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The Whiteness of Metaphysics: Colored Readings of the Same

The Murderer of Agamemnon

ἆ ἆ, ἰδοὺ ἰδού: ἄπεχε τῆς βοὸς
τὸν ταῦρον: ἐν πέπλοισι
μελαγκέρῳ λαβοῦσα μηχανήματι
τύπτει!..

Ah, ah, See, see! Hold off from the cow
the bull!  Within robes
blackhorned she seized, by a machina
striking!

Agamemnon (lines 1125-1128)

Ἀργεῖός εἰμι, πατέρα δ᾽ ἱστορεῖς καλῶς,
Ἀγαμέμνον᾽, ἀνδρῶν ναυβατῶν ἁρμόστορα,
ξὺν ᾧ σὺ Τροίαν ἄπολιν Ἰλίου πόλιν
ἔθηκας. ἔφθιθ᾽ οὗτος οὐ καλῶς, μολὼν
εἰς οἶκον: ἀλλά νιν κελαινόφρων ἐμὴ
μήτηρ κατέκτα, ποικίλοις ἀγρεύμασιν
κρύψας᾽, ἃ λουτρῶν ἐξεμαρτύρει φόνον.

Argive I am, my father – you fairly inquire -
Was Agamemon, the nautical Riveter of men,
With him you the Troad uncitied Illion city
Claimed. His end was not so fair come
Home; but he blackhearted my
Mother slew, in the dappled game
She hid, the witness of a bath’s murder.

Eumenides (lines 455-461)

[apologies if the Greek fonts don't come through]

Examples of Greek Otherness

I wish to briefly examine conceptions of othernessas found in the Greek notions of the world, so as to get a grip upon how deviant from these the modern appropriations of the same are in concept, with a particular eye upon Heidegger’s evocation of invisivibility and presence. Above are two descriptions of the method of Clytemnestra’s murder of the returning Agamemnon. The details of which will cue us unto the Greek otherness of “woman,” and relatedly (though she is not Eastern like Medea), the otherness of the East, Persia, Phrygia, and finally perhaps otherness itself: Same vs. Different.

The first from Aeschylus tells us that she smote him with a device, a machine, horned and smothered in a mantel.

Within robes
blackhorned she seized, by a machina
striking!

The second is even more interesting, for the wordplay is excelerated:

blackhearted my
Mother slew, in the dappled [poikilois] game [agreumasin]
She hid, the witness of a bath’s murder

We must see in these means and their characterizations the very nature of her own representational otherness, her exotic quality and powers. With grammatical ambiguity she cloaks either herself or her husband in ποικίλοις ἀγρεύμασιν, itself an intricate phrasing. The poikilois has multiple meanings all of which point to things varigated and potentially confusing. To quote the Greek lexicon, “”many-coloured, spotted, mottled, pied, dappled, of leopards, fawns; of robes, wrought in various colours, broidered; intricate; metaphorically changeful, various, diversified; intricate, complex; subtle; of persons, subtle, wily” (LSJ); and the agreumasin, can mean both the hunter’s snares used to catch prey, but also the game animal itself. With remarkable economy of words, Clytemestra hid within and struck by means of the very intricacy of her plans, and a garment, as a dangerous, even technological force camoflaged by the powers of its own complexity. Complexity, folded-in-ness was the mark of a power of otherness. For the Greeks intricacy, such as that which typified the craft skills of Asia Minor, bore in its very profound and natural interconnection the magical danger, the trap and the power of animal forces to both hide and kill. It was not so much the lack of transparency, to be understood in a fundamental binary of invisible/colored, but the actual production of confusion on the part of the viewer, a “how did they do that!” born of the very incalculable implications expressed in variegation itself. A tangle, if betwitching knot of things, labyrinth in need of a “poria” a ford in the river of it. The mention of the labyrinth is not accidental. What is forewarned against is the very Daedalus, work-man skill of the foreign hand, the mythological name taken from the verb δαιδάλλω:

[to] work cunningly, embellish, “σάκος . . πάντοσε δαιδάλλων” Il.18.479; “λέχος ἔξεον . . δαιδάλλων χρυσῷ τε καὶ ἀργύρῳ ἠδ᾽ ἐλέφαντι” Od.23.200; of a painter or sculptor, Opp.C.1.335, IG14.967:-Pass., to be spotted, marked, “σφραγῖσι” Opp.C.1.324.

It was the imported capacity to beguile through complexity that made the Greeks wary. And thus it was this very complexity, into which Clytemnestra as a woman folded herself and executed her action. The last line from the Eumenides above, “…the witness of a bath’s murder” leaves us to feel that it was the intricately woven robe (somehow both animate and inanimate) that alone stood as legal witness to the murder which was folded up into it. It is as if the very fibres and twistings make up the eyes of the action. Complexity for the Greek not only revealed itself in surplus of detail, but any hyper-complex manifestion also was read as its complimentary, a kind of fog, an obscuring haze out of which the unpredictably occurs. In a certain sense the Greek mind did see the world itself as dangerously manifest of variegated complexity, obscurely verging on the threat of a cacophony, much as how a coming storm is both richly folded in cloud-effects, but also fogging to human vision. It is for this reason they sought the harmoniously and to some degree unseen wholes behind it.

Translating “true”: from Greek ἀλήθεια (un-forgotten, un-escaped), to Heidegger’s Alêtheia (un-concealed)

Why do I bring these details of the description of Clytemnestra’s murdering under examination? Recently I have been weighing against the metaphysical inheritance of a fundamental white/colored, colonialist conception that has been passed down to Graham Harman through his continuation of a Heideggerian dichotomy: ready-at-hand  invisibility and present-at-hand  cloakedness. (I have promised to leave off this critique so I will only stay at its specific surface here.) Under Harman’s interpretation of Heidegger the invisibility of working tool-beings carries the purity of object essences, their very whiteness (what he terms as “retreat”), while the colored cloak of “presence” necessarily occludes by virtue of its very shaded deception that invisible white. It is enough to point out that the projections of magical powers of inter-connectivity upon the East did not begin with German Idealism, but as is well known, but in the rough cut of Western culture with the Greeks. Phrygia and the surrounding areas passing all the way to Persia embodied the feminizing dangers of excessive wealth, sensuality and deceptively intricate skill (and it is not without coincidence that the entire Amazonian inversion of Athenian society was projected to the shores of the Black Sea). This is not to lessen the idealizations of wisdom and wealth to the South, Egypt and Africa. Eastern projections, orientalizations, are as old as Western civilization as it is classically conceived.

So as metaphysics proper, as a certain kind of study of the the idea of the Same and the Different, Unitary and Multiple, takes its main root from Greek Society, upon which there can only be a partial mapping of a Anglo-Germanic notions of purity of essence, there is the duty of the tracking of the concept. When taking European metaphysics in hand, one has to ask the cultural question, in tracing the dichotomy of Greek Same-Harmonious/Variegated-Dangerous onto a largely invisible/visible, How White is Metaphysics itself? Can one currently metaphysize upon primary binaries of same/different within a primary optical metaphor of invisible/colored and not be caught up in the historical contrast between white/colored?

From Intrication to Shaded Color

The question otherness as variegation or coloredness is complex for Greek society, for their divisions of Same and Different did not meet the same racial and necessarily optical categories that have been privleged in modern European thought since the 17th century. As I have mentioned, for the Greek there is an emphasis on manifestation, but it is not so much as optical manifestation as a kind of textiled conception of plexity. The world is in a way woven together of elements, forces, powers, and even the Platonic notion of forms is misunderstood if it is only conceived of optically as invisible or hiddenly white. Those modern Europeans for instance were the recievers of a image of the Greek which did not realize that the Parthenon was painted. The plain Greek marble forms were not the full expression of their art. The painted Greek was something that the 19th century wonderful and brilliant Gottfried Semper finally told only to dulled ears.

 

So when German Idealists pursued the white invisibles of pure Greek perception, they were handicapped in a sense. Not only did they have a historically incorrect view of Ancient Greek concepts of whiteness and form (so prevalent and enchanting are those stripped-away statues and columns, weathered of their colored “accidents” which a Classicists imagined were never there), but the pure, white receding essence of things had to be also discerned within a cultural context imbued with valuations of color which were much more over-determined than any in the Greek city state. The confusions of color, variegation and pattern now had become more shaded. There was the Asian, the Moor, the Jew, the New World Indian; and each of these skins themselves were reconstructed by European poltical and economic dealings. This being admitted, the question remains. Are our own metaphysics spun from the categories of European metaphysics not caught in the very white/colored ethnic projections which include those euphanic eroticizing ones of Eastern idealization (their sensuality, interconnectivity, wisdom, attachments, transgressive gender forms, connection to the world); and are not these concepts additionally polarized by the often suppressed animalizing real of the concept “black”? Did not the 17th century’s rise of black slavery in historical terms re-mark what foreign and mediating color meant in severe economic and ideological terms such that mediations on opticality necessarily carry with them include mediations on race and color?

I am interested in this because I do see how Heidegger’s metaphysics (and its attachments to the East) embody a possibly virulent white/colored dichotomy, [ The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman) ];  and thus I weigh criticism against all philosophies derived from Heidegger’s essential optical terms (including Graham Harman’s as I have outlined here and here). But still, I am an appreciator of metaphysics, and in particular that of the philosophy of Spinoza, and so I am curious as to how closely we can press this criticism to others of the modern metaphysics family.

I have said in the past the I find strong correlates between Heidegger and Spinoza, and that Substance in the latter speaks to Being in the former. Is Spinoza’s unity of Substance, its very invisibility like Heidegger’s, an invisibility of whiteness, an essential whiteness which lies behind colored deception?

The question of white and colored is an interesting one for Spinoza. As someone like Graham Harman would like to make the sensuous, interconnecting, enwealthed kinds, to be kinds of mediation, the 17th century Sephardim Jew serves as quite a likely fantasy space for just such a projection. The Jew, newly freed from really centuries of Inquisitional brutality at the hands of the Spanish, families having hidden within the Christian world as converted merchants, now became the ultimate vicarious mediators of European economics. And Spinoza’s family was part of an epicenter of growing Jewish commercial wealth, his father for a time a very prominent merchant of some standing in the community of Sephardim, who bore their Spanish/Moorish stain in the shade of their skin. It was the un-Christian Jew as the licentious, greedy other, the dirty human oil that helped the rising capitalist machine work. Long had they performed the marginal act of interest-charging usary, the unsaintly making of money on money, something out of nothing but relations. Come from such a mediating people and a merchant family, does Spinoza’s metaphysics also work with bias against the mediation of the colored and varigated? 

Spinoza’s metaphysics certainly keeps to a notion of the Imaginary which is marked by its confusing conflations of images and traces. The colored world of pictures for Spinoza certainly was a beguiling one, one that tricks you into not seeing the true causes of things. But we should temper; it was not so much for Spinoza that very the concrete complexity of the modal world was deceptive or dangerous, but rather that the profusion of inner imaginary associations that defrauded the “eyes of the mind” of greater power and self-determination.

Spinoza and Slavery

The question of color for Spinoza and his time is historically not that simple. In the 17th century not yet has “black” come to embody and polarize “white” such that all deviations from White became aspects of Blackness. Black was still “African” or “Ethiopian” and not yet a pure category, which does not mean that there was not an active white/colored binary informing social and economic structures. This complexity of color can be seen in the question of the role of Jews in the black slave trade, especially as it began to rise almost exponentially in the sugar trade, something the Jews of Amsterdam were thoroughly invested in. There is a notable historical absence of evidence of the direct involvement of Sephardim Jews in the Slave trade, but they were intimately involved the entire economic processes which relied upon it [ Spinoza Doubt? The Sephardim and the Slave Trade; Evidence for connection of the Spinoza family to the Sugar TradeSpinoza Sugar Time Table; The Hope of Israel, and What Spinoza Means by the “Ethiopian” ]. Was this relative abstention of contact with black and indigenous slave trade the respect the otherwise persecuted Jews had for people of color, or is it a sign of their careful buffering through New Christians. It seems history does not know. So there is no clear way to position the 17th century Amsterdam Jew within the white/colored dichotomy that was developing [Spinoza and the Caliban Question ]. In any case the question of clarity and invisibleness had not yet reached a polarizing limit, one in which black and white formed an entire spectrum of opacity and color.

So when investigating Spinoza’s metaphysics in terms of social color we are left without a solid place to stand. His family was likely involved in the sugar trade (a central investment of the Amsterdam Sephardim community), and it may have even been that trade that drove him to the pursuit of metaphysics and lenses (see, the collapse of the Recife colony). Both his brother and sister both later in life moved to Caribbean locals dominated by slave production. But, Spinoza was an excommunicate of his own Amsterdam Jewery; they were forbidden to even stand under the same roof as him. So he was twice removed from the “white” of Same.

Yet, this does not make him immune to the critique that metaphysics of invisible essence embody white/colored social dichotomies. In fact his ostricization may have further propelled him towards the dichotomy’s perfection, as he sought in letters to make himself a citizen of the world, quietly championing a radical democracy of freedoms. His ultimate appeal to the Same of Substance is difficult to assess. But it is notable that he very seldom appeals to metaphors of optical clarity or even to light itself, despite the naturalness of such an appeal. Not only was he a lens grinder and an telescope maker, but the Spiritual Collegiants with whom he had connections regularly used the trope of the light of God to forward their unitarian views. For some reason Spinoza found optical metaphors (in fact all metaphors) misleading. He wanted to speak of how things were, not what they were like, and even the notion of “hiddenness” was unhelpful. He even moved from Descartes’ optically inspired “clear and distinct” rather quickly, wanting to focus on bodily experiences of power and Joy, and the concrete connections between things and ideas. It was all of the body that had to be pulled into view, and not just its eyes. For this reason Spinoza’s is a philosophy of proximity I believe. Nothing is distant.

It is really this reluctance of Spinoza to engage in optical metaphors as the primary means for getting to the radical non-human truth of things that I believe keeps him from falling into the problematic of Same = White. Because most things in the world (objects) do not possess a visual cortex, while optical might make a good rhetorical/conceptual base for a metaphysics of purely a human realm like Heidegger’s, it is hopelessly distorting when trying to describe the dyanamic realities of things that cannot see. Once the colored veil is fully employed, historical notions of color find their anchor point. For the Greeks the notions of freedom and of color were not so determinatively overcoded, even for the Romans, and one might argue even for the 17th century (though I cannot help but see something quite “White” in Leibniz’s foundational reflective monads and his vision of universal rationality in response to the threats of democracy: Leibniz’ “optical” Response to the Theologico-Political Treatise ).

Further, insofar as Spinoza does accept a colored veil of confused “imaginary knowledge” he explicitly does not privilege this of foreign peoples, but sees it as explicitly constructive of the Jewish Nation, not to mention modern European society. The layering of the colored is a question of degree and isn’t one of mediation really. The colored complications of concrete manifestation and our imaginary states are the full-figured expression of God and Substance. Totality expressing itself to its limit. In this way Spinoza is much more in the “distaff tradition” (if I recall the Deleuzian term correctly), the tradition of weaving rather than of appearance.

Indeed it is the entire “veil of ideas” tradition that Idealism took up – carried on through Malebranche’s interpretation of Descartes, and then Reid’s of the same, that came to treat the opticality of ideas (or their phenomenal apperception) as object mediations between the self and the world. This approach to mental objects makes of actions of our minds an intermediary thing which might or might not pass us through to the world.

Distinct from this object-orientation, it is said that the very form of the Parthenon, its high lintel above subtly weightless columns, was readily understood by any Greek in the city to be of the form of the woman’s loom that dominated each and every hearth of the home. Perhaps it with this conception we should consider the internal play of colors and light, understanding that our mental actions not only knot and unknot things in the world, but also are cross-knottings themselves, expressions of the loom we find ourselves in.

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