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The Becoming-woman of Machine in Avatar

A Comparison With The Fist of the White Lotus

[Early concept art for Cameron's Avatar]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animal, Woman, Child: Vitalism and Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Integrity of the Future

Some more musings on the difficult and perhaps absurd ideas of the last post…it kept me up last night, tossing and put me in a funk today.

Spinoza’s Letter to Balling feels like it has some clues for how I want to think on this. In the Spinoza example we have the story of a father who seemed to have heard the death sighs of his son before the boy had taken sick (presumably with the plague). It is unsure if Spinoza was only soothing a mournful father, but he in letter tells the friend that his imaginary hallucination may have come to through he and his son sharing an essence out of love (instead of being merely a product of the body). What Spinoza does not address is the interesting change of events that might have included the father recognizing the prophetic event for what it was, and whisking his son out of plague struck Europe. One wonders, would this chain of events have fit within Spinoza’s framework of essences?

Or, as I was thinking last night, could we conceive that a song, as it is being played is retroactively effected by the disastrous, atonal possibilities that exist in its possible future such that those atonalities  reach rippling back into the present selection of notes, a kind of chiaroscuro of reverberative possibilities. Does a song play itself in one direction? Deleuze and Guattari like to think of a melody as a line of flight, what if we took it to be a sphere of orbed becoming, a bubbling out of cogent line-walking at the edge of chaos and stability whose boundary reaches backward and forth beyond the present bifurcation (where we dream “choice” remains).

I want to say that there is a possible integrity of the future, that if with Spinoza we imagine an partaking essence-based concept of cohesive action, the conception that our demarcated and individualized directions are made in the process of a body-making, cognitive boundary laden whole, then where is it that we find the standpoint at which we deny that the future states of that whole do not through their very integrated character reverberate back, causally, upon states in the present (or even the past)? If one is going to subtend a specie aeterintatis in your thinking, do not the past and future necessarily fail and firm boundaries? Are not disasters forming the very wake of the bow of that boat?

Of course this is silly, there is a direction of the arrow of time, and even if entropy could be considered something of an illusion of Chaotic progression, where would the location of this ballast of the future recursively organized find a place to reside? But there is gravity here that does not seem to entirely be explained by psychology, or even the general teleological functionality of life forms, something that tugs at the idea…something that perhaps inverted itself in all sorts of eschatological waking dreams of prophets, and hand-of-God imaginings. It resides in the sense of the integrity of the future (which answers not to concepts of pure becoming, concepts of pure difference, concepts of continual creation), the way that we all orb ourselves into the future, the bow of us pre-existing what we are. How the water has been cut before we have arrived.

Anyways, some thoughts without discipline. I think this has something to do with Duchamp’s attraction to n-dimensional analysis which had interested me some time ago, perhaps more than a decade.

Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?

In reading through Bousquet’s The Scientific Way of Warefare (aspects of which I have already engaged, here), there are pockets of useful summation that one runs into in his narrative that simply call for investigation. I’m going to have to pass on an elaborate presentation of the ideas of Cybernetics and Complexity, but Bousquet provides excellent, essential cartography. In particular is his emphasis that Cybernetic thinking from the 40s, 50s and 60s concerned itself with a borrowing of the concept of “entropy” from thermodynamics, organization processes of “negative feedback” in pursuit of system homeostasis, with a concentration upon system “control”. Systems were seen as hermetically closed loops which worked inwardly to organize themselves to fight off entropy, noise, confusion, and establish an unending homeostasis which required no fundamental change in their own internal structure. The most basic form of the system was one that was able to note internal deviations from system “norm” which promoted external actions which would affect either a change in the environment or within, which then directed the system back to where it was before disturbed.

For some concerned with the philosophy of Spinoza there are immediate prima facie correspondences here, enough to suggest that Spinoza seems something of a proto-cyberneticist. Spinoza’s stoic-like internal regulation of one’s own thinking processes, especially on the order of the avoidance of “confused” ideas, along with his doctrine that the conatus (essential striving) of a person or a thing was a driving force to preserve itself against outside destruction, seem to hold true to a cybernetic framing of the question of epistemology and power/control. Add to this that cybernetic models were of a distinctly linear mathematical nature (marked by the additive property of cause), and that at times Spinoza seems to treat causes in the same linear fashion (for instance the idealized assertion that two men of the same nature, when combined produce a new body twice as powerful), suggests deep conceptual ties been Spinoza’s self-regulating bodies of conatus continuation and early information theory, cybernetic concepts of the control of “noise” and pursuant homeostasis. (There is of course the signficant difference in the concept of entropy itself, as Spinoza reads all degradation as caused by external influence, and not natural to any system itself.)

To this comparison of affinities we also have to add a significant metaphysical homology, something that struck me as rather surprising. I have long emphasized that Spinoza’s onto-epistemology partakes in an unusual though very distinct way in the Neoplatonic model of Being as read in degrees. This is to say, things do not simply have Being or not, but rather have degrees of Being. And, as I also emphasized, Augustine was probably the greatest purveyor of this Neoplatonic doctrine, taken from Plotinus, through the Christian Middle Ages to post Renaissance thinking. In such a view, “evil” is under a non-Manichean, and one wants to stress, non-Dualistic definition. Evil was simply the absence of good (and not a force in its own right).

Historical Digression: Handled briefly so as to give a sketch of the historical ground we are covering, the Augustianian, Neoplatonic position is perhaps best expressed in his Enchiridion. There  the ontology of the Good is equated with Being (an argument also found in the City of God  XI, chap. 9, where the relative non-Being of evil is also briefly stated. As with Spinoza so many centuries later, the question of the Being of evil becomes one merely one of privation:

CHAPTER IV. The Problem of Evil

12. All of nature, therefore, is good, since the Creator of all nature is supremely good. But nature is not supremely and immutably good as is the Creator of it. Thus the good in created things can be diminished and augmented. For good to be diminished is evil; still, however much it is diminished, something must remain of its original nature as long as it exists at all. For no matter what kind or however insignificant a thing may be, the good which is its “nature” cannot be destroyed without the thing itself being destroyed. There is good reason, therefore, to praise an uncorrupted thing, and if it were indeed an incorruptible thing which could not be destroyed, it would doubtless be all the more worthy of praise. When, however, a thing is corrupted, its corruption is an evil because it is, by just so much, a privation of the good. Where there is no privation of the good, there is no evil. Where there is evil, there is a corresponding diminution of the good.

One can see the correspondence between Augustine’s Ne0platonic “privation” and Spinoza’s theorizing on falsity, wherein the “Good” has been transposed into issues of truth; in the Ethics the gradated Being resolution of traditional dualisms has taken on its most systematic character. As Spinoza writes, ultimately echoing Plotinus’ radiating conception of Being (Enn. 3.2,5; 4.5,7):

E2p33 There is nothing positive in ideas whereby they can be said to be false.

Proof: If this can be denied, conceive, if possible, a positive mode of thinking which constitutes the form [forma] of error or falsity. This mode of thinking cannot be in God [E2p32], but neither can it be conceived externally to God [E1p15]. Thus there can be noting positive in ideas whereby they can be called false.

E2p35 Falsity consists in the privation of knowledge which inadequate ideas, that is, fragmentary and confused ideas, involve.

Return to Our Main Point: What is interesting is that Bousquet brings to our attention that Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, actually subscribed to an Augustinian concept of evil as well. That is to say, he regarded informational “noise” as that which a cybernetic system fought to overcome, understood as the absence, or non-recognition of order (pattern). When a cybernetic system fails it is due to a confusion resultant from an inability to read clearly the pattern of the events outside of it. And Wiener felt that cybernetic systems not only described thermostats and computer negative feedback loops, but also human beings and social systems.

The passage Bousquet evocatively cites is this:

I have already pointed out that the devil whom the scientist is fighting is the devil of confusion, not of willful malice. The view that nature reveals an entropic tendency is Augustinian, not Manichaean. Its inability to undertake an aggressive policy, deliberately to defeat the scientist, means that its evil doing is the result of a weakness in his nature rather than of a specifically evil power that it may have, equal or inferior to the principles of order in the universe which, local and temporary as they might be, still are probably not to unlike what the religious man means by God. In Augustinianism, the black of the world is negative and is the mere absence of white. (190)

The human use of human beings: cybernetics and society

One can see an immediate base similarity of project, in which the scientist looks to make clear and distinct the noise of the world, presumably by ordering his/her own ideas and internal organization as best that he/she; this, coupled with Spinoza’s own significant ontological tie of ordered and clear ideas with self-affirmations which render real changes in power in the world seems to place both Wiener and Spinoza within a world of potentiating noise and confusions, in which systems of every sort create islands of relatively more self-acting, clearer idea’d, internally coherent workings. The internal patterns of recursive coherence are those which recognize and order themselves amid a general pattern producing world. And there is ever the sense that the patterns, the coherence, the rationality is already out there. In Bateson, this is the “pattern that connects”.

But There Are Other Aspects of Spinoza

This is the way that Spinoza is often read, as the devoted, internally turned Rationalist. Neglected though is an entirely countervailing second aspect of Spinoza’s thinking. His Letter 12 skepticism towards mathematics, which he relates to products of the imagination (often overlooked), exposes a general distrust of ANY finite, localized expression of the universe, especially on the aspect of “control”. This is to say, Spinoza is ever suspect of the human mind/body’s ability to direct itself in the world, and as such, this skepticism yields to distinctly non-linear, non-equilibrium prescriptions which go far beyond Cybernetic science presumptions.

As Bousquet tells it, it is the realization that negative feedback isn’t the only primary organizing principle in systems. Indeed if a system is ever going to be able to adopt to environments which themselves are changing, it must have the ability to rewrite and change its own internal interpretative relations. And in order to do so they must be able to move from equilibrium pursuit (that ordered Good), to other equilibrium states. In fact in a certain sense the more semi-stable states a system is able to move into, the greater the chance it will have the flexibility to adapt to expected (unwritten yet) events. In short, one might want to say in a dangerously rhetorical way, a bit of “chaos” has to be introduced into the system. It is here where the conservation oriented, evil noise fighting cybernetic model gives way to Chaos theory and Complexity theory, fused into what has been called Chaoplexic thinking.

Positive feedback loops are those of a kind that do not push the system backdown to a homeostatic state, negating the effects of some outside perturbation. Instead they excite the system and work to produce more external events which, in what could be a vicious cycle, stimulate the system into further action. Positive feedback loops are those which can be self-extinguishing, as they throw the system forward into states from which it might not ever be able to return.

Now one can definitively say that just such mad chases are what Spinoza most often theorizes against. The burn-out amplifications of the imagination are just the kind that produce violence and hatred among peoples, and, as Spinoza artfully worked to show, these hatreds are logically linked to loves as well. Love and hate each can produces amplified destructions of reverberation. But if we look closer, is it not the case that negative feedback closure is also what Spinoza sees as insufficient? And, can we not agree with some systems theorists, that it takes a combination of negative-feedback groundings, and positive feedback exposures, flights, in order to produce a viable and self-preserving system? And, at the most fundamental level must we not also admit that for Spinoza behaviors and conditions of rationality are themselves positive feedback in their nature: rationality and clear understanding tends to produce more rationality and clear understanding (however contingently contextualized). What I suggest is that Spinoza’s cybernetic model of clearer self-organization amid a potentially threatening environment of noise is tempered (or one should say spiked) with an alternate Chaoplexic embrace of positive feedback amplifications, and that these amplifications help us read out some of core prescriptions in Spinoza’s advisement.

I feel a turn to an excellent diagram offered in Linda Beckerman’s informative essay “The Non-Linear Dynamics of War” will be of some help in uncovering the non-linear thinking of Spinoza. The diagram along with some of her explication hopefully will show the numerical, as well as still determinative aspects of chaoplexic organization, such that Spinoza skepticism of finite systems/expressions may dovetail with such thinking.

In explanation of the diagram Beckerman writes in a passage so clear it is worth quoting at length…

3. Bifurcation

3.1  Non-linear systems have the capacity to exhibit multiple stable states. This is illustrated in Figure 1 in what is termed a bifurcation diagram. The far left hand side of the diagram represents systems that are mono-stable and upon perturbation will eventually settle down to a single static or steady state condition. Just to the right of this region, the system “bifurcates”. This merely means that there are two states available to the system. For one range of perturbations and conditions, the system will settle down to one state and for another range of perturbations and conditions, it will settle down to another state. As we progress towards the right, each branch splits, and then each branch further splits resulting in a rapid increase the number of stable states. On the far right hand side are those that are Chaotic. Chaotic systems appear to have an infinite number of potentially stable states. But they never settle down to any of these for long and are therefore considered to be unstable…

3.3 Systems that are mono-stable or in steady state are so stable that any perturbation causes them to snap back to their stable state, leaving no opportunity for adaptation. Change requires “surgery”. An example of this would be a nation that solely uses attrition warfare to achieve its aims, regardless of the perturbation and underlying conditions (e.g. nature of adversary) causing them to go to war.

3.4 Figure 1 also shows an opportunistic region for adaptation. It is opportunistic precisely because there are so many states available. Many non-linear systems can be caused to bifurcate repeatedly merely by increasing the magnitude of the control parameters (see section 4). The most opportunistic portion is that immediately preceding the chaotic region (referred to as the “Edge of Chaos). The difficulty is the danger that a high amplitude perturbation (input) or change in system configuration (number of interconnections) could push the system into the chaotic region.

What I would like to put into immediate juxtaposition to such a Chaos-oriented framework is Spinoza’s famously suggestive numerical, and physical equation of “the Good”, where the Good is understood as “useful”…

E4p38Whatever so disposes the human Body that it can be affected in a great many ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great number of ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or of affecting other bodies, the more useful it is: on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful.

Hopefully you can see clearly how deviant this axiom of use is to the perturbation-shrinking model of negative feedback elimination. Indeed, much more suitably does Spinoza view of the enhanced body seem to reside – not in some fixed, closed off organization – but actually in the twilight region so described above in the diagram, the place between rigid stable states and pure chaos. Once in such a mathematical and determinative sweet-spot too much a deviation, either towards stability or toward turbulence, reduces the number of ways a body can effect and be affected. Only in the wave-line is this ideational maximality found, and one could say that for Spinoza it is this aesthetic line – caught between a hubris of excessive control and a reckless amplitude of destruction – that constitutes the proper, which is to say living, positive feedback loop.

It is Spinoza’s skepticism both towards finite expressions of knowledge, and also towards the human being’s capacity to become self-determined, that ever directs any individual outward, towards the surface of its interactions. But not only outward, where the border between self and world, self and other is ultimately broken down and reconfigured, but so breadthwise, across the horizontal of explanations. It is Spinoza’s pursuit of the maximization of interactive powers that undermines any primary subject/object, or subject/world concerns. Instead, it would seem, that all our interally directed, cybernetic-like orderings, all our reductions of informational “noise” must also then turn back towards the very interface that composes them, to the living line of a multiplicity of possible states.

Valuably Bousquet notes that the passage from Cybernetics to Chaoplexic thinking has been characterized as the move from concerns of “control” to those of “coordination”, what has been called the “coordination revolution”. Bousquet cites Arquilla and Ronfelt who put the case in the context of military theorization. No longer is the ultimate thought for the control of all events internal to a network or system, but rather in terms of the loosely configured relatability of elements:

In these and related writings, we see a trend among theorists to equate information with “organization,” “order,” and “structure”—to argue that embedded information is what makes an object have an orderly structure. As this trend has developed, its emphasis has shifted. At first, in the 1940s and 1950s, information theorists emphasized the concept of “entropy”—and were thus concerned with exploiting feedback to improve “control.” Now, the emphasis has shifted to the concept of “complexity”—and this has led to a new concern with the “coordination” of complex systems. Control and coordination are different, sometimes contrary processes; indeed, the exertion of excessive control in order to avoid entropy may inhibit the looser, decentralized types of coordination that often characterize advanced forms of complex systems. What James Beniger called the “control revolution” is now turning into what might be better termed a “coordination revolution.” Entropy and complexity look like opposing sides of the same coin of order. About the worst that can happen to embedded information is that it gives way to entropy, i.e., the tendency to become disorganized. The best is that it enables an object to grow in efficiency, versatility, and adaptability (148)

In Athena’s camp: preparing for conflict in the information age John Arquilla, David F. Ronfeldt

The reason for this is that, in perhaps a rediscovery of many rule-of-thumb warnings against excessively directed control, if one too strictly links internal elements within a finite system, the very improvements of the system when under stress might actually lead to the catastrophic collapse of it. Instead of tightly organized linkages, loosely based, more chaotic and therefore flexible relations are desired. Bousquet citing John Urry:

In loosely coupled systems by contrast there is plenty of slack in terms of time, resources and organizational capacity. They are much less likely to produce normal accidents since incidents can be coped with, so avoiding the interactive complexity found within tightly coupled systems. In the latter, moreover, the effects are non-linear. Up to a point, tightening the connections between elements in the system will increase efficiency when everything works smoothly. But, if one small item goes wrong, then that can have a catastrophic knock-on effect throughout the system. The system literally switches over, from smooth functioning to interactively complex disaster. And sometimes this results from a supposed improvement in the system.

Global complexity  John Urry

At the risk of having steered too far from our course, the genuine skepticism over finite, linear, rationalistic, internally directed and corrective, often hierarchical organizations, shows itself in the truism of how such linearity can switch into non-linear collapse, blindside to the episteme of the system itself. Instead a skepticism towards rational systems in general directs our attention between towards horizon creating interactions themselves, towards the notion of co0rdination and agreements, out towards an aesthetic of mutual bodies forming a crest of living, self-producing edge-of chaos complexification.

If it is so that Spinoza possesses such a non-equilibrium appeal, where is it to be found? Is it enough to invoke his defintional awareness of the usefulness of numerical interactions? Does his skepticism towards mathematics and any finite division of magnitudes establish a non-linear bent, enough to quell the dominant linearity of his age with Newton just around the corner? Is there a radical non-equilibrium pursuit that balances out the conservatism of his conatus doctrine? I think there is. And it falls to the entire directionality of the Ethics, in particular the acme psychologies of the fourth book, and at last the passing into Intuition of the fifth book.

This is the determinative passage I feel. Spinoza is an interesting writer, for as he is often times at such pains to draw out and weave concepts into an extensive web of taken-to-be luminous clarity, pages and pages of definition, proof, axiom, proposition, all interlinked. His very best stuff can be expressed gnomically, small statements whose interpretation is that upon which everything else turns:

E5p2 If we separate out aggitations (commotiones) or affects (affectus) from the cognition (cogitatione) of an external cause, and we join them to other cognitions, then Love and Hate, toward the external cause, as are the vacillations of the soul (animi fluctuationes) arising from affects, are destroyed (destruuntur).

Carefully consider this proposition in the context of the Cybernetic/Complexity dichotomy. It subsumes the whole of Spinoza’s quantifiable psychology of the preceding fourth book. It is the very cognitive temptation to give wholesale systemic valuation (“good”/”bad”) to external events that Spinoza has called into question. To put it into cybernetic terms, when the human body/mind system passes away from a state of equilibrium (moves to a condition of greater or lesser power), the credit is inordinately attributed to an external event. That external “cause” is given the valuation of good or bad given the changes in the system. When the experience is negative, that is, a breakdown of the internal coherence of the system experienced as Sadness, the system steers itself away from such events, back to equilibrium (risking a fixed, conservative stasis induced by fear). But when it is experienced as positive, that is, an increase in the internal coherence of the system experienced as happiness, then a positive feedback loop ensues, and the system steers towards the amplification of such events, promoting their increase (risking runaway dissolution).

Spinoza’s psychology is based upon moving clear from either of these determinatives, each of which are governed from an inordinate assessment of the power of an external cause. He at first directs the eye inwards, in a cybernetic-like valuation. It is not in the nature of the external event (alone) that the passage from one desired or undesired state has occurred, but rather in the very orders of our bodies and minds. We were predisposed to be affected a certain way, but it is our cognitive tendency to attribute the cause of these changes to some external thing that ultimate weakens our self-determination and freedom.

Compellingly, once this internal self-check is conducted separating out the affect from any one-to-one dichotomization of some state of our bodies/mind and some state of the world, the affect itself, the very feeling of the body in change is to be joined to other cognitions besides those of the thought of some overt external cause. I find this fascinating because Spinoza is advocating a kind of turning the body and its feelings over to the very interface with the world, wherein the world is seen as a great screen of causal effects. This is to say, our affects continue to distribute themselves across our bodies (minds), but they do so in a broad-spectrum fashion that invokes the edge chaos sweet-spot of Beckerman’s diagram. One can see this I believe in Spinoza claim that the fluctuations of the soul are “destroyed” in this process of opening up and cognitive awareness. This is not for him a passage into a conservation of the Self, so defined apart from the world, a falling back into an equilibrium of maintanence, but rather an expansion. The oscillations he has in mind are the oscillations of Love and Hate, the way in which loves generate fears and conservative retrenchments of the self against the world. And hates open up into flights that can disintegrate into turbulent chaotic flow. Instead there is an aesthetic place, between the two. It is a kind of equilibrium of perpetual growth, or the openness to a complexity of states that defies the equilibriums of the past, a literal opening up of the finite to the Infinite. A rift of becoming. Because the affect itself becomes separated out from its distinct (and false because partial) conscious interpretation, the affect exists almost as pure bodily thinking, or put another way, thinking purely through Joy (transitions towards perfection, power, freedom).

Thoughts Tending Towards Deleuze and Guattari

This is I think what Guattari and Deleuze called the Body Without Organs. And while for some it makes difficult sense to see where Guattari and Deleuze can find common ground with the sobriety of Spinoza, I believe it is here, in the intermediate, where the BwO meets Chaoplexic edge that the two/three find their home. And while Spinoza’s aesthetic setting seems closer to “stable” and D&Gs closer to chaos, they are operating in the bandwidth, in proximity, as each takes Joy as its compass heading. What Spinoza provides is a careful analytic of the powers of Cybernetic organization, at the level of epistemology and psychology. Indeed the rewriting of internal codes, the reorientation of cognitions toward each other, within the understanding that the affects of our body serve as material guide, is essential to seeing that Spinoza’s Rationalism is ever an A-Rational theory of growth, a search for the line of complexity that is ever re-inscribing anew the boundary between self and world.

An Analog/Digital Philosophical Repository

Corry Shores emails me a link to a wonderful directory for the philosophical dicussion of the Analog/Digital distinction, with a particular Deleuzian flavor.

Here.

He also mentions that this weekend he is set to begin a project concerning Analog and Digital consciousness, and has just recently posted an abridged copy of his paper:

Posthumanism and Pixels, Condensed Version

As I told to him, and to others below, my interest in the Analog/Digital distinction was primarily in concern over Hoffmeyer’s biosemiotic use of the two in his life-defining concept of Code Duality, something I have found problematic (a criticism I have not written yet).

I look forward to Corry’s work. It sounds exciting. There is from Corry even the suggestion that his project may find some correspondence points to my research on Spinoza and optics, which would be intriguing.

More on the Antigone Complex

Ribbons of New Subjective Action

Yesterday I began thinking about the potentials of an Antigone Complex – how I would love to do an online, philosophical reading group on that play in the spirit of Mikhail’s Braver reading group, there is so much philosophical groudwork there, the play has been so conceptually influential its not even funny – thinking in particular about just how tempting and difficult defining a complex is. We want to think of a complex as a kind of double-bind that the subject finds herself in, in the classic sense that the supposedly Oedipal subject is confronted with a kind of inevitable loss (which – now he – then must either accept or deny with consequences). I am struck how Antigone has no such kind of difficulty. She is already inscribed within the matrix (and we use that word literally perhaps) of her powers, however involute that is. Hegel wants to find in her a kind of primative form of the law which the State must eventually sublate, and there is plenty of fodder for conceptions of opposition in the play, Sophocles just loves them, but there is something more happening here. She is a kind of ribbon-thread that runs up through all those oppositions, not joining them together, not holding, but rather transversing them. Kreon, the most fatherly of the fatherly, is not an opposition to her. She runs right through him. She is an apparition to him. The fatherly and the law is her natural order, the water to her fish. She is most dextrous there.

It must be kept in mind that Antigone is a child. Likely understood to be perhaps 13 or 14 by the Greek audience, her boldness, her transfigurative dress in male clothing (“I say now I am not a man, but this girl is a man!” line 484) is something well beneath opposition, something coming right out of the woodwork of the bones. And yes, there is a distinct aura of sterile opposition here, from the lexical facts of her name right on up, but I sense that history has mis-read even this. (I recall my idiosyncratic professor of Greek telling me that her name was commonly understood as “replacement child” the child named after the stillborn birth of another. She is the generation that comes after.)

When thinking hard about the play when retranslating it I came across a reading that claimed that the play should be named Kreon, in the manner in which the title denotes the figure that is going to go through the tragic anagnoresis. Antigone, though she comes to mourn her wedding to death, is not transformed, but transforming. What would a complex of the subject look like that held this capacity?  She is catalytic in the literal and Sapphic sense of the word. And seems to hold within her many of the Zuggtmonic drive principles that have recently been pondered here. I cannot help but think of the confusion that many miss, that there were TWO burials of her brother Polyneice’s body, the first having a very possible purely naturalized explanation – the sleeping guards awoke to find the body nearly invisible and disappeared, covered over by a dust storm. Antigone in this sense acts as a kind of overcoding of the supernatural/natural imaginary relation human beings necessarily have, a subject’s capacity to act right out of the nexus of the material and natural worlds: the subject as apparition (but not subjectivity as having-appeared).

Guattari and Deleuze have an insightful passage in a thousand plateaus  that invokes many of the capacities of Antigone; though she, the political girl, is not mentioned by name (Joan of Arc), she haunts the description:

The girl is like the block of becoming that remains contemporaneous to each opposable term, man, woman, child, adult. It is not the girl who becomes a woman; it is becoming-woman that produces the universal girl. Trost, a mysterious author, painted a portrait of the girl, to whom he linked the fate of the revolution: her speed, her freely mechanic body, her intensities, her abstract line or line of flight, her molecular production, her indifference to memory, her nonfigurative character – “the nonfiguration of desire.” Joan of Arc? The special role of the girl in Russian terrorism: the girl with the bomb, guardian of dynamite? It is certain that molecular politics proceeds via the girl and the child. But it is also certain that girls and children draw their strength neither from molar status that subdues them nor from the becoming-molecular they cause to pass between sexes and ages, the becoming-child of the adult as well as of the child, the becoming-woman of the man as well as of the woman. The girl and the child do not become; it is becoming itself that is a child or a girl. The child does not become an adult any more than the girl becomes a woman; the girl is the becoming-woman of each sex, just as the child is the becoming-young of every age. Knowing how to age does not mean remaining young: it means extracting from one’s age the particles, the speeds and slownesses, the flows that constitute the youth of that age. Knowing how to love does not mean remaining a man or a woman; it means extracting from one’s sex the particles, the speeds and slownesses, the flows, the n/ sexes that constitute the girl of that sexuality. It is Age itself that is becoming-child, just Sexuality, any sexuality, is a becoming-woman, in other words, a girl.

We see here the factor of the start that does not become (the girl does not become a woman), a kind of straition that cuts through and across sedimentations. There is tendency though in such a pure-becoming grasp to lose track of the materiality of Antigone, her history, if we are to find a complex of her, to instead turn her into something of a mathematical vector, which she certainly is not. She is a person, a subjectivity. A traveling body. Not simply a molecularization. And it is not true that the “girl” does not draw her power from the molar, for Antigone’s very invisibility, her capacity to stand before Kreon, to transpermeate straight to the tomb, is due to her place among the molar/Father, as “a child”. The girl in molar determination granted access. And though we understand what Guattari and Deleuze mean when they say that the becoming-girl does not become woman, it is most certainly only in juxtaposition to the capacity to pre-figure woman, to nacently BE woman, that a definite constitutional and apparitional power is achieved. Molecularity does not circulate merely on its own osmosis plane (something that I think both G and D would agree with).

So I resist the idea of making Antigone into a kind subjectivity of pure-becoming. It is much more attuned to her relationship to a pre-posited history of genealogical twisting (an incest of directives) into which she is born. She is not just thrown-into-the-world, but born-into a necessary and profane involution. It is the subjectivity of a pre-existing perversity. Is this twisting, this born-into twisting (a twisting that Sophocles calls αὐτοφώρων ἀμπλακημάτων – “a self-suspicion twist of blood” of the father and the mother) related to the semantic twisting of conflating explanations for the first burial of Polyneices? I think so. The material (natural) and the imaginary (affective projective) fold themselves into a twin-layered parallel construction, and as such the Antigone subjectivity is able to step in between, in the infintesmal crease, to persist, to stand and live in the gap, and then act, so as to appear. Perhaps what Nicola referred to as the “tiniest diety”. Indeed in the play Antigone performs as something like the tiniest deity. There is something there, including her polymorphous capacity to functionally perform under what Butler calls an equivocality of kinship (which really isn’t so much equivocal as dextrously polyvalent), one in which the sign carries a certain apparitional and inhabited vocability that renders Antigone the ability to seem to speak right out of Space, that needs to be developed and clarified.

 

[A related post in dialogue on Antigone and the possibilities of an Antigone Complex by Anodyne Lite: Two Versions of Antigone]

Desire/Wax Impressions of Dante’s Realism: Canto XVIII, lines 22-39 Purgatorio

 Dante’s beautiful lines which dicate the com-plexifications of cogntive judgment come to mind over the dicussion of Realism at Perverse Egalitarianism…

Vostra apprensiva da esser verace
Your perception from some real thing
tragge intenzione, e dentro a voi la spiega,
an impression takes, and in you it unfolds,
sì che l’animo ad essa volger face;
so thus the soul to turn it brings;

e se, rivolto, inver di lei si piega,
And if, so turned, toward it she molds,
quel piegare è amor, quell’è natura
that molding love, that nature ‘tis
che per piacer di novo in voi si lega.
which by pleasure fresh in you it binds.

Poi, come ‘l foco movesi in altura
Then how fire upward glides
per la sua forma ch’è nata a salire
by its form being born to climb
là dove più in sua matera dura,
t’where most within its matter it abides,

cosi l’animo preso entra in disire,
thus the soul so pressed enters in desire,
ch’è moto spiritale, e mai non posa
a spirit motion, that wilt not rest
fin che la cosa amata il fa gioire.
‘til the thing beloved makes it ‘joice.

Or ti puote apparer quant’è nascosa
Now should appear to thee how clouded
la veritate alla gente ch’avvera
be the truth with men who deem
ciascun amore in sè laudabil cosa,
every love itself a lauded thing,

però che forse appar la sua matera
perhaps because its matter seems
sempre esser buona; ma non ciascun segno
always to be good, but yet not every stamp
è buono, ancor che buona sia la cera.’
is good, even if be good the wax.’

It is really amazing, again and again, how Dante brings together still lasting philosophical issues, and then condensing in clarity them puts them into verse. (We tend to think that this makes the task all the so much harder, but has anyone thought that perhaps it makes it easier.)  If we trace the effect of the “impression” we have crystalization of a complex of inter-relations which perhaps helps us gain a foot-hold in Realism discussion.

1). Some real thing impresses itself upon us (the wax), but an impression that is in some sense “taken” by the material organization itself.

2). The impression “unfolds,” an unfolding that turns the soul (seen as passive).

3). And IF turned, she then herself does the molding, an activity which is a fresh and binding pleasure.

4). And this pleasure directs the action of the soul towards an extra-human course, towards a real coherence of things beyond/above it.

5). The movement is unresting until a state of Glorification is achieved (a passive completion, a flattening out).

6). But love itself, its very matter (which we could say is composed of the very relations between the thing loved and its turned-to pursuit), is not always “good”.

7). This intra-relation of bodily combination is ultimately judged by a discernment between which real, impressive things are ultimately good for the wax (soul) to combine with.

The result is a near Spinozist conception of knowledge and moral evil. Pleasure leads us towards self-affirmations which necessarily involve our real combinations with other real objects such that we are ever propelled toward a coherence that is extra-human. But such an epistemo-material sense of knowledge-discernment necessarily involves as well a sense in which not all combinations are in preserve of our conatus of being, something ever in transformation. In this way our appropriations of, and combination with other things (resources, techologies, beloveds) oscillate between that which will break us down (deterritorializations, as G&D call them), and that which preserve us (reterritorializations), in an expanse that is ever more incorporating and communicating. Muscially, one might say. And our value judgments, our aesthetic judgments, necessarily consist of bodily affirmations which have real ontological value, expressing real ontological relations, opening up the human domain to organizational powers beyond those of merely human Ideality.

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

Eros/Thanatos One Drive: The Limb-Loosener of Sappho

Eros the Crawler

Reading over at Fido the Yak, “A Continuous Stream of Emerging Pattern” Fido expressed the desire to sing the praises of paralysis, invoking something of the Greek etymology of the word, loosening-beside. This called to mind Sappho’s use of a related word and concept, and I repeat hear my comment:  

I’m not sure if you have this in mind with your affinity for “paralysis,” but Sappho’s beautiful use of the word λυσιμέλης (fragment130) comes to mind; the word is often translated “limb-loosening,” used to describe the powers of the creeping, undefeatable, sweetly-bitter creature Eros, who has returned. Limb-loosening of course is what Homer uses to describe what happens upon a death-blow in battle [sleep as well], but there is a word-play here, as μέλος (limb), also can mean a “song, or strain” (melody, the song-road). The loosening is both a re/lease of limbs and song, but also a death. But even more, there is a hint of the verb μέλω, “I care, I have concern,” so the limb-loosener is also the care-loosener.

This phrase, and fragment has always haunted me every since I have read it many years back. She condenses so very much about the powers and experience of Eros in just a few compound words, in just a brief shard survived now for more than 2,500 years.

Expansion of Eros: The Loosening

The line reads thus in the Greek (I am never sure if fonts appear on all computers):

ἔρος δηὖτέ μ᾽ ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει,

γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον.

David A. Campbell (Loeb ed.), translates the line:

Once again limb-loosening Love makes me tremble,

the bitter-sweet, irresistable creature

I translate much more literally/experimentally:

Eros again, me of limb-loosening was shaking,

the sweetly-bitter, aidless creeper.

Aside from the nuances of association and wordplay, the word has the curious fortune of condensing a very significant question in the history of philosophy. Is there one drive, Eros, or pleasure, Joy (Spinoza). Or are there two, Pleasure and Death (Freud). I’m reminded of a recent reading over at Complete Lies, where there are musings about the nature of two drives understood as one:

What must be understood for this explication of drive is that things are continuously moved towards these impossible extremes. Does this mean that there is a fundamental dualism however? No; the drives to expansion and contraction, while seeming to have entirely different goals, achieve the same end: collapse. When a thing expands or contracts too much, that is, is taken from it’s precarious position of existence as we know it, it essentially disintegrates in the sense that is it no longer linked to other ghosts in the same way. This is the end that all things achieve at some point, their own elimination from this network we are a part of, the network of haunting and mourning. This is why both drives are ultimate death drives, as they both achieve death, in one form or another, in their drive to infinity.

I do not keep with Complete Lies’ position which is somewhat homologous with, though inverting of Empedocles’ theory of two forces (Aphrodite and Nike). But I would say that Sappho presents something of the internal forces, the ambiguities of what “loosening” means, as it can be both release and death, finding a correspondent in G&D’s (these initials should be reversed), territorialization and deterritorialization.

I think something of the apparent contradiction also exists in Spinoza’s One Drive format, as he argues that the more selfish we become, the more self-interested in power and its increase, the less of a “self” we realize that we are, finding expression in the distinct and determinative expressions of all that is beyond us. The pursuit and undestanding of love ends up with the integrative dissolution of the “self”, as a matter of perspective. Sappho gives us both, a literal Eros that crawls and creeps in such a way that the bitter, the sharpness is sweet, and our loosening helplessness beyond all device, is both a deathlike release, but also the release of a song, a melody. It shakes you, releasing you.

Umwelt, Umwelten and The Animal Defined By Its Relations

I’ve been reading into the depths of the concept of Umwelt which which I have felt some dissatisfaction. It is a concept that exists in a variety of forms, flowing from the much more phenomenological, Kantian enriched experiential world of its inventor, Jakob Uexküll, all the way to heavily systemic, semiotic-functional interpretations which mark its place in much of contemporary biosemiotics. For those unfamiliar with the variety I present a few of these, and article links which may prove interesting reading

Biosemiotic:

Umwelt

Umwelt is the semiotic world of organism. It includes all the meaningful aspects of the world for a particular organism. Thus, Umwelt is a term uniting all the semiotic processes of an organism into a whole. Indeed, the Umwelt-concept follows naturally due to the connectedness of individual semiotic processes within an organism, which means that any individual semiosis in which an organism is functioning as a subject is continuously connected to any other semiosis of the same organism. At the same time, the Umwelts of different organisms differ, which follows from the individuality and uniqueness of the history of every single organism.

Umwelt is the closed world of organism. The functional closer, or epistemic closer is an important and principal feature of organisms, and of semiotic systems. This has been described by Maturana and Varela (1980) through the notion of autopoiesis.

Semiosphere

The expressions ‘collective Umwelt’, or ‘swarm’s Umwelt’, should also be in accord, since organism can hardly be modeled as a centralized system. However, the relationship between the Umwelt of organism and the Umweltsof its cells requires further explanation and more detailed analysis. The whole becomes seen through functional circles which, for example, includethe body of the (swarm-)organism moving together, in one piece. More generally, there are always at least two aspects (processes) which participate in making a multitude of pieces into a whole in living systems: (1) there are many individual processes which take part as steps in a functional circle, the latter being responsible for the appearance of intentional aspects of behavior, and (2) the functional circle always includes recognition, a matching of forms (the pre- existing with the actual), whereas recognition does not work in an algorithmic way (i.e. bit-to-bit checking) but as a simultaneous compatibility (coherence) of forms (e.g., enzymes recognizing their substrates). Thus, the principle of code duality can be extended to the principle of making wholes, Gestalts.

Semiosphere is the set of all interconnected Umwelts. Any two Umwelts, when communicating, are a part of the same semiosphere.

 “On semiosis, Umwelt, and semiosphere” Kalevi Kull, Semiotica, vol. 120(3/4), 1998, pp. 299-310 [click here].

Biosemiotics/AI:

The Umwelt may be defined as the phenomenal aspect of the parts of the environment of a subject (an animal organism), that is, the parts that it selects with its species-specific sense organs according to its organization and its biological needs (J. von Uexküll 1940; T. von Uexküll 1982a, 1989). In that sense, the subject is the constructor of its own Umwelt, as everything in it is labelled with the perceptual cues and effector cues of the subject. Thus, one must at least distinguish between these concepts: (1) the habitat of the organism as ‘objectively’ (or externally) described by a human scientific observer; (2) the niche of the organism in the traditional ecological sense as the species’ ecological function within the ecosystem, (3) the Umwelt as the experienced self-world of the organism.

Does a robot have an Umwelt?: Reflections on the qualitative biosemiotics of Jakob von Uexküll [click here], Claus Emmeche

But really the best treatment that I found was from Paul Bains’s informative and provokingly synthetic The Primacy of Semiosis: an ontology of relations (2006) [click here]. For those interested in the possibilities of the concept I highly recommend reading at least the chapter on Umwelten (page 56), available on line, and watch Bains skate effortlessly and illuminatingly between Uexküll, Kant, Duns Scotus, Deleuze and Guattari, Heidegger, Deely and more. I quote extensively here from the passage in which he explicates the notion via Uxeküll choice of the “tick” (which in well-known fashion Deleuze and Guattari adopts). Here Bains presents the bare essentials of Umwelt  organization, the notion of functional cycle and counterpuntal rhythm.

[Quoting Uexküll] “We are not concerned with the chemical stimulus of butyric acid, any more than with the mechanical stimulus (released by the hairs), or the temperature stimulus of the skin. We are concerned solely with the fact that, out of the hundreds of stimuli radiating from the qualities of the mammal’s body, only three become the bearers of receptor cues for the tick. Why just three and no others?” (J. Uexküll, A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men, 1957)

The answer for von Uexküll is that living organisms respond to perceptual signs (Merkzeichen) or “meaning” (Bedeutung), not to causal impulses. Physical, chemical, or thermal changes to the receptor organs are interpreted as signs of the (not yet perceptable) “perceptual cues” of an object as counterpart for a specific behaviour. Von Uexküll argues that the “subect” (tick) and the “object” (mammal) dovetail into each other and constitute a systematic whole or functional cycle. The organism or interpreter receives signs from its environment, and these perceptual signs trigger specific action impulses or operation signs (Wirkzeichen). The whole cycle is a process made not of static objects but rather of sign relations – a semiosis. For example, with the tick there are three functional cycles, which follow each other in processual succession…In this functional cycle the mammal (object) is a connecting link between the tick’s effectors and receptors, which metaphorically “grasp” the object like the two jaws of a pair of pinchers. The “perceptual jaw” gives perceptual meaning to the object, and the “operational jaw” gives an effector meaning. For von Uexküll there is a counterpoint or contrapuntal relation between the organism as a “meaning-utilizer” or interpretant, and the perceptual cues or “meaning-factors” of the object – Nature as Music. Living beings develop in a kind of natural counterpuntal “harmony” or refrain, with one another and with their environment. Von Uexküll gives the example of the octopus, designated as the subject in its relation to seawater as the meaning carrier. In this scenario, the fact that water cannot be compressed is the precondition for the construction of the octopus’s muscular swim bag. The pumping movement of the swim bag on the non-compressible water propells the animal backwards. Von Uexku/ll claims that the rule that governs the properties of seawater acts on the protoplasm of the octopus, thereby shaping the melody of the development of the octopus’s form to express the properties of seawater. The rule of meaning that joins point and counterpoint is expressed in the action of swimming – an energetic interpretant.

So the Umwelt is a model of a species’ significantsurroundings. The essential claim is that organisms interpret their environment and are not merely the passive objects of natural selection, as emphasized by much contemporary Darwinian evolutionary biology. The Umwelt/ consists of significant sign relationships. However, von Uexküll, in the prevailing context of Kantian idealism, presented his Umwelt research as a confirmation of a Kantian philosophy of mind

- The Primacy of Semiosis: an ontology of relations(2006), Paul Bains, 63-64

I want though to approach the concept from the perspective of a Spinozist understanding, one which necessarily would de-emphasize an phenomenological, or subject-oriented foundational basis. It for this reason that I have been playing with the notion of an Exowelt, under which we conceived of the experiential, but nonetheless epistemic relations between the organism and the world, not as an inner-theatre of apparitional events, but rather necessarily see the organism extended beyond its skin, one in which the Real differences in the world which make up the (semiotic) differences within the organism, may be considered as outlying organs of perception themselves: a running shore of epistemic wholeness.
Part of this can be seen to come out of some of Uexküll’s own images, for instance his appeal the the spider’s web which, spun from its body, literally extends that body, epistemically, physically, out into the world:
As the spider spins its threads, every subject spins his relations to certain characters of the things around him, and weaves them into a firm web which carries his existence” (A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men, 14)
What if invited by this analogy is, much as how Descartes invoked the Blindman’s cane, it is not immediately clear where the organism itself ends, and the “world” begins. The reason for this I hope to make clear, for at the moment all would still seem contained within the skin-limits of the beast (the treads are merely meant as internal semiotic threads in this case). Let us go further.In that these threads do connect to real things, real difference that make a difference in the organism, we have to deal with exactly how to parse out the internal difference from the external one (a process that Deely marks as essentially ontological univocal). I will suggest that the process takes place just further out than we regularly, and obviously would like to grant.

Essential perhaps is Uexküll notion of the counterpuntal, the musical co-ordination between an “external” stimulus and an “internal” semiotic event. This fundamental binary seems to be the very stuff that presents the internal/external divide at the surface of the body (or thereabouts). Even the simplest of organisms forms a kind of musical echoing of aspect of nature, and does so as a distinction separate entity. We are told by many in Biosemiotics that this minimal exchange is what distinguishes plant and fungus from animal (which are capable of more complex function cycles). The locus of “self” or subject is at most at the internal shore of the semiotic interpretation, where the sign arrives, qua sign, so to speak. And what distinguishes the animal from the human is that humans are able to actually perceive the relationships between counterpuntals, and therefore the very nature of Umwelten themselves.

What I want to suggest is that if indeed what distinguishes counterpunctals is the semiotic interpretation of real events, and that what makes information “Information” are differences that make a difference, it is very difficult to isolate where and/or if the relations between two counterpunctals are experienced or not, since the very structural coherence of the organism is such that the relations are built-in to the very experience of “sense”, the semiotic recursion of the organism. While this event (difference) solicits this kind of reaction, and that event solicits that kind of reaction, we can never deny that the correspondence between the two does not leave some trace on at least higher animals.

To give an example of what I mean by the knowing of connections between differences that make a difference, if my dog and I are walking in a dark, remote part of town and turn down an empty alley, it may very well be the case that in the pit of my stomach I will get “a bad feeling” about the situation. Now this affective response indeed is the semiotic response to Real differences in the world (and perhaps of real events in the past, and/or instinctive reactions), but this is not a “phenomenal” appearance of the world around me (though perhaps shadows now look darker). It is an epistemic judgment that has no location. We could say that my body is undergoing counterpunctal relations (a music) with the entire environment, “reading” it, but from whence is the apprehension of its dangerousness? Which specific differences in the world am I reading as “danger”? The constellation itself presents itself to my organism. Distinct, experiential “awareness” of connections is not locatable as it is largely, if not entirely, unconscious.

Now, my dog who is with me also senses something and the hair on her back is raised. I see this and the hair on my arms goes up. What events in the world colluded to raise my dog’s hair? What variety of counterpuntals speaks to the knowledge of danger? When is it merely the relation between counterpunctals that actually that which is reacted to?

This brings me to my final, determinative point. Morten Tønnessen, in his “Umwelt ethics,” (Sign Systems Studies 31.1, 2003) attempts to bring a ethical joining of Arne Næss’s Deep Ecology and Umwelt theory. It is a wonderful outline of the possibilities of the thought including an informing critique of Uexküll’s actual political views, but it seems to lack a thorough connection between the two streams, presenting more a juxtaposition. Therein he mentions in passing how Næss identifies with a mountain, though in a manner which is strictly “subjective” and not “intersubjective”
Although he admits that mountains are not alive in a strict scientific sense, Næss himself claims that he identifies with Hallingskaret, where he has a cottage. Identification, as Næss conceives of it, has no natural barrier, and is not an inter-subjective, but a subjective phenomenon (5)

The counterpuntals  that form the outer reach and reference to the semiotic events within my skin, become themselves linked and signs for extended other differences in the world. This is to say, just what difference an organism is fully responding it can never be precisely determined. One can make a tick drop from a blade of grass by exposing it to the appropriate chemical stimulus, but what the tick is responding to is not butyric acid in some form of one-to-one correspondence (though you can make the tick drop again and again), but rather the tick is responding to the entire constellation of historical/genetic relations between chemical and mammal presence. When I look to my dog and see that she too is reading the world as dangerous the counterpuntal between her hair raised, and mine becomes expressive of other factors of the world. I am literally reading the world off of my dog’s states. My dog has become an organ of my perception.

The key to this perceptual logic is found in Spinoza’s Ethics:

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.

But I would like to depart from Spinoza’s rigorous and rather satisfying treatment of imaginative Ethics, and look instead to a semiotic, Exowelten, basis for the powers of this transmission of affects, one which will undermine the distinctly “subjective” character of even mountain-identification. And this way forward is provided if we cease to define the boundary of the subject at the skin, or somewhere there abouts, or at the locus of a phenomenological appearance of “outer world”, and realize that epistemically the limits of the organism exist at the locus of real, signifying events in the world, where the spider’s threads connect. The Exowelt is the manner in which contrapuntals open up to other differences that make a difference. This is to say, the differences that make an immediate difference in our organism themselves express relations which are making differences to the depths of an organism’s structure. The reason why my dog can become an organ of perception for me is that our Exowelten overlap, and to a great extent. The differences that form the outer limit of my epistemic body, out to which awareness reaches as how the blindman literally feels the world at the end of his cane, also compose the outer limits of my dog’s epistemic body, such that we are intimately (affectively) and semiotically linked. Ethics are foundationally experientially epistemic; and the organs of our perception go far beyond our ear and eye tissue.

The reason why Næss’s identification with Mt. Hallingskaret is not merely subjective is that subjectivity is necessarily Exowelt-bound, and the very sharing of Exowelt nexus points determines some degree of an implicit inter-subjectivity. And yes, mountains have Exowelten. If a musculature of an octopus’s swim motions can express the rule that water cannot be compressed, then where – what specific sign – in the octopus is this compressibility difference registered as a difference? Where is it “experienced” and making its appearance? And if not locatable, where not do the forces of gravity, wind and sun register their semiotic differences, reflectant in the mountain?

There is much to be said, for instance, about what a Spinozist/Davidsonian analysis could contribute to Morten Tønnessen’s Deep Ecology ethics, and even more to investigate in terms of just how Exowelten could overlap, and with what consequence. I hope to have opened up an avenue of extra-somatic interpretation of the real way that awareness crosses boudaries and resides in organs of  perception beyond what is well-considered our “body”.

So an animal, a thing is never separable from its relations with the world
- Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (125)

The Assurance of Hyundai: The Care of Corporation

In this marvelous take on the corporate saftey-net offered by Hyundai we experience both the rich, music-filled world-view of a partnership community, and the ludicrous ambiguity of a corporate sensibility that learned that it must invest in the health of its customers.

Beautifully done. But also not the occasion to lose track that the corporate realization of an identity of “care” and fostering also reflects a change in the ideological figure that corporations cast in our society, and a change in ideological figure is a change in powers. I think it is easy to polarize what this spoof brings out, but perhaps something akin to Deleuze and Guattari’s orchid/wasp is in order.

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