Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Principle of Plenitude

In the Principle of Plenitude, Plato described the universe as a place where "all that can be imagined must be," one in which no potential of existence remains unfulfilled.

Leibniz, in “Logic and Harmony” described the Principle of the Plenum (or principle of plenitude) affirms that the actual world, considered as a set of monads, is as full as it can possibly be. Since there is no genuine interaction among distinct substances, there would be no sufficient reason for the non-existence of any monad that would be consistent with the others within a possible world. Hence, anything that can happen will; every possibility within this world must be actualized. The world in which we live, then, is but one among the infinitely many possible worlds that might have existed. What makes this one special?

This is an abstract from Grant McCracken's article: The Politics of Plenitude

Increasingly, the world won't go along with our attempts to reduce it. Where once there was simplicity and limitation, everywhere there is now social difference, and that difference proliferates into ever more diversity, variety, heterogeneity.

So various and changing is this new social world around us that we can barely keep up with the pace of transformation. The tremors of change can be felt everywhere. Perhaps most of all in our politics, where plenitude is at the heart of continuing and sometimes bitter conflict. Both left and right have attempted to manage plenitude; both have failed. The reasons for their failure may help us understand the commotion around us.

But for the political right it is compelling evidence that things have gone terribly wrong. There is anarchic, willful, recklessly individualistic behavior everywhere. There is evidence that we are losing touch with our most grounding and stabilizing traditions, that any kind of kook can give us advice on private and public life. The world feels tippy, puzzling, dangerous, and odd. We have lives to create, children to raise, communities to build, futures to secure. How are we to do this in a land of a persistent sense that the rules, decorum, and politesse have fled the land?

As the world becomes more various, not just on the margin but at the center, the party that turns its back on difference asks for trouble.

The trick is to see that plenitude is our tradition. It is one of the traditions of which we have the right to be most proud--not just the ability to endure differences, but the ability to make them. The continual creation of difference, variety, and novelty may be a signature gesture of our culture. It is most certainly a defining characteristic as we enter the next century. This is the tradition that we must honor.

But plenitude is a restless creature. It will not forgive fixity. It will not endure stasis. It will not allow identity politics to insist on certain orthodoxies because these are "good to think" and variously clarifying of what the emergent group might become. Plenitude resists conformity, orthodoxy, conventions, and rules. We cannot close Pandora's Box behind us. Plenitude is breaking through the orthodoxy imposed by a middle-class, centrist, bourgeois society, and with this change come opportunities of liberation of every kind. To resist this force is not just pointless. It is wrong.

Plenitude is a force for the infinitely divisible. It will use groups as its vehicle as long as this is possible, but it will make individuals the unit of agency the moment it is impossible. Plenitude has found a friend in individualism, and there is good evidence that it will be a lasting affair. Plenitude makes the individual the locus and an engine of much of its innovative activity. It will happily create a world that is an addition of individuals. Groups will cease to matter.

More problematically, everyone must necessarily belong to many groups. Our world is filling up with differences. And this is a good thing, for some of these differences advance the cause of human dignity. Plenitude embraces those who would otherwise be persecuted for their difference. Better, plenitude dispenses with "permission." No one needs the liberal generosity of the mainstream to exist. It is enough merely to stake out a social space and to occupy it. Plainly, this is to the good.

But plenitude should also give us pause. It has a darker side. It is capable of creating horrifying aberrations. Plenitude encourages the "mustering" of paramilitary groups who cultivate their own deeply skewed notion of the world. It encourages a world so decentered that even the bombing of federal office buildings in Oklahoma City can seem plausible. Plenitude encourages the monstrous.

We have a choice. Plenitude can create the glorious or the monstrous. It depends on what we do with difference. It depends on what difference becomes for us.

Traditionally, difference has been a path to identity paved with hostility and antagonism. It has given us a "sharpener" of identity and a recipe for action: find the odd man, the odd group, the odd nation, the odd culture, and then: mock, repudiate, assault, and, too often, exterminate. Worse, our path to definition may be found through acts of differentiation, antagonism, and hostility against the other.

By this reckoning, things look rather grim. More difference can only mean more antagonism. If we are filling up with differences, we will find ourselves surrounded by otherness and increasingly called upon to challenge it. New and emerging identities will put our own in question. Our identity will depend upon the defacement of their identity. Plenitude's world has the potential to make us smaller, meaner, more loathing, and more loathsome. It will be worse for others, the bigots and the hatemongers. These people will find themselves so provoked by the rising tide of plenitude that any act of opposition will seem tolerable (and psychologically necessary).

But there is an other use for difference. There is good evidence that our entire culture is shifting in a transformational direction. More and more, we are prepared to try on difference, to test it out. This is a radically new approach to difference, one that completely shifts the field of assumptions. In this new transformational model, we use difference as a definitional opportunity. We use it as a shape to try on and act out. Our most fundamental reflexes are rewired. We move from difference as contradistinction to difference as definition. We move from difference as sharpening to difference as shaping. Difference is less and less for "pushing off," and more and more for "trying on." Almost certainly, we will pursue both. And this too will prove, as everything seems to, yet another engine for our plenitude.

There is a second reason to be frightened. Plenitude challenges our most fundamental ideas of social and political association. What becomes of the "common good" in a body politic that has precious little in common? What happens to the "community" when it fills up with differences? How can we hope to act in concert when we are speciating so intensively and so extensively?

I wish I had a clever answer. I have what is merely a sneaking suspicion. There is a common culture that unites the world of plenitude. It is, I think, the marketplace. As long as we can meet somewhere in the exchange of something for the benefit of someone, we have a foundation that can sustain plenitude. After all, say what you will about the marketplace, capitalism, and the consumer culture, they have got us this far.

We have reason to be frightened of the world that plenitude is constructing for us. But it is also true that there may be a net to catch us when we fall. Plenitude will continue to spin off more, and more different, species of social life, but that does not mean that commonality cannot be fashioned. It doesn't mean that these very different species cannot work out some system of mutual recognition that leaves their differences uncompromised. The marketplace is not a perfect solution. It is never a pretty solution. It is rarely a just solution. But it is rather better than the alternative--a tyranny or tower of babel we can none of us survive.

"... I think the thing we most have to fear is amnesia--our well-practiced ability to forget what we know about ourselves. We come to terms with one part of the culture of commotion, but we forget this when we take up another part. And we forget both of these when we sit down to contemplate the tremendous innovations taking place in the worlds of scholarship, business, or art. By systematically forgetting what we know about the disparate pieces of our society, we never have to come to terms with the revolution that is taking place throughout it.

The real danger is that by insisting on the partial view, by selectively forgetting what we know, we need never come fully to grips with the new realities of our world. Plenitude is upon us. It will not go away. It will continue to transform everything about us. It is time to see it whole.

1 comment:

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