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

The Powers of an Apple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Properties, Profusion

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

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

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

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

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2 responses to “How Sad is the Weeping Willow?: Human Projections and the Powers of Objects

  1. larvalsubjects April 17, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    I think you make a number of good points here and I don’t disagree with you. Had I put the point more precisely, it wouldn’t have been whether or not properties are relational or metaphysical (I’m inclined to agree with both your assertions on this count), but rather what kind of relations value relations are and how they differ from other relations. I need to figure out a language to better articulate this point as I certainly share your thesis that there is nothing that isn’t ontological. I’ve been coming perilously close, lately, to a sort of “two-world modernist” model where, on the one side, you have culture, humans, etc., and on the other side you have “true reality”.

    There are a couple of typos in your post that you might want to clean up. Thanks for the comment over at LS vis a vis ethnography and maths!

  2. kvond April 17, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    LS,

    Thanks for your general acceptance of these views, and yes, thank you for the notification regarding typos. Lord, I am quite aberrant as a speller, something that multiplies itself as a typist, and certainly am lackluster as an editor. I do appreciate any watchful eye.

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