Deleuze and Guattari – Rhizomatic Writing: Abstract Machines and Social Critique

Notes on A Thousand Plateaus Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Sorry, going to be making some notes toward an approach in experimental writing. This is not in my usual style: not an essay, but just a series of working notes, more of a writer’s question session. But thought it might be beneficial to show others how I think through things, the processual processes  that go on behind the scenes of any writer as he gathers, collates, works through, and questions his aesthetic or artistic stylistics, as well as the tasking aspect of experimental writing in itself. Deleuze and Guattari always seem to be criticized for their two experimental works, but to me they were looking for new forms, ways of bringing their unique blend of relations, with each other, the world, etc. to bear on certain issues that interested them and exposed their ventures in schizoanalytic theory and practice.

Rereading the Intro to A Thousand Plateaus I was reminded of the statement: “A book, as in all things, there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification” (2).1 The other is their sense of what they describe in their collaboration of reaching a point where it no longer matters nor important of who is behind the words: “we are no longer ourselves, each will know his own.” This sort of schizoanalytic mode of writing. The book as assemblage and multiplicity. When they ask the question: “What is the body without organs of a book?” They see the book as a literary machine that is plugged into other machines. As they tell it: “…when one writes the only question is which other machine must be plugged into in order to work: “writing has nothing to do with signifying, it has to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come”.

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Georges Canguilhem: A Short History of Milieu: 1800 to the 1960’s

The notion of milieu is becoming a universal and obligatory mode of apprehending the experience and existence of living beings…

– Georges Canguilhem, Knowledge of Life

Reading these essays by Georges Canguilhem I can understand why he had such an impact on many of those like Michael Foucault, Gilbert Simondon to name only two French Intellectuals of that era. He brings not only an in depth understanding of the historical dimensions of concepts, but he conveys it in such a way that one makes the connections among its various mutations and uses with such gusto and even handed brilliance that one forgets that one is reading what might otherwise be a purely abstract theatre of concepts in their milieu. Even if I might disagree with his conclusions I think he had such a wide influence on those younger philosophers that it behooves us to study his works. In the The Living in its Milieu he gives a short history of this concept as it is used by scientists, artists and philosophers. The notion of milieu came into biology by way of mechanics as defined by Newton and explicated in the entry on milieu in the Encyclopédie Methodique of Diderot and d’Alembert attributed to Johann (Jean) Bernoulli. From here it was incorporated both in a plural and a singular form by other biologists and philosophers in the 19th Century. Among them Lamark, inspired by Buffon in its plural form, and established by Henri de Blainville; while in the singular form it was Auguste Comte and Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire who clarified its use. Yet, for most people of the 19th Century is through the work of Honoré de Balzac (in his preface to his La Comédie humaine), as well as in the work of Hippolyte Taine who used the term as one of three analytic explanatory concepts guiding his historical vision, the other two being race and moment. After 1870 the neo-Lamarckian biologists would inherit this term from Taine ( such biologists as Alfred Girard, Félix Le Dantec, Frédéric Houssay, Johann Costantin, Gaston Bonnier, and Louis Roule).

The eighteenth century mechanists used the term milieu to denote what Newton referred to as “fluid”. As Canguilhem relates the problem that Newton and others in his time faced was the central problem in mechanics of action of distinct physical bodies at a distance (99).1 For Descartes this was not an issue since for him there was only one mode of action – that of collision, as well as one possible physical situation – contact (99). Yet, when early experimental or empirical scientists tried to use Descartes theory they discovered a flaw: bodies blend together. While Newton solving this issue discovered that instead what was needed was a medium within which these operations could take place: so he developed the notion of ‘ether‘. The luminiferous ether in Newton’s theory became an intermediary between two bodies, it is their milieu; and insofar as the fluid penetrates all these bodies, they are situated in the middle of it [au milieu de lui]. In Newton’s theory of forces one could speak of the milieu as the environment (milieu) in which there was a center of force.

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Deleuze: Quote of the Day!

Philosophy cannot be undertaken independently of science or art. It is in this sense that we tried to constitute a philosophical concept from the mathematical function or differentiation and the biological function of differenciation, in asking whether there was not a stable relation between  these two concepts, which could not appear at the level of their respective objects. Art, science and philosophy seemed to us to be caught up in mobile relations in which each is obliged to respond to the other, but by its own means.

– Gilles Deleuze, Difference & Repetition

Canguilhem, Simondan, Deleuze

Tracing certain concepts back into the murky pool of influence can be both interesting but at the same time troubling. The more I study Deleuze the more perplexed I become. Was he a vitalist as some suggest? Or, was he against such notions in his conception of life? Trying to understand just where the truth is to be found has taken me into the work of two other French thinkers, one a philosopher of the sciences, Georges Canguilhem; and, the other, a philosopher of technology, Gilbert Simondon.

On Canguilhem

We learn from Wikipedia (here) that Canguilhem’s principal work in philosophy of science is presented in two books, Le Normal et le pathologique, first published in 1943 and then expanded in 1968, and La Connaissance de la vie (1952). Le Normal et la pathologique is an extended exploration into the nature and meaning of normality in medicine and biology, the production and institutionalization of medical knowledge. It is still a seminal work in medical anthropology and the history of ideas, and is widely influential in part thanks to Canguilhem’s influence on Michel Foucault [and, thereby, indirectly on the work of Gilles Deleuze]. La Connaissance de la vie is an extended study of the specificity of biology as a science, the historical and conceptual significance of vitalism, and the possibility of conceiving organisms not on the basis of mechanical and technical models that would reduce the organism to a machine, but rather on the basis of the organism’s relation to the milieu in which it lives, its successful survival in this milieu, and its status as something greater than “the sum of its parts.” Canguilhem argued strongly for these positions, criticising 18th and 19th century vitalism (and its politics) but also cautioning against the reduction of biology to a “physical science.” He believed such a reduction deprived biology of a proper field of study, ideologically transforming living beings into mechanical structures serving a chemical/physical equilibrium that cannot account for the particularity of organisms or for the complexity of life. He furthered and altered these critiques in a later book, Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences.

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A New Individuation: Deleuze’s Simondon Connection

Looks like Andrew Iliadis’s from Philosophy of Information & Communcation blog has a new paper out showing the connections and influence of Gilbert Simondon’s work on Gilles Deleuze. He mentions the work of Alberto Toscana The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation between Kant and Deleuze and its tracing of the lines of flight of the concept of individuation within several philosophers. An excellent read in itself. For what is at stake in both Simondon and Deleuze Iliadis following Toscana, says, “is a critique of the Aristotelian notion of hylomorphism”. What interests Iliadis in Simondon is that his resuscitation of the conceptual framework of the philosophy of individuation allows for a contribution to what is “really a new type of philosophy of information that found similarities with but remained opposed to the mathematical theory of communication”. It also “made our understanding of information more dynamic and in so doing also our understanding of ourselves as individuals… and the world around us from an epistemic-ontological point of view”. Finally, he sees Simondan’s legacy as offering “us a political perspective from which to engage the neoliberal world around us”. I’ll leave it to the reader to investigate the rest of Iliadis’s excellent investigation into Simondon’s concepts. It centers on Simondon’s critique of Aristotle’s hylomorphism, as well as the continuing relevance of three key concepts that Simondan introduced and Deleuze made the bedrock of his own philosophy: information, individuation, and disparation.

ethics & philosophy of information


The new issue of MediaTropes is now out. My essay “A New Individuation: Deleuze’s Simondon Connection” is in it.

Here’s the abstract:

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) wrote monographs on the philosophers whose work greatly influenced his own, with one glaring exception: he did not write one on his contemporary Gilbert Simondon (1924-1989). Simondon is cited only a few times in the Deleuzean corpus yet his influence is everywhere, from ideas concerning the virtual to the concept of individuation. The following paper provides a much needed survey of Simondon’s influence on Deleuze in two steps. First, I show how Simondon’s ontology emerged from a rethinking of Aristotle’s theory of substance (hylomorphism). Second, I elaborate on the few passages where Deleuze explicitly appropriates this new ontology, particularly Simondon’s concept of individuation. In this way, I show how Simondon foresaw our new modes of existence and argued for a…

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Gilbert Simondon: The Conditions of Technical Evolution

What are the reasons for the convergence manifest in the evolution of technical structures?

– Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects

In my last post on Simondon’s early dissertation we saw the impetus in his thought toward defining an evolutionary sequence for technics, the technical object, and technical culture. One was tempted to see his critique in both negative and positive light. On the he saw a certain manifestation of regulatory processes guiding both the genesis and telos of the technological object and its culture, and on the other he saw another tendency toward negentropy and resistance to these very processes within the evolutionary sequences that brought about the genesis and evolution of this very technics: “the machine is something which fights against the death of the universe; it slows down, as life does, the degradation of energy, and becomes a stabilizer of the world”.

In describing the process of standardization and replacement of parts within the mode of existence of a technical object Simondon tells us it is neither the extrinsic causes (although they, too apply pressure), but is the necessary conditions of the intrinsic nature of the technical object itself that produce the very concretion of what is in fact contingent: “its being based on an analytical organization which always leaves the way clear for new possibilities, possibilities which are the exterior manifestation of an interior contingency”. 1

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Gilbert Simondon: On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects

On reading Gilbert Simondon’s early dissertation  On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (Accursed Share, pdf) also Scott Bakker pointed me to academia for another translation (see here: pdf)I see many aspects of the Society of Control emerging from his specific forms of the incorporation of technics, regulatory processes, and the technical ensemble (object) into alliance with our current socio-cultural problematique. He thinks that somewhere along the way human culture divorced itself from its technologies and in alienating itself from these technical objects (machines) we became dehumanized. So in effect he goes against the grain of many early theorists of technology, philosophers who said we need a suture between our humanity and the rational, regulatory processes of the Industrial age of machines. Instead he believes we need to reincorporate the machines (technics, technical objects) into our lives rather than keeping them at bay.

Because of our fears of the machine we have portrayed these technical objects as alien robotic presences who have their own threatening intentions toward us. This projection of intentionality onto the technical object has in turn humanized the machine and dehumanized us: an inversion or reversal that has brought about our own cultural fragmentation. Instead we should open ourselves to the machines, even as they are themselves open systems in their own right. He sees humans in the light of orchestral conductors who do not so much dictate as interpret the codes and algorithms for the ensemble of machines as part of an intra-dialectical process or feed-back loop of inventiveness and creativity. Our only responsibility is as arbiters and cultural encoders of certain limiting and indeterminate constraints in this open relationship with these technical objects. This new axiomatic knowledge and enculturation of thus phase shift is to incorporate these technical objects back into our socio-cultural dynamic. And part of that process should include a revamping of our educational institutions by providing this new dynamic as a part of every child’s education.

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Metaphysics and the Sciences: The Journey to Reality

Have you ever asked yourself the question: What is reality? What is it like? I remember as a boy asking my father a thousand and one questions about such strange notions. It drove him crazy. Not literally crazy, but in a good way.

“What is this, Dad?”

“It’s a baseball, son.”

“What’s it for, Dad?”

“It’s used in a game, called Baseball, Son.”

“But why? Why do they use this and not something else.”

I remember my dad took me to my first baseball game and showed me concretely just what a baseball is and what it is like to use a baseball. Kids think in concrete terms, only later do we seem to ask such abstract questions as I first portrayed.

This kind of questioning of objects and things went on for what seemed to be my whole young life. My dad was always patient, inquisitive, and would sometimes explain in details not just what the objects is, but what it was used for, its purpose. I never questioned him about the purpose of things. I just excepted his answers as any young child would, and then went on to other endless questions about other things without really stopping and thinking about it. This was the process all children go through learning to attach names to things as they are growing up. By the time we reach a certain age we have this complete arsenal of names attached to their objects as if this was all natural. But is it? Is this a natural process? What is really happening here? This slow process learning provided by parents as well as one’s teachers in school goes by the name education. The etymology of the word is from Latin educatus, past participle of educare “bring up, rear, educate,” which is related to educere “bring out, lead forth”. This notion of bringing up and rearing a child by leading forth or drawing them out seems to imply that there is something within the child that must be drawn forth and educed into learning and acquiring knowledge. But whose knowledge? Do we know for sure that our parents and teachers really know the truth about all these things out there, all these objects we’ve attached names too? And why is it that so many other cultures see things differently?

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Ok, but how?

You have to be able to love the insignificant, to love what goes beyond persons and individuals; you have to open yourself to encounters and find a language in the singularities that exceed individuals, a language in the individuations that exceed persons…

– Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands

My friend dmf asks: “ok, but how?” on my previous post in which the above partial quote was offered formed a part of the Quote of the Day.

My response:

How to love? Or how to find a language in the singularities that exceed individuals? Or a combination of the both?

And, of course, I’m the wrong one to ask that question 🙂 As he said: it’s up to you to do that for yourself. “You have to be able to love the insignificant, to love what goes beyond persons and individuals; you have to open yourself to encounters and find a language in the singularities that exceed individuals, a language in the individuations that exceed persons…” But all kidding aside… I don’t think it was an ethical or normative program he was offering. There is no DIY (do-it-yourself self-help manual ) for this. This was part of many of the things left to be done by others, not himself; for he was already moving toward his own lines of flight out of this realm. I think he left us a map, rather than a set of ethical markers. It was up to us to navigate this uncharted territory.

He said “you”… obviously he didn’t have an answer to that question as a solution… it was more of an open ended problematique that needs to be solved, than some predetermined, ethical, or philosophical imperative to regulate or guide our lives… I think what he’s getting at is that humans for too long have been concerned with ‘humans’ and that the turn toward the marginal, the inhuman, the non-human ( “singularities that exceed individuals” ) is of more import than our small and marginal social, political, and ethical dilemmas.

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Gilles Deleuze: Quote of the Day!

We are uncovering a world of pre-individual, impersonal singularities. They are not reducible to individuals or persons, nor to a sea without difference. These singularities are mobile, they break in, thieving and stealing away, alternating back and forth, like anarchy crowned, inhabiting a nomad space. There is a big difference between partitioning a fixed space among sedentary individuals according to boundaries or enclosures, and distributing singularities in an open space without enclosures or properties. The poet Ferlinghetti talks about the fourth person singular: it is that to which we try to give voice…

You have to be able to love the insignificant, to love what goes beyond persons and individuals; you have to open yourself to encounters and find a language in the singularities that exceed individuals, a language in the individuations that exceed persons…

– Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands


Collaborative Project in need of your input: following Deleuze’s Postscript on a Control Society!

I’m excited by a collaborative effort with my good friend Edmund Berger from Deterritorial Investigations Unit dealing with the Control Society as portrayed by Gilles Deleuze in his Postscript on a Control Society(pdf) as our starting point. We believe it is something that both of us have shared in our separate but unique parallax views for a while now. So we’re teaming up to create a new project that will eventually turn into a book based on many of the themes within that essay. With Edmunds deep historical and socio-cultural knowledge and my investment in the sciences, philosophy, and technology we hope to interweave a rhizomatic project that allows for many entry points and exits for further exploration and development. I love philosophy but the broader aspects of our socio-cultural and political issues that come out of our contemporary situations and the thought forms needed to deal with it seem better suited to a larger framework than the creation of concepts in philosophy (in the narrow sense) would entail. Although we need a conceptual framework that is based on an ontological and epistemic or normative account it need not be central to its narrative.

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Deleuze: Concepts in the Wild

This is the genius of empiricism, which is so poorly understood: the creation of concepts in the wild, speaking in the name of a coherence which is not their own, nor that of God, not that of the Self, but a coherence always on the way, always in disequilibrium with itself. What philosophy lacks is empiricism.

– Giles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts

In this interview Deleuze reminds us that sense is an “effect,” an effect produced, whose laws of production must be uncovered (137).1 He saw this as central in the structuralism of his time, in the work of such thinkers as Levi-Straus, Lacan, Foucault, and Althusser. For each of them sense as an effect produced by a specific machinery of thought (137). And, for him the new philosophers must become machinists, or operators of these “effects” (137).

In this early essay Deleuze was already moving ahead of all his contemporaries, and I might say, even my own contemporaries, in his mode of thinking. Already his conceptions eliminated the human, the subject, the I, not in some atheistic paeon against religious sensibilities. No, as he says: “We can’t let ourselves be satisfied with that…” Instead what he saw on the horizon was a new conception emerging, the notion of “impersonal individuations, or even pre-individual singularities”: we are entering the age of the liquid singularity with no name, no identity, no law. For Deleuze this was a political act, a way to liberation:

You see, the forces of repression always need a Self that can be assigned, they need determinate individuals on which to exercise their power. When we become the least bit fluid, when we slip away from the assignable Self, when there is no longer any person on who Power can exercise its authority or by whom it can be replaced, the police lose (138).

Philosophy too has a task toward this liberation. Only there are two ways of doing this: 1) on the one hand there is critique of false applications: false morality, false knowledge, false religions, etc.; and, 2) on the other hand there is another kind of critique in which a new image of thought is developed out of a criticism of earlier modes of existence. (138) In the first type of critique nothing happens, we discover the pitfalls of past mistakes, yet it does nothing to awaken or bring about a fundamental change in people’s basic thinking; while the other form of critique does just the opposite: following those like Lucretius, Spinoza, and Nietzsche – this new form of critique explodes on the scene, totally volcanic. This form of critique is no longer purely negative but is fully positive, a creative act. (138)

Asked by the interviewer about his historical endeavors in Hume, Kant, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and others he describes the difference between the two critiques. In his work on Kant he outlined the “false critique”. He tells us he couldn’t very well just point out the fact that you disagreed with him, no what you do instead is discover the problems he poses and the machinery he uses to expose and resolve these problems. Others like Hume, Bergson, and Proust he found more congenial and in them he discovered elements of a new image of thought (139). As he states it:

There’s something extraordinary in the way they tell us: thinking means something else than what you believe (139).

As he tells us most of us go along perfectly satisfied with our worlds, our little corner of the universe, never questioning that we live in fictional worlds provided to us ready-made by our cultures. Then all of a sudden we come across certain thinkers: artists, philosophers, etc. that describe for us another way of thinking, sensing, feeling, etc. Take Proust for instance he tells us:

Proust … has the idea that every thought is an aggression, appearing under the constraint of a sign, and that we think only when we are forced and constrained to think. From then on, thought is no longer carried on by a voluntary self, but by involuntary forces, the “effects” of machines… (139)

In this sense the artist, philosopher, social critic, etc. have all become symptomologists: they search the world for signs of disease, signs of life, signs of a cure, signs of health (140). He reminds us that Nietzsche’s conception of the philosopher as physician of civilization, or Henry Miller who Deleuze considered an “extraordinary diagnostician” (140). As he sees it:

The artist in general must treat the world as a symptom, and build his work not like a therapeutic, but in every case like a clinic. The artist is not outside the symptoms, but makes a work of art from them which sometimes serves to precipitate them, and sometimes to transform them. (140)

Just like the novelist uses characters and persons to write novels, so the philosopher uses concepts. For Deleuze what we needed was both a new stylistics, and new concepts: “What’s important here is this: where do concepts come from? What is the creation of concepts?” A concept exists no less than a character in a novel does. “In my opinion, what we need is a massive expenditure of concepts, an excess of concepts. You have to present concepts in philosophy as though you were writing a good detective novel: they must have a zone of presence, resolve the local situation, be in contact with the “dramas,” and bring a certain cruelty with them” (141).

1. Gilles Deleuze. Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 (Semiotext(s), 2004)

What is the task of philosophy today?

Foucault indeed undertakes to provide the human sciences with a foundation, but it is a poisonous foundation, an archeology that smashes its idols, a malicious gift.

– Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands

D asked a simple question: “What were the conditions of possibility of the human sciences, or what is humanity’s true date of birth?”

In answering this he tells us there is a precise answer: “the Human can exist in the space of knowledge only once the “classical” world of representation itself has collapsed under the pressure of non-representable and non-representative forces” (91).1 Nothing unusual in this except the truth that the concept of the Human did not come about until as he reminds us biology, political economy, and philology emerged in the 19th Century. Quoting Foucault’s text on the history of Representation, The Order of Things, he tells us that it is in the historical depths that the “living organism” once it has left the theatre of representation becomes an object within the purview of the biological, economic, and linguistic sciences.

It was during this era that humanity through a sort of reduplication discovered both the foundations of life (Darwin), labor (Ricardo, Marx), and language (Grimm, Bopp); as well as those “transcendental” structures of its own finitude (Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Fichte, etc.). The only thing that collapsed was “the sovereignty of the identity of representations” (91). As he puts it:

Humanity thus comes to have a double being. … The Human is traversed by an essential disparity, almost an alienation by rights, separated from itself by its words,  by its works, and by its desires. And in this revolution that explodes representation, it is no longer difference that must be subordinated to the same, but the same that must be said of the Different: the Nietzschean revolution.(91)

What Foucault discovered Deleuze tells us is a sort of Great Reversal. The human sciences came about not when humanity discovered itself as the object of representations, not even as a historical object. No. Instead these human sciences emerged out of a “dehistoricized” process that involved the distanciation or distancing of the non-human from the human: “when things received their own history that liberated them from humanity and its representation” (92). At this point in the text Deleuze makes a specifically harsh judgment on what we now term anthropology or the human sciences:

The false equilibrium already shows that human sciences are not sciences. They aspired to occupy the empty place in representation, but this place of the king cannot and must not be occupied: anthropology is mystification. (92)

Nothing remains of the human, the “analytic of finitude” has been replaced with a new image of thought: “a thinking that no longer opposes itself as from the outside to the unthinkable or the unthought, but which would lodge the unthinkable, the unthought within itself as thought, and which would be in essential relationship to it; a thinking that would of itself be in relation to the obscure, and which by rights would be traversed by a sort of fissure, without which thought could no longer operate (92)”.

The gap or fissure left in the black hole where representation vanished has remained, unable to fill it with the Human the only disciplines left moved beyond its boundaries, circling the abyss left by the hold of the human sciences: ethnology, psychoanalysis, and linguistics. And in our time the molecular and neurosciences… What Deleuze finds in Foucault’s project is no longer the study of human opinion (doxa), but rather a “synchronic study of knowledge and its conditions: not conditions that make knowledge possible in general, but those that make it real and determine it a any one moment (93). Foucault’s displacement of concepts and the importance of authors allowed him to uncover the conditions that made possible both “mathesis and mechanics” (93). The point being as Deleuze emphasizes that different opinions in our historical understanding are less important than the “space of knowledge that makes them possible” (93). As he sums up:

A new image of thought – a new conception of what thinking means is the task of philosophy today. This is where philosophy, no less than the sciences and the arts, can demonstrate its capacity for mutations and new “spaces.” (93)


notes: Thoughts on Philosophy and Science
Thoughts on What Philosophy Is by Levi R. Bryant

One of my current projects involves Deleuze’s “Spaces of Knowledge” this study of the conditions that made possible both mathesis (in D’s sense) and mechanics.

1. Gilles Deleuze. Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 (Semiotext(s), 2004)

Thoughts on Philosophy and the Sciences

The deficiencies of each of these alternatives, in each of their variations, have been well demonstrated time and again, but this failure of philosophers to find a satisfactory resting spot for the pendulum had few if any implications outside philosophy until recent years, when the developments in science, especially in biology and psychology, brought the philosophical question closer to scientific questions – or, more precisely, brought scientists closer to needing answers to the questions that had heretofore been the isolated and exclusive province of philosophy.

Daniel C. Dennett,  Content and Consciousness

Rereading Denett’s book Content and Consciousness makes me see how little has changed between 1969 and now in philosophy. The point of his statement above is to show how over time (history) the questions of philosophy are replaced by the questions of scientists. Why? Is there something about philosophy that keeps it at one remove from reality? Are we forever barred from actually confronting the truth of reality? Is it something about our tools, our languages, our particular methodologies, etc.? What is it that the sciences have or do that makes them so much better equipped to probe the truth about reality? What Denennett is describing above is the movement between differing views of reality that philosophers time and again seem to flow through from generation to generation, shifting terms from nominalism/realism, idealism/materialism, etc. down the ages always having a battle over approaches to reality that seem to be moving in opposing ways. While the sciences slowly and with patient effort actually do the work of physically exploring and testing reality with varying probes, instruments, and apparatuses that actually do tell us what is going on.

Levi R. Bryant has a couple of thought full posts on his blog Larval Subjects (here) and (here) dealing with the twined subjects of philosophy’s work and reality probing. In the first post he surmises:

Here I think it’s important to understand that philosophy is not so much a discipline as a style of thought or an activity.  We are fortunate to have a discipline that houses those who engage in this sort of conceptual reflection, that provides a site for this reflection, and that preserves the thought of those who have reflected on basic concepts.  However, I can imagine someone objecting that certainly the scientist can (and does!) ask questions like “what is causality?”  To be sure.  However, I would argue that when she does this she’s not doing science but rather philosophy.  Philosophy doesn’t have to happen in a department to be philosophy, nor does it have to be in a particular section of the bookstore.  One need not have a degree in philosophy to engage in this sort of reflective activity; though it certainly helps.  It can take place anywhere and at any time.

The notion that scientists ask questions that are philosophical is true and that in that process they are doing philosophy is also true, yet I think it overlooks the fact that scientists not only ask questions that are philosophical they also answer these questions scientifically rather than philosophically and that seems to make all the difference between the two domains of knowledge. Science is not only as Levi points out of philosophy a “sort of reflective activity”. The sciences utilize a set of methodologies that allow them to probe reality not only using conceptual tools as in philosophy, but also with very real scientific instruments, apparatuses, etc. Obviously Levi would not disagree with this, and I’m sure he knows very well that this was not the question he was pursuing. This is not an argument with Levi about philosophy. In fact I have no problem and agree with Levi in the points he was making. The point of his post was more about What philosophy is? In other words the ontological question not about the differing goals of philosophy and science and what they do. Yet, my point is just that: would the typical scientist stop with the question “What is causality?” – would he like the philosopher be satisfied with reflecting on what is – stay with the metaphysical and speculative ontological question? No. The typical scientist wouldn’t stop there he would also ask the same question as the philosopher but instead of trying to solve the nature of causality as an ontological problem his emphasis would not be on the is but on the activity of causality itself(i.e., what is it that causality is doing?). The difference is subtle, for the philosopher this reflection on the nature of causality is about what causality is, while the same question for the scientist is about what causality does: under what conditions could I test the mechanisms of causality? etc.  That is the rub, the splice, the cut or suture between the two disciplines or styles or approaches toward the nature of causality.

There is a subtle connection between philosophy and science as well. You can ask of science how it pictures the world, study its laws, its theories, its models, and its claims – you can know and listen to what it says or describes about the world: the is of the world. But you can also consider not just what it says about the world – but what is done: experimental sciences not only reflect the is they also understand the actual workings of causality by experimental methods that under controlled or highly contrived circumstances allow them to peak into the nature of causality and what it does not just what it is.

Decoding the Void

dmf in one of his usual cryptic messages to me dropped a link to a site, Radiolab where there is a recording of Patrick Purdon, and his protégé, colleague Emery Brown, Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, who tries to answer this question: “What happens in that invisible moment when the patient goes under anesthesia?  And why is it that some patients remain conscious, even when they appear to be knocked out?”  In an experiment that takes the induction of anesthesia and slows it down to a crawl while analyzing the brain’s electrical activity they discover something interesting about how the brain works as the connections that once gave it consciousness suddenly are sutured, cut off.

Listening to the recording is like listening to an old time radio program with comic relief, strange sounds, and quirky effects interspersed with endless conversation: something like the brain itself, maybe. Definitely worth listening to this excellent broadcast. The gist of the message was simple. After the brain was slowed down to a particular point in the application of anesthesia it was noticed that something strange happened: it was as if someone had turned off a light switch. There was no transition from a waking to an unconscious state, nothing but a sudden pop, as if someone had just struck a gong or bell. Silence. Unconsciousness.

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Nancy Cartwright: Nomological Machines

What is a nomological machine?

– Nancy Cartwright, The Dappled World – A Study of the Boundaries of Science

In a simple, concise, and pithy definition Nancy Cartwright answers her own question, saying: “It is a fixed (enough) arrangement of components, or factors, with stable (enough) capacities that in the right sort of stable (enough) environment will, with repeated operation, give rise to the kind of regular behavior that we represent in our scientific laws”.1

In reading this sentence again we get the feeling that Nancy is not quite as sure of all the required needs of her statement to enact the production of these laws that it supports. With the use of “enough” as “moderately, fairly, tolerably” (good enough) in several places we get the feeling of an unwritten complicit statement that this is all based on a notion of heuristics which  refers to experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery that give a solution which is not guaranteed to be optimal. Where the exhaustive search is impractical, heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution via mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision.

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The Impersonal Self: Autonomy, Ownership, and Eliminative Subject

Most of the time in our everyday lives we talk of this person or that person as having psychological states and who does things, performs actions: as someone who owns their psychological states and actions. The notion of self-ownership has a long history (of which more later). We might call this the Sovereign Self or the Autonomous Subject theory of the person. The invention of autonomy as a concept was the creation of a unique philosopher, Immanuel Kant. As J.B. Schneewind in his epochal history of this concept tells us Kant used the notion of invention for this term of autonomy in the same way as Leibniz, another philosopher of the 17th Century for whom Kant had great respect but often disagreed with:

“Lebniz thought up a simple substance which had nothing but obscure representations, and called it a slumbering monad. This monad he had not explained, but merely invented; for the concept of it was not given to him but was rather created by him” – from Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant

Kant saw autonomy as the moral center of our sense of identity and subjectivity. For Kant autonomy required what is termed ‘contracausal freedom’ or free will: he believed that in the unique experience of the moral ought we are “given” a “fact of reason” (Schneewind, 3). For him free will was part of a mechanism of law, the imposition of certain codified rules and regulatory processes that internalized our need to obey. In his writings he alludes to the sense of persons as agents who are self-governed and in this way were considered autonomous agents with free will. I’ll not go into the full arguments presented by Kant for this view, to do so would entail an explication of his mature moral philosophy.

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Anthony Elliott: Rise of Anti-Self

…territories of the self – both positive and negative – are being powerfully reshaped by our world of intensive globalization, and indeed it is my view that processes affecting the globalization of self are likely to intensify.

– Anthony Elliott,  Concepts of the Self

The notion that the Self, Subject, Subjectivity have a history may be a commonplace in out post- whatever age of transformation, but the notion of an Anti-Self suddenly displacing the older sense of individualism, freedom, and the moral ethical version of Kantian notion of the autonomous individual moral Subject is another thing entirely. As Anthony Elliot states it contrary to received opinion the task of a reflective social theory of the self, broadly speaking, is to take apart the received wisdom that globalization creates a flattening or diminution of lived experience and to probe the complex, contradictory global forces that shape our current ways of life and trajectories of self. In this sense, recent social theory has had much of interest to contribute to debates on selfhood, since various social analysts have detected signs that contemporary identities are moving in a more cosmopolitan, post-traditional or global direction.1

With the rise of such strange modernities as Zygmaut Bauman’s now classic Liquid Modernity we have come to know the self not as some well defined cognitive bastion of the western imagination, but as something different, more liquid and open, changing, metamorphosizing into otherwise unknown perimeters of a fragile, fragmented self with no solid identity. Instead we are entering the age of the anti-self which as Elliott suggests referring to such theoreticians as John Law (see Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices)

To acknowledge the chaos of the world is, according to this viewpoint, to recognize the centrality of heterogeneity and dissemination of social fabrics, and to give the slip, once and for all, to our culture’s narcissistic over-estimation of self, identity and agency. Our present social order, it is argued, is based on connections, attributions and distributions of the non-human as well as the human – and this precisely is what is overlooked in many social theories of the self. On this view, what is now needed is the replacement of the self as privileged actor by, instead, the conceptual recognition that the self is just one actor (or, another actor) in a network of actors – human, non-human, technical and semiotic. Only through recognizing that the self is not pre-given, but is, rather, something that emanates from an external web of entities, connections and distributions, can we grasp what John Law (an acolyte of such anti-self theory) has dubbed ‘heterogeneous orderings in networks of the social’.

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Hans-Jörg Rheinberger: A Short History of Epistemology

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger – as we learn from the blurb on his Max Planck Institute site, main focus in research lies in the history and epistemology of experimentation in the life sciences. By bridging the gap between the study of history and contemporary cutting-edge sciences, such as molecular biology, his work represents an example of transdisciplinarity as emerging in the present knowledge-based society.

In his short book On Historicizing Epistemology: An Essay  he tells us that the classical view of epistemology was a synonym for a theory of knowledge that inquires into what it is that makes knowledge scientific, while for many of the contemporary practioners of this art, following the French practice, it has become a form of reflecting on the historical conditions under which, and the means with which, things are made into objects of knowledge.1

This subtle difference between the classical and the contemporary epistemology hinges on a specific set of historical transformations in philosophy and the sciences during the twentieth century and it is to this that his book directs its inquiry. From the nineteenth century of Emil Du Bois-Reymond and Ernst Mach on through the works of Polish immunologist Ludwik Fleck and the French epistemologist Gaston Bachelard to Karl Popper, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer, Alexandre Koyre, Thomas Kuhn, Stephen Toulmin, and Paul Feyerabend, Georges Canguilhem, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault, as well as Jacques Derrida, and on up to contemporary practioners such as Ian Hacking for the English-speaking world, and by Bruno Latour for France we follow the course of a slow process of historicizing and internal transformation of philosophy, the sciences, and epistemology as they interacted with each other.

As he shows in this short work even the problematique, the very problems that epistemology set out to answer changed in route from the early thinkers to the later:

Not by chance, an epistemology and history of experimentation crystallized conjointly. The question now was no longer how knowing subjects might attain an undisguised view of their objects, rather the question was what conditions had to be created for objects to be made into objects of empirical knowledge under historically variable conditions.(Kindle Locations 44-45).

For anyone needing a basic history and overview of this fascinating history of the conjunctions and disjunctions of science and philosophy this is a great little introduction and not too costly.

1. Hans-Jorg Rheinberger. On Historicizing Epistemology: An Essay (Cultural Memory in the Present) (Kindle Locations 38-39). Kindle Edition.

Slavoj Zizek: Another World is Possible

If you ask me what will be our future, my model is this: did you see the wonderful film Brazil by Terry Gilliam?

– Slavoj Zizek, Demanding the Impossible

In his typical fashion Zizek instead of answering a question head on and directly, opts for an indirect circumambulation of the outer fringes of its horizon till he slowly draws the whole edifice into a circle of parallax logic that leaves us if not knowing the answer at least facing the Minotaur in the troubling labyrinths of our cultural malaise.

The questions asked by the interlocutor:

You once mentioned that the difficulty of today’s capitalism is, in effect, that we cannot even imagine a viable alternative to global capitalism. Are we really not able to envision a possible alternative? What will be our only possible option? How do you picture the new model of a good society? What is your idea of the future? What sort of society do you want?

For Zizek our late capitalist globalism is if not a Divine Comedy then its ultimate parody. Likening our world to the Italian Berlusconi’s government writ large he tells us that liberal democracy has reached its zenith, and that if we do not bring about some kind of collective action against this inertia we will all be living in this simulated universe of the filmic Brazil.

Against any form of Foucauldian discipline society he envisions a depoliticized consumerist paradise reduced to a hedonistic control society where the inmates hold the keys and the watchtowers. He says we live in a society where even ethics has been commoditized. The endless debates in government over same-sex marriage, or race and species relations, etc. are all part of this new turn toward the commoditized control of the body by other means. Everything is now relativized, there are no longer any ethical standards, we pick and choose among competing commodities wearing today one face, tomorrow another. Ethics is a mask for our laziness, our inability to fix anything, stand for anything, be united in any form of collective project.

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Gilbert Ryle: The Concept of Mind

I wanted to apply, and be seen to be applying to some large -scale philosophical crux the answer to the question that had preoccupied us in the 1920s, and especially in the 1930s , the question namely ‘What constitutes a philosophical problem; and what is the way to solve it?’ … by the late 1940s it was time , I thought, to exhibit a sustained piece of analytical hatchet-work being directed upon some notorious and large-sized Gordian Knot…. For a time I thought of the problem of the Freedom of the Will as the most suitable Gordian Knot; but in the end I opted for the Concept of Mind— though the book’s actual title did not occur to me until the printers were hankering to begin printing the first proofs

– Gilbert Ryle,  The Concept of Mind

Been a long while since I first read this work as an undergraduate at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. Boy, how time flies… Reading some of the current work by neuroscientists made me remember this now classic philosophical polemic. Many of the traces and patterns one finds in these new works and practices first saw the light of day within the short pages of this book: embodied and ‘situated’ cognition; your mind is not in your brain; skill is not represented; intelligence without representation— to name only the most obvious. The notion that he approached this as philosophical hatchet-work is telling. As one commentator says “Ryle himself certainly did not understand his ideas in the way we are tempted to understand these returning versions of them. Today’s problems—the theoretical problems to which his ideas might be part of the solution— were largely un-imagined by Ryle. How did he arrive at his ideas , then? I think the answer lies in his method, which more than most methods welds its strengths and weaknesses into an indivisible lump, take it or leave it”.1 That I disagree with Ryle now on almost everything is not the point of this post, it is really about how philosophy is still caught in the web of its own illusory pursuits while the sciences have moved on.

It was in this book that Ryle coined the memorable line ‘the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.’ This introspective scheme would now be a part of the history of self-reflexivity and internal conversation, etc. Even these notions that still hold onto some form of Subject Theory are being questioned in the cognitive neurosciences, but that is another tale. What’s more telling in the next passage is how all of our fictive frameworks, whether in philosophy or the sciences are not only logical muddles but are in need of revamping. We always seem to be bound within methodological framework horizons that produce a certain limit or closure to what can be thought in any one era. Why is this? What moves us forward? How do we arrive at newer inventive explanatory frameworks in the sciences and philosophy? I’ll not go into this at the moment, just a few questions nibbling under the surface. Such notions as Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions have tried to map this with little success, yet it sits there waiting to be teased out. Foucault’s notions of discursive practices etc. All these for future development… Back to Gilbert Ryle….

On the view for which I am arguing consciousness and introspection cannot be what they are officially described as being, since their supposed objects are myths; but champions of the dogma of the ghost in the machine tend to argue that the imputed objects of consciousness and introspection cannot be myths, since we are conscious of them and can introspectively observe them. …I try to show that the official theories of consciousness and introspection are logical muddles. (Kindle Locations 2927-2930).

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Epistemic Things: The Science of the Concrete

…“epistemic things” are what one does not yet know, things contained within the arrangements of technical conditions in the experimental system. Experimental systems are thus the material, functional units of knowledge production; they co-generate experimental phenomena and the corresponding concepts embodied in those phenomena. In this sense, experimental systems are techno-epistemic processes that bring conceptual and phenomenal entities— epistemic things— into being. Epistemic things themselves are situated at the interface, as it were, between the material and conceptual aspects of science.

– Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, An Epistemology of the Concrete: Twentieth-Century Histories of Life

The notion that what ones does not yet know is of more import than what one does know is counterintuitive to a point. The idea the experimental system and the technical conditions within which it is framed produce and co-generate these finite concrete conceptual and phenomenal entities – “epistemic things” through the “techno-epistemic” processes of the experiment itself is amazing if true. This notion that these epistemic things are situated at the boundary zones, at the gateway and interface or medium of the material and conceptual frontiers of scientific experimentation is both intriguing and questionable. The notion behind this is that once discovered, these epistemic entities become materialized interpretations that form the components of scientific models. Counter to Idealist notions this would be a very real material entity with a history and a finite lifespan. A conceptual unit, quanta, force if you will. As Rheinberger explains it:

The scientific object is gradually configured from the juxtaposition, displacement, and layering of these traces. The experimental systems molecular biologists design are “future generating machines,” configurations of experimental apparatus, techniques, layers of tacit knowledge, and inscription devices for creating semi-stable environments— little pockets of controlled chaos— just sufficient to engender unprecedented, surprising events. When an experimental system is working, it operates as a difference- generating system governed by an oscillatory movement of stabilization- destabilization-re-stabilization— what the molecular biologist François Jacob, echoing a similar statement of Derrida, called the “jeu des possibles.”1

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Levi R. Bryant: Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media

I see Levi’s new book Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media is on the pre-order list on now. I’m looking forward to reading this work by a fine young philosopher who has over the years gone through many stages of growth. Those that have followed his blog Larval Subjects will know that his ideas have taken him through many cycles of inquiry and trepidation. Yet, in the end he does what philosophy should do: question everything, ask the right questions, and offer tools for further inquiry rather than pat answers or solutions. For him it is all about the problems not the answers, and the questions are more central than the solutions to the questions. A little info from the blurb:

Onto-Cartography gives an unapologetic defense of naturalism and materialism, transforming these familiar positions and showing how culture itself is formed by nature. Bryant endorses a pan-ecological theory of being, arguing that societies are ecosystems that can only be understood by considering nonhuman material agencies such as rivers and mountain ranges alongside signifying agencies such as discourses, narratives, and ideologies. In this way, Bryant lays the foundations for a new machine-oriented ontology.

This theoretically omnivorous work draws on disciplines as diverse as deconstruction, psychoanalysis, Marxism, media studies, object-oriented ontology, the new materialist feminisms, actor-network theory, biology, and sociology. Through its fresh attention to nonhumans and material being, it also provides a framework for integrating the most valuable findings of critical theory and social constructivism.

Philosophical Truth

Many people, if not most, look on literary taste as an elegant accomplishment, by acquiring which they will complete themselves, and make themselves finally fit as members of a correct society. They are secretly ashamed of their ignorance of literature, in the same way as they would be ashamed of their ignorance of etiquette at a high entertainment, or of their inability to ride a horse if suddenly called upon to do so. There are certain things that a man ought to know, or to know about, and literature is one of them: such is their idea.

– Arnold Bennett, Literary Taste: How to Form It With Detailed Instructions

When we read the above passage we notice right off the bat and from our vantage point how different the situation of literary taste, much less the need to ‘fit as members of a correct society’, has changed. Arnold Bennett was speaking to a particular well defined reader, a member of the upper classes within England who had both the money and the leisure time to afford such pursuits as literary taste. Yet, as Bennett reminds us, “[p]eople who regard literary taste simply as an accomplishment, and literature simply as a distraction, will never truly succeed either in acquiring the accomplishment or in using it half-acquired as a distraction; though the one is the most perfect of distractions, and though the other is unsurpassed by any other accomplishment in elegance or in power to impress the universal snobbery of civilised mankind”.1

For Bennett literature, instead of being an accessory, is the fundamental sine qua non of complete living. What if we replaced this statement with philosophy rather than literature: is philosophy the fundamental sine qua non of complete living? What is philosophy for us? Is it a matter of taste? Is it something else? How do you define philosophy? Is it instead the pursuit of truth? And what is truth?

For Nietzsche truth is a “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins”.2 For Nietzsche truth is the Naked Emperor whose only authority is our blind allegiance.

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Surveillance: Virtual Identity and the Control Society

What is more real in this age of late capitalism: your physical presence or the data double of your virtual identity inscribed into the global networks of our information control society? One scholar, David Lyon, and the philosopher of society, Zygmunt Bauman, tell us that in this age of liquid surveillance our information is a proxy for the person, and in the legal sense is made up of ‘personal data’ only in the sense that it originated with a person’s body and may affect their life chances and choices. The piecemeal data double tends to be trusted more than the person, who prefers to tell their own tale.1

That you have become unreal and a sort of supplementary appendage of your own virtual traces inscribed within these systems may seem on first thought utterly absurd, but for the world of border patrols, airport canvases and screenings, DNA and medical imaging profiles, and instant videos that watch the open markets of our major cities nonstop 24/7 we are mere blips of data to be mined, analyzed and controlled. These systems of surveillance are continuously monitoring, tracking, tracing, sorting, checking and systematically watching our movements through this liquid maze of the global world. There is also the ever present threat that this information could be stolen, tampered with, hijacked by information pirates and manipulated for nefarious ends is a part of the risk society we’ve not only created but have unconsciously begun to conform to its logistical rules of movement (Virilio).

Even now there are those that may wake up today and find that their lives have changed forever, that they have become untouchables sought out by the authorities as criminals; or, that they have been stripped of their livelihood, safety, bank accounts. The thought that our ‘identities’ are connected more to our data than our actual real bodily presence is part of the present horror of our own liquid society and culture. We ourselves have become liquid bits of data dispersed among the lightfolds of an electronic ocean that continuously monitors our data rather than in the old Panoptic world, our bodies. Our bodies no longer count in this new world of liquid selves except as the end point of a legal systems final justice.

As Lyon reminds us it is easy to read the spread of surveillance as a technological phenomenon or as one that simply speaks of ‘social control’ and ‘Big Brother’. But this puts all the stress on tools and tyrants and ignores the spirit that animates surveillance, the ideologies that drive it forward, the events that give it its chance and the ordinary people who comply with it , question it or who decide that if they can’t beat it, they’ll join the game.(Kindle Locations 152-155). In a world of barcodes and RFID tags we discover that its no longer just about classifying and selling products, but also to finding out exactly where they are at any given moment within a just-in-time management regime. This goes for that last viable commodity the human person as well. We have all become commoditized, digitized packages bound to a temporal regime of control and management that is for the most part invisible to even our political and social fields of reference. We are blind to its power over our lives because we are immersed in this new environment like fish in the sea.

Bauman tells us that the world that Foucault studied in his conception of the ‘Panopticon’ after Benthem spoke of the prisoners as creatures who ‘could not move because they were all under watch; they had to stick to their appointed places at all times because they did not know, and had no way of knowing, where at the moment the watchers – free to move at will – were’. But in our time the opposite is true we live in the age of speed in Paul Virilio’s sense we are always living under the sign of emergency in which the “violence of speed has become both the location and the law, the world’s destiny and its destination” (167).2 As the details of our daily lives become more transparent to the organizations surveilling us, their own activities become less and less easy to discern. As power moves with the speed of electronic signals in the fluidity of liquid modernity, transparency is simultaneously increased for some and decreased for others (Kindle Locations 204-206).

One concept introduced is social sorting which is as always a part of the global control systems way of filtering and excluding in a sort of transparent virtual ethnic cleansing. More and more minorities both in racial and religious sense are screened and excluded from free movement in this global system. As one scholar Oscar Gandy puts it social sorting achieved by contemporary consumer surveillance constructs a world of ‘cumulative disadvantage’.3

If you haven’t read this new little work Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation between Lyon and Bauman its well worth the effort. I spend Monday’s on my continued tracing of the Control Society which Deleuze/Guattari spoke of in their late essay. Bauman believes we live in a post-panoptic society of control and buys into aspects of Focault’s reading but adds his own further explorations from many of the takes he gathered from Deleuze/Guattari. His writings are not that conceptually interesting, but his sociological readings are of value to anyone interested in this late capitalist era.

I’m still reading this work and may append notes along the way… read my original post on Deleuze’s thoughts: here.

1. Bauman, Zygmunt; Lyon, David (2013-04-03). Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation (PCVS-Polity Conversations Series) (Kindle Locations 145-147). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
2. Paul Virillo. Speed and Politics. (Semiotext(e), 2006)
3. Oscar Gandy, Coming to Terms with Chance.(Ashgate; Har/Ele edition (December 28, 2012))

Ian Hacking: What are scientists doing in the world?

…whenever we find two philosophers who line up exactly opposite on a series of half a dozen points, we know that in fact they agree about almost everything.

Ian Hacking, Representing and Intervening

Ian Hacking’s statement above reflected his appraisal of the philosophers Rudolf Carnap and Karl Popper. Carnap a defender of induction and verification: a bottom-up approach to scientific truth in which one make observations then sees if these confirm or refute one’s theoretical statements; while the other, Popper, a defended  deduction and falsifiability, a top-down approach in which one formulates theoretical conjectures then deduces the consequences through a process of testing to apprehend the truth or falseness of the conjecture. That both, as Hacking relates it, shared a common basis in scientific naturalism is both a marvel and a part of history.

Both thought there were distinct differences between observation and theory. Both believed the growth of knowledge is cumulative. Popper may be on the lookout for refutations, but he thinks of science as evolutionary and as tending towards the one true theory of the universe . Both think that science has a pretty tight deductive structure. Both held that scientific terminology is or ought to be rather precise. Both believed in the unity of science.

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Idealism/Materialism: Is this dichotomy obsolete?

I’m down with using representations/maps/models to do/guide neuroscience research but as for actual “representations” in the brain, not so much…


In a recent post on the project of neuroscience philosopher William Bechtel I discovered from dmf and R. Scott Bakker that Bechtel is an Idealist, that he affirms representations as real entities or mental entities that exist in the mind. Being a materialist I’ve fought such notions for a while now, but something that Bakker said intrigued me:

This really is the mystery in his[Bechtel’s] work. Both he and Craver like to steer clear the ‘traditionally philosophical’ issues to better prosecute what they see as their superior ‘low altitude philosophy of science,’ where you begin with what scientists actually say and do and build from there rather than philosophical definitions and principles (as per the old covering law model).

So I pressed him after this very talk on this very subject, and I assure you he thinks representations are real entities, and that the ‘mental’ is more than a metaphor. He told me that anti-realism about content, if confirmed, would be ‘disastrous.’ I agreed, but asked what that had to do with science!

The last part of this statement that anti-realism about the existence of real entities in the brain not existing would be ‘disastrous’ spurred this post. Also I wonder, too, what this has to do with science?

In their book on the history of Idealism Iain Hamilton Grant defines Idealism as the “realism of the Idea”. By this Grant and his team explicate Idealism as:

The concrete universal, or the whole determined by the particular it generates and that differentiate it in turn, is the Idea exactly as Platonism conceived it: as the cause of the approximations of becomings to particular forms, and as the “setting into order of this universe” from disorder (ataxia), as organization. When idealism is therefore presented as realism concerning the Idea, this means: first, that the Idea is causal in terms of organization; second, that this is an organization that is not formal or abstract in the separable sense, but rather concretely relates part to whole as the whole; and third, therefore that such an idealism is a one-world idealism that must, accordingly take nature seriously.1

This notion of the Idea as causal in terms of organization, of the concrete relation of part/whole as whole, and the notion of naturalism as Idealism is the baseline of this philosophical perspective.

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William Bechtel: Beyond the Nomological Framework

The idea that explanation of a phenomenon involves the quest to understand the mechanism responsible for it has deep roots in ancient history.

William Bechtel, Mental Mechanisms

Democritus who along with Leucippus formulated the first explanatory theory of science: atomism. Plato never mentions Democritus that’s how much he despised atomic theory and its explanatory power. Aristotle battled against such reductionist theories with his own account that supported the view that all phenomena in nature are directed toward an end, or telos, that was linked to what Aristotle called the form that determined the identity of a given object. Explanation then consisted in identifying the form of something and showing how it was directed towards its telos. Atomic theories, on the contrary, appealed only to an entity’s constituents (especially their shape and motion) to explain what it did. No ends or purposes were involved.1

Atomic theories were largely eclipsed by teleological theories, both in the ancient world and in the medieval world after the rediscovery of Aristotle. The atomist’s project of explaining nature mechanistically was revived in the seventeenth and eighteenth century in the works of, among others, Galileo, Descartes, and Boyle . Their common objective was to show how natural phenomena could be accounted for in terms of the shape , size, and motion of elementary particles.1

In the Seventeenth Century a young natural philosopher Richard Boyle would offer his revised take on the atomistic philosophy of Democritus which would become what we now term ‘the mechanical philosophy’.  This revised instance of the materialist philosophy of Democritus holds that natural phenomena can and should be explained by reference to matter and motion and their laws. Upholders of this philosophy were mainly concerned with the elimination from science of such unobservables as substantial form and occult qualities that could not be related to the mathematical method. It rejected the notion of organisms by reducing biological functions to physical and chemical processes, thus putting an end to spirit–body dualism. The 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle raised the question whether mechanism could be combined with the assumption that nature has “designs.”

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Posthumanism, Neuroscience, and the Philosophy of Information, Science and Technology

As you gaze at the flickering signifiers scrolling down the computer screens, no matter what identifications you assign to the embodied entities that you cannot see, you have already become posthuman.

N. Katherine Hayles,  How We Became Posthuman

Do you use a digital phone, receive text messages? Have an iPad or other comparable device that allows you to interact with others visually, seeing and talking to them as if they were virtually present in the room? How do you know that these messages and images are truly from your friends and loved ones? What makes you assume that these signs on the digital blackboard represent the actual person who is in fact absent while present? Is there something about the message that reflects the essential features of this person hiding behind the screen of digital light and sound? Is it that you trust images, pictures, moving representations on the digital light fields of this technological wonder to be truthful, to show forth the actuality of the embodied figure of your friend or loved one on the other side of the screen? What if someone had faked the messages, spliced together a video program of your friend that was so real that you actually believed this was in fact the person themselves rather than the fabricated images of a very adept machinic intelligence imitating the patterns of your friends behavior?

What if these digital objects we now take for granted in our everyday lives are no longer mere tools but have become a part of our person? And, I may add, that we should not narrow this to just these digital tools, but every tool that we use day by day. What if all these objects that we take for granted as useful things that help us do our work have remade us in their image, transformed our very identities as humans? What if as Katherine Hayles suggests we are, through our daily interactions with these tools merging with our technologies and have already become posthuman?

As I type these words, sitting at my desk, listening to iTunes from some distributed network that might be situated in any city of the U.S., I begin to realize that I and the machine in front of me have become a new thing, a new object. That I’m no longer just me, no longer this singular person whose body is devoid of connection from other things, cut off in its own isolated chamber of integrity. No. Instead I’ve merged with this thing, this object in front of me and become something else, a new thing or object with a distinctly different set of capabilities than if I were not connected to it. What does my use of a computer make me? I use a keypad, a terminal screen, which is in turn connected to a harddrive, which is connected to various devices: sound, networks, storage, etc., all of which have for the most part become almost invisible in the sense that I no longer see these tools in their own right, but as part of a cognitive environmental complex that consists of me, the computer, and the thousands of physically distant terminals across our planet through this interface that defines my machinic relations.

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Notes from the Rand Corporation

Rational choice theory proposes that rational agents have a consistent set of preferences and act to obtain that which they most prefer. The theory pertains to both parametric environments and strategic environments with other self-interested rational actors, as well as to uncertain and risky circumstances.

from Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy by S.M. Amadae

Every once in a while I get a wake up call that reminds me of my basic narrative which seems over the past few years to underpin most of my independent program investigations. Edmund over at Deterritorial Investigations Unit has for some time been working through the whole gamut of themes related to might be termed after Deleuze: The Control Society. He reminded me of this book by S.M. Amadae that I’ve been putting off reading for a while gathering dust on my bookshelf among other books on control. He set down some nice notes from this work on his site here, and if one does a search of control society one discovers a complete panoply of other great articles in this vein: here.

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Theories of the Subject

We can see today that the centuries-long conflicts fought within science were ostensibly futile since their arguments focused on words and concepts that actually lost their meaning over time.

Stanislaw Lem, Summa Technologie once quipped of Science

That a certain form of linguistic nihilism pervades our scientific era in which the very tools we use, words and concepts no longer hold valency or traction, while on the other hand we are exposed within philosophy to a multitude of heuristic devices as mind-tools and road maps to the Real rather than the real itself is par for the course. Yet most of our problems in the sciences and philosophy at the moment seem to revolve around the notion of ‘intentionality and the subject’ – the message in the bottle that is reality is about something rather than that something itself. Wilfred Sellars was part of that older intentionalist world and tried to incorporate it into a new conceptual framework:

Thus the conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives. A person can almost be defined as a being that has intentions. Thus the conceptual framework of persons is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it. Thus, to complete the scientific image we need to enrich it not with more ways of saying what is the case, but with the language of community and individual intentions, so that by construing the actions we intend to do and the circumstances in which we intend to do them in scientific terms, we directly relate the world as conceived by scientific theory to our purposes, and make it our world and no longer an alien appendage to the world in which we do our living. We can, of course, as matters now stand, realize this direct incorporation of the scientific image into our way of life only in imagination. But to do so is, if only in imagination, to transcend the dualism of the manifest and scientific images of man-of-the-world.2

Within this Order of the Intentional he thought we could merge the folk wisdom of the past with the scientific truths of our sciences. But we have to begin at that point, and with that question:

Is a person a being that has intentions?

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