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The Becoming-woman of Machine in Avatar

A Comparison With The Fist of the White Lotus

[Early concept art for Cameron's Avatar]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animal, Woman, Child: Vitalism and Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avatar: The Density of Being

Let’s just say that I am recovering. It is a carefully sculpted onslaught, discretely spaced with only a few flaws, but an onslaught nonetheless. And I am recovering. It’s Pocahontas meets Full Metal Jacket meets The Diving Bell and the Butterfly meets Alien meets Coming Home meets Dragonheart meets Dersu Uzala  meets Brainstorms meets Total Recall meets The Legend of Zu meets Tron meets Dances with Wolves meets Final Fantasy IV meets Logan’s Run, all of this meeting Ecological Crisis ideology meets Indigenous nostalgia meets Disney ethnic cliché and New Age ascension, and all of that sum colliding with the categorical mytho-aesthetic effect of the first Star Wars and possibly 2001. The storylines and plot topologies proliferate at animation-cell frame rates so synthesized, so graced, they are no longer borrowings, but rather operate like flipped gateways for infusions that simply cannot be qualified, nor controled. The movie downloads the viewer with such ferocity and such poetic space the film bends back cinema upon itself, and introduces its content – the question of Avatarship - into the very experience, pulling out from technological increase and its inherent relatability the buried question of sensitivity, connection and projected identification, in short, the implied organic mutuality in everything our machines have brought us. Cameron and his magicians in such a threshold defying 3D invade our bodies and throw out our affects into the arms and sinews of operators which defy all of our repeated attempts to take map of where we are. This past movie recognition, this ethnic familiarity – are the Pandorans African Maasai, elegant Native American Indians, Thai-Myanmar Pa Dong Karen, naked Amazon natives, or even cats - inundates and torques the viewer in a transport that is more than pleasured, more than reflective. It is free…free in only the sense that aesthetic renewal can be free. One is tossed outward amid the equally familiar ideological landscapes of ecological nightmare (however this reads for you), and you are vividly aware of its artifice. But in that practical synthetics the technological nervature examines you and opens you out across the help even to your well-honed intellectual compass. You rifle through cartographies, all of them familiar, all of them critically engaged, but grid on grid, none of them suffice. The imagined-to-be trite self-discovery of the main character’s authentic warrior thymotic spirit (that template) sheds all of is scales amid an interaction with image and physical movement that perhaps only equals the dislocations and alien projections of scuba or spacewalk. If anything else is communicated here, technology is sense, and sense is technology, within the scope of global concern. Nevermind that every Na’vi looks the connotations of every supermodel distortion of mundane biology. Nevermind that videogame freedoms populate with every stigma of ideological absorption. Nevermind that mythologies fragment into flattened space confrontations. The whole thing escalates far beyond its means, revealing how Ideals throw us forwards, how when technologies and techniques are sufficient, they compel the spirit into new-born orbits of extreme decay and apogee, flights that must have been there in the thousands of memory verses when one of Homer’s avatars was repeating the invented history of the Greeks with muscular hexemeter and rhythm in the residue glow of camp-fires.

A Taxomomy of Evils and the Demoness Ontology of Powers in Vitalism

In my few past posts I have begun exploring the ideo-figural aspects of the mythological figure of Zuggtmoy, a reported Demoness Queen of Fungi (seemingly drawn from the common stock of the sexualized evil of the D&D world). First I sketched out a fictional Encyclopedia entryin the style of Borges to get a feel for the mixtures of knowledges, histories, myths and reference that make up our co-ordination upon mytho-poetic reality. Then I took her more seriously, and investigated both her ontological expansionas a principle and a kind of incarnational exemplification in the unique properties of slime molds.

To follow through though, the tug of evil, itself, remained. For in her representational quality for the powers and speech of matter (M), one cannot dismiss the host of erotic, desire-imbued machinations that such a feminine modern archetype seems to carry. If such a demoness has a message to philosophy, conceptual evil is inscribed in its flesh. Below is a diaried entry on what must only be an outline of what such a con-figuration signifies…sometimes I believe it pays to think figuratively like this, as my guidepost thoughts on Achilles (and Sloterdijk) and also Antigone might show.

Demon and Law

Under the question of Zuggtomoy, fungal darkness the issue of the “demonic” necessarily must be raised, for the very subversive, if hierarchical nature of any ontological claim of thisorder appeals to a kind of intentional and performative domain. In such a view the historical understanding of literal magic and demonology proves revelatory, seen in the West primarily in the syncretism of the Hellenic and Leventine world, eventually subsumed under a mono-ideational Orthodox whole, Judeo-Chrisitan completions of local deities, mechanisms, which really must be seen as techniques. For it is in the techniques, and thus the technologies of magus traditions that at least one strong root of the scientific laboratory can be found. In a sense, demonology in its historical form expresses scientific instrumental multiplicity (subjects, laws, means and device), a multiplicity that resists the singular moniker Science.

The Demonic as a Locality of Powers and Means

When one questions the demonological, one is ultimately questioning a locality of techniques, that is until the demon (or δαίμων) becomes elevated to the status of a god wherein it starts to operate with something of a law-universal, a universal yet still constrained and specific in its manifestation, by circumstance. So as we  approach the demonic figure of Zuggtmoy (however fantastical) and work from her the possibilities of an ontological truth, we must address her in both her local, perhaps cult-like incarnation – for instance the kinds of things we might learn  from the structures of slime molds – but also potentially law-like, and therefore god-like revelations, as we might understand her domain, her sphere of actions, so as it to be a continual and constitutive plane for the very condition of our existence and agency.

Invariably as well, the subject of evil must be taken up, for ultimately and historically the homogenization of belief under any normalization of formal practice involves, or has involved, the creation of an entire sphere into which their actions can be categorically confined. Which is to say that the supra-lunar and astral projections of a hierarchy of powers that mark the syncretization of Hellenized Egypt (PGM) upon the spread of Judaism and Christianity under the crush of Roman occupation (the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, and all the apocalyptic and liberation re-ordering of the universe that follows), wherein every demon or daimon - even ever dead person - exudes a kind of tiered capacity of force, this is disbanded in favor of  a great domain binary of Good/Evil, Heaven/Hell, Life/Death, eventually to be purified into Presence/Absence and Being/Non-Being. When one  recognizes the historiography of demonology one appreciates the ideological use of the objective binaries that end up calculating a mirror dimension, whether or not these two dimensions are ever in theory or theology ever reconcilable or made disjunctive.

The Legalism of Pure Affection

But if we are to take up evil we must do more that understand the historical struggle between local powers of belief and practice (expressed as technique), and the hegemonic orthodoxy of homogenization, one must also look at the very conceptual core of what seems to show itself in the Law alone. This is the way in which law determinations that regulate the bodily pleasures (and pains) of others in a register of normativity themselves necessarily embody a pleasure. That is, there is ever the pleasures of regulating pleasure, a sweetness of investment which is ever occluded in the very recursive (and body continuity) circuit of their circulation, the very “contentless” nature of their nature of their content, which for Kant is demarked by the absence of pathological self-interest, or reason. The subject reaches the intensive apogee of its pleasure capacity to the degree that it refuses pleasure, perhaps the greatest pleasure of all (theoretically at least).

We can see this of course in de Sade’s inversion of Kant (first exposed by Horkenheimer and Adorno in Dialectics of Enlightenment, and then by Lacan in “Kant avec Sade”), wherein ultimately the subject becomes the pure instrument of Nature by embodying as best one can the very disinterested destructive power of evil, accomplished through the buiding of bodily circuits of repetition and pleasure coursings that enact – but locally, as devices -the universal powers of Nature’s transformations: that is, the very neutral but intense for of the law itself. You can see this measured enforcement of depersonalized traverse in the in situ figure of the Red Wax sewing thread which characterizes the narrative and argumentative acme of Philosophy in the Bedroom (published the same year, 1795, as Kant’s “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch”), wherein disease is “rationally”  and literally sewn into the very body of the mother, creating the picture of a supposed universe within the universe, a relation that ultimately shows itself as a perversity, a cruelty:

[The scene from Philosophy in the Bedroom, in which Eugenie (well-born) sews up and destroys her mother's own womb, in a kind of even further radicalized and profane Antigone (anti-birth), if that can be imagined; not only sewing but making of the mother's body a field of excruciating intensity, signifying the null-fruition of the act]

EUGENIE – Excellent idea! Quickly, quickly, fetch me needle and thread!… Spread your thighs, Mamma, so I can stitch you together-so that you’ll give me no more little brothers and sisters. (Madame de Saint-Ange gives Eugénie a large needle, through whose eye is threaded a heavy red waxed thread; Eugénie sews.)

EUGENIE, from time to time pricking the lips of the cunt, occasionally stabbing its interior and sometimes using her needle on her mother’s belly and mons veneris – Pay no attention to it, Mamma. I am simply testing the point…

LE CHEVALIER – The little whore wants to bleed her to death!

DOLMANCE, causing himself to be frigged by Madame de Saint-Ange, as he witnesses the operation – Ah, by God! how this extravagance stiffens me! Eugénie, multiply your stitches, so that the seam will be quite solid.

EUGENIE – I’ll take, if necessary, over two hundred of them… Chevalier, frig me while I work.

LE CHEVALIER, obeying – I’ve never seen a girl as vicious as this one!

EUGENIE, much inflamed – No invectives, Chevalier, or I’ll prick you! Confine yourself to tickling me in the correct manner. A little asshole, if you please, my friend; have you only one hand? I can seeno longer, my stitches go everywhere… Look at it I do you see how my needle wanders… to her thighs, her tits… Oh, fuck! what pleasure!…

So how do we reconcile these two aspects of evil, the historiographical understanding of demonology as local technique subsumed and normalized, and the localized device building between bodies which performs a machinic if cruel transformation (and transfiguration) of affects…of surplus?

If anything, as we grasp the possibilities of a Zuggtmonic drive in the auspice of the demonic image of Zuggtmoy herself, both the cruel inscription of affects upon bodies in evacuated regimes of formal legalism, localized historically specific machina of bodies joined, yoked, and the local power techniques that are ever under hegemonic universalization (and, it seems, binary polarization in abstraction). The Law as instantiationally and concretely cruel and effectively homogenizing.

Elevating Local Demons

Where does this leave us unto the cruelties of godlike elevation of demonic Zuggtmoy? What kind of transformations and seeing-throughs  are possible through her fungal if brutal consumptions at the border of death and decay? What is gained by the elevation of her local technique to a universalized though context-bound law is the capacity to see constructives as not strict inside/outside binary machines, but as material relations established with the radience that covers death and decay itself, ones that appreciate staged, cyclictic (and not categorical) transitions between individual and collective, ever within the halo of decay’s release of constitutive elements; but always with the risk that the identification with the demoness may take hold of your subjective boundary and transform you through decay, putrification and thereupon growth itself, creating new sites for radiance. Ever the risk if we are not to participate in totalitarian cognizance and its absolute pleasure economies.

Related comtemorary posts elsewhere: Naught Thought here, there and whence;  Complete Lies thence; The Whim thither; Eliminative Culinarism (6-11-09) wither.

Some Rough Thoughts On Spinoza and Technology

The Free Hand

Christiaan Huygens's assited lens mechanism

Today, in contemplating Spinoza’s objection to Huygens’s semi-automated lens-grinding lathe (from Letter 32), and considering what it might mean for an overall Spinoza view of technology, I am struck by an immediate incongruity. Christiaan Huygens’s love of the mechanical, that is the ambition for the nearly direct implementation of the math to the material, through the correct devising of a means of transfer, seems to embody much that Spinoza would agree with. That is, both are determinative mechanists, and the proper construction of a mechanism would seem to be paramount in both thinkers view of how a lens should be ground. For one could say without too much occlusion, Spinoza thinks of the world being made up of two things: information (what he calls “Idea”), and matter (what he calls “extension”). The direct transfer of information to matter that technology seems to promise would seem to be exactly that Spinoza would favor.

But instead Spinoza baulks at the notion that the “free hand” of the craftsman should be removed from the process:

..what tho’ thusly he will have accomplished I don’t know, nor, to admit a truth, strongly do I desire to know. For me, as is said, experience has taught that with spherical pans, being polished by a free hand is safer and better than any machine (Letter 32).

One has to ask, is this just a technician’s sobriety, a conservative, “let’s see what it can do before we get too excited”? It seems not, for he really is not at all enthused to even find out. There seems a much more rooted objection, a tugging away from the simple connection between Idea (information) and Thing, that technology embodies. It is strange, because the minimization of the anthropological that Spinoza’s philosophy is most notable for comes right up against another principle, perhaps something we can call the principle of implementation. For Spinoza, because all technology is in combination with human beings, and its use a part of the human perception of the world and itself, in order for any technological process to be assessed, ALL elements of its assembled mechanism, including those of the state of the human beings involved, have to be considered. Because human beings do not form a “kingdom within a kingdom,” any device must be considered within the causal matrix of ideas and matter than make up its users and its practitioners. At least that is what I have come to believe Spinoza is thinking about, as he expresses reluctanceto remove the “free hand” from the process of crafting lenses. He is not against such a handless construction, but one senses that he is hesitant, holding in his view a greater scope of the issue at hand. For the 17th century desire to remove the craftman is not simply the desire to remove the “human error” from a process, but also is a labor calculation, suggestive of the Capitalist forms that were on the rise. The “free hand” question, is the question of interface, of communicative dialogue between the mechanism of gears and wheels and the mechanism of the human person (and community).

In a sense, what is at stake is the full consideration of interface. The impress of an idea (information) upon matter is a condition-dependent relation. One cannot simply press any kind of material into a spinning grinding mould to produce a lens. The specifics of the states of each must be appreciated. In this same sense there is a temporality, a historicity, to the transfer of ideas, one that Spinoza weighs as he wrote his first “rule for living” in the Emendation:

1. To speak to the understanding of the multitude and to engage in all those activities that do not hinder the attainment of our aim. For we can gain no little advantage from the multitude, provided that we accomodate ourselves as far as possible to their level of understanding. Furthermore, in this way they will give a more favorable hearing of truth.

His rule is to speak to the multitude, yet he will learn to not publish his Theological-Political Treatise in Dutch, keeping it from the multitude. Right away a differential comes apparent. The accomodation is really a measurement, a measurement that not only must be done with reason, but within the melieu of imaginary constructions and affective affinities. Perhaps this is why Spinoza is removed from the direct seduction of mechanical transfer. This is a finesse of his monist metaphysics. The transfer of ideas (information) to form, is never actually a transfer at all, but must be seen as an unfolding of two parallel Attributes. There is no descent into matter. Here Descartes and Spinoza radically diverge. Spinoza’s immanence becomes a line of permutation. The human element indeed has no hierarchical privilege in his Universe. It is shot through with error, but removing the human hand does not necessarily increase the power of an instrumental relation. This conceptualization of the human hand as a hand of error, of the craftsman as the ignorant purveyor unreflectant and unmodern traditions, a drag on the transcendent rise of Reason, is - I think Spinoza would say - an imaginary relation. For a machine to work properly, the free hand must always be located, and gauged.

This comes in view of past thoughts on this issue:

To Understand Spinoza’s Letter 32 to Oldenburg

Spinoza’s Comments on Huygens’s Progress

Van Leeuwenhoek’s View of Technology and Spinoza

Part of this process of looking into the lensed conception of Spinoza’s metaphysics is understanding how at the cusp of a change in the technological interface - that is, with Descartes, an increased mathematization of nature and its corresponding instrumentization of devices - there also existed alternate conceptions of what viewing, observing and measuring entailed. The idea that a device could be of a fixed nature, a neutral embodiment of mathematics, and thus could be pointed in any direction, and at any number of objects, revealingly, is an imaginary simplification. Such a conception of device implies a certain invisibility of the mechanism in that the phenomena is simply shown for what it “is”, denuded. It is my sense that Spinoza, in his metaphysical grasp of the consubstantiality of the material and the ideationalas informed by his experiences as a maker of representational devices, and therefore instruments of both the micro- to macrological sort, conceived of instrumentation in a different kind of way. It was a way which may help inform us of our own potentiated relationship to technology. Rather than experiencing the object as simply being “revealed” it perhaps is better understood as staged, framed, part of an assemblage of observation and use. This is what alternate conceptions of technology may help us see.

In the personof van Leeuwenhoek, praised by history for his explorational conception of the micrological, a man who shared with Spinoza a merchant class origin, shunning for the greater part the fame of Scientific standing, we have a clue to something of the inveterate possibilities of instrumental use. I suggest below the example of the intimacy involved in van Leeuwenhoek’s experience of both his devices and his specimens. The “microscope” for him, was not understood, nor felt to be, a mechanism without context.

Pictured here is a composite drawing of van Leeuwenhoek’s “microscope” bringing together the significant features from the few surviving devices examined by Clifford Dobell. It shows boththe rod upon which a specimen needle is mounted, and the parallel plates between which a very fine lens would be inserted. The height of the specimen needle, and its proximity of it to the lens-plates, could be exactly and stably secured by the turn of screws. These devices are incredibly small, actually smaller than is pictured. What is significant about this device, other than its simplicity and size, is that the lens was so very small, its focal length could be less than 1/30th of an inch. The eye must be placed so as to be nearly touching the lens.

Van Leeuwenhoek made nearly five hundred of these palm-sized instruments, and famously was able to achieve magnification so as to vividly see bacteria and protozoa, the first of humankind to do so. Many of the plates were made of silver, and three of them are known to be made of gold, but none of them are in their material finely crafted in detail. They were tiny work-tools by van Leeuwenhoek’s conception. But there is something more about his concept that is important to dwell upon. After his fame had spread, some of the most important personages of Europe came to his merchant’s house in Delft to see these wonders. What is compelling is that he would let people view specimens on devices of only moderate magnification, and not sell a one. The most profound of his glasses, those upon which he made his most spectacular discoveries, he would not even allow a glimpse. People would ask him, bewildered, why would he make so many devices and never sell any. Various theories have arisen to explain this relation between van Leeuwenhoek and the number of his microscopes. Was he saving them up for sale by his daughter when he had passed? Was he secreting away the most precious facts of his observation capacities, making something of a mystery of it?

I think a clue to the number of devices is provided in the 26 samples he had sent to the Royal Society by his devoted daughter upon his death. None of the 26 are actually capable of the serious magnification that he must have attained in other devices, but each arrived, notably with their specimen already attached (the same is true for most of those auctioned off after his passing). The embryo of a Cochineal, or a thread of sheep’s wool, or the spinning organ of a spider’s abdomen was glued upon its requisite needle, perfectly positioned before its lens. One need only hold it up to light. I believe that far from conceiving of his microscopes as neutral devices which could be made machinically in relationship to laws of nature, and therefore could be turned ubiquitously upon any number of phenomena, each device was handmade for what was to be observed. He made so many devices because he had so many things to look at.

Why Did van Leeuwenhoek Refuse to Let Others Look?

Key to this device/object dyad is understanding that the viewing itself must have been a personal, intimate event. The staging of the specimen, the vice-like recursivity with which it was positioned to its glass, a minuscule glass sometimes ground just for that specimen, was an experiential revelation. As mentioned, the eye must be pressed so close as to practically touch the lens. In his most minute observations his microscopes and their specimens formed a circularity of object, means and eye that was physically closed.

There might be very good explanations why van Leeuwenhoek did not allow others – with the possible exception of his daughter, hired draughtsmen, and perhaps even anatomist Ruysch - to look into his strongest microscopic glasses, the obvious being his stated desire for secrecy; but beneath secrecy, most concerting was the likely intensive intimacy involved in these witnessings. And constitutive of this intimacy were two points. First was that Van Leeuwenhoek’s conception of minute observation was dioramic: frame and object met such that the frame was part of the view. It was an engagement. Secondly, because the device was small and could be held in the hand, and the eye was pressed so near, the consciousness of the viewer was a participation with the frame (metal plate and lens) as much as with the object viewed, so much so that there was no anonymity of vision. In a sense, perhaps van Leeuwenhoek came to feel that viewer could no more easily be exchanged with a particular device, than could its specimen. Individual glasses and individual objects matched, as did the eye, and as the magnification became more intense, so did the investment. This, I suggest, is what van Leeuwenhoek was protecting. One could say, just as one could not share dental braces, nor would not share contact lenses, van Leeuwenhoek refused to share the smallest of scopes. They fit his eye and his vision, prosthetically, and in terms of experience, privately. The math was thus affect-rich and context dependent.

(Could it be that there is closely related reason why van Leeuwenhook may have denied the privledge of looking into his strongest lenses? He was, admittedly, very sensitive to criticism. The game of assertion and denial was quiet unpleasant, and it was in part because of this sensitivity that he did not relish the thought of publishing his findings with the Royal Society at first opportunity. It could have been that this sensitivity extended itself to personal experiences as well. Van Leeuwenhoek was gifted. He had not only diligent powers of observation, but also incredibly acute eyesight, far better than even above average. It may have been likely that he had shown others, early on, his strongest glasses, and others simply could not see in them what he could see. His observations were, in a way, personalized to a more specific degree than even already mentioned, not just by context, but by capacity; he could not afford being told that what he saw simply was not there. They were is own assemblage.)

“…you then hold the microscope toward the sky…as though you had a telescope and were trying to look at the stars in the sky through it,”

he wrote of the process of illuminating a specimen. In such a view the conceptions of the linked Macrocosm and the Microcosm collapse into a single relational whole, (for one knew that optically a telescope could be turned into a microscope through a rearrangement of the lenses). But holding a specimen glass up to the light was more than this, it was a person’s investment in observation and device, and the one-to-one context between the specimen and its process of viewing that is exhibited by van Leeuwenhoek and his microscopes. This reflexivity of concept is shown everywhere in his staging choices, but perhaps none so evident as when he had carefully ground a grain of sand in order to see a smaller grain of sand, seeing sand with sand: 

The two grains, one a lens, the other fixed in ratio, were viced into exact proportion. This speaks strongly to a closed and event-specific notion of technology, one which involves the viewer as well. The sand-sand-eye-sky’s light looping form an intimacy which opens up an alternate understanding of what observation is, one where what is being looked at cannot be cut off from its mechanism of viewing, nor from who is viewing. Instead it is a putting of objects, including one’s eye, into relation.

Van Leeuwenhoek, Technology and Spinoza

Van Leeuwenhoek lived but 4 miles from Spinoza in the summer of 1665, and it is not at all certain that he had even invented his viewing glasses at that point in time (the earliest record of his observations come during a trip to England in 1668; and some [Ford for instance] propose that he was originally inspired by Hooke’s Micrographia which would have barely reached Delft in 1665). Yet one imagines that it is quite likely that the history of van Leeuwenhoek’s experiments with glassblowing and lens-craft go back further than our first record of them in regard to his English, chalk-gazing holiday [Ruestow suggests that A.v.L. intimates a date as early as 1659]. It is conceivable that the two lens-grinders were both making lenses contemporaneously, a few miles apart. But the point really is not to establish a personal contact point between van Leeuwenhoek and Spinoza, though they do share a matrix of possible relations, it is rather to suggest a conceptual contact point. They are physically proximate and they are both of merchant families (not a small cultural fact). Each pursued knowledge in a hermited, semi-private way. Mostly, though, they likely embody a conception of technology and lens which was not part of the dominate instrumental conception of device; theirs was one where what is personally made (even if it is an instrument) is not divorced from the circumstances of its use, either by its object, or its witness. What van Leeuwenhoek’s technological conception potentially reveals for the Spinozist, is the thought that despite the prevailing mathematicization of Nature, brought forth by Descartes’ lead, the combinatory experience of observer, device and object remains a determining factor in the meaning of what was discovered. This is something that Spinoza brings out when he speaks of our experience of the Sun being only 200 hundred feet away despite our knowledge that it is much farther and larger (Ethics 2p35s): our essence and the sun’s essence interact to produce the affect of a meaningful, imaginary experience, a kind of phenomenal knowledge, a knowledge which, though inadequate and confused, makes up a greater portion of our world. Simply the crystalizing of the phenomenal image into clarity, making it large and sharp, was not enough for “knowledge” in Spinoza’s view. This was not the “clear and adequate” idea. 

Spinoza’s notion of technology - in that he can be said to have one that we can conclude from his philosophy and assumed to be given through his experiences of lens and instrument making – calls our attention to the continual circumstance of our use, including our affective investments, and to the notion that object, device and eye are part of an assemblage of perception organized by our ideas. More than an ever more crispening of the image is the relation of that precision to our own exactness, and therefore for Spinoza, our own power. The conception is really Cybernetic.

 

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