Reza Negarestani: Navigating the Game of Truths

By entering the game of truths – that is, making sense of what is true and making it true – and approaching it as a rule-based game of navigation, philosophy opens up a new evolutionary vista for the transformation of the mind. 

– Reza Negarestani, Navigate With Extreme Prejudice 

Reza Negarestani, an Iranian philosopher who has contributed extensively to journals and anthologies and lectured at numerous international universities and institutes, has begun a new philosophical project that is focused on rationalist universalism beginning with the evolution of the modern systems of knowledge and advancing toward contemporary philosophies of rationalism, their procedures, as well as their investment in new forms of normativity and epistemological control mechanisms. He recently hooked up with Guerino Mazzola, a Swiss mathematician, musicologist, jazz pianist as well as author and philosopher. He is  qualified as a professor of mathematics (1980) and of computational science (2003) at the University of Zürich.

On the Urbanomic blog I noticed a new entry: Deracinating Effect – Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind with Reason (see here). It appears that Reza and Guerino took part in a recent event in March name The Glass Bead Game after the novel by that name by Herman Hesse. It was organized by Glass Bead (Fabien Giraud, Jeremy Lecomte, Vincent Normand, Ida Soulard, Inigo Wilkins) and Composing Differences (curated by Virginie Bobin). Reza and Guerino both presented talks on philosophy, mathematics, games and the paradigm of navigation.

I’ve been interested of late in Reza’s shift in tone and effect, his philosophical framework seems to in the past few years undergone a mind-shift toward what he terms the ‘Paradigm of Navigation’. Doing a little research for this post I came upon his recent entry for the Speculations on Anonymous Materials Symposium paper transcribed by Radman Vrbanek Arhitekti from the youtube.com video. In this essay he aligns himself with the history of systems history, which grew out of a very rigid approach to engineering in the 19th Century but has over the past 30 years unfolded in a new and completely different epistemology of matter and its intelligibility.

What he discovered different in these newer systems theories is that against an architectural or engineering approach based on input/outputs these new systems theorists had moved from an essentialist view of system dynamics toward a functionalist approach: the notion that its the behavior and the functional integration underlying that behavior, or what these theorists termed the ‘functional organization’ of the system that matter. He tells us this is important, saying:

This becomes important because functions… systematic or technical understanding of function is that functions are abstractly a realizable entities meaning that they can be abstracted from the content of their constitution. So a functional organization can emerge, it can be manipulated, it can get automated and it can actually gain a form of autonomy that developed not because of the constitution in which it was embedded but in spite of it. Hence, functions allows for an understanding of the system that is no longer tethered or chained to an idea of constitution.

At the heart of this new form of systems theory is the use of heuristics. It entails a move away from analytics and toward synthetics. The sense is that heuristics are not analytical devices, but rather are synthetic operators. As he states it:

They treat material as a problem. But they don’t break this problem into pieces. They transform this problem into new problem. And this is what the preservation of invariance is. Once you transform a problem by way of heuristics to a new problem, you basically eliminate so much of the fog around this problem that initially didn’t allow us to solve it.

In this sense one sees an almost Deleuzean turn in systems theory, for it was Deleuze who believed philosophy was about problems to be solved. In their What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari explain that only science is concerned with the value of claims and propositions; philosophy searches for solutions to problems, rather than the truth. In this sense they were returning to Nietsche who told us he was waiting for those who would come, those philosophical physicians who were no longer concerned with truth but rather something else:

I am still waiting for a philosophical physician in the exceptional sense of the term – someone who has set himself the task of pursuing the problem of the total health of a people, time, race or of humanity – to summon the courage at last to push my suspicion to its limit and risk the proposition: what was at stake in all philosophizing hitherto was not at all ‘truth’ but rather something else – let us say health, future, growth, power, life. . .(6)

–  Friedrich Nietzsche,  The Gay Science

But is this what Reza is seeking? We’ll return to this later. What Reza tells us in this essay is that heuristics as a new tool, an apparatus allows us to remove both the lower and upper boundaries of materiality. At the lower boundary where the understanding of constitution and understanding of fundamental assumptions or axiomatic conceptual behaviors exist; and, at the upper boundary where it basically turns materiality into living hypothesis and its behavior can be expanded. Its evolution, i.e. its constructability becomes part of the project of its self-realization. As he states it:

Hence, the understanding that the system is nothing but its behavior and behavior is a register of constructability – the same thing about materiality and how engineers approach materiality by way of heuristics – which is rooted in this new understanding of systematicity by way of understanding in in the sense of functions and behaviors.

In his essay The Glass Bead Game he lays down the gauntlet telling us that by “simulating the truth of the mind as a navigational horizon, philosophy sets out the conditions for the emancipation of the mind from its contingently posited settings and limits of constructability”. Continuing he says: “Philosophy’s ancient program for exploring the mind becomes inseparable from the exploration of possibilities for reconstructing and realizing the mind by different realizers and for different purposes.”

Of course being the creature I am I want to ask: I see talk of the Mind as if it were some autonomous entity in its own right disconnected from both body and its command system, the brain. So I ask: Where is the brain in all this discussion of emancipation and the limits of constructability? As Bakker on his blog keeps pounding away at “Reasoning is parochial through and through. The intuitions of universalism and autonomy that have convinced so many otherwise are the product of metacognitive illusions, artifacts of confusing the inability to intuit more dimensions of information, with sufficient entities and relations lacking those dimensions.”1 Reza’s notion of simulating the truth of the mind would entail information that we – as of yet, just do not have access to; in fact. because of medial neglect and the inability of second order reflection ever to catch its own tail, we will never have access to it through intentional awareness. Instead we will have to rely not on philosophy but the sciences (and especially the neurosciences) to provide both the understanding and the testable hypothesis before such experimental constructions and reconstructions could begin to even become feasible as more than sheer fantasy.

We see just how much fantasy is involved in his next passage:

In liberating itself from its illusions of ineffability and irreproducible uniqueness, and by apprehending itself as an upgradable armamentarium of practices or abilities, the mind realizes itself as an expanding constructible edifice that effectuates a mind-only system. But this is a system that is no longer comprehensible within the traditional ambit of idealism, for it involves ‘mind’ not as a theoretical object but as a practical project of socio-historical wisdom or augmented general intelligence.

How is such an liberation from illusions of ineffability and irreproducible uniqueness to come about? And, how can this apprehension come about? (Which can only mean second-order self-reflexivity that, if Bakker in his Blind Brain Theory is correct, is based on medial neglect (i.e., the way structural complicity, astronomical complexity, and evolutionary youth effectively renders the brain unwittingly blind to itself.))

Be that as it may what Reza is trying to do is remap the cognitive territory that has for too long been overlaid with certain scientistic mythologies for more than a century. As he sees it the mind is a “diversifiable set of abilities or practices whose deployment counts as what the mind is and what it does”. This ontological and pragmatic mixture abstraction and decomposition that allow “philosophy is able to envision itself as a veritable environment for an augmented nous precisely in the sense of a systematic experiment in mind simulation”. This turn toward the pragmatic-functionalist perspective and development of a philosophy of action and gestures rather than of contemplation and theory is at the heart of a new movement toward Synthetic Category Theory in Mathematics. Several philosophers seem to be at the center of this theory of the gesture:  Guerino Mazzola, Fernando Zalamea, and Gilles Chatelet. Along with Alain Badiou these philosophers of math have changed the game and invented new paths forward for philosophy.

It’s as if this network of scientists, mathematicians, information specialists, geophilosophers, etc. are planning on reengineering society top-down and bottom-up. Of course the metaphor of the Glass Bead Game is almost apposite to the purpose of such an effort. The Glass Bead Game of Das Glasperlienspiel of Herman Hesse was of a secularization of the communal systems of the Medieval Ages of Monk Monasteries and their vast Libraries. In this novel the hero practices a contemplative game of the Mind in which knowledge is grafted onto a strategy game of 3D projections in yearly contests among participants. These contemplative knowledge bearers are excused from the menial life of work and allowed to pursue at their own discretion strange pursuits in knowledge. The whole thing goes against what Reza and his cohorts seek in their action oriented pragmatic philosophy. It was Arendt herself that spoke of this division in philosophy between the ‘vita contemplativa’ and the ‘vita activa’ as a continuing battle along the course of the past two millennia of philosophy. Reza tips his hat toward the active stance.

It reminds me in some ways of the EU Onlife Initiative  which takes a look at the ICT’s – The deployment of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their uptake by society affect radically the human condition, insofar as it modifies our relationships to ourselves, to others and to the world. These new social technologies are blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality; blurring of the distinctions between human, machine and nature; bringing about a reversal from information scarcity to information abundance; and, the shift from the primacy of entities to the primacy of interactions. As they see it the world is grasped by human minds through concepts: perception is necessarily mediated by concepts, as if they were the interfaces through which reality is experienced and interpreted. Concepts provide an understanding of surrounding realities and a means by which to apprehend them. However, the current conceptual toolbox is not fitted to address new ICT-related challenges and leads to negative projections about the future: we fear and reject what we fail to make sense of and give meaning to. In order to acknowledge such inadequacy and explore alternative conceptualisations, a group of scholars in anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, engineering, law, neuroscience, philosophy, political science, psychology and sociology, instigated the Onlife Initiative, a collective thought exercise to explore the policy-relevant consequences of those changes. This concept reengineering exercise seeks to inspire reflection on what happens to us and to re-envisage the future with greater confidence.

This new informational philosophy approach seems to align well with Reza’s sense of philosophy establishing a “link between intelligence and modes of collectivization, in a way that liberation, organization and complexification of the latter implies new odysseys for the former, which is to say, intelligence and the evolution of the nous”. Ultimately Reza’s project hopes to break us out of our apathetic circle of critique and theoretical spin bureaus of polarized idiocy that has entrapped us in useless debates and provide a new path forward by “concurrently treating the mind as a vector of extreme abstraction and abstracting the mind into a set of social practices and conducts, philosophy gesticulates toward a particular and not yet fully comprehended event in the modern epoch – as opposed to traditional forms – of intelligence: The self-realization of intelligence coincides and is implicitly linked with the self-realization of social collectivity. The single most significant historical objective is then postulated as the activation and elaboration of this link between the two aforementioned dimensions of self-realization as ultimately one unified project”.

Next he tells us that the first task of philosophy is to locate an access or a space of entry to the universal landscape of logoi. I think this attends Seller’s notions of the “space of reasons” which describes the conceptual and behavioral web of language that humans use to get intelligently around their world, and denotes the fact that talk of reasons, epistemic justification, and intention is not the same as, and cannot necessarily be mapped onto, talk of causes and effects in the sense that physical science speaks of them. In this sense as Reza tells it the “landscape of logoi is captured as a revisable and expandable map of cascading inferential links and discursive pathways between topoi that make sense of truth through navigation”.

At the core of this new philosophical project is the ‘self-realization of intelligence’: (1) by pointing in and out of different epochs and activating the navigational links implicit in history; (2) by grasping intelligence as a collective enterprise and hence, drawing a complex continuity between collective self-realization and the self-realization of intelligence as such, in a fashion not dissimilar to the ethical program of an ‘all-encompassing self-construction bent on abolishing slavery’ articulated by the likes of Confucius, Socrates and Seneca.(ibid.)

The explicit hope of this philosophy is according to Reza the notion of keeping pace with intelligence, which implies that philosophy always reconstitutes what it was supposed to be.

I wonder if this sort of endeavor is doomed to begin with? When one thinks of how machine intelligence as it moves into the quantum era of ubiquitous computing will ever be able to keep pace with the vast amounts of processing power that will come available to these future AI entities?

Next he tells us that localization is the constitutive gesture of conception and the first move in navigating spaces of reason. ‘To localize’ means ‘to conceive’ the homogenous and quantitative information into qualitatively well-organized information-spaces endowed with different modalities of access. Obviously we must conceive of advanced computer simulation systems that allow almost rhizomatic access from anywhere in the world, with multiple entry points and departures. When we think about the new Zettabyte Era and the impact of dataglut one realizes that even a team of philosophers would be hard pressed to sift through the datamix:

In 2003, researchers at Berkeley’s School of Information Management and Systems estimated that humanity had accumulated approximately 12 exabytes of data (1 exabyte corresponds to 1018 bytes or a 50,000-year-long video of DVD quality) in the course of its entire history until the commodification of computers. A zetabyte equaling 1,000 exabytes.2

Tools will need to be developed, as well as new algorithms that can churn through such massive data and combine advanced simulations or automatons for filtering out the noise and making smart choices or decisions on that data before passing it on to their human counterparts. Much like the trillions of operations that go on in the human brain that the average person is hardly aware of, and the decisional processes that go on below the threshold of consciousness before we ever see an idea or notion arise, we are caught in the trap of believing we have enough information to make coherent and intelligent decisions based on the minimal data received at the end of that brain processing initiative. We’re not. We are deluded into thinking we know what in fact we do not know. We make conscious decisions after the fact, and are usually motivated by dispositions and powers we do not even have access too.

Yet, Reza, would have us believe that there is a navigable “link between the rational agency and logoi through spaces of reason that marks the horizon of knowledge” (ibid.). When he speaks of ‘rational agency’ is this the human, the AI, the collective subjectivication? His notion of  universality that presents knowledge and by extension philosophy as platforms for breaking free from the supposedly necessary determinations of local horizons in which the rational or advanced agency appears to be firmly anchored, seems to portend more issues and problems that it resolves. How does one break free of these local determinations? What would such a universal knowledge assume on a global scale? As he puts it “without this unmooring effect, philosophy is incapable of examining any commitment beyond its local implications or envisaging the trajectory of reason outside of immediate resources of a local site”. So against all those microhistories and labors of the postmodern era poststructuralists we are to return to the beginning of the Enlightenment project, but with a twist in that we shall have the new technologies of simulation at hand to empower this age of informational and rational governance and agency. As he calls it: “Philosophy proposes analytico-synthetic methods of wayfinding in what Robert Brandom discribes as the rational system of commitments”.

But what of all those dark corners of the irrational that Freud, Lacan, Deleuze, and so many other discovered in the mind? What of that irrational core? We know that the neoliberal think-tanks that gave us Rational Choice Theory and the economics of the free market have led us into destruction, how better shall another rational system fare – even one from the Left?

He seems to understand the issues, saying:

Philosophy sees the action in the present in terms of destiny and ramifications, which is to say, based on the reality of time. It constructively adapts to an incoming and reverse arrow of time along which the current cognitive or practical commitment evolves in the shape of multiple future destinations re-entering the hori- zon of what has already taken place. Correspondingly, philosophy operates as a virtual machine for forecasting future commitments and presenting a blueprint for a necessary course of action or adaptation in accordance with a trajectory or trajectories extending in reverse from the future. It discursively sees into the future. In short, philosophy is a nomenclature for a universal simulation engine.

In fact it is inside this simulation engine that the self-actualization of reason is anticipated, the escape plan from localist myopias is hatched and the self-portrait of man drawn in sand is exposed to relentless waves of revision. In setting up the game of truths by way of giving functions of reason their own autonomy – in effect envisioning and practicing their automation – philosophy establishes itself as the paradigm of the Next (computational) Machine, back from the future.(ibid.)

But why philosophy? Why not the neurosciences that actually deal with the inner workings not of the Mind but of the brain? Will philosophy ever acknowledge that the sciences must play a great part in the coming information age? Or will it continue to go blindly down its own intentional path, directing its own blind goals without a true knowledge of things as they are? With the advent of the NBIC (Nanotech, Biotech, InfoTech, CongitiveTech) and the Information and Communications Technologies or ICT’s we have already entered or go beyond recourse to much of what philosophy can say. Many like Luciano Floridi and his team have already entered this information age leaving much of the intentional drift of phenomenology, idealism, and materialism as they derive certain information structural realisms and ontologies for a path forward. Only time will tell if Reza and his cohorts do the same… I have much to catch up on and probably need more data on Reza and his cohorts efforts to truly make a definitive judgment so I’ll refrain from such problematique statements.

This is a commendable project and one that we should continue to look into and keep an eye on over the coming months and years. I would only ask that Reza and these Mathematicians begin extending their borders into the sciences of the brain as well as many of the new features transpiring on the Continent in the Information Philosophy fields. I still have questions about his reliance on Brandomian normativity since it is a fall back to retrograde intentionalism rather than a move toward a post-intentional world view. My hopes is that he will look long and hard at other alternatives and begin question the very notion of ‘intentionality’ and ‘directedness’ as an outmoded tool of a phenomenological perspective that needs recasting in the light of new sciences and philosophies.

—————

*appending the youtube.com video by Guerino Mazzola Melting the Glass Beads – The Multiverse Game of Strings and Gestures:

1. R. Scott Bakker. (see The Blind Mechanic)
2. Floridi, Luciano (2010-02-25). Information: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (p. 6). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

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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Biomechanical Dividuals: Techne and Technology in the 21st Century

Technology is, as Deleuze stated, an expression of how we live. Technology expresses how we live our day-to-day existence and how we organize ourselves, in terms of both our relations to one another and the sorts of subjects we constitute ourselves as.

– David Savat, Uncoding the Digital: Technology, Subjectivity and Action in the Control Society

The word “biomechanics” (1899) and the related “biomechanical” (1856) were coined by Nikolai Bernstein from the Ancient Greek words βίος bios “life” and μηχανική, mēchanikē “mechanics”, to refer to the study of the mechanical principles of living organisms, particularly their movement and structure.1. In his recent work Levi R. Bryant puts forth the notion that we are machines, and tells us that a “machinic conception of objects leads us to think of entities in a very different way.”2 Even Deleuze believed that technology is an expression of how we live. For him technology expresses how we live our day-today existence and how we organize ourselves in terms of both our relations to one another and how we constitute ourselves as machinic-assemblages. But it was Deleuze’s friend Guattari who argued emphatically that digital technologies were constructing human-machine assemblages that would enable entirely new and different forms of subjectivity to emerge.3

 The first question to ask of any machine is not “what are its properties?”, but rather “what does it do?”

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

David Savat in an essay within Deleuze and New Technology, describes how a particular digital technology (databases) incorporates and adheres to Foucault’s notion of the disciplinary society in which discipline in the form of a Panopticon molds humans according to its own dictates through techniques of surveillance and self imposed discipline. He affirms that the central goal of this form of discipline that pervaded many sites within 19th and 20th Century society: factories, prisons, schools, etc. all had the objective of creating a new sense of subjectivity and what it meant to be an individual. That this has not gone away with our new digital technologies Savat argues against Deleuze who in his ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’ (1992), felt that we had entered a new era beyond discipline in which the modulation of power was transforming the individual into a new subject, the dividual. For Savat we can see neither one nor the other, but both forms of power being enacted at the same time within the digital spectrum.

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Do Mental States Exist? – The Problem of Intentionality

Maybe I should rephrase it this way: Does the Mind even Exist? Why not the brain only? Reading Philosophy of Mind you get the itchy feeling that these philosophers, who spend so much time trying to understand the Mind-Brain correlations that one wonders if the effort is at all worth it. What if all we have is the brain itself doing what it does moment by moment, processing the environment, analyzing its findings, then making decisions based on its own intricate evolutionary needs. What if the Mind is just an illusion of the philosophers? I mean we’ve built up over centuries all these accrued correlations between the brain and mind just to prove the Mind exists. But what if we were wrong, what if all this work is just a lot of bickering over nothing. What if the Mind is in itself just an empty philosophical category filled with illusionary propaganda of the philosophers?

What set me off on this tangent is trying to understand whether ‘mental states’ exist or not, and if they don’t then why is there so many philosophers still hooked to the notion of intentionality? It was Betrand Russell who gave a specific name to these mental states, he referred to them as propositional verbs or “propositional attitudes”:

What sort of name shall we give to verbs like ‘believe’ and ‘wish’ and so forth? I should be inclined to call them ‘propositional verbs’. This is merely a suggested name for convenience, because they are verbs which have the form of relating an object to a proposition. As I have been explaining, that is not what they really do, but it is convenient to call them propositional verbs. Of course you might call them ‘attitudes’, but I should not like that because it is a psychological term, and although all the instances in our experience are psychological, there is no reason to suppose that all the verbs I am talking of are psychological. There is never any reason to suppose that sort of thing. (Russell 1918, 227).

Now the term intentionality refers to the ability of the mind to form representations and has nothing to do with intention. The term dates from medieval Scholastic philosophy, but was resurrected by Franz Brentano and adopted by Edmund Husserl. The earliest theory of intentionality is associated with St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God and his tenets distinguishing between objects that exist in the understanding and objects that exist in reality.

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Nick Land: Libidinal Materialism vs. Physicalism

Libidinal materialism, or the theory of unconditional (non-teleological) desire, is  nothing but a scorch mark from the expository diagnosis of the physicalistic prejudice.

– Nick Land, A Thirst For Annihilation

At the heart of the physicalist’s prejudice is an implicit theological core, says Nick Land. Devoid of the trappings of theology Physicalism, none the less, returns us to its hidden center: a regression to the first cause (38). The basic motto of the physicalist is –  “There is nothing over and above the physical.” Donald Davidson in his formulation of anomalous monism coined this phrase, which holds that, although there is nothing over and above the physical, our mental states cannot neatly be identified with our brain states, or subsumed under physical laws. The problem of Physicalism is the problem of meaning: What do we mean by the physical? Philosophers are spread to varying extremes as to how to define this concept. We have many and various approaches to this from theory based to token based to object based conceptions, as well as reductive and non-reductive approaches.

Land provides a critique against a form of Physicalism based in externalist theoretic which is both reductive and intrinsic in its approach to matter as a passive substance which is “exhausted by the dual characteristics of transmitting alien forces and decaying according to the universally legislated exigencies of composition” (38). Land offers against such a reductionist ploy an alternative non-reductionist account based on non-linear dynamics and complexity theory which follow Boltzmann’s thermodynamics toward an “absolutely improbable negentropy” (38). Using Boltzmann’s non-reductive theoretic Land tells us it offers the only “conceivable physicalistic atheism, at least if the second law of thermodynamics is to be maintained” (39). The point being that it posits that the probabilistic nature of our universe supports the notion of a far-from-equilibrium state theory as we see around us in the universe, which suggests the reality of negentropy rather than theological assumptions regarding first causes best explains the probabilistic manifestation of our universe today.

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Gilles Deleuze: Hume and Subjectivity

As Deleuze breaks down the components of Hume’s philosophical system into its differing layers he exposes the specificity of subjectivity as an effect: “it is in fact an impression of reflection“(26).1 He qualifies this stating: “When Hume speaks of an act of the mind – of a disposition – he does not mean to say that the mind is active but that it is activated and that it has become subject” (26). Many terms have been used to describe what Hume means by dispositions: ‘power’ (Locke’s term), ‘dunamis’ (Aristotle’s term), ‘ability’, ‘potency’, ‘capability’, ‘tendency’, ‘potentiality’, ‘proclivity’, ‘capacity’, and so forth. This sense of power or disposition according to Deleuze is termed a tendency. As he tells us in another passage the effect of association in the mind appears in three ways: first, through resemblance an idea has the capacity or power to represent all the ideas it is associated with; second, is the notion of substance and mode: the unity of ideas in the mind form a regularity they did not previously have; and, third, the notion of relation, that one idea can introduce another.(25) As Steven Mumford states it:

Hume knew of the causal powers view as an alternative to his own. But he thought that such a view would mean that causes had to necessitate their effects. If there is a power for a certain effect , he argued, it would mean that it had to produce its effect when it operated. But this need not be the position. A power might only dispose towards a certain effect. There can be cases where it succeeds in producing that effect, but in other cases it could be prevented from doing its job. The effects that we see around us are often the result of many different factors working together. When a paper aeroplane is thrown, for instance , its trajectory is determined by its aerodynamic shape but also gravity, gusts of wind, electrostatic attractions and repulsions, and so on. It could be that some of those factors dispose it in one direction while others dispose it in an opposite one.2

Deleuze makes a key point regarding Hume’s study of Human Nature as a “science”. The first concerns Hume’s atomism, the notion that the psychology of mind is a psychology of ideas, of “simple elements, of minima or indivisibles” (26). Such notions as he explores in his system of understanding concerning such ideas as “space and time”. The second concerns his psychology of dispositions that Deleuze likens to an anthropology, “a science of practice, especially morality, politics, and history” (27). The point of the atomization of ideas Deleuze tells us is that for Hume there can be no atomistic psychology, therefore he affirms the truth as well that there can be no psychology of mind. As Deleuze argues this is why all “serious writers agree on the impossibility of a psychology of the mind” (27). He continues: “[t]his is why they criticize so meticulously every single identification between consciousness and knowledge. They differ only in the way they determine the factors which give a nature to the mind” (27-28). In this he alludes to the notions of the mind-body debates that are still carried on in our contemporary settings. As he tells us sometimes the shift moves toward the body or matter, at other times the factors concern specific principles that replace the body or matter in which psychology finds its “unique, and possible object and its scientific condition” (28). Hume takes this second path: the notion of the principles of association. This is Deleuze reminds us where Hume’s ambiguous relationship to materialism comes to the fore.

Deleuze sums up the Humean project as the problem of subjectivity, that Hume’s basic question is one of empirical proof: “how does the mind become a nature?” He tells us that Hume starts with the impossible contradiction of the idea itself: “Show me the idea you claim to have.” As he states it:

What’s at stake in the challenge is the very psychology of mind. In fact, the given and experience have now two inverse meanings. The given is the idea as it is given in the mind, without anything transcending it – not even the mind, which is therefore identical with the idea. But, the transcendence itself is also given, in an altogether different sense and manner – it is given in practice, as an affection of the mind, and as an impression of reflection: passion, says Hume, does not have to be defined: by the same token, belief is a je ne sais quoi adequately felt by everyone. (28-29)

Deleuze next gives us an argument against the essentialism of subjectivity: “Empirical subjectivity is constituted in the mind under the influence of principles affecting it; the mind therefore does not have the characteristics of a preexisting subject” (29). True psychology, he tells us, is of the affections as well as a critique of the false psychology of the mind; in fact, as he states it, the “latter is incapable of grasping without contradiction the constitutive element of human reality” (29).

At this point he asks: Why is it finally necessary  that philosophy undertake this critique, express the transcendence in an idea, produce the contradiction, and manifest the incompatibility under discussion? The answer: “because the transcendence under discussion is not given in an idea, but is rather referred to the mind; it qualifies the mind” (29). The point of this is the simple fact that we can never have access to the mind(brain) itself, no amount of reflection will ever allow us access to the processes of the mind, it is closed off and we are incapable of reflecting on it, we are, in fact, blind to its processes. But, as Deleuze suggests, we have a negative relation to the ideas which transcend it because within the “structures of transcendence, the mind finds a kind of positivity which comes to it from outside” (29).

Since we do not have access to the mind itself, we turn to the affections it produces: this is the psychology of affections to which Hume refers us, and as Deleuze relates “the psychology of affections becomes the philosophy of the constituted subject” (30). For Hume this is where Rationalism fell into error with its reliance on a theory of representation, and as Deleuze remarks Hume’s philosophy is a “sharp critique of representation” (30). Not being a critique of relations Hume was able to show that it was impossible for representations to represent relations. As Deleuze explains it by “making representations into a criteria and by placing ideas within reason, rationalism expects ideas to stand for something, which cannot be constituted within experience or be given in an idea without contradiction…”(30). Rationalism objectified mental determinations by placing them in external objects, taking away thereby, Deleuze says, “from philosophy the meaning and the intelligibility of practice and the subject” (30).

The Rationalists had fallen into another error Hume tells us, they had equated reason and mind, when in fact “reason is an affection of the mind” (30). It was for this reason that Hume would equate reason with terms such as instinct, habit, or nature.(30) Reason as an affection moves through a cycle of skepticism of reason to a positivism of feeling, in which the latter becomes a reflection of feeling within the qualified mind (30). Ultimately this notion led to a contradiction for Hume, or as Deleuze states it:

We do not really understand how we can move from dispositions to the self, or from the subject to the self. How can the subject and the mind, in the last analysis, be one and the same inside the self? The self must be both a collection of ideas and a disposition, mind and subject. It is a synthesis, which is incomprehensible, since it ties together in its notion, without ever reconciling them, origin and qualification. (31)

Deleuze tells us that Hume would present possible solutions later in his speculations. ( I will have another post, or update this one with those sooner or later)

What’s interesting in this early work is how many threads would be taken up from it time and again by Deleuze altered in form of terminological practice but essentially the same set of notions that led him to understand Hume’s theoretical discourse in the first place. I do not see it mentioned as much in the secondary literature as I do other of his works within the history of philosophy. Either way the notion of the subject as affect, as impression on reflection, an insertion or action that constitutes the subject as non-essentialist but a part of the very processes of the brain, as well as the elision of mind from access to its own processes, all these notions would show up in other works. I’ll add other posts as I have time on Deleuze’s speculations in the history of philosophy that were relevant to his project and problems.

…. follow up: Hume and the Problem of the Self

1. Gilles Deleuze. Empiricism and Subjectivity An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. trans. by Constantin V. Boundas (Columbia University Press, 1991)
2. Mumford, Stephen (2012-08-30). Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (p. 53). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

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

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

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

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The Impersonal Self: Autonomy, Ownership, and Eliminative Subject

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philosophical Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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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 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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“Merchants of Knowledge”: The New Sophists of Our Post-Intentional Dilemma

There is a time and a place in philosophy for rigorous arguments, with all the premises numbered and the inference rules named, but these do not often need to be paraded in public. We ask our graduate students to prove they can do it in their dissertations, and some never outgrow the habit, unfortunately. And to be fair, the opposite sin of high-flown Continental rhetoric , larded with literary ornament and intimations of profundity, does philosophy no favors either. If I had to choose, I’d take the hard-bitten analytic logic-chopper over the deep purple sage every time. At least you can usually figure out what the logic-chopper is talking about and what would count as being wrong.

– Daniel C. Dennett,  Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking

Of what variety are you: Logic-Chopper or Purple Sage – or, maybe an Expert? Cognitive bias and the striptease of scientific writing seem to force our new generation of journal authoring philosophers into an almost mathematical straightjacket. Yet, as Dennett explains: “I have always figured that if I can’t explain something I’m doing to a group of bright undergraduates, I don’t really understand it myself, and that challenge has shaped everything I have written” (12).1 He tells us that scientists are wary of words, preferring the precise forms of mathematical exactitude because the “language of mathematics is a reliable enforcer of cogency” (11). Most of this all came about due to the International appeal of the sciences and the ability to use the English language as the medium of choice for translatability. Yet, Dennett realized early on that if one is to reach the public at large then he’d have to forgo this mathematical perfection and dip down into the old informal language of the masses:

The level of mutual understanding achieved by this international system is invaluable, but there is a price to be paid: some of the thinking that has to be done apparently requires informal metaphor-mongering and imagination-tweaking, assaulting the barricades of closed minds with every trick in the book, and if some of this cannot be easily translated, then I will just have to hope for virtuoso translators on the one hand, and the growing fluency in English of the world’s scientists on the other.(11)

This brings me to the subject of my present post. Under the hood of Dennett’s charitable tip of the hat to Public Joe is this hidden or not-so-hidden acceptance of a division of labor between the average Joe Public on the street and the Expert of the academic or scientific world. Being a Joe Public myself as well as a self-taught polymath I’ve acquired no academic credentials of worth, and yet have attained both a wide and encyclopedic learning in a vast number of fields of what used to be termed the liberal arts. Having entered that cybernetic world of math and binary code early on I became a self-made expert within the Computer Industry as multi-tooled software developer and now architect. Yet, I never wanted titles are justifications, for me it was all about the learning, the search to understand, to explore worlds that had not been there before. Having lived through the Internet explosion and been in on it at the beginning as a heavy duty coder – or, in the old parlance, Hacker (not the illegal variety I might add) – I’ve seen the speed of intelligence remake the rules of our postmodern world in software. And, of course, the great beast of capitalism has driven this giant planetary shift in directions that might have best taken other more creative courses. But it is what it is.

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William James: Empiricist and Naturalist

‘Thoughts’ and ‘things’ are names for two sorts of object, which common sense will always find contrasted and will always practically oppose to each other. Philosophy, reflecting on the contrast, has varied in the past in her explanations of it, and may be expected to vary in the future. At first, ‘spirit and matter,’ ‘soul and body,’ stood for a pair of equipollent substances quite on a par in weight and interest. But one day Kant undermined the soul and brought in the transcendental ego, and ever since then the bipolar relation has been very much off its balance. The transcendental ego seems nowadays in rationalist quarters to stand for everything, in empiricist quarters for almost nothing.

– William James,  Essays in Radical Empiricism

I love reading William James. His ability to cut through the hogwash and strip the hornets nest of any metaphysical argument to its baseline still astounds me. Sometimes this supposed father – if I might say so, of Pragmatism (Pierce being one of the other, alternative ancestral thinkers) is stripped of his actual inheritance in both empiricism and naturalism, and even – dare we add, skepticism. Let’s remember that it is here in his work that we here the battle cry of elminiativists everywhere: “I believe that ‘consciousness,’ when once it has evaporated to this estate of pure diaphaneity, is on the point of disappearing altogether. It is the name of a nonentity, and has no right to a place among first principles. Those who still cling to it are clinging to a mere echo, the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing ‘soul’ upon the air of philosophy” (Kindle Locations 134-136). Now some will see this as James’s reversion to the age old nominalism that denies the existence of universal entities or objects, but accepts that particular objects or entities exist. Now I’ll not take us down the road of the issue of ‘universals’; that’s another tale.

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Technogenesis: The Emergence of Machinic Sapiens or Homo Cyborgensis?

Nature … is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal. For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the begining whereof is in some principall part within; why may we not say, that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life?

– Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Our role as humans, at least for the time being, is to coax technology along the paths it naturally wants to go.

–  Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants

Humans have been fascinated with these strange puppet like beings that move of their own accord as long ago as Greece.  Aristotle once said that the “movements of animals may be compared with those of automatic puppets, which are set going on the occasion of a tiny movement; the levers are released, and strike the twisted strings against one another” (Aristotle, On the Motion of Animals, 350 BC.). Yet, up until our own time most of this has been nothing more than a parlor trick entertainment, an illusion for the masses that played off the strangeness of our own inherent affective hopes and fears.

In our Age of Naturalism the underbelly of our psychic life has for the better part of two hundred years played itself out in those strange genres of fantastic literature. In this literature you will find all the old gods, demons, angels, monsters, vampire, werewolves, etc. to your hearts content. In our own time a branching of this fantastic literature became what we term Science Fiction (SciFi). Yet there was a new twist within that genre, one that brought about the qualification of both extrapolation from known facts, as well as the imaginative leap of forecasting the trends of technology in its socio-cultural and moral-ethical movements.

In our own century we’ve had many practitioners and transformations within the old style fantastic. A few of those masters such as Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, J.G. Ballard, and Stanislaw Lem – and, personally, I would add Philip K. Dick as a crossover between both. The point of this present post is that a great deal of the philosophy, science, etc. that gets written in top rate journals and books for professional scientists and philosophers never truly seeps down into the public at large directly but only indirectly through the imaginative works of those strange fantastic masters. For whatever reason the marginalia and breakthrough ideas, concepts, and notions always seem to be pushed toward an extremity within these fantastic stories. It allows us to take a break from our serious professional minds cast and suddenly dip down into that realm of marvels where the progeny of our imagination can take on a secret life of their own and play out the logic of their futures without harm or trepidation to that fleshy cast of characters in our present Real.

What is uncanny in the fiction of the above mentioned authors is that each in his own way delved into that intersection of technology and bios. The place where humans and their mechanical cousins in one form or another step on the stage as a rival species sharing for the first time since the Neanderthals went extinct the light of the sun. We seem to fill the vacuum of that strangeness with all matter of affective relations. Our fears and hopes, our search for answers and our need for knowledge. Even that old goat Nietzsche once formulated a fable:

In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of “world history” – yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die. (‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense’)

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Posthuman Anxiety: Were we ever human?

Every one of these people was convinced that in the future all the important decisions governing the lives of humans will be made by machines or humans whose intelligence is augmented by machines. When? Many think this will take place within their lifetimes.1

Reading this new work by James Barrat got me to thinking. He seems to misunderstand and fear the very scientists that he is questioning about AI. Little does he understand that these very scientists for the most part have left his folk-psychology terrors far behind, that they live the mechanist/eliminativist paradigm with a vengeance. For these scientists we never were human to begin with and all the ancient religious and philosophical bric-a-brac of folk-psychology is just another illusionary stance which our secular scientists will one day very soon replace with something else, something much like themselves: machines with brains. The only difference will be one of invariance. These new machine intelligences will not be so different from our biomechanical brains as such but will be made of other materials that are different only in kind. Our biomechanical brains and their possibly quantum brains may in fact be closer in resemblance than our fears and folk-psychologies have yet to fathom.

James Barrat like many humans is still caught up in the older folk-psychology portraying a wariness of this maneuver of the scientists in their ever expanding dominion of knowledge and power. As he sees it if it’s inevitable that machines will make our decisions, then when will the machines get this power, and will they get it with our compliance? How will they gain control, and how quickly? (ibid. intro) The problem with these questions if that they are couched in the language of an outmoded humanism. He automatically assumes that machines are different and differing from us in some essentialist way. He also speaks of power and control as if these supposed inhuman alien machines will suddenly rise up in our midst like any good science fiction horror show and take over the world. The fallacy in this is obvious: we are the machines that have already done that job just fine, we don’t need to worry about our progeny doing it again; in fact, they will more than likely just fulfill our direst scenarios in our self-fulfilling prophecies not in spite of but because we have invented them to do just that. The Dream of the Machine is our own secret dream, we are afraid not of the AI’s but of the truth of our own nature, afraid to except that we, too, may already be the very thing we fear most: machines.

My friend R. Scott Bakker would probably say: we have nothing to fear but fear itself, then he would say: “Yes, this is one of those actual nightmares I’ve been in touch with for a long while now.” There is still that part of Bakker that harbors the older folk-psychology beliefs that he otherwise so valiantly despises in his eliminativist naturalism. For him everything is natural all the way down, so that would include these strange alterities we label AI’s. Now, for me, the verdict is still out, but my guess is that yes the scientists because of the vast agglomeration of investment from governments, corporations, etc. known as the great late-capitalist hive of networks supporting the practical sciences will at some point in the near future produce something resembling a simulacrum of our present organic intelligence in some other form. What form that may take is still open to debate.

Even Vernor Vinge who wrote the first tract on this in his now classic The Coming Technological Singularity once stated that “if the technological Singularity can happen, it will. Even if all the governments of the world were to understand the “threat” and be in deadly fear of it, progress toward the goal would continue.”2 For Vinge the process was inevitable because “the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans’ natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology. And yet … we are the initiators. Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things. We have the freedom to establish initial conditions, make things happen in ways that are less inimical than others.”(ibid.)

But what should we do? Should we just pretend this is all a strange far-out surmise on the part of scientists, that surely this is not a possibility for the near future, go hide our heads in the sand? Or should we do something else? David Roden of enemyindustry has been writing about this and other aspects of the posthuman dilemma for a while now. In his essay The Disconnection Thesis tells us that “Vinge’s idea of a technologically led intelligence explosion is philosophically important because it requires us to consider the prospect of a posthuman condition succeeding the human one.”3 For David the only way to evaluate the posthuman condition would be to witness the emergence of posthumans. With this he emphasizes that what we need is an anti-essentialist model for understanding this new descent into the posthuman matrix. This concept of descent he describes in a “wide” sense insofar as qualifying entities might include our biological descendants or beings resulting from purely technical mediators (e.g., artificial intelligences, synthetic life-forms, or uploaded minds)(Kindle Locations 7391-7393).

Yet, reading his work I wonder if he too is still caught up in the old outmoded folk-psychology belief that humans are distinct from machines rather than being seen as part of an eliminativist naturalism that harbors only a difference in kind. It’s as if these practitioners are almost afraid to leave the old box of philosophical presuppositions behind and forge ahead and invent new tools and frameworks onto which they might latch their descriptive theories. Here is a sentence in which David stipulates the difference between human / posthuman in which the “human-posthuman difference be understood as a concrete disconnection[my emphasis] between individuals rather than as an abstract relation between essences or kinds. This anti-essentialist model will allow us to specify the circumstances under which accounting would be possible”(Kindle Locations 7397-7399).

But if we have never been human in the old folk-psychological sense of that term then isn’t all this essentialist/anti-essentialist rhetoric just begging the question? What if this dichotomy of the human/posthuman is just another false supposition? What if these terms are no longer useful? What if we were never human to begin with? What then? If the eliminativist naturalists are correct then these questions should just vanish before the actual truth of science itself. Even Roden is moving in this direction when he tells us that in a future article he will “consider the possibility that shared “non-symbolic workspaces”— which support a very rich but non-linguistic form of thinking— might render human natural language unnecessary and thus eliminate the cultural preconditions for our capacity to frame mental states with contents expressible as declarative sentences”  (Kindle Locations 7418-7421). What is this but an acceptance of the eliminativist program? Maybe this is just it: the audience that David is trying to convince is those not in the scientific community who already understand very well what is going on, but those who are still trapped within the older folk-psychology, who believe in the myth of mental states and the whole tradition of an outworn intentionality that no longer holds water for those very naturalists that James Barrat above fears.

As David unveils his tale he opens a window on the past, saying, “there are grounds for holding that the process of becoming human (hominization) has been mediated by human cultural and technological activity”(Kindle Locations 7448-7449) . Isn’t this a key? Maybe the truth is that culture is itself a form of technology? Culture as a machine for structuring hominids according to some natural process that we are only now barely understanding? In fact Roden goes on if “in which humans are coupled with other active components: for example, languages, legal codes, cities, and computer mediated information networks” (Kindle Locations 7458-7461). But if R. Scott Bakker is right then even “though we are mechanically embedded as a component of our environments, outside of certain brute interactions, information regarding this systematic causal interrelation is unavailable for cognition”.4 For Scott this whole human/posthuman dichotomy would probably be seen in terms of neglect. As he stated in a recent article, which ties in nicely with David’s sense of social assemblages as technological machines, the brain  “being the product of an environment renders cognition systematically insensitive to various dimensions of that environment. All of us accordingly suffer from what might be called medial neglect. The first-person perspectival experience that you seem to be enjoying this very moment is itself a ‘product’ of medial neglect. At no point do the causal complexities bound to any fraction of conscious experience arise as such in conscious experience. As a matter of brute empirical fact, you are a component system nested within an assemblage of superordinate systems, and yet, when you reflect ‘you’ seem to stand opposite the ‘world,’ to be a hanging relation, a living dichotomy, rather than the causal system that you are. Medial neglect is this blindness, the metacognitive insensitivity to our matter of fact componency, the fact that the neurofunctionality of experience nowhere appears in experience. In a strange sense, it simply is the ‘transparency of experience,’ an expression of the brain’s utter inability to cognize itself the way it cognizes its natural environments.4

In an almost asymmetrical movement Dr. Roden tells us that “biological humans are currently “obligatory” components of modern technical assemblages. Technical systems like air-carrier groups, cities or financial markets depend on us for their operation and maintenance much as an animal depends on the continued existence of its vital organs. Technological systems are thus intimately coupled with biology and have been over successive technological revolutions” (Kindle Locations 7461-7464). Yet, for Roden the emergence of posthumans out of this technogenesis machine of networks and assemblages will ultimately be seen as a “rupture” in that very system. Yet, I wonder if this is true. What if instead it is just one more natural outcome of the possibilities of science as seen within the eliminativist naturalist perspective. Not seen as an oddity, but as part of a process that was started eons ago within our own evolutionary heritage?

There comes a moment in David’s essay when he comes close to actually affirming the eliminativist naturalist position, saying:

The most plausible argument for abandoning anthropological essentialism is naturalistic: essential properties seem to play no role in our best scientific explanations of how the world acquired biological, technical and social structures and entities. At this level, form is not imposed on matter from “above” but emerges via generative mechanisms that depend on the amplification or inhibition of differences between particular entities (For example , natural selection among biological species or competitive learning algorithms in cortical maps). If this picture holds generally, then essentialism provides a misleading picture of reality.(Kindle Locations 7520-7524).

Not only misleading but erroneous according to the eliminativist naturalist perspective of many cognitive scientists as the slow displacement of a folk-psychology that has been long overdue.

Now I’ve presented this as a neutral interlocutor, not as either an affirmer or denigrator of these views. I just don’t have enough information as of yet to truly make such a judgment call. So take the above with a grain of salt from one who is working within an eliminativist naturalist perspective that he himself still finds strangely familiar and familiarly strange.

I look forward to Dr. David Roden’s new book Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human coming out next May on Amazon at least, should shed further light on this subject.

1. Barrat, James (2013-10-01). Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era (Kindle Locations 60-62). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Vinge, Vernor (2010-06-07). The Coming Technological Singularity – New Century Edition with DirectLink Technology (Kindle Locations 100-101). 99 Cent Books & New Century Books. Kindle Edition.
3.   (2013-04-03). Singularity Hypotheses: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment (The Frontiers Collection) (Kindle Location 7307). Springer Berlin Heidelberg. Kindle Edition.
4. Cognition Obscura (Reprise)

Adrian Johnston: Toward a New Materialism

Adrian Johnston in his new work Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism offers an immanent critique of three major masters that have influenced his own philosophical approach: Lacan, Badiou, and Meillossoux. For him each were led into certain cul-de-sacs that allowed their materialisms to founder by taking certain turns toward an earlier onto-theological tradition without ever escaping its central mystique: the sacred. By discovering in each of these fellow travelers the particular knot of problems that kept them tied to certain atavistic elements of an outworn philosophical tradition Johnston states in his Postface:

In the wake of Marx as well as Lacan, Badiou and I both endeavor to pursue the construction of a properly dialectical materialism which, as such, does full justice to the contingent but still very real autonomy of the subjects while not having to lapse regressively into the dualisms and distinctions of the subject-sustaining idealisms opposing subject-squelching pre-/nondialectical materialisms (as contemplative, deterministic, mechanistic, reductive, eliminative, etc.). In the combined shadows of Marx, Lacan, and Badiou (and Zizek as well), one can be a partisan of a really and indissolubly free subject while simultaneously and without coherence or self-contradiction remaining entirely faithful to the uncompromising atheism and immanentism of the combative materialist tradition, making no concessions whatsoever thereby to the mysteries and transcendences of obfuscating obscurantist ideologies appealing to God, Nature, or whatever big Other. (176)1

For Johnston as for these other philosophers the greatest threat to any materialism is both ‘scientism’ and ‘religious obscurantism’. Both reductionist and eliminativist forms of science tend to reinforce support for and a conjuncture with obscurantism rather than alleviating its threat. Even Lacan saw this as a dark aspect of post-Enlightenment thought as Johnston observes, saying, “this codependency [between “narrow-minded scientism” and “superstitious obscurantism”] amounts to scientism’s provoking flights toward obscurantism as themselves supplementary sources of meaningfulness, with these obscurantisms in turn making the nonsensical nihilism of scientism tolerable and sustainable” (175-176).

Johnston finds in Badiou’s return to mathematical formalism an opening of the backdoor that allows both of these darkhorses, scientism and obscurantism entrance. His immanent critique of Badiou seeks to show just where that masters rejection of the life sciences for mathematical formalism went wrong and that what is needed for any new materialism is both a rejection of scientism and religious obscurantism that would lead to a dead end. Instead what is needed – and, in this he agrees with Badiou – is a materialist step beyond such dead ends “urgently needed in a world ruled by the perverse diarchy of capitalism and fundamentalism”(177).

This move toward a new Naturalism that is neither reductive nor eliminative, etc. is for Johnston a return to the Darwinian legacy and the life sciences which have been anathema in Lacan and Badiou. At the heart of this return is formulating a new materialism that is fully Darwinian in the sense that it “is to be tethered voluntarily to the ground of an immanentist and materialist ontology in which lawless concatenations of accidental occurrences bringing into interaction contingently existing entities and events generate, through thoroughly bottom-up dynamics, law-like structures of varying complexity and longevity” (178). What interests Johnston in the Darwinian legacy is the central insight into the rupture, gap, split, etc. that brought about the human/animal dilemma and its resolving through a materialism perspective:

Transcendental materialism

1. is “transcendental” insofar as, with Lacan, if affirms the immanence to material nature of subjects nonetheless irreducible to such natural materialisms.
2. is “materialist” insofar as, against Lacan (as well as both Kant and Badiou), the dual phylo and ontogenetic levels encompassed in my approach, levels linked to both psychoanalysis and the sciences, contain components of a metatranscendental account of transcendental subjectivity.

Contra Kant’s transcendental idealism and Lacan’s and Badiou’s refusal of the life sciences and the post-Darwinian legacy Johnston believes “that thought is obligated to think the material conditions of possibility … for subjectivity as itself a matrix of dematerialized conditions of possibility” (179). What this really means is for Johnston to open up a two-way dialogue between psychoanalysis/philosophy and the experimental sciences not as enemies but as co-workers in need of each other. What he seeks is to bridge the gap between these two troubled institutions and allow for a greater breadth of interaction than has of yet been heretherto possible. All of this hangs on a new conception of a materialist naturalism that is neither reductive nor eliminative, mechanist nor deterministic but allows for a truly powerful framework in which both science and philosophy are seen as dual partners in need of each other rather than as competing entities forever barred from each others broken enclaves.

All of this hinges on an apparent gap/split between the life sciences and the formalist worlds of theoretical/mathematical sciences. One of the questions that has been central and troubling for Johnston and has driven his project is simply stated:

“What sort of ontology of “first nature” (i.e., the one-and-only original real[ity] of material substances) allows for the genesis of a “second nature” (i.e., minded and like-minded autonomous subjects as epistemologically inexplicable and ontologically irreducible with reference to natural material substances alone) – a second nature immanently transcending first nature and requiring theorization in a manner that avoids the mirror-image dual traps of reductive/eliminative monisms and idealist/spiritualist dualisms?”(180)

To answer this question is the point of Johnston’s second and third volumes (A Weak Nature Alone and Substance Also as Subject).  As he states it the second volume will offer an elaboration of his fundamental materialist ontology of the Subject. After rejecting along with Badiou and Meillassoux a limited deontologized epistemology he tells us that A Weak Nature Alone will programmatically integrate those conditions needed for the emergence of transcendental subjectivity out of material substance (204). These conditions are both contingent and non-sufficient, neither teleological nor exhaustively traceable within a logical schema of causality Johnston weaves aspects of both Badiou and Meillassoux’s notions filtering out those aspects that lead to the philosophical cul-de-sacs. Against Meillassoux’s hyperChaos Johnston relies on philosopher Nancy Cartwrights’s notion of nature as “spatiotemporal material being(s)” that is at once both contingent on a “plurality of irreducible levels without, for all that, being hyperchaotic à la Meillassoux” (206). Contra Meillassoux Johnston believes that the choice between necessity and hyper-Chaos is a false dilemma (206).

Johnston contra Meillassoux seeks a different path in his battle with Hume by ontologizing his epistemology so as “not so much to weaken human knowledge of natural necessity, but natural necessity in and of itself” (208). He explicates this saying:

I reject the supposition that necessities really exist in nature despite humanity’s constitutive inability to know them. … Instead, along with Meillassoux, I construe the problem of induction (plus problems of reduction in relation to the multiple branches and strata of the natural sciences) as signaling that the real spatiotemporal physical universe is permeated right down to the ground of its minimal, bare-bones being by factical contingencies (as well as ineliminable conflicts too). (208)

Yet, he rejects contra Meillassoux that this leads to the “necessity of embracing hyper-Chaos” and that haunting corollary “frequentialism”.(208) Yet, against Hume and the associationist model he seeks to transform it rather into a “load-bearing constituent of a new ontological apparatus” (208).  Ultimately Johnston’s use of the term ‘weak nature’ is a reworking of this Humean tradition and a swerve from Meillassoux:

I perceive the ontological weakening of nature as opening within being qua being an sich the possibility of a gap between, on the one hand, a detotalized, disunified plethora of material substances riddled with contingences and conflicts and, on the other hand, the bottom-up surfacing out of these substances of the recursive, self-relating structural dynamics of cognitive, affective, and motivational subjectivity – a subjectivity fully within but nonetheless free at certain levels from material nature. (209)

I remember Zizek in an essay (I need to trace this?) stating that what Continental philosophy was lacking at this moment was a Theory of the Subject. We will need to wait for Adrian Johnston’s two further volumes to see if it actually provides such a theory or not. I do hope that he broadens his spectrum to actually include a many of the advances in cognitive neurosciences beyond Catherine Malabou though. Even if there are aspects of her work that are legitimate I believe that there are a great deal of other current trends within the brain sciences that must be taken into the equation. The other problem I have so far with Johnston is the use of linguistic framework of these traditions he is working within. If he ever hopes (as my friend R. Scott Bakker has pointed) to cross the barrier and actually entertain the real world bridge with the sciences then the language will need a true transformation as well. The old transcendental lingo seems almost antiquated now, even if perfectly legit within certain Continental traditions. Scientists who do not know these traditions will come upon such a work and just figure it is all mystification and nonsense. Sorry to say it but sometimes I think many of these philosophers need to read more science and less philosophy and forge new tools of language for a new time. Will this happen? Who knows?

————

1. The Tracery of a Pattern
2. Adrian Johnston: A Godless Discipline
3. Adrian Johnston: A Materialist Theory of the Subject

1. Johnston, Adrian (2013) Prolegomena To Any Future Materialism – Volume One: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy ( Northwestern University Press)

Adrian Johnston: A Materialist Theory of the Subject

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of the past and the cause of the future. An intellect which at any given moment knew all of the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit the data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom; for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

—Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

The motto of the age of science might well be: natural philosophers have hitherto sought to understand ‘meanings’; the task is to change them.

–Wilfred Sellers

What would a materialist theory of the subject look like beyond both mechanistic and eliminative materialisms? Well for one thing as Adrian Johnston states it in his new work Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism it “must be able to explain how subjectivity emerges out of materiality – and, correlative to this, how materiality must be configured in and of itself so that such an emergence is a real possibility” (27). Johnston harkens back to an early essay by Mao in which he espouses a view of conflict, contradiction, and movement coming at the internal core of things/objects rather than objects or things being passively moved or changed by external causes. For Mao this was not a rejection of external causation but rather an affirmation that “external causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of change, and that external causes become operative through internal causes” (28).

All of this leads toward a affiliation between psychoanalytical metapsychology and dialectical materialism within many of the strands of contemporary materialisms in constructing a new theory of subjectivity. Johnston tells us that any new materialism will need to understand how the materiality of the human subject is at its core the intersection of a “plethora of incompletely harmonized fragments”; and, second, explain how both internal and external causes interact within this materiality of the human being in such a dialectical fashion. (24)

It is at this point that Johnston sees an affinity between his own current project and the work of Catherine Malabou telling us that her work “brilliantly brings to the fore these very issues through a simultaneous engagement with both dialectical materialism and cognitive neuroscience”(24).

[I must admit that I have as of yet read little of Malabou’s work so cannot comment to much on it, but have had mixed reviews of her work from others in the blogging community so will for the moment just let Johnston have his say and will at some future time comment on the good, the bad, and the ugly of his narrow use of certain traditions and sciences. As I read his work I did not see the litany of neuroscientists pulled out of that specialized field with any depth of confrontation, which for one purporting to use neuroscience within his materialist philosophy seemed to be a strange oversight on his part. But be that was it may I’ll hold off all judgments till my final summation. I’m sure my commenters will have their own say…]

What Johnston sees in her work is an affinity for a conflict ontology based upon the Hegelian, Mao, Lacanian, etc. sense of dialectical materialism as being informed by internal contradictions that need an new materialist explanatory-framework that might accomplish what those masters could not do for themselves: invent the possibility of a new dialectical materialist ontology worthy of the tradition and surpassing its inability to transform its own heritage. As he points out Malabou’s first attack on traditional forms of materialism in the sciences is the notion of ‘genetic determinism’ which seems so widely prevalent in modern literature on the subject. According to Johnston Malabou’s attack centers in on just the opposite, it is not genetic determinism but genetic indetermination (i.e., genes determine human beings not to be entirely determined by genes) and the neural plasticity linked to this indetermination ensure the openness of vectors and logics not anticipated or dictated by the bump-and-grind efficient causality of physical particles alone (29). The point of this is that the neurosciences have of their own accord produced a new materialist conception that is neither is irreducible to either a mechanist/physicalist nor eliminativist materialism, but is instead a conception that poses that the “natural contradicts itself and that thought is the fruit of this contradiction” (32).

In a little chapter entitled ‘A Weak Nature, and Nothing More: The True Formula of a Fully Atheistic Materialism’ Johnston returns to Lacan’s work. Citing his use of the Real as neither Kantian or even aligned with any of that totalized noumenal notions, but is instead what the “sciences enable to be accessed lucidly and rigorously in its truth”(34). As Johnston states it Lacan’s Real allows for a new twist in materialism, it poses an assertion of the “primordial real” of natural matter not as synthesized, but as already always “broken” – with this brokenness, the “self-shattered status of a disharmonious nature devoid of any One-All, being a material condition of possibility for the immanent genesis of subjectivity out of the conflict ridden groundless ground of materiality”(37).

Sometimes when I read sentences such as these I wonder just what the philosopher means by “conflict ridden groundless ground of materiality”. So much is left unsaid here or presupposed as if this little drop out of German Idealist traditions on to Martin Heidegger, etc. This conception of an original finitude documented so well recently by Lee Braver in his new book Groundless Grounds: be philosophers list of books to read in 2014.

What Johnston is actually meaning by this is provided in his summation for any future atheistic materialism: “there is just a weak nature, and nothing more” (37). He continues, saying:

All that exists are heterogeneous ensembles of less-than-fully synthesized material beings, internally conflicted, hodgepodge jumbles of elements-in-tension – and that is it. What appears to be more-than-material (especially subjectivity and everything associated with it) is, ultimately, an index or symptom of the weakness of nature, the Other-less, un-unified ground of being. The apparently more-than-material consist of phenomena flourishing in the nooks and crannies of strife-saturated, underdetermined matrices of materiality, in the cracks, gaps, and splits of these discrepant material strata. (37)

—————

1. The Tracery of a Pattern
2. Adrian Johnston: A Godless Discipline

1. Johnston, Adrian (2013) Prolegomena To Any Future Materialism – Volume One: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy ( Northwestern University Press)

Adrian Johnston: A Godless Discipline

Apart from clinical practice, what makes psychoanalysis, at the most foundational theoretical level, a Godless discipline?

Adrian Johnston, Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism

Yet it is not true that everything is packed solid and confined on every side by corporeal substance; for there is void in things.

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

Atheism is the bread and butter of all materialisms. Anti-Platonic it will have no truck with either gods or Ideas, or any other transcendent entity no matter what. Yet, its greatest enemy is the false materialist, the one who would soften the blow of the atheistic stance by “passing off idealist notions as materialist concepts”.(13)1 This is not your pie-in-the-sky type of philosophy, fully fleshed out it is agonistic, virulent, rude, and seeks to weed out its enemies conceptual foundations wherever it finds them. It’s enemy is religions everywhere, no matter what guise they take. And, yet, it was Lacan himself, Adrian Johnston reminds us, who asserted “that materialism usually hovering around and informing the natural sciences – the naturalism espoused during the eighteenth century arguably continues to serve, more often than not, as … the spontaneous philosophy of the scientists – represents a disguised body of religious belief” (15).

How could such a state of affairs come about? Were not these early pioneers of materialist philosophy avid atheists and haters of religious chains? Yes and no. Yes, they disavowed God, spirituality, Catholicism, Protestantism, etc.  yet in its place they enthroned another entity – a substitute God: they made Matter itself into God. With Spinozism we remove one God for another: Matter as Nature would rule from now on. As Johnston in his reading of Lacan surmises in this new materialism of the Enlightenment  “[m]aterial being becomes something eternal, indestructible, and omnipotent”(15). Johnston commenting on Lacan’s critique of these early materialisms, continues, saying:

Lacan views the Sadian flux of nature, with its intense processes of becoming, as the basis for a monotheism-in-bad-faith resting on foundations not so different from those of the enshrined religions spurned by the ostensibly atheist literature. (15)

Ultimately in this new cosmos Nature is divinized. As Johnston comments: “God is far from dead so long as nature is reduced to being the receptacle for and receiver of his attributes and powers” (16). There is this sense that even the natural sciences that emerged during this early age and up to our time are steeped in this mythology of Nature. These natural sciences tend to accept without question “the nonempirical supposition of the ultimate cohesion the material universe as a self-consistent One-All” (16). Just here lies the “hidden theosophical nucleus”  at the core of the natural sciences we now term ‘scientism’.

Here is the dividing line of so much current philosophy and its rejection of the biological sciences in favor of mathematic formalism. Because of this distrust of scientism and the religiosity of a hidden Spinozistic God at the heart of these purported naturalistic sciences many of our contemporary philosophers have been wary of incorporating them into their philosophical stances. Johnston sees this as a mistake and seeks rectification within his own philosophical stance by reincorporating these life sciences purged of their hidden religiosity.

Against this enlarged Nature with matter enthroned as the new god Johnston proposes an alternative. He seeks a “new, fully secularized materialism” one that will be linked to the notion of “nature as the self-shattering, internally conflicted existence of a detotalized material immanence” (20). Yet, to do this we must first get our atheism right. Johnston in his quest to pin down Lacan on atheism finds three specific junctures in his career that shed light on atheism in its modern form. The first instance toward a definition comes Johnston tells us in 1963 session of the tenth seminar in which Lacan describing the power over the obsessional neurotics life by a belief in the “universal eye” – “of a virtual, godlike observer of their existences” (22). It is at this point in his seminar that Lacan states that “such is the true dimension of atheism. An atheist would be someone who has succeeded at eliminating the fantasy of the All-Powerful.”(22)

Johnston commenting on this states that Lacanian analysis can be seen as a form of “psychoanalytical ascesis” in which atheism becomes the outcome of the analytic treatment. Put briefly “traversing the fantasy of an omnipotent and omniscient big Other, whether this Other be conceived of as God, Nature, the analyst, or whatever, is an unavoidable rite of passage in concluding moments of an analysis seen through to a fitting end”(22).

The second instance comes in the sixteenth seminar purports that an atheist is one who has put into question the category of sujet supposé savoir (“subject supposed to know“). As Johnston comments: “Without letting fall and enduring the dissipation of the position of the subject supposed to know, one remains, according to Lacan, mired in idealism and theology; he equates belief in an Other-subject with belief in God”(22).

The last instance comes in the seventeenth seminar where Lacan without reservation asserts that “the pinnacle of psychoanalysis is well and truly atheism”(22-23). The change from the early to the late seminar Johnston tells us is one of tone and stance, an authoritative voice that is adamant and defiant rather than placating, one in which the “apex of the analytic experience” is seen as just this acceptance of atheism.

***

We must recognize that war is common and strife is justice, and all things happen according to strife and necessity. (DK22B80)

War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen. (DK22B53)

– Heraclitus

“The big Other does not exist.” One wants to bronze this statement and peg it just above one’s study so that all that enter will know just where you stand. Yet, as Adrian Johnston tells us, one must supplement this statement from Lacan with another thesis: “in the absence of every version of this Other, what remains lacks any guarantee of consistency right down to the bedrock of ontological fundaments. Strife, potential or actual, reigns supreme as a negativity permeating the layers and strata of material being”(23).

I am always a little wary when older forms, metaphors, figures from another age strike up like “strife” hung out as foundational notions. One has to ask the proverbial question: Is there a god hiding behind this apparent concept? What is Strife? Shall we go back to Heraclitus? Are we swinging between the gongs of strife and necessity? Johnston in earnest tells us that it is this “positing of conflict as ubiquitous and primary” that makes psychoanalysis a Godless discipline. At the core of this discipline is the view of nature not as a big Other, but as the site of antagonisms and oppositions, nature as divided by “conflicts rendering it a fragmented, not-whole non-One,” which constitutes the central core of psychoanalysis as a metapsychology enforced by a merciless desacralization.(24)

another post to come dealing with this conflictual ontology in the making….

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1. Johnston, Adrian (2013) Prolegomena To Any Future Materialism – Volume One: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy ( Northwestern University Press)

1. The Tracery of a Pattern

Adrian Johnston: The Tracery of a Pattern

Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them. There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening, with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres where they are portrayed, and rolls up, one after the other, the despatches announcing to us the collapse of the last enemy troops, from defeat to defeat, and flakes the wax of the seals of obscure kings who beseech our armies’ protection, offering in exchange annual tributes of precious metals, tanned hides, and tortoise shell. It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless , formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing. Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.1

— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Calvino’s fabulations have always stirred in me a sense of levity that comes with long years of reading through thousands of books over a life time seeking just that – “the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.” In a time of ruins and decay when our planetary civilization is slowly unraveling before our very eyes and the great cultures that have sustained us for several thousands of years are beginning to realize that their unsustainable visions of the future are collapsing around them we begin to seek answers not in those dark worlds but in our own dark hearts.

More and more as I study philosophy in its contemporary form I wonder if these philosophers are truly concerned with the crumbling worlds around them or if it is all an academic one-upmanship on the road toward a continuing career. Do we really believe in our ideas anymore? Are we willing to stake our lives on these ideas and center them on problems of our planetary civilization? Or shall we continue to dance with our scholastic blinders vying for our day in the philosophical sun? All rhetorical carpology to be sure. But it is more than just a jest I wonder if we’ve lost sight of one of the enduring legacies of philosophy: the search for Wisdom. I seem to harp back on that from time to time because I find so little of it in the works I read. Oh yes there is a great deal of fine tuning of differing frameworks within which we couch our thoughts, but in the end it all seems so overdone, so embellished and decadently hyperaware of its place in the philosophical tradition that one wonders where the actual truth resides?

I think this is why I sometimes use Zizek in my posts because he is well-read and yet doesn’t fit the pattern of any academic professional – even though he is unceasing in his unwavering devotion to promote a younger generation of philosophers and is a force of energy that continues to problematize and question everything. Do I agree with everything he says? Of course not… as many of his critics – and, to be sure, he has many enemies both ideological and envious – continually point out he is convoluted, repetitive, leads into false logical conundrums, etc. Yes, one can find fault in any philosopher. But is that the important thing? There is no stable identity to tie down a philosopher into some system that can be totalized and then extrapolated into logical form. But enough on Zizek, I use him as one example.

My problem is that I keep seeking a philosopher who will rise up in our midst and shake the foundations of our thought-worlds like Kant did two hundred years ago, but as of yet none has succeeded in doing just that. We seem to be bound to his long shadow:

It always remains a scandal of philosophy and universal human reason that the existence of things outside us … should have to be assumed merely on faith, and that if it occurs to anyone to doubt it, we should be unable to answer him with a satisfactory proof.

Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but … let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition.

And there we sit to this day in a circle of endless repetition both Analytic and Continental under the power of ‘intentional consciousness’.  Kant argued that our experiences are structured by necessary features of our minds. The mind shapes and structures experience so that, on an abstract level, all human experience shares certain essential structural features.

Was Kant right in his surmise? This is the question that has haunted philosophers from the German Idealists to our latest tribe of contemporary philosophers. And the verdict is still out. And, what of this new world of the sciences? What of neuroscience? What of all those thousands of images that seem to provide a myriad of interpretive datasets for the brain scientists? Will neuroscience replace philosophy? Are will philosophy fine tune the workings of scientists?

1

In the postscript to his new trilogy Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism Adrian Johnston throws out the tracery of a pattern, a sort of ongoing revisable definition of his program:

…I am tempted to characterize my transcendental materialism as an emergent dual-aspect monism, albeit with the significant qualification that these “aspects” and their ineradicable divisions (such as mind and matter, the asubjective and subjective, and the natural and the more-than-natural) enjoy the heft of actual existence (rather than being, as they are in Spinoza’s dual-aspect monism, epiphenomena deprived of true ontological substantiality). One of the questions animating my philosophical program is: What sort of ontology of “first nature” (i.e., the one-and-only original real[ity] of material substances) allows for the genesis of a “second nature” (i.e., minded and like-minded autonomous subjects as epistemologically inexplicable and ontologically irreducible with reference to natural material substances alone) – a second nature immanently transcending first nature and requiring theorization in a manner that avoids the mirror-image dual traps of reductive/eliminative monisms and idealist/spiritualist dualisms? (180)2

There is so much packed into this short quote that one could spend a book in unpacking all the threads that lead to this statement. Johnston, if nothing else, is a careful reader of the traditions, and is working ahead of the curve (i.e., measuring the critics that will come like vultures at a feast). Funny that he begins with a surmise, a “temptation to characterize,” rather than a full blown authoritative gesture. I sometimes wonder if this is a sort of staging practice philosophers play with other philosophers so that they can upon receipt let others know tongue and cheek that none of this is set in stone, it is all part of something I’m working on and toward, but not the finished product by any means.

Then he pulls the hat out of the bag telling us that this is a “transcendental materialism as an emergent dual-aspect monism” then proceeds to double qualify this. But before we go on to the qualification we need to ponder what he means first by “transcendental materialism”, and then as a variant of an “emergent dual-aspect monism”. One must first take him at his word that this present work is part of a continuing confrontation with certain contemporary philosophers. He dealt heavily with Slavoj Žižek in two previous works (i.e., Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendetal Materialist Theory of Subjectivity, and Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations: The Cadences of Change). So his confrontation in this present work is what we can only perceive as a young philosopher beginning to step out from under the tutelage and shadows of his comrades in arms and begin to carefully map his own territory in the vast agglomeration of philosophical theory and practice. Who are these other thinkers? Lacan, Badiou, and Meillassoux all contemporary French thinker, one the famed anti-philosopher and revisionist and progenitor of French Psychoanalysis (Lacan), and, the others both mentors (Badiou) and rival/comrade (Meillassoux). As he states it “… this book contains Hegelian-style immanent critiques of these three thinkers” (xiv). Out of this confrontation he hopes to forge a “new materialism both profoundly influenced by these brilliant comrades of a shared cause as making up for the alleged shortcomings of their own attempts creatively to bring to realization the Lacanian vision of an Other-less ontology”(xv).

Just there is where we must begin. Lacan. If Adrian Johnston starts with Lacan we must first appraise what it is he sees in this master that needed ‘correction’, an oddly derivative term that implies an almost Lucretian clinamen (i.e., a rhetorical term denoting that a thinker went just so far but no farther, and needs a swerve or correction at just this point to complete the work that was originally intended).

Inevitably Johnston returns to that fateful moment in Lacan’s nineteenth seminar in which he arrogantly prophesied the notion that a “novel brand of philosophy” based on his work would one day arise.(3) Johnston sees this prediction being fulfilled in the work of three of his contemporaries: Žižek, Badiou, and Meillassoux.  But why Lacan? Why was he such a force to be reckoned with that these philosophers have hung their hats in his shadow? Was it that he made ‘dialectics, atheism, and materialism’ a cornerstone of his psychoanalytic practice?

…the true formula of atheism is not God is dead—even by basing the origin of the function of the father upon his murder, Freud protects the father— the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious.3

It is just here that we find the kernel of a difference, a slight swerve from Freud’s stance to Lacan’s stance in just what is central to atheism. Lacan takes away the Judgement, the murder, and the victimology that have strewn the traditions of thought for two thousand years in at least western literature. This formula that ‘God is unconscious’ brings with it a sort of ironic stance, one that acknowledges that God exists, but that he is blinded to his own powers (i.e., unconscious). Strange idea that this would be a formula for atheism. Slavoj  Žižek in his usual perspicuity reminds us that to read this passage correctly one should to read it together with another thesis of Lacan. These two dispersed statements should be treated as the pieces of a puzzle to be combined into one coherent proposition. It is only their interconnection (plus the reference to the Freudian dream of the father who doesn’t know that he is dead) that enables us to deploy Lacan’s basic thesis in its entirety:

As you know, the father Karamazov’s son Ivan leads the latter into those audacious avenues taken by the thought of the cultivated man, and in particular, he says, if God doesn’t exist… – If God doesn’t exist, the father says, then everything is permitted. Quite evidently, a naïve notion, for we analysts know full well that if God doesn’t exist, then nothing at all is permitted any longer. Neurotics prove that to us every day. (see: Chapter Seven: How to Read Lacan)

Žižek continues: “The modern atheist thinks he knows that God is dead; what he doesn’t know is that, unconsciously, he continues to believe in God. What characterizes modernity is no longer the standard figure of the believer who secretly harbors intimate doubts about his belief and engages in transgressive fantasies; today, we have, on the contrary, a subject who presents himself as a tolerant hedonist dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, and whose unconscious is the site of prohibitions: what is repressed are not illicit desires or pleasures, but prohibitions themselves. “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is prohibited” means that the more you perceive yourself as an atheist, the more your unconscious is dominated by prohibitions which sabotage your enjoyment.”(ibid)

One can see just how religious the new atheists have become in such works as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. They defend atheism almost as dogmatic as early Christian Fathers defended the faith. Instead of a life of pure enjoyment we see a world of prohibitions governed by dogmas of a wrong headed atheism. (Being an atheist myself I often wonder how these writers suddenly took on the vanguard of defending a faith that wasn’t a faith.) But as Žižek in his quirkiness reminds us: “Today, however, we are bombarded from all sides by different versions of the injunction “Enjoy!”, from direct enjoyment in sexual performance to enjoyment in professional achievement or in spiritual awakening. Jouissance today effectively functions as a strange ethical duty: individuals feel guilty not for violating moral inhibitions by way of engaging in illicit pleasures, but for not being able to enjoy. In this situation, psychoanalysis is the only discourse in which you are allowed not to enjoy – not prohibited to enjoy, but just relieved of the pressure to enjoy.” (ibid)

This secularized vision is the first movement in Johnston’s new materialist discourse. Yet, all is not so bright and shiny in Lacanism. Within it’s intricate weave are certain threads that still hark back to older more religious terms which control its thought forms. And, it is to this, that Johnston spends two chapters on Lacan, delineating the features within Lacanism that might provide the salvagable gems to inform any future materialism stripped of its religious detritus.

I will take up this in my next post….

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1. Calvino, Italo (2013-08-12). Invisible Cities (Kindle Locations 53-63). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
2. Johnston, Adrian (2013) Prolegomena To Any Future Materialism – Volume One: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy ( Northwestern University Press)
3. Lacan, Jacques (2010-06-08). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (Kindle Locations 1049-1050). Karnac Books. Kindle Edition.

Happy Holidays… and my continued readings!

Happy Holidays all!

I’ve been playing hookie of late enjoying family and friends, but have been doing some reading as well. Along with rereading from the beginning the works of Gilles Deleuze – having started Empiricism and Subjectivity of late (his treatment of David Hume). I am also reading a fascinating new work that may just be the next great preamble to a way forward in philosophy. I speak of Adrian Johnston’s new Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism. This is the open salvo in what appears to be a trilogy that will open a new path for those who have struggled of late with Contemporary French Philosophy.

Adrian Johnston is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque and a faculty member of the Emory Psychoanalytic Institute in Atlanta.  He is the author of Time Driven:  Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive (2005), Žižek’s Ontology:  A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity (2008), Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations:  The Cadence of Change (2009), and Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism, Volume One:  The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy (2013), all published by Northwestern University Press.  He is the co-author, with Catherine Malabou, of Self and Emotional Life:  Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience (Columbia University Press, 2013).  His next book, Adventures in Transcendental Materialism:  Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers, will be released by Edinburgh University Press in early 2014.  With Todd McGowan and Slavoj Žižek, he is a co-editor of the book series Diaeresis at Northwestern University Press.

There is a good review of his opening book on Philosophical Reviews for those interested:

http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/44866-prolegomena-to-any-future-materialism-volume-one-the-outcome-of-contemporary-french-philosophy/

I’ll add my thoughts at some future time, but for now am enjoying what is being presented so far.

R. Scott Bakker: The Last Magic Show

There always seems to be a fine line in commentary between teasing thoughts out of the mind of another, and the downright obliteration of those very thoughts by an insidious misappropriation and transformation or distortion that takes place in any philosophical commentary. Over the years – and, I’ve literally read thousands of commentaries of specific authors, books, etc. – I’ve come to the realization that most of us will probably never agree on the meaning of reality, that we all tend to differing conceptions due to culture, natural disposition, and the inexplicable and as of yet undefined modes of our specific existences. We are a mystery that will never be wholly explained. Even the idea that we are ‘critical thinkers’ has recently been called into question with the assertion that the ‘rationalizing brain’ is a thinking machine which is far too complex to be reduced to the older forms of subjectivity and intentionality. As my friend over at Three Pound Brain, R. Scott Bakker iterates over an over: we’re all blind to our own brain, and all the cultural and philosophical baggage coined under the term ‘intentional awareness’ is sham through and through. Scott even reminds us in his provisional manifesto (here) that those of our contemporary literati and philosophical radicals (so called) are actually quite conservative – still believing in the old terms, the old mythology of the Self as Subject even under the auspices of overthrowing such conceptual bric-a-brac, etc. :

Where the Old Theory discusses ‘fragmented subjectivities,’ cognitive science has moved on to fragmented intentionalities more generally, questioning the stability and reality of things–context, affect, normativity, perception, and so on–that the Old Theory still takes for granted. The Old Theory, in other words, continues to anthropomorphize its discursive domain, positing intentionalities that the sciences are now calling into serious question. Ignorant of the truly radical alternatives, it continues to service the same folk-psychological intuitions that underwrite the cultural status quo.

Science treats us as machines, and fragmented machines at best, broken mis-measurers of reality who blinded to their own partial knowledge or lack of such assume metacognitive appropriation of the real where none is to be had. “How many puzzles whisper and cajole and actively seduce their would-be solvers? How many problems own the intellect that would overcome them?” So begins Bakker’s The Last Magic Show: A Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness (here). Bakker already admits to his outsider status within the domain of scientific practice and discipline that he has chosen to stake his theoretical proclivities (here), but sees this as par for the course for any viable future theory which for him will embrace “the crank, the amateur, understanding that unprecedented answers tend to come from institutionally unconstrained sources–from the weeds outside our academic gardens.”

As I continue to read Scott’s blog I have slowly ingrained myself to his terminology, which seems to float through many disciplines in search of a key to tap others of like mind. He doesn’t mind the crankiness and quirkiness of his work, or even the castigation of it he receives. For him this is all par for the course of any new theory: the test is that people cannot remain neutral to its impact, they can only love or hate it – never sit on the fence with its conceptions. Scott is an avid reader of current literature dealing with ‘intentionality’ and the sciences and philosophy of mind and consciousness. Over time he has honed his arsenal of tools and approach to his own ignorance and Socratic path. I admire his tenacity and forthrightness. He seems like the proverbial dog of Diogenes always barking at the masters bitter truths realizing that what he sees both exasperates him and astounds him. Sometimes he wants to be kicked, hoping someone will disprove his hunches; yet, time and time again, the veritable panoply of oncomers fail to convince and fall by the wayside as he continues his search for the definitive martialing of his theory.

In the Last Magic Show he alludes to the discrepancy between the appearance and the scientific descriptive portrayal of consciousness, and of the need for a supplementary theory to tease out the appearance of consciousness. But before tackling such a theory one wants Scott to first explain what he means by appearance and consciousness. Should we assume these terms mean something specific for him or that they should be qualified by the history of their use in science or philosophy; or, even as partial of the accepted definitions (ie. the OED, etc.). Do we just assume a complicity between the writer and his audience that we all have the same understanding of these terms and their heuristic use in the text? Why should I even raise this as an issue? Shouldn’t the text itself in the movement of its words bring out the meaning of these two such important terms and their use as Scott continues his discourse.

Since he does not make explicit what he means by such terms up front, then we must continue our reading and see what he is up too. In the next paragraph he unloads a bomb: “The central assumption of the present paper is that any final theory of consciousness will involve some account of multimodal neural information integration.” He actually places a footnote for this (and of course we will assume for better or worse that this is a published paper for a specific audience, and not intended for the general reader who may or may not be knowledgeable of such terminology). And, of course in the footnote he informs us that the underpinnings of much of his theory are idealizations of other theoretical work in the sciences: “Tononi’s Information Integration Theory of Consciousness (2012) and Edelman’s Dynamic Core Hypothesis (2005). The RS as proposed here is an idealization meant to draw out structural consequences perhaps belonging to any such system.”

Tonino starts with phenomenology which ties him to the whole history of a specific set of philosophical presuppositions that I will not belabor. The point is that for Tonino consciousness is ‘integrated information’: a physical and quantifiable effect of the brain and not some substantive entity either immersed or transcendent of the brain. Our consciousness is generated out of neural processes for specific evolutionary reasons. One can see the full lecture:

For Edelman and Tonino on the Dynamic Core Hypothesis one can read their Consciousness and Complexity paper here. I’ll leave this to the reader to pursue. A blog post for the future could delve into both of these in depth but for the moment I’m dealing again with R. Scott Bakker’s proposal. Yet, since these two men’s work seem to underpin his essay it might be good to know just what they are proposing.

We propose that a large cluster of neuronal groups that together constitute, on a time scale of hundreds of milliseconds, a unified neural process of high complexity be termed the “dynamic core,” in order to emphasize both its integration and its constantly changing activity patterns. The dynamic core is a functional cluster –its participating neuronal groups are much more strongly interactive among themselves than with the rest of the brain. The dynamic core must also have high complexity — its global activity patterns must be selected within less than a second out of a very large repertoire.

The point being that consciousness is the effect of a specific set of interacting neurons termed the ‘dynamic core’ and its communicative processes in integrating messages or chemical transformations from the global brain as part of a  specific functionary dynamism of complex processes (feedback loops, energy transfer, chemical reactors, etc.). The crux of their goal is a theory that supports the “belief that a scientific explanation of consciousness is becoming increasingly feasible”. The point being for them is to have a scientifically valid theory that relates the phenomenology of consciousness to a “distributed neural process that is both highly integrated and highly differentiated”.

Now Bakker in his reading sees consciousness as the product of a “Recursive System (RS) of some kind, an evolutionary twist that allows the human brain to factor its own operations into its environmental estimations and interventions”(here). The use of the term ‘recursive system’ comes from the technical use made by Dynamic Core theory: “The dynamic core consists of a momentary subset of the thalamocortical system defined by active synapses.  Positive feedback/reentrant signals circulate in the network of the dynamic core. The active synapses comprising the dynamic core continually change as the dynamic core updates recursively on the basis of about 100 ms.” (here) For Bakker the subjective personal identity of first person is an illusion, a confusion of our experience of consciousness which is actually a machine of neuronal activity blind to its own emergent processes which become conscious only after these specific sub-neuronal processes have emerged from the function of the Dynamic Core.

Yet, I wonder, is our awareness of being aware an illusion of this process as well? Or is it part of the actual dynamic process in its ongoing neuronal activity, being only one phase of this process and not the whole gamut? Why are we aware of our awareness to begin with? Is it because of these recursive feedback-loops interacting at such high rates and complexity that we confuse the process for something else: a center of self and subjectivity? Knowing the facts of this brain activity does not take away the awareness of our awareness, so how explain this awareness of our consciousness to begin with? This so called science tries to describe the process not the outcome, but we are more interested not in the material processes that over the evolutionary strand have due to some quirk in our natural history brought about this blind brain. What we are interested in is an explanation of why we are aware at all? Why do we need consciousness to begin with? Why this confusion of self and world, this seeming sense of a self to begin with? If we accept that this is a lie, an illusion created by the process itself then is it something useful, a happy accident of evolution? Explaining it in scientific terms doesn’t really get at the heart of the confusion so far as I can see. Knowing that we are just the fabrication of a blind brain immersed in sub-neural and neuronal processes explains only the bare minimum of the brain itself, but this doesn’t really get at consciousness at all. Instead it just complicates the matter with more questions.

Why did evolution bring about consciousness in just this specific form in humans and not in other creatures? Why are other creatures not aware of their awareness? Why humans? What brought about this strange if complicated separation between the brain and its awareness, and of its ability to recursively process its own awareness? Why are there thinking minds to begin with? What in the evolutionary process brought the need for thinking to begin with? And, why just one specific species? If that is even true.

As Bakker informs us over and over we’re we “generally don’t possess the information we think we do!” Consciousness is just the tip of a great iceberg or abyss that we are completely unaware of. Ok I’ll bite, and realize we filter out almost 99% (of course we have no quantifiable measuring stick for this, scientific or otherwise) of the data below our conscious mind. We seem to thrive quite nicely on our ignorance and let the physical brain do the rest in unconscious bliss. But one does not need a rocket scientist to tell us that if we had all that information at our disposal in one moment we’d be unable to see the forest for the trees, we’d be lost in a maze of information. So what we discover is that consciousness is a filter, a selective center of a specific set of processes that integrates the information that is processed below the stream in the brain and brings to awareness only the specific information needed to get on with the physical process of life itself. Is this so hard to accept? Surely not! We all understand that we need only what will help us get on with our work. The crux is not in this, we only become aware of it as a problem when we are unable to retrieve the information needed, when the brain for medical or other reasons does not work, and in fact breaks down and is no longer able to integrate the information: then we call for either the medical or psychological teams to investigate.

Of course Bakker is not unaware of this quagmire:

..at some point in our recent evolutionary past, perhaps coeval with the development of language, the human brain became more and more recursive, which is to say, more and more able to factor its own processes into its environmental interventions. Many different evolutionary fables may be told here, but the important thing (to stipulate at the very least) is that some twist of recursive information integration, by degrees or by leaps, led to human consciousness. Somehow, the brain developed the capacity to ‘see itself,’ more or less.

This is where my own questions start? Why? What event or strange evolutionary process brought this about? Why us and not other animals as well? If recursivity is game then why did evolution see this for just one specific species? There needs to be something more concrete that a ‘fable’ to explain this? Bakker again has a guess for this in the wings “the RS is an assemblage of ‘kluges,’ the slapdash result of haphazard mutations that produced some kind of reproductive benefit (Marcus, 2008).” But this is more surmise than actual answer. Another scientific fable to confuse more that enlighten us about the fabric of consciousness and its specific form in the human animal.

Yet, Bakker admits to my own point saying “We have good reason to suppose that the information that makes it to consciousness is every bit as strategic as it is fragmental. We may only ‘see’ an absurd fraction of what is going on, but we can nevertheless assume that it’s the fraction that matters most …” Exactly! For whatever reason the information we get is what we need to get own with our work whatever that might be, and yet sometimes we need more we need to invent other avenues of information that the brain lacks. What then? If the brain does not give us what we need what then? Could this lead us to ask other questions as to why we formed a specific type of consciousness that we did? Is brain science the last answer, the be all end all of a physical apprehension of these processes?

Sometimes I get the feeling that Bakker sees consciousness as a bit player, as a passive pony in a parade that is for the most part hidden in the recesses of recursive processes totally out of its control of sway. But is this true? Is consciousness just a passive receptacle, a sort of central void where all these recursive processes finally integrate and divulge their long labors in the unconscious brain? –

The problem lies in the dual, ‘open-closed’ structure of the RS. As a natural processor, the RS is an informatic crossroads, continuously accessing information from and feeding information to its greaterneural environment. As a consciousness generator, however, the RS is an informatic island : only theinformation that is integrated finds its way to conscious experience. This means that the actual functions subserved by the RS within the greater brain —the way it finds itself ‘plugged in’—  are no more accessible to consciousness than are the functions of the greater brain. And this suggests that consciousness likely suffers any number of profound and systematic misapprehensions.

His use of the metaphor ‘plugged in’ as if this dynamic core were machine plugged into the greater databank of the brain with consciousness totally blank and devoid of knowledge of this specific engine it is connected too. I sometimes feel like we are reading a new Lovecraft novel written by a scientist rather than a literary fantasist. And of course Bakker is that as well (no pun intended).

So ultimately we come to crux of Bakker’s theory, BBT of Blind Brain Theory: “Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness simply represents an attempt to think through this question of information and access in a principled way: to speculate on what our ‘conscious brain’ can and cannot see.”

So his actual theory is quite specific more toned down that it’s actual portrayal in post after post on his blog. A speculative theory on the brains blindness and insight into its own recursive processes. Simple and sweet, yet infinitely complex in its actual goals. What I like about Bakker’s work so far is that he moves us beyond the quagmires of present philosophical literature. Current philosophy in it anit-representaionalist and representationalist literature Analytic or Continental deal with the extremes of Subject or Object. In Badiou and Zizek we start with the ‘Subject’, with others – such as the SR or OOO gang with ‘Objects’ and a multitude of those in between those two extremes measuring the world in processes. I simplify of course. But my drift is that those such as Zizek deal with the void of self, the abyss within around which consciousness like a satellite revolves in recursive formation; while others like Graham Harman consider objects as withdrawn and unknowable, as recursive dynamic systems that consciousness is totally blind too. Bakker on the other hand coming out of a naturalistic scientific philosophical background seeks scientific terminology of the newer brain sciences that try to move us beyond the use of Subject and Object altogether.

The next question that arises is ‘Time’, and specifically the now of our conscious mind, the first-person singular illusion he speaks of. As he says, “Any theory that fails to account for it fails to explain a central structural feature of consciousness as it is experienced. It certainly speaks to the difficulty of consciousness that it takes one of the most vexing problems in the history of philosophy as a component!” For RS theory time is nothing more that the integration point where the brain becomes conscious: this is the moment we experience as ‘now’.  As Bakker would have it “Our experience of  time is an achievement. Our experience of nowness, on the other hand, is astructural side-effect. The same way our visual field is boundless and yet enclosed by an inability to see, our temporal field – this very moment now –  is boundless and yet enclosed by an inability to time. This is what makes the now so perplexing, so difficult to grasp: it is what might be called an ‘occluded structural property of experience.’”

One could spend an essay or even a book on just what Time is and its relation to consciousness. Yet, it is one of the cornerstones of many philosophical debates. In the older Newtonian universe the spatio-temporal dimensions were extensive and contained in a passive receptacle. In recent time Whitehead offered a more dynamic cross-sectional theory. As most scientists know experiments that might serve as bases for the construction of a physical theory or that might serve as tests for the confirmation of a physical theory are subject to the demand that standard conditions prevail or that suitable correction factors be introduced to ensure the consistency and the comparison of the experimental results. Otherwise, the experimental results would be one-time reports with no significance beyond isolated experiments, certainly not beyond the domain of the peculiar conditions that do prevail in the experiments. Also, were there not an assumption of standard conditions, it would follow that theories would be constructed and confirmed with reference only to peculiar conditions prevailing in particular areas where the experimentation takes place.

I’m not a Whitehead expert but feel there is an important part of his work to be still investigated. In Process and Reality we discover that for him the physical and geometrical order of nature in were described in terms of “a hierarchy of societies” (PR 147-50, 506-08). Basically, a “society” is a grouping of events which manifest a common characteristic, the presence of that characteristic being guaranteed by the relations which the events sustain. The physical and geometrical order of nature is constituted by at least three societies, “the society of pure extension,” “the geometric society,” and “the electromagnetic society.” The point to be noted is the relationship of the geometrical society and the electromagnetic society. The latter is embedded, so to speak, in the former, so that a determination of the variable physical quantities which characterize the electromagnetic society is obtained against a background of relationships which comprise a uniform metric structure:

The whole theory of the physical field is the interweaving of the individual peculiarities of actual occasions upon the background of systematic geometry. (PR 507)

[T] hese diversities and identities are correlated according to a systematic law expressible in terms of the systematic measurements derived from the geometric nexus. (PR 150)

When I think of the recursive embedding of these differing hierarchies of societies I’m reminded of how consciousness too is embedded in a recursive nexus of processes of which it is unaware, but that can be measured through a determination of certain variable physical quanta through an analogous background of relationships that comprise the uniform metric structure of the global brain itself. The now being nothing more than one of those ‘actual occasions’ upon which the background is woven. If one applied the exactitude of such geometrical precision to the brain science one might actually be able to systematically measure the peculiarities of consciousness itself in a scientific way. A testable theory!

Without going into every detail of Bakker’s essay, which I could not begin to do full justice too in one blog post. I will instead leave you with his parting words:

I sometimes fear that what we call ‘consciousness’ does not exist at all, that we ‘just are’ an integrative informatic process of a certain kind, possessing none of the characteristics we intuitively attribute to ourselves. Imagine all of your life amounting to nothing more than a series of distortions and illusions attending a recursive twist in some organism’s brain. For more than ten years I have been mulling ‘brain blindness,’ dreading it–  even hating it. Threads of it appear in every novel I have written. And I still can’t quite bring myself to believe it.

This idea that we are machines, ‘integrative informatics processing’ machines at that, who have for so long assumed grandiose dribble about our personal worth and identity seems to be Bakker’s worst nightmare come true. What it seems to me is that he has discovered what is coming toward us, the future belongs to something else… something not quite human, yet born of our own strange informatics processes: the cyborgs and artificial intelligences that we may one day give birth too may look back quaintly at this troubled angel of flesh and blood and wonder just what all the fuss was about anyway. Maybe the last magic show is not for us but for our electronic children. Wouldn’t that be a recursive twist for the comic book heroes of an age to come… or is that age upon us? Nightmares indeed…

The Task of Philosophy: Deleuze and the Pluralist Tradition

“The philosopher-comets knew how to make pluralism an art of thinking, a critical art.”
— Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy

There seems to be in our present generation a need to overthrow the recent dead in philosophy, to clear a space and move forward into the ‘great outdoors’ as certain speculators would have it. Yet, one wonders why? Why is renouncing the recent work of such philosophical originals as Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, to name just two of the recent great philosophers of our previous generation, done with such dismissive gestures. We love labels for some reason, we love to peg certain labels on the proverbial donkeys tail; or, should I say, philosopher’s hind. One wonders if such dismissal misleads our present generation? “Stupidity and baseness are always those of our own time, of our contemporaries, our stupidity and baseness.”1

Deleuze, like his progenitor, Nietzsche, always considered philosophy as both critical and untimely: “This is why philosophy has an essential relation to time: it is always against its time, critique of the present world (107)”. Philosophy is the great dymystifier: its task is the rooting out of stupidity and baseness in the present age. There are moments when I need to remind myself of that. Sometimes I forget that philosophy has a task:

Philosophy does not serve the State or the Church, who have other concerns. It serves no established power. The use of philosophy is to sadden. A philosophy that saddens no one, that annoys no one, is not a philosophy. It is useful for harming stupidity, for turning stupidity into something shameful. Its only use is the exposure of all forms of baseness of thought. (106)

Have we lost the art of thinking in our time? Have we all become stupid and base, forgetting the task of philosophy? One doesn’t have to go far to hear certain – so called, new philosophers, decrying critique as if the task of philosophy is no longer critical but is something else altogether. Why is that? What are these so called philosophers up too, anyway? These new philosophers put me to sleep, their thought is dead, it does not quicken me into active thought, but instead hands me a noose and kindly says: “Go hang thy self.” These – so called, philosophers are the great mystifiers, the bringers of grand illusions, utopianists of reality. They offer only to guide the unthinking into a deeper labyrinth of mindless dribble. Instead of such strange speculators who would lead us astray we should all return to such philosophers as Nietzsche and Deleuze not because they offer some great wisdom or knowledge, but because they exasperate, they confound, they awaken us from our slumbers and give us the one thing we need most: thought that is alive and resilient – the figure of the philosopher, thinking. Their thought goes against the grain, against time, it makes one restless and full of life, it disturbs us in our sleep and makes us uncomfortable with the status quo. It expounds on the stupidity and baseness of its age and teaches us to do the same.

This kind of philosophy makes us all travelers of thought, frequenters of tropical zones “frequented by the tropical man, not temperate zones or the moral, methodical or moderate man (110).”

1. Gilles Deleuze. Nietzsche and Philosophy. trans. Hugh Tomlinson (Columbia University Press: 1962)

Alain Badiou: The Subject of Art

The point is that the relation, the subjective relation between an event and the world cannot be a direct relation.
————– Alain Badiou: The Subject of Art

One often wonders what truly is going on in Badiou’s mind as he prepares for his lectures. Reading the lecture I quoted above in the link I sit back in wonderment at the childlike simplicity of his statements, as if the audience before him were all ten year old kids and he the master was trying his best to lead them through the intricate yet simple realms of Alice’s Wonderland. His voice is charming and eloquent, decisive and pure, yet one is tempted to smile and realize that the Master has gone over this track too many times, that it is all too confident, too precise and mathematical for our taste. It’s as if he is trying to convince not the audience but himself of the simplicity of his system, to make sure that each and every aspect of its labored precision still fits the measure of his tempered mind. And, does it? Is this trifold world of being qua being, being-in-the-word, and the event truly locked down in such a methodical fashion as to allow for no critical injunctions?

Badiou like Zizek always begins and ends with the Subject as that point in the world where something new happens:

The point is that the relation, the subjective relation between an event and the world cannot be a direct relation. Why? Because an event disappears on one side, and on the other side we never have a relation with the totality of the world. So when I say that the subject is a relation between an event and the world we have to understand that as an indirect relation between something of the event and something of the world. The relation, finally, is between a trace and the body. I call trace ‘what subsists in the world when the event disappears.’ It’s something of the event, but not the event as such; it is the trace, a mark, a symptom. And on the other side, the support of the subjectthe reality of the subject in the worldI call ‘a new body.’ So we can say that the subject is always a new relation between a trace and a body. It is the construction in a world, of a new body, and jurisdictionthe commitment of a trace; and the process of the relationship between the trace and the body is, properly, the new subject. (here)

When I saw that word ‘trace’ rise up in the above sentences I was reminded of another French philosopher, Jaques Derrida, for whom trace became a catch word. In the 1960s, Derrida used this word in two of his early books, namely “Writing and Difference” and “Of Grammatology”. Because the meaning of a sign is generated from the difference it has from other signs, especially the other half of its binary pairs, the sign itself contains a trace of what it does not mean. One cannot bring up the concepts of woman, normality, or speech without simultaneously evoking the concepts of man, abnormality, or writing. The trace is the nonmeaning that is inevitably brought to mind along with the meaning.” Is there a connection? I doubt it, only the connection in my own mind between two distinctly independent and intelligent philosophers that obviously with careful reading probably questioned each other to no end, yet read each other deeply and contentiously. Their thought converges and diverges on the concept of the event. I’d have to spend too much time to tease out the complexity of both philosophers conceptions to do that in a blog post so will end here. Read the above essay if you will for it lays down in a few words the basic architectural units of Badiou’s whole system of philosophy. One could do no better than read it and either follow it up with a deep reading of his major works Being and Event and The Logic of Worlds, or toss it into the trash and follow one’s own inclinations toward other climes. I leave that to the reader to choose. For me it is enough to realize that Badiou is someone you cannot pass over, but must confront with all the rigor that he brings to his own project. That there can be no direct relation between the event and the world to me seems to fit nicely into many of the strands of current philosophical speculation. This is a philosophy of movement, of happening, not of closure and stasis. The idea of indirect relation is processual in its dynamics, yet is also gathered into the net of mathematical precision as the intersection of relations defined as the movement between world and body, subject and its field of newness. Where does this take us? I’ll only leave you with one last tidbit from the lecture:

So the subject of art is not only the creation of a new process in its proper field, but it’s also a question of war and peace, because if we don’t find the new paradigm—the new subjective paradigm—the war will be endless.  And if we want peace—real peace—we have to find the possibility that subjectivity is really in infinite creation, infinite development, and not in the terrible choice between one form of the power of death (experimentation of the limits of pleasure) and another form of the power of death (which is sacrifice for an idea, for an abstract idea).  That is I think, the contemporary responsibility of artistic creation.

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Transcript by Lydia Kerr – The Subject of Art

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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Deleuze on Foucault and Multiplicities

And what is the conclusion to Archaeology if not an appeal to the general theory of production which must merge with revolutionary praxis, and where the acting ‘discourse’ is formed within an ‘outside’ that remains indifferent to my life and death? … None the less, the core of the notion is the constitution of a substantive in which ‘multiple’ ceases to be a predicate opposed to the One, or attributable to a subject identified as one. Multiplicity remains completely indifferent to the traditional problems, of the multiple and the one, and above all to the problem of a subject who would think through this multiplicity, give it conditions, account for its origins, and so on. There is neither one nor multiple, which would at all events entail having recourse to a consciousness that would be regulated by the one and developed by the other. There are only rare multiplicities composed of particular elements, only empty places for those who function as subjects, and cumulable, repeatable and self-preserving regularities. Multiplicity is neither axiomatic nor typlogogical, but topological. Foucault’s book represents the most decisive step yet taken in the theory-praxis of multiplicities. (14)

– Gilles Deleuze, Foucault

Radical Thought in Italy

Mark Purcell author of Recapturing Democracy and The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy has a joyful and optimistic approach to many of our current predicaments in politics and other conditions of life and philosophy. If you haven’t had the opportunity to check out his blog, Path to the Possible, you should. In a recent post Stop Being a Social Being he reminded me of a book I recently read as part of my self-made curriculum for the current year: Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, ed. by Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt. In his introductory remarks Hardt comments on these Italian radicals:

What is perhaps most attractive about these Italian theorists and the movements they grow out of is their joyful character. All too often, leftist cultures have identified a revolutionary life with a narrow path of asceticism, denial, and even resentment. …These authors are continually proposing the impossible as if it were the only reasonable option. But this really has nothing to do with simple optimism or pessimism; it is rather a theoretical choice, or a position on the vocation of political theory. In other words, here the tasks of political theory do indeed involve the analyses of the forms of domination and exploitation that plague us, but the first and primary tasks are to identify, affirm, and further the existing instances of social power that allude to a new alternative society, a coming community. The potential revolution is always already immanent in the contemporary social field. Just as these writings are refreshingly free of asceticism, then, so too are they free of defeatism and claims of victimization. It is our task to translate this revolutionary potential, to make the impossible real in our own contexts.

In some ways this is a part of that tradition of Spinoza and Nietzsche, an affirmative and joyous nihilism that is always ready, expectant, and hopeful. An affirmation that does not bemoan the past defeats, but, to use one of my Americanisms: “Keeps on Trucking”, keeps on moving along, keeps on pushing ahead, looking for the hidden paths out of our deadly malaise of late capitalism. As Hardt remarks again: “The defeats of the Left in the late twentieth century are not a result of “too much” Marxism or communism, she argues, but, on the contrary, of a failure to redeploy creatively the resources of these traditions.” And, this is the key: – as Zizek repeats with joyous affirmation: We must fail, but fail better! It’s about creativity, about entering into these traditions and deciding what is available to us today, what will help us survive today, what will help us get on with our current situations day by day both individually and collectively. No matter how we may disagree on the fine points, I think we can all agree that we need an affirmative and positive theorypraxis of action that can be both hopeful and joyous even amid the heartaches of our terror infested world. Without hope we are doomed to the circle of hate and resentment that is self-defeating and doomed to failure always. As Hardt reminds us we should not forget ” the analyses of the forms of domination and exploitation that plague us”, but we should also remember to “further the existing instances of social power that allude to a new alternative society, a coming community.” This a vision that once again opens up the future to us as a site for hope beyond the dearth and dark presentiments of our present era.

Post-Nihilistic Practice: Levi R. Bryant and Arran James

Both Arran James’s ideas on post-nihilistic practice and Levi R. Bryant’s Axioms of a Dark Ontology and …Some further Axioms have some interesting and suggestive ideas. What Levi presents is the Lucretian heritage that we see within modern reductionary naturalism with some modifications and extensions from critiques of this heritage as seen within Levi’s own philosophical project. His work starts with the basic dictum that “There is no meaning to existence or anything in the universe. Life is an accident and has no divine significance (though it’s obviously important to the living).”

Since this is from the first axiom and underpins every other axiom as a sort of figure/ground of the system, then it is here that the system either frees up or fails to meet the criteria of the system as a whole. The stipulation is that there is no meaning in existence nor is there any meaning in anything in the universe. Why not shorten this to the simpler: “There is no meaning.” Period. Why the need to constrain it to “existence” and the “universe”. To do so is to imply that existence or the universe in themselves are already implicated in certain human meanings that we must free ourselves from in order to accept this criteria. Meaning already implies “sense, import, and intent”. Which in itself already implies either a subjective or objective awareness or intelligence to provide such intentionality. So to say that that meaning doesn’t exist automatically refuses consciousness, awareness, or intentionality its qualification as an arbiter for judging the meaning or non-meaning of existence or the universe. Removing human judgment from the equation also eliminates any “sense” of meaning, aesthetic or otherwise, from the equation.

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