The Object Smasher; or, the Philosophy of Rubble

“Literature is about turning the pre-verbal — if not pre-linguistic — objects into verbal objects with symbolic meanings attached to them. Literature constructs a world in which the objects gain new significance.”
…..– Cengiz Erdem on May 26, 2010

For though in nature nothing really exists besides individual bodies, performing pure individual acts according to a fixed law, yet in philosophy this very law, and the investigation, discovery, and explanation of it, is the foundation as well of knowledge as of operation. And it is this law with its clauses that I mean when I speak of forms, a name which I the rather adopt because it has grown into use and become familiar.”
……– Francis Bacon, Novum Organum: Book Two, II

This is a republish and revised edition of an earlier post on Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology. Descriptions of materialism below are of those physicalists and reductionsists, rather than of the irreductionist dialectical materialisms of Badiou or Zizek, etc. Harman’s sense of vacuous actuality and Zizek’s notion of Democritean “den” as unsutured void of the sealed atom not as solid sphere, but rather as vacuous actuality: in my estimation the two are equivalent. Both remain undetected in the Real except indirectly through their effects on the sensual phenomenon of our perceptive existence or object-object relations. The distance between Harman and Zizek is over the notion of Subject or Object as having priority rather than any notion of relation or non-relation.

At the beginning of Tool-Being Graham Harman, in a style reminiscent of some of the greatest antithetical contrarians of the past two hundred years, says: “A philosophy is not some sort of private introspective diary to which the philosopher would have unique access. It is more fruitful to regard it as an experiment, a careful process of smashing fragments of reality together so as to see what emerges from the rubble.” Let’s call this rubble philosophy The Object Smasher, and let us not forget to smash all those dead philosophers and their vainglorious diaries too, because all “of us will be truer to what was admirable”  in them “if we take responsibility for our own thoughts instead of trembling deferentially” before their statues (TB: iv). [1]

One can imagine Harman, the Philosopher As Carpenter-Engineer, a sort of super-hero of objects with the hammer of Thor in his hands, crushing, smashing, pulverizing objects into rubble; and then, raising the protective goggles onto his forehead, the whisps of his greying hair falling down in his eyes, he begins to study the rubble of his latest experiment in object smashing, burrowing through the smashed excess of objects, watching, waiting patiently, for the emergence of something new – some indelible footprint in the sand of the Real that might mark the foundation of objects in the universe and thereby shake the very foundations of the real object itself out of the rubble and ruins of smashed tool-being.

Like one of those scientists in Geneva in search of that mythical entity – the Higg’s boson, which some have called the God particle that scientists theorize gives mass to other particles and thus to other objects and creatures in the universe, Harman excavates the rubble of philosophical thought seeking a description of the illusive real object that is based upon substantive form rather than any search for foundational particles of any kind. This real object hiding behind the façade of sensual profiles lives in vacuous actuality, a void of self-reflecting nothingness, much like that misrecognized negativity that Slavoj Zizek terms “den” after that famed materialist of Being, Democritus.

Democritus is the progenitor arrives at den (subtraction) by leaving out only me from meh’den (“not-one”) and thus creating a totally artificial word den. Den is thus not nothing without “no,” not a thing, but an othing, a something but still within the domain of nothing, like an ontological living dead, a spectral nothing-appearing-as-something. The rise of den is thus strictly homologous to that of objet a which, according to Lacan, emerges when the two lacks (of the subject and of the Other) coincide, that is, when alienation is followed by separation: den is the “indivisible remainder” of the signifying process of double negation— something like Sygne de Coûfontaine’s tic, this minimal eppur si muove which survives her utter Versagung (renunciation). The later reception of Democritus, of course, immediately “renormalized” den by way of ontologizing it: den becomes a positive One, atoms are now entities in the empty space, no longer spectral “othings”( less-than-nothings). (LTN, KL 1522-1527) Instead of the positive atoms of historical materialisms false history we should realign the ancient atomistic philosophy with its updated form of dialectical materialism’s spectral nothings, those vacuous actualities of withdrawn objects lost within the dormancy of their volcanic cores, split and violent powers at the heart of the Real. Zizek describes the Subject, saying,

“Substance is Subject” means that the split which separates Subject from Substance, from the inaccessible In-itself beyond phenomenal reality, is inherent to the Substance itself. […] The point is not that Substance (the ultimate foundation of all entities, the Absolute) is not a pre-subjective Ground but a subject, an agent of self-differentiation, which posits its otherness and then reappropriates it, and so on: “Subject” stands for the non-substantial agency of phenomenalization, appearance, “illusion,” split, finitude, Understanding, and so on, and to conceive Substance as Subject means precisely that split, phenomenalization, and so forth, are inherent to the life of the Absolute itself.3

Harman will shift this into the thing itself, describing a “Substance is Object” in which the split object separates the vacuous actuality of the voidic and volcanic real object from its sensual appendages in phenomenality. So that Harman’s real object stands for the non-substantial agency of phenomenalization, appearance, “illusion,” split, finitude, Understanding, and so on, and to conceive Substance as Object means precisely that split, phenomenalization, and so forth, are inherent to the life of the hidden world of real objects itself.

What we discover in Harman’s Object rubble is not the reduction of part to whole, no synecdoche of some totalistic complete universe of relations, but the composite non-relational system of objects themselves. And, do not say, “Oh, I’ve got you now! What of atoms?” Harman retorts that even if a time comes when we must discuss these, so to speak precious “atoms” that you hold so highly as a sign of your materialist foundation, I tell you that “these molecules are not inert specks of present-at-hand matter – they too are machines, grand totalities concocted out of sub-mechanisms perhaps still unknown” (TB: 285). Yet, if we follow Zizek, these atoms are not positive solid substance, but rather the vacuum filled nothings (“othings”) of Den. Or, as Harman might say: vacuous actualities.

What does it mean to say that physical things exist? George Berkeley one of those idealist few would remember – except as the butt of Samuel Johnson’s joke about rocks being real – pointed out that our immediate experience provides only two meanings of “to be”: to perceive (percipere) and to be perceived (percipi).  Simply to be perceived, however, is not to be actual but to be merely an idea in the mind of some perceiver.  Only “being a perceiver” (which for Berkeley included the notion of being an active agent) gives us a meaningful notion of what it is to be an actuality.

So how can something that we have not direct access too, that is withdrawn and away, hidden behind the surface texture of sensual profiles and qualia to be perceived? This is the central truth of Harman’s real objects: they exist in a vacuum, sealed away and withdrawn into their own solipsistic world; some even dormant awaiting their moment to be lured out of their volcanic cores, allured by some glamour from the realms of sensuous objects where it can reveal indirectly the powers of its active existence.

Returning to Berkeley who, of course, used this argument for his idealist view, according to which the physical world exists only as perceived (by divine and finite minds); but Leibniz, by positing “petite perceptions” in nature’s elementary units, showed Berkeley’s point to be compatible with realism.  As Whitehead (1967a, p. 132) says, Leibniz “explained what it must be like to be an atom”. Of course neither would have thought of atoms quite like Democritus (revised by Zizek) as vacuous actualities. Yet, reading Whitehead again in Process and Reality we discover just what this object in the void is:

…the notion of vacuous actuality, which haunts realistic philosophy. The term ‘vacuous actuality’ here means the notion of a res vera devoid of subjective immediacy. This repudiation is fundamental for the organic philosophy (cf. Part II, Ch. VII, ‘The Subjectivist Principle’). The notion of ‘vacuous actuality’ is very closely allied to the notion of the ‘inherence of quality in substance.’ Both notions— in their misapplication as fundamental metaphysical categories— find their chief support in a misunderstanding of the true analysis of ‘presentational immediacy’ (cf. Part II, Ch. II, Sects. I and V).2

As we can see for Whitehead such a concept had no place in organic process philosophy. So why does Harman (and Democritus if Zizek is correct!) take this up to describe his real objects? Let us add a further clarification from Whitehead before returning the Harman’s answer:

The difficulties of all schools of modern philosophy lie in the fact that, having accepted the subjectivist principle, they continue to use philosophical categories derived from another point of view. These categories are not wrong, but they deal with abstractions unsuitable for metaphysical use. It is for this reason that the notions of the ‘extensive continuum’ and of ‘presentational immediacy’ require such careful discussion from every point of view. The notions of the ‘green leaf’ and of the ‘round ball’ are at the base of traditional metaphysics. They have generated two misconceptions: one is the concept of vacuous actuality, void of subjective experience; and the other is the concept of quality inherent in substance. In their proper character, as high abstractions, both of these notions are of the utmost pragmatic use. In fact, language has been formed chiefly to express such concepts. It is for this reason that language, in its ordinary usages, penetrates but a short distance into the principles of metaphysics. Finally, the reformed subjectivist principle must be repeated: that apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness. (PR, p. 167)

Of course like Badiou, Whitehead preferred mathematics as ontology over language (poetry, rhetoric). And as is apparent in that last statement for Whitehead only subjects have perceptions and experiences, everything else is “bare nothingness”. Yet, one of Harman’s central insights is that real objects, these bare nothings or vacuous actualities devoid of subjectivity do have perceptions. We gain a hint when Harman tells us “conscious awareness can no longer serve as one of the basic orienting poles of reality” (TB, p. 225). Instead of direct access we have access to real objects indirectly as “actuality and relation” rather than “causation and perception”. So that for Harman it is important that we not understand “vacuous” according to the terms in a thesaurus, where we might read: “ignorant, nonexistent, stupid, thoughtless, trivial, vacant.” Instead, I take “vacuous” literally, as referring to the reality of tool-beings in vacuo, apart from any accidental collision with other objects. This is not as strange as it may sound; indeed, it is not even unprecedented. (TB, p. 228) Which aligns with Zizek’s revision of Democritus’s notion of “den” as the vacuum sealed atoms which is a concept developed to counter Parmenides notion of “thought and being” as the One. For Democritus like Harman the universe of things is made of a myriad and multiplicity of objects, real objects withdraw from all relation situated in the void of their own interior packages.

As Harman will relate by divorcing real objects from any actual causal relation, he may be defining it only as a center of potentiality for other relations that might someday exist but do not yet exist. As sensible as this might sound, real objects have no potentiality at all, but rather are sheer actuality.

Yet, for Harman philosophy is in no way a positive materialism but is closer to a “new sort of ‘formalism’ with Francis Bacon its unlikely predecessor” (TB: 286). As Harman states it: “I refer not to the vulgarized Bacon of the textbooks (“Do as many experiments as possible, and use the results to try to dominate nature .. .’), but to the forgotten Bacon of Novum Organum Book II, who, incredibly, lampoons efficient causation as ridiculous. Perhaps no great philosopher of the Western tradition has been so grievously misread, and with such self-serving aims in mind” (TB: 286). Yet, the materialism Harman rejects is the schoolbook history of Democritus as the father of positive atomistic science, not the new Zizekian philosopher of the Void and vacuous actuality.

Whitehead expresses things more directly than Heidegger, telling us that an actual entity  is not a durable unit that “undergoes adventures” in space and time. The reality of a being is confined to the thorough particularity of a transient moment. To give especial emphasis to this point, he often calls actual entities “actual occasions,” so as to erode any lingering connotations of a long-lasting substance. For Whitehead, what endures through time is not singular concrete things, but a community of closely related Thing-events strung along throughout the span of what appears to be a coherent individual life. (TB, p. 231) Process philosophy is based on these actual occasions of a community of events related through temporal activation.

Instead of entities such as atoms that materialists wish to reduce into their final constituent parts, who wish to discover some ultimate terminus, some end point or substantive entity, exempt from all internal composition, which would “amount to defining that entity as a sheer present-at-hand building block,” Harman explains that instead “by taking the tool-analysis to its logical extreme, we discover that no entity is irreducible, since each is a formal machinic effect of its elemental components” (TB: 286).  “But”, the materialist philosopher responds, “what of those larger structures in the universe?” Harman with a twinkle in his eye shakes his head, upturning his chin and laughing in mock display of such idiocy and says, “My friend, just as we exposed the smallest of objects as machinic, diving down into that tiniest of worlds, we must also pursue objects in the opposite direction.” As Harman states it: “Not only is each thing a galaxy of parts-each thing is also a part of the galaxy known as ‘world.’ Against Heidegger’s most vehement assertions, ‘world’ and ‘being’ really are just the set of all beings! The world is indeed a colossal referential machine, just as Heidegger suggests” (TB: 286).

Again, the materialist (read: physicalist) philosopher tries a new tact, “What of this relation of objects you tout so much? Just where is it in all this dipping and ascending into the machinic details of the micro and macro structure of this universe of objects?” Harman takes a moment, pausing to reflect upon the “troubling disappearance of relationality from the rough model of the world he’s developed” then responds, saying,

“I have already contended that every object can be viewed as the effect of a composite relational system (of many pieces, many atoms). Unless we want to have recourse to physical durability as an arbitrary criterion, it follows that a causal relation between two rocks is a system that forms an entity, and that hammer plus me is also a system forming an entity (“hammer-encounter,” we might call it). As a result of all this, is there anything now missing from the world that used to be at our disposal? Yet, and it is obvious what it is: any sense of a wide-open “clearing” is now abolished.

There is no longer a brute realm of effects destined to be transcended by some starry, windy space of explicit vision. For even a perception is now a new kind of entity, so that [our] face is always pressed up against subterranean reality as against a plate-glass window; there is no longer any ontological breathing room. We never manage to rise above the massive clamor of entities, but can perhaps only burrow around within it. For the moment, the mechanisms of this process remain obscure. But we at least know what is missing. The sanctuary of the human as-structure, with its free transcendence and partly liberated vision, has been jettisoned in favor of a dense and viscous universe stuffed absolutely full with entities. In this sense there is no vacuum, although in another sense every segment of this universe is nothing if not vacuous, in the literal sense of this term” (TB: 287).

Then the process-relational materialist thinks to himself, “Ah, Harman admits it, there is a process involved, a mechanism of process between objects, and that these processes are obscure. And, yes, we both agree that this anthropocentric vision of humanism that has locked philosophy in its correlationist anti-realist realm cut off from the real has got to go. But if there is no vacuum, no space for emergence of something new, then how is change possible in this vacuousness?” Then with a puzzling lear he jibes at Harman, “Okay, explain yourself, you object smasher, you master of the vacuous and of rubble…”

Harman delighted continues telling the materialist that there is a central distinction between objects in a system and objects in a vacuum. Genuine objects withdraw even behind causal contact. But now we discover that all systems are objects, and that there “is no system which is not also an entity,” so that even one’s perception of an object is in itself an object. And, he continues, here is the crux of the matter, the “perception is a tool-being, and as such, it resides in a vacuum uncontaminated by all relation, irreducible to all later introspection.

As we have already seen, the vacuum is threatened on both sides: a) by the systematic combination of the elements that allow it to exist (in this case, the hammer and myself as components of the hammer-encounter), and b) by the experience that objectifies it in some specific way (in this case, by the later introspection). Despite this dual threat, the entity (in this case, the full hammer-encounter) manages to be just what it is, undisturbed by the storms of relation that rage both to the west and the east of it” (TB: 288).

“Ah, hah,” says the materialist, “I have you, now: if the world contains no relations, as you suggest, and is nothing but entities from the tiniest levels of existence to the largest structures in the universe then how does anything ever get done in such a world? If everything is so densely packed as you suggest, then what you are telling me is that this universe would seem to be packed with non-communicative vacuous zones, none of them able to transmit energy or influence to the others? In such a realm there would be no windows, no doors into the great outdoors, and any contact between…” the materialist utters the impossible word, “objects, and more importantly any sort of alteration in the universe would seem impossible.” (TB: 288)

Harman reflects on this a moment, thinking to himself, “Is there any way to avoid these consequences by pointing to a medium through which tool-beings might genuinely interact? How can one vacuum impart its secrets to another? And what happens, ontologically speaking, when one entity perceives another, or lightly grazes it, or outright crushes it?” He admits to himself that there can be no definitive resolutions to these questions at the moment, but only a series of provisional analyses. (TB: 288).

Studying the impetuous materialist for a moment, he continues thinking to himself, if perception and the object form a unified object in its own right, and if we try to observe myself perceiving instead of the thing I’m perceiving, the object, a gulf opens up between the two: it is only one element of the experience that emerges into perception. It is no more possible to observe ourselves exhaustively than it is to observe the object exhaustively. Instead we must admit that what is going on here if “the terminology is stripped down to the bone, is that the perceptive entity (the system of thing and me) perceives not itself, but rather the elements of which it is composed.

This would remain the case even if I attempted to perceive in mystical fashion “the oneness of all things,” since the oneness thus focused upon and the meditative act that envisions it also cannot be one and the same thing. Perception is already a descent into its own particles. The system that includes myself and the hammer burrows down into itself, decomposing itself before our eyes in spite of its necessary status as a single entity” (TB: 289).

Watching the materialist begin to fidget, he asks himself a further question: “is this odd descent of perception into its own depths something that characterizes realities other than explicit human perception? For example, let’s say that instead of openly noticing [a] hammer, a specific human is related to it in the way of merely being tacitly affected by it. In the case of this miniature system of objects as well, is it true that the entire system is in contact with its parts? … The same question ought to be posed in the case of inanimate couplings of rocks and leaves and clouds. Even in these cases, is there a sense in which every systematic unity descends into itself and makes contact with its own interior elements? To express this once more, in something resembling layman’s terms: if [objects] are by definition non-relational, how can they ever touch one another? ” (TB: 289).

At this point the materialist philosopher looks him straight in the eyes, saying, “Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”

Harman smiles, and in an expository manner, recapitulates his arguments so far, saying, “the first difficulty lies in identifying the medium through which tool-beings can truly interact. If two rocks collide, then they must collide as these rocks themselves, not as loose surface-effects. And yet rock-in-itself is defined precisely by its impenetrability to any relation. We have also seen that any such relation as that between two rocks immediately generates a new hybrid entity: say, collision-system” (TB: 290). Harman also repeats that he suggested in previous arguments, saying to this proud materialist, “there may be a way in which every system is also a descent into its own elements in spite of the fact that it ought to be every bit as hermetically sealed from its component parts as it is from external entities” (TB: 290).

The materialist claps his hands, saying: “Bravo, bravo, you open a hole in being and let all the parts vanish within the darkness of its own irresolvable materiality;  bravo…”

Harman interrupts him, instigating a new set of questions, saying: “if the tool-being of each individual rock inherently lies beyond all possibility of contact with the other, is there a strange sense in which they can inflict blows on each other as parts of the collision-system rather than as individuals? Or is this only a sort of corrupt back door through which the same difficulties reenter the picture as before?”

The materialist, intrigued, urges him with a comic gesture of complicity to explicate just what he means by this. Harman delighted that the materialist is listening rather than opposing him, continues:

“In any case, we are left with the following scenario-the world as a duel of tightly interlaced objects that both aggrandize and corrode one another. As Bacon expressed… “For since every body contains in itself many forms of natures united together in a concrete state, the result is that they severally crush, depress, break, and enthrall one another, and thus the individual forms are obscured.” The movement of philosophy is less one of unveiling (which would rely on a sort of as-structure that I have argued does not really exist) than of a sort of reverse engineering.

Often, teams of industrial pirates will lock themselves in a motel room, working backward from a competitor’s finished product in an effort to unlock and replicate the code that generates it. In the case of the philosopher, the finished product that must be reverse-engineered is the world as we know it; the motel room is perhaps replaced by a lecture hall or a desert. Behind every apparently simple object or concept is an infinite legion of further objects crushing, depressing, breaking, and enthralling one another. It is these violent underground currents that one should attempt to counter, so as to unlock the infrastructure of any entity or of the world as a whole” (TB: 290).

The materialist dissatisfied with this explication retorts, “But is this not just a piece of rhetoric in the end? What have you really uncovered, unveiled within this so-to-speak ontology of objects you so highly espouse? Isn’t what your telling me that these objects demonstrate nothing more than that your prized concept of relation lies somewhere between the status of a substance and a universal network of significations? And,” he sneers, “what of that set of ambivalent currents running equally through all entities? What of this crushing, depressing, breaking, and enthralling action of things?” (TB: 290)

Harman in a quick comeback, says, “Yes, yes,” laughing uncontrollably, ” you are right of course, the isolation of entities suspended in their vacuums must be bridged, and the various facets of each of these objects must be concretely charted. The motivating force for shifting to a method of this kind lies in a resolve to end the discrepancy between our lives as professional thinkers and our lives as humans immersed in the system of objects. Rather than following still further the methodological suppositions of some currently dominant school of thought, rather than taking up some available ready-made problem and mulling it over for a decade, we ought to let the innocent fascination of the early morning hours spread over into the remainder of our mental lives. I refer to that half-awake and passive state that is dominated by the sounds of faint alarm bells, the smell of fruit outside the window, the needle-like rays of sun that begin to bore through the darkness of our rooms. (TB: 291)

The materialist confounded by this strangely evocative discourse from Harman throws up his hands in exasperation, mystified by this poetic entrancement of alarm bells, fruit, and sun rays exploding into dark rooms. Wandering toward the door, he turns back one more time to study this philosopher of rubble, this object smasher, quizzically he sees that Harman has one last thought on the tip of his meditative mind: “Okay, out with it… you, you, object smasher!

Harman in agreement says, “To a large extent we can thank Husserl and many of his French admirers for defining these transitory moments as a worthy philosophical subject matter. And yet, what we are really immersed in, in these situations and all others, is not a web of phenomena, but a world of objects. Quite apart from my indolent pleasure while lying in bed, steam genuinely scorches the air as it eddies from the stove, electrons from the sunlight pierce my skull like bullets, floorboards buckle under compulsive mutual pressure, heavy stone walls hold out the cold but poise themselves to destroy me in the event of an earthquake.

This sort of material reality, too quickly ceded by philosophers to the natural sciences, is what awaits any successful theory of objects. And if there emerges a philosophical method to unlock the secrets of hammers, steam, paper, citrus fruit, and salt-grains, who can rule out the rapid reappearance of souls and angels in the midst of philosophic debate?” (TB: 291)

The materialist atheist looks at Harman not only with disgust, but with a certain horror in his face as he turns and runs from the room screeching like a madman who has just been told of the death of all things, god and human alike, yet who still clings to the great substrate of process and reality he calls the material world.

Harman on the other hand returns to the glass of wine he is holding in his hand, sparkling in the sun’s rays, delighted by the richness of its ambient red light, the dark contours of its liquid presence sparking in the crystal glass, reminding him of the power of objects and their strange relations. Of the transparency of crystal, and the deep textures of the wine that seem to float within their own hidden life, yet behind the contours of glass and liquid are the deeper, hidden away, real objects whose power lies folded in a void of energetic delight never making contact with the human eye that might lure it out of its vacuum. Instead like some master magician the object relates to human perception indirectly through the sensuous profiles and qualia of its active appendages and representatives, the sensuous colors and textures the eye sees. Only the effects of these moving particles of light and sparkle reveal the truth hidden deep within these two objects now forming a third, the intentional object of wine, glass, and perceptive being.

(Note: revised and republished from 2013)


 

  1.  Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects by Graham Harman (TB) ( 1999 UMI Company)
  2. Whitehead, Alfred North (2010-05-11). Process and Reality (Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh During the Session 1927-28) (p. 29). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
  3. Zizek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject. (Verso, 2009)

 

Was Plato a Platonist: The Theory of Forms

My friend Virgilio A. Rivas over at Kafka’s Ruminations thinks I have reduced Plato to the tradition of Platonism, accusing him of being an Idealist. I was not the first, nor will I be the last to do so. It all hinges on Plato’s Theory of Forms. As Virgilio describes it:

The chief problem of reducing Plato to an idealist is the assumption rarely interrogated that Plato is Platonism. History should be our guide. Platonism is not Plato.

If anyone began the whole tradition of Platonism as Idealism it would have to be Plato’s prime pupil, Aristotle who described Plato in the first book of the Metaphysics  (Metaph. A6, 987a32–b10):

In his youth he [Plato] had become familiar first of all with Cratylus and with Heraclitean views to the effect that all perceptible things are always in flux, and there is no knowledge that relates to them. This is a position he later subscribed to in these terms. Socrates, on the other hand, engaged in discussion of ethics, and had nothing to say about the general system of nature. But he was intent on finding out what was universal in this field, and was the first to fix his thinking on definitions. Plato followed him in this, and subscribed to the position that definition relates to something else, and not to the perceptibles—on the kind of grounds indicated: he thought it impossible for there to be a common definition of any of the perceptibles, since they were always changing. Plato, then, called these kinds of realities “ideas,” and claimed that the perceptibles were something in addition to them, and were all spoken of in terms of them—what he said was that by virtue of participation, the many shared their names with the forms.1

This notion of imperceptible Universals (“ideas”, “Forms”: from Greek εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα (idea)) as the organizing force of perceptibles is the central tenet of both forms of Idealism: the two-world theory based on abstract Universals, and the one-world or immanent theory based on Hegel’s “concrete universals”, etc. This notion that perceptibles (objects of the senses) were supplements to the “ideas” or properties and appendages of the ideas themselves is central to Aristotle’s conception of Plato’s theory of forms. This intermingling of form and property begins the whole battle of what I’ve termed substantial formalism and its traditions in Platonism.

But before we tease out the history of Platonism we need to understand first what Plato himself taught us in his own dialogues. I’ll admit that for me (not being a scholar of ancient Greek) a handicap, in that I usually depend heavily on both etymological understanding and the history of translations and transliterations of terms. To speak of Plato or Aristotle would be to have invested in an understanding of the terms they used, otherwise one is truly handicapped and not able to tease out the nuances of the linguistic signs that harbor specific flavors and colors (i.e., tropes of rhetoric, figures of thought or speech, etc.).

As we find even on Wiki the notion of form has a pre-history in its linguistic use (here):

The Greek concept of form precedes the attested language and is represented by a number of words mainly having to do with vision: the sight or appearance of a thing. The main words, εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα (idea) come from the Indo-European root *weid-, “see”. Eidos (though not idea) is already attested in texts of the Homeric era, the earliest Greek literature. Equally ancient is μορφή (morphē), “shape”, from an obscure root. The φαινόμενα (phainomena), “appearances”, from φαίνω (phainō), “shine”, Indo-European *bhā-, was a synonym.

The point to be made here is that even for Plato there was a ready made concept floating in the language that he was able to appropriate and turn toward his theory of Universals (i.e., the notion of Forms has a history, and is not a neologism). Plato’s most explicit statement on the Theory of Forms (i.e., one finds in in many dialogues on Beauty, Goodness, Justice, etc., but implicit rather than explicit) comes late in his Republic where he describes the Allegory of the Cave.

In the allegory, Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. 

What Plato hints at is that these prisoners because of their place in the cave, unknowing of the real world behind and above them will mistake appearance (φαινόμενα (phainomena), shadows) for reality. They will take the shadows on the wall of the cave for the real, never knowing that it is the ideas casting their shadows on the wall. All of this comes to Plato’s point that when we speak of things we are wrong, when I point to a dog, the dog I point to is a shadow of the real dog lodged somewhere behind and above me in the real world of Ideas or Forms. My concrete dog in front of me is an illusion of the senses according to Plato.

If the prisoners are released Plato tells us, they can turn their heads and see the real objects. Then they realize their error. What can we do that is analogous to turning our heads and seeing the causes of the shadows? We can come to grasp the Forms with our minds he tells us. For Plato every appearance we perceive through the senses participates in these eternal Forms: what we see is a reflection of the Forms rather than their reality. Yet, we can never gain access to this eternal realm of ideas by way of the senses, but only through Reason and the arduous path of philosophy Plato tells us.

At the end of the Phaedo when Socrates confronts his friend Crito with the stark fact of his physical death, he reminds Crito that his corpse is not Socrates, that Socrates will continue on because his true Form is deathless:

I do not convince  Crito that I am this Socrates talking to you here and ordering all I say, but he thinks that I am the thing which he will soon be looking at as a corpse, and so he asks how he shall bury me. I have been saying for some time and at some length that after I have drunk the poison I shall no longer be with you but will leave you to go and enjoy some good fortunes of the blessed, but it seems that I have said all this to him in vain in an attempt to reassure you and myself too. Give a pledge to Crito on my behalf, he said, the opposite pledge to that he gave the jury. He pledged that I would  stay; you must pledge that I will not stay after I die, but that I shall go away, so that Crito will bear it more easily when he sees my body being burned or buried and will not be angry on my behalf, as if I were suffering terribly, and so that he should not say at the funeral that he is laying out, or carrying out, or burying Socrates.2

The point Plato makes here is that the Idea, the real Socrates, the Idea that is concrete (here and now) is not the physical appearance of Socrates, but rather the idea that immanently organizes and orders his speech and thoughts is the real Socrates, not the dead corpse (physis) that Crito will bury or burn later on. Rather it is this very soul, the essence, the very real eidos and substance of Socrates that will soon be sitting at the banquet table of the gods making merry, etc.

One could provide example after example to illustrate the point of the Forms, but now I need to turn to its reception and use within what my friend Virgilio calls “Platonism”. For Platonism is this very reception of the terms of Plato and their use or abuse in the long shadow of Plato’s infestation across the centuries within other followers and detractors of Plato’s Ideas.

I’ll take this up in another post… I need a break and a moment to walk my old bones, being a “lover of the body” rather than a “lover of learning” I like to wander among the shadows. 🙂

1. Fine, Gail (2008-07-16). The Oxford Handbook of Plato (Oxford Handbooks) (p. 50). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Plato; Cooper, John M.; Hutchinson, D. S. (2011-08-25). Complete Works (Kindle Locations 3129-3136). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.

The Phaedo: (Part Two) The Art of Recollection

…such is also the case if that theory is true that you are accustomed to mention frequently, that for us learning is no other than recollection. According to this, we must at some previous time have learned what we now recollect. This is possible only if our soul existed somewhere before it took on this human shape. So according to this theory too, the soul is likely to be something immortal.

– Plato, The Pheado

Cebes friend, Simmias, will ask him to recount this strange truth so that he might remember the details more clearly. Cebes will continue telling Simmias that there is an old argument that if a person is interrogated correctly they will always give the right answer of their own accord. Why? Because as he states it “they could not do this if they did not possess the knowledge and the right explanation inside them”.1 This notion that we are born with all the knowledge we need, that knowledge is immanent to the mind continues from Socrates previous apology that everything comes out of its opposite: life out of death, and death out of life, etc. (as we saw in the previous post). As Iain Hamilton Grant (Idealist) will affirm in the excellent Idealism: A History of a Philosophy: this is a Platonism of “immanent law” or causal efficacy:

The world of change, birth and decay is not a world causally isolated from that of Ideas since, as the Phaedo, for instance, makes clear, the Idea has as its nature to be causal in respect to becoming.2

The main point of Grant and his cohorts is that against the two-worlds theory of Platonism espoused by most detractors of Idealism, based on a notion of the abstract universal, they will affirm instead a one-world Idealism based on Hegel’s notion of the “concrete universal”:

…or the whole determined by the particulars it generates and the differentiate it in turn, is the Idea exactly as Platonism conceived it: as the cause of the approximations of becomings to particular forms, and as the “setting into order of this universe” from disorder (ataxia), as organization (ibid. p. 8).

As Socrates, Cebes, and Simmias discuss this strange anomaly of recollection of knowledge from previous lives one wonders why none of them asks the simple question: Why should knowledge come by way of recollection? Why not that the senses and our struggle with things around us provide this ability to gain knowledge not as recollection but as invention. But they never discuss this because for Plato the senses and the body are anathema to any form of acquiring knowledge, instead as Socrates (Plato’s mouthpiece) will say: “our souls also existed apart from the body before they took on human form, and they had intelligence” (KL 2350).

It is at this point that Plato’s Socrates will make his bid against Grant and company for a two-world Platonism:

If those realities we are always talking about exist, the Beautiful and the Good and all that kind of reality, and we refer all the things we perceive to that reality, discovering that it existed before and is ours, and we compare these things with it, then, just as they exist, so our soul must exist before we are born. If these realities do not exist, then this argument is altogether futile. Is this the position, that there is an equal necessity for those realities to exist, and for our souls to exist before we were born? If the former do not exist, neither do the latter? (KL 2356-2360)

The point here is that these other realities exist independent of our physical world, and that everything we see in this physical realm is referred to that other reality as something that comes before and after our sojourn here in this realm. What’s interesting is that just at this point Plato realizes he’s just worked himself into a corner with no way out, and instead of resolving this dilemma he closes it off:

I do not think, Socrates, said Simmias, that there is any possible doubt that it is equally necessary for both to exist, and it is opportune that our argument comes to the conclusion that our soul exists before we are born, and equally so that reality of which you are now speaking. (KL 2360-2362)

So without proof other than the rhetoric of recollection he leaves it at that, as if no one will “doubt” his wonderful argument. As Plato’s Socrates will so eloquently put it in such dogmatic terms: “Nothing is so evident to me personally as that all such things must certainly exist, the Beautiful, the Good, and all those you mentioned just now. I also think that sufficient proof of this has been given.” (KL 2362-2364)

It’s at this juncture that things get tricky for Old Plato, for he will have Socrates juxtapose things of the senses against things of the mind comparing the former as things that always change, and the latter as things that never change but always stay in the same state:

These latter you could touch and see and perceive with the other senses, but those that always remain the same can be grasped only by the reasoning power of the mind? They are not seen but are invisible? (KL 2405-2406)

Then will come the question from Cebes: “Do you then want us to assume two kinds of existences, the visible and the invisible?” And, Socrates: “Let us assume this.” If this isn’t a two-world thesis, then what is? This division of visible/invisible or in Kantian terms phenomenal/noumenal cannot be more clear. But let’s listen further. At this point Socrates will initiate his famous body/soul dualism arguing that that the body is of the visible, while the soul of the invisible, etc., and that the body always changes, while the soul stays the same through all the bodily changes, etc.  Then the litany of tropes opposing the soul as master over the body: “the soul is most like the divine, deathless, intelligible, uniform, indissoluble, always the same as itself, whereas the body is most like that which is human, mortal, multiform, unintelligible, soluble and never consistently the same.” (KL 2440-2441)

And again Socrates will tie this all back to his original theme of the undying immortal soul that leaves mortal death behind, and that philosophy is nothing if it is not a “training for death”:

if it is pure when it leaves the body and drags nothing bodily with it, as it had no willing association with the body in life, but avoided it and gathered itself together by itself and always practiced this, which is no other than practising philosophy in the right way, in fact,  training to die easily. Or is this not training for death? (KL 2453-2455) A soul in this state makes its way to the invisible, which is like itself, the divine and immortal and wise, and arriving there it can be happy, having rid itself of confusion, ignorance, fear, violent desires and the other human ills and, as is said of the initiates, truly spend the rest of time with the gods.(KL 2456-2458)

Plato must have been happy with himself coming to this conclusion so succinctly. Finally the release from the disgusting bodily life he’d so hated for so long. Having his mentor spout a new credo of release: the purification of the mind from its entrapment in the illusory world, etc. I could imagine a self-satisfying smug smile on his face when he first read this work at the Academy, his students mesmerized by this wonderful news. And, yet, it wouldn’t have been so bad if Plato would’ve stopped there, but no he wants to get even with all those fierce sensualists and politicians, war-mongers, and physicalists and lovers of the body, placing them in the unenviable situation of becoming incarcerated ghosts wandering the graveyard of time forever:

We must believe, my friend, that this bodily element is heavy, ponderous, earthy and visible. Through it, such a soul has become heavy and is dragged back to the visible region in fear of the unseen and of Hades. It wanders, as we are told, around graves and monuments, where shadowy phantoms, images that such souls produce, have been seen, souls that have not been freed and purified but share in the visible, and are therefore seen. (KL 2467-2470)

This notion of the impure dead ones, the ones not worthy of life with the gods in some divine realm of purity, but caught in the impure stasis of their impure acts, caged in the interminable realms between Hades and Life, only able to project images on the screen of reality seen by the living, etc. Plato was a sadist at heart. One can see why the early Church Fathers loved this sort of thing. And, again, he will make even a further distinction, that it is only the philosophers who have practiced Plato’s divine art that will enter into the glorious realms:

No one may join the company of the gods who has not practiced philosophy and is not completely pure when he departs from life, no one but the lover of learning. It is for this reason, my friends Simmias and Cebes, that those who practice philosophy in the right way keep away from all bodily passions, master them and do not surrender themselves to them… (KL 2487)

One can see why the Stoics and the Medieval Church so loved this philosopher of the divine against the sensual, etc. This hatred of the flesh and mortality would define philosophy of two-millennia, with those on one side or the other of the debate. No wonder Plato denied even mentioning Democritus, who was called the “happy philosopher” and diametrically opposed such notions of the immortal soul with his own belief in the mortal soul, which even Aristotle, Plato’s antagonistic pupil, would take up and champion.  

This is where we come upon Plato’s Socrates statement at its most Buddhistic, and I quote at length:

The lovers of learning know that when philosophy gets hold of their soul, it is imprisoned in and clinging to the body, and that it is forced to examine other things through it as through a cage and not by itself, and that it wallows in every kind of ignorance. Philosophy sees that the worst feature of this imprisonment is that it is due to desires, so that the prisoner himself is contributing to his own incarceration most  of all. As I say, the lovers of learning know that philosophy gets hold of their soul when it is in that state, then gently encourages it and tries to free it by showing them that investigation through the eyes is full of deceit, as is that through the ears and the other senses. Philosophy then persuades the soul to withdraw from the senses in so far as it is not compelled to use them and bids the soul to gather itself together by itself, to trust only itself and whatever reality, existing by itself, the soul by itself understands, and not to consider as true whatever it examines by other means, for this is different in different circumstances and is sensible and visible, whereas what the soul itself sees is intelligible and invisible. The soul of the true philosopher thinks that this deliverance must not be opposed and so keeps away from pleasures and desires and pains as far as he can; he reflects that violent pleasure or pain or passion does not cause merely such evils as one might expect, such as one suffers when one has been sick or extravagant  through desire, but the greatest and most extreme evil, though one does not reflect on this. (KL 2496-2507)

Again philosophy for Plato became this path of teaching the slow withdrawal from the world of the body and senses into the soul’s realm of pure truth, mind, reality, etc., along with his instigation of a normative vision of purification by way of denying bodily pleasures, desires, and pain, etc. The Philosopher as an ascetic creature of moderation and passionless existence based on the purity of contemplation. One wonders where Plato learned such dark dualisms and moralism’s, such hatred of the flesh and of life? Was he after all a student of Orpheus and the Orphics? A mystagogue in the guise of a philosopher: a teacher of death rather than life? Yes, for in this mid part of the dialogue we come to another closure in which Socrates will reiterate that the path of the lover of learning or philosopher as envisioned by Plato “achieves a calm from such emotions; it follows reason and ever stays with it contemplating the true, the divine, which is not the object of opinion. Nurtured by this, it believes that one should live in this manner as long [b] as one is alive and, after death, arrive at what is akin and of the same kind, and escape from human evils” (KL 2522-2524).

This is part two of three on the Phaedo…. (post one)

1. Plato; Cooper, John M.; Hutchinson, D. S. (2011-08-25). Complete Works (Kindle Locations 2254-2256). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.
2. Idealism: The History of a Philosophy. Dunham, Grant, Watson editors. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011)

The Phaedo: The Art of Dying

I am afraid that other people do not realize that the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.

Plato, Phaedo

In my pursuit of tracing down the battles of philosophy between the Parmedian (Idealist) and Democretian (Materialist) traditions there is probably no better place to start than with Plato’s great manifesto on the Art of Dying: the Phaedo.

Plato found the body disgusting and a detriment to the pursuit of reality and truth. His hatred of the senses and the physical realm of bodily pleasure is well known. It is this long shadow of Plato’s conceptions of reality and truth that still haunt philosophy like an insidious worm that gnaws at its entrails. His belief in an immortal soul that could be slowly purified of the senses and raised to know the truth is at the heart of this so called Art of Dying:

“There is likely to be something such as a path to guide us out of our confusion, because as long as we have a body and our soul is fused with such an evil we shall never adequately attain what we desire, which we affirm to be the truth.”1

This notion that the truth will never be attained through the senses is at the core of Plato’s dialogue in the Phaedo, along with the ensuing notion that there is a true art of philosophy and that Plato himself can teach it through the imaginative figure of his fictional Socrates. He will place a high price on this acetic practice of attaining truth through purity and against the body and all its desires: “if we are ever to have pure knowledge, [e] we must escape from the body and observe things-in-themselves with the soul by itself.”2 (One wonders if the old Kant was looking at this passage when he forever closed the door on things-in-themselves”; the noumenal realm? Closing us off in finitude, limited to intuition and the curse of the body, etc.)

Plato through the mouth of his figural Socrates on his deathbed will promote this practice of purification as the only possible way to truth: “[a]nd does purification not turn out to be what we mentioned in our argument some time ago, namely, to separate the soul as far as possible from the body and accustom it to gather itself and collect itself out of [d] every part of the body and to dwell by itself as far as it can both now and in the future, freed, as it were, from the bonds of the body?” This art of dying well is actually an apology for suicide, which is the point Socrates makes with his friends. The idea that it “is only those who practice philosophy in the right way, we say, who always most want to free the soul; and this release and separation of the soul from the body is the preoccupation of the philosophers?”4

The whole opening of the Phaedo is Socrates’s apology against resentment, against resenting dying and death; instead, for Socrates we should affirm death and dying as the ultimate goal of philosophy and wisdom: the purification of the mind in truth. Reading the Phaedo one gets the feeling that Plato is more of an Orphic Priest than a philosopher, and that his philosophy is not truly about understanding truth as it is a spiritual practice and path to purification and transcendence rather than philosophy as we’ve come to know it. Of course one can point to such books as Algis Uzdavinys’s Orpheus and the Roots of Platonism that affirm that as the central tenet of Plato’s program, etc., and that the Phaedo is the first manifesto of this new praxis: the Orphico-Pythagorean soteriological manifesto.5 As Uzdavinys reminds us, for Plato “the souls of pious philosophers (the knowers of Ideas, or Forms) are purified of the mortal body and thereby join the immortal gods” (76-77).

Plato’s Socrates will admit: “

Will then a true lover of wisdom, who has a similar hope and knows that he will never find it to any extent except in Hades, be resentful of dying and not gladly undertake the journey thither?6

At every point Plato will pit the “lover of wisdom” against the  “lover of the body” as if to have been born were itself the most heinous of crimes against the gods. Yet, this would also be false, because for Plato humans are and will remain slaves of the gods, subordinated to their hierarchical dictates.7 Against the lovers of body these lovers of wisdom will enact moderation, courage, and justice; and, most of all they will enact wisdom, which “itself is a kind of cleansing or purification”.8 Plato will even buy into the Orphic mythologies and their mystics, saying: “

It is likely that those who established the mystic rites for us were not inferior persons but were speaking in riddles long ago when they said that whoever arrives in the underworld uninitiated and unsanctified will wallow in the mire, whereas he who arrives there purified and initiated will dwell with the gods.9

 This opposition of the uninitiated and unsanctified “lovers of the body”, against the purified and initiated “lovers of wisdom” is central to his program attack on the Athenians of his day who killed or murdered Socrates. For the Phaedo above all things is a final tribute to his master, Socrates. A promissory note marking both goodbye and Plato’s own manifesto and stretching of his young wings toward his own projects.  

After the long defense and preamble of Socrates defending dying and death, initiation and the purification of the soul of the body his friend Cebes will tell him that it is all good and well but that most people will not get it, that most people will plainly disagree with Socrates and argue for the mortality of the soul along with the body rather than the immortal transcension of the soul into a realm of wisdom, saying, of the soul that

…after it has left the body it no longer exists anywhere, but that it is destroyed and dissolved on the day the man dies, as soon as it leaves the body; and that, on leaving it, it is dispersed like breath or smoke, has flown away and gone and is no longer anything anywhere.10

Socrates for his part will begin a discussion on causality (i.e., whence the emergence of humans, animals, plants, etc. in the world?) Everything that is or comes to be must come out of it’s opposite will be his starting point in the discussion. Old Socrates once again is shown to be a master of rhetoric and dialectic in these passages, as if he’d finally succumbed to the art of the Sophist and Dialectician, leading poor Cebes through a gallery of objects that arise out of their opposite, and coming to a final resolution of life arising out of death and vice versa:

What comes to be from being alive? Being dead.
And what comes to be from being dead?
One must agree that it is being alive.
Then, Cebes, living creatures and things come to be from the dead?11

Poor Cebes seems so befuddled at this point that his question seems more tentative as if he were in a state of utter confusion and was unsure if he had just been tricked by Socrates or not. Socrates, ever the rhetorician, outdoes all Sophists everywhere with his dialectical tricks. Yet, one wonders why he did not win his freedom from the Athenian judges? Or did he? Maybe the truth is that Plato’s Socrates always did want to be free in the Plato’s philosophical sense: of his own purification of the body and mind by way of death, etc. At least this is what Plato imagines for us. The actual Socrates of the body is gone beyond that strange shadow world forever. What remains is the fictions of Plato and others figural plays of rhetoric, pages filled with this mind that floats through time on the mind’s of those who have battled with such things: the philosophers.

In my next post I’ll take up the Phaedo again demarcating Plato’s emerging Theory of substantial forms or Ideas, etc.

1. Plato; Cooper, John M.; Hutchinson, D. S. (2011-08-25). Complete Works (Kindle Locations 2096-2098). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.
2. ibid. (KL 2104-2105).
3. ibid. (KL 2118-2120).
4. ibid. (KL 2123-2124).
5. Algis Uzdavinys. Orpheus and the Roots of Platonism. (Matheson Trust, 2011)
6. ibid. (KL 2134-2135).
7. ibid. (KL 2139)
8. ibid. (KL 2163-2164)
9. ibid. (KL 2164-2166).
10. ibid. (KL 2174-2176).
11. ibid. (KL 2219-2222).

Slavoj Zizek: On Hegel’s Identity of Opposites

The same goes for crime and the law, for the passage from crime as the distortion (negation) of the law to crime as sustaining the law itself, that is, to the idea of the law itself as universalized crime. One should note that, in this notion of the negation of negation, the encompassing unity of the two opposed terms is the “lowest,” “transgressive,” one: it is not crime which is a moment of law’s self-mediation (or theft which is a moment of property’s self-mediation); the opposition of crime and law is inherent to crime, law is a subspecies of crime, crime’s self-relating negation (in the same way that property is theft’s self-relating negation).

A Habermasian “normative” approach imposes itself here immediately: how can we talk about crime if we do not have a prior notion of a legal order violated by the criminal transgression? In other words, is not the notion of law as universalized/ self-negated crime ultimately self-destructive ? But this is precisely what a properly dialectical approach rejects: what is before transgression is just a neutral state of things, neither good nor bad (neither property nor theft, neither law nor crime); the balance of this state is then violated, and the positive norm (law, property) arises as a secondary move, an attempt to counteract and contain the transgression. In Martin Cruz Smith’s novel Havana Bay, set in Cuba , a visiting American gets caught up in a high nomenklatura plot against Fidel Castro, but then discovers that the plot was organized by Castro himself. 30 Castro is well aware of the growing discontent with his rule even in the top circle of functionaries around him, so every couple of years his most trusted agent starts to organize a plot to overthrow him in order to entrap the discontented functionaries; just before the plot is supposed to be enacted, they are all arrested and liquidated. Why does Castro do this? He knows that the discontent will eventually culminate in a plot to depose him, so he organizes the plot himself to flush out potential plotters and eliminate them. What if we imagine God doing something similar? In order to prevent a rebellion against His rule by His creatures, He Himself— masked as the Devil— sets a rebellion in motion so that He can control it and crush it. But is this mode of the “coincidence of the opposites” radical enough? No, for a very precise reason: because Castro-God functions as the unity of himself (his regime) and his opposite (his political opponents), basically playing a game with himself. One has to imagine the same process under the domination of the opposite pole, as in the kind of paranoiac scenario often used in popular literature and films. For example: when the internet becomes infected by a series of dangerous viruses, a big digital company saves the day by creating the ultimate anti-virus program. The twist, however, is that this same company had manufactured the dangerous viruses in the first place— and the program designed to fight them is itself the virus that enables the company to control the entire network. Here we have a more accurate narrative version of the Hegelian identity of opposites.

V for Vendetta deploys a political version of this same identity. The film takes place in the near future when Britain is ruled by a totalitarian party called Norsefire; the film’s main protagonists are a masked vigilante known as “V” and Adam Sutler, the country’s leader. Although V for Vendetta was praised (by none other than Toni Negri, among others) and, even more so, criticized for its “radical”— pro-terrorist, even— stance, it does not have the courage of its convictions: in particular, it shrinks from drawing the consequences of the parallels between V and Sutler. 31 The Norsefire party , we learn, is the instigator of the terrorism it is fighting against—but what about the further identity of Sutler and V? We never see either of their faces in the flesh (except the scared Sutler at the very end, when he is about to die): we see Sutler only on TV screens, and V is a specialist in manipulating the screen. Furthermore , V’s dead body is placed on a train with explosives, in a kind of Viking funeral strangely evoking the name of the ruling party: Norsefire. So when Evey— the young girl (played by Natalie Portman) who joins V— is imprisoned and tortured by V in order to learn to overcome her fear and be free, does this not parallel what Sutler does to the entire British population, terrorizing them so that they rebel? Since the model for V is Guy Fawkes (he wears a Guy mask), it is all the more strange that the film refuses to draw the obvious Chestertonian lesson of its own plot: that of the ultimate identity of V and Sutler. (There is a brief hint in this direction in the middle of the film, but it remains unexploited.) In other words, the missing scene in the film is the one in which, when Evey removes the mask from the dying V, we see Sutler’s face. How would we have to read this identity? Not in the sense of a totalitarian power manipulating its own opposition, playing a game with itself by creating its enemy and then destroying it, but in the opposite sense: in the unity of Sutler and V, V is the universal encompassing moment that contains both itself and Sutler as its two moments. Applying this logic to God himself, we are compelled to endorse the most radical reading of the Book of Job proposed in the 1930s by the Norwegian theologian Peter Wessel Zapffe, who accentuated Job’s “boundless perplexity” when God himself finally appears to him.

Expecting a sacred and pure God whose intellect is infinitely superior to ours, Job finds himself confronted with a world ruler of grotesque primitiveness, a cosmic cave-dweller, a braggart and blusterer, almost agreeable in his total ignorance of spiritual culture …

What is new for Job is not God’s greatness in quantifiable terms; that he knew fully in advance … what is new is the qualitative baseness. In other words, God— the God of the Real— is like the Lady in courtly love, He is das Ding, a capricious cruel master who simply has no sense of universal justice . God-the-Father thus quite literally does not know what He is doing, and Christ is the one who does know, but is reduced to an impotent compassionate observer, addressing his father with “Father, can’t you see I’m burning?”— burning together with all the victims of the father’s rage. Only by falling into His own creation and wandering around in it as an impassive observer can God perceive the horror of His creation and the fact that He, the highest Law-giver, is Himself the supreme Criminal. Since God-the-Demiurge is not so much evil as a stupid brute lacking all moral sensitivity, we should forgive Him because He does not know what He is doing. In the standard onto-theological vision, only the demiurge elevated above reality sees the entire picture, while the particular agents caught up in their struggles have only partial misleading insights. At the core of Christianity, we find a different vision— the demiurge is a brute, unaware of the horror he has created, and only when he enters his own creation and experiences it from within, as its inhabitant, can he see the nightmare he has fathered.

Slavoj  Zizek, (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 269-271).

Absolute Recoil: Slavoj Zizek and the Foundations of Dialectical Materialism

I’m finally reading Slavoj Žižek‘s new work Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism, and already found he’s entered a shooting gallery.  The first thing one realizes is that the work is not about dialectical materialism it is rather an introduction to it as a didactic education in its practice/praxis:

The present book is an attempt to contribute to this task by way of proposing a new foundation for dialectical materialism . We should read the term “dialectics” in the Greek sense of dialektika (like semeiotika or politika): not as a universal notion, but as “dialectical [semiotic, political] matters,” as an inconsistent (non-All) mixture. Which is why this book contains chapters in—not on—dialectical materialism: dialectical materialism is not the book’s topic; it is, rather, practiced within these pages.1

Oh sure, there will be much theory, but that is not the point of the book, rather it is the practice of dialectical materialism as praxis not theory. The basic thematic of the book is based on a term from Hegel absoluter Gegenstoss, which Hegel uses only once, but at a crucial point in his logic of reflection, to designate the speculative coincidence of opposites in the movement by which a thing emerges out of its own loss (Zizek, p. 1). He continues:

the present work endeavors to elevate the speculative notion of absolute recoil into a universal ontological principle. Its axiom is that dialectical materialism is the only true philosophical inheritor of what Hegel designates as the speculative attitude of the thought towards objectivity. All other forms of materialism, including the late Althusser’s “materialism of the encounter,” scientific naturalism , and neo-Deleuzian “New Materialism,” fail in this goal. The consequences of this axiom are systematically deployed in three steps: 1) the move from Kant’s transcendentalism to Hegel’s dialectics, that is, from transcendental “correlationism” (Quentin Meillassoux) to the thought of the Absolute; 2) dialectics proper: absolute reflection, coincidence of the opposites; 3) the Hegelian move beyond Hegel to the materialism of “less than nothing.” (ibid. 4)

 Zizek is not known for mincing words, no he intends on demolishing his critics with an iron fist; or, at least presenting his case as a form of carnival shooting gallery in which he discovers each pertinent target and begins slowly and methodically taking them down.

He will lay out the territory to be mapped, telling us that in Part I he will perform a critical analysis of two representative nontranscendental materialist theories of subjectivity (Althusser, Badiou). The second chapter deals with the transcendental dimension and describes the move from the Kantian transcendental subject to the Hegelian subject as the “disparity” in the heart of Substance. The third chapter provides an extended commentary on Hegel’s basic axiom according to which the Spirit itself heals the wounds it inflicts on nature. (ibid., pp. 4-5)

In Part II he will deal with the Hegelian Absolute. First, it describes the thoroughly evental nature of the Absolute which is nothing but the process of its own becoming. It then confronts the enigma of Hegelian Absolute Knowing: how should we interpret this notion with regard to the basic dialectical paradox of the negative relationship between being and knowing, of a being which depends on not-knowing? Finally, it considers the intricacies of the Hegelian notion of God. (ibid., p. 5)

And, finally, in Part III he will venture into an Hegelian expedition exploring the obscure terrain beyond Hegel. It begins by deploying the different, contradictory even, versions of the Hegelian negation of negation. It then passes to the crucial dialectical reversal of “there is no relationship” into “there is a non-relationship”— the passage which corresponds to the Hegelian move from dialectical to properly speculative Reason. The book concludes with some hypotheses about the different levels of antagonism that are constitutive of any order of being, delineating the basic contours of a renewed Hegelian “dentology” (the ontology of den, of “less than nothing”). (ibid. 5)

Yet, he will begin by clearing a path toward his new adventure. He will define his form of dialectical materialism against all the other forms of Materialisms that seem to be part of the contemporary Continental scene:

Materialism appears today in four main versions: 1) reductionist “vulgar” materialism (cognitivism, neo-Darwinism); 2) the new wave of atheism which aggressively denounces religion (Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.); 3) whatever remains of “discursive materialism” (Foucauldian analyses of discursive material practices); 4) Deleuzian “new materialism.” Consequently, we should not be afraid to look for true materialism in what cannot but appear as (a return to German) idealism —or, as Frank Ruda put it apropos Alain Badiou, true materialism is a “materialism without materialism” in which substantial “matter” disappears in a network of purely formal/ ideal relations. (ibid., p. 5)

What’s interesting to me is how he ties transhumanism, posthumanism, the NBIC and ICT technologies and sciences to Idealism:

Does not the biogenetic goal of reproducing humans scientifically through biogenetic procedures turn humanity into a self-made entity, thereby realizing Fichte’s speculative notion of a self-positing I? Today’s ultimate “infinite judgment” (coincidence of opposites) thus seems to be: absolute idealism is radical naturalist reductionism. …

…so-called [Russian] “bio-cosmism” enjoyed an extraordinary popularity— as a strange combination of vulgar materialism and Gnostic spirituality that formed the occult shadow-ideology, or obscene secret teaching, of Soviet Marxism. It is as if, today, “bio-cosmism” is reemerging in a new wave of “post-human” thought. (ibid., 6)

 In my earlier segements on Accelerationism I spoke of Benedict Singleton’s Accelerationist Cosmism of Nikolai Fedorov, which ties in much of the same territory. Yet, Zizek will put his own twist on this post-human turn telling us we should not reduce this “post-human” stance to the paradigmatically modern belief in the possibility of total technological domination over nature—what we are witnessing today is an exemplary dialectical reversal: the slogan of today’s “post-human” sciences is no longer domination but surprise (contingent, non-planned emergence). (ibid., p. 7) He’ll quote Jean-Pierre Dupuy who detects a weird reversal of the traditional Cartesian anthropocentric arrogance which grounded human technology, a reversal clearly discernible in today’s robotics, genetics, nanotechnology, artificial life and Artificial Intelligence research:

how are we to explain the fact that science became such a “risky” activity that, according to some top scientists, it poses today the principal threat to the survival of humanity? Some philosophers reply to this question by saying that Descartes ’ dream—“ to become master and possessor of nature”— has turned out bad, and that we should urgently return to the “mastery of mastery.” They understand nothing. They don’t see that the technology profiling itself at our horizon through the “convergence” of all disciplines aims precisely at non-mastery. The engineer of tomorrow will not be a sorcerer’s apprentice because of his negligence or ignorance, but by choice. He will “give” himself complex structures or organizations and will try to learn what they are capable of by exploring their functional properties— an ascending, bottom-up, approach. He will be an explorer and experimenter at least as much as an executor. The measure of his success will be more the extent to which his own creations will surprise him than the conformity of his realization to a list of pre-established tasks. (ibid., p. 7)

 Zizek will attack such luminaries as Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett for their supposed New Materialism, which he sees as a neo-vitalism; or, as Fredric Jameson will claim, that Deleuzianism is today the predominant form of idealism: as did Deleuze, New Materialism relies on the implicit equation: matter = life = stream of agential self-awareness— no wonder New Materialism is often characterized as “weak panpsychism” or “terrestrial animism.” (ibid., p. 8) Against this he will champion traditional forms of sciences, saying that what science distils as “objective reality” is becoming more and more an abstract formal structure relying on complex scientific and experimental work. Does this mean, however, that scientific “objective reality” is just a subjective abstraction ? Not at all, since it is here that one should mobilize the distinction between (experienced) reality and the Real. (ibid., 10) So that reality (empirical actual) will be pitted against the Real (abstract model or mathematical mappings, etc.). Ultimately he will tell us that the move that defines New Materialism should be opposed to the properly Hegelian dialectical-materialist overcoming of the transcendental dimension or the gap that separates subject from object: New Materialism covers up this gap, reinscribing subjective agency into natural reality as its immanent agential principle, while dialectical materialism transposes back into nature not subjectivity as such but the very gap that separates subjectivity from objective reality. (ibid., 12)

I’m going to stop here. The rest of his introduction will lay out arguments with Hegelians such as Robert Pippin and others who Zizek will point by point argue that these philosophers have all misprisioned or misread his ideas, notions, works, etc. As usual one will need to work through the dialectical reasoning of his specific arguments, return them to his previous works, tally the count of pros and cons, etc. Generally when reading Zizek one is overhearing a thinker think, listening in on a continuing monologue that he is having with himself rather than a discourse with a reader (think of Robert Browning). Zizek is our modern or postmodern or? – Hamlet always disagreeing even with himself, and surprising himself. Quoting others where their thoughts agree, disagree. Practicing dialectical materialism rather than discoursing on it.

In the final section of the Intro he will show the difference between true and false Masters, using Steve Jobs vs. Hitler or Stalin:

When asked how much research Apple undertakes into what its customers want, he [Steve Jobs] snapped back: “None. It’s not the customers’ job to know what they want … we figure out what we want.”  Note the surprising turn of this argumentation: after denying that customers know what they want, Jobs does not go on with the expected direct reversal “it is our task (the task of creative capitalists) to figure out what they want and then ‘show it to them’ on the market.” Instead, he says: “we figure out what we want”— this is how a true Master works: he does not try to guess what people want; he simply obeys his own desire and leaves it up to others to decide if they want to follow him. In other words , his power stems from his fidelity to his desire, from refusing to compromise on it. Therein lies the difference between a true Master and, say, the fascist or Stalinist leader who pretends to know (better than the people themselves) what people really want (what is really good for them), and is then ready to enforce it on them even against their will. (ibid. 46)

Yet, he will ask: Why do we need Masters anyway? The obvious question to be raised here is: why does a subject need a Master to assume his or her freedom? Does not such an assumption amount to a kind of pragmatic paradox wherein the very form (a Master gives me freedom) undermines the content (my freedom)? Should we not rather follow the well-known motto of all emancipatory movements: freedom cannot be handed down to us by a benevolent master but has to be won through hard struggle? (ibid. 48)

Where he tells us that the Master’s “power stems from his fidelity to his desire, from refusing to compromise on it” (ibid. 48), one should realize that this is what we should all do: regain our own power, freedom and fidelity to desire, and not compromise it by accepting false gifts and promises from the false Master’s of the global economy. And, the struggle? The struggle is to regain that very freedom from (the globalist agenda) and too our own desires for a life beyond all such global agendas of elites, masters, etc. The first step in this task according to Zizek is to understand the praxis of dialectical materialism.  

(note: I’ll come back to this work after I finish it and take notes and let it digest with a reading of some of his earlier and later works.)


1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 6-7). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

Posthuman Economics: The Empire of Capital

Maybe what haunts posthumanism is not technology but utopian capitalism, the dark silences long repressed, excluded, disavowed, and negated within the Empire of Capital.  Franco Berardi’s The Uprising grabs the history of art and capital by the horns as the slow and methodical implementation of the Idealist program. By this he means the dereferentialization of reality – or what we term now the semioitization of reality: the total annihilation of any connection between signifier and signified, word and thing, mind and world. Instead we live in a world structured by fantasy that over time has dematerialized reality.

In economics it was Richard Nixon (1972) who cut the link between financial capital and its referent, the gold standard which subtly dematerialized monetarism of the neoliberal era. This slow vanishing act of reality into its digital matrix has in our time become so naturalized that we have forgotten how much our lives are enmeshed in fictions divorced from even the illusion of reality. As Berardi will put it:

The premise of neoliberal dogmatism is the reduction of social life to the mathematical implications of financial algorithms. What is good for finance must be good for society, and if society does not accept this identification and submission, then that means that society is incompetent, and needs to be redressed by some technical authority.1

He speaks of the moment when the newly elected Greek President Papandreou actually had the audacity to question the EU’s austerity program and was summarily ousted by the new entity, The Markets, and replaced with a consultant from Goldman-Sachs. He asks calmly, What is this blind god, the Markets?

Markets are the visible manifestation of the inmost mathematical interfunctionality of algorithms embedded in the techno-linguistic machine: they utter sentences that change the destiny of the living body of society, destroy resources, and swallow the energies of the collective body like a draining pump. (Berardi, 32)

In this sense we are already being run by the machinic systems of math and computation at the core of our economic system. As he tells it the humans behind the system are not fascists, yet they allow society to be enslaved by a mathematical system of economics and financialization, which is clean, smooth, perfect, and efficient. The financial orthodoxy would have you believe that all things should act efficiently. Like all orthodoxies it offers comfort and guidance, but, as orthodoxies do, it also has the power to wound those who cannot follow its dogmas or who resist its rituals of conformity. It is technological because it has primarily to do with making things work, and it is particularly apparent in the contemporary emphasis on quantifiable productivity and associated fears of waste, especially the waste of time.2

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi once developed his theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.3 Thinking of flow and efficiency one discovers the key is the concept of flow-of information or of goods, for example-and the role of efficiency in preventing disruptions. This suggests that beneath the zeal for efficiency lies the desire to control a changing world, to keep an optimal and peak level of flow going at all times in society and combatting and preventing anything that might disrupt that flow.

In Berardi’s mathematization of society we’re no longer consumers and users, but have instead become as Bruce Sterling tells us in The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Thingsparticipants under machine surveillance, whose activities are algorithmically combined within Big Data silos” (Sterling, KL 30). So that in this sense we are no longer embodied humans, but are instead bits of data floating among the wired worlds of our digital economy. But a fascinating aspect of the Internet of things is that the giants who control the major thrust within its reaches Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple or Microsoft could care less about efficiency. No. They in fact don’t bother to “compete” with each other because their real strategy is to “disrupt”. Rather than “competing” – becoming more efficient at doing something specific – “disruption” involves a public proof that the rival shouldn’t even exist.(Sterling, KL 212-216)

The basic order of the economic day is coded in the language of noir dime novels. “Knifing the baby” means deliberately appropriating the work of start-ups before they can become profitable businesses. “Stealing the oxygen” means seeing to it that markets don’t even exist – that no cash exchanges hands, while that formerly profitable activity is carried out on a computer you control. (Sterling, KL 224)

Yet, underneath all the glitter and glitz is the hard truth of reality. If the Internet of things is a neo-feudal empire of tyrant corporations disrupting the flows of efficient commerce in a bid to attain greater and greater power and influence, then the world of austerity and nation states outside the wires is preparing for the barbarians. As Berardi relates it outside the cold steel wires of financial digi-tyranny we can already see the violent underbelly of the old physical body of the social raising its reactionary head: nation, race, ethnic cleansing, and religious fundamentalism are running rampant around the globe. While the digital-elite pirate away the world of finance the forgotten citizenry outside the digital fortress are preparing for war in the streets: despair, suicide, and annihilation living in the austerity vacuum of a bloated world of wires.

Maybe Yeats wrote his poem The Second Coming for our century:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

1. Franco “Bifo” Berardi. The Uprising. (Semiotext(e), 2012)
2. Jennifer Karns Alexander. The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control (Kindle Locations 29-32). Kindle Edition
3. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2008-08-18). Flow (P.S.) (Kindle Locations 214-216). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

 

Zizek & Deleuze: On Desire

Of late I’ve been tracing down the two forms of desire that interplay through much of the past two-hundred years in discourse. I was rereading Zizek who is a student and epigone of Lacan/Hegel who both conceived desire as lack, while Deleuze on the other hand conceived desire as fully positive. I had discovered in Nick Land’s works this same sense of desire as in Deleuze. There is this undercurrent of philosophers that seem to battle between these conceptions of desire as if it were a central trope and mask for aspects of drive and energy that those following the transcendental Idealists despise with a passion. I’m just taking a few notes here and there as I trace this strange battle of the philosophers over conceptions of desire. It seems important.

 Below is a quote from Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences by Slavoj Zizek:

…Deleuze insists that desire has no object (whose lack would trigger and sustain its movement): desire is “a purely virtual ‘movement’ that has always reached its destination, whose moving is itself its own destination.” This is the thrust of Deleuze’s reading of masochism and courtly love— in both cases, not logic of sacrifice, but how to sustain the desire … According to the standard reading of masochism, the masochist, like everyone, also looks for pleasure; his problem is that, because of the internalized superego, he has to pay for his access to pleasure with the pain, to pacify the oppressive agency which finds pleasure intolerable. For Deleuze, on the contrary, the masochist chooses pain in order to

dissolve the pseudo-link of desire with pleasure as its extrinsic measure. Pleasure is in no way something that can only be reached via the detour of pain, but that which has to be delayed to the maximum since it is something which interrupts the continuous process of the positive desire. There is an immanent joy of desire, as if desire fills itself with itself and its contemplations, and which does not imply any lack, any impossibility.

And the same goes for courtly love : its eternal postponement of fulfilment does not obey a law of lack or an ideal of transcendence: here also, it signals a desire which lacks nothing, since it finds its fulfilment in itself, in its own immanence; every pleasure is, on the contrary, already a re-territorialization of the free flux of desire.

Of course Zizek goes ballistic at Deleuze’s insistence on the notion that desire lacks nothing… Zizek being a faithful child of Hegel gets exasperated and wants to say, ah ha, I got you Deleuze when he says:

Therein resides the ultimate irony of Deleuze’s critique of Hegel: when, against Hegel, Deleuze claims that creation “is immediately creative; there is no transcendent or negating subject of creation that might need time in order to become conscious of itself or otherwise catch up with itself,”  he thereby imputes to Hegel a substantialization-reification which is not there and, in this way, obliterates precisely that dimension in Hegel which is the closest to Deleuze himself. Hegel repeatedly insists that Spirit is “a product of itself”: it is not a pre-existing Subject intervening into objectivity, sublating-mediating it, but the result of its own movement, i.e., pure processuality. As such, it does not need time to “catch up with itself,” but simply to generate itself. (ibid, KL 169)

What’s truly ironic is that for Hegel ‘Spirit’ is a mask for desire, so that it is Zizek not Deleuze who is bound to a misprisioning of Hegel and Deleuze both. Zizek has a fetish for the self-reflecting nothingness at the center of his own empty being: what he calls subjectivity. He could not find desire there so he has been chasing after it through all the worlds of philosophy, film, art, trash, culture, Lacan, Hegel… will he find it? All he need do is give up his love of nothingness. But that’s the key he desires less than nothing so will continue to revolve in his own black hole of non-being.

Yet, if we remember from his opus Less Than Nothing the basic theme was on desire:

This book tries to demonstrate that the Freudian drive cannot be reduced to what Buddhism denounces as desire or to what Heidegger denounces as the Will: even after we reach the end of this critical overcoming of desire-will-subjectivity, something continues to move. What survives death is the Holy Spirit sustained by an obscene “partial object” that stands for the indestructible drive. One should thus (also) invert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of how we relate to the proximity of death in the Kierkegaardian sense of the “sickness unto death,” as the series of five attitudes towards the unbearable fact of immortality. One first denies it: “What immortality? After my death, I will just dissolve into dust!” Then, one explodes into anger: “What a terrible predicament I’m in! No way out !” One continues to bargain: “OK, but it is not me who is immortal, only the undead part of me, so one can live with it …” Then one falls into depression: “What can I do with myself when I am condemned to stay here forever?” Finally, one accepts the burden of immortality.2

And, of course, one realizes that Zizek is being beyond ironic in such statements since he is a purist of atheists. Zizek is after that “something continues to move”. The burden of life and immortality for Zizek is to be condemned to this life forever, to repeat it ad infinitum like Kafka’s surveyor in The Castle he is condemned to a novel that will never end because the author left the stage before it was completed. An irony too sweet to be missed: one can also conceive desire as a mode of avoiding the circularity of the drive: the self-enclosed rotary movement is recast as a repeated failure to reach a transcendent object which always eludes its grasp (Zizek, KL 5319). This is Zizek’s desire as lack. A sort of hell where one is condemned like Dante’s lovers to whirl in the winds of infinity just out of reach of each other, condemned to an eternity of longing that can never be fulfilled.

Deleuze will offer his own view on desire in which he will point out that desire always flows from within an assemblage. To desire is to construct and assemblage, to construct and aggregate – a dress, a sun ray, a woman or assemblage of a woman, a vista, a color, etc. To be abstract about it: desire is a constructivism. Everytime someone says they desire something, they first of all desire to construct an assemblage, to shape their desire around a mileu:

 

In the video he goes on to speak of the three points he and Felix Guattari had in disagreement with classic forms of psychoanalysis:

1) they were persuaded with the notion that the unconscious is not a theatre, a place where Hamlet and Oedipus continually play out their scenes. It’s not a theatre but a factory, a production… the unconscious produces, continuously produces… ;

2) the theme of delirium, which is closely linked to desire… to desire is to become delirious… it is opposite to what psychoanalysts discuss – it’s not about the father and mother… the great secret of delirium is that we desire about the whole world… one desires about history, geography, tribes, deserts, people, climates, etc. … it’s not about family, its about tribes and milieu, about one’s place within these…the determinants.

3) desire always constructs assemblages and establishes itself in assemblages, always putting several factors into play, while psychoanalysis is just the opposites and reduces the factors to a single factor: the father, the mother, etc.  While assemblages are a multiplicity, psychoanalysis is a reduction to the one. 

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-05-04). Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (Routledge Classics) (Kindle Locations 156-169). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 313-321). Norton. Kindle Edition.

David Roden’s: Speculative Posthumanism & the Future of Humanity (Part 4)

Again I take up from my previous post David Roden’s Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. In Chapter Three Dr. Roden would tell us that pragmatism elaborates transcendental humanism plausibly, and that because of that we need to consider its implications for posthuman possibility. In Chapter Four he will elaborate on that by defining pragmatisms notion of language as a matrix  “in which we cooperatively form and revise reasons”, and he will term this the “discursive agency thesis (DAT)” (Roden, KL 1402).1 The basic premise here is simple: that any entity that lacks the capacity for language cannot be an agent. The pragmatist will define discursive agency as requiring certain attributes that will delimit the perimeters of what an agent is:

1) An agent is a being that acts for reasons.
2) To act for reasons an agent must have desires or intentions to act.
3) An agent cannot have desires or intentions without beliefs.
4) The ability to have beliefs requires a grasp of what belief is since to believe is also to understand “the possibility of being mistaken” (metacognitive claim).
5) A grasp of the possibility of being mistaken is only possible for language users (linguistic constitutivity). (Roden, KL 1407-1413)

As we study this list of agency we see a progression from acting for specific reasons, desires, intentions, beliefs to the need for self-reflection and language to grasp these objects in the mind. We’ve seen most of this before in other forms across the centuries as philosophers debated Mind and Consciousness. For philosophers, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists, the words are used in a way that is both more precise and more mundane: they refer to the familiar, everyday experience of having a “thought in your head”, like a perception, a dream, an intention or a plan, and to the way we know something, or mean something or understand something. “It’s not hard to give a commonsense definition of consciousness” observes philosopher John Searle. What is mysterious and fascinating is not so much what it is but how it is: how does a lump of fatty tissue and electricity give rise to this (familiar) experience of perceiving, meaning or thinking?

Philosophers call this the hard problem of consciousness. It is the latest version of a classic problem in the philosophy of mind called the “mind-body problem.” A related problem is the problem of meaning or understanding (which philosophers call “intentionality”): what is the connection between our thoughts and what we are thinking about (i.e. objects and situations out in the world)? A third issue is the problem of experience (or “phenomenology”): If two people see the same thing, do they have the same experience? Or are there things “inside their head” (called “qualia”) that can be different from person to person?

Neurobiologists believe all these problems will be solved as we begin to identify the neural correlates of consciousness: the actual relationship between the machinery in our heads and its collective properties; such as the mind, experience and understanding. Some of the harshest critics of artificial intelligence agree that the brain is just a machine, and that consciousness and intelligence are the result of physical processes in the brain. The difficult philosophical question is this: can a computer program, running on a digital machine that shuffles the binary digits of zero and one, duplicate the ability of the neurons to create minds, with mental states (like understanding or perceiving), and ultimately, the experience of consciousness?

But I get ahead of myself for Dr. Roden begins first analyzing the notions of Analytical philosophy in which “propositional attitudes” or what we term items in the mind: psychological states such as beliefs, desires and intentions (along with hopes, wishes, suppositions, etc.) are part and partial of our linguistic universe of sentences that describe the “that” clause. (Roden, KL 1416) Discussing this he will take up the work of Davidson, Husserl and Heidegger.

Now we know that for Husserl phenomenology is transcendental because it premises its accounts of phenomenon on the primacy of intentionality with respect both to reason and sense. So that Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology begins and ends by a ‘reduction’ of phenomena to its ‘intentional objects’ or the ‘ideal object’ intended by a consciousness.2 

For Roden the conflict is not about intentionality (which he seems to accept) but is more about our cognition and understanding of differing “positions regarding commonly identified objects”: “That is to say, our challenge to the metacognitive claim does not show that advanced posthumans with florid agency powers would not need to understand what it is to be mistaken by being able to using the common coin of sentences.” (Roden, KL 1805-08) He will even suggest that the fact that humans can notice that they have forgotten things, evince surprise, or attend to suddenly salient information (as with the ticking clock that is noticed only when it stops) implies anecdotally that our brains must have mechanisms for representing and evaluating (hence “metacognizing”) their states of knowledge and ignorance. (Roden, KL 1815)

What’s more interesting in the above sentence is how it ties in nicely with R. Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory:

“Intentional cognition is real, there’s just nothing intrinsically intentional about it. It consists of a number of powerful heuristic systems that allows us to predict/explain/manipulate in a variety of problem-ecologies despite the absence of causal information. The philosopher’s mistake is to try to solve intentional cognition via those self-same heuristic systems, to engage in theoretical problem solving using systems adapted to solve practical, everyday problem – even though thousands of years of underdetermination pretty clearly shows the nature of intentional cognition is not among the things that intentional cognition can solve!” (see here)

 This seems to be the quandary facing Roden as he delves into both certain philosophers and scientists who base their theories and practices on intentionality, which is at the base of phenomenological philosophy both Analytical and Continental varieties. Yet, this is exactly his point later in the chapter after he has discussed certain aspects of elminativist theoretic of Paul Churchland and others: evidence for non-language-mediated metacognition implies that we should be dubious of the claim that language is constitutive of sophisticated cognition and thus – by extension – agency (Roden, KL 1893). He will conclude that even if metacognition is necessary for sophisticated thought, this may not involve trafficking in sentences. Thus we lack persuasive a priori grounds for supposing that posthumans would have to be subjects of discourse (Roden, 1896).

I think we’ll stop here for today. In section 4.2 he will take up the naturalization of phenomenology and the rejection of transcendental constraints. I’ll take that up in my next post.

1. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. Jeremy Dunham, Iain Hamilton Grant, Sean Watson. Idealism: The History of a Philosophy (MQUP, 2011)

Deleuze & Guattari: Process, Virtuality, and Multiplicity

What the schizophrenic experiences, both as an individual and as a member of the human species, is not at all any one specific aspect of nature, but nature as a process of production.

– Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Deleuze and Guattari ask in response to the quote above: What do we mean here by process? “For the real truth of the matter – the glaring, sober truth that resides in delirium – is that there is no such thing as relatively independent spheres or circuits: production is immediately consumption and a recording process without any sort of mediation, and the recording process and consumption directly determine production” (4).1 This notion that recording and consumption are immanent to production itself is the first meaning of process, and to this belongs the production of the “subject” that is produced immanently by a recording that qualifies itself as the recording it consumes.

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The Rise of the Machines: Brandom, Negarestani, and Bakker

Modern technological society constitutes a vast, species-wide attempt to become more mechanical, more efficiently integrated in nested levels of superordinate machinery.

– R. Scott Bakker, The Blind Mechanic

Ants that encounter in their path a dead philosopher may make good use of him.

– Stanislaw Lem, His Master’s Voice 

We can imagine in some near future my friend R. Scott Bakker will be brought to trial before a tribunal of philosophers he has for so long sung his jeremiads on ignorance and blindness; or as he puts it ‘medial neglect’ (i.e., “Medial neglect simply means the brain cannot cognize itself as a brain”). One need only remember that old nabi of the desert Jeremiah and God’s prognostications: Attack you they will, overcome you they can’t… And, like Jeremiah, these philosophers will attack him from every philosophical angle but will be unable to overcome his scientific tenacity.

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Thomas Nagel: Idealism and the Theological Turn in the Sciences

The view that rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order makes me, in a broad sense, an idealist— not a subjective idealist, since it doesn’t amount to the claim that all reality is ultimately appearance— but an objective idealist in the tradition of Plato and perhaps also of certain post-Kantians, such as Schelling and Hegel, who are usually called absolute idealists. I suspect that there must be a strain of this kind of idealism in every theoretical scientist: pure empiricism is not enough.

– Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos

Now we know the truth of it, and why Thomas Nagel has such an apparent agenda to ridicule and topple the materialist world view that he seems to see as the main enemy of his own brand of neutral monism: a realist of the Idea, whether one call it mind or matter – it’s neutral. What’s sad is his attack on scientific naturalism and its traditions even comes to the point where he offers the conclusion that even religion upholds a more appropriate view of reality than the naturalist:

A theistic account has the advantage over a reductive naturalistic one that it admits the reality of more of what is so evidently the case, and tries to explain it all. But even if theism is filled out with the doctrines of a particular religion (which will not be accessible to evidence and reason alone), it offers a very partial explanation of our place in the world.(25)

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The Rise of Science and the Mathematization of Reality: Competing Views

It [Mathematics] did not, as they supposed, correspond to an objective structure of reality; it was a method and not a body of truths; with its help we could plot regularities—the occurrence of phenomena in the external world—but not discover why they occurred as they did, or to what end.

– Isaiah Berlin, from an entry in Dictionary of the History of Ideas – The Counter-Enlightenment

Isaiah Berlin in his entry on what he termed the “counter-Enlightenment” tells us that opposition “…to the central ideas of the French Enlightenment, and of its allies and disciples in other European countries, is as old as the movement itself”. 1 The common elements that these reactionary writers opposed in the Enlightenment project were notions of autonomy of the individual, empiricism and scientific methodology, its rejection of authority and tradition, religion, and any transcendent notions of knowledge based on faith rather than Reason. Berlin himself places Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and his Scienza nuova (1725; radically altered 1731) as playing a “decisive role in this counter-movement”. He specifically uses the term “counter-movement” rather than the appellation “counter-Enlightenment”.

I’ve been following – – blog Persistent Enlightenment, and one of the interesting threads or series of posts on his site deals with the concept of “Counter-Enlightenment,” a term coined by none other that Isaiah Berlin in the early 50’s (see his latest summation: here). I believe that he correct in his tracing of this concept and its history and use in scholarship. Yet, for myself, beyond tracing this notion through many different scholars I’ve begun rethinking some of the actual history of this period and of the different reactions to the Enlightenment project itself as well as the whole tradition of the sciences. One really needs to realize the Enlightenment itself is the culmination of a process that started centuries before with the emergence of the sciences.

Stephen Gaukroger’s encyclopedic assessment of the sciences and their impact on the shaping of modernity has been key in much of my own thinking concerning the history and emergence of the sciences as well as the understanding of the underpinnings of the mechanistic world view that informs it in this early period. One of the threads in that work is the battle between those traditionalist scholars of what we now term the “humanities” who seek to protect human learning – the study of ancient literature along with philosophy, history, poetry, oratory, etc. – as Gaukroger says, “as an intrinsic part of any form of knowledge of the world and our place in it” (1).1  He mentions Gibbon’s remark that during his time that the study of physics and mathematics has overtaken the study of belles lettres as the “pre-eminent form of learning” (1). In our own time this notion that philosophy and the humanities are non-essential to the needs of modern liberal democracies has taken on a slight edge as well.

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

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

– Georges Canguilhem, Knowledge of Life

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

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

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Philosophical Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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Ian Hacking: What are scientists doing in the world?

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

Ian Hacking, Representing and Intervening

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

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

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Idealism/Materialism: Is this dichotomy obsolete?

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

dmf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N. Katherine Hayles,  How We Became Posthuman

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

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

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

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Theories of the Subject

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

Stanislaw Lem, Summa Technologie once quipped of Science

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

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

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

Is a person a being that has intentions?

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Franz Brentano: The Intentionality Thesis

Every psychic phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called intentional (also indeed mental) in-existence of an object, and which we, although not with an entirely unambiguous expression, will call the relation to a content, the direction toward an object (by which here a reality is not understood), or an immanent objectivity. Every [psychic phenomenon] contains something as an object within itself, though not every one in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgment something acknowledged or rejected, in love loved , in hate hated, in desire desired, and so on.

Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint

This famously over quoted statement describes the basic thrust of Brentano’s Intentionality Thesis. The intentionality thesis harbors within it Brentano’s prospects for understanding the foundations of thought itself. He held to the notion that any  intentionalist metaphysics of mind would be distinguished by its acceptance of psychological from nonpsychological or extrapsychological phenomena. Brentano proposes to apply the concept of intentionality, which he significantly describes as “the mark of the mental” in a unidirectional way of thought to its intended object.

One of those aspects of his thought revolved around a specific form of the intentional thought he termed “intentional in-existence,” which many have seen as a form of epistemic idealism. What, however, does intentional in-existence mean? What did Brentano intend by the concept of immanent intentionality? The doctrine has been the least popular of his theories in philosophical psychology, and the cause of the greatest and most productive dissent among his students and followers. The majority of later Brentanians have agreed that thought is intentional, but denied that thought is immanently intentional or that its intended objects are intentionally in-existent. And for good reason. The implications of immanent intentionality or intentional in-existence are far-reaching and mostly counterintuitive. If the intended objects are somehow internal to the thoughts by which they are intended, then it appears that no two persons can ever possibly think about precisely the same thing. This is problematic to say the least. It is unclear in that case how thoughts can ever reach beyond their own internal states in order to contact or make reference to entities in the external world, to avoid what Brentano himself referred to as a kind of epistemic idealism, “the mad dance with ideas.”1

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Franz Brentano: The Age of Intentionalism

One of the most important innovations is that I am no longer of the opinion that mental relation can have something other than a thing [Reales] as its object. In order to justify this new point of view, I had to explore entirely new questions, for example I had to go into the investigation of the modes of presentation.

Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint

The recursive nature of the mind goes back as far a Kant (1787) who spoke explicitly of ‘inner sense,’ and Locke (1690) defined consciousness as the ‘perception of what passes in a man’s mind.’ Brentano (controversially) interpreted Aristotle’s enigmatic and terse discussion of “seeing that one sees” in De Anima III.2 as an anticipation of his own ‘inner perception’ view.

In some ways the Age of Intentionalism is coming to an end. We’ve been skirting around this issue for some time now but have yet to meet it on its own terms. If we are moving toward a post-Intentional view of the Mind then we should be reminded once again of Wilfred Sellars admonition:

Once again, as so often in the history of philosophy, there is a danger that a position will be abandoned before the reasons for its inadequacy are fully understood, with the twin results that: (a) it will not be noticed that its successor, to all appearances a direct contrary, shares some of its mistakes; (b) the truths contained in the old position will be cast aside with its errors. The almost inevitable result of these stampedes has been the ‘swing of the pendulum’ character of philosophical thought; the partial truth of the old position reasserts itself in the long run and brings the rest of the tangle with it.

– Wilfred Sellars, Phenomenalism

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Ralph Waldo Emerson: On Comedy and the Comic

The secular art of homily like its cousin served Emerson well, he was able to find that fine line between conversational prose and the scholarly rhythms of the street. He gave us behind the façade of a formalist essay the honesty of a man thinking. Much of his life and thought drifted between Society and Solitude, the give and take of a life lived in the midst of others, and the marginal worlds that fly beyond the edges of our solitary lives amid a vast ocean of stars. Some see Emerson as some old fuddy duddy, a serious if not overpowering rhetorician of the transcendentalist movement. Yet there is another Emerson, the comic or humorist of thought who instead of wandering away from society entered its contours and byways, alleys and thoroughfares, its civic centers and its radical trade centers where he study men and women in the midst of their everyday lives. He’d studied his Aristotle, too:

Aristotle’s definition of the ridiculous is, ” what is out of time and place, without danger.” If there be pain and danger, it becomes tragic; if not, comic. I confess, this definition, though by an admirable definer, does not satisfy me, does not say all we know.

The essence of all jokes, of all comedy, seems to be an honest or well-intended halfness; a non-performance of what is pretended to be performed, at the same time that one is giving loud pledges of performance. The balking of the intellect, the frustrated expectation, the break of continuity in the intellect, is comedy ; and it announces itself physically in the pleasant spasms we call laughter. With the trifling exception of the stratagems of a few beasts and birds, there is no seeming, no half-ness in nature, until the appearance of man. Unconscious creatures do the whole will of wisdom. An oak or a chestnut undertakes a function it can not execute; or if there be phenomena in botany which we call abortions, the abortion is also a function of nature, and assumes to the intellect the like completeness with the further function to which in different circumstances it had attained. The same rule holds true of the animals. Their activity is marked by unerring good-sense. But man, through his access to Reason, is capable of the perception of a whole and a part. Reason is the whole, and whatsoever is not that is a part. The whole of nature is agreeable to the whole of thought, or to the Reason; but separate any part of nature and attempt to look at it as a whole by itself, and the feeling of the ridiculous begins. The perpetual game of humor is to look with considerate good nature at every object in existence, aloof as a man might look at a mouse, comparing it with the eternal Whole; enjoying the figure which each self-satisfied particular creature cuts in the unrespecting All, and dismissing it with a derisive smile. Separate any object, as a particular bodily man, a horse, a turnip, a flour-barrel, an umbrella, from the connection of things, and contemplate it alone, standing there in absolute nature, it becomes at once comic; no useful, no respectable qualities can rescue it from the ludicrous.

– from The Comic

Was this the first critique of Speculative Realism, and of OOO in particular? Or is this a comic hilarity of objects overmined and undermined by a transcendentalist poseur? Emerson as speculator of relations, what comes next?

1. Thoreau, Henry David; Ralph Waldo Emerson (2008-01-01). The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson & Henry David Thoreau (The Complete Works of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson) (Kindle Locations 11071-11073). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

Peter Gratton: On Meillasoux’s Speculative Politics

Peter Gratton of Philosophy in a Time of Error fame has a paper up on Analecta:  Meillassoux’s Speculative Poltics: Time and Divinity to Come (.pdf). I’ve admired Peter’s posts for a while now, but haven’t read much of his published work. Not sure why that. Be that as it may, this is a superb reading of Meillassoux’s work. I’ll be purchasing Peter’s new books as well: The State of Sovereignty and one that should be out soon Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects.

I noticed right off the bat that he hits quickly in pointing out a discrepancy in Meillassoux’s argument for ‘contingency’ in moving from the singular to the universal in a sleight-of-hand way that if one were not a careful reader one might step over without ever realizing that one had just been hoodwinked:

Meillassoux provides no warrant for moving from “the only veritable” absolute (note the singular) to “everything” (note the universal) from one page to the next, even if we take this absolute contingency to be part of what “everything” would be. In other words, as far as we can tell, he only proves what the correlationist has already known: that thinking did not need to be and that, yes, it is absolutely true. This only changes things if one depicts the correlationists as denying all reality as such, which probably was not the case.(4)

Another thing Peter points out is that Meillassoux purports to term his project a speculative materialism, but that it relies on the incorporeal and immaterial for its justification. What he means by this is that Meillassoux affirms creation ex nihilo: “there is no necessary being, yet there is a hyper-chaos that is “eternal” and beyond the dictates of physical time: “Time is not governed by the physical laws because it is the law themselves which are governed by a mad time.” What is interesting about this Time as creator is that it is not a part of process or becoming, but is in fact static time and the creator of becoming and process. Ultimately this contingent unfounded conception of creation out of nothing, ex hihilo, leads to Meillassoux’s notion of divine inexistence. This remarks Gratton, states that “if there is no necessary being, then there is nothing subtending the world. And his rejection of the principle of sufficient reason means that he has arrived at what he calls an “irreligious” conception of creation, not just of the world, but of events taking place within this world: “Advent [surgissement] ex nihilo thus presents itself as the concept par excellence of a world without God, and for that very reason it allows us to produce an irreligious notion of the origin of pure novelty.”(5)

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Beyond Representation: Plato, Deleuze and the Simulacra

Reason is the black widow in the cage of time. Spiderlike sufficient reason allows nothing to escape its dark power. Even the infinite cannot escape the grasp of this deadly creature, the venomous touch of reason kills everything within its purview, and like its dark precursor dissolves even the smallest elements into the acid bath of its formidable categories: identity, difference, doubling, and reflection. Representation is the disease of time, the cracked wand of a dead wizard whose power is dispersed among the broken vessels of light scattered to the four corners of the universe. Like ministers to a dead god our philosophers and scientists serve a Master illusionist, a sorcerer who has hoodwinked them all into believing in the power of the mind to capture reality in a box, when in truth the Real is the wilderness that can never be captured by thought.

The dialectic sought to push contradiction to its supreme limits, when in fact the filaments of this web thrown across this universe of doubt was itself made of the very essence of identity it sought to dispel, instead of truth we discovered in this net the capture of difference within the logic of identity that makes it the sufficient condition for difference to exist to begin with. In Hegel the game was rigged from the outset, the player and the played were bound to the curve of sufficient reason and clarity all along, and the touted power of this method was bound to a monocentric system of circular ratios that left no doubts to chance and necessity. Do not be fooled by those others who offer you the incompossibility of the world, either. Between compossibility and incompossibility there is no true connection or reversal, the former is not reducible to the identical, and the latter is not reducible to contradiction.1

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The Political Theory of the Future: Paolo Virno and Bifo Berardi

Political Action finds its redemption at the point where it creates a coalition with public Intellect (in other words, at the point where this Intellect is unchained from waged labor and, rather, builds its critique with the tact of a corrosive acid). Action consists, in the final analysis, in the articulation of general intellect as a non-State public sphere, as the realm of common affairs, as Republic. The Exodus, in the course of which the new alliance between Intellect and Action is forged, has a number of fixed stars in its own heaven: radical Disobedience, Intemperance, Multitude, Soviet, Example, Right of Resistance. These categories allude to a political theory of the future, a theory perhaps capable of facing up to the political crises of the late twentieth century and outlining a solution that is radically anti-Hobbesian.

– Paolo Virno, Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics

It was Bifo Berardi that coined the term cognitariat to splice together the moment when information technologies and the workers who use such technics for their livelihood took center stage upon the world market. This is also the moment when the cognitive functions of our society were divorced from both daily life and corporeality, when the production workers of signs were captured by capital. This is the alienation of cognitive labor. The cognitariat is the social class that experiences this separation. Both Berardi and Virno would have those who have been so captured to retreat, to withdraw from this global menagerie of both State and Corporate monopoly and forge new links, new coalitions of political action and public intellect, create new autonomous zones in which to share and communicate within a new sphere, a realm of the commons, a Global Republic that moves beyond ethnic, social, and cultural forms.

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Slavoj Zizek: The Subtle Art

Only Slavoj Zizek could compare Jane Austen to Hegel and get away with it. A smile comes to our lips, we want to laugh, and, yet, we wonder to ourselves: “How could he compare this dialectical monstrosity to this subtle ironist, this comic novelist of manners?” Yet, one realizes that is just the point, it was Austen’s inwardness, her subjective individuation, her consciousness of those subtle misrecognitions that slip between fault lines of conversation and observation, those subtle ironies that raise an eyebrow, cause a smirk, bring a quiet recognition of that true wit that is both her power and her art that aligns her with the master of dialectical persuasion.

It is Jane Austen who is perhaps the only counterpart to Hegel in literature: Pride and Prejudice is the literary Phenomenology of Spirit; Mansfield Park the Science of Logic and Emma the Encyclopedia… No wonder, then that we find in Pride and Prejudice the perfect case of this dialectic of truth arising from misrecognition. (66)1

What’s interesting in Zizek’s bringing together Hegel and Austen to discuss the subtle art of misrecognition is not that it neatly ties together the strands of his Hegelian argument, but that like any true didactic scholar he teaches us through the power of delight and elucidation rather than through abstract verbalism. This is why it is usually fun to read Zizek even if you disagree with him at time, he entertains and delights, instructs and illustrates without bludgeoning one with the truth of his argument. He is didactic and dialectical at the same time. There is a subtle rhythm to his method, repetitions of word and tone that intersperse the abstract truth of his argument with layers of empirical wit and illustrations from other authors to make his points.

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Gilles Deleuze: Difference and Repetition – A Short Intro

Difference is not and cannot be thought in itself, so long as it is subject to the requirements of representation.

– Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

Gilles Deleuze (January 18, 1925 – November 4, 1995)

For Deleuze we are all imprisoned in subtle webs of thought, bound to a world of thought-images, pre-suppositions, both objective and subjective, that weave the lightstreams of our minds in ways beyond telling, and it was to unlock these dark enclosures of the broken Image of thought that he set sail upon the seas of philosophical speculation. A post-philosophical Argonaut, he  sailed into that strange world where even the greatest of philosophers have lost their way, riding the twisted seas of this chaotic clime, fierce and resolute, Deleuze stood proudly among these speculators of the mind, sailed within his trusty ship, Critique, knowing that it was against the classical image of thought itself that he labored:

…and as long as the critique has not been carried to the heart of that image it is difficult to conceive of thought as encompassing those problems which point beyond the propositional mode; or as involving encounters which escape recognition; or as confronting its true enemies, which are quite different from thought; or as attaining that which tears thought from its natural torpor and notorious bad will, and forces us to think.”(DR xvi)

Yes, it was the emancipation of thought from its own chains that drove this Ulysses of the philosophical slipstream, a cunning intelligence who sought the “liberation of thought from those images which imprison it”(xvii). Looking back over the distant battlegrounds of his hard won victory he reminisced about the difference between philosophy proper and the history of philosophy. He likened the one to the study of “arrows or the tools of a great thinker, the trophies and the prey, the continents discovered”; while in the other case “we trim our own arrows, or gather those which seem to us the finest in order to try to send them in other directions, even if the distance covered is not astronomical but relatively small” (xv). And what do we discover when we dare to speak in our own name? Humbly he tells us the truth: “we try to speak in our own name only to learn that a proper name designates no more than the outcome of a body of work – in other words, the concepts discovered, on condition that we were able to express these and imbue them with life using all the possibilities of language”(xv).

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Slavoj Zizek: On Lacan as Philosopher

Jaques Lacan (13 April 1901 – 9 September 1981)

SŽ: Lacan was a French psychoanalytic theorist, who despised philosophy officially. For Lacan, the discourse of philosophy is of a complete worldview which fills in all of the gaps and cracks. And Lacan’s idea is that precisely what we learn in psychoanalysis is how cracks and inconsistencies are constitutive of our lives. So officially he was against philosophy, but the paradox is that Lacan was constantly in dialogue with philosophy. In his work, there are even more references to Plato and Hegel than to Freud himself.

BLVR: So even though Lacan didn’t want to define the world concretely, he was a kind of philosopher himself?

SŽ: Obviously, Lacan was playing philosophy against itself. The idea being very simply that in our experience of the reality of the world, we always stumble upon some fundamental crack, incompleteness. What appears as an obstacle, the fact that we cannot ever really know things, is for Lacan itself a positive condition of meaning. There is a kernel of philosophy here, what philosophers call ontological difference; this is this experience of a rupture as a fundamental constituent of our lives. So to cut a long story short, for Lacan (and I try to further develop this idea, based on his insight), to properly grasp what Freud was aiming at with the death drive (the fundamental libidinal stance of the human individual for self-sabotaging; the basic idea of psychoanalysis is the pursuit of unhappiness, people do everything possible not to be happy), is to read it against the background of negativity, a gap as fundamental to human subjectivity, so in other words to philosophize psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis in this way is no longer just a psychiatric science which develops a theory of how we can cure certain diseases; it’s kind of a mental and philosophical theory of the utmost radical dimensions of human beings.

BLVR: So Lacan was reading Freud’s death drive, the desire to self-destruct, as a good thing, philosophically speaking. Incompleteness and cracks, themselves being the place where difference is created.

SŽ: Exactly

– from Interview (2004) The Believer

Anti-Oedipus: The Black Book of Riddles

Desiring machines make us an organism; but at the very heart of this production, the body suffers from being organized in this way, from not having some other sort of organization, or no organization at all.

– Gilles Deleuze/Fritz Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

There comes a moment in their dreamwork (for that is what we must call this black book of riddles) when D&G – in an almost gnostic litany of negativity from one of the drifting echoes of Artaud (“No mouth. No tongue. No teeth. No larynx. No esophagus. No belly. No anus”) expose the body of death to the onslaught of expressive delineation: “The automata stop dead and set free the unorganized mass they once served to articulate.(8) It’s as if the nanobots of our own late era had already infiltrated the discourse of this early dreamwork, as if the viral memes of our late capitalism had suddenly exited the stage, freed of their host to suddenly invigorate the dark contours of a deadly truth. But what is this body of death? “The full body without organs is the unproductive, the sterile, the unengendered, the unconsumable (8)”. This is the dead body of capital after its robotic zombies have wandered free of its broken world. Without form and void: capital as the body of death, the body without organs as frozen labor, frozen time. Pure death instinct: “that is its name, and death is not without a model. For desire desires death also, because the full body of death is its motor, just as it desires life, because the organs of life are the working machine.(8)”

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Alain Badiou: Quote of the Day!

“I didn’t want to write the script,” he states, “I wanted to see it.” Positioning himself in a video editing suite in front of a white film screen that evokes for him the “famous blank page of Mallarmé,” Godard uses video as a sketchbook with which to reconceive the film.
– Jean-Luc Godard

Passion… never fails to make me think of a tremendous play by the young Ibsen, Emperor and Galilean. It is a play devoted to Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor who, after Constantine and after the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity, wanted to restore the old gods. At a certain moment, Julian, in despair, realizing that his enterprise is futile, says, “We live in a world in which the old beauty is no longer beautiful but the new truth is not yet true.” Passion is a film about just such a thing. Something of what there was before no longer exists, but something of what is supposed to come hasn’t come. That is the space the film inhabits, and its genius lies in changing into a form of themes and variations, all the while borrowing its power from the light of the visible.

Lecture delivered at Le Lieu unique, Nantes, November 2001
– Alain Badiou on Jean-Luc Godard

Hope and the Dystopic Impulse

At the crossroads of utopian, dystopian, and anti-utopian thought we find ourselves with choices that will lead us on a path toward hope or despair. The choices we make are bound to the types of political action or inaction we are committed too. In our time those committed to fighting against the utopian impulse, such as writers like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and Oliver Bennett’s Cultural Pessimism: Narratives of Decline in the Postmodern World see utopian thought as a panacea against the political, social, and environmental degradation in our times. Both maintain that the utopian impulse leads to an illusionary set of values and ideology that offer “unrealistic expectations of what the future may bring“.

“…it is the real which has become our true utopia—but a utopia that is no longer a          possibility, a utopia we can do no more than dream about, like a lost object.”

– Jean Baudrillard, Two Essays

On the other hand many cultural critics, as well as sf writers, have brought about a Renaissance in Utopian thought and ideology. Two recent works shed light on this revival, dark Horizons Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, Utopian Method Vision The Use Value Of Social Dreaming. These “Social Dreams” as Lyman Tower Sargent states it help us understand the “dreams and nightmares that concern the ways in which groups of people arrange their lives.” At the heart of the utopian impulse is the hope of a better life. Yet, as we discover from the cautionary tales of dystopian writers, from the early work of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We to George Orwell’s novel 1984, on too such sf classics as Farenheit 451, The Telling, and the Gold Coast triptych we discover what Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan call the ‘critical dystopia’, which, as a didactic form, teaches us “that choices have consequences, in helping us to see why and how things are as they are, and, perhaps, in showing how we can act to change the conditions around us: not simply to do no harm but utterly to transorm reality in favor of all(p. 241 dary Horizons).”

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Slavoj Zizek: On Cinema from Geert Lovink Interview

What I despise in America is the studio actors logic, as if there is something good in self expression: do not be oppressed, open yourself, even if you shout and kick the others, everything in order to express and liberate yourself. This is a stupid idea, that behind the mask there is some truth.

– Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek (1949 – )

Concerning theory, there are a lot of others, the whole domain of cultural criticism in America is basically cinema theory. What attracts me, is the axis between gaze and voice and nowhere will you find this tension better than in cinema. This still is for me the principal axis. Cinema is for me a kind of condensation. On the one hand you have the problem of voice, on the other the narrativisation. The only change I can think of is that up until twenty years ago, going to the cinema was a totally different social experience. It was a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and this changed. But what still appears in ordinary commercial films is the shift in the notion of subjectivity. You can detect what goes on at the profoundest, most radical level of our symbolic identities and how we experience ourselves. Cinema is still the easiest way, like for Freud dreams were the royal way to the unconscious. Maybe I am part of a nostalgic movement. Nowadays, because of all these new media, cinema is in a crisis. It becomes popular as a nostalgic medium. And what is modern film theory really about? Its ultimate object are nostalgic films from the thirties and forties. It is as if you need the theory in order to enjoy them. It’s incredible how even Marxists enjoy this game. They have seen every film, I’m not joking. It’s not only this paternalising notion that it is good to use examples from cinema. I would still claim that there is an inherent logic of the theory itself, as if there is a privileged relationship, like the role literature played in the nineteenth century.

Interview with Slavoj Zizek by Geert Lovink (1995)