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Being/s as Power to Affect or to Be Affected

From the Sophist

Ξένος:

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

Stranger:

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

As a means of comparison Spinoza’s:

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

A Vectorial Understanding of Being

Reverse Causation, Changes from the Future

Why the CERN accelerator won’t work

I’m unsure just why this made the New York Times just now (the original article is almost 2 years old, but perhaps the idea is picking up steam/heat), but Complete Lies brought this to my attention. It is the sci-fi idea that the CERN particle accelerator that has been plagued by curious difficulties, as well as other pursuits to produce the Higgs particles, are being interfered with from the Future, supposedly to ward off a potentially universal catastrophe that would be triggered by a successful uncloaking of Higgs particles.

New York Times article “The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate”, a bloggist ridiculing the original thought “Respectable physicists gone crackpotty” and the original article “Search for Effect of Influence from Future in Large Hadron Collider”.

What is now getting attention seems to be the idea that CERN should avoid future unexpected costs and delays through an experiment involving a very large deck of cards. Only a very small percentage of cards would tell CERN to affect the operations of the huge device, and only one to be marked “close the LCH”. From the original article:

The experiment proposed in the present article is to give “foresight”, a chance of avoiding forced closure of LHC due to lack of funding or other form of bad luck, as happened to SSC.

We imagine a big stack of cards on which are written various restrictions concerning the operation of LHC, for example “allow the production of only 10 Higgs particles”. On most of the cards there should just be written “use LHC freely” so that they cause no restrictions. However, on a very small fraction of cards, there should be restrictions on luminosity or beam energy or some combination of them. One card may even have “close (shut down) LHC”. The crucial idea of this proposal is that if our model were true, then the most likely development sol with the P(sol) ≃ e−2SI (sol) factor included would be a development involving one of the cards which strongly restricts on the Higgs particle production at LHC.

The image is brilliant, a huge multi-billion dollar effort forestalled, yet again, but this time with everyone gathered around an enormous deck of cards, waiting to see if the future would reach back and influence the picking of a card in a kind of “anti-miracle”. One commenter on the blog cited suggested that the card need only read “close the LCH for 24 hours” with the proviso that another card is picked ever 24 hours thereafter. There is something just suitable about this image of science trying to avoid destroying the entire universe, or some other bit of “bad luck”, through such seemingly unscientific means.

Backwards Prone Causation

But I would like to consider some of the concepts involved here, apart from the science or even the science fiction. The ridiculing blog spent even more time criticizing the grammar of the article (which I do not believe was published), than its ideas, clearly with the sense that something more normative than even the direction of causation was at stake.

The general sense of repressed ideas, thoughts, desires, is that something occurrant now, if it was allowed to take effect would have disastrous consequences on the whole of coherence. Freud was of course big on this, and much of the critique of a philosophy of Presence comes out of the notion that the present coherence comes out of repressing something that lies in the margins. And, as we are told, the “repressed” always returns.

But what if we were allowed to think fantastically, that it is not an active, present day stranglehold that coherence exerts upon the margin (tarrying with its own genetic history), but that, in fine Philip K. Dick fashion, something from the future can exert itself back upon the past (our present), such as to avoid catastrophe. Now, surely the psychosis of such a regular interpretation of events is not to be recommended – the theory of the Higgs particle backwards causation is one in which boundary conditions themselves might be effected (if I understand the thinking here), and no average event can figure backwardsly - but the logic of the fantasy engages me.

At the psychological or even ideological level of our organizations of ourselves are there deck of card tests that we perform which are meant to allow the trace of a future, backwards activation (whether they be true tests or not)? Are there not small ways in which our future selves (if only in real fantasy projections) act backwards upon our current states? Spinoza theorized, or at least strongly mused, that events of the future can reach us if we share an essence with those conditions (as wild as that sounds for such a sobering philosopher). If we can think in terms of a “field” of organic relations that organize the meaning of events (not the universe, but here, socially, locally), and that this field is grounded in real participatory closure wherein actions at different times in the sequence actually work to bolster each other, recursively, could it not be that a real (possible) event late in the sequence if it thoroughly enough casts a shadow over the whole field can echo back and determine present conditions, if it is of a nature profound enough to effect the very fabric of our interactions? This is not to say that this is what is happening, but rather to imagine out the possibilities of this retaining some theoretical coherence.

The advantage to the thought is that the war over change is not just occurring presently, as if there were some vast system of effects that is ever pressing against a tide of eruptive multiplicities, but it is occurring retroactively, the way that we overcode our pasts, sewing them back up to the present (and future). This is not to evoke final causes, which are specific ends, but rather to suggest that the coherence of the field our behaviors and interactions with the world may be so anchored unto a ballasted field of being that the very fabric holds together aspects of our present moment due to the atemporal nature of world continuity, a kind of effect sub specie aeternitatis.  When we say to ourselves intuitionally, “We better not do that or we risk disaster” how does this differ logically from an effect from the future, or from the very domain of our possilities? Can deep, structural catastrophe tend to echo backwards and avoid itself? Or is it worth thinking/imagining how it can? Is there something to social organization that promotes this kind of thinking or effect?

I would like to think more on this, as absurd as it rings, but that would likely take a novel. No doubt a science fiction novel of a kind. Perhaps.

What Thinking God Means to Spinoza

Thinking God and other Things

“Spinoza did not prove the existence of God; existence is God” – Goethe

Over at Deontologistics we’ve had a nice discussion of his claim that Spinoza committed a philosophical error called “onto-theology” which apparently is the taking of God or Nature or in Spinoza’s case Substance to be a kind of being. This is to say a dog is a being, and a cloud is a being, but Spinoza is arguing that Substance is a special kind of being, it is merely “a” being with unique qualities (one being that it is self-caused, rather than being caused by things other than itself, for instance). I don’t want to cover the discussion there as you can read it if you like, hereBut as a point of interest much of his point rests with the idea that God/Substance for Spinoza must be “a” being because God has both an “essence” and an “idea”, and anything that has one of these must be “a” being (to some minimum degree).

What this gives me to think about, and this is the subject of the post, is that the reason why Spinoza gives God/Substance both an essence and an idea is not to claim that God/Substance is “a” being, but rather to simply say that God is thinkable. And, to great significance, individual beings are not the only thing thinkable. In fact, the way in which Spinoza argues the nature of God and Substance undermines the very notion that thinking is confined to “beings” per se.

So what is it to “think God” for Spinoza? What does it mean for instance that God has an “idea”, that there is an “Idea of God”? And what connection does this have to us “having an idea of God”? It is here, right away, that we come right up against the non-representationalist view of “idea” for Spinoza. Quite apart from much of Cartesianism, and certainly far from the Idealist followings after Kant, to have an idea of something is not to represent it. In fact, as Spinoza tells us, when we are thinking about things in the world we are merely thinking ourselves. So if God has an Idea, and we can have an Idea of God, what does this mean? First off, we know that the Idea of God is not a representation of God. It is rather an expression of God, we might say. And when we have an idea of God this does not mean that we form a representation of what God is like. The last thing that Spinoza has in mind is the notion that we form an image of God, and perhaps it is not even correct to say that we have a “concept” of God (for our concepts of God change, but the adequacy of our Idea of God does not).

The Infinity Within The Boundaries of Our Thought

Part of a clue to this is that Spinoza claims that we can only have an adequate idea of God. Despite all the images and anthropomorphisms, or even atheistic beliefs, we automatically, by virtue of our capacity to think and be, have an adequate idea of God (as - it can be argued - do all things).  Understanding this may be helped by the holism both Goethe and Herder found in Spinoza, that each thing possessed a kind of “intrinsic infinity”. This is to say that while we regard individual things as bound, finite things, indeed within any bounded thing lies an infinity. As his letter 12 claims, this is an infinity of internal magnitudes, but it is also the nature of the infinity of God, that is to say, the Idea of God. In a certain sense, internal to a finite, determined being such as ourselves, lies the very infinitude of God, and the reason for this is because we literally are God, in action (as are all things). So when someone wants to compare God to our finitude and try to imply that God must be “a” being just as we are “a” being, they are looking through the wrong end of the lens. If one really had to choose, it goes the other way: instead, it is much more that we are an infinitude, because God is an infinitude (Hegel knew this well because he claimed that Spinoza actually produced an acosmism). 

So, when it is said that we have an idea of God this simply means that God  is thinking through us by virtue of his/its own ideational expression. In fact the combination of God having an essence and an idea is simply the groundwork for this kind of claim. Our thinking God is the case of our coherent powers of agency, and we cannot help but do so. And in such a case calling God “a” being really goes strongly against Spinoza’s very conception, the point he is trying to get across. 

Perhaps the meaning of this would be made more clear if I use my recent readjustment of Spinoza’s notion of Idea to correspond to the modern concept of “information”. We might say that Nature (all of it) has a kind of totality of Information which we could call the Idea of Nature. And we as natural informational beings, composed of and expressing information in a determined way, as we think about things in the world do so by virtue both of the specific information we are composed of, but also because in certain sense the totality of information is “thinking through us”; our informational structure connects us to the world due to the very informational order of everything. The whole moves through a part (in very complex ways). This is something akin to what Spinoza means when he says that we all necessarily adequate idea of God. We think the Idea of God/Nature/Substance by simply the virtue of being an expression of it.

Spinoza’s argument though makes all of this an expression of Substance, and as such the kinds of things we want to say about finite beings, are not the kinds of things we can say of the Immanent ground. While the cat is “a” being, and the lamp is “a” being, it makes no Spinozist sense to say that Substance is “a” being. God is not a super-quality version of us or other things. It is precisely this usual attempt to think God as a super version of regular things that Spinoza tries as best he can to upend. The reasoning goes the other way. It is the Infinite which opens up what the finite is. As Lessing put it to Jacobi, Spinoza will not prejudice human ideas.

Cybernetic Admixtures Toward Freedom

There is a very good reason why this tension between “beings” and their immanent cause is not resolvable by thinking of that cause as a special kind of “being”.  A good deal of this reason lies with Spinoza’s undermining of just what “a” being is, and in a way what we - as finite beings - are to think about ourselves and the world. What Spinoza ideational epistemology is organized to tell us is that the less that we think in isolated terms, the less that we think of things as separated from us, the less of “a” being that we become. That is, in what perhaps is best called a cybernetic view of human powers, the more that we combine with other things, and do so through our increasingly adequate ideas of their causes, the less that we can say that we are merely “a” being. Rather, “we” are exposed to be a combination of beings, the boundaries of which transpierce what we are. The mutualities which condition our very powers are the things that defy the actual Heideggerian Idealist (optical) notion of “a” being in the first place. I discuss these important differences between Spinoza and Heidegger here: Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr. Heidegger’s notion of beings is necessarily a story of alienation and occlusion, Spinoza’s is combinative and liberating at every turn.

This brings us to one more aspect of the argument that Spinoza is arguing that Substance is a special kind of being, and that is the idea that while each thing in the world is caused by things other than itself, but only one thing is its own cause. It is supposed that Spinoza is putting forth that Substance is just a different sort of “thing”. But because “thingness” itself is what is under revisement in Spinoza, the beingness of Substance is not the point at all. Rather, the emphasis is on the nature of freedom itself.  The principle of sufficient reason for Spinoza, the idea that the explanation of something is key to the nature of its power to act and be, is that which grounds the very ethics of Spinoza’s Ethics. This is to say, as we come to understand the causes of things this is not just an accumulation of knowledge, but rather is a real change in ontological power. This is something that is profoundly missing in so-called “flat ontologies” and is vital to understanding the nature of power and freedom itself.  As we understand the causes of things we come to be in combination with them, forming a mutuality. It is not simply the (optical) Heideggerian question of whether the thing we describe “hides” from us or not, but rather the change in the degree of being, our very power to act and exist, that occurs when we have more adequate ideas in the world. This is the true meaning behind Spinoza’s self-caused idea of Substance. As we approach towards Substance’s own self-determined nature, becoming more like Substance as we go, our very “a” beingness is under transformation. It is this freedom through combination that literally operates our distinctions making valleys and mountains out of what otherwise would be taken to be flat.

Lastly: The Barking Dog and the Dog in the Heavens

“Further (to say a word here concerning the intellect and the will which we attribute to God), if intellect and will appertain to the eternal essence of God, we must take these words in some significations quite different from those they usually bear. For intellect and will, which should constitute the essence of God, would perforce be as far apart as the poles from the human intellect and will, in fact, would have nothing in common with them but the name; there would be about as much correspondence between the two as there is between the Dog, the heavenly constellation, and a dog, an animal that barks.”(E1p17cor, sch)

 

The Occlusion of Dialogics: What It Means to Converse with a Philosopher

For the Love of the Negative

I am having an interesting para-discussion with Nicola over at The Whim  on the good of talking about “the shadow” or “spectrality” or “negation” in particular when adopting an ontology of plenitude (which he himself seems to embrace), and he directed me to this wonderful post at Fido the Yak, explicating just how affective, how experiential negativity could be interpreted.

There, M. Ponty is cited, speaking to the full-spectrum of how we read (and overcome/complete) a past philosopher. Nicola seems to have in mind the richness of this engagement, the way that “sensibilities” seem to flesh-out otherwise abstract binaries of Self/Other (and the mother of all binaries Being/Non-Being).

I want to direct myself briefly to the opening thoughts on shadow, when reading a philosopher dialogically, what M. Ponty calls the “dialogical experience”:

In dialogical experience, I do not communicate to another a thought possessed elsewhere. I think with him and make myself in his image; moreover, his thought comes to itself only be formulating itself and offering itself to me, so that there is no clear-cut distinction between what would belong strictly to an author and what the interpretation projects into the author. What defines a thought is what is was still seeking to say, its “unthought,” which can be revealed only in a reflection which, on the basis of its difference, turns itself into the echo of the thought. Therefore, the rejection of the idea that one must subject a reading to objectivity in favor of the idea that one must attempt to explicate an unthought can be a higher form of fidelity.

As I expressed to Nicola, I do not see what service is paid by the importation of Hegelian inspired terms such as “shadow” or “the other” or “negative”, as if when we think along with another thinker we are conducting some kind of binary mathematics of exchange and surpass. I would claim that actually there is no such thing as the “dialogical experience” as it is here defined, where we strictly make ourselves the image of the other, (and this image-reflection accurately depicts what we are doing when we think along with someone else…there is always something more…much more). The reason for this is that, as M. Ponty says, in the dialogical experience I do not communicate to another a thought possessed elsewhere. This plainly is not only impossible, it is an illusion. We necessarily, when we inhabit the thoughts of another, bring to them thoughts that are possessed elsewhere. Not only the “elsewhere” of my entire genealogy of thoughts, but also the matrix of far-reaching points with which I have come in contact, and which have formed me. I communicate to the soma of a thinker the full contrain web of my being, and insofar as we communicate (even with a dead thinker), the nodal mutualities of our contacts. The illusion of a shadow, a specter, a mirrored reflection, is just that, the suppression of all our rich histories/possibilities, the ignoring of what consonant powers that are in operation, the very things that we are to make ourselves aware of if we are to bring our communication into more active fruition. It is NEVER the case of a Self and an Other meeting in binary form (even if this be our fantasy).

Shaking Hands with the Dead

Then M. Ponty works to subvert the priority of this binary through a richness of affective inhabitation, with a marvelous metaphor of hand-shaking…

The reason why I have evidence of the other man’s being-there when I shake his hand is that his hand is substituted for my left hand, and my body annexes the body of another person in that “sort of reflection” it is paradoxically the seat of.

We can feel this. But in shaking hands it is never the case of merely one body then another, one hand then another. The inhabitation, the annexing, is ever always the case of past hands shaken, the firmness of the grip, the communications of regard, proximity, obliquely or directly steered directionality, things that communicate themselves with a musicality of culture, intent, habit, mise-en-scene  compassry, a panoply of effects stretching out in every direction. Even in this well-chosen example there is no dialogic. In shaking hands the world explodes and connects again, and in the aperture of what philosophers call “the Other” there are so many “others” (as in, alterations, ripples, unowned, unauthored echoes and vibrations).

In this sense, even as M. Ponty tries to invigorate the pale abstractions “the Other”, the “negation” , the “shadow”, the “shadow” with a material and bodily grounding, I think this only points to the dread mistake of beginning with these philosophical binaries born of Idealist conceptions of Consciousness, the centrality of Being. What is suppressed is the polyvocality of effects, and therefore is lost the full horizon of what actually is being engaged.

This has substantial consequence for how we read past philosophers. For instance as I mutually inhabit Spinoza’s mind/frame if I allowed myself to regularly think that I am doing so under dialogical experiences of mirroring and shadow making, bringing to his thought nothing that its outside of it, I would have occluded myself of the very richness of my mental hand. For instance, the inheritance of Pragmatism and Neoplatonism I regularly bring to Spinoza, and it would be a dis-service to pretend that this is not what I am doing. But it is more than this. In studying Spinoza’s optical practices, and reconstructing much of his possible physical experiences of daily lens-grinding, I also bring to his so-called “thought” something of the mutuality of an understanding of what bodily practices are expressed in thought. I understand his thought from within its prospective source. It is not mere reflection, but also that we share a world. If I imagine him at his lathe, engaging in repetitious circular motions of pressure, fine-detail polishing, the objectivity I appeal to is not Self-Other, but that of World. I am not seeking, or constructing the un-thought of his thought, because my engagement is not an ascent from what what below me. It is much more two strains of music finding harmony across a larger melody.

It is for this reason that when M. Ponty wants to concentrate on the interior of another thinker, sinking down into the bodily real of animality (always the interior for the phenomenologist)…

This is what animalia and men are: absolutely present beings who have a wake of the negative. A perceiving body that I see is also a certain absence that is hollowed out and tactfully dealt with behind that body by its behavior. But absence is itself rooted in presence; it is through his body that the other person’s soul is soul in my eyes.

…this is only half, or a third of it. This game of binaries always must call in more in order to make sense of it. It is never the case of interiors coming into contact with interiors, merely, but rather the concreteness of world which bridges and maintains any consonance whatsoever. There is never any “hollowing out” (except as a moment of occlusion). M. Ponty wants to play the +/- , Being/Non-Being, game albeit with a beautifully, and suitably animal body ethic. The music of engagement is always richer than this. What is “behind” behavior is thus not only what is “underneath” (as if we are playing with cloaks again, as Heidegger loves to do), but also beyond and outside, in our substantial mutuality of world. There is no negative.

The Fantasm of the Point: Vico, Plotinus, Campanella and even Badiou

(ca. 204-270 AD) 

To return to the diagram of my last post on Plotinus I want to think along with a confluence of ideas that condense upon the very center of it, the infintesmal locus of “matter” which exists merely as a private, yet also which alternately can be considered as a radiating center (under a different analogy).

The direction I want to go in this is a rumination that first starts from Badiouian notion that Being is not of the One, or “the One is not,” and that mathematics in a sense speaks Being,  pronouncing what is expressible of being-qua-being. The principle that the non-numerical One is beyond Being is of course one that Plotinus holds at the pinacle of his Ontology, for Being starts with the varigated particularization of the Nous. It is there that the predication of Being takes hold. The way that Plotinus tells it, the Nous is produced by the plentitude/emptiness of The One, and necessarily breaks it apart into a kind of representation which divides it into parts. The reason that Plotinus gives for this division into likenesses is interesting. It is that the Nous struggles with the fact that it has no control over that upon which it ultimately depends, a control which expresses itself in the desire to preserve:

The hypostasis of the Intellect [Nous] cannot maintain its vision of the One in primal unity, but “being being unable to preserve the power which it was procuring, it broke it up and made the one [power] that it might bear it part by part [katà méros]” (6.7 [38] 15.20-22). In so doing, Intellect constitutes itself as an imitation of the Good, as a many-hued and varigated Good (agathòn poíkilon).

F.M. Schroeder, citing Plotinus in Form and Transformation

Now there is a great and dissatisfying danger of simply reading these particularizations as mere abstractions of an esoteric philosophy, the most gripless of metaphysics, but Plotinus’s reasoning as to why the Nous indeed breaks up the One has strong affective, phenomenological correlates. It is the very dependency of the unity of the Nous upon what lies beyond it, and inclusive of it, that generates a corresponding particularization. In drawing power from what is outside, the inside distinguishes itself. If we turn to the simple figure of a circle (for millenia a favorite of philosophers, and think in terms of systems theory, we understand that whatever system there is, it necessarily is less complex than its environment. This is to say, as all systems (the inside) depends upon a more complex outside, the very inside/outside boundary issue of dependency drives the very divisions of the inside in regard to what lies beyond it. If we allow the observations of evolutary theory, life has moved from less to more complex, and with this increase of internal divisions (differences that make differences) it has relatively gained a greater role in the preservation of the power upon which it depends (and, notably, which it is also an expression). Plotinus’s story of the Nous serves as a metaphysical directionality which prescribes how any person (organism) might orient themselves to conditions which are beyond it, like the Nous with totalizes these relations, the move is towards a complexification of differences that make differences.

For Plotinus, this process of particularization comes from what he calls “beholding” or “witnessing”. Whereas the first particularization beholds the One/the Expressed, those of Soul and Sensation are even more narrow in what they behold, all the way down to matter, which simply exists as a non-existent privation. A speck of darkness.

A Retreat to Vico’s Conception of Mathematics: the ficta of points (1668 – 1744)

I find this speck of nothingness interesting because its very non-divisibilty division reflects something of mathematics, the way in which points or numbers are non-existent distinctions that operate as a kind of limit. What I have in mind is Giambattista Vico’s interpretation of mathematics as the most divine of human acts, because in the invention of the point and the unit human beings act just a God did, creating something out of nothing in imitation of divinity, scientia humana divinae sit imitatrix. For Vico, a forerunner to some themes found in Kant, human beings cannot truly know things that they have not created. Only God truly knows what is created. The reason why human beings can have perfect knowledge of mathematics is that its creation is wholely their own. In a sense, mathematics operates “within” the circle of human articulation.

To quote some Vico, and then a commentator, to give perspective on his position:

…man defines the names themselves, and on the model of God with no underlying thing he creates (creat) the point, line and surface as if from nothing, as if they were things…to establish (condidit) for himself a certain world of forms and numbers, which he embraces within himself: and by producing, shortening, or composing lines, by adding, substracting, or reckoning numbers, he effects infinite works because he knows infinite truths within himself

But the point of the human imagination is not the point we draw with a pencil: “the point, when you draw it, is not a point: the one, when you multiply it, is no longer fully one.”

“man, containing within himself an imaginary world of lines and numbers, operates in it with his abstractions, just as God does in the universe with reality.”

With something of Plotinus’s reasoning, the very imaginary abstraction that human beings creates is a coping mechanism for that which lies beyond them and upon which they depend. Here Robert Miner provides a good overview of Vico’s approach to the knowing of human understanding:

Abstraction is the mind’s way of coping with its estrangement from things. Because he cannot possess ‘the elementa rerum by which things themselves exist with certainty,’ he resorts to the fabrication (confingere) of elementa verborum, elements which, despite their unreality, are able to ‘stimulate ideas with no controversy.’”

Vico has described human truth as a factum that is arrived at through a synthesis of elements that are only partially grasped, because they exist outside the mind which grasps them. If the human mind is essentially outside the elementa rerum, how does it manage to grasp even their outside edges? Vico proceeds to answer this question: “God knows everything, because he contains within himself the elements from which all things are composed; man seeks to know these elements by a process of dividing (dividendo).”

What is the relation of “dividing” to making? Is dividendo creative or destructive? Vico’s answer is “both.” De antiquissima 1.2 begins with an homage to the fecundity of dissection. The “anatomy of nature’s works” gives birth to a range of human scientiae. It does so by inventing their objects. One can divide man into body and spirit. From body, human science has “picked out (excerpsit) or, as men say, abstracted figure and motion, and from these, as well as from all other things, it has extracted (extulit) being and unity.” The objects obtained through abstraction give rise to the human scientiae metaphysics (whose proper object is ens), arithmetic (unum), geometry (figura), mechanics (motus from the edge), physics (motion from the center), medicine (corpus), logic (ratio), and ethics (voluntas).

The fecundity of dissection comes at a cost. Man creates the human scientiae by fragmenting, and therefore destroying, the whole…The entities created by abstraction – being, unity, figure, motion, shape, intellect, will – are “one thing in God, in whom they are one, and another thing in man, in whom they are divided.” Ripped from the whole in which they have life, humanly obtained elements are disiecta membra. “In God they live, in man they perish.” Our efforts to understand nature by cutting it up supplies us with theories rather than works: “in nobis sunt ratiocina, in Deo sunt opera.” All that man acquires through dividing the whole, is like man himself, nihil prae Deo; all finite and created beings are nothing but disposita entis infiniti ac aeterni. Etymology confirms the connection between division and diminution: Vico asserts that minuere means both “to lessen” and “to separate.”

The limitations of abstraction ensure that we have access only to the extrema of the elementa rerum. In what is likely to be an illusion to Lucretius, Vico declares that when man starts to investigate the nature of things (naturam rerum vestigabundus), he finds that “he does not have within himself the elements from which composite things exist.” This lack (brevitas) is not a morally neutral feature of the human condition, but a “vice of the mind” (mentis vicium). It is an effect of fallenness, a decline from a primordeal state in which mind and nature where integrated. (Vico uses nefas to characterize physicists who think they can provide real defintions of things.) Man responds to this condition by turning the mentis vicium to good use, by performing an operation that relies solely upon the mind and bypasses, as it were, the material world. “By abstraction, as they say, he fabricates (configit) two things for himself: the point that can be drawn and the unit that can be multiplied.” The association of abstractio and configere suggests that abstraction is creative. The suggestion is confirmed in the Prima Riposta, where Vico writes that mathematics [move to quotes on mathematics].

Truth in Making, Robert Miner

The Terminus Point of Nonbeing: Campanella (1568 – 1639 )

 

There is another evocative figure of radiating being, that which Campanella uses to characterize how each thing is but a point from which non-Being radiates, a kind of photographic negative of Plotinus’s conception:

 What we are concerned with is something that has an actual bearing on the existential order [not "relative nothingnesss" (nihilum secundum quid), the essence of a thing prior to existence], i.e., the composition of an infinite nonbeing with a finite being in existing realities. This is the point at issue, and this Campanella tries to illustrate by means of an analogy. Just as we can conceive a line stretching from the center of the earth beyond the circumfrence of the sky in infinitum, so, he says, man, like any other creature, is but a little dot where infinite nonbeing is terminated. Man is in effect the negation of an infinite number of other things and of God himself, being surrounded, as he is, by an infinite nonbeing (Bonansea, Tommaso Campanella, citing Met, II, 6, 3, 7)

In this Campanella presents something very close to Spinoza’s letter 21 claim that “all determination is negation,” something that Hegel made quite a bit of. Only in Spinoza any particular determination/negation is not a negation of God/Substance, but rather its Substance (Campanella always heretically veering towards collapsing God and Creation into one panpsychic whole, like Spinoza, but careful to walk the line).

What I am inspired to say about these circular analogies for Being and coherence of action, with their distinct and performative inside/outside designations, is that somehow mathematics in coming out of the pure fictiveness of human creation, in inventing the Non-Being of the immaterial point, somehow grasps whole the entire matrix of radiating conceptions, and is able to map out with great fecundity the very Oneness which is beyond Being (in a Plotinian sense). Weaving out the very absence, the infintesmal (as my wife tells me, what is the decimal point which divides the infinitely large from the infinitely small, made of?), we get a glimpse of the very varigatedness that Plotinus attributes to Nous likeness taking.  The whole thing is sutured closed, or at least remotely closed, for one imagines that there are many kinds of mappings that can be woven from the nothingness of the point.

Further though, even in its appropriation of the infinite nothingness, mathematics owes Alfred Korzybski’s adage “The map is not the territory,” while keeping in mind that mapping, and map-following is itself part of the territory (one hunts through the map, as one hunts through the territory). All organisms seem to in some form follow Plotinus’s thoughts on why the Nous mirrored the One, being unable to preserve that upon which they depend. The semiotic relations that make up an organisms internal relations, and then thus relations to other organisms, are not only performances, but also are duplications (not necessarily representations), “picking out” (intelligere, to choose out) certain aspects of the world, and it is always a tension between picking out the most important, valued features, and sheer numericity, since these two are intimately related. In a certain sense, mathematics too needs to be seen as a vast material organism/organization, as material as any map, appendage to the human species.

Plotinus and the Degrees of Being Conception: Ennead V ii, 1

Ennead V ii, 1: On the Genesis and Order of Things Following The Proto

The Hen is all things
but not a single one [oudè hén];
for the arche of all things is not all things,
but in that particular way it is all things, that is to say thither
they run.
Rather, they do not yet exist,
but they will be.

How then does [it all] come out
of a Simple One which has in itself
no intricate appearance,
nor any kind of folds whatsoever?

It is because there is no-thing [oudèn] in itself
that through this out of itself come
all things,
that Being [tò òn] may be;

through this
he himself is not existing [ouk ón],
he, the progenitor of itself. But as such
this is the prime engendering.
Being complete,
to not seek, to not hold, to not need,
in some kind of overflowing,
and overplenteousness of itself
it has made [pepoíêken] another.

So the becoming to itself
is turned and filled,
born toward itself gazing, &
this is the Nous.
& the-standing-towards-that,
the Being of itself she made, as her view
towards itself is Nous.

As it stood towards itself, that it may see,
out of the same nous it becomes and Is.
This one
now being such as that one,
The likeness [tà hómoia] creates the potency [dúnamin],
pouring out the many
- and this image is of itself -
just as before

the prime of itself poured out.
& out of the substance [tês ousías] this energeia
Is the Soul, the becoming of that abiding
& so the Nous-of-the-abiding-before-itself
has become.
Yet not abiding she creates, but
Motioned she is born
a phantom [eídôlon].

However looking there, whence born,
she becomes full,
Advanced into another motion her contrary she engenders ,
a phantom of herself, sensation [aísthêsin],
the nature [phúsin] within natural things [en toîs phutoîs].

& not one thing before itself has been hung up, or cut off.
For this reason
it appears that the upper Soul comes
all the way into natural things.
For in any way she comes,
as if something of herself is in natural
things.

But surely not all of her is in natural things,
but her coming
into being [gignoménê] in natural things
is in this way,
as far & so much as she advanced downward,
into the sub-stasis [hupóstasis]
her other
creating in her going out

and her eagerness [prothumía] for
what’s worse.
Then that before this,
that coming right out of the Nous,
Allows the Nous to abide in itself.

[the Greek text, édition Kirchhoff]

Why Plotinus?

Some recent posts on panpsychism, Spinoza and the such had me returning to the Ur-panpsychist, as least as I read the history of the thought. It was Plotinus who helped structure the very influential, non-dualistic, Neo-Platonist Christian theology of Augustine, to some degree safeguarding from heresy the conception of an ontology of degrees of Being throughout the Medieval ages and the Renaissance. But Plotinus is dramatically under-read, especially in view of his pivotal, and quite influential position within the history of philosophy. Part of this problem has I believe been due to the translation of his work, his writings/lectures compiled and edited by his student Porphry, The Six Enneads. This is not to say that the translations are poor (there are several recent translations out after a historical dearth), but rather that for me they often still grasp at something in the text emphasizing the wrong, or at least importune, threads. They can either verbosely, or somewhat sterilely isolate the “concept” in the writing, and ignore the texture of it, the dexterity and one might say, the luminosity.

For those interested in the history of panpsychism the above is a translation of a passage that is quite important to many of the thinkers that follow. One may recognized immediately aspects of Hegel (reflexivity to the One), Spinoza (radiating degrees of causal dependence upon the One), and even Deleuze (that things that will be “runs through” the One) and Badiou (how Being is created via the Nous) in the framing of the emanation of Being from the Hen. I hope to discuss some of these in future posts, as they are quite intriguing. I present this passage precisely because, although the Enneads is quite long (more than a 1,000 pages in some editions), it may all really come down to this passage (and a few others). If one grasps this, one grasps a whole historical thread of though stretching nearly 2000 years to the present, a thread that has repeatedly dipped beneath the fabric which is has sewn, only to appear again.

Also, this short passage allows one to deal with metaphysics straight on, in a condensed, small space, to try to take it whole and see what one can draw from it. One asks often, what good is metaphysics? Perhaps with this short passage (and another I hope to post), we can see what is being proposed, and even look to what it means for our very lives, the way that we look at and solve problems.

Notes on the Translation

Obviously, I put it into verse. The purpose of this is several fold. The first that the Greek itself if quite condensed, as the language tends to be, but also as the philosopher can push it; and poetry actually is probably the best formal approximation of this condensation of meaning and effect. The verse form forces a reader to pause and consider the kerneling of phrases, just as the Greek would require. In this sense, the line breaks hopefully serve to translate the relationship between the ideas present such that mere prose could not. In this vein I also tried to steer clear of excessive explication within the text itself. Translators of philosophy in Greek often “fill in” the meaning that they think is implied by word-use and word-choice, in effect erasing the fullness of what is being invoked. (With Plato this is disastrous.) Where the implications are open I tried to leave them as open as possible so that one could continue to think along with the writer.

As to the text itself there are several basic decisions I made:

To Hen: This is Plotinus’ crowning concept, and is universally translated as The One. Quite accurately of course. But because “hen” is also the aorist (past) participle of the verb “hiemi” which means anything from  “to set in motion,” “to hurl,” “to let flow, burst” even in context “to speak”, the Hen is The One, but also The-Having-Set-In-Motion. To restrict its conception merely to the former is to dramatically cleave its meaning. Even this simple translation difficulty I think has lead to a misreading of the very core conception of Plotinus’ view. So when thinking about the Hen, think of both a Oneness, but also a flowing out, an activity.

arche: Is both the principle and the origin. It is something like a foundation, but is more active.

(phuton) phutois: I translate this “natural things” instead of “plants” as many rightful translators do (as in the section that follows he makes the distinction between phuton and the animal without logos, the latter having the power of sense-perception. This is because I believe that Plotinus is not thinking of this plant or that, but rather of the entire profusion of “growth” that is shown in both plants and animals, the raw aspect of what we regularly call and imply by “Nature” per se. This is an important translation point for the general argument of panpsychism that I believe that Plotinus holds.

Nous: Of course this is “mind” often translated as “intellect”.

autos, etc.: Plotinus uses the reflexive to great degree here, and in more than one gender. I direct the meaning toward this itself, himself, herself, though it can also mean “the same” with obvious philosophical precedent.

There are several other points of translation where I differ from the main line, so perhaps as always, check with other translations to get the full spectrum of possible readings. For instance, I take care to maintain the shifts in gender accomplished here, where Plotinus moves from neuter Hen, to a masculine progenitor to a female engendering and a female soul, always looking back upon the neuter, itself.

The translation is not meant as anything to be taken as authoritative, but rather an experiment in form so as to largely provide a gateway for those interested in Plotinus who have not read him directly, and perhaps an occasion for thought, for those who have studied him more closely.

The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert

A mix from Salammbo and “On Vicarious Causation”

I recently attempted to draw out the implicit white/colored, colonialist conceptualization that I see in Graham Harman’s rather poetically depicted Object-Oriented Philosophy, in particular of its theory of Vicarious Causation. Further, I tried to point out that Graham actually exhibits in the very core of his concept of the sensuous vicar, much of the Orientalism he resents in Flaubert, and I presume Hölderlin. While this comparison to Flaubert may seem dubious, at least to Graham’s own ear, and rested only on my instinct of comparison, I thought it best to dig a little deeper into it, especially for those who have not read his engaging essay on causation, which can be found here [highly recommended]. I do this digging somewhat hesitantly because I have confirmed respect for Graham as I have encountered him, and he has declared Flaubert “unforgivable” (at least as the author of The Letters From Egypt); and in a vexing moment Graham said he would not think kindly on the man’s grave. Even in hyperbole, such a vehemence is not something to be trifled with. But if Graham’s feelings toward Flaubert are sincere, as I suspect that they are, a comparison is perhaps even more in order. In this service I have extracted some of the most oriental of Graham’s points, which, in order to understand my argument must be taken within the larger critique vicarious mediation itself, contained in the post before this.

Besides these I also place selections from one of Graham’s least favorite writers, Gustav Flaubert, taken from the “historical” novel Salammbo, interestingly enough, the work that most marked the author’s departure from the Realism of Madame Bovary. Aside from these juxtaposed citations which form only loose but instructive correlates, I will also comment when I can on the colonial, or white/colored contrast that seems to be evoked by Graham’s depictions of what is real, in the hope that my argument would become even more textually based. This is not  to say that Graham thinks like Flaubert thought of the Egyptian (or Carthaginian), for at most Flaubert was a surface traveler, and Graham an invested resident (a biographical fact to to be cheated); but rather it is to say that in his conceptualization of binaries, as inherited from Heidegger, and perhaps due to his own place and time in history, Graham’s theory of causation partakes in something distinctly colonial in flavor as he characterizes the properties, powers and role of the vicarious realm. This aptitude toward the foreign is a germ of Idealist, largely White, European thinking, the line from which Graham has come. Perhaps any other orientalizing fictional writer could be chosen beside Flaubert. It is only Graham’s stated resistence to Flaubert, and the association within me that this resistance started that brings this precise  comparison to bear.

Gustav Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert

The Place of the Sensuous Intermediary

Generally, if we assume a colonialist stance of the White on behalf of the “real” but retreating object, we have the distinct analogy of white powers communicating with, and inflicting themselves upon, each other, only through some passive and otherly colored mediary, a vicar from the sensuous realm:

GH: “For as I will contend, objects hide from one another endlessly, and inflict their mutual blows only through some vicar or intermediary.” (189-190)

But, as we seek to get a grasp of things, we must acknowledge that both the most primative or pragmatic of relations do not quite capture the hidden essence of things, the retreating whiteness of them. The scientist and the tribesman is deluded by the colors of its use-perspective, something with which Flaubert roughly agrees:

GH: “The tribesman who dwells with the godlike leopard, or the prisoner who writes secret messages in lemon juice, are no closer to the dark reality of these objects than the scientist who gazes at them.” (191)

Salammbo: All modes of worship, as well as all races, were to be met with in these armies of Barbarians, and consideration was had to the gods of others, for they too, inspired fear. Many mingled foreign practices with their native religion. It was to no purpose that they did not adore the stars; if a constellation were fatal or helpful, sacrifices were offered to it; an unknown amulet found by chance at a moment of peril became a divinity; or it might be a name and nothing more, which would be repeated without any attempt to understand its meaning. But after pillaging temples, and seeing numbers of nations and slaughters, many ultimately ceased to believe in anything but destiny and death;-and every evening these would fall asleep with the placidity of wild beasts.

Though because all of our real object, transparent states are cut off from each other, as isolated white objects, we must meet each other through the vicarious mediation of a third, something of the sensuous kind, those that lay side by side like entwined slaves in a harem. Yet behind this phenomenal incestual mix lies the retreating essence of an absent object, again, Flaubert assents:

GH: “Whereas real objects withdraw, sensual objects lie directly before us, frosted over with a swirling, superfluous outer shell. But this difference seems to give sensual objects the opposite causal status of real ones. Given that real objects never touch directly, their causal relations can only be vicarious. But sensual objects, far from being withdrawn, exist side by side in the same perceptual space from the outset, since we encounter numerous phenomena simultaneously.” (195)

Salammbo: The plain, which was wholly bounded by mountains, expanded around them. Here and there a palm tree leaned over a sand hill, and pines and oaks flecked the sides of the precipices: sometimes the rain of a storm would hang from the sky like a long scarf, while the country everywhere was still covered with azure and serenity; then a warm wind would drive before it tornadoes of dust, and a stream would descend in cascades from the heights of Sicca, where, with its roofing of gold on its columns of brass, rose the temple of the Carthaginian Venus, the mistress of the land. She seemed to fill it with her soul. In such convulsions of the soil, such alternations of temperature, and such plays of light would she manifest the extravagance of her might with the beauty of her eternal smile. The mountains at their summits were crescent-shaped; others were like women’s bosoms presenting their swelling breasts, and the Barbarians felt a heaviness that was full of delight weighing down their fatigues.”

In such a sensual realm, the problem is actually of over-sensuousness, the tendency to run like colors into each other into a muddy mess. For this reason sensuous objects have to be “buffered” from each other, kept off each other. It is the very precosciousness their sexuality that need to restrained:

GH: “If real objects require vicarious causation, sensual objects endure a buffered causation in which their
interactions are partly dammed or stunted.” (195)

GH: “Sensual objects, by contrast, are so inclined to interact with their neighbors that we wonder why they fail to do so at every instant. In other words, the only place in the cosmos where interactions occur is the sensual, phenomenal realm.” (195)

Sincerely Mining the Black Noise For the Invisible Signal

And when the real white objects do indeed pierce through the veil of richness, the result is incendiary. With timely reference to the unexpected bombs in marketplaces and hotel lobbies, real, planning objects that cannot touch reaching across and “touching” each other through the mediating connectivity of a feeling people:

GH: “The various eruptions of real objects into sensuality lie side by side, buffered from immediate interaction. Something must happen on the sensual plane to allow them to make contact, just as corrosive chemicals lie side by side in a bomb – separated by a thin film eaten away over time, or ruptured by distant signals.” (197)

The sensuous people/kinds are actually composed of their qualities and even their accidents which seem to float about them as if in a halo of “noise”. But this noise tellingly is not the noise of whiteness (the unstructured sound of untuned Western television or radio technology). It is a black noise, due to its very structuring, “buffering”, quality. It mysteriously keeps the sensuous types apart and functioning. Again, Flaubert has a taste for the same thing:

GH: “Finally, the sensual tree never appears in the form of a naked essence, but is always encrusted with various sorts of noise. Elsewhere I have called it ‘black noise’, to emphasize that it is highly structured, not the sort of formless chaos suggested by the ‘white noise’ of television and radio.” (198)

Salammbo: A noisy throng of people filled the streets from morning to evening; boys shaking bells, cried at the doors of baths; steam rose from hot drink stalls, the air resounded with the din of anvils, white cocks sacred to the Sun crowed on terraces, oxen bellowed in their temples as they were butchered, slaves ran carrying baskets on their heads; and in the depths of a portico appeared a priest, draped in a dark mantel, barefoot, and with a pointed hat.”

In a colonialist light, Graham draws on the mining metaphor as ideal of causation. Real, transparent objects have to tunnel into the rich sensuous earth in shafts, and draw out the freight of the connection. These contact-starved objects have to almost parasitically draw on the wealth of the intimacies of the colored world:

GH: “In seventeenth-century terms, the side-by-side proximity of real and sensual objects is merely the occasion for a connection between a real object inside the intention and another real object lying outside it. In this way, shafts or freight tunnels are constructed between objects that otherwise remain quarantined in private vacuums.” (201) 

And in keeping with the Orientalist flavor, the mere intentionality of real objects, the way that they are able to hone in on definite sensuous objects with what Graham calls “sincerity” is itself an austerity of Asian source, absorbed into its very contemplation:

GH: “For instance, I may be sincerely absorbed in contemplating glass marbles arranged on the surface of a table. This is my sincerity at the moment, since I forego other possibilities of greater and lesser import to witness this austere, Zen-like spectacle.” (205)

But despite the colonialist rhetoric and conception, Graham denies both the banality of pure white exploitation, making a grey mud of the mined third world, or even the “sexiness” of a fixed melodrama cast against that background. Instead it is an eruptive field of white and colored intermixtures, of cold objects and their warm though foreign intermediaries. The world is shot through with post-colonial shiftings and residues. And here Flaubert too sees the vivacity of sensuous people stirred (wow, one can almost see the conflation of the romantic European traveling through Greecian fragmented cult temple islands, and the modern Westerner threatened by the unpredictable human-bomb, epiphanically Delphic/Al Qaedic, Classical Terror):

GH: “The world is neither a grey matrix of objective elements, nor raw material for a sexy human drama projected onto gravel and sludge. Instead, it  is filled with points of reality woven together only loosely: an archipelago of oracles or bombs that explode from concealment only to generate new sequestered temples.” (211-212)

Salammbo: There were people in the square of Khamon shouting for arms. The Ancients would not provide them, esteeming such an effort useless; others who had set out without a general had been massacred. At last they were permitted to depart, and as a sort of homage to Moloch, or from a vague need of destruction, they tore up tall cypress trees in the woods of the temples, and having kindled them at the torches of the Kabiri, were carrying them through the streets singing. These monstrous flames advanced swaying gently; they transmitted fires to the glass balls on the crests of the temples, to the ornaments of the colossuses and the beaks of the ships, passed beyond the terraces and formed suns as it were, which rolled through the town. They descended the Acropolis. The gate of Malqua opened.”

But within our inner sensous field, our inner and tribal primitive, we search for the lost transparent object on the other side, much as how Hölderlin speaks of  “Fernahnend mit/Dem andern” (sensing-distant with another) as I mentioned in my last post. All of our orientalized inner realm sparkles with but the hints of what lies beyond. And Flaubert too feels this with passion, as he describes the tele-communication of Salammbo to her distant father:

GH: “In the sensual realm, we encounter objects encrusted with noisy accidents and relations. We may also be explicitly aware of some of their essential qualities, though any such list merely transforms the qualities into something accident-like, and fails to give us the unified bond that makes the sensual thing a single thing. Instead, we need an experience in which the sensual object is severed from its joint unified quality, since this will point for the first time to a real object lying beneath the single quality on the surface.” (215)

Salammbo: She did not know what was happening to Hamilcar [her father]. At last, weary of her thoughts, she got up, dragging her small sandals, with the sole clapping against her heel at every step, she walked at random about the great and silent room. The amethysts and topazes of the ceiling made made quivering patches of light here and there, as she walked Salammbo turned her head a little to see them.She would go and take the hanging amphoras by the neck; she would cool her bosom beneath the broad fans, or perhaps amuse herself by burning cinnamomum in hollow pearls. At sunset Taanach would draw back the black felt lozenges that closed the openings in the wall; then her doves, rubbed with musk like the doves of Tanith, suddenly entered, and their pink feet glided over the glass pavement, amid the grains of barley which she threw to them in handfuls like a sower in a field. But on a sudden she would burst into sobs and lie stretched on the large bed of ox-leather straps without moving, repeating a word that was ever the same, with open eyes, pale as one dead, insensible, cold; and yet she could hear the cries of the apes in the tufts of the palm trees, with the continuous grinding of the great wheel which brought a flow of pure water through the stories into the porphyry centre-basin.” 

GH: “In instances of beauty, an object is not the sum total of beautiful colors and proportions on its surface, but a kind of soul animating the features from within, leading to vertigo or even hypnosis in the witness.” (216)

Salammbo: He felt very near to the subterranean deities. It was as the joy of one of the Kabiri; and the great luminous rays striking upon his face looked like the extremity of an invisible net linking him across the abysses with the centre of the world.”

Yet, in this sensuous realm, the realm of the colored, it is the autonomous, need we say White, agent, he that holds court over all these undisciplined types. Over the local customs and their disputes is the law of the subject which trumps all appeals of those types:

GH: “Different sensual objects within the same intention are described as contiguous; they do not melt together, but are treated by the intentional agent as distinct, and this agent is the final court of appeal in the sensual realm.” (217)

Any connection between white objects is enabled solely through the principle of allure, illustrations of which either come from Germany’s pagan past, or the Middle Eastern traditional indulgences of tobacco or cannabis. But is not the object itself, but merely the thing that dangles from or sticks on the eastern “thing” that catches the westerner’s eyes:

GH: “Accidents alone have the dual status of belonging and not belonging to an object, like streamers on a maypole, or jewels on a houka. Accidents are tempting hooks protruding from the sensual object, allowing it the chance to connect with others and thereby fuse two into one.” (218)

Only by becoming sensuous in some fashion does the white object actually bring real causation into being. It must brush and stir the inside of another white object. It must become oriental…tele-kinetically.

GH: “I make contact with another object, not through impossible contact with its interior life, but only by brushing its surface in such a manner as to bring its inner life into play. Just as only the opposite poles of magnets make contact, and just as the opposite sexes alone are fertile, it is also the case that two objects of the same type do not directly touch one another.” (219-220)

But one must not become too indulgent, lost in one’s own eastern driftings. Other real, white objects must be brought into the dulled opium phantasm. One must receive the distant transparent signals. This after all is the need for the sensuous kinds to be cultivated in some sense, to bring their overly connected types into some kind of real connection, real order. Much in the same way Flaubert describes the march of the Barbarians into Carthaginian civility, the inventions of the wisdom of received distant signals:

GH: “But in the case of real objects, the only way to touch a real one without touching it is through allure. Only here do we escape the deadlock of merely rolling about in the perfumes of sensual things, and encounter qualities belonging to a distant signalling thing rather than a carnally present one. The only way to bring real objects into the sensual sphere is to reconfigure sensual objects in such a way that they no longer merely fuse into a new one, as parts into a whole, but rather become animated by allusion to a deeper power lying beyond: a real object.” (220) 

Salammbo: On the following day the Barbarian’s passed through a region that was covered with cultivation. The domains of the patricians succeeded one another along the border of the route; channels of water flowed through woods of palm; there were long, green lines of olive-trees; rose-coloured vapours floated in the gorges of the hills, while blue mountains reared themselves behind. A warm wind was blowing. Chameleons were crawling on the broad leaves of the cactus.

The Barbarians slackened their speed.

They marched on in isolated detachments, or lagged behind one another at long intervals. They ate grapes along the margin of the vines. They lay on the grass and gazed with stupefaction upon the large, artificially twisted horns of the oxen, the sheep clothed with skins to protect their wool, the furrows crossing one another so as to form lozenges, and the ploughshares like ships’ anchors, with the pomegranate trees that were watered with silphium. Such wealth of the soil and such inventions of wisdom dazzled them.

[A response from Graham and my commentary found here: Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic ]

Graham Harman’s “essence” contra DeLanda, à la Campanella

Listening From Afar

Just finished listening to Graham Harman’s lecture “Assemblages According to Manuel DeLanda” [mp3] (given at the London School of Economics and Political Science, on 27 November 2008), as part of my attempt come to grips with just what Graham is saying about causation, and much comes clear as he tries to applaud and criticize DeLanda, forming a critical triangle between himself, DeLanda and Latour.

And there is much that is substantive on cause in this lecture, though it passes in and out as a subject. Graham tries to position himself just right, a Goldilocks between DeLanda’s rather fusing, if genetic, depths hiding beneath actualizing expressions and Latour’s satisfying emphasis upon real, though occasionally isolated, and far too-shallow actors in networks. The lecture is not long, and there is a lengthy thought-experiment driven discussion that follows.

It is here, in the discussion where Graham brings up the reality of the essence of the “McCain Victory Coalition” a very real thing that simply did not come about, was not actualized. I had run into this initially in one of his comments on a blogged post and certainly had trouble with it, in concept, conjuring up far too much reality for a science fiction of “possible worlds”. But Graham’s consistent emphasis on essence got me thinking (he makes a very good point that much of the postmodern baby-with-the-bathwater  treatment of essence is due to a conflationary reading of essence, in particular carried out by Derrida).

The “Neapolitan Volcano”

What really came to mind was the philosophy of Tommaso Campanella and his own treatment of essence. There struck me to be great affinity between Graham’s idealization of essence in a notion of retreating objects, split off from their qualities, and the thinking of the late-Renaissance heretic. So while I have spent too much time attacking Graham’s OOP from the perspective of Spinoza (who admittedly is fashionable these days), it seemed right to come to Graham’s support from an extremely unfashionable thinker, one who had almost vanished from the philosophical canon. At the very least it gives me an chance to put forth some more of Campanella’s thought, and perhaps drawn one more line of affinity between Graham’s OOP and late-Scholastic/Renaissance thought.

Here I post without much comment a summation of Campanella’s treatment of essence and existence, taken from Bonansea’s excellent book, Tommaso Campanella: Renaissance Pioneer of Modern Thought. It begins with a quotation from Campanella  himself, followed by Bonansea’s commentary:

To [Scotus's] second and third arguments we answer that existence is the limit of essence. Since it cannot be distinguished from what is limited and modified, any more than the extreme end of a line that can be distinguished from the line itself, it follows that existence belongs to the same predicament of essence, or better, to the predicament of quantity which is the measure of substance. I mean transcendental quantity; for the angel too, has a limited quanitity of power, and this limit is from his own existence. However, if one considers the extrinsic terminal factors, existence must be said to be an accident. Indeed, although time, place, and all the surrounding beings are also essences, yet they do not belong to the quiddity of a thing that is thereby circumscribed and located in a particular place and time. They are but accidents which contract a thing into such and such an existence.

Met. II, 6, 2, 4, p. 10a

“Existence is, therefore, neither matter, nor form, nor their composite, but their extreme and ultimate mode. It is a transcendental measure that implies a real relationship to external things. It is the end of being and the beginning of nonbeing; or rather, the connecting link between being and nonbeing. Insofar as it has being, it belongs to essence; insofar as it has nonbeing, it belongs to nothingness.

In these statements we have, we believe, the exact meaning of Campanella’s notion of extrinsic existence as something distinct from intrinsic existence. This notion enables us to understand why the existence of a finite being can be said to be identical with essence and at the same time really distinct from it. In the first case, existence stands for the actual intrinsic entity of a thing; in the second case, it stands for the beings outside of an individual essence which is thereby limited by its own nonbeing. For, it should be noted, although in Campanella’s philosophy existence limits essence no less than essence limits existence, the actual limitation or contraction of both essence and existence is from nonbeing.

…The difference between a thing as it is in the mind of God and the same thing as it is in its actuality consists in this, that the latter case its being is contracted to a definite concrete existence. This amounts to saying that by its creation a thing does not acquire a better existence, but only an existence that contracts to a particular and concrete essence the essence that exists in the mind of God in the form of a universal and nobler idea. Since existence is in turn also contracted to a certain particular essence, no distinction can be admitted between essence and intrinsic existence in finite things, just as no distinction is to be admitted between them as they are in the mind of God. (Theol. I, 3, 9)”

Tommaso Campanella: Renaissance Pioneer of Modern Thought  (180-181)

I find this synthesis interesting, and in keeping with much of Graham’s retreating object essences. Campanella grants a full nobility of object essence outside of causes extrinsic to its concrete existence, and uses the suggestive metaphor of the reaching of concrete existence as the reaching of a limit, like the very end or terminus of a line. The accidents of its concrete existence (what Graham calls its qualities) are actually for Campanella the intersection of Being with Nonbeing, into what he calls a contraction. Concrete existence forms a horizon of this intersection, a particularization, to which the essence of something is not reduced. It is in terms that would be satisfying to Graham, in surplus to this horizon. The intrinsic essence of a man as it becomes concretized through the external causes on which it depends comes into contact with what it is not (not-man), is actually coming into contact with Nonbeing itself. And it is not just the essence that is particularized, but so is existence itself. There are almost three layers coming into contraction.

Aside from simply seeing some homologies in thought (many of these simply being a product of Campanella’s attempted synthesis of Scholastic debates), Graham’s surplus object essences and Campanella’s collision of Being with particularizing NonBeing, it was also his claim that there is such an object as the McCain Victory Coalition (something I still have problems with). But I wanted to investigate the degree to which Campanella would grant just such an object. Here I post Bonansea’s commentary on the status of contingent objects in Campanella’s thought (found in a chapter on the Primality of Potentia (power/capactity), something that Campanella reads as co-constitutive of all Being):

“Just as power is needed for acting, so it is needed for being (Met. II, 6, 5, 1). A being that always is has its power to be ab intrinseco, or else it would have to depend on another being for its existence. Such is the first being, whose power to be is its own esse. Beings that now are but at one time were not, i.e., contingent beings, have their power to be ab extrinseco. They are called possible insofar as they can be made through their causes, and actual inasmuch as they actually exist outside their causes. In the first case they have only an imperfect power to be, since this power rests with a cause outside of themselves; in the second case they have a perfect power to be within themselves, because they already exist (Met. II, 6, 5, 3).

One might think that in contingent beings the power to be precedes their own existence; in fact, many things are possible that do not exist yet. However, this is not true, for what is possible already has some sort of existence. It exists causally in its cause, virtually in the agent, potentially in its power, and really, existentially, in the thing itself when it is out of its own cause. No matter how a thing can be, somehow or other it already is. If it can be perfectly, it is perfect; if it can only be in an imperfect way, it is imperfect (Met. p.21a-21b). To state the something has the power to be and not assign to it any sort of being or existence is highly inconsistent. Power to be is therefore an “essentiaity” of being (Met. p. 21b). It is being itself insofar as it is or will be (Met. II, 6, 6, 7).

Tommaso Campanella: Renaissance Pioneer of Modern Thought (150) 

Not addressed are contingent objects which have not, and this will not now come into existence, such as the one Graham preposes (unless one imagines that McCain’s Victory Coalition could come into play in a next election). But this notion of the potentia/power of a thing that already exists in its causes (ab extrinseco), and in its intrinsic essence yet concretized, seems to be the very concepts that Graham is capitalizing on when asserting that such an object must in some sense exist. I offer from this excentric but beautiful thinker a pillar of conceptual support from across the centuries for Graham’s claim for the existence of non-concretized potential objects, at least as a rough point of affinity.

Inhuman Causation

To turn to a different question, in terms of my discoveries within the lecture on the subject of causation, Graham admits what to me is the rather profound difficulty to explain what causation is at the very level of the inanimate (where we assume the preponderance of causation in the Universe occurs). He is quite fair with this, never hiding this fault. But this is huge. I quote from the discussion that followed:

“It is not exactly clear to me how it happens in the case of inanimate objects. We can it better in the case of human things. We can ask ourselves why some metaphors work and others don’t. Um, why some jokes work and some others don’t. Um, its not entirely clear to me why in the case of certain physical interactions sometimes there is a causal effect, sometimes there is no causal effect when two things meet at all. Sometimes it goes in only one direction….I think what we do methodologically is that we first have to look at the human cases and see why the object is severed from it traits, first, and then we kind of retroactively try to think down to the inanimate level and see how it might work there. That’s why you have to start with aesthetics to get at causation.”

There are two problems that I see with this problem. It is good that Graham excavates the problem itself, trying to point out that for a Realist other supposed solutions to this problem, (how do the buried essences of things touch each other), may not really be solutions at all; something of the problem of cause may have been swept under the philosophical rug (and he provides an excellent critique of DeLanda’s dismissal of determination). Yet to offer a metaphysics of the world which does not even posses a strong, rough-sketch approach to animate interactions, while seeking to undermine the common materialist notions of causation seems to me to point to the insufficiency of one’s essential theory. Graham appears to be saying something like, If you are going to be a Realist of the sort that I claim you should be you cannot accept the generally accepted materialist notions of causation, but…I cannot really give you a coherent replacement description in its stead. One gets the sense that the appeal of the theory in poetic or narrow sense (as opposed to a systematic metaphysics of the world), is supposed to override the requirements of a robust explanatory power. It is something like, if you are going to be a Realist, causation between inanimate objects cannot at all happen like that, but I cannot really tell you how it does happen. This can be the beginning of a tremendous effort of new and creative thought (how to fashion a theory-coherent explanation for a huge portion of reality already well-described by other historical assumptions), or, as in often the case, when so much phenomena and event fall outside of a descriptive theory this is the sign of the death-throes of a theory, an Idealist inspired theory so strained one or more of its basic assumptions much be changed.

But more challenging that this is that the primary focus for Graham’s OOP is objects themselves, that is, objects without human beings. The inability to coherently and powerfully describe the conditions of interactions between two objects without any human beings around is at the very least highly problematic, if not fatally self-contradictory. The very methodology that Graham prescribes, and he is again a very forthright, is that we must start from the human and extrapolate down further and further as far as we can go. What would not make the conclusions we arrive at through such an extrapolation not  a completely human-centered, perhaps outright Idealist creation, I can’t tell. The entire construct is woven out of human experience as exemplar and ideal (hence his projection of rather psychological terms such as “allure” to describe what happens in causation). The consequence of this, and this is just my feeling, the only thing tha would save a non-human centered project result spun from human extrapolation is panpsychism itself, that is, the processes we human beings are carrying out when we actually make such a theory are fundamentally part of the processes that all things carry out (we are not fundamentally a kingdom within a kingdom).  Such a conclusion though would I think require a non-psychological, non-affectuating, non-quality ridden projection, a re-essentialization of just what it is that we are doing when forming this theory and all other things (which would unfortunately require that Graham abandon his otherwise worthy Husserlian/Cartesian/Idealist influence…it would not leave his theory standing).

All this being said, both the affinity of thought come from Tommaso Campanella’s home in a Naples prison, to the apparent road-block of a non-humanizing, human-originated theory of the object and causation, lead me to the anticipation of what Graham will come up with. This is the funny thing about metaphysics. The inherent contradictions in attempts to totalize, explain and describe everything are not simply the sign of its fundamental mistep as an activity, a kind of category error as Wittgenstein or Ryle might have it, but rather work much as the net in tennis, as an obstical to be artfully and gracefully overcome, like the imposed meter in a Alexandrian sonnet. If the obstical is not too steep, and the lines coherent enough, we gaze in wonder at the play.

Witnessing Ontologies of Difference

The Full Nelson of Plato

Larval Subjects posted what Levi calls “the Full Nelson” of Plato, the exemplary text from the Phaedo which has condemned all of Western Philosophy to a certain kind of choke hold that ever since we have been trying to get out of (to transmute Hegelian dialectics into a single trope we still carry with us). The fearsome conclusion, roughly as Plato wrote it reads,

And we recognize also that this absolute equality has only been known, and can only be known, through the medium of sight or touch, or of some other sense. And this I would affirm of all such conceptions (75d)

Socrates has turned the relative sameness between things (rocks, tables, doves) into a derivative of Sameness itself, some surpassive Sameness, which we must have had grasp of [lambano] previously, so as to be able to grasp these samenesses through our senses.

I suppose we all know this drill, but occasionally when we return to the Same, we detect something different, and for some reason reading Levi’s post elicited in me a slightly different understanding of the Same, even the Same in the Platonic chokehold sense.

I should say from the start that the associations that I have for the search of Ontologies of Difference, of pure-Difference, have always troubled me. It is not that they are wrongly motivated, but rather that they seemed far too in love with the soterial potential of essential binaries, the Being/Not-Being dichotomy of imagined to be transcendental Logic (even when renounced), a dichotomy which itself is derived from an over-simplified caricature of human experience: hence, the reduction of the subject qua Subject, and on overall disregard for the plentitude of Being. It seems that somewhere someone got it into their heads (and there are more than a few candidates), that homosexuals or blacks or women, or poor, that is those that fall to the margins of society cannot be fully affirmed, cannot have the full rights of Being, unless we find a Being that starts  with Difference. In such a reading which not only exposes the political use made of Ontologies in the past, a certain naturalization of subjugation, the category of Being seems to stand in for the State, and to reduced difference (skin color, gender, mental coherence, poverty) to merely a derivative of the State (as the Same Status), necessarily condemning many to the margins. Same became not only the political enemy, but the Ontological enemy. Difference must be celebrated, (and ontologically, logically posited) as essential and if possible, prior.

There is more than a grain of truth to this revisioning. That is, through our ontologizations we configure what is imaginable, we lay the land of concept so to speak. So a radical revisioning of what is ontologically beneath all of our legal and otherwise taken to be objective descriptions seems deeply in keeping with changing what is possible between us. Yet, there is something to this praise of difference for itself, the grand celebration of difference as the full right of Being which troubles me.

First of all, insofar as this re-ontologizing is a vast reclassification of particular people of difference, that is particular homosexuals, particular people of color or (trans)gender (the rights of which as different become projected onto the class of others like them that are deprived), there is an odd consumerist essentialization of difference for its own sake running through like a theme. “We chose and affirm our difference, as difference, because choice is what essentialized commercial subjects do, that is our right and duty, to choose.” As individual intellectuals celebrate their choices, and then align their differences to groups composed of difference, whose difference then becomes ontologized as a point of logic through elaborate strategies, it seems that dragged with it all is a fundamental, domesticating assumption, the subject of choice. I cannot say this for all celebrations of difference, and all searches to get out of Plato’s homoerotic chokehold, but this is a strong current in the movement.

Second of all, coming to think again on the nature of Plato’s Same, the enemy of pure, underived Difference, it seems that in some ways this Same has been misconstrued. I say this because for a very long time I think I misconstrued it. The problem is that in our binaries of logic we tend to flatten out what is a possibly a much more dynamic relation, almost always with a hope of transcending it. We draw the flat map to have mastery over the terrain, but as Wittgenstein tells us, the map is not the territory. (I would add, if we are to understand maps and territories, we have understand that while the map is not THE territory, it is A territory.)

A Minimization of Difference

Back to Levi’s post and my reaction to it. The trouble is that when we as postmoderns look at the argument that Plato puts forth, it does feel stultifying. (As Levi sums it up…)

Plato’s argument thus runs as follows. Equal-things always differ in some respect or capacity. Because equal-things always differ, we cannot arrive at a concept of equality-itself from equal-things. Therefore, our concept of equality-itself does not arise after our experience of equal-things, but must precede our experience of equal-things, for how could we recognize equal-things as equal-things- all of which differ both from themselves and others like them -if we did not first know equality-itself. Consequently, our concept of equality itself is prior to any of our dealings with the world.

For one thing, we don’t want our experiences here on this earth to be minimized in the least. This minimization begins a long process of minimizing one thing or another, one experience or another, one person or another, one peoples or another. We might be all for valuations and discriminations of better or worse, but something in us tells us that it should not start at the wholesale level, our experiences here are as real and significant as anything else. Secondly and relatedly, there is the terrible sense that if the reason why we able to recognize the similarity of things is simply because we have already grasped, before hand, a Grand and essential Sameness, this fails to capture the importance of differences to us. It is not just the samenesses that give us a love for living, but differences, perhaps even more so. How can all of these mundane distinctions merely be derivative? This carries with it the unsatisfactory notion that homosexuality is merely derivative of heterosexuality (with lexical irony), and that woman is derived from man, black a marring of white.

The Even Ground of Equilibrium

But, thinking on what it would mean for Sameness to be the origin, the great basin for Differences, I went back to Plato’s text, and looked at the word for “same” or “equal” (as it is translated). It is Ison, from which we get our words like isometric or isomorphic. What is immediately conjured up is mathematical equality, and this is generally the purity of Same towards which this binary heads. But contingently the LSJ dictionary had among any of its easily recognizable uses, one use which contained a subtle difference. It not only meant “equal” but “even”, as in can describe ground as “even or flat”, or the cadence of an army as marching in iso. As always is the case with the Greek, as much as we would really like to rationalize them into a near mathematical purity (given the tradition of their depiction), there is always a depth, a material depth to their conceptions that we miss. There is not a great difference between ison as “equal” and ison as “even”, but it a difference that opens up what Same is, not only for the Greeks, but for us as well.

I started picturing what it would be like to assume evenness of ground, or of step as the basin for difference, and what came to my mind is a perceptual experience which I rather naively assume to be shared with much of the animal kingdom. A predator, perhaps a mountain lion on its ledge overlooking a shallow gorge stares out at the field. There is an odd sort of evenness to it, as consciously it creates a field upon which differences register, there, a movement in the brush! Is this picture of consciousness, the idea that the evenness of the field in a certain sense foregrounds the possibility of difference really at the heart of the repression of woman and people of color? Is it that the difference of a deer’s movements are “derived” from the Same of the valley gorge, playing second fiddle? Is it that the evenness of perception has priority over the differences it enables, and if so, this hierarchy becomes the hierarchy of the subjugation? Well, in thinking about it, the shallow gorge is never completely flat, or even. It is already percolating with differences that the lion is registering (in my fantasy reenactment of an animal perception). The field of vision, as even, is in a sense is fecund with both samenesses and differences, both the flat and the eruption, seem to be found within a general sense of ison. Instead of thinking of a great abstraction through which our logical binary can cut, it seems better to think of ison as Equilibrium, and an experience of Equilibrium at that.

When imagining that a sense of equilibrium is prior to, or the condition of disturbance, it seems that something less of the conceptual either/or baggage of ontological abstraction is carried through. It is hard to imagine that the general sense of equilibrium what we as organisms have is foundational to a naturalized minimization of the differences between people. Instead, equilibrium becomes the experiential baseline (already which in differences) for which other differences, disequilibrium’s, disturbances, take on their significances.

In this embodied vision though we are immediately drawn into a Hegelian comprehension of the Negation of the Negation, that is, at bottom is an equilibrium process that encounters disturbances (negations, exceptions), when are then re-incorporated into a new and higher equilibrium. As someone like Judith Bulter complains, difference is always subsumed under a new Non-difference, (with the implicit, and one might say Capitalist duty to difference for the sake of difference). Everything goes flat again. We have the appeal of a process of consciousness which describes how we are ever disturbed, and find ways to repress or reintegrate these differences that may feel like something we naturally do, without the desirable conclusion of difference for its own sake.

Not a fan of the Hegelian appreciation of the Negation, and its attendant teleology of history, I wondered if there is another way to think about this equilibrium, this field of evenness, which is not so reductive. Well versed with Spinozist tendencies, my own appreciation for Plotinus’s NeoPlatonic revisioning of Platonic Forms (ultimately the Ison), I keep wondering if we are missing something in the Greek notion of Same, of Equal, of Even.

Cat or Tails

If I return to the mountain lion and explore this notion of Same as Equilibrium and continue with the imagination of the field of differences, this is what I come up with. The cat, gazing lazily over the gorge is in an unattuned state of perception, that is, their is a directedness upon the general equilibrium of the life-force below which does not form an object, and upon which eruptive events occur, the shake of breezes on brush, the shadow from a hawk above, the regularity of the brook running. Any of these can provide occasions for momentary attenuation which is then reintegrated in the general state of equilibrium. These disturbances, these eruptions of a difference that make difference, are not best seen as objects, per se, but effects of relation. Their perception does not make up the essence of a consciousness (it intentionality), but the entirety of the field, its equilibrium states and its dissonances, do.
Now there is a movement, a disturbance which heightens the cat. Ears move forward, eyes narrow, breathing slows.

The difference, the disturbance in the equilibrium is registered as “prey” (to be categorically crude about it). The cat’s involuntary motions already set up a new equilibrium, and then motions towards the animal below (those differences), on a vector, set up new equilibriums, and soon the animal is running, leaping, configuring itself as a mutuality within the field of the world that the deer, the shallow gorge, and it all share. The contemplative equilibrium, that of a passive witnessing of a certain retreating flatness, has been transformed into an equilibrium of subsuming movement. Capacity to act. To say that all of the differences (disturbances) are only derived from the Equilibrium is to be too lexical, too syllo-logical about it (and to misunderstand the origins of logic). They are the very substance of what Equilibrium is. They are its expression and power as equilibrium. It is that the mountain lion has appeal to (cognitively, structurally) the dynamic equilibrium of the world, that it is able to act more freely. It is not that all of the differences are merely collapsed into the banality of Same, but that rhythm operates through the recognition of the full reality of difference, as difference, a process which is includes the awareness of difference as dissonance. If one is to make the collapse of the nature of Being into that of the State that is implicit is so many criticism of ontologies of Same, it is not that marginality is a secondary effect of the State (or even that the State is established through the necessary suppression of difference through the production of marginality — still too optical, containing the notion of the “hidden”), but that the State in its very forth comingness, produces a maximalization of difference as the possibility of its very field, as perception. Instead of a Subject as Object-consciousness essentialization reading of Being (with its priority of absence or Nothingness which cloaks at the borders of an object, not to mention the optical sense that the “back” or the “inside” of the object is forever hidden from us), it is a Same as Dynamic Equilibrium, producing differences as concrete expressions of its power to act, maximizing those differences as it goes, creating the texture of its possibilities.

I think that this is what is behind the development of Plato’s “Full Nelson”. It is not so much a chokehold, as a hug (one might say if one were being humorous). The Same is not a flat, logical identity of things to be expressed merely as a binary, and not even a Progressive necessity of the reduction of differences, but rather it is best seen as dynamic equilibrium, equilibrium as maximum expressiveness, an expressiveness beyond all subsumption. Being as radiating differences and distinctions.

There comes to mind a word from Sophocles’ Ode to Time, found in the play Aias. Time is called “anaríthmêtos”. I have quoted the line before:

All things Great [makros] and Unmeasured [anaríthmêtos] Time (646)

The word is often translated “countless” or “immeasurable” (and makros often simply translated as “long”). Time moves for Sophocles with a kind of negative theology. It cannot be measured. A metron is Greek is not only a “measure” as in a measurement, but also a “measure” as in a meter of poetry. Sophocles in measured poetry is singing about the immeasurableness of Time, a pure and delightful contradiction. If we were to translated the metered verse of the Greek into our English emphasis on rhyme, Time moves un-rhymeably, as we rhyme about and with it. As we move away from Sophocles’s joy of the negation the chasm of the tragic abyss (something I think he eventually profoundly overcomes with the concept of Eleos  in the play “Philoctetes”), I think this is an essential aspect of the conception of Same which must be incorporated in our reading of the concept. Equilibrium for the Greeks, is musical. It is in the form of the poetic, as expression. If we are to recover from Plato’s Full-Nelson, it is from within this heritage of the Same that we must surely operate, the Same as maximalization of differences.

 

Again though, we really much retreat from any flat logic of binary differences, they are not rich enough to capture what happens in metered verse. (There is not only a genetic reason why Parmenides who is thought to have made a category mistake of flat logic wrote in meter.) And reaching out toward an ontology of pure difference does not cut it either (the dignity of persons of color or mixed gender does not rely upon that). It is rather the sense, the overriding and concrete sense that the entire world monistically is connected, that it rhymes, fundamentally with itself. All of our equilibriums, our transitions from contemplatively flat equilibriums to dynamic, poetic, bounding mountain-lion equilibriums of action, are reliant upon the appeal to a world that expresses itself as one vast equilibrium, an equilibrium of expression. The lion cannot run without fundamentally rhyming with the ground, the shallow gorge, and even the deer, each of them as expressions.

This is where I have long had a subtle misreading of the Sameness of Being which sterilely cut itself off from its step-brothers Differences. How is it that we are supposed to connect all of those differences (and those samenesses) back up to one Same? What an absurd question. It relies upon a notion of Same, of Ison, too flat, too drained white, not richly enough conceived as equilibrium as maximum expression. Much as which we have had the metaphysical danger of confusing the map with territory, we have flattened out the lines of what Ison means. A car idling in the drive is Ison, even. The same car accelerating through a canyon curve is Ison. The communication between the driver and the steering mechanism is Ison. But also, the tree that has fallen in the road also must be Ison, if we are to continue, and the fear of hitting a deer is Ison, or the speeding over the limit is Ison. That is, there is always a plentitude toward the rhyming which is appealable, the bath in which is rewarded with a constructability, the possibility of action.

Same as Dynamis

It is here that I think that Spinoza’s notion of Substance provides particular revelation. How is it that he connects the Substance up to all the diversity within it?, people want to ask, flattening out the map of dichotomies. How does he get to the Only thing to the Many things? This to mistake the question of the Same at the conceptual level. The Ison is fundamentally and unreservedly a dynamic equilibrium, a vast expression. As such it necessarily produces a maximalization of differences out of the pure plentitude of its even, equal, Isotic expression. To make anything less of these modal differences than the absolutely concrete actuality of Ison, to minimize even the tiniest of differences, is to minimize the reality of what Dynamic expressive Equilibrium is. The modes are Real because Being when it is “running” (and it is by it very nature always running), produces itself distinctly.

Returning to our mountain-lion, it is a music of Being which may attend to this subline of music (this equilibrium, the shallow gorge) in order to note this subline of music (deer-brush interactions, which serves as a dissonance), then composing its own gorge-lion subline of music, but none of this is done outside of a harmonization, that is the music, however faltering, always recaptures itself in a way that musicality itself becomes the tantamount supposition. The question for pure ontology of Difference, that is, the sour note that is granted full rights and dignity out of its very sourness, always must come back to the dynamics of tasting. This does not mean that all difference is simply collapsed into Same, made into an ephemera, an illusion (unless the illusion is that one can have a musical difference whose essence is non-musical, a freedom of choice or purchase which is utterly private and cut off from all interplay…the fantasy behind the hole in the Capitalist, Democratic Subject). Rather, as one acts as Substance, increasing one’s capacity to act in the world through the understanding of expressive causes, as Substance one increases the number of differences one creates, a potentiality of sournotes abound, which is nothing other than the creation of a perceptual field of distinguishings, a body of dissonances, the way that the hair stands up on your skin, bristling. The is the meaning of horror, and awe, which lies at the bottom of any ancient contemplation of Same, of Ison.

The project of Being, insofar as we can stipulate one, is the creation of as diverse a number of surfaces upon which the horror-awe can condense, the maximalization of intensity as expressive equilibrium, in which one’s own differences register as a plentitude. Is this pure Difference? I wouldn’t know. It is more an Ontology of Perceptibility, and I suggest that it is reached not through a primary optical metaphor of Objecthood (the hidden below the surface), the shadow the Citizen as Subject, but through constructive bodily assemblage, the way that we technologically construct the living soul through our cybernetic combinations with the material and para-material world, creating more and more surfaces upon which revelation (dissonances) may occur. The hairs stand up on end.
It is for this reason that I think it best to see our capacities to read and experience the world as ultimately mutually expressive. Action is not at a distance because distance implies primary opticality. Action is always constructive out of a plentitude that is present, which is ever appealed to making rich differences which make the difference. Ison as plentitude, and not its lack.

The unhappy consequence of this understanding of Being is that it does not give ontological voice to what is taken to be an essential human experience (people what to define the Human separation from Nature by it). We want an ontology which expresses our alienation, one that fundamentally buries out alienation in the very heart of Being. We do not want to be told that our sadnesses, our dislocations are only problems of perspective, that if simply change our view our haunting shadow of the Abyss will simply disappear. And part of this is not wanting to imagine that when a bird returns to its nest-tree only to find it destroyed or raided, it may feel alienated or dislocated, or even sorrowful, at least not in the category which we are able. Our ontologies must entrench the very sorrow of our condition, anchoring it, alleviating our need to look towards our relations (chosen and otherwise), as the causes of our experience. It is agreed that the great satisfaction of Existential Ontologies of Negation, is denied here. Ours is not a world condemned to a freedom of Nothingness in various guises. In replace of this solace is rather opened a continual path of construction. That is, at any moment in time we can begin construction of bodies in assemblage, which are either newly created, seemingly ex nihilist of a change idea or mind, or can be reconfigured more powerfully from already existing forms (the same change in two ways). At any moment one can begin anew a music through the musical recognition of what is already playing, edging on cacophony. One searches for the tilted Equilibrium and affectively combines with other affective bodies, anew. Repeating a sour note, attenuatedly, changes it, yet one can only repeat the note cognitively, in a change of power, through the understanding of its cause through a mutuality with the world, and with others. When one does so one changes the possibilities of difference, modal becomes nodal.

The finding of similiarites (of which metaphor is a exemplary) is ultimately not a referential process. The “same” of which the process participates is not a same of reference, a pointing back to, or over and above to some over-arching ground of Same. I’m not sure that even Plato thought of it in this way. This is a table not because there is a same of Table floating behind it. Rather, the finding of similarities is productive and best seen as bodily in construction, putting our bodies in consonance, such that it assumes the power of an equilibrium. Looking for the priority of this equilibrium, its foundation, is like looking for the workability of the experience of “it works”. But this does not make this Ur-Equilibrium simply the world of Becoming, for this flattens out the pure dimensionality of Being (a great fear of someone like Graham Harman). This dimensionality, a certain depth, is found in two ways. Locally its is found in the sheer dimensionality of bodies on combination, in the lived, affective transfers which express the power of communications, radiating out. The mountain lion-gorge-deer assemblage is dimensioned in locality. But it is also brought into depth through the nature of causal understanding itself. The very nature of increases in power through causal understandings, necessarily a minimal trinity where there was only a shallow binary before. The world becomes fleshed and immanent, through the power of causal understanding. This too is not a understanding of reference (Substance is not a “thing” or even a “state”), but of a constitutive experience flowing out of what Equilibrium must be.

Beneath any such appreciation of Equilibrium there is always the danger of having the concept collapse and become flat, that is the constant and ever-producing Equilibrium of Being can be read as a flat-line nullity. This the haunt of the Freudian Death Drive, the Shadow of the Pleasure Principle. A Pure and empty circulation, the inorganic draw beneath Pleasure pursuits. There is a tendency to see Pure Being as a negation of its expression. Our individual pleasures only collapse into a great machine of Death. This is merely, in my view, the gravitous compliment of too close a contact with the sacred (profane), as dissonance rises beyond the threshold of comprehension or even organization. The Death Drive circulation works as the center-of-gravity closure that allows dissonance affects to sink down and cohere, if only in a pure banality of effects, forever the attractor of Fascist, totalitarian binding. In this way a Spinozist conception of Substance (and of State) maintains as matter of its project ever the asethetic haunt of blind circulation, intensity turning down upon itself for the sake of its own rhyming. The music of Being turned into a dull ditty (the pains/pleasures of dissonance flashing as mere surface ephemera). The antedote to this is to realize its ever presence (as a function of lived thresholds of coherence, a tendency to urgently create bodies in vaccum), and to return a notion of Ison as normatively and ontologically the production of maximal difference, as a product of its fecundity. These ontological closures are mere cocoonings (sometimes brutal), for mixtures of potential action through dynamic Equilibrium.

The Harmanic Impassibilty of Monism…Spinoza Sails Through

Late last night Graham Harman posted his objections to monism, a Spectre that haunts his sleep. When I saw the post I was greatly relieved because I thought that finally I was to understand why Graham Harman’s Cartesian-constructed project of  post-humanism would not be better served by a turn to pre-Kantian Spinoza. It has seemed to me that this is really where Graham is heading, dragged by the specific current of his philosophical ambitions. But he has told us that he has great distain for the popularity of Spinoza who seemed to be hidden behind all kinds of postmodern metaphysical imaginations, he resists that robust, salty sea. Further, he has come down the Rhine River’s Idealist tributaries, he likes the beer-houses in local town ports where objects duck and hide, and thus has worked toward wending Intentional object-defined conceptions of consciousness, once solidly in the service of human-centric ontologies (Descartes, Husserl, and even Heidegger), out towards a post-human future. Can it be that all of the nobility of the object will be lost in a philosophical absorbtion into Deleuze and DeLandian “molten slag”? I mean where will the rights  of the object (formerly postulated as the rights of man), stand, if we cannot make objects themselves (and their consciousness partner) the ontological center of philosophy? I was excited because I felt I was really going to have an answer to the question, Why should the “hiddenness” of the object stop there, at the object, and not be read more fully in the hidden Immanence of Spinoza’s Substance, especially if we are going to propose a post-human philosophy that does not privilege the specific conceptual phenomenological reductions of human experience. Is it true that the Rhine only flows into the sea (and if in the sea, does that mean that all is lost, or are there some very good things one can do at sea, as any good maritime adventure knows)?

Here I’d like to take up in more detail the objections I raised in response. My comments there were quick-fire and I believe that restating them with greater context them will bring their argumentative force into even greater relief. Mostly at the time I simply was responding to the disappointment I felt that when Graham took on “monism” he seemed to be taking on everything but Spinoza. He somehow steered either right into the Scylla of undarable Parmenides (the only “real” monism he would grant), or the Charybdis of Spinoza influenced  post-structuralist thinking like Deleuze and DeLanda (D & G’s Thousand Plateaus is actually quite far from Spinoza, though he does get mentioned in interesting ways there, while his monographs on Spinoza are fairly close to text). Straight through, between these rocks, he never goes.

This may be because he is most familiar with both the pre-Socratic and the “molten slag” versions, and less with Spinoza himself, but I suggest, in that as Spinoza offered the most incisive correction of Descartes right at the root of Descartes human-centric theorizations, it is really to Spinoza, to Spinoza’s Monism, he should go. Here I’d like to present his points against monism, piece by piece, and put them in juxtaposition to Spinoza himself, and see how they stand.

1. There are two ancient monisms, that of Parmenides and that of Plotinus.

Graham counts between these only Parmenides’s “being is, non-being is not” the only real monism of the two. The Hen (One) of Plontinus is not a true monism in Graham’s mind because the Hen is only  the source of things. I’m not sure that I follow his thinking here. The way that Plontinus argues his point, the Hen radiates out like a light source, ebbing as it goes, the closer to the source (the greater the Nous union of things as one thing), the greater reality one has, but in many ways there is no Being other than this light, radiation. The relatively isolated parts of the world that appear to not be part of the One, indeed are part of the one, as its emanation. Their isolation from the One is really a kind of illusion of perspective (despite Graham’s insistence that they are not). That is, their existence is that of entirely being an emanation of the One, and as distinctly separate things, this separation is an expression of their non-Being. Thus, insofar as there is One thing, only one thing has being. Separations from the One are simply compositions of Being and Non-Being, a kind of relative, non-Noetic illusion. It is a real noetic difference, expresses as the nature of the radiation of the One, but in terms of Being itself, the separation is an illusion. Now is this a “monism”? Well it depends how you define monism. There is only one thing that has Being, and non-Being has no Being (it works like the outer reaches of the ebbing of the One). But Plotinus puts the One even above the Being/Non-Being distinction (this would already involve Nous), and he is inconsistent as to how he treats matter, either as a kind of substrate of absolute (metaphorical) darkness, or as an illusion of non-Noetic perception, for there is only the One. So let us say, a kind of monism, depending on how you qualify Being.

I go into the nature of Plotinus’s monism because it will be within the concept of a Degree of Being ontology that Spinoza will operate. I don’t know if he picked up the fundamental idea from Augustine who made strong use of it to defend against essential, heretical Dualisms, or from other Neo-Platonic sources, but Spinoza leverages his entire metaphysics upon a degree of Being (expressed as the power to act, the adequacy of idea, a degree of perfection) conception of modal expression. But he does this through an inclusion of the old-fashioned Parmenidean claim, “Being is, non-Being is not,” which in Spinoza reads as the illusion of privation and all determination is negation (letter 21), or “There is nothing positive in ideas on account of which they are called false” (E2p33), “falsity consists in the privation of knowledge…” (E2p35). It was Hegel who was struck by the power of the phrase “all determination is negation” as found in Spinoza’s letter 21, and it was he who took up the reality of the negation into a progressive, and human-centric concept of Consciousness, leaving behind the other half of Spinoza’s Plontinian proviso, that all privation is illusion. As I will mention later, Hegel feared that without a progressive march toward the powers of negation human beings simply would not be significant in their conscious powers when placed before the universe. The small compliment Spinoza pays to Man, that he is relevantly more active (and real) than tables and rocks and mice, was simply not enough. Man must be the center of the entire march of history’s progress. Failing this centricity and direction, it was for Hegel that all of Spinoza collapsed into an acosmism, all of creation being merely an illusion.

2. Levinas proposes a qualitiless “there is” (a version of monism perhaps).

“1940′s. Emmanuel Levinas. Insomnia (from which I now suffer) reveals that the world itself is an inescapable, rumbling il y a (“there is”) without any specific qualities.”

Well in terms of Spinoza, this is simply not the case. Right away Graham has passed from ancient monisms to postmodern vagaries of Being, steered from Parmenides into the whirling Abyss. While Spinoza’s Substance does not have “qualities” per se, it expresses itself in Attributes (of an infinite number), and through those Attributes, in an infinity of real modes. And all of these modes are fully actualized, concrete things (though like with Plotinus, their conceptual isolation from Substance which “exists and acts” through them, can bring on a perspective of relative non-Being). Even the remotest speck of particle in the furthest reaches of the universe has complete Being, but when considered apart from Substance and other modal compositions of cause, its Being is to a very small degree.

Graham’s objection to Levinas’s indeterminate “lump”: “For if the il y a is a single lump, how is it meaningful to say that the mind can break it into parts?”  is answered by Spinoza by saying that we can break the world into parts because it is expressed in the two Attributes of Thought and Extension, and the mind as a determined, thinking thing, following from that order, through the affects of its body/ideas, its imagination and rational thought can distinguish the determinations of Being.

3. Jean-Luc Nancy, “Corpus¨:  Reality itself is an indeterminate “whatever”…

Clearly these two matching points are Graham’s personal engagement with the outer-reaches of what really is not much of a monism at all. They are quite far from Spinoza, and even quite far from Deleuze’s imaginative refashioning of Spinoza. The incredible unexplainable, one might say non-Noetic, character of this thinking perhaps explains the great trepidation Graham holds for monism (and its swarthy postmodern cohorts).

4. There is an intellectual momentum against “objects”.

This may be in the circles that Graham has come from, clearly the moiling Continental waters of the Rhine dumping into the sea, but if we understand “intellectual” to include scientific pursuits, and even Analytical philosophy, the war against the “object” does not have quite the same character. As far as Spinoza goes, indeed there are objects, what he calls bodies, as Substance is expressed into two discernable Attributes, Thought and Extension. Every body has its parallel idea (and may have ideas which are expressions of its power to act). In a certain sense, because it is not clear at all that any human being can have a completely adequate idea, the adequate idea of any object whatsoever, even the idea of one’s own “object” (body) is actually to some degree hidden from the mind of human beings, one might say that the idea of the object retreats (this proposes a heretofore unmentioned close parallel perhaps to Graham’s hidden object, in a different systematic context).

5. The world is either homogeneous or it is heterogeneous, you can’t have both.

Because this is the most substantial of Graham’s claims against monism, at least insofar as they can be directed against Spinoza, his point is worth quoting in full:

*If the world is a whole, then either it is utterly homogenous, or it is not. If yes, then particular things will tend to be viewed as delusions.

*If the world is *not* viewed as homogeneous, then it must consist of various zones that differ from each other in some way. These can either be called individual objects, or something pre-individual. If they are objects, then my point has been conceded and monism has been rejected.

There are two ways that Spinoza counters this emphatic either/or. The first is that there is both a homogeneity and a heterogeneity built into the expression of Substance. (Remember, Substance does not float out there beyond actuality for Spinoza, but “exists and acts” modally.) Spinoza argues that Substance is expressed in only two Attributes that the human Mind can comprehend, as mentioned, Thought and Extension. In the hands of the modern Analytic philosopher Donald Davidson, who professes a monism of Concept Dualism (Anomalous Monism) these are simply the two concepts of the physical and the mental. They are not reducible to each other, and there is no causation between the one and the other. Spinoza tells us that there is a fundamental homogeneity between Attributes (understanding the actual number of these to be infinite), and that is “the order and connection” of their expression (E2p7). In the case of the two Attributes we can perceive, things and ideas are expressed in parallel. This is a fundamental homogenity in the expression of Substance, it is the same across  Attributes. But, this Attributive expression is distinct in the very differences of the Attributes themselves, that is, the conceptual order of the mental, descriptions of thoughts, beliefs, ideas, is different from the descriptions of objects, things, bodies. And even greater than this, Substance expresses itself in the real determinations of an infinity of modes, granting full reality to any aspect of existence, no matter who flimsy you want to make it. 

6. There is a tendency these days to find some comtemporary philosopher who tries to have it both ways.

This is an odd sounding point. I assume that he is referring to the dissatisfactory “molten slag,” ‘intensity” versions he has already dismissed. But one wonders if merely by trying to solve Graham’s proposed dilemma disqualifies the solution? It seems to me that it is not some contemporary philosopher who solved this cake and eat-it-too  difficulty of monism, but Spinoza himself, who closed the Idealist, human-centered breach right after Descartes opened it. There are of course many contemporary, creative things being done with Spinoza, and I can see why some of them collapse in a dissatisfying way for Graham, but these are not properly Spinoza’s thought. (I should add as well, that the monist Analytic philosopher Davidson, who has some largely unstated metaphysical differences with Spinoza, also seem to evade both horns of Graham’s impossibility: there is one kind of thing: matter; and two different fundamentally conceptual kinds of ways of describing it, concepts that are a product of our evolution). 

7. The status of pre-individuals needs to be explained.

Another point worth quoting in full:

*But the status of these pre-individuals needs to be further explained. Either they are fully deployed in their mutual relations, or they hold something in reserve that is non-relational. If the latter, then they are objects and you’re simply trying to avoid using the name; my point has been conceded.

As Spinoza answers this question of the pre-individual, if I read him correctly, the essence of any modal expression already is in Substance (the Mind of God), but has not necessarily come into existence through the mutuality of (horizontal, transitive) modal causes (causes that will be extrinsic to it). To qualify this existence in the Mind of God sub specie aeternitas  as a kind of “reserve,” I’m not sure what this means, other than to say as Spinoza does, that God is the efficient cause of the essence of things and not just their existence. In a sense, the “reserve” is the immanent, causal power of Substance itself.

But if they are fully exhausted by their mutual relations, then there are really no firewalls of any sort between the various zones of this “pre-individual” kingdom, and you end up with monism. You can’t have an intermediate position.

Spinoza’s ends up with monism. Individuals, objects, thoughts, ideas, relations, each thing, is explained by (which means understood through) both a reference to horizontal transitive causation and Substance’s immanent causation.

8. Latour holds something that might appear to be an intermediate position.

As Graham explains, this appearance is undone by the fact that any change produces a change in object:

Even though Latour is a relationist, his actors are always trapped in a specific set of relations, here and now. A thing cannot change even the least important of its relations even one iota and still remain the same thing.

Now the first aspect is the very same thing for Spinoza’s monism. Each modal expression is (well, not trapped), but determined, expressed, in a very specific set of relations. This determination is both a delineation and an expression of its power. There is not any vagary to this in the least. The question as to whether something remains the same thing or not in Spinoza is an open one. There is the theoretical framework though to argue that Latour’s position is tenable. Spinoza defines a body as a ratio of moving parts that stay in communication with each other, expressing an essence (conatus). The sameness of an object is a factor of both this ratio and the communication (not very Latourian at face value, though one could call this communication a network). The status of this ratio is indeterminate in Spinoza, for ultimately there is only one thing that persists and that is Substance (so any ratio of parts in communication is part of a far greater ratio 0f parts in communication). The ratio of “same” is both real (that is determined and reference-able), but ultimately is it explainable in term of other parts. In this way perhaps (and others) Spinoza is able to achieve something Latour’s occasionalism cannot.

9. Graham’s Model involves an intolerable retreat of every object  into darkness.

The problem with my model, of course, is that with so many different entities withdrawing from each other into an apparently non-relational darkness, one wonders why anything happens at all. But I spend lots of time trying to solve this problem- the problem seems to me inevitable.

I appreciate Graham’s candidness here. But to my ear this is a huge problem for a model that wants to explain the nature of reality. If you can’t explain why anything happens at all, the entire explanatory apparatus of your model is paralyzed. Instead one is left with something perhaps more poetic and epiphanic, than explanatory. In confessing that it is inevitable, one assumes he means of his philosophical position, and perhaps this why he is haunted by monism, the instinctive appeal that if he is ever going to get his cut-off, darkness imploding objects to go anywhere, and do anything, for any reason, he has to fundamentally connect them.

For Spinoza, as I wrote in my response to Graham, “This is not a problem at all…for the change between concrete states is a function of the conatus of each essence striving to persist, the contingency of modal transitive causes, and the degree of power which is expressive of its adequacy of ideas. Nothing is in isolation of anything else, events, objects, bodies, thoughts, emotions are understood through the knowledge through their causes, so the path towards more powerful change is always open, ready to be caused.” What it comes down to is the power and real freedom of a good, rational explanation of events, understood as a linking action, or the consideration of explanation as some kind of contingency, some bubbling up of events.

10. Monism is the cheap way out.

This is how Graham expresses the dodging the snatch-and-run  of monims, (something to be contrasted with his very expensive inability to explain why anything happens at all):

Monism, in short, is a cheap way of trying to avoid the communication problem that may be the central paradox of philosophy: ” a thing is itself, yet it is also another insofar as it affects others and becomes something other.” Monism is a way of saying “it’s a false problem; everything’s already interconnected anyway, so why do you artificially divide it?”

I still can’t tell if when Graham mentions “monism” he is thinking of the most vague of all Being declarations, like “there is something there” or of a particularly rigorous monism. But if we take up his objection, I would tell him that Spinoza’s philosophy would suggest that the path forward is not just that a thing becomes “something other” when it effects others, but that in understanding how it combines with others, that it cybernetically becomes something more, when it effects others (or they affect it), the thing becomes more powerful and free. This change is a real, ontological change, and it is achieved through explanation. Spinoza’s monism is a far cry from some kind of loving, “Hey man, we are all one big piece of Somethin’,” rather it provides the conceptual framework for a cartography of Being, inviting the very particular study of the exact ways in which determinatively we are connected (and determinatively not connected). Only by understanding your causes do you leverage yourself into combination with more things, actively. It is learning to cut so as to not dull your knife, at the joints of Being, so to speak (as the Daoist said, and then Lacan). 

I appreciate Graham’s thoughts on monism, and he has expressed in the past fundamental resistance to Spinoza’s thinking. There may be grounds for his disfavor, but none of them fall on his so-far-expressed  objections to monism. In fact, by my lights, Spinoza slips right through the two fearsome dangers that he poses on each side of the monist tendency, and he does so with Plontinian aplumb, that swashbuckler! Oh, Spinoza, the Odysseus of Being, polútropos ! Perhaps he has never been better described. Now only if I write the Achilles of Being, that is really what I will someday do.

[I thought I would return to the vital question of Hegel's accusation of Spinoza's acosmism, but the post did not lead that way, as I have put forward before, following Gatens and Lloyd, Hegel's accusation stems from his only thinking of Spinoza vertically, and failing to understand the full horizontal reality of the modes for Spinoza: determinations by which God "exists and acts". I bring something of this argument to bear in my earlier post Harman Brings Central Clarity to the Issue (wink, nod), coupled with a nice diagram]

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