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Monthly Archives: January 2009

The Necessary Intersections of the Human Body: Spinoza

Radical Experiments With Spinoza’s Metaphysics of Body

There has always tugged at me a kind of vast and unexplored consequence of Spinoza’s defintion of a single “body” or “individual,” especially when seen in context with his general expressionist ontology. It is that Spinoza defines a body so simply, given in a matrix of the world understood to be one great co-relational thing (modes transitively determined by each other, modes immanently determined by God/Substance). I want to draw out some of the implications of Spinoza’s defintions of a body (none of which have I ever seen talked of), implications that in part lead me to the notion of Conjoined Semiosis which I have forwarded in my last two posts.

Spinoza defines a body most clearly in the Ethics at 2p13a2d

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.

 It is nearly an elegant defition and the second portion of it has really three operative parts. Bodies are moving “so as to preserve unvarying relation of movement among themselves”. In the Latin edition the phrase is ut motus suos invicem certa quadam ratione communicent, and is translated by Curley as “that they communicate their motion to each other in a fixed manner” which is quite a bit better. There is,

1). a communication of motion

2). a recursive, or at least horizoned, reflexive closure (communicating to themselves)

3). a fixed ratio

In his earlier Short Treatise  he says it even more succinctly:

Every particular corporeal thing [lichaamelijk ding] is nothing other than a certain ratio [zeekere proportie] of motion and rest.

[I discussed some of the other implications of this defintion here: The “Corporeal Equation” of 1:3: What Makes A Body for Spinoza? ] Now though I would like to draw out a particualr thread of thought. What immediately comes to mind is perhaps what Spinoza envisioned, so many billiard balls moving in motion in the world, bouncing all about, and when any number of them seem to fall into a fixed ratio of movement such that their communications upon each other seem to perpetuate this ratio of movement, this becomes an “individual”, a “body” proper. We can see it, and perhaps it is not far from how we roughly think about bodies that perserve themselves over time, a certain kind of continuity and closure of movement.

When Ratios Transpierce

But there are several aspects to this definition which expand it beyond what we might regularly take to be its described. Firstly so, the entire Extensional expression of Substance, in all of its modes at any one selection of time already seems to meet the definition. That is, the entirety of modal expressions in some transitive way communicate their motions to each other in a fixed manner…the ratio of motion and rest does not change on the whole. From the point of view of the entirety, any one “fixed ratio” is only an expression of the greater ratio of expression. Further, any parts which do not seem to be communicating their ratios to each other, is only a matter of perspective, thus, there is ever a perspective from which any combination of bodies, however disparate, are in communication with each other, if only from the point of view of the whole. In a rather Taoist-like sense, all things are connected to all other things.

When thinking about the human body there is a natural tendency to give it priority, though in Spinoza’s ontology this is not granted in any strict sense. So we must apply this notion of “individual” to our body as well. Part of this tendency of priority is to read the human body in the context of the whole expressive body of Spinoza in a kind of nesting, Russian Doll sort of way. The ratio of motion and rest which is preserved recursively in the human organism is simply an expression of the higher order whole, which has a subsuming ratio. The fixed ratio of our bodies is real, but attached to, or part of an entirety. It is not so much that that this is an alien concept to us, for instance any equlibrium of energy that our bodies maintain, swimming against entropy, might be said to reflect a general law of a conservation of energy in the universe.

But in theme of Conjoined Semiosis this is what I want to point out. The notion bodies defined as a communication of ratio preservation does not only function in a lower to higher order wherein our human body maintains its ratio in the shadow of the great, over-arching ratio of physical expression. And it is not only that our ratios of physical preservation then causally bump, skin to skin, into other ratios in preservation, whether they be bowling balls or puppies. It is that the ratios of preservation, as identified, are perspective dependent (under the idea that what separates out my ratio from yours is a delination which can be changed). More importantly, the border of my body (which is a real, modally expressed border for Spinoza) holds no priority over reading where a ratio begins and ends. And lastly, this “dissolve” of boundary does not simply function from part to whole, but also must exist in intersections across the borders of our bodies. It is not the case that our bodies only participate as wholes in larger groups of bodies, but also that the bodies of which our own bodies are composed, must participate in communications across our own boundaries. Again, the illustration from the last two posts:

There are two conceptual allowances for this in Spinoza’s philosophy. The first is that the human body ratio has no priorty over the communications of its parts. That is, parts of the human body can logically of course participate, while still maintaining their role in the human body fixed ratio, in still other ratios which intersect it (a subset of its parts can also be part of a set of another ratio in communication). The behaviors of a benign parasite for instance can participate in the ratio of my own body parts, have its motions and rest be subsumed in that ratio, and still participate in the fixed ratio of motions of the parasite gene population in the County I live in. This would make them in my view Semiotically Conjoined. The second of these is, due to the non-priority of the boundary of the human body, determinative effects upon the body cannot be reduced to surface to surface contacts. Because the human body is immaent to the field which expresses it, all parts that lie adjacent to it’s surface, are also produced by that field, and there is no reason why the events that occur within the human body are expressed only in the vector of its ratio. It is much more likely that because the identification of the ratio itself is contingent to perspectively, events within the human body can be equally measured by another trans-piercesive boundary (a benign parasite might turn destructive, the other parts of the human body being merely part of the environment of the population of parasite genetic expression).

I would say as well that something in Spinoza’s treatment of essence, in particular human essence, might demand just such a Conjoined Semiosis as per normal, for instance his thought,

For if, for example, two individualsof entirely the same nature are joined are joined to one another, they compose an individual twice as powerful as each one. To man then, there is nothing more useful than man E4p18siii

It is not at all clear how two men could share exactly the same nature, or whether this sameness 0f nature acts as an asymptotic limit (suggesting that their connection is somehow a Conjoined Semiosis, or that the new individual that they compose is possibly an overlap of their two natures). When two men agree and work together (heaven forbid they be a man and a woman), no matter how powerful their agreement, there is the sense that merely the divergences of their histories provide a separation of their natures (essences). One could see that the two men could form one new body or individual, for whatever length of time, if their motions remain in co-relative communication across their boundaries, but insofar as each man experienced himself separately (perhaps only flittingly as they joined together to row a boat), their two bodies would mostly be more of overlapping natures.

And then there is Spinoza’s letter to Peter Balling, wherein he comforts his friend, a father who had had a premontion halucination of his child’s death. There he explictly speaks of the soul as merely participating in the essence of another human being:

And since (like that which I demonstrated on another occasion) there must necessarily exist in thought the idea of the essence of the child’s states and their results, and since the father, through his union with his child, is a part of the said child, the soul of the father must necessarily participate in the ideal essence of the child and his states, and in their results, as I have shown at greater length elsewhere.

A father and son are not it would seem of exactly the same nature, but the deep entrenchment of their attachment has lead in Spinoza’s mind to a kind of intermingling of essences, such that through the power of the father’s love something of the son’s future might be involuntarily imagined. I would say that each of these descriptions provide that Spinoza may have held the thought of Conjoined participation between two material bodies, at least as an aspect of what it means for two bodies to combine together.

The Endurance and yet Vectorization of “Body”

But I want to draw this out even further. If any bodies in a fixed ratio of a communication of parts is an individual, why would not the select neurons of our brains, when we are in a discussion, (perhaps in combination with our other transmitive body parts and the air molecules that carry our words) constitute a single body? (What of all the extensional manifestions of classes of race or gender, which form assemblages with parts human and parts non-human alike?) It is not for Spinoza that the bodies themseleves must be perserved, but only the ratio [in concordance with a theory like Autopoiesis]:

If from a body, or an individual thing composed of a number of bodies, certain bodies are separated, and at the same time a like number of other bodies of the same nature take their place, the individual thing will retain its nature as before, without any change in its form [forma]. (E2p13, Lemma 4, axiom 3)


The human Body, to be preserved, requires a great many other bodies, by which it is, as it were, continually regenerated (E2p13, post4)

Necessarily it seems that out of the plethora of possibly found “fixed ratios” of communication that can be found, no matter how brief in existences, (or disparately spread) our bodies must be shot through across our otherwise considered to be natural boundaries. In fact, on the question of temporal endurance, the “fixed ratio” [certa ratione] can also mean “a certain” or “a particular” ratio, making an occasionalist dream-world of any number of vectorial objects, cutting through the boundaries of other objects. One need only find a ratio of commuications and no otherwise assumed boundary would preside. Such an approach of course would only be of a limited perspective, but Spinoza’s metaphysics makes of any modal expression a fully concrete determination of effects, and this would include the determinations which flow from any discovered trans-piercing corporeal ratio. Any inside/outside delineation must I would think be cut across by other inside/outside delineations. 

The second important conceptual opening in Spinoza’s treatment of bodies, in particular the human body, is that what a body knows is only a product of its interior, recursive movements.

The human Mind does not know [cognosit] the human Body itself, nor does it know that it exists, accept through Ideas of affections by which the Body is affected, E2p19

This flows from,

The object of the idea constituting the human Mind is the Body,  or a certain mode [certus modus] of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else, E2p13

One presumes that what holds for the human Mind and Body, holds for all bodies, since all bodies are an expression in parallel with ideas, the object of these ideas being the states of extension. What follows from this is that any body which preserves a ratio in a communication in parts, to some degree has Mind (an ideational ratio coherence), and that this Mind, following 2p19 above, only “knows” of its Body through the ideational expressions of the affections of its parts. Which is to say, the Mind of any corporeal ratio (however primative) only knows of the world outside of it through the affections of its material expression, and only knows of its own material state through the ideas of that expression. There is a fundamental cognitive closure to any hypostated ratio’ed communication.

The consequences of this are that if some of the semiotic elements that make up the human body are themselves elements in other cogntive bodies, the states of these elements (in Spinoza’s terms, affections) are read in at least two different cogntive orderings. That is to say, the other elements which make up the rest of a semiotic relation of parts in the human body, serve as part of the environment for the transpiercing body. This perhaps goes some way to explain the illusionary status of the affections from the perspective of God or Substance (somthing that vexes many interpreters of Spinoza). Though certainly Spinoza did not imagine his metaphysics put to this bent, what Conjoined Semiosis shows is that the meaning of an affection of semiotic elements in one body, the very same events, will have a different meaning in the transpiering body, given a different compositional whole. It is not just a change in the adequacy of ideas in a particular human mind that changes the ontological status of the affections of its body, but the affections themselves are likely, perhaps necessarily, according to the structures that Spinoza offers, already invested in Conjoined fashion to other bodies which run across its form.


There can be no doubt that Spinoza did not picture his metaphysics of objects in this way, for instance his proposition seems to rule out any conceptual invariance of inside and outside. There are many examples of this, but perhaps this is the most precise and consequential:

No thing can be destroyed except through an external cause, E3p4

But I can find no logical preclusion of a pervasive and rather animate Coinjoined Semiosis by which any body, including our own, is semiotical invested in the closed networks of other sense-making cognitive wholes, some of them quite vast and enduring, some of them quite local and ephemeral. In any case, this additional, vectorial analysis the otherwise assumed Natural borders of our bodies, speaks to the richness of what it means to be affected. It might as well add to the existential restriction upon the adequacy of human ideas, for it would not just the case that we cannot hold adequate ideas because we are restricted to a small experiential speck of the Universe, forever in our nature dependent upon things we do not fully understand, or even that what does causally affect us is somehow ultimately hidden from us by a kind of outside, external shadow, but also that many of our internal experiences of disturbed cohension come neither from “outside” or “inside”, but across the two, as what appear beyond us has tidal effects on our sense making parts, pulling us as if from within (both to greater epiphanic openness and conjunction, and toward paranoid self-purgings and external projections of hatred).

And would it be too far to go to say that this Conjoined Semiosis is what is logically behind the otherwise troubling, seemingly Parallel-postulate-defying distinction that Spinoza makes, that there are effects of the imagination that come from the Body, and those that come from the Mind, one of which can be prophetic [all events that occur in the body necessarily must also occur somehow in the mind, should they not]?

Effects of imagination either from the constitution of a body or of a mind, originate (translation own).

Effectus imaginationis ex constitutione vel coporis vel mentis oriuntur (letter to Peter Balling).

Are effects of the imagination which come from the constitution of the body to be explained as the disturbance of the body’s own semiotic elements under the mind (the cognitive whole) of another, which we experience as tearing, a lessoning of powers and coherence (Sadness); and imaginative effects that come from the mind, are come from the mind of a greater participation, or at least are formed in a cybernetic union of parts and bodies, bringing together what is so conjoined?


A related line of thinking: Wasps, Orchids, Beetles and Crickets: A Menagerie of Change in Transgender Identification

Conjoined Semiosis: A “Nerve Language” of Bodies

The Polyvalent and Cross-tongued

Chang and Eng Bunker

Chang and Eng Bunker

At times with an idea it is best to come up to a phenomena and embrace it as exemplary, a way of showing to others the heart of what you mean, and something of this comes through in the example of Conjoined Twins. I was discussing with my wife the nature of what I have been trying to put forth, which at the time had come down to the search for a term. A term was needed to crystallize just what sort of ontological distinction I was attempting to make when speaking of the polyvalence of semiotic elements that help form a body. As I explained to her, the very helpful notion of polyvalence lacked something. Yes, semiotic elements indeed could turn in every direction, but this poly-directionality was not fully what I meant. There was a constitutive sharing, a priority of investment and incarnation, a fleshed interweave that was not captured in the idea of a “polyvalent semiotics”. It is much more like Siamese Twins that share an organ, or body parts, aspects of the physical coherence of one body are already functioning as aspects of coherence for another (or really multiple, or illimitable) body/ies. There is a semiotic tugging, or in many cases tearing of bodies. In terms of history, they are not just layered upon each other like cells that lay with cells, composing organs, and with organs, composing bodies. Rather, bodies are already cross-semiotic to each other, their cognitive bodies woven into. We tried words like “inter-phenomenal” or “contra-phenomenal” (in answer to the ever popular “epiphenomenal”), but somehow the image of a shared body kept returning. It was that the semiotic order of a single body was enfleshed with other bodies. Finally my wife offered, expertly as always, How about just “‘conjoined”? So the term was born, Conjoined Semiosis. There is the difficulty that the example of Siamese Twins would override the concept, for what really is meant here is a great abstraction, albeit as concrete as possible, from the condition of such Twins. The questions of personal identity, autonomy, emotional coherence (for instance those so powerfully displayed in the story of Chang and Eng Bunker) are more peripheral to the term Conjoined Semiosis. I say peripheral here, though Conjoined Semiosis has profound effects on descriptions of normativity upon consciousness and questions of personal coherence. It is mostly the way that functioning differences in compositional elements necessarily are shared between bodies, across the cognitive boundary that they would from one coherent perspective form. This is analogous to (though perhaps still exemplified by) conjoined twins.

Autopoietic Closure

In explaining the idea to my wife I realized that if I am to make this clear I am going to have to begin at base concept, that is how semiotic differences can be seen to found the composition of an object. To get my point across we may have to begin in the middle, not with rocks or even chairs, but with the simplest of living structures, the single celled organism. It is biologists Maturana and Varela’s theory of Autopoiesis (much appreciated by later Guattari we might say), that gives us a firm conceptual foothold here. Principle to their theory that living things can be described as Autopoietic Machines is the notion of Organizational Closure. That is, a living thing can be defined as an organizationally closed system of parts whose process it is to make the parts of which it is composed. It’s a machine that makes itself. Events at its boundary work as perturbations of a recursively defined set of relations within its boundary, such that no recourse to external facts are needed to explain the processes of differences that define its behavior. So, an autopoietic machine possess a kind of semiotic autonomy, the differences that make up the order of its internal actions are organizationally closed. The presence of a predator or a food source beyond the boundary of the organism is only a perturbation of its surface. The cascade of effects within need not be definable with reference to either “predator” or “food source”, but rather are in reference to a kind of homeostatic but living recursion. Maturana and Varela illustrate their idea of Organizational Closure with a know well-known example of the submarine pilot. We as observers may watch a submarine carefully navigate a series of reefs and dangers, and thrilled with the display would radio the pilot. “Congratulations on doing such a good job avoiding those reefs and powerful currents!” He is to reply something like, “I have no idea what you mean by ‘reefs’ or ‘currents’. I only moved some levers this way and that, put this factor in balance of that factor” utterly cut-off from the external meaning of his actions. Autopoietic theory is quite detailed, and I present only a bare aspect of it here, enough to point out what semiotic closure would mean. Simply, the differences that make a difference to the coherence of a body, are cognitively closed to the boundary of that body such that the boundary makes a domain. This is the “Recursive View”.

Maturana and Varela get out of this solipsism of organizational closure in several ways. For one, not to be gone into depth here, every autopoiestic systems, although it is organizationally closed, is structurally open. That is external parts of the world enter into boundary and can replace parts within that boundary, without changing its organizational closure, much as like nearly ever human cell you have today in your body is not one you had 10 years ago. This can lead to subtle shifts in organizational closure, as replacement parts can have slightly different properties. But the more systematic way that recursively closed autopoietic systems link up with the world is through what they call “structural coupling”. That is, if each cell is a kind of black box to an observer, experiencing “inputs,” and behavorially expressing “outputs” the internal organizations of one cell can be adapted to the regularities of those outputs (their relations to its own perturbations) such that the two organizationally closed systems become structurally linked. Hence, cells link with cells, cells produce organs, organs produce organisms, etc.  In this way, the regularities of surrounding cells are regularities of environment.

This becomes rather neat hand and glove, boundary to boundary nestling, wherein the semiotic closures of one system produce expressions which in their regularity and coherence serve to stabilize and inform the semiotic closures of another system. The two systems co-depend in this way, or one might say assemble, the differences in the one producing linked differences in the other, despite their own organizational closure. There is much that can be made profound in this kind of nesting, the kind of which which reflects what we see in the biological world, the remarkable way that organisms co-operate in parts, and it is for this reason that the biological body has been effectively used as a metaphor for, and an example of, coherence in both the history of Philosophy and Theology. The powers of communication amid apparent closure, and despite constant change, is a powerful testament. [If we were to make a premature theoretical leap] we could say that the closed organizations with which we combine are “black boxes” of the Latourian or Graham Harman sort, but boxes which are not so much “black” as transparent to the world, and not so much boxes, but spheres. That is, the regularities of expression of other semiotic closures by which we more powerfully act in the world, are the very same regularities that allow us to inhabit, and live through, in a kind of mutual organism of expression, making the world appear clear to us, mutually so.

Conjoined Semiosis

But I would like to go in another direction, a direction in particular counter to the hand and glove, boundary to boundary matching up. The necessity of “conjoined semiosis”. If we return to the base picture of the semiotically closed boundary, we must see that each of the differences which make up this boundary function as specific semiotic units. The ability of the closure to cognitively read the world depends upon the internal coherence of its closed relations.

The horizon of this “thing” is determined by the coherence of its differences, that is, the role of the differences help constitute its being. If any one portion of these constitutive elements cease to perform coherently, in a simplistic sense the system seeks to repair itself of its error, or dies. This is the meaning of the illustration I provided in my last post.

Now I suggest that it is not only the case that the regularities of structural coupling are enough to describe how boundaries relate to each other. Rather – and we leave here merely the examples of living, autopoietic bodies, moving onto the the greater category of any recursively organized cognitive boundary where in the differences that make up its interior serve to produce its horizon of inside and outside – these component differences that make a difference are already serving their purpose within other cognitive bodies. That is to say, the boundary of inside/outside which interprets the differences that make up the whole is insufficient to explain the coherence of behaviors within it. Events in the world that happen outside of it, necessarily happen across it, intersecting its boundary. Hence my second diagram:

The importance of this distinction of cross- or conjoined semiosis is this. Parts within a cognitive body do not simply malfunction, or even out of their plenitude escape the regime of coherence established by the organism (top down), all this can be admitted. More, they possess what is experienced as a zombie-like property, and eruptive autonomy that cannot simply be chalked up to error. This autonomy of report can be both pernicious, leading to paranoiac self-purging, the attempt to cut out the semiotic “cancer” that is no longer “you”, or can be experienced ecstatically, with the sense that one is taken up into a power greater than oneself (itself a coin of paranoia).

The Worker Part

How to envision this. Taking up from a point made by Levi at Larval Subjects, it is important to see that the body of a factory (what he calls an Objec-tile), is made up of other bodies, for instance the persons that work the factory. In a certain sense, the allopoietic automobile factory (making things other than itself) is itself autopoietic, in that it has a recursivity of parts which make the parts that compose it (hire workers, make managerial rules, purchase materials, exact quotas, etc.). It seeks a homeostasis, or even a growth. Now, it is not enough to say that the body of the factory contains within it the bodies of persons. One has to also understand that the behaviors of those persons, as semiotic differences, not only inform the internal coherence of the factory, but also participate in the organization of other bodies, such as a Worker’s Union (or working class masculinity). So, when worker output slows during contract negotiations, the coherence of the factory, as far as it organizes itself upon its cognitive boundary: events outside in the world (like product demand, the social standing of the brand name, the price of oil, logical problems with delivery, the election of a new president) vs. inside the factory (like quota expectations, the means of expressing managerial authority, hiring practice profiles, worker hours), the cognitive answer may not reside in either an external cause or an internal one, but perhaps in a Conjoined Semiosis. That is, workers who are expressing the fitness of internal relations in the factory’s self-critique, and reflecting outside events, are also participating as semiotic units (differences that make differences) in the Worker’s Union. The behaviors of the factory workers – their slowing of productivity – is caused by something other than external factors, or internal coherence, but rather by a cross-semiotic relationship to another body. The “sense” of those behaviors is found in the coherence of a body whose semiotic parts intersect the factory. And the factory will have a sense that it is being pulled apart from within, that there is an autonomy of semiotic parts which is no longer coherently informing an inside/outside cognitive horizon, a zombie-like mutiny of parts. The Worker’s Union pervades within, and threatens from without. The same might be said if a woman is hired, and the behaviors of the male workers begins to exhibit the coherence of working-class masculinity.

So it is not enough just to say that the aggregate possesses a dynamic possibility of forming other bodies or objects. Rather, one has to understand that the aggregate is already cross-sectioned by semiotic polyvalence, its constituent parts are already communicating coherences to bodies other than itself. These are not objects rising up out of the aggregate, but rather pre-existing semiotic investments which interweave any coherent body or object. Even, or one might want to say especially, in instances where the factory is working quite well wherein the factory is transparent to its own internal coherence, only making minor corrections here and there (lobbying for new city council labor statutes, firing the unproductive worker), these cross-semiotic coherences are already operating. They simply are not making differences that make a direct – or threshold-passing – difference on the factory. This operation, the meshing of semiotic coherences across boundaries actually works to stabilize and produce resiliency within the cognitive horizon of the factory. The semiotic roles of objects within the factory are entrenched, become tied down across any number of vectors which inhabit it, all helping produce the transparency of operations. In this sense, the cross-boundary Conjoined Semiosis operates as a kind of field, yet a field always capable of cognitively tearing in any one direction (or multiple directions), upon perturbation, as itself is over-woven at its boundaries (the difference between field and body may be arbitrary to description, a question of focus, fields themselves constituting bodies). The question is one of report and horizon. The differences which make up a boundary are themselves already differences among other external differences, which make up other boundaries. It is the tugging from within towards events which seem external which often signals this trans-Subjectivity condition being stimulated. It is not just that any person (or thing) possesses sub-elements within it that cannot be forced into line, that won’t restrict themselves to the overarching coherence, as if in some primordial anarchy of parts, a multitude ever in surpass of its expression. More, it is that “parts” are already parts of something else, not in hierarchical layers, from simple to complex wherein the complex just has to master and dominate the simple, but that the simple (the simple difference that makes a difference) is conjoined to other complexities which do not reflect the cognitive horizon of inside and outside itself. And it is only by being able to read these conjoined semiotic relations (which are so plenary and largely invisible as not to be read in great detail in advance), that a body can make sense of itself.

To put it one way, when one is experiencing an eruptive, counter insurgence of autonomous effects in an otherwise coherent experience (be they psychoanalytic drives, population protests, a resistance to project), it is best to look not only within, but also across to the points of intersection, the way in which elements which formerly read as coherent, producing transparency of the world, are involved in other coherences, other transparencies, other horizons, in which you already have a concrete, body-sharing investment. One is Siamese to other parts of the world such that your boundaries do not match up. Perhaps this works for the social world, as long as we are talking about persons (subjectivities) or factories, classes of human beings, all the way down to the biotic. But what of the inanimate? Are these bodies, objects, shot through with Conjoined Semiosis?

Nail in the Coffin of Objects

Let us take up an intermediary inanimate, a hammer. It has no obvious cognition of its own, and has a socially constructed role in expectant future actions. Yet we can grant to the hammer the abstract informational distinction that it, like a living cell, is composed of differences that make a difference. If wood did not have the resilient (but still vibrational) quality that it does, it would not be what it is, a hammer. At least it would not be that hammer. So there is a certain internal coherence to its differences that make a difference. These differences are in my view semiotic to the object, that is, they indicate to each other parts of an organization which allow the object to be so constituted (whether we take it’s objecthood as a hammer to be a product of the mind or not, we grant that there is just such an organization of real differences, and that these differences indicate to each other). Now, the question is, do these differences also compose differences cojoined semiotically to other bodies. We have to say, yes. To list a few, the metal head participates in the organizational body of the Earth’s magnetic field, its differences informing the coherence of that body. The wood handle participates in the combustibility of objects in the workshed such that for instance if a fire was started there would be differences that make a difference that could impinge upon whether a fire would go out, or further inflame. The split in its handle may be said to participate in the informing body of broken things in the shed, such that the shed itself becomes a symbol of lost craftsmanship to a poet who writes a prodigious poem on the matter, eventually to land the hammer in a museum.

None of these communitarian differences which cross-hatch the hammer to the rest of the world have a constitutive effect on the hammer itself, that is, it is not tidally tugged in a direction which confuses it, for it lacks an overt self-regularity, in some auto-critique of its own semiology. Though I am not sure how categorical one can get about this, for the composite of differences does cohere, and in a sense read itself. The disintegration of its handle in a shed-fire is a kind of tugging away from its horizon. But there is no agent to the hammer, other than its persistence. (To these differences we need only add the differences that make up the hammer that allow it to participate in the assemblages which make of it a tool and allow it to persist:  its rigidity, its center of gravity, the vibrational quality of its wood, its mass; all of these and an infinite variety of others allow it to participate in the mutuality of its use such that a human being can compose with it a new body – a human body-hammer-nail perhaps – a body which contains its own recursive structure of communicated differences.) In this way, insofar as differences that make differences can be seen as semiotic, that is, as informing wholes, it is requisite not only that such horizoned wholes match up with the boundaries of other horizoned wholes, in a kind of dovetailing workmanship, but also, the informing differences of any object are necessarily conjoined semiotically to wholes that intersect it. In this way, the most ancient of Western Philosophical problems, the relation of the One to the Many, on the grandest of scales, mislead our eyes to an essential binary logic, one that obscures how the Many already historically, and determinatively are invested across any particular One, cross-linking it with another One, whose coherence can tidally rule it, experienced as both outside and inside its horizon. It is not a question merely of matching up two externalized “Ones”. Thus, the Self, and the Other serves as an oversimplification, as does the Self and the World, for it is not only a matter of creating a space where the Self and the Other can fruitfully live as seemingly opposed externalities to each other, but more a question of identifying the hidden, invisible semiotic cross-threads in the fabric of each, the way that trans-boundary bodies tidally pull on the objecthood of each, not into a subsuming whole (although this too can be possible), but into a cognitive direction. If there is anything I would want to emphasize it is the semiotic, and thus material, bodily, Siamese codependence that any coherences is built out of, the way that one’s own constituent parts necessarily act creating differences which inform not only of outside or inside, but of a bit of each. It is that the very groundwork of our own coherence, the substance of which it is composed, and the reserve upon which we draw, is disturbingly conjoined [with no inherent value judgment as to whether this is for the better or the worse]. The signals that we (and others, objects) receive within are necessarily cross-tongued, polyvalent, and tidally pulled. And our most rich transparencies are the products of Siamese, often inseparable boundaries.

This is the sense in which Daniel Schreber’s paranoic “Nerve-Language,” written about his sadly and beautifully powerful Memoirs of My Mental Illness, describes insightfully the subcutaneous semiotic ordering that occurs at a distance. A bit of it:

Apart from normal human language there is also a kind of nerve-language of which, as a rule, the healthy human being is not aware. In my opinion this is best understood when one thinks of the processes by which a person tries to imprint certain words in his memory in a definite order, for instance a child learning a poem by heart which is going to recite at school, or a priest a sermon he is going to deliver in Church. The words are repeated silently [as if in a silent prayer to which the congregation is called from the pulpit], that is to say a human being causes his nerves to vibrate in the way which corresponds to the use of the words concerned, but the real organs of speech (lips, tongue, teeth, etc.) are either not set in motion at all or only coincidentally. Naturally under normal (in consonance with the Order of the World) conditions, use of this nerve-language depends only on the will of the person whose nerves are concerned; no human being as such can force another to use this nerve-language. In my case, however, since my nervous illness took the above mentioned critical turn, my nerves have been set in motion from without incessantly and without any respite.

Apart from the power structure of control which reads as a fantasy product of the invasion of coherence, it is precisely this conjoined semiotic quality and determination which inhabits each body, maintaining and testing its coherence. This conjoined semiosis is something long missed when the primary dyads of subject/object, or object/object, ever attempted to be resolved in growing hierarchies of control and abstraction, predominate philosophical questions. Indeed there is room for subsuming abstractions, negotiations of agreement, the calling together of more coherent wholes, but these projects of affective communication, joining the edges of boundaries to the edges of other boundaries, are advised to be made with as close a view as possible to the fabric of conjoined cross-weave which both supports and tears across every object-body. It is not enough to attribute these capacities merely to the dynamics of aggregates, or even of assemblages.  It is in the nature of the materially coherent to be materially conjoined at a valence of coherence which pulls at the differences that make differences.

Aggregates, Groups and Trans-semiotics

The Antinomy of Objects

Levi at Larval Subjects makes an very interesting post which seeks to point out the constitutive difference between “objects” (or “groups”) and assemblages, how a Unity can be seen to come into being out its “sub-assemblages”; and how this antinomy between an Object and its parts can be best described in a kind of Logical Binary. This is a significant point:

“In this respect I’m inclined to say that every object is a split-object written as A, such that it is divided between its elements and its unity or status as One in such a way that there is a tension between parts composing an ob-ject-al and the Unity or One of the ob-ject-al that constantly needs to be reproduced in time.”

Below is my response to this love of the Object as binary constitution. I post it here because it grew in concept from a mere objection to the sufficiency of such an object reduction, to a much richer idea which I think has to be put forth. There is a chance that I am misreading Levi’s reductive talk of Unity and Aggregate under a binary logic, but at the very least it’s emphasis brought out important distinctions:

There is one great difficulty I have for the love for the binary, The thing that is and is not what it is. It is not that the United States is just an A, and then all its bubbling assemblages (composing a neat pair, the unity and its negation). Far too neat and tidy giving one the impression that logic is somehow transcending the object, getting to the underbelly of its conditions, qua logical form. It is that the borders that make up the object A are cross sectioned by the borders that make up other objects constituted by parts of its elements. That is, the elements that make up an object are not simply part of a Set Theory Relation, but polyvalent participants in other Objects (I prefer “bodies”). To speak of the Group that is not reducible to its elements is only part of the potential for description, for members of that group are participating in, making up the bodies of other groups, so that the determination of any one group is overlapped with the forces at play in another. To be simple minded about it, the “group” of African Americans is affected by legislation passed in bias against women (unspecified as Black), because African American Women help compose the group “American Women”. This consequence has ramifications on the “group” African Americans. This is so much the obvious, but any binary reduction of the “group” to a fundamental relation of “a term and its crossed out term” (nicely Hegelian or Lacanian), obscures this very important interdependency and cross semiotics of bodies (the elements in one body can be semiotically, though now non-epistemically, altered through their role in another body, such that one does not know where the change is coming from). That is, the constitutive elements start coherently acting in the epistemic service of something other than the group, without entirely betraying it either, neither purely reflecting states of the group nor states of the world, but other relations.

Here, the simple inside/outside epistemic binary is shown. Events within the group help reflect what is going on outside of it.

That is why there is something dissatisfying about speaking of merely objects (or bodies) and assemblages. It is not just that objects cohere, having bubbled up through assemblages, from the molecular to the molar, but that the reason why the molar cannot be reduced to the molecular (so to speak) is not a point of logic or Set Theory, or even a question of levels, but that the elements of a molar body are already caught up in other molarities, playing out their informing, semiotic role in those groups, often to great invisibility.

In my opinion, (and this is a reason why I find something of Graham’s object-world difficult to swallow), the failure of Identity is not the existential crisis or tension, or the mere necessity of crossing out a term, but rather the already vital and historical investment of constituent parts in other bodies.

There is a kind of blind spot that any recursively organized group suffers. There is an inside/outside epistemic boundary. Events within the boundary are taken as semiotic to the internal workings, the stability or coherent dynamism of the group, but also are readable as reflectant of events outside the group. States within the group then in a general sense “reflect” states outside the group, or when in error lead to self-criticism of elements (something within is broken, and needs to be purged). But this primary epistemic dichotomy is traversed by the fact that the elements that semiotic ally make up the group (informing it of its own states, and the states of the world beyond it) are already, often in huge veins, participant in other groups which cross section it. In this way, the semiotic dichotomy of inside and outside becomes confused (overdetermined one might say). Corporate structures which help compose the elements of the political powers of the United States but also the International economic community are both “inside” and “outside” of the group. Events outside ripple through the informing elements in a way that is not merely that of “reflection”, but affect directly the internal semiotic states, at times with great power. The cognitive boundary that makes up the informing quality of the group, allows it to be classified, can become dissolute, or momentarily possessed. Or, the very fine person that I am, let us say as a religious ethicist, my elements, could suddenly start semiotic ally behaving in a way that is incoherent with that “person” if the body of “race” (in which many of those elements are shared) suddenly is moved. The coherence of my object as an ethicist has not simply broken down into its assembled parts, but rather some of its elements are now reporting as parts of other bodies in such a way that that Identity is very hard to coherently maintain. What the simply binary of Identity and Assemblage occludes is the fundamental powershift in semiotic polyvalence.

I think that the implicit reason why we turn to Deleuzian notions of flow and assemblage is not only to eroticize energies and present a bubbling world, but also to have key to this trans-semiotics, this overdetermination of informing elements that compose a cognitive body. The constitutive parts that make up a body, an inside and an outside of epistemic division, are doing double duty (not only double, but infinite duty) to any number of informing bodies. It is not just that the molecules that make of the functioning spleen are working at a difference of molecular and molar levels, but that due to their capacity to serve as semiotic elements (sub-assemblages, perhaps), they can be and already are  taken up as informing elements of other bodies (perhaps the “body” of the auto-immune system, or the “body” of virus populations in Kansas City) Events within the horizontal body which is ever reading the world are not just reading the world, or reflecting back internal states of that body, but are also already performing epistemic virtues in cross section. This polyvalence of report, this trans-semiotic overdetermination is I believe glossed over by any logical binary appeal of irreducible Identity and elements. What makes this significant is that the failure of Identity does not direct us to an essential negation (the reality of the negation), but to the plentitude of semiotic indications and the vast overlapping, and interwovenness of bodies. It is not just a question of the boundaries of objects matching up perfectly with the boundaries of other objects (a flat notion of pure objectivity), or a question of levels of description being reducible or irreducible to other levels, but really a question of how semiotic events internal to one body are necessarily internal to other bodies which intersect one’s own cognitive boundary, lying neither within or external to it.


I think that this inherent essentialization of “object” (whether it be of the species that Graham Harman puts forth, or the binary logic version that Levi leans to at times), is one founded upon a primary optical metaphorization of the world, one that hides not a “hidden” never reachable shadow, in the way that the Moon always has a darkside (or an inside), but that this very notion of “hidden” negation directs one’s eyes away from the primary trans-semiotic character of cognitive bodies in the first place. An object (or as I prefer “body”) is always in part, part of another body, not to mention the ways in which a body is in whole part of other bodies, like cells in an organ. In a sense, an object can always change dimensionality or vector, when taken up by an other (or many other) semiotic regimes, over determining its informing elements. 

Perhaps an example will help clarify my point. Levi provides an illumination of something what he means by Unity and aggregate:

The film The Mist can be read as depicting the morphogenesis of groups or as being a study of the process of groups-in-formation making the transition from the status of aggregates to the status of assemblages. At the beginning of the film you have people belonging to the same town but in such a way as to primarily be an aggregate. That is, any unity or One among these people is minimal and weak, consisting of being members of the same town without these members thinking of themselves as an assemblage or One. As the film progresses and the people trapped in the store encounter more and more of the creatures in the mist, polarities begin to form within the population. The process here could be analogized to one similar to the process an egg undergoes as the yoke gets progressively differentiated over the course of development. Eventually fairly well defined assemblages are produced, consisting of secularists on the one side and the religious on the other side, as well as racial divides. These identities did not pre-exist the formation of the assemblages- or if they did it was only with a low degree of intensity. The people that side with the ultra-fundamentalist religious woman were not themselves ultra-fundamentalist at the beginning of the film. Likewise, the people that form the secularist assemblage were not significantly related to one another in any particular way. Rather, the identity that forms the aggregates instead emerges from out of the Brownian motion of this nebulous population of the city and reinforces itself as a One or Unity as it comes into being.

Unfortunately I have not seem the film The Mist  so will have to speak at the level of generalites so described. One would have to say that instead of the town operating only as a loose aggregate, it already was operating as a cognitive unity without directed intention (no firm, pressing, inside/outside epistemic directionality). But it was still a cognitive unity, one that generally read itself in terms of inside and outside. Instead of imagining this aggregate as a soupy, rather interdeterminate mix, a yoked egg, one has to realize that its semiotic elements were already trans-semotically working in other constitutive bodies. Again, I have not seen the film so I cannot comment upon the exact differentiations that begin to occur within the town “group” but all of those differentiations are expressive of the semiotic role elements were already  playing in groups, objects, bodies that constituted the town in the first place, be they race, religion, gender, class, sexuality, family, legality, biology or really any number of other unnameable bodily vectors. The Town is not JUST an egg, but is rather already a functioning inside/outside entity, cross-sectioned by other dominant bodies. Semiotic elements are already semiotic and cohering (and not just traveling in Brownian randomness). The importance of this is that if one is to understand the nature of the polarities that Levi sees rising up in the “egg” of the aggregate, understand, explain and anticipate them, it is the pre-existing functionality of elements in already cognitive bodies that determines these faultlines…they don’t just bubble up. One may not be a “religious fundamentalist” person at time x, but one’s person is already shot through with semiotic polyvalence in bodies which given new circumstances will make you one in the future. Your “religous fundamentalist,” unity status is not merely a sharpening of a vague Brownian effervecence, although this is a beautiful image, but rather the expression of so many other embodied semiotic investments, intersecting your own religious fundamental identity.

“The Mist”- like experience, like the Red Scare, is the sense of invasion that comes from strongly trans-semiotic conditions. The threat comes out of no-where because it is coming both Outside our Identity and from Within it. What is within seems to have not just the possibility to produce error, but to work with a seeming (often) pernicious autonomy. (This autonomy can be revelatory as well.) The sense becomes that one is reacting from within to coherence which is to some degree unseen.

In this way, for instance, the Obama phenomenon is not only a sudden cohension upon the great Egg of the American scene (though poetic). Obamism is not just Brownian motion suddenly producing coherent direction (I don’t even think that Levi would say this, as much as a unity/aggregate analysis might put it forth). Rather, it is the growing cognitive, self-defining object come out of so many of its polyvalent elements, the intersection of so many other bodies sharing elements, or finding agreements (when not). The real interpretive key I believe to a notion of Hegelian negation is not just that some internal part is going to betray its whole, and not quite be subsumable (although this is no doubt a useful description of some experiences). It is rather than whole cloth of constitutent elements what for some time did a very good job of reporting back states of the world, and internal states of the group, will be shown to be  already serving  as semiotic parts for other cognitive bodies, so when there is a disturbance, a real cognitive disturbance from within, it cannot be coherently located inside (as error) or outside (as event), but rather seems to be both at the same time, creating the illusion of a perfectly invading influence, (and deep malfunction).  

(Digression: This is why Hegel’s progressional sense of the State gives  a rather pale reading of the Antigone. Antigone is not simply the failure of the State to incorporate all of the ancient familial organizations and the childbirthing roles of the female into its new boundary, but rather is the presence of living, cognitive relations, whole bodies, which are not simply anterior to the State, but cutting across it. When she is buried alive in the tomb, she is not heroically outside the Symbolic, as Lacan wants to say, but rather one could say heroically manifesting the polyvalence of an incestuous semiotic power, signifying in too many tongues at once, a tragedy for the State. This capacity is not merely a perculating potentiality in the soup, or an antiquarian haunt, as some like to have it, but rather vital, tidal semiotic investments in presently existing bodies)

It is not just that the object is ever erupting from within, like an egg, never reducible to its sub-assemblages and flows, but rather that the object is always torn semiotically across itself, its parts already making up the parts of other objects (bodies). At many times these cross investments work to produce an invisible sense of stability, as external objects and our agreements with others report with an incredible transparency, but when these semiotic responsibilities shift, when our elements start reporting the world with tidal inaccuracy (according to unseen bodily investments elsewhere), otherwise assumed cognitive wholes can undergo extreme revision, and self-critique, sharpening into unexpected re-organization, sometimes desperately breaking down altogether and becoming dissolute, sometimes making new bodies and alliances out of parts which unbeseemingly are already invested in so many other bodies, as such is the case when so many political and economic forces seemed to invisibily dovetail into an apparent Obama unification, a new fabric of inside/outside (and at many times an occluded intersection).

Witnessing Ontologies of Difference and Plato’s Concept of Same

The Full Nelson of Plato

Larval Subjects posted what Levi calls “the Full Nelson” of Plato, the exemplary text from the Phaedo which has condemned all of Western Philosophy to a certain kind of choke hold that ever since we have been trying to get out of (to transmute Hegelian dialectics into a single trope we still carry with us). The fearsome conclusion, roughly as Plato wrote it reads,

And we recognize also that this absolute equality has only been known, and can only be known, through the medium of sight or touch, or of some other sense. And this I would affirm of all such conceptions (75d)

Socrates has turned the relative sameness between things (rocks, tables, doves) into a derivative of Sameness itself, some surpassive Sameness, which we must have had grasp of [lambano] previously, so as to be able to grasp these samenesses through our senses.

I suppose we all know this drill, but occasionally when we return to the Same, we detect something different, and for some reason reading Levi’s post elicited in me a slightly different understanding of the Same, even the Same in the Platonic chokehold sense.

I should say from the start that the associations that I have for the search of Ontologies of Difference, of pure-Difference, have always troubled me. It is not that they are wrongly motivated, but rather that they seemed far too in love with the soterial potential of essential binaries, the Being/Not-Being dichotomy of imagined to be transcendental Logic (even when renounced), a dichotomy which itself is derived from an over-simplified caricature of human experience: hence, the reduction of the subject qua Subject, and on overall disregard for the plentitude of Being. It seems that somewhere someone got it into their heads (and there are more than a few candidates), that homosexuals or blacks or women, or poor, that is those that fall to the margins of society cannot be fully affirmed, cannot have the full rights of Being, unless we find a Being that starts  with Difference. In such a reading which not only exposes the political use made of Ontologies in the past, a certain naturalization of subjugation, the category of Being seems to stand in for the State, and to reduced difference (skin color, gender, mental coherence, poverty) to merely a derivative of the State (as the Same Status), necessarily condemning many to the margins. Same became not only the political enemy, but the Ontological enemy. Difference must be celebrated, (and ontologically, logically posited) as essential and if possible, prior.

There is more than a grain of truth to this revisioning. That is, through our ontologizations we configure what is imaginable, we lay the land of concept so to speak. So a radical revisioning of what is ontologically beneath all of our legal and otherwise taken to be objective descriptions seems deeply in keeping with changing what is possible between us. Yet, there is something to this praise of difference for itself, the grand celebration of difference as the full right of Being which troubles me.

First of all, insofar as this re-ontologizing is a vast reclassification of particular people of difference, that is particular homosexuals, particular people of color or (trans)gender (the rights of which as different become projected onto the class of others like them that are deprived), there is an odd consumerist essentialization of difference for its own sake running through like a theme. “We chose and affirm our difference, as difference, because choice is what essentialized commercial subjects do, that is our right and duty, to choose.” As individual intellectuals celebrate their choices, and then align their differences to groups composed of difference, whose difference then becomes ontologized as a point of logic through elaborate strategies, it seems that dragged with it all is a fundamental, domesticating assumption, the subject of choice. I cannot say this for all celebrations of difference, and all searches to get out of Plato’s homoerotic chokehold, but this is a strong current in the movement.

Second of all, coming to think again on the nature of Plato’s Same, the enemy of pure, underived Difference, it seems that in some ways this Same has been misconstrued. I say this because for a very long time I think I misconstrued it. The problem is that in our binaries of logic we tend to flatten out what is a possibly a much more dynamic relation, almost always with a hope of transcending it. We draw the flat map to have mastery over the terrain, but as Wittgenstein tells us, the map is not the territory. (I would add, if we are to understand maps and territories, we have understand that while the map is not THE territory, it is A territory.)

A Minimization of Difference

Back to Levi’s post and my reaction to it. The trouble is that when we as postmoderns look at the argument that Plato puts forth, it does feel stultifying. (As Levi sums it up…)

Plato’s argument thus runs as follows. Equal-things always differ in some respect or capacity. Because equal-things always differ, we cannot arrive at a concept of equality-itself from equal-things. Therefore, our concept of equality-itself does not arise after our experience of equal-things, but must precede our experience of equal-things, for how could we recognize equal-things as equal-things- all of which differ both from themselves and others like them -if we did not first know equality-itself. Consequently, our concept of equality itself is prior to any of our dealings with the world.

For one thing, we don’t want our experiences here on this earth to be minimized in the least. This minimization begins a long process of minimizing one thing or another, one experience or another, one person or another, one peoples or another. We might be all for valuations and discriminations of better or worse, but something in us tells us that it should not start at the wholesale level, our experiences here are as real and significant as anything else. Secondly and relatedly, there is the terrible sense that if the reason why we able to recognize the similarity of things is simply because we have already grasped, before hand, a Grand and essential Sameness, this fails to capture the importance of differences to us. It is not just the samenesses that give us a love for living, but differences, perhaps even more so. How can all of these mundane distinctions merely be derivative? This carries with it the unsatisfactory notion that homosexuality is merely derivative of heterosexuality (with lexical irony), and that woman is derived from man, black a marring of white.

The Even Ground of Equilibrium

But, thinking on what it would mean for Sameness to be the origin, the great basin for Differences, I went back to Plato’s text, and looked at the word for “same” or “equal” (as it is translated). It is Ison, from which we get our words like isometric or isomorphic. What is immediately conjured up is mathematical equality, and this is generally the purity of Same towards which this binary heads. But contingently the LSJ dictionary had among any of its easily recognizable uses, one use which contained a subtle difference. It not only meant “equal” but “even”, as in can describe ground as “even or flat”, or the cadence of an army as marching in iso. As always is the case with the Greek, as much as we would really like to rationalize them into a near mathematical purity (given the tradition of their depiction), there is always a depth, a material depth to their conceptions that we miss. There is not a great difference between ison as “equal” and ison as “even”, but it a difference that opens up what Same is, not only for the Greeks, but for us as well.

I started picturing what it would be like to assume evenness of ground, or of step as the basin for difference, and what came to my mind is a perceptual experience which I rather naively assume to be shared with much of the animal kingdom. A predator, perhaps a mountain lion on its ledge overlooking a shallow gorge stares out at the field. There is an odd sort of evenness to it, as consciously it creates a field upon which differences register, there, a movement in the brush! Is this picture of consciousness, the idea that the evenness of the field in a certain sense foregrounds the possibility of difference really at the heart of the repression of woman and people of color? Is it that the difference of a deer’s movements are “derived” from the Same of the valley gorge, playing second fiddle? Is it that the evenness of perception has priority over the differences it enables, and if so, this hierarchy becomes the hierarchy of the subjugation? Well, in thinking about it, the shallow gorge is never completely flat, or even. It is already percolating with differences that the lion is registering (in my fantasy reenactment of an animal perception). The field of vision, as even, is in a sense fecund with both samenesses and differences, both the flat and the eruption, seem to be found within a general sense of ison. Instead of thinking of a great abstraction through which our logical binary can cut, it seems better to think of ison as Equilibrium, and an experience of Equilibrium at that.

When imagining that a sense of equilibrium is prior to, or the condition of disturbance, it seems that something less of the conceptual either/or baggage of ontological abstraction is carried through. It is hard to imagine that the general sense of equilibrium, what we as organisms have, is foundational to a naturalized minimization of the differences between people. Instead, equilibrium becomes the experiential baseline (already rich in differences) for which other differences, disequilibrium’s, disturbances, take on their significances.

In this embodied vision though we are immediately drawn into a Hegelian comprehension of the Negation of the Negation, that is, at bottom is an equilibrium process that encounters disturbances (negations, exceptions), which are then re-incorporated into a new and higher equilibrium. As someone like Judith Bulter complains, difference is always subsumed under a new Non-difference, (with the implicit, and one might say Capitalist/consumerist duty to difference for the sake of difference). Everything goes flat again. We have the appeal of a process of consciousness which describes how we are ever disturbed, and find ways to repress or reintegrate these differences that may feel like something we naturally do, without the desirable conclusion of difference for its own sake.

Not a fan of the Hegelian appreciation of the Negation, and its attendant teleology of history, I wondered if there is another way to think about this equilibrium, this field of evenness, which is not so reductive. Well versed with Spinozist tendencies, my own appreciation for Plotinus’s NeoPlatonic revisioning of Platonic Forms (ultimately the Ison), I keep wondering if we are missing something in the Greek notion of Same, of Equal, of Even.

Cat or Tails

If I return to the mountain lion and explore this notion of Same as Equilibrium and continue with the imagination of the field of differences, this is what I come up with. The cat, gazing lazily over the gorge is in an unattuned state of perception, that is, there is a directedness upon the general equilibrium of the life-force below which does not form an object, and upon which eruptive events occur, the shake of breezes on brush, the shadow from a hawk above, the regularity of the brook running. Any of these can provide occasions for momentary attenuation which is then reintegrated in the general state of equilibrium. These disturbances, these eruptions of a difference that make difference, are not best seen as objects, per se, but effects of relation. Their perception does not make up the essence of a consciousness (its intentionality), but the entirety of the field, its equilibrium states and its dissonances, do.
Now there is a movement, a disturbance which heightens the cat. Ears move forward, eyes narrow, breathing slows.

The difference, the disturbance in the equilibrium is registered as “prey” (to be categorically crude about it). The cat’s involuntary motions already set up a new equilibrium, and then motions towards the animal below (those differences), on a vector, set up new equilibriums, and soon the animal is running, leaping, configuring itself as a mutuality within the field of the world that the deer, the shallow gorge, and it all share. The contemplative equilibrium, that of a passive witnessing of a certain retreating flatness, has been transformed into an equilibrium of subsuming movement. Capacity to act. To say that all of the differences (disturbances) are only derived from the Equilibrium is to be too lexical, too syllo-logical about it (and to misunderstand the origins of logic). They are the very substance of what Equilibrium is. They are its expression and power as equilibrium. It is that the mountain lion has appeal to (cognitively, structurally) the dynamic equilibrium of the world, that it is able to act more freely. It is not that all of the differences are merely collapsed into the banality of Same, but that rhythm operates through the recognition of the full reality of difference, as difference, a process which is includes the awareness of difference as dissonance. If one is to make the collapse of the nature of Being into that of the State that is implicit is so many criticism of ontologies of Same, it is not that marginality is a secondary effect of the State (or even that the State is established through the necessary suppression of difference through the production of marginality — still too optical, containing the notion of the “hidden”), but that the State in its very forth-comingness, produces a maximalization of difference as the possibility of its very field, as perception. Instead of a Subject as Object-consciousness essentialized reading of Being (with its priority of absence or Nothingness which cloaks at the borders of an object, not to mention the optical sense that the “back” or the “inside” of the object is forever hidden from us), it is a Same as Dynamic Equilibrium, producing differences as concrete expressions of its power to act, maximizing those differences as it goes, creating the texture of its possibilities.

I think that this is what is behind the development of Plato’s “Full Nelson”. It is not so much a chokehold, as a hug. The Same is not a flat, logical identity of things to be expressed merely as a binary, and not even a Progressive necessity of the reduction of differences, but rather it is best seen as dynamic equilibrium, equilibrium as maximum expressiveness, an expressiveness beyond all subsumption. Being as radiating differences and distinctions.

There comes to mind a word from Sophocles’ Ode to Time, found in the play Aias (Ajax). Time is called “anaríthmêtos”. I have quoted the line before:

All things Vast [makros] and Unmeasured [anaríthmêtos] Time (646)

The word is often translated “countless” or “immeasurable” (and makros often simply translated as “long”). Time moves for Sophocles with a kind of negative theology. It cannot be measured. A metron in Greek is not only a “measure” as in a measurement, but also a “measure” as in a meter of poetry. Sophocles in measured poetry is singing about the immeasurableness of Time, a pure and delightful contradiction. If we were to translated the metered verse of the Greek into our English emphasis on rhyme, Time moves un-rhymeably in its vastness, as we rhyme about and with it. As we move away from Sophocles’s joy of the negation, the chasm of the tragic abyss (something I think he eventually profoundly overcomes with the concept of Eleos in the play “Philoctetes”), I think this is an essential aspect of the conception of Same which must be incorporated in our reading of the concept. Equilibrium for the Greeks, is musical. It is in the form of the poetic, an expression. If we are to recover from Plato’s Full-Nelson, it is from within this heritage of the Same that we must surely operate, the Same as maximalization of differences.

Again though, we really must retreat from any flat logic of binary differences; they are not rich enough to capture what happens in metered verse. (There is not only a genetic reason why Parmenides, who is thought to have made a category mistake of flat logic, wrote in meter.) And reaching out toward an ontology of pure difference does not cut it either (the dignity of persons of color or mixed gender does not rely upon that). It is rather the sense, the overriding and concrete sense that the entire world monistically is connected, that it rhymes, fundamentally with itself. All of our equilibriums, our transitions from contemplatively flat equilibriums to dynamic, poetic, bounding mountain-lion equilibriums of action, are reliant upon the appeal to a world that expresses itself as one vast equilibrium, an equilibrium of expression. The lion cannot run without fundamentally rhyming with the ground, the shallow gorge, and even the deer, each of them as expressions.

This is where I have long had a subtle misreading of the Sameness of Being which sterilely cut itself off from its step-brothers Differences. How is it that we are supposed to connect all of those differences (and those samenesses) back up to one Same? What an absurd question. It relies upon a notion of Same, of Ison, too flat, too drained white, not richly enough conceived as equilibrium as maximum expression. Much as we have had the metaphysical danger of confusing the map with territory, we have flattened out the lines of what Ison means. A car idling in the drive is Ison, even. The same car accelerating through a canyon curve is Ison. The communication between the driver and the steering mechanism is Ison. But also, the tree that has fallen in the road also must be Ison, if we are to continue, and the fear of hitting a deer is Ison, or the speeding over the limit is Ison. That is, there is always a plentitude toward the rhyming which is appealable, the bath in which is rewarded with a constructability, the possibility of action.

Same as Dynamis

It is here that I think that Spinoza’s notion of Substance provides particular revelation. How is it that he connects the Substance up to all the diversity within it?, people want to ask, flattening out the map of dichotomies. How does he get from the Only thing to the Many things? This is to mistake the question of the Same at the conceptual level. The Ison is fundamentally and unreservedly a dynamic equilibrium, a vast expression. As such it necessarily produces a maximalization of differences out of the pure plentitude of its even, equal, Isotic expression. To make anything less of these modal differences than the absolutely concrete actuality of Ison, to minimize even the tiniest of differences, is to minimize the reality of what Dynamic expressive Equilibrium is. The modes are Real because Being when it is “running” (and it is by it very nature always running), produces itself distinctly.

Returning to our mountain-lion, it is a music of Being which may attend to this sub-line of music (this equilibrium, the shallow gorge) in order to note this sub-line of music (deer-brush interactions, which serves as a dissonance), then composing its own gorge-lion sub-line of music, but none of this is done outside of a harmonization, that is the music, however faltering, always recaptures itself in a way that musicality itself becomes the tantamount supposition. The question for pure ontology of Difference, that is, the sour note that is granted full rights and dignity out of its very sourness, always must come back to the dynamics of tasting. This does not mean that all difference is simply collapsed into Same, made into an ephemera, an illusion (unless the illusion is that one can have a musical difference whose essence is non-musical, a freedom of choice or purchase which is utterly private and cut off from all interplay…the fantasy behind the hole in the Capitalist/consumerist, Democratic Subject). Rather, as one acts as Substance, increasing one’s capacity to act in the world through the understanding of expressive causes, as Substance one increases the number of differences one creates, a potentiality of sour notes abound, which is nothing other than the creation of a perceptual field of distinguishings, a body of dissonances, the way that the hair stands up on your skin, bristling. The is the meaning of horror, and awe, which lies at the bottom of any ancient contemplation of Same, of Ison.

The project of Being, insofar as we can stipulate one, is the creation of as diverse a number of surfaces upon which the horror-awe can condense, the maximalization of intensity as expressive equilibrium, in which one’s own differences register as a plentitude. Is this pure Difference? I wouldn’t know. It is more an Ontology of Perceptibility, and I suggest that it is reached not through a primary optical metaphor of Objecthood (the hidden below the surface), the shadow the Citizen as Subject, but through constructive bodily assemblage, the way that we technologically construct the living soul through our cybernetic combinations with the material and para-material world, creating more and more surfaces upon which revelation (dissonances) may occur. The hairs stand up on end.

It is for this reason that I think it best to see our capacities to read and experience the world as ultimately mutually expressive. Action is not at a distance because distance implies primary opticality. Action is always constructive out of a plentitude that is present, which is ever appealed to making rich differences which make the difference. Ison as plentitude, and not its lack.

The unhappy consequence of this understanding of Being is that it does not give ontological voice to what is taken to be an essential human experience (people who to define the Human separation from Nature by it). We want an ontology which expresses our alienation, one that fundamentally buries out alienation in the very heart of Being. We do not want to be told that our sadnesses, our dislocations are only problems of perspective, that if simply change our view our haunting shadow of the Abyss will simply disappear. And part of this is not wanting to imagine that when a bird returns to its nest-tree only to find it destroyed or raided, it may feel alienated or dislocated, or even sorrowful, at least not in the category which we are able. Our ontologies must entrench the very sorrow of our condition, anchoring it, alleviating our need to look towards our relations (chosen and otherwise), as the causes of our experience. It is agreed that the great satisfaction of Existential Ontologies of Negation, is denied here. Ours is not a world condemned to a freedom of Nothingness in various guises. In replace of this solace is rather opened a continual path of construction. That is, at any moment in time we can begin construction of bodies in assemblage, which are either newly created, seemingly ex nihilist of a change idea or mind, or can be reconfigured more powerfully from already existing forms (the same change in two ways). At any moment one can begin anew a music through the musical recognition of what is already playing, edging on cacophony. One searches for the tilted Equilibrium and affectively combines with other affective bodies, anew. Repeating a sour note, attenuatedly, changes it, yet one can only repeat the note cognitively, in a change of power, through the understanding of its cause through a mutuality with the world, and with others. When one does so one changes the possibilities of difference, modal becomes nodal.

The finding of similarities (of which metaphor is a exemplary) is ultimately not a referential process. The “same” of which the process participates is not a same of reference, a pointing back to, or over and above to some over-arching ground of Same. I’m not sure that even Plato thought of it in this way. This is a table not because there is a same of Table floating behind it. Rather, the finding of similarities is productive and best seen as bodily in construction, putting our bodies in consonance, such that it assumes the power of an equilibrium. Looking for the priority of this equilibrium, its foundation, is like looking for the workability of the experience of “it works”. But this does not make this Ur-Equilibrium simply the world of Becoming, for this flattens out the pure dimensionality of Being (a great fear of someone like Graham Harman). This dimensionality, a certain depth, is found in two ways. Locally its is found in the sheer dimensionality of bodies in combination, in the lived, affective transfers which express the power of communications, radiating out. The mountain lion-gorge-deer assemblage is dimensioned in locality. But it is also brought into depth through the nature of causal understanding itself. The very nature of increases in power through causal understandings is necessarily a minimal trinity where there was only a shallow binary before. The world becomes fleshed and immanent, through the power of causal understanding. This too is not an understanding of reference (Substance is not a “thing” or even a “state”), but of a constitutive experience flowing out of what Equilibrium must be.

Beneath any such appreciation of Equilibrium there is always the danger of having the concept collapse and become flat, that is the constant and ever-producing Equilibrium of Being can be read as a flat-line nullity. This the haunt of the Freudian Death Drive, the Shadow of the Pleasure Principle. A Pure and empty circulation, the inorganic draw beneath Pleasure pursuits. There is a tendency to see Pure Being as a negation of its expression. Our individual pleasures only collapse into a great machine of Death. This is merely, in my view, the gravitous compliment of too close a contact with the sacred (profane), as dissonance rises beyond the threshold of comprehension or even organization. The Death Drive circulation works as the center-of-gravity closure that allows dissonance affects to sink down and cohere, if only in a pure banality of effects, forever the attractor of Fascist, totalitarian binding. In this way a Spinozist conception of Substance (and of State) maintains as a matter of its project ever the ascetic haunt of blind circulation, intensity turning down upon itself for the sake of its own rhyming. The music of Being turned into a dull ditty (the pains/pleasures of dissonance flashing as mere surface ephemera). The antedote to this is to realize its ever presence (as a function of lived thresholds of coherence, a tendency to urgently create bodies in vaccum), and to return a notion of Ison as normatively and ontologically the production of maximal difference, a product of its fecundity. These ontological closures are mere cocoonings (sometimes brutal), for mixtures of potential action through dynamic Equilibrium.

The Synth of Photosynth: Subjection and Engagement

Here: Photosynth of Popolopen Creek [link did not work, now it does]

Still experimenting with the notions of Space implict and explicit in Microsoft’s new Photosynth service. Above is a still from my second trial, the first was talked about some in context with Graham Harman’s Object Oriented philosophy. As you might see from the still, the program and service offers a way to synthesize various planal captures of a physical space such that something of the original experience topos is re-produced. The planes of approach are vectored against each other under the posit of any number of virtual positions, and the effect is one of REAL environment. This effect is furthered by the means of viewing. One either toggles through the virtual space with the arrow keys, jumping photo by photo clump in a kind of primative, self-directed cinema staggar, or with the mouse slides through the space, up, down and across; or lastly one can pin-pointed planal windows with the mouse and jump-into each with a click, spun across the constructed dimension.

The aesthetic makes a good backdrop for some of the actor oriented thinking I have been doing (I am in the middle of reading Graham Harman’s forthcoming work in Latour Prince of Networks, and also studying Augustine’s De doctrina in view of Davidson’s principle of Charity). What strikes me most forcefully is the summoning up of the experience. It is not so much that the physical space is represented (though clearly it is reconstructed in a mathematical sense, and “the space” or “the object” in this aesthetic does seem to become the primary subject). It is more that the conscious engagement of an enviroment is re-lived, as if in the mode of a memory, the way in which objects, perspectives, aspects suddenly come into mental view in an unpredictable yet linked way (each visit to the synth produces a different narrative experiences). This mimic of consciousness becomes a parallel metaphor for the mimic of sight that the still camera rectangle accomplishes. Somehow in the whirl of axial polygons induces or invokes the experience of memory, (or investigation), the very topoi  of photographic iconic use.

In particular the hinge-swings of the synth which break from the smooth curve of the space, instead of expressing the failure of a continous space, in their imagery of book pages, call into being the very booked realities in which page-turns are not disruptive, but enhancing, apophantic. Reality itself is exposed as layered, positional, framing, temporal, juxtaposed in the very artifice of the aesthetic. One can feel the seams between photos, and it is this felt texture, like zipper scars, that gives the experience its power, the way that reality “shows through” the crude prismings.

The sun is dimming in the late afternoon of the bridge above. The positions of the subject jerk about as planal as their property frames, tied to so many Renaissance visual grids, yet as long-set sun, stones and snows turn on virtual axes, displaying their polygons, and the anamorphic projection of the self is levitated through-out, the spirit of the space (and not the subject) is called forth. In fact, the community of effects, something which is not centralized, not particularized is set up before one, across  flesh.

There are no Black Boxes, and Latour wants. There are more Spheres translimpid of occasioned and causal shadings. The way that bodies inform by combination.

[An alternate synth from the same site]

Augustine’s Own (Anti-)Private Language Argument

An Origin of Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument?

I stumbled upon this proto-Private Language argument, even shorter than Wittgenstein’s. The more that I read Augustine’s De doctrina christiana, the more I get the feeling that Wittgenstein indeed had read this text fairly closely (I see many parallels in thought, including the tantamount notion that words are things defined by their use). These traces of familiarity make his vast misreading of Augustine at the beginning of PI all the more consternating:

Finally, the thousands of fables and fictions, in whose lies men take delight, are human devices, and nothing is to be considered more peculiarly man’s own and derived from himself than anything that is false and lying.

Milla denique fictarum fabularum et falsitatum, quarum mendaciis homines delectantur, humana instituta sunt. Et nulla magis hominum propria, quae a seipsis habent, existmanda sunt, quam quaeque falsa atque mendacia.

§39, Book II, De doctrina

One might not immediately recognized Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument here, but I provide the Latin because it may help. Augustine is speaking about the nature of signs and their necessary classification. He begins the paragraph with pictures and statues which he describes as superfluous to the truth of God (having in mind the arts of pagan Rome and Greece one supposes), and then in the cited passage he seems to have then turned to the myths and stories that go around these figures, narratives and tales. The passage ends with a nod to the useful significations of the sexes in dresss, and then the human systems of weights and measures, stampings and coins.

But what is not to be lost is the exact nature of the disqualification of the substance of human ficta et fabulae. Looking closely, there is nothing to a greater degree the propria of men. That is to say, particular to, peculiar of, but more importantly, the property of, or even especially the private property of men, than these narrative deceptions. And the reason for this is that men have them “a seipsis”, though themselves, to themselves. They are spun from, or as the translation above says, derived from, men themselves. They are, for Augustine, something like man’s Private Language, something that has its origin within the sphere of the human and a circulation solely among the human. But this is the kicker, this recursive privacy is due to their very mark of falsity and deception, their untruth. Augustine sets up an extreme, which at the limit posits a falsity working at the vector origin. That which men have in and through themselves as the sole cause is through the very nature of its privacy, or deprivation, false. (He elsewhere defines evil as a privation.)

Wittgenstein though has in mind not the story of how Zeus chained Prometheus, but the inner dialogue that is often assumed to be privately going on in someone’s head, not in English or German, but in some untranslatable form, utterly and categorically, private. Taken on as well are the private “objects” of such an imagined or subtly assumed language, whether they be private sense data of the world, or inner experiences such as a pain or a pleasure. Right here I want to concentrate upon the Beetle in the Box aspect of the Private Lanaguage argument. To repeat Wittgenstein’s own reductio ad absurdum:

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!-Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says that he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.-Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.-But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language?-If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.-No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

§293, Philosophical Investigations

Falsity and the Inner Beetle

Perhaps now we can see the parallel in argumentation. Because Augustine marks the falsity of human fabula through the very privacy of their origin, the same can be done to the supposed Private Language which Wittgenstein argues against. To draw the parallel explicitly, the beetle in the box is merely an insubstantial fabula in terms of reference. That is, because the word “beetle” has a function within the discourse of these imagined people the f actuality of the state of the beetle inside our heads (whether it be a sense datum of some kind of representation of the world or a pain, there is no fact of the matter of its state), ultimately plays no role in the justifiable functionality of the word, its public life. Thus the privacy of the imagined beetle is as Wittgenstein argues, “crossed out”, as a function of the truth of the discourse. The intersubjective (public) nature of discourse provides that any inner language that a person has a se ipso, in and through himself alone, will be marked by the very limit of falsity: when ceasing to make sense to others or oneself, one’s private objects simply dissipate as objects. As long as the person is using the language correctly, and can tell the difference between “getting it right” and not (which requires external criteria), this truth function of the language makes it not a proprium  of the man alone. Our thoughts can be translated, knowingly.

Further, as a point of interest, Augustine’s vector of falsity falls right across the register of our modern praise of originality. Something that has its origin solely  in the genius of a person, authored only there, made up, is only so by virtue of its falsity. The way that we conceive of the human subject as “cut off” in various positive ways often characterized by their independence and creativity (not to mention “taste” or commercial desires) is linked to this notion of the self as the origin of precious determinations. Our esteem of the Picasso, the Mozart is founded upon a sense of private invention, what we call “originality”. But what would be an originality so complete so as to be utterly private and unsharable? The very sharability of products of genius belie a certain communicability and therefore sharing of origin. Perhaps the ultimate falsifier, the schizophrenic, in the sense that mental events become unreadable, is taken to be utterly private. But we know that this is not so (for we have Schreber’s incredible account, and Artaud, and Holderlin and so very many others). So what is the ontological status of something that is only, as Augustine’s says, a “proprium hominis”? Perhaps we want to say,  just that feeling of hesitation that Joyce might have between a word and then another, that uncrossable ford, that ephemera of pace — but wait, we have shared it now, something of it, a bit (the absolute category collapses). In the end, something of the ontological status of a thing results from its lack of its privacy, until ontology itself fades as privacy increases.

Spinoza also takes up this notion that the privacy of the mind – insofar as it is seen to be cut off from the world that it is an expression of – exhibits imaginary knowledge which is fragmentary and confused…pictures on pictures. These false ideas he says are false only in the sense of a privation (something ultimately traceable back to Plotinus through Augustine’s appropriation of Neo-Platonism). Their partiality becomes an expression of their impotence to act. The utterly unique idea (private) is the utterly impotent one. And the strength of an idea is founded upon its public, that is, communicable nature. So it follows for Spinoza that even the most confused idea or imaginary relationship, insofar as it has something positive about it – the reality it has – has such not due to its falsity but rather its proportion of adequacy.

There is nothing positive in ideas on account of which they are called false. E2p33

Falsity consists in the privation of knowledge which inadequate, or mutilated and confused, ideas involve. E2p35

A Braid of Genetic Privacy

I am not so sure how comfortable I am with the categorical foreclosure in this line of reasoning, which is to say, there is some sense in which I do feel that there is Private Language (one wants to say private distinction, or distinctions which are recursively organized). But this is nothing more than the historical substantiality of genetic progression, which in Spinoza would be simply the reality of the modes, and in Augustine perhaps the reality of the fall. There is a sense in which when we are translating others indeed there is a horizon of rational holism which follows the truth/ontology argument that all three philosophers present. If you are thinking something, or even feeling something,  it is our mutual engagement with the world and with each other which makes the origin of this “something” not a private thing solely of the person. Its very status as something depends upon this mutuality of coherence, cause and origin, conferring complete ontology to it (and supporting all three arguments). But there is a different sense in which each person is a genetic unfolding of experiences and distinctions in time, one and then the other. This configuration through its very difference from my own (or the general consensus of others) is what presents its ultimate value (and perhaps danger). Here, the “origin” is not truly only in and through the person, but a braiding of a particular line of historical developments and the mutuality of world, onto which a distinct line of expression is fed back. These distinctions, their tempo’d unfolding of differences which constitutes an difference in itself, are the portion of the originality of expression which is valued, no aspect of it in principle untranslatable and knowable, the totality of it lost to time (and not subject).

Example: A man tells a story about a young girl caught in a parallel universe with white rabbits or Red Queens, and the ontology of it shines through. The originality serves as origin somehow through the sharing of origin. Should it have been the contingent or creative change of a Red King and not a Red Queen (a difference we might want to attribute solely to the privacy/decision of the author), this factuality is a ‘nothing’ without the relation to the rest of the piece, and the rest of the words and images in use. It becomes an insubstantiality, a difference without difference, an evaporating falsity, until there is a communication of differences. The origin of the difference becomes parsed between the history of the genetic author who “decided” it, and the great wealth of internal and external determinations, the subsuming author but a piece, a difference among differences.

The Coldness of Spinoza: Was He Really a Spock?

“When he happen’d to be tired by having applyed himself too much to his Philosophical Meditations, he went down Stairs to refresh himself, and discoursed with the people of the House about any thing, that might afford Matter for an ordinary Conversation, and even about trifles. He also took Pleasure in smoaking a Pipe of Tobacco.”

Colerus, The Life of Spinoza 

Graham’s Resistance to Cold

Reading over at Graham’s site, again I encounter his resistance to Spinoza’s Stoicism, the sense that Spinoza’s rationality of affectation, understanding things through causes, is somehow anti-life, or anti-emotion. This is a very common take on the man, in particular the way that he has become encrusted with various essentializations and hagiographies. But it troubles me for a man as sensitive a thinker as Graham Harman (and one that strikes me in person to be rather Spinoza-like, as least as far as I have come to picture Spinoza, and encounter Graham), would fall into this loose-fitting caricature of historical Spinoza or his philosophy.

I posted a response which can be found in the comments section above, which I repost here typos corrected and some bit thoughts added:

I wonder if this is an abstract understanding (reasoned), or a lived one (emotional). That is, is it that you feel the person of Spinoza, the actual person, harbored a great weakness, buried within him? A craftsman of instruments, a political dissident, a faithful correspondent (his friends, and not just admirers) always speak of his person in glowing terms, tales of how easy conversation with him was, showing an incredible personal loyalty. A great lover of the theatre, an amateur draftsman who loved drawing the portraits of visitors, someone who struggled with tuberculosis, but never let it weaken him.

I’m not saying all of this merely to praise him, but rather to position his philosophy within a life to sharpen the meaning of his position. Spinoza’s was not really a Spock-life at all. There is no real sign of that I feel. What he really hoped for (like Nietzsche some years after), as a more active rather than re-active life. Now which man, Spinoza or Nietzsche, lived more joyfully more actively, I would leave it up to you and others to decide. But I sense that there is a deep historical remove from the actual man, the life that generated the philosophy in the case of Spinoza. And in the case of Nietzsche there is a tendency to brush under a rug what is being, as you say, “concealed”.

I think that in general, when discussing the various Stoic-like positions and their authenticity, it is a danger to use abstract categorization to find dissatisfaction with their aims.

I don’t know, I”m not sure that as much as I admire the writing styles of Nietzsche, if I would want to have lead his life. In the end, Spinoza seems quite a bit happier, engaged, fullfilled (not in the abstract, but in the very fact of the living). Both men were stricken in body, and outcasts of a kind. One railed beautifully. One built as many bridges as he could (in life and in theory).

We are not in the habit of using the lives of philosophers to examine the substance of their positions, but in the case of great ones, I think that this is something one really should not fail to do. And those Logos-defying philosophers like Nietzsche are the ones who should have used the life lived more than any other as a measure. On the other hand, Spinoza, like Socrates, lived his philosophy, considered philosophy as a path, and so his life serves as an example of its worth, just as much the coherence of the arguments.

I would be interested in hear just what you feel, what weakness that Spinoza was harboring deep within, as a person. What is it about Spinoza that you feel is a cold sadism, or is this just an abstraction drawn from an abstraction?

This is not a full defense of Spinoza’s philosophy, for there are aporias in it that trouble me, but I have to say that in looking at the life of the man, I was struck by something quite different than the caricature image that haunts history.

Which philosophers do you feel had greater, non-illusionary, Self-mastery than Spinoza?

Graham’s Resistance to Philosophical Bling

Graham responded with an interesting kind of detachment, as if the substance of his point against Spinoza’s Stoic-like love of the activity of mind really didn’t matter. Objecting instead to the very popularity of Spinoza (I quote only a very brief selection).

Graham: “No aspersions against Spinoza the person, who seems admirable to me. My objection is to the general feel still in the air that if Spinoza anticipated your position, that’s cause for rejoicing, and if you disagree with Spinoza about something, you simply haven’t understood him properly. Zizek was right- he’s “in”.”

To this generalized repulsion from the “fashion” of a thinker, at least this thinker, (quoting the very à la mode Zizek on this subject is more than a bit ironic), I suggest:

There are two issues here, but I’d like to keep track of the more important one, the question of Spinoza’s Spock-like Stocism. First though, the interpretive assumption that Spinoza was right (and anticipated you), is nothing more than assuming (charitably) maximum coherence in a thinker, and this is nothing special about Spinoza. Any Kantian thinks this way, any Heideggerian, any Nietzschean. One looks within someone’s thought for the answer to objections, and strains the capacity of the thought first, in order to most substantially make use of it. It is a matter of seeing the world as best that one can through the “eyes” of that systematic philosopher. As I mentioned though, there seem some rather deep aporias in Spinoza’s approach. As a Spinoza enthusiast I have found problematic his diminishment of metaphor. This troubled me because I knew him to be an lover of Classical Drama. How to reconcile these two? Well, instead of assuming that Spinoza is stricken by a tremendous blind spot, one sees if one can build a theory of the powers of metaphor from within his philosophy. This does not mean that Spinoza objected to my question in advance, but rather that the powers of his philosophy are such that they can be used as a grammar to address a great diversity of problematics. This, to me, is productive thinking.

But back to your essential point, that you are annoyed that he is so popular. I can understand this. But this strikes me as a very odd response to my questioning of your take on Spinoza’s Stoicism. As I tried to suggest, perhaps you are misreading his Stoicism, the vitality and life of it. The man lived powerfully (not saintly), forming significant friendships of deep loyalty at a time of plague, persecution and international wars, and with no personal enmity that I know of. He was deeply engaged in this world, an artist and inventor. What I am saying is that perhaps your understanding of his empowerment through the understanding of causes as Spock-like, or anti-emotional (a very common one), is mistaken.

But your response seems to be something like, “Well, I object to Spinoza’s Stoicism, because I find it annoying that he is so damn popular these days”. What I’m putting forward is, sure, let’s bring measures of objection against him, but let’s do so consistently, across the board. If you feel that Spinoza advocated a Spock-like detachment from life, would you say that the fullness of his life, the admirability of his engagements were entirely a product of his failure  to live up to his philosophy? This would be an interesting thing to argue, but I don’t know where you would get this sense.

Or, if one wants to pair him up with Nietzsche, who holds a great number of theoretical positions in common with Spinoza, and accept as shared between them the valuation of Active vs. Re-active, which of these thinker’s lives do you feel best exhibited the freedom they called for? Who was reacting, and who was not?

I guess, if you approve of Spinoza’s life, his person, and his philosophy is meant as a prescriptive to the life lived, an Ethica, there is a disjunction between your rejection of the significance of his prescription, and your acceptance of his life. One is left only imagining that he failed to do anything he hoped to do. If one says that the Stoic can only be a Stoic by harboring great weakness within (and Nietzsche himself attempts this diagnosis of Spinoza), I think one should at least point to where in Spinoza’s life the dark shadow of this symptom shows itself. Rather it seems, in championing an emotionally charged life one ironically uses abstraction  to disqualify the lived life of Spinoza’s philosophy, instead of considering it on its lived-life grounds.

Graham’s Judo Throws of the Past

Graham also then posits a thought experiment used to discover if a thinker is in his standard “too fashionable”. You imagine a lecture series  “X must be reversed”. If I read him right, he thinks that if the lecture series goes over poorly, the thinker is in too good a standing in the world. There are a number of levels upon which I object to this approach (again, not even sure that I read his point correctly). First of all, it is deeply REactive. That is, it swallows whole the Hegelian and then Nietzschean vision that the business of philosophy is that of Reversing something or someone. What a desolate vision of the pursuit of agreement. (It seemed that Graham thought I was “reversing” him when I mentioned that he appeared to be more interested in Qualities rather than objects, and I tried to explain to him that it is not about reversal, but finding common valuations and paths toward agreement.) Instead, Graham seems to think that reversals are essential to philosophical work. Aside from the sterility of this inversion notion, I think it leads to deep misconceptions of past philosophers. For instance, people want to stake out Spinoza as somehow “reversing” Descartes on the issue of Substance and Representation. The careless cartoon of it obscures some rather significant parallels between the two thinkers, (for instance the possibility that for Descartes and Spinoza ideas were not representations so much as actions), hazing over the mutuality of influence of Scholasticism on both thinkers, not to mention the fact that Spinoza was one of the most respected Descartes scholars of his time, gathering about him a rather distinguished set of Cartesian Collegiants. By throwing the history of philosophy into binaries of complimentary upside-downs, the powers of philosophy are severely restricted. In particular, the genetic connection between historical paths in thinking become abstracted and obscured in a kind of Three-Card-Monte Idealism, trying to keep your eye on just what is being reversed. It is not that philosophers need to be Reversed, a silly idea to me. But simply shown to be insufficient. One simply stretches their ideas as far as they can go, and then when unable, creates something new. The automobile did not “reverse” the horse and carriage. The photograph did not reverse the painting.  Or if in any way that they did, to reduce their transformations to such is a vast over-simplification that hides what is most productive, and I might say, interesting.

If Spinoza, or some other philosopher, is quite popular now, it is because the diagrammatics of the system speak to the requirements of the Age. Plato’s rediscovery in the Renaissance was part of the productivity of the Renaissance. Ficino’s Plato, newly in translation, spoke to the political and ideational needs of the time, much as Arabic Aristotle did in the Middle Ages. When one looks to a philosopher who spreads epidemic across schools of thought, instead of rebelling out of sheer rejection of the “fashion”, if one truly objects, one should look to the reasons why the philosopher has such traction in that Age (why Spinoza now?), and then go about addressing that traction in even better ways. 

And lastly, if one is going to say something like, “Spinoza needs to be reversed!,” I’m unsure that it would be the case that such a lecture “doesn’t go over well” in the way that Graham seems to be suggesting. The “reversal” that he did suggest struck me as a rather over-simplicistic one. Instead of Spock we need passion (or a synthesis). Hmmm. As I’ved tried to point out, the life of Spinoza was not an unenriched life, one which in anyway seems to correspond to just what it is that Graham is attempting to reverse. It is rather an imcomprension on my part as to what it would mean to “reverse” Spinoza. One wonders, is Spinoza reversed if quantum mechanics are shown to be undetermined in the sense that he meant universal determination? I can’t say that this is the case. One could say that the deepest “reversal” of Spinoza occurred through Deleuze’s affect-rich, emotionally charged appr0priation of him (some people find not a hint of Spinoza remaining). Far from Canonizing Spinoza, Deleuze ripped him right off the alterpiece where he had been gathering much dust).

Aside from all this, I do believe that there is a Coldness in Spinoza, but I don’t think it is the Coldness of a life lived coldly, detachedly. It is, as Deleuze I believed, a Cold Wind. A Cold Wind is tremendously affective, it is bracing. If you are to “reverse” Spinoza, one would have to reverse his Cold Wind, the effect of reading him. And I’m not quite sure what that would fully mean. Is Antarctica really the reverse of a desert? Or the reverse of the Artic? Or the reverse of a well-stocked, leather-chaired library, a cozy fire, and a pipe? Thinking too much in binaries is the plague of philosophy (perhaps something we should reverse).

Ten White Horses

A Brief Biographical Sketch of Campanella: For Those Unfamiliar

Tommaso Campanella had nearly given up when he wrote:

I fear that to die is not to improve
The human state, for this I do not die:
So great and wide is this miserable nest,
That, so long in change, there’s no escape.

“The Caucasus Sonnet” lines 1-4

It was July, 1604. He had five years before helped foment an uprising against secular Spanish authority in his native Calabria. After a series of trials and interrogations he had endured torture at the hands of the mind-stealing la veglia, and proven his insanity by law. He had through his courage survived and in fact resolved himself. An attempted and failed escape from the Castel Nuovo, now had him thrown into the near-lightless dungeon of the fortress San Elmo, where he scribbled out poems as a last hope, carrying on a Job-like doubting dialogue with God. In this aptly-titled poem, he contemplates suicide, yet sees that even this will not save him or others. Deprived of the rays of the Sun that symbolized his God, turning within, he finds a rebirth. The revolutionary Dominican friar would become a prophet, a man whose ideas would bridge the Renaissance to the Age of Reason, and a man whose power of conviction still casts an illuminating light.

Born on the September 5th, 1568, in Stilo, Calabria, son to an illiterate cobbler, in his youth he would exhibit the first signs of the insatiable intellect and prodigious memory that would later sustain him throughout twenty-seven years of a life in prison. A local myth would rise up of how, too impoverished to pay for schooling, he would listen at the school’s window and aid his friends when they stumbled in their recitations through whispers. It was a Calabria to which he would return a decade later, having taken the vows of the Dominican Order, and nourished himself on the forward-thinking Neapolitan ideas of the Della Porta brothers and their Academy. A combination of empiricism, Hermetic thought and Telesian cosmology had fused in him to form a single and magical vision within which the world and the soul were of one substance. His anti-Aristotlean writings had already earned him trials, interrogations, imprisonments and censure by the Church, so by the time that he returned at his hometown he was walking the fine line of a philosophical dissident at a historic time of little tolerance.

Armed with the concept of the mutazione, a non-ideological “comprehensive shift” involving “astronomy and the heavens,”  apocalyptic associations of the impending millennium year of 1600, and a witness to the crushing weight of poverty upon the peasants of his native town, it was not long before he was preaching in the church of Stilo about “the imminence of grave, worldly upheavals”. Forcibly removed from the Stilo church he continued in the square and over time a circle of men grew around him. His followers included those who did attempt to involve the Turkish fleet in an organized and timed revolt, but the swelling movement was betrayed to the Spanish public prosecutor by two defectors. His dream of presenting a Calabrian state to a unifying papal authority, his moment of political revolution, was over, as Campanella and the others were lead two-by-two in a chain of 156 co-conspirators to be shipped to Naples where they would be judged and sentenced by the secular government.

On April 2nd, 1599 Campanella set fire to the things in his cell in an attempt to feign insanity. He had already been subject to the tortures of the coccodillo, a seven-day, entombed solitary confinement, and of the polledro, designed to tear vein and tissue. His defense that as a Dominican friar he meant catholic Spain no harm did not hold. Various charges and fabrications of the behalf collaborators had made him a target of the investigation. A year after Giordano Bruno had been burned at the stake for heresy, Campanella would be forced to prove his insanity at the hands of the la veglia, ‘the wakener”. Ironically, only “insanity” would spare him from execution because of his status of relapsus before the Church. For forty-eight hours, thirty-six of them without a break, he was suspended from his arms tied behind his back over a chair of razor-sharp spikes meant to tear into his flesh. He shouted, “I am slaughtered!,” “The soul is immortal,” “Ten white horses!” as is recorded by the still-surviving transcript of the ordeal. Later he would claim that it was St. Chyrstom’s homily, “No one is harmed, except by themselves”, that saved him. When he emerged from the torture chamber and defiantly muttered, “Do they really think that I would be enough of a blockhead to speak?,” he did not know that it was not until some years later, in the pit of the San Elmo dungeon, cut off from every contact with the outside world and with no hint of the possibility of freedom, that his soul would finally face and overcome the extinguishing of its hope.

Blessed with a near-photographic memory, Campanella set his reborn soul to the written expression of his ideal of a theocratic state that embraced empirical discovery. From the various prisons to which he would be transferred, under conditions that unpredictably shifted with the tides of political happenstance – shot through with painful glimpses at promised, yet ever-delayed, release – he wrote endlessly, treatise after treatise, describing a single and inspired vision wherein man, political order, science and God were one. His City of the Sun  and A Defense of Galileo  stand alone in history as remarkable amalgams of forward thinking and religious faith. Little did he see that the coming science he championed would severe itself from the Church, that Descartes’ impending “I think therefore I am” would supplant his own philosophical bedrock “to know is to be,” a subtle shift that would define the new Age.

In perhaps the oddest twist of a remarkable life, after many decades of prison and dungeon he ended up in Paris as a kind of flavor of the day intellectual curiosity, the great “Neapolitean Magus-Philosopher,” where his star rose incandescently and then fell quickly dimmed. Through Richelieu’s intervention Campanella was given to cast the natal horoscope of the just born King Louis XIV, and on two occasions Campanella examined the infant King placed on a table. (I cannot resist the idea that the physically huge Italian held him in his hands.) The prediction was unspectacularly neutral in content, but in January 1639 appeared in print his Latin Eclogue in celebration of the birth: he imagined that, through the brilliance of the minister Richelieu the building of his City of the Sun state had been inaugurated by the newborn King. But as it would be told, not Solar City but Solar King, such are the folds of history. And, it is said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

The Súmbolon and the Gold Coin of Poetry

Súmbolon: A. tally, i.e. each of two halves or corresponding pieces of an ἀστράγαλος or other object, which two ξένοι, or any two contracting parties, broke between them, each party keeping one piece, in order to have proof of the identity of the presenter of the other (LSJ)

Some quotes from Nietzsche that I never tire of, and which work with the “eternal youth” of a metaphor. Written a year ago, but I nice follow up on yesterday’s musings on the wealth of philosophers.

“What is truth then? A mobile army of metaphors, metonomies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations that are elevated, transmitted, beautified in a poetic or rhetoric manner, and that appear to the people after a long usage as fixed, canonical and binding: truths are illusions of which one has forgotten they are illusions, metaphors that are worn out and literally became powerless, coins that lost their images and are now metal and no longer coins.”

“On Truth and Lie in the Extramoral Sense,” Nietzsche

Once we realize that power is a function of assemblage, then the “reality” of the súmbolon, the breaking of the event into the cause and its effect in a particular way so as to constitute an individual identification, a particular kind of assemblage, then the objective “falseness” of that division becomes the articulation of a means of power, a power valued by the sphere that produced it. The cause and its effect become the fulcrum of the “real”, the hinge upon which material power is leveraged, but also becomes the “sign”, the signifier of the social bonds, the omen which marks what is “true”, and identifies the user of the “true” as authenticated. We see this when the bond between a particular cause its effect is questioned, – which is one of the primary focuses of philosophy – the entire world that can be equationed, exchanged between two, comes into doubt. The knucklebone halves no longer match up, we do not recognize each other, nor therefore the “realty” in which that recognition would take place. When possessed of the halves of bone that form the súmbolon, one either must find new ways in which the two halves fit together, so that the seamless whole appears to be restored, or if believing too heartily in the “fact” of one half, one must search for the other half that matches. What is lost perhaps is that the súmbolon  is negotiation, an agreed upon act, an entered into pact or game, depended upon the coherence of “facts” over time. It is the ground upon with all else becomes exchanged. The social dimension of the “explanation” makes of the súmbolon, the cause and its effect, a kind of coin, that at an established value is passed around in guarantee, which allows the formal production of power, in real, material means.

“What is a word? It is a copy in sound of a nerve stimulus”

“To begin with, a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is imitated in a sound: second metaphor.”

“To begin with, a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is imitated in a sound: second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one.”

“On Truth and Lie in the Extra-moral Sense”

“[Valéry] contrasted the poetic word with the everyday use of language in a striking comparison that alludes to…the gold stanard: everyday language resembles small change which, like our own paper money, does not actually possess the power it symbolizes. The gold coins…on the other hand, actually possess as metal the value that was imprinted upon them. In a similar way, the language of poetry, is not a mere pointer that refers to something else, but like the gold coin, is what it represents”

“Philosophy and Poetry,” Gadamer

A related post, a theorization of Davidson and Vico: Davidson’s Razor, Vico’s Magnet


The Analogy of Philosophical Wealth

Graham Harman makes an interesting analogy by which the philosophical Zizeks and Derridas of the philosophy world are like the Warren Buffetts of the economy. Unlike the somewhat rather weathy Republicans, the ultra-rich are actually liberal minded and generous, not sweating the small stuff, like the 80 million they lost in the market yesterday. These philosophers are prolific because they are asked to do books are the time. Their very name is a brand that sells ideas. But so many other philosophers are locked in mere Dukedoms and Principalities, where they exact the small pleasures of dominance:

If you’re one of the world’s most exciting philosophers (such as those mentioned in the previous post), then you have a lot of work to do, and no one writing a letter out of the blue needs to be put in their place. But those who might feel like they’re not getting their due will need to enact a number of micro-dominance rituals when you meet them, just to leave no doubt as to who is boss. These are all among the worst memories of a lifetime, but it will pay off in the end if I can eventually write a scathing article classifying the various types of such rituals.

Everyone who has suffered in the “office” knows of which Graham speaks, but what came to mind for me immediately was the rather universal complaint that someone like Zizek isn’t really doing any more real work. While making his stamp upon society, so to speak, he himself finds deep dissatisfaction with his book. And attentive readers tire of his retread of the same five ideas brought to ever varying subject matters. K-punk, who apparently has slipped into a lethargy of repeat-social-comment, put it beautifully, comparing Zizek’s intellectual output to a DJ who just keeps putting remix after remix of the same old song. The banality of it is painful.

Graham’s work seems centered on breaking through the fiefdom paralysis of local university and college powers, a dullness of thinking which is rather by-and-large blamed on either the tenure system, or the journal system. If we could just change the politics/economics of ideas, then all these brilliant minds could be set free, one feels. But, if one of the Warren Buffetts of philosophy, Zizek, a man who has escapes this emprisonment of minor cruelties, himself feels deep dissatisfied with what he is making (as do many of his readers), the question is not perhaps that of escape, or radical transformation. To-be-like-Zizek (only more happy), cannot be a philosophical aim.

Could it be that the kinds of minds/characters that excel in academic settings, those selected by those Darwinian environment, are simply less brilliant, less significantly profound, than they are supposed to be by the societal statis of the texts that they teach? To be sure, there are the amphibious types, minds that can perform outside of the bounds of their narrow selection (we read that enviroments do not so much select what is there, but rather what is not; and then, not even that, that organisms feedback); but what is selected for is not brilliance. That is, the “dominance rituals” are not an accidental by-product of the system(s), but its very acme.

There is the sense that the creativity of teaching minds is somehow squeezed out, and in turn squeezes out the creativity of the minds below them, in a mad kind of inverted Aristotlean habitus  and imitation toward ideal, but I find it notable that Graham in a certain sense weighs freedom in a register of productivity. The super-rich are more productive than the Associate Professor because they are asked to write books, to spin out an article. They are not fundamentally different, their position is different. But is this not an odd register for the philosophic? Have we not already acceded to the brute fact that the aim of contemporary philosophy is text production? Brilliant ideas succeed, when they do, because they produce more texts in response. They are virtual text fountains.

In some way thinking about the philosophy that gets produced in academia is like thinking about the philosophy that got produced in monestaries on the Middle Ages (I know, not an original comparison, “nook dwellers”). The point of the monestary is not that of idea. The idea is there only to restablize the function of the network, so to speak. The brutalities of soured, or embittered professorial corners of the world, the violences of the bureau, are not accidental to text and text producer’s factories, they are the point. Only the tortured flesh of the professor/student can produce a text so indifferent so as to rise to the level of the Beautiful.

Alternately, when I have encountered a wise academic philosopher (rarely; I have not had the privilege to mix with the heavy weights, perhaps they are different), it is not the case that I get the sense that their wisdom flows out of their brilliant ideas, that is, it is n0t what they have seen by virtue of their ideas, but comes out of their character. It is their character, in superabundance of, and engagment with, their environments, that saw them through. One gets the sense that they would have been wise if they had become a plumber, or a waitress. One could no more gain wisdom by adopting their positional philosophy, than by driving their car. This seems quite far from the ethical aim of philosophical origins.

All in all, it seems that it is not only creativity, but the purposive witness of the idea, its transformative effect, that is missing from what can be done with Philosophy. Graham Harman is committed to a change in this mould, to creating spaces where the “intellectual gambler” is given a more rightful place, where metaphysics can become properly speculative and inspiring. I deeply applaud this, but suggest that in the change of space we cannot simply think of an army of brilliant minds which have been put in bondage by an uncaring system. Professors excel at professing. Its a bit, but not exactly like, asking literature professors to write the great American or Parisian novel. Not impossible, but perhaps sometimes a question of genus.

If we are to return to the analogy if wealth, its not just that we could turn all of those conservative Republicans into loving liberals if we just found a way to make them all super rich like Warren Buffett, there would be no economy to thought. And it doesn’t even work to suggest to individual Republicans, “take it easy, one day you might be like Warren Buffett,” publishing books and articles left and right, with ease. I think one really has to uncover that essential, transformative brilliance does not occur at University, any more than essential, transformative faith occurs at seminary. The “stuff” of brilliance, in a Harmanian sense, is forever in retreat from is qualities, in those houses. But the world is not a university. The stuff of brilliance is more an artifact of nature, like a stone that you find when walking and paying attention in a way you don’t often, at the side of the path. It winks at you…or gets stuck in the shoe.