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Tag Archives: Heidegger

Harman’s Object Disorientation: Anthropomorphism At Large

The Unfinished Harman Theory of Causation

[click on picture for larger image]

Another Derrida?

Coincidently, what Harman thinks of Derrida: “Personally, I never had much time for Derrida, and see him instead as a self-indulgent wanker adrift in a sea of signs and boring high-culture collage.”

The discussion on the merits of Harman’s Husserl/Heideggerian Speculation has continued over at Perverse Egalitarianism in the comments section of Jon’s Points. Plenty of opinions abound, and software is distributing comments haphazardly so it makes a kind of grab-bag of objection and counterpoint. But one thing emerged that should be reposted here, Bryan’s limpid response to the passing suggestion that all this talk about the nonsense of Harman’s theory reminds us of the claims of nonsense about Derrida (some of which persist). It allowed a momentary conflation of Graham Harman the speculating philosophy book whisperer, and Derrida, radical critic of philosophy, culture, politics and literature. Bryan’s comments in response are worth reposting because the give context to the kind of sober check needed when philosophy simply has become Speculation:

1) First, I want to briefly cover an intellectual historical issue that has some bearing on this debate: the Anglo-Saxon philosophical-academic reception of Jacques Derrida’s ideas. As pretty much everybody knows, Derridean thought and deconstruction were seen as deliberately obscurantist, particularly by more analytically-inclined philosophers of the day. One might say the rejection of deconstruction in a wide array of philosophy departments is what opened up the field of comparative literature, which became a new critical space to do *real* theory.

I think this historical legacy of conservative skepticism towards the new and obscure is in some ways important, but not entirely relevant in the way that supporters or fellow-travellers of speculative realism view it to be. For one, I am not of the opinion—nor are many of us that are in some ways against OOP—that philosophy should be concerned entirely with examining “the canon,” as so many variations on textual interpretation and so on, the kind of thing that Levi is always ranting about from his bully pulpit at Larval Subjects. I am all for radical new systems, inventiveness, and a spirit of a return to metaphysics and ontology and all of the things that textual traditionalism and deconstruction alike swore off of, considered *Denkverbot*.

But that’s not a real substantive difference, the difference lies elsewhere: even when Derrida was under the fiercest of attacks by his conservative-minded critics, who charged him with nihilism and all the other litany of anathemas and what have you, there was still a large contingent of people who not only took Derrida seriously, but understood many of his most complex ideas. While it is, I think, an open question as to what degree Harman has made a genuine contribution to the field of philosophy (personally, I don’t view his critique of anthropocentrism as entirely convincing nor original, and the same goes for his depoliticized ontological universe of withdrawn objects), not a single person has claimed that they understand Harman’s theory of causation: neither Levi, nor even Latour, the Prince of Networks himself. This is astonishing, and absolutely underemphasized: as Kvond argued, Levi has dedicated his life towards unknotting some of the most
complicated thinkers who have ever lived, including Lacan and Deleuze. So, even though this might not count as direct evidence of Harman’s disingenuousness, it *should* (normatively speaking) elicit some degree of skepticism on our part.

2) Now I’d like to turn to the issue of the initial “faith” when approaching a philosophy for the first time. I am wholeheartedly in favor of this, principally because I reject the alternatives (skepticism, relativism, historicism, empiricism), and also because, at a basic ethical level, we owe it to others to grant them a modicum of respect when assessing their work: to treat it *as if* it has some inherent worth prior to determining whether this be the case or not. If we presuppose from the outset that the philosophical work is not sincere, then all end up doing is confirming our own hypotheses, which—although it often works for the sciences—is not necessarily an effective hermeneutical practice.

Personally, I was excited by Graham’s blog when it was first introduced, as I think were most in the philosophy blogosphere. I would also praise the speculative realist movement as a whole for breaking away from the dominant trends in continental philosophy associated with textual analysis, turning their efforts towards constructing new systems. But this is precisely where we need to distinguish that initial faith with a dose of skepticism. While many have continued their fidelity to the Truth-Event known as Graham Harman, it has become increasingly clear to me and others that his most central, core ideas do not seem to hold weight. This is suggested not only by Levi and Latour’s bafflement with his theory of vicarious causation—a sentiment which is shared just as well by Harman’s vocal critics—but also the extent to which Harman’s very own advice on how to write philosophy reveals a degree of cynicism about giving your work a sense of “shock value” and focusing on “One Great Idea,” painting a “philosophical landscape” using a pastiche of Classical and Contemporary, exotic and canonical, baroque and antique. This “mid-western ethic” of revealing how the game is played suggest a greater awareness on his part of using theories more as a means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves: it is less about the substance of the idea, than about creating networks and assemblages of power, authority, influence, and the “sizzle” of a brand name/identity. This, I think, is somewhat frightening, given that object-oriented philosophy claims to be investigating the question of BEING QUA BEING.

All I can say is that this is something I find myself in complete agreement with, and that my criticism of Harman is something that also grew out of my sincere desire to take him seriously as a thinker (which few seem to have wanted to do). I came to him with a tremendous sense of good faith, and put the long hours into ferreting out what all the claims were apart from his metaphors and allusions. I was genuinely excited, at first, to find as much common ground as possible, something I discovered which actually threatened Harman’s driving aim to be “original”. This need for originality, combined with the One Great Idea/Exaggeration approach, although it has generated interest, has proven to make of his “philosophy” an in-communication. No one understands it, but no one is supposed to critique it because it “is not finished” (and Harman only retreats into Husserl and Heidegger when pressed for clarity). It seems that one can only applaud it and not enter into dialogue with it.

Playing The Churl: Orientalism Good?

In this vein, Tim over at Violent Signs appears to find my questioning of the substance of Harman’s thinking both needed, but also a bit “churlish” (in particular my criticism of Harman’s self-admitted and embraced Orientalism):

The influence of Deleuze upon the principal OOO and SR writers appears marked, and a fuller post in this connection will follow. But in the meantime I want to add a word on what might be going overlooked in the rush to celebrate a (‘novel’) post-Deleuzian philosophy. Largely a blogospheric phenomenon, to suggest that the SR ‘movement’ conceals a sort of problematic Orientalism, and moreover, might amount to an exotic re-packaging of other object-oriented philosophies (something that many would still accuse Deleuzism of) seems nothing short of churlish, particularly given how exciting much of this thinking appears to be and how deeply amenable such materialisms are to ecocriticism, ecosophy or ecophilosophy. But these are thought-provoking and deeply ‘political’ criticisms nevertheless.

Whilst a fuller distinction between relational and object-oriented philosophies will have to remain forthcoming, I’d nevertheless agree wholeheartedly with Kvond that there’s a sort of “blogged responsibility” to comment on such insights/objections, “if only to triangulate and encourage more to post themselves”.

While I share Tim’s passion for an “ecophilosophy” (of which I read all of Spinoza to be), simply whether a movement of thought is friendly to ecocriticism is not the measure by which it should be criticized. And particularly in the issue of Orientalization (Harman’s desire to create a Sensuous, exotic mediating realm, and a cold, isolated “real” real) I am willing to play the Churl, since I find this one of the deepest problems with Harman’s regression back into Representationalist pictures of what makes human beings and what they do possible. And I think it is precisely on the question of Orientalization that ecophilosophy needs to get its ground. It is no more helpful to Orientalize Nature than it is to Orientalize causal relations, as Harman does.

Harman the Arch Critic: Real Objects Like Monkeys and Tornados

In this continuing vein of critique, there is another really well-written and well-pointed assessment of the substance of Harman’s appraisals, appraisals not only of philosophy, but of thinkers and their worth, the way in which he aestheticizes his authority. This is found in the comments section of my post  Harman’s Commodification of Paper Writing. Eli writes:

I think the point Bryan makes about how philosophy for Harman is all about painting pretty canvases is also absolutely spot on. Harman’s attitude toward just about everything is an “aesthetic” one, and he even says that we should regard aesthetics as “first philosophy”. But note that he means nothing remotely sophisticated by “aesthetics” here. Philosophy for him is about liking and disliking things – quite literally – and he views it as a purely aesthetic pursuit – not because he has some theory about how aesthetics judgement supplants all others or what have you; there’s no judgment, no cognitive dimension whatsoever involved: it’s literally as primitive as “x feels good”, “I like x”: hence his love of travelogue, catalogues, lists, photographs with pretty colours: the world is a vast aesthetic sensorium featuring the pleasing and the displeasing and philosophy is the catalogue and guide.

Go and listen, for example, to the lecture he gave in Dublin last year, most of which quite literally consists of him saying “so I like that” and “so I don´t like that”. Consider also all his “advice” posts in which says that bad arguments and non sequiturs are “the most trivial mistakes in philosophy” and that what really matters is that one writes with “style” and uses “vivid” language.

One of the ironies about all this of course is that he then accuses anyone who would base their ontological commitments upon the results of the empirical sciences of “crude reductionism”! Thus, reducing everything to aesthetics and fashion is fine, but it is “reductionism” to concern oneself with actual empirical knowledge. Indeed his whole attitude towards science is also a purely aesthetic one and the value of science for him purely comes down to what kinds of “pictures” it can give us. Amusingly, when accused of ignoring the sciences his response is always to say “I love all the sciences and in fact spend more time in bookshops in the popular science section than in the philosophy section” – flicking through looking at the pictures, presumably, or looking for vivid, colorful descriptions and metaphors.

Thus notice that in one post in which he was attempting to explain why he never draws upon science and yet nevertheless is “a great lover of all the sciences” he says “I love Dawkins for the vast landscapes he paints, populated with weird creatures” – note, not because he might actually learn something about such creatures, or about evolution or biology, but because he finds it aesthetically pleasing! However, he of course goes on to say that he “detests” Dawkins “arrogant scientism”.

Equally amusingly, in the same post he claimed that he wants “to increase exponentially the amount of attention we pay to comets and neutrinos”. But how exactly does he intend to do this? How on earth is one supposed to say anything whatsoever about such things without actually learning some science? – something that Harman informs us in the very same post he is not interesting in doing because “I simply do not have the head for it” and because he has “a remarkable inability to remember anything” he reads in science books (hardly surprising given that he limits this to flicking through them when in his local bookshop!). By “exponentially increasing the amount of attention we pay to comets and neutrinos” does that mean anything more than he will try to remember to include such items on his random lists of middle-sized dry-goods?

He also says that he rejects science because it does not fit in with his intuitive picture of how things are: “I just don’t feel on solid footing with the sciences. I can’t pretend to myself that I feel we’re in a safely solid domain when we talk about physics, for instance, because all sorts of non-physical entities immediately start leaking into the picture for me, and I can’t shut them out.”

What puzzles me most when he gives papers saying how philosophy should forget about epistemology and should instead concern itself directly with fire and cotton, monkeys, tornadoes and quarks, is why no-one just asks him straight out: “Could you give me an example of what a philosopher might have to say about monkeys or comets or neutrinos that’s not covered by the sciences?” What would he have to say? “Errm, well … when a monkey eats a banana, there is actually no interaction between the monkey and the banana, because monkeys and bananas are vacuum-sealed objects which forever infinitely withdraw from one another. No-one has ever seen a monkey or a banana in the purity of their individual essences, and they can only interact on the inside of an intention, and all objects relate to each other by means of intentions”. Why don’t people just start howling with laughter and derision when he says such things?

He also always puts the differences between himself and other “Speculative Realists” (a label that none of the others have ever actually used, by the way) down to purely aesthetic considerations: “My friend Brassier is temperamentally inclined towards eliminativism, but that’s not for me … Grant likes to think of the world as a ceaseless flux that somehow gets retarded to produce individual objects, but my intuition is that the world is carved up into individual objects, so I base my metaphysics on that …” This is not a direct quote but there have been plenty of posts like that, in which he characterises the four positions as if they were alternative pictures of the universe, something like choosing between various pre-Socratic worldviews according to one’s personal aesthetic tastes. For example:

 “When I read my friend Brassier, he’s too much of an eliminativist for my tastes. I don’t want to eliminate Popeye from the subject matter of philosophy, nor do I find it possible to do so” – presumably because whenever he tries to think about the world in terms of physics, pictures of Popeye keep leaking in to the picture and he can’t shut them out!

However, he does like some things in Brassier: namely, some of the vivid language he uses:

 “However, what I really passionately love in Brassier’s work is his fierce poetry of the insignificance of human being. Not the pessimism of it so much, because I am temperamentally an optimist and have a quasi-libidinal investment in even the most trivial objects that pass through my field of vision, and do not enjoy the thought of burnt-out husks of stars and the heat-death of the universe, which Brassier almost seems to viscerally enjoy”.

And ditto for Dawkins:

 “It’s for similar reasons that I often like reading Dawkins, even though I find his anti-fundamentalist tirades to be tedious and condescending …. But his vast landscapes of strange animal ancestors and archaic geological events … this I find highly appealing …”

 Thus, the entire ‘argument’ for his metaphysics goes something like this:

“Is reality divided up into chunks or is it a ceaseless flux? Well, which do you prefer? Which one appeals to you? I like the former. Why? Because my teachers likes all the relational stuff, and I got bored with that. I don’t like monism. Some people do, but my inclinations are different. Some people base their ontology on empirical sciences, but I like Popeye too much to go down that road. Anyway, I can’t remember anything I read in science books, and there aren’t any pretty pictures to look at there – except in astronomy, of course: I love stars and comets! I also love all the landscapes of weird and wonderful animals painted by Dawkins. But it puzzles me why some people prefer to think of gold in purely physical terms, thus giving up its shiny appearance. I find that when I think of gold all that comes to mind is its glittery shiny appearance, so my claim is that gold is metaphysically torn between its appearance and its inscrutable inner core. I guess those eliminativist types just have more austere aesthetic tastes than I do.”

The fact is, of course, that this stuff only appeals to overly impressionable students in the humanities for whom analytic philosophy is just too damn hard and who are constantly on the look out for the next new thing in continental philosophy: something abstract but user-friendly, undemanding, sexy, perfectly pliable for whatever ends they might require (geography, social theory, literary studies, cultural studies, film, business studies …). For such types, reading Harman is an absolute godsend: It’s easy and pleasant to read (lots of metaphors and imagery), deep- and lofty-sounding, doesn’t require them to do any thinking (thus saving unnecessary wear and tear on the brain tissues), it chimes perfectly with commonsense (albeit with some ‘weird’ twists’, which is cool), doesn’t require them to be able to evaluate arguments or learn anything technical, gives them a further alibi for continuing to ignore science and epistemology, gives them license to commit as many non sequiturs as they like (“arguments are the superficial skin of philosophy”, “logical errors are the most trivial mistakes in philosophy”), tells them that the only important thing about writing philosophy is to cultivate a literary “style”, to write “vividly” in bold and eye-catching colors, tells them that poetry is a greater cognitive tool than empirical inquiry, promises a direct revelation of Truth without having to acquire any knowledge … and, in general, it’s ‘fresh’ and ‘bold’ and ‘exciting’ … It’s irresistable!

To my ear Eli’s criticism is devastating to the very form of Harman’s expression, his modes of dismissal and assertion, and the supposed “logic” of his call to objects. The blued paragraph especially strikes me as precisely marking the absurdity of Harman’s call to “objects” as if he is getting us philosophy-minded type back onto the firm ground (as Wittgenstein liked to say).

Grouping Criticism

Lastly in this compendium of contemporary objections it is probably good to put all together the history of my critical objections to Harman. This involves not just criticism, but also my initial repeated attempts to actually UNDERSTAND what Harman was trying to say. The path then alternates between a genuine good faith excitement, and the realization that there is more allure than substance here. Finally I came to see that my objections to Harman operated on several levels, some of them reaching back into the branch of philosophy he attempts to work from, some of them found in his theory and his methodology itself. These thirty posts, presented largely in temporal order, clearly form the most serious engagement with the substance of Harman’s theorizing on the planet (conditioned by the absence of any other such engagement), the significant attempt to both understand and find common ground with the “allure” of his theory, as it positions itself. Any serious embrace of a thinker involves I believe a necessary criticism of that thinker’s ideas, at least the striving to assess just what is being claimed and what is its merit.  I actually consider the pass given to Harman by the halo of people who find him interesting a bit disrespectful.

An attempt to both interpret and dialogue with Harman’s main ideas:

 The “Picture” behind Intention: What Lies at the Center of Perception

The Bounce of the Being of Beings

Harman Brings Central Clarity to the Issue (wink, nod)

Downunder: Central Clarity Consciousness (CCC)

The Harmanic Impassibilty of Monism…Spinoza Sails Through

Heidegger: He Who Doesn’t Enjoy God

Graham Harman’s “Evil Twin”, The Quality-Loving Positor

The Coldness of Spinoza: Was He Really a Spock?

How the PSR lifts OOP out of Occasionalism

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

 

Dealing Specifically With Harman’s Theory of Causation, including a critique of its Orientalism:

How Do the Molten Centers of Objects Touch?

The “sensuous vicar” of Causation

More on Harmanian Causation: The Proposed Marriage of Malebranche and Hume

Taking the “God” out of the 17th Century

Spinoza says, “Individual things are nothing more than…”

Vicarious Causation Diagrammed

The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman)

The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert

Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic

 

Observations on Harman’s methodology and presumptions about philosophy:

The Coming Medieval Scholasticism of SR

Heidegger “Never says…” and Harman says…

Human Competence: Achilles On the Mend

Harman Wants to Know: How Does Lovecraft “Get Away with Racism?”

Its “objects” All the Way Down

The Centers of Sensuous Gravity, and Their Relations: Shaviro and Harman

The Initial “Brilliant” Exaggeration: The Mongering of Brilliance

Throwing A-causal Stones From Theoretical Glass Houses

In Praise of Aesthetics over Philosophy? The Metaphors of Projection

Harman’s Speculative Bubble: The Runaway Capitalism of OOP

Harman’s Commodification of Paper Writing

 

An associated critique of Latour:

Is Latour an Under-Expressed Spinozist?

The Flatness of Latour’s Concept of Origin and Holbein’s The Ambassadors

The Copiousness of Copies

An associated critique of Heidegger:

Heidegger’s Confusion Over “Truth”

Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr

What Thinking God Means to Spinoza

Thinking God and other Things

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

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

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

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

The Infinity Within The Boundaries of Our Thought

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

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

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

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

Cybernetic Admixtures Toward Freedom

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

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

Lastly: The Barking Dog and the Dog in the Heavens

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

 

Human Centric Semiosis in the Name of Umwelten

The Apprehension of World

Through the pleasures of the Internet the author of one of the books I cited in my working development of a Spinozist theory of Exowelt responded to some of my thoughts. Paul Bains, whose excellent, articulate The Primacy of Semiosis I resourced, questioned any need at all for such an Exowelt thought, as he feels that Deely is already sufficiently non-Phenomenological and non-human-centric, two motivations for my working toward an Exowelt conception.

The exchange we had in the comments section seemed a bit scatter-shot between the both of us, but some interesting questions were raised. I repost my last thoughts here (changing the “person” of address), citing from a pivotal passage in Paul’s book which at least for him, conceptually sets the agenda at hand. Perhaps others will find the issues compelling, just as I do:

Here is the relevant passage from your book  that for me points directly to the human-centric framing of the issue for you (and Deely):

“I will seek to elaborate the critical distinction between the animal and human Umwelten – or species-specific objective worlds as Deely presents it. This distinction is timely, because although it has similarities with Heidegger’s treatment of exactly the same question, I will claim that Deely provides a more articulate and nuanced analysis. Those who are shocked by and criticize Heidegger’s “abyss” between man and animal might find this approach of value, even if only to distinguish themselves from it. The ultimate issue is this: To what extent it can be said that a non-languaging, non-human animal apprehends its Umwelt or milileu/envirioning world as a world at all: Deely’s distinction between zoosemiosis and anthroposemiosis intersects with Wittgenstein’s approach to forms of life and expressive capacities that can only exist in language: “We say a dog is afraid his master will beat him, but not, he is afraid his master will beat him tomorrow, Why not?”…The concept of objective being introduced in the preceding chapter (i.e., as something existing only insofar as it exists within awareness) will be seen as providing the relational network for the fabrication of species-specific objective worlds or Umwelten. Deely writes…” (page 60).

Beetles and Things: Why Experience Creates No Sphere

If I could take it piece by piece.

1. I don’t find the distinction between human and animal Umwelten “critical” as Paul does. That is, there is no substantivedifference here, no hierarchy. Or, as Spinoza insists, humans do not form a kingdom within a kingdom.

2. While Deely might be more nuanced than Heidegger in regards to the “abyss” he certainly maintains it, and does so in ways that are quite human-centric.

3. Paul’s “ultimate” question is also quite human-centric (not to mention quite rather Kantian flavored with the choice of “apprehension” as the “ultimate” value). I do not accept that apprehending one’s Umwelten “as world” is of critical, ontological distinction at all. This reflective notion is highly Idealist, and Paul is right to bring Heidegger up, a thinker who retains strong idealist, phenomenological roots.

4.While I accept that there are distinctions between zoo and anthropo semiosis, anthropo semiosis is irrevocably joined to zoo. It is zoo. And to this I would add that I do not stop there at the biotic world when I am speaking of semoitic processes. For me semiosis goes ALL the way down. Because Antropo semiosis is zoo, and relies upon zoo, there is no ostensive boundary of “world”.

5.Wittgenstein’s treatment of animals I find most problematic due to the highly eliptical and aphrostic style of his “arguments”. In particular here, the oscillation between “languaging” and “forms of life”. I offer my thoughts on the failings of Wittgenstein’s reading of animals here, if interested: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation  [here].

6. I distinctly reject the notion that there are species-specific Umwelten, pretty much along the same line of reasoning that there are (individual human) mind-specific languages. Wittgenstein’s private language argument’s theme ends up disentangling every boundary.

It is specifically in terms of “experience”, what Deely calls a “sphere of experience”:

{Deely writing]”Elements of the physical environment are networked objectively, i.e., so as to establish the sphere of experience as something superordinante to and strictly transcending, all the while containing partially and resting upon aspects of, the physical environment in its ‘natural’ or ‘mind-independent’ being. Umwelten are thus species specific: No two types of organism live in the same objective worlds, even though they share the same physical environment.”

Just as there is no Beetle in the Box (it gets crossed out) there is no sphere of experience that necessarily is objectively distinct by species. It is only a phenomenological skew of what we think of determinative that ultimately thinks that communication between species is a communication between “worlds”

Or, to put it another way, taking up my notion of Exowelten, because there are real differences in the world that make up the terminus and perceptual limits of our bodies, and the bodies of other biotic and non-biotic forms, any strict species-specific distinction of realms or “spheres” has no ultimate footing. Our “Forms of Life” are already Semiotically Conjoined, and no delineation of experience can unjoin them.

 

An Achillean Economy: The Economy of Thymotics and Anger, Sloterdijk

What is Greek Thymos?

The above is a signature clip from Andrei Tarkovsky’s hauntful meditation on the role of the artist in society, not to mention amid Soviet Society. There may be no greater film made on the subject of the artist than Andrei Rublev. The final chapter of the bell casting is so redounding on the issue of tradition and making, it to this day stirs and moves me. (It was a film that actually put me to sleep in the first three attempted DVD viewings. Like Freud’s the-father-who awoke-from-the-dream-of-his-son-burning, I dove into my dream rather than endure its somnambulant truth, it would seem.)

But the horse of above, for those who do not know the film, can be seen as a certain effervescence of life, a kind of natural expression that society can work to suppress. The horse, an animal of pride and tremendous strength, of the herd and a social order that is beyond the wisdom of the bit, here frolics in a way that seems to criticize the human order of the film’s brutal wars and stern, religious transcendental ambitions/isolations/silences. The horse expresses itself upon and within the field.

Why do I bring up Tarkovsky’s colt here? In recent posts, after my raising the possibility of an informative critique of Western philosophy following the Attic Greek contrast between the Ages of Achilles and Odysseus, attempting to reposition Achillean Immanence against modernist Odysseusean Instrumentality and Wanderlust, Mark Crosby was good enough to point out a rather thorough comparison between my thoughts and those presented by Peter Sloterdijk in his yet to be translated Zorn und Zeit (Anger and Time). I have to say, I just love when I find strong parallels between my own prospective thinking and the cross weft of someone else. It is as if we have fallen upon a great store of possibilities. So this post is an attempt to come to grips with some of the confluences.

“The menis (wrath), do godess sing, of the Peleusian Achilles,/destructive” (Iliad’s first line)

I will go into Sloterdijk’s thoughts more deeply in a moment, but for now it is enough to say that he, like me, returns to the epic of the Iliad, and the figure of Achilles’s  anger, as a starting point for an ideal to be followed in human relations. He proposes that the menis/wrathof the poem’s initial line is not a personal wrath, but in a sense civic and divine wrath, a natural product of the thymos (heart, spirit, passion, force) of a person before the failings of the political. Instead of an economy of lack, eros, object-oriented projections, such as that which Western civilization has evolved and Continental philosophy has often emphasized, a economy of thymos, of gift, and righteous anger is preferred. The reason why I have brought up the horse of Tarkovsky is that I believe it helps us understand something of the Greek conception of what Thymos is. When I think of thymos, I think of horses.. When reading a Greek characteristic, it is often advisable to turn to the hyperbolic form of it, as is the case with the thymotic (LSJ):

Hyperthumos, on,
A. high-spirited, high-minded, daring, freq. in Hom., in good sense, Il.2.746, 5.376, al., cf. Hes.Th.937, Pi.P.4.13, B.12.103, etc.: irreg. Sup., “huperthume statos andron” Stesich.95.
II. in bad sense, overweening, Od.7.59, Hes.Th.719, AP6.332 (Hadr.); over-spirited, of a horse, X.Eq.3.12.
III. vehemently angry, Poll.6.124. Adv., “hyperthumosagan” in over-vehement wrath, A.Eu. 824.
IV. in Adv. also, eagerly, readily, IGRom.4.1302.12(Cyme, i B. C./i A. D.).
Among these definitions we have the example of the over-spirited horse, citing Xenophon’s On the Art of Horsemanship:
To sum up: the horse that is sound in his feet, gentle and fairly speedy, has the will and the strength to stand work, and, above all, is obedient, is the horse that will, as a matter of course, give least trouble and the greatest measure of safety to his rider in warfare. But those that want a lot of driving on account of their laziness, or a lot of coaxing and attention on account of their high spirit, make constant demands on the rider’s hands and rob him of confidence in moments of danger.

We recall the figure of the “horse-trainer” from Socrates of the Apology (25b). The over-thymotic  man, someone like Achilles, is in a sense the unbroken man, the one that will not take the bit, the one withtoo much soul. How is society to deal with the thymos, and eventually the menis-wrath of the over-souled person or peoples? Is the only rapidly expandable economy that of Capitalism’s desire and lack-driven instrumentalities, vanishing petite object a’s, economies that work by “sublimating” into atomized individual of guilt and pleasure, or worse and alternately as Sloterdijkwill tell us, the vast “banking” of thymotic  anger within a social collective, resenting Revolutionary Left?

Sloterdijk’s Zorn und Zeit

I have not read Anger and Time, and am not overly familiar with Sloterdijk’s  philosophy so I will have to rely upon the two English reviews linked by Mark, and use extensive quotation so as to build something of a dialogue in thought with the book. At the very least the quotations here might give a context to arguments I am presenting.

Anger and Time: a critical assessment” [click here] , Miguel de Beistegui

“Zorn und Zeit” [click here], Fransisco R. Klauser

epd society and space

Klauser sets us in the right place, positioning the divinity of Achillean anger as part of a wide, historical immanence of rightful, citizened, defense against political injustice. In this telling Achilles is the power which will not submit to opportunism and legal or customary usurpation. It is the feeling in the breast that grows almost without object, but merely as an objection.

Sloterdijk’s reading of the Greek heroic epos, the imaginary space of gods, half-gods, and divinely chosen angry heroes, underlines that in ancient Hellenistic mythology the origins of anger are neither located in the earthly world, nor attributed to individuals’ personalities. Anger is rather understood as a possessed, divine capacity, a god-favoured eruption of power. Hence the birth of the hero as a prophet, whose task is to make the message of his god-given anger an immediate reality (pages 23 , 24). For Homer, to sing the praises of Achilles’ heroism also and ultimately means to celebrate the existence of divine forces, which are releasing society from its vegetative daze, through the mediation of the godly chosen `bringer of anger and revenge’.

It is from the Greek mythological relationship with anger that Sloterdijk derives his own conceptualisation of anger through the figure of Thymos. Originally denominating both the Greek hero’s specific organ for the reception of god-given anger and the bodily location of his proud self, Thymoslater with  Plato, and following the generaltransformationof the Greek psyche from heroic  belligerent to more civic virtues, stands for the righteous anger of the Greek citizen as a means of defence from insults and unreasonable attacks (page 42).With the figure of Thymos set against the psycho-analytical focus on Eros, anger, for Sloterdijk, is not only a vent for frustrated desires, but also, and rather, a reactive manifestation of offended pride. (Klauser)

As we can see from this paragraph’s end, the economics of Thymos, of soul and anger, vary withthose of Eros diagnosed and thus developed by psychoanalysis. In the notion and confirmation of pride, no longer is this a question of objects, or payments, but of relations. Achilles puts this very pricelessness forth, in defiance of what is hidden, in his ninth book refusal to be bought off by Agamemnon and Odysseus.

Neither counsel will I devise with him nor any work, [375] for utterly hath  he deceived me and sinned against me. Never again shall he beguile me with words; the past is enough for him. Nay, let him go to his ruin in comfort, seeing that Zeus the counsellor hathutterlyrobbedhim of his wits. Hateful in my eyes are his gifts, I count them at a hair’s1 worth. Not though he gave me ten times, aye twenty times all that now he hath, [380] and if yet other should be added thereto I care not whence, not though it were all the wealth that goeth in to Orchomenus, or to Thebes of Egypt, where treasures in greatest store are laid up in men’s houses,-Thebes which is a city of an hundred gates where from sally forth through each two hundred warriors with horses and cars; [385] -nay, not though he gave gifts in number as sand and dust; not even so shall Agamemnon any more persuade my soul, until he hath paid the full price of all the despite that stings my heart. (A. T. Murray translation)

One also recalls the Achillean novella Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist, wherein the hero refuses all possibility of payment or retribution, aside from the restoration of his one horse once illegitimately taken, setting the entire land to war. Righteous indignation allows no translated payment, no abstraction of a wrong. No amount of instrumental increase can restore the injury to the heart.

Miguel de Beistegui continues on with the theme, developing the historical critique that Sloterdijk brings to libidnal organizations. Once anger is internalized, and begins to be “banked”, or better, “stored up” (in just the kind of hydraulic metaphors psychoanalysis enjoys), it enters into a different economy: an economy of objects, an economy of hatred, instead of thymos or menis. Interestingly, Sloterdijk characterizes this real banking of anger not so much of the Christianized soul (which begins this internalization), but of the Revolutionary Left (which of course has its distinct history of brutal and collective abuses).

So, beginning with the fact and facticity of anger, Zorn und Zeit describes its economy or, more precisely still, its two possible economies, that is, the way it is and has been managed collectively in European history. The first type of economy is connected with a certain Greek, and specifically Homeric stance, the contemporary equivalent of which Peter Sloterdijk seeks to identify in a renewed concept of pride partakes of a healthy “thymotics”. It originates from the thymos, or the part of the soul that, according to the early Greeks, and up until Plato, was thought to be the site of the noblest affects. The second type of economy, on the other hand, is associated with the main processes of collection or gathering of anger, namely, Judeo-Christian metaphysics, and revolutionary politics. It originates from the erotic part of the soul, which defines the envious, libidinal partof the human psyche. If one can speak of anger in both instances, one also needs to emphasise the fact that they do not originate in the same part of the soul. As soon as anger is conserved, preserved, or interiorised, as soon as it is allowed, or worse still, encouraged, to accumulate, as soon as its externalisation is deferred, it enters into a different kind of economy in fact, it enters what has come to be associated with economy as such, and by that we mean the economy of accumulation, growth, and interest. Like monetary economy, the economy of anger crosses its critical threshold when anger rises and moves from a state of local accumulation and punctual expenditure [revenge to] that of a systematic investment and cyclical growth most notably, revolution, especially in its global ambition.

Paradoxically, then, and almost perversely, Sloterdijk argues that the revolutionary movements of the last two centuries, and the communist revolutions in particular, partake of an essentially capitalistic economy of anger that contradicts and undermines the very politicaleconomy it seeks to promote. In other words, and from the point of view of its dominant affect, communism would be driven by the very economy that it seeks to overturn. It would itself be an expression of the drive to accumulate, invest, and live off its capital. It would itself operate like a gigantic bank, in which the world reserve of anger would be deposited, and would grow, with a view to its final and total mobilisation in the name of a global revolution.

Under Sloterdijk’s review, Communist projects partake in the very anger-banking processes that drive the Capitalist machine that it seeks to overthrow. The resentment attributed to the priest of Christianity by Nietzsche is accumulated into a great reservoir of assembled power, a power directly attributed to libidinal organizations of psychoanalysis and beyond. And this organization is distinctly that of object-orientation, the internalization and projection upon, control over objects in the world:

The catastrophic effect of psychoanalysis, according to Sloterdijk, lies in its analysis of the conditio humana as a whole on the basis of the dynamic of the libido, and thus on the basis of erotism. This approach would not have been problematic, had it not been developed at the expense of the pole of thymotic energies (page 27). Yet such a one-sided view was no coincidence: the thymotic had long ceased to be valued and analysed as the site of possible values and virtues, with a few notable exceptions, such as Nietzsche and, more recently, Bataille. Psychoanalysis was and remains (for instance, in its Lacanian version) an economy of compensation and sublimation, born of an original and irreducible experience of lack:  “Whereas erotism indicates ways towards the `objects’ that we lack and in the possession or proximity of which we feel fulfilled, thymotics opens up ways for the human being to value what it has, what it can be, what it is, and what it wants to be” (page 30). In other words, the shift from erotism to thymotics, which Zorn und Zeit hopes to facilitate, is a shift from an economy of possession and lack to an economy of being, power, and plenitude. Throughout history, anger has been eroticised, that is, reduced to libidinal impulses defined by their lack and their weakness. Whenever the human condition is defined by a constitutive lack, also known as sin, the “ethics of indignity” prevail.

Here is where I find my greatest affinity with Sloterdijk’s ideas, for it was specifically the contrast between the ever-devising, instrumentalist Odysseus who has come in some modern philosophy quarters to essentialize the existential crisis of modern human beings, bothblessed and cursed by their technological powers, that the Greeks of Athens and even long before positioned Achillean immanence of rightful anger and immanent, eruptive power. It is precisely in terms of what is “hidden” (a favorite of such objectologists as Heidegger) and the character of device users that Achilles forms his objection to Odysseus’s very machinationed mind at the start of his book nine speech:

Zeus-born, Laertean, poly-machinationed, Odysseus, it must be now that the telling – spoken outright – it is declared, even as I have the sense, accomplished it shall be, so not with me you’ll murmur seated near another to another. For an enemy to me is that man – equal to Hades’ gates – who a different thing he hides in his chest, yet another thing he would have said. Nay, I will say what appears to me to be best.

For the Achillean, one does not hide what is other in one’s breast but speaks forthrightly, expressionally. The nothingness of hidden thoughts is hated just as the gates of Hades are hated. They are of the same stuff so to speak. I do not believe that the exception is to any dissemblance, but to dissemblance and hiddenness as proper modes of conduct, ideals to be achieved. There is in Odysseus the exemplar of the negotiator, not only of persons, but of circumstances. His is a world of objects which must be positioned. For Achilles, the world is a world of forces, and his is a immanence within them, one in which the alliance with others is a bodily constituted bond. The thymos of Achilles is the very substance that is shared between persons. His taken Briseis is his “thumares” (female form of his thymos 9.336). He thymos is poured into by the grieving of those he loves (9.612). Words matter. Riches are not worth a soul (9.401). The weapons at his disposal are merely withdrawal and action, and the power of those he is allied with. The very object-orientation of his counterpart Odysseus is misplaced. Words and weapons are the very stuff of a life.

These are very noble characteristics, at least we might get a few to agree. But in what sense do these two manners about the world form valid and alternate perspectives? Is there a way in which the Odysseusean West can become more Achillean, more immanent, more bonded, more respectful of the Menis of the wronged, such that its very economy of interactions and concepts were to be organized around notions of dignity and anger? Has history reached a point where the magnanimus, great-heart has gained a substance out-reaching the arms of the instrumental opportunism of assumed object control and prediction? Has an economics and ontology of lack and absence, via the projections of the missing object come to a limit?  De Beistegui does not see himself through to a Thymotics of Anger, questioning whether we need a modulated anger, a rationalized anger:

Despite Sloterdijk’s claim, I wonder whether anger cannot be seen to have played, and to continue to play, a positive and active role in public life, especially in the face of social injustice not as “simple explosion”, “revenge”, or “evolution”, which Sloterdijkrecognises as the three fundamental forms of anger in Western history (pages 95 , 103), but as yet another form, which can be described as revolt, or rebellion. It is not merely explosive and immediate, for it presupposes a degree of organisation and mobilisation. It is not motivated by revenge, but by a deep sense of injustice and indignity…The anger in question is one that presupposes a sense of outrage, empathy, and therefore something like a social instinct (which Aristotle would call philia, or friendship), but one which, in order to be effective, needs to be mediated and processed rationally.

Bringing Forth an Achillean Spinoza?

I think this an important point, and one which Spinoza could help us out on, for he is expert on the dovetailing of the affects of the mind and rational propositions (and not allowing them to collapse into dual distinctions). Much like a critique of object orientation, Spinoza tells us that affects of love and hatred are mistaken or confused ideas which in a sense blame our weakened states upon external objects. It is the idea of an externalcausethat makes up a mental affect. I would offer that it is precisely in the projection of our pains and sadnesses upon objects that the difference between Immanence and Instrumentality lies. While de Beistegui sees a distinction between an Aristotlean rationality of anger, and the three modes that Sloterdijk prescribes, I do not accept this difference, for within “evolution” I would includetherationalization itself of anger, with the primary Spinozist understanding that the affect of anger (and not hatred) is not counter to the rational. In fact, the menis of Achilles, his thymos by poem’s end, is no longer cholos anger, or even named mēnis wrath, now, but has become meneainō which is sheer purposive force, determination, might, strength, power (24.23-54), very close to Spinoza’s conatus and potentia. Achilles has moved to through extreme affective determinations to reach this point, but we cannot discount its end. Indeed though Spinoza often frames his advisementsin terms of utility, for instance that nothing is more useful to man, than man, this is always within the bodily, affective combinations of persons withothers and withthe world, in a view towards ultimate and mutualimmanence. The external object is part of the same expressive field. And it would strike me that the very thymotic evolutions are more greatly enhanced the affects of mind as well.

To bring up a specific historical example, the anger of the “barbaric” crowd against the De Witts, savagely murdered as they were leaving prison in August 1672,  was a complex venting of political forces. Johan de Witt had guided the Dutch Republic on a course of a uniquely modernist ends, a state of freedoms of expressions, the enhancement of new capitalist forces; yet he had utterly failed to protect the Dutch from the Catholic armies of Louis XIV which were set to eclipse the entire land. His failure as a leader cannot be dismissed from the reasons for his lynched execution. It is too easy to see him solely as the victim of reactionary, dull-minded hoi polloi who simply did not understand his Enlightened genius (and surely he was genius). It was also the uprising of the populace, farmers, women, that had perhaps saved the Republic up to this point (as deWitt was being forced into very poor positions of negotiation for defeat). The savagery with which he and his brother was killed has interesting parallels to the inhuman treatment Achilles gave Hectors corpse (there were eye witness reports of cannibalism). When Spinoza cried “Ultima barbarorum!” he was staring right into the heart of the democratic powers he hoped to enlist, but savagely so; he felt that these were not the thymotic angerof indignity and pride, but that of banked hatred and projection upon objects. I think that this is partly true. Yes, imaginary relations helped organize the riot, but the actual brutality, the excessive object concern, the rending of the flesh, likely stemmed from real thymotic incursion into the social field, the eruption of the offended beast:

For days an angry crowd had been gathering in front of the Gevangenpoort, and they wanted to see blood. Tichelaer [a likely false accuser of an attempt assinate the Prince] was given every opportunity to whip up emotions. Cornelis, in not fit state after the torture he had been subjected to, had asked his brother to send a carriage. Johan arrived in person at half past nine, apparently in the naive belief that he could calm the crowd. He could not have been more mistaken. The soldiers and civic militiamen, who had mounted guard aroundthe entrance to the prison, were becoming just as agitated as the crowd. Shops started closing in nearby neighborhoods as people began to sense trouble. Wild rumors were making the rounds, one of which maintained that peasants from the surrounding countryside were on their way to plunder The Hague. After endless waiting, at four o’clock the militia men forced the brothers outside (The Dutch Republic in the Seventeeth Century, 53-54)

The confluence of Voetian and Orangist alliance had been grafted onto I suspect, a much larger force of fear and dignity come from the country side and the lower classes, the dispersion of forces that had held the Dutch Republic intact from the assaults of the Catholic French. The bodies of the brothers deWitt eventually became inscribed with the very conatus of Dutch persistence, and in no small respect did the vicissitudes of Enlightenment capitalism and Burgerism, the mobilization of a merchant class at the expense of industry stability (such were the sea lanes and identities of nobility), incur this ignorant protest that built itself through the streets. The mark of the brutality of their murders, was I suspect less the mark of the imaginary, and more the mark of Achillean protest, pure and simple, upon the very matter that confined them, held to the surface and organs of the body.

What Is The Locus of Protest?

Further on the issue of the rational at its relationship to the affect of menis, or thymos, and I don’t know if Sloterdijk follows this at all, but Achilles’s thymotic response in one of at first petition (to his mother goddess) and then strategic withdrawl and inaction. The menis wrath is thus also a quietude of reflection. I find Achilles to be much more of a Spinozist hero than many might suppose.

De Beisteguiraises the very interesting point that if there is to be a thymotic transformation of social economies, they would have to occur within the libidnally based structure of Capitalism itself, within the very erotic realm of object-pursuit. Our very states of infinite debt seem to be too married to the deep investments of personal sublimation which constitute the very meaning of our lives. There strikes him to be a very incompatibility between the deep dept of our economic system, and the debts of our lives.

For isn’t capitalism, especially in its current form, based on the systematic appeal to the erotic, and to our ability to desire what we perceive to be lacking, and in the possession and consumption of which we hope to find satisfaction? In itself impossible to ever satisfy completely, this desire is partially fulfilled through consumption, yet at the cost of a mounting debt, and the dependence on a system to which we find ourselves ever more riveted, ever more enslaved.

In short, whilst I see how the ethics of dignity that Sloterdijk promotes is incompatible with, and in fact radically opposed to, the revolutionary and global impulses witnessed in the 20th century, I fail to see how the aristocratic or thymotic stance he advocates is compatible with the current state of Western capitalism, driven by ever greater and more crippling levels of debt, deficit, and lack. In fact, one might want to go as far as to argue that if it is true that we might be hard-pressed to identify one universal discourseor “bank”, in which we could invest our anger, with the hope of seeing it grow in the future, we could be equally, if not more, hard-pressed to find any promise of a future that would not already be spent, already mortgaged. At the economic level, it is through consumption that we seek to alleviate ourselves form our sense of lack, our fear, and our decadent eroticism. But this is not an investment. In fact, it leads to a greater sense of lack, and a greater desire. It forces one to borrow from one’sown future, to live one’s future before it has been actually lived. The truth is, we’re not saving or storing anything, not even anger. In many ways, we’ve already spent our future, and chained ourselves to this loss.We’ve given away something that we have not yet lived, and can never be ours, namely, time. We don’t even own ourselves anymore. No wonder we’re afraid. No wonder we’re angry.

There is almost something poetic to this, we have exhausted ourselves, spent all our notes of promise, and there is no bank or discourse to redeem our expenditures, nor even internal resources to drawn on again. I think the answer of course is that we are in our state an Agamemnon, and it is our recourse to grant respect to the Achilleses of the world. If we of the West have outspent ourselves, clearly there is menis enough in the world, lament enough in the world, to see where we have deposited our investments and actions. It is perhaps at most that outside ofour realm, more than ever, as learned by Achilles with his Priam, that we must look for the possibilities of the thymotic economy. To take two examples, we in the West often confuse ourselves over the dramatic mournings of those in Islam, paralyze ourselves over the numerical vastness of rape, disease and war in Africa in tumults. These, I suspect, are Achilles laments of thymos. Something to be acknowledged at a very deep and symbolic (and not instrumental) level. There is no dearth of soul in the world.

Infinite Debt or Bodies in Composition

Lastly, critically brings the very technological attachments between persons that now inhabit and construct our world, attachments of such speed and transfer that events as images seem to defy any human growth, as centered on the human:

If we are to consider the question of time, or the question of our time, in relation to a specific attunement, or a set of attunements, we need to take into consideration the way in which, not human beings, but machines, and information systems in particular, act as decisive mediators and formidable accelerators and amplifiers. They are the bank, or the automatic growth vehicles, through which those affects are processed, and to a large extent produced. The current financial crisis, in which the banking system is at issue, as well as the terrorist attacks on the US of 9/11, illustrate this new dimension of a bank of affects that can be mobilised at a moment’s notice, and turned into global catastrophes. At no point, therefore, would I suggest that those affects bring us any closer to the ideal that Sloterdijk evokes in his book. In fact, inasmuch as they stem from the most negative of affects, namely, fear, and lock us into a climate of suspicion and depression, they disallow the spirit of self-esteem and self recognition which Sloterdijk wants to revive. They do not allow us to grow and flourish as free spirits. Rather, they continue to capitalise on the negative eroticism which Sloterdijk so adequately describes.

I do not fully accept Sloterdijk’s division between eroticism and the thymotic, though I can certainly see the value of the distinction. Achilles most certainly had an eros for Protroklus that was born of his thymos, as he did for Briseis. And there are distinct object-concerns for Achilles, not in the economy of abstract exchange, but in terms of passage. He holds onto both Patroklus and Hector, the one as a soul-ghost, the other as a brute materiality. His abuse of the body is a product of the circulation of his thymotic rage, quieted, and brought into incantational repetition. When de Beistegui emphasizes that the attunements of our day are of machines and informations systems, and not of human beings I think he is actually pointing the way forward, towards a post-human Achillean Age. This is the difference between the aristocratic gift giving economy that may perhaps be suggested by a Bill Gates and Warren Buffett of efficacy of philanthropy. The gifts and growths are not strictly of human beings, as centered subjects. The growth is of immanence itself, the immanence of recognition across subjectivities, in the answer to affects in communication.

Yes, technological affect transfers indeed employ intersubjective projections. Britney Spears’s face on the screen allows for the conduit of affect bleeds across space and time with incredible motion. Instantly we can coalesce. And yes, we want to move away from object-orientation and concerns with lack. But the destablization of the human subject brought on through technologies is the very path forward to thymotic economies, for identifications in individual powers allows us not only depressions and fears, but polyversal bodies, bodies capable of ornate action. Key is that the thymotic is recognizable as source and determination. Hatred needs to be pushed back, ciphoned back, into its river mouth ofanger and pride, a well-spring for a community of values and generosity of mutal recognition. Not sub-jects, or ob-jects, but syn-jects.

Lastly, Klauser tells us something that Spinoza balanced his entire Ethics upon, that the logic of love and hatred are the same. Those concerned primarily with objectsarethose who must bear the burden of this truth.

`Based on its erotodynamic approach, psychoanalysis has shed much light on hate as the dark side of love. This approach has shown that hate and love rely on a similar logic, with projection and recidivism being in command in both cases. Yet, psychoanalysis has remained silent in view of anger, which originates from successful or failed aspirations to success, reputation and self-respect” (page 27)

Anyone who knows why the artist casts the bell to be rung in the village square, or why the horse rolls in the grass, knows that it is not a question of objects, nor their accounting.

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.

Human Competence: Achilles On the Mend

 

Carl at Dead Voles wrote a pair of ruminations that flowed from an all-too-honest confession of how to write a philosophy paper by Graham Harman (apparent Graham linked to the comments, and then deleted the link, finding the criticism out of bounds). First he critiqued Graham’s very helpful suggestions on how to structurally spruce up a paper, things like breaking it up into sections, identifying tensions with positions other than your own, and then mixing in a Classic thinker, drawing our attention to how as a historian Carl finds this process (expanded into a prescription for how to read books, and dovetail papers with talks) to be painfully different from the kinds of closer examinations he must carry out. Then in “Shopping at the Black Box Store” he draws heavier consequences from this kind of text and thought production, summing up the problems with the Latourian proposal that Theories operate primarily as Black Boxes, calling for perhaps a better, more lucid metaphors (linking parts of Metaphors We Live By), ultimately pointing towards the Black Boxes of Marxist thought:

This is an interesting metaphor to me, because in my dissertation I used it to characterize marxist approaches to revolutionary consciousness and suggested that its darkness contributed to enabling some pretty serious errors and atrocities. Perhaps a more transparent and reflective sort of thinking (not to mention a more glassy set of metaphors) might have contributed to a more humane revolutionary practice?

Part of this response falls at the feet of philosophy itself, with a real mourning that Graham Harman’s lessons how how to produce and package philosophical ideas does describe the requirements of a real environment for philosophy production. One really must roll one reading into another talk. One really should through in a Classical thinker every now an then. I mean, there is a brand to keep up. Distinct from the real sense that theories can be seen as Black Boxes that can indeed be opened up to see how they work, there is also in Latour (and Harman’s celebration of the same), the sense that the way that a theory succeeds is by Black Boxing itself, keeping its hidden mechanisms opaque to the viewer.

Two Kinds of Magic

Arthur C. Clarke said brilliantly in his Third Law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  There is the sense that any theory that is to be successfully put forth has to operate as a kind of magic, and a magic that happens when we don’t quite know how they did that. This is distinct of course from the kind of magic one feels when we “see how they did that,” when we see how things connect and manifest. There seems to be a fundamental tension between these two kinds of magic.

Graham Harman’s behind the scenes “tricks of the trade”  benevolent advice to up and coming thinkers perhaps invests in both kinds of magic. This is how it all connects, what Carl calls the glimpse behind the curtain: this is how you can create the illusion of deep and analytical thinking, and gather momentum in your profession and your brand. And there is a beautiful magic in “How to be a Successful Philosopher” perhaps in the same way as magician in training would feel relieved to know now how to saw the lady in half. Much of Graham’s professional insight seems to fall into this category of “there is no mystery for how to make the mystery appear”.

But as I read it, Carl’s problem isn’t with Graham’s successful procedures, but with the very social conditions which reward and reinforce just these habits of reading and paper building. Do theories only become accepted through a kind of magical allure, a seduction into a willing-suspension of disbelief, a refusal to let others look under the hood? I believe that what flows from Carl’s objection to skim reading and antique philosopher insertion is something of the same objection to mass-produced objects of consumption. There is the sense that yes, you can do it that way, but perhaps I want something hand-carved. When philosophy bases itself upon idea and text production of this sort, does it not take as its very material that which is most malleable to such a process?

Achilles Contra Odysseus

With these thoughts in mind throughout the intermittency of morning I found my mind turning to a comparison which was somewhat prevalent in Athenian society, the contrast between Achilles and Odysseus. There is something to Carl’s appeal for a glassier set of metaphors, and his dissatisfaction with Graham Harman brand-building Black Box stores that for me invokes this antique difference. Odysseus was he man of many turns, polytropos. The word is rich in meanings. Because clever he can turn in any direction, he is a swiss-army knife of mentality and action, full of devices. Yet because of this, his life (despite the homecoming at the Odyssey’s end) is also in quintessential Heideggerian and Holderlinian fashion, a life of wandering, turn upon turn, endlessly thrown into and against the world. He is thought to be in many ways the essentially modern man. To some degree he embodied both the positive and the negative values of contemporary Athenian citizen ideas.

But Achilles was a different sort of figure, a man of a different sort of Age, someone who the Athenian Greeks often felt put the Odysseus of tricks to the pale. A man perhaps who no longer it seemed could exist. Contrary to Odysseus’s adaptability, Achilles was someone who exerted the pure force of his ability to act and manifest itself directly (even it its absence). He was something like a direct radiation of Being. His story in the Iliad told of how man is to act amid social injustice, when one’s nominal leaders lack the community of values which are required to lead. It is told that he is both a rhetor and a doer  in such a way that we understand that speaking is a kind of act and not something readily separable.

There is a very real sense that as the history of Western philosophy, particularly in its modern form, turned to the Greeks for their blueprints of questions and answers, the wrong, or least desirable Greek ideal was absorbed. People like Heidegger rejoiced over the alienations of Odysseus, his homeless machinations, and did not see the simplicity of force found in Achilles. A man conditioned by his loves (Briseis, Patroclus, Thetis, the Myrimdons, then lastly affimed custom, reconsiliation and mercy), and driven to personal yet mutual justice, someone who bent the rules of the very discourse available to express his dissatisfaction, and through a combination of refusal and action morally shaped both his community and historical events. Achilles was man before Man, something that could manifest both itself in surplus of the spectrum of the human, and become god-like, or in deficit of what’s human and become a mere force of Nature. It was the necessary capacity to bestride these two that he embodied to a far greater degree “what is human” than did the later Odysseus who articulated a specific historical domain, which he remained within. 

As philosophy recovers from the Idealisms which plagued the Rights of Man, and seeks to reorient itself within a Real World of forces and objects, it must be wary of ontologizing the Odysseus of what is human, the specific alienations we have generated through our choices (much of it imported through the ontology of the Negation, how his name can only be pronounced as “No-man” by the poly-phemic One). There is a real choice in philosophy I believe, whether to start with the Achilean man (woman), or the Odyssean one, a beginning which directs the kinds of answers we find.

My sense is that as sufferers of modern and post-modern conditions, it is best not to ontologize these to the degree that we cannot imagine ourselves beyond them. Yes, perhaps it is good to learn the tricks of the trade, to bring forth black box powers as a matter of survival, but it is better I suggest to learn the glow of an other competence, the competence of bond, withdrawl and speaking action. I think that there is something to Carl’s glassy metaphors that speaks to the proposed unifications of Achillean force. The ways in which powers are better read and expressed as Real.

What Does Odysseus know that Achilles does not? And what does Achilles know…ontologically?

Heidegger’s Confusion Over “Truth”

The Blanketing of the Truth

The problem is that Heidegger as he examines the Greek concept of truth (aletheia), even as it is investigated by Plato in The Sophist, begins with Aristotle. We can see this plainly in his recounting of the “history” of truth in his lectures on the Platonic Dialogue, as he moves as quickly as possible to the logos-determined, speaking realm of human beings. Heidegger wants to get onto the firm and comfortable ground of Dasein, of human-oriented Being-There. And in the quotation below we can see how in just a few strokes he gets from “Aletheia” (which is commonly translated into our word “truth”) to the albeit to be problemized “uncoveredness” of the legomenon, “the spoken thing”.

the history of the concept of truth

Alethes means literally “uncovered.” It is primarily things, the pragmata, that are uncovered. To pragmata alethes. This uncoveredness does not apply to things insofar as they are, but insofar as they are encountered, insofar as they are objects of concern. Accordingly uncoveredness is a specific accomplishment of Dasein, which has its being in the soul: aletheuei he psyche. Now the most immediate kind of uncovering is speaking about things. That is, the determination of life, a determination that can be conceived of as logos, primarily takes over the function of aletheuein. Aletheuei ho logos, and precisely logos [speech, reason] as logein [to speak]. Insofar now as each logos is a self-expression and a communication, logos requires at once the meaning of the logomenon [the spoken thing]. And insofar as it is logos which aletheuei, logos qua logomenon is alethes. But strictly taken this is not the case. Nevertheless, isfaras speaking is a pronouncement and in the proposition aquires a proper existence, so that knowledge is preserved therein, even the logos as logomenon can be called alethes….Knowing or considering is always a speaking, whether vocalized or not. All disclosive comportment, not only everyday finding one’s way about, but also scientific knowledge, is carried out in speech. Legein primarily takes over the function of aletheuein. This legein is for the Greeks the basic determination of man: Zoon logon echon [an animal that holds speech]. And thus Aristotle achieves [in Nic. Eth. VI, 2], precisely in connection with this determination of man, i.e. the field of the logon echon and with respect to it, the first articulation of the five modes of altheuein. (Heidegger’s lectures on Plato’s Sophist, 18-19)

There are a few things to set straight right off. His simple, literal defintion of aletheia as  “uncoveredness” is an incredible simplification of the meanings and origins of the word, something he quickly has reduced, in largely Sophoclean fashion, to a trope of cloaking and residual depth. The power and sweep of this simplification should not be underestimated, for it directs the whole of the theoretical that follows. When something is “covered” our immediate questions inevitably turn to the nature of the thing that lies between it and us, how did it get there, what is it made of, can we remove it, what purpose does it serve. One can see how nicely such a condensed translation fits within the Idealist tradition which focuses on the Phenomenal and Ideational veil of Ideas.

Unfortunately, or we might say fortunately, the history of the concept of truth goes back much further than where Heidegger wants to take it. He wants us to see that A-letheia is a privative. It means A (not) letheia (covered). But does -letheia mean “covered”? Not really; at least it cannot be reduced to such without extensive distortion. We can recognize the name famous River of Lethe in the land of the Dead (so named by Ovid) in the word, a history of which we will return to in a moment. But the root comes from the Greek verb lanthánõ, which specifically means (LSJ):

A. in most of the act. tenses, to escape notice

B. causal, to make one forget a thing

As a signular note, a cloaked thing might or might not escape notice, and one might or might not forget a cloaked thing (in either case its very cloakedness could draw attention to it, as someone who kept their hand hidden behind their back has a certain obviousness to them). The Greek concept of Lethe is much more thorough than “cloakedness.” It is much closer to our notion of Oblivion. The forgetfulness of Lethe is more than the visual trope of “coveredness” gives us. It is the dissipation of difference. There is no difference there that matters, that makes a difference.

To bring out more of this concept of Aletheia, the a- (un) letheia (forgotten, obliteratered, lost) I want to turn to the Orphic mythologies that informed Plato’s own theories of truth, and likely formed a widespread and constitutive influence upon the very notion of aletheia in Greek culture. Below I quote from Guthries’s Classic text,  Orpheus and the Greek Religion, a selection which focuses on the occult knowledge of the Underworld given an Orphic Initiate regarding the topography of the land of the Dead, and their explicit instructions on how to avoid Lethe.

Keeping, then, to the right, the soul comes to a spring [on the right, having been warned not to drink from the spring of forgetfulness on the left], and addresses to the guardians that are before it a prayer that it may be allowed to drink of the water, of which it is in dire need: “I am parched with thirst and I perish”. We may presume that it has passed by the way that is described in the Republic as leading to the plain of Lethe, “through terrible and suffocating heat; for it is bare of trees and of all the fruits of the earth”. At the end of that journey too the souls are given water to drink. For the general belief that the dead are thirsty and in urgent need of water we have references which though not frequent are sufficient to indicate that it must have been widely held and not a particular tenet of the Orphics. The same prayer occurs in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and had been adopted from it into the Hellenic religion of the same part of the world, as is shown by several sepulchral inscriptions, found, like the gold plates themselves, in Italy, with the formula: “May Osiris give thee the cold water”. No doubt the name of Osiris was taken by the Greeks because they found in the Egyptian religions an idea similar to that which they already held themselves.

The word yuxpro/n means of course not simply “cold” but “refreshing”. (The two are the same in Mediterranean countries.) It is of the same root as psyche, soul and Dieterich (Nekyia, 95) compares the word a)nayu=xai in the Orphic line which literally means “refreshed from evil”. The water is not ordinary water. It is water from the lake of Memory, and it is only the soul whose purity is vouched for which is to be allowed to drink from it. This is the soul which has escaped from the circle of birth, or evil, or woe, and is about to enter on the state of perfect divinity. Consequently it is not, like the souls in the Republic which are being prepared for a new incarnation, made to drink a certain measure of the water of Forgetfulness (Rep. 620a). That, without doubt, is the fountain on the left which it is told above all things to avoid. For it is reserved the water of life, which will enable it to retain full consciousness (Guthrie, Orpheus and the Greek Religion, 177)

How far we are from simple “covered” and “uncoveredness”, and even linguistic reductions of the determination of the human soul to that which is spoken. Rather, the depiction of Lethe and not-Lethe is expressed in very physical terms, in terms of refreshingly cold water as drink. The soul in the land of the dead has passed through extreme heat, and is bewildered by its thirst. It has been instructed not to drink of the fountain on the left, but on the right. Here I quote the already cited Orphic passage from the Republic:

[621a] And after it had passed through that, when the others also had passed, they all journeyed to the Plain of Oblivion [tes Lethes pedion], through a terrible and stifling heat, for it was bare of trees and all plants, and there they camped at eventide by the River of Forgetfulness [Ameleta potamon], whose waters no vessel can contain. They were all required to drink a measure of the water, and those who were not saved by their good sense drank more than the measure, and each one as he drank forgot all things.

The word-choice here is telling. The soul has passed across the Plain of Oblivion (tes Lethes pedion), and the river that the reincarnating soul drinks from is not the River of Lethe, but the River of Ameleta, the River of Uncaring. Under Orphic telling, the aletheia is not the “uncovered” but “the not-uncaring”. Clearly, those that drink from the River of Mnemosyne instead of Ameleta, retain their cares and concerns. Quite to the contrary of Heidegger’s lexical reversion which will eventually make a “cloaking” out of human Dasein engagment with the pragmata (affairs, things of concern), the very nature of aletheia is that of retaining concerns and care. It is only through the retention of cares that the soul is refreshed of the heat of oblivion.

The Role of Care as Revelation

Importantly, Heidegger tells us in his history of the concept of the truth that “This uncoveredness [of aletheia] does not apply to things insofar as they are, but insofar as they are encountered, insofar as they are objects of concern.” Notice how this differs from the Orphic/Platonic tale of elementary care and concern. The concern is not with “objects” but with thirst itself, with the state of one’s own body. It is the purity of this sufferance, as a care, which in turn orients the soul both toward the gaurdian and the spring. And contrary to Heidegger’s assessment, it is indeed the care of the soul which orients it rightfully to the pragmata, “insofar as they are”. One must, in examining the history of the Greek notion of the truth acknowledge this fundamental equation.

It is for this reason that the optical metaphor of covered and uncovered that Heidegger adopts, while suited to the Idealist heritage he keeps, actually is insufficient to the Greek concept of truth (insofar as we can historically generalize). The the failure of cares in Oblivion is the detachment from one’s own state, to dissipate. It is not a condition of veiling, or coveredness, of something coming between the subject and the world, but rather is a constitutive internal relation, a failure of orientation towards one’s own health and dynamic expression, a failure to recall in one’s concerns the connections which “as they are” have constituted you.

In this correction we must keep track of Heidegger’s smooth move towards Aletheia of speaking being: “Now the most immediate kind of uncovering is speaking about things.” One wants to stretch back to some time more distant than the benchmark for truth, Aristotle, and turn to Homer, the Iliad. Achilles is furious and in attendance of the Assembly where he is told that Agamemnon will take from him his beloved Briseis. Achilles has his hand on the hilt of his sword which he is in the act of drawing. Agamemnon is finished, yet:

The white-armed goddess Hera had sent her forth, [195] for in her heart she loved and cared for both men alike. She stood behind him, and seized the son of Peleus by his fair hair, appearing to him alone. No one of the others saw her. Achilles was seized with wonder, and turned around, and immediately recognized Pallas Athene. Terribly her eyes shone. (Book One, lines 195-200)

What is the “truth” status of Athena’s terribly flashing eyes? None of the others in the hall saw her (literally, she was coming to light [phanomene] to him alone, not the others).  Not only did he perceive her [gignosko] as generally present, but seemed to do so as particularized by the very manifestion of her eyes [phaanthen]. These eyes are the very epithetic status of the goddess herself, “Flash-eyed” Athena. I suggest really that it is not on this occasion of words (debate in a hall) that the most immediate form of “uncovering” is words, but rather of bodily seizure and distinctive identification. The pragmata of Achilles’ concern, that of Agamemnon’s unworthy stewardship of the Greek contingent, his love for Briseis, suddenly is invaded by the pragmata of his own condition, exposed in the glinting revelation of things as they are, the concerns of his very thumatic soul. But it is not a condition of layering, of things standing between what is and the perceiver. Nothing is hidden, rather the richness of connection is accomplished in care. We find this in the poem when Achilles finally achieves the ῎Ελεος of compassion for Hector’s father and his sworn enemy King Priam, Eleos, the God of Mercy. This is what is missing from Heidegger’s notion of “truth” as kinds of covering and uncovering, in an optical metaphor of distance.

Productively I feel that the order of these points against Heidegger should be framed within a large problem in the Idealist tradition that Heidegger participates in, and this is the absolute tendency to consider philosophical questions solely in terms of a fundamental dyad. This form of analysis is one that principally comes out of the European Christian concern of how to connect the human soul with God. The presumption was that the world simply interferred in some sense (which the exception of the Church, which faciliated the connection) As God came to be displaced, the fundamental question became epistemic, how does the human perceiving subject connect to the world (and the world’s surrogate, the “object”). In taking the philosophical question to be primarily a subject/object question, the great and constitutive third, others, came to be pushed aside. In general, as philosophies become discordantly engaged with one-to-one relationships, and their profusion of binaries, it is inherently insuffient and misguided (that is, it has decomplexified the relationships of the world to an unhelpful degree). It seems to me that as Heidegger turned to Aristotlean notions of truth, categorizing them widely as Greek, and adopted a primarly optical metaphor for qualifications of Being, he did so in a way quite friendly to the pre-existing Idealist dyad of self/world. In this fashion, in his foreclosure to the immanent capacities of “care” in the Greek mind, he obscured the very third leg of the triangle, others, which would otherwise show how “care” in all things, including things “non-human” is actively involved in our mutual construction of the world, in degrees of ontological freedom.  Because “aletheia” was for Idealist Heidegger primarily an EYE/OBJECT relation (that metaphor), the constitutive movment from “lethe” (dissipative oblivion) to “a-leth-eia” (condensed internal relations of expressive care) was robbed of the very depth of the dimensionality of others. More Augustine, more Achilles was needed.

Heidegger “Never says…” and Harman says…

The Ghost of Kant

Graham Harman wants us to pay very close attention to what a metaphysical thinker says, and not what his framework for thinking implies:

What sorts of relations, then, would inanimate things have amongst each other? Well, “Heidegger never says.” But does this mean we can draw no conclusions about it? After spending so much time talking about how entities are both veiled and unveiled for human Dasein, it would have been quite easy for Heidegger, if he had thought of it, to say that “even cotton is both veiled and unveiled for the fire that consumes it.” If he ever had such a notion, why wouldn’t he have said it? It would have been a wonderfully shocking statement, and he would have wanted to draw attention to such a theory. And if it’s really so compatible with his philosophy, then why do orthodox Heideggerians treat me like I have three heads whenever I say it?

The reason is simple… Heidegger works within the framework of the Kantian philosophy of human access to the world (more)…

[update: the material quoted and quoted below no longer exists as Harman deleted his entire blog wherein such discussions and comments occurred]

In this “methodological” move, it seems to me that he conflates two things. There is the very framework that a thinker is thinking in, and then there are the cares and concerns of that philosopher, the perhaps the very reasons why he is using particular assumptions and assertions. And while we do go about imagining that we as philosophers are attacking merely the “structure” of thought, quite honestly we are doing so because of the intentions that it is put to (either consciously by the philosopher, or to some quiet degree, its social effects in history).

The Shock of Claims

So when Graham asks, it would have been quite easy for Heidegger, if he had thought of it, to say that “even cotton is both veiled and unveiled for the fire that consumes it.” If he ever had such a notion, why wouldn’t he have said it? The very plain answer is simply that Heidegger did not care about objects in this way. It likely was meaningless within his interests to point out the possibility, even if there are aspects of it buried in his approach. Perhaps it would be something like pointing out to the writers of the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal” implies that in their proposed country blacks should hold equal rights with whites, and the Jefferson might consider freeing his slaves. It simply wasn’t the point of the equality.

(It is notable that Graham sees as a very good reason Heidegger might have for making a philosophical claim (the one Graham has been currently making), “It would have been a wonderfully shocking statement, and he would have wanted to draw attention to such a theory.” Call me naive, but making a splash and turning heads really isn’t what drives most large scale thinkers, though I can see Graham’s love for Nietzschean style showing through here. He does not seem to consider as essential factors other than the “shock value” of an idea. And in Nietzsche’s defense, at least the Nietzschean outright methodology of shock was coupled with a metaphysical valuation of shock…said he trying to “save” Europe. For some reason the argumentative point, “Philosopher X certainly did not believe Y, for if he did he would have made the claim because it would have gotten him so much attention,” seems more self-revelatory than critical.

Evidence of Harman’s over-sensitivity to shock value can be seen in the introductory comments of his talk “Intentional Objects For Non-Humans”. There he faced the problem of how to alarm an audience of panpsychists:

Normally, a panpsychist theory would be the most shocking part of any lecture- but at a conference on “non anthropological subjectivity” like this one, listeners will already be prepared to grant subjectivity to beings such as flowers and grains of dust. The part about objects will be the more surprising of the two parts today.

Perhaps this is key to understanding the motivations behind Graham Harman’s otherwise entertaining characterizations of the world. They are meant to be surprises, and possess a kind of surprise-value. The problem with “surprise-value” is that it can either point to a radically new idea, or simple incoherence of concept, the difference to be made in explication.)

Taking this into our stride, Chris [Graham's interolcutor] was confused by Graham’s foreclosure against extrapolations upon a thinker’s beliefs,

“I cannot tell if you’re claiming that philosopher X thinks no relations happen between inanimate objects that are isolated from humans (IOTAIFH?), that philosopher X may think they do but can’t account for them, that philosopher X may think they do and maybe could account for them but thinks they are uninteresting, that philosopher X may think they do privately but metaphysically excludes the possibility, at least implicitly, that philosopher X is more concerned with access, or what. I’d like to respond a bit about Heidegger at some point but I’ve lost a sense of what you’re claiming.” (here)

It seems that we can get closer than this and broadly say that Graham wants to be credited with an invention of the possibilities of Heideggerian thinking, and not let them be attributed to Heidegger himself. But he would also like to use in whole cloth the Heideggerian object-orientation that he does feel largely Heidegger carried out. In a sense, he wants to take Heidegger out beyond the orbit of his own human Dasein planet. We can see this in his clarification to Chris,

But here’s the simplest form of my claim…it’s not so much a matter of whether things can exist apart from humans (it’s all too easy to stave off the solipsism charge by conceding that there might be some uninteresting lump of something out there beyond us), but of whether things can relate apart from humans. And furthermore, whether this relation is taken to be ontologically of the same order as the relation between human and world. Kant and his heirs are typified above all else by putting the human/world relation at the center of the picture.

The question for me is, Heidegger is clearly in Harman’s view one of the heirs of Kant, Is Graham one of the heirs of Heidegger? He certainly methodologically puts the “human/world relation” at the center of the picture, for he works exclusively with Husserlian and Heideggerian concepts, and explicitly states that we must “think down” from “human cases”. Is he trying to keep the authenticity of traditional concepts, yet declare himself immune from their critique? He wants to be Kantian, but then excuse himself from such by projecting such “relating” onto all things (to my ear largely without any rigorous explanation).

The Question Answered

While he wants us not to think along with Badiou or Heidegger and credit them with aspectsof authorship of his own position, (he distinctly does not want any allies to his claims that would threaten their originality), he also wants us not to press too closely similiar critical attributions to his own work. He got very upset when I suggested that as an heir to binarizing Idealism and thus importing optical analogies of hiddenness, his concepts and colorful metaphors for the exotic inner world carry with them a problematic eroticization of the “sensual other”. This is a problem which is distinctly political in consequence in terms of real people in the world.  His counter-claim, “I never said that!”

One really has to acknowledge, apart from dramatized appeals to originality, that the great joy and significance in philosophy come in investigating just what philosophers “never said”. We want to uncover the implicit possibilities with the horizon of a philosopher’s thought. Part of this comes from the decided fact that philosophies arise in answer to specific questions. All the terms, concepts and illustrations are pulled into resource to address questions that pre-exist that philosophy, and in some sense work to re-frame the question as it had been previously answered. “He never said…” is often a product of “The question being answered did not require it”. But when we engage a particularly interesting philosopher, not only do we want to see if he/she answered the question that they have redescribed well, but we want to think along with them and see, imagine for ourselves, how they would then answer this other question? And while there may be a division between how would the “person” answer this question, and how would the philosophy itself answer the question, it is the latter of these two that is perhaps the more interesting.

And there is a further aspect of investigating a philosophy. We also ask, what questions is the philosophy repressing, keeping from being asked? What is being hidden by the very form of the answers given?

The Whiteness of Metaphysics: Colored Readings of the Same

The Murderer of Agamemnon

ἆ ἆ, ἰδοὺ ἰδού: ἄπεχε τῆς βοὸς
τὸν ταῦρον: ἐν πέπλοισι
μελαγκέρῳ λαβοῦσα μηχανήματι
τύπτει!..

Ah, ah, See, see! Hold off from the cow
the bull!  Within robes
blackhorned she seized, by a machina
striking!

Agamemnon (lines 1125-1128)

Ἀργεῖός εἰμι, πατέρα δ᾽ ἱστορεῖς καλῶς,
Ἀγαμέμνον᾽, ἀνδρῶν ναυβατῶν ἁρμόστορα,
ξὺν ᾧ σὺ Τροίαν ἄπολιν Ἰλίου πόλιν
ἔθηκας. ἔφθιθ᾽ οὗτος οὐ καλῶς, μολὼν
εἰς οἶκον: ἀλλά νιν κελαινόφρων ἐμὴ
μήτηρ κατέκτα, ποικίλοις ἀγρεύμασιν
κρύψας᾽, ἃ λουτρῶν ἐξεμαρτύρει φόνον.

Argive I am, my father – you fairly inquire -
Was Agamemon, the nautical Riveter of men,
With him you the Troad uncitied Illion city
Claimed. His end was not so fair come
Home; but he blackhearted my
Mother slew, in the dappled game
She hid, the witness of a bath’s murder.

Eumenides (lines 455-461)

[apologies if the Greek fonts don't come through]

Examples of Greek Otherness

I wish to briefly examine conceptions of othernessas found in the Greek notions of the world, so as to get a grip upon how deviant from these the modern appropriations of the same are in concept, with a particular eye upon Heidegger’s evocation of invisivibility and presence. Above are two descriptions of the method of Clytemnestra’s murder of the returning Agamemnon. The details of which will cue us unto the Greek otherness of “woman,” and relatedly (though she is not Eastern like Medea), the otherness of the East, Persia, Phrygia, and finally perhaps otherness itself: Same vs. Different.

The first from Aeschylus tells us that she smote him with a device, a machine, horned and smothered in a mantel.

Within robes
blackhorned she seized, by a machina
striking!

The second is even more interesting, for the wordplay is excelerated:

blackhearted my
Mother slew, in the dappled [poikilois] game [agreumasin]
She hid, the witness of a bath’s murder

We must see in these means and their characterizations the very nature of her own representational otherness, her exotic quality and powers. With grammatical ambiguity she cloaks either herself or her husband in ποικίλοις ἀγρεύμασιν, itself an intricate phrasing. The poikilois has multiple meanings all of which point to things varigated and potentially confusing. To quote the Greek lexicon, “”many-coloured, spotted, mottled, pied, dappled, of leopards, fawns; of robes, wrought in various colours, broidered; intricate; metaphorically changeful, various, diversified; intricate, complex; subtle; of persons, subtle, wily” (LSJ); and the agreumasin, can mean both the hunter’s snares used to catch prey, but also the game animal itself. With remarkable economy of words, Clytemestra hid within and struck by means of the very intricacy of her plans, and a garment, as a dangerous, even technological force camoflaged by the powers of its own complexity. Complexity, folded-in-ness was the mark of a power of otherness. For the Greeks intricacy, such as that which typified the craft skills of Asia Minor, bore in its very profound and natural interconnection the magical danger, the trap and the power of animal forces to both hide and kill. It was not so much the lack of transparency, to be understood in a fundamental binary of invisible/colored, but the actual production of confusion on the part of the viewer, a “how did they do that!” born of the very incalculable implications expressed in variegation itself. A tangle, if betwitching knot of things, labyrinth in need of a “poria” a ford in the river of it. The mention of the labyrinth is not accidental. What is forewarned against is the very Daedalus, work-man skill of the foreign hand, the mythological name taken from the verb δαιδάλλω:

[to] work cunningly, embellish, “σάκος . . πάντοσε δαιδάλλων” Il.18.479; “λέχος ἔξεον . . δαιδάλλων χρυσῷ τε καὶ ἀργύρῳ ἠδ᾽ ἐλέφαντι” Od.23.200; of a painter or sculptor, Opp.C.1.335, IG14.967:-Pass., to be spotted, marked, “σφραγῖσι” Opp.C.1.324.

It was the imported capacity to beguile through complexity that made the Greeks wary. And thus it was this very complexity, into which Clytemnestra as a woman folded herself and executed her action. The last line from the Eumenides above, “…the witness of a bath’s murder” leaves us to feel that it was the intricately woven robe (somehow both animate and inanimate) that alone stood as legal witness to the murder which was folded up into it. It is as if the very fibres and twistings make up the eyes of the action. Complexity for the Greek not only revealed itself in surplus of detail, but any hyper-complex manifestion also was read as its complimentary, a kind of fog, an obscuring haze out of which the unpredictably occurs. In a certain sense the Greek mind did see the world itself as dangerously manifest of variegated complexity, obscurely verging on the threat of a cacophony, much as how a coming storm is both richly folded in cloud-effects, but also fogging to human vision. It is for this reason they sought the harmoniously and to some degree unseen wholes behind it.

Translating “true”: from Greek ἀλήθεια (un-forgotten, un-escaped), to Heidegger’s Alêtheia (un-concealed)

Why do I bring these details of the description of Clytemnestra’s murdering under examination? Recently I have been weighing against the metaphysical inheritance of a fundamental white/colored, colonialist conception that has been passed down to Graham Harman through his continuation of a Heideggerian dichotomy: ready-at-hand  invisibility and present-at-hand  cloakedness. (I have promised to leave off this critique so I will only stay at its specific surface here.) Under Harman’s interpretation of Heidegger the invisibility of working tool-beings carries the purity of object essences, their very whiteness (what he terms as “retreat”), while the colored cloak of “presence” necessarily occludes by virtue of its very shaded deception that invisible white. It is enough to point out that the projections of magical powers of inter-connectivity upon the East did not begin with German Idealism, but as is well known, but in the rough cut of Western culture with the Greeks. Phrygia and the surrounding areas passing all the way to Persia embodied the feminizing dangers of excessive wealth, sensuality and deceptively intricate skill (and it is not without coincidence that the entire Amazonian inversion of Athenian society was projected to the shores of the Black Sea). This is not to lessen the idealizations of wisdom and wealth to the South, Egypt and Africa. Eastern projections, orientalizations, are as old as Western civilization as it is classically conceived.

So as metaphysics proper, as a certain kind of study of the the idea of the Same and the Different, Unitary and Multiple, takes its main root from Greek Society, upon which there can only be a partial mapping of a Anglo-Germanic notions of purity of essence, there is the duty of the tracking of the concept. When taking European metaphysics in hand, one has to ask the cultural question, in tracing the dichotomy of Greek Same-Harmonious/Variegated-Dangerous onto a largely invisible/visible, How White is Metaphysics itself? Can one currently metaphysize upon primary binaries of same/different within a primary optical metaphor of invisible/colored and not be caught up in the historical contrast between white/colored?

From Intrication to Shaded Color

The question otherness as variegation or coloredness is complex for Greek society, for their divisions of Same and Different did not meet the same racial and necessarily optical categories that have been privleged in modern European thought since the 17th century. As I have mentioned, for the Greek there is an emphasis on manifestation, but it is not so much as optical manifestation as a kind of textiled conception of plexity. The world is in a way woven together of elements, forces, powers, and even the Platonic notion of forms is misunderstood if it is only conceived of optically as invisible or hiddenly white. Those modern Europeans for instance were the recievers of a image of the Greek which did not realize that the Parthenon was painted. The plain Greek marble forms were not the full expression of their art. The painted Greek was something that the 19th century wonderful and brilliant Gottfried Semper finally told only to dulled ears.

 

So when German Idealists pursued the white invisibles of pure Greek perception, they were handicapped in a sense. Not only did they have a historically incorrect view of Ancient Greek concepts of whiteness and form (so prevalent and enchanting are those stripped-away statues and columns, weathered of their colored “accidents” which a Classicists imagined were never there), but the pure, white receding essence of things had to be also discerned within a cultural context imbued with valuations of color which were much more over-determined than any in the Greek city state. The confusions of color, variegation and pattern now had become more shaded. There was the Asian, the Moor, the Jew, the New World Indian; and each of these skins themselves were reconstructed by European poltical and economic dealings. This being admitted, the question remains. Are our own metaphysics spun from the categories of European metaphysics not caught in the very white/colored ethnic projections which include those euphanic eroticizing ones of Eastern idealization (their sensuality, interconnectivity, wisdom, attachments, transgressive gender forms, connection to the world); and are not these concepts additionally polarized by the often suppressed animalizing real of the concept “black”? Did not the 17th century’s rise of black slavery in historical terms re-mark what foreign and mediating color meant in severe economic and ideological terms such that mediations on opticality necessarily carry with them include mediations on race and color?

I am interested in this because I do see how Heidegger’s metaphysics (and its attachments to the East) embody a possibly virulent white/colored dichotomy, [ The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman) ];  and thus I weigh criticism against all philosophies derived from Heidegger’s essential optical terms (including Graham Harman’s as I have outlined here and here). But still, I am an appreciator of metaphysics, and in particular that of the philosophy of Spinoza, and so I am curious as to how closely we can press this criticism to others of the modern metaphysics family.

I have said in the past the I find strong correlates between Heidegger and Spinoza, and that Substance in the latter speaks to Being in the former. Is Spinoza’s unity of Substance, its very invisibility like Heidegger’s, an invisibility of whiteness, an essential whiteness which lies behind colored deception?

The question of white and colored is an interesting one for Spinoza. As someone like Graham Harman would like to make the sensuous, interconnecting, enwealthed kinds, to be kinds of mediation, the 17th century Sephardim Jew serves as quite a likely fantasy space for just such a projection. The Jew, newly freed from really centuries of Inquisitional brutality at the hands of the Spanish, families having hidden within the Christian world as converted merchants, now became the ultimate vicarious mediators of European economics. And Spinoza’s family was part of an epicenter of growing Jewish commercial wealth, his father for a time a very prominent merchant of some standing in the community of Sephardim, who bore their Spanish/Moorish stain in the shade of their skin. It was the un-Christian Jew as the licentious, greedy other, the dirty human oil that helped the rising capitalist machine work. Long had they performed the marginal act of interest-charging usary, the unsaintly making of money on money, something out of nothing but relations. Come from such a mediating people and a merchant family, does Spinoza’s metaphysics also work with bias against the mediation of the colored and varigated? 

Spinoza’s metaphysics certainly keeps to a notion of the Imaginary which is marked by its confusing conflations of images and traces. The colored world of pictures for Spinoza certainly was a beguiling one, one that tricks you into not seeing the true causes of things. But we should temper; it was not so much for Spinoza that very the concrete complexity of the modal world was deceptive or dangerous, but rather that the profusion of inner imaginary associations that defrauded the “eyes of the mind” of greater power and self-determination.

Spinoza and Slavery

The question of color for Spinoza and his time is historically not that simple. In the 17th century not yet has “black” come to embody and polarize “white” such that all deviations from White became aspects of Blackness. Black was still “African” or “Ethiopian” and not yet a pure category, which does not mean that there was not an active white/colored binary informing social and economic structures. This complexity of color can be seen in the question of the role of Jews in the black slave trade, especially as it began to rise almost exponentially in the sugar trade, something the Jews of Amsterdam were thoroughly invested in. There is a notable historical absence of evidence of the direct involvement of Sephardim Jews in the Slave trade, but they were intimately involved the entire economic processes which relied upon it [ Spinoza Doubt? The Sephardim and the Slave Trade; Evidence for connection of the Spinoza family to the Sugar TradeSpinoza Sugar Time Table; The Hope of Israel, and What Spinoza Means by the “Ethiopian” ]. Was this relative abstention of contact with black and indigenous slave trade the respect the otherwise persecuted Jews had for people of color, or is it a sign of their careful buffering through New Christians. It seems history does not know. So there is no clear way to position the 17th century Amsterdam Jew within the white/colored dichotomy that was developing [Spinoza and the Caliban Question ]. In any case the question of clarity and invisibleness had not yet reached a polarizing limit, one in which black and white formed an entire spectrum of opacity and color.

So when investigating Spinoza’s metaphysics in terms of social color we are left without a solid place to stand. His family was likely involved in the sugar trade (a central investment of the Amsterdam Sephardim community), and it may have even been that trade that drove him to the pursuit of metaphysics and lenses (see, the collapse of the Recife colony). Both his brother and sister both later in life moved to Caribbean locals dominated by slave production. But, Spinoza was an excommunicate of his own Amsterdam Jewery; they were forbidden to even stand under the same roof as him. So he was twice removed from the “white” of Same.

Yet, this does not make him immune to the critique that metaphysics of invisible essence embody white/colored social dichotomies. In fact his ostricization may have further propelled him towards the dichotomy’s perfection, as he sought in letters to make himself a citizen of the world, quietly championing a radical democracy of freedoms. His ultimate appeal to the Same of Substance is difficult to assess. But it is notable that he very seldom appeals to metaphors of optical clarity or even to light itself, despite the naturalness of such an appeal. Not only was he a lens grinder and an telescope maker, but the Spiritual Collegiants with whom he had connections regularly used the trope of the light of God to forward their unitarian views. For some reason Spinoza found optical metaphors (in fact all metaphors) misleading. He wanted to speak of how things were, not what they were like, and even the notion of “hiddenness” was unhelpful. He even moved from Descartes’ optically inspired “clear and distinct” rather quickly, wanting to focus on bodily experiences of power and Joy, and the concrete connections between things and ideas. It was all of the body that had to be pulled into view, and not just its eyes. For this reason Spinoza’s is a philosophy of proximity I believe. Nothing is distant.

It is really this reluctance of Spinoza to engage in optical metaphors as the primary means for getting to the radical non-human truth of things that I believe keeps him from falling into the problematic of Same = White. Because most things in the world (objects) do not possess a visual cortex, while optical might make a good rhetorical/conceptual base for a metaphysics of purely a human realm like Heidegger’s, it is hopelessly distorting when trying to describe the dyanamic realities of things that cannot see. Once the colored veil is fully employed, historical notions of color find their anchor point. For the Greeks the notions of freedom and of color were not so determinatively overcoded, even for the Romans, and one might argue even for the 17th century (though I cannot help but see something quite “White” in Leibniz’s foundational reflective monads and his vision of universal rationality in response to the threats of democracy: Leibniz’ “optical” Response to the Theologico-Political Treatise ).

Further, insofar as Spinoza does accept a colored veil of confused “imaginary knowledge” he explicitly does not privilege this of foreign peoples, but sees it as explicitly constructive of the Jewish Nation, not to mention modern European society. The layering of the colored is a question of degree and isn’t one of mediation really. The colored complications of concrete manifestation and our imaginary states are the full-figured expression of God and Substance. Totality expressing itself to its limit. In this way Spinoza is much more in the “distaff tradition” (if I recall the Deleuzian term correctly), the tradition of weaving rather than of appearance.

Indeed it is the entire “veil of ideas” tradition that Idealism took up – carried on through Malebranche’s interpretation of Descartes, and then Reid’s of the same, that came to treat the opticality of ideas (or their phenomenal apperception) as object mediations between the self and the world. This approach to mental objects makes of actions of our minds an intermediary thing which might or might not pass us through to the world.

Distinct from this object-orientation, it is said that the very form of the Parthenon, its high lintel above subtly weightless columns, was readily understood by any Greek in the city to be of the form of the woman’s loom that dominated each and every hearth of the home. Perhaps it with this conception we should consider the internal play of colors and light, understanding that our mental actions not only knot and unknot things in the world, but also are cross-knottings themselves, expressions of the loom we find ourselves in.

The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert

A mix from Salammbo and “On Vicarious Causation”

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

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

Gustav Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert

The Place of the Sensuous Intermediary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely Mining the Black Noise For the Invisible Signal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Barbarians slackened their speed.

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

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

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