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Is the Medium the Message? Avatar’s Avatar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Žižek Asks “What is Spinoza?”: Tarrying With a Negative

Where Spinoza Diverts From History

Through some recent cursory discussion in which arose the comparison between Lacan’s analytic three realms of Imaginary, Symbolic, Real and Spinoza three knowledges (Imaginary, Rational and Intutional) a very important homology upon which their differences are perhaps best spelled out, the subject of Žižek’s take on Spinoza reoccurred to me. I had encountered it a few times before, and as always with his subversive simplifications I took pleasure in what he had to say…but lasting with a kernel of firm resistance. Instead of exploring the genetic relationship between Lacan and Spinoza there is the sense that Žižek is performing a landscape of historical necessity, contorting Spinoza’s theory in a kind of Procrustean vision which reduces him to what history made of him in the developments of German Idealism, in particular under the controversy of Panthesism of that Age. What is lost to us in such a movement of Spirit is both the social-political determinations which fueled the German Ideal reformulation of Spinoza – perhaps penult in the figure of Schelling (including our loss of Heine) – but more importantly Spinoza himself. And with the loss of Spinoza, is lost the potentiality of his claims and their own historical expressions of proto-modern forms of the Dutch Republic. Žižek ensures that Spinoza cannot come to us without the mediation of German Idealism. It is impossible. There can be no importation of the past along another nexus.

This made me wish I had engaged Žižek’s thoughts on Spinoza before, so I take this chance to take up some aspects of his inscription upon Spinoza, in a kind of running commentary. Hopefully this will direct others to his succinct and interesting exposition, but also will expand Spinoza out from such a titan’s bed. My mode of engagement is not academic. I simply pass to his excellent essay and extract the relevant and interesting passages, quote whole from them, breaking them into points that mostly flow into each other, and comment with some length in much the same way I would as my mind runs when I read them. You can simply skip my comments and read the numbered points and get a pretty good sense of where Žižek is coming from (and one can always return to the essay itself). I interpose several linked reference to past posts in case others would like to hyperlink around these arguments, changing frames as they wish.

The Denial of the Mediator

From Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and… Badiou!

1. So what is Spinoza? He is effectively the philosopher of Substance, and at a precise historical moment: AFTER Descartes. For that reason, he is able to draw all (unexpected, for most of us) consequences from it.

I certainly agree with Žižek that historically configuring Spinoza as AFTER Descartes is quite significant, I make something of a sociologically argument for the importance of Spinoza leveraged precisely on this fact, but Žižek has something important also in mind here. Spinoza is not only after Descartes, he is BEFORE Kant and then Hegel. He forms part of a progression, a series, which terminates in Hegel. Whereas I would argue that Spinoza’s Non-Representational, degree-of-Being view of knowledge was the path not taken (exposing the raw intellect of potential in early Dutch experimentation with Capitalism, Democracy and Mechanism), Žižek necessarily reads him as part of a march towards an ultimate totalization which finds its completion in Hegel. Following this trajectory requires that we take the Idealist’s approach which moves from Spinoza to Kant to Schelling and then Hegel, and reduce Spinoza’s philosophy to merely being a philosophy of Substance. There is something to Spinoza’s Substance, but it is not what German Idealism would like to make of it.

2. Substance means, first of all, that there is no mediation between the attributes: each attribute (thoughts, bodies…) is infinite in itself, it has no outer limit where it would touch another attribute – “substance” is the very name for this absolutely neutral medium of the multitude of attributes. This lack of mediation is the same as the lack of subjectivity, because subject IS such a mediation: it ex-sists in/through what Deleuze, in The Logic of Sense, called the “dark precursor,” the mediator between the two different series, the point of suture between them. So what is missing in Spinoza is the elementary “twist” of dialectical inversion which characterizes negativity, the inversion by means of which the very renunciation to desire turns into desire of renunciation, etc.

I do not think that Deleuze’s dark precursor is identical to the “subject”. In fact there are two levels at which I would resist Žižek’s easy slide. Firstly there is the conflation between “subject” and “subjectivity” and this is unwarranted. Caroline Williams delivered a nice Althusserian-Spinozist paper that can be accessed here: Subjectless Subjectivity, A Geography of Subject: Beyond Objectology. As Williams forwards, it should be argued indeed that there is subjectivity in Spinoza, without the “subject” proper. Secondly, Deleuze’s dark precursor is not in any sense a negation. Rhetorically it does invoke something of Schelling’s Dark God ungrund of the coming subjective reflexivity, but it is itself a surplus without reflection:

“In fact, it is not by poverty of its vocabulary that language invents the form in which it plays the role of dark precursor, but by its excess, by its most positive syntactic and semantic power. In playing this role it differentiates the differences between different things spoken of, relating these immediately to one another in a series which it causes to resonate.”

Difference and Repetition

Žižek is trying to wedge in the truth of his dialectical inversion, and where it does not fit it is merely coming (if history gives it enough time). Who can blame him, but we must keep track of such wedgings. Not every meditation is an inversion (it might very well be a “fold”) and not every mediation is a negation. In any case though, I would be glad to accept that Spinoza contains neither “Subject” nor “dark precursor”(or its Schelling imposition), and this is due to the unmediated nature of Substance’s expression. Substance both exists and acts via the modes (E3p6dem).

3. What is unthinkable for him is what Freud called “death drive”: the idea that conatus is based on a fundamental act of self-sabotaging. Spinoza, with his assertion of conatus, of every entity’s striving to persist and strengthen its being and, in this way, striving for happiness, remains within the Aristotelian frame of what a good life is – what is outside his scope is the what Kant calls “categorical imperative,” an unconditional thrust that parasitizes upon a human subject without any regard for its well-being, “beyond the pleasure-principle,” and that, for Lacan, is the name of desire at its purest.

This also is something I affirm, and have written on. There is a primary if not absolute tension between Freud’s Death Drive or his splitting of the drives, and Spinoza’s unitary Pleasure Principle conatus (Spinoza performs the differentiation of destruction on another, and in fact multiple levels). I entertain the differences between Freud and Spinoza here, in the latter part of the article: The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center. As I try to point out, there is a conflation between two things in Freud’s pursuit of this drive: the search for an explanation for the repetition of trauma (recursive unhappy behavior), and the presence of conscious/unconscious morbid thoughts such as “I want to die”, neither of which require the positing of an entirely different metaphysical drive.

It is good as well that Žižek organizes the contrast between Spinoza’s conatus and Freud’s Death Drive as the problem of self-sabotage. This is because it allows us to potentially trace how Spinoza unhinges the explanatory need for such drive in his subversion of the “self” as it assumed. This is to say, ultimately Spinoza deprives any self of ontological ground upon which any then “sabotage” can be grafted or posited. There indeed are selves, just as there are objects (in fact there are just as many one could say), but these selves are ever in boundary-smearing expansions and contractions, pulled in tides across their horizons. And pleasure/power is the mode by which these permutations appear to accrue and disperse.

Where is the Center of the Affects?

4. What the “imitation of affects” introduces is the notion of trans-individual circulation and communication: as Deleuze later developed in a Spinozian vein, affects are not something that belongs to a subject and is then passed over to another subject; affects function at the pre-individual level, as free-floating intensities which belong to no one and circulate at a level “beneath” intersubjectivity. This is what is so new about imitatio afecti: the idea that affects circulate DIRECTLY, as what psychoanalysis calls “partial objects.”

Here Žižek brings to the fore a very important feature of Spinoza. It is in fact the one feature that will undermine the singular framing he is trying to provide, how Substance has to be mediated by a negating Subject. Because Spinoza’s is a subjectivity without a subject, and because his ontology of modes is cross-tidal, the looked-for subject never appears. This not to say that it is denied, rather, it simply makes no appearance because it is unnecessary in the surplus of Spinoza’s model. Without the Subject Žižek’s progression through to German Idealism’s preoccupation with an optics of reflection or construction falls off its rails…reifying as they in their variety are want to do, imaginary reflections of images in mirrors, in camera obscura devices, in paintings of linear perspective, unto a logic of binary negating ab-straction. Indeed it is through the “trans-individual” communication of affects, the autonomy of affects we want to say, that we trace out the cross-currents that both work to vectorially focus themselves in persons, selves, identities, bodies of coherence, but also tear at these the same, communicating across their parts in such a way that there are gravities which pull at the joints of any anatomy. This implicit cross-directionality in Spinoza I have written on under the conceptual auspice of “Conjoined Semiosis”: Spinoza’s Notion of Inside and Outside: What is a Passion?, The Necessary Intersections of the Human Body: Spinoza, Conjoined Semiosis: A “Nerve Language” of Bodies and The “ens reale” and the “ens rationis”: Spelling Out Differences. But aside from the details of an argument of Conjoined Semiosis, it is in the general sense the veritably the trans-individual nature of the imitation of the affects which undercuts the centrality of the subject itself, and eventually atrophies its need. Interestingly, and with some connection to Lacan’s imaginary stage of identification, the imitatio affecti are the congealing of essential rational presuppositions (we must see the world as reflected by others who are both like us, and are in the same world) which help center our experiences along specific gravities; but these condensations are not reducible to strict abstract binaries  of terms Same and Different,  as they inhabit and inform the co-ordination of the entire animal and biotic world where no Symbolic “subject” gains any footing even for the staunchest Idealist. (On the extrapolations of the imitation of the affects and it rational centering: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV and the concept of an Exowelt.) Yet the autonomy of these affects, the way that non-human effects communicate themselves across those similarities, is the very thing that fuses the human and the non-human together, smearing out the anthropocentric center of human-oriented, Idealist preoccupation. As Žižek rightly stresses, these forces are beneath subjectivity. What he does not fully recognize is the sufficiency of this “beneath” in terms of explanation. One should add, these effects are not “partial objects” as they pervade the biotic world and inhabit a great variety of non-representational states, at best they are semiotic pieces.

5. The next philosophical consequence is the thorough rejection of negativity: each entity strives towards its full actualization – every obstacle comes from outside. In short, since every entity endeavors to persist in its own being, nothing can be destroyed from within, for all change must come from without.

Inside/Outside and the Vectors of Determination

This is an important point, and one can certainly see how Žižek arrives at this interpretation. Spinoza is quite forceful at times that there is only a physics in which things are composed in strict inside/outside determinations. And objects persists through some sort of momentum or conatus – like a baseball thrown through a vacuum in space – striving until some External event violently interacts with its internal circulation, eventually breaking apart its communications of parts which had existed in an otherwise harmonious relation. This is certainly in some sense the picture in Spinoza, and from it we gain his very strong cybernetic interpretation of the improvements of human knowledge and autonomy. We are to look within and order our informational house in much the same way that in cybernetic theory a system works back towards a homeostasis, and does so through the filtering of external (and thus threatening) noise. But Spinoza’s view is not comprehensively cybernetic. (I discuss the relationship between Spinoza’s Cybernetic and Chaoplexic features in Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?.) One of the reasons for this is that ultimately any cognitive inside/outside boundary – and thus any ontological grounding of the “subject” proper – is illusionary, or a kind of perspective for Spinoza. Spinoza’s readings of inside persistence and external obstacle are meant to be understood as something like: “insofar as something is taken in abstraction to be apart from its environment, and insofar as it is abstracted in an act of imagination from Substance and pictured as a thing unto itself, then…”. But this inside/outside dichotomy of external destruction is not the foundation upon which the negative is foreclosed. Instead really the negation which draws a boundary between one interiority and an external force (an imaginary exclusion), is not just a distinctness which separates, but a distinctness which joins the inside and outside in a mutuality. Ultimately because all interactions participate in each other, both at the level of Substance’s expression, but also at the epistemic mutuality of essence in a shared course, inside and outside are not final determinants. (An provisional development of this line of thinking is found here, in a study of the metaphysical consequences of Spinoza’s letter to Balling: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination ; Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination.)

This brings Žižek’s invocation of a fairly common reading of Spinoza that “all change must come from without” under some radical revision. Where the change comes from ultimately is Substance’s own expression under which inside and outside attribution has no final anchor. Further, a study of Spinoza’s theory of affects, specifically his General Definition of the Affects, we see that inside and outside is no longer the focus of the diagnosis. All passions are indeed causal relations of passivity to events external to the object, registered as a lack of self-determination (which all things but Substance share), but these are auto-affirmations of its own power to exist, expressed in the degree of adequacy of one’s own ideas. This is central to Spinoza’s idea of freedom. The change in power, a loss of a degree of being, is constituted by a kind, a quality of self-affirmation which is not a reflexivity, a mental (or I would say informational, organizational) affirmation of the physical capacity to be. Locating this change strictly outside of the internal closure of affirmation simply doesn’t hold, and this is because the inside/outside boundary is not determinative. I do not blame Žižek for simplifying the Spinoza model in the way that he does, because Spinoza at times truly speaks in that way and it is common to read in him this fashion, but his physics of preservation is part of a larger metaphysical organization in which internal ordering and external participation preside.

6. What Spinoza excludes with his rejection of negativity is the very symbolic order, since, as we have learned already from Saussure, the minimal definition of the symbolic order is that every identity is reducible to a bundle (faisceau – the same root as in Fascism!) of differences: the identity of signifier resides solely in its difference(s) from other signifier(s).

This is interesting. Žižek appeals to Saussure’s binding of signifiers (upon which he wishes to leverage his Master Signifier) to show how any ultimate inside/outside diagnosis of change requires a negating Symbolic Realm, the realm in which the “subject” finds its proper place. Žižek’s reasoning is a little circular and shifting here. Identify requires a “bundle” and a “bundle” requires a negation. Spinoza refuses a negation, therefore he refuses a “bundle” view of differences. What he does not consider is the way in which Spinoza indeed allows a bundles of differences that make an “internal” difference, but then mitigates any such reading through internal transformations of being (General Definition of Affects) and a mutuality of inside/outside participations. Bundles are transpierced by other bundles, so to speak. It certainly is true that there is no “symbolic order” as Žižek conceives it in Spinoza, but there are semiotic powers of organization in its stead. It is perhaps symptomatic that Žižek has moved from one simplified notion of Inside and Outside (Spinoza’s proposed physics) to another (Saussure’s linguistics).

7. What this amounts to is that the absence can exert a positive causality – only within a symbolic universe is- the fact that the dog did not bark an event… This is what Spinoza wants to dispense with – all that he admits is a purely positive network of causes-effects in which by definition an absence cannot play any positive role.

Here is where we can really almost leave philosophy behind and simply think about the world itself. Unless we are speaking of a highly refined, and circularly defined concept of “event”, it simply is not true that the absence of some event can only have a positive (and here I read positive as promotional and determinative) role in making sense of the world. Žižek simply wants this to be the case, that “subject” and “absence” and “negation” and “symbolic” and “signifier” all interlock to provide a framework for reading the world and others. Unless you already assume the sufficiency of such a framework, one has to even ask how does such a view get off the ground? The way that it gets off the ground is from starting one’s analysis with the Idealist binary abstractions of Being and Non-Being or Subject and Object. But the world does not start there. One need only begin with another model, perhaps that of music, to grasp how significantly an “absence” can be a presence without dissolving into abstractions of Being and its negation. Even a child’s tune played on the piano can show how an anticipated note, when not played, produces a determinative effect (pleasure, discordance, etc), without its resolution into a full “subject” operation. A semiotic contrapuntal view of the world as inter-rhythmed, for instance such as that offered by Biosemiosis,  is one in which anticipated absences play a heavy, constitutive role. As I have pointed out before under the question of Spinoza’s supervention of the Death Drive, experiments with Slime Mold intelligence show that the presence or absence of stimulate become determinants of intellect action, such that absences work as much as “events” as presences do (The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center). Unless one wants to confer to Slime Mold’s “subject” status, the theory and our world conflict. I might add, as a moment of obvious recognition, my dog quite easily reads my failure to feed her at the right time of the day as an “event”, as well as my failure to become alarmed at a sound outside the house.

8. Or, to put it in yet another way: Spinoza is not ready to admit into the order of ontology what he himself, in his critique of the anthropomorphic notion of god, describes as a false notion which just fills in the lacunae in our knowledge – say, an object which, in its very positive existence, just gives body to a lack. For him, any negativity is “imaginary,” the result of our anthropomorphic limited false knowledge which fails to grasp the actual causal chain – what remains outside his scope is a notion of negativity which would be precisely obfuscated by our imaginary (mis)cognition. While the imaginary (mis)cognition is, of course, focused on lacks, these are always lacks with regard to some positive measure (from our imperfection with regard to god, to our incomplete knowledge of nature); what eludes it is a POSITIVE notion of lack, a “generative” absence.

This is a nice final point, and we see where Žižek and Spinoza are at greatest friction. Žižek needs the negation to be the foundation of the ethical itself, whereas Spinoza writes an entire Ethics which requires nothing of the negation as an ontological force. What Žižek finds as contradictory in Spinoza is that the imaginary projections of anthropomorphic imaginary relations which are supposed to plug-up in the gap of our knowledge are not appreciated for what they are, fill-ins for a gash in the ontological itself. Indeed the heart-felt link between the subject and negation that Žižek requires so as to ladder himself up onto Kantian grounds, is one that cannot imagine an ethical position without the gash in the world. It is telling that the musicality of life, the contrapuntal semiotic cohesion between the biotic and the abiotic, the role of tempo and constructive absences, cannot be grasped by Žižek’s Lacanian hands. Žižek must lead us to what Spinoza called and denied “a kingdom within a kingdom”. The reason why imaginary relations are not simply stucco for the hole in the humanist wall, meant to seal out the traumatizing Real that leaks in, is that the human itself is already participant and not cut off. To put it one way, in the failure to grasp “the actual causal chain” (imagined by Žižek as a failure of Representation) mis-cognitions through both the pursuits of pleasure and affirmation of power, participate in a mutuality of causal connection. Even the most imaginary relation in Spinoza is already a partially true one. There is no cut-off from the thing-in-itself. It is not a case of vats and brains. To use an example Spinoza takes from Descartes, we may imagine that the Sun is 200 ft away (and represent it as such), but this expresses a true relation of participation involving both the Sun and our Body, and this is to some degree participant in the true. The problematic is not how to connect the cut-off interior to an Ideal exterior, but how to improve these already existing connections and participations. Imaginary effects as powers of connection are an ethical connection in which we are already participant. Ethics runs itself right down to the fibers of existence. The lacks of mis-cognition are relatives of power and action, degrees of possible performance, and not categorical negations and their completion. And key to this is appreciating the contrapuntal nature of absences. I discuss this in the context of Hoffmeyer’s Code Duality in Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza. I owe Hoffmeyer’s theory a proper critique which I have worked on but not presented, but truly it is that Spinoza’s ethical subjectivity is woven out of the very semiotic material of both the biotic and abiotic world. It requires no subject proper. Žižek is correct in centering Spinoza against any Kantian subject commandment, but he is incorrect (or deficient) in reducing Spinoza’s position to this lack of Kantianism, something he accomplishes by amputating the inside/outside diagnostic from the living body of Spinoza’s full metaphysical position, and then importing the inside/outside distinction to his own Saussurian conclusion.

A Dynasty of Kings: The Insertion of Negation

Largely the progression that Žižek wants to enable is one founded upon the Idealist Representational view of knowledge, coupled with the Christianized centrality of the “subject” (as both soul and legal figure). Žižek wants there to be a holy trinity of Spinoza-Kant-Hegel upon which he can graft a further Idealist trinity of Deleuze-Derrida-Lacan. Aside from the logic of a kind of royal dynasty, subsumption of all philosophical enterprises under the notion that a trio of Kings must mythically occupy the throne in their seasonal turn, we recognize that this genealogy of Kings is accomplished with a severe descriptive restriction upon what Spinoza claimed. Indeed Žižek is right to demarcate all the ways in which Spinoza is not Kant and not Hegel, but pared from Spinoza are all the complex explanatory frameworks that enable him to stake out his non-Idealist alterity. In a sense we cannot begrudge Žižek’s attempted synthesis of the alien Spinoza to his own philosophical position (perhaps not unlike Kreon’s desire to subsume the house of Oedipus unto the State). Repeating the traumas of a State performance of course does not do the job any better.

There is another order in which I don’t understand the Lacanian-Marxist preoccupation with the negation. The fundamental and ontological structuring of the “object” and lack as the condition of desire and subject itself is an instantiation of a logic of Capitalism. It is the proposition that metaphysically our relations to the world can be none other than that of a kind of gap-chasing and fundamental alienation, an alienation which one could argue is has been historically produced. I simply do not understand how those politically minded against alienation would take as firm a hold as possible to a metaphysics of alienation, except in the most masochistic of senses.

The “heart” of Neo-Liberalism, blah, blah, blah

While I try to shrug off all this Neo-liberalism this, and Neo-liberalism that, as other blogsters are using fancy acronyms for Neo-liberalism as if they are busy making entries in the Merck manual, this one passage of qualifications and analogies from the Neo-liberal hating Levi Bryant I find interesting (yes, he has equated Neo-liberalism with Nazism recently):

While I do not disagree with Rowan William’s thesis that the picture of the human as an intrinsically self-seeking creature constitutes a false anthropology, I have noticed that there is a tendency to treat the core of neo-liberal capitalist ideology as consisting almost entirely of this false anthropology. What is missing in this conception of neo-liberal ideology is the legal and normative framework that underlies this way of relating to the world and others. On the one hand, in order for neo-liberal capitalist ideology to get off the ground it requires what what might be called a “pure subject” or a “subject-without-qualities”, not unlike Descartes’ cogito or Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception. At the heart of neo-liberal capitalist ideology (NLCI) is not so much a subject pursuing self-interest, as a legal subject functioning as the substrate of property, commercial obligations and debts, and divorced from social context and conditions of production.

One can see right away from the bolded material that analogies abound. Levi objects to an anthropological view being read as the core of Neo-liberalism, because there is a framework (legal normative) in which (?) a substrate operates (legal subject) onto which various formal economic relations adhere.  What Levi denies, in something beyond a point of emphasis, is that the “heart” or the “core” of Neo-liberalism is the self-interested subject. Instead it is a mere formalism of “subject” and its laws. To put it briefly, it’s not the self-seeking, self-interested desiring-subject, it’s the structured-subject (legally and philosophically) that is the troublesome kernel of Neo-liberalism. Let’s leave aside the kind of rhetorical slippage between philosophical “subject” and legal “subject” here, is it really correct to say that THIS is the core/heart of Neoliberalism (whatever that is)?

From my perspective the attempt to minimize the anthropological myth, the idea that human beings are essentially and naturally selfish beings, and instead draw a different heart/core made of some kind of structuralization, misses something. The entire legal and normative framework, we would say, came into existence and into justification in the very strong context of the belief that human beings are self-interested beings, essentially. The entire formalized drive towards privatization is made in response to this picture of humanity, it is naturalized within it. While I’m not sure who is saying that Neo-liberalism is nothing but this myth – David Graeber does make a vivid anthropological argument that “even” exchange is something that is done between enemies, suggesting that economic models of abstract equivalencies are necessarily mythologically self-interested ones - I am also unsure how much of the “framework” and its formalized subject could operate without it. In fact, as Spinoza knew just at the cusp of the Cartesian subject, one cannot cut off the conception of the cogito from the idea of its separate faculties of Willing and Judgment. In order undo the abstract subject, willing and freedom have to be radicalized. The desiring subject, how it desires, and what it desires for is integral to the very isolation of the said “substrate” of the subject in the first place. In fact, all of this stems to a great degree from Representational conceptions of knowledge and related questions of autonomy, freedom and desire.

I don’t really know what good finding the heart or the core of Neoliberalism does, other than create a kind of rhetorical force to steady the aim of our critique. But I do doubt that our narratives about how humans naturally (or if one is in Lacanian moods, structurally) desire are not every bit as important as the laws and norms that are created to regulate and shape those desires. I personally find the Neo-liberalism stigma mark to be something of a canard, designed by those that think “radical break”, getting “outside”, is the only way towards justice, but in any case, philosophies of “lack” (including much of what flows from Hegel, and those that hunger after essentialized “nothingness” or “absence” or “object”) have a great deal to do with foreclosing the possibilities of thinking about the “subject”, or better, the self beyond its normative product-buying, object-chasing behavior. One  also has to ask, as we pre-occupy ourselves with “objects” as essential and constitutive relations, are we not already caught up in economies (of desire, of real capital) which presuppose the “lack” which drives them, sinking deeper into our mental concrete the assumptions which secure the relations we would wish to change or improve upon.

Fascist Bindings In Latour: The Blinding Glory of Non-Human Agency

I’m still reading and digesting the essay, but Steve Fuller’s critical treatment of Latour, with its deep investigation into the economic and political matrix out of which it came is extremely interesting reading, in particular for those that imagine that there is something inherently liberating by either Flat Ontologies, or the raising of objects to the level of actor.  I want to reproduce here two pages of thought provoking text wherein Latour and ANT is taken to task for its Capitalist and Fascist potentiality, as well as an implicit Neoliberal stake (which Fuller examines elsewhere). For an panpsychist like me, an advocate for Animal Agency-Right recognitions, and a thorough-going Cybernetic conception of mankind and human beings, this presents a serious challenge on the ethical/political axis. If it is to be resolved, for a Spinozist, it is within the one thing that separates out Spinoza, strongly, from Latour, the power of rational explanation of cause, and the directional degree of liberation entailed in forming networks in the first place. The one thing that unbinds any imposed corporeal union of technology and humanity, is the dutiful liberation of all elements beyond their single axis of connection or network. Otherwise Fascism haunts.

It is worth considering that Fuller brings up some of the recent commentary fears that have attended criticism of various blogged appropriations of Latour which stake their soul upon not being Neoliberal, and certainly not Fascist. Some have feared that displacing the importance of the human is a demotion of human, in particular of political concerns. Fuller raises this problem of increase agency under the auspices of liberation with some worthy argument. I have an answer for this from a Spinozist, non-Flat perspective, but I’m unsure if the new metaphysicians of Latour do.

I hope to formulate a more comprehensive post of Fuller’s point, and the Spinozist answer, in particualr of the terms where Latour and Spinoza agree. I duplicate the prose here because the pages are relatively succinct and convincing in their argument, and form a kind of brief, elegant picture of what is wrong with Flat Ontology, in particular from a political and ethical perspective.

This last point is worth stressing because actor-network theory is full of emancipatory-sounding talk that claims to reveal the “missing masses” needed for any large-scale sociotechnical achievement. However, the masses are presented as if they were literally physical masses whose movement is necessary to give an elite forward momentum. The agency of these masses is thus limited to the extension or withdrawal of collaboration, not the initiation of action. The current fashion for distributing agency across both people and things merely underscores the value of the masses as means to the ends of other parties, since in many cases nonhumans turn out to be at least as helpful as humans in achieving those ends. (The locus classicus is Callon 1986; for subsequent applications, see Ashmore and Harding 1994.) Although actor-network enthusiasts often make much of the innovative political vision implied in this extension of agency from persons to things, some disturbingly obvious precedents for this practice seem to have been suppressed from STS’s collective memory, the first from capitalism and the second from totalitarianism. The first precedent concerns actor-network theory’s affinity with the metaphysics of capitalism, which, through the process of commodification, enables the exchange of human and machine labor on the basis of such systemic values as productivity and efficiency. This is the sense in which technology is normally regarded as a “factor of production,” that is, a potentially efficient replacement of people. Indeed, the metaphysically distinctive tenet of socialism in modern political economy has been its revival of the medieval doctrine that human beings are the ultimate source of value in the world. But like capitalist cost accounting, actor-network theory knows no ontological difference between humans and machines. Consequently, the subtext of the title of Latour (1993), We Have Never Been Modern, might have read “We Have Never Been Socialist” to capture the increasingly neoliberal climate of French science policy that makes ontological leveling seem so attractive. This point is lightly veiled in Latour’s refashioning of the word “delegation” to capture the process whereby humans and nonhumans exchange properties, which legitimates the treatment of humans as cogs in the wheels of a machine, and machines as natural producers of value.

Here we might compare the Parisian treatment with the most developed set of arguments for extending agency to nonhumans. These fall under the rubric of “Animal Liberation,” as popularized by the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer (1975). In this guise, the politics of agency veers toward restraint and caution rather than mobilization and facilitation. An important difference between Singer and Latour is that the Animal Liberation movement has gravitated toward a conception of “animal rights” modeled on the civil rights accorded to humans. Significantly, a sentient creature, usually a mammal, is the paradigm case of a “nonhuman.” In contrast, the various Parisian exemplars of a “nonhuman” have typically resided much lower on the evolutionary scale: scallops, microbes, and even mechanical door closers all serving as examples at various points (Callon 1986; Latour 1988, 1995). The overall effect is that in its proliferation of agency, actor-network theory dehumanizes humans, while Animal Liberation humanizes animals.

When Hegel, following Spinoza, said that freedom fully realized is the recognition of necessity, he had in mind an idea that can easily be lost in the liberatory rhetoric associated with the extension of agency to nonhumans, namely, that to increase the number of agents is not to increase the amount of agency in the world. On the contrary, it is to limit or redefine the agency of the already existing agents.A’s full recognition of B’s agency requires that A either make room for B as a separate agent or merge with B into a new corporate agent. In both cases, A is forced to alter its own identity. In the former case, the change may be rationalized as A’s coming to lead a simpler life, whereas in the latter, it may be rationalized as A’s now having access to more power than before. The former corresponds to Animal Liberation, the latter to actor-network theory: the former retains the human as unique agent (at least at the species level) but at the cost of diminished wants and power, whereas the latter magnifies the wants and power of the human but at the cost of rendering each individual a (potentially replaceable) part of the larger corporate machinery. (For an earlier treatment that mistakenly assimilated actor-network theory to the Animal Liberationist perspective, see Fuller 1996.) Animal Liberation’s excesses are regularly documented in the forced entries into university laboratories to “free” animals that have been caged for experimental purposes. Yet, there is an even less savory precedent for the extremes to which an actor-network perspective can be taken, namely, the twentieth century’s unique contribution to political theory and practice: totalitarianism. Contrary to Latour’s oft-repeated claim that politics has never taken technology seriously, totalitarian regimes stand out from traditional forms of authoritarianism precisely by the role assigned to technology as the medium through which citizens are turned into docile subjects, specifically, parts of a corporate whole.

While attention has usually focused on totalitarian investments in military technology, of more lasting import have been totalitarian initiatives in the more day-to-day technologies associated with communication, transportation, and building construction. The early stages of these developments already informed science policy debate in continental Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century (Fuller 2000, chap. 2, sec. 3). Ultimately, these technologies enabled unprecedented levels of mass surveillance and mobilization, all in the name of configuring the national superagent. In the course of this configuration, any sharp division between humans and nonhumans was removed. An important consequence was that a subset of the human population— say, the Jewish race or Communist ideologues—could be excluded from the corporate whole as such great security risks that the rest of the human population would agree to submit themselves to sophisticated invasive technologies in order to become part of, say, the “Nazi cyborg.”

This last point was first made by Carl Schmitt, the Weimar jurist who provided the original legal justification for the one-party state that became Nazi Germany. Schmitt ([1932] 1996) held that technology was the latest and most durable corporate glue because its apparently neutral character seemed to impact everyone equally, thereby enabling conflict to metamorphose from the elite cross-border confrontations of the past to “total war” involving a nation’s entire population. Schmitt envisaged that the threat of an external foe more powerful than any internal foe would lead citizens to submit to the application of mass technologies for purposes of defeating that foe, however much their own personal freedoms may be constrained. Actor-network theory can be understood as the account of society that results once there is no longer a hegemonic state apparatus in charge of this technostructure: a devolved totalitarian regime; in a phrase, flexible fascism. Instead of a unitary state that renders everyone a means to its specific ends, now everyone tries to render everyone else a means to their own ends. The former members of the corporatist state may have lost their sense of common purpose, but they retain the personal ethic which attended that purpose. The difference in actual outcomes is much less predictable than under a totalitarian regime, but ultimately explainable in terms of the agents’ differential access to the resources needed to attain their ends. Thus, the necessitarian myths that originally propped up Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin have now yielded to contingent narratives centered on Pasteur (by Latour), Edison (by Hughes), and Seymour Cray (the inventor of the mainframe computer, by MacKenzie).

Indeed, one of the eerier similarities between the predilections of totalitarian and actor-network theorists is the glorification of the heroic practitioner—be it the power politician or the heterogeneous engineer—whose force of will overcomes the self-imposed limitations of superstitious citizens and academics in the grip of a theory. Thus, comparable to Pareto’s disdain for the planning pretensions of social democrats is Callon’s (1987, esp. 98ff.) contempt for the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Touraine, who define in mere words the contemporary state of French society, something engineers supposedly do much more effectively in their daily practice.

One of the most remarked upon features of fascist ideology is its easy combination of an animistic view of nature, a hyperbolic vision of the power of technology, and diminished sense of individual human agency. The same could be said of the “delegations” and “translations” that characterize the accounts of sociotechnical systems provided by actor-network theory. Interestingly, in his brief discussion of totalitarianism, Latour (1993, 125-27) comes closest to endorsing the Pirandellist “it is so, if you think so” form of relativism of which his critics have often accused him. Specifically, he explains the formidability of totalitarian regimes in terms of a widespread belief in their underlying philosophies, rather than, say, the collective impact of the actions taken under their name. Latour officially wants to ensure that people are not inhibited by philosophies that stray too far from the scene of action, but his argument also implies that one ought not be inhibited from forming alliances with people to whom such philosophical labels as “totalitarian,” “capitalist,” and “imperialist” are conventionally attached. In this way, Latour allows nominalism all too easily to slide into opportunism (22-24)

“Why Science Studies Has Never Been Critical of Science Some Recent Lessons on How to Be a Helpful Nuisance and a Harmless Radical”, Steve Fuller

Thank you for the essay Adriano.

Harman’s Speculative Bubble: The Runaway Capitalism of OOP

Philosophical Gambling: Let’s Make a Bubble

The Velvet Howler made a brilliant, off-the cuff diagnosis of Graham Harman’s so-called Object-Oriented Philosophy over in a Perverse Egalitarianism thread that started out light but has gotten more substance. It is really worth repeating for it pulls Harman metaphysical speculation into the general sphere of important societal trends and valuations, and opens the question of how we should do philosophy, and if our production of philosophy mirrors our production of other commercial commodities. Bryan was responding to Graham’s often stated thought that philosophy had to be more in the gambling game, that one had to take more metaphysical risks, a sentiment that I might applaud, but then I also ask: Is it gambling if nothing is at risk? or, What does it mean to gamble without real money? Upon this Bryan made a wonderful analogy between Harman’s gambler metaphor fueled by a “One Great Idea” approach to philosophy, finding it worth noting that the entire SR/OOP franchise mimicked the speculative bubble thinking that drives markets towards their collapse:

…There is undoubtedly a “bad” kind of speculation, which evokes the “spec”/”speculare” we find in political economy: risk taking for the sake of profit. Certain forms of speculative behavior, it seems to me, cannot be separated from their metaphysical counterpart. Here I think Harman’s thought becomes something of a mirror of contemporary American attitudes towards finance: his speculative gambling in search of that “one great idea” inevitably leads to the construction of a metaphysical “bubble” (his defense and support of panpsychism I read as a symptom of this) built on unsure ground and upon the continual deferral of the debt it accumulates. In that sense, OOP can be read, perhaps a bit too reductively for my tastes, but nevertheless as a form of packaged, repackaged, and traded collateralized debt obligations, which will inevitably collapse once the basis is revealed to have been nothing but a “toxic asset”, a transcendental illusion, a house of cards.

This was particular to my own experience when I read Harman’s theory of causation. While stimulative of thought, the more I took it seriously the more disappointing it became. As I heard audio lectures that followed my reading of his theory it seemed that indeed there was a kind of “debt” of explanation or coherence that Harman simply pushed into the future, a kind of doubling down into the next book (Latour) and a refinancing that went along with a method of repackaging. First his philosophy was part of a whole movement called “Spectulative Realism” (composed of thinkers who agree upon almost nothing), then it became “OOP” and had even spawned its own “splinter group” called OOO (insuring it the position of an imagined orthodoxy). One cannot help but feel with some force that this is running parallel to the dividend markets that simply cut and repackaged “risk” under new names creating a bubble of excitement which simply fed upon itself. Consider Levi’s recent enthusiasm over a new Graham Harman diagram, brought on by a general love of diagrams, which by virtue of simply being diagrams Levi feels get at a “bit” of the “real”:

Harman provides a brief commentary on how he’s thinking about his diagrams here. I’ll have to think through this more, but my initial impression is that this is really exciting stuff. I confess that his theory of vicarious causation and his analysis of the four-fold are the aspects of his ontology that have left me most scratching my head. [found here]

Nevermind that Harman’s theories have gotten Levi scratching his head (which means he doesn’t understand them or find them convincing), and never mind that before seeing this diagram Levi has linked his new OOO (brand) to this head-scratching OOP, this new diagram is “really exciting stuff”(!) Hey, I might actually understand what I’ve been supporting. Speculative bubble. Is this not just the kind of thing that was done in financial markets when repackaged debt was then rated as “A” level and put into assemblages of investment? Harman’s theory made no sense, but this diagram of it is really exciting, let’s buy some (and I say this as a devote diagrammist).

Add to this speculative excitement several other franchising maneuvers, the announced start of a “peer reviewed” OOO journal (which some people have speculated is only another “blog”) and even an All-American OOO conference and we really have something happening. These packaging movements meet squarely it seems with Harman’s own Great Idea concept of philosophical significance, the thinking that all the Great Philosophers were really exaggerators that some how fooled the public long enough to get their ideas off the ground. Once enough people “buy into” the intial debt of explanation it is passed off onto the whole group, the bad morgage is cut into tiny Madoff pieces and distributed everywhere. Philosophy as Ponzi scheme. It brings to mind Harman’s notion of a market place of ideas, and how he once stonewalled any attempts to find correspondences between Spinoza’s thinking and his own. “Spinoza’s stock…” he told me, “is simply over valued right now” as if he were a financial advisor and I should be looking into something to invest in. What does this mean, Spinoza’s stock is over-valued? Harman was not looking so much for the kind of discussions that found correspondences in cross-fertilization, as those that pushed the mercantile futures of his own one Great Idea, the “get rich quick” “buy stock low” concept of philosophical investment. One cannot help but feel that Bryan over at Velvet Howler really has struck at the Capitalist, all-American cord of the OOP movement and franchise. One must speculate because speculation (combined with constant repackaging and associative re-valuation) differs the debt of philosophical explanation. It allows one’s theory to proliferate in the kind of meme-like method that Levi finds so appealing.

Paying the Philosophical Debt?

The more significant questions might be, how is this different than just a bunch of fellows getting together that like the ideas of each other, and then selling/convincing others that the very idea of their group is appealing, pulling resources together? And how are we to weigh this organizational property against the very ethic that Bryan calls our attention to, a kind of All-American speculative bubble wherein the Debt of explanation or justification is passed along into greater and more diverse assemblages of investment? Do the memes of philosophy have to stand for anything? Does Graham Harman actually have to a coherent Theory of Causation and not just the name of a Theory of Causation (called “Vicarious Causation”)? Do those who align themselves with OOP and become franchised to it actually have to understand and become convinced of OOP itself? Is there a harm,  a social harm, in replicating the logic of Capitalist speculative bubble-making within the productive means of philosophy?

I suspect that the methods of packaging and Debt deferral are detrimental to both philosophy and social being, and that (in some tension to ethical aims) meme-like profusion might be essential to internet blogged philosophy. One wants a catchy name (or name of a principle or fallacy), and an easy to understand enemy, and then a loose cadre of alliances, maybe even a logo like The Brights wield. But also serious questions about the value of thought produced through such a speculative means do remain, a sense that yes, debt cannot simply be passed down into some other form without us losing the sense that philosophy is actually being done. How is it that so much philosophical activity has organized itself around OOP when no one, even the most aligned, actually find the theory coherent or convincing? And does it matter? And as a meme-type shouldn’t the value of its ideas (the implication of what they say about and reinforce about us and the world), and it means of reproduction, fall under criticism? I think that these are very important questions for those who consider the ethical value of internet philosophical idea sharing, especially amid its networking powers. Both the mode and the concept of our visions play at large in the world, and it is the philosophical check of criticism that often keeps the spread of ideas from simply becoming the spread of memes. 

As Bryan responds in the thread to a briefer summation of the above:

“…I think in some way the perspective of how Harman’s speculative metaphysics mirrors contemporary political economy also fits nicely with your argument you made over at Frames /sing, about how, in his very attempt to decenter and remove the human from the privileged point of access for any “first philosophy,” Harman actually naturalizes the human by smuggling it through the backdoor, vis-a-vis the Cartesian withdrawal-into-self through universal doubt (and its Husserlian extension)-cum-”objects withdrawing into themselves.”

* This general topic has bearing upon Carl’s recent thoughts on the potentiating relationship between Gramsci and blogging over at Dead Voles.

* For those who don’t want to wade through the chaotic comments section of the original thread, you might enjoy reading Bryan at Velvet Howler’s excellent summation of his ideas and intutions: here.

“Capitalism’s Agents”: Seeing the World Straight

K-punk in his review of Democracy and other Neoliberal Fantasies has an interesting sentence that perhaps characterizes the way that people of a certain project think about the happenings and organizational properties of the world. He wants us to realize ourselves as “agents” of something, some kind of resistant mission, and that as such agents we should draw our lessons from the agents of other missions, like those of the dread neoliberalism, and those of Capitalism itself:

Capitalism’s agents were a revolutionary class which had to dismantle feudalism, undermine the authority of the Church, and challenge practically every vested interest before they could succeed.

Perhaps it is just this kind of “agents” think – could it be, drawn out from James Bond films where covert, organized action occurs beneath appearances - that gives oppositional thinkers such an essentializing view of others. Are you an agent for the other side? Are you a double-agent? Who are you working for?

But really, I would like to know just who “Capitalism’s agents” were? Having not read the reviewed book I just have to let the phrase stand at large, for it surely is operating as a generalized category. Thinking of 17th century Dutch Republic, was Descartes one of Capitalism’s agents? Were the merchant Jews in the Amsterdam Ghetto in which Spinoza lived? Was Spinoza “Capitalism’s Agent”? Was Johannes Hudde (a father of actuarial mathematics, reactionary against the Koerbaghs, burgomaster of Amsterdam)? Was Newton? Was Van den Enden? Was Grotius? Just who made up this “revolutionary class”? There was a flowering of both Capitalism and Republican ideas during this century, a redistribution of wealth and social power in great contest with the Church and Royalty, but to project back onto this time and speak of a “revolutionary class” seems almost mindless of the interwoven allegiances and cross-investments that seldom if ever broke into a polarity wherein one class of persons found themselves united in anything at all. When the mob/multitude tore the forward thinking Dewitt brothers to pieces, were they Captialism’s agents even though they were ushering stadtholder William III of Orange back into power? By what order is one qualified as an “agent” of Capitalism?

Seeing Machines and Modes of Slavery

The Human Machine

Corry Shores puts up a wonderful response to some of my optical research on Spinoza, drawing on some threads and putting them together in a way that I just had not yet: Seeing Machines. There he picks out what for me are several vital issues that are found in not only Spinoza’s, but also Descartes’ preoccupation with optical matters, both theoretical and practical, and really touches the primary concern. How do these modes of production (ideas, machines) reflect, express and criticize the very rise of instrumentality and really Capitalized labor (and merchant class related freedoms) in which they arose?

Consider how Descartes proposed his own notions of a transcendent God and free will. His sharp division between mind and body was essential for his project. Spinoza, however, reconciled the two [by means of his parallelism]. He was not so narrowly focused on abstract rational conceptions. He did not just design lenses for seeing things with greater focus. As well, he ground and polished them with his own hands. Ideas and their material instantiations cannot be divorced. In fact, kvond writes, “a calculation, for Spinoza, must be seen as an act, the mathematical point, as a relation and expression, and an instantiation, a persistence.” We do not just see, we see from a certain conceptual perspective. [Descartes saw the world mechanically. This perspective might view slaves as machines and not people.] Kvond puts it that we are always seeing-with.

In my view this connection is exactly right. Descartes’ preoccupation with the narrow focus of optical (and mental) clarity, and the attendant vision of machinic Instrumentality, is precisely related, ultimately, to the question of human slavery. It is no mere metaphor that Spinoza uses in his Ethics when he devotes his fourth part to the subject matter of “Human Slavery”. He is speaking of the emotions, but for Spinoza ideational over-focus was material over-focus. Emotional Slavery expressed itself in physical slavery. And he is not only thinking of individuals. It would seem out of place to give Descartes responsibility for 17th century slavery (why not, so much else gets laid at his feet!), but there are valid, thematic, if not arguments, parallels to be drawn between Descartes’ pursuit of a machinic world vision (paired from Mind), his attempt build automated devices that would not be stained by human hand interference, the attempt to mentally isolate clarity in terms of a point of focus, and the general colonial trend towards labor efficiency that would eventually replace indentured servitude (practical slavery) with outright slavery itself (the evaporation of the “human” in the name of production). I see in the very “object” oriented, optical preoccupation with central clarity – the hallmark of much, if not all of Idealism that followed – the conceptual cornerstone for Instrumentality itself, the mode of thought that regards a clarity and sureness of an intentional part as the grounds for what human beings should know, and what they do.

Additionally, it is precisely how we eroticize the boundary (that which lies outside our view of clarity, the “object” of our orientation), that fuels – both literally and imaginarily – our very Instrumentalities.

This is no mere theoretical question, but a large scale question of concept and human action. Much, if not all of the value of philosophy is that at the widest level in a certain register, what hu/man is capable of thinking becomes reconfigured, and I cannot help thinking that the preoccupations with optics and lenses that distinguished many of the great, newly affluent minds of the mid-17th century, bears a conceptual connection to the real human and institutional relationships that constituted the nature of their wealth. Optics, Instrument and slavery are not divorced, or at least Spinoza would refuse to divorce them. Corry did not realize it, but in the time of my optical study of Spinoza I also found compelling the likelihood that Spinoza, and the Spinoza family had at the very least tangential ties to the slave trade enhanced sugar buisness, leaving me with the suspicion that slavery and its connection to commerce lead in part to Spinoza’s decision to leave the occupation of family merchant behind, and devote himself both to philosophy and lenses.

Most of these are conjectural sketches, but because it seems that no one in Spinoza scholarship has much brought up the matter, they perhaps form a sketch of what is worth thinking about: Spinoza the Merchant, Caliban and the Prophetic Imagination, The London Question, Spinoza and the Ethiopian, The Sephardim and the Slave Trade, Spinoza Family Sugar Trade Timetable, Gabriel Spinoza and Barbados.

In this way it is possible perhaps to address the knot of questions behind recent talk about Ontology and Politics. The relationship between the two is I think best expressed by Spinoza’s political expression of ontologies, achieved through the erasure of the human/natural-world divide, descriptively turning Man into a force of nature, which is likely what it always was. But, as Corry helps me remember, this is not just a conceptual position, but also a part of the very intimacy philosophy bears to its time.

Homo-Sapiensism: Not Humanism

The Soft Eternity Beneath Phylogenetic, Historical Expression

I want to thoroughly praise Paolo Virno’s “Natural-Historical Diagrams: The New Global Movement and the Biological Invarient”, found in the new issue of The Italian Difference. It is one of the most engagingly written, open-vista’d philosophical essays I have read in a long while. And it came just as I was thinking about recent complaints that there are inherent dangers, implicit biases, when advocating  Humanism. I have thought to myself, what is human must be embraced if we are to gainfully produce futures that reflect our real human differences, but still, one must do so without slipping into the philosophical (and sociological) difficulties that arise from theorizing a chasm between the human and all else. What is needed, it seems, is a Homo-sapiensism, not a Humanism.

I’m going to to go through Virno’s essay to give a presentation of its arguments, quoting at some length for those who do not care to turn to the original text; but I also aim to show the rotation it gives to my own thoughts with the hope that one can see through the idea of a Homosapiensism as a fundamental foundation for future reasoning, much of this found in the critique of his position. I strongly urge you to download the essay and investigate it yourself.

Virno is concerned with the essential nature of the Global Movement’s contest within its own epoch, an epoch that quite determinatively he wants to qualify or ground in very biological terms. This is to say, he wants to identify an essential human organism upon which one can perform an historical diagnositics of the dominant forms of social organization for our time (Capitalism, perhaps an implicit Statism), and as well, of the possibilities within the resistance to or reinvention of those social organizations. From the first page,

The arena of the struggle: the movement is rooted in the epoch in which the capitalist organization of work takes on as its raw material the differential traits of the species (verbal thought, the transindividual character of the mind, neoteny, the lack of specialized instincts, etc.). That is, it is rooted in the epoch in which human praxis is applied in the most direct and systematic way to the ensemble of requirements that make praxis human. The stake: those who struggle against the man-traps placed on the paths of migrants or against copyright on scientific research raise the question of the different socio-political expression that could be given, here and now, to certain biological prerogatives of Homo sapiens (131)

I have to say right off that I just love his writing style, the diction, the conciseness, the tightness of reference, the tempo. A great deal of the pleasure I had when considering these ideas is the very way that he constantly works to frame, pause and then propel his thinking, something which one suspects is not just a stylistic skill, but rather a core project quality to his writing. And one must praise perhaps equally the invisible collaboration of the translator, Alberto Toscano.

Of course we realize from the start as well that JUST how biologicaly Homo sapiens are qualified  is the coin upon which much of this thinking trades. And we get a glimpse of what the author is going to make very explicit, that what is human is linguisitic, trans-individual, neotenic and non-specialized. The social analysis is going to operate distinctly upon these vectors. (What will remain somewhat occluded is the justification of just these vectors.)

Virno immediately warns that such a bio-mediation should fall into neither a Rousseauian ideal social deduction, nor a Chomskian contest of “raw” natural human capacities against unnatural forms of social power.

Maps of Human Nature

What is nice is that Virno brings his analysis immediately to a very significant epistemological question, one that drives right through the heart of Western philosophy and ultimately the question of Kant’s astronomical de-centering of knowledge. And his treatment, to my ear, is quite satisfying and somewhat original.

The decisive question is broadly the following: can human beings experience/ human nature? Note that experiencing something, for instance an object or an event, does not at all mean representing it with some degree of scientific precision. Rather, it means perceiving it in its phenomenal manifestness, being emotionally involved, reacting to it with praxis and discourse. If that is so, our case immediately confronts us with a difficulty…: is it possible to experience, in the full sense of the term, that which constitutes the presupposition of experience in general?

He answers this question through a subtle qualification of the idea of “eternity”, breaking apart the transcendental solution from the way in which the eternal can be seen to reveal itself in the very diagramic nature of the “natural-historical”, what he calls “an eventual physiogamy”: [There...]

There are several buried qualifications in his particular version of the second approach, for instance his reliance upon discursive and phenomenological definitions of experience bespeaks of a particular semiotic framework that I do not wholly embrace. But as a Spinozist, this really hits upon a fundamental epistemic standing which goes at least as far back as Anselm’s ontological proof of God. This is to say, human beings experience the conditions of the possibilities of experience in the very fabric of the paschontological itself. (For Spinoza this fact expresses itself in the powers of Intuitional knowledge, the way in which the mind links up with great speed the concrete and contingent to our very structured participation in the whole of Being). For Virno though, this revelatory power of eternity is best understood under the analogy of map making, an analogy that must be taken as real.

I call natural-historical diagrams the socio-political states of affairs which display, in changing and rival forms, same salient features of anthropogenesis. The diagram is a sign that imitates the object to which it refers, meticulously reproducing its structure and the relationship between its parts. Think of a map, a mathematical equation, a graph. However, the contingent historical fact, which offers the abridged image of a biological condition, is not a necessary condition of the latter, since its roots lie instead in a particular social and cultural conjecture (134)

We get the full flavor of Virno’s semotic commitments in this notion that the historical is a kind of map/diagram of the biological, one which replicates elements of the biological beneath it. He wants to qualify that the biological eternity does not cause the historical sign in the way that the a knock on the door is the sign for the person who made it, for the historical is a cultural product (I think he is wrong to explicitly deny that there is any causation here, as he seems to). I am in great sympathy towards his softening of eternity and this imminentist conception of revelation, willing to hold off on the precise “reproduction” of features the semiotic school requires (this view is far too knowledge-as-representation bound). There is great gravity to this sense that the eternal bears its mark upon its (partial) products, and that in this sense the pre-conditional can be read, or experienced in the condition itself.

Virno pushes hard on this map/territory analogy, drawing on Peirce in a very evocative way. The diagrams of historical eventology exhibit what I would qualify as the two Wittgensteinian categories of The Empiricial and the The Grammatical (which here are called the empirical and the transcedental, foreground and background), which dog-tail fashion recursively turn upon each other, each producing the other, an “endless circularity” which itself reveals “meta-historical” constants. Peirce tells us that the very nature of mapping produces, if only by accident, exact structural correspondences which reveal what is beneath it, but one in which the correspondence is a temporal mapping, one might even say a musical one:

This is an extended analogy to be sure. The historical is to the bio-eternal as a map is to territory (when placed on it), though not spatially (part/whole) but temporally. But one also feels that there is something very productive here, and that is the differential between that which lasts, and that which changes or is “just now”. As Spinozist what comes to mind here is his famous EIIp7 “The order and connection between ideas is the same as the order and connection between things”, wherein what is revelatory about eternity is not the imaginary part/whole spatial configurations, but rather the very ideational/extentional fabric of historical expression itself. It is this syntax that shows through and enables the experience of experience.

The way that our author sees it, the socio-political expresses the biological invariant (soft eternity) as a certain kind of temporal diagram revealing the very genesis of the human organism and its reality. In this way the global movement acts as a kind of map connective to the invariant itself,

Natural history inventories the ways in which human beings experience human nature. Having the latter as its content, the global movement should be considered as an episode of natural history. It can be rightfully compared to the map of an island which is laid down on a precise point of the island itself (135)

What does not yet follow in this analogy, of course, is that if you have a map (expression) of an island, it doesn’t matter where at all you place it on the territory, it is always resting on a precise point of correspondence, somewhat evacuating the heft of the homology Virno is trying to put forth. What remains is the very qualifications that make this map of the said island better than that map, or another. For if I place a map of Manhattan on the island of Hawaii, the only correspondence may be those of coordination itself (if even that).

The Potential Animal

Next on the agenda is the qualification of just what Homo sapiens is, or more precisely, what are the salient features which are going to characterize and anchor a diagramic analysis of historical picturing. Virno is quite aware of the danger of trying to essentialize the human being, and is at pains to qualify his project solely in terms of the thematic analysis itself:

The crucial point, I repeat, is not an exhaustive defintion of that which in Homo sapiens remains unaltered from the Cro-Magnons onwards, but the ways in which the mutable course of history sometimes thematizes the “eternal”, even exhibiting it in concrete states of affairs (135)

Unfortunately, such a distinction does not immunize the analysis from the most obvious attack. The problem is not the exhaustion of characteristics, but rather their prioritization, as we shall see. In a certain sense Virno is recommending that we look at history from our particular point of view and see in it the concrete traces of biological invariants that are then taken to be determinative nexuses for the capacties of political and sociological power. Perhaps this is what we all do, but one risks something of a Rorschach test in terms of argumentive force. One sees the essential biological (soft) eternities that one wants to see.

But let’s follow Virno through because his picture of history and eternity is to some degree apodictically convincing and at least provides an intellectual framework in which other disagreements could be made more clear. In something of an existentialist move he wants the most important human features to be those distinguished by the philosophical concept of dynamis, power. And dynamis here is qualified as the temporal not-now. I have some difficulties with his qualification of the not-now as a “deficit of presence” but let us hesitantly grant this essential move for it leads to some interesting concrete determinatives of an essential human potentiality:

The potentiality of Homo sapiens: (a) is attested by the language faculty; (b) is inseparable from instinctual non-specialization; (c) originates in neoteny; (d) implies the absence of a univocal environment (135)

Before we go into some details, one has to ardently insist that the turn to potentiality as the very defining historical feature of what historical events reveal about biological invariants is a great cleaving of any number of human features that are actually also shared by the entire animal world, and is of great consequence for the skewing of the theory. If what we are doing is identifying the correspondences between the historical and the biological, there is no advantage at all (in fact there is great disadvantage) in privileging features one presumes to be uniquely human. This produces, inadvertently or not, a chasm between the human and the rest of the biotic world. Instinctual non-specialization may indeed by degree be a feature that distinguishes humans from parrots, but human beings are not ESSENTIALLY non-specialized, in fact there are any number of instincts that are greatly specialized and also are invariants that bring their trace upon history. If invariants are to be the core mode of comparison and analysis, the invariants that we share with other organisms are just as, if not more important than those we are imagined not to share. To take one example, Neoteny might very well emphasize parental dependency, such that the parental instincts of other species actually grow in importance as points of revelation and historical understanding.

The Language Faculty

Following his human-as-potentia thesis Virno defines language faculty as the very potential capacity for statement forming, and not the concrete performance of these statements. Language that exists in reserve, not at all in a kind of Humanese, but rather something like Augustine’s theory of the “inner word”:

The language faculty is something other than the ensemble of historical determinate languages. It consists in a body’s inborn capacity to emit articulate sounds, that is in the ensemble of biological and physiological requirement which make it possible to produce a statement. It is mistaken to treat the indeterminate power-to-speak as a proto-language spoken by the entire species (something like a universal Sanskrit). The faculty is a generic disposition, exempt from grammatical schemas, irreducible to a more or less extended congeries of possible statements. Language faculty means language in potentia/ or the power of language. And power is something non-actual and still undefined. Only the living being which is born aphasic has the language faculty. Or better: only the living being which lacks a repertoire of signals biunivocally correlated to the various configurations – harmful or beneficial – of the surrounding environment (136)

As one can see in the end, there is a necessary disconjunction between this faculty and any determinative surrounding environment, a disjunction that spells out the very malleability and complexity of language production itself. The totality of possibile sentences is not determined by an environment, where “environment” is seen as something of a evolutionary niche. This “environmental determinism” preclusion, in fine semiotic fashion, will later by the environment/world distinction prove central to Virno’s sociological analysis. (I should note: the environment world distinction I do not except, though one does see the merit in not allowing the “language faculty” to be determined by any particular differences in the history of environmental/species interactions, and co-determinations.)

Non-Specialization of Instincts

The author then follows with a rather convoluted, or at least verbose departure from his usual clarity (a length and twisting that one suspects hides potential weaknesses in argument). He denies what “many philosophers” argue, that language is a specialization for polyvalence without any “particular ability”, but then goes on to claim that the ability of language is the detailed and univocal ability of pure dynamis. I cannot make heads or tails of just what contrast he is trying set up between a faculty for polyvalence and a faculty for dynamis.

The language faculty confirms the instinctual poverty of the human animal, its complete character, the constant disorientation that sets it apart. Many philosophers argue that the language faculty is a highly specialized instinct. But they go onto add that it is a specialization for polyvalence and generalization, or even – which amounts to the same – an instinct to adopt behaviours that have not been preset. Now, to argue that the linguistic animal is supremely able in…[sic] doing without any particular ability is really to participate in the international festival of the sophism. Of course, the language faculty is an innate biological endowment. But not everything that is innate of univocal and detailed instinct. Despite being congenital, the capacity to speak is only dynamis/, power. And power properly speaking, that is distinguished from a well-defined catalogue of hypothetical performances, coincides with a state of indeterminancy and uncertainty. The animal that has language is a potential animal. But a potential animal is a non-specialized animal (136)

The difficulty that I suspect is being papered over here is that Virno wants to embody the pure dynamis in both the very evolutionarily achieved powers of linguistic capacity, and also in an essentialized non-specialization of instinct. He is pushing to the limit and polarizing for the sake of category both the non-specialized character of Homo sapiens instincts AND the polyvalence of language itself. In point of fact human beings are not utterly non-specialized, and nor is language faculty itself non-specialized (for instance it does very well with spatio-temporal objects and their relations and ostensive defintions). Further, to put it the other way around, human beings do not specialize in disorientation. If anything, we can only speak of gradations and delineations of specialization and non-specialization, none of which separate human beings exclusively out from all other biotic life.

While the relative non-specialization of human instincts can play a serious role in any analysis of historical forms (just as Virno will favor),  this non-specialization is not an essential categorical form.

Neoteny and the Retardation of Humans

Next in the essentially human is an organic grounding of the very larval fecudity of human productivity imagined to be determined (or at least explained) by a lasting infancy. The way that Virno sees it, in one great analogy, because the human species exhibits Neoteny, it is organically pre-determined to a certain extended parentage of mores and technologies of every sort.

The phylogenetic basis of non-specialization is neoteny, that is the “retention of formerly juvenile characteristics produced by retardation of somatic development”. The generic and incomplete character of the human animal, the indecision that befalls it, in other words the dynamis which is consubstantial with it, are rooted in some of its organic and anatomical primitivisms, or, if you prefer, it its congenital incompleteness. Homo sapiens has “a constitutively premature birth”, and precisely because of this it remains an ‘indefinite animal”. Neoteny explains the instability of our species, as well as the related need for uninterrupted learning. A chronic infancy is matched by a chronic non-adaptation, to be mitigated in each case by social and cultural devices (137)

It is a seductive trope. Yet, as I pointed out in brief before in no sense does Virno take up the relationship between Neoteny and any other parentage invariants that fix the instincts of the human species. There is such a strong theoretical investment in reading the human being as pure potentiality some of the very significant specialized instincts of human beings (those which actually would tie human culture to the histories of other species, so as to reveal inseparable cross-species braids…for instance human-canine culture), are ostensibly repressed for the sake of a historical picture. In this way the emphasis on Neoteny performs the organic work or grounding for an otherwise implicit Heideggerian “thrown-into-the-world-ness”, here making of the Homo sapiens an essentially “indefinite animal” prematurely and continually born. None of which falls within the narrow band of organic determinations of real biological Neoteny. One can certainly take up the suggestive way in which human Neoteny creates a predisposition towards communal, or even parental, trans-individual in-formation, but how this attains anything close to a species that is essentially “incomplete” or even “generic” I have no idea. What would it mean for an animal to be “complete”?

No Niche, World

The last qualification of essential human animal characteristic bears the strongest existential imprint, and this is semiotic insistence that the human animal has no “niche” but only a “world”. I have expressed elsewhere the great deficiency in thinking of human beings as uniquely Umwelt bound, and Virno takes the Umwelt concept towards its most exclusionary (and for me, the most problematic) pole. One can certainly accept that human species characteristics are not determined by any particular environmental factors, but that is because NO species is so determined, as species and environments co-determine each other, and environments do not dictate to organisms how they must be.

Biologically rooted in neoteny, the potentiality of the human animal has it objective correlate in the lack of a circumscribed and well-orded environment in which to insert oneself with innate expertise once and for all. If an environment is the “ensemble of all conditions…which make it possible for a certain organism to survive thanks to it particular organization, it goes without saying that a non-specialized organism is also an out-of-place/ organism. In such an organism perceptions are not harmoniously converted into univocal behaviors, but give rise to an overabundance of undifferentiated stimuli, which are not designed for a precise operational purpose. Lacking access to an ecological niche that would prolong its body like a prosthesis, the human animal exists in a state of insecurity even where there is no trace of specific dangers. We can certainly second the following assertion by Chomsky: “the way we grow does not reflect properties of the physical environment but rather our essential nature”. Provided we add, however, that “our essential nature” is characterized in the first place by the absence of a determinate environment, and therefore by an enduring disorientation (137)

The philosophical overlay of presumption here is to the extreme. And I would express that what Virno denies of the human organism is also denied of all organisms, if only in degrees. There is no strict determination between environment and organism, across the board. And alternately, as I express in my notion of Exowelten, instead of environments bodies of organisms are actually made up of the difference that make a difference to them, precisely in the prosthetic sense, and indeed human beings are no different in this. Beyond this, the human animal possesses no monopoly on an existence of a “state of insecurity” even when there is no trace of danger, as anyone who studies the psychology (can we use that word?) of prey animals can tell you. A deer in the forest is perpetual in its insecurity, and there is no existential gap that separates out human beings from the deer. In fact though, all of these by-degree differences and similiarities, aside from Virno’s need to establish a philosophical beachhead of human separation, actually work to complexify and enhance the kind of “natural-historical” analysis he prescribes. The unique gap between the human and the biotic that is implicit in the essentialization that Virno carries out is not necessary for the diagnosis of diagramic history, and in actuality retards it. The (soft) eternity of the language faculty, the relative non-specialization of instincts, the relative neoteny, the non-determination by environments all can be affirmed without Homo sapiens collasping into a “generic” and really alienated species.

A String of Apocalypses: The History of Traditional Society

One can see how Virno, like alchemist, attempts to pull the pure ore from the dross of historical manifestation, expressed in the questions he raises by the virtue of his defintions. The presumption of essentially human species characteristics now seeks to find its home in the socio-political situation:

The terse defintions we proposed above allow us to specify the overall argument. The questions that natural history must face up to are accordingly the following: In what socio-political situations does the non-biological specialization of Homo sapiens come to the fore? When and how does the generic language faculty, as distinct from historical languages, take on a leading role within a particular mode of production? What are the diagrams of neoteny? Which are the maps or graphs that well adequately portray the absence of a univocal environment? (138)

We can see how he risks the Rousseauian idealization that earlier is warned about, as now that the author is armed with what is purely human, there begins something of a search for socio-political situations that reflect or express it. The presumption has to “come to the fore”. The analysis that follows actually exceeds this requirement, which gives me to embrace to a much greater degree Virno’s project, outside of, or beyond his stated aims. The human being in all of its biological invariants is much more than simply the hollow animal, though the depiction as such works to organisize, and not just explain, particular socio-political social forms.

Virno begins with a theory of history which highly truncated, even assuming his own defintional base. It is, as he sees it, only in crisis that most of human history as shown what is natural to it. The highly selective essence of the human animal only has shown through the occluding fibers of historical weave where the cloth seemed break. Only then does the neoteny and generic pure but natural faculty express itself, like the point on the map that seems to rest on its exact spot on the island it represents:

In traditional societies, including to some extent in classic industrial society the potentiality (non-specialization, neoteny, etc.) of the human animal takes on the typical visibility of an empirical state of affairs only in an emergency situation, that is in the midst of a crisis. In ordinary circumstances, the species-specific biological background is instead concealed, or even contradicted, by the organization of work and solid communicative habits…(138)

To my ear this is an extremely limited view of history, and therefore of the human being itself. It really speaks to the procrustean elements of original assumptions that only outright emergency and crisis shows true human nature, a nature that is otherwise only concealed or contradicted. One can see that the there is a tight-knit circulation between the explanandum and explanans wherein human nature is circumscribed because it is meant to explain certain features of human history, and in turn certain features of human history are circumscribed so as to express certain features of human nature. All in all, too much is left out. At the very least biological invariants (other than those picked out) must also be expressing themselves in all that occurs outside of emergency and crisis in traditional societies.

But if we take up even the kinds of restrictions on what is human that Virno provides there is no reason at all that crisis alone makes the potentiality of the human animal typically visible. A very simple example would be asethetic expression much of which is done very much in the service of “solid communicative habits” as any glimpse of religious art would reveal. I would argue quite to the contrary that traditional socieites, while far more structured that modern ones, also must express human nature as a matter of course, and that there is NOTHING in them that is not natural, or even concealing, or contradictive.

But let us look more closely at the Peircean vector upon which A History of Cataclysms is established, along an analogy of immunization against disorientation:

Under this view, cultural norms rush in to solve and repress natural non-specialization and neoteny, instead of being the product or expression of biological invariants themselves. The “difficult to translate” stimuli of “world” become codified to save the organism from itself. Culture builds “psuedo-environments” (instead of the productes of culture being themselves environments) that address what is thought to be a naturalized lack and essential instability of Homo sapiens. One is to say that when a lion is chasing a gazelle at great speed and is exposed to a moment of confusion of “difficult to translate stimuli” this is fundamentally different than when a person doesn’t know if he should jaywalk in the middle of the night when no police are around. I take these two things to be difference in degree, differences in environments, but not primary differences in kind. Because there is a fundamental dynamis within the lion  and the human, the recourse to repetitions that resolve disorientation are not worlds apart. In fact differences that make a difference spell themselves across species all the time. We may grant that relative human non-specialization may find itself addressed or supplimented by divisions of labor, but there is no reason at all that these divisions of labor are somehow concealing of human nature and not themselves expressive of biological invariants. We may even grant that there is a fundamental contrast between stability and disorientation, and that modes of stability are adopted as a product of (the potential of) disorientation, but the human animal is not fundamentally a disorientation animal. Let us put it this way: there is the continual suspension - be it pleasurable or anxiety producing - of application of either rules or tensioned instincts, the moment before alternatives of behavior are chosen through (either consciously or unconsciously). And this pleasure/anxiety goes across the animal world.

In this way, the very fabric of cutural norms which in a simplified vision only work to corral human genericism, are themselves shot through with exploratory and expressive features which mark out the very productivity of the human species. And it certainly is not the case the human history has only shown human nature in a beaded necklace of its catastrophes, as Virno seems to want to see.


[-iours. No longer selectively filtered by a complex of cultural habits, the world shows itself to be an amorphous and enigmatic context. The conflagration of the ethico-social order thus reveals two correlate aspects of invariant "human nature": a language faculty distinct from languages and a world opposed to any (pseudo-) environment whatsoever (140-141)]

Now, to take up another semiotician by way of example, Augustine had his share of personal crises, but one needs only to read his Confessions and various other works on language to see that the inner word of contemplation need not be in any sense naturally removed from the ethico-social order. In fact, the inner word (as stand-in for any biological invariant), expresses itself across forms, in the very signs and semiotic nature of the natural and cultural world. One does not have to wait for a rift in the very fabric of things in order to see “human nature”. Moreso, though a disruption in any ordering matrix of behavior might expose the very productivity of species or natural organization, this exposure in turn shows itself in the full panoply of the organizations themselves. In a certain sense, there is no dross. Languages are just as natural as the “language faculty” is, they must be.

At the very least, the “state of exception” is to be seen everywhere and constitutive to the very expression of the world, and not merely confined to collapse. One need only take up the prevalence, in fact the assured ubiquity of metaphor upon which all languages depend for their very creation and growth to see that protean expression is in the very DNA of natural languages as they actively exist. New cultural niches are made up of the very “stuff” that they are thought to conceal: 

The ultimate outcome of the apocalypse or state of exception is the institution of new cultural niches, capable of concealing and blunting once again the biological “always already”, that is the inarticulate and chaotic dynamis. Rare and fleeting are the apocalyptic diagrams of human nature (141)

Metahistory and Social Praxis

This reaches the apex of my disagreements with Paolo Virno, as what follows is one of the more illuminating notion of critique that I find available to current attempts to rescue Humanism. The entire journey into an essentialization of Homo sapiens which I have strongly resisted in my view simply is not necessary for the rich embrace of the biological foundations of the human species’  four characteristics. And if metaphysics must be pressed, one should be led to see that each of the four characteristics can be found in some degree in the whole of the biotic realm, if not beyond. In fact, once the predisposition for these essential genericisms of human beings is left behind, it seems that use of biological invariants should be expanded to included specialized instincts and dispositions (other than language production), which may give further clue to the dynamic nature of human culture in the natural world, an inclusion which would work to further build a recognition of cross-species interdependencies and creative codetermination, intra-indexed sympathies in what I would call Exowelten, the limits of differences that make a difference to any horizon-bound semiotic closure.

But let us proceed.

What was said in the preceding section only counts for traditional societies. Contemporary capitalism has radically modified the relation beteen unalterable phylogenetic prerogatives and historical praxis. Today, the prevailing forms of life do not veil but rather flaunt without any hesitation the differential traits of our species. In other words: the prevailing forms of life are a veritable inventory of natural-historical diagrams/. The current organization of work does not allay the disorientation and instability of the human animal, but on the contrary takes them to their extreme and systematically valorizes them. Amorphous potentiality, that is the chronic persistence of infantile characteristics, does not menacingly flare in the midst of a crisis. Rather it permeates every aspect of the tritest routine. Far from dreading it, the society of generalized communication tries to profit from the “semantic excess not reducible to determined signifieds”, thereby conferring the greatest relevance to the indeterminate language faculty….the paramount task of philosophy is to come to grips with the unprecedented superimposition of the eternal and the contigent, the biologicallly invariant and the socio-political variable, which exclusively connotes the current epoch (141-142)

You can see why I like this essay so much, for after great qualification it comes to a definitive construction that grasps the contemporary moment. Contemporary capitalism has seized upon some of the most - do we want to say essential – distinctive human species characteristics, flaunting the very infancy of Man.

In our epoch, the object of natural history is not a state of emergency, but everyday administration. Instead of dwelling on the erosion of a cultural constellation, we now need to concern ourselves with the way that it is fully in force. Natural history does not limit itself to scavenging through “cultural apocaylpses”. Instead it tightens its grip on the totality of contemporary events. Because biological metahistory no longer surges up at the edges of forms of life, where the get stuck and idle, but installs itself durably at their geometric center, testifying to their regular functioning, all social phenomena can be rightfully considered natural-historical phenomena. (142)

Under the Virno diagnosis, what had been reserved for emergencies in traditional societies has become an administrative requirement. One can imagine that because I rejected the very notion that traditional societies occluded human nature with its norms-niches, I might have trouble with this sense of paradigmatic shift and exceleration. Though there is something to the description that rings true. While I would argue that all social phenomena has always been diagramatic, there does seem to be a distinctive change in the aspects of human nature upon which capitalism has seized and built itself up from: 

What a magnetic descrpition of the new landscape both of labor and of social cognition. If we leave aside the epoch distinctions and only grant that now social organization has slowly grafted itself upon these specific non-specialized qualities of Homo sapiens, we would do very well to track this constitutive change. If human beings are being forced back into their very stem-cell like state of individual malleability, a capacity that the species as a whole has evolutionarily produced, then we must attend to this co-incidence of biology and social production. What is missing for me from Virno’s consideration is the wider spectrum of human animal considerations, in particular those that might be seen to be employed in the very social grasp of neotenic and non-specialized forms. To be suggestive, the human animal, because neotenic also possesses other specialized invariants (for instance instincts of familial organization and care) to fill out the lasting infancy. If indeed the lingering child is the New Adult, all the biology of human beings that surround these inborn qualities, now embraced and exploited, are also necessarily to come into play. Will not parental, familial instincts and their deeply entrenched cultural encodings, now come back with a vengence? The American Right’s emphasis on family values, or Socialism ideological pictures of a mothering State, achieve new gravity when Neoteny is a substantive force of social organization.

Virno sees it a bit differently because he is not thinking of biological invariants that do not speak to the hollowness potentiality of the human animal. Instead his present moment is one of pure fractionation, and a corresponding rule of micro rules whose very rigidity is only equaled by the uniqueness of their application (I’m not sure that I understand what an ad hoc rule for only one occasion of application would be like, though one can imagine the impression of there being such rules):

Being conversant with omnilateral potentiality demands, as its inevitable counterpoint, the existence of far more detailed norms than the ones which are in force in a cultural pseudo-environment. Norms so detailed that they tend to hold for a single case, for a contingent and non-reproducible occasion. The flexibility of labour services implies the unlimited variability of rules, their tremendous rigidity. These are ad hoc rules, of the kind that prescribe in minute detail the way of carrying out a certain action and only that action. Precisely where it attains the greatest socio-political relevance, the innate language faculty mockingly manifests itself as a collection of elementary signals, suited to tackling a particular eventuality. The “semantic excess which is not reducible to determined signifieds” often flips over into a compulsive reliance on sterotyped formulae. In other words, it takes on the seemingly paradoxical guiseof a semantic deficit. In both its polarities, this oscillation depends on the sudden absence of stable and well-articulated pseudo-environments (144)

Because I do not see the history of the world in quite the same Catastrophic Traditional manner that Virno does, while this picture of a neotenic, non-specialized environment certainly picks out certain features of Late Capitalism that seem significant, it feels like there is a missing continuity of emphasis on many other human animal features. Instead of simply a society regimented of disorientations (which merely standardized the vast disorientations of historical, traditional man), if indeed it is the “language faculty” that is to be the well-spring of social organization, and not languages themselves, what we really need to turn to are the aesthetic modes of communication that expressed that faculty, non-linguistically, in the past, to see the very form that neotenic social organization will take. It is not just that there are mere fragmented signals, and stereotyped formulae, but that these semantic elements are floated upon aesthetic currents of largely metaphorical and analogical character.

I have written elsewhere on metapho and Vico. Vico brings a critical perspective that would appear quite fruitful if indeed social communications are going to trade upon the breakdown easily followed, univocal norms. Metaphors, following the philosopher Donald Davidson, can be seen as engendered by the production of literal falsehoods (rule violations), yet falsehoods that access the very language faculty itself. The neotenic environment of privileged non-specialization will be one in which pictorial, and indeed non-discursive experiential forms will be greatly emphasized. In fact, as we see, the production of affects have become the very engine of the world economy. We see this rather starkly as the affluent West has become one large affect pool, as regions of an industrialized Asia and Sub-continent become centers for the making of devices whose sole end product product is “entertainment”, or affects themselves (via tvs, phones, ipods, tivos, video games, etc). As such the affect-pool West has a single world economy responsibility: Experience!

If Virno is correct and the Capitalist model is aimed at expressing to the extreme human indeterminancy, and thus polyvalence, the Affect West becomes one great sea of language faculty experiences, as one can imagine, a bed ideological communications. Movies, songs, shows, texts, pictures all sub-linguistically, aethetically, create organized tides that ne’er can be resisted without ratio-imaginative diagnosis and force. We, as Vico characterized, enter upon a civilization of “imaginative universals”, a poeticized state that compliments the highly literalized achievements that mark the specialized labors of our sciences, technologies and fields of knowledge. It is just in this world that our attention to biological invariants that are not those four considered by Virno, but have co-evolved in relationship to them, will come most powerfully to the fore in the very language faculty communications that predominate the paschotological West.  Never before has Homo sapiens precariously been in such a biologically sensitive ideological sphere.

I do agree with the general sentiment that Capitalism drives human beings toward a destabilization of dependable forms, and great appreciation I have for Paolo Virno’s biological analysis of contemporary society. It is only that the human animal that makes the foudation point for any future self-determination must have a much wider essence of characteristics than Virno identifies, for reasons both of analysis, but also hope. It is our interspecies, inter-environmental connectivities that give host to our greatest resources, and Homo sapiens is part of a much larger semantic/organic fabric, of which our instinctual non-specialization and Neoteny exist only in small degrees.

As to the question of dynamis itself as the vector of analysis, as a Spinozist it is my metaphysical position that human beings do not have biological monopoly on dynamis. Indeed all things exhibit dynamis potentialities, and it is in the service of human beings to free those non-human potentia as best as our partial wisdom allows us to. Virno ends his essay with an ethical call for the Demand of the Good Life, something I whole-heartedly embrace as the very avenue for progress and human happiness. If truly ours is a Western affect pool of necessary experiences, as we pursue the object of our “sensuous consciousness”, our own history, negotiating the ideological streams of our bodily reterritorializations, image by image, refrain by refrain, following our pleasures with an attentive mind to both a biological heritage and social discrepency, then the Good Life is the only North our compass can bear.

In Praise of Scholarly Enemism: People are Animals Too!

Larvel Subjects emerges from his coccon to spread his wet-wings in a new sun. In this thought-post , he objects to what he calls “kumbaya politics”, specific it seems to the humanism of the some from the academic Left. While I have no idea what events he is responding to (a post, a book read, a professor he quarreled with?), and thus cannot trace the real target of his thinking, there is an important thought in his semi-argument which inspires thoughts on abstractions of opposition (While I use Larvel Subject’s declamations here, my thoughts are directed beyond whatever political position he holds. In so doing I approach not only aspects of his argument, but the way that they connect to the Revolutionary, Marxist politics we here recently have been discussing: concepts necessary of radical breaks. They are the platform for ruminations.):

Here it is not a question of being tolerant or recognizing that “everyone is human”. Indeed, one wishes that the tender hearted humanists would recognize that all humans are animals and that animals often prey upon one another and exercise terrific cruelty on one another, not out of malice or wickedness, but simply out of pursuing their own interests. However, no matter how nice these people are, when faced with a system that causes so much human misery and such disproportionate privilege, certainly it follows that the friend/enemy distinction is entirely operative. In fact, what is disgusting is not the operation of the friend/enemy distinction, but those who would deny its presence, treating the field of struggle as if it were flat and everyone were in the same position.

To my ear this supposed dichotomy betweeen the “tender-hearted” human (which is co-operative and communal) and the “animal” (which is driven by warring self-interest) is one of the most enduring and naive projections around. It is founded upon the largely Christian message that there are divine and animal parts of the human being: the selfishness of primative, animal, affective, emotional interests, versus the angelic, other-worldly “human” state. Its jarring that intellectuals still think this way. What is animal in us (all of us being animal) is not particularly some kind of naturalized “prey upon each other” penchant for “cruelty on one another”, but all of our behaviors. Not only do animals attack and kill one another, but they also commune with great intimacy and sacrifice, negotiate boundaries, modify their environments and any number of complexly related interactions. Larval Subjects seems to feel that because we are not just human beings but animals, and animals naturally “pursue their own interests” there is an inherent contradiction between human pursuits of interests, and our animal ones. While it is certainly admitted that the “friend/enemy distinction” is “operative” (who would deny this, I have no idea), they question is, what place does such a distinction have in politics? What good does it serve? (It is a mistake to make of the friend/enemy distinction some kind of naturalized Good animal expression: all our expressions are animal ones.)

The Traps of Oppositional Thinking

What is at stake here, in praise of academics who suppose the friend/enemy distinction not only to be operative, but essential, is what I read to be Oppositional Thinking: my thoughts become most clear to me, and others, to the degree that they are in opposition to something other (to some principle, or more readly, some persons who are the enemy). The difficulty with Oppositional Thinking, in particular that of the political realm, is that when one thinks consistently in this way and begins to identify oneself within an essential opposition, a curious thing seems to happen. Your personal investment is no longer in the defeat of the very thing that have declared yourself in opposition to, but rather in the perpetuation of very state of opposition itself. In just this way one actually works to preserve the very thing you have declared you wish to overcome. The enemy gives you purpose.

It is precisely this kind of projective imagination that seems in play when nostalgia-ridden academics require only the complete end to Capitalism as proof that justice has been achieved (or even substantially pursued). The cry is “Yes, a lot of things have changed, but that is still Capitalism!” It is that we must invent newer and newer forms of Capitalism, just as a fundamentalist Christian has to invent newer and newer manifestations of the Devil, in order to maintain the authority of our protest voice, and really the coherence of our own identities as protesters.

Living In the Land of the Enemy

Beyond this descriptive insistence in which the enemy continually has to be recreated, I believe that one also invents a strange sort of detachment from one’s own investments in the world, one’s day to day connections to lived lives. Like born-agains, one is living-in-enemy-territory, painfully partaking in the very forms of supposed universal cruelty of the System, losing track of the complexities of local violences (how deleterious, I have often thought, is even a frown worn throughout the day, or a person habitually ignored, as it spreads its ripples across attendant faces.) Further, this detachment actually allows one to actively invest in the very systematic structures that one theoretically objects to. For instance a professor argues against heirarchial knowledge systems in a way that in practice manifestly performs and trains them, inculcating her or his students in the classroom. The abuses and cruelties of human relations can often be clearly evident in professor feifdom mentalities of knowledge-as-jargon power that make up professor/student exchanges. By and large, projections of wholesale and systematic friend/enemy distinctions promote detachments from real relations (lived) such that war is imagined by academics to be only something that can be accomplished in the Heavens of ontological disputes. “Yes, I am guilty of Capitalist Relations, but I fight the good fight up there in the Ethersphere!” is the confession.

I believe something of this kind of thinking/detachment can also be seen in Larval Subject’s notion of “objective guilt”. It is interesting, if not an outright confusion, that he qualifies his participation on Capitalism as “non-intentional” instead of simply “animal” self-interest:

Rather, objective guilt is instead a function, despite any intentions that a person might have, of the functional role that a person’s actions play in an overarching system of social relations. Thus, for example, as someone who has a 403 retirement plan, I possess a share of objective guilt with respect to how Capital functions to stratify society, how it exploits other groups of people, how it organizes war and poverty, how it destroys the environment, and all the rest. This objective guilt has nothing to do with my intentions as an individual person. No, my intention as an individual is to set aside a certain percentage of my wages for investment so that I might some day be able to retire and sustain my existence until death. I have no desire or intention to exploit others, to organize poverty, to promote war, to destroy the planet, etc. However, objectively my investments participate in all of these phenomena.

It is not without coincidence that it is immediately following this self-confession that the myth of the non-tender-hearted animal is presented, to bookend the justification of one’s course in life. I am not too-guilty of the crimes of Capitalism because a) Explicitly, I do not intend to be, and b) Implicitly, I am an animal and just naturally pursuant of self-interest. This seems precisely the kind of internal contradiction and self-justification that is generated in Oppositional Thinking: an under-grounding myth of naturalized forces, and detachment from real-world, lived relations under the category of (entirely human) “intentionality”.

It is not just that such enemy-making thought leads to a kind of performative self-contradiction, an identity entrapment for the loyal believers, but it also leads to a practical restriction on where people look for real-world solutions to problems of injusitice. To take a small example. If one is a priori committed to the view that something called “Capitalism” is inherently evil, some kind of pervading monstrous, crushing influence, the very notion that one might turn to Capitalism itself for solutions becomes foreclosed. Microcredit with its power to transform societies of poverty through the lending of money to the most impoverished and disempowered in small increments can become simply the perceived infiltration of an insideous force, the enemy creeping within. One’s fantasy-space of premises shapes the very models of our freedoms, a fantasy-space that can seldom come under review for those who have memorized the founding tenets of analysis.

The Animal Within

To return to the picture of the “animal” within. There is a mistaken conception of the Animal that presumes that “war of all against all” is somehow the most natural and essential of states, and that we all must be soberly loyal, as animals to this fact. This requires some form of non-animal abstract social contract (Hobbes), or sublimation of primitive parts (Freud), but also a rightful embrace of what is deeper: pure “self-interest”. Self-interest is in my view necessarily other-interest. Not only in human beings, but in the “lower” animals as well. Yes, the friend/enemy distinction is operative, but it is not essential. It is context dependent and something often best overcome. One is never naturally my enemy. The myth of an essentially segregated “self-interest” buried in the animal is one that has paid very little attention to real animals in the world, a myth that requires essentialized kinds presumed to be in essential opposition. Oppositional Thinking in the same way often requires the imaginary projection of an enemy that one works to perpetuate both in the imaginary and material sense, so as to maintain one’s meaningful position in the world, seeing the hand of the Devil everywhere, so that one can fight it (and with far-cast eyes fail to see what one is actively invested in).

[Addendum: Anodynelite has a wonderful post up which also has some connection to the friend/enemy distinction:

I am more than happy to make friend/enemy distinctions, to draw lines in the political sand. But from here, it does not follow that I believe "radical breaks" are possible, or that friend/enemy distinctions are always productive intellectually. I do not believe that because friend/enemy distinctions exist within a political economy that we have carte blanche when it comes to "revolutionary violence" as a means to our political ends. I do not believe that modes of non-violent resistance necessarily preclude friend/enemy distinctions; quite the contrary, I believe that the most effective and ruthlessly efficient methods of resistance at our disposal are non-violent.

Here: Latour has Answers ]


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