Being and Becoming

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Despite the widening fissures in the foundations of modernity, the failure of conventional reductionist thinking to account for the truth of our social and biological entanglement, the manifest deconstruction of artificial binaries such as gender, race, and even truth and falsehood, the stripping away of mythologies of growth, the free market and identity politics, being and becoming remain co-arising epistemologies—ways of knowing the world that continue to pester and confound. One predates the Enlightenment and the other arises from it. Yet another binary is erected—as if being is a stabilized way of interpreting the world, adhering to the imperative of Reason, while becoming is a more fluid—and honest—representation of the ongoing mutability of reality. Yet, as quantum mechanics informs us, the implied stability of being can only be artificial and unassailable objectivity has never existed. 

This is a tough pill to swallow if one’s entire worldview depends on a belief in immutable laws, that everything has its place and shall remain there. Yet critiques of our current condition remain at odds with the apparent difficulty of stepping beyond the deep tracks culture has already laid down. Differentiating these two conditions is foundational as long as we don’t get too attached to any of it. If we are to pursue honest critique, we must dance away from carelessly interpreting new information to fit into what we are already disposed to believe, avoiding contradicting even unconscious boundaries erected and defended to make ourselves comfortable, and toward new information potentially undermining everything we think we know. 

These two ways of knowing the world, being and becoming, either by assuming, in accordance with the primary Anthropocentric principle, or by de-centralizing humanity and recovering a capacity to experience deep entanglement with all life, that being is already formed, and becoming is still being formed, are not so much mutually exclusive as they are a shifting continuum. Like living and dying, they imply each other and cannot fully exist independently. One must be, or at least imagine stability to exist, to even conceptualize not yet being. And vice versa. The order of nature is neither one nor the other, and simultaneously both, so much as an emergence of possibilities within perpetual transition, becoming apparent depending on–as quantum theory tells us–where one is standing…and when. 

It bears repeating that the paradox of the particle or the wave is only part of the story. The rest of the story is that the observer is an inseparable part of the measuring process and the measuring instruments employed to observe a moment of reality. Taking the entire apparatus, the observer, the instruments and the observed into consideration, the entire intra-action becomes a unique phenomenon in which neither the observer nor the observed can be regarded as independent pre-existing determinate factors, but only become determinate in their intra-action. Neither do time or space pre-exist phenomena. They are created by phenomena which themselves establish apparent separability which did not pre-exist the event. 

The core human propensity to imagine a better future comes to mind. Here again we encounter Homo Prospectus, a theory that says habitual human focus on the future, being rooted in the belief in endless growth, that the yearnings of homo prospectus are driving our demise. It seems simplistic to assume this drive was born with the concepts of modernity or the philosophy of perpetual growth. This drive did not likely rise in the Enlightenment but is probably much older, if not intrinsic. But there is no doubt that over time, the pace of improvement, the rate of change, has hastened considerably along with the geometric increase in population. Regardless, we could designate religion in all its forms, indigenous to institutional to generic spiritual, as driving the need to expand, to fulfill some spiritual (if not exclusively economic) imperative, to aspire to a moral ideal, all for the sake of aligning closer to divinity. 

The impulse to improve on the present is intrinsic to the dominant religions of the world: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. We—well, most of us—transform our acts in the world to fulfill what is assumed to be a universal moral ideal and to address primal questions about why we are here. We imagine we are bringing ourselves closer to God to create a world in which all beings are perpetually liberated from suffering: Tikkun Olam. Is this not the thread of history, the continuous striving or at least the persistent expectation that we can always improve, that we are always becoming something we were not already, repairing our flaws, or perhaps uncovering something about ourselves that was previously hidden? 

Of course, there is great divergence on the methods of improvement which, by the way, are defined by reason. But still, we climb an endless stairway, building our personal, tribal, and national iconography of achievement, all for the sake of reaching a remote and ever distant objective. These religious principles, aspiring to something greater than ourselves, coming closer to God, pre-suppose we are not already good enough. We are not pure. We are fallen; we are flawed. We are not there yet. Is this not the cultural manifestation of the personal spiritual imperative? To establish being, to get there

This striving, whether native to the species or not, illustrates again the paradox of the Two Truths popping up through these chapters. Divinity or presence or a state of gnosis is depicted as an unattainable ideal yet also already here and now, though mainstream Christianity does a very good job of putting it off, even denying its accessibility in the moment. What’s more, a categorization of whiteness and western culture as a limited, transcendent, exclusive condition, projecting itself as the establishment and stability of being itself, contrasts with older, polytheistic cultures of becoming, in which we sense the degree of entanglement, dynamic play and intra-dependence upon the web of life as a continuous processional emergence of relationships, shifting, upsetting one another in a rhythmic ongoing parade of exchange and revelation. That is the opposite of the Christian vision.

Christianity is most closely aligned with the perpetual growth principle of capitalism in the sense that perpetual expansion and improvement drive behavior and innovation. In both, standing still, the end of aspiration, the end of growth, equals death…or even hell. And yet, in Buddhist cosmology, never having enough is hell. If there is a sense of being, of being stuck in an ideology of presumed existential independence, control, exclusion, and stagnation, it becomes a snapshot taken at a particular moment. The Enlightened vision of modernity is concretized and sanctified as a prop symbolizing our aspiration to being the most important species, to our presumption of exceptionalism, divinity, dominance, and permanence. That vision is rooted in whiteness and conveniently includes the presumption of white dominance.

Capitalism is aligned with and serves as the economic equivalent of religious dogma. By imagining our individualistic, unique, and exclusive relationship with a monotheistic divinity and eternity, we align ourselves with God while excluding ourselves from the world, imagining we are the shapers of events. Nothing about any of this squares with quantum reality or Barad’s agential realism. The world is transformed into the (cracked—and dying) mirror of our ascension. Its demise is therefore prophetic, preordained, and self-fulfilling. When that reference is unbound and expanded, the option and opportunity to see one’s life from a wider view of becoming is more accessible. But we might well ask, becoming what?

Again, a principle driven home to me many years ago in my own spiritual pursuits is the paradox (ironically, referring to ‘enlightenment’) of being-there vs getting-there. Deliberately living this paradox means acknowledging the intermingled realities of both being and becoming as constant and shifting influences. The definition of being refers to reality as an assemblage including everything. It might even be referred to as the truth of all appearance. Boundaries merely delineate ephemeral functional identities. There is no such thing as an isolated event. There is no convincing rationalization for being separate from the world. 

The sole intrinsic driving force of all ‘events’ is relationship in a vast and open matrix of spontaneity. The implication of such a state is the opposite of stable, the opposite of any reified identity or anything remotely referencing stasis or exclusivity. This is a restatement of the truth of emptiness, of infinite creative possibility. At this end of the continuum, Othering is complete illusion. All presumed binaries are false, nonexistent. The characteristics of becoming (in the world) are openness, inclusivity, spontaneity, and unity. These attributes ‘de-territorialize the binary’ quite completely and succinctly. There is no fixed space to be. There is only continuous, unpredictable becoming.

The myth of liberal humanist autonomy, the enshrinement of the individual, dissociates us from these pre-personal, greater-than-individual forces and conditions around us, presuming and affirming continuous and reflexive delineation (and destruction) of the world into subject and object. Comprehending reality as an assemblage in constant flux from which nothing is excluded is a conceptual leap. We are trying to escape the orbit of liberal humanism. Perception being hard-wired as it is, even if we are convinced of the futility of that trying, we gain perpetual refreshment by acknowledging that events appear to be separable only by our participation in them.

Thus, individually, we perpetually live on the edge between aspiration and arrival. At the cultural level, we in the West are still stuck in the story of modernity, perpetual growth, accumulation, coloniality and whiteness despite the irrefutable evidence of how violent and destructive this ethic truly is. We remain vulnerable to its entrenched and tenacious ideologies and ineffectual at confronting its purveyors. We continue to impose, even if inadvertently, the values of modernity on the transformational process we imagine or yearn to traverse by adopting a destination, an outcome. The destination itself becomes an obstacle. The journey to becoming is without destination, without resolution. We can never fully arrive. That is what being there means, perpetually arriving at a non-existent destination. Instead, we mutate, leaping from language toward a somatic molting unrelated to materiality as we currently know it. Mutation may turn out to be the discovery of an as-yet unknown cellular knowing, existing outside any conventional definition of transformation. An algorithm yet to be written. But there is no way there. There is no getting there. There is only there

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