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Tag Archives: Larval Subjects

Bryant’s Ring of Gyges: The Social Restraints of Blogging

I dislike these kinds of posts because its more interesting to be talking about this philosopher or that, this line of reasoning or that, but sometimes the content of philosophy comes together with questions of finite community and ultimately of ethics in general. In fact occasions of our own interactions become the best examples or illustrations of why we believe that the ideas we hold are important to the world at large. It is the question of “local ethics”, how Big Ideas and boring everyday stuff touch.

On the Street

I was strolling down my electronic neighborhood today – I usually walk through my blogroll, and then once in a while I then go over to Splintering Bone Ashes who has a nice distribution of blogs and the titles of recent posts outside my usual sphere (SBA never really posts but I like him when he does). So I’m strolling along, down streets I don’t always follow and I run into this bit of rude graffiti chalked on a public wall (I say rude because this posting was vaguely directed towards some anonymous and generalized many, but also with targeted persons in mind, and for those likely walk down that particular electronic street, not unlike other graffiti in the “real” world):

Notes From the Chalk-Breaker

The immediate source for the prejudicial hilarity is Levi Bryant’s site Larval Subjects a post entitled: “Important Theory of Social Relations in New Media”. It has an original source (which a commenter provided), but Bryant initially left it unreferenced as he no doubt wanted it to express his own feelings about the internet contributions of those who don’t write under their “normal” name, a pre-occupation of his and others of circle. Although Bryant once was one of these anonymous types who actually vigorously attempted to conceal his identity (or so I am told, and he admits), he regularly has attacked pseudonymous bloggsters as inauthentic, and in many instances morally suspect. Since coming out of the virtual closet, he has been in the fore-front of uncloaking otherwise cloaked ones. We really must read the meaning of the chalkboard comic as his own intent.

“Larval Subjects”, the name under which he once wrote, seems to feel that if human beings are not restrained by the social consequences of their normal “name”, they will produce what is worst in them. It it not just the Ring of Gyges, but a Ring of Gyges combined with an audience that draws out of human subjectivity what is pejoratively called “total fuckwad” (or those, as Levi Bryant has also grouped: Grey Vampire, the Troll, and inconcordantly as well, the homophobe, the nationalist, the Nazi, the KKK member). We are to imagine that the difference between Fuckwad and the Normal person is simply the combination of anonymity and audience which turns the latter into the former. Leaving Plato’s assumption aside, I have to say that this is a curious, in fact sad view of the world, especially for those who spend a lot of time discussing things on the internet. And it has some rather simple-minded conceptions of what “normal” is and how it operates.

First of all every interaction contains degrees of “normal” nameness, and anonymity. Which is to say the human being has potentialities of in/coherent expression far beyond the name they are under. And the “norm” within the term “normal” is not always something to esteem. And whether “Larval Subjects” posted this comic, or “Levi Bryant” did is a question of community. Most of us don’t really care who “Levi Bryant” is, but we do care (or HAVE cared) who “Larval Subjects” is. The “name” that circulates and falls under community standard consequences is equal to that sphere. For those that wish to give up their nom de plume and attach the products of their writings, including all those interactions to OTHER spheres of normalization are not those who are better persons. They are working on the powers of simply a singular identify.

I refuse both notions that:

1. The only reason why we behave civilly or even altrustically is because we are restrained from doing what we really would like to do.

2. Our “normal” name includes the very best of what we have to offer others.

Autonymy and Anonymous

In fact for those that have experienced writing pseudonymously, there is a definite benefit from this anto-nymy. One simply is able to explore new relations under the context of a new community which do not have much to do with the other communities that can define you (and in defining you, cause you to see yourself in a constricted sense). This is to say, the auto-nym is not so much a freedom from the behavioral restraints of others, as the possibility to redefine oneself in new contexts, under specific projects or trajectories. To discover oneself, so to speak, something beyond the dominant identity that sometimes conflates the “ego” with the proper name. In fact it is quite the case that the virtual intersubjectivity afforded by autonymy is necessarily trans-subjective, pulling at the boundaries of the otherwise regards as whole “self”, opening up possibilities that are entirely creative.

It is important to see that what is loosely regarded as anonymous, when in the context of a regular and interactive (shared) expression is a case of autonymy. And that the “auto” though it expresses the way that one names oneself, the power and authenticity is earned amid a community…it is an autonomy of the name itself, the pseudonym belongs to everyone, and not just you. You are not the locus of its laws. My name here is “kvond” or sometimes “Frames /sing”. I do not own this name. I am made from it, in part, thrown in its direction. It becomes a center of gravity, both for myself but also others.

I had the coincidental experience of name-experiment once that is worth mentioning.  I was a younger man and had romantically dreamed of traveling to and eventually livng in Florence. I saved up a bunch of cash, flew across the Atlantic and headed out blindly to the mesmerizing city. I found a little pensione and resolved to find a job, start a little life there, despite the fact I spoke no Italian (ha). I moved into my pensione where I was to stay for the next month or so and upon registering me the owner read my passport incorrectly. My name is very long and takes up two lines, and she identified a nice Italian sounding middle name as my Christian name, my proper name. She pronounced it, I hesitated, and then I went with it. For my time there, exploring this aspect of myself, this small vector, this line of flight, I was (insert name). It should not make a difference, but it did. Everything I experienced and expressed came out of this new center of circulation, in its orbit. What I was there was not false. It was from a node on a rhizome.

For me the cocooning nature of an experiment of self under name does not generate “Fuckwad” or anything like it (though certainly people can find the me unpleasant at times). When someone is rude to me in text under a specific name I never think to myself “Ah, I wish I had that guy’s REAL name!”  It is much more the case that autonymy propels one forward into interesting spaces. And I think it cool that in those spaces some people are under their “real” names (normal) and some are not. Some people want to say, “Hey! This is me, pay attention to what I really am, and this is what I think.” and other people are like “Hey, forget about who you “really” are, and who I “really” am, and think about this interesting thought”. Try on “this”.

What is extra curious about Levi Bryant’s Normal = Good/ Anonymous = Bad is that it is quite Fascistic in conception. (Levi writes at length how pervasive the so called Neoliberal system of singular subjectivity is, something he equates with Nazism (sigh).) Which is to say the way that illicit behavior is to be controlled is through public exposure under a single register. If we want to control the behavior of others we need to expose them to a panoptical “eye”, an eye that takes its main measurement upon the Name. As a matter of policy, opening up what is otherwise “private” (be it a bedroom, or personal friends, an email) is key to normalizing these aberrations. If one wants to stomp out homosexuality or Communism, let’s say, one exposes what is in the closet, and then attaches it to a “Name” to be regulated. One brings to bear the armature of the Law upon the Name, and does so in a direction tending towards universalization. It’s an interesting theory, but one must acknowledge to where it points.

I side in another direction. I prefer to esteem the long history of pseudonymous writings, and I esteem the virtual world’s new potentiality for micro-climates of interpersonal subjectivity. Here names create vectors for growth and discovery. Yes, in the cloisters of experiment surely there are possibilities for abuse. With freedom from what in Rap is called your “government name” can indeed come a boldness that slips into what is base or simple-minded. This is the risk of freedom itself. It involves the possibility of a regression. But I do not think that autonymy essentially involves regressive expression, nor do I even think that human beings are those that need to be essentially restrained from what is worst. Indeed, the abuse of one’s name, the exercise of its earned and somewhat deceptive power, has as many crimes as the autonymous. The “name” contains no more good than bad.

I sense as well that those who argue that the Ring of Gyges is revelatory of essential human nature are those under a kind of self-confession. They personally struggle with their own anonymity, are uncomfortable with it, and dream that one day their “name”, their real name (that signifier) will hold as much power as the anonymity they both fear and lust after.

INDIRECTIONS offers a harmonizing response to the above, bringing out what I hoped was best in what “kvond” was saying about the auto-nym.

For related but different thoughts on the twists of subjectivity and the subversion of Name, consider a prospective Antigone Complex: What is the “Antigone Complex”? Posthuman Tensored Agency, and More on the Antigone Complex

The Attraction of “Phase Space”, Levi’s Missing Objects

In his usual grasp at the sciences for metaphors Levi has touched on something of interest I think, as I have been reading Stonier’s extremely compelling book Information and the Internal Structure of the universe  (1990), upon which I hope to post soon. In his still vestige symptomatic Lacanianism, Levi uses the “matheme” (the desire to “talk” in the analogy of an algebra) of the crossed out “O” to indicate the “object” that is ever in retreat. In a very nice passage we get a sense of the sense he is trying to make of the idea that objects retreat from their interactions:

At any rate, some differences between Harman’s ontography and my onticology are readily evident in the second paragraph quoted above. With Harman I argue that objects withdraw from other objects, however I arrive at this position for a very different set of reasons. In my view, the withdrawal of objects is the result of the difference between dimensions of objects or Ø and O1. Within the framework of onticology Ø or the matheme for the split or barred object refers to the endo-relational structure of the object. This endo-relational structure consists of a system of attractors defining the phase space of an object or all possible ways in which an object can actualize itself. Attractors are states towards which a system tends, whereas a phase space consists of all possible states a system can occupy. Thus, for example, if you roll a marble down the side of a bowl, the final point at which the marble comes to rest is a fixed point attractor of this system. By contrast, the phase space of this system is all the points the marble can occupy as it rolls up and down the sides of the bowl. I argue that objects are split or divided– or in Harman’s parlance, that they “withdraw” –because no object actualizes all possible points within its phase space. In this connection, O1 refers to an actualized point within a phase space that the object currently occupies.

I think that this is an excellent place to start, but there are a few problems with the borrowing of these analogies from statistical mechanics. The first is these descriptors are used to describe very specific things, “closed systems”. In order for Levi to apply such a thought to his idea that everything is an object, EVERYTHING would have to be a closed system. My passing thought of my grandmother and a combustion engine would BOTH have to be a closed system, each with its own phase space and attractors. Under current understanding such a position would be more than pure invention, it would be, I think, wild analogy. Does the monetary policy of Brazil, and my dog scratching at a tick each have a “phase space”? Does “the flying spaghetti monster“? I suspect that Levi is conflating two things: one, the Idealist oriented notion of whether something is the “same” because we perceive it to be the same, giving it an idenity (something implicitly imported into Harmanism from Husserl), and the very specific energy and informational designations that cause us to regard something as a “system”.

But I do not think that this conflation is unimportant or unhelpful. There does seem to be something interesting about putting these two things into one box “identity” and “phase space”. From my perspective what is compelling comes from Spinoza’s view that a thing is a thing, and remains a certain thing due to a certain ration of motion and rest that persists over time. I think that some rough, but perhaps still very substantive comparisons can be made between this notion and the informational and energy requirements to regard something as having a “phase space”. The notion of “closure” is somewhat missing (a part of which that imports from his Idealist, Lacanian heritage). What makes things “closed”? Is it our perception of them as closed, the subjective boundary that we drawn around them, seeing them as we do, or is it some essential “phase space” and “attractor” that forces them to have a ghost-life beneath our view? This notion of closure is an important one, and the way that Levi plays with both the psychological/perceptual sense of the word and the scientific sense is problematic.

Because this is problematic ground I have been and would like to tread, this analogy to phase space is something worth paying attention to. And while I find difficult (or unhelpful) the notion that “the twinkle in her eye” is a closed system, and would like to treat closed systems as very specific things that can be considered “closed” because such an analysis yields valuable information about them (and not because they solve our philosophical question of identity), Spinoza’s definitional idea of what a body is makes the comparison between individuals and such spaces appealing. I have argued elsewhere that the closure of objects is best seen as “Semiotic” that is, making differences that make “the” difference rather than simply “a” difference: The “ens reale” and the “ens rationalis”: Spelling Out Differences, The Necessary Intersections of the Human Body: Spinoza and Conjoined Semiosis: A “Nerve Language” of Bodies. In each I take up the consequences of Spinoza’s definition of a body that I have referred to here:

Definition: When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or if they are moving at the same or different rates of speed so as to preserve an unvarying relation of movement among themselves, these bodies are said to be united with one another and all together to form one body or individual thing, which is distinguished from other things through this union of bodies. E2p13a2d

What is key in our consideration is, I believe, the notion of communication, that the parts communicate their motions to each other (this can be found in the Latin phrase ut motus suos invicem certa quadam ratione communicent, translated by Curley as “that they communicate their motion to each other in a fixed manner”). This idea of communication is an important one because it opens up the “informational” dimension of what makes up a closure. What makes up a thing so as to be an “individual” is not only its material existence, but also its energy (motion/rest) AND its information (!), its communications. And yes, I do think that there are reasons to speak of the differences that make “a” difference in the world, and differences that make “the” difference (internal to a system or a taken to be recursive relationship).

But this is the thing that I think that Levi is missing, and missing rather dramatically, in his question to make objects retreat from all their relations (and gain some sort of affinity to Harman’s Idealism). Although it pays to treat objects as separate from others, because their “phase space” is informational phase space (if we even grant the more wild aspects of the analogy from Science), and as such there is no reason to suppose that such a space of relations is closed off from the rest of the universe, or composes a difference that makes NO difference to other things, other systems, other phase spaces (Levi Uses Greek Fonts Nicely, but…). In fact, such a phase space, I would suggest, is necessarily understood to be permeated (and interactive) at several levels. I think I would deny that there is ANY system that is completely closed (that although it pays to treat them as closed, they never are entirely closed at all). This is the case in terms of scale (smaller component events can have consequences both on larger component scales, and thus across boundaries that would otherwise define the system), and also in term of the boundary itself. A political population of citizens can and will intersect with a population of disease, metallic elements in a machine will be effected by magnetic fields, etc., etc, etc. IF there is going to be a “phase space” analogy of the possible distribution of material elements in any “object” it is going to be a phase space that is so complex and interwoven with others (amenable to other vectored descriptions) that the ultimate solution of the “identity” problem in philosophy will never be found. Someone like Levi would like to simply deposit the identity of objects over time in such a system space, really for almost aesthetic reasons (the desire to cross out the “O” in objects), without significantly considering what a “phase space” is and what such a reality of objects would mean for identity itself. It seems that far from making objects have a “ghost” existence outside their manifestations, an existence which would make no difference to other objects, it seems to be much the opposite. Indeed objects may be described as specific manifestations of matter, energy and information that express the possibilities of their distribution, but such a phase space actually connects them to all other objects and all other phase spaces, and has a determined effect upon them.

(A sidenote: There is the additional problem from Levi whose objects are forever in retreat that if indeed each object has a phase space, a mathematical description of such a space – using the statistical mechanics from which the analogy is derived – itself becomes an “effect” of the space itself. That is, far from being in retreat, such a space is not only expressing itself in the “object” that it underwrites, but also it is expressing itself in the mathematics, and the mathematician, that is describing it. It does not compose a difference that makes no difference, as itself has expressive properties. And one has to ask, does a “phase space” constitute an “object” as well, and have its own phase space and attractors – this is an interestng question?)

Much as in Spinoza view in which essences are expressed modally, but also remain somehow latently immanent to any one manifestation, the information space within expressions is actually that which connects things to all other things, and to take it to be in continual retreat is, I believe, a fundamental mischaracterization. If anything such a space is what, in Deleuzian fashion can be called a “distaff” space, an information space out of which all things can be and are woven. It is ultimately a space intersected with all other spaces, undermining just what the Idealist notion of “objecthood” is (a notion founded upon Brentano’s Intentionality Thesis and Descartes opticality of consciousness). At the very least, and in the most obvious fashion, because entropy is defined in statistical mechanics as the tendency of a system to pass through all the phrase space that constitutes it, an “object”, what Levi wants to call O1, by virtue of its supposed Ø phase space status, could pass into a state of extreme element distribution, all of the atoms that might constitute it floating in an entropy soup O2, and still be regarded as the same object Ø (beyond any common sense of identity). A tornado passed into mere breezes. This is somthing that might only be meaningful to say of one thing, Spinoza’s Substance. I hope to post on information, Stonier and Spinoza soon.

What Larval Subjects Loves to Hate

An Economy of Hatred

Larval Subjects, in his usual unconscious fashion, presents a very interesting twin of “hatreds”, a twining that perhaps reveals something about the economy of hatred itself…

[A post titled "Two Things I Hate"]

First, users who reduce others to vehicles of their own jouissance or enjoyment. I don’t care whether it is the sadistic serial killer that reduces the other person to their flesh (Dexter excepted), evacuating their own subjectivity, turning them into a vehicle for their own jouissance, or the child predator, the politician who cynically manipulates his flock evoking religion or nationalism, or Bernie Madoff, or the player. They’re all equivalent as far as I’m concerned. There is something horrifying in this evacuation of subjectivity.

Second, the creatures of ressentiment  who seem to delight in tearing others down, in finding ways to torture them, who have orgies of hate together when they get ignored seeing themselves as victims rather than being the assholes that they are. Racists, jilted white men, insecure nationalists, misogynists and homophobes, trolls, Christianists and religious zealots of all sorts that are convinced they’re victims, gossips, etc., etc., etc. All of them stink with the stench of ressentiment, filled with a hatred of all that is affirmative and great, doing all they can to tear these things down. In all these cases they seem obsessed with tearing down others in the spirit of revenge for their own unrealized and unactualized desires, functioning as police to those that would do what they dream of doing but are too fearful to pursue.

The Whiff of Sulfur

What is interesting, or what strikes me as significant is how the performance of the second hatred, the way in which Larval Subjects delights in essentializing others who veritably “stink” carries out the program of the first. That is, by seeing a near animal class of “ressentiment” kinds, Larval Subjects makes these types “vehicles of [his] own enjoyment”. While he does not manipulate these types as his “flock”, the investment is in making all these kinds odiferous to the palate of his nose. This is what hate does, it designs pockets of an imagined-to-be  deposited enjoyment in the body of others. What Larval Subjects hates (in the second class) are the hidden enjoyments ressentiment-kinds are able to vampirically draw out of “what is affirmative and great”. When we hate the homophobe, we are hating that they enjoy their own hatred of other kinds. When we hate the nationalist, we are hating the enjoyment they have in their nationalism. When we hate victim-types, we hate the enjoyment victims have in being a victim. But ever when we hate what we are hating is not only how, in what form, but even more so, the inappropriate intensity of the enjoyment of others. It is that transgressive intensity that produces the “stench” that Larval Subjects abhors, expressed by the body itself. In short, when we hate we hate that the others enjoy.

And in so doing, in the very framing of our hatred, we insure that we are able to secret enjoy ourselves through the vehicle of these “others”.

What is interesting about this “I hate the enjoyment of others” is that one often works unconsciously to make sure that our hatred deposits are ever perpetuated. There MUST be ressentiment others in order for us to continue our secret (from ourselves) extraction of enjoyment. Not only do we invest in imagining them, seeing their kind (or as it were smelling their kind, everywhere), most inordinately, we work unconsciously through real actions to, in feedback fashion, construct these kinds to insure our opposition to them. When we hate what we are opposed to we work to make sure that our hatred can be maintained.

Now is there room for hatred of a kind? The most religious and philosophically minded of us might say no, that hatred is a passive and unconscious relation. And with this I am inclined to agree. Yet through the powers of hatred much can be organized and put into action. What is important perhaps is realizing the economies that are employed in hatred, and the investments we have in what we hate (how we perpetuate both the fantasy image and the real situation). Futher, perhaps, there are ways to tap down into the thymotic forces upon which hatred draws so that what customarily has been classified as hatred can be seen in another, more retributive light. The way in which our thymotic sense can act forcefully without the reactive and unconscious jealousies of the pleasures of others.

Addendum [Larval Subjects responds]:

Larval Subjects has reposted his once deleted post, and I can say to this little bit about “class”:

It is very “classy” for Kvond to copy a post I deleted a half an hour before he wrote it and post it on his blog, but such is the nature of the internet.

Of course I have no control over when or where authors decide to delete their material once sent out to the public in an attempt to resculpt their message. Heavens, Harman chose to delete an entire blog”s worth of material in order to reconstruct his e-past. But I will say that I had copied Larval Subject’s post and began commenting upon it before Larval Subjects decided to delete it (obviously), and that by the time I had posted my thoughts on his hatreds for the Madoffs and internet trolls of the world, I then, subsequently, found that he had deleted it. Was it my responsibility or “class” (interesting choice of word) to then delete my commentary on the gentlemanly threshold of Larval Subject’s sensitivities? I felt that the post had revelatory value beyond even Larval Subject’s person, and retained it.

More than once Larval Subjects has seen fit to try to control the message by deleting material that I have written, and more than once I have had to repost on my own blog space comments that he has censored (and he has subsquently appologized for at least some of his deletions). He has this right of deletion, but of course I have my own right of expression. That he now invokes “class” as the order of his attempt to restrain my expressed thinking about his hatreds, is perhaps significant. As for the “energy” I have expended in writing about Larval Subjects (these Object-oriented types are very concerned about “energy”, both in terms of expenditure and suckage), it seems only fitting to the community of blogged philosophy that when some persons ally themselves upon an ethic of the essentialization of others (trolls, vampires, minotaurs), and then raise that ethical opposition to the level of “hatred” as Larval Subjects clearly does, some “energy” really does seem in order to be expended. While I do not “hate” high-minded hypocrites (not even close), I do sometimes enjoy unmasking them (knowing, in fact enjoying, full well that when I am hypocritical the favor should be returned). 

At least now, as Larval Subjects has been somewhat forced into reposting his hatreds, and owning up to them a bit, others can decide the appropriateness of Larval Subject’s “warrior class” contempt for the weak, no doubt not even a psychoanalytic source for his hatred of trolls and others, as he apparently sees himself as something of a contemptuous positive “warrior”…

“[a] warrior that has contempt for the weak because of an affirmation of his own qualities of strength, prowess in battle”

As for Larval Subject’s mystification why…

“At any rate, I am thoroughly baffled as to why Kvond would want to defend all those sad soles that gnash their teeth at others, striving to make the lives of these others miserable, drawing self-worth only from the way in which they make these others cower through brute force, politics, or rhetoric”

Where Larval Subjects sees the “gnashing of teeth” of so many condemned, weak souls, attempting to draw down his greatness, I see only interested parties, each with their own “projects”, some of which we will mix with well, some less so. I do not see, or try not to see essentialized types, and I do not when I can, engage in hatred.

Addendum Deux [Larval Comments on Comments]:

Larval continues his defense of his hatreds of others, something he feels well-justified in. But what I find of interest in his update is how the master prevaricator tries to sidestep his embrace of his contempt for others (what he also calls his hatred). This is how it is with Larval, whether one is talking about Kant or Bateson, or talking about his own words, he continually tries to perform slight of three-card-monty hand. Here he claims that in the above I have simply quoted him out of context:

I do not endorse the warrior as a model, but cite Nietzsche’s example of the warrior from the first essay of the Genealogy. Someone else, Alexei, had argued that Nietzsche does not give an account of negation coming from a place of affirmation, and I cited this as evidence to the contrary. Nietzsche complicates this significantly in his genealogy, but nonetheless holds that negations can be based on affirmation.

What he neglects to mention was that the reason that Nietzsche came up on the first place was that Alexei, rather perceptively, reinforced my point that Larval Subjects was acting as a passive resenter when building his list of hated persons, and it was to Nietzsche that Alexei turned. When Larvus then jumped in to claim that indeed Nietzsche embraced a kind of hatred as affirmative, that of a warrior who has contempt for those that tug at his cape, it was rather explicitly clear that Larvus was taking refuge in this image against the criticism that he was merely passive and reactive and (jealous) in his hatreds. In affirming the activity of Nietzschean contempt, he was effectively renaming his own hatred.

So we are left with one of two consequences.

1. Larval Subjects indeeds sees himself as a Nietzschean warrior who can affirmatively hold contempt for those below him (and he was not simply playing the good professor, as he loves to do, and making a textual point, a textual point that matters very little since Alexei was talking about Larval Subject’s “hatred” and not “contempt”).

2. Or, Larval Subjects has returned to the original position, and simply hates some folks because he thinks hatred is justified (in such a case Alexei’s Nietzsche’s point is re-engaged: only the resenting slave can hate).

Larval Subjects again repeats his mystification at why I resist his (delicious) hatred…

What Kvond neglects to mention is that the pathetic souls I am referring to are rabid nationalists, homophobes, misogynists, racists, etc… Namely all of those who seem to take delight in causing misery to and in hurting others. I fail to see why these should be hatreds one is ashamed of owning up to. I continue to find it baffling as to why Kvond or the person who wrote me offline would want to defend such people. Is this really where we’ve arrived with the project of critique?

Again we find the ever slippery Larvus attempting to prevaricate. In his list of those evil types are “rabid” human beings (of course), but also he LEAVES OUT internet “trolls” which he had included in the original list of those he has hatred for. In fact, the presence of trolls in the list was the very reason why Levi claimed that he took the post down in the first place (when he could have just as easily deleted the word “trolls”). One should know that Levi had been for some time talking about internet trolls, and Grey Vampires and Minotaurs, joining Graham Harman in seeing them as a kind of diseased sort:

I took the post down because of the reference to trolls and because I did not care to have a repeat of arguments over trolls and what constitutes trollishness.

This is the original list of people Levi hates:

Racists, jilted white men, insecure nationalists, misogynists and homophobes, trolls, Christianists and religious zealots of all sorts that are convinced they’re victims, gossips, etc., etc., etc.

This is the new, cleaned up list:

rabid nationalists, homophobes, misogynists, racists, etc…

This is classic Levi, ever shifting where he stands, sometimes it seems because he can’t keep track of it himself.

That being said, even in qualifying this new, abridged list of hated persons, even the “rabid” types…No, I do not hate these persons, nor do I advocate other people hating them for very much the same reasons that I originally posted. Hatred is something to be avoided, if possible.

Spinoza’s Substance and the Objects of Objection

Reid has an interesting discussion of what he calls Anthrophobia, a term he admits rhetorically made steer in the wrong direction of his criticism. It is the fear that those that reject so called Flat-Ontologies have of losing what is “human”. The discussion follows Larval Subject in the comments section of Ontophobia (a blog I do not participate in). I want to re-post here some of my comments offer to Reid because they bring up for me one of the more valuable offerings of Spinoza’s ontology, the ability negotiate the tension and desires of Flat Ontologies, and their attempted deepening.

Reid, when you say…

I think that you and Graham, specifically Graham on this point, should draw the full dehumanizing conclusions of flat ontology, which is that humans do not have a naturally privileged status. Rather, this privilege is an artificial effect of economic stratification. Moreover, while it may be virtuous compared with poverty, I don’t think it is so in itself. So in part, the call for dehumanization is one for a new ethic of life that does not depend on abstract opposition to poverty, and rather seeks to fully embrace its ‘unclean’ and ‘contaminating’ character (culturally, not biologically), the better to transform rich and poor….

…I want a unified approach to politics and ontology that suspends the sufficiency of their prescriptive claims, in order to make equivocal use of their components.”

I have to say that you are right on it. I just wonder why Spinoza’s example (if you want to filter it through a Deleuze ontology that is okay too), doesn’t satisfy just this kind of need? The natural kinds of sedimentation possess only the “dignity” (what Spinoza calls “right”) that they can manage. In this sense the essential dignity is not pre-existing, except in the most eternal/essence sense, but processual, ever determined and restricted. (See Althusser on Spinoza perhaps, to take apart the possibilities of such an analysis.)

The embrace of the unclean or contaminated is the embrace of the fact that there is no “human” per se, nothing to be contaminated in the first place, the flesh as expression.

When Dr. M [Graham Harman] tries to say to you…

“The problem is that Badiou’s real is not much of a real (if we’re speaking of inconsistent multiplicity here. It’s inarticulate, not carved into parts. Its only role is to haunt any count with an excess or residue that escapes the count.”

1). I can’t see how this differs any more from the (OOP) “haunting” of the object that is always in retreat (talk about a haunting), which as you point out has no identifiable attachment to its expression (nothing that makes it THAT object).

2). Badiou’s Real in my view is really very much like Plotinus’s Hen (the One/Expressed), which is beyond the Being/Non-Being determination. It does seem to haunt a bit, but really this leads to point three…

3). For reasons 1 and 2, it seems that Spinoza’s expressive Substance is the way out between the Scylla and Charybdis. Because objects are merely determined, modal expressions of Substance, a Substance which does not belong to any one particular object, we avoid the Aristotelian problem, and because Substance by its very nature expresses itself in determined fashion we end up on the better side of the ontological/epistemological divide, which is to say, we can be (asymptotically) equivocal about our descriptions. Prescriptions certainly remain, but they are only performatively sufficient. They help constitute our capacities to form mutual bodies of affect and thought, which are no less material bodies; and this is a prescription/epistemic which itself becomes re-inscribed, or understood as pre-positedly ontological: expressions of our powers to act, feel and be.

It seems that following Reid if we really want to theoretically grant, and then therefore work for in analysis and reason, the full dignity of extant human beings (and other things non-human), the full variety of Substanced expression must be embraced (with their sedimented values), we require a pre/post/human ontology (what Adrian called Prehistoric) that only Spinoza provided, one in which “objects” are ever transpierced by powers, knowing that “essence” projected onto some retreating screen/void, (or “singularity” bubbled up from morass, and stretched out onto a mathematical grid), is not the pragma foundation of the dignity of others. Ultimately dignity is composed of mutualities, mutualities which are bodies to be affectively and objectively made.

More on the Disavowal of Badiou – The Father Who Enjoys

 

I see that there are others noting the revolt against (or tiring of) Badiou. Complete Lies checks in with his non-believer transformative commitments toward Badiou as a possibility, Anodyne Lite counters with Laclau, and Larval Subjects (which I only now just read), finding that Badiou does not appreciate Levi’s mandatory (though inconsistent) application of epistemological and ontological distinctions (Levi at times makes this a most important distinction but then when faced with a Spinozist criticism that the epistemological must also be ontological, tends to retreat from the category). I post a nice passage here because it points up the problem with a fundamental epistemological/ontological divide. Discussing Badiou’s examination of Hubert Robert’s Bathing Pool:

Badiou claims that every object has an intensive degree that indexes its being-there or appearing in a world. To illustrate this thesis Badiou spends a tremendous amount of time analyzing Hubert Robert’s painting Bathing Pool (above). It is here, I think, that the difficulties of Badiou’s account of objects, from a realist standpoint, become clear. Badiou asserts, for example, that the columns to the left behind the foliage have a lower degree of intensity or being-there than those in the front. He makes similar observations about the women among the pillars compared to those bathing in the foreground and the statue to the right of the pool compared to the one on the left. These sorts of claims make me want to pull my hair out in frustration and ire. Such a thesis can only be epistemological and made from the standpoint of a viewing subject because the degree to which a being is or is not is an absolute binary such that it make not one bit of difference whether or not some appears intensely to us or not. From the realist standpoint something either is or is not, it is absolutely actual.

While I certainly agree with Levi’s notion that linking a degree-of-intensity (being there) to a perceiving subject carries with it all of the human-centric difficulties of a locked in Phenomenological world, one certainly cannot follow with the hair-pulling claim that Realism demands that “the degree to which a being is or is not is an absolute binary such that it make not one bit of difference whether or not some appears intensely to us or not”. I think I follow what this sentence means, yet indeed there is a long heritage of at least a kind of Realism that is founded upon things having degrees of Being (or degrees of Intensity) apart from any observer, and these degrees of Being are not “an absolute binary”. Starting from Plotinus (at the very least), and continuing on through a variety of panpsychic thinkers that culminate in Spinoza, there is a strong sense that things exist in their own right, in degrees of Being. A thinker like Spinoza wants to tell us what we ourselves fluctuate in our degrees of Being as our power to Act fluctuates (in a register of Pleasure). This the key to resolving the epistemic/ontological boundary that Levi has so much trouble orienting himself to. Things in themselves have degrees of Being which are measured by their capacity to affect or be affected, but also, our own degree of Being is expressed via our epistemic status, our ability to affect and be affected due to the adequacy of our ideas. Epistemology is Ontology.

Indeed the pillars in the back have a lower degree of Intensity/Being. But this reflects our own degree of Being, not necessarily theirs.

Levi’s Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’s Words Amended

Blessed Be the…

I don’t really like writing on religious-sensitive topics, largely because the discussion that flows from them is often far from interesting (more heat, less light, as some say); but Larval Subjects has a unique interpretation of the Life and Teaching of Jesus, such that he feels Jesus challenges us let go of our Imaginary relations of wholeness, while at the same time disbanding the Symbolic order as well. (Levi is a lapsus  Lacanian, and has recourse to Lacanian concepts now and again, sometimes in unorthodox creativity, sometimes with orthodox, near bible-thumping fervor.) It is a kind of anti-Imaginary, anti-Symbolic call that would lead us all to a “strange kind of new community”:

In short, the social and political vision Christ seemed to envision was that of a form of social life beyond the Lacanian dimension of the Imaginary. The “Imaginary” here does not signify the “illusory” or “imagination”, but rather is the domain of “…wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality, and above all, similarity” (Dylan Evans 1996, 82). The Imaginary is the domain of self-identity, of being identical to oneself, and of social relations based on similarity. Moreover, it is the domain where we take ourselves to be masters of what we say, where we think of meaning as being defined by our intentions (psychoanalytic practice being premised on the thesis that our words and actions always say more than we intend and that meaning is bestowed by the Other, not our intentions). Lacan associates the domain of the Imaginary with that of narcissism insofar as the Ego or self-identity is produced through narcissistic identification. Most importantly, it is a realm characterized by rivalry and aggression, insofar as we see our mirror counter-parts as contesting our own identity and therefore threatening o[u]r sense of wholeness and completeness or our belief that we are master’s of ourselves and of meaning. Whenever you protest to another “but that’s not what I meant, you’re twisting my words!” you are thoroughly immersed in the domain of the imaginary.

Throughout all of his teaching and more importantly his practice, Christ can be seen as challenging this dimension of the Imaginary. He contests the domain of imaginary identification with the Other in proclaiming that “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). As Levi-Strauss demonstrated, the incest prohibition and the structure of kinship relations is a matter of the symbolic and symbolic identifications, not a matter of the danger of producing five headed children. In contesting kinship relations the point isn’t that we should follow Jesus and God above all others, but that in the name of this new community we should undergo a subjective destitution where we refuse our Imaginary tribal identifications in the symbolic order. Kinship structures are organized around the dialectic of sameness and difference, the same and the other, such that they are designed to maintain the identity of the One or the Same against the other.

Now, at the surface of it this seems like a profound observation. There is something so radical about Jesus’s message that it defies both the Imaginary and Symbolic orders of Lacan. But I am most interested in the idea that “Christ can be seen as challenging this dimension of the Imaginary”. Perhaps, but what does this mean? Levi tells us that the Imaginary dimension is where narcissism and aggression is born, where we encounter others as threatening our sense of wholeness. Do we have to be Lacanians to buy this understanding of Jesus? Further, as proof of this interpretation he cite’s Jesus’s call to hate your family members (in contrast to your love for him), a sign that Jesus is not only against the Imaginary, but also against the Symbolic order. But then he specifies, the imaginary that we are supposed to fore go, are the Imaginary “tribal identifications in the symbolic order”. Is this is the same thing as “challenging the dimension of the Imaginary” itself?

The Imagination Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Its hard to tell, because when I tried to get some more precision on just how Levi arrived at his conclusion I ran up against a very interesting mode of “defending” it, rather than explainingit. Rather than using the citation that Levi selected to exemplify the core of Jesus’s teachings, I suggested the rather more commonly understood distillation:

“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (NIV, Mark 12:28-31).

And I asked, is not Jesus’s essentialization of the Law here one great mode of Imaginary identification? It seems to be broken into both an identification with God and with your neighbor. Instead of challenging the “dimension of the Imaginary” it seems that Jesus is employing it to its fullest, creating a wholeness of world and conduct. What is most odd is how Levi responded. First he says that this is just how the “figure of Jesus” speaks to him. Fair enough, but then adds in regard to the way he had selected biblical quotation,

Personally I think Scripture is a bit of a rorschach, why not make alternatives available?

Later to say, 

Why is that [my] interpretation any less valid than an interpretation that privileges one particular line in Leviticus or Revelation?

This is what I don’t get, or even appreciate. People, particularly intellectuals, spend a lot of time arguing forcefully against the kinds of inventive, almost deadly-whimsical textual games fundamentalist Christians play with their sacred scriptures, making up (finding) the message they want to hear. Levi seems, when asked to explain his interpretation, actually appeals to this unique kind of authority. Scriptural passages are inkblots to him. One can get really radical about Jesus’s message if one selects the right lines (and he does advocate something of the cut-and-paste Bible of Thomas Jefferson). His turn towards the hatred of one’s family looms large in the mutal defeat of the Imaginary and Symbolic realms. But Levi’s call is a political call, a call for a kind of strange community, and political calls are not usually made from inkblots and should be examined.

I do not deny that Jesus’s message was (and is) radical, but what I wonder about is its relationship to the dimension of the Imaginary. In a sense, the very wholeness of our Being is an imaginary process of identification, one recognizing another as oneself. And it is to this concept of wholeness that Jesus appeals.

Spinoza and Jesus: Who Would’a Thunk?

These thoughts on Imaginary relations are not idle, as for sometime I have been working through the role of the imaginary in the thinking of Spinoza, someone who has a strong reputation for arguing against imaginary relations – he relegates them to the third form of an inferior kind of knowledge (with rationality and intuition ascending above it). Spinoza’s position on the imaginary though is problematic and perhaps inconsistent. There can be no doubt though that upon close examination Spinoza actually places very important imaginary processes at the core of both sociability and the pursuit of blessedness.

The first of these I have recently discussed in other contexts and has received some attention in terms of its place in Spinoza’s political reasoning. It argues a fundamental imaginary and affective bond between my person and another person imagined to be the same:

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

The second of these is quite neglected in Spinoza studies, for it comes in the highly excelerated Fifth part of the Ethics as Spinoza intensely speeds towards the Intuition of God:

E5,Proposition 13 – The greater the number of other images which an image is associated, the more often it springs to life.

Proof: The greater the number of images which an image is associated, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused (2p18).

This proposition culminates a short sketch of imaginary powers which proceeds from the previous two:

5p12 – Images are more readily associated with those images that are related to things which we clearly and distinctly understand than they are to others.

5p11 – In proportion as a mental image is related [refertur] to more things, the more frequently does it occur – i.e., the more often it springs to life – and the more it engages the mind.

I have previously argued for a Spinozist advocacy of metaphor (as oxymoronic as that sounds) on the strength of this proposition: Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination . Briefly, Spinoza posits a kind of imaginary path towards an intution of God which is predicated upon associated images to our clearest understanding of things. This is to say, taking the two imaginary references in hand (E3p27, E5p13), we find the Spinoza proposes that the imagination of other persons intimately seen to be “the same” as us and the creation of imaginary images (one supposes that he has in mind God) which have the greatest number of other images associated with it, puts human beings not only within the social, but also well on the track of clear and distinct knowledge which empowers the many. I would suggest that Jesus’s two commandment distillations are precisely of this Imaginary process, the love of God and the love of neighbor.

Levi “Translates” the Bible for Us

Further on in the comments section (and Levi has since posted a heavily Lacanian theory-laden treatise on Jesus which I have not read, nor likely will, given his unfortunate propensity to expound rather than communicate), Levi tells us that he “translates” the word “neighbor” as “stranger” such that Jesus’s message is “love thy stranger”. After being pressed with the problem that the Greek word is “plêsion” and strictly means “the one near you,” he retreated, telling us that his “translation” is not a philological translation at all, but something of a Heideggerian one. That is, he feels that he has come to understand the “truth” behind the word enough to change it completely.

He deleted my objections to this kind of “translating” from the comments section, but they are worth repeating here because they go directly to my claim that Jesus’s teaching and practice are not against the domain of the Imaginary, but rather gainfully employ it. What I would like to emphasize about the word “plêsion” is that this proximateness is much in keeping with what seems to be a coherent message of proximate love over abstract love. When Jesus offers the story of the Good Samaritan, it is the proximity of the “neighbor” that he is right there before us, in an encounter (and not that he is a “stranger”), that qualifies the tale. Personally I find this message of contact-lead love quite present in the figure of Jesus as he is not only physically close to those he engages with, but repeatedly defies abstractions of either class, kind or object. The imaginary processes advocated in his dissolution of the law are immediate and always in terms of vital connections based on identifications of wholeness.

Levi says that in past posts he has declared that it is unfortunate that Jesus used the word “neighbor” as if Jesus (or our approximate historical construction of him) didn’t quite know what he was saying and that the Lacanian-aided Levi has figured it out better. Perhaps though when reading the text we should pay greater attention to what actually is said, rather than creating inventive “truths” which we graft upon the text in translation.

This brings me to another thought as to the standing of the text we approach when we treat words some take as holy. If we are not going to take a distinctly religious approach, how are we to judge Levi’s claim that interpreting Jesus is like reading inkblots on paper: one can just see what one wants to see, and that’s that. During the discussion some emphasis turned to the old scholarly issue of the imagined “Q” document, something proposed to contain the “real” teachings of Jesus, while devaluing as simply projective much of the others. Personally I think it a mistake to think that at any time we are attempting to get at exactly the truth of Jesus, stripping away the extraneous. Rather, we have to understand the figure as constructed, layered through the centuries, because this very process of sedimentation is the one that brought “him” into tremendous importance. As such, the “Q” Jesus only stands in historical importance due to the “non-Q” Jesus. All the strands must be taken into hand. If we want to talk of the core “teachings and practices” of Jesus, as someone like Levi would like to, this is fair, but I think it a mistake to presume some aspects of the Gospels as NECESSARILY less vital, simply because they do not fall into the “Q” category. We do not know the oral traditions and priorities of vision which either preserved or invented these aspects, and at best Q statements must live within their non-Q contexts, within a kind of dialectic. Clearly the authors of the Gospels, no matter who we count them to be, expressed a synthesis of meanings all concordant with the supposed Q elements, and there is no authoritative way to trace out the roots of this concordance. Historical force alone, the weight of the centuries pressing down, insure that we take them together if we are to speaking meaningfully about the meanings of these texts. This is not to say that we cannot make distinctions, but our distinctions should remain observational. I do not know if the (non-Q) Good Samaritan was spoken by Jesus or not, but it remains a meaningful illustration.

Lastly, I hope that it is the text itself that we deal with most specifically when attempting to identify the meanings therein. And if Jesus had the misfortune to speak the Aramaic word which was most readily translated into “plêsion” it is only with great abuse that we venture to, in Heideggerian aplumb and Existentialist Procrustian bedmaking, “translate” it into “stranger”. It is in all likelihood, as far as we can tell, that Jesus meant “the one near” and not “stranger” (in fact the concept of “stranger” I would suggest did not exist at the time). It seems to me that like Spinoza, who has a reputation against the Imaginary Domain, Jesus’s message of proximate love and love of God, involves deep imaginary processes of identification, the lived construction of wholes, both locally built up from the nearby, and circumfrentially deploys inwards from an imagined limit.

The importance of grasping the imaginary processes invoked is exactly that suggested by Levi, that the imaginary vision of wholeness and authority of meanings, while at many time is curative and inspiring, also holds the possibilities of its shadow, the fears that the wholeness will be threatened from the “outside” under some projective external force. The sometimes, perhaps often brutal history of religious violence speaks vividly about the shadow of these imaginary divisions, but it is important to see that the imagination itself is both part of their production and their possible healing. It specifically is not that Jesus’s message is/was “challenging the imaginary dimension” but employing as fully as possible the powers of imaginary identification, very much in the same way that Spinoza proposed as well. We must recall that Spinoza was an active Collegiant associate, and one imagines likely attended quite a few bible study-like events, an image we do not regularly call to mind.

How Sad is the Weeping Willow?: Human Projections and the Powers of Objects

The Powers of an Apple

Larval Subjects in his debate with the Kantians over at Perverse Egalitarianism draws on what he sees as a Spinozist distinction, what he calls the “metaphysical” and “value”

Considered metaphysically, the apple is value neutral. It just is what it is, much like Yahweh in the Bible. Metaphysically, if the apple is ripe this doesn’t make it “good”. Likewise, considered metaphysically, if the apple is rotten this doesn’t make it bad. The ripeness or rottenness of the apple is purely an outcome of physical cellular processes that are, in and of themselves, value-neutral. When we wish to understand or know the apple, these processes are what we are after. Nature, then, is in and of itself a kingdom without ends or purposes.

The value of the apple only emerges in relation to bodies. If I say the apple is bad, I am not making a claim about a property of the apple as such, but a claim about how a property of the apple relates to me. The apple is bad because these properties produce a highly unpleasant set of sensations in my body when I eat it. In this respect, the “badness” of the apple is a secondary property of the apple. Were no one to exist, the apple simply wouldn’t have this property. (the rest)

I have to say that though the elements of this distinction are found in Spinoza, it would be wrong to decide this as merely the difference between metaphysical and valuational aspects, for if Spinoza had any tractional point, it was that valuations themselves reflect real metaphysical changes in power. Epistemological changes are ontological changes, and vise-versa. Part of the problem I have with their debate, and Larval Subject’s approach in general, is this tarrying with the “thing-in-itself” and all our supposed attempts to attach “properties” to it. (In general, I do not find the concept of properties very helpful, and I suspect it is beneficial to see that Spinoza spoke of “modes” which are ways of being, ways of expression. The ideas are closely related, but the “picture” of each directs our investigative attention in different directions.)

I order to discuss the nexus of the metaphysical and valuation, it seems important to state that the valuations we make of things in the world reflect/express real world conditions, and as such when we make a valuation claim upon an object in the world, we are also making a claim about its powers to bring that object into the relations that make that claim substantive. This is to say, the distinction that Larval Subject makes here, ultimately turns again to the metaphysical states of the objects we investigate. While we may feel more comfortable saying that the “The apple is red” is an objective statement referring to properties of an apple, because we take those properties to be expressions of the capacity to enter into the relations that give talk about its color its strength, a statement like “The apple is bad” also in some sense expresses the metaphysical powers of the apple to combine with us and our value system.

Spinoza-influenced and father of Deep Ecology, Arne Naess, who unlike me prefers talking about properties, has an interesting take upon the Gestalt of properties, one that at least levels the property playing field (like attached):  

Gestalt thinking combined with nominalism results in saying that the subject/object dualism is simply a projection of subjective states of consciousness on the outside world. But the joyfulness, liveliness, threatening size, dejectedness, gravity, or solemnity of a tree are properties of a tree on par with tallness, weight, and chemical structure. More precisely: the properties refer to situations or states of the world (Nature) which have gestalt character. The chemical or physical tree is an abstraction referring to elements, subordinate gestalts of the total gestalt.

If A says “The tree is mournful” and B says “The tree is jubilant” there is no contradiction as long as “the tree” is not meant to characterize the same gestalt, but only elements (identified through social conventions: pointing to “the tree,” mapping it, touching it etc).

“Reflections on Gestalt Ontology [click here to dowload]” Arne Naess

Not Properties, Profusion

For my part, I think that when one speaks of the world in an immanentist fashion, such as the one that Spinoza is advocating, it is much better to speak of the profusions of an object, rather than its properties. The attempt to talk about apples and suns as if nothing else in the world existed is, I think, a (perhaps cherished) philosophical mistake. It is a bit like talking about the properties of the number 5 if no other numbers existed. All properties are relational if the world is an expressive thing. Spinoza’s point is that our ideas about the relations can be more or less powerful, more or less free.

I suggest that when we think of the properties of thinking, if we turn our mind to the idea of profusion offered by Plotinus we can be getting somewhere. Plotinus’s thinking is often equated with emanantism, but he careful to qualify his gradated thinking of being away from a simple, ocular emanant model (even arguing against the use of the term). Here he draws on non-visual analogies for the power of profusion, something that we can apply all the way down to subjective valuations:

All things which exist, as long as they abide in being, necessarily produce from their own substances, in dependence on their present power, a surrounding reality directed to what is outside them, a kind of image of the archetypes from which it was produce; fire produces the heat which comes from it; snow does not only keep its cold inside itself. Perfumed things show this particularly clearly. As long as they exist, something is diffused from themselves around them, and what is near them enjoys their existence. (5.1 [10].6 27-37)

So how sad is the weeping willow? Well, if we follow the usual philosophical tendencies we would want to say, not sad at all. We only project the sadness upon the tree which by accidents of nature produces something of the gesture of melancholy. And down this path we find ourselves trapped in our own heads, along with the rest of the Idealists, as we find that anything we want to say about things in the world are somehow only “inside” us. What a Spinoza-inspired reading would tell us is that yes, we do project and anthromorphize the willow tree, but the invocation of sadness within us is a real power of the willow, given our historical circumstances. It may be an imaginary relation, but as such it is a fully concrete determination. In fact, the powers of sadness within the willow tree, its profusion of being, very well may lead to its success as a species, as human beings work to propagate its organism through bitter-sweet poems and plantings by ponds. I think that when discussing the powers of a body one always has to keep in mind that even the most subjective-seemingly projections are, at least from a metaphysical perspective, best taken as a power of the body to act (affect) in specific conditions, and as such must also be taken to be expressions of the very objective kernel of what the thing is, part of its profusion, ultimately understood to be the profusion of the world itself.

In Praise of Scholarly Enemism: People are Animals Too!

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

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

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

The Traps of Oppositional Thinking

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

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

Living In the Land of the Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

The Animal Within

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

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

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

Here: Latour has Answers ]

Spinoza’s Substance Stripped Bare

Duchamps The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23)

(above Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even,” 1913 -23)

Just a Blob of nothing, an intellectual Sleight of Hand…?

Levi, over at Larval Subjects has a well-worded summation of the possible difficulties and assumptions contained in Spinoza’s Proposition 5 (Ethics, part I: ) “Proposition Five: Questions of Individuation”, in particular how they reflect upon just what Individation is. He seems to feel that if one accepts this proposition (and its referenced assumptions) one is by the force of logic to accept a great deal of what follows in Spinoza’s philosophy. So he sees this as something of a keystone. If one can effectively challenge it, the entire edifice of Spinoza thinking is threatened to collapse. I can’t say that I agree with this because I read the rationalistic cohension of Spinoza’s Ethics a little differently than most, but he does raise interesting points.

I commented extensively on the posting (much in greater detail than I expected), so it seemed best to re-present the issues here, with a bit more quoted material. I think it worthwhile to dig into this proposition as Levi has given us the lead to do, but in the end I am not sure as to the final spear point of his objection.

First off, let’s give the proposition, and then I’ll post the context of my comments:

In rerum natura non possunt dari duae aut plures substantiae euisdem naturae sive attributi.

In the nature of things they are not able to be granted two or multiple substances of the same nature or attribute.

I provide the Latin and literal translation so one can see the lexical doubling that Spinoza performing, as well as the “of things” individuation which shows the proposition to be an explanation of things we already perceive as distinction, but Curley translates a bit less literally and much more fluidly,

In nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.

The reason for this that Spinoza puts forth is that it is the attribute itself that tells us exactly what a thing is, its essence. It is the attribute which grounds all our other attributve properties. If there were multiple substances which had the same attribute (the same conceptual manner of distinction), there remains no specific additional qualification which distinguishes them from each other. I will reference and cite Della Rocca’s treatment below, for his presentation is a good clean exposition. And it is his argument I will follow. What Spinoza has in mind here is Descartes’ somewhat unspecified assertion that there actually are two kinds of Substance, the Aristotlelian kind of individual things which are dependent upon other things for their existence, and then the soon-to-be Spinozist kind, the kind that is self-caused. The move that Spinoza is making here is turning against the notion that it is Attributes themselves that distinguish things as individual kinds, but rather it is modal expressions alone. Descartes’ two kinds of Substance simply can’t be rationally supported. Unfortunately for the Christian, this leaves of of creation to be literally part of God. There is no gap between God and the world. Once we remove the unjustified kind of Substance inherited from Aristotle, we are just left with an ultimate and immanent ground.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Anyways, that is where Spinoza is going. But what Levi objects to, after a thorough engagment with the problems with the argument is that there seems to be a kind of non-sensicalness of Substance itself, the way that if we say that an object in the world (and he uses his friend Melanie), is stripped of all her qualities, we really are left with nothing at all. What would remain under Spinoza’s description, is somehow blob-like and indistinct. Spinoza has provided us with a concept that seems to do nothing. Here is a quote from Levi’s post, and my consideration that follows:

Levi: ” Suppose I strip my friend Melanie of all her affections or qualities. In striving to think Melanie as a substance, I ignore all of her physical properties, her quirks of thought, her personal history, her mannerisms, her love of okra, etc., so as to think this hypothetical “Melanie-substance” in and through herself. What am I left with at the end of this exercise? Absolutely nothing!. In other words, a substance subtracted from all of its affections turns out to be nothing but a formless void.”

Kvond:…I’m not sure that I follow exactly your objection here. The complaint that you make as to the blobness of Substance is actually very close to the one that Descartes made against Medieval Aristotelian “Prime Matter”, a completely non-quality “stuff” which is suppose to inertly just be there as a support for inhering form and qualities. As Della Rocca tells it, it was this seeming superfluousness of Prime Matter that got Descartes to just do away with it. Instead, a Substance simply had a form, was defined by its form, which in Descartes was its Principal Attribute.

[inserted from Della Rocca’s Spinoza  a selection which lays out Descartes’ thinking on Substance and attribute in terms of prime matter]:

But why must all the properties of a substance be subsumed under a fundamental feature? Why can’t there be a feature of substance that does not presuppose the principle attribute of the substance, but is nonetheless a feature of that substance? Thus, for example, why can’t an extended substance also having some thinking features, features that cannot be understood through extension? Descartes does not, as far as I know, explicitly address this question, but its clear what his answer would be: there would be no good account what makes this free-floating thinking feature a feature of this extended substance. What would bind this thinking feature to this extended substance? For Descartes, the conceptual connection provided by an attribute furnishes the link to make a particular property of a given substance. Without the link afforded by an attribute, we cannot see a property as belonging to a substance. In other words, Descartes insists that there be this over-arching feature because otherwise there would be no explanation of why a given feature is a feature of a particular substance.

Because the principle attribute helps us to understand all the properties of a substance, it tells us what kind of thing the substance is, what its essence is. And for this reason, purely formal features of a substance do not count as attributes in this sense. Each substance has features, let us say, of existing and being powerful to some degree. But exitence and power are not principal attributes for Descartes. This is because these features do not tell us what kind of thing a substance is and do not tell us what kinds of more particular properties it has.

In this way we can see that on Descartes ontology of substance and attribute, substances are explanatory engines. Each substance has a nature that can be articulated or explained in terms of its principal attribute, and this principal attribute in turn articulates or explains all the properties of the substance. Thus for Descartes each substance is fully conceivable. Everything about a substance must be capable of being understood and what it is understood in terms of is its principal attribute.

This is, of course, a rationalist dimension of Descarte’s ontology, and we can appreciate this dimension by contrasting Descartes’s view with a broadly Aristotelian account of substance. On the Aristotelian account (or at least on the Aristotelian account as it is developed by medieval philosophers such as Aquinas), a corporeal substance consists of prime matter and a substantial form. The substantial form, is in some ways, like a Cartesian principal attribute: it tells us the nature of a substance and the kinds of properties it can have. But the form is not the only constituent of substance. The substantial form must somehow inhere in the subject and this subject is prime matter, a featureless, bare subject for a substantial form. The prime matter is a thing is some sense, but, precisely because it is featureless, it cannot be articulated or explained. Literally, prime matter is no “kind” of thing, and precisely for this reason Descartes rejects the notion as unintelligible (see CM I 91, 92/AT XI 33, 35). Marleen Rozemond sums up the view here nicely:

“Since Descartes eliminates prime matter from the hylomorphic conception of corporeal substance, the result in Aristotelian terms is that a substance just consists in a substantial form. In Descartes own terms, the result is that substance just consists in a principal attribute” (Spinoza, 2008; 38)

Prime Matter, Begone!

[continuing my response] But as Prime Matter was done away with because it lacked explanatory value, we have to ask the same of Spinoza’s overriding Substance itself. If we strip Melanie of all her qualities are we left with Prime Matter, or with Substance, and what would be the difference?

There are a few ways to proceed. As you know, Substance is what it is because it is the only thing that is its own cause, by virtue of nothing lying “outside” of it (I don’t know if you accept this, but it is fundamental to answering the question). As such, it is the only thing which has existence in its very nature (it does not depend on something other than itself to exist), it must, logically and ontologically exist. So, in a certain sense, the question being asked has something of a non-sequitor in it. Because Substance “exists and acts” through its modal determinations, asking what Melanie is (if merely Substance) without her modal determinations, in a way does not follow. In Spinoza’s universe, Melanie must have certain modal properties, given the state of the rest of the universe, which has determined her to be a certain way.

Now there is a kind of aporia we run into here, for in Spinoza’s framework it is not entirely clear why Melanie when she is five years old and has a cool-aid stain on her mouth, and Melanie when she is 33 and has a broken arm, is the very same thing (has the same essence). It is perfectly conceivable that from moment to moment or stage to stage, there are different essences expressing themselves. It seems that only Spinoza’s definition of a body as a specific ratio of motion in communication between parts that restricts this possibility. And because this “ratio” is unspecified and really unidentifiable, this is a rather tenuous barrier. So there is a very real sense in which Spinoza’s depiction can be read as a kind of Occasionalism.

But generally, when thinking about Melanie, sub specie aeternitatis, what she is in or out of existence, this is a modal “essence”, a certain beingness which depends upon a provisional modal interaction with other modal essences, each bringing each other into being in a kind of co-dependent fashion, what Gatens and Lloyd term “horizontally”.

Is this very close to the blob of Prime Matter? It doesn’t seem so. Because Substance itself is an expressional thing, a thing which by its very nature determines itself to exist, if you do the thought experiment and ask what any one modal expression is without its current state of modal expressiveness, one is left with the explanatory ground of Substance, its very capacity to press forward in existence and acts.

Indistinguishable Melanie

Now is this a bit of a slight of hand? Has Spinoza just made up a buried capacity of a hypothetical under- or over- thing? Perhaps one can say that. But what he has in mind (and one cannot undervalue this), is that things must have an explanatory context for what they are. If you are going to say something like:

“Sure, you tell me that Gravity is some mysterious force which causes this apple to fall with such and such a rate at such and such at time, but what then is this apple-event if stripped of all its qualities, its rate and timing?…It is just a blob of a force called Gravity”

If you take away what is being explained, and then ask what good is the explanation, one might really be dissatisfied with the answer. So in answer to what Melanie is in or out of existence requires that we define what she is in existence. And for Spinoza this answer is a conatus, a striving. She is pure striving (expressed in human beings as either appetite or desire). That is her existential essence. It is the diagnosis of this striving that gives weight to Spinoza’s view of Substance as explanatory. What is Melanie’s striving, her conatus, stripped of all the particular “strivings for”? It is the existential strivings of Substance itself. But there is no blobness to it, for the strivings of Substance must be particularized, that is expressed in determined modal forms. Substance does not collapse on itself, or meld into one great sea of potentiality. It is always particularized in concrete, existential manifestation.

You [Levi] bring this up when you conclude:

[Levi writing]:”However, again, we run into the same problem: Is an attribute such as extension thinkable independent of all spatial determinations (modes)? Again, the thought of space without any spatial things turns out to be the thought of nothing or the absence of all determination. The conclusion then would be that the idea of an affectionless substance- such as Spinoza evokes in 1p5 -is an incoherent idea that functions as a sleight of hand, rather than a genuine concept.”

But seem to have inverted the reasoning. It is precisely because one cannot conceive of space without its spatial determinations that Substance must be an expressive grounds of spatial things, in the Attribute of Extension. It is precisely that there are spatial things, and that they can only be understood fully by understanding their cause, that Substance is what it is. It seems that you have reversed the Explanans and the Explanandum, and argued that the Explanans is meaningless without the Explanandum, but it the requirement of the Explanans due to the existence of the Explanandum [the nature of things], that grants it its coherence. It is the very fact of its explanatory nature that Substance logically must express itself in the concrete things that it is explaining, that gives the argument its force.

Michael Della Rocca, Chair of Philosophy at Yale

Michael Della Rocca, Professor of Philosophy at Yale

To end I would like to reprint a lengthy selection from Della Rocca’s book that deals particularly with 1p5 so as to give immediate context to my points, but also to provide a place of comparison for much of the same ground covered by Levi’s also worthwhile summation. At the very least it will give those unfamiliar with Spinoza’s argument one more clear presentation of the issues at hand in the notions of Substance, Attribute and mode, and their possible objections. Its interesting, but when I first got Della Rocca’s book I was a bit disappointed and distracted from it. It possessed none of the verve of his first book, Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza (1996): But as I have turned to it in reference, it really has grown on me. In its quietude one can feel the delicate care of Della Rocca’s mind as he weighs the meanings and implications of Spinoza’s assertions, and is invited to consider them as he does.

Thus let’s take 1p5 first: “In Nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.” To prove this proposition, Spinoza considers what is required in order to individuate two substances, i.e. what is required in order to explain their non-identity. For Spinoza, the distinctness between two distinct things must be explained by some difference between them, some difference in their properties. In the case of the individuation of substances, this amounts to the claim that they must be individuated via a difference either in their attributes or in their modes. Thus Spinoza says in 1p4d:

“Two or more distinct things are distinguished from one another, either by a difference in the attributes of the substances or by a difference in their affections.”

In 1p5d, he makes clear that such a difference in properties is needed for two things to be “conceived to be” – i.e. explained to be – “distinguished from one another.”

In insisting on some difference in properties between two things, Spinoza endorses the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. This is a principle – more often associated with Leibniz that with Spinoza – that if a and b are indiscernible, i.e. if a and b have all the same properties, then a is identical to b. One can see that this principle turns on the notion of explaining non-identity and, as such, one can see its roots in the PSR [Principle of Sufficient Reason]. Non-identities, by the PSR, require explanation, and the way to explain non-identity is to appeal to some difference in properties.

Thus two substances could be individuated either by a difference in their attrributes or in their modes. Spinoza dismisses right away any differentiation of substances in terms of their attributes because he says we are considering whether two substances can share an attribute. Thus a case in which substances might have different attributes might seem irrelevant to the case at hand. However, as we will see in a moment, this dismissal may be too hasty. Spinoza then considers whether they can be distinguished by their modes. Spinoza eliminates this possibility as well, offering the following argument.

Since a substance is prior to its modes (by 1p1), we are entitled, and indeed obligated, to put the modes to the side when we take up the matter of individuating substances. Thus, with the modes to one side and with the attributes already eliminated as individuators, it turns out that there are no legitimate grounds for individuating substances with the same attribute, for explaining why they are distinct. Thus, since substances with the same attribute cannot legitimately be individuated, there cannot be any sharing of attributes.

Obviously this argument turns crucially on the claim that we should put the modes to one side. But what justifies this claim? Spinoza appeals here to the notion of priority introduced in 1p1. What exactly does this priority amount to? For Spinoza, as well as Descartes, it is a conceptual priority. One can have the idea of a substance without having ideas of its modes.

Thus, we can see why Descartes would have a problem individuatin, say, two extended substances. All Descartes could appeal to in order to individuate the substances is the modes, but given Descartes’ own explanatory notion of substance, according to which all of a substance’s modes are explained through its attributes, such an appeal is illegitimate.

Of course Descartes might at this point simply give up the claim that the non-identity of substance is explicable. Fair enough. After all, Descartes does not explicitly assert the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. But Descartes’s rejection of prime matter is in the spirit of such a principle. For Descartes, there is no way to articulate what prime matter is precisely because it has no qualities. In the same way, there is no way to articulate what the non-identity of a and b consists in because no qualities are available to do the job of individuation. Thus, even on his own terms, Descartes should feel the force of this Spinozistic argument that rules out a multiplicity of substances sharing an attribute.

But even if substances that share an attribute are not individuated by their modes, perhaps such substances are individuated by attributes they do not share. Spinoza does allow, after all, that a substance can have more than one attribute. So why can’t we have the following scenario: substance 1 has attributes X and Y and substance 2 has attributes Y and Z. On this scenario, while the two substances share an attribute (i.e. Y) they differ with regard to other attributes and can thus be individuated after all. So perhaps then, contrary to 1p5, there can be some sharing of attributes by different substances. This objection was first raised by Leibniz, one of the most acute readers of Spinoza.

This objection is harder to answer than the charge that substances that share an attribute can be individuated by their modes, but Spinoza clearly has the resources to handle this objection too. To see why, let’s assume that Leibniz’s scenario is possible. If so, then attribute Y would not enable us to pick out or conceive of one substance in particular. The thought “the substance with attribute Y” would not be a thought of one substance in particular, and thus attribute Y would not by itself enable us conceive of any particular substance. For Spinoza, such a result would contradict the clause in the definition of attribute according to which each attribute constitutes the essence of substance. As Spinoza says in 1p10s, a claim that he clearly sees as following form the definition of attribute, “each [attribute of a substance] expresses the reality or being of substance.” So for Spinoza, if a substance has more than one attribute, each attribute by itself must enable us to conceive of the substance, and this can by the case only if each attribute that a substance has is unique to that substance. Thus Leibniz’s scenario is ruled out (46-48)

 

How the PSR lifts OOP out of Occasionalism

Experimental Communication

Larval Subjects, in a charitable gesture proposed an experiment of argumentation, that instead of me simply eluding to a certain thinker from the middle of the 17th century, or specific aspects of that thinker’s thought which I imagine to a great degree would help Graham Harman in his project, I should present specific arguments which would somehow prove my point that now-called Object-Oriented Philosophy is in need of the kinds of thinking being done by this remote thinker, S******.

Larval Subjects writes, quoting me:

Also I would humbly suggest this little experiment. You write:

I would respond to your counter-claims against panpsychism, or your guarding of Graham’s conatusagainst my suggestion to him that Spinoza’s ontology at the very least bears strong resemblance to what he is saying, in particular in resolution to his biggest and admitted problems with his own position…

Try making your case without mentioning the name of Spinoza or the terms Spinoza uses at all. Instead of saying “Spinoza solves your problem” (which implicitly says to the person you’re addressing “therefore you have no work to do”), instead simply state your claims and how you think they have a particular solution to problems you discern in the other person’s position.

Aside from the curious nature of this request by someone other than Graham Harman that I address Graham Harman himself (Levi is not privy to at least some of the talk Graham and I have done on the question of S******), this seems like a worthy thing to do…in part, becauseLevi offers this as a kind of compromise in style. I should leave off my usual near-polemical engagements with his oft stated principles, and he might consider my criticisms more deeply; but also in part because it has always struck me as rather obvious that nearly every position that Graham Harman has put forth has a natural correspondent in S******’s ontology, and that at the very least a thorough dialogue between the two positions (Graham’s new and inventive transformation of Heidegger via Latourand Spinoza’s Classical treatment of Substance), would at least be productive, if for no other reason that we could come clear of exactly where Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy departs from any S******-informed aid, despite the homologies. If I have been vague in my reference to S****** in the past with either Levi or Graham, it has been that I, perhaps wrongly, presumed that the positions I referenced were rather well known, and their beneficent, supporting effect upon the topics considered somewhat obvious. Because I seldom received substantive, argument-centered rejection of my suggestions of homology, I could not tell just at what level my suggestions were dismissed. I will seek to make these connections more clear.

What this has to do withLevi’s own version of Object-Oriented Philosophy, I really have no real idea, since it really is unclear how much he maintains just such a philosophy. It is hard to keep track of his pursuit of affinities with Graham’s OOP, seemingly, as Graham recently commented, to have fallen back onto his own Bergson/Deleuzian tendencies, and possibly, fatally in term of OOP, leaving behind Graham’s corner-stone thought of the retreating essence of objects. In short, aside from a list of Principles, Fallacies and defintions, some of which bear Latourian influence, I am not sure at all just what kind of OOP metaphysics Levi is putting forth. I have been left with only trying to coherently relate the Principles and Fallacies and definitions to each other.

Graham’s Aporia of Objection

In my discussions with Graham over why he resists any informing help from the philosophy of S******, I have received two fundamental objections, only one of which I can systematically approach here. Firstly, and perhaps most insurmountingly, Graham has when pressed simply admitted that his distainfor S****** comes from this thinker’s “fashionable” popularity, with the obvious implication that this popularity is not intellectually justifiable. I can’t tell if he is thinking of the pseudo-S****** exposed by later Deleuze (and Guattari), the BwO kind, or he is simply referring a general Cultural presence. Unfortunately he cites of all people Zizek, the most fashionable of thinkers, who has written a book against the S******-inspired Deleuze, as a confirmation that S****** is merely “in”. It seems that Graham tires of even hearing S******’s name, in the way that many tired of hearing Heidegger’s name. When objection raised is not very much more than, “I just don’t like that style of pants,” there is not much more that one can do (other than just wear that style yourself, try to show how they look pretty good, and ask a person to at least try them on and see how the feel). This may be insurmountable, like so much of fashion.

The other objection that Graham has put forth is that he objects to S******’s determinism and Stoicism, and this can be substantial. By Stoicism I presume that he means his treatment of the affects, the offering of a paththat suggests that we become more active and less re-active the more that we understand how the world is, and how we are. This is an elaborate issue, and I have also creatively struggled with this aspect of S******’s prescription, so at the very least I have some sympathy for how Graham feels. I am a novelist and poet. The last thing I want to be told is that my very path forward which is so rich and significant is somehow fundamentally in error. But I will not address this aspect here as it does not bear upon the specific difficulties Graham has encountered in his own philosophy, a weakness of description which has a particular S****** salve. It is to the question of determinism I turn, the lone remaining substantive objection that seems to have bearing upon Graham’s resistance to help from the 17th century outcast Jew.

Graham’s Problem with his Own Philosophy [the experiment in body]

Workout out a theory of vicarious causation lately, seeking to overcome the difficulties of Latour’s cut-off occasionalism, Graham Harman has been trying to patch up one of the most attractive (for him), but more problematic aspects of his Latourianphilosophy. If nothing “touches” nothing else, and each object/instant is a new one, what is the account for coherent change. His description of Latour’s occasionalism gives context for this problem:

But since these relations shift from moment to moment, the black boxes do not endure for more than an instant, unless we consider them as “trajectories” crossing time across a series of minute transformations. They must also be constantly maintained. This makes Latouran ally of the doctrine of continuous creation, also associated with many of the occasionalists. There is no connection between instants, since each is an absolutely unique event, with nothing enduring automatically from one moment to the next. But occasionalism has an even more powerful implication that we have already mentioned: the inability of any two actors to touch one another directly.

From a draft of the forth-coming Prince of Networks [re.press, this Spring]

Whereas 17th century and earlier Arab theorizers of occasionalism had “God” to be the guarantor of the order of change, Latour presents approvingly a kind of Secular Occasionalism, albeit with the rather large problem of explaining just what does the job that “God” used to do for in prior historical versions. The failure is genetic to his philosophical descendants. It seems, as far as I can tell, Graham has been working very hard on trying to bandaid this rather large hole in the thinking. He is rather drawn to the isolating power of Latour’s occasionalism (perhaps even poetically so), but plagued by the very secularism and localism that also appeal to him. (And he does not want all these occasions to merely be percolating up from some kind of field, a laval mix of intensities in DeLanda or Deleuzian fashion, this would not do justice to the nobility of the object.) To my ear the rather obvious answer is a notion of Substance, not the substance of individuals in the strict Aristotlean sense, and idea which Graham repeatedly orients himself both towards and against, but Secularized Substance in a monism of one world, which expresses itself determinatively (this provides the connective tissue between occasions, this is the “God” of past theories, extended out so abstractly to no longer be “God” per se).

Now this is where Graham will buck. He does not want to see the world as determined. He wants it to be “weird”. The guys of science get to play with all kinds of weird stuff, why not philosophers? They get extra-dimensions, things that pop into and out of existence, crazy and beautiful fractal diagrams, and philosopher get propositions, and “concepts”, like perpetual children they get to play with blocks of ones, twos and threes stacking them in endless but rather dull variety. Who wants a determined world?

But I want to investigate what “determination” means, or what presupposing a “determined world” means. There are quite a few different tacks to take on this, but I want to force forward one. A determined world is merely the presumption which allows for the power of an explanation. That is to say, ifthere is going to a real change in one’s  power, an increase in one’s  capacities to act in the world when one understands the explanation of something, this is because  the world itself is determined. Leave off the great fantasies (or nightmares) of a clock-work universe, clicking like gears, or the unappealing idea that what flavor of icecream  you are going to choose tomorrow at the ice cream shop is already in some sense known. This is not the point of understanding the world to be determined. The point is that when someone explains to you how something works, and you understand this explanation, you and your relationship to the world fundamentally changes. This is the power of explanation.

It may be something as simple as “you have to depress the clutch when starting your car” or more satisfying, the complex reason why this is so; it may be “if you talk to him in a gentle voice, you get better results” or substantively, a detailed reason why this is so either with this person or people in general; it may be “you can only add those two variables under these conditions, because these kinds of equations only work in this way” or, “your disc drive only can hold x amount of data, unless you perform these operations on that data, because…”. The examples are endless, and the changes in power through the comprehension of causes are vital and real (any metaphysics that cannot explain or marginalizes this constitutive power remains marginal to the world). A determined world is one in which explanations have traction. The explanation does not have to be the ultimate or definitive one (in fact, questions must be raised if even such a kind of explanation is a coherent thought). It is rather merely that explanations work. They do work, and they explain work. If you are going to remove the sense-value of a determined world you have to account for the power of explanation, and this is precisely what Graham’s philosophy does remove and then does not do.

If one wants to get a grip on the power of explanation, consider what Michael Della Rocca calls The Principle of Sufficient Reason(PSR). The base assumption of the PSR is this:

Consider first the PSR, the principle according to which each fact, each thing that exists, has an explanation. The explanation of a fact is enough – sufficient – to enable one to see why the fact holds. The explanation of a fact enables us to see the explained fact coming, as it were. If the explanation of the thing were not sufficient in this way, then some aspect of the thing would remain unexplained, unintelligible.

S****** (2008 )

Here we touch on a more enriching aspect of explanation. It is not just that explanation allows us access to what works, but it also allows us to see the facts of “working” coming. It provides the depth of a surface of interactions (occasions) in such a way that our position among them is changed, improved. In fact all metaphysical engagments with the world, either explicitly or implicitly, in the power of the PSR. But the principle does not require that all aspects of a thing are currently being explained in their every degree, but only that they can be explained. This is an important point because here I think Graham would like to have his black hole of the essence of objects forever in retreat from the mind.

First though I would like to take up a foundational aspect of Graham’s OOP, Latour’s so-called Principle of Irreduction. Graham describes the irreducibility/reducibility this way:

Since an actant  cannot be split into durable substance and transient accident, it follows that nothing can be reduced to anything else. Each thing simply is what it is, in utter concreteness. We cannot reduce a thing to some privileged inner core by stripping away its inessential features. But at the same time, anything can be reduced to anything else, provided the proper labor is done. This two-faced principle of irreduction  is less paradoxical than it seems, since both sides result from the same basic insight. To reduce one thing to another is to see it as an effect explainable in terms of a more fundamental layer of reality.

From a draft of the forth-coming Prince of Networks

Hopefully one can see that the second half of the principle, what we can call the Principle of Labored Reduction, rests entirely upon a notion of a determined and explainable world. That is, there is a declared necessity for concrete changes in the world which are specifically traceable, labors, whose accurate description of constitutes the legitimacy of any reduction (such a tracing simply cannot exist in a Secular Occasionalist Universewhere actors simply pass into and out of existence without causation). The very priority of a descriptive labor of translations (the coherent movement from one occasion to another) undermines any strict metaphysical isolation of actors from each other. Instead, causes and the labor of causes must be real and connective chains. There is a determination of translation. Unless one is to do without the second face of the “two-faced” principle (and there is a temptation to fall in love with the postmodernish freedom of the first face), determinations and explanations are essential.

Having granted that there is some determinative power of the explanation, presupposing somelevel of determination in the world, let us return to the hard problem, whether “some aspect [of a fact] would remain unexplained” or unintelligible. The difficulty that Graham might have with this non-missing aspect of fact is resolved if we accept that our finite natures as bodies and minds prevent us from holding completely Adequate, and therefore completely sufficient explanations (Della Rocca as well as myself agree that this is not possible). That is to say, in a Latourian sense, we might have a very good explanation of how automobile parts work together in a car, and how these workings also are expressive in terms of an understanding of thermodynamics, but each of these explanations is a translation of the phenomenae. They are sufficient unto their needs and models, but there is no reason to grant that these explanations capture every aspect of the thing described. In fact, as we search for the completely sufficient explanation, we are pushed ever wider, looking into the conditions of the conditions we are examining. The PSR  becomes an asymptotic limit toward which we head when we attempt to completely understand things. And as we assemble more and more sufficient explanations, creating them materially out of our very position in the world, our position in the world itself changes. What we can grant is that by virtue of the limited nature of our capacities, any description will merely be partial, and that we can only get closer to understanding things, becoming more active in a seemingly contingent, happenstance world, by virtue of our ability to combine with them. 

But there is an additional way in which the PSR  serves Graham’s engagement with Latour, for OOP has difficulty to the way that Latour flattens out the ontology of actors such that a thing is nothing more that its relations to other things. Graham wants to say that the essence of objects stands apart from, or in retreat from all the effects of other object/actors. The essence is the difference that does not make a difference, so to speak. In this way Graham sets Latour’s implied metaphysics in the family of other flatten ontologies such as those of DeLanda and Deleuze, the matrix of a sush of mere intensities (in Latourperhaps Plasma) which suddenly give riseto actors. Graham wants a certain depth below the object, something in surplus to its qualities in effect.

From our perspective we can grant with Latour that manifestations in the world, modal manifestations are utmost and complete (that is, they do not leave anything is reserve). Yet, the PSR directs us to the immanent cause of those concrete and full manifestations, so in keeping with Graham’s need to deepen these postmodern ontologies, grants a ground of Immanent depth. In order to fully appreciate this “save” one has to compare varieties of the idea of an “essence” of an object.

But what of the modal essences that do not involve existence and are contained in the attributes? What do they consist of? Each essence is part of God’s power insofar as the latter is explained by the modal essence [E4p4dem]. S****** always conceived of the modal essences as singular, starting withthe Short Treatise. Hence the texts of the Short Treatise that seem to deny the distinction of essences (ST II, chp. 20, n. 3; app. II, I) actually only deny their extrinsic distinction, which would only imply their existence in duration and the possession of extensive parts. The modal essences are simple and eternal. But they nevertheless have, with respect to the attribute and to each other, another type of distinction which is purely intrinsic (65)

S******: Practical Philosophy, Gilles Deleuze

Here, in the intrinsic distinction of eternal essences which form part of a sufficient explanation of concrete manifestations, lies the depth that Graham Harman wants to add to Latourand others. As to the nature of the depth that Graham wants to give to esssences, it seems to be something between positing entities which are somehow dormant in the way that we are when we sleep (only much, much deeper, something like a coma). They lie in something like a dark sea, but not in any sense of the kinds of flat intensity ridden ontologies of DeLanda or Deleuze. They have something specific to them, something intrinsic, but non-relational. I cannot help but think that the kinds of essences of Substance that PSR  reasoning drives us to, eternal but still not-yet-existent, or just-having-existed intrinsic relations, is very close to what Graham is idiosyncratically and creatively driving towards.

Not S******

Because Graham’s OOP solution the aporia of Occasionalism is not yet completed, one cannot really critically address its possibilities. In as much he has put forth reasons why he will would not appreciate a S****** cueing  of his philosophical problems I am left with either a highly problematic question of the “fashionability” of a thinker, or the strong problem of seeing the world as determined and subject to powerful concrete changes through explanation. If one is going to do away with explanation as a vector of changes in power, what keeps the world from jumbling together into one incoherent saute pan of sauces, and upon what does the demand for the tracings of translation anchor itself?

In the main body of this I have refrained from using S******’s name, even in code, and only have resorted to his terminology at a bare minimum, as Levi has proposed. The violations were be the use of the term “determination” (which is the name of that which Graham objects, a term needing to be explained), and “essence” a term which Graham uses himself, and makes for a necessary correspondence (some words simply have no equivalents). “Modal” as it is found in the Deleuzequotation simply means “particularized way of existing,” something which is both immanently caused and transitively caused. Hopefully I have provided at least sense of how I imagine OOPcan be deepened by a dialogue with a thinker who is perhaps now fashionable. If it is any solace to those that shrink the popularity of this marano, he spent a very long time not being fashionable at all, but rather lived many of these centuries out of joint, either as a dispicable atheist or an out-moded and naive Rationalist. If any thinker’s “essence” retreated from his or her qualities, it was probably this one.

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