or politically, this is the kind of paradigm that coaxes thought about macros kosmoi and micros kosmoi alike into reflection upon on primacy of being as societal (Whitehead), becoming as invariably becoming-with (Haraway). It just might also help make theological accounts of cosmology more comfortable with entangled Gods, or a God “beyond in the midst of our lives” as Rubenstein quotes Bonhoeffer, invoking God not from the outside—not as the singular starter—but perhaps, with Karen Barad, as a participatory intra-actor. (210) Thinking Gods, universes, and selves as constitutively plural opens helpful kinds of connectivity conditions which problematize autonomy of any stripe, a “problem” we could use more of.