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Monthly Archives: October 2009

Art: The Watch that Ticks Fast?

Found posted over at antagonist, this recounting of something Kafka said in passing on Picasso:

Recalling a visit with Kafka to an exhibition of French painting, Janousch reports that, in answer to a comment he made on on Picasso’s “rose coloured women with gigantic feet” which was to effect that Picasso was a “wilfull distortionist” Kafka replied: “I do not think so… He only registers the deformities which have not yet penetrated our consciousness. Art is a mirror, which goes ‘fast’, like a watch – sometimes”.

(from The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head by Louis Begley)

Its odd that when you work to uncover an idea such as that which I excavated from Spinoza’s Letter 17, here: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination and here Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination, one stumbles upon it an even more extraordinary form. Here in the image of the fast clicking watch we have a romantic condensation of just that thought that governed Spinoza’s reasoning on affects of the future. And more, it was my unstated desire to suggest that indeed such a logic could underwrite some of the powers of art and political visioning. (It should be noted that Kafka has at least a tentative connection to Spinoza through the Jewish Prague circle with included Einstein: The Prague Esprit de Spinoza and Einstein’s Inception of General Relativity.)

But Kafka’s diagnosis of Picasso’s powers of depiction are eruptive. It is not merely the future that comes through the fast-ticking lens of the artist, but deformities which have not yet penetrated our consciousness. Amazing. Like long delayed stars’ light the great contortions of what we cannot imagine present themselves, and possibly those beauties. What seems conferred by art is a possibility from the potential of affects which totalize the soul, selected out through a logical intimacy with the times. What we CAN feel draw from the yet imagined possible of what we WILL feel.

Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination

[click on photo for larger image]

More on the Balling Letter

This is a follow up on the train of thought I began two days ago on the subject of Spinoza’s letter to Peter Balling where Spinoza brings up the curious notion of sharing in the essence of another person, and even the result that one could have phenomenological experiences of future events: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination. I wanted to really explore just how Spinoza is using or conceiving of the imagination as a wayward point between events of the body, and events of the mind, as it seems that this is most important to determining the value of Spinoza’s comments, in particular how they might reveal just how he conceived of the importance of the “imitation of the affects” and also our general capacity to know (and/or participate in) the essences of external things.

Spinoza displays some inconsistency in how he treats the imagination (and even the concept of order, discussed here: Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order), throughout his work. And the problem of the standing of the “imagination” in 17th century thought is not something unique to Spinoza. By and large though I think we can assume that what Spinoza means by the imagination is what we commonly mean by phenomena, that is our experiences of things either being present to us, or our ability to conjure them up apart from their presence. Largely these are just what we would call our “experiences” in general. So when Spinoza and Peter Balling are talking about either a waking dream of a diseased slave or the sounds of an ailing child groan, these are hallucinatory effects which are not different in mechanism than the effects we experience when we perceive the world.

Spinoza early on takes these experiences of the imagination to be best seen as products of the body, and as sources of confusion. We do not understand their causes, and they kinda of erupt out of our ignorance, seemingly at random. They are the products of external bodies interacting with and stimulating our own body. Most importantly, it is this tendency towards randomness (in terms of their meaningfulness) that Spinoza is most concerned with, the way in which our phenomenal experiences occlude and confuse, something which Spinoza attributes to their bodily source. You can see this in his Emendation where he claims that the effects of the imagination are only caused by bodies, but it is interesting that when it comes down to it Spinoza himself seems a bit confused on how to classify them by their source in the body. Instead it is merely their tendency towards (apparent) randomness and also our passivity towards them and the world which distinguishes them from products of the Intellect. In this sense explanations of our experiences which turn to our body alone, due to our ignorance of causes, tend to create passive states to be contrasted with the workings of the Intellect which are activities of our being:

Thus we have distinguished between the true idea and other perceptions, and we have established that the fictitious, the false, and other ideas have their origin in the imagination, that is, in certain sensations that are (so to speak) fortuitous and unconnected, arising not from the power of the mind but from external causes, in accordance as the body, dreaming or waking, receives various motions. Or if you wish, you may here understand by imagination whatever you please, as long as it is something different from the intellect, and the soul has a passive relationship to it. It matters not how you understand it, now that we know that it is something random, and that the soul is passive to it, while we know how we may be delivered from it with the aid of the intellect [84].

Emendation of the Intellect

In this way our experiences are seen as simply the receiving of motions from external bodies, and our bodies become something of a “picture making machine” (citing the end of Willa Cather’s story “Paul’s Case“). But by the time of Spinoza’s writing of his letter to Balling in 1664, perhaps some six years after the Emendation (if we are to believe Mignini), Spinoza adopts a dual possible source for effects of the imagination and our experiences. They can come either from the states of our body, or from the Intellect. In fact, Spinoza regards a whole class of imaginary effects as near automatic traces of the ideas we form in the Intellect:

The effects of the imagination arise from the constitution either of body or of mind. To avoid all prolixity, for the present I shall prove this simply from what we experience. We find by experience that fevers and other corporeal changes are the cause of delirium, and that those whose blood is thick imagine nothing but quarrels, troubles, murders and things of that sort. We also see that the imagination can be determined simply by the constitution of the soul, since, as we find, it follows in the wake of the intellect in all things, linking together and interconnecting its images and words just as the intellect does its demonstrations, so that there is almost nothing we can understand without the imagination instantly forming an image.

Letter 17, To Peter Balling, July 20th 1664

Apart from the take in the Emendation, here the imagination actually “follows in the wake of the Intellect” and distinct from the opinion that it tends towards randomness in meaning, its images and words (!) are interconnected just as (one presumes, in a way similar to) the intellect’s linking of its proofs. It should be noted that Spinoza is reasoning from “experience” itself here, and not making a deductive determination, but it is clear that he has at the very least shifted his stance away from the significantly passive and randomesque sources of the imagination some years back. And even more evocative, the very concept of linked and interconnected images and words strongly calls to mind the linchpin proposition 13 of part II of the Ethics, wherein the order and connection of ideas and (extended) things is said to be the same. There is nearly a third “order and connection” going on here.

How Can The Imagination Have Two Sources?

This aspect of the letter actually has troubled me quite a bit. In fact any place Spinoza argued that there is either a bodily source or a mental source for an event I felt a deep objection arise in me that Spinoza’s parallel postulate strictly forbids any such ultimate distinction. As you can see from the diagram posted above, the order and connections of the bodily state expressions of an essence run necessarily parallel to their ideational expression; and Spinoza precludes the idea that one side of the parallel can have causal effect on the other. So any bodily state, when taken as the causal source of an event, must also have its parallel ideational state which additionally the causal source of the same event (read as an ideational expression). What determines whether one uses the bodily state as the causal source or not is whether the event is read as either a physical expression, or as an ideational one. But all events are necessarily both. So when Spinoza says in the Emendation that the imagination (those events) are bodily in nature, this can only mean that he is already speaking of them as physical (putting some strain on the future of the parallel postulate). By the time of writing of letter 17, the effects of the Imagination are dichotomized, but at first blush this is not at the level of description. Instead it seems rather for Spinoza there are kinds or classes of effects of the Imagination. Delirums and dispositional judgments spring from bodily constitutions, and in this case, prophetic imaginary experiences which spring from the mind or the constitution of the soul.

What are we to make of this supposedly confusion of the parallel postulate wherein some experiential events are predisposed to be explained through a physical causal chain, and others through an ideational one? And what are we to make of the causal difficulties involved in the notion of the imagination “following in the wake” of the Intellect, or even that such wake-following possesses its own order of expression? I think the answer lies within the kinds of relevant causes that get swept up in either chain of explanatory force. That is to say, while we may presume that the parallel postulate holds and that there is a causal chain of each kind flowing backwards for any one event, which chain we chose depends on both our access to information about that chain, but also what each explanation would reveal. And in the case of our experiences of our interactions with things external to us, indeed each chain gives us a different method of self-analysis and world orientation which is in some sense linked to the ontological lean each event has towards the world itself. Spinoza wants to say something of the effect, there could be two seemingly similar imaginative effects, waking dreams, but understanding one might tell us more about ourselves (if we take it to be the product of the physical states of our body), and the other might tell us something more about the world, something external to us, (if we take it to be the product of our ideational state and our relational juxtaposition to other things in the world). You can see this in the way that Spinoza justifies that Peter Balling’s hallucination would indeed be prophetic, born out of the love and literal union of the father to the son:

[continuing from the passage just cited] This being so, I say that none of the effects of the imagination which are due to corporeal causes can ever be omens of things to come, because their causes do not involve future things. But the effects of the imagination, or images, which have their origin in the constitution of the mind can be omens of some future event because the mind can have confused awareness beforehand of something that is to come. So it can imagine it has firmly and vividly as if such a thing were present to it…

The Logic of the Future

What I propose is that the dichotomy Spinoza uses is one quite natural to us. In lieu of the medical common place at the time, thickness of blood, we moderns need only replace “low dopamine levels” or “damage to the cerebral cortex” to see that physical causal explanations of our experiences and judgments gain their traction from the way in which those experiences fail to shed light upon the world. The meaningfulness of those mental events, in that they fail to reveal the world (for others or ourselves), drains away, and is recouped through a physical explanation. In Spinoza’s letter, a fever explains a hallucination when the vision does not seem to derive from events in the world. Physical dispositions explain those that are too morbidly or aggressively predisposed, when those mental events seem out of joint with what is going on. To take another example, “its the drink speaking” is a regular dismissal of the “truths” spoken by a drunk person. The recapture of explanatory force at the level of the physical is accomplished by understanding better the way in which physical causes are operating. One might cure a fever to ride oneself of delirium, or abstain from alcohol to avoid overly emotional outbursts (or take lithium to avoid depressions). Key though to Spinoza’s dual cause interpretation is that given that mental events lack traction in the real world (seemingly), such imaginary effects will simply seem to the person experiencing them to verge towards “random”. A cloak of ignorance covers much of the causal chain, leading to confusions.

There is another path to explanation, the path to order and sense-making, and it is to this that Spinoza sets up his alternate explanation of a waking dream. Imaginary effects, in that they follow in the wake of the Intellect actually can reveal the world itself – and in this case even indicate something of its future. Spinoza predicates this upon what he calls “participating” in the essence of another person (or perhaps more correctly, in the affections and ideas of another person), something he calls a union and a becoming as if one and the same, via love. For clarity sake I diagram out the two causal explanations of waking dreams below:

[click on photo for large image]

I think that there is more than our ability to interpret waking dreams at stake in these descriptions. In fact I think we have clue to the very picture of the world Spinoza holds as it underwrites all of his epistemic arguments for how we do and do not know things in the world. But first I would like take up the very notion that we might have premonitory imaginary experiences. This is something that strikes us as sheer superstition, and it is hard for us to accept that the quite sober Spinoza would indulge in such a fancy. But I think I can appeal to some very real, in fact everyday experiences which may clear up just what future-vision may be for Spinoza, or perhaps why he holds the claim that he does: that things of the Intellect involve things of the future. The first of these is obvious, the sciences indeed are, based on acts of intellection, quite predictive. But it is more than this, for Spinoza is talking about an outright hallucination of a future event, so much so it is as if the event is happening right in front of you. Do we have any instances of this sort we can draw on? The most instructive one I believe is the example shared by Spinoza and Wittgenstein, discussed here: Understanding in a Flash and the Mastery of Technique. This is when a mathematical series is being expressed and that there is a rule that is being followed in the succession of numbers. It don’t think it is too much of a stretch to refer to what Wittgenstein called “characteristic accompaniments” as effects of the imagination which are not understanding itself, but rather seem to come in the wake of understanding. If I say aloud “2, 4, 6, 8…” it is not out of the question that you might have an auditory hallucination of the sound “1o” in anticipation of the next number. This in fact would be an albeit confused but still imaginary premonition of a future event, even if I happen to stop at the number 8. In fact we get a glimpse at what Spinoza means by the “wake of the Intellect”. In some sense this power of anticipation through imaginary phenomena expresses our grasp of a situation is what Spinoza is appealing to when trying to explain how Balling’s vision differs from his own. And most importantly, the foundation of this difference is the participatory relationship the father has with his son’s essence, the literal union of the two.

How Adequate Are Our Ideas of External Things?

Much has been debated about the way Spinoza conceives the adequacy of our ideas of external things, and in this questions about just how adequate the ideas of Science are. Spinoza is restrictive to the value of abstractions (of which much of Sciences seems to be composed), and mathematics (which he calls both a product of, and an aid to, the imagination in letter 12). Spinoza’s theory of Common Notions introduced in the Ethics simply is too bare to do the weight of carrying  the whole load of how we gain knowledge about states of the world. Indeed I side with others such as Michael Della Rocca and Eric Schliesser who, for different reasons, renounce that completely adequate ideas could be held about things external to us, insofar as they are taken as separate things. And I think core to the issue of adequate knowledges is Spinoza’s Letter 17 notion of participating in the essence of another person to strong ideational effect. There seems to be an undercurrent of participation in essences between Spinoza’s intuitions about how we hold ideas of other things i the first place.

Most readings that seek to resolve the difficulties of how adequate our knowledge of external thing is turn to either our necessarily adequate knowledge of “common notions” (supposedly ideas that are common to both ourselves and external things) or to the infinite modes like “motion and rest”, which in turn are taken to be common to all things. And Spinoza towards the end of his unfinished treatise on the Emendation gives us a good hint at how we should think about these very “real” things, things we must train our Intellect to:

As to the ordering of all our perceptions and their proper arrangement and unification, it is required that, as soon as possible and reason demands, we should ask whether there is a being – and also what kind of being – which is the cause of all things so that its essence objectified is the cause of all our ideas [ut  class="hiddenSpellError" pre="ut ">eius essentia obiectiva sit etiam causa omnium nostrarum idearum]. Then our mind, as we have said, will reproduce [referet] Nature as closely as possible, for it will possess the in the form of thought the essence, order and unity of Nature. Hence we can see that it is above all necessary for us always to deduce our ideas from physical things, i.e., from real beings, advancing, as far as we can, in accordance with the chain of causes from one real being to another real being, neither inferring something real from them nor inferring them from something real. For in either case the true progress of the intellect is interrupted.

But it should be noted that by the series of causes and real beings I do not here mean the series of mutable particular things, but only the series of fixed and eternal things. It would be impossible for human limitation to grasp the series of mutable particular things, not only because they are innumerable but also because of the infinite number of factors affecting one and the same thing, each of which can be the cause of the existence or nonexistence of the thing. For the existence of mutable particular things has no connection with their essence; that is (as we have said), their existence is not an eternal truth.

But neither is there any need for us to understand their series. For the essences of particular mutable things are not to be elicited from their series or order of existing, which would furnish us with nothing but their extrinsic characteristics, their relations, or, at most, their circumstances. All these are far from the inmost essence of things. This essence is to be sought only from the fixed eternal things, and at the same time from the laws in these things as well as in their true codes [veris codicibus] so inscribed, which govern the coming into existence and the ordering of all particular things [99-101]

The Emendation of the Intellect

In such a passage our modern scientific gaze turns to these “true codes” and “laws” which govern particular things, and we ask ourselves just how Spinoza conceives that we can know these laws within his framework of knowledges. And how are we to conceive of the passing from one real thing to another, without falling into abstraction? What does it mean for us to identify what kind of being is the cause of all our ideas so that we hold the essence of something in our mind, as the source of our own ideas of a particular thing? What I suggest is that Spinoza’s letter 17 notion of “participation” in an essence is precisely the relation that Spinoza is thinking of here. There is for Spinoza a genuine transformation of the self, through the power of its ideas, when it comes to perceive and think about particular things external to it. And I would suggest that this transformation involves the literal becoming other than itself, or rather, forming a mutuality with the object known such that the inter-relationship expresses a new essence: 

 

[click on photo for larger image]

In letter 17 the father is said to necessarily have an idea of the affections of the body of his son due to the degree of their union so as to have become one and the same. They have achieved a kind of identity which at the ideational level anchors the adequacy (or at least the greatly increased adequacy) of his idea of his son’s affections, so much so that the future of the son’s illness leaves a trace in the imagination of the present. That indeed a new essence is achieved through the father’s love could be argued in two ways, following two of the definitions of what makes any composition of physical parts an “individual”. The first is that any fixed ratio of a communication of parts achieves individuality, and there is no reason at all why one would not admit any cognitive inter-relationship between a knower and a known as just such a communication of parts (however mediated). The second is that Spinoza defines as an individual anything combination of causes which produces a singular effect. In the case of the father’s premonition, at least as Spinoza qualifies it, it is the union of the two, closely related to the level of essences, that produces this imaginary event, establishing this union itself as an individual. But I suggest further, participation in the essences of other things external to us is the FUNDAMENTAL mode of our knowing anything about anything in the world, and this is due to the fact that any particular modal expression shares its status as an expression of Substance with any other modal expression. If there are laws (and codes) which govern the expression of any two modal forms, these two modes are necessarily participating in the essences of each, at the very least through their sharing of the governance which brings them into being and order.

The Participatory Ontology of Knowing

But something more is meant by “participation” by Spinoza in this letter, in particular how it is due to the deep love of the father for his son. In the Ethics “love” is relegated to the order of the passions, a complimentary psychological part to hate, each echoing back into the other. Here in the letter to Balling instead love is seen as the source of a deep ideational union between two persons, and a kind of prophetic power of epistemological imagination: a father that can foreseen his son’s death, however confusedly. In the Ethics Love is defined as the increase of perfection accompanied by the idea of an external cause, and in this sense the father loves his son because he regards the son as the source and cause of his own increases in perfection and joy. I have always taken this phrase “accompanied by the idea of an external cause” to be a reprovement for the human tendency to select out only ONE cause for the complexity of relations which compose our mental and physical events. Indeed the beloved is “a” cause of our increase in joy and active perfection, but what makes this a passive relation is the exclusion of all other causes, the entire matrix of intimate connections which for Spinoza go all the way up to God-Substance, and all the way into our own individual states, which have brought about this change. What distinguishes Spinoza’s participatory love from just this sort of passion, at least so far as how he exemplifies it (and notice he speaks of an ideal relation, and not necessarily the Balling experience), is that it creates a participation in essence which connects one’s own ideas with the affections of the other person. And implicitly, I would propose, such a love-paricipation must involve all the common notions, the mutuality of human nature and the infinite modes as determining and shared expressions. One has, at least potentially, ideas of all these mediating things in just the same way that one has ideas of the affections of the son.

If this line of thinking is to be embraced as underwriting knowledge for Spinoza, that is, degrees of participation qualified by the degree of adequacy of one’s ideas, the degree of one’s being, and even the strength of intellectual love, then Spinoza’s principle of the “imitation of the affects” has to be reconsidered or at least put into juxtaposition with the participation in essences, due to love:

 E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect…

Such a proposition puts the imagination front and center in the processes which allow us to achieve social bonds, not only with other humans but with almost all things in the world; (I argue this at some length here: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV) The question always is, How can mere processes of projective imagination gain any ground on which such imagining and experiencing the world through others actually proves efficacious and informative. When Spinoza says “If we imagine a thing like us” is there a concrete, or real “like us” which makes this process gain traction and ultimately real? If we take up Spinoza’s Letter 17 musings on the prophetic, and if we grant that essence participation is fundamental to the access of at least some of our intellectual activity and awarenesses, it would seem that the imitation of the affects is an imaginary expression “in the wake of” real intellectual, ideational unions, unions which vary by degrees of adequacy and being. The question is not whether we can have adequate ideas of external, particular things, but rather how adequate ideas express themselves in varying degrees of our occasions of cybernetic union with things in the world. It is for this that Spinoza wants us to concentrate on “real beings” which constitute our very combinative participation with those things we know, use and ultimately love.

Revelation in the Wake of Intellect

Lastly, this would suggest, that if our world being – quite in contrast with Heidegger is not a “thrown-into-ness” of alienation – is one of a necessarily participation and overlapping, boundary-defying mutuality of expression, in which our knowing of things is to some degree our being them (Campanella), then our imaginations may very well be capable of producing phenomenal presentations of our futures, however confusedly, in much the same fashion that Peter Balling foresaw his son via participation. Additionally, it is my suspicion that Spinoza’s dream of the Scabrous Brazilian slave was no mere random eruption of the physical states of his body, as he would have it, but likely an expression, however mitigated, of the actual relations of Spinoza to the Jewish community back in Amsterdam, and the slave trade discussed some here: Spinoza and the Caliban Question.

Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination

[click on photo for larger image]

The above is the scheme of Spinoza’s implicit theory of a prophetic imagination, come from his letter to Peter Balling (17), where a father writes about his premonition of his son’s death. The pertinent description from which this is drawn I quote:

To take an example like yours, a father loves his son that he and his beloved are as though one and the same. According to what I have demonstrated on another occasion, there must be in thought an idea of the affections of the son’s essence, and what follows; and the father, through the union he has with his son, is a part of the said son, because necessarily the father’s soul from the son’s ideal essence, and with the affections of the same, through this, to what follows he must participate (as I have demonstrated elsewhere at greater length). Next, since the father’s soul participates ideally in this – in the things which follow from the son’s essence – he (as I have said) can sometimes imagine something of what follows from his [the son's, implied] essence as vividly as if he had it before his eyes…

nempe, pater (ut tui simile adducam exemplum) adeo filium suum amat, ut is et delictus filius quasi unus idemque sint. Et quoniam (juxta id, quod alia occasione demonstravi) filii essentae affectionum, et quae inde sequuntur, necessario in Cogitatione dari debet idea, et pater, ob unionem, quam cum filio suo habet, pars memorati filii est, etiam necessario patris anima de essentia ideali essentiam filii, et ejusdem affectionibus, et iis, quae inde sequuntur, participare debet, ut alibi prolixius demonstravi. Porro, quoniam patris anima idealiter de iis, quae essentiam filii consequuntur, participat, ille (ut dixi) potest interdum aliquid ex iis, quae ejus essentiam consequuntur, tam vivide imaginari, ac si id coram se haberet…
 
I’ve discussed this letter before [How Long was Peter Balling’s Son Dead? and Spinoza and the Caliban Question to name two posts], quite frankly, if fascinates me, and it seems its ideas are often neglected in serious discussion of questions of the role of the imagination and the knowledge of the essences of external things. I was listening to Daniel Selcer’s “Singular Things and Spanish Poets: Spinoza on Corporeal Individuation” today, which I recommend for anyone interested in a slightly Deleuzian and highly literary appreciation of Spinoza’s notion of what constitutes an individual. Selcer’s treatment of “individual” as anything produced as a singular effect by a multitude (something to be appreciated by ne0-objectologists), set off another foray into the ideas of this curious letter, which I read in support of some of his thinking. (The lecture, as well as many other wonderful Spinoza papers just given on Spinoza and bodies, is found here). 
 
I thought it best to scheme it out, if only for later reference – and perhaps in posting it others will find it interesting, or may even be able to correct it with a better understanding. Sometimes I have a weakness for diagrams and schemes, as they anchor points in the mind so that it can do related, more inventive work along the way. Hopefully some will enjoy the map.
 
What is most troubling or difficult about the prophetic imagination is that it is far from clear just how to read the becoming “one and the same” of the father and the son (quasi). In many respects this simply falls into the imitation of the affects which foregrounds socialization itself, as found in the Ethics [treated quite thoroughly by Balibar, Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics: The Braids of Reason and Passion]. It is a purely imaginary projection, the seed of conflict and excessive binding, needing to be leavened by power of rational unity. To be sure, Spinoza is covering something of the same grounds here (the beloved to the Father seems a passionate connection).  But this is no mere fantasy, but rather the real (though imaginary) prophetic experience of a future affective state. (It should be noted that Peter Balling externalized the affections of his son, heard his son’s future groans and did not feel pains or difficulty of breathing himself.) This imaginary relationship has epistemic traction. Spinoza is at pains to propose a dichotomy in which the ideational source of this imaginary event provides a real knowledge (if confused) of the future. Thus, just what the traction is it seems, must be found with the real participation of the father in the essence of the son, an implied merging of the two, or at least assemblage or mutuality (something I am tempted to read as cybernetic).
 
Under the question of the knowledge of other essences (or their affections that follow) it is significant that this portend comes from the ideational side of one’s own expression. That is, it does not come from the affections of one’s own body (which Spinoza’s dream of the Scabrous Brazilian is supposed to represent). It comes instead from the idea of the affections of another person’s body, casting into doubt just where one’s own “body” ends, and other’s begins. To a point of near contradiction, some idea follows from one’s own essence which, due to love and union, necessarily is of the affections that follow from another’s essence. This is something which one would presume could only occur if the two of you formed a single essence in some shape or form. Perhaps there is another answer to this, but this is all that I can see.
 
Another note worth talking about in brief is that I have been under the running theory that Spinoza contracted his tuberculosis from his own father (or step-mother), both of whom I hypothesize died from the disease [discussed recently here: Was Tuberculosis the Condition of Spinoza’s Emendation of the Intellect? and originally here: Spinoza and Tuberculosis: His Disease and Devotion]. If this is the case then the image of the “union” of the father and the son, and the idea that there are affections that might follow from the each of them certainly would grow more vivid. Indeed, Spinoza may have felt his very love for his father wove itself into the mutuality of their shared physical fates (as I most tentatively argued, Spinoza seemed to abstract into idea his own symptomatic, affection pathways in the first paragraphs of the Emendation).
 
The question is, does this letter (and my possible schematization of it) represent a confusion of Spinoza’s theories of body, idea and imagination, or does it possibly shed greater light on some of the more difficult passages in his thinking. I suspect the latter, especially in the sense that I have long held that Spinoza’s view is cybernetic, one in which knowing things intimately breaks down the boundaries between self, world and others, all the while retaining causal distinctions as concrete and distinct. In the letter to Balling Spinoza seems to, closer than at any other time, touch on the very mechanism of mutuality and its real, physical and mental effects. And that he does so in the context of arguing a prophetic imagination, this makes it all the more curious, and possibly engaging.

Understanding in a Flash and the Mastery of Technique

 
 
Eternity and Know-how
 
I’ve been reflecting on the concurrences between the excellent passage from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations below, and the Spinoza point made, which follows. Wittgenstein’s brilliant, economically, though quite gnomically put point has always been “there is no rule for how to follow a rule”. Simply so, when following a rule for action, the rule itself (nor the appeal to any other meta-rule) is not sufficient to justify the application of the rule, at least from any foundational conception of knowledge. In the passage below Wittgenstein picks up the simple mathematical example of rule-following, which he attempts to sculpt down to its most essential aspects. What is most telling is they way in which he rejects any temporal mental action/experience, what he calls a “mental process” as the source for what is called “understanding”. That is, anything that has what Spinoza named “duration” cannot be the origin of our ability to comprehend.
 
I’ve always looked at this passage with amazement, as we hear Wittgenstein’s mind ticking in self-conversation in his usual style, feeling a surgeon’s hands being placed right in the meat of what the much philosophically pursued “understanding” is. Never though had I connected the passage, either in influence or just in terms of content, to the similar analogy used by Spinoza to point out the difference between “rational” knowledge given by the appeal to reasons (the art of reasoning) and the preferred “intuitional” knowledge that comes out of a union with God, Substance, Nature.
 
Here is the respected passage from Wittgenstein. If you are not familiar with his method, keep track of the different Socratic voices:
145. Suppose the pupil now writes the series 0 to 9 to our satisfaction. – And this will only be the case when he is often successful, not if it does it right once in a hundred attempts. Now I continue the series and draw his attention to the recurrence of the first series in the units; and then to its recurrence in the tens. (Which only means that I use particular emphases, underline figures, write them one under another in such-and-such ways, and similar things.) – And now at some point he continues the series independently – or he does not.- But why do you say that? so much is obvious! – Of course; I only wish to say: the effect of any further explanation depends on reaction.
 
Now, however, let us suppose that after some efforts on the teacher’s part he continues the series correctly, that is, as we do it. So now we can say he has mastered the system. – But how far need he continue the series for us to have the right to say that? Clearly you cannot state a limit here.-
 
146. Suppose I now ask: “Has he understood the system when he continues the series to the hundredth place?” Or – if I should not speak of ‘understanding’ in connection with our primitive language-game: Has he got the system, if he continues the correctly so far? – Perhaps you will say here: to have got the system (or, again, to understand it) can’t consist in continuing the series up to this or that number: that is only applying one’s understanding. The understanding itself is a state which is the source of the correct use.
 
What is one really thinking of here? Isn’t one thinking of the derivation of a series from its algebraic formula? Or at least of something analogous? – But this is where we were before. The points is, we may think of more than one/ application of an algebraic formula; and any type of application may in turn be formulated algebraically; but naturally this does not get us any further.- The application is still a criterion of understanding.
 
147. “But how can this be? When I say I understand the rule of a series, I am surely not saying so because I have found out/ that up to now I had applied the algebraic formula in such-and-such a way! In my own case at all events I surely know that I mean such-and-such a series; it doesn’t matter how far I have actually developed it.” -
 
Your idea, then, is that you know the application of the rule of the series quite apart from remembering actual applications to particular numbers.  And you will perhaps say: “Of course! For the series is infinite and the bit of it that I can have developed finite.”
148. But what does this knowledge consist in? Let me ask: When do you know the application? Always? day and night? or only when you are actually thinking of the rule? do you know it, that is, in the same way as you know the alphabet and the multiplication table? Or is what you call “knowledge” a state of consciousness or a process – say a thought of something, or the like?
 
149. If one says that knowing the ABC is a state of the mind, one is thinking of a state of a mental apparatus (perhaps of the brain) by means of which we explain the manifestations/ of that knowledge. Such a state is called a disposition. But there are objections to speaking of a state of the mind here, inasmuch as there ought to be two different criteria for such a state: a knowledge of a the construction of the apparatus, quite apart from what it does. (Nothing would be more confusing here that to use the words “conscious” and “unconscious” for the contrast between states of consciousness and dispositions. For this pair covers up a grammatical difference.)
 
150. The grammar of the word “knows”  is evidently closely related to that of “can”, “is able to”. But also closely related to that of “understands”. (‘Mastery’ of a technique.)
 
Footnote, bottom of page 50: a) “Understanding a word” : a state. But a mental/ state? – Depression, excitement, pain, are called mental states. Carry out a grammatical investigation as follows: we say
 
“He was depressed the whole day.”
“He was in great excitement the whole day.”
“He has been in continuous pain since yesterday”.-
 
We also say “Since yesterday I have understood this word”. “Continuously”, though? – To be sure, one can speak of an interruption of understanding. But in what cases? Compare: “When did your pains get less?” and “When did you stop understanding that word?”
 
b) Suppose it were asked: When do you know how to play chess? All the time? or just while you are making a move? And the whole of chess during each move?- How queer that knowing how to play chess should take such a short time, and a game so much longer!
 
151. But there is also this use of the word “to know”: we say “Now I know!” – and similarly “Now I can do it!” and “Now I understand!”
 
Let us imagine the following example: A writes series of numbers down; B watches him and tries to find a law for the sequences of numbers. If he succeeds he exclaims: “Now I can go on!” – So this capacity, this understanding, is something that makes its appearance in a moment. So let us try and see what it is that makes its appearance here. – A has written down the numbers 1, 5, 11, 19, 29; at this point B says he knows how to go on. What happened here? Various things may have happened; for example, while A was slowly putting one number after another, B was occupied with trying various algebraic formulae on the numbers when had been written down. After A had written the number 19 B tried the formula a (subscript) n = n² + n -1; and the next number confirmed his hypothesis.
 
Or again, B does not think of formulae. He watches A writing his numbers down with a feeling of tension, and all sorts of vague thoughts go through his head. Finally he asks himself: “What is the series of differences?” He finds the series 4, 6, 8, 10 and says: Now I can go on.
 
Or he watches and says “Yes, I know that series” – and continues it, just as he would have done if A had written down the series 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, – Or he says nothing at all and simply continues the series. Perhaps he had what may be called the sensation “that’s easy!” (Such a sensation is, for example, that of a light quick intake of breath, as when one is slightly startled.)
 
152. But are the processes which I describe here understanding? “B understands the principle of the series” surely doesn’t mean simply: the formula “an =…” occurs to B. For it is perfectly imaginable that the formula should occur to him and that he should nevertheless not understand. “He understands” must have more in than: the formula occurs to him. And equally, more than any of those more or less characteristic accompaniments/ or manifestations of understanding.
 
153. We are trying to get a hold of the mental processes of understanding which seems to be hidden behind those coarser and therefore more readily visible accompaniments. But we do not succeed; or, rather, it does not get as far as a real attempt. For even supposing I had found something that happened in all those cases of understanding, – why should it be the understanding? And how can the process of understanding have been hidden, when I said “Now I understand” because I understood?! And if I say it is hidden – then how do I know what I have to look for? I am in a muddle.
 
154. But wait – if “Now I understand the principle” does not mean the same as “The formula…occurs to me” (or “I say the formula”, “I write it down”, etc.) – does it follow from this that I employ the sentence “Now I understand…” or “Now I can go on” as a description of a process occurring behind or side by side with that of saying the formula?
 
155. If there has to be anything ‘behind the utterance of the formula’ it is particular circumstances, which justify me in saying I can go on – when the formula occurs to me.
 
Try not to think of understanding as a ‘mental process’ at all. For that is the expression which confuses you. But ask yourself: in what sort of case, in what kind of circumstances, do we say, “Now I know how to go on,” when, that is, the formula has occurred to me? -
 
In the sense in which there are processes (including mental processes) which are characteristic of understanding, understanding is not a mental process.
 
(A pain growing more or less; the hearing of a tune or a sentence: these are mental processes.)
 
156. Thus what I wanted to say was: when he suddenly knew how to go one, when he understood the principle, then possibly he had a special experience – and if he is asked: What was it? What took place when you suddenly grasped the principle?” perhaps he will describe it much as we described it above – but for us it is the circumstances/ under which he had such an experience that justified him in saying in such a case that he understands, that he knows how to go on.
 
Philosophical Investigations

There are several aspects of comparison between Wittgenstein and Spinoza, but most signficantly are Wittgenstein’s “nothing is hidden” assertion, as well as the notion that the learning of a rule is very much like the “mastery of a technique”. Evocatively he places “know” to be very close to the use of “can” or “is able to”, moving us very close Spinoza’s metaphysical point that knowing isn’t a representational state, but is an action.

Here are the related example from Spinoza’s Short Treatise, followed by the same example from two other works, concerning the ability to follow a rule:

Part II, Chapter I

Someone has merely heard someone else say that if, in the rule of three, you multiply the second and third numbers, and divide the product by the first, you then find the fourth number, which has the same proportion to the third as the second has to the first. And in spite of the fact that the one who told him this could be lying, he still governed his actions according to this rule, without having had any more knowledge of the rule of three than a blind man has of color. So whatever he may have been able to say about it, he repeated it, as a parrot repeats what it has been taught.
 
A second person, of quicker perception [more active intelligence, Shirley], is not content in this way with report, but tests it with some particular calculations, and finding that these agree with it, give his belief to it. But we have rightly said that this one too is subject to error. For how can he be sure that the experience of some particular [cases] can be a rule for him for all.
 
A third, being satisfied with neither with report, because it can deceive, nor with the experience of some particular [cases], because it cannot be a rule, consults true reason, which has never, when properly used, been deceptive. Reason tells him that because of the property of proportionality in these numbers, this is so, and coud not have been, or happened otherwise.
 
But a fourth, who has the clearest knowledge of all, has no need either of report, or of experience, or of the art of reasoning, because through his penetration he immediately sees the proportionality in all the calculations….
 
Chapter II
 
We call the first opinion because it is subject to error, and has no place in anything of which we are certain, but only where guessing and speculating are spoken of.
 
We call the second belief (opinion), because the things we grasp only through reason, we do not see, but know only through a conviction in the intellect that it must be so and not otherwise.
 
But we call that clear knowledge that comes not from being convinced by reasons, but from being aware of and enjoying the thing itself. This goes far beyond the others…
 
 the Short Treatise
 
…Suppose there are three numbers. Someone is seeking a fourth, which is to the third as the second is to the first. Here merchants will usually say that they know what to do to find the fourth number, because they have not yet forgotten that procedure which they heard from their teachers, without any demonstration.
 
Others will construct a universal axiom from an experience with simple numbers, where the fourth number is evident through itself – as in the numbers 2, 4, 3, and 6. Here they find by trial that if the second is multiplied by the third, and the product is divided by the first, the result is 6. Since they see that this produces the same number which they knew to be the proportional number withou this procedure, they infer that the procedure is always a good way to find the fourth number in the proportion.
 
But mathematicians know, by the force of the demonstration of Proposition 19 in Book VII of Euclid, which numbers are proportional to one another, from the nature of proportion, and its property, viz. that the product of the second and the third. Nevertheless, they do not see the adequate proportionality of the given numbers. And if they do, they see it not by the force of the Proposition, but intuitively, or without going through any procedure.
 
Emendation of the Intellect (23)
 
…Given the numbers 1, 2 and 3, no one fails to see that the fourth proportional number is 6 – and we see this much more clearly because we infer the fourth number from the ratio which, in one glance, we see the first number to have the second.
 
Ethics, IIp40s2iv
Tool Use and Eternity
After all this quotation I want to create the picture that for both Spinoza and Wittgenstein the rules of reason were to be seen as tools (and not knowledge in their own right), techniques of action. What both thinkers shared was a engineer’s sensitivity towards the way that parts fit together. Spinoza of course was a master lens-craftsman and Wittgenstein an amateur architect and mechanical engineer (I believe he designed his own aircraft engine, if I recall correctly). What is most germane, as both thinkers reflect back upon each other, is I think the way in which Wittgenstein’s “circumstances” which act as the criteria for our justification of the rule-following of others, opens out the historical immanence for Spinoza’s view towards eternity. This is to say, or argumentation about the truths of actions find their criteria in the real, historical milieu to which they are immanent. I think that this is very much in keeping with Spinoza’s articulation (as long as we remain under the question of “justification”). In this sense, reason has a historically contingent, natura naturata manifestation and horizon. But as well, Spinoza’s window unto eternity, aside from the question of justification, makes more clear Wittgenstein’s own attachment to a denial of durative processes as the source of understanding. Instead, while historically contingent criteria, all immanent to their circumstances, may lead us to the intuitive grasp of wholes, these are mere tools in a certain, transpiercing of history through intuitive grasp (in which the issue of justification falls away). Ultimately these are human and abiotic bindings, constitutive of their mutuality, in the end causal relations of perception. In all perceptions, including those of animals and inanimate objects, nothing is hidden, nothing lies beyond.
I think that this goes onto explain Spinoza’s own reticence towards the technological innovations of Christiaan Huygens in the area of lens grinding. Huygens and his brother were brilliant experimenters with the art of lens grinding, an area of craft which Spinoza specialized in. What is of note is that Spinoza did not find the Huygens’ shiny devices of much interest, just the sorts of machines that were arriving on the scene which seemed to manifest cleanly the powers of mathematical knowledge itself. Mechanical instruments seemed to express abstract truths without the stain of human hand. But Spinoza found this the least bit interesting:

The said Huygens has been a totally occupied man, and so he is, with polishing glass dioptrics; to that end a workshop he has outfitted, and in it he is able to “turn” pans – as is said, it’s certainly polished – what tho’ thusly he will have accomplished I don’t know, nor, to admit a truth, strongly do I desire to know. For me, as is said, experience has taught that with spherical pans, being polished by a free hand is safer and better than any machine. 

Spinoza in his letter to Oldenburg refers actually to the supposedly lowest level of knowledge in his trinity, experience, as the reproof of the importance of the semi-automated machine that he saw. I don’t believe that this is a small dispositional point. Rather, just as Wittgenstein refuses any grounding of “understanding” in rules (which are tools), and as Spinoza puts “intuitional knowledge” above the truths found in the Art of Reasoning, I believe that Spinoza found the appeal of instruments themselves as abstract devices and powers (be they rules, theorems, machines) to be utterly secondary to the intuitional revelation of God and Nature itself, through those tools. His preference for the “free hand” over the automated gear turn, expressed above, is not simply a pragmatic issue (most of Huygens devices did not seem to produce usable lenses), but also a question of just what the human/technological interface involved, and the powers of its action. Instrumentality, like that would mark much of scientific pursuit, was a fetish. Maths and Science were tools used for the transformational intuition of truth, a strong de-centering of the subject, and were not truths about the world themselves.

Was Tuberculosis the Condition of Spinoza’s Emendation of the Intellect?

I have argued before that Spinoza’s life was likely one that involved carrying the burden of the disease tuberculosis, and that indeed it may have been the disease that influenced some of his most important decisions including his young adult break from the community and devotion to philosophy, as well as the decisions to live away from Amsterdam in states of relative isolation, and perhaps even his break from writing the Ethics and the turn to the Theological-Political Treatise: Spinoza and Tuberculosis: His Disease and Devotion. This is not to say that this is definitely the case in any of these events, but only that as far as I have read his disease is almost never considered by biographers or interpreters as a causal influence upon his life’s trajectory.

The article was called to my attention again and as it happens I was also looking back over Spinoza’s first philosophical work (following Mignini), the Emendation of the Intellect for other reasons last night. I was struck by more than one reference to death, disease and health in its first pages. I went back and inserted a reference in the original post, but it seems good to put them altogether here, for it strikes me that at the very least Spinoza does have disease and death on his mind as he makes his definitive break from the “uncertain” to the “certain”, leaving behind both the community he grew up in and the pursuit of wealth (his family buisness).

Four Citations of Health, Malady and Death

Keep in mind this is a prospective view, meant only to cast a different light on much-looked-at texts, and not a full-blown thesis. And thus the four citations I give are not definitive in any sense, but only supportive of general understanding that is missing in the common interpretations of Spinoza’s life and work.

The first of these is the opening paragraph of the Emendation. Here Spinoza cites “experience” that has taught him of the uncertain. As mentioned in the first article, the deaths of his step mother Esther and then of his father (1654-55) seven months apart, if from tuberculosis, approximately 3-4 years previous, not to mention that the possible onset of the disease in himself could have formed a definite part of this “experience”.

After experience has taught me that all the things which regularly occur in ordinary life are empty and futile, and I saw that all the things which were the cause or object of my fear had nothing of good or bad in themselves, except insofar as [my] mind was moved by them, I resolved at last to try to find out whether there was anything which would be the true good, capable of communicating itself, and which alone would affect the mind, all others being rejected – whether there was something which, once found and acquired, would continuously give me the greatest joy, to eternity [1]

If my hypothesis is correct, Spinoza has been suffering from some symptomatic tuberculosis, just as others of his family had, and that these bouts of coughing and possible blood were in some sense a wake up call to a devotion to the Infinite form him. I read something of this as expressed in his talk of the intervals of peace that increased with his determined change of mentality, possibly understood as a certain conflation of his disease with mental inordination itself (the worries and pursuits of the family business in trade). Could it be that it was intervals of real health, in the cyclic nature of TB, that coincided with Spinoza’s own attempts to straighten out his thinking?:

I saw this, however; that so long as the mind was turned toward these thoughts, it was turned away from those things [greed, desire, love of esteem], and was thinking seriously about the new goal. That was a great comfort to me. For I saw that those evils would not refuse to yield to remedies. And although in the beginning these intervals were rare, and lasted a very short time, nevertheless, after the true good became more and more known to me, the intervals became more frequent and longer – especially after I saw that the acquisition of money, sensual pleasure, and esteem are only obstacles so long as they are sought for their own sakes, and not the means to other things [11]

Then there is a small note on the importance of health, and the understanding of disease which he places between moral philosophy and mechanics, as important in the pursuit of human perfection. Though this could be a mere inclusive coincidence, but it also places the issue of “health” in chronological order between Spinoza’s own moral education at the hands of rabbis, and the discovery of Cartesian mechanics, likely at the Van den Enden school:

Third, attention must be paid to Moral Philosophy and to Instruction concerning the Education of children. Because Health is not small means to achieving this end, fourthly, the whole of Medicine must be worked out [15]

And lastly of the four opening references we have Spinoza speaking of the inadequate knowledge he has of his own condition, the mere report and inference if his own birth and death. Out of context of course these would be common ways of talking about how we “know” we are going to die, but note the specificity here. Spinoza says that he knows that he is going to die because “others like me” have died if from different illnesses. This strikes me as a philosophical abstraction from a real condition, the likelihood that both his step-mother and father had died of the same illness, and that indeed Spinoza was symptomatic of it was well. He “knew” he was going to die in a very real and specific way, and not just the common way that we all know, I suggest.

I know only from report the date of my birth, and who my parents were, and similar things, which I never have doubted. By random experience I know that I shall die, for I affirm this because I have seen others like me die, even though they had not all lived the same length of time and did not all die of the same illness [20]

Surely none of this is conclusive, but if correct it would shed more like both on the radical break Spinoza made towards a philosophy of the eternal, and away from the community that would excommunicate him. Further, it qualifies to a much greater degree Spinoza’s concern with the body and its limitations, and his attempts at mental perfection. It puts further emphasis upon his notion of the contingency of the body and the ignorance we have of its causes, and would show the way in which he envisioned mental clarity as the one self-determining path out of confused bondage. He was not so much escaping death, as embracing its brute fact and appreciating it, thinking in death’s shadow, I would propose, in a time where death was to become quite prevalent and all the more seemingly contingent.

Infinitely Narrow: How Spinoza Corrects Descartes’ Lenses

Corry Shores has another nice post up in his series on my study of Spinoza’s optical theories and practices. He is the only person, as far as I know, who has made an attempt to read through the whole of my study and it is with great appreciation to find my thoughts reflected there. Here, 6: Seeing Differences between Descartes and Spinoza. Some Observations on Spinoza’s Sight. [The Kvond Spinoza’s Foci Summary Series], he points out a power conceptual, and pictorial difference between Descartes and Spinoza. In my understanding it is hard to over estimate just how pervasive Descartes’ optical metaphor for consciousness and methodology for clarity became, in particular when it was grafted onto by Idealist notions of fundamental intentionality, self-hood, and subject/object duality. Spinoza’s correction to the hyperbolic lens, the lens that Descartes felt would unlock all the powers of clear, nearly unlimited vision to man, stands at a fundamental cross-roads in the history of philosophy, noting the turn-out where modernity could not branched off from the Idealism it followed.

This contrast between the narrowly clear and self-evident, and the broad spectrum, comprehensive intuition of a whole makes an interesting contact point to a discussion Carl Dyke and I have been having over at his blog, on the Infinity Standard (something he regards as an unhealthy societal influence), Existential infinity. Descartes envisioned an infinity as well, an infinite power developed upon the tunnel vision of narrow band precision of clarity, ultimately founded upon the notion of the “self” as indubitable. While Spinoza wanted to say of lenses, of eyes, and ultimately of consciousness, whenever we are perceiving something clearly it is always because we are already perceiving the vista of what lies beyond it. There is no narrow clarity that supersedes and establishes the role of the margin. In fact, as is the case in criticisms of philosophies of Presence, it is always the margin, the ground, that allows the narrow, bright center to have importance, or even substance at all. As I have mentioned before, recent concerns about objects and their centrality are grown out of the image of clear centrality itself, something that comes out of Descartes’ optics, and as I tried to show, Kepler before him.

We do not realize how much our folk and philosophical conception of consciousness and the world is governed by a metaphor of tunnel vision.

A related post: The Hole at the “Center of Vision”

US versus Stevens: The Affects of Law and Protection

The Market and Production of Affects: Ruling over Non-Communicative Expression

In 1999 Congress passed a statute aimed at stamping out an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 videos of perverse sexual interest, and distinct animal cruelty. It was conceptually organized with the child pornography Supreme Court case New York vs. Ferber (1982), which was decided such that States had the right to criminalized the distribution of even non-obscene depictions of children in sexual conduct partly upon the reasoning that prosecution of distribution of material in a “market” can be justified by virtue of its chilling, deterrent effect upon the crime of child abuse itself. The majority decision had several prongs to its reasoning (among them that the act of photographing a child in sexual conduct itself formed its own measure of abuse), but distinct was the thinking that government could restrict First Amendment restrictions through the logic of attacking markets without having to invoke the standard of obscenity.

The Congress aimed its statute at the production and distribution of so-named “crush videos”. In these videos dominatrix-like women in high heels or bare feet cruelly crushed to death small animals (chicks, kittens have been named). This statute makes it a crime to create, sell, or possess “any visual or auditory depiction” of “animal cruelty” if the act of cruelty is illegal under federal law or the law of the state in which the depiction occurred. What is excluded from this criminalization is any simulation of such an act of cruelty, which is not restricted under this statute.

The statute passed with very little relevance for nearly a decade without a single case of “crush video” prosecution, and an attested “drying up” of the market it was directed towards. This until a man was arrested for making and distributing dog fight videos under the logic of the statute, his conviction brought before the Supreme Court now, US vs. Stevens. In oral arguments before the court the Deputy Solicitor General, Mr. Katyal, argues in fact that the exclusion of simulated acts shows that the statute is not concerned with limiting the content of expression, but rather only its mode of production. As he claims,

MR. KATYAL: In one sentence, if — if – if Congress sees a compelling interest in regulating the means of production and does not target the underlying content, they can — they can regulate a depiction, so long as it leaves alternative mechanisms for that expression in place.

This is a compelling case filled with complex questions of Freedom of Speech and the morality of policed value, in fact reading the oral arguments was intriguing (I was surprised how incogent many of the Justice questions seemed to be), but mostly I would like to focus on the original intent of the statute and not on the question merely if the statute is overbroad. As a few of the Justices wished to know from the Respondent Attorney Patricia Millett, would Congress even be able to write a constitutional statute limiting “crush videos” if they tailored their language more distinctly – which is to say, more abstractly, can or should the production and distribution of images or sounds be limitable under a logic of controlling markets of otherwise illegal activity?

Critical Animal was the one who brought to my attention this case: Moral schizophrenia and the power of affect in US v Stevens. I went back and read the oral arguments and a few summaries (the Slate article is absurdly written). And then I went back and read the majority decisions in the Ferber case, the Miller obscenity case, and a few others mentioned in the case. And it was Critical Animal who drew to my eye the question of “affect” control which seems to lie within the question of First Amendment restrictions. Ultimately, what people (and animals) feel is the paramount concern, even though pressures of the law are directed upon other structural aspects of behaviors: in this case upon markets and production. It is upon that I really would like to place my imaginary glass. 

What is a Simulated Message?

As mentioned, part of the reasoning behind allowing simulated material of a pornographic, and otherwise criminal nature is that supposedly it distinguishes that the government is not going after the “content” of a message, but rather in the case of child pornography and then again in “crush videos” after the very modes of production which is itself criminal. The crime is in the making, not the saying. This is essential to the Ferber decision which recognized that photography itself is abuse, and also claimed as important that the perpetuation of the shame of the child through distribution perpetuated this abuse. Each of these points don’t readily apply to the subject of “crush videos”. Rather the logic is much more simple. Animals have to be cruelly killed in order to produce these real images. And the thought is that if you simply faked the cruel killing, the message would be preserved without the criminal production. This move towards simulated allowance forms one subtle part of the logic of Ferber on which the Congressional statute was built. That is to say, even though in New York vs. Ferber non-obscene material was restricted, it was the very braiding of “content” and “production” as criminal which established the government’s right.

But the stronger strain of Ferber logic that is aimed at “crush videos” (and then eventually dog fighting videos) is the notion that if indeed the photographic (or auditory) reproduction of criminal activity serves to strengthen a “market” for such material, and thus the renewed criminal acts for the production of further commercial products, the advertisement and sale itself can be targeted with the aim of drying up the market itself. (In the case of Ferber it was the sale of images of a 15 year old boy masturbating that was seen as part of an entire child pornography network of crimes.) The 1982 Ferber logic of restraint against future criminal processes itself was checked in Ashcroft vs. Free Speech Coalition (2002) which decided that simulated digital images of child pornography could not be criminalized under the logic that they could be and had been used to seduce children into sexual behavior. This is to say that, if simulated images might be used instrumentally to forward the process of a crime, in the context of a “market” of child pornography, this “speech” cannot be Constitutionally constrained (Ashcroft), but if the sale of simulated non-obscene depictions operate as part of a market of criminal act depictions this “speech” can be Constitutionally restricted (Ferber, somewhat under the Brandenburg Test). The statute against “crush videos” negotiates these two aspects, allowing simulated images (despite that such images might foment a market), under the strong notion that the government is after an illegal mode of production. In a sense, the argument against simulated material/market connection is sacrificed to bolster the “mode of production” logic of the law.

This distinction between content and production is a philosophically interesting one, for it presupposes that there is a distinct content of these crush videos (and then dog fight videos) that is left protected by the Constitution. You can go ahead and “say” whatever a crush video says, as long as you don’t commit a crime in making it. And what is the “message” that is protected under such a distinction? Or oral arguments it is summarized by Justice Alito, repeating the reasoning of Justice Scalia:

JUSTICE ALITO: What about crush videos, which apparently were the focus of Congress’s attention when it drafted these? Now, I suppose by an analogy to what Justice Scalia just said about the message of dog fighting videos, the people who produce crush videos think they have a message, and the message is that this is — this is sexually exciting or it’s exciting in some way to see a woman in high heeled shoes crushing a little animal to death.

We are given to think that this message is stateable in a great number of ways. The high heeled woman could step on a stuffed kitten, or the camera could cut away at the right moment, or the event could be drawn  or animated, or, conceivably it could be stated just as Justice Alito has stated it. But really, is this the “speech” (what I would like to think of as the “expression”) of a crush video? It seems like an odd thing to say. Indeed as the idea that a painting could be criminalized and replaced by with a word expression of its depicted without loss of its message would tell you, something is missing.

Justice Breyer actually puts his finger right on it, there is a sense that crush videos actually communicate “nothing” which is to say, they gravitate towards a pole which lacks distinct verbal (one wants to say “rational”) content. He places this idea under the question of whether there is any possible construction by which Congress could restrict the speech of crush videos (aside from the statute under review). As Beyer sees it, there might be a class of things which devoid of content rather appeal to “instincts”:

…JUSTICE BREYER: But the point — the point I guess is when you say yes to this, what you are thinking is that, just as real obscenity when depicted does nothing communicative but rather appeals to the instinct of lust, so Congress could find a category of things that do not communicate, but appeal to the instinct of sadism; and that is true when other creatures are killed for the pleasure of the people who want to see them killed. Now, that’s what you are saying. Now – and I think maybe that’s true (32)

And Beyer continues the line of thinking, rebutting the argument offered by the Respondent (and by the earlier Scalia/Alito description) that crush videos possess content:

JUSTICE BREYER: I think what — I think what’s going on is — is not — your conflating two things. One is you are trying to produce education about something that has no communicative value. In so far as you are trying to make an argument or educate, of course, it is protected, but the government, here, is saying I think the statute is intended to forbid a different thing entirely, and it’s hard to draw a line.

Maybe it’s impossible; but promoting a thing which communicates nothing, but appeals to people’s worst instinct, that is not to advocate it or not to advocate it.

It is to try to make money out of it, and that’s what they think, I believe, the statute is aimed at (49)

Aside from the value judgment offered as to which instincts are the worse ones, or even if one can make a contentless appeal to an instinct of some kind, Justice Breyer it seems has really touched on something. There is the sense that at bottom, content appeals operate in context to contentless appeals to instinctual aspects of human beings, and people make money out of this through markets. Could it be that Breyer exposes the nerve pulse of Capitalism itself: to production and exchange of goods through markets given to contentless appeals? Critical Animal, as I mentioned above, supplies the right word, “affects”. Breyer opens up the question whether the Constitution protects affects at all, that is, our capacity to feel and even to organized our feelings (or have them organized for us). Perhaps this will become more clear in the next section.

What Good is the Non-Simulated Depiction?

Here I invoke a critique I made of some thoughts forwarded by Latour and a co-author on the nature of Copies and their Original: The Copiousness of Copies. Some of the ideas forwarded there should put into bolder relief some of what is truly at stake in the arguments about speech and content in the Congressional (likely overbroad) statute against crush videos. There I argue that what distinguishes a “good copy” from a “bad copy”, each made from an “original” are three factors that are weighed against each other:

  1. The copy’s loyalty to germane causes – this means that when we appreciate an original as the source of a great many copies, this is done in the context of the preservation of traces of causes we read as germane to the importance of the original in the first place, and good copies preserve these traces. A photocopied dollar bill has effaced important traces of the causes that produced the original. Yet Warhol’s soup cans preserve important causes that produced the depicted soup can.
  2. Richness of causes to be discovered – here, a good copy is one which maintains a deep record of possibly discovered causes that produced the original, traces which may lead to causes of the original later to be found germane. A detailed digital photograph of a painting may preserve brushstroke pattern thought unimportant, later to be a valued.
  3. Fecundity of interrelations which promote its own replication – these are unto the very nature of the copy itself, and speak of the capacity of that copy to find itself replicatable, producing other copies of itself. In this sense a photograph of a painting is a good copy if it leads to further photographic duplications (put into artbooks, on post cards).

In this way a copy is good if it retains valued aspects of the original (which are themselves traces of causes), holds the capacity for the discovery of other yet to be valued aspects of the original, and itself due to its nature becomes the source for further copies. This stands in amendment of Latour’s idea that sheerly it is the copiousness of copies that establishes their good.

So where am I going on this? I want to explore the exact nature of the communication of the legislated against crush videos, just what it is that they are doing, how they are doing it, and how the notion of simulated replacement might not preserve the “speech” expression of their production.

Primary of difficulty is the Petitioner’s claim that a simiulated act in film, for instance, could retain the exact same message as a non-simulated act. The reason why this is of extreme difficulty – as I hoped to expose through my brief journey into a theory of the copy, is that one could never delimit exactly what causes are the germane ones to be captured by any one expression. This is to say, the point in watching a film of the “crush” variety is not simply to expose oneself to the “idea” of crushing, or even to the idea that such an act is good, exciting or preferred, but actually to submit oneself to the extreme details of such an act. And its given realness, the great variety of detail captured (whether it be a quality of smile of such a woman, the tempo of a hesitation, the color or grade of light on a surface, the pitch of an animal protest and the accorded response or lack thereof, all of these plastic effects), communicate themselves to the viewer with an aim to affective transformation, just as they do in a painting when compared to a prose summary. When one exposes oneself to the rich capture of the criminal act (it being criminal being secondary to it being real), provides a certain amplitude of a power of communication which defies any content definition. To say that one could simply “simulate” this process of communication by either changing the “content” of what is shown, or registers (media) is to simply lose track of what communication and ultimately expression is. The veridical nature of the expression is precisely that which contains the power of transformation that drives the expression in the first place. 

And while surely there exist simulations which could fool a prospective viewer into thinking that they are watching the Real, what drives the transaction is the actual promotion of a direct (or as near as direct) contact with a said person (the dominatrix of a kind), and that event. In the end “content” in terms of restateable “ideas” simply does not exist, any more than the notion that the content of the “Mona Lisa” is that “Women are inscrutable”. In fact the reason why we see the “original” that is hanging in the Louvre is so as to be transformed, at whatever level of awareness, by the hand that painted it, centuries ago.

This is not to say of course that crush videos should be legalized, or must be protected by the Constitution, but only that the particular argument by the government is highly flawed. More interesting perhaps is the other aspect of the Ferber decision that in fact inspired the case against Stevens, and in particular that uncovered by Justice Breyer: what the statute is aimed at is not “content” but at markets that trade on pure affects (leaving aside the notion that there is an appeal to an “instinct”  which is base or not). Indeed, this is right to the core of Capitalist endeavors, one might argue, the marketed trade of “experiences” which never can be reduced down to either a logic of “content” or “use value”. What is wrong with crush videos, at least in Justice Breyer’s view, is that they trade in just experiences meant to transform the viewer, and the problem the government faces is how to police these experiences (or that market), especially when their production involves criminal cruelty. There is a sense in which the consumer’s experiences, her or his affects, drive the market for produced experiences of another, criminal kind. The very circularity exposes perhaps the very affect-driven nature of markets themselves, all markets. In this case the affects of a cruelly killed small animal (and the imagined affects of a dominatrix) are transformed into a nexus for the affects of a perverse viewer.

What remains to be thought is Justice Breyer’s important qualification that it is not just contentless affects that mark out this case (at least in terms of the crush videos the statue was written for, but perhaps also in terms of dog fighting). It is that these products appeal to what is worst in humans, an instinct of “lust” or “sadism”. To this Justice Scalia offers the suitable defense to Ms. Millett:

JUSTICE SCALIA: I would have thought that your response to Justice Breyer’s comment about catering to people’s worst instincts in the area of the First Amendment, at least, would have been that it’s not up to the government to decide what are people’s worst instincts.

If — if the First Amendment means anything, that’s what it means.

If this is so, indeed the government has no first amendment leverage upon which to stand against markets of affects in terms of a primary value of the “instinct” they appeal to.

It cannot be over looked that this social contest I believe really does touch on the very engine of Captialist relations, and the need social justice has for restraining the kinds of affects people can purchase in trade (both in the production of products – i.e. the restriction of child labor for instance, but not animal torture in meat industries – and in the enjoyment of products). I think part of this is due to the very way that we read and interpret the behaviors and lives of others. We do this primarily through affective imagination, and the threat that there may be markets that have established themselves under the trade of certain affects – and little is as entrenched as a thriving market will be – invades the very boundaries of our interpretive bodies. If we want to understand “those perverts” to some degree, insofar as we do think we understand them, if only to reject them, we must enter into the affective states that they pursue. It is for this reason that the logic of the Ferber case makes the most social sense, lacking though perhaps the necessary argumentative, constitutional anti-market logic to extend it far beyond the exceptional case of child pornography (as the “child” stands as one of the ground work anchors of American sensibilities).

The concept of “worst instinct” really is a proxy term for the very threat that such traded affects present to the logic of markets themselves. And as Justic Scalia points out the First Amendment is poised as a leverage point between that hidden threat of Capitalist relations (that non-communicative, traded affects will transform subjects), and the necessary freedoms of expression that mark out just what constitutes a freely expressing subject or citizen. I must be free to express myself, yet the market place of expressive affects (accelerated as it has been by media technologies) risks intensity points that may subvert the very order of markets in the first place. To this degree, really, the affects involved in product production often must be masked or ideologically recoded, as best as possible. Animals who suffer for the meat industry are hidden behind happier chicken labels, while videos that expose viewers to real animal cruelty invoke traction for government action against markets. What the US vs. Stevens statute tries to do is incise the very mode of production of a market, in the logic of a child pornography in which reproduction constitutes a crime in itself, and as such under a proviso of simulated content freedoms attempts to side step the problem of freedom of expression. As the rationality of simulated replacement breaks down the true aim of the law is exposed as directed towards the markets of affects themselves, which is perhaps where all true social friction resides: the transmission and capitalization of experience.

In a certain sense crush videos hyperstate the very conditions of production, the powers of transformation of living material via its affective capacity and its representation, in trade.

Related blog post and another, and another posting around the web

Being/s as Power to Affect or to Be Affected

From the Sophist

Ξένος:

λέγω δὴ τὸ καὶ ὁποιανοῦν [τινα] κεκτημένον δύναμιν [247ε] εἴτ᾽ εἰς τὸ ποιεῖν ἕτερον ὁτιοῦν πεφυκὸς εἴτ᾽ εἰς τὸ παθεῖν καὶ σμικρότατον ὑπὸ τοῦ φαυλοτάτου, κἂν εἰ μόνον εἰς ἅπαξ, πᾶν τοῦτο ὄντως εἶναι: τίθεμαι γὰρ ὅρον [ὁρίζειν] τὰ ὄντα ὡς ἔστιν οὐκ ἄλλο τι πλὴν δύναμις.

Stranger:

I sat that that which has acquired any power (capacity) of any kind, either to create a change in anything of any nature [247e] or to be affected even in the least by the slightest, even if only on one occasion, all this actually IS. For I set up the term to divide beings to be nothing else but power (capacity).

As a means of comparison Spinoza’s:

That which so disposes the human body that it can be affected in many ways, or which renders it capable of affecting external bodies in many ways, is advantageous to man, and is more advantageous in proportion as by its means the body becomes more capable of being affected in many ways and to affect other bodies; on the other hand, that thing is injurious which renders the body less capable of affecting or be affected – E4p38

A Vectorial Understanding of Being

Networks and Spatialized Information

 

The Relations of Relating

Levi has a nice post up, I believe repeating he has made before, that networks express themselves in terms of a structure that is both material and for want of a better word, positional: Spatio-Temporal Topology– A Brief Remark. I like his graph of networks, but it is exactly this kind of point he is trying to bring to the “object” world that is much better served by treating information itself as a constituent, structuring element of the Universe, such as I argued adopting Stonier’s theory of information to Spinozist terms in Information, Spinoza’s “Idea” and The Structure of the Universe. It is in just this way that the human-oriented world that Levi and others are trying to flee is most easily surmounted, as information as “productive work” not only describes the organizational properties of human/non-biotic networks, but also of non-biotic structures as well (a crystal, or the informational properties of light being fine examples). Information (much like Spinoza’s “idea”), cuts across the whole fabric of the Universe, creating the edges of what is possible. Why object-oriented ones do not seize onto this idea is perhaps a product of their very “object” consciousness, they want an optical “final constituent of the world”, a piece of the world they can float in their mind’s eye. Our eyes see objects, but our ears, or sense of smell, hearing even our sense of touch, and even our kinesthetic sense do not primarily perceive “objects”. It is just this desire to “think in pictures” as Spinoza put it, that characterizes much of object-consciousness, that restricts the kinds of solutions one would naturally pursue. And it is precisely in the nature of networks, and therefore processes, that information takes its more obvious stand: where relations are juxtaposed to the work needed to create and maintain them. So much better, I think, it is to see as Stonier offers, that matter, energy and information are the three constituents of the world.

As Stonier argues, it was the computer’s invention that gave rise to the awareness of information being constituent, just as the steam engine gave rise to our awareness of universal energy. Network thinking also has grown out of computer relations and powers of organization, there could be no more historically natural connection that could be made than between networks and information. It would seem, at least historically, until the next great conceptual device is invented, that for those who want to think in networked fashion, and beyond the merely human, information is a bedrock of interpretation, and projective “objects” whose prominence grew out of Renaissance linear perspective (Panofsky) and the invention of the camera obscura, perhaps much less so.

 

Related posts: From Ideal Networks to Real Ones: Al Qaeda and Chaoplexic Warfare and Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?

The Integrity of the Future

Some more musings on the difficult and perhaps absurd ideas of the last post…it kept me up last night, tossing and put me in a funk today.

Spinoza’s Letter to Balling feels like it has some clues for how I want to think on this. In the Spinoza example we have the story of a father who seemed to have heard the death sighs of his son before the boy had taken sick (presumably with the plague). It is unsure if Spinoza was only soothing a mournful father, but he in letter tells the friend that his imaginary hallucination may have come to through he and his son sharing an essence out of love (instead of being merely a product of the body). What Spinoza does not address is the interesting change of events that might have included the father recognizing the prophetic event for what it was, and whisking his son out of plague struck Europe. One wonders, would this chain of events have fit within Spinoza’s framework of essences?

Or, as I was thinking last night, could we conceive that a song, as it is being played is retroactively effected by the disastrous, atonal possibilities that exist in its possible future such that those atonalities  reach rippling back into the present selection of notes, a kind of chiaroscuro of reverberative possibilities. Does a song play itself in one direction? Deleuze and Guattari like to think of a melody as a line of flight, what if we took it to be a sphere of orbed becoming, a bubbling out of cogent line-walking at the edge of chaos and stability whose boundary reaches backward and forth beyond the present bifurcation (where we dream “choice” remains).

I want to say that there is a possible integrity of the future, that if with Spinoza we imagine an partaking essence-based concept of cohesive action, the conception that our demarcated and individualized directions are made in the process of a body-making, cognitive boundary laden whole, then where is it that we find the standpoint at which we deny that the future states of that whole do not through their very integrated character reverberate back, causally, upon states in the present (or even the past)? If one is going to subtend a specie aeterintatis in your thinking, do not the past and future necessarily fail and firm boundaries? Are not disasters forming the very wake of the bow of that boat?

Of course this is silly, there is a direction of the arrow of time, and even if entropy could be considered something of an illusion of Chaotic progression, where would the location of this ballast of the future recursively organized find a place to reside? But there is gravity here that does not seem to entirely be explained by psychology, or even the general teleological functionality of life forms, something that tugs at the idea…something that perhaps inverted itself in all sorts of eschatological waking dreams of prophets, and hand-of-God imaginings. It resides in the sense of the integrity of the future (which answers not to concepts of pure becoming, concepts of pure difference, concepts of continual creation), the way that we all orb ourselves into the future, the bow of us pre-existing what we are. How the water has been cut before we have arrived.

Anyways, some thoughts without discipline. I think this has something to do with Duchamp’s attraction to n-dimensional analysis which had interested me some time ago, perhaps more than a decade.

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