Worlds Without End: Response from Mary-Jane Rubenstein

I am grateful for the careful and generous readings reflected in these five posts. While each of them pulls my thoughts in unique and productive directions, I would like to attend to their collective effort to make more explicit the ethical and political contours of the material Worlds engages. I shall do so briefly, insofar as the essays are already doing the constructive work they call for—work that the book under consideration was very much hoping to provoke. So before and above all, my thanks to the respondents, to Catherine Keller for her dark-luminous introduction, and to the editors for curating this conversation.

To begin (again), I should make it clear that Worlds Without End is not a book about everything. It is a book about a particular and particularly stubborn tendency to lay claim to “everything,” both intellectually and materially.
Such a tendency, captured well in Jonnie Russell’s “politics of everything,” is hardly limited to the geographically imprecise, colonially constructed, onto-theo-epistemo-political agential Hydra we call “the west”; to be sure, mythically-fueled impulses toward global domination show up all over the spatiotemporal place. But the pretense of encompassing, explaining, and (as Lisa Gasson-Gardner reminds us) owning “everything” is indeed enacted with staggering regularity in all manner of guises within the trajectory that runs, as Marika Rose cites S. Sayyid (citing David Gress and, albeit to utterly opposing ends, Terry Eagleton) “from Plato to NATO.” What I am trying to suggest by telling the story the way I do is that the purportedly neutral, “scientific” effort to explain the origins and constitution of the universe (and in fact all universes) is yet another enactment of this theopolitical melodrama.

In this light, Worlds is not really a book about the multiverse. It’s a book about the current scientific fascination with the multiverse which, I am arguing, is partially motivated by a set of theological and anti-theological longings, aesthetics, and concerns that we see coursing through the monotheistic (and specifically Christian, anti-Christian, and post-Christian) tradition. To be sure, numerous other traditions have produced multiple-worlds cosmologies, and in far greater depth than the sporadically-multiple west. But precisely for this reason, we don’t see the same set of motivations or concerns arising when we examine those other traditions. I ought to have made all this clearer in the text itself, and appreciate the opportunity to do so here.

To address Rose’s set of questions as straightforwardly as possible, this book does not treat at any length the infinite cycles of Hindu cosmology or the worlds-upon-worlds of Buddhist cosmology—to name just two possibilities—for three major reasons. The first (and least interesting) is indeed that the author at hand has no background in the original languages and specific textual traditions of these sources, and so would not have been able to attain a methodological consistency with the materials the book does engage. The second is that she is suspicious of efforts to fix western metaphysical problems by flying in romantically constructed “eastern” answers: “has Descartes left your philosophy too dualistic? Try pratitya-samutpada”; “sick of Protestant interiority? Throw in a Sufi dance”; “is your God too singular? Become a Hindu! Is your Trinity too multiple? Become a different kind of Hindu!”

The third reason for framing the book the way I have done is that, while it shows up in all manner of philo-theologies, what “science” is calling “the multiverse” has historically been a problem for the para-Christian west in a way that it has not been a problem for other traditions. The rigorous inessentiality of Madhyamaka metaphysics, for example, dismantles precisely the commitment to substance and singularity (not to mention Platonic-Christian divinity) that renders cosmic multiplicity unthinkable for, say, Aquinas. Vedic social structure forestalls precisely the eschatological teleology that renders cosmic cyclicality unbearable for, say, Augustine. So, again, the multiverse is all over the place, but the problem is not, and this is a book about the problem.

Such as it is, “the problem” may well boil down to what Russell names a “pluri-phobia” at work on the cosmic, theological, and ontological levels alike. There is indeed a “strange resonance” between the model of the autonomous individual and the model of the autonomous cosmos (Russell). As such, to think alongside Gasson-Garnder, Schmitt’s categories of political theology map all-too-neatly onto cosmology, whose political dimensions are no less powerful for their being hidden. This is, in fact, the sinister force of cosmology (and particularly cosmogony): it masks and thereby reaffirms the social relations it encodes.

In this particular sense, I can frankly see no difference between cosmology and theology as Feuerbach understood it: each of them projects an ideal image of the individual and his [sic.] society onto divinity/the universe, which in turn reaffirms the integrity of the individual and his society. The west’s perennial concern with ontocosmic singularity is, I would agree, creatively disrupted by “Nietzsche’s non-substantial, enactive ontology of the subject” (Russell). I am less certain such singularity is disrupted by the multiverse. More precisely: it may or may not be.

If by “the multiverse,” we mean to say that our perspective is finite (Keller), situated (Rose), bound up with and undone by (Marovich) a host of others, then it may well offer a counter-ontology and alternative politic of entanglement, which is to say of constitutive “exposure and vulnerability” (Russell). It may well open the possibility of “an ontology that is not plural without being singular” (Marovich). But if by “the multiverse” we mean yet another explanation of all that is and all that may be; if our vision purports to stem from no perspective at all save that of the gods/kosmoi themselves; then the multiverse is just the universe (is just the human individual) writ-infinite. As such, the multiverse would afford neither science nor religion the opportunity to “rethink” their boundaries or the sort of “power” (Gasson-Gardner) that entrances, fuels, and interlaces them.

The matter does seem to come down, as Beatrice Marovich suggests, to a matter of perspective. From one point of view, multiverse cosmologies are an internal, disruptive other to the western metaphysics of substance and politics of dominion. From another, they assist and reaffirm it. This is the reason that I find perspectivism itself such an apt cosmological motif: as Cusa knew, any cosmic body occupies the center of its own universe. As Einstein figured out, any body can be said to be at rest or at motion from its own perspective. And as Marovich reminds us, what is “universal reason” from one perspective is a limited, exclusionary exercise in categorical-material violence from another perspective, which is arguably more valid than the first. (To affirm a multiplicity of perspectives is not to say they are equally defensible.)

To gain some perspective on these multiple constructions of perspectivism, I find helpful Tânia Stolze Lima’s and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s work on Amazonian ontologies. As Lima explains, what is a “hunt” for the Juruna is a “warfare” for the white-lipped peccaries, who just like the Juruna see themselves as “human” and the other as “animal” (Lima, “The Two and Its Many,” 121). Similarly, a “snake” to the Matsiguenga is a “fish” to neighboring strangers; what is “blood” to a human is “beer” to a jaguar (Viveiros de Castro, “Exchanging Perspectives, 472). “What seems to be happening in Amerindian perspectivism,” Viveiros de Castro explains, “is that the substances named by substantives like fish, snake, hammock, or beer are…relational pointers” (472). In other words, every thing is only itself-to-something-else, or itself from a particular perspective. And something else from another.

What I hope the ongoing debate over the multiverse keeps revealing to us is not, then, the existence or non-existence of a bunch of worlds “out there,” but what Keller calls the “world actually multiple”—this one right here—in its irreducible manyness. The “world” as it is continually and differentially reconstituted by the exchange of perspectives: between the sciences and religions, peccaries and hunters, Trump and the evangelicals, BlackLivesMatter and Sanders, each of them opening new ways in which worlds might be made and lived otherwise. In the absence of a “substance named by [the] substantive” world, the question then becomes which possible worlds we want to affirm, and how we might go about doing so. And isn’t this always the question.

My sincere thanks for the dance of perspectives enacted by the conversation at hand, the worlds onto which they have opened my (un-)own thinking, and for the micro-multicosmos they have momentarily made.