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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 re.press 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.

How Normative Is the Greek Chorus? Spinoza, Rorty, Davidson and Sophocles

Geometry of Know

A passing comment recalled to me a certain conceptual break through. I was studying Davidson’s “Three Varieties of Knowledge”which presents his theory of Triangulation while at the same time studying narratology, and looking into Bakhtin. For some reason discussion of mimetic and deitic elements suddenly struck me as revealing of the elemental Greek Tragedy structure (Hero, Chorus, Audience), and I realized that Greek Tragedy exemplified Davidson key epistemological point, that we attain objective knowledge due to our largely coherent, belief-veridical, intersubjective knowledge of others (with Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument playing an integral part). The Tragic Chorus formalized an essential epistemo-ontological ground, a necessarily reflective element within the field of the real which indicated to us something of what the real was, as if it were us. And just as quickly it seems, I realized that Davidson’s Triangulation was the same sort of argument  Spinoza put forth which grounded the “social” within the imaginary powers of an imitation of affects – E3p27 (we feel what others we take to be like us are feeling). That is, there is a bio-kinesthetic linking of affective capacities with perception ordering itself which allows affects to ripple through and across bodies in  a reportive, if imaginary way. The broadcastive behavioral forms of other things condition our own experiences, determining them along a causal vector, in a sense normatively and charitably making rational, affective wholes without which the world could not coherently exist.

The Normativity of Truth

Thought comes to mind about Rorty’s wonderful reversal of a decade of dispute with his ally Donald Davidson, wherein he realized that indeed there is a place for a Theory of Truth in Philosophy. His realization was that without a community of users, there is no language game, and a community requires normativity (presumably of use, behavior and experience). As he put it, Prescription precedes Description. It was here, in prescription, in normativity, that the powers of our descriptions lie. So to complete full circuit, if indeed Greek Chorus performs the middle (intersubjective) leg of Donald Davidson’s Triangulation of three knowledges, just how normative is the Greek Chorus?

10 Greatest Philosophers (sigh): Desert Island Question

Tool Kit

Jon Cogburn’s list in the comments section over at Perverse Egalitarianism  it seems has forced/spurred me onto my own list, as absurd as it may be, (but processes of organization are creative). It is a conflation of “greatest influence,”  upon me, but also as I read it, “greatest influence” upon the best solution for the pressing questions of our historical moment, a solution which must resonate down to the root/earth of the Western Philosophical tree. In a sense the list represents the authors from whom — if I was on a desert island and had to compose a philosophical theoretical perspective for our Age, and could be given the entire oeuvre of each — I would compose my island library; where there are two, I get two for the price of one. I include a small note on what seems the most germane contribution, though effects are radial.

1. Spinoza (parallel postulate under a register of power)

2. Plato (formulating the Orphic)

3. Augustine (Immanent Semiotics of truth)

4. Plotinus (Degree of Being transformation of Plato)

5. Davidson (Triangulation and Objectivity)

6. Guattari and Deleuze (Ontology of Affects)

7. Wittgenstein (Language Game)

8. Nietzsche (Ascent of Metaphor)

9. Sophocles (The Surpass of Tragedy)

10. Maturana and Varela (Operational Closure)

A large measure of this ranking can be seen as an after-image of an entire branch of thinking stemming from Descartes’ Central Clarity Consciousness  conception, which had its reverberations and mal-interpretations running through both the Continental and Analytic sides, a branch that is best left behind for now.

The actual numbers are only as they came to me without very much juggling. Tons of beautiful philosophers left off, some of my most favorite ones with whom I agree much more, and more inspire me, than some on the list…but that is the beauty of lists they force a composition, a constellation. Of course I would love to hear any of your own lists under something of the same criteria (or whatever).

(On another para-frivolous note, I would love to do a NCAA like bracket “playoff” of the 64 greatest philosophers, a competition/comparison which could have serious conceptual implications about truth and correction.)

Here a BBC Greatest Philosopher List

Differences in the World as Organs of Perception

Organs of Perception

In my last post I began reasoning how the usually assumed limits of an organism (a physical boundary to which other boundaries are thought to more or less correspond) might be extended far beyond where skin, bone, nerve ends, each organism expressing itself to an outer-limit of an Exowelt. In this approach I sought to assert that the differences in the world to which an organism attends actually operate as organs of perception for the being. This raises the question, what would it mean for parts, aspects or features of the world to act as organs of perception for the organisms that they affect?

Perhaps we can start at the roughest of sketches so as to disabuse this thought of merely a metaphorical status. What Aristotle told us is that organs have their unique objects, objects that they specialize in, and in which they do not err in reporting:

Each sense has one kind of object which it discerns, and never errs in reporting that what is before it is colour or sound (though it may err as to what it is that is coloured or where that is, or what it is that is sounding or where that is.) Such objects are what we propose to call the special objects of this or that sense.

- De Anima Book II Part VI (418)

What would be the “special objects” of differences that organisms attend to? How is it that we see though differences in the world unique other objects? We can suggest that the unique objects that are perceived through the object differences we attend to, are those objects that form part of its Exowelten, those differences that indeed do affect it. In this way the states of the world which are revealed by my attending to the behaviours of my dog, are those that necessarily affect my dog, and those that are shown through my attending to states of a mountain, are those that affect the mountain. Both the dog and the mountain become organs of perception for my organism, inhabited locations in which my awareness, if fleetingly, resides.

[If one wants a fuller sense of how I am picturing this kind of epistemic trianguation, the way in which we combine with other things in order to perceive the world, my essay on Wittgenstein, Davidson and Spinoza might make a few things clear The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV ]

It is as Davidson argued of inter-subjective rational belief in his “Three Varieties of Knowledge” , and then deeper, as Spinoza argues in regards to the affectuum imitatio, frequently cited on this site:

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

That we regularily read the world through the “sameness” of other aspects of it, such that the organs of truth and of perception must be extended beyond any isolated island of unitary substance. Taken to its literal truth, organisms themselves must extend beyond and combine with aspects of the world itself. What this alternate model of the organism means is that while we might investigate the connections between otherwise assumed to be discrete units by looking at what is inside of them (be they thoughts, concepts, affects, images, beliefs, etc), we would do better by appreciating the connections by the very overlap of Exowelten, and the sharing of nodal points as differences in the world. In short, you and I communicate because we share Exowelt nodes in the world, specific real differences which make differences in our organisms. And the same is for the communications between me and my dog, and even between me and my desk.

Not Balls or Bubbles

Key to this model is the non-intuitional appreciation that boundaries overlap. For very good causal reasons we take the best descriptions of what is real to be the apparent physical boundaries which create specific exclusionary pictures. Like bouncing balls there are imagined to be private interiors, and then external laws of relations which connect them. (Much of this stems from the social private/public cultural developments of the West. Metaphysics of privacy, and its problems, seem to play out in projective fashion social concerns.) Such a world picture is clear in Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt (experiential outer world), as explained by his son Thule, who compares our individual world to “sharply delineated but invisible bubbles”:

Reality, to which all things must yield and from which everything must derive, is not “outside” in infinite space that has neither beginning nor end and that is filled with a cloud of elementary particles. Nor is it “inside,” within ourselves in the indistinct, distorted images of this “outside” that our minds create. It reveals itself in the worlds (Jakob von Uexküll calls them Umwelten) with which sensuous perception surrounds all living beings as if with bubbles that are sharply delineated but invisible to the outside observer. These “bubbles of self-worlds” are like Leibniz’s “monads” the bricks and mortars of reality.

What I suggest is that despite the cultural appeal of imagining hermetically sealed objects, bubbles sealed off from each other, we take such bubbles and extend them out into the world itself, such that the world itself (aspects of it)becomes “organs of perception”. And concordantly, that instead of mutually exclusive bubbles sealed off, these are necessarily overlapped, partially mutual exo-bodies, siamese and conjoined. The “problem” of communication is pre-existingly foreclosed. The “bricks and mortars of reality” are webbed.

Deleuze in this study of Spinoza, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, speaks to just this intimate connection between organism and environment, under an explanation of “ethology”:

Ethology is first of all the study of the relations of speed and slowness, of the capacites for affecting and being affected that characterize each thing. For each thing these relations and capacities have an amplitude, thresholds (maximum and minimum), and variations or transformations that are peculiar to them. And they select, in the world or in Nature, that which corresponds to the thing; that is, they select what affects or is affected by the thing, what is this animal unaffected by in the infinite world? What does it react to positively or negatively? What are its nutriments and its poisons? What does it “take” in its world? Every point has its counterpoints: the plant and the rain, the spider and the fly. So an animal, a thing, is never separable from its relations with the world. The interior is only a selected exterior, and the exterior, a projected interior. The speed or slowness of metabolisms, perceptions, actions, and reactions link together to constitute a particular individual in the world (125)

What Deleuze does not follow up on because he is concerned with the production of kinds of affects qualified by speed and intensity is that because organism and world cannot be separable, defined rather by their relations, organisms themselves must share nodal points in the world (and it is this very mode of sharing that brings together the mutuality of their bodies). My relations to this part of the world are those which place value (epistemic and also ethical value) upon your relations to this same part of the world. Our bodies are in a mutual form of conjunction that may be best imagined as an overlap of Exowelten. The same things in the world make a difference to us (though the difference made may not the similiar), and the same things in the world potentially reveal other aspects of the world. The “same” in Spinoza’s affectuum imitatio is a same of relations.

So when Deleuze asks on the following page,

How do individuals enter into composition with one another in order to form a higher individual, ad infinitum? How can a being take another being into its world, but while preserving or respecting the other’s own relations and world?

The answer must presume the very mutuality of material confluence and overlap between organisms, the richly conjoined nature of epistemic/affective end-points, a sharing of “organs of perception” which cannot err.

Masciandaro’s Splendoring

Medievalist Nicola Masciandaro’s eclectic and thought-provoking weblog, The Whim, has a recent entry on the concept of “Splendering”, or Spectacular intimacy. His entry calls to mind both my thoughts on Plotinus’s analogies of light The Cone of Plotinus: Ontologies of Profusion and Particularization, as he tells us to look-with, sunorãn, the light, and not at the things lit, and also my current attempts in establishing a Spinozist/Davidsonian epistemological modeling of a panpsychist world: the way in which we necessarily, logically, biologically, turn to others to view the world. How can one resist evocations of Dante as guide? 

SPECTACULAR INTIMACY, or, the brightness of light becoming itself. Splendor is not a quality, but the condition of the overcoming of quality. It is not something seen, but the visible approach of the place where seeing becomes the seen. “In this state of absorbed contemplation there is no longer question of holding an object: the vision is continuous so that seeing and seen are one thing; object and act of vision have become identical; of all that until then filled the eye no memory remains. . . . the vision floods the eyes with light, but it is not a light showing some other object, the light is itself the vision.” Syntactically, the line temporalizes splendor, traces the becoming substantial of the relation between seeing and seen as a time delay within their distinction. Suspended in this light-filled air, can I say what splendor is? Luckily Dante, being one who breathes love back into philology (the exhale of his taking note when love inspires), is here to help.[iii]Commenting on the descent of divine power as sight (In lei discende la virtù divina / sì come face in angelo, che ‘l vede), he explains splendor via Avicenna as not only reflected light, but the visible/visual becoming of a thing toward the virtue shining on it. Seeing is not simply splendor’s external measuring tool, but the very efficiency of its cause. To see someone’s splendor, to experience how she shines, is to witness her becoming like what she sees and thus belong by parallel process to her being. (the rest, including footnotes…)

I have just begun looking at the blog, but look forward to future posts there.

Having a Beer with Philosophy

Sometimes I regret that philosophy is not done this way, in conversation (was this not the meaning of the Socrates method before it was formalized and staged in dialogues). Tim Thornton tells of a fond memory he had, when he had the fortune of sitting with Davidson in a pub, passing from intermittent dialogue to Dionysus.

Interestingly, this was a conference when Davidson finally came out and said IT, animals don’t have minds:

It was at a conference in Reading in 1996, a last chance to see Quine in this world, an opportunity to watch Dennett get the better of Searle and to hear Davidson say he was tired of being subtle about the matter and that animals really didn’t have minds.

Its interesting because I find in Davidson’s thinking the roots for a pan-psychic presupposition, founded upon a Spinozist grammar of affects. For me such a momentary lack of subtlety is perhaps less of note, for philosophy at times requires subtlety (here, how “mind” is restrictively defined). In this case Davidson seems merely to have claimed something of the order: beliefs cannot be categorically ascribed to animals, an issue he skirts in “The Three Varieties of Knowledge”. As I have argued elsewhere, such ascription must be context dependent, and as such only is a rational linguistic framework upon an already working triangulation that readily occurs in animals, and in us (as we are animals as well). I do though find it significant how we read philosophers when they just come right out and say something that otherwise in theory they were quite careful to step around, it is something like, “Enough with philosophy, this is what I think!” It says something about the authority we grant to thinkers, perhaps like how we do to painters. You have been there, you have looked at it, what do you think (not, what would you argue)? I think that this is the charm and substance of Tim Thornton’s recollection. We can see ourselves there. 

I often think how nice it would be to sit with philosophers of influence, how disappointing perhaps, the knight without his chainmail and shield, but also, so much more understandable.

Ever Watch a Leaf Blow?…The Synthesis of Life

Ever watch a leaf blow, and for a flicking moment, out of the corner of your eye, think it is a living thing?

A follow up on: Big Dog: Our Selves, and perhaps on: Anselm’s Proof of God, Wittgenstein’s Lion, Davidson’s Belief

We live in extraordinary times, don’t we?

The Sprache of Achilles: The Panoply of Speech

The Man that Does Not Think by Oneself

I want this post to both grow out of a comment Carl from Dead Voles made on the thread Heidegger “Never says…” and Harman says… and also to be an expansion upon the thoughts I began on my recent post Human Competence: Achilles On the Mend. There is a certain compatibility between Wittgensteinian language game approaches and the speaking strategies of Achilles, the hero of Homer’s Iliad, and it is my hope to use the figure of Achilles to point forward toward a way that is neither tragic, nor alienated in the world of objects, a post-human world of forces and coherent assemblage.

Carl was responding to a line from the neo-Marxist/Spinozist Etienne Balibar, that that reflects something of Wittgenstein’s well-known Private Language Argument: “If no man ever thinks alone, then we might say that to know really is to think ever less by oneself”

This is making me think of Wittgenstein’s private language problem. Perhaps we’ve come full circle and back to your original post. In with the not-said is all of the rules and tools that any particular language game makes available to take for granted. These are the conditions for any intelligible and communicative statement. In practice they arise out of discourse communities, which are associated with ways of life, which are conditioned by all sorts of things starting with food and up through durable institutions. I trust I can wave my hands like this and convey a gist.

We make our own worlds, but not in conditions of our own choosing, as Marx said. So I couldn’t agree more when you say “I find it more valuable to see how we can invest the tradition itself with new possibilities, to change the tradition from within. And whether it is the tradition that is doing the thinking, or us as originals, really doesn’t matter.” Except I’d say it’s both, always both…

We had been discussing Graham Harman’s appropriation of Heidegger’s notion of Dasein and implied objecthood, coupled with his stout refusal to grant that Heidegger held such an idea as is originally his own, that objects other than human beings could have their own Dasein determination. The idea is meant to be both implicitly found within Heidegger, but also excluded from Heidegger. In a sense, it partakes in the authority of Heidegger, but aims to be immune to critiques of the same. In this regard, Carl suggests (at least it seems to me) that within a Wittgensteinian terminology, the language game of Heidegger’s description of the world might be seen to have within its possibilities of Graham Harman’s assertions regarding forever hidden, real objects, although these possibilities were not develped by Heidegger.

Achillean Immanence vs. Odysseus’s Instrumentality

In my previous post on the difference between the heroic figures of fierce and woeful Achilles and the table-turning, wandering Odysseus, I pointed out that Western Philosophy, particularly in its modern manifestations, took on the wrong Greek hero. Instead of the radiating Achilles who defines himself by his bonds and presents himself as a pure man of action (or inaction), of which speech was a considerable means, philosophy concerned itself with the No-man traveler of endless turns, the serial human being whose only defining characteristic is his mind’s capacity to dexterously articulate itself amid the contingencies of Being, all the while largely homeless, spread across the earth.

There is an important factor in the story of Achilles though that narrows the point and brings us directly back to the comparison to language games that Carl draws. And this is Achilles’s linguistic strategies as found in his speech of the Ninth Book of the Iliad. For those who are unfamiliar, or need to be refreshed, Achilles the greatest warrior of the Greeks has withdrawn from the Trojan War because his rightfully awarded prize Briseis was taken from him by Agamemnon who is nominally the chief of the Hellenic contingent, as some sort of recompense for his own war-prize, a daughter of a priest of Apollo having to be returned. The Hellenic warriors now are loosing the battle without their most powerful ally, and Agamemnon is faced with the shame of having acted unrightfully. Achilles has been convinced to come to a great hall meeting where he is to make a plea articulating his being wronged. As it has been put, “Achilles needs to be paid, but he cannot be bought off”. 

Now this is the interesting thing. Achilles in our collective memory is largely thought of as some kind of glorious and blood splattered athlete, a kind of brute beauty perhaps, a pure articulation of body. But this is not at all the case in the minds of the listeners of Homer. He is a master of the lute and song, learned in the secrets of medical arts, and adroitly mesmerizing in speech (muthos). In his speech to the hall, in rebuttal to Odysseus’s finely constructed argument, he combines personal expression and ethical character argumentation (I am this way, Agamemnon is that way) to present a plea which strains the very form of the heroic hexameter verse in which it is to appear.

The Book 9 Speech: The New and the Old

There has been debate about the unique uses of language forms by Achilles ever since Adam Parry’s 1956 article “The Language of Achilles” which claimed that Achilles’ abuse of the heroic form actually indicated his pure and existential alienation from the rigidity of human ordination. He was in a sense, cut off from history, and in the end performs some sort of transcendental and divine reconsilation. David Claus in his 1975 “Aidös and the Language of Achilles” denied Parry’s conclusions, rather arguing that Achilles in speech only melded the heroic code to its new possibilities, bending and transforming its rules. The context of these interpretations can be seen in the informative essay, “The Language of Achilles: Reconstrution vs. Representation,” Steve Nimis (1986)[click here]. There Nimis sums Claus’s understanding of Achilles’ maneuver as the following,

Achilles, Claus argues, does not simply negate the heroic “code” (taking this term to mean a pattern of meaningful behavior and speech), but rather stretches and bends it in order to articulate his own ideal view of that code. Hence despite the formality and rhetorical predictability of his overt statements, [Achilles] manages to suggest a division of the heroic world into men who feel and love, who can fight, who have proper joy in their possessions, and those who rely on “things” to defend themselves against heroic sthenos, who seek to be kinglier than others, whose possessions are nothing good to them, who do not even know what a life is worth. Again, while this rejects Agamemnon and all his ways, it leaves the heroic code, at least as Achilles idealizes it, intact.

It is this I would like to focus on, the way in which an Achillean ideal type, through the force of his Being, his ideational and bodily capacity to act, takes hold of the existing “language game” and torques it to express what cannot otherwise be expressed within it. And in so doing, idealizes it by living out the expression he/she has formed. And it is specifically at the nexus of valuation that Achilles draws his distinction within the heroic realm. There are two kinds of men:

1. Men who feel and love, who can fight, who have proper joy of their possessions.

2. Those who rely on “things” to defend themselves against heroic strength [sthenos], who seek to be kinglier than others, whose possessions are nothing good to them, who do not even know what a life is worth.

Beneath this division is really the instrumentality of valuation, the unbodied, placeholder conception of “things” (objects and situations) as separable units of deploy vs. the lived and built bonds of enfleshed alliance. It is the difference between instrument and prosthetic grafting. Achilles forms his words out of his very fleshed circumstance, fully committed to what he can do. Agamemnon (and Odysseus) has politically weighed and buried self-interest against the possibilities of advance.

Nimis, taking both interpretive positions of relative alienation in hand, then qualifies Achilles’s speech act within the linguistic distinction of rule-governed creativity, and rule-changing creativity:

Both Claus’ analyses of Achilles’ speeches and Parry’s notion of Achilles’ alienation can be rethought in these terms, taking our cue from the distinction linguists make between rule-changing creativity and rule-governed creativity. All communication occurs in terms of conventions, but such conventions are constantly being used to “say” new things by various creative strategies. Rule-governed creativity is defined as the production of a new phrase or message which is a combination of conventional units in a way governed by prior conventions. Thus the sentence “there is a golden mountain on the moon” would be a “new” expression, but able to be understood given the existing conventions of English. Wallace Stevens’ famous line, however, “green colorless ideas sleep furiously,” is an example of rule-changing creativity, since the production and interpretation of this phrase require the establishment of a new convention which does not yet exist. Achilles’ speeches can be said to be examples of such rule-changing creativity. Like Wallace Stevens, he is a sign-producer who wishes to change the “code”, to articulate a meaning for whose communication and accurate reception no adequate conventions exist as yet. The situation seems to be paradoxical: if communication is based on conventions, how can it occur where no conventions exist? Yet unless we assume that language is “natural” in the strict sense (i.e., that it is immanent), all language must have become conventional by some form of rule-changing creativity (4)

Aside from the fact that Donald Davidson does have an answer for how language can occur without shared conventions, we can glimpse at the way in which Achilles’s speech act is to be idealized as the exemplar of almost all creative artistic activity. It is the attempt creatively change the rules of the game that refuses your articulation, rather than play by the rules (and break them secretly when you can). And in so doing attempt to isolate and express the purpose of the language game in the first place.

Now there is something a bit Hegelian about this take of Nimis’s, and it really shows up in his conclusion, but I would like to focus on Achilles’s alienation. He is not alienated from human beings as a class, for he gets along well with his Myrmidons who he leads, and Protroclus who he loves, and Briseis, and Phoenix his old mentor (despite disagreements), and his mother the goddess Thetis. He alienated from his moment in history, the condition he has found himself in, as an injustice has been suffered. And he experiences this not as a personal injustice, which it is, but as a crisis in leadership itself, in the unkingliness of the said King who does not fight nor act equal to his position. This is shown much later in the Hellenic games Achilles presides over, after Agamemnon has left the narrative, showing the correct form of generous rule. Fair is not a calculation. So Achilles’s is not an ontological alienation under which he is somehow removed from his very Being, but a contingent insufficiency of expression, wherein his constitutional bonds are stretched. In this way, Achilles creatively stretches the heroic form, and with great expense steps away from the game so to affect it with his absence. A great portion of the tale is told with his absence as the main actor until finally it is only his armor that arrives. Achilles is the full inhuman and divine breadth that is in what’s human.

Achilles as Actor

When I suggest that the Achillean answer to the traditional Odysseus problems of philosophy is available, it is this that I emphasize (to select a few).

1. A substanced capacity to live through your bonds and attachments, and not simply use or deploy them.

2. The capacity to realize that speech acts are fully material acts, and that we can readily use rule-changing creativity to express what is within a rule-governed game.

3.The rhetor and the gnostic become the same person because the difference between the political and performance is collapsed.

4. Maintaining the hyper-human (divine) and trans-human (inanimate, elemental forces) spectrum of action, drawing on all our capacities to manifest (Solar Achilles).

5. Employ the immanence of one’s power as necessarily a limit reachable by mercy, the affirmation of custom renewed (Priam).

6. The value of things is fate.

7. Don the Achillean armor of immanence carefully, prudently (Patroclus); you are already wearing it.

8. When you make the corpse (Hector), turning the living into surface through the inscription of your desire, you must release it.

This is far from the self-negating existentialism of Odysseus (at least before he comes home to Ithica, as he becomes qualified by later Attic Tragedy). The human being takes its place within a panoply of historical objects, each fighting to bring forth its full expression. And bonds formed between living an inanimate things are as solid as atomic bonds, the forceful living through, and by the others around us. Man does not travel on his own temporal river, sequestered from the world, blessed/cursed only with the negating power of his consciousness. Man does not travel cloaked with the negating power of his own mortality. In the figure of Achilles it is not the illusion that man is both angel and animal, and therefore neither, the gap between them, but rather as all things are so constituted, man is a spectrum of forces brought to bear in their moment of history, finding the articulation that is best possible for them, those voices and those continuities.

Davidson Fast and Loose With Conceptual Schemes?

 

Daniel over at SOH-Dan picks up on quote from an older post of mine, Spinoza, Davidson and Conceptual Dualism…Only Two?, and provides some interesting information. I had quoted from Davidson and Spinoza: Mind, Matter and Morality  (Floris van der Berg), an comment made by a Wittgensteinian:

Here I want to refer to my friend and former colleague at Warwick University Tim Thornton, a Wittgensteinian. He told me years ago that he never understood why Davidson was a conceptual dualist. Why stop at two conceptual spheres or modes of description? Why is the distinction between the mental and the physical so much more compelling than any other way that we can think of to describe the world? Would it not be sensible to say that all situations can, in some way, be described as moral? Tim Thornton thought that conceptual pluralism made more, Wittgensteinian, sense. (footnote, p. 27,)

This has bearing of course on any Davidson/Spinoza connection we might foster, so it is of interest that Daniel reports that in Stuart Hampshire “Davidson in Conversation” recordings, Davidson actually quite easily speaks of other conceptual, irreducible frameworks. And Daniel is even kind enough to provide us with an extensive quote from the hard to find material:

I certainly think that we have more than two ways of conceiving reality. I often sound as if I think there are just two, natural science and psychology or something, but, no, there are a lot of natural sciences, and they have different ways of describing things, perhaps irreducibly different…. I don’t know how you’d count potential conceptual schemes, so I don’t see that one should boggle at them [like Spinoza did].

There are some worthwhile exchanges in the comments section, and we certainly see that Davidson has different sense of conceptual scheme than Spinoza had of Attributes (hence where Spinoza “boggles”, Davidson merely muses). More compelling than this is that we touch on the morality issue. Thornton notably points out that all situations might be said to be described morally. Daniel and I both agree that there is a moral or ethical component already buried within Davidson’s notion of psychology. And this is precisely where I find the strongest Davidson/Spinoza connection, the way that mental states as coherent and epistemic expressions necessarily carry with them a triangulating and thus charitable force. My suspicion has been that Spinoza buries in the category of the conatus the traditional Augustinian third form of “amare” (esse, nosse, amare: natural, rational, moral) also expressed as “will”, a third Attribute. The implicate presence of the moral/ethical within Davidson’s and Spinoza’s monism is something that I think Thornton importantly, if accidentally, does touch on.

Heidegger: He Who Doesn’t Enjoy God

Not a Tool

I’ve run into a wonderful article which elucidates Augustine’s and Davidson’s theories of discourse in terms of each other,  Stephen R. Yarbrough’s “The Love of Invention: Augustine, Davidson, and the Discourse of Unifying Belief,” one which I want post something of substance soon. But today it comes to me, through Yarbrough’s explication of Augustine’s De doctrina, that Heidegger’s is a world where he uses everything, but doesn’t enjoy God (perhaps too obvious an observation, but I think it has subtle consequences). We know that Heidegger was influenced by his early study of Augustine, but it is Graham Harman’s uncovery of the hidden objects of Heidegger “tool-beings” that really lead me to think in this way. Yarbrough brings out that in De doctrina everything in the world is something to be both enjoyed and used, but only one thing is only to be enjoyed, and not used, and that is God. In a provisional sense, the entire world is full of tool-beings (which we enjoy and use), but there is only one thing that is not a tool-being, only to be enjoyed, God. And it is this that makes the entire use/truth of signifying discourse function. It grounds it, and makes it immanent. This is not something I”ve thought through, but more a morning thought worth tracing, the intersection of Graham’s eternally isolated objects falling back into their own darkness, and Augustine’s signifying world. Heidegger, the thinker that does not enjoy God.

I’ll have to look at De doctrina  more closely, and become more familiar with Graham’s objects, but something to be pursued. Comments or paths welcome.

[Addendum, Graham responds: But one possible difference is that for me, God would be the ultimate example of a "tool-being"- not as a useful pragmatic instrument who helps us more than anything else, but as an especially stunning example of a withdrawn entity.

And I exchange: But Graham, that would be a kind category mistake, at least that is how Augustine, and possibly Plotinus, would like to say. It would be like saying, well, I kinda see this object and that object, but I can’t see the Light. Because God/Light, in this metaphor, is the only thing that is not truly “Looked At” (that is it is by category, the only thing not used — tools being used), it would be a mistake to talk of it as being withdrawn. In a certain sense, it is the only thing NOT withdrawn, because it is not an “object”. As Plotinus tells us, don’t look “by” light, look “with” light.

This is also a large problem in trying to interpret Anselm’s Ontological Proof. God is not a thing, but the means of things, one could say.]

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