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Category Archives: Spinoza

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 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”.

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.

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.

Two Vectors of Avatar’s Cinematic Achievement: Affect and Space Interface

There were two primary technological achievements that guided the transmutive possibilities that mark out what made James Cameron’s Avatar special innovations organized around aesthetic problems, and here I just want to sketch them out to give greater depth to my other thoughts about the film: Avatar: The Density of Being,  Avatarship and the New Man: Reading Ideology, Technology and Hope. Each of these two indicate the very dimensionality of human aesthetic avatarship – the ability, or path to reading worth through inhabited subjectivity – or at least suggest a landscape for future digital and so-called “virtual world” aesthetically culled interactions.

The first of these was the problem of the Uncanny Valley, the way in which approximations of human beings, if too proximate, create a disturbing sense of alienness such that one cannot (or should not) identify with the portrayed subject. (I thoroughly reject a Fruedian or even Lacanian reading of the Uncanny, for both its essentially optical and repressive analogies, but certainly the effect of the Uncanny Valley is an epistemically important one.) The problem that Cameron faced was that no matter how much tweaking was done to motion capture, the actorly performance, the emotionality, one might want to say its reality, was lost within this valley. The Pandorans were both too human, and not human enough. In short I would say this reality involves a kind of temporal and physionomic threshold of reflection, the way in which internal events (taken to be subjective and expressed facially) within certain thresholds of timing and intensity, can be read as expressing both the states of being, as well as their causal relationships to a shared and external world. The reality of this causal interface is one in which something like the musicality of the actor (emphasizing both the structure and expression) allows internal events to enforce the reality of external ones, confirming the appropriateness of our own internal events-experiences, the three of them forming a data-rich, self-supporting resonance. The overcoming of the uncanny valley in faces was achieved by the actors wearing small cameras which hovered over their facial expressions, along with painstaking, algorithmic conversion of that capture into the avatar’s digital “rig” (a framework of facial representations). A feedback loop of Cameron’s aesthetic approval and technique adjustment fine-tuned the effect such that actorly experiences and expressions found their proper topological space within a virtual and artistic world.

The second problem answered was that of Cameron’s own directorial powers, the ability to author directions to actors in the realtime context of the imaginary enviroment itself. This was achieved through a lens-less “swing camera” which in low-resolution allowed Cameron to drift through the volume (virtual environment) in such a way that his vision and actor performance was granted a threshold of interface which surely imbued communications between them with a specific vital co-expression. The result was that the actor’s spontaneous expression driven by character was melded through the director to an unseen environment, in real time.  The actor could express and m0ve with a certain watery autonomy, and her or his director could side by side focus the actor’s attention to this or that, viewing the sythesized result. Intersubjective triangulation  attained a kind of spatial freedom never before in human expression, we might risk,  a ring of Gyges vector of invisible yet corporeal cohesion holding together the creative agents. It was as if Van Gogh could enter his painting and talk to his paints (which is something artists “do” in one way or other all the same). An odd product of this technology of performance and capture was that the actors no longer had to act TO the camera (or even the space), but rather could lock onto the narrative itself, almost with stage purity, freed from even makeup and costume (this freedom is not entirely new, but it is linked to a new communicative assemblage). The volume in a sense, came to be enveloped around them, directed in real time, back upon the narratological thread which inhabited the actors, through the intersubjective creativity of the director. In this manner, narrative and characterization acquire a near novelistic isolation, appearing at the surface of the actor’s affective skin and muscular terminus, forming a layer, sewn back into a wider fantastic perspective come out of the technological and auteur armature, through which the actor is guided. A final remarkable aspect of this artistic process is that the director, after a performance, can then move back through the volume and performance and rephotograph it, in the real time of the performance itself, allowing the performance and volume to dictate to the camera in unanticipated catalysis with the director’s experience of both the space and the emotion. And this synthesis becomes that of the audience member as well, threading the affect and space interface into its final product, aesthetic avatarship proper.

What is sure is that these new capacities: actor freed from camera and costume, director freed to create volume and actor counterpoint, the intersubjectivity of the communications between the two resewing narrative (and character) to volume in a different way, and lastly the emotional richness of a facialized register (a plane on which it all can cohere and appear to emanate), create a synthesis beyond thresholds previously conceived, wrenching out a powerful redistribution of what can be done with the twins: affect and space.

The above produced out of information found at Popular Mechanics: How James Cameron’s Innovative New 3D Tech Created Avatar

[click on either for larger image]

Here in diagram and example are the two registers of space and affect which Cameron’s techique worked to free from each other, an aesthetic freedom of camera/eye selection which both can coordinate performance amid the fantastic environment (volume), and also select out a framing of that performance with temporal autonomy. The actor is given relative narrative freedom from staging, the director becomes inter-subjective toggle, and the facialized plane grounds the emotional and volume real.

Avatarship and the New Man: Reading Ideology, Technology and Hope

Adrian at the eco and vitalist friendly Immanence has posted some thoughts on Avatar worth directing our gaze over to, as they are in some consonance with my own which I am still mulling: Avatar: Panthea v. the Capitalist War Machine: Bambi Fights Back. Some of his response is in consideration of Russ Douthat’s op-ed review, which I will not entertain here, mostly because I do not like New-York-Times-speak, and actually refrain from reading it when I can. (There is something mind-benumbing about how the Times – its op-editors included - aesthetically presents “thought”.) My resistance to the Times aside, Adrian makes 5 or so which I reproduce here:

  1. Douthat thinks that that’s mainstream and that Hollywood is fully behind it, but it’s really still the insurgent religion to muscular Christianity and militarist nationalism. This is one of the rare films in which the Goddess (Mother Nature & the Natives) takes on the Capitalist War Machine and… well, you’ll have to see who wins.
  2. The good white boy messianically leads the natives in rebellion against their overlord invaders — which makes it Christmassy in more ways than Douthat’s Solstice-timed op-ed suggests.
  3. The Na’vi and their planet, Pandora (Pan-Thea, the tree-forest-rhizome-neural-network Goddess and World Soul, Pandora whose box, when opened, unleashed a million megatons of reality on humanity — it’s pagan mythology with a sledgehammer; gotta love it).
  4. The ethnographic theme — the translation/mediation between two opposed cultural worlds, science and anthropology’s dependence and ultimate answerability only to empire/colonialism/militarism, and the cultural intermediary’s desire to go native, is overly stereotypical but, for the Hollywood thriller format, not badly done. It will propagate the gone-to-Croatan meme for a new generation.
  5. Ideology: Behind it all is the Spielberg factor, i.e., that the overt message (‘Man vs. Nature’, or rather high-modernist techno-capitalism vs. Body-Shop-nature-tech) is undercut by the implicit message that it is science, technology, and Hollywood magic — the Image Industry, the Spectacle — that enchants us and brings us what we really want. And they bring us new life, maybe eternal life, through the New Age science of neuro-energetics, gene-splicing, virtual-reality, and all the rest. ‘Jake Sully’ the Na’vi avatar (not the marine) is, after all, a zombie: his body is a remote-controlled, genetically-engineered robot.

As you can tell from my original review, yes, the film is loaded. And I really like many of the features Adrian brings out. It is a smörgåsbord for anyone seeking to make a symptomatic reading of either the film or, via its achievement, our society.  One can pick and choose any number of dishes and fill your ideological/critical plate. I can’t really address the first two of Adrian’s points other than to say that the contradiction between the two forms of Christianity and whiteness perhaps performs a framework for what becomes an absolute and aesthetic multiplicity. I say “a” framework, and not “the” framework, because I sense that there is a narratological overload that Cameron’s film is operating by, one which can be dichotomized in any number of mapped directions. The counter stories that are embedded in their very lamination, our mythological heritage (which for moderns is made up of cinema), they bristle almost with fracticality underneath as stereotypes wrestle with becoming archetypes, becoming, more importantly. allegorious beings. There is in this film a cartological confusion, as if satellite images all selecting out different features of a landscape were layered confusedly upon each other, combined with some hand-drawn maps of significance, and then animately shuffled through, to expose the alter of our world. The very impacted yet temporally spaced nature of the plot features, perhaps inspired by video-game modulation, serves both as our disorientated potential for renewal, and hone’s our ideologically trained animal-like senses into expert tracking and thus, directed experience. (We scent THIS ground, like an idealized native american hunter, noticing every twig snapped.) This is our land.

I am mostly interested in the last three points: going native, going zombie and going goddess. It is correct I think to mark out the “remote control” aspects of these plot features, it is worth pointing out that the war-machine also had remote-control experiences which extended itself out into environments. It is more the case that if Pandora represents a battleground of a kinds, it is one of a race to seal the breach which is implied in the “remote” in remote control. It is a story of connectivity conducted under a technological matrix which imposes upon its viewer the very conditions under contest narratively. Oddly enough it puts the viewer ecstatically and epistemologically in something of the moral (I want to say, but am not allowed to) position of actant in an enhanced world. What do I mean by this? Spinoza says that when we regard something to be “like” us we become affected with whatever it is experiencing. This is a primarily feature of the aesthetic experience, and I would say groundwork for how we know anything about the world at all. Thus there is something to the alien experience. That is, the dis-embodiment of environments that propels the mind further, tendrilling our knowledge out like so many Pandorean root-synapes, to similarities. Avatarship is a primary relationship to the world, and as such requires the fundamental plot point of the film, that we must be able to become our avatars, and not just inhabit them. We must recognize our bodies in them, not reflexively as if glancing in the ideological mirror, but kinesthetically, mutually.

As I have pointed out in the comments section to Adrian’s post, Cameron spent seven years scuba diving after the wealth the film Titanic brought him. One can easily recognized the diving features of the film, in particular when Sully first playfully and childishly smacks luminescence to stimulate it. A junior diver is the one that touches everything (often killing it to some degree). But it is not the portrayal of diving that Cameron was after, I suggest. It was the kinesthetic transferral, the displacement, the suspension, the alien drift, the wobbly wonder that bombards a diver, no matter how experienced. When every single living thing in an environment is physiologically superior to you. When every single living thing is aesthetically more beautiful. When your own suspension is technological and precarious before what can only be called a witnessing. The effect is ecological. Not in any ideological sense, but in a theorein manner. The spectacle is not remote, it attaches with all the physicality as the Na’vi attatches to its ride animal. It is an over-sense.

I think that this is a message in the construction of this film. Indeed the ideological and plot-character layerings work to dis-fuse the viewer in any number of directions, sending her or him into sweet spots of recognized cover, core inter-relation. But this is only a means for the potential to remove the “remote” in remote control. To assume the avatarship of one’s life. For this reason the racial component is an interesting aspect of the plot telling. There certainly is a “white” amid the ethnicity (and animality). But I think we should be careful not to polarize this into an essential binary (there is a “male” as well, and also a “class”). Instead what the experiments of technological achievement suggested by the film imply is something of the order that anatomy IS destiny, or rather, anatomy is possibility. Sully must take on the anatomy of another species in order to perform their world. Ultimately though, our anatomy is our technology (and not just our signification). Our bodies are made of the fibres, and switches, and tempos of all that extends us into the world. “White” is simply that which consciously refuses this dis-location as a mode of its own affect control. In this way there can be said to be something “white” in the Na’vi as well.

We must transmute our anatomies before the alien of the world. For those viewers that granted innocence to the film, Cameron already has performed a first transmutation. And sometimes those who have not logged hundreds of hours in the technology are better suited for the avatarship.

The Sewn Stitch of Logical Stoppage: Massumi on Terminus

The difference between actual stopping that occurs when a continuity exhausts itself and reaches a terminus and the logical stopping that goes over what then appears its path, in order to cut it into segments separated by plottable points, is not at great as it might seem at first. The retrospective ordering enables precise operations to be inserted along the way, in anticipation of a repetition of the movement – the possibility that it will come again. If the movement does not reoccur, it can be captured. It comes to a different end.

Parables on the Virtual, 10

Here Massumi is really cool. The passage is in the context where reflexive feedback of positionality (definitionality) loops back into potential, in his story of ontogenesis. I do resist this picture of time and action, but will bracket it and allow it to travel with me. Here though is a compelling homology along the registers of terminus. There is the ending that is actual, for instance we might assume something like “death”, and there is the terminus of logical capture (which he goes onto exemplify by “space”). Both are kinds of endings. The analogy thrusts us forward onto interesting topology, but how far are we to take this (we don’t want to ontologize it into a force, I would want to say, a force of “death” or extensionality)?

If I take a Spinozist reading of these two terminal relations, the actual termination is a break down of a consistent ratio of parts in communication. The parts fall out of orbit, so to speak, they disperse. Spinoza would deny that the continuity “exhausts” itself, rather he reads it as that it has been intercepted by a stronger force (or forces), encountered a dis-ressonance, a dis-ruption. Where it gets interesting is that the definitional capture or “end” that result in the nominalization of possibility, is that any nominal relation MUST be considered as part of the environment of the actualizing ratio that is being described. In a certain sense, the living processes that are being terminated in a description (which for Spinoza are a lasting ratio of parts in communication), are not simply fed back into by those descriptions, but are also participated in, with those descriptions. When we describe, logically, this is not just a sharing of freeze-frame death, but also a lived cross-body communication and mutuality. (This is an enfleshed melding, which can really occur via affect, as much via idea.) It is for this reason that I resist the reflexive loop as essential, the stationed turn that wants to make of logic a sewing stitch.

It of course may be that Massami will move in this direction with his treatment of affect, but as a Spinozist of affect I have to say that when describing, chopping up, framing, etc, these actions themselves must be understood and affirmations of my own ontological status, and thus must be understood not simply and terminus relations in reflection. Part of this involves the radical reconsideration of what terminus is. Indeed species can become extinct, but as well they can be (or will be) re-activated through technological means. The genetic line of my body, its cells, does end in the possibilities, but also advocatable is the continuance (or permanence) of its varying combinations.

Ontological Privilege: Massumi on the Priority of Change

Massumi here reshuffles his cards in the stacked deck, so that the aces will fall into his hand.

Indeterminancy and determination, change and freeze-framing, go together. They are inseparable and always coincide while remaining disjunctive in their modes of reality. To say that passage and indeterminancy “come first” or “are primary” is more a statement of ontological priority than the assertion of a time sequence. They have ontological privilege in the sense that they constitute the field of the emergence, while positionings are what emerge. The trick is to express the priority in a way that respects the inseparability and contemporaneousness of the disjunct dimensions: their ontogenetic difference.

Parables of the Virtual, 8

I want to approach this field/emergence logic of priority from a Spinozist point of view (surprise). We at first see some strong general homology. The “field” of change and process is Natura Naturans (nature naturing) and the emergent positionality is Natura Naturata (nature having been natured), and there is even the rough correspondence to the diminishment of the importance of the modes that some readings have imposed on Spinoza (all the way to Hegel’s accusation of an acosmism). This is significant, and something I always want to stress when people try to impose an Idealist (18th century German) interpretation on Spinoza. The modes are the very means by which Substance exists and acts (E3p6dem). They are not secondary, or less real. What is key about this is the prescription of human action implied in any diminishment of “positionality”, the sense that positioning or framing comes after (in any sequitor fashion) the processes themselves. Instead, all our degrees of power, being, pleasure, perfection changes are real and coincident changes in semiosis. This is to say, following Spinoza’s treatment of the affects, our changes in capacity are changes in the idea we have of ourselves in the context of the world itself, but not reflective changes in idea. We do not look at ourselves in a mirror (of consciousness or any other), and then make adjustments in idea. Rather, our concrete “position” is itself a positional change. This goes down into a radical sense of what (self) affirmation is, a non-reflective (relatively) autonomous embrace which includes that which cross-currents our own being, propelling us out to mutualities.

Massumi at this point, in his counter to positional, linguistic philosophies I think is very well placed. But there is a difference I believe between our ratio-imaginary mappings (including mathematics) of semiotic differences, and informational semiotic change involved in process of becoming that Massumi is trying to prioritize. The “field” is not just processes of becoming that underlies a surface of concretizations or condensations, but must be semiotic (that is to say, informational) itself. What he calls “freeze-frames” are both imaginary, but also real, let us say, edge-of-chaos determinations. Which are strictly speaking determinations without being opposed to (linear) indeterminancy.

Another way of stating this is, perhaps: There is no “disjuction”.

As Energy Is to Matter: Massumi on Indeterminancy

Massumi troubling on how to characterize the body such that it is dynamic enough, and roots itself in Deleuze’s concrete abstract:

The charge of indeterminancy is inseparable from it. It strictly coincides with it, to the extent that the body is in passage or in process (to the extent that it is dynamic and alive). But the charge itself is not corporeal…Real, material, but incorporeal. Inseparable, coincident, but disjunct…

One way of starting to get a grasp of the real-material-but-incorporeal is to say that it is to the body, as a positioned thing, as energy is to matter. Energy and matter are mutually convertable modes of the same reality. This would make the incorporeal thing a phase-shift of the body in the usual sense, but not one that comes after it it in time. It would be a conversion or an unfolding of the body contemporary to its every move.

Parables of the Virtual, 5

This is the thing. There is a preoccupation with the body, per se, which wants to take IT as the locus of something vital and non-reductive. This reads as a mythologization of the social entity “a person”. If we adequately re-describe bodies abstractly and powerfully enough, and locate enough metaphysical/ontological powers within a “body”, then we trace out a storyboard of how each and every “person” (who is only a  concrete actualization of the “plan” of bodies in general), can erupt with differences that are meaningful. Because this mythology involves the trappings of binary logics, the border of the body has to be taken as a logical toggle-point. The struggle of origin, located in this mythological, person-redeeming way, compression cosmological arguments into what is otherwise given freedom under the much wider nomenclature of “the flesh”. The abstract floats under the flesh, like a magnetic carbomb, waiting to unfurl its political (sensory) change. The localization of “body” frustrates me. It carries too much baggage.

Also note Massumi’s analogy of matter to energy. Matter is a kind of colder calcification of freer floating intensity or fluidity. Solid to its liquid. But what is strikingly missing (at least at this point) is “information” the third term. I’ve talked about the metaphysical value of Information before: Information, Spinoza’s “Idea” and The Structure of the Universe. What does information as the third term to Massumi’s incorporeal-concrete do? It opens out every body across its boundaries, transversely. We do not get the doublet of the actual and its ghost beneath it, and the attendant mythology of personhood. Instead the body itself tears across its sinews and bone, into a different matrix. Instead of locating a Same/Difference autonomy of “movement” and its animation cell analogy (where does difference come from? as quaesta), the infinities within a body strain against the infinities outside it. The “phase-shift” decenters every object not just from itself (boring), but from every other existence. A change in information elsewhere touches the informational state of this body. Massumi’s vortex seems to be missing an axis of imaging, at least at this point. Too much internalization of change, too much Hegel thrown forward:

This self-disjunctive coinciding sinks an ontological difference into the heart of the body.

It is precisely this sinking into, like an anchor’s line into the aeons of coral reef, that is a needless or occluding mythology of the self.


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