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Category Archives: Philosophy

Mark Taylor Attempts to Take Down

I post this here for traffic because this seems like a worthy topic for the internet few to read. It seems that the Napster of academic presses has been forced to change its practices by a former music industry publishing advisor to Macmillan.

Read the related articles at blog: Macmillan and Mark Taylor take down

Thanks Matt for the clarification.

Mitochondrial Vertigo: The New Blog

A few have expressed that they welcome a different incarnation of my blogging, so we we’ve begun a little experiment which is called Mitochondrial Vertigo. This blog for now is closed, but you are welcome to visit my new experiment. If any of the past posts do interest you feel free to comment and I’ll try to respond if I can.

Going Dark

Hey, its been great. Heading to Thailand for a while, and in all likelihood this wonderful blog experiment is going dark. Its lived at least its first incarnation. Thank you for all the relationships I’ve developed over the brief time of my writing, those adversarial, and those inspirational (not mutually exclusive of each other). A profound social and intellectual experience. Thanks for the space in your lives and amid the aether, especially for my Spinoza and Optics study. If you find yourself thinking about and commenting upon any of my past posts I’ll be glad to continue the discussion if fruitful. Sorry that the Massumi reading did not develop, but perhaps it will be reborn in a different forum. Thank you so much for all. I feel that I know much better who I am, and what I think (and believe).

The Becoming-woman of Machine in Avatar

A Comparison With The Fist of the White Lotus

[Early concept art for Cameron's Avatar]

In following up this rhizome series on Cameron’s Avatar, which involves this series of posts:

1. Avatar: The Density of Being, 2. Avatarship and the New Man: Reading Ideology, Technology and Hope, 3.Two Vectors of Avatar’s Cinematic Achievement: Affect and Space Interface, 4.Is the Medium the Message? Avatar’s Avatar, 5. Peking Opera and the Aesthetic Freedoms of Avatar.

I want to pick up on the last Peking Opera/Hong Kong Action reference, and open up a comparison I’ve suggested, between Avatar and the Kung Fu classic Fist of the White Lotus (1980, originally title among others Clan of the White Lotus). In each the process of education involves an implicit feminization of the more masculine powers, something that may have bearing upon both philosophical vitalism and the general fears about left, liberal, Hollywood pantheism. In Fist of the White Lotus the hero Hong Wending, played by the incomparable Gordon Liu (Liu Jiahui, forget Tarantino’s souless homage the character and actor in Kill Bill 2) seeks revenge against an evil martial arts master who has murdered nearly all of the hero’s Shaolin brethren. To be sure one has to be rather thoroughly steeped in the Hong Kong aesthetic to appreciate how the seemingly stilted plots, characters and actions of this film transcend into graced expression and very significant matters (or correspond to perceived weaknesses in Avatar), but it is enough to see that gender is under transformation in the film.

To give a sense of the storyline, Pai Mei “white eyebrows”, the evil villain high priest, has achieved a nearly undefeatable level of martial arts that required a highly choreographed combined attack of two persons, an attack used to defeat his twin brother. With the hero now a sole survivor after a White Lotus Clan ambush, having lost his martial arts compatriot, he has no way to fight this arch enemy and avenge his close friend’s death. The movie consists in Gordion Lui trying to perfect new forms of attack, and repeated showdowns that fail. The principle unusual powers that Pai Mei possesses are the bizarre defensive capacity to withdraw his genitals back into his body to protect them, and the ability to become so weightless that the force of any blow thrown just floats him back as if he were made of paper. 

At one stage in the hero’s development he comes into the tutelage of the wife of his fallen comrade, whose child she has now born. He believes that if he learns her “woman’s style” he may be able to combine it with his aggressive Crane and Tiger and finally be able to get close enough to strike his opponent. But first he must learn women’s work, he is told. This is the sequence of his feminization (the whole film is posted in parts on Youtube):

As the plot goes, this woman’s style is not sufficient to defeat the great Pai Mei, but it is componented to the skills that in the end prove necessary. The character must go through a feminization in order to draw up the powers of the feminine into his eventual expression of righteous force. Many of the social fears over the liberal creep of pantheism are no doubt linked to deeply entrenched gender notions, bodily configurations, cultural identifications with what is appropriate. One can see this in the conflict between the two kinds of technology in Avatar, the masculine puppetry and instrumental expression, machines operating in a kind of robotic Kung Fu like Hong Kong Tiger or Crane Style, and the limpid, synthetic and lithe Pandoran DNA lightness, which involved a distinct feminization of Sully’s body (the lengthening of his features and limbs, the corsetting of his waist, a general feline framing of his person). Sully learns, and becomes a mutuality of gender expressions, recovering a brute, warlike masculinity on the other side of woman. The mushy, spiritual New Ageism that makes much of the American Right recoil goes in two powerful directions. There are the strong gender (and sexuality) political questions that can at times dominate social discussion (for instance the question of Gay Marriage which rears its head and subsides with great tidal force), but these are intimately linked I believe to questions of technological synthesis, the way in which we feel the world through our technologies in such a way that they engender us, and steer us away from a much more (symbolically) masculine instrumental relationship to our capacities. The entire Gaia feminization of the world which some protest, and which marks something of the vitalisms of contemporary philosophy, are questions of immersion, how deeply should our body sink into our capacities, and feel our way forward through what is modern. The contest between instrument and embodiment is an aesthetic contest between distance and speed, something mediated by affect and our control of affects (most regularly codified and regimented in the register of gender). In this sense, the battleground of gender, in politics, and the seemingly reactionary political entrenchment on the issue of sexual rights and actions is to be expected, and in fact, respected, as the entire social body seeking equilibrium amid vast change in capacity to feel and do.

Animal, Woman, Child: Vitalism and Technology

To give some context to what is as stake, here is a selection from Deleuze and Guattari’s a thousand plateaus which I juxtapose to the gender, technological and conscience transformations of Avatar’s Sully:

What is a girl, what is a group of girls? Proust at least has shown us once and for all that their individuation, collective or singular, proceeds not by subjectivity but by haecceity, pure haecceity. “Fugitive beings.” They are pure relations of speeds and slownesses, and nothing else. A girl is late on account of her speed: she did too many things, crossed too many spaces in relation to the relative time of the person waiting for her. Thus her apparent slowness is transformed into the breakneck speed of our waiting. (292)

The girl’s becoming is stolen first, in order to impose a history, or prehistory, upon her. The boy’s turn comes next, but it is by using the girl as an example, by pointing to the girl as the object of his desire, that an opposed organism, a dominant history is fabricated for him too. The girl is the first victim, but she must also serve as an example and a trap. That is why, conversely, the reconstruction of the body as a Body without Organs, the anorganism of the body, is inseparable from a becoming-woman, or the production of a molecular woman. Doubtless, the girl becomes a woman in the molar or organic sense. But conversely, becoming-woman or the molecular woman is the girl herself. The girl is certainly not defined by virginity; she is defined by a relation of movement and rest, speed and slowness, by a combination of atoms, an emission of particles: haecceity. She never ceases to roam upon a body without organs. She is an abstract line, or a line of flight. Thus girls do not belong to an age group, sex, order, or kingdom: they slip in everywhere, between orders, acts, ages, sexes; they produce n molecular sexes on the line of flight in relation to the dualism machines they cross right through. (297-8)

Although all becomings are already molecular, including becoming woman, it must be said that all becomings begin with and pass through becoming-woman. It is the key to all the other becomings. When the man of war disguises himself as a woman, flees disguised as a girl, hides as a girl, it is not a shameful, transitory incident in his life. To hide, to camouflage oneself, is a warrior function, and the line of flight attracts the enemy, traverses something and puts what it traverses to flight; the warrior arises in the infinity of a line of flight. Although the femininity of the man of war is not accidental, it should not be thought of as structural, or regulated by a correspondence of relations. It is difficult to see how the correspondence between the two relations “man-war” and “woman-marriage” could entail an equivalence between the warrior and the girl as a woman who refuses to marry.61 It is just as difficult to see how the general bisexuality, or even homosexuality, of military societies could explain this phenomenon, which is no more imitative than it is structural, representing instead an essential anomie of the man of war. This phenomenon can only be understood in terms of becoming. We have seen how the man of war, by virtue of his furor and celerity, was swept up in irresistible becomings-animal. These are becomings that have as their necessary condition the becoming-woman of the warrior, or his alliance with the girl, his contagion with her. The man of war is inseparable from the Amazons. The union of the girl and the man of war does not produce animals, but simultaneously produces the becoming-woman of the latter and the becoming-animal of the former, in a single “block” in which the warrior in turn becomes animal by contagion with the girl at the same time as the girl becomes warrior by contagion with the animal. Everything ties together in an asymmetrical block of becoming, an instantaneous zigzag. It is in the vestiges of a double war machine— that of the Greeks, soon to be supplanted by the State, and that of the Amazons, soon to be dissolved—that Achilles and Penthesilea, the last man of war and the last queen of the girls, choose one another, Achilles in a becoming-woman, Penthesilea in a becoming-dog.

The rites of transvestism or female impersonation in primitive societies in which a man becomes a woman are not explainable by a social organization that places the given relations in correspondence, or by a psychic organization that makes the woman desire to become a man just as the man desires to become a woman.62 Social structure and psychic identification leave too many special factors unaccounted for: the linkage, unleashing, and communication of the becomings triggered by the transvestite; the power (puissance) of the resultant becoming-animal; and above all the participation of these becomings in a specific war machine. The same applies for sexuality: it is badly explained by the binary organization of the sexes, and just as badly by a bisexual organization within each sex. Sexuality brings into play too great a diversity of conjugated becomings; these are like n sexes, an entire war machine through which love passes. This is not a return to those appalling metaphors of love and war, seduction and conquest, the battle of the sexes and the domestic squabble, or even the Strindberg-war: it is only after love is done with and sexuality has dried up that things appear this way. What counts is that love itself is a war machine endowed with strange and somewhat terrifying powers. Sexuality is the production of a thousand sexes, which are so many uncontrollable becomings. Sexuality proceeds by way of the becoming-woman of the man and the becoming-animal of the human: an emission of particles. (299-300)

In a strong and distinct sense, every technological evolution requires a becoming-woman, a becoming-animal, a becoming-child, which necessarily must also involve distinct political reterritorialization of categories, a reaction, at the social-political level. Techologies are micro- molecular invasions of affect upon the body politic, one might say, and involve necessary immunological response.

The Difference Between a Description and an Explanation: Deficits in Latour

Ether Wave Propaganda as up a nice video of Schaffer on Latour, but the commentary on the question of agency is even more interesting. As EWP points out, the difference between Schaffer and Latour is programmatic, and as such it falls to the difference between description and explanation. In short, Latour is not attempting to explain things.

The crucial point of dispute was that Latour allowed, by granting agency to microbes, that being in some sense correct could be a valuable asset in asserting one’s position. This position was intolerable to Schaffer, who argued (with Collins and Steven Yearley) that Latour was himself committing a specific form of Whiggish heresy called “hylozoism”, allowing nature to settle human disputes. For Schaffer, hylozoism, like grosser forms of Whiggism, hamstrung historical inquiry by short-circuiting the need to establish why evidence was considered credible in disputes: “Protagonists in dispute must win assent for … material technologies. Hylozoism suggests that the microbes’ antics can explain these decisions. Sociology of knowledge reckons that it is the combination of practices and conventions which prompt them, and these strategies get credit through culture. Only when credibility is established will any story about the microbes make sense” (190, my emphasis).

But this misunderstands Latour’s project in two ways. First, it misses the fact that Latour seeks a universal language of description, not a means of explanation. Second, Latour’s descriptions are actualistic: they are play-by-play in real-time. Latour’s actualistic descriptions do not look forward to find out what happened, but they also do not look backward to establish sufficient conditions. Where Collins’ and Schaffer’s projects—like a philosophical account—would look backward to identify a set of conditions that establish why people, institutions, instruments, and experiments were considered credible, for Latour’s purposes it was only important that they had credibility.

For Latour, such description could grow or shrink to encompass any frame of inquiry. A historian could expand the scope of inquiry to a multi-national account, or delve into Pasteur’s laboratory notebooks, and just chart more alliances of people, instruments, objects, and so forth. On the other hand, for Schaffer, there was always a proper frame of inquiry: the failure to look to crucial challenges to Pasteur, especially that of the German Robert Koch, was an essential weakness in Latour’s account of the rise of Pasteur: Latour “can explain this shift in loyalty [of the Revue Scientifique] by reference to Pasteur’s experiments alone, and the good behaviour of microbes, because he deliberately omits their most potent enemies” (188, Schaffer’s emphasis).

The differences here hinge on the analyst’s sense of their own function. For Schaffer the historian, to provide a sufficient (and thus legitimate) account of the rise of Pasteur, one had to understand how Pasteur defeated the potentially fatal challenge of Koch, which itself could only be understood by going back in time before the acceptance of Pasteur’s arguments and investigating the sources of credibility that made that acceptance possible. Investigation through time was essential to Schaffer’s enterprise. But for Latour, the main task was to describe or simulate the subjective experience of the contemporary spectator who had no such investigatory inclinations or resources, just as most people today experience the use of knowledge in society on a day-to-day basis.

This brings to greater account a criticism I have made of Latour’s flattened notion of “copy”, directed towards his co-authored article on digital reproductions of original works of art (The Copiousness of Copies). The core of my objection is that Latour’s flat appraisal of what a “good” copy is (and here for ‘copy’ we can substitute ‘description’), is that he misses the requisite historical dimension which causes us to bestow importance upon an ‘original’. It is not just the copiousness of an original that gives it weight or substance, but also the retention of specific causal factors, their possible interpretative traces, which help us draw out the relevant features in the world in a historical, developmental fashion. The reason for prizing the original Mona Lisa over a 35mm photograph of it is not merely the number of networked connections each could make in the future, but also the depth (we want to say), the dimensionality of connections it can draw out from its past: the retention of brushstroke angles, a possible underpainting to be revealed, the history of its materials, etc, etc, etc. The original is narratively pregnant.

As Schaffer brings out in his criticism, Latour’s “flat” copy of Pasteur, his attempted universalization of a description, is one that lacks dimensionality. Another way of saying this is that no description is neutral, our copies of the world always contain explanatory (and ideological) force in that they open to the world to us a specific window, the line of traces, a diverse geneology of heritages, genealogies that then select out the germane causes of an original event, positioning us to it and them.

I say this is some sympathy to Latour’s desire to position us rather in the day-to-day basis as well, for our long trails of historical geneologics also can trap and configure us. In this Spinoza and Latour share a great deal. Latour’s networkology in a sense is a leveling of the playing field, in the moment, but what it is missing is the creative power and, one could say, ontological change that comes from explanatory force itself. This is precisely what I directed myself toward in my comparison of Latour and Spinoza (Is Latour an Under-Expressed Spinozist? ). The numericity of networked connections, the rise in the substantiveness of being accomplished through the copiousness Latour desires, is founded upon the sometimes unrecognized consonance between description and explanation. In this regard, all descriptions ARE explanations, or at least contain an explanatory force that directs the eye or organism towards a genetic line of causes into the past. And our grasp of those pasts is what gives soil to our very capacity to copiously make copies in the future. To be “originals”.

Peking Opera and the Aesthetic Freedoms of Avatar

The Kung fu, Wuxia and Opera in Avatar

I was listening to a famous opera actress speak of her transition to film and her telling of how much control she had to bring her face and gestures under called to mind a connection between the operatic and Cameron’s film Avatar. As I argued in my post Two Vectors of Avatar’s Cinematic Achievement: Affect and Space Interface, Avatar exhibited a new relationship between actorly expression and synthetic environment, facilitated by new, data-dense facial motion capture. The face became the plane of an artifice’s reality, taking advantage the power of the Hollywood close-up. The entire virtual world is in a sense sewn to the actor’s plane through the directorial affective synthesis of event, movement and volume. What occurrs is that cinema indeed went through a similar transformation in the genre of Hong Kong “kung fu” Action Film, which became an aesthetic expression of Peking Opera (a highly stylized, acrobatic and often melo-dramatic or mythological artform). In Kung Fu films of the 70s and 80s, the extreme physicality of Peking formal expression was married to the fantasy tradition of “chivalrous knight” wuxia literature from early in the century (the Shaw Brothers among others), then splitting into more gritty conflict themes, or the spatial expansions of famed “wire-fu”. Throughout strong moral and fantasy elements struggled in an invented space, imbued with spiritual messaging and social criticism. In a feature now almost lost to action cinema, one saw the character of a martial arts figure expressed in his or her fight style or capabilities, in world imbued with moral positioning. 

Many see all sorts of ethnic or sociological loom-work in Cameron’s Avatar, and perhaps this is much to be analyzed there, but in many ways it is an unfurling of the mythological, wuxia elements found in 70s and 80s that found their telling of personal development and realization from early films as diverse as the immortal death scene gangster classic The Boxer from Shantung to mytho-poetic gender questioning in The Fist of the White Lotus all the way to the CGI Tsui Hark remake of his own wire-fu fantasy icon, The Legend of Zu (to which I had already compared the film, among many others: Avatar: The Density of Being ).These are a vast array of an cinematic ouvre, and make perhaps the very best interpretative touchstone for both the seemingly simple-minded moral spritualism (much criticized), and the acute physical actor and environmental acrobatics. What seems likely is that while the wuxia and Peking purities began to lose much of their character force as the wire-fu transformations of space and human expression became more baroque and absurd, and budgets became bigger, the genuine transformation of Peking Opera’s masked formalism though the Hollywood close-up that Hong Kong action brought about, the way that it was able to stitch subjectivity back into the historically momentous and mythological scene and enable a person to conceive of the moral force of every angle and posture of their physical frame, has been reborn in Cameron’s technological re-invention of 3D and Capture. It can be argued that Hong Kong wire-fu with its elaborate in-space camera swing was the first 3D directorial interface of the kind that Cameron synthetically achieved in Avatar. In Cameron’s allegory, the simple, mythological and personal are woven through, but this time the acrobatics of the performer are embodied in the almost muscular transformations of space itself. Environment becomes the mutual expression of anatomy and technology. It is no longer spiritual and physical geniuses transcending the mundane world, but rather a realization that a world itself is intimately linked to both anatomy and character. What remains is of course the acolyte, studying to find the rudiments of graceful and powerful exposition, the same story of the warrior seeking to perfect or unlock a secret power, but here the metamorphosis is that of trying to enter into and fit both an anatomy and a world, a world full of capabilities beyond our common reconnoiter. A question of conscience.

Transcendence or Immanence: Cake-and-eat-it-too-ism


Unwrapping Christmas Gifts

This is my last post on “The Autonomy of Affect” and I expect to go onto the rest of the book. Near the end Massumi makes a fantastic point about the somewhat false problem of transcendence vs. immanence, something that he also perceptively links to our spatializaton of concepts, and to his own prescription that we must make paradoxes that work for us:

…all this makes it difficult to speak of either transcendence or immanence. No matter what one does, they tend to flip over onto each other, in a kind of spontaneous Deleuzian combustion.  It makes little difference if the field of existence (being plus potential; the actual in its relation with the virtual) is thought of as an infinite interiority or a parallelism of mutual exteriorities. You get burned either way. Spinoza had it both ways: an indivisible substance divided into parallel attributes. To the extent that the terms transcendence and immanence connote spatial relations – and they inevitably do – they are inadequate to the task. A philosophical sleight of hand like Spinoza’s is always necessary. The trick is to get comfortable with productive paradox.

 Parables for the Virtual, 38

Of course I am drawn to he appeal to Spinoza. It seems that when I trace out Massumi’s proposed Spinozism I get the best sense of his metholodological twisting, and perhaps the best sense of where he goes wrong for me. I think he really hits upon a core issue with the spatialization of terms, something he wishes to alleviate through a confessed counter-spell of temporalization, as one can see in the footnote to the passage above:

* [from the footnote] The “productive paradoxical” procedure…will be to inflect the notion with timelike concepts of process and self-reference (the immanent understood not as an immanence to something, but of the belonging of a process to its own potential to vary) while retaining a connotation of spacelikeness (the immanence of process as a “space” proper to change as such).

I see a few problems with this time vs. space paradoxical sizzoring. The first is that it assumes a fundamental binary which would operate necessarily towards a proposed truth. Yes, I think that these are complimentary views, but they tend to collapse themselves into Spacialization = objects and Temporalization = processes. We are then in a resultant and to me sterile struggle between objects and processes, imagining that some sort of synthesis is what would compose the answer. None of this cuts to the root of the spatialization itself, which is opticality, in my opinion. Yes, spatial displays should be temporalized, but processes cannot become our new objects. What do I mean to say? I am at the cusp of something important. Massumi’s space vs time procedure leads to all sorts of binarization and dichotomy playing (which itself is largely an optical phenomena, “negation” in all its varieties). For instance where he picks up Spinoza he is loosely saying that the two Attributes offer a transcendent model, presumably wherein “idea” transcends “extension”, something to be juxtaposed, suitably and paradoxically, to the immanent model of monist Substance. This matches his own treatment of the virtual as both the source from which actualization occurs, and the to some degree transcendent key to actualization feedback and reflection. He tries to accomplish this miniature Hegelianism at the local level of a largely objectological abstraction. So where does he get it all wrong?

For me the problem is with the transcendent end of the dichotomy, as he exemplifies from Spinoza. There is an aspect of idea priority in Spinoza, but he works hard to undercut it in his very framework. The reason for this is that his ontology is not simply one great monument to Truth, but also a prescription for everyday freedom. It is never that idea escapes extension, nor even that its brings extension higher. Idea realizes its immanent condition (and this is accomplished in a fully affective manner), and as such realizes its impriority over extension. What does this mean. The ideas we have are only or foundationally ideas of our own body being in particular states. My idea of anything in the world is essentially an idea of “me” in a non-reflexive fashion. There is no sizzoring between immanence and transcendence, rather there is collapse into immanent core, and a weaving of causal wholeness from out of that core. This is Spinoza’s object vs process resolution. One’s object state is perspectival, and is already shot through ACROSS its borders, invaded, and opened-out-under, not through some idealist and metaphysical powers of difference itself, but because difference is simply the horizon line of being under creation. One positions oneself at that shore with a kind of aesthetic orchestration or dispersal, but it is really neither object nor process (in any contrastive sense).

Key to this is Spinoza’s General Definition of the Affects diagnosis of the Mind. The thoughts by which we orient ourselves and largely construct our causal relation to the world are degrees of power change in our ontological status in the world, direct affirmations of our body with onto-pleasure lean, and (I would say) positionings on the objective-affective scale of dissonance to triviality. The spatialization that leads Massumi into an object vs process resolution, itself must be reread on a degree-of-being diagnostic. In fact Massumi’s Deleuzian dichotomization, his proposed dialectic however qualified, shows that he did not absorb fully the Plotinean resolution to the long standing problem of Dualism, he did not see, as Augustine did, how Plotinus’ vectorial Being dis-solves Manicheanism. Turning the virtual into Spirit simply places the locus of dualism within a new box, making the actual the new Body. Massumi is definitely on the right track looking to affect as the proper place were dualisms of this sort are (re)solved, where Body gets its say, so to speak, but until this spatialization is diagnosed within degree-of-being perception, our self-diagnoses and prescriptions retain too much of the opticality which begins it all. Difference, per se, enters into the ideological funhouse mirror of duplication, and the Civil “person” becomes an inordinate locus for subjective acts of freedom, and all-too-human centered action for concern, losing the technological (and species) interindices of our mutually created world.

Instead, Spinoza meant his two Attributes to be read against an infinity, the unbound expression of Substance, and not as a two-step ladder to transcendence, (or even a transcendence/immanence dyad). They mark out the specific topography of our own becoming active, a cartological means of perfectly ourselves in a variety of techniques for Joy. Massumi is quite correct that our spatialization of them leads to confusions of a kind, but his notion of will-ful paradox perhaps missing the infinitude towards which they are directed. They are star-mappings for those a-toss at sea, something that a dense gravity crush of paradox may not help in. They are not mean as paradoxical relations, but perhaps the bending of flat map upon the sphere of action, the recognition that it is not paradoxical that parallel lines do meet. The interiority of our process is the discovery of an “interior” (out there), something we regularly do, but also, the tracings of the moving line between interiority and exteriority, how it creates a special shore, one which falls across our boundaries.

From Affect to Mutuality, Openness to Rational Co-expression: Massumi to Spinoza

Massumi writes,

Affects are virtual synesthetic perspectives anchored in (functionally limited by) the actually existing, particular things the embody them. The autonomy of affect is its participation in the virtual. Its autonomy is its openness. Affect is autonomous to the degree to which it escapes confinement in the particular body whose vitality, or potential for interaction, it is. Formed, qualified, situated perceptions and cognitions fullfilling functions of actual connection or blockage are the capture and closure of affect.

Parables for the Virtual, 35

I’m entirely with him up until the final sentence. In fact, this is a very strong expression of both Spinoza’s position and my own. But there is slippage in the last contrast with functionality, or “actual connection” because Massumi wants to set up his dichotomous concretization, one in which symbolic or semiotic functional forms are actualized, and to some degree impoverished expressions of the virtual. Affects are a kind of subterranean vivacity which liquidly pours beneath the surface of actualized and incrusted reifications. Well…the part that is missing is that affection is part of the very functionality of the “actual connection”. This is brought out in Spinoza’s prized “imitation of the affects” contribution, which expresses the wholly imaginary resources of mutuality which help anchor rationality itself (and, I would argue, are indispensible for the creations of an objectivity in the first place). This is to say that the trans-personal (or as Massumi would have it, “trans-functional”, “trans-actual connection”) powers of affects, make up the very dimensionality of functionality itself. It is they that express the edge-of-chaos modulations which are both aesthetic and functionally distributed. Another way of saying this is that the “openness” of affects (which communicates its mutuality to other forms), is itself functional and actualizing of connection. There is no disjunction here. You can see how this operates in Spinoza’s theory of the social, which has both a rational path (a collusion of self-interest and liberation which subverts the “self” itself), and an affective/imaginary path, which circuits with speed and directness a mutuality of world and sympathetic coexistence. These two fundamentally resonate (to use Massumi’s terms), though they may be contingently at odds. Because they are not disjunct, it is not that the rational (functional) feeds back into the affective so much as that the affective is always embodying, across bodies, the possibilities for the rational.

I do believe that there are semiotic reasons why functionality is limited, something I expressed under the term Conjoined Semiosis (the way in which functionalities necessarily cut across our cognitive boundaries, and tug with tidal force, both inside and outside), but it is precisely where Massumi loses the functional, semiotic force of affective re-bodying, the way that “mind” is operant through affect, and also where a degree-of-being conception of power is shrugged off, that his solution grows somewhat confused, or I should say, imposed. Perhaps he corrects this sense of mine in later parts or essays, but that is at least where I stand right now.

Is the Medium the Message? Avatar’s Avatar

Box 3, Spool 5 has some commentary up in response to my own take on Avatar, emphasizing the contradictory nature of a big-budget Hollywood film and its proposed criticism of Capitalism. First though I want to address his thought that not all of the message is found in the medium (which leads to his larger point):

The technical feats Kvond explains are interesting, but only in the sense that here the most ‘natural’ is reached by way of the most artificial, an irony which mirrors deep ecology’s unavowed projections onto nature. It is on one level impressive what the capitalist spectacle can do with (or perhaps as) technology, though the film’s implicit reflections on subjectivity are to me less intriguing than the political message the film tries to convey; not all message is medium.

Just to be clear as to the reading I was making of Avatar, it is not strictly that the medium is the message so much as the modes of communication enact the very relationships (and values) that the film was attempting to forward in a very specific fashion. This is to say, there is, or can be, an enactment of avatarship in the very experience of watching a film on Avatar ethics, really almost a Brechtian involution. One need only take your glasses off for a minute during the film to realize the differences brought to bear. That this is accomplished through a new severing of affect from space, and then its restitching, yes, this is a powerful metaphor or even mode of analysis for society and personhood, but the medium is not the message to the degree that the message is dis-associated from the medium in a manner that leaves Box 3, Spool 5s point untouched.

If one is looking for performative contradictions that disqualify the ideologically critical position Cameron takes, one might ask as well whether Box 3s own participative purchase of 3D glasses and expensive movie, and her/his use of the commercially simulative blogged medium also disqualifies a critical engagement with the all-encompassing thread of Capitalist relations (the octopus arms are everywhere!). I rather take a different position. Capitalism is not “the enemy”, huge spectacle productions are not simply or reductively pacifications. The location of critical change does not really come outside of relations, but is immanent within them. Oppositional thinking is often weak and relatively impoverished, fueled by counterproductive angers, fears and projections. The idea that “Copenhagen debating hall” was something more than Avatar the movie, more than a spectacle of specific device…yes, from where are our freedoms to spring? In a certain regard I find “hegemony” boring.  That is not because I don’t believe that hegemonies exists, but rather that I believe that questions of hegemony are more complex than is often appreciated. It just is too easy a word. The importation of hegemonic values is always integral to the exaption of those human forms for new and different uses, and the concept of radical break is, frankly, over-rated.

If there was a “radical break” in Cameron’s message, it was the innovation of new aesthetic experiences of some very old themes, it was the affective way that the (political) consciousness of the viewer was regrafted onto her or his very skin, engaging the verities of space itself. It was Kantian from the inside out, where the categories become twisted and externalized through performative construction. Does this mean that Real 3D is inherently liberal, or even ecological? No, though I have argued that there are suspensions that were accomplished in that film that do have strong ecological content or possibility. It may very well be that this is because Real 3D, as we in a historically contingent fashion experience it, is metaphysical. And from that displacement into metaphysics, an ecology of persons and planet can be argued. And because aesthetically expressed, felt.

Massumi’s Cognitive Doubling, Spinoza’s Numerical Affectivity

I have to admit that the first essay that confronted me in Massumi’s book has really stymied me. The difficulty comes at several levels, not the least of which that I had read this essay before in other contexts, not realizing it, and the deep disappointment with it from the past echoes back up through time like a dark, and somewhat intellectually fetid tide. The staining feeling that Massumi gets is it all wrong, terribly wrong in his attempted synthesis of Bergson and Spinoza, washes back up over my contemporaneous reading, and frankly left me very frustrated with my attempt to initiate an innocent engagement with the collection. (I am hoping that I had not amnesiacally run into Massumi’s other essays in the past.) One if left with the unenvied task of critically breaking apart Massumi’s experimental expositions, a very unkind and in fact unpleasant thing to do to such beautifully attempted and articulated readings in the realm of philosophy I appreciate, or…simply passing over what for me has been something of an infuriating encounter. I’m going to have to do much more of the latter, and less of the former for the essay “The Autonomy of Affect”, for the sake of preserving the right aptitude for the rest of what Massumi has to say. My responses will have to remain gnomic.

Numericity of Connections

First of all Massumi opens with the report of an experiment which involved a film that narratively told the story of a melting snowman. Massumi notes the variety of assessments of versions of the film (some without words, some factually descriptive, some emotionally keyed), coupled with seeming disparities of the autonomic effects of heartrate and skin galvinization, etc. From this he draws, as he is want to do, a radical, disjunctive contrast between affect responses (intensity) and literal comprehension (signifying comprehension). I know that this is his goal, to create a fundamental dichotomy, but, at least from a Spinozist perspective (which he attempts to appropriate), he’s got it all wrong. Factual descriptions are not necessarily in disjunction with affective responses…rather they set up their own affective responses in a variety of strengths. It is not the factuality of a narrative reading that confuses assessment of the film’s quality, but rather, I would suggest, the attempted synthesis of the viewer of their own projective interpretations of the reality of the images, and the viewer’s projective interpretation of the narrator’s reality. This is not intensity vs. signification at all, but a question of strength of image association, best seen in Spinoza’s reading of how images grow stronger through a numerical relation to causes:

5p8 – The greater the number of causes that simultaneously concur in arousing an emotion, the greater the emotion.

5p10 - As long as we are not assailed by emotions that are contrary to our nature, we have the power to arrange and associate affections of the body according to the order of the intellect.

5p11 – In proportion as a mental image is related [refertur] to more things, the more frequently does it occur – i.e., the more often it springs to life – and the more it engages the mind.

Proof : In proportion as an image or emotion is related to more things, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused and fostered, all of which the mind, by hypothesis, regards simultaneously as a result of the emotion. And so the emotion thereby occurs more frequently – i.e., springs to life more often – and engages the mind more (5p8).

The factality of a narration of an emotional cinematic scene simply sets up another vector of causes, but not one that is necessarily disjunctive at all. In fact Spinoza’s entire prescription is in finding the nexus between both vectors of causes. Massumi is quite good at drawing our attention to intensity, and in fact the autonomy of affect, but it is in my mind the equal need to find a doubling reflexive between the immanent and the actual, a necessary disjunction, that runs simply in the wrong direction.

Spinoza Does Not Double

One can see this in his outright appeal to Spinoza, how he torques Spinoza’s reading of mind to accomodate an abstraction of mind, a move that is really antithetical to Spinoza’s own project:

In Spinoza, it is only when the idea of the affection is doubled by an idea of the idea of the affection that it attained the level of conscious reflection. Conscious reflection is a doubling over of the idea upon itself, a self-recursion of the idea that enwraps the affection or impingement at two removes. For it has already been removed once by the body itself. The body infolds the effect of the impingement – it conserves the impingement minus the impinging thing, the impingement abstracted from the actual action that caused it and actual context of that action. This is a first-order idea produced spontaneously by the body: affection is immediately, spontaneously doubled by the repeatable trace of an encounter, the “form” of an encounter, in Spinoza’s terminology (an infolding, or contraction, of context in the vocabulary of this essay).

Parables for the Virtual, 32

First of all, because Massumi does not cite any Spinoza is pretty hard to find out just where he is coming from, and this frustrates our interpretative aims to even a greater degree because Massumi is inventing a position for himself. Insofar as one could extricate such a description from Spinoza, one would have to say that Spinoza works actually to show how this process of “mind” is fundamentally in error, and that betterment of mind consists in unraveling this confusion. To say that the body initially “removes” an effect from its environment (though its recursively organized semiotic effects that make it a “body” in the first place, let us say), in a kind of abstraction, is either in error due to its incompleteness, or in its intention. One must first grant that for Spinoza ideas in the mind of God refuse any such abstraction at all, and that due to this refusal, the quality of being that something has is leveraged upon this refusal of abstraction as well. The abstractly frankly is definitionally never complete, nor is it categorical (certainly not in the fashion that Massumi implies); which is to say the constitution of the effects of the body which make it a body occur via its participation IN its enviroment, its mutuality with its environment, one might say its sharing in its “essence”, and as a mode of Substance simply could not exist/persist without this sharing. The removal of the impingement simply does not fully or even abstractly occur. The ideas (what I read as information), which organize a body, are paticipations. Indeed they have their degrees of intensity, but there is no removal.

Secondly, the second-order of removal that enwraps the organism in consciousness is in fact not a goal or aim of Spinoza’s concept of freedom (he does not or will not move towards a Hegelian conception of reflection or incorporative wholeness, the wholeness that Spinoza pursues is machinic and constructive). One can see from Spinoza’s concept of affect and passion that attribution of intensity to an external cause (a passage from one degree of perfection and power to another, coupled with the idea of a cause, General Definition of the Affects), must be unwoven. In this manner, consciousness is NOT merely the idea of an idea. The trickling from one thought to another is a MODE of consciousness, one that is fundamentally involved in the deprivation of power. What Spinoza is concerned with is a mode of consciousness which is NOT reflective (hence, German Idealism’s dichotomous appropriations of Spinoza, beginning with Schelling and ending with Hegel, are truly wrong-headed, missing what is genuinely novel to Spinoza’s solution of the mind). One can see that Massumi is missing the boat as well, when he seeks to define “mind” specifically in reference the doubling itself, quite in contradistinction to Spinoza own undoubled qualification of mind as mere Attributive expression:

The trace determines a tendency, the potential, if not the appetite, for the autonomic repetition and variation of the impingement. Conscious reflection is the doubling over of this dynamic abstraction upon itself. The order of the connection of such dynamic abstractions among themselves, on the level specific to them, is called mind.

Indeed there are such doublings and such abstractions, but foundational is that this is not ALL that there is to mind. One can see right away that Massumi has made a right turn on Spinoza when he should have made a left, when he attempts to leverage a ghostly double out of Spinoza’s monism at the register of the body. Spinoza’s entire point is that the “body” is not what it thinks it is (and neither is the mind).

Again, these are tentative readings based on the temporal process of engagement.


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