Tom Sparrow: On Graham Harman and Object-Oriented Ontology

HarmanPhoto

Returning once again to Tom Sparrow’s book on the various new realisms abroad in the philosophical scene we discover him in chapter four introducing us to Graham Harman and his brand of Speculative Realism termed Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). Harman early own was indebted to both Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and their respective approaches to phenomenology. Yet, Harman would find problems with this tradition of what he termed the “philosophy of access”. As Sparrow describes it “phenomenology is, in Harman’s eyes, metaphysically limited because it effectively holds that the totality of what exists is identical to the totality of what appears to human consciousness”.1 Sparrow reminds us that Harman’s method of “reading phenomenology for unexpected clues to the hidden lives of objects” is not without complications and attendant metaphysical puzzles.2

Sparrow touches base with those specific phenomenologists that have left their mark on Harman’s thought. He begins with the work of Husserl who out of his apprenticeship to Franz Brentano developed the phenomenology and ultimately the methodology of phenomenological description that yields ideal species, involving what Husserl would later (notably in Ideas) call the “eidetic reduction”.  Husserl developed the method of epoché or “bracketing” around 1906. It may be regarded as a radicalization of the methodological constraint, already to be found in Logical Investigations, that any phenomenological description proper is to be performed from a first person point of view, so as to ensure that the respective item is described exactly as is experienced, or intended, by the subject. This deep-structure of intentional consciousness of the subject comes to light in the course of what Husserl calls the “phenomenological reduction” (Husserliana, vol. XIII, pp. 432 ff), which uses the mentioned method of epoché in order to make coherent sense, in terms of the essential horizon-structure of consciousness, of the transcendence of objective reality. The most global form of epoché is employed when this reality in total is bracketed. There is still something left at this point, though, which must not, and cannot, be bracketed: the temporal flow of one’s “present” experience, constituted by current retentions and original impressions.

As Sparrow tells us what Husserl discovered is that intentionality does not aim at qualities; it aims at objects. Even when someone investigates an object from a series of angles that yields countless disparate profiles (even drastically disparate, as in the case of a subway system or funhouse), he always take those profiles to be perspectives on the same object.3 The point being that the subject intends a specific substantial form or object rather than – as in empiricism, a bundle of impressions or qualities. For Husserl empiricism was the enemy for which phenomenology was the solution. As Sparrow demonstrates what makes Husserl an Idealist is his acknowledgement that what intentionality aims at throughout any series of profiles is not a real object located in the physical world. Rather it is an “ideal unity” or unifying form that binds all the qualities of the object together into a substantial form that is “immanent to consciousness”; a product constituted within intentionality.4 The point is that Husserl still held onto the need for the mind/world correlation in which the object was not mind independent but was immanent to consciousness of the human observer. For Harman it is the opposite: there is no need for the human or consciousness for the simple reason that all objects, humans included are real. It has nothing to do with some form of immanence conscious or otherwise.

What Harman takes from Husserl’s intentional methodology is the notion that intentions are not just something enacted by humans. Intentionality comes to figure as the very core structure of an object.5 This is where Harman will define the object as a unit: the object is not a solid, hard thing, but a thing that has a unified reality that is not exhausted by any relation to it, so that the intention as a whole is one thing.6 For Harman intentionality has two separate functions: 1) an “adhesive function”, that brings subject and object together to form a cohesive unity capable of being analyzed as such; and, 2) a “selective function”, intentionality applies a distinctive specificity when brining a subject and object together, as well as it works to draw out objects from the background of the perceptual environment.7

Husserl gave the uncanny feeling that we could have direct access to objects, or as Sparrow tells us he “makes it seem like we live among real objects”. But Harman will show this to be an illusion and that instead what we access is not the real object but profiles of objects, in what Harman calls “a strange medium located somewhere between substances and qualities, unable to touch either of them.”8 Sparrow speaking of Harman’s project says

Harman’s entire project is by his own admission an attempt to radicalize two paradoxes of intentional existence. First, within an intentional act subject and object are fused together in a single relation while still remaining separate from each other and the other objects in their vicinity. Second, any intentional object bears within it a tension between its unified core and its sensuous surface.9

Harman would discover in Husserl’s work the notion of a split object, of a separation between the real inner core and its sensual appendages or features. Harman presents us with an eliminative realism in the sense that a sensual object’s essence is never revealed to any spectator but might be attained by “subtracting [all of its] adumbrations” through the intellectual exercise that Husserl calls “eidetic variation.”10 The difference between Harman and Husserl comes down to his belief that the reality of objects is something that is closed off from both the senses and the intuitive intellect. They are not immanent to intentionality or necessarily correlated with human consciousness, which can only cut them down to human size.11 For Harman a full-fledged realism must give an account of interobject encounters and causal interaction when no humans are around as witnesses.12

… in the next part I’ll take up Harman’s relation to Heidegger as Sparrow interprets it.

1. Sparrow, Tom (2014-06-30). The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism (Speculative Realism EUP) (Kindle Locations 2563-2564). Edinburgh University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. ibid. (KL 2585-3586)
3. ibid. (KL 2606-2608)
4. ibid. (KL 2611-2613)
5. ibid. (KL 2629-2630)
6. ibid. (KL 2633-2634)
7. ibid. (KL 2648-2649)
8. ibid. (KL 2656-2657)
9. ibid. (KL 2665-2668)
10. ibid. (KL 2680-2682)
11. ibid. (KL 2695-2697)
12. ibid. (KL 2727-2728)

Atheistic Materialism: A Cheerful Philosophy… continued…

zizek-

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so that I can have a word with him?
Chuang Tzu (c.360 BC – c. 275 BC)

When I finished reading Adrian Johnston’s formidable rendition of Slavoj Žižek’s philosophy in his Žižek’s Ontology A transcendental Materialism Theory of Subjectivity I kept thinking to myself: What is missing here? What is it that Johnston has left out? It seemed that something was missing in his elaboration of Žižek’s philosophical approach. What?

Humor. The performativity in Žižek’s humorous asides, drifts into the hyper-kinetic antics of our postmodern cultural world, of taking philosophy down from its heights in abstract academia and putting it to work in the streets where actual people live and work. Yet, Johnston is not unaware of this facet of his work, in fact the point for him is not to discount it or pretend it isn’t there but rather to realize that the only sort of “militant fidelity to Žižek involves the infidelity of apparent betrayal: ignoring the appetizing, titillating tidbits of his smorgasbord of examples and refusing to be seduced by the razzle-dazzle of his cultural exposes – sticking instead to the single-minded pursuit of the philosophical trajectory that runs like a continuous, bisecting diagonal line through the entire span of his writings.” (preface: xix)

Yet, isn’t it the humor, the laughter, the performing self within the very texture of his work and speeches that brings with it a form and vehicle of the truth that could not be stipulated in any other way? Johnston even quotes Žižek when he states: “I am convinced of my proper grasp of some Lacanian concept only when I can translate it successfully into the inherent imbecility of popular culture.” (ibid. xviii) Isn’t it the very humorous imbecility of Žižek’s method and approach that is lacking in Johnston? Isn’t this why we perceive his work as so serious and gloomy, full of sadness and melancholy rather than full of life and cheerfulness?

Does philosophy need to be serious and systematic to understood? Johnston seems to think so. Is he right? Or is Žižek’s very inability to produce such a systematic serious philosophy himself the very thing missing in Johnston’s portrayal of his work? Take  Žižek himself and his use of humor to explain a difficult Hegelian concept:

THE LOGIC OF THE HEGELIAN TRIAD can be perfectly rendered by the three versions of the relationship between sex and migraines. We begin with the classic scene: a man wants sex with his wife, and she replies: “Sorry, darling, I have a terrible migraine, I can’t do it now!” This starting position is then negated/ inverted with the rise of feminist liberation— it is the wife who now demands sex and the poor tired man who replies: “Sorry, darling, I have a terrible migraine …” In the concluding moment of the negation of negation that again inverts the entire logic, this time making the argument against into an argument for, the wife claims: “Darling, I have a terrible migraine, so let’s have some sex to refresh me!” And one can even imagine a rather depressive moment of radical negativity between the second and the third versions: the husband and the wife both have migraines and agree to just have a quiet cup of tea.1

In the above one sees the concept not in its abstract density and aloofness, disconnected from the actual workings of the world, but quite the contrary it enacts the concept in an earthy and fleshly way, a humorous bodily way that awakens in us the inner truth of the concept rather than its cold dark measure. Momus will tells us that “Žižek seems to have a brain very much suited to the recognition of particular situational shapes. Thinking about something in the real world, he suddenly recognizes that it has the same basic structure as an absurd situation in a joke he’s heard…” (ibid. p. 141)

He continues:

This technique gives us a refreshing sense of what we might call “the lightness of profundity.” We see the charming playfulness of the great masters of philosophy, and perhaps begin to recognize philosophy itself, at its highest, lightest level, as something akin to laughter and joking; “the smile of the gods.” Certain scenarios in the real world can be as absurd as jokes, self-evidently laughable, no matter how tragic they are. (idib. 141-142)

When Chuang Tzu tells us “The true man breathes with his heels.” Is this not one of those absurd statements that make us smile, but then think through the implications of just what he’s saying?  A joke creates an inconsistency and the audience automatically try to understand what the inconsistency means; if they are successful in solving this ‘cognitive riddle’ and they realize that the surprise was not dangerous, they laugh with relief. Otherwise, if the inconsistency is not resolved, there is no laugh, as Mack Sennett pointed out: “when the audience is confused, it doesn’t laugh.” This is one of the basic laws of a comedian, referred to “exactness”.

Writing on Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Zizek notes that “what is really disturbing” is the “underlying belief in the liberating, anti-totalitarian force of laughter, of ironic distance.”  In other words, the emancipatory aspect of sarcasm, for Zizek, is disturbing because “in contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, that cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game.  The ruling ideology is not to be taken seriously or literally”(The Sublime Object of Ideology, 28).   On the other hand, taking ideology literally, and not laughing, is “tragic.”  In this scenario, Zizek seems to be in a double bind as laughter and sarcasm are too ideological for him.  Yet, on the other hand, he prefers laughter to taking ideology seriously. (see Zizek’s Comic Dilemma: Kynicism or Cynicism?)

As one commentator suggests “Žižek puts his two masters, Lacan and Hegel, to work on modern society: he is supremely gifted at showing how the internal contradictions of late capitalism make themselves ludicrously obvious – and funny…” (see Slavoj Žižek’s jokes are no laughing matter)

It’s this sense of humor and ludicrous obviousness that is missing in Johnston’s portrayal of Žižek. The stand-up comic Johnathan Winters once told an interviewer:

I’ve always believed this: You gotta take more chances. You gotta be a gambler in your material. You’re gonna get your hands spanked every now and then, but you’re also gonna get some, “Hey, I loved what the guy said. I wonder if he said that off the top of his head.”2

Isn’t this the effect one gets in listening or watching Žižek. Isn’t he a philosophical gambler whose humor breaks us out of our usual zombie like complacency and makes us wonder, and laugh, then think?

Alenka Zupancic in her work on Comedy, The Odd One In: On Comedy, will tell us this:

We are often told that comedy is possible only when the things we see on the stage do not truly concern us, and that the condition of comedy is our indifference and uninvolvement. As a conclusion to these reflections on repetition, I would suggest a different perspective: things that really concern us, things that concern the very kernel of our being, can be watched and performed formed only as comedy, as an impersonal play with the object. The impersonal in comedy is the subject itself. And the indifference is not the pathos-driven distancing at the very point when we are most affected/hurt, but is, rather, akin to that unaffectedness which is at stake in primary repression, insofar as primary repression is not the subject’s repression, but coincides with and determines the constitution of the subject. In other words, if the dead serious can be approached only in comedy, this is not because any other approach proach would be too terrifying and would crush us completely, destroy us, but because it would miss the crucial point. For what is at stake-that is to say, what this repetition repeats-is not a reduction duction of ourselves (and of all that we are) to a nonbeing, not the destruction of our being, but its emergence-its emergence outside meaning, yet inextricably from it. (KL 2025-2032)

Isn’t it this sense of the non-sense, the absurd seriousness of the truth situated outside meaning that in the gaps and cracks, the fissures and irruptions from nowhere reveal the truth? The face of humor is the repetition of the truth by way of farce and laughter. The smile at the foot of the ladder.

read the previous post…

1. Žižek, Slavoj; Mortensen, Audun; Momus (2014-02-21). Žižek’s Jokes: (Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?) (p. 19). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Ajaye, Franklyn (2001-09-01). Comic Insights: The Art of Stand-Up Comedy (p. 248). Silman-James Press. Kindle Edition.

Atheistic Materialism: A Cheerful Philosophy

RubensPeterPaul

Unlike many of our weeping philosophers of materialism today Democritus was known as the ‘laughing philosopher’, a man whose cheerfulness in the face of adversity remained the key to his philosophical outlook. We know little of his life. Yet, even Aristotle praised him as a sound philosopher whose basic principles were in accord with natural philosophy. No wonder Plato never mentioned him. Plato hated materialism, and the thought of a happy philosopher such as Democritus left him sad and full of envy. (Of course I’m just full of it! Jibe! Jibe!)

Why shouldn’t an atheistic philosophy bring cheerfulness rather than tears? I’ve been re-reading Adrian Johnston’s Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism again and discovered his basic formula for atheistic materialism:

The time has come to pronounce the true formula of atheistic materialism: there is just a weak nature, and nothing more. All that exists are heterogeneous ensembles of less-than-fully synthesized material beings, internally conflicted, hodgepodge jumbles of elements-in-tension – and that is it. What appears to be more-than-material (especially subjectivity and everything associated with it) is, ultimately, and index or symptom of the weakness of nature, the Other-less, un-unified ground of being. The apparently more-than-material consists of phenomena flourishing in the nooks and crannies of the strife-saturated, underdetermined matrices of materiality, in the cracks, gaps, and splits of these discrepant material strata.1

Add to this a further statement clarifying his acceptance of Lacanian cosmography of an atheistic materialism in which the primordial Real is itself born out of a catastrophic brokenness do to an immanent split from within: “this self-shattered status of a disharmonious nature devoid of any One-All, being a material condition of possibility for the immanent genesis of subjectivity out of the conflict-ridden groundless ground of materiality.” (ibid. p. 37) (Think of the One-All as the mask an atheist gives to God, the Prime Mover of the Philosophers, etc. Or, as the total system of Nature as God’s replacement: as in Spinoza’s Nature-as-Substance and Total, etc.)

Before I go into teasing out just what it is that Johnston is saying in the above passages (“weakness of nature… etc.) I wonder why it makes me want to weep, fall into a depression, reach for my shotgun and blow my brains to smithereens rather than laugh out loud and be cheerful. If I read it aright it seems that Johnston is telling us that we live in a universe at war with itself, a war without terminus. I’ll get back to this.

Diogenes Laërtius reading Theophrastus discovered one day that Heraclitus did not complete some of his works because of melancholia. He has been variously judged by ancient and modern commentators to be a material monist or a process philosopher; a scientific cosmologist, a metaphysician, or a mainly religious thinker; an empiricist, a rationalist, or a mystic; a conventional thinker or a revolutionary; a developer of logic or one who denied the law of non-contradiction; the first genuine philosopher or an anti-intellectual obscurantist. Some might consider Heraclitus the father of semiotics and a believer in the One-All:

Having harkened not to me but to the Word (Logos) it is wise to agree that all things are one. (Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.))

Is Johnston a melancholic, a weeping philosopher? Obviously he is not an affirmer of the One-All but rather of the non-All – the incompleteness of the universe, rather an affirmer of its unity and he sees at the core of it a dissonance and disharmony. Why was Democritus the progenitor of atomistic materialism so cheerful, while Johnston’s credo is so full of strife and tears that one wishes to sit in the dark and gnash one’s teeth in utter abjection?

One key difference between this Lacan-Zizek-Johnston materialism and that of Democritus concerns the notion of the ‘gap’ (lack, split). Democritus the father of atomism (or, some say a continuer of Leucippus) formulated the notion that the universe was filled with these small ‘indivisible’ units. Atoms, from the Greek adjective atomos or atomon, ‘indivisible,’ are infinite in number and various in size and shape, and perfectly solid, with no internal gaps. They move about in an infinite void, repelling one another when they collide or combining into clusters by means of tiny hooks and barbs on their surfaces, which become entangled. The exact opposite is to be found in the Lacanian-Zizek-Johnston matrix: which begins with this split within things, a gap that breaks through the harmony of the universe and brings it into an asymmetrical dissonance. Of course modern physics and cosmology seems to derive the same picture of an asymmetry in the Universe that Lacan-Zizek-Johnston do. So why has materialism in two-thousand years turned from a harmonious happy view of the endless dance of atoms in the void to the opposing views of cracked and warring forces, asymmetrical and disharmonious? I’ll come back to this.

Now this notion of the atom and the void was revitalized by none other than Lacan himself. Zizek reminds us that Lacan’s Y a d’l’Un is the formula of the minimal libidinal fixation (on some One) constitutive of drive, as the moment of the emergence of drive from the pre-evental One-less multiplicity. As such, this One is a “sinthome,” a kind of “atom of enjoyment,” the minimal synthesis of language and enjoyment, a unit of signs permeated with enjoyment (like a tic we compulsively repeat). Are such Ones not quanta of enjoyment, its smallest, most elementary packages?2

Zizek’s reading of the sinthome as an “atom of enjoyment” seems to be on first glance very close to Democritus’s universe of happy atoms dancing in the void. No wonder Democritus was so cheerful in his outlook. Instead of a broken, strife ridden, warring universe of split atoms always full of tension and explosive nastiness we have the opposite picture of a universe of joy or jouissance. Even Zizek will tell us in his reading of Armand Zaloszyc’s view of Plato’s Parmenides, that it aligns itself to a cheerful reading of the Lacanian “Y a d’l’Un” as the formula for the pure jouissance-One, that is, a jouissance not yet mediated by the Other, the symbolic order, not yet “departmentalized,” accountable. The missing link which legitimizes us in establishing a connection between this thesis of Lacan and the first hypothesis of Plato’s Parmenides (which asserts the One totally external to Being, with no relation to or participation in Being) is provided by the Neoplatonist “mysticism” of Plotinus— recall that, for Lacan, the mystical ex-stasis is the paradigmatic example of the jouissance-One.3 Yet, Zizek will qualify this notion of the One, saying:

Insofar as, for Lacan, this One is (also) an “indivisible remainder” which makes the sexual relationship inexistent, one can understand how Y a d’l’Un is strictly correlative to il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel: it is the very object-obstacle to it; it is not primarily the mystical all-encompassing One of the infamous “oceanic feeling” derided by Freud, but a “little piece of the Real,” the excremental remainder which disturbs the harmony of the Two.4

It is this notion of the excremental remainder that disturbs the harmony of things that will lead into the notion of Lacan’s jouissance. So what is jouissance? As Adrian Johnston will relate it this Lacanian concept is like Freud’s Todestrieb,  “beyond the pleasure principle”. The post-1920 Freud muses that all drives might be said to be death drives, meaning that each and every drive perhaps works, at least in certain respects at certain times, contrary to the pursuit of the pleasurable as balance, gratification, homeostasis, satisfaction, and so on. Along these same lines, the Lacanian drive extracts “enjoyment” from the thwartings and failures of desire; whereas the latter is oriented by the tantalizingly elusive telos of pleasure qua satisfaction, the former generates its jouissance-beyond-pleasure precisely through the inhibiting of desire itself. The many possible sadistic and masochistic implications of this side of the libidinal economy are not difficult to imagine.5 He will also describe this jouissance-beyond-pleasure as “that which is annihilating, inassimilable, overwhelming, traumatic, or unbearable. Similarly, jouissance, in this vein, is related to transgressive violations, the breaching of boundaries and breaking of barriers.” (ibid.) So in this sense jouissance is the principle of disharmony which brings about the very crack, gaps, breaks, and asymmetry in things. Should one stipulate and qualify it as the “principle of negativity” as such? That which brings about the very conditions for the emergence of the Hegelian Subject-as-Substance? Is our cheerfulness due to a crack in the universal fabric of time and space? A happy accident? Or a maladjustment in the universal harmony, a burp in the fabric of the timespace continuum? Are we nothing more than the fruit of an error, a dark cut in the fabric of things, the twisted fruit of a broken universe?

Are we reading a noir thriller…? Will this end badly?

———————

I’ll stop here today and take this thread up tomorrow…

1. Adrian Johnston. Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism Volume One The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy. (Northwestern University Press, 2013)
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 1489-1492). Norton. Kindle Edition.
3. ibid. (Kindle Locations 1425-1430).
4. ibid. (Kindle Locations 1471-1475).
5. Johnston, Adrian, “Jacques Lacan“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

A tidbit…

irony

How do we know on the internet when someone is being ironic rather than literal in their statements? In real life one can take a cue from the bodily behaviors of facial expression and intonation, as well as vocal cues of pitch or density as the other is speaking; but, in writing one looks for context rather than the actual descriptive phrase. But what if the phrase is a common off-hand expression… oh, say: “Oh, that sounds like fun!” Would one know when this sentence is floating there without any supporting context that the author implied it as ironic rather than a statement of fact, or does one take the context from the previous statements of the other to which this statement is a reply? On the internet typically we add to these statements such things as “lol” (lots of luck). In that we might say: “Oh, that sounds like fun! lol” then one might realize… oh, he was just being sarcastic or ironic, less than serious or literal. He didn’t mean what he said. But if one didn’t add this epithet of “lol” would that always imply that the statement should be taken literally?

Obviously if someone knows the person in question, and has listened or heard or read such off-hand statements before in other contexts one would realize it. Yet, for those who have never known the author or speaker such things would need some added indicator to allow the other to understand: ah, this is an ironic statement, not to be taken literally. I’m being pedantic, of course, because I fall into that trap myself all the time: saying something off-hand that I meant as ironic or satiric, but discover after the fact that people have taken as a literal statement rather than a figure of speech in the ironic sense. Does this happen to you very often? Let me know of your stories… 🙂

How Technology Shapes Us

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How many times has a new technological invention changed the course of history, created new forms of social, political, and philosophical – and, yes, even religious views about ourselves and the universe. One could recite a litany of inventions that have had both a material and immaterial impact upon our world and the way we perceive it.

Think of it this way. Before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in the 1990’s we thought we had a fairly accurate picture of the formation and eventual heat-death of the universe, etc. But with the launch of this new technological wonder scientists were able for the first time to study aspects of the universe that had up to that moment been closed off in speculation and theory.

Before the launch of this telescope one thing was fairly certain about the expansion of the Universe. It might have enough energy density to stop its expansion and recollapse, it might have so little energy density that it would never stop expanding, but gravity was certain to slow the expansion as time went on. Granted, the slowing had not been observed, but, theoretically, the Universe had to slow. The key here is that it was all theory. No one had actually been able to observe what was going on. Instead we developed elaborate mathematical theorems to describe what we did know rather than what we didn’t know.

But with the launch of this telescope scientist instead of being bound to an armchair philosophy of math and theory were able to get a front row seat and open a window onto the great outdoors of being. What they discovered in their observations of very distant supernovae is that, a long time ago, the Universe was actually expanding more slowly than it is today. So the expansion of the Universe has not been slowing due to gravity, as everyone thought, it has been accelerating. No one expected this, no one knew how to explain it. But something was causing it.

But what was this mysterious X that was causing this? No one had an idea. Yet, as they began readjusting their theories to meet the truth of what they were observing they discovered even more paradoxical truths: the major part of our universe is made up of something other than matter. Yes, you heard me. What these scientists realized is that matter, our phenomenal world of rocks and dust, stars, and galaxies, etc. made up only 5% of the known universe. But if their mathematical calculations were correct then what is the unknown stuff that makes up the other 95% of the universe?

What these scientists discovered as it turns out is that roughly 68% of the Universe is dark energy, and another 27% is made of Dark matter. The rest – everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the Universe. One can find all kinds of information on this on the web. I particularly liked the National Geographic breakdown: here. Of course these names were given because what they masked is not really something we know anything about at all. Nothing. All we know is the math is correct. That there is this quantified certainty that something exists behind these unknown knowns. But exactly what this something that is less than nothing is not known. Oh sure they have several theories, but have no proof for these theories… again, everything is speculation based on theoretical mathematics rather than empirical verification. Many countries are spending millions of dollars on detecting this mysterious unknown. China is entering the race to detect mysterious dark matter in a big way, with a huge facility in Sichuan province set to begin collecting data in the coming weeks. (see Space)

The point I wanted to originally make is not the astounding truth of these two new aspects of the universe, but how technology impacts the way we view the universe itself. Up to this time neither scientists nor philosophers could give a detailed explanation about our universe. All we had were educated speculations based on a limited set of known facts. It was from these that we built up our pictures and representations of the universe.

This same thing is happening now with the advent of neuroimaging technologies in the 1970’s. After centuries of brain inquiry and research these new technologies gave neuropsychologists and neuroscientists images of living, functioning brains. In other words we didn’t need to speculate about what was happening internally in our minds, perceptions, etc. We had indirect access to the living processes themselves through these neuroimaging systems.

The two main types of neuroimaging technologies are the Structural and Functional Imaging systems. Structural imaging provides images of the brain’s anatomical structure. This type of imaging helps in the diagnosis of brain injury, and the diagnosis of certain diseases. Functional imaging provides images of the brain as patients complete tasks, such as solving math problems, reading, or responding to stimuli such as auditory sounds or flashing lights. The area or areas of the brain that are involved with completing or responding to these tasks “light up,” giving researchers a visual 3-D view of the parts of the brain involved with each type of task.

So many of the speculations concerning the mind that had been the bread and butter of philosophers of Mind for centuries is now part of the technological mind-toolset of scientists and doctors. Yet, the social, political, religious, ethical impact of these technologies and how they are changing our view of the human are barely scratching the surface. Both scientists and philosophers are scrambling to revise their empirical and systematic understanding of the human under the impact of these technologies.

One of the issues is description itself. How to frame the relevant data that is being exposed in the neuroimaging technologies? As Bickle and Mandik tell us:

Given that philosophy of neuroscience, as other branches of philosophy of science, has both descriptive and normative aims, it is critical to develop methods for accurate estimation of current norms and practices in neuroscience. Appeals to intuition will not suffice, nor will single paradigm case studies do the job because those case studies may fail to be representative.1

On Amazon alone I found a few hundred books on various aspects of this new technological world of the neurosciences and the impact of neuroimaging systems. Yet, in process of uncovering the best of these works I discovered the usual mix of pop cultural reference mixed in with expertise, along with shoddy conceptuality. It always seems that people love to cushion the effects of technologies impact rather than giving us the straight up and up.

I know my friend R. Scott Bakker loves to keep reminding me that the neurosciences will give us what philosophers only dreamed of: the truth about the Mind/Brain, etc. But with every new book I read by a reputable scientist I become more and more disillusioned not by the scientific findings, but rather that scientists with the best intentions (ah! that word, intention) try to convey the conceptual truth of what they are discovering, but invariably fall back into descriptions that use old worn out metaphysical jargon, tropes, metaphors, etc. that confuse and abuse the issue rather than clarifying the actual facts of their findings. Then one turns to other commentators to get the clarification that was not forthcoming in the original rendition of the finding.

So who do we go too to give us the narrative facts of the issue? The scientists, the philosopher; or, some middle-party science journalist who can fuse the two? Is there an answer? Since not all of us have the scientific credentials or background to study the actual first hand data ourselves shall we be bound to some second-hand appraisal of this data; either through the lens of some scientist’s or philosopher’s framework? Or can we develop a shared framework that the educated public can use to know what is of value? Isn’t this an age-old problem?

I know in ages past – at least for literature and culture, we had this educated creature called the literary critic who was able to filter in and out the public validity of a work and present us with the best and brightest of the lot. So that instead of reading 500 books that repeat each other’s findings in various modes of expertise, we could instead discover the best “authority” and most equitable purveyor of this knowledge. Of course now days people frown on such thinking as anti-democratic and elitist. So that instead we have anyone and everyone as their own DIY expert. What to do?

Maybe I should wait for some technological cyber-mind, some AI of the neo-knowledge set to rise up out of the dead world of the Smithsonian library who will be able to sift through the remains of human knowledge at the blink of an eye: who will then speak to me in some alien register of the stupidity of all our learning. Then give me the monstrous truth.

Bickle, John, Mandik, Peter and Landreth, Anthony, “The Philosophy of Neuroscience“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Revisioning Materialism: Naturalizing Mind / Denaturalizing Nature

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During my absence from the blogging and hibernating in the deep woods of Montana I began a process of re-thinking and re-visioning my stance toward the various traditions of realism and materialism. In the process of that I began working toward a new book that would set down my own philosophical path. For a long while I’ve tried to be neutral on this blog and just uncover what I see in various philosophers without interjecting my own critiques, etc. I think this has been good for users that may be new to philosophy, or be less than versant in the nuances of this vast territory. Translating concepts into simpler units of knowledge for those who have neither the time nor the proclivity to do their homework (i.e., the vast learning and education entailed in reading through the history of philosophy, reading both primary and secondary literature, etc.) is difficult in itself. I’ve felt that blogging is difficult enough to continuously combat or critique others work without first presenting just exactly what these philosophers are actually saying. So I’ve kept back from critique and stuck with commentary, embellishing and translating the best I could difficult concepts and notions into everyday parlance.

Yet, in the background I’ve been working on my own revisionism of materialism. In the process of that I’ve begun a work in progress over the past few years that treats of both the history of materialism, as well as its transformation within the contemporary scene. We’ve seen within the sciences the accumulation of a scientific naturalism in various guises and nuances that has culminated in the sciences of the brain: neurosciences, et. al. The process of naturalizing the mind has been in process for quite a while, yet it has steered clear of philosophy and concerned itself with the factual aspects of the brain itself. Obviously philosophers of Mind have since Hume been concerned with the Mind/Brain problem which to this day has been unresolved. Various revisions of materialism over the century have dealt with this debate.

Scientists in their everyday practice see most of the debates as beside the point, since they are concerned not with concepts per se but with the actual physical processes of the brain itself rather than the conceptual tools that describe these processes. Philosophers are more concerned with the problem of consciousness and the Mind rather than the practical physical process that shape it. Obviously there are shades of gray here as in all things, where scientists will bridge the gap and use conceptual tools drawn from both the sciences and philosophy; while philosophers will base their own approach on a reading of the sciences. None of this is news.

In our time we’ve seen the debates about Mind and Matter undergo various revisions due to the impact of the new neurosciences and the pragmatic imaging tools that underpin the work of scientists. If as Badiou suggests that science is one of the conditions of philosophy, then any materialist philosophy worth its salt will have to take under consideration the new sciences.

In the course of preparing this work I’ve had to revise my own views concerning the Mind and Matter debates. Let’s face it our notions of Mind and Matter have been undergoing revisionings over the past couple of centuries. If the process of modernity has been concerned with a distancing (desacralization) from the religious world views held by our ancestors, then both the sciences and philosophy in their naturalist and materialist perspectives are concerned with a continuous revising our views upon Mind and Matter. Nothing new here.

What has also changed since the time of Kant is our age old views of Self (Subject) and World (Substance) and their place within modern sciences and philosophy. Is the Mind reducible to the processes of the brain (epiphenomenalism) or is it separate/transcendent? Is matter as in the old materialisms dead inorganic stuff or is it something else altogether? Is Nature a total system of material things of which humans are but concrete accretions of thinking substance; or, is the natural world and universe neither whole nor complete, but rather a realm of fragility, filled with cracks and gaps, holes and unknowns, a place of conflict and contradictions rather than as many cosmologists in centuries past believed a harmonious system of totalized substance? Modern physics especially in quantum mechanics and the macro-sciences of theoretical physics show us a universe of disharmony and conflict, a place of black holes, exploding stars and galaxies colliding, of dark matter and dark energy that is neither material as we know it in the phenomenal realm nor knowable directly through scientific instruments. Rather an invisible and immaterial energy and structure that leaves its traces indirectly through its interactions with the phenomenal world. What is a layman to make of it all?

In the sciences we are seeing a process of naturalizing the mind taking place, while in various philosophical approaches under the heading of new materialism, dialectical materialism, etc. we are seeing the denaturalization of matter. Where do the sciences and philosophy connect / disconnect? How do they inform each other, or should they? The question of Mind and Matter and the dialogue between the sciences and philosophy have long concerned me. There are those in the sciences that think philosophy is an archaic and outmoded for of thought and should be made obsolete, while philosophers argue that it is the sciences that need the conceptual tools of philosophy to clarify the facticity of their work. Is there a truth from both sides? Is this an if/else debate? What concerns me are not the debates themselves but the underlying concepts that feed into the debates themselves. For me what is central is the changing views of Mind and Nature that have in the past two centuries undergone drastic revisioning. This is what my new work will trace within both the  sciences and philosophy.

One needs to clarify the issues, understand what is shaping them, and how our views on Mind and Nature have operated in both the sciences and philosophy before we can begin debating the truth or validity of either the sciences or philosophy, and the where and how they relate to each other – if at all, in building a new view of the universe – human and inhuman alike. All of our debates in politics, economics, and the concerns over climate change, etc. stem directly from our views on Mind and Nature. Any book that purports to discuss such issues will know its partiality and inadequacy from the beginning. The sheer magnitude of data alone forces one to make decisions, delimit the set of data required to present the case: so any book on such a vast subject will realize its status as an ongoing movement in a project, not a completed task. I’m no different from any other thinker, the limits of my reading and life experiences will sustain my work. As my friend R. Scott Bakker continually hones in on we neglect more than we know, and what we know is minimalist compared to the vast riches of the world.

Meillassoux: Fideism and the Rise of Speculative Materialism

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In some ways Meillassoux’s overarching enemy is religion and fideism rather than correlationism per se, for as he states it (and I quote at length):

It now becomes possible to envisage a speculative critique of correlationism, for it becomes possible to demonstrate that the latter remains complicit with the fideist belief in the wholly-other insofar as it actually continues to remain faithful to the principle of reason. If the strong model of correlationism legitimates religious discourse in general, this is because it has failed to de-legitimate the possibility that there might be a hidden reason, an unfathomable purpose underlying the origin of our world. This reason has become unthinkable, but it has been preserved as unthinkable; sufficiently so to justify the value of its eventual unveiling in a transcendent revelation. This belief in an ultimate Reason reveals the true nature of strong correlationism – far from relinquishing the principle of reason, strong correlationism is in fact the apologia for the now irrational belief in this very principle. By way of contrast, speculation proceeds by accentuating thought’s relinquishment of the principle of reason to the point where this relinquishment is converted into a principle, which alone allows us to grasp the fact that there is absolutely no ultimate Reason, whether thinkable or unthinkable. There is nothing beneath or beyond the manifest gratuitousness of the given – nothing but the limitless and lawless power of its destruction, emergence, or persistence.(AF, KL 932-939)

Of course Fideism is an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths. As an atheist and speculative materialist Meillassoux seeks to destroy such notions irrefutably. Behind the trope of Reason is the hint that it has always masked the secular face of God. So that philosophy for far too long has kept its roots tied to the onto-theological religiosity of the big Other masked as Reason. This is ultimately why Meillassoux seeks to overthrow the PSR (Principle of Sufficient Reason) because it hides behind its façade the greatest enemy to an atheistic materialism: God and the fideism that supports it. Yet, as he tells us even atheism has to go, for the simple reason that “once the absolute has become unthinkable, even atheism, which also targets God’s inexistence in the manner of an absolute, is reduced to a mere belief, and hence to a religion, albeit of the nihilist kind” (AF KL 686).

Faith is pitched against faith, since what determines our fundamental choices cannot be rationally proved. In other words, the de-absolutization of thought boils down to the mobilization of a fideist argument; but a fideism that is ‘fundamenal’ rather than merely ‘historical’ in nature – that is to say, a fideism that has become thought’s defence of religiosity in general, rather than of a specific religion. (AF KL 686)

When it comes down to it his greatest enemy is both ideological dogmatism and sceptical fanaticism. For as he says:

Against dogmatism, it is important that we uphold the refusal of every metaphysical absolute, but against the reasoned violence of various fanaticisms, it is important that we re-discover in thought a modicum of absoluteness – enough of it, in any case, to counter the pretensions of those who would present themselves as its privileged trustees, solely by virtue of some revelation. (AF KL 737)

1. Meillassoux, Quentin (2014-12-10). Time without Becoming (Kindle Locations 449-451). Mimesis International. Kindle Edition.
2.  After Finitude: An Easy on the Necessity of Contingency (Kindle Locations 787-800). Kindle Edition.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy: The Myopia of Experts

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The inherent myopia of expertise makes it liable from time to time to tragically stupid errors of judgment. One thinks of credit-rating agencies in particular. By making public their evaluation of a bank’s or a country’s present position, they give the future no other choice than to raise the bidding on past tendencies. The power and influence conferred by recent legislation on a handful of experts who have already more than once displayed their incompetence have created a situation in which an unfavorable rating plunges the bank or country in question into a downward spiral from which it will have the greatest trouble extricating itself. … Under pretense of objectivity and neutrality, the rating agencies behave like apprentice sorcerers. Even when the future seems to confirm their pessimism, because publicizing a rating downgrade causes it to be justified by events, they maintain that they have simply judged the situation correctly and that their opinion had no effect on the final outcome. This is the stupidity of expertise.

– Jean-Pierre Dupuy,  (2014-10-01). Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith

Jean-Pierre Dupuy: Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith

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Modern societies, in pulling down all the old barriers, all the prohibitions, rituals, and symbolic conceptions that once worked to curb human violence, unleashed new forces of unprecedented creativity. But these were counterbalanced by new forces of unprecedented destructiveness, so that the world was transformed into a single community of human beings living under the threat of being reduced to ashes, scattered among piles of radioactive rubble.

Little by little, Economy emancipated itself from the shackles of the sacred. Once held in check by religion, and then by politics, it has today become both our religion and our politics. No longer subject to any higher authority, it cannot decide our future, or make us a world in which to live: it has become our future and our world. Advanced postindustrial societies have been well and truly mystified, in the original sense of that word, and their politicians hoodwinked. The result is paralysis.

–  Jean-Pierre Dupuy,  Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith

Quentin Meillassoux: Hyper-Chaos and the Real

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This morning I was rereading a few of the passages I’d gleaned from Quentin Meillassoux’s essays gathered in Time without Becoming. What struck me is this almost – shall I call it, Chinese quality about his sentences: the simplicity and elegance of statement that brings with it this sense of mastery and logic that is so merciless that it makes one tremble, and yet – at the same time, it awakens in one’s mind this state of meditative awareness that what one is reading is in accord with the truth.

His concept of Hyper-Chaos seems to be one of these facets or figures, a trope that acts as an attractor gathering into itself the causal nexus of ideas from which all things arise.

…the notion of Hyper-Chaos is the idea of a time so completely liberated from metaphysical necessity that nothing constrains it: neither becoming, nor the substratum. This hyper-chaotic time is able to create and destroy even becoming, producing without reason fixity or movement, repetition or creation.1

He explains how he came to such a notion through the logic of time: temporality itself demanded it. In most conceptions time there is both fixity and becoming, synchronic and diachronic, Chronos and Aeon. Kant would internalize time and space as categories in the mind. Meillassoux needed an absolute concept that would treat reality on its own terms, a concept that would transform our understanding of time itself as both underpinning our conceptions of Being and Becoming as well as instigating a conception of time that was not-All; a non-totalistic time before time: an absolute time of pure supercontingency. As he states it chaos as a concept entails disorder, randomness, the eternal becoming of everything. Such a concept could not explain contingency, or even what he now terms “supercontingency”. No, “these properties are not properties of Hyper-Chaos: its contingency is so radical that even becoming, disorder, or randomness can be destroyed by it, and replaced by order, determinism, and fixity” (ibid. KL 288). He came upon this concept in trying to define what he implied by his other concept “facticity”: What is facticity once it is considered as an absolute rather than as a limit? The answer is time. Facticity as absolute must be considered as time, but a very special time: “hyper-chaos”. (ibid. 284)

So hyper-chaos is a special type of time, a time that includes both fixity and change, being and becoming; yet, it does not meld these into some formless soup, instead it allows them to oscillate within a void of pure negativity. As I was thinking about this and trying to visualize such a notion I remembered the Taoist symbol of yin and yang, of the male and female rotation of light folded in darkness, and darkness folded in light. In explaining facticity Meillassoux will tell us:

If the facticity of the correlation can be conceived of, if it is a notion that we can effectively conceive of … then it is a notion that we can think as an absolute: the absolute absence of reason for any reality, in other words, the effective ability for every determined entity, whether it is an event, a thing, or a law, to appear and disappear with no reason for its being or non-being. Unreason becomes the attribute of an absolute time capable of destroying or creating any determinate entity without any reason for its creation or destruction. (ibid. KL 258)

This notion of an absolute Time that is capable of destruction and creation without any grounding or foundation in reason, a groundless ground of unreason almost seems a throwback to certain notions in F.W.J. Schelling. In his 1809 essay on human freedom Schelling will state:

…following the eternal act of self-revelation, the world as we now behold it, is all rule, order and form; but the unruly lies ever in the depths as though it might again break through, and order and form nowhere appear to have been original, but it seems as though what had initially been unruly had been brought to order. This is the incomprehensible basis of reality in things, the irreducible remainder which cannot be resolved into reason by the greatest exertion but always remains in the depths. Out of this which is unreasonable, reason in the true sense is born. Without this preceding gloom, creation would have no reality; darkness is its necessary heritage. (Schelling 1936, 34)

What stood out in this passage was this notion that the most fundamental basis of reality, the “irreducible remainder which cannot be resolved into reason by the greatest exertion but always remains in the depths” is the very figure of Meillassoux’s hyper-chaos, of a special time before time as we know it; or linear, subjective time. And, secondly, the idea that reason arises our of this unreasonable foretime of the abyss: this irreducible remainder. Lao Tzu’s short book would hint at such a notion as well:

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.2

The whole point of this exercise for Meillassoux was to refute the anti-realist tradition of Kant and his progeny up to and including the phenomenologists. What he discovered in this tradition of anti-realism was a “performative contradiction”: the absolutization of facticity. As he states:

Everything can be conceived of as contingent, depending on human tropism, everything except contingency itself. Contingency, and only contingency, is absolutely necessary: facticity, and only facticity, is not factual, but eternal. Facticity is not a fact, it is not one more fact in the world. And this is based upon a precise argument: I can’t be skeptical towards the operator for every skepticism. (ibid. KL 272)

Within all forms of correlationism, weak and strong, he found their reliance on this absolutization of facticity. So that through his principle of factuality (“Factiality is not facticity, but the necessity of facticity, the essence of facticity.”) he thinks it possible to enable a speculative materialism that can clearly and without doubt refute correlationism. At the heart of correlationism is this notion that there are no objects, no events, no laws, no beings which are not always already correlated with a point of view, with a subjective access. This “philosophy of access” (Harman) is what many term the anti-realist tradition. And it is against this that Meillassoux seeks to overcome through his use of mathematics:

Now, my project is to solve a problem that I did not resolve in After Finitude, it is a very difficult problem, one that I can’t rigorously set out here, but that I can sum up in this simple question: would it be possible to derive, to draw from the principle of factiality, the ability of the natural sciences to know, by way of mathematical discourse, reality in itself, by which I mean our world, the factual world as it is actually produced by Hyper-chaos, and which exists independently of our subjectivity? To answer this very difficult problem is a condition for a real resolution of the problem of ancestrality, and this constitutes the theoretical finality of my present work. (ibid. KL 354-359)

The point of this is to think X independent of any thinking, and Meillassoux realized that within the very conceptual tools of his enemy – the anti-realist correlationists, and their fight against the absolute – he found a path forward, a way out of the circle. The principle of factiality unveils the ontological truth hidden beneath the radical skepticism of modern philosophy, to be is not to be a correlate, but to be a fact, to be is to be factual, and this is not a fact. (ibid. KL 278-282) So this strange logic of unreason at the core of reason breaks us out of the circle of correlationism that has bound us to the tradition of finitude and the limits of reason since Kant. His proposal to use mathematics as a tool independent of the observer and the empirical reach of consciousness or intentionality is the quest he undertakes to demonstrate his thesis.  We await his demonstration.

1. Meillassoux, Quentin (2014-12-10). Time without Becoming (Kindle Locations 312-314). Mimesis International. Kindle Edition.
2. Mitchell, Stephen (2009-10-13). Tao Te Ching (Perennial Classics) (p. 3). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Quentin Meillassoux: Peut-être – The Number and the Siren

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As I was reading Tom Sparrow’s new work on Speculative Realism, End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism, I enjoyed his chapter on Quentin Meillassoux. I want go back over the full gamut of Meillassoux’s conceptions of correlationism and the principle of facticity which are central to his argument in After Finitude. Tom does a superb job of summarizing this aspect of the anti-realist tradition and Meillassoux’s proposed way of overcoming it. What I did do was reread a couple of essays that Meillassoux wrote after the Goldsmith event in which he clarified the reasoning behind his philosophical concepts and approach within After Finitude.

One of the statements in these essays struck me. He wrote a work on Stéphane Mallarmé Un Coup de Dés: The Number and the Siren. I kept wondering why he was so interested in this work in particular. I discovered my answer in the essays compiled in Time without Becoming, where he tells us that

…ultimately the matter of philosophy is not being or becoming, representation or reality, but a very special possibility, which is not a formal possible, but a real and dense possible, which I call the “peut-être”, the “may-be”. In French, I would say: “l’affaire de la philosophie n’est pas l’être, mais le peut-être”. Philosophy’s main concern is not with being but with the may-be. This peut-être, I believe, but it would be too complex to demonstrate this here, is very close to the final peut-être of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés.1

This notion of “may-be” is something I had not come across before in his work. This intrigued me. So I’ve begun reading his The Number and the Siren and will follow up on just exactly what this special possibility that is so real and dense might entail.

(see my intro to Tom Sparrow’s work: here)

1. Meillassoux, Quentin (2014-12-10). Time without Becoming (Kindle Locations 314-319). Mimesis International. Kindle Edition.

R. Scott Bakker: Global Elminativism and the Post-Intentional World

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In social terms, you could suggest that the Semantic Apocalypse has already happened. Consumer society is a society where liberal democratic states have retreated from the ‘meaning game,’  leaving the intractable issue to its constituents.
– R. Scott Bakker, The Semantic Apocalypse

Like me Scott is not a philosopher, but rather a man thinking; or, a thinking man. What that means is that being neither an academic nor para-academic philosopher we exist in that marginal space of men and women who push the limits of thought in ways that are not restricted to the peer pressure of their respective enclaves. I’m not disparaging philosophers per se, since I explore in depth the quandaries they present and try to solve within their discourses.

Scott would say philosophers like other professionals have in-groups, a network of affiliated peers that utilize the same semantic field of intentional objects: the jargon of the trade so to speak that help them convey their thoughts as vehicles of meaning. Foucault was not the first nor the last to understand how discursive networks engender the very meanings and problems they intend to critique or eliminate, etc. Zizek following Lacan would say we are all already born into a symbolic order (think here of Heidegger’s language as the ‘House of Being’, etc.); housed within illusionary semantic worlds from the moment we are born. Other humans in their interactions with us fold us into their semantic systems of intentionality, and as we grow up and mature we become embedded in these fields of sense and meaning without ever questioning the validity of such worlds. One could say that we are denaturalized from the beginning and never return to the inhuman core of our being, but instead remain within the semantic horizon of our cultural matrix without realizing just how artificial it all is. In this sense we become naturalized in reverse, we are captured by the false semantic systems and networks of our familial, educational, and political affiliations without questioning the very illusionary power of their semantic fields of intentionality.

For Scott what we neglect is more important than what we remember. We are selective creatures who forget more than we will ever be able to retain, and we base our knowledge on this minimalistic world of intentional folk-psychology rather than on the sciences which are continually blowing holes in our smoke screen semantic worlds. One might say we are tribal semanticists, we carefully protect and defend the bubbles of meaning that we are embedded in without knowing that they are all based on mechanisms of social control.

Intentionality is how minds think in a directed manner about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs. At the intersection of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language we begin to touch base with this complex of puzzles. The word itself, which is of medieval Scholastic origin, was rehabilitated by the philosopher Franz Brentano towards the end of the nineteenth century. ‘Intentionality’ is a philosopher’s word. It derives from the Latin word intentio, which in turn derives from the verb intendere, which means being directed towards some goal or thing. Already this implies a form of causality: final causation to be specific.

Final cause, or telos, is defined as the purpose, end, aim, or goal of something. Like the formal cause, this is a controversial type of cause in science (some of its aspects are used for instance in evolutionary biology, chaos theory see: attractor) . It is commonly claimed that Aristotle’s conception of nature is teleological in the sense that he believed that Nature has goals apart from those that humans have. On the other hand it has also been claimed that Aristotle thought that a telos can be present without any form of deliberation, consciousness or intelligence. As Aristotle himself would say about final causation:

This is most obvious in the animals other than man: they make things neither by art nor after inquiry or deliberation. That is why people wonder whether it is by intelligence or by some other faculty that these creatures work, – spiders, ants, and the like… It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating. Art does not deliberate. If the ship-building art were in the wood, it would produce the same results by nature. If, therefore, purpose is present in art, it is present also in nature. (wiki)

So this notion that intentions act like attractors in the mind that guide our actions is close to the notion put forward by Dawkins in his concept of ‘memes’ as a concept he invented in his discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. (wiki) In this sense memes do not exist but act as virtual attractors around which meaning and action rotate. The notion of an attractor was conceived to explain the processes of dynamic systems: a set of numerical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system. System values that get close enough to the attractor values remain close even if slightly disturbed. So in this sense the notion of beliefs, desires, etc. do not exist but act as virtual attractors that tie neurons together for specific evolutionary reasons.

The point of the above exercise is to show how we all fall into the intentional. None of what I just said is observable, but is part of a semantic unfolding of information that may or may not have any validity in the real world. As humans we love to narrate stories to fill in the gaps of our ignorance. These semantic tales become over time accepted as valid whether they are or not. It is this semantic folk-psychology of the linguistic tribe that Scott critiques.

What interests me about Scott is his global elminiativism: his attack upon the very core of our semantic illusions based as they are in the intentional mind. One of his pet peeves is how philosophers instead of exposing these illusions invent new ones, instead of filtering out the semantic systems that lead us into errors most philosophers just replace one set of intentional notions with others rather than eliminating intentionality altogether. But is such a thing possible? Scott believes the sciences are already doing this, and that the neurosciences in particular are revealing what the philosophers only dreamed of in their wildest imaginings. Is Scott right? Do we need to just eliminate philosophy as an archaic form of human thought that no longer deals with the actual world as it is, but rather seeks to engender nothing more than the old narratives in – what might be termed, the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Scott in a recent post on Adrian Johnston’s new Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism tells us that what “is transpiring today can be seen as a battle for the soul of the darkness that comes before thought. Is it ontological as so much of philosophy insists? Or is it ontic as science seems to be in the process of discovering?”1 Now this ontic-ontological divide has been around for a while. The ontic pertains pertains to being generally, rather than some distinctively philosophical (or scientific) theory of it (ontology). Science deals with the empirical facts rather than the theoretical matrix within which we interpret those facts. Yet, one must realize that at some point even scientists themselves have to interpret these physical facts they or their instruments are discovering. So that the moment they begin the process of interpreting the facts under discussion they are again caught up the semantic fold of epistemic and ontological intentionality. So I’m not sure if Scott’s distinction is a clear cut one. Even Scott’s use of the word “seems” belies the fact that there is a sense of wavering, of something that is not quite clarified but rather riddled with certain unknowns as to what the sciences are indeed discovering through their ontic investigations.

Scott himself is aware that even his own discourse is riddled with semantic overtones and intentional qualifications. In some ways we all use a language which in itself is bound to a long intentional heritage that some term folk-psychology. Some philosophers like Badiou try to minimalize this semantic heritage by opting for a mathematization of reality rather than relying on natural language or its semantic structures. Yet, Badiou’s withdrawal into mathematics presents more problems than it solves. The ontology of non-existent and abstract objects has seemed difficult to square with the ontology of the contemporary natural sciences according to which the world contains only concrete objects that exist in space and time.

Philosophers like Roderick Chisholm move this issue onto new ground by contemplating the formulation of “a working criterion by means of which we can distinguish sentences that are intentional, or are used intentionally, in a certain language from sentences that are not.” The idea is to examine sentences that report intentionality rather than intentionality itself. So this linguistic or analytical differentiation between the empirical domain and its representation centers us squarely at the point where the paradox is still unresolved. All Chisholm does is make the distinction between intentionality as conceptual meaning vs. its actual existence in the empirical domain, but this doesn’t solve the truth or falsehood of that actual validity of intentions. What it comes down to is that the intensionality of a linguistic report is not sufficient for the intentionality of the reported phenomenon. So we’re left with the failure to provide proof of the actual existence of intensional states of affairs.

W.V. Quine is a leading critic of intentional objects, agrees with Chisholm that the intentional vocabulary cannot be reduced to some non-intentional vocabulary. Chisholm took this conclusion to show the correctness of Brentano’s second thesis that intentionality is the mark of the mental. Quine for his part broke this down into both an epistemic and ontological dilemma by first accepting “indispensability of intentional idioms and the importance of an autonomous science of intention” and rejecting a physicalist ontology. Then secondly he turned it around and accepted physicalism and renounced the “baselessness” of the intentional idioms and the “emptiness” of a science of intention. His arguments for and against would have repercussions in philosophy to this day.

Daniel Dennett would instrumentalise these arguments as heuristic devices. For him the intentional idiom fails to describe or explain any real phenomenon. However, in the absence of detailed knowledge of the physical laws that govern the behavior of a physical system, the intentional idiom is a useful stance for predicting a system’s behavior. As Pierre Jacobs will tell us “Among philosophers attracted to a physicalist ontology, few have accepted the outright eliminativist materialist denial of the reality of beliefs and desires. Nor have many of them found it easy to answer the puzzling question raised by the instrumentalist position: how can the intentional idiom make useful predictions if it fails to describe and explain anything real?”2

As Jerry Fodor put it, the naturalistic worry of intentional realists who are physicalists is that “the semantic proves permanently recalcitrant to integration to the natural order”. Given that on a physicalist ontology, intentionality or semantic properties cannot be “fundamental features of the world,” the task is to show “how an entirely physical system could nevertheless exhibit intentional states”. (ibid. 2) For physicalists the question is not with Brentano’s qualification that only the mind presents mental states, but rather why do some non-mental physical things seem to manifest intentionality?

The great divide over intentionality seems to be concerned with notions of causality rather than intentionality per se. As Jacob’s will spell it out:

Daniel Dennett, according to whom the intentional stance is merely a useful predictive heuristic with no explanatory import. On Dennett’s view, there cannot be what Haugeland calls a “semantic engine.” … Intentional realists, however, will not easily concede the epiphenomenalism of intentionality, since for them, a test of the reality of a property is that it can be causally efficacious. Intentional realists who want to save the causal efficacy of intentionality divide into two broad groups. Some accept the requirement that only if it supervenes on the intrinsic physical properties of an individual’s brain can the intentionality of a mental state be causally efficacious. The challenge then is to elaborate a two-tiered account of intentionality according to which one dimension of intentionality does, and the other does not, supervene on the intrinsic properties of an individual’s brain. Other intentional realists deny the supervenience requirement and elaborate a suitable notion of what intentionality is supposed to explain—or what is the proper explanandum of a causal explanation in the explanans of which intentionality might figure prominently.(ibid. 2)

My friend Scott sides with Dennett’s use of heuristic devices that have no explanatory import, while continuing to critique any and all of those intentional realists who would like to save not the appearances but the mythical entities behind the semantic worlds; and, in fact, the semantic worlds themselves. As he tells us: “Careers will be made, celebrated ones, for those able to concoct the most appealing and slippery brands of theoretical snake-oil. And meanwhile the science will trundle on, the incompatible findings will accumulate, and those of us too suspicious to believe in happy endings will be reduced to arguing against our hopes, and for the honest appraisal of the horror that confronts us all.”

Where do you stand in the semantic void?

1. see Life as Perpetual Motion Machine: Adrian Johnston and the Continental Credibility Crisis
2. Jacob, Pierre, “Intentionality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Tom Sparrow: From Anti-Realism to Speculative Realism

 

Sparrow

Finally able to begin a back log of reading material that I’ve put off for several months. Several works in the past year or so have come out dealing with Speculative Realism (SR). Four in particular I’m in process of reading are

  1. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects by Peter Gratton
  2. The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism by Steven Shaviro
  3. The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism by Tom Sparrow
  4. Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes by Peter Wolfendale

For personal reasons I started with Tom Sparrow’s work which outlines a case against the anti-realist tradition of phenomenology which he argues lacks both a method and a hard core kernel of realist philosophy. He takes Merleau Ponty to task in his appraisal of phenomenology as a style of philosophy, when Ponty states that in his opinion: “the responsible philosopher must be that phenomenology can be practised and identified as a manner or style of thinking, that it existed as a movement before arriving at complete awareness of itself as a philosophy.”1 For Sparrow phenomenology began as a method, a way of combating the naturalist stance of the sciences. As he tells us the phenomenological method, which began with Husserl was first and foremost a way to limit and humble the aspirations of the sciences by “calling radically into question the presuppositions of objectivist sciences and philosophy” (ibid., KL 349) As Sparrow states it:

The corrupting force, according to Husserl, is what he calls the “exteriorization” of reason in the naturalistic objectivism that dominates the science of his day. Naturalism attempts to subject every domain of existence to the rigor of mathematical science, and ideally limit the sayable to the language of mathematics. (ibid. KL 345)

In his preface he will ask What is Phenomenology? He’ll suggest the question as phrased has no answer because the idea of phenomenology “lacks a coherent center”. This is because phenomenology has yet to adequately clarify its “method, scope, and metaphysical commitments”. Ultimately, he tells us that such “clarification is critical to determining what phenomenology can do and assessing whether or not its practitioners are doing it well” (Sparrow, KL 176). The point being that without such clarification there can be no sound judgment, nor any real program for phenomenology.

In some ways Sparrow sees phenomenology within what might be termed a tradition of “discursive idealism” which accentuates the correlational loop of thought and being within the human for-us context that flows out of Kant’s transcendental idealism, which began with the premise that we never have access to Things-in-themselves (noumenal) but only have access to the sense-data objects of our senses as re-presented in the epistemological registers of our human consciousness.  As Sparrow himself will say:

Phenomenology does not get us to the noumenal, it instead keeps us chained to the phenomenal, where we have been all along. Despite appearances, only speculative realism can actually get us out of Kant’s shadow. (ibid. KL 246)

It was Heidegger, the student of Husserl who would stipulate the method of phenomenology as an abductive method rather than deductive “in the sense that it is committed to adducing the matters themselves through concrete experience. The matters themselves are the source of the method, as it were.” (ibid. KL 368) As Sparrow will note, this method of abductive reasoning will lead back to the heart of intentionality:

…by focusing on the “concrete” things themselves we are led back into the ground of experience, we lay open the foundation of experience, and are ultimately referred to the dimension of intentionality. Intentionality forms the subject matter of phenomenological research or, in Heidegger’s words, “Phenomenology is the analytic description of intentionality in its apriori.” (ibid., KL 371-374)

Many scientific naturalists see in this phenomenological approach, and specifically its concern with ‘intentionality’ as in itself the cornerstone of an error, an erroneous belief in mental states and states of affairs that do not exist in themselves. To go into this would lead me too far afield.

In this work Sparrow deals mainly with the phenomenological tradition extending from Husserl to Levinas and beyond, as well as those speculative realists who fly under that banner or against it. Those such as Graham Harman and his co-horts Levi R. Bryant, Ian Bogost, Timothy Morton, and Jane Bennett.

In his pursuit of capturing the kernel of a realism in the phenomenological tradition he tells us that it will be discovered in its “rhetoric of concreteness,” within the nonphenomenological core of their work rather than in its phenomenological method per se. It was Bertrand Russell who once suggested that “the adoption of scientific method in philosophy … compels us to abandon the hope of solving many of the more ambitious and humanly interesting problems of traditional philosophy. Some of these it relegates, though with little expectation of a successful solution, to special sciences, others it shows to be such as our capacities are essentially incapable of solving”.2 This antinomic quality of philosophy is both it’s failure and its glory. Some have tried to resolve the antinomic quandaries by bringing thought and being together (idealism), while others have emphasized the inhuman core of things as independent of our thought altogether (realists). While others deal with that intermediary zone between the two realms of thought and being, what Zizek terms the gap, and others like Ray Brassier term the conceptual. This battle between idealism and realism has shifted in our time beyond the phenomenological world for-us and is shaping and re-invigorating philosophy from what Kant and his progeny assumed it to be in its limitation to finitude and what Harman terms the “philosophy of access”. Yet, their are divergent voices in this new tradition, and much renewed argument about just what has taken place in philosophy in its turn toward the Real. It is to this that Sparrow devotes one aspect of his book as it touches base with the kernel of the phenomenological method and its use for a new speculative philosophy.

Ultimately it comes down to the Intentional method itself, what Husserl termed epoché, or the phenomenal reduction (quoting John Sallis Sparrow states):

Husserl’s epoché is nothing other than the installment of the phenomenologist within the correlation of consciousness and being, otherwise known by phenomenology as intentionality or immanence.  The epoché enacts a reduction of transcendent being to immanent presence, and converts real objects into “irreal” or “intentional” objects by neutralizing their existence. As Sallis puts it, the έποχή [epoché] takes the form of neutrality-modification, neutralizing whatever real existence the object might otherwise be taken to possess, especially that unanalyzed objective existence that things in the world are naturally taken to have. By undergoing the reduction brought by the έποχή, objects come to be taken as being precisely insofar as they present themselves in an intentional experience – that is, as being precisely insofar as they are intentionally present. (ibid., KL 528-536)

The point for Sparrow is that phenomenology cannot have it both ways. It cannot continue to speak of overcoming metaphysics, while at the same time trying to be a realism. As Sparrow informs us phenomenology is forced into a choice: either it can prepare the groundwork for the end of metaphysics or it can make itself compatible with metaphysical realism. It cannot be both things at once. If it chooses to bring metaphysics to an end, then it forecloses the possibility of a realist phenomenology. If it allows a return of metaphysics in order to accommodate certain theological or other aspirations, then it can no longer be the harbinger of metaphysics’ demise. How it conceives itself methodologically will inevitably betray its preference for one side of this dilemma or the other.(ibid. 563-567)

One of the points that Sparrow makes is not that phenomenology should be abandoned, but that it should abandon the pursuit of realism itself and stick with the basic truths of its original vision: the human-centric worlds that it knows best, and the pursuit of epistemological constraints that guide and shape our modes of perception. What he seeks to demonstrate is that, while phenomenologists are often keen to present themselves as thinkers committed to the reality, if not materiality (Henry), of the world they describe, phenomenology is a poor conduit for delivering metaphysical realism:

On the contrary, phenomenology is a brilliant vehicle for antirealism in the Kantian vein, and if phenomenology is going to thrive in the contemporary philosophical milieu, it might do well to enthusiastically embrace its antirealist potential rather than disavowing it. This is a prospect that will inevitably appear unattractive to the adherents of the theological turn, but it is, I think, the best live option. So, when this book proclaims the end of phenomenology, it means that phenomenology as a method for realists has worn itself out. Phenomenology, if it means anything, is simply not a method that can commit itself to the human-independent reality of bodies, objects, qualities, properties, material, or events. (ibid., KL 462-468)

I wish that Sparrow might have dealt with the other two main philosophers of our age: Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. But, since this was a book limited to the specific area of Speculative Realism rather than the other more materialist traditions I can see why he chose to limit his work to specific philosophers.

I’ll have more to say about speculation and speculative realism in future posts. I’ll leave you with one last statement by Tom for whom speculative realism is not so much a school of thought, nor a philosophy that has a method; nor is it a unified movement, nor a radical philosophical approach to the praxis of philosophy itself. No. Instead it “is, on the contrary, a loose confederation of thinkers each of whom is committed to a kind of speculation that refuses to draw the limits of the real within the immanence of human consciousness”.(ibid., 607) What it proposes above all is to clear the ground upon which the Kantian edifice of anti-realism has closed philosophy off in a circle of human-centric stasis for far too long. It hopes to open us toward – as Quentin Meillassoux once stated it – to the “Great Outdoors” of Being itself. I would only add that it look at the cracks in Being, too.

One can find Tom on twitter, as well as his university site and his wordpress site: Plastic Bodies. Tom is the author of several works dealing with philosophy: Itinerant Philosophy: On Alphonso Lingis, A History of Habit: From Aristotle to Bourdieu, Plastic Bodies: Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology, and Levinas Unhinged. All excellent reads and worth your time.

1. Sparrow, Tom (2014-06-30). The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism (Speculative Realism EUP) (Kindle Locations 301-303). Edinburgh University Press. Kindle Edition.
2.  On Scientific Method In Philosophy (see Books Online)

Musing n’ Shit: Sirkústjaldið: Revisiting Björk and the new Internet Aesthetics

For those who have long felt Björk to be a part of the allure attracting itself toward our disconnected post-human drift this essay by Reykjavik is both a great refresher and a good introduction to her filmic and musical career. As I was watching the video All is full of love, with its asexual sensualism – the abject thrust of machinic love being recalibrated by the becoming other of an almost post-Fordic assembly line atmosphere of pureness set adrift among white scapes of a lab-like chrome and naked enclosure: the tooled perfection of anonymous robots twisting and turning, poking and screwing, channeling fluids and bolting together this makeshift humanoid creature – I felt this sense of abject disconnect, the slow realization that what I’m seeing is the origins not of life per se, but rather of machinic being in its awakening beyond the human. Watching these more-than-human machines mimic the gestures of humans in sexual signification through touch and facial textures of kissing and surface movement of material awakening I kept thinking to myself that this new form of love leaves behind the natural modes of generation, revising the very core of our material existence in sexuality and replaces it with a conceptual love that is neither pure mind, nor purely part of the complex psychosomatic involvement of the human body; it’s fleshy rawness. What we are faced with is the simulation of love in its conceptual purity divorced of the human: the inhuman kernel of sex without sexuality, the concrete portrayal of the human act without the human; yet, with all the sensual foreplay that humans accentuate in their actual interactions. The facial expressions expose this inhuman core through their very uncanny resemblance to actual human gestures. We feel their awakening to sensual love, and yet in the very movement of their machinic appendages we realize the sterile appeal of it all, the almost distant reduplication of the human ‘as’ human with the very disconnect from the human-as-flesh. For it is this absence of the human in the very coupling of these machines that (re)presents  for us that uncanny intertwining of the negativity of self-reflecting nothingness which captures the very inhuman core of our conceptuality. These are machines for whom death is no longer of essence, whose very physical truth is the standardized parts and replaceable metal and plastic appendages typifying the eternal sterility of life-in-death. These are the living dead, the zombie children of a new world where the symbolic order is invisible to the very nth degree, so internalized that it seems to repeat the endless patterns of the human without the human – this absent while present appeal. The conceptual truth of the human without its physical manifestation: the blood and guts of an actual fleshly core. What does that tell us about ourselves? Or, better yet, what does this tell about what we want? Is this the ‘abyss of freedom’ of which Schelling and Hegel speak, of the disjunctive separation of the conceptual subject form from its natural and symbolic contexts in the pure play of signifiers without a signified, the free-floating play of thought in all its artificial truth? Or, is this the movement of the abyss as it leaves behind the dark drives that have bound us to the earth for so long? Are we seeing the final movement of life into anti-life; the machinic existence of thought without the disgusting fleshly core that ties us to the clock-worlds of our ancestral linkages? Is this truly what we want?

Reykjavik Sex Farm!

vulnicura-featured

So this piece was actually written all the way back in February, when Björk announced the release of her current album, Vulnicura. I was asked by the HI arts and humanities website Sirkustjaldið to write some pieces of my own choosing about cultural points that interested. Alas Sirkustjaldið hasn’t quite worked out in the way I hoped it would. As well as translation issues (I know for a fact that the likes of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun with its lyrical tech-syntax will almost certainly NEVER be translated into Icelandic), but also other issues, like restrictive word counts (for a website magazine!) in some blind adherence to optimization metrics did grate a little. And even though this piece has been translated and edited for weeks, it still hasn’t been uploaded! not a good sign. Oh well.

Anyway, what really intrigued me about Vulnicura wasn’t the album themes of heartbreak…

View original post 2,100 more words

Slavoj Zizek: The Question of Potentiality and Virtuality

virtual_universe

Throughout the corpus of his writings Zizek will return to one central or core theme: the Hegelian notion of “Substance as Subject”. I decided to gather a few entries as a way of getting a handle upon this thematic. Yet, this notion seems to be bound up with the difference between potentiality and virtuality, along with his concept of retroactive causation.

from Less Than Nothing

For we Hegelians, the crucial question here is this: where does Hegel stand with regard to this distinction between potentiality and virtuality? On a first approach, there is massive evidence that Hegel is the philosopher of potentiality: is not the whole point of the dialectical process as the development from In-itself to For-itself that, in the process of becoming, things merely “become what they already are” (or were from all eternity)? Is not the dialectical process the temporal deployment of an eternal set of potentialities, which is why the Hegelian System is a self-enclosed set of necessary passages? This mirage of overwhelming evidence dissipates, however, the moment we fully take into account the radical retroactivity of the dialectical process: the process of becoming is not in itself necessary, but is the becoming (the gradual contingent emergence) of necessity itself. This is also (among other things) what “to conceive substance as subject” means: the subject as the Void, the Nothingness of self-relating negativity, is the very nihil out of which every new figure emerges; in other words, every dialectical passage or reversal is a passage in which the new figure emerges ex nihilo and retroactively posits or creates its necessity.1

Here he begins with this question of the distinction between potentiality and virtuality. Before I take up the notion of “substance as subject” I think we should gain an better understanding of these two concepts or notions and how Zizek deploys them within his form of dialectical materialism. First, we take up Zizek’s distinction between idealism and materialism:

With regard to its most elementary formal configuration, the couple of idealism and materialism can also be rendered as the opposition between primordial lack and the self-inverted curvature of being: while, for “idealism,” lack (a hole or gap in the order of being) is the unsurpassable fact (which can then either be accepted as such, or filled in with some imagined positive content), for “materialism,” lack is ultimately the result of a curvature of being, a “perspectival illusion,” a form of appearance of the torsion of being. Instead of reducing one to the other (instead of conceiving the curvature of being as an attempt to obfuscate the primordial lack, or the lack itself as a mis-apprehension of the curvature), one should insist on the irreducible parallax gap between the two. (Zizek, KL 5309)

These two perspectives upon Being as such brings us to the difference between potentiality and virtuality. Zizek himself will bring to the fore Quentin Meillasoux’s explication in After Finitude which states:

Meillassoux proposes a precise distinction between contingency and chance, linking it to the distinction between virtuality and potentiality: Potentialities are the non-actualized cases of an indexed set of possibilities under the condition of a given law (whether aleatory or not). Chance is every actualization of a potentiality for which there is no univocal instance of determination on the basis of the initial given conditions. Therefore I will call contingency the property of an indexed set of cases (not of a case belonging to an indexed set) of not itself being a case of sets of cases; and virtuality the property of every set of cases of emerging within a becoming which is not dominated by any pre-constituted totality of possibles. (Zizek, KL 5337)

The difference between the two is that of the possible: potentialities are possible because they pre-exist the set of possible manifestations (i.e., think of the throw of dice: the determination of the outcome arises because there is delimited set of probable states –  a one in six chance of number six turning up, so when number six does actually turns up, a pre-existing possible is realized). While virtuality is defined retroactively as that which allows something new to emerge; a case is realized for which there was no place in the pre-existing set of possibles. The point of this distinction between potentiality and virtuality is made by Meillassoux himself:

The notion of virtuality permits us … to reverse the signs, making of every radical irruption the manifestation, not of a transcendent principle of becoming (a miracle, the sign of a Creator), but of a time that nothing subtends (an emergence, the sign of non-All). We can then grasp what is signified by the impossibility of tracing a genealogy of novelties directly to a time before their emergence: not the incapacity of reason to discern hidden potentialities, but, quite on the contrary, the capacity of reason to accede to the ineffectivity of an All of potentialities which would pre-exist their emergence. In every radical novelty, time makes manifest that it does not actualize a germ of the past, but that it brings forth a virtuality which did not pre-exist in any way, in any totality inaccessible to time, its own advent.2

What he is referring to is the Platonic world of Ideas as that order of potentials, and against this notion of a separate world of Ideas or potentials pre-existing their emergence in the temporal nexus of our world there is novelty instead. This novelty comes ex nihilo; the emergence is not of some potential that pre-exists time but rather emerges virtually in the moment of its advent as appearance. But if a virtuality does not pre-exist its advent how does it actually exist? Something more needs to be explained. Its as if a virtuality is a black hole, an impossible possible.

Zizek himself will revert to Deleuze telling us that the solution to this dilemma lies precisely in the notion of virtuality in the strict Deleuzian sense, as the actuality of the possible, as a paradoxical entity the very possibility of which already produces or has actual effects. Is not this Virtual ultimately the symbolic as such? Take symbolic authority: in order to function as an effective authority, it has to remain not-fully-actualized, an eternal threat. (Zizek, KL 8041) Is it? Is this what Deleuze is saying? To clarify this we need to understand how Zizek uses the symbolic. The starting place with Zizek is always Lacan. So when Zizek tells us that for Lacan the imaginary relates to the seen, while the symbolic as it were redoubles the image, shifting the focus onto what cannot be seen, onto what the image that we see obfuscates or blinds us to. Lacan spells out very precisely the implications of this redoubling: it is not only that, with the symbolic, the imaginary turns into the appearance concealing a hidden reality— the appearance the symbolic generates is that of appearance itself, namely the appearance that there is a hidden reality beneath the visible appearance. The precise name for this appearance of something that has no existence in itself, that exists only in its effects and thus only appears to appear, is virtuality— the virtual is the invisible X, the void whose contours can only be reconstructed from its effects, like a magnetic pole which only exists inasmuch as it attracts the small metal pieces that gather around it. (Zizek, KL 15529)

This sounds very familiar. One might think of the notion of an attractor in dynamical systems theory. This notion of an attractor was first developed as a way of explaining a set of numerical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system (see wiki). For Zizek we never have direct access to this virtual attractor, but know it indirectly by its effects (i.e., retroactive causation). As Zizek will explicate a purely spatial definition which immobilizes its object produces a non-actual abstraction, not a full reality; the unfinished (ontologically incomplete) character of reality which compels us to include the virtuality of teleiosis (from Greek: the event which verifies the promise)  in the definition of an object is thus not its limitation, but a positive condition of its actual existence.(Zizek, KL 20402) So that in this sense the virtual is what actuality tends toward rather than being what it actualizes; rather than the pre-existing potential that is fulfilled, the virtual is the attractor toward which actuality moves. Virtuality is the condition for Being as such.

This leads us to negation …

more later…

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 5392-5402). Norton. Kindle Edition.
2. Quentin Meillassoux, “Potentiality and Virtuality,” Collapse: Philosophic Research and Development 2 (2007), pp. 71– 2.

Thoughts… on Zizek: The Unbearable Darkness of the Real

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Wanted to get this down for future reference… obviously my repetition of Zizek is part of an ongoing book on dialectical materialism. Zizek awakened me to another way of seeing the issues and problems we are facing. His confrontation with the German Idealist traditions with his Lacanian lens interests me both philosophically and personally. His notion of ‘Christian materialism’ haunts me to no end, having escaped the world of Bible-Belt Southern Baptist belief systems I know very well that they still live in the hinterlands of my psyche like troglodytes of some impossible pre-history of my Self. The Self or subject does not pre-exist the very structure of our self-relating negativity, but is a retroactive construction, a narrative among narratives: a lie we all hold on to and cherish. Even as I proclaim a form of atheism, the world of religion haunts my thought like a bad dream. One never truly leaves one’s dark heritage, one can only live through the traumas of its broken world, the pain and effects, the scars and traces of its horrors. Zizek is one of the few philosophers to confront this heritage from a Continental perspective that rings true.

Zizek’s notion of retroactive reconstruction (causation) is about the effects of this Symbolic Order and its impositions, the way it tries to interpose its own narrative and control systems within the gap to shape the very texture of the life-world, thereby hoping to stave off the actual effects of the gap itself and its repercussions. The truth is found in the brokenness, the obstacles, the things that will not fit into the life-world representations or narratives we love to cling too. We love to believe in something rather than nothing. Even nihilists who try to live without any firm grounding or meaning grasp onto such frameworks as the sciences offer to give them a foothold onto the impossible truth, to fill the gap with scientific narratives of truth; this, too, is ideology, part of the symbolic Order or big Other’s game of Truth.

The thing about Zizek is that one does not read him, one deploys him; that is, one enacts the very dialectical materialist movement that his concepts conceive. Dialectical materialism is based on this oscillation between antinomies, between competing registrars of thinking and being without choosing one side or the other, but rather than trying to reconcile their differences or sublating them into some higher synthesis (Kant-Fichte-Schelling-Hegel), he chooses to keep them in a parallax gap from which to discover new truths and concepts, problems and questions. There can be no final truth, no absolute answer, no place in which thought will find its final resting place. We live in an open universe where thought’s limit is the unknown – what Ray Brassier once termed the ‘unbounded nihil’: this is the missing piece, the gap that will not go away and cannot be filled. We can only oscillate between its competing poles and antinomies, conflicts and unresolved dilemmas. Yet, in this very process we come to understand both ourselves and the unbearable darkness of the Real.

The Real in the guise of primordial flesh, the palpitation of the life substance as the Thing itself, in its disgusting dimension as a cancerous outgrowth; and, the Real of writing… The difference hinges on the different starting point: if we start with the imaginary, we get the Real in its imaginary dimension, as a horrifying primordial image that cancels the imagery itself; if we start with the symbolic, we get the signifier itself transformed into the Real of a meaningless letter or formula. These two figures are the two opposite aspects of the Real: the abyss of the primordial Life-Thing and the meaningless letter or formula (as in the Real of the modern science).1

The key is to hold these two aspects of the one Real in our vision without trying to reconcile their antinomic difference, to realize in the very oscillations between these two aspects of the Real the truth of our lives.

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 11013-11021). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Slavoj Zizek: The Black Hole that IS – Quote of the Day!

voidPuzzle

I have this analogy I like very much, of the puzzle where there is one empty space and the trick is to use this negative space to shift the pieces around until they create a “whole” image. However, the catch is the fulfillment of this whole is dependent upon the missing tile, the negative space, which both allows the image to be “made whole” and prevents it from ever being “fully” or “truly” whole. I think this is a good analogy for the structure of life. There is an all too obvious negativity, a lack, what many refer to (accurately I think) as “the void”. But, this same void is what allows us to really live. If we lived in some type of void-free utopia, we would be like animals, mere life forms who function purely on instinct, never really being aware of anything. The void is what both allows us to live and what we meet when we die. It has an almost sacred aura around it, it is in the void where we imagine we see things like God, the Devil, witchcraft, the supernatural, etc. It is the dark itself, and we are all naturally afraid of it, because, by its very nature, nothing is in it, and this precisely means that anything could be in it.

– Slavoj Žižek, Unfiltered Thought: A Political Philosophy

Derek Raymond: Crime as Event – The Factory Novels

derek-raymond

What I suffer isn’t self-pity; it is my coming up against the absolute. The ordeal the writer sets himself is to track down existence and then, both stripped naked, fight it out. Everyone experiences this in the end, some-how or other. But often the contest is short and sharp—the last seconds of a motor crash, a fall from a roof, a heart attack, being rolled and beaten to death in a dark street.

– Derek Raymond, He Died with His Eyes Open

Of late I’ve returned to noir, reading a few of the classics and generally enjoying the nuances of the differing styles and contours of this black art of night. Recently began reading Derek Raymond’s Factory novels.

Robert William Arthur Cook, better known since the 1980s by his pen name Derek Raymond, was an English crime writer, credited with being a founder of British noir. The eldest son of a textile magnate, Cook spent his early years at the family’s London house, off Baker Street, tormenting a series of nannies. In 1937, in anticipation of the Second World War, the family retreated to the countryside, to a house near their Kentish castle. In 1944 Cook went to Eton, which he later characterized as a “hotbed of buggery” and “an excellent preparation for vice of any kind”. He dropped out at the age of 17. During his National Service, Cook attained the rank of corporal. After a brief stint working for the family business, selling lingerie in a department store in Neath, Wales, he spent most of the 1950s abroad. He lived in the Beat Hotel in Paris, rubbing shoulders with his neighbors William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and danced at fashionable left bank boîtes with the likes of Juliette Greco. In New York he resided on the Lower East Side and was married to an heiress from New England for all of sixty-five days. He claimed that he was sick of the dead-on-its-feet upper crust he was born into, that he didn’t believe in and didn’t want, whose values were meaningless. (wiki)

I’m almost finished with his first novel in the series He Died With His Eyes Open, which like most noir has an inevitability about it; a sense that we are witnessing a litany of doom, the steady march of death that inclines from a horror of life to a life of horror. As A.L. Kennedy will tell us this work “has a remarkable and disturbing physicality” about it.1 I would add that it is not so much the physicality as in a substantive vision as it is in a visceral immaterialism: the throb of words that inhabit one with a knowledge of the darkness within and without tingling in the very flesh of thought.

There is a moment in the book when the main character – a detective in London’s Metropolitan Police division A14 – that unlike Scotland’s Yard deals with the deaths of outcasts, unknowns, and the poor, etc. – remembers an early memory of a Sculptor he once knew. The unidentified detective conveys his meeting with the Sculptor saying:

Nobody who mattered liked his sculpture; when I went over to his council studio I understood why. His figures reminded me of Ingres crossed with early Henry Moore; they were extraordinarily graceful, and far too honest to mean anything whatever to current trendy taste. There was a quality in them that no artist nowadays can seize anymore; they expressed virtues—toughness, idealism, determination—that went out of style with a vanished Britain that I barely remembered. I asked him why, with his talent, he didn’t progress to a more modern attitude, but he said it was no use; he was still struggling to represent the essence of what he had experienced in the thirties.2

This notion of his failure to represent the essence of his experience conveys the very truth of what he sought, brings with it that moment of insight into things of which Zizek has repeatedly seen as the central core of a materialist vision: the most elementary figure of dialectical reversal resides in transposing an epistemological obstacle into the thing itself, as its ontological failure (what appears to us as our inability to know the thing indicates a crack in the thing itself, so that our very failure to reach the full truth is the indicator of truth).3 The Sculptor’s very failure to attain the essence of his experience is in itself the very condition of its truth, acknowledging the cracks in the stone that will not reveal that knot of light quickens the very truth in the mind that beholds it.

Our detective will ask him “why, with his talent, he didn’t progress to a more modern attitude, but he said it was no use; he was still struggling to represent the essence of what he had experienced in the thirties” (ibid. 176). The Sculptor will reply:

‘What I’m always trying to capture,’ he explained, ‘is the light, the vision inside a man, and the conviction which that light lends his action, his whole body. Haven’t you noticed how the planes of a man’s body alter when he’s in the grip of a belief? The ex-bank-clerk acquires the stature of an athlete as he throws a grenade—or, it might be, I recollect the instant where an infantryman in an attack, a worker with a rifle, is stopped by a bullet: I try to reconstruct in stone the tragedy of a free man passing from life to death, from will to nothingness: I try to capture the second in which he disintegrates. It’s an objective that won’t let me go,’ he said, ‘and I don’t want it to.’ He had been full of promise before he went to Spain; he grubbed about and found me some of his old press-cuttings. In one of them he was quoted as saying: ‘A sculptor’s task is to convey the meaning of his time in terms of its overriding idea. If he doesn’t transmit the idea he’s worth nothing, no matter how much fame he acquires or money he makes. The idea is everything.’ (ibid. 176)

This notion of retroactivity, of reconstructing in “stone the tragedy of a free man passing from life to death, from will to nothingness” of trying “to capture the second in which he disintegrates”: this moment or event at the horizon of intelligibility, when the oscillation between life and death, will and nothingness collide in the instant that can never be re-presented except retroactively in the very movement of the sculptor’s hands on stone: this is event of which Zizek speaks of Hölderlin:

he sees the solution in a narrative which retroactively reconstructs the very “eccentric path” (the path of the permanent oscillation between the loss of the Center and the repeated failed attempts to regain the immediacy of the Center) as the process of maturation, of spiritual education. (Zizek, KL 577)

Isn’t this the Lacanian object petit a – the central paradox of the excess which cannot be conveyed because it is always beyond representation:

The paradox is here the paradox of a thing which is always (and nothing but) an excess with regard to itself: in its “normal” state, it is nothing. This brings us back to Lacan’s notion of the objet a as surplus-enjoyment: there is no “basic enjoyment” to which one adds the surplus-enjoyment; enjoyment is always a surplus, in excess. The object-in-itself (photon, atom) is here not negated/ mediated, it emerges as the (retroactive) result of its mediation.(Zizek, KL 95)

One could read this as pure Idealism, as the typical realist of Ideas; or, one could read it in another way, as the opposite of what we usually think of an Idea. As Zizek in his reading of the Parmenides suggests:

…as to the status of Ideas, then the result should be that Ideas do not exist, do not have ontological reality of their own: they persist as purely virtual points of reference. That is to say, the only appropriate conclusion is that eternal Ideas are Ones and Others which do not participate in (spatio-temporal) Being (which is the only actual being there is): their status is purely virtual. This virtual status was made clear by Deleuze, one of the great anti-Platonists. Deleuze’s notion of the Virtual is to be opposed to the all-pervasive topic of virtual reality: what matters to Deleuze is not virtual reality, but the reality of the virtual (which, in Lacanian terms, is the Real). Virtual Reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing experience in an artificial medium. The reality of the Virtual, on the other hand, stands for the reality of the Virtual as such, for its real effects and consequences. (Zizek, KL 1739)

He will continue in this vein on the Parmenides, telling us that Plato’s battle against the Sophists consisted of reaction to their fracturing of words and things, and philosophy “proper can only be understood as a reaction to this, as an attempt to close the gap the sophists opened up, to provide a foundation of truth for words, to return to mythos but under the new conditions of rationality.” (ibid. KL 1953) Plato himself was the first philosopher who tried to provide a foundation for truth based on his theory of Ideas, and in his battle with the Sophists he realized just how fragile this foundation truly was. As Zizek will tell us:

 The irony of the history of philosophy is that the line of philosophers who struggle against the sophistic temptation ends with Hegel, the “last philosopher,” who, in a way, is also the ultimate sophist, embracing the self-referential play of the symbolic with no external support of its truth. For Hegel, there is truth, but it is immanent to the symbolic process— the truth is measured not by an external standard, but by the “pragmatic contradiction,” the inner (in) consistency of the discursive process, the gap between the enunciated content and its position of enunciation. (Zizek, KL 1962)

The irony in Derek Raymond’s book comes in acknowledging that the truth his friend tried to convey in his efforts would all come to naught:

I knew what would happen to Ransome’s work when he died. The council would come round, view what Ransome had left behind, and order it to be junked; a truck would arrive, and a couple of men with sledgehammers. The whole lot would be smashed up and go into the council dump; in a thousand years’ time one of his stone faces might be found staring enigmatically upwards from the base of a demolished block. Meanwhile, in our lifetime, horrible pieces of rubbish, commissioned by the ignorant from the ambitious, would continue to clutter London parks, blessed by the senile patronage of the Arts Council. (‘The most terrifying responsibility in stone,’ Ransome said, ‘is that it’s eternal.’) The dwindling number of places in London parks where you could peacefully eat a sandwich in the shade of the plane trees on a hot day would go on being deformed by stone drivel, bronze and marble drivel, eternal drivel. (Raymond, 177)

Isn’t this truly the sadness at the heart of noir, the acknowledgement that our lives, the lives of those situated outside the accepted halls of the rich, powerful, and elite – for lack of a better term, “the beautiful people” (those captured in the mediataiment stain of an irreal world) will ultimately go down into the darkness forgotten and alone. The trace of our accomplishments broken in the dustbin of history like so many stone sculptures shredded and pulverized into oblivion. This is the bleakness of noir: people would rather live in the illusory than know the truth of their unlived lives. Yet, one also realizes that our anonymous detective has redeemed the truth of this man and his work through narrating it retroactively so that we the readers receive the very light or aura that was hidden in the ruins of those stones become words.

1. A.L. Kennedy’s Darkness Visible: ‘He Died With His Eyes Open’ Is A Crime Novel Like No Other (NPR March 10, 2013)
2. Raymond, Derek (2011-10-04). He Died with His Eyes Open (Factory 1) (p. 176). Random House Inc Clients. Kindle Edition.
3. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 588-590). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Daily Reading: Mark Fischer’s – Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures

sapphire2

Just started reading Mark Fisher’s new book Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. In the opening sequence he relates both his childhood apprehensions and his adult refractions upon a world where time has stopped. His vivid remembrance of the British television series Sapphire and Steel, which as he states it was ready made to “haunt the adolescent mind” renders the fantastic narrative of two possibly inhuman beings sent to investigate certain break-ins of none other than Time itself into the fabric of everyday reality. One feature of this tv series was its cryptic appeal, the stories in episode after episode “never fully disclosed, still less explained” what was actually happening. Instead there was this wavering between worlds, an oscillation between the fictive and the actual.

“Anachronism, the slippage of discrete time periods into one another, was throughout the series the major symptom of time breaking down.”1 The series itself ended with this sense of the characters suspended in a time of no time, a time where time no longer moved, where time ended in the stasis of a literal vacuum without outlet. A flattening out of temporality, as if instead of time breaking in, time instead had been evacuated. As if time had been subtracted from the void of the present and in its absence the characters were themselves opened up to the café engulfed by the emptiness of space. As Fischer puts it:

In one of the earlier assignments, Steel complains that these temporal anomalies are triggered by human beings’ predilection for the mixing of artefacts from different eras. In this final assignment, the anachronism has led to stasis: time has stopped. The service station is in ‘a pocket, a vacuum’. There’s ‘still traffic, but it’s not going anywhere’: the sound of cars is locked into a looped drone. Silver says, ‘there is no time here, not any more’. It’s as if the whole scenario is a literalisation of the lines in Pinter’s No Man’s Land: ‘No man’s land, which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, which remains forever icy and silent.’ … Eternally suspended, never to be freed, their plight – and indeed their provenance – never to be fully explained, Sapphire and Steel’s internment in this café from nowhere is prophetic for a general condition: in which life continues, but time has somehow stopped.

 The rest of the book will assume the truth of this statement. As Fischer tells us in the prelude:

It is the contention of this book that 21st-century culture is marked by the same anachronism and inertia which afflicted Sapphire and Steel in their final adventure. But this stasis has been buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of ‘newness’, of perpetual movement. The ‘jumbling up of time’, the montaging of earlier eras, has ceased to be worthy of comment; it is now so prevalent that it is no longer even noticed.

I think I’ll read on…

1. Fisher, Mark (2014-05-30). Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Kindle Locations 152-153). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Slavoj Zizek: The Order of the Real

What this means, in effect, is that there is no ontology of the Real: the very field of ontology, of the positive order of Being, emerges through the subtraction of the Real.

– Slavoj  Zizek,(2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Reading Zizek is like floating around in a vacuum of endless repetitions that seem to never find a resting place. I sometimes shift from Zizek to Wallace Stevens to remind myself that “the imperfect is our paradise” (from The Poems of our Climate):

I
Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations – one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

II
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

III
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

– Wallace Stevens

The last stanza exemplifies the work of Slavoj Zizek who admits that words alone are uncertain good – not as in William Butler Yeats.  When Zizek introduces his concept of the Gap we should understand that it is not what we might think it is: a Void between us (For-itself) and the proverbial Thing-in-itself. Which is the Idealist prognosis and Kant and his tradition as received in most academic scholarship of the last two hundred years. A move Quentin Meillassoux in his book After Finitude has marked by the appellation of correlationism, etc. No. For Zizek the Gap is the Real, the screen that distorts all our views onto reality.

…the Real is a gap in the order of Being (reality) and a gap in the symbolic order? The reason there is no contradiction is that “reality” is transcendentally constituted by the symbolic order, so that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” (Wittgenstein). In the common transcendental view, there is some kind of Real-in-itself (like the Kantian Ding an sich) which is then formed or “constituted” into reality by the subject; due to the subject’s finitude, we cannot totalize reality, reality is irreducibly inconsistent, “antinomic,” and so forth— we cannot gain access to the Real, which remains transcendent. The gap or inconsistency thus concerns only our symbolically constituted reality, not the Real in itself.1

So the gap concerns not the Real as it is in itself, but with our symbolic order of  that  constitutes our view onto reality. Yet, against any Idealist reading of this, of the notion of the subject’s performativity and/or creativity (““symbolic construction of reality”), Zizek will rather expose another truth of the ontological “collateral damage” of symbolic operations: the process of symbolization is inherently thwarted, doomed to fail, and the Real is this immanent failure of the symbolic. The circular temporality of the process of symbolization is crucial here: the Real is the effect of the failure of the symbolic to reach (not the In-itself, but) itself, to fully realize itself, but this failure occurs because the symbolic is thwarted in itself. (ibid. KL 21401)

But does this mean that we end up in a kind of idealism of the symbolic— what we experience as “reality” is symbolically constructed, and even the Real which eludes the grasp of the symbolic is a result of the immanent failure of the symbolic? No, because it is through this very failure to be itself that the symbolic touches the Real. In contrast to transcendentalism, Lacan agrees that we have access to the In-itself: Lacan is not a discourse-idealist who claims that we are forever caught in the web of symbolic practices, unable to reach the In-itself.

– Slavoj Zizek,  (Kindle Locations 21410-21414).

For Zizek all ontologies are limited because they do not account for what is left out in their descriptions: the Real itself. And, yet, for Zizek this is as it should be:

Desexualized modern ontology attempts to describe a flat, neutral (neutered) order of being (the anonymous multiplicity of subatomic particles or forces), but in order to do so, it has to ignore the inconsistency or incompleteness of the order of being, the immanent impossibility which thwarts every ontology. Every field of ontology, even at its most radical (like the mathematical ontology of Badiou), has to subtract the impossible/ Real (the curved space of sexuation) from the order of being. (KL 21446-21449)

I want go into the full argument of the “limits of sexuation” which concerns Zizek’s reading of Lacan. Instead I want to focus on the kernel of Zizek’s problems. Zizek’s philosophy stands or falls on his theory of the Subject. Yet, when he uses this term he is not speaking of individual subjects or human subjectivity, rather his theory defines the relations among his various concepts of the Gap and Real. It’s because of this concept that many philosophers reduce Zizek to an old school Idealist, rather than what he is – a dialectical materialist. But Zizek himself is not a clear and precise thinker, but is rather a man stumbling from example to example, analogy to analogy, seeking metaphors, hyperboles, metonyms that might actually help him define that which he knows can never be put into language. So maybe we should read Zizek against himself, maybe read him through his very failures to say what he means.

Take for instance the Thing-in-itself:

What, then, is the “Thing-in-itself” from a dialectical-materialist standpoint? The best way to answer this question is, again, to oppose dialectical materialism to Buddhism: in Buddhism, the In-itself is the void, nothing, and ordinary reality is a play of appearances. The question ultimately unanswered here is how we get from nothing to something. How do illusory appearances arise out of the void? The dialectical-materialist answer is: only if this something is less than nothing, the pre-ontological proto-reality of den. From within this proto-reality, our ordinary reality appears through the emergence of a subject which constitutes “objective reality”: every positive reality of Ones is already phenomenal, transcendentally constituted, “correlated” to a subject— in Badiou’s terms, every reality is that of a world defined by its transcendental coordinates.(ibid. KL  21362-21368)

His use of Buddhism has nothing to do with the actual practices of Buddhism, but rather with his own reception of certain concepts he has aligned with his own philosophical approach as counters and tools against which to measure his own thoughts. The kernel of the problem is situated in the sentence “From within this proto-reality, our ordinary reality appears through the emergence of a subject which constitutes “objective reality”: every positive reality of Ones is already phenomenal, transcendentally constituted, “correlated” to a subject— in Badiou’s terms, every reality is that of a world defined by its transcendental coordinates.” But what brought this immanent relation of a subject into constituting “objective reality” to begin with? Why was there a need to objectify the world? And is this universal subject which before all individual or concrete universal subjects (humans, etc.) something that preexists objective reality? Or is it immanent to the very process that is our universe to begin with? The problem is one of essence: is this subject some substantial agent preexisting our objective reality, that in fact constitutes it? Or is their another reading of what this subject is, a non-substantialist view onto its very status as subject?

Over and over Zizek assures us that his enemy is all forms of substantive philosophy. He is no Spinoza of the jet-set postmodern variety. Speaking of actual selves Zizek will tell us that the self is a disruptive, false, and, as such, unnecessary metaphor for the process of awareness and knowing: when we awaken to knowing, we realize that all that goes on in us is a flow of “thoughts without a thinker.” The impossibility of figuring out who or what we really are is inherent, since there is nothing that we “really are,” just a void at the core of our being. Consequently, in the process of Buddhist Enlightenment, we do not quit this terrestrial world for another truer reality— we just accept its non-substantial, fleeting, illusory character; we embrace the process of “going to pieces without falling apart.” (ibid. KL 3121-3125)

Against Plato’s notion of an eternal realm of Ideas, a truer world beyond or behind this illusory one Zizek affirms that instead their is only the insubstantial truth of the Void. Yet, what is this void? How are we to understand it? For him it all comes back to Democritus’s Void: he endeavors to draw all the ontological consequences from this eppur si muove. Here is the formula at its most elementary: “moving” is the striving to reach the void, namely, “things move,” there is something instead of nothing, not because reality is in excess in comparison with mere nothing, but because reality is less than nothing. This is why reality has to be supplemented by fiction: to conceal its emptiness. (ibid. KL 293-296)

What we cannot accept is this vastation, this emptiness, so instead as humans strive to fill the void with something rather than accept the voidness at the heart of reality. Yet, this emptiness is not what you think it is. In this emptiness that is nothing something exists. Zizek will analogize using modern physics notion of the Higgs Field as an example:

 There are, however, phenomena which compel us to posit the hypothesis that there has to be something (some substance) that we cannot take away from a given system without raising that system’s energy. This “something” is called the Higgs field: once this field appears in a vessel that has been pumped empty and whose temperature has been lowered as much as possible, its energy will be further lowered. The “something” which thus appears is a something that contains less energy than nothing, a “something” that is characterized by an overall negative energy— in short, what we get here is the physical version of how “something appears out of nothing.” (ibid. KL 306)

Behind the façade of Zizek’s confrontation with the tradition of Hegel and Lacan is the central core of his political vision of radical emancipation. Reading him essay by essay one realizes that for Zizek the greatest confrontation in philosophy is not to understand reality, but rather the illusions that sustain our symbolic order. As he states it succinctly (after Kant):

The path from illusion to its critical denunciation is the very core of philosophy, which means that successful (“ true”) philosophy is no longer defined by its truthful explanation of the totality of being, but by successfully accounting for the illusions, that is, by explaining not only why illusions are illusions, but also why they are structurally necessary, unavoidable, and not just accidents. The “system” of philosophy is thus no longer a direct ontological structure of reality, but “a pure, complete system of all metaphysical statements and proofs.” (ibid. KL 435)

So that Zizek’s insistence that we need the anti-philosophy of Lacan is the obverse to such philosophical quests. Agreeing with Badiou for whom Lacan was the condition of philosophy in our time, Zizek will tell us that we must work through Lacan rather than bypassing him:

My wager was (and is) that, through their interaction (reading Hegel through Lacan and vice versa), psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics mutually redeem themselves, shedding their accustomed skin and emerging in a new unexpected shape. The book’s motto could have been Alain Badiou’s claim that “the antiphilosopher Lacan is a condition of the renaissance of philosophy. A philosophy is possible today only if it is compatible with Lacan.”  Guy Lardreau made the same point with regard to the ethico-political space when he wrote that Lacan “is the only one thinking today, the only one who never lies, le chasse-canaille [the scoundrels-hunter]”— and “scoundrels” here are those who propagate the semblance of liberation which only covers up the reality of capitalist perversion, which, for Lardreau, means thinkers such as Lyotard and Deleuze, and for us many more. What Badiou shares with Lardreau is the idea that one should think through Lacan, go further than he did, but that the only way beyond Lacan is through Lacan. The stakes of this diagnosis are clearly political: Lacan unveiled the illusions on which capitalist reality as well as its false transgressions are based, but his final result is that we are condemned to domination— the Master is the constitutive ingredient of the very symbolic order, so the attempts to overcome domination only generate new figures of the Master. The great task of those who are ready to go through Lacan is thus to articulate the space for a revolt which will not be recaptured by one or another version of the discourse of the Master. Lardreau, together with Christian Jambet, first tried to develop this opening by focusing on the link between domination and sexuality: since there is no sexuality without a relation of domination, any project of “sexual liberation” ends up generating new forms of domination— or, as Kafka would have put it, revolt is not a cage in search of a bird, but a bird in search of a cage. Based on this insight that a revolt has to be thoroughly de-sexualized, Lardreau and Jambet outlined the ascetic-Maoist-Lacanian figure of “angel” as the agent of radical emancipation. However, confronted with the destructive violence of the Cultural Revolution and especially of the Khmer Rouge regime in Kampuchea, they abandoned any notion of a radical emancipation in social relations and ended up in a split position of affirming the lesser evil in politics and the need for an inner spiritual revolution: in politics, we should be modest and simply accept that some Masters are better than others, and that the only revolt possible is an inner spiritual one. The present book rejects this spiritualization of revolt and remains faithful to Badiou’s original project of a radical emancipatory project which passes through Lacan. (ibid. KL 608-628)

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 21387-21392). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Zizek on Caravaggio’s Testa di Medusa: Quote of the Day!

Testa_di_Medusa

It was Schopenhauer who claimed that music brings us into contact with the Ding an sich: it renders directly the drive of the life substance that words can only signify. For that reason, music “seizes” the subject in the Real of his or her being, by-passing the detour of meaning: in music, we hear what we cannot see, the vibrating life force beneath the flow of Vorstellungen. But what happens when this flux of life substance is itself suspended, discontinued? At this point, an image emerges, an image that stands for absolute death, for death beyond the cycle of death and rebirth, corruption and generation. Far more horrifying than to see with our ears— to hear the vibrating life substance beyond visual representation, this blind spot in the field of the visible— is to hear with our eyes, to see the absolute silence that marks the suspension of life, as in Caravaggio’s Testa di Medusa: is not the scream of the Medusa by definition silent, “stuck in the throat,” and does not this painting provide an image of the moment at which the voice fails?

– Slavoj Zizek,  Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Slovoj Zizek: The Parallax Shift

object

…the gap that separates the knowing subject from the known object is inherent to the object itself, my knowing a thing is part of a process internal to the thing, which is why the standard epistemological problem should be turned around: not “How is my knowledge of the thing possible?” but “How is it that knowledge appears within the thing as a mode of the thing’s relating to itself?”

– Slavoj Zizek,  Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Our alienation from an object is the Object’s self-alienation. When we lose the object, it is not only that the Object abandons us, the Object abandons itself. Is this sheer non-sense? Have I suddenly plunged into a realm where things begin to think through me, rather than me thinking about things? Do things awaken in my mind of their own accord? Are things constituted by our mind or is the opposite true, that our mind is constituted by things. We know that the typical transcendental idealist ploy is to reflexively regress from the object to its subjective conditions of possibility. As Zizek will remind us even the philosophy of the “linguistic turn” remains at this transcendental level, addressing the transcendental dimension of language— that is, how the horizon of possible meaning sustained by language in which we dwell functions as the transcendental condition of possibility for all our experience of reality.1 He will add:

Here, then, “the signified falls into the signifier,” for the signified is an effect of the signifier, it is accounted for in the terms of the symbolic order as its transcendentally constitutive condition.  What dialectical reflection adds to this is another reflexive twist which grounds the very subjective-transcendental site of enunciation in the “self-movement” of the Thing itself: here, “the signifier falls into the signified,” the act of enunciation falls into the enunciated, the sign of the thing falls into the Thing itself. (ibid. see notes*)

In dialectical materialism Zizek will tell us that the “primordial” difference is not between things themselves, also not between things and their signs, but between the thing and the void of an invisible screen which distorts our perception of the thing so that we do not take the thing for itself. The movement from things to their signs is not that of a replacement of the thing by its sign, but that of the thing itself becoming the sign of— not another thing, but— itself, the void at its very core. (LTN, KL 123-12303)

What if we suddenly see between the object and the void the truth in the Möbius band: the property of being non-orientable. Zizek will define this as an example of the parallax shift, which refers to the apparent motion of an object when it is seen from different perspectives. Žižek, referring to Hegel tells us that the dialectic does not overcome the Kantian division of antinomies, but rather asserts them as such. The Hegelian synthesis, in other words, is the recognition of the insurmountable gap between two positions. This synthesis can only be achieved through a parallax shift.

…more on this in my next post…

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 12220-12237). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Notes* : When asked to explain the meaning of a term X to someone who, while more or less fluent in our language, does not know this specific term, we invariably respond with a potentially endless series of synonyms, paraphrases, or descriptions of situations in which the use of the term would be appropriate. In this way, through the very failure of our endeavor, we circumscribe an empty place, the place of the right word— precisely the word we are trying to explain. So at some point, after our paraphrases fail, all we can do is to conclude in exasperation: “In short, it is X!” Far from functioning as a simple admission of failure, however, this can effectively generate an insight— if, that is, through our failed paraphrases we have successfully circumscribed the place of the term to be explained. At this point, as Lacan would have put it, “the signifier falls into the signified,” the term becomes part of its own definition. It is a little bit like listening to old mono recordings: the very crackling sounds that filter and disturb the pure reproduction of the human voice generate an effect of authenticity, the impression that we are listening to (what was once) a real person singing, while the very perfection of modern recordings, with their stereo and other effects, strangely de-realize what we hear. (LTN, KL 12220-12237)

The Meaning of an Object: Vicarious Causation, Vacuums, and the Glue of the Universe

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Meaning— allegoric or symbolic— arises only through destruction, through an out-of-joint experience, or a cut which interrupts the object’s direct functioning in our environment.

– Slavoj Zizek,   Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

“What is peculiar to what is initially at hand is that it withdraws, so to speak, in its character of handiness in order to be really handy. What everyday dealings are initially busy with is not tools themselves, but the work.”

– Martin Heidegger, Being and Time 

The Structure of Objects

Graham Harman argues that Heidegger’s tool-analysis has nothing to do with any kind of “pragmatism,” or indeed with any theory of human action at all, but rather forces us to develop a ruthless inquiry into the structure of objects themselves. (TB, p. 15) Harman will admit that the notion of “tool-being” cannot itself be found in Heidegger, saying:

The term “tool-being” is not to be found in Heidegger’s own writings. It was coined by a close friend of mine almost a decade ago, in joking reference to the dominant status of the theme of Zuhandenheit in my reading of Heidegger. (TB, p. 15)

Harman will then claim that the analysis of equipment gives us the preliminary answer to the question of the meaning of being. The meaning of being is tool-being, and the near future of philosophy may hinge in large part on the further exploration of this Heideggerian insight. (TB, pp.15-16)

The stickler here is the equation of the meaning of being with tool-being. We need to start with this term Zuhandenheit as used by Heidegger. I start with a passage from Heidegger’s Being and Time:

The act of hammering itself discovers the specific “handiness” [“Handlichkeit”] of the hammer. We shall call the useful thing’s kind of being in which it reveals itself by itself handiness [Zuhandenheit]. It is only because useful things have this “being-in-themselves” [“An-sichsein”], sein”], and do not merely occur, that they are handy in the broadest sense and are at our disposal. No matter how keenly we just look at the “outward appearance” of things constituted in one way or another, we cannot discover handiness. When we just look at things “theoretically,” we lack an understanding of handiness. But a dealing which makes use of things is not blind; it has its own way of seeing which guides our operations and gives them their specific certainty. Our dealings with useful things are subordinate to the manifold of references of the “in-order-to.” The kind of seeing of this accommodation to things is called circumspection [Umsicht]. (BT, KL 1129-113*)

So this sense of the meaning of Zuhandenheit as handiness comes about through a kind of seeing, an “accomadation to things” by way of circumspection. Heidegger will take the opposing tack of explaining what is handy by what opposes this:

Unhandy things are disturbing and make evident the obstinacy of what is initially to be taken care of before anything else. With this obstinacy the presence of what is at hand makes itself known in a new way as the being of what is still present and calls for completion. … The modes of conspicuousness, obtrusiveness, and obstinacy have the function of bringing to the fore the character of objective presence in what is at hand. What is at hand is not thereby observed and stared at simply as something present. The character of objective presence making itself known is still bound to the handiness of useful things. These still do not disguise themselves as mere things. Useful things become “things” in the sense of what one would like to throw away. But in this tendency to throw things away, what is at hand is still shown as being at hand in its unyielding objective presence. (BT, pp. 1203-1206)

What is most interesting in the above statement is not this opposition of handy/unhandy, or useful/un-useful but rather the notion of what was once complete is now incomplete, and that its very incompleteness reveals a disturbing presence. Is this not what Zizek when discussing the Real and how the lack (gap, incompleteness) that is revealed in things comes in this very cut or failure between handiness and unhandiness.

Perhaps this gives us a minimal definition of materialism: the irreducible distance between the two vacuums.

– Slavoj Zizek,   Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Harman himself has iterated over and over that we never have direct access to an object in itself which forever withdraws from our direct gaze, but rather we seem to have contact only with its sensual surface through some ill-defined medium. Here is Harman at his best:

Spatial objects are to some extent always relational, whereas objects simply are not. To say that the world is filled with objects is to say that it is filled with countless tiny vacuums, like those bubbles that the Pythagoreans thought had been inhaled by the universe itself. What guerrilla metaphysics seeks is the vacuous actuality of things.3

This notion that instead of substance and relations the world is instead filled with innumerable vacuums seems at first glance an almost diametrically opposite view of objects than the one Harman is usually associated with. Yet, if you read Harman’s works carefully you always come upon the real object not as something that is described in phenomenal terms, but rather as something missing, withdrawn, hidden within a subtracted realm beyond the substantive universe of sense and perception. It hinges on just what substantial form is in itself. Let me just take one classic description of the object from his book Guerrilla Metaphysics:

Object-oriented philosophy has a single basic tenet: the withdrawal of objects from all perceptual and causal relations. This immediately implies a single basic problem: how do relations occur? Despite the unsoundable depth of substances, their failure to express themselves fully even in physical collisions, objects do somehow manage to interact. These relations are the very carpentry of things, the joints and glue that hold the universe together. (GM, p. 20)

Yet, if objects are sealed off in vacuums how do they every relate to each other? Harman tells us that this is the most pivotal issue for object-oriented philosophy. As he states it: “While every object exists in vacuum-sealed isolation from the others, the interior of each of these objects is anything but vacuous—it is a carnival of whirling sensual elements. Here as ever, the problem is sharpened by focusing on the molten or vaporous interior of an object, where relations are no more or less possible than the continued side-by-side coexistence of diverse elements that do not fuse with one another.” (GM, p. 231)

And the need for a new concept grafted from the history of Occasionalist  thought might bridge this gap: so he introduces his concept of vicarious causation, a concept introduced as a modification of the long-discredited notion of occasional cause. As he states it:

If objects exceed any of their perceptual or causal relations with other objects, if they inhabit some still undefined vacuous space of reality, the question immediately arises as to how they interact at all. More concisely: we have the problem of nonrelating objects that somehow relate. Since no causation between them can be direct, it clearly can only be vicarious, taking place by means of some unspecified intermediary. Whatever this third term may be, it already seems clear that it has something to do with the shower of loose qualities that captured the interest of the carnal phenomenologists. (GM, p. 91)

So the need for an intermediary is necessary for these vacuums to interact.  Ultimately this new concept was introduced as a “way of keeping our focus on how isolated substances might communicate, without dredging up any of the historic debates between theologians and skeptics”. (GM, p. 92) What is interesting for me is that Zizek himself will also have need for the Occasionalist turn:

If we replace “God” with the big Other, the symbolic order, we can see the proximity of occasionalism to Lacan’s position: as Lacan put it in his polemic against Aristotle in “Television,” the relationship between soul and body is never direct, since the big Other always interposes itself between the two.  Occasionalism is thus essentially a name for the “arbitrariness of the signifier,” for the gap that separates the network of ideas from the network of bodily (real) causality, for the fact that it is the big Other which accounts for the coordination of the two networks, so that, when my body bites into an apple, my soul experiences a pleasurable sensation.4

But are Harman and Zizek using this term in opposing or complementary ways?

Harman introduces the concept of allure which splits an object from its sensual notes. Further stating: “It cannot split an object from its real notes, since this would require that the object be destroyed. By splitting apart sensual objects, allure generates two byproducts of almost radioactive intensity: the distant real object signaling from beyond, and the sensual notes that had previously been implicit and compressed into a single point of unity, but which are now fragmented and drawn toward the deep real object to which they seem to belong. We also saw that allure must occur even in the inanimate realm, since otherwise causation would be impossible, and the world would be made up of frozen and isolated monads. But even this could not happen, since without allure the levels of the world would never communicate, and without communication no object could ever be built up out of parts, meaning that nothing would have any specific qualities in the first place. Allure turned out to be the key to all causation, which is always vicarious, buffered, and asymmetrical.” (GM, p. 245)

Zizek for his part will discuss the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy, telling us that much more than Berkeley’s God who sustains the world in his mind, the ultimate Matrix is Malebranche’s occasionalist God: the perfect embodiment of the Lacanian “big Other”, the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us.4 This dimension of the “big Other” is that of the constitutive alienation of the subject in the symbolic order: the big Other pulls the strings, the subject does not speak, he “is spoken” by the symbolic structure. In short, this “big Other” is the name for the social Substance, for the agency thanks to which the subject never fully dominates the effects of his acts, thanks to which the final outcome of his activity is always something other than what he aimed at or anticipated.(ibid) The notion behind this is the naturalness of it all, that those poor souls situated in liquid vats like batteries for the hive mechanisms that feed on them are oblivious to the actual world behind the appearances, and have no clue that their actual lives are hidden an away rather than the virtual work-a-day worlds in which they like automatisms participate in a dreamwork they neither made nor can step out of without the intervention or aid of some intermediary force. But it is just this intermediary role of the big Other in guaranteeing the coordination between reality and their mental experience of it that forecloses their minds in a realm where appearances are taken for reality oblivious to the actual state of their lives.

Yet, the key to this for Zizek is that it does not work, the Matrix is unraveling, broken, fragmented and its citizens immersed in its giant game of virtual hallucination at times wake up in this dream and realize they’ve been had, that the truth of their situation is much more real that they at first believed. The fact that the only thing sustaining this illusory world is itself the Machine,  the intricate mechanisms of computerized coordination, homologous to the role of God that guarantee the coordination between the two life worlds. The moment the intermediary is broken, withdrawn, cut from the umbilical cords that tie the citizen to its dream world the ugly truth stands revealed.

So if we take the Matrix as an example of this vicarious medium then Harman will approach it in a substantive way, telling us it is an intermediary realm within which objects interact with one other and with their own qualities and must also provide the space where all the events of the world unfold. He will go on to say if “every object is a vacuum, it is equally true that every vacuum must contain a world—a medium in which distinct qualities interact or at least float side-by-side in some sort of charged ether. By analogy, we might say that every object is not only protected by a vacuous shield from the things that lie outside it, but also harbors and nurses an erupting infernal universe within. The object is a black box, black hole, or internal combustion engine releasing its power and exhaust fumes into the world.” (GM, pp. 94-95)

Zizek will answer for his part telling us there can be no ontology of the Real: the very field of ontology, of the positive order of Being, emerges through the subtraction of the Real. The order of Being and the Real are mutually exclusive: the Real is the immanent blockage or impediment of the order of Being, what makes the order of Being inconsistent. This is why, at the level of ontology, transcendental correlationism is right: every “reality,” every positive order of Being, is onto-logical, correlative to logos, transcendentally constituted through the symbolic order—“ language is the house of being,” as Heidegger put it.(ibid. KL 21381-21385) What is missing in the “House of Being” is the order of the Real. It is this gap between Being and the Real that defines the world.

The argument between Harman and Zizek stems over the notion of the transcendentally constituted world as defined by the Subject. For Harman the world cannot be transcendentally constituted retroactively or in any other way because it just is, substantive and real. While for Zizek this, too, is a retroactive conclusion. For Harman this is the very stance of the Idealist who affirms that the world is transcendentally constituted, that it is constructed by our retroactive work rather than something that exists independent of our very human-centric systems.

Zizek in answer will (and I quote at length) say:

The Real is thus an effect of the symbolic, not in the sense of performativity, of the “symbolic construction of reality,” but in the totally different sense of a kind of ontological “collateral damage” of symbolic operations: the process of symbolization is inherently thwarted, doomed to fail, and the Real is this immanent failure of the symbolic. The circular temporality of the process of symbolization is crucial here: the Real is the effect of the failure of the symbolic to reach (not the In-itself, but) itself, to fully realize itself, but this failure occurs because the symbolic is thwarted in itself. It is in this sense that, for Lacan, the subject itself is an “answer of the Real”: a subject wants to say something, it fails, and this failure is the subject— a “subject of the signifier” is literally the result of the failure to become itself. In this sense, also, within the symbolic space, the effect is a reaction against its cause, while the cause is a retroactive effect of its cause: the subject produces signifiers which fail, and the subject qua Real is the effect of this failure.

But does this mean that we end up in a kind of idealism of the symbolic— what we experience as “reality” is symbolically constructed, and even the Real which eludes the grasp of the symbolic is a result of the immanent failure of the symbolic? No, because it is through this very failure to be itself that the symbolic touches the Real. In contrast to transcendentalism, Lacan agrees that we have access to the In-itself: Lacan is not a discourse-idealist who claims that we are forever caught in the web of symbolic practices, unable to reach the In-itself. However, we do not touch the Real by way of breaking out of the “prison-house of language” and gaining access to the external transcendent referent— every external referent (“ fully existing positive reality”) is already transcendentally constituted. We touch the Real-in-itself in our very failure to touch it, since the Real is, at its most radical, the gap, the “minimal difference,” that separates the One from itself. (ibid., (Kindle Locations 21401-21409)

So that for Zizek the gap between what is transcendentally constituted (retroactive causation) and what is (the Real) is shaped by our very failure to complete the closure between the two. The Universe is open and incomplete, and so are we who constitute its strange realities within the linguistic structures of the House of Being. Our failures open up the truth of the world as it is. We are all stained by our failures to close the world.

1. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (p. 10). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
2. Martin Heidegger. Being and Time (Kindle Locations 1143-1145). Kindle Edition.
3. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (p. 82). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
4. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 7731-7736). Norton. Kindle Edition.
5. ibid. (Kindle Locations 7777-7786).

Zizek: Anti-realism and Retroactivity

The key philosophical implication of Hegelian retroactivity is that it undermines the reign of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: this principle only holds in the condition of linear causality where the sum of past causes determines a future event— retroactivity means that the set of (past, given) reasons is never complete and “sufficient,” since the past reasons are retroactively activated by what is, within the linear order, their effect.

– Slavoj  Zizek – Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Graham Harman’s first book Tool Being takes note of Zizek’s concept of retroactive causation saying:

The present book roughly accepts Zizek’s concept of retroactive causation, though without accepting the attitude of “deflationary realism” with which Zizek frames this concept. In the end, his problem will turn out to be that he restricts retroactive causation to a narrowly human realm, and orbits around the same unique gap between human and world that dominates most contemporary philosophy. But humans are not the only entities that encounter phantoms rather than things in themselves. I have argued that the as-structure also characterizes the strife between bananas and fruit flies, and even the collision of mindless rocks. In these cases too, objects do not encounter each other in direct presence, but only as a kind of caricature or objectification—the rock did exist beforehand, but never quite in the way in which the other rock objectifies it, which requires the perspective of this other rock.1

Is this truly what Zizek does? For Harman Zizek is an Idealist, while Zizek sees himself as a dialectical materialist. If both thinkers agree on the concept of retroactive causation, and, yet supposedly disagree on the way this is enframed within their respective philosophies, then who is right; or, is this misprisioning (Bloom) in itself a misreading of the very approach both philosophers take toward the priority of the future over the past?

Harman himself takes a jibe at Zizek’s restriction of retroactive causation to the “fantasy life of the human subject”, while he insists “that even inanimate objects display this sort of fantasy”. (ibid. p. 208) Is this true of Zizek? Should we look closer at what he is saying and doing? Is Harman misguided in his understanding of Zizek’s conceptual framing – as he puts it – as “deflationary realism”? What is a deflationary realist? Harman will start with a statement from Hubert Dreyfus’s commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time where it he states: ““Science has long claimed to discover the relations among the natural kinds of the universe that exist independently of our minds or ways of coping. Today, most philosophers adopt an antirealism that consists in rejecting this thesis.” Harman himself will go on to remark:

According to deflationary realism, the inseparability of reality and context means that there is no coherent way to talk about things in themselves apart from human practices. By the same token, it is said, there is also no way to talk about these practices apart from the things. Deflationary realism claims to loathe both extremes, and believes that it has settled into a necessary middle ground that “repudiates both metaphysical realism and transcendental idealism.” The alternative to realism and idealism is a focus on “ordinary practices” that makes no sweeping claims about the absolute status of the world. (ibid. 122-123)

Harman will continue in the next paragraph, saying:

In passing, I would like to say that deflationary realism occupies no middle ground whatsoever. To champion “ordinary practices” as the home terrain of philosophy is by no means to stay neutral in the debate between realism and its enemies. All the deflationary realist does is abandon the transcendental standpoint in favor of a holistic immersion (my italics) in the world in which perspective is king, and no result ever absolute. Fair enough. But by quarantining the cosmos within a network of human significance, deflationary realism weighs in quite decisively on the side of idealism. (my italics) (ibid. 123)

But is this true of Zizek? Is Zizek a sort of Nietzschean perspectivist? Let us look at what Zizek has to say of his form of dialectical materialism. First we start with Zizek’s concept of Nothing:

Dialectical materialism here goes a step further: even Nothing does not exist— if by “Nothing” we mean the primordial abyss in which all differences are obliterated. What, ultimately, “there is” is only the absolute Difference, the self-repelling Gap. In order to grasp the radical link between the subject and nothingness (the Void), one should be very precise in reading Hegel’s famous statement on substance and the subject: it is not enough to emphasize that the subject is not a positively existing self-identical entity, that it stands for the incompleteness of substance, for its inner antagonism and movement, for the Nothingness which thwarts the substance from within, destroying its unity, and thus dynamizes it— the notion best rendered by Hegel’s remark, apropos the “unrest” of substantial unity, that the Self is this very unrest (“ eben diese Unruhe ist das Selbst”). This notion of the subject still presupposes the substantial One as a starting point, even if this One is always already distorted, split, and so on. And it is this very presupposition that should be abandoned: at the beginning (even if it is a mythical one), there is no substantial One, but Nothingness itself; every One comes second, emerges through the self-relating of this Nothingness. In other words, Nothing as negation is not primarily the negation of something, of a positive entity, but the negation of itself.2

Zizek will go on to define dialectical materialism against scientific materialism in its present form:

It may appear that the basic defining feature of materialism is a common-sense trust in the reality of the external world— we do not live in the fancies of our imagination, caught up in its web, there is a rich and full-blooded world open to us out there. But this is the premise any serious form of dialectical materialism has to do away with: there is no “objective” reality, every reality is already transcendentally constituted. “Reality” is not the transcendent hard core that eludes our grasp, accessible to us only in a distorted perspectival approach; it is rather the very gap that separates different perspectival approaches. The “Real” is not the inaccessible X, it is the very cause or obstacle that distorts our view on reality, that prevents our direct access to it. The real difficulty is to think the subjective perspective as inscribed in “reality” itself.3 (my italics)

For Harman the key is the concept of essence – “While denying that essences can ever become perfectly present in the world, such a theory would still claim that they exist. In fact, this is the standpoint of the present book…” (ibid. pp. 214-215) He will go on to add:

But Zizek wants nothing to do with such a possibility, and makes an inference that is now quite widespread—because the thing itself can never appear, it is therefore meaningless to talk about its actually existing. This is a far cry from Kripke’s own conclusions, and one wishes for a more thorough justification of this slide from criticizing the ability of deeply hidden essence to appear in incarnated form to criticizing their very existence as anything other than phantasmatic projections. With this insufficiently grounded step, the safety of the linguistic turn in philosophy seems to be assured. The rigid designator is the point de capiton, the Lacanian “quilting point” that retroactively forms the Real in its own image. But Zizek makes a far stronger claim than this, asserting that “the rigid designator . . . is not a point of supreme density of Meaning, a kind of Guarantee which, by being itself excepted from the differential interplay of elements, would serve as a stable and fixed point of reference.”224 Which leads him to a disappointing conclusion:

On the contrary, it is the element which represents the agency of the signifier within the field of the signified. In itself it is nothing but a “pure difference”: its role is purely structural, its nature is purely performative; in short, it is a “signifier without the signified.” The crucial step in the analysis of an ideological edifice is thus to detect, behind the dazzling splendour of the element which holds it together (“God,” “country,” “party,” “class” . . .) this self-referential, tautological, performative operation.

No passage could stand in greater opposition to the spirit of the present book, which champions the underground execution of objects in opposition to the “performativity” that deploys them in contexts and networks, and which deeply regrets the notion that signification could be “self-referential.” (ibid. p. 215)

This notion of “performativity” that he alludes to is expanded in Zizek’s later work Less Than Nothing in his discussion of the dialectics of necessity and contingency:

What, then, is the central insight of the Hegelian dialectics of necessity and contingency? Not only does Hegel (quite consistently with his premises) deduce the necessity of contingency— namely how the Idea necessarily externalizes itself (acquires reality) in phenomena which are genuinely contingent— he also (and this aspect is often neglected by many commentators) develops the opposite and theoretically much more interesting thesis, that of the contingency of necessity. That is to say, when Hegel describes the progress from “external” contingent appearance to “inner” necessary essence, the appearance’s “self-internalization” through self-reflection, he is not thereby describing the discovery of some pre-existing inner Essence, something that was already there (this, exactly, would have been a “reification” of the Essence), but a “performative” process of constructing (forming) that which is “discovered.” As Hegel himself puts it in his Logic, in the process of reflection, the very “return” to the lost or hidden Ground produces what it returns to. It is then not only inner necessity that is the unity of itself and contingency as its opposite, necessarily positing contingency as its moment; it is also contingency which is the encompassing unity of itself and its opposite, necessity; that is to say, the very process through which necessity arises out of necessity is a contingent process. 4 (my italics)

(To be fair to Harman, his reading of Zizek is based on two earlier works The Ticklish Subject, and the The Sublime Object of Ideology)

Harman rejects this notion of the “performative” process that constructs or forms that which is discovered as pure Idealism, while for Zizek the process of the dialectic is this that essence does not precede the process but is constituted by the very process of this retroactive movement between the necessity of contingency and the contingency of necessity. For Harman Essence does preexist this process, which is grounded in his basic Substantialist stance. As he will tell us in describing the evils of misrepresentations of substance theory:

The first evil is the traditional substance theory, which posits present-at-hand substances and reduces relational events to illusory nullities or “beings of reason.” The second evil is the currently more fashionable theory, the context-ontology of Rorty, Whitehead, Heidegger, and others. This theory reduces the dark reality of things to a present-at-hand profile by saying that they exist only for each other. This second theory is unable to explain: (a) how an object can ever change if it has no surplus beyond its current set of relations, and (b) why we should speak of “individual” objects at all, since they seem to be devoured by the network of relations. However barbaric an infinite regress may sound, it is a small price to pay for avoiding both theories of presence-at-hand, whether they speak in the name of substance or relation. (Tool-Being p. 171)

Instead Harman in his discussion of the present-at-hand tool-being (Heidegger) will opt for a return to a theory of substantial forms:

Tool-beings turn out to be a strange variant of traditional substances, though they are as irreducible to physical particles as they are to the traces they leave in human perception. They are substances that exceed every relation into which they might enter, without being ultimate pieces of tiny matter.(p. 2)

Central to this is his observation that Heidegger’s whole career is based on identifying and attacking the notion that reality is something present-at-hand:

The goal of Martin Heidegger’s career was to identify and to attack the notion of reality as something present-at-hand. And although his proposed alternative to Vorhandenheit remains underdeveloped in his writings, it is in no way vague —that which first resists any reduction to presence is tool-being, performing its dynamic effect amidst the cosmos, always partly withdrawn from anything that might be said about it. (ibd. p. 16)

Of course the German: vorhanden; Vorhandenheit “presence-at-hand” one observes with the concept of present-at-hand one has (in contrast to “ready-to-hand”) an attitude like that of a scientist or theorist, of merely looking at or observing something. In seeing an entity as present-at-hand, the beholder is concerned only with the bare facts of a thing or a concept, as they are present and in order to theorize about it. This way of seeing is disinterested in the concern it may hold for Dasein, its history or usefulness. This attitude is often described as existing in neutral space without any particular mood or subjectivity. However, for Heidegger, it is not completely disinterested or neutral. It has a mood, and is part of the metaphysics-of-presence that tends to level all things down. Through his writings, Heidegger sets out to accomplish the Destruktion of this metaphysics of presence.

The point is that presence-at-hand is not the way things in the world are usually encountered, and it is only revealed as a deficient or secondary mode, e.g., when a hammer breaks it loses its usefulness and appears as merely there, present-at-hand. When a thing is revealed as present-at-hand, it stands apart from any useful set of equipment but soon loses this mode of being present-at-hand and becomes something, for example, that which must be repaired or replaced.

This idea that things become visible only when they become obstacles, or break down, else become a hindrance and resist our endeavors is at the heart of this movement. The whole point of this exercise is that for Heidegger the opposing movement to present-at-hand is ready-to-hand. Harman will tell us that objects “work their magic upon reality without entering our awareness. Equipment is forever in action, constructing in each moment the sustaining habitat where our explicit awareness is on the move.” (ibid. p. 18) In further explication he will say that “inanimate objects are not just manipulable clods of matter, not philosophical dead weight best left to “positive science.” Instead, they are more like undiscovered planets, stony or gaseous worlds which ontology is now obliged to colonize with a full array of probes and seismic instruments—most of them not yet invented.” (p. 19) So is Harman reversing course and in agreement with Zizek that there is a constructive aspect to our understanding of objects (things) as constructed entities which can only be accessed through certain instruments not yet invented? If for Harman what we perceive (or what objects themselves in their own relations beyond the human) is the form of the object rather than the object as itself is in-itself is this not comparable to Zizek’s notion of retroactive causation? It all hinges on what we mean by “discovery”. What does Harman mean by this term: are we uncovering some essence within the object or its form? What does Harman have to say about the essence of objects or its appearance as object?

Zizek himself will argue in Less Than Nothing that “we cannot gain full neutral access to reality because we are part of it. The epistemological distortion of our access to reality is the result of our inclusion in it, not of our distance from it. The objet a is the splinter in the eye which distorts our clear perception of reality, and the agent of this distortion is desire (recall that the objet a is the object-cause of desire). This brings us to the unique “short-circuit between epistemology and ontology”: the very epistemological failure (to reach reality) is an indication and effect of our being part of reality, of our inclusion within it.” (LTN, KL 14584-14589)

Does this make Zizek an anti-realist? Or, rather does he not accept the fact of limits, of finitude, of our fractured inability to know an object not because it withdraws from us, but rather that we are a part of the world: an impossibility of ever finding an Archimedean point outside this closed circle from which to describe reality or know it as it is? As Zizek will state it: “This, then, should be the Lacanian answer to correlationism: while transcendental correlationism can think the intervention of the Master-Signifier as constitutive of reality, it misses this other inverted correlation between the Master-Signifier and the objet a; that is, it cannot think the stain of the Real which de-centers the subject from within.” LTN, KL 14606)

So it is the Subject which is already stained by the very withdrawal from reality, the mark of the de-centering that has stained it and shapes its very constitution of reality. Reality is incomplete because we are incomplete, open and changing because we, too, are part of that process which is always shifting in the sands.

So we cannot ever escape the circle: the reality of a fossil is “objective” insofar as it is observed from our standpoint, in the same way that a rainbow “objectively exists” from our standpoint— what “objectively exists” is the entire field of interaction between subject and object as part of the Real.

Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

1. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (pp. 207-208). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 8716-8726). Norton. Kindle Edition.
3. ibid. (Kindle Locations 20232-20238).
4. ibid. (Kindle Locations 10717-10727).

Eugene Thacker: In the Dust of this Planet

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The essential element in the black art of obscurantism is not that it wants to darken individual understanding, but that it wants to blacken our picture of the world, and darken our idea of existence.
– Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Eugene Thacker would like us to believe that he is a philosopher rather than an obscurantist and harbinger of a new mysticism beyond the Death-of-God. His new work purports to be among other things a philosophical excursion into demontology; or, the study of the inhuman world-without-us, which denies the anthropological view of the world as not simply the world-for-us or the world-in-itself, but as the world-without-us.1 As he further explicates:

Likewise denying the view of metaphysics means considering the unreliability of the principle of sufficient reason for thinking about the world (not sufficient reason but a strange, uncanny, insufficiency of reason). A philosophical demonology would therefore have to be “against” the human being – both the “human” part as well as the “being” part.(ibid.)

A philosophical demonology? He couches his work in a series of Medieval philosophical approaches, tabulating the quæstio or “question” as forming an occasion for an inquiry or “questioning,” the goal of which would be to achieve some sort of synthesis or reconciliation of the discrepancies at the heart of philosophical inquiry.2

The work itself starts with the lofty aim of exploring the relationship between philosophy and horror, through this motif of the “unthinkable world.” (ibid. p. 1) Rather than a philosophy of horror we get its opposite ‘the horror of philosphy’:

…the isolation of those moments in which philosophy reveals its own limitations and constraints, moments in which thinking enigmatically confronts the horizon of its own possibility – the thought of the unthinkable that philosophy cannot pronounce but via a non-philosophical language. (ibid. p. 2)

Horror in this scenario becomes a form of philosophical thinking that deals not with human fear or any anthropomorphic conceptions of demons, but rather as questioning the “limits of the human as it confronts a world that is not just a World, and not just the Earth, but also a Planet (the world-without-us)” (ibid. p. 8).

In the first part he measures the notion of demon against such popular culture strands as Black Metal music in its various guises. He starts by defining black as used by various bands as a figure or trope of Satanism, Paganism, and Cosmic Pessimism. He sublates the first two into the overarching concept of Cosmic Pessimism and utilizes Arthur Schopenhauer as the forefather of such a move and its explicator. He offers the notion that Satanism has the structure of opposition and inversion, and Paganism the structure of exclusion and alterity. Cosmic Pessimism which includes both forms offers in his words:

a strange mysticism of the world-without-us, a hermeticism of the abyss, a noumenal occultism. It is the difficult thought of the world as absolutely unhuman, and indifferent to the hopes, desires, and struggles of human individuals and groups. Its limit-thought is the idea of absolute nothingness, unconsciously represented in the many popular media images of nuclear war, natural disasters, global pandemics, and the cataclysmic effects of climate change. Certainly these are the images, or the specters, of Cosmic Pessimism, and different from the scientific, economic, and political realities and underlie them; but they are images deeply embedded in our psyche nonetheless. Beyond these specters there is the impossible thought of extinction, with not even a single human being to think the absence of all human beings, with no thought to think the negation of all thought.(ibid. p. 17)

In his quest to develop a new demontology he defines it against current anthropological notions, saying:

If anthropology is predicated on a division between the personal and the impersonal (“man” and cosmos), then a demontology collapses them into paradoxical pairings (impersonal affects, cosmic suffering). If ontology deals with the minimal relation being/non-being, then demontology would have to undertake the thought of nothingness (a negative definition), but a nothingness that is also not simply non-being (a privative definition). (p. 46)

So it is with the concept of ‘nothingness’ that this philosophical work underscores its main theme of demonological thought. Using Agrippa’s ‘Occult Philosophy’ as a forerunner he hopes to provide us with an occult philosophy of the the world that simply reveals its hiddenness to us (p. 54).

He provides several literary readings of such works as Marlowe’s The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus, Goethe’s Faust Part I, Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out, Blish’s Black Easter – or Faust Aleph-Null, Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder and “The Borderlands”. Each of these stories dealing with the occult them of the ‘magic circle’ and its occult usage in which the “magic circle serves as a portal or gateway to the hiddenness of the world” (ibid. p. 73). In other stories such as those by H.P. Lovecraft there is a sense of the world devoid of the human, one in which the hidden world is no longer bound by a magic circle in which humans can control or govern the daimonic powers but is instead its dark inverse: a realm in which the “anonymous, unhuman intrusion of the hidden world into the apparent world, the enigmatic manifesting of the world-without-us into the world-for-us, the intrusion of the Planet into the World” stands revealed (ibid. p. 82).

Thacker will trace this theme through natural figures and tropes such as “mists”, “ooze”, “oil”, etc., and even through such writers of political theology as Carl Schmidt. Through it all the notion of the ‘hiddenness of the world’ juts up as “another name for the supernatural, exterior to its assimilation by either science or religion – that is, exterior to the world-for-us” (ibid. 96). He adds:

But these days we like to think that we are much too cynical, much too smart to buy into this – the supernatural no longer exists, is no longer possible…or at least not in the same way. In a sense, it is hard to escape the sense of living in a world that is not just a human world, but also a planet, a globe, a climate, an infosphere, an atmosphere, a weather pattern…a rift, a tectonic shift, a storm, a cataclysm. If the supernatural in a conventional sense is no longer possible, what remains after the “death of God” is an occulted, hidden world. Philosophically speaking, the enigma we face is how to confront this world, without immediately presuming that it is identical to the world-for-us (the world of science and religion), and without simply disparaging it as an irretrievable and inaccessible world-in-itself. (ibid. 97)

This leads Thacker to develop a path toward mysticism rather than philosophy. As he asks,  “…can there exist today a mysticism of the unhuman, one that has as its focus the climatological, meterological, and geological world-in-itself, and, moreover, one that does not resort to either religion or science?” (ibid. p. 134) His answer:

If mysticism historically speaking aims for a total union of the division between self and world, then mysticism today would have to devolve upon the radical disjunction and indifference of self and world. If historical mysticism still had as its aim the subject’s experience, and as its highest principle that of God, then mysticism today – after the death of God – would be about the impossibility of experience, it would be about that which in shadows withdraws from any possible experience, and yet still makes its presence felt, through the periodic upheavals of weather, land, and matter. If historical mysticism is, in the last instance, theological, then mysticism today, a mysticism of the unhuman, would have to be, in the last instance, climatological. It is a kind of mysticism that can only be expressed in the dust of this planet.(ibid. pp. 158-59)

Ultimately Thacker’s approach is an obscurantist mysticism – in the sense of the Latin obscurans, “darkening” from philosophy toward a hidden world of mystic insight and occult philosophy based on emptiness, negativity, and the unhuman.

1. Thacker, Eugene (2011-08-26). In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1 (pp. 45-46). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.
2. (ibid. p. 10)

H.P. Lovecraft: Quote of the Day!

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THE BEST HORROR-TALES OF TODAY, profiting by the long evolution of the type, possess a naturalness, convincingness, artistic smoothness, and skilful intensity of appeal quite beyond comparison with anything in the Gothic work of a century or more ago. Technique, craftsmanship, experience, and psychological knowledge have advanced tremendously with the passing years, so that much of the older work seems naïve and artificial; redeemed, when redeemed at all, only by a genius which conquers heavy limitations. The tone of jaunty and inflated romance, full of false motivation and investing every conceivable event with a counterfeit significance and carelessly inclusive glamour, is now confined to lighter and more whimsical phases of supernatural writing. Serious weird stories are either made realistically intense by close consistency and perfect fidelity to Nature except in the one supernatural direction which the author allows himself, or else cast altogether in the realm of phantasy, with atmosphere cunningly adapted to the visualization of a delicately exotic world of unreality beyond space and time, in which almost anything may happen if it but happen in true accord with certain types of imagination and illusion normal to the sensitive human brain. This, at least, is the dominant tendency; though of course many great contemporary writers slip occasionally into some of the flashy postures of immature romanticism, or into bits of the equally empty and absurd jargon of pseudo-scientific “occultism”, now at one of its periodic high tides.

It may be well to remark here that occult believers are probably less effective than materialists in delineating the spectral and the fantastic, since to them the phantom world is so commonplace a reality that they tend to refer to it with less awe, remoteness, and impressiveness than do those who see in it an absolute and stupendous violation of the natural order.

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain— a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.

The one test of the really weird is simply this— whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere, the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.1

1. Lovecraft, H. P. (2013-07-03). The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature: Revised and Enlarged (Kindle Locations 1349-1361). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.

When are we most alive?

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There are moments when I look into that deep well of memories, seek out in the brain’s twisted archive of fragmented neuronal lights; dip down into the chemical vats of its blind pathways certain traces that have established themselves, left their mark in a knot of neurons: discover in its uncertain, lingering waves events that have been copied into the tissue of my three pounds of mentation. In such moments I sometimes discover signs of past life, remembrances of past awakenings, moments in that time temple of traced livingness in which I suddenly felt most alive.

Most of the time it comes in snatches like dream fragments: a forest glen where a young doe looks up, her eyes pointedly staring into mine – a meeting of two beings forming a silent acknowledgement; else, other moments when the pain of a nail ripping into one’s flesh touches one’s being, awakens one to the power and resistance of things, of how they can bring one low, destroy in an instance one’s illusion of safety; or, the power of a smile, the trace of a woman’s mouth that hides more than it reveals: her eyes full of mischief, laughter, impishness. Sometimes these fragments from the neuronal stream pop up as one is going about work or play, mindlessly, like an automaton; living habitually through the day to day cycles without thought or care.

At such moments one will stop, awaken from one’s stupor for just a quick second, becoming aware of the other, of that self one has never known, but always seen scampering through the traceries of these neuronal flashes and memories. What is the Self that it follows one like a ghost? Is it nothing more than these disturbed memories? A broken stream of neurons floating among light bundles that suddenly trigger past events? Are we mere moments in a screen play we did not create, but rather have become unwilling players in its willy-nilly fabrications? Or is it more than the dark traceries below these jutting memories that reveal distorted signs of our only ever real life, a life marked by moments of awakening when the mind is so clear and alive that it sees into things as they are, alive and knowing? A life when the knower and the known awaken to each other?

Have you ever thought about the difficulty in bringing back the face of a loved one out of that dark sea of neurons? Seeking the trace of her appearance in the clouds of images that seem like some protean world that is in continuous metamorphosis? The way she would look up at you with that red baseball cap, her hair stuffed up in a knot, her coal black eyes full of dark-fire, that little turn of her lips, a grin sparking at you revealing both intelligence and humor. When she is gone what remains?

Does the universe hold these things forever? Will the memories in my neurons disperse among the stars, or will stars sing of them in some distant corner of the universe the moment my flesh dissolves into the earth? If I transcend my flesh and become machinic as some posthuman fabricators of descent foresee, will those memories have the same weight for that new positronic mind as they have had for my fleshly one? What in the reaches of those eons when our mechanical children look back on their ancestry will they remember? Will they feel as we feel, will they think as we think; will they know love and laughter, sorrow and terror; will they be troubled in their sleep with dreams?

We tell ourselves stories in the night to comfort us against the unknown terrors that surround us. Will our positronic children do the same?

Zizek On Hegel’s Absolute Knowing

sand-dune-ridge-sahara

All determinate being is relational, things only are what they are in relation to otherness, or, as Deleuze put it, perspectival distortion is inscribed into the very identity of the thing. The Real is not out there, as the inaccessible transcendent X never reached by our representations; the Real is here, as the obstacle or impossibility which makes our representations flawed, inconsistent. The Real is not the In-itself but the very obstacle which distorts our access to the In-itself, and this paradox provides the key for what Hegel calls “Absolute Knowing.”

Absolute Knowing is a name for the acceptance of the absolute limitation of the circle of our subjectivity, of the impossibility of stepping outside of it. Here, however, we should add a crucial qualification: this acceptance in no way amounts to any kind of (individual or collective) subjectivistic solipsism. We must displace the In-itself from the fetishized “outside” (with regard to subjective mediation) to the very gap between the subjective and the objective (between For-us and In-itself, between appearances and Things-in-themselves). Our knowing is irreducibly “subjective” not because we are forever separated from reality-in-itself, but precisely because we are part of this reality, because we cannot step outside it and observe it “objectively.” Far from separating us from reality, the very limitation on our knowing— its inevitably distorted, inconsistent character— bears witness to our inclusion in reality.1

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 8972-8978). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Nick Land: Phyl-Undhu: Abstract Horror, Exterminator

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Utter nullity. In the words of the ancient sages of ruined Ashenzohn, it was the endlessness that ends in itself. Dark silence beyond sleep and time, from whose oceanic immensities some bedraggled speck of attention – pulled out, and turned – still dazed at the precipitous lip, catches a glimmer, as if of some cryptic emergence from eclipse. Then a sound, crushed, stifled, broken into gasps. Something trying to scream …

Nick Land: Phyl-Undhu: Abstract Horror, Exterminator

What do you fear most? What lies in the shadows of your thoughts like a lost memory on the edge of oblivion? In the long night of our despair the slow realization awakens out of the outer silences: the ‘Thing’ we fear most, the monstrous truth that will not go away is that we are alone in a universe that neither cares about us nor even acknowledges our existence. That behind the dark screen of the abyss beyond the stars there is no Big Other, no godlike being within or without who cares what happens to us. No god that will save us from ourselves. No one to hold our hands and comfort us when the darkness and decay finally brings us into that endlessness from which there is no reprieve. The namelessness beyond us is utter darkness and nullity; total oblivion.

Trembling at curious words that seemed to keep
Some secret, monstrous if one only knew.
Then, looking for some seller old in craft,
I could find nothing but a voice that laughed.

H.P. Lovecraft – The Poetry of H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft in his litany of horror weaves the tropes that bring both dread and terror. In one passage he praises the French Decadent Gautier:

Gautier captured the inmost soul of aeon-weighted Egypt, with its cryptic life and Cyclopean architecture, and uttered once and for all the eternal horror of its nether world of catacombs, where to the end of time millions of stiff, spiced corpses will stare up in the blackness with glassy eyes, awaiting some awesome and unrelatable summons.1

A summons that will never come, a resurrection that will remain a lost memory in the dust of years. We belong to the tribe of fabricators, illusionists, makers of false worlds and dreamers of eternity. Yet, in the end our lies are just that: lies against time’s dark curvature, the sense of déjà vu – the amorphous feeling that we have done this before, that we are living through the steps of an eternal cycle that we have repeated over and over and over again from eternity to eternity. That we are not ourselves but rather patterns in a cosmic game of repetition without outlet. Is this not the dark truth we hide from ourselves? Are we mere dust motes in a cosmic funhouse?  Are the hideous faces in the House of Mirrors none other than the distorted image of our real selves staring back at us? And the moment we walk up and seek a clearer image of what lies behind those distorted eyes we discover a darker truth: the Void. The nothingness we are and are not.

“…the consolation of horror in art is that it actually intensifies our panic, loudens it on the sounding-board of our horror-hollowed hearts, turns terror up full blast, all the while reaching for that perfect and deafening amplitude at which we may dance to the bizarre music of our own misery.”
– Thomas Ligotti

Nick Land: Phyl-Undhu: Abstract Horror, Exterminator

Just finished reading Nick’s latest work and was pleasantly surprised that it was a fictional piece, a work of theory-fiction which uses the horror genre as a trope or metaphor for the present strangeness of his mental quest. We do not need to go over the history of Land’s slow fall into madness and decay at his own hands in his search after answers; after his heroic plunge into the abyss where he lost those bearings that keep us bound to the illusions of our tribe. No. This would be to belabor a ghost, an illusion that does not exist. No. The creature who goes by the name ‘Nick Land’ has already moved on, left this darkness for others to wallow in. Instead he lives a parallax life, a life between the gnomic and the betrayed. Nick Land’s eyes are wide open, and what he sees is not the terror at the end of the road, but the fabrications of terror we continue to build up in our illusionary striving after the absolute truth of some forbidden knowledge. Freud/Lacan would have seen it as the death-drive in us doing what it does best: the self-relating negativity that keeps us going.

“We exist within a stream of signs – a torrent. Information flows through us, in overwhelming abundance, as a deluge. It is screened, sieved, filtered, and edited, trimmed, narrativized, delegated to mental sub-systems, dumped, so as not to drown us. Yet, if we can calm ourselves enough to think, it is clear that this flood of signal can have only one possible source: reality.”

Nick Land,  Phyl-Undhu: Abstract Horror, Exterminator

“Reality?” What is this thing we call reality? Is it a game, a fiction, a place you’d like to visit but feel it’s better to keep locked up in some dark corner of the mind rather than a place to truly know? Alison’s husband declares: ”

“So what is reality? That’s the question, yes? Don’t you see? It’s telling you. It’s The Flood. It’s total revelation. Every second, it pours in, through hundreds – thousands – of channels. ‘Don’t ask for a sign’ – I’m quoting Phyllis now. Perhaps I have been for a while. ‘You have a billion signs a minute that you don’t want. You’re already in The Flood.’”

In recent years scientists have discovered fascinating things about how our brain actually works. The amygdala (Latin, corpus amygdaloideum) is an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe. In humans and other animals, this subcortical brain structure is linked to both fear responses and pleasure. Conditions such as anxiety, autism, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias are suspected of being linked to abnormal functioning of the amygdala, owing to damage, developmental problems, or neurotransmitter imbalance. (see Wiki) Recently neuroscientists have discovered large amount of data indicating that the amygdala, a particular structure in the brain, is strongly involved during the learning of “conditioned” fear.

What do we know about the Great Filter, really? We have a name for it, if only a provisional one, which says something. It has acknowledged existence. In the terms of the philosophers, it is rigidly designated. Something there is, of which we know nothing, except that it efficiently exterminates all advanced civilizations, at a cosmic scale.

Nick  Land,  Phyl-Undhu: Abstract Horror, Exterminator

As I was reading Land’s fictional uptake on the ‘Great Filter’, a concept he lifts from Nick Bostrom:

Among recent thinkers, Nick Bostrom has been especially dogged in pursuing the implications of the Fermi Paradox. Approaching the problem through systematic statistical ontology, he has shown that it suggests a ‘thing’ – a ‘Great Filter’ that at some stage winnows down potential galactic civilizations to negligible quantities. If this filtering does not happen early – due to astro-chemical impediments to the emergence of life – it has to apply later. Consistently, he considers any indications of abundant galactic life to be ominous in the extreme. A Late Great Filter would then still lie ahead (for us). Whatever it is, we would be on our approach to an encounter with it. With every new exo-planet discovery, the Great Filter becomes darker. A galaxy teeming with life is a horror story. The less there is obstructing our being born, the more there is waiting to kill or ruin us. (ibid. KL 1134-1141)

As I began to muddle through this it occurred to me that the threat from the Outside is actually in a dialectical reversal actually to be found within the brain’s own processes: the Great Filter is truly deep seated within our own brain’s primitive survival systems that seek to protect us from our own misguided adventures. Could it possibly be that the threat we see externally out there is in fact the primitive response of our own amygdala and other neuronal activity? Are we truly just the victims of our own faulty evolutionary hijinks?

Our brain scientists tell us is shaped by pathological neurons: “Patients suffering from disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety problems, exhibit disruption of certain neuronal circuits which leads to unsuitable anxiety behaviour responses. The selective manipulation of neuronal circuits that we have identified, using new therapeutic approaches which need to be developed further, could make it possible to regulate the pathological manifestations of fear in these patients.”2 But as in all things science is a two-edged sword. What can be used to help patients can also be turned toward other ends, nefarious ends that could someday be used for controlling vast populaces through fear and terror. Isn’t this the true horror ahead? As Nick Land tells us in his notes:

If we could clearly envision the calamity that awaited us, it would be an object of terror. Instead, it is a shapeless threat, ‘Outside’ only in the abstract sense (encompassing the negative immensity of everything that we cannot grasp). It could be anywhere, from our genes or ecological dynamics, to the hidden laws of technological evolution, or the hostile vastnesses between the stars. We know only that, in strict proportion to the vitality of the cosmos, the probability of its existence advances towards inevitability, and that for us it means supreme ill. Ontological density without identifiable form is abstract horror itself. As the Great Filter drifts inexorably, from a challenge that we might imaginably have already overcome, to an encounter we ever more fatalistically expect, horrorism is thickened by statistical-cosmological vindication. The unknown condenses into a shapeless, predatory thing. Through our techno-scientific sensors and calculations, the Shadow mutters to us, and probability insists that we shall meet it soon.

– Nick Land,  Phyl-Undhu: Abstract Horror, Exterminator .

The dark secret is that we are that thing which we have been and will always be: the shadow that seeks to encompass us is the realization of our own nullity, the fruitless seed of a fruitless universe. Oh, and you were hoping for a sign of hope. Go look in the mirror my friend and tell me if there is hope or terror staring back at you out of those voidic eyes. In the end you are alone with the alone, without support or foundation, born of emptiness you will return to the vastation that is

But will you open your eyes or close them? Will you return to the comforts of you gods and fictions, your human habitations of thought, and zones of safety and marginal beliefs shaped by the cultural others. Or will you enter the darkness on your own terms, confront the bleak truth with your own unknowing mind?

You can read Nick’s latest work on amazon.com: Nick Land: Phyl-Undhu: Abstract Horror, Exterminator

1. Lovecraft, H. P. (2013-07-03). The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature: Revised and Enlarged (Kindle Locations 810-812). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.
2. INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale). “New neuronal circuits which control fear have been identified.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 November 2010.

David Roden on Reduction, Elimination and Radical Uninterpretability

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David Roden on enemyindustry has an interesting argument for the total disconnect between humans and our (yet-to-be) post-human progeny (i.e., as he terms them plastics (humans) and hyperplastics (posthumans)). As I was reading this I came back to this moment in the essay:

“A posthuman-making disconnection that resulted in the emergence of hyperplastics would inevitably lead to the result in the instrumental elimination of folk psychological capacities among the population of hyperplastics, at least; since neither the capacity nor the linguistic idiom for attributing propositional attitudes would have predictive or hermeneutic utility.”

More and more what I’m beginning to see is that our current theories concerning the posthuman are actually the formation of new strategies concerning our transitional need to philosophical break out of the malaise of thought: the hermeneutic circle of interpretability that has enclosed us in outworn habits of being. Our very development of a posthuman blank, an unknown known is in itself a sign of this current transition not to a posthuman future, but to a new mode of being and thought that is as of yet ill-defined but visible on the horizon. What form it will take is as of yet to be registered and indexed by the philosophical and scientific harbingers of thought. I see a need for a dialectical materialism that works through the eliminativist strategies, and yet invents out of the negations of negations a new positive strategy which would break us free of the old wars between philosophy and the sciences and create or invent a new form of thought. What form that shall take is still to be invented, but the current struggles among both scientists and philosophers over the priority of thought is to me a good sign that it will come about. One can only see among the decaying fringes signs of something new.

Over and over I come back to this notion of why we plastics invented such illusionary or fictional (figural) entities (tropes) as “mental states” etc. to begin with. It’s as if we have certain unknown anomalies that interfere with our physical systems: pain, disturbances of the mind and flesh, that goads us to understand the causes of such physical disturbances. It was Daniel Dennett, in his influential article, “Why You Can’t Make a Computer that Feels Pain” (1978), argued that the ordinary concept of pain is irremediably incoherent and should be abandoned. His argument relied on some clinical pain syndromes which he dubbed the “reactive dissociation” of pain affect from its sensory aspect.

Yet, our commonsense view tells us that pain exists: my physical nerve endings in a decaying or exposed tooth make me feel the utter atrocity of my situation, etc. Ultimately in his research Dennett  presents a speculative subpersonal functional theory of pain processing, according to which pain processing occurs in many functionally (even anatomically) different components of the central nervous system, mostly in parallel, such that some of them can be selectively impaired. This kind of selective impairment, he says, can produce not only dissociation of the kind we are familiar with, but many more bizarre phenomena we can expect to find and imagine happening. His insight is that our ordinary notion of pain with its essentialist intuitions cannot withstand the implications of such scientific developments in pain research.

In her book, The Myth of Pain (1999), Valerie Hardcastle also argued for eliminating the commonsense understanding of pain and much of the ordinary pain talk. She argued that it is a fatal mistake to take this subjective sensation of pain as the nature of pain because she thinks that a biologically more realistic objective understanding of pain involving the various systems processing nociceptive information will serve our scientific purposes much better and the commonsense understanding of pain should follow that.

The point being that eliminativists want to eliminate the subjective commonsense interpretations of “pain” as erroneous… yet, what do we replace it with? To say pain does not exist does not help me resolve the actual toothache, so if my commonsense knowledge of pain is an illusion then what to do about this physical sensation? Obviously there are those among us – as Dennett studied (RD) who do not feel pain the way the vast majority of humans do. So would the hyper-plastic entity have new ‘value-judgment’s’ based not on sensation, but rather on the true knowledge of the malfunctioning subsystems in question and know how to absolve such conflicts?

When it comes down to it humans invented such mental states (illusions, tropes) as explanatory mechanisms to help them communicate these subjective sensations. As such these supposed presuppositions are symbolic representations of unknown knowns, so that in themselves they may be something else altogether as the eliminativist suggests. Not that the pain doesn’t exist, but that the symbolic representation of that pain in commonsense parlance will need to be modified by scientific knowledge, replaced by a better understanding of the actual physical (sub)processes.

As the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Pain suggests:

…despite significant advances in our philosophical and scientific understanding of pain in the last fifty years or so, there is still a lot of work to be done to develop a fully satisfactory account of pain.

There are other philosophical as well as scientific questions about pain. Do animals feel pain? If they do, is it comparable to the way we feel pain? What are the social, economical, ethical and religious implications of affirmative answers to these questions? How can animal pain be scientifically studied? What should be the methodology of scientific research on animals in general and of animal pain in particular? How can we project the results obtained by pain research on animals onto humans? Parallel or similar questions arise in the case of fetuses and young infants that are even more pressing and urgent for obvious reasons. What is the relationship between pain and pleasure, or pain and emotions in general? What are the ethical and religious status and implications of pain? These and many other questions remain to be the focus of many researchers in the field. (The literature addressing these questions is huge and still rapidly growing; consult the Pain Bibliography cited in the Other Internet Resources section below for representative works.) (see Pain)1

My point: one cannot eliminate the actual sensation, only the false interpretation of the physical process. Eliminativism offers only one half of the solution: it would eliminate the illusory interpretation of pain (the subjective commonsense interpretation). But we need beyond this eliminativist move another more viable interpretation of the physical processes; and, eliminativism does not offer a positive form of interpretability. Is there one? Will we be forever bound to our false apprehension of the Real? Does eliminativism itself fall short of this goal. Do we need a return to the “negation of negation”? This sense of an interpretive strategy that brings the negated truth out of its dark recesses?

David Roden concludes with the impossibility of such a move:

“I conclude that if hyperplastic agents are possible, we could not understand them without abandoning the conceptual framework we currently use to understand ourselves and our conspecifics. They would be radically uninterpretable.”

What this implies is the need for a new approach, an as yet unknown form or framework of interpretability that moves us beyond the current fold of philosophical jargon that has bound us to two-thousand years of false trails and folk-psychology (intentionalism). Maybe humans need to awaken from their long sleep of the mind and begin sloughing off the vestiges of our ancestral strategies and seek out the unknown that surrounds us with new mind-tools. Do we still have the power to invent reality, impose a new order of mind upon a new realm of truth? Is reality something to be discovered or invented? Is reality open (incomplete) or closed (a total determined system)? Can it be described through linguistic or mathematical signs; or, will it always like some protean guest vanish in our descriptions and arise just out of reach of our human mind-tools?

We as humans are always coming against obstacles and inventing strategies of survival and knowledge to explain what resists us and deigns to destroy us. The basic common sense strategies that have helped us demarcate the unknown knowns are finally breaking down in our time, they are no longer helping us to understand ourselves or our place in the universe. We are in transition and we know it, yet we are for the most part unable and unwilling to let go of our past systems of belief that have up to this point worked so well. Yet, in a global realm where beliefs can destroy (religious wars, racism, militanism in all stripes and forms, etc..) what to do? Will we wallow in the past fabrications passively and silently determined by ancient thought and myths forever, or can we reinvent the truth of what we are and know something new? Can we begin to change our minds?

1. Aydede, Murat, “Pain”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),  Pain

Blindness

The greatest power of our mind is not to see more, but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations— only such “blindness” generates the insight into what things really are. – Slavoj Zizek

I’m back! What more can be said. Just about everything. Sometimes one needs to step back, take a long look, run the gamut, descend or ascend the mountains of one’s vacuity; discover in the hidden recesses of one’s blindness certain insights, weave a new chapter in life’s dark ecologies of the mind.

Most of us live in “What if…?” worlds, moment by moment struggling to make sense of the perplexity of life and ourselves. We want answers. We fall into sink holes of oblivion through drugs, drink, entertainment; art, literature, and… yes, should I say it: philosophical peregrinations. My friend R. Scott Bakker tells us that “The strategy I employ in my fantasy novels is to implicate the reader, to tweak their moral pieties, and then to jam them the best I can.” (see Hugo’s Weaving) This notion of implicating the reader in his own blind man’s bluff, allowing him to become a willing participant in the darkest conceits, dip his fingers in the blood of the truth that is the base measure of our human desires leads into an unexpected event. It allows the reader to discover the truth hiding in her own animalistic desires and drives, the blindness that hides the void of one’s being: the truth that there is no self preceding the struggles of life, that the self is not discovered behind the curtain of awareness, but is a fabrication of our dialectical involvement in our failures and inadequacies.

Plato woke up from his complacency long ago when the great rhetoricians of Greece – the Sophists, spouted the truth that we are nothing but fictions, our lives a tissue of words, that we live in a closed circle of signs that never escape themselves, never reach beyond themselves into some eternal realm beyond appearances. Yet, Plato in his struggle against the Sophists became mired in a struggle to create a greater fiction, the notion of an eternal Order behind appearances that sustains and gives meaning to life and thought.

As Zizek is fond of repeating: there is no Big Other (Lacan), no boogie man beyond the stars controlling our destiny, no structure or cultural Order imposing the truth upon us, no ideology ruling our lives: we are free… and it is our freedom that enslaves us to our foolish ends. We are terrified of our Freedom, our nakedness before the terrible truth of the universe and our finitude. We would rather bury ourselves in a sea of unknowing than accept the truth of our incompleteness, our openness to an incomplete universe, our freedom as freedom. So we create vast and intricate fictions to enclose ourselves within through the power of words, enslave ourselves to belief systems and ideologies that trap us in a blind man’s game of give and take.

One of my favorite novels is by the Portuguese writer, José Saramago, who at the end of his novel Blindness allows the Doctor to reflect on the small village’s predicament:

Why did we become blind, I don’t know, perhaps one day we’ll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.

Saramago, José (2013-08-23). Blindness (p. 326). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Is this not the predicament of humanity? Are we not the Blind ones who can see, but do not see?