Notes on “Questions of Power” (2), the Science of Accidents.

Brandon Avery Joyce
14 min readJul 14, 2023

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The first section began with the somewhat gnomic phrase that power neither is, as a rejection of ontology, nor is not, as a rejection of ideology. What I mean by this is that both ontology and ideology perform much the same sly function of partitioning the world into power and non-power. Both are, so to speak, quack sciences of the given. Ideology, nearly by definition, attempts to neutralize or naturalize the operations of power as blithe processes — “the voluntary and symmetrical exchange of goods and services,“the networked flows of information,“the expression of genes,” “the results of the algorithm,” “the destiny of a people,”the way things go” — or as manifestations of a static order — such as “the way things are,“the great chain of being,” or in the unsolicited wisdom of your local tow-truck driver, “it is what it is.” Much like ontology, ideology badly excuses power as the gratification of being or becoming. This puts it directly at loggerheads with a “pandynamism” which wholly refuses this world-partition and calls bullshit on all ascriptions of non-power.

If pandynamic interpretations of our world tend to get suppressed ideologically, in the social or political arena, they are no less repressed philosophically — and not only as you’d expect, as the product or handmaiden of dominant and invidious interests. The philosophical evasion of power was also part of a larger metaphysical bargain, to spare us from a dynamism that we rightly suspected was uncircumscribable by concept. The wider, wilder, and wetter the nexus of powers we consider, the more easily it overwhelms us — and me especially. The principles of these static, kinetic, or otherwise undynamic schemes are therefore equally the concessions of thought to not bite off more than it can chew. To borrow and tweak a popular line from William Blake, if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: confusing.

In return for these concessions, we win serious gains, leverage, and clarity — especially in formal, technical, and naturalistic domains that more obediently conform to static-kinetic schemes — not to mention a good deal of psychical reassurance from our sense of mastery, security, order, and simplicity. But for all these gains and goods, all the breakthroughs, social strides and Nobel prizes, do these schemes lessen in the least the real complexity and contradictions of the powers working upon us? Not at all. After a certain point, they only blinker and fail us, leaving us continually baffled and outraged by seemingly accursed consequences — by the gremlins hidden in our designs — or without a philosophical language to fully articulate our domination.

Though pandynamic accounts of our world necessarily remain demanding, contestable, and incomplete, though they reach beyond our ken and frequently humiliate us, I think the pains are still better than the consequences of powerblindness. And even if many of our conclusions in this seminar turn out to be redundant with the insights of other legacies — like the dialectical tradition, the Nietzschean-Foucauldian bloodline, American pragmatism, 19th and 20th century students of power in sociology and political theory, to name but a few — I’ve noticed a huge gap still yawns between our philosophical grasp of power on the one side, and on the other, its study in political and social thought, or its implementation in politics and society (weirdly, even in some thinkers who really devoted energies to both, like Aristotle and John Locke). This disjunct mystifies me — enough so that it makes me want to carefully retrace our steps, and rethink power thoroughly and explicitly in and on its own terms.

In this little seminar, this involves both revisiting those moments in which static and kinetic inclinations were codified into Western thought and philosophy (which I’m decently familiar with) and later presumptuously nosing around other traditions of thought and philosophy (which I’m far less familiar with) that may entertain more sympathetic notions of power, cause, and possibility. As far as questioning the West, I’m going to begin like most philosophical timelines, within the radius of ancient Greece, in the period in which its thinkers first attempted to wrest their metaphysics free from mythology, from a polytheism that may have superficially explained the deeply contradictory forces of the surrounding cosmos, but prevented us mortals from grasping the meaning of cosmic or natural events, in the last count, as anything other than divine caprice or a beautiful fable in which we only appear as pitiful background characters. These new metaphysical efforts resounded throughout the Mediterranean theater, from Miletus to Athens to Sicily, in a chorus of widely differing views and voices. And luckily for us, many of these views and voices found a place within the syntheses of one impossibly prolific thinker, Aristotle, whose work also provided the lattice and vocabulary for much of the thought in the two millenia following his death. This is one big reason I’m starting with him, the sheer convenience. The other big reason is that in Aristotle, we find both the first glints of dynamic thought and their suffocation under the strictures of his metaphysical system. We get to witness how and where the Master (Giordano Bruno’s nickname for Aristotle) led himself astray, and took the rest of us along with him.

His Metaphysics ceremoniously broke ground on what he claimed would be an “ultimate science” or “first philosophy,” depending on your translation. Not a science of any particular subset of things like medicine, animals, or shipbuilding, but of all things. And not a philosophy of all things as just a loose assortment of particulars and accidents, but as a hierarchical account of what they were in their surest, most private and immutable way — what Aristotle referred to as their “substance” or ousia. The quest was to understand not just certain causes but first causes; not just some beings, but primary being; not just accidents but essences. But besides the desire to dignify philosophers with their own domain, what exactly tempted Aristotle to set off on his quest? What told him that there were some such things as first causes or primary beings anyway? What made Aristotle so sure that we’d ever be able to tack down an “essence” (a smooth word that later commentators coined to succinctly translate Aristotle’s clunkier “to ti ên einai” — “that which made a thing what it is,” regardless of its relation to other things). When the Master says that “evidently there is a first principle, and the causes of things are neither an infinite series nor infinitely various in kind,” where’s he getting all this evidence?

I’m no Aristotle scholar myself, as any Aristotle scholar will attest. I’m but a humble if easily excitable inquirer, laboring in his notes. Yet without getting too mired in centuries of scholarly controversy (or worrying specifically about what one man or mind really thought), I think we can still safely surmise that his metaphysical premises are in large measure in service to a finite human understanding. Without substances, essences, first causes and primary being, without their starting point, their orientation, their reduction of a rhapsodic hailstorm of accidents to a table of calm and manageable essences, “knowledge becomes impossible,” claims Aristotle. “For,” he asks, “how can one apprehend things that are infinite in this way?” And as I mentioned, Aristotle’s anxiety is well-founded. His temptation is perfectly understandable. Though Aristotle’s own lifeworld was frothing with political strife, death threats, uncertainty, and exile, it’s possible that the wider world still may’ve been able to feign some semblance of an eternal pattern, from the apparently stable reproduction of both social roles and natural species, to a world still seemingly cute and static enough to portion out into fixed taxonomies and respective disciplines.

But if this was ever the case, it hardly is any longer, is it? For starters, Aristotle’s paradigm of essential and timeless stability in the midst of change, the natural species of animals, was undermined by Darwin’s vaguely dynamic biology. As for most anything else you could think of, it’s no longer a question of merely acknowledging change, contradiction, and complexity. Too late for that. All but the most delusionally conservative or cave-dwelling will observe, night and day, on our feeds as on our blocks, the transformation of all long-presumed givens: species, identities, categories, nations, systems, roles, rules, tastes, places, humanity — now even the Earth itself, the ground of all common life. The reality of ceaseless social change, contradiction, and complexity, that we only began to accept in the 19th century, has now outgrown modernity’s earlier attempts at control or containment (including funneling it into the less-reified forms of complex processes). However, hope is not wholly lost. Maybe there is a knowledge that can apprehend things that are infinite in this way, if not with the ultimateness and immutability that Aristotle hoped for.

This knowledge — or philosophy, theory, thought, or whatever you want to call it — would start by first dispensing with those static metaphysical staples that have acted as a refuge from dynamism — like substances, essences, first causes, primary beings, platonic forms, certainty, eternity, and immutability — and which guided so much of Western science, culture, and common sense for over two millenia, with plenty of success but at the cost of understanding the greater nexus of powers. Thankfully, most of our homework’s already been done for us, since this pretty much sums up the continental critique of Western metaphysics over the last century or two. More specifically, this is also the hot-core of the kinetic critiques of Aristotelianism and Platonism, of substance and immutability, spearheaded by what we may roughly gather under the heading of “process philosophies,” as well as many non-Western and indigenous critiques of Eurocentric thought. If you ask me though, the metaphysical phase-change of process philosophies doesn’t actually get us that much closer to the meaning of power (since processes don’t explain power; power explains processes). Nor does their taste for fancier figures like waterways, networks, organisms, or Lorenz attractors. It’s not enough to simply side with Heraclitus over Parmenides and Plato, or with ivy-crowned Dionysus over staid Apollo. If the static is a reification of the kinetic, the kinetic is likewise a sort of reification of the dynamic, with its own metaphysical staples in need of undoing.

In the late 19th century, dynamism does begin to infiltrate philosophy here and there, but in my opinion still needs considerable help in formulating itself in something other than powerblind elements or negative terms (such as anti-essentialism or anti-foundationalism). Depending on your definitions, it’s also not necessarily a matter of overcoming metaphysics as such; it’s an overcoming of the metaphysically anti-dynamic, particularly as it constricts and conditions social thought and action. Still less is it an overcoming of metaphysics as a supposedly “secularized theology,” since I’ve found the best of medieval Christian and Islamic theology to be comparably more dynamic — through their contemplation of divine will and omnipotence, potency and act — than much of the Enlightenment thought that was to follow. In that regard, a truly “secularized theology,” which usurps God and liquidates Him down into an immanent nexus of powers, doesn’t sound all that bad to me, relatively speaking. And to that effect, some assistance may come from the strongest philosophical influence on medieval theology, Aristotle, who despite himself came pretty close to fairly dynamic formulations of cause and possibility — and might’ve gotten that much closer had he not given such short shrift to more power-conscious sophists like Protagoras, Gorgias, and Thrasymachus, whose contentions even Plato took more seriously, if only in refutation.

The Master was right about one thing: “by nature, all men long to know,” and that knowledge is tightly bound up with how we are to give an account of things. Only, a dynamic account would take a sharply different approach than the one he imagines in the Metaphysics, in which logos strictly articulates essences, omits any accidents, and diagrams the hierarchy of being from first causes to empirical effects, from a divine unmoved mover to the outermost heavens, before descending to earth and moving outward into the regrettable vicissitudes of history. In contrast to the pictures or patterns of Western metaphysics, pandynamism explains its things and processes through a richly-told tale — through a contestable, incomplete, and irreducible “power-account,” that begins somewhere in the middle and lends a graspable coherence and salience to a dazzling plurality of contradictory causes and possibilities. Even in its more rarified forms, it strives for what (piggybacking off Clifford Geertz) we might call “thick” rather than “thin” description, replete with coups, colors, gossip, flukes, many friends and foes, questions from the audience, forking plots, and alternate endings, forever to-be-continued. Power-accounts are not just any old story, but ones that renarrate thats, whats, and what-nots into a dovetailing account of hows, whys, why-nots, and how-otherwises. The more and better they do so, the more gripping and convincing the account. To dynamically understand something then — whether it’s gravity, gods, organic life, beauty, imaginary numbers, economic value, equitable societies, or even ourselves — is to understand how or why would be created, how and why this creation might fail internally or be thwarted from without, and finally how and why it could otherwise be recreated or born into this thankless world.

I’ll get more into what exactly I mean by “power-accounts” later in future sections (partly because I’m still kind of figuring that out myself), but suffice it to say that even the broader notion here — that narrativity (or a certain kind of narrativity) is the very grounds of coherence and salience — still gets a fairly chilly reception in metaphysics, science, systems, and much of philosophy, where thick narrativization is discounted as noise or rejected as a matter of program. Thus, power itself gets explained away or dodged by recourse to static pictures or kinetic patterns. But if there’s anywhere that concepts (and their interrelation and genesis) have to be understood by way of an unfolding strategic account, it’s in the philosophy of power. Rarely has this been the case though. Power was cold-shouldered from philosophy for so long that we shouldn’t be too surprised that we’re still rather evasive or lacking when it comes to a philosophy of power — including many of the political theorists and sociological thinkers who have studied power in its most recognizable forms, who still kind of talk around it, uncritically conflate it with domination, or mumble hasty definitions of it as something like an enactment of the will.

Yet a few leads can be found in the work of (who else but) our man of the hour, Aristotle. Both in the pages of the Metaphysics and elsewhere, the Master provides a rich “plurality of accounts” of both causation (aition, or aitia in the plural) and potentiality (dynamos, which I read as sitting somewhere between our notions of power and possibility), as well as a notion of actuality (or entelechy) that we’ll later borrow and bend to gleefully puncture a number of powerblind concepts. In his famous four-fold understanding of cause as either formal, material, efficient, or final, Aristotle is quick to insist that in the real world, these four kinds always blend or bundle, and even allow for reciprocal causation, such as his example that “exercise is the cause of fitness but fitness is also the cause of exercise,” the latter being final, and the former being mostly efficient but arguably formal cause. The making or actualization of something as straightforward as a bronze statue (his paragon) requires the confluence of all four kinds of causes: the bronze material, the form of the god or athlete, the skills and chisel of the sculptor, and the aim of praise and glory for which the task is undertaken. Each are required in our total account of things, and much of Aristotle’s critique of his predecessors like Empedocles or Plato involves taking them to task for naively trying to explain the processes of the world with too few kinds of cause and leaving our world looking like either a big tub of inert stuff or the ghostly play of shadows. And here Aristotle has their number, if you ask me. What does it possibly explain to say that things participate in their Forms? In the absence of a persuasive account of participation, absolutely zero.

This manifold account of cause, his brand of causal pluralism, is one of the chief lessons to learn from Aristotle. Unfortunately, he screws over his own nascent dynamism by insisting on the metaphysical priority of some kinds of causes over others. Then within those, by strictly delimiting “essential” from all “accidental” — which is to say most other kinds of — causes. Worse yet, per his own Metaphysics, what is essential for anything is what’s necessary and immutable about it, meaning the very part of the thing that is immune from process and safely out of reach of the dynamic. There’s no such thing as a “science of accidents,” he claims, yet according to his own definition of an accident, this would summarily exclude anything dynamic from first philosophy. Which is exactly what the Master goes on to do, betraying not only a certain richness of his thought, but leaving his final statement on “substance” in such a mess that centuries of divinely-inspired exposition still wouldn’t manage to clean it up. Though Aristotle was a Greek known for so tirelessly defending the reality and intelligibility of change (or process), and in small part a dynamism that might explain it, he ultimately sacrifices both in the hopes of understanding the world in terms of what is changeless and outside of the nexus of powers.

This is one of the chief reasons that power will always slip the grasp of any static metaphysics. If we think about it for one second, power and eternal being (as that which is inherently immune to and beyond all power) are in exclusive contradiction. To explain in terms of eternal being is then to exclude or explain away power. Pandynamism, of course, will in return choose the complete opposite strategy and entirely buck the notion of eternal being. Nothing is impervious to change or immune to process. Nothing is outside the nexus of powers. Everything is brought about through a thick plurality of causes and possibilities. And a big part of pandynamism is going after examples of thought that pretend otherwise, disabusing them of certain metaphysical or philosophical underpinnings that carry over into both everyday habits of thought and concrete social analyses. It’s not for nothing, for instance, that Aristotle’s four-fold conception of cause is echoed in later sociological work like Michael Mann’s four-volume, magisterially dynamic world history, The Sources of Social Power. You could make the case that Aristotle’s material, formal, final, and efficient causes roughly map onto what Mann divides up into economic, political, ideological, and military (or for others, technical) sources of power.

Like Aristotle, Mann introduces these distinctions with the caveat that anything in the real world will always be “promiscuous,” “polymorphous,” a “crystallization” of all four sources or networks of power, in varying degrees and as a motley, well-mixed ensemble, even while one might enjoy a degree of supremacy in one era or place or another. Unlike Aristotle, Mann never bestows ultimate primacy upon any one source or mode of power. The economic, political, ideological, military — and any others we might wish to include — must each contribute to the power-accounts of things, events, historical processes, and the other networks of organized social power. Each plays the roles of both cause and effect, in an immense, promiscuous, polymorphous, and mutually-producing dialectic. By positing no independent variables in the great equations of history, we avoid the same pitfalls that Aristotle criticized in Empedocles and Plato, and can skip the debates between the varieties of idealism and materialism in social and political theory, in order to hopefully move on to the harder-yet-realer questions about how and why these causes and powers impinge on one another, or why not and how otherwise, and to what degree or with what quanta of power.

Michael Mann’s causal IEMP model of organized power.

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