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Monthly Archives: June 2009

The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center

An Organic Demoness Ontology

Naught Thought  raises the image of Dark Vitalism and first associates it with the Demoness Zuggtmoy of fantasy lore, suggesting that if we allow an ontology of powers that bubble up from below, from the very matter of matter, we are faced with a world primordially chaotic of its intents. Any intelligence is swarming, polyvalent but still planal, or vectored, like so much threatening mold and fungi that at most grow up from and adhere to an omni-present death process:

Park of of the work of a dark vitalism  is the sickening realization of such an image [Zuggtmoy, Queen of Fungus]. Steven Johnson’s Emergence begins with Toshiyuki Nakagaki’s work on slime molds in which he made one of the amoeba like creatures find a path through a maze towards a food. The mindless functioning of life, of life moving towards goals without any form of intelligence – creatures that function in a completely bottom up fashion (the rest).

And Eliminative Culinarism  also turns to what he calls a thantropic regression (drive) when separating out the consequences of the philosophy of Brassier, a separation that ultimately finds its dark vitalism home in Freud’s Death Drive and its umwege:

If Brassier unbinds and cosmically reinscribes Freud’s theory of thanatropic regression in order to extend the eliminativist vector all the way to the cosmic exteriority, then he must also unbind the theory of umwege beyond the organic life or bios. Because as Freud has explicitly argued and as Brassier has implicitly indicated, the thanatropic regression or the vectorial move toward the precursor exteriority is inextricable from the increasing convolution of the umwege. Here the convolution of umwegeor the increasing twist in the roundabout regression to the precursor exteriority must not be confused with the complexification of life as an opportunity for posthumanist scenarios, because it suggests the differential decomposition of all interiorities via nested deployment or intrusion of cosmic exteriority. After all, the emergence or determination of an index of interiority from a precursor exteriority does not mean the complete envelopment of that exteriority and its reintegration according to the laws of the interiorized horizon. There is always a part of enveloped exteriority that refuses to be assimilated within the index of interiority, thus extending the intrusion of the precursor exteriority into the emerged nested horizons of interiority (the rest June 11, 2009).

The Death Drive and Zuggtmoy

I want to take up this promotion of the Death Drive, and the image of the fungus Queen Zuggtmoy, so as to explore the fuller consequences of so called Dark Vitalism. Mostly I want to bring out how the figure – and we can think through  a figure – of Zuggtmoy enables us to see an edge to the Death Drive that previously had been obscured, as if the side of the well-used coin.

The approach towards zero (and by zero we must be careful, since there are heterogenies in this analogy, absolute zero…cold, quantity zero…nothing, and zero which lies between negative and positive numbers…placeholder) that under a Freudian conception typifies all the aim of the very complexities of life itself, life’s winding pattern, a maze, a rambling circuit that is simply trying to get back to the originary state: Death, Inorganic, Abiotic Stillness. This is how Freud presents it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

It would be in contadiction to the conservative nature of the drives if the goal of life were a state of things which had never yet been attained. On the contrary, it must be an oldstate of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or another departed and to which it is striving to return by the mazings [Umwege] along which its development leads…For a long time, perhaps, living substance was thus being constantly created afresh and easily dying, till decisive external influences altered in such a way as to make ever more complicated mazings [immer komplizierteren Umwegen] before reaching its aim of death. These mazings [Umwege] to death, faithfully kept by the conservative drives, would thus present us today with the picture of the phenomena of life [F III 248]

Nick Land in his book Thirst For Annihilation presents something of the conclusion all here seem to be following, and we can readily see the fungal layer (crust), as it merely bubbles up in a roundabout way of only returning, an opposite form of simply the Christian soul returning to the arms of its Absolute and loving God. We can glimpse a kind of constitutive power of Zuggtmoy here, yet here she is merely passive, a result:

Life is ejected from the energy-blank and smeared as a crust upon chaotic zero, a mould upon death. This crust is also a maze – a complex exit back to the energy base-line – and the complexity of the maze is life trying to escape from out of itself, being nothing but escape from itself, from which it tries to escape: maze-wanderer. That is to say, life is itself the maze of its route to death; a tangle of mazings [Umwege] which trace a unilateral deviation from blank.

Death and Hegelian Reversals: Nature is Immediate, But…

Now it must be stated that an ontology of Death Drive, at least from a Freudian foundation, is one that already assumes a non-vital basis for Substance (or totality), for if Substance itself is living, a return to it would not be a death. This is a difficult thing, for in an Ontology of someone like Spinoza, indeed Substance presents a kind of zero in a near Plotinian sense, but life itself and its weavings are constituted by its very force, and one is never separated out from it (being its expression). A strict dichotomy between Life (Pleasure/Joy), and Death (nil, an inorganic realm), while not conceivable for Spinoza, for Freud seems determined by the very centricity of vision, an absolute focus upon the biological organism itself as a complete boundary (from which life is attempting escape, or at least unweave itself). I have argued elsewhere (in Conjoined Semiosis and The Problem with Spinoza’s Panpsychism) why organisms cannot form an absolute limit, the kind of which would then be dichotomized toward death. It is because Freud is organism centered in really a Hegelian sense, that he is forced to account for an apparent returning difference that is driven by the very acts of consciousness/life itself. Freud performs, in inverse, the very postulation of an illusion of a nil which is posited by Consciousness itself:

True, Nature is the immediate – but even so, as the other of Spirit, its existence is the immediate – but even so, as the other of Spirit, its existence is a relativity: and so, as the negative, is only posited, derivative [nur ein Gesetztes]…Spirit, because it is the goal of Nature, is prior to it, Nature has proceeded from Spirit [aus ihn hervorgegangen]. Spirit, therefore, itself proceeding, in the first instance, from the immediate, but then abstractly apprehending itself, wills to achieve its own liberation by fashioning [herausbildend] Nature out of itself; this action of Spirit is philosophy. (Philosophy of Nature 444)

Nature is both immediate, but then necessarily post to Spirit, come out of Spirit’s very apprehension. We can see if we undo this original preoccupation with (and centrality of) consciousness as a form of negation, we can see that Freud’s own dialectic unspools. The umwege  that Freud says are the “ever more complicated mazings” that are the complexifications of life, no longer are made against a background of death and zero, but come out of it, just as we have prime images of fungi and moulds that seemed by traditional lights to grow right out of putrescence and decay. In an ontological domain quite far from Hegelian negativity, matter itself thinks. There is nothing to return to, (but not “nothing” to return to), and the weavings of umwege organization are expressive powers of tendril-like freedoms.

[A fantasy illustration of the Fungal Queen from the gameplay world]

The One and the Many: Parmenides and Molds

It is here that I want to return to the powers of Zuggtmoy, in particular as they are manifested by the class of organisms slime mold. Naught Thought already directed us this way, pointing to Toshiyuki Nakagaki famed experiments with slime molds that seemed to demonstrate intelligence (referenced in Steven Johnson’s 2001 book Emergence). This is an intelligence I would like to think hard about because it defies some of our most common assumptions of the kind of forms intelligence must take.

Slime molds are a curious limnal organism, that not only lives between realms that seem conceptual opposed, Life and Decay, but also taxonomically between our easy and dominate ideas of independent Individual vs. controling Group, not to mention what is plant and what is animal (once thought a fungus, now Protista).

First let us engage the fascinating and seemingly conceptually contradictory lifecycle of slime molds, for they are neither individuals, nor colony, but participate in modes and versions of both. I propose that these examples serve as figures of philosophical analogy in particular for those brands of philosophy which like to juxtapose conceptual oppositions to be projected upon forms of life and the world. We are not going to be so forward as to assert that all things have the form of slime molds – though it does form an interesting counterbalance to explicit and implicitassumptions that “it” is like the human (or phenonemological consciousness, etc). What we are to hope is that the example of slime molds might help us overcome some of our more unconscious prejudices, especially when we engae in ontological imaginations.

As eluded to, Slime molds are remarkable creatures as they spend part of their lives in seemingly independent Individual states, and part of the time in collectives (some of which threaten our idea of what constitutes an Individual).

As you can see from the above, a lifecycle of a Plasmodial slime mold, in the haploid (single copy of a chromosome) form at the left the slime mold is either a spore or an individual cell; but, after syngamy, it begins to divide, not itself, but only its nucleus. It does this again and again until it has become one huge cell with thousands of nuclei, giving pause to the Platonic/Paramedian problem of the One and the Many, here the One being a coagulate of the nucleic many. In the Plasmodial stage the huge single cell creeps along in search for food until it eventually forms a sporangium, fructifying stalk, very much like a mushroom, which eventually will put forth the multitude of haploid spores.

To make this clearer, here below is the Plasmodial stage wherein all the individual amoeba-like cells have shed their cell walls, and the single form crawls across a supposedly “dead” territory. One can practically see the Fruedian encrustation of life, the umwege wending its way back toward Death. 

And here below is the spore producing stalk structure that culminates out of the great aggregate form:

And there is a second kind of slime mold (and a third not to be discussed) which begins in an amoeboid form, a single cell that instead of following a path of nuclei division and expansion, expends its life in solitary fashion until food becomes scarce, and emitting a aggregating chemical signal to be read by other isolated slime mold cells. Once a density threshold is crossed the mold cells cluster together to form one great colony which acts as a singular organism again confusing some of our more easy categories of self and group. 

Here is a concise description of the two different kind of slime mold processes of aggregation and reproduction:

All slime molds start life as a single, microscopic cell, and eventually end up as that puddle of goo. A plasmodial slime mold, like the one that researcher Toshiyuki Nakagaki coaxed through a maze (see article), constantly grows and divides. But instead of breaking itself into two new cells, it divides only its nucleus, becoming one larger cell with two nuclei. This process repeats until the plasmodium is a giant cell, like a sac of jelly, filled with thousands of nuclei. Ever so slowly, the plasmodium creeps across the forest floor, eating the tiny bacteria and yeast it finds there.

A different group, called the cellular slime molds, stay microscopic for most of their lives. They, too, live and feed in damp soil. When food gets scarce, though, these slime molds have an amazing trick for survival. Each individual sends out a chemical signal, allowing the slime mold cells to find each other. Then they aggregate, or stick together, until they have formed a giant roaming blob. This blob looks and acts like one creature, even though it is really thousands of individuals oozing along together.

Despite these differences, both kinds of slime molds complete their lives with an amazing final transformation. Either slime mold (plasmodial or cellular) keeps crawling along until it reaches a drier spot. There, it stops and metamorphoses into a sporangium: a tall, thin stalk with a sac on top, similar to a mushroom. The slime mold cells turn into stalk cells, or sac cells [about 20%], or spores [about 80%]. Finally, the cells that have become spores burst out of the top of the sporangium and are blown away by the wind. Where they land, they will start their life cycle over, invisible-and individual-once again.

from “Thinking Like a Swarm”

[above: individual to aggregate lifecycle of cellular slime molds]

In thinking about the cellar slime molds and their ability to signal to each other their respective states, one has to consider their communitarian capacities, how they are able to respond to the very threshold field of signally others, such that the way that we identify the boundary level of the organism itself must include the very semiotic field of the cAMP itself. Here  is information on a computer simulation of the cAMP (intracelluar messenger) effects between individual cells under aggregation, which offers signficant thoughts on patterns of formation, just how the chemical signal in chemotaxis expresses itself:

The slime mold aggregation is controlled by chemotaxis toward higher concentrations of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). (cAMP is a common intracellular messenger in higher organisms.) The onset of starvation causes some cells to produce and secrete cAMP. Extracellular cAMP binds to receptors on cells and initiates two processes. The first, and faster, process activates the adenylate cyclase enzyme which causes production of cAMP. This cAMP is secreted; it can then bind to the same cell, further stimulating cAMP production, and to other cells. The second slower process leads to inhibition of adenylate cyclase. This second process stops the autocatalysis. The extracellular cAMP diffuses away and is degraded by phosphodiesterase, which is secreted by the slime mold cells. Once the level of cAMP has fallen the cells begin to regain the ability to synthesize cAMP.

And here is a Florescence microscopy film of the aggregation which distinctly allows one to see the visual rhythm:

No doubt this leaves us laymen with a sense that we are dealing with the bizzare and transmogrifying edge of animal/plant, and extra-somatic behaviors, ones that allow us to detach ourselves from common notions of when and where the body ends. Cellar slime molds in particular seem to have an intensified sense of Individual and swarm, wherein the field of organization is almost forced to include a semiotic dispersion of the signal itself, with great fineness to the pattern by which they are clustered into a new, single acting entity. If Zuggtmoy powers exist here, they seem exemplified by questions of division, dispersion, unification and semiotic binding.

The Brain without A Brain

Now I would like to turn to the more pronounced “intelligence” features that seem to have been discovered within slime molds. What seems at first blush the very least discerning of vegetable/animal matter, has shown remarkable capacities for behaviors which only “higher” animals could accomplish.

The most well-known of these were Nakagaki’s evocative tests that suggested that slime molds could solve mazes:

Toshiyuki Nakagaki of the Bio-Mimetic Control Research Centre, Nagoya, Japan, placed pieces of Physarum polycephalum in an agar gel maze comprising four possible routes. Normally, the slime spreads out its network of tube-like legs, or pseudopodia, to fill all the available space. But when two pieces of food were placed at separate exit points in the labyrinth, the organism squeezed its entire body between the two nutrients. It adopted the shortest possible route, effectively solving the puzzle.

The organism changed its shape, according to the researchers, to maximize its foraging efficiency and therefore its chances of survival. The meal of ground oat flakes led to a local increase in contraction of the organism’s tube-like structures, propelling it towards the food (from this summation).

Or here in News in Science:

The maze was created by laying a maze template down onto a plate of agar. In the first part of the experiment, pieces of slime mould Physarum polycephalum were placed throughout the 3 x 3cm maze. To grow, the slime mould throws out tube-like structures called pseudopodia, and it soon filled the entire maze.

The maze had four routes through, to get from one exit to the other. Food was placed at both exits, and after eight hours, the slime mould had shrunk back so that its ‘body’ filled only the parts of the maze that were the shortest route from one piece of food to the other.

The researchers suggest that as the parts of the plasmodium come into contact with food, they start to contract more frequently. This sends out waves to other parts of its body which tell give feedback signals as to whether to grow further or contract. Ultimately, to maximise foraging efficiency, the plasmodium contracts into one thick tube, running through the maze.

Surely the visual aspect of the maze gives us an impressional sense of “intelligence” whereas the description allows something more like a directed motility, but really, is there a difference between the two? In a certain way the slime mold has “represented” the territory space, not pictorially, but semiotically, instilled differences within itself which spell differences in the world such that a certain economy, a judicious precision, is achieved.

But slime molds seemingly are capable of more than spatial genius. They have also a primordial memory, a manner by which they can space out time in regulative and anticipatory rhythms, having learned what tends to happen. Last year Nakagaki released a paper detailing the new co-ordinated and seemingly mental capacities.

When the amoeba Physarum polycephalum [a slime mold] is subjected to a series of shocks [burst of dry air] at regular intervals, it learns the pattern and changes its behaviour in anticipation of the next one to come, according to a team of researchers in Japan. Remarkably, this memory stays in the slime mould for hours, even when the shocks themselves stop. A single renewed shock after a ‘silent’ period will leave the mould expecting another to follow in the rhythm it learned previously. Toshiyuki Nakagaki of Hokkaido University in Sapporo and his colleagues say that their findings “hint at the cellular origins of primitive intelligence” (in Biology News)

It is reasoned that propagation pathways change with experiences, and thus retain under rhythmed cycles the form of temporally governed action. The pattern without changes the pattern/paths within, such that even the dumbest of cellular life is musically oriented towards states it seems it could never proximately sense.

The Beauty Dark of Zuggtmoy

So what has this rumination over the biological and bio-mental capacities of slime molds given us in regards to the original philosophical question, other than reminding us that there are some remarkable and probably as yet undiscovered characteristics of even what we take to be the simplest forms of living things? I offer, let us reimagine the demoness as a primordial power, one iconically represented by slime mold organism over which she is thought to rule. What would Zuggtmoy’s relationship be to “death” and the Death Drive. Slime molds we know are fundamentally oriented towards decay. Ammonia presents a near universal signal for the presence of putrification such that the entire feeding action could be said to oriented towards its presence (like Jakob von Uexküll’s tick). In this way the slime mold is determinatively and semiotically oriented towards death.

But it does not feed on death. It does not decompose. In fact it feeds on bacteria which perform the decomposition of organic matter. It feeds upon the thin layer of life which itself depends upon death. In this way its preoccupation with death is merely directed toward the very life/death shoreline. One could say that Zuggtmoy lives on the radiance of Death. And this is far from a Death Instinct. (It is easy to confuse the two.)

I want to perhaps poetically concentrate upon this very thin radiance of life that exudes from decay and ultimately death. One can see it with the very ocular and stunning effect the grotesque has upon the eye, the way that objects such as those that one might find in Joel-Peter Witkin’s gallery, shimmer with an odd kind of microbial sheen, the way the eye is forced to traverse the object as if it were covered with serpentine forms or trajectories.

I suggest that there are two things going on under the conflation of the Death Drive. There is first of all a needed explanation of the supposed Repetition Compulsion, the way in which a person (organism) inordinately repeats past trauma undermining pleasure pursuits. The apparent contradiction when placed within a Hegelian like concept of negating consciousness necessarily pressed Freud to conceive of a drive with a very different kind of aim, the aim of a return to a Death State. In typical mytho-anecdotal Freudian fashion, Freud watched a small boy toss and retrieve a spool in Fort/Da binaries only to be conflated into Being and Non-Being manipulations in philosophies of (ocular) presence. Yet, do we not see an elemental mode of the Repetition Compulsion in the most recent Nakagaki experiments on slime mold? As the slime mold slows its movements in anticipation of a cyclictic gust of dry air, are we really to say that we are finding the roots of a Being/Non-Being pre-occupation? Further, are we to deny that the slime mold has no pleasure principle circulations of its own coherence amid the anticipation? And if we were to grant a capacity to actually affect the environment in such a way that the trauma could be influenced to be repeated, would such an investment really be a Death Drive, or rather the celebration of internal coherences and environmental contrapuntal interweave. The pleasures of internal coherence, even amid outcomes of pain, are Pleasure Principle pursuits, and we might agree with Spinoza that it is our direction towards such coherences which gives us our Identification with what is beyond us, for the philosopher ultimately with Substance. There is no essential contradiction between Pleasure and Repetition, though most certainly Repetitions ever are expressionally in need for their expansions, their umwege into greater complexity and less triviality.

The second thing that is happening in notions of the Death Drive is quite apart from the Fort/Da Hegelian origins of the concept. The name itself gave associative rise to death objects or conditions which then are taken to be mesmerizing, attractive, seductive to the soul, apparently again in some sort of opposition to life and pleasure. Oddly enough these gothic preoccupations actually seem to be imbued with pleasures and perverse associations. They are kind of super-charged pleasure pursuits. And somehow these ideational objects are supposed to fit in with the Fort/Da, presence and absence drive to repeat. I don’t think that this is the case at all, and I would like to turn to the figure of Zuggtmoy to illustrate it.

It is not to Death itself that we are drawn, but rather to its sheen, its coverage by infintesmal molecules of light, perhaps we want to see Leibniz’s windowless monads here, or the first phosphorescence that feed on monad window elements loosened. It is the way in which disturbances in coherence (in proportion, form, rhythm, expectation) causes us to narrow ourselves and detect the living things, the forces, that cover that rift or disintegration. Just as Zuggtmoy’s slime molds scent themselves toward the bacteria that thrive upon decay, so too there is a primordeal force which feeds on the life that feeds on death.

But we must pause for a moment to consider what Death is. Is it really a zero-place, a return to nil as we sometimes are inclined to believe? Is it not simply (and factually) the dis-in-tegration of composed elements? The return of nutrient richness back to a matrix of further involvement. (I am reluctantly inclined to the joke Mozart was to be found in his coffin after his death, erasing all his musical works.) A living preoccupation with Death is really a preoccupation with wholesale constitutive elements, things that must be returned to the biome in order for it to function. There is a sense that the way in which material Life feeds itself with growing complexity is by attending to the very abiotic shoreline, the biocline, at which elements become first incorporated into bodies. And Zuggtmoy, the blue-skined Abysmal queen of fungi and their kind, tells us that there is ever a ribboning and forceful consumption which preoccupies itself upon this singular and pervasive riverbed, which pours itself along every vector.

The First View From a Microscope: Finding the Finite

There is an interesting if not compelling anecdote from the history of Science (and philosophy) come from the time when they were perhaps just diverging. Theodore Kerckring was a physician of the mid 17th century and participant in the running dispute of the exact nature of the things of human anatomy that the newly invented microscopes were revealing. The biggest debate was whether the human body was a system of veins or glands (no one seemed to think it could be made of both), as until one had a conception of just what one was looking at through the clouded glass, one really could not be sure what it was, counter to our intution that one need only look at something to be able to roughly tell what you were seeing. In 1670 he published his “Spicilegium Anatomicum” a work of anatomical illustration, physician diagnoses, and also microscopic observation. Among these curiosities and position takings is found the only extant first hand testiment of what could be seen in a Spinoza designed microscope. Kerckring held a once intimate relationship with Spinoza, as they both were members of Van den Enden’s Latin school when young men, though Theodore was Spinoza’s senior by six years. He even married Van den Enden’s daughter Clara Maria with whom one biographical source reports Spinoza may have fallen in love. In any case, Kerckring reports that he is in the possession of a remarkably powerful microscope, designed by the great philosopher, and after he describes the granular forms it reveals, he then passes onto a most perplexing passage where in he describes the tiny animalcules that cover the exposed organs of the cadaver he is examining:

On that account, that which is by my wondrous instrument’s clear power detected, what is seen is wondrous: the intestines plainly, the liver, and other organs of the viscera, swarm with infinitely minute animalcules, which whether by their perpetual motion they corrupt, or preserve, it would be in doubt, oh, for something is considered to flourish and shine as a home while it is lived in, all the same though, a habitation is worn away by continuous cultivation. Marvelous is nature in her arts, and more marvelous still is Nature’s Lord, how he brought forth bodies, thus up to the infinite itself reciprocally in his size having withdrawn, that no understanding may be attained, if it be, if one be, or when it would be of some finite size; thus if by diminishing you would descend, never will you discover where you would be able to stand…(tentative translation).

It is not decided what Kerckring saw, but it is possible under some estimates of the magnification of Spinoza’s microscope (based on Kerckring’s other observations and capacites of the day), that these may have been the first human observation of bacteria, more than a decade before those made by the expert microscopist Van Leeuenhoek more than a decade later. But more than this, in Kerckrings speculative observation, something akin perhaps to early travel to the moon, we have nexus of the human with the miniscule of the world, the tiniest places, come from the glass of the great ontologist, Spinoza. And better his own difficulty in assessing if the small animals that cover the dead flesh were part of it maintainance or its destruction, with comparison to a home. To repeat the valued line,

…for something is considered to flourish and shine as a home while it is lived in, all the same though, a habitation is worn away by continuous cultivation.

As we contemplate the Death Instinct and the biocline shore between biotic and abiotic, it would be good to follow Kerckring first-sight inconclusion. We ultimately cannot say which processes of Life, and those of Death (though certainly which are proximately of this one life and this one death). There is an ecosystem, an economy of parts in organization that was glimpsed from the first history of it.

May we suggest that the demoness Zuggtmoy embodies the power of an alien, largely unseen aspect of our pre-occupation with Death. Not a drive to zero, but to the very sheen and radiance upon the decomposed, the falling to the inert, where bonds are loosened.

How Dark is Dark? The Zuggtmonic Drive

Naught Thought tells us that Dark Vitalism is the force of forces, something akin to the One… 

Dark vitalism, while not my own coinage, names the force of forces (or the One) not as a pure unification but the possibility of ‘isness’ itself as well as the resulting emanations, immanences, emergences and transcendences. The ontological cascade moves from the Real, to Immanence, to Sense and finally to Transcendence. Or from existence as only possibility, to the configurations of matter and energy, to the interaction of stimulus and sense, ending with the extension of ontic being via symbols, structures, technologies et cetera.

And that this vitalism is marked by its very chemical machinic nil, something that must be ajoined to the biological preoccupations of D&G…

The recently coined dark vitalism or mechanistic vitalism (dark as in nihilistic but also as attached to the chemical darkness of Schelling’s unground and mechanistic in that it is deterministic) must be articulated in response to Deleuze and Guattari.

If Zuggtmonic forces are driven by the chemical, proto-semiotic, machinic processes that serve a layer of un-brained intelligence which underwrites all “higher” forms of life, a celluar and contrapuntal, inter-rhythmed consumptive incorporation of elements and their living nexus radiance, then is this really a Nihilism at all? Is it not simply the de-centering of the human (and its emblem, consciousness) in such a way that we come to understand “individual” and “corporation” in very different terms. Pre-occupations with Death and Decay rather are turning to the incandesence that surrounds unloosening itself, the core operation of Eros.

Is it merely a revelatory coincidence that Zuggtmoy appears from the roots of Greek for yoking together (ζυγόν; LSJ) and cutting apart (τμῆμα; LSJ)? The Zuggtmonic drive is merely the machinic intelligence of dictative weaving together of initial consumption and incorporation, the feeding of Life upon the Life that feeds on Death, yoking what has been severed in a mat of constitutive grounding, in which the abiotic is sedimentally and musically re-interwove.

And lastly with this in mind, let us consider Eric Deschamps illustration of the seductive and puppeteering demoness. Is there something to say from the point of view of consciousness, the traditions that wish to think in terms of binaries and negations? What does it mean to see as Zuggtmonic a sexualized form of organic fungal-animal, self-directed in a self-organized realm, making the white bones of Centered Consciousness dance or hang? How close are we to Hegel’s greatest nightmare, that matter itself thinks. That instead of the bifurcation of reflective Male consciousness, as Irigaray tells us,

…[feminity in Hegel is] aware of no difference between itself and the maternal, or even the masculine, except that one is mediated by the abstract immediacy of the being (as) or by the rejection of one (as) being. The female lacks the operation of affirming its singular and universal link to one as self (Speculum, 224)

There is an operative consciousness of elemental contrapuntal pervasion, of female determination. Not one marked by severance and absence (however mediated) but by weave and subsumption through affective incorporation. A truly material thought. That desire, in its own realm, dances the white bones. Nicola talks of the Tiniest Diety and we questioned whether Zuggtmoy could be she.

Nietzsche has a beautiful thought about fungus that we should attend to…

382

Gardener and garden – Out of damp and gloomy days, out of solitude, out of loveless words directed at us, conclusions grow up in us like fungus, one morning they are there, we know not how, and they gaze upon us, morose and grey. Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener but only the soil of the plants that grow in him!

Daybreak

We can see where the fungal growth is relagated to an unbecoming lifeform of the worst association, but there is something brilliant here which is more than Nietzsche had in mind. Our conscious conclusion, not just our morbid ones which might pre-occupy with death, but ALL of our conscious conclusions can seem to come up out of no-where in the morning. Both our joys and our fears. And yes, though we must garden our soil, I suggest that we must also make a garden of slime molds and fungi (and not just neat English or German perfections). There is a system below, in our soil. A music in it, and our conscious thoughts spring up in radial circles, and inching surface travels that are far richer than the molar appearances that stir and consolidate us. Zuggtmoy affectively communicates to the plant and animal realm that is within us. I think that there is more to be said of her, her powers in political status and in ontological distaff, but this is a beginning.

Zuggtmoy: Demoness Ontology in Dark Vitalism

 

[illustration: Eric Deschamps]

Zuggtmoy – [syncretic; assumed from Greek ζυγόν, a yoke or joining piece (cf. ζεύγνυμι) + τμῆμα, a cut, wound or section, τμήγω] A Demoness strongly associated with fungal forms and grave mould, laymenly written to inhabit or rule the 222nd layer of the Abyss. Oldest magical reference is an example of dream summoning, (3rd century, PGM XIi 151-155):  

Spell for demanding a dream from ZUGGTMOI.

I call on you the headless goddess who has sight in her feet. You who cut and chain.

Arise, daimon. You are not a daimon but the blood of the two sperma [?] on the coffin of Osiris
I conjure you daimon by your two names: Zuggtmoi-anouth. You are the headless goddess.
Answer me.
And in an invocation (6th century, PGM XII 54-72):

SAPHPHAIOR
BAELKOTA ZUGGTMOI EKENNK LIX
the great demon and the inexorable one,
…IPSENTANCHOUCHEOUCH
_____________________

DOOU SHAMAI ARABENNAK ANTRAPHEU BALE
SITENGI ARTEN BENTEN AKRAB ENTH OUANTH
BALA SHOUPLA SRAHENNE DEHENNE KALASHOU
CHATEMMOK BASHNE BALA SHAMAI
On the day of Selene, at the first hour,
But on the (day) of deliverance, at the fifth hour,
A beetle
At the eighth, a dog

Hail, Osiris, king of the underworld,
lord of embalming,
who is south of Thinis,
who gives answer in Abydos,
who is under the noubs tree in Meroe,
whose glory is in Pashalom.

Associated with the bright yellow Plasmodial slime mold Fuligo septica, colloquially “dog’s vomit,” which in Finnish lore is called paranvoi, or “butter of the familiar,” thought used to maliciously spoil neighbor’s milk.  Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensishe), the mould beetles Anisotoma and Agathidium are also seen as sacred to the Demoness, as they are often found in the presence and her mold form. Fuligo septica holds extreme resistance to the metal toxicity. Thought to omnipresently live on the “radiance” of decay, the demoness is the quintessential invisible deity of the grave, loathsome to mourners and keepers of the dead, upon whom she is said to unsuspectingly feed.

 - Celestial Agora of Benevolent Wisdoms [editor: J. F. I. L. B. Acevedo]

Spinoza’s Substance and the Objects of Objection

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

Reid, when you say…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lines of Flight: Where Lies the Continent

 Aaron Koblin’s animation of flight patterns over the United States, unearths them, and then re-earths them. Found over at Immanence.

Our picturalization of data works as a kind of archaeological dig, a brushing away of layers so as to find a buried artifact of some surviving structure with allows us to re-piece the entity of what is/was there. It floats up from the dust of what is inconsequential to our project, that which wombs it, saving it for our eyes. And it stands there, as we, with our armatronic selves, outfitted by our extensions, reach out and grasp it, and all that lies beneath. How the geography, the continental shelves of such quiet surpass, echo up into these ephemera.

The Emperor’s Clothes: Adieu/Badiou?

Been away for a day or so, and it seems that the flare-up over the effrontery  of not to be thrilled by Badiou apparently has died down, for whatever it is worth. Sewing the button I posted a comment  over at “Daily Humiliation,” attempting to second Ben’s affirmation of my characterization of a general dissatisfaction with the apparent recovery of the Truth at the hands of Badiou. Good to post it here as well…

Yes, elephant in the room, methinks. Perhaps this comes from a decided and articulate force of pro-Badiou expositors on the web, the ever-hovering threat that Set-Theory could descend upon you, like some kind of (n+1) dimensional philosophical object if you dared abstain from the enthusiasm, and the ever-present, softly Maoist reproach that you were merely reactionary (called Neo-liberal these days), not truly radical or nor thoughtfully caring enough, not loyal to the “name”/event of revolution, now called “Badiou”, if chills did not run at the sound of its name…all of this pushing the not-so-inspired-ones  silently into the relative corners of the handful of blogs we seem to imagine compose the “blogosphere” (more like a blogo-cul-de-sac). Someone finally mentioned, “Hey, he really isn’t that interesting or profound” and all those in the corners looked up and said “the others see the elephant in the room”. This is not, was not, a wave or a throng of hatred. It is merely a kind of shrugging off, with a sigh of a kind of relief.

I have read few writers not so much retract, but be careful to in addition to their criticism also stake-out a small piece of real estate in the Badiou revolutionary empire, who knows, there very well be a spike in the Communist Housing Market. For me though it is simply the fact that there are more interesting, more vital thinkers out there (both living and dead), as my francophile and social justice philosophical impulse remains as strong as ever. Its not that we disaffected ones begrudge the enthusiasm of others over their thinker of choice, as reserve the right to be less excited than they without having to incur the accusation of disloyalty, (or enmity), or even adolescence. Not all flight is Icarian. Not every maze Daedaled.

Dinner with Hegel…

The Unclear Dinner Guest

I ran into this wonderful vignette - perhaps it is famous - when looking into historical examples of philosophical takes on maternity, the relationship of the mother to the fetus. (I would like to write on the notion of dark vitalism soon).

After the meal had ended and the guest departed, Goethe asked his daughter: “Now how did you like that man?” “Strange,” she replied, “I cannot tell whether he is brilliant or mad. He seems to me to be an unclear thinker.” Goethe smiled ironically. “Well, well, we just ate with the most famous of modern philosophers – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.”

- Ottilie von Goethe

Aside from the possibility that there is some kind of Absolute perspicuity on the part of the young, female von Goethe [daughter-in-law?], there is also the sense that philosophers, like poets, make up their categories in order to deliver a kind of unclarity, an unclarity that transforms, but that we must muck through to get at really what they are doing.

More on the Disavowal of Badiou – The Father Who Enjoys

 

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

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

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

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

The Banality of Badiou…

 

Splintering Bone Ashes puts it this way,

Whilst his ontological position has a certain minimalist elegance about it, everything he builds atop it is little more than a ridiculous hyper-structure of nonsense piled upon nonsense, an unsteady philosophical folly whose absurd (yet po-faced) architecture has only been exacerbated by (what I have read thus far of) Logics of Worlds.

And Naught Thought collects the pieces of a disaffected sense of betrayal (a betrayal that isn’t even dramatic enough to be betrayal).

For me it was never the case that I was enchanted with Badiou, only savoring his study of Paul, often just seeing him as something of a One-ups-man of his much more influential and preceding, Deleuze. Who is going to inherit the shared crown of the Dioskouroi, Derrida and Deleuze, so as to enthrall today’s students, and convince them that real philosophy is being done somewhere, now? Continental Philosophy’s need for a frontman.

Yet really it comes back down to this “mimimalist elegance”. The austerity would be austere if it were only intense. If things are to be abstracted, honed, rarified, condensed, they must vibrate, burn in all their mimimal character. Instead it all comes off as a sketch in a student’s notebook, some essential diagram dreamed up, and then written on without end. It is like Plotinus without the Vision. It is a mathematical analogy taken too literally, nicely clever, so as to self-convince. Its like seeing a magician who fails at magic, the transformative performance of that which magic is, and turning illusion into mere trick, someone who forgot the Prestige. After you make the world disappear, you have to bring it back.

[Spoiler: Do not watch if you haven't seen the film, The Prestige]

The Unmarked Font of Metaphysics and Truth: Helvetica and Belief

 

The Metaphysics of Fonts

My last post on the documentary Helvetica (2007) had me musing deeply today. Not only does one suddenly begin to notice fonts used in public signage, in omnipresent fashion that invokes thoughts of Ideology (a cultural perspective taken that must be taken for things to be seen clearly, coherently) – “No Parking” and “Please Clean Up After Your Dog” are two interpellative Helvetica commands I pleasingly read today, but one begins to think about metaphysics itself, the way in which metaphysics attempts lay hold of the very invisible, or largely unseen normative rules and restrictions which essentially condition our capacity to make sense of the world and others, as they are. In distinction from Ideology, Metaphysics is trans-historic, or aims to be. Can Helvetica and its largely ubiquitous, in-visible presence in Western Cultural centers of political command and commercial invitation, give us some clue or evidence towards bothMetaphysical aims, and Ideological functioning (with the understanding that Metaphysics and Ideology bear some relationship to each other)? And, in looking at the dominance of Helvetica, is there a metaphysical/epistemological position that may more coherently than others help us make sense just what is going on in Political imperative and Commercial invitation?

Now surely many others have written on Helvetica with far more erudition and historical knowledge, as the profound thoughts offered on the font by various designer/philosophers in the documentary reveal. These are merely the application of other thoughts I have thought in other contexts to the phenomena of Helvetica as social phenomena, as a point of musing. I have no special insight here, and would enjoy others bringing to my attention any studies/theories that would collaborate or counter my line of thinking.

What comes to mind though when one gazes at the clean, tailless, space-embraced lettering of Helvetica that in the 1950′s swept away so many inconcordant typefaces in both advertisements and eventually government documentation, is the fundamental distinction between the Marked and the Un-marked. An Un-marked element is one whose input or information passes relatively cleanly through it. It stands as clean of any distinction that would draw undue attention to its form (any sub-element that would be read as “marked” would direct the mind at least in part to the consideration of the making of the form itself, a looking into its own history which may or may not comment upon the substance of its report…to use an obvious example, drunken scrawl left from the night before might markedly direct one’s attention to suspicion about the accuracy (or alternately, inspiration) of the content.

The Marked and Un-Marked: Turning One’s Gaze

The concept of Marked and Un-Marked goes a very long way of giving us an epistemic, though non-essential, binary which may help explain why in Western Culture things like White and Non-White, or Male and Non-male, or Citizen and Non-citizen have such wide-spread and organizing determinations. The Un-marked allows information/content to pass rather cleanly through. The Marked causes us to pause, inspect and ultimately judge the worth of value of the report (and this rather inevitably seems to direct us to the bodily, affective realities of the Marked thing, ultimately viewing the report under an affective, imaginary register). Helvetica, as it’s cultural place has come to evolve and entrench itself in many modern, Political/Commercial, Western contexts, has become a near definitive Un-marked font. 

Now let me deviate for a moment so to pass back into metaphysics and an interesting disagreement that arose in succeeding generations in the mid 17th century, newly modern Dutch Republic. Descartes was all the rage, presenting to forward thinking persons of nearly every ilk, a remarkably clean, efficient, and decidedly mechanistic view of the world. As we all well know as inheritors of the Cartesian mindframe, the world was made up of two Substances, one of which was that of Extension, by which we could view everything as operating as a kind of machine of causes. The other was that of Soul, and the problem was in articulating how the one connected to the other. For Descartes, imbued with a Christian view of the world, a most required connective part was the Will (voluntas), a faculty of judgment with operated upon passive and effortless human perception and its ideas, actively assessing out from neutrality both those which were true, and those which were false. (In this neutrality, perhaps you get the first glimpse of where I am going as per the neutrality of Helvetica as a font.)

Descartes on the basic distinction between comprehension and assessment: 

“All that the intellect does is to enable me to perceive, without affirming or denying anything, the ideas which are subjects for possible judgments”

“That we have power.., to give or withhold our assent at will, is so evident that it must be counted among the first and most common notions that are innate in us”

But, perhaps the foremost Dutch commentator on Descartes in the next generation, the outcast Jew and microscope maker Baruch Spinoza, had a radically different correction to offer to Descartes’ idea of judgment.

The Elder, Truth

Though Truth and Falsehood bee Neare twins, yet Truth a little elder is.

–John Donne

Spinoza denied altogether the basic distinction between acts of comprehension and assessement, denying in fact the Cartesian freedom of Will. This is more than simply a perverse or subversive denial of free volitions as they seem to be to us most obviously. Rather it is part of a very different conception of Mind, and how it operates:

E2p49 – In the Mind there is no volition, or affirmation and negation, except that which the idea involves insofar as it is an idea.

Or, as James later will sum of Spinoza:

All propositions whether attributive or existential, are believed through the very fact of being conceived.

The above citations and framing of the question is drawn from one of the more interesting Spinoza-influenced articles I have read in my now growing years of reading Spinoza literature: “How Mental Systems Believe,” by Daniel T. Gilbert (Feb 1991, American Psychologist). [Click Here for Download]. The article covers the consequences of an elementary disagreement between Descartes and Spinoza, a forgotten disagreement. Gilbert argues that the loss of the disagreement has lead AI designers, who have largely inherited the Cartesian view of mind, to build cognitive models (at least up to the ’90s) on an unquestioned comprehension/assess distinction. This is how the author opens the essay, in the broadest of terms:

Everyone knows that understanding is one thing and believing is another, that people can consider ideas without considering them so, and that one must have an idea before one can determine its merit. “Everyone knows the difference… between supposing a proposition and acquiescing in its truth” (James, 1890, p. 283). Nonetheless, this article suggests that what everyone knows may be, at least in part, wrong. It will be argued that the comprehension and acceptance of ideas are not clearly separable psychological acts, but rather that comprehension includes acceptance of that which is comprehended.

The psychological tests the author appeals to in support of a Spinoza epistemology may very well have been superceded by others after it. I have not seen the direction of research that has followed. What is memorable about the article, and why I strongly recommend it, is that it helps to concretely explain a very fundamental difference in theory that may have quite lasting and rippling effects, not only across cognitive science, but also perhaps within social criticism, as I am attempting to draw forth in the example of the Helvetica font. It gives a sense how a rather arcane sounding distinction made in the 1600s may have a lasting effect on the powers of our present day descriptions.

The Library of Knowledges: Fiction and Non-Fiction

But let me press on. Gilbert by way of an expert analogy shows us just what the difference between a Cartesian and a Spinozist cognitive system is. He asks us to imagine a vast library into which new books are continually being introduced (generally, in the human mind perceptions and ideas). There are two main ways new books can be coded as fiction or non-fiction (true or false ideas), what he calls the “tagging system” of each…

Imagine a library of a few million volumes, of which only a small number are fiction. There are (at least) two reasonable methods by which one could tag the spines of books so that fiction could be distinguished from nonfiction at a glance. One method would be to paste a red tag on each volume of fiction and a blue tag on each volume of nonfiction. Another method would be to tag the fiction and leave the nonfiction untagged. Either of these systems would accomplish the goal of allowing a librarian to distinguish fiction from nonfiction without necessitating that he or she actually reread the book each time such a discrimination needed to be made.

It is only a mild oversimplification to say that Descartes considered the mind to be a library of ideas that used something akin to the red-blue tag system. A new book (new information) appeared in the library (was represented in the mind), its contents were read (assessed), and the book was then tagged (recoded or rerepresented)as either fiction (false) or nonfiction (true). New books unassessed ideas) lacked a tag, of course, and thus were not identifiable as either fiction or nonfiction until they had been read. Such new and unread books were “merely” represented in the library.

Spinoza, however, argued that the mind was more like a library that used a tagged-untagged system. In Spinoza’s view, books were represented before they were assessed; but because of the particular tagging system that was used to denote the outcome of that assessment, a new book that appeared without a tag looked exactly like a work of nonfiction. In a Spinozan library, a book’s spine always announced its contents; no book could be “merely” represented in the library, because the absence of a tag was itself informative (or misinformative) about the content of the book. Analogously, ideas whose truth had been ascertained through a rational assessment process were represented in the mind in precisely the same way as were ideas that had simply been comprehended; only ideas that were judged to be false were unaccepted, or given a special tag.

The author passes through a variety of comprehensive though anecdotal evidence that the Spinozistview is correct, credulity, initial correspondence of belief withcomprehension is supported by a child’s gullibility, which only latter grows discerning with experience and the suseptability to suggestion when persons are fatigued or purposivelytortured. (In fact it is with a view towards an economy of processing powers that Gilbert argues that the human mind evolved to believe first, and deny later.) Of interest for our examination of the font Helvetica is his solitation of marked and un-marked words, how the Un-marked term is conceptually more basic than its marked counterpart:

Unmarked terms are thought to describe operations that are more conceptually basic than their marked counterparts. The Spinozan hypothesis states that unacceptance is a more complex operation than is acceptance and, interestingly enough, the English words that indicate the acceptance of ideas are generally unmarked with respect to their antonyms. Thus, people speak of propositions as acceptable and unacceptable, but (unless one is a neologizing psychologist) not as rejectable and unrejectable. One’s statements may be true or untrue, but they may not be false and unfalse. People hope their ideas are correct, accurate, and credible rather than incorrect, inaccurate, and incredible, but they cannot grammatically wish to be unwrong. Indeed, people even speak of belief and disbelief more naturally than they speak of doubt and undoubt. To the extent that one’s words for mental processes do reveal something about the processes themselves, the structure of the English lexicon suggests (as did Spinoza, who wrote in Latin) that the rejection of false ideas is more complex than the acceptance of true ones.

For Gilbert, and I may well agree, there is an essential and operative binary here, in which initial embrace, belief-as-comprehension precedes the counterpart of negation. This allows him the conclusion that all sentences are coded as true until further critique is to be done on them. It is here that I want to depart from Gilbert’s paper which goes on to speak of experimental evidence for the Spinoza hypothesis (again, evidence that science may or may not have suprassed at this time). I want to turn to, in fact involve, this essential dichotomy of marked and unmarked to consider again the powers of the Helvetica font in our society.

 

The Powers of Helvetica

As I pointed out in my last post, there is much mystery about the lasting power of Helvetica, not to mention its strongly persuasive effects in both the political and the commercial realms. From the above description I feel it is safe to say that the sans-serif font Helvetica has come to be the Un-Marked font of both of these domains. And while it seems most likely that it would have been a sans-serif font that would become the un-marked term, there does seem something quite gridlike and balanced in the Helvetica that further enforces its unmarked status.

If we grasp Spinoza’s assertion plainly, we understand that the unmarked term/idea/concept/sentence is the one already believed in its very comprehension, a belief that might be equated to the powers or failings of children. When we read Helvetica, we partake not only in a certain kind of neutrality, but it is a neutrality of affirmation. What is printed in Helvetica by its very form is already a form of belief, we can say. And certainly there are other fonts in other conditions which are the unmarked form, for instance the serif Times New Roman is the glassy clear in textbooks or newspaper publications. Yet, Helvetica, as it stands towards all other fonts which we experience, perhaps because of its dominance of the most significant organizing spheres of our persons (political and commercial power), is Un-marked beyond all.

So, is Helveticaa kind of metaphysical font, a communication of the very weft and woof of perceptions, beliefs and truths? I think we can contingently go in this direction. Wittgenstein in his rejection of metaphysical speculation wanted to turn the most mysterious seeming statements like “All rods have a length” (withsome reference to Kant), into simple grammatical statements. The great truths of philosophy are just sentences which show how we use words, with nothing profound beneath them. For instance “All rods have length” just shows us how we use the words “rod” and “length” and no amount of experience withrods and length will give us evidence to falsify the claim. Grammatical statements are those which cannot be negated, not for mysterious reasons, but because negating them would end up producing nonsense.

As an appreciator of Spinoza you can tell that I cannot fully embrace Wittgenstein’s position, but it does do something to reveal the nature of Helvetica commands or invitations for purchase. In a sense, Helvetica has become the aesthetic manifestation of something close to the Grammatical Statement. Not only as an Un-marked form of a dominant sphere of social organization, and as such by default believed, the form itself induces a Grammatical Statement like bind wherein one can only deny the truth of the belief at some cost of coherence. The truth of the Helvetica-expressed idea, at least at this point in time, has a lasting, affective ballast, which I believe remains even after its negation or disbelief. Contingently a Helvetica expression may be false, but coherently it is true. In our society this is the two pronged force of the Law, and I believe it is Spinoza’s Marked and Un-marked conception of the Mind that points us to this realization.

It remains to be decided just how ideological and how metaphysical these effects are. That is to say, Do the powers of Helvetica participate in, not just historically contingent hegemonic organizations of persons and affects, but also within a more profound potentia  of belief? When Spinoza laid out his claim against the foremost philosopher of his Age, denying a fundamental freedom of the Will, grounding comprehension and perception itself in belief itself, he saw all belief to be an activity, an affirmation of one’s body in a very real and concrete sense. When we perceive we affirm our flesh under a certain degree of power. And we are only made more free through making more powerful affirmations of ourselves. If this is so, the very Un-marked clarity of Helvetica points a kind of absolute relation, a stream of power unto which we are forever orienting ourselves. And it is up to us to separate out our imaginary relations that for instance impell us to buy The Gap clothing out of its very Helvetic form, and the absolute value of the Un-marked itself. Or, to put it another way, we must see that Un-marked categories/terms/concepts/forms are not just devices of control, but also powers that derive their potency from a greater univocality. And it is the Marked term, in all of its developmental and expressive quality, that causes us to realize this.  

What we recall is that these issues and determinations are not those of armchair philosophies, of rare disciplines or their categories, but the very lived realities of experiential Marked and Un-marked Reals. Helvetica speaks metaphysical truths. And we daily read it. This makes room for both the grasp of and resisitance to, Helvetica.

The Ubiquity of the Clear, the Human, the Humane: Helvetica

Many thumbs up for the documentary Helvetica (2007), that happens to be on Netflix Instant Play. I just love the uncovering of these kinds of things, pointing out the omnipresence and therefore degreed omnipotence of something we regularly fail to see. (And since Hofstadtler wrote on fonts in Metamagical Themas, I have to say I have retained a fascination over their incredible expressivity.

The film follows the literal and cultural history of the font Helvetica, up to present day, a font whose ubiquitousness is compared by some interviewees, to air and gravity or at least off-white paint…its just there. Is it a McDonalds of mal-nutricious typeface, ready at every corner, or an elegant expression of what IS? For instance Massimo Vignelli, a “high priest” of design modernism, compares the life work of a designer to the work of a doctor. Whereas physicians fight against disease, designers fight against visual disease, ugliness, which he finds all around us. Typography, we are told, isn’t even the art of black and white, but really the art of the white, the space between the black, like music which is the art of the space between the notes. And Massimo generously numbers the quantity of quality typefaces at barely a dozen, using himself only three.

Driven by legibility, Helvetica is the model modern typeface, carrying the right connotations, perhaps the very “clear and distinct” yet embodied idea of Descartes. Codifed high modernism. Described as “doing away with the manual details” of the 19th century typeface, it achieved a certain gridlike “neutrality” that was and is perceived as “meaningless,” non-occluding.

As one admiring explicator tells it “Its not a letter that’s bent into shape. Its a letter that lives in a powerful matrix of surrounding space…the figure-ground relationship properly executed”.

But it is not only clear and distinct, but also commanding or unquestioning in its clarity. Paradoxically, still, a commanding quality that is not authoritarian, rather rounded, softly exact, an accessible humanity-clarity. It seems to hold a power beyond even our familiarity with it, our cultural, historically contingent associations. It practically speaks “man” in the blankest of senses.

This kind of beautiful expressiveness of typeface has a power beneath message of course. As one designer speaks of typeface choice: one might not be conscious of a typeface, but one will be affected, in the way that an actor miscast in a role will affect the believability of a story, while not impairing the ability of an audience to follow the plot. The choice of typeface is that of a casting director.

And then in the film is the marvelous, self-confessed typo-maniac Mark Spiekermann (above), who practically spits out in disgust in description of Helvetica: “The guy who designed it tried to make all the letters look the same. He-llooo. That’s called an army, that’s not people. That’s people having the same fucking helmet on”

His engaging, typographical driven English blog is here  – he has a German blog as well. And I must say that I feel compelled to type in his FF Meta typeface. Practically on principle, but also out of aesthetic embrace. (I wish I knew how to download and default typefaces.)

Another designer commenting on it being the urban signification system beautifully calls Helvetica the perfume of the city. Something we would miss if it were not there. And we must wonder if that is not true.

We follow the anti-Helvetica warning “Don’t confuse legibility with communication,” and muse about its radical dominance for half a century while nearly everything else has changed, if “it contains s certain design program” or how a typeface can become an “unfixable” typeface.

These thoughts bring me to a past contemplation of mine, on perhaps the very first anti-Helvetical font, centuries before printed type: Lindisfarne: The Rise of Illuminative Script

Personally I am conflicted about Helvetica, for I cannot deny that profound and fundamental effect the typeface has on me, in particular in commercial circumstances (though surely in government and legal contexts as well). It is indeed reassuring in a kind of subtly rich, nurturing fashion, denying me my status in the revolutionary aesthetic guard, no doubt. But when I think about the things and passions spoken by the Anti-Helveticans, I am also stirred, finding my way, conceptually, somewhere close to the want for an aboriginal deviation that I have not quite found. Helvetica is never sufficient for any personal communications. (I’ve changed my email default many times, and seem to enjoy the serif Sylfaen.) The wish is for a kind of doctrinal handwriting of a typeface, if there were such a thing as a personal typeface (how one would tire of that in a way that one does not tire of one’s handwriting).

In any case, the font we use becomes politicized, aestheticized, in such very important and beautiful ways. Typo-philes are a kind of literal philosopher who gazes at the actual frame in which messages appear. Perhaps we should choose and read more carefully.

 

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