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Monthly Archives: May 2009

Spinoza’s Optical Letters: Redux

As some know, primarily last summer I spent my time researching and theorizing on Spinoza’s lensgrinding and optical concepts, a largely underdeveloped field in Spinoza studies. The greater portions of my findings are listed here on this site under the sub-heading Spinoza’s Foci. A spearpoint of this research was uncovering the substantive arguments and conceptions that lay behind Spinoza’s rejection of Descartes’ optics, as found in his two letters 39 and 40, letters that have be nearly completely ignored by commentators on Spinoza, or if address, addressed in what seems a delinquent, or dismissive fashion. Spinoza is mostly thought to not know what he is talking about. On the other hand, Spinoza’s objections if carefully examined reveal both technically an alternate position on the problem of “spherical aberration,” but more deeply, a radically distinct conception of what vision is, in particular how it works as an insufficient analogy for consciousness. While Descartes wanted to emphasize the power of the central clarity powers of hyperbolic vision (both in the human eye, and in his proposed lenses), Spinoza understood vision and conciousness both as holistic events, ones best approached with the pragamatic appreciation of our limitations. I provide very little philosophical extrapolation here, though the implications are vast, perhaps running through down to the root of Idealism and Phenomenology. This epistolary commentary also does not touch on such other important factors such as the kind of lathe Spinoza likely used, nor much on his likely technique, and kinds of instruments he made and calculated for, which form a significant secondary branch of my research. Yet as these letters remain nearly the only first hand statement Spinoza made on optical matters, they are the anchorage point for anything else that is likely to be asserted.

For the convience of interested readers I here post a Word document version of my line-by-line explication of these rarely read and rather under-interpreted letters. I realized that the previous weblog versions were very difficult to read and browse through, hopefully something this version will correct. The two entries that can be found in this document are: Deciphering Spinoza’s Optical Letters and  Spinoza: Letter 40 and Letter 39. These are both the English translation of the two letters by Spinoza, and then my explication. This version is not footnoted (though there are citations), and it retains some of the idiocyncratic paragraphing and color coding. It is a 14,000 word document (48 pages), though Spinoza’s letters are only 900 words or so.

[click download]: Deciphering Spinoza’s Optical Letters Line by Line

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The Finishing of the Web with Text

The Space Left Behind

I provide (in two translations) this wonderful image of the bold spider who in defilement fills in the unfinished portions of Persephone’s weaving loom, with a “text” of its own. Demeter has rushed in to find this Natural World, dark completion of her daughter’s lost life. It is a spectacular inversion of divinity, humanity, text, nature.

Challenge to Panpsychism

Any panpsychist who denies a firm, categorical divide between nature and culture must find a way to embrace the way in which text and web cross to fill each other’s spaces.

1. When she saw the gate-keepers fled, the house unguarded, the rusted hinges, the overthrown doorposts, and the miserable state of the silent halls, pausing not to look again at the disaster, she rent her garment and tore away the shattered corn-ears along with her hair. She could not weep nor speak nor breathe and a trembling shook the very marrow of her bones; her faltering steps tottered. She flung open the doors and wandering through the empty rooms and deserted halls, recognized the half-ruined warp with its disordered threads and the work of the loom broken off. The goddess’ labours had come to naught, and what remained to be done, that the bold spider was finishing with her sacrilegious web.

2. …the web [telas] half-destroyed with confused threads, she recognized, the art of the loom interrupted. That divine work had been lost; a bold spider was filling in the space left behind with a blasphemous weave [textu].

Claudian, De raptu Proserpinae (3.146-158)

Ut domus excubiis incustodita remotis

et resupinati neglecto cardine postes,

flebilis et tacitae species apparuit aulae,

non exspectato respectu cladis amictus

conscidit et fractas cum crine avellit aristas.

Haeserunt lacrimae, nec vox aut spiritus oris

redditur, atque imis vibrat timor ossa medullis.

Succidui titubant gressus; foribusque reclusis,

dum vacuas sedes et desolata pererrat

atria, semirutas confuso stamine telas

atque interruptas agnoscit pectinis artes.

Divinus perit ille labor spatiumque relictum

audax sacrilego supplebat aranea textu.

Digital Exhalations: Births, Deaths and CO2

Found over at Immanence, this animated model of “real time” CO2 emissions  and single births and deaths has a pictoral beauty to it. Statistics speak within the clothing of computer simulation, and one cannot help but feel a certain spatial continuity, especially when watching individual lives come and go. Like lights flickering, a living thing comes and vanishes across its stochastic horizon, accompanied by its own ideological rainstick sound atmospheric. As media work to affectively bind the bodies of people under new and different regimes of knowledge, something like “the environment” must necessarily pass through such a transformation. Think of the first maps of European navigation.

Sources for data: 

Birth and death rates: 2008 estimates, from the CIA World Factbook

Population: Data is based on July 2008 estimates from the CIA World Factbook. When Breathing Earth is started, it uses each country’s birth and death rates to calculate how much its population has changed since July 2008, and adjusts its population figure accordingly. To calculate the total world population, Breathing Earth adds up the population figures of all countries. It continues adjusting the various population figures as you watch it, each time a person is born or a person dies.

CO2 emission rates: 2004 figures from the United Nations Statistics Division. These are the most up-to-date figures as of December 2008. Collating CO2 emissions data for every country on Earth, representing the same time period, is undoubtedly a massive and very complex task that relies on the availability of many other sets of data. This probably explains why the most recent CO2 emissions data available is from 2004.

CO2 emission rates from two years earlier: When Breathing Earth was first built, it used 2002 figures, also from the United Nations Statistics Division. When you hover your mouse over a country, Breathing Earth compares the 2002 and 2004 figures and indicates whether that country’s CO2 emissions have increased or decreased in that time, using the red or green arrow that appears near the bottom-left.

There was an unavailability of a portion of the data for a few of the tinier countries (eg. Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Lesotho). In such cases, I made estimates based on their population, economy, and the data of their relevant neighbours. In all such cases, the figures were so low that even had my estimates been wildly inaccurate, the effect on the simulation would have been negligible.

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

Blessed Be the…

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

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

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

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

The Imagination Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

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

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

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

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

Later to say, 

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

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

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

Spinoza and Jesus: Who Would’a Thunk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Levi “Translates” the Bible for Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza

An Ecology of Persons

I would like to take this opportunity to delve into Morten Tønnessen‘s essay,  “Umwelt ethics,” [download here] (Sign Systems Studies 31.1, 2003), which I could only afford to mention in passing in my post Umwelt, Umwelten and The Animal Defined By Its Relations. I suggested then that Tønnessen had not provided a rigorous connection between Uxeküll’s notion of Umwelt and Næss’s Deep Ecology ethics, but rather gave us a fine juxtaposition. It could be said that Tønnessen gives us a topographical study of the ethical landscape confronting those that want to argue for a moral authority when treating environments and other species. I also suggested that such a landscape could be well-aided by the kinds of ethical arguments provided by Spinoza’s ontology/epistemology (explicitly), and the normative epistemology of Davidson. Here I would like to pursue more of the former rather than the latter, but I do believe that they are well connected, conceptually.

Key to understanding Spinoza’s gift to this question I believe comes from the way that he treats human relations. Much of environmental ethical argument is bent toward shaping moral framing out toward a much broader sphere, thinking about how the reasons why we treat other women/men/children well also apply to ecological questions. Spinoza has an advantage here, for largely we do not have the problem of how to get out of the human-realm (moral reasoning), and into the natural realm (brute forces) – humans do not form a kingdom within a kingdom, as he says. In fact, Spinoza’s treatment of ethical questions (and we do need to watch how we move lexically from ethical to moral and back) among human beings is at core an ecological question. Human beings are for Spinoza resources. One does not waste  the possibilities of combining with other persons, and the freedom of other persons is necessarily a contribution towards our own freedom. Because the human realm is shot through with utility reasoning the bridging towards a utility of environments forms a much more natural aptitude for analysis and moral positioning.

But let me step through Spinoza here as an entry point into Tønnessen’s article, for he does a very good job of laying out the priority of questions to be answered. What really is at stake is the ultimate question of how to resolve the islanding tendencies buried in the phenomenological heart of J. von Uexküll’s notion of Umwelt.

This difficulty – and I am only now coming to grips with the literature – has largely been attempted to be answered either on the functional, or semiotic level. Some combination of a network of functions (for instance various “functional cycles” between the organism and the environment), and then more, their semiotically distilled expression, serve as a sometimes loosely proposed nexus between what von Uexküll apparently conceived of in much more isolating, organism-bound, apparitional terms. Umwelten  are supposed to give rise to a kind of shared Umwelt, or an interface called a Semiosphere, which is seen to connect up all these treatening-to-be  solipsistic bubbles of informational life. (Previously, here and here, I have proposed an alternate resolution which involved disbanding the phenomenological core of the idea altogether, and redefining the organism in terms of an Exowelt, composed of the very differences that make a difference. These following arguments dovetail with this notion.) Tønnessen feels well the difficulty of von Uexküll’s phenomenology and seeks to give us a platform from which to view these bubbles of experiential outer world, not only their epistemological connections, but also their moral footing. And to do so he turns to the work of Hoffmeyer.

Now I have not read Hoffmeyer’s discussion of bioethics, and rely mainly upon the aspects brought up by Tønnessen himself. So this critique has to be taken as internal to this particular essay, and runs the risk of repeating points that Hoffmeyer may have prodigiously made or rigorously countered. Nonetheless, I want to trace out the ground that is raised in “Umwelt Ethics,” for I sense that Tønnessen turns to Hoffmeyer to alleviate something of the pressure put on by the difficulties of a phenomenological world view.

“Code-duality” and Dual Attributes: Where is the seam?

Tønnessen discusses Hoffmeyer just about at the vital point of clarifying what a moral subject is, via the influence of Jon Wetlesen, himself oriented strongly towards a Spinozist implicit definition of a subject:

Hoffmeyer’s justification of the attribution of moral status is inspired by the Norwegian philosopher Jon Wetlesen, for whom Spinoza’s definition of subjecthood acts as a point of departure. According to Spinoza (1951: Pt. III, Prop. IV), “everything, in so far as it is in itself, endavours to persist in its own being”. Wetlesen (1993) argues that all non-human individual organisms and supra-individual wholes that resembles moral agents by showing self-determination, or striving, can be regarded as subjects with a moral standing. Hoffmeyer’s equivalent of the Spinozean perseverance is his own concept code duality (Hoffmeyer 1993: 165). Organic code-duality, a property common to all living beings, can be understood as the semiotic interplay between the analog (cell) and digital (DNA) versions of a living being (cf. Hoffmeyer 1996: 44).

I’d like to discuss this link to Spinoza with a bit more richness, confronting as directly as possible Hoffmeyer’s guiding principle of code duality in terms of Spinoza’s position. I think we can get something very productive out of this. First of all, as is obvious but perhaps needing to be said, all things, that is, every single body in composition expresses itself with a conatus for Spinoza. If we are to use Spinoza’s notion of the conatus  as an ethical signpost we are going to have to be rather explicit in the justification our claims that distinguish strongly between the animate and the inanimate, or the organic and the inorganic. For Spinoza, in somewhat fine panpsychist fashion resembling Augustine’s best panpsychic moments, conatus  pervades the entirety of Being. Anything that exists exists because it is striving. (Perhaps Wetlesen takes this whole-hog, but it is good to make this point quite explicit.)

More interesting is Hoffmeyer’s notion of  “double coding” which he specifies with reference to analog and digital cell ontologies. We must ask, if we are to make a Spinozist critique, is there an homology in Spinoza to “double coding”? The most obvious connection of course is Spinoza’s assertion of two Attributes, thought and extension, wherein digital coding is taken as Ideational expression, and analogical coding as Extensional. I’ve tried to trace down the fundamental thought in Hoffmeyer’s idea of dual codes, and it seems that he is most interested in the differential between the two, using the DNA code of an organism as placed in relation to the supervenient meta-code of analogical spatiality:

Every single crocodile embodies both the essence of being a crocodile, “crocodileness” (the message handed down to it through the genetic material), and the elements that make it one particular crododile. The second message is a kind of meta-message supervenient to the bloodline’s digital message. The crocodile is an analogue code in the sense that it enters, among other things, into a mating semiosis which, in principle, involves a good many crocodiles (through competition, etc.). Ostensibly, the message is transmitted by the fertilized egg cell the crocodile once was, but it also involves the egg cell’s spatial interpretation of another message, the digitally coded message that, at one time, lay tucked away inside the crocodile egg’s own genome. And, as the mating semiosis runs its course, this message is received – and interpreted – by other members of the same species. Generally speaking an organism convey’s a message about its evolutionary experience (45)

Signs of meaning in the Universe, Hoffmeyer and Haveland

Spinoza distinctly would refuse both supervenience and meta-status for the Attribute of extension, for he argues that Idea and Thing are in strict parallel, each expressing themselves with “the same order and connection”. So, one must question from a Spinozist point of view: by what measure is the spatial said to supervene upon the digital? In fact, I suspect that here Hoffmeyer is constructing a differential between separate layers or registers, for the spatiality of the crocodile (in Spinozist terms, its extensional expression) is not expressive just of its DNA, but rather of the digital state of all its cell structure. And the DNA molecular “code” is not expressed by the crocodile as res, but rather in the very spatial configuration of its very molecules. If I am understanding Hoffmeyer and Haveland correctly, it seems that, in Spinozist terms, they are selecting out the Ideational expression of DNA, and the Extensional expression of a Crocodile, across domains, and putting them in hierarchical relation to each other. One might as well take the molecular spatiality and the digital state of the crocodile and cross-weave them back. In any case, while the double coding that Hoffmeyer suggest is quite revealing, and an interesting take upon the Mind/Body, Meaning/Form dualities, it is but a cross-section of interpretation. A Spinozist would want to see a fuller picture, embracing both Attributes at any particular register.

It is enough to say though that such Double Coding would not select out only organic processes from all other expressions of Nature, for under Spinozist lights, all things are of dual codes, expressed in Thought and Extension.

The “Positioning” of an Imitation of the Affects

Tønnessen continues on with the benefits of a Hoffmeyer approach, careful to note how the ethics being built from dual-coded theorizing differs from Umwelt thinking in that it incorporates species specific, genomic Umwelten of a kind:

In conclusion (Hoffmeyer 1993: 173), “all living systems deserve to be considered as moral subjects, but some of them more so than others”. As a parameter that might eventually be used for grading among moral subjects, he suggests semiotic freedom, i.e., the level of richness or depth of meaning that a being is able to communicate. Hoffmeyer (1993: 172; cf. 1996: 139) attributes true subjectivity, and, consequently, moral status, at the individual level to all animals possessing a complex nervous system. Primitive organisms, on the other hand, such as amoebas or mealworms, are moral subjects only at species level. A premise for this judgment is that human beings are “perfectly capable of identifying with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics of nature” (Hoffmeyer 1993: 172). In Hoffmeyer’s interpretation, this means that we are capable of identifying with “umwelt-builders in the broadest sense of this term, i.e. even species of lower level organisms lacking neural systems but which, qua species, nevertheless create a kind of (genomic) umwelt through their evolutionary incorporation of ecological niche conditions into the future” (Hoffmeyer 1993: 172) [Footnote: As this passage exemplifies, Hoffmeyer departs from Uexküll’s understanding of the Umwelt concept. In an Uexküllian setting, it makes no sense to talk about “genomic Umwelten”, since each and every Umwelt is in fact the privilege of the subject in question. Consequently, although evidently founded on biosemiotics, Hoffmeyer’s ethics cannot be regarded an Umwelt ethics.]….

This is where it gets very interesting for we enter the realm of Spinozist ethical theorizing that departs from mere conatus claims of moral standing. All animals with complex nervous systems are afforded such a standing due to their ability to “[identify] with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics  of nature” (bolding the important concepts). Here we come right up to the braiding of Spinoza’s principle of the imitation of affects and my own thinking of Exowelten. To repeat the vital Spinozist proposition that we are imaginatively, and affectively connected to all human others through our projection of “sameness”:

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

 

 [If one wants an in-depth reading of the sociological and political consequences of this proposition, see Balibar’s treatment of the reasoning behind sociability: Here] But let us remain at the bio-logical level. It is important that the seemingly implicit experiential/ideational sameness within human beings that Spinoza posits, in Hoffmeyer becomes a positional one (with these two positions not being mutually exclusive to each other). What distinguishes the moral subject here, is the ability for the organism to read another organism as positioned as it might be in. I would go further, and more explicitly say: the ability for the read organism to be affected by the same differences in the world, that is, in terms of my thoughts on Exowelten, to share differential nodes, the same points as organs of perception. This capacity is, at the highest levels of human rationality, expressed as Triangulation: the ability to read through the assumed coherence of another’s beliefs and those causal relations, the coherence of states of the world. But this capacity is primarily an affective  capacity, to which the depths of one’s organic coherence read the states of other things, objects, beings in the world, such that the causal powers of the world itself come into greater clarity.

Importantly, by stretching his criteria beyond the mere nervous-system-endowed animal, out to genomic expressions of organisms, the breadth of reflective capacities can be contributed to a far greater number of phenomena, something that Tønnessen notes. But with significance he raises the question of just what importance code-duality plays in this “same position in the bio-logic” definition of moral standing, in particular, why should our identifications be restricted by Hoffmeyer’s description:

…To Hoffmeyer’s credit, his criterion for deciding which entities we are capable of identifying with is so vague that it allows for a certain flexibility. This vagueness, or flexibility, however, is not mirrored in his conclusion. If we are capable of identifying with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics of nature, then why not a mountain, or an individual mealworm? And, more generally: if interpretative processes are to form the basis of attribution of moral status, why should code-duality be considered the relevant property? In what way is organic code duality related to the actual well-being of a creature or a living system, in the same sense as self-determination or perseverance is?

This raises a very important question of just what are the evolutionary and epistemic benefits of reading in two terms, Thought and Extension? This is to say, if we agree with Spinoza and all things express themselves in Thought and Extension, in what manner is the gain of focusing our attention upon one or the other?

Triangulation and the Internal of Cause

Donald Davidson has an elementary answer to this question, but we have to translate out of, and down from, his attempts to parse out the explanatory power of mental causation, (that is, or attribution of causal properties to beliefs and reasons), from physical causation.

[Mental concepts] appeal to causality because they are designed, like the concept of causality itself, to single out from the totality of circumstances which conspire to cause a given event just those factors that satisfy some particular explanatory interest. When we want to explain an action, for example, we want to know the agent’s reasons, so we can see for ourselves what it was about the action that appealed to the agent…The causal element in mental concepts helps make up for the precision they lack; it is part of the concept of an intentional action that it is caused and explained by beliefs and desires…

“Three Varieties of Knowledge”, (216-217)

When reading the behaviours of other persons as behaviours,we necessarily attribute to them all sort of mental predicates such as “he desires, she wants, she fears, he hopes, they think…” which help us isolate the important internal states which allow us to sensibly make use of those behaviors as significant. In fact, as we make these projective attributions, it is not just that the agent we are reading who becomes clear (under a normative framework), but also and more importantly, the world itself. By making mental-causal attributions “within” the agent, events in the world “outside” the agent are also selected out as significant  because the agent and I are regarded as somewhat the “same”. This sameness can be understood as a kind of internal, affective/ideational sameness: I would feel/think the same things if I were like that; or, and more importantly, I would feel/think the same things if I were in the same “position” (Hoffmeyer’s denotative standard for moral subject).

But one must not stop at the rational belief level of attribution to fully understand the pervasiveness of Triangulation, the way in which the internal states of others reveal for us the character of external states of the world. In fact, I would go further and say that the “double code” that Hoffmeyer presents is primarily the heuristic difference that an reader makes upon another organism (or even a field of consistent boundary conditions):

Are the most important events going on Inside the organism/field, or Outside in the world that we share?

Those events when read as internal  are understood as mental, while those read as external are understood as physical, with the understanding that a relevant interal events are signficant in how they confirm or deny pre-existing internal/external orientations the reader has already established with aspects of the world. Ultimately, this is how differences in the world become Organs of Perception.

Why not a Mountain?

So Tønnessen is dead-on when he asks, “why not a mountain, or an individual mealworm”? It is precisely so that a blade of grass might present some significant inside (mental) interpretant, as may an entire field of grass. And yes, a sudden splitting of a mountain face, or the soft curve of its erosion wear might prospectively direct us to its internal coherences to isolate what is causally significant. “Was it a faultline crack, or a meteor that struck?”, just as we might ask, “Was he mentally unstable, or was he coerced?”. These are homologous questions. Mountains too have a semiosis  of internal consistency, and only the acclaimed need for a subject-center Interpretant prevents this from becoming obvious.

The statement will be made: Well, you can project your anthropomorphisms onto mountains and ponds all you like, but they themselves are not Triangulating, not reading states of the world off of the internal states of other things/beings!

To this I would want to assert that these projections are not just anthropomorphic but come from the affective organization of our body plans down to a fair ancestral level. The animism is not just a retarded vestige to be thrown off, but rather makes up some of the most powerful capacities to organize ourselves in the world and to communicate with it. In a sense, it forms the contrapuntal base rhythm of our perceptions and rationalized descriptions, something whose slow, essential musicality must be harmonized with, or quietly, somatically altered, if we are to experience coherence in our views. Secondly though, I am unsure how one would decide upon which external factors a mountain or a pond is responding to when we epistemically project onto its semiotic states of coherence. Sun’s light might be warming a rockface, but just so is the atmospheric condition allowing it. Are bacteria “triangulating” when they quorum sense: some thoughts here: Davidson’s Triangulation and the Swarm. I would say that the internal coherence of any one organism or field registers significant differences out beyond it in the sense that its Exowelt meets with ours, sharing nodes. And which of those nodal features, whether they be primary difference that make a seemingly direct difference between the internal states of the organism/field, and ourselves, or secondary ones, which may be inferred from the former, is something that plays itself out in pragmatic terms. This is to say, the very coherence that is maintained in an organism/field is not composed of one-to-one mappings of internal-event-aspect/external-event-aspect, and that the very causal constellation of external events can be said to be expressed in the internal response coherence.

In this way, human beings are very good at telling us what they are responding to in most circumstances, and in reasoned discourse this results in them telling us what they “know”. But knowing goes very deep into the organism/field, far below what we can say, and “what” we know in our very coherence has no delineated correlate.

The “Ontological Niche”

Tønnessen then, upon returning to a less than satisfying and phenomenologically informed concept of Umwelten, raises the concept of the ontological niche, something approaching my Exowelt correction to the same. By virtue of Uexküll’s criterion of the “function cycle” a division is made between animal and plant, those that have an Umwelt and those that have merely a Wohnhüllen

Phrased in modern terminology, Umwelten can be attributed to protists, bacteria and animals (including the animal that does not want to be an animal, i.e., man), but not to plants and fungi (Uexküll, Kriszat 1956 [1940]: 111). Instead, they have Wohnhüllen, which the objects of Umwelten are replaced by meaning-factors. These must, along with Umwelten, be understood as a category of individual phenomenal worlds.9 While only Umwelt-carriers take part in functional cycles, plants and fungi, as well, partake in contrapuntal relations, i.e., subject-object-relations characterized by a mutual correspondence between the two entities. There are at least two kinds of contrapuntal relations: Relations between two meaning-utilizers (e.g. a flower and a bee, or a predator and its prey), and, more generally, relations between a meaning-utilizer and a meaning-carrier or meaning-factor in its phenomenal world (e.g., an eye and the sun). Functional cycles can be regarded as special cases of contrapuntal relations. The known phenomenal world, therefore, consists of Umwelten and Wohnhüllen that, through the interconnectedness that the various contrapuntal relations result in, comprise what we call nature. In this intricate web — of life, of semiosis, of world — we occupy an ontological niche.

The ontological niche of a being can be defined as the set of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in at a given point of natural history. [Hoffmeyer (1996: 140): “The character of the animal’s defines the spectrum of positions that an animal can occupy in the bio-logical sphere, its semiotic niche”.] The ontological niche of a being delimits the “area” that this being occupies in the phenomenal world. Simultaneously, through its ontological niche, the phenomenal world of a being is intertwined with other phenomenal worlds, thus integrating this being into the society of phenomenal subjects…

As I have argued, there is no way in which to make a categorical distinction between the two contrapuntal “meaning utilizers” and “meaning-carriers,” though we can assume a differential. At times it is best to focus on the binary rhythm between the eye and the sun, but then at other times to see that this binary is expressive of other coherence-field relations (the sun “carriers” its participation in a “utilization”). In any case though, as the contrapuntal rhythm weaves a primary mat of life (including its inorganic forms), it is the Ontological Niche (for me Exowelten) determinations which give life to the very substance of our coherent thoughts and communications, the way in which regularly read and affectively inhabit a diversity of forms whose internal (field) states reflect and express states of the world. And it is our mutually enfleshed  sharing of nodes in the world which privileges any organic or inorganic state, as important. It is because of this that the very musicality of connection between the internal parts of the world to other external parts of the world, is what is at stake in the very maintenance of the coherence of our thought and capacity to speak to each other. The resource is in the very affective and dexterous capacity of others (other things, other beings) to feel and report back upon what condition the world is in.

Total Umwelt and Biosphere Split

In his essay Morten Tønnessen steers somewhat clear from Hoffmeyer’s wider embrace in order to return to the rich heritage of Umwelt-thinking, and he tries to heal any solipsistic phenomenological drag from the concept by postulating various zones of “total Umwelt” expression. These are still phenomenological states, but simply totalized by some measure. Personally, I don’t see the advantage of returning to Idealism’s internal preoccupation and anchoring, something which ever must return to the notion of a subject. Yet, Tønnessen also extracts from von Uexküll the important idea that the animal and its Umwelt are inseparable. While this still leaves us on the wrong side of the ledger, Tønnessen transfers from a terminology of “Tier-Umwelt-monade” to a more comprehensive “bioontological monad,” which he reads as couterpart to the biosphere:

A different type of abstract phenomenal entities can be termed total Umwelten. By a total Umwelt, I understand the sum total of the manifold phenomena appearing in the Umwelten of a particular group of subjects. An example that is mentioned by Uexküll (1928: 181) is the total Umwelt of a species…Noteworthy, according to Uexküll, the subject and its phenomenal world are not separate entities, but, as illustrated by the functional cycle, together make up one unit. One could call this belief ontological holism. To signify this unified entity, Friedrich Brock (1934) introduced the term “Tier-Umwelt-monade”. However, Uexküll’s ontological holism is not restricted to Umwelt-carriers, and I therefore suggest to replace Brock’s term with the more general expression bioontological monad…The phenomenal counterpart to the biosphere, i.e., the sum total of all living beings of Earth, is the known phenomenal world. Taken as a bio-ontological entity, it represents the inseparable whole of life and world. In lack of a better designation, it might be called the bio-phenomenal sphere.

By my thinking the very concept of monad existence must entail the nexus points of differences that make a difference in the world, as those terminus differences become organs of perception for the animal/plant/being/field. It is not enough to simply posit whole internal worlds which grow in size supposedly connected to whole bio-physical states outside of them. Rather, the very connections between organism and world must count as part of that recursive boundary. The bioontological monad is constituted by, and inconceivable as operative without, the differences that make a difference it its terminus limit (and which it shares as terminus limit with other things).

Morten Tønnessen ends his essay with a careful consideration of Deep Ecologist Arne Næss’s eight bio-ethical principles. Only the with first of which will I concern myself:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes…

His response to this first point is worth quoting at some length because it has many of the factors we have discussed:

According to Næss (1993: 198), the first point in the deep ecology platform “refers to the biosphere, […] individuals, species, populations, habitat, as well as human and non-human cultures”. Næss also mentions landscapes and ecosystems. Given an Uexküllian framework, all of these must be understood as bio-ontological entities. A culture, for example, can be defined as a certain common-Umwelt that allows for a certain total Umwelt. The fact that the flourishing of human life rests on the flourishing of concepts should result in political and cultural tolerance. As for ecosystems and inhabited landscapes,one could probably reach a bio-ontological definition by way of the concepts of contrapuntal relations and total Umwelt. A habitat might be regarded as the subjective space, or perhaps Heimat (home), of an individual or population.

The reason why it makes sense to regard all semiotic agents, i.e., bio-ontological monads, as moral subjects, is that in respect to these entities, our actions make a difference. Only for semiotic agents can our actions ultimately appear as signs that influence their well-being. In capacity of meaning-utilizers, all semiotic agents, be it the simplest creature, are able to distinguish between what they need and what is irrelevant or harmful to them. As Kull (2001: 361) says: “Everything alive has needs per se, not so the lifeless nor the dead”. Wherever there is semiosis, there are needs, and even though actual moral treatment is also a question of practicability, attribution of moral status is a principal one.

But why regard higher-level bio-ontological entities as moral subjects? Because a living being is not an isolated incident. In a profound sense, a subject is what it relates to. The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about. The individual self branch off into the society of phenomenal subjects and into the phenomenal world, it is already social, already worldly, already more-than-individual. You cannot really value a subject without at the same time valuing the web of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in.

One can guess where my quarrel with this reasoning lies since I read as “semiotic” much further down then the author grants, and this is due to the substance of the last of his three paragraphs: “The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about.” If we follow Spinoza’s notion of conatus with which we began our discussion, Kull’s point at to “needs” evaporates or is at least severely challenged. Sedimentation preserves itself against what is irrelevant or harmful through its very coherence until over come. This is not a mere theoretical side-step. It is the very stabilized contour of avoidance and perseverence that turns a meaning-carrier into a meaning-utilizer. If we accept that even rock sedimentation layers strive to persist, then they too have “needs” (however qualified, however dim), and if rock sedimentation layers form part of the contrapuntal music of our own reading capacities of the world, by what measure do our own defining contrapuntal relations which take part with such rhythm, exclude them from some place of importance? Change the music and change the person. This is not to say that one should not cut into rock formations in order to build train tunnels, but one should do so knowing that one is making a cognitive, resonant, musical change.

Last to end, Næss’s claim in point one, that the values of non-human things are independent from human purposes defies Spinoza’s utility approach to an ecology of persons (and world). In fact, it is the very usefulness of non-human things, not just as appropriations, but as participations, which should drive us towards their care. Only a rich concept of purposes and utility can nurture the epistemic responsibilities and capacities of the human species.

[See Morten Biosemiotic Weblog: Utopian Realism]

Differences in the World as Organs of Perception

Organs of Perception

In my last post I began reasoning how the usually assumed limits of an organism (a physical boundary to which other boundaries are thought to more or less correspond) might be extended far beyond where skin, bone, nerve ends, each organism expressing itself to an outer-limit of an Exowelt. In this approach I sought to assert that the differences in the world to which an organism attends actually operate as organs of perception for the being. This raises the question, what would it mean for parts, aspects or features of the world to act as organs of perception for the organisms that they affect?

Perhaps we can start at the roughest of sketches so as to disabuse this thought of merely a metaphorical status. What Aristotle told us is that organs have their unique objects, objects that they specialize in, and in which they do not err in reporting:

Each sense has one kind of object which it discerns, and never errs in reporting that what is before it is colour or sound (though it may err as to what it is that is coloured or where that is, or what it is that is sounding or where that is.) Such objects are what we propose to call the special objects of this or that sense.

De Anima Book II Part VI (418)

What would be the “special objects” of differences that organisms attend to? How is it that we see though differences in the world unique other objects? We can suggest that the unique objects that are perceived through the object differences we attend to, are those objects that form part of its Exowelten, those differences that indeed do affect it. In this way the states of the world which are revealed by my attending to the behaviours of my dog, are those that necessarily affect my dog, and those that are shown through my attending to states of a mountain, are those that affect the mountain. Both the dog and the mountain become organs of perception for my organism, inhabited locations in which my awareness, if fleetingly, resides.

[If one wants a fuller sense of how I am picturing this kind of epistemic trianguation, the way in which we combine with other things in order to perceive the world, my essay on Wittgenstein, Davidson and Spinoza might make a few things clear The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV ]

It is as Davidson argued of inter-subjective rational belief in his “Three Varieties of Knowledge” , and then deeper, as Spinoza argues in regards to the affectuum imitatio, frequently cited on this site:

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

That we regularily read the world through the “sameness” of other aspects of it, such that the organs of truth and of perception must be extended beyond any isolated island of unitary substance. Taken to its literal truth, organisms themselves must extend beyond and combine with aspects of the world itself. What this alternate model of the organism means is that while we might investigate the connections between otherwise assumed to be discrete units by looking at what is inside of them (be they thoughts, concepts, affects, images, beliefs, etc), we would do better by appreciating the connections by the very overlap of Exowelten, and the sharing of nodal points as differences in the world. In short, you and I communicate because we share Exowelt nodes in the world, specific real differences which make differences in our organisms. And the same is for the communications between me and my dog, and even between me and my desk.

Not Balls or Bubbles

Key to this model is the non-intuitional appreciation that boundaries overlap. For very good causal reasons we take the best descriptions of what is real to be the apparent physical boundaries which create specific exclusionary pictures. Like bouncing balls there are imagined to be private interiors, and then external laws of relations which connect them. (Much of this stems from the social private/public cultural developments of the West. Metaphysics of privacy, and its problems, seem to play out in projective fashion social concerns.) Such a world picture is clear in Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt (experiential outer world), as explained by his son Thule, who compares our individual world to “sharply delineated but invisible bubbles”:

Reality, to which all things must yield and from which everything must derive, is not “outside” in infinite space that has neither beginning nor end and that is filled with a cloud of elementary particles. Nor is it “inside,” within ourselves in the indistinct, distorted images of this “outside” that our minds create. It reveals itself in the worlds (Jakob von Uexküll calls them Umwelten) with which sensuous perception surrounds all living beings as if with bubbles that are sharply delineated but invisible to the outside observer. These “bubbles of self-worlds” are like Leibniz’s “monads” the bricks and mortars of reality.

What I suggest is that despite the cultural appeal of imagining hermetically sealed objects, bubbles sealed off from each other, we take such bubbles and extend them out into the world itself, such that the world itself (aspects of it)becomes “organs of perception”. And concordantly, that instead of mutually exclusive bubbles sealed off, these are necessarily overlapped, partially mutual exo-bodies, siamese and conjoined. The “problem” of communication is pre-existingly foreclosed. The “bricks and mortars of reality” are webbed.

Deleuze in this study of Spinoza, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, speaks to just this intimate connection between organism and environment, under an explanation of “ethology”:

Ethology is first of all the study of the relations of speed and slowness, of the capacites for affecting and being affected that characterize each thing. For each thing these relations and capacities have an amplitude, thresholds (maximum and minimum), and variations or transformations that are peculiar to them. And they select, in the world or in Nature, that which corresponds to the thing; that is, they select what affects or is affected by the thing, what is this animal unaffected by in the infinite world? What does it react to positively or negatively? What are its nutriments and its poisons? What does it “take” in its world? Every point has its counterpoints: the plant and the rain, the spider and the fly. So an animal, a thing, is never separable from its relations with the world. The interior is only a selected exterior, and the exterior, a projected interior. The speed or slowness of metabolisms, perceptions, actions, and reactions link together to constitute a particular individual in the world (125)

What Deleuze does not follow up on because he is concerned with the production of kinds of affects qualified by speed and intensity is that because organism and world cannot be separable, defined rather by their relations, organisms themselves must share nodal points in the world (and it is this very mode of sharing that brings together the mutuality of their bodies). My relations to this part of the world are those which place value (epistemic and also ethical value) upon your relations to this same part of the world. Our bodies are in a mutual form of conjunction that may be best imagined as an overlap of Exowelten. The same things in the world make a difference to us (though the difference made may not the similiar), and the same things in the world potentially reveal other aspects of the world. The “same” in Spinoza’s affectuum imitatio is a same of relations.

So when Deleuze asks on the following page,

How do individuals enter into composition with one another in order to form a higher individual, ad infinitum? How can a being take another being into its world, but while preserving or respecting the other’s own relations and world?

The answer must presume the very mutuality of material confluence and overlap between organisms, the richly conjoined nature of epistemic/affective end-points, a sharing of “organs of perception” which cannot err.

Umwelt, Umwelten and The Animal Defined By Its Relations

I’ve been reading into the depths of the concept of Umwelt which which I have felt some dissatisfaction. It is a concept that exists in a variety of forms, flowing from the much more phenomenological, Kantian enriched experiential world of its inventor, Jakob Uexküll, all the way to heavily systemic, semiotic-functional interpretations which mark its place in much of contemporary biosemiotics. For those unfamiliar with the variety I present a few of these, and article links which may prove interesting reading

Biosemiotic:

Umwelt

Umwelt is the semiotic world of organism. It includes all the meaningful aspects of the world for a particular organism. Thus, Umwelt is a term uniting all the semiotic processes of an organism into a whole. Indeed, the Umwelt-concept follows naturally due to the connectedness of individual semiotic processes within an organism, which means that any individual semiosis in which an organism is functioning as a subject is continuously connected to any other semiosis of the same organism. At the same time, the Umwelts of different organisms differ, which follows from the individuality and uniqueness of the history of every single organism.

Umwelt is the closed world of organism. The functional closer, or epistemic closer is an important and principal feature of organisms, and of semiotic systems. This has been described by Maturana and Varela (1980) through the notion of autopoiesis.

Semiosphere

The expressions ‘collective Umwelt’, or ‘swarm’s Umwelt’, should also be in accord, since organism can hardly be modeled as a centralized system. However, the relationship between the Umwelt of organism and the Umweltsof its cells requires further explanation and more detailed analysis. The whole becomes seen through functional circles which, for example, includethe body of the (swarm-)organism moving together, in one piece. More generally, there are always at least two aspects (processes) which participate in making a multitude of pieces into a whole in living systems: (1) there are many individual processes which take part as steps in a functional circle, the latter being responsible for the appearance of intentional aspects of behavior, and (2) the functional circle always includes recognition, a matching of forms (the pre- existing with the actual), whereas recognition does not work in an algorithmic way (i.e. bit-to-bit checking) but as a simultaneous compatibility (coherence) of forms (e.g., enzymes recognizing their substrates). Thus, the principle of code duality can be extended to the principle of making wholes, Gestalts.

Semiosphere is the set of all interconnected Umwelts. Any two Umwelts, when communicating, are a part of the same semiosphere.

 “On semiosis, Umwelt, and semiosphere” Kalevi Kull, Semiotica, vol. 120(3/4), 1998, pp. 299-310 [click here].

Biosemiotics/AI:

The Umwelt may be defined as the phenomenal aspect of the parts of the environment of a subject (an animal organism), that is, the parts that it selects with its species-specific sense organs according to its organization and its biological needs (J. von Uexküll 1940; T. von Uexküll 1982a, 1989). In that sense, the subject is the constructor of its own Umwelt, as everything in it is labelled with the perceptual cues and effector cues of the subject. Thus, one must at least distinguish between these concepts: (1) the habitat of the organism as ‘objectively’ (or externally) described by a human scientific observer; (2) the niche of the organism in the traditional ecological sense as the species’ ecological function within the ecosystem, (3) the Umwelt as the experienced self-world of the organism.

Does a robot have an Umwelt?: Reflections on the qualitative biosemiotics of Jakob von Uexküll [click here], Claus Emmeche

But really the best treatment that I found was from Paul Bains’s informative and provokingly synthetic The Primacy of Semiosis: an ontology of relations (2006) [click here]. For those interested in the possibilities of the concept I highly recommend reading at least the chapter on Umwelten (page 56), available on line, and watch Bains skate effortlessly and illuminatingly between Uexküll, Kant, Duns Scotus, Deleuze and Guattari, Heidegger, Deely and more. I quote extensively here from the passage in which he explicates the notion via Uxeküll choice of the “tick” (which in well-known fashion Deleuze and Guattari adopts). Here Bains presents the bare essentials of Umwelt  organization, the notion of functional cycle and counterpuntal rhythm.

[Quoting Uexküll] “We are not concerned with the chemical stimulus of butyric acid, any more than with the mechanical stimulus (released by the hairs), or the temperature stimulus of the skin. We are concerned solely with the fact that, out of the hundreds of stimuli radiating from the qualities of the mammal’s body, only three become the bearers of receptor cues for the tick. Why just three and no others?” (J. Uexküll, A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men, 1957)

The answer for von Uexküll is that living organisms respond to perceptual signs (Merkzeichen) or “meaning” (Bedeutung), not to causal impulses. Physical, chemical, or thermal changes to the receptor organs are interpreted as signs of the (not yet perceptable) “perceptual cues” of an object as counterpart for a specific behaviour. Von Uexküll argues that the “subect” (tick) and the “object” (mammal) dovetail into each other and constitute a systematic whole or functional cycle. The organism or interpreter receives signs from its environment, and these perceptual signs trigger specific action impulses or operation signs (Wirkzeichen). The whole cycle is a process made not of static objects but rather of sign relations – a semiosis. For example, with the tick there are three functional cycles, which follow each other in processual succession…In this functional cycle the mammal (object) is a connecting link between the tick’s effectors and receptors, which metaphorically “grasp” the object like the two jaws of a pair of pinchers. The “perceptual jaw” gives perceptual meaning to the object, and the “operational jaw” gives an effector meaning. For von Uexküll there is a counterpoint or contrapuntal relation between the organism as a “meaning-utilizer” or interpretant, and the perceptual cues or “meaning-factors” of the object – Nature as Music. Living beings develop in a kind of natural counterpuntal “harmony” or refrain, with one another and with their environment. Von Uexküll gives the example of the octopus, designated as the subject in its relation to seawater as the meaning carrier. In this scenario, the fact that water cannot be compressed is the precondition for the construction of the octopus’s muscular swim bag. The pumping movement of the swim bag on the non-compressible water propells the animal backwards. Von Uexku/ll claims that the rule that governs the properties of seawater acts on the protoplasm of the octopus, thereby shaping the melody of the development of the octopus’s form to express the properties of seawater. The rule of meaning that joins point and counterpoint is expressed in the action of swimming – an energetic interpretant.

So the Umwelt is a model of a species’ significantsurroundings. The essential claim is that organisms interpret their environment and are not merely the passive objects of natural selection, as emphasized by much contemporary Darwinian evolutionary biology. The Umwelt/ consists of significant sign relationships. However, von Uexküll, in the prevailing context of Kantian idealism, presented his Umwelt research as a confirmation of a Kantian philosophy of mind

– The Primacy of Semiosis: an ontology of relations(2006), Paul Bains, 63-64

I want though to approach the concept from the perspective of a Spinozist understanding, one which necessarily would de-emphasize an phenomenological, or subject-oriented foundational basis. It for this reason that I have been playing with the notion of an Exowelt, under which we conceived of the experiential, but nonetheless epistemic relations between the organism and the world, not as an inner-theatre of apparitional events, but rather necessarily see the organism extended beyond its skin, one in which the Real differences in the world which make up the (semiotic) differences within the organism, may be considered as outlying organs of perception themselves: a running shore of epistemic wholeness.
Part of this can be seen to come out of some of Uexküll’s own images, for instance his appeal the the spider’s web which, spun from its body, literally extends that body, epistemically, physically, out into the world:
As the spider spins its threads, every subject spins his relations to certain characters of the things around him, and weaves them into a firm web which carries his existence” (A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men, 14)
What if invited by this analogy is, much as how Descartes invoked the Blindman’s cane, it is not immediately clear where the organism itself ends, and the “world” begins. The reason for this I hope to make clear, for at the moment all would still seem contained within the skin-limits of the beast (the treads are merely meant as internal semiotic threads in this case). Let us go further.In that these threads do connect to real things, real difference that make a difference in the organism, we have to deal with exactly how to parse out the internal difference from the external one (a process that Deely marks as essentially ontological univocal). I will suggest that the process takes place just further out than we regularly, and obviously would like to grant.

Essential perhaps is Uexküll notion of the counterpuntal, the musical co-ordination between an “external” stimulus and an “internal” semiotic event. This fundamental binary seems to be the very stuff that presents the internal/external divide at the surface of the body (or thereabouts). Even the simplest of organisms forms a kind of musical echoing of aspect of nature, and does so as a distinction separate entity. We are told by many in Biosemiotics that this minimal exchange is what distinguishes plant and fungus from animal (which are capable of more complex function cycles). The locus of “self” or subject is at most at the internal shore of the semiotic interpretation, where the sign arrives, qua sign, so to speak. And what distinguishes the animal from the human is that humans are able to actually perceive the relationships between counterpuntals, and therefore the very nature of Umwelten themselves.

What I want to suggest is that if indeed what distinguishes counterpunctals is the semiotic interpretation of real events, and that what makes information “Information” are differences that make a difference, it is very difficult to isolate where and/or if the relations between two counterpunctals are experienced or not, since the very structural coherence of the organism is such that the relations are built-in to the very experience of “sense”, the semiotic recursion of the organism. While this event (difference) solicits this kind of reaction, and that event solicits that kind of reaction, we can never deny that the correspondence between the two does not leave some trace on at least higher animals.

To give an example of what I mean by the knowing of connections between differences that make a difference, if my dog and I are walking in a dark, remote part of town and turn down an empty alley, it may very well be the case that in the pit of my stomach I will get “a bad feeling” about the situation. Now this affective response indeed is the semiotic response to Real differences in the world (and perhaps of real events in the past, and/or instinctive reactions), but this is not a “phenomenal” appearance of the world around me (though perhaps shadows now look darker). It is an epistemic judgment that has no location. We could say that my body is undergoing counterpunctal relations (a music) with the entire environment, “reading” it, but from whence is the apprehension of its dangerousness? Which specific differences in the world am I reading as “danger”? The constellation itself presents itself to my organism. Distinct, experiential “awareness” of connections is not locatable as it is largely, if not entirely, unconscious.

Now, my dog who is with me also senses something and the hair on her back is raised. I see this and the hair on my arms goes up. What events in the world colluded to raise my dog’s hair? What variety of counterpuntals speaks to the knowledge of danger? When is it merely the relation between counterpunctals that actually that which is reacted to?

This brings me to my final, determinative point. Morten Tønnessen, in his “Umwelt ethics,” (Sign Systems Studies 31.1, 2003) attempts to bring a ethical joining of Arne Næss’s Deep Ecology and Umwelt theory. It is a wonderful outline of the possibilities of the thought including an informing critique of Uexküll’s actual political views, but it seems to lack a thorough connection between the two streams, presenting more a juxtaposition. Therein he mentions in passing how Næss identifies with a mountain, though in a manner which is strictly “subjective” and not “intersubjective”
Although he admits that mountains are not alive in a strict scientific sense, Næss himself claims that he identifies with Hallingskaret, where he has a cottage. Identification, as Næss conceives of it, has no natural barrier, and is not an inter-subjective, but a subjective phenomenon (5)

The counterpuntals  that form the outer reach and reference to the semiotic events within my skin, become themselves linked and signs for extended other differences in the world. This is to say, just what difference an organism is fully responding it can never be precisely determined. One can make a tick drop from a blade of grass by exposing it to the appropriate chemical stimulus, but what the tick is responding to is not butyric acid in some form of one-to-one correspondence (though you can make the tick drop again and again), but rather the tick is responding to the entire constellation of historical/genetic relations between chemical and mammal presence. When I look to my dog and see that she too is reading the world as dangerous the counterpuntal between her hair raised, and mine becomes expressive of other factors of the world. I am literally reading the world off of my dog’s states. My dog has become an organ of my perception.

The key to this perceptual logic is found in Spinoza’s Ethics:

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

But I would like to depart from Spinoza’s rigorous and rather satisfying treatment of imaginative Ethics, and look instead to a semiotic, Exowelten, basis for the powers of this transmission of affects, one which will undermine the distinctly “subjective” character of even mountain-identification. And this way forward is provided if we cease to define the boundary of the subject at the skin, or somewhere there abouts, or at the locus of a phenomenological appearance of “outer world”, and realize that epistemically the limits of the organism exist at the locus of real, signifying events in the world, where the spider’s threads connect. The Exowelt is the manner in which contrapuntals open up to other differences that make a difference. This is to say, the differences that make an immediate difference in our organism themselves express relations which are making differences to the depths of an organism’s structure. The reason why my dog can become an organ of perception for me is that our Exowelten overlap, and to a great extent. The differences that form the outer limit of my epistemic body, out to which awareness reaches as how the blindman literally feels the world at the end of his cane, also compose the outer limits of my dog’s epistemic body, such that we are intimately (affectively) and semiotically linked. Ethics are foundationally experientially epistemic; and the organs of our perception go far beyond our ear and eye tissue.

The reason why Næss’s identification with Mt. Hallingskaret is not merely subjective is that subjectivity is necessarily Exowelt-bound, and the very sharing of Exowelt nexus points determines some degree of an implicit inter-subjectivity. And yes, mountains have Exowelten. If a musculature of an octopus’s swim motions can express the rule that water cannot be compressed, then where – what specific sign – in the octopus is this compressibility difference registered as a difference? Where is it “experienced” and making its appearance? And if not locatable, where not do the forces of gravity, wind and sun register their semiotic differences, reflectant in the mountain?

There is much to be said, for instance, about what a Spinozist/Davidsonian analysis could contribute to Morten Tønnessen’s Deep Ecology ethics, and even more to investigate in terms of just how Exowelten could overlap, and with what consequence. I hope to have opened up an avenue of extra-somatic interpretation of the real way that awareness crosses boudaries and resides in organs of  perception beyond what is well-considered our “body”.

So an animal, a thing is never separable from its relations with the world
– Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (125)

Masciandaro’s Splendoring

Medievalist Nicola Masciandaro’s eclectic and thought-provoking weblog, The Whim, has a recent entry on the concept of “Splendering”, or Spectacular intimacy. His entry calls to mind both my thoughts on Plotinus’s analogies of light The Cone of Plotinus: Ontologies of Profusion and Particularization, as he tells us to look-with, sunorãn, the light, and not at the things lit, and also my current attempts in establishing a Spinozist/Davidsonian epistemological modeling of a panpsychist world: the way in which we necessarily, logically, biologically, turn to others to view the world. How can one resist evocations of Dante as guide? 

SPECTACULAR INTIMACY, or, the brightness of light becoming itself. Splendor is not a quality, but the condition of the overcoming of quality. It is not something seen, but the visible approach of the place where seeing becomes the seen. “In this state of absorbed contemplation there is no longer question of holding an object: the vision is continuous so that seeing and seen are one thing; object and act of vision have become identical; of all that until then filled the eye no memory remains. . . . the vision floods the eyes with light, but it is not a light showing some other object, the light is itself the vision.” Syntactically, the line temporalizes splendor, traces the becoming substantial of the relation between seeing and seen as a time delay within their distinction. Suspended in this light-filled air, can I say what splendor is? Luckily Dante, being one who breathes love back into philology (the exhale of his taking note when love inspires), is here to help.[iii]Commenting on the descent of divine power as sight (In lei discende la virtù divina / sì come face in angelo, che ‘l vede), he explains splendor via Avicenna as not only reflected light, but the visible/visual becoming of a thing toward the virtue shining on it. Seeing is not simply splendor’s external measuring tool, but the very efficiency of its cause. To see someone’s splendor, to experience how she shines, is to witness her becoming like what she sees and thus belong by parallel process to her being. (the rest, including footnotes…)

I have just begun looking at the blog, but look forward to future posts there.

What is an Exowelt?

This morning I am thinking about this concept of an Exowelt, which is to serve as something of a relief for the phenomenological character of an Umwelt (the total experiential outer world of an organism). What I have in mind is something like, the total radius and sphere of differences in the world which make a difference for the (in the) organism. There would be a comprehensive possibility of differences (dogs can hear higher pitched frequencies), but the shape of the Exowelt would vary moment to moment. Each organism would have a different Exowelt, as species and cultures do as well. The question is, how and to what consequences do Exowelts (differences) overlap? A relief for Kantian determination of truths, perhaps.

What the idea of an Exowelt whats to bring out is that differences out there in the world actually function as organs of our perception, exo-skeletal, exo-epistemic limits of our, and other living things’, being.

The Distance of Star’s Light, A Coming Memory

A Realism of Differences

In reading Wheeler’s Biosemiotic book I’ve come to struggle against Jakob von Uexküll’s highly productive concept of Umwelt (on which I hope to post soon). The concept is, in many of its forms, far too Phenomenal. We perhaps should pursue something like an Exowelt (think, exoskeleton), such that the “experiential world” includes the connective tissue of outer differences (through which further reaches are read).

Under such an approach immediate perceptions can stretch deep into a past. Imagine that much as how real differences of a star’s surface make differences within the organism of the poet (Bateson’s a difference that makes a difference notion of information), come from hundreds of years ago, stretching back like spider’s web threads, real differences in a childhood, grandmother’s garden rose also make differences in the current poet’s organism, tracing back through time, in the same kind of thread. Bodily tendrils of intimate connection. Each organism having a different Exowelt.