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The Unrare, Assemblage and Implicate Power: Kairos, Complexity and Ethical Greatness



Spinoza, Nietzsche, (Jesus and Satan) on the “Right Time”

 Therefore Jesus said to them, my kairos has not yet arrived, but your kairos always is ready.

John 7:6

Our investigation begins at a moment when Nietzsche seems to question, in a fully dialectical moment, the spearhead of his discourse, that is, an assumed rarity of genius (of which he seems to help make up a type). Could it be that genius after all is not so rare? I aim to use this occasion as decisive, a vital and possibly critical moment in his thought, a window which opens, but which he properly then closes, yet a window nonetheless, a kairos into what is possible. What is possible if genius is not so rare?


The Problem of Those Who Wait.–Happy chances are necessary, and many incalculable elements, in order that a higher man in whom the solution of a problem is dormant, may yet take action, or “break forth,” as one might say–at the right moment. On an average it does not happen; and in all corners of the earth there are waiting ones sitting who hardly know to what extent they are waiting, and still less that they wait in vain. Occasionally, too, the waking call comes too late–the chance which gives “permission” to take action–when their best youth, and strength for action have been used up in sitting still; and how many a one, just as he “sprang up,” has found with horror that his limbs are benumbed and his spirits are now too heavy! “It is too late,” he has said to himself–and has become self-distrustful and henceforth for ever useless.–In the domain of genius, may not the “Raphael without hands” (taking the expression in its widest sense) perhaps not be the exception, but the rule?–Perhaps genius is by no means so rare: but rather the five hundred hands which it requires in order to tyrannise over the “the right time”–in order to take chance by the forelock!

The passage in question lies near the end of his Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. It concerns the question of waiting. In section 273  Nietzsche has returned to one of his favorite themes, that of solitude, and he sketches out the dilemma that a man pursuing greatness faces. Such a one sees others as “means or as a delay” and his question becomes that of timing and of proximity. “This type of man knows solitude and what is most poisonous in it”. Nietzsche is examining the locus of a person, he is inspecting, as he is ever to do, the nature of this ideal type, a philosopher of the future. And such a man, a rarity, is caught between his own concept of himself and its employ. How to bring it forth?

It is here that Nietzsche teeters on the “problem of those who are waiting” (section 274). There is a bemoaning that “strokes of luck” and the “incalculable” seem to rule “action in time,” as if the seemingly rare man is simply tossed about, incapable of finding the right moment, the moment to apply his genius. And what is more, all over the earth there are others who are waiting, but unconsciously, yet it is likely that the “accident which gives permission to act—comes too late”. It is as if there is a precocious sea, threatening to over-ripen, waiting for its catalyst for change.

But then Nietzsche shifts his perspective. Perhaps, he wonders, genius is not so rare. Could it be that the esteemed brilliance of a soul, is something other than it seems?:

In the realm of the genius, could “Rafael without hands,” taking that phrase in the widest sense, perhaps not be the exception but the rule?  Genius is perhaps not really so rare, but the five hundred hands needed to tyrannize the kairos, “the right time,” to seize happenstance by the forelock! (translation modified)

– Sollte, im Reiche des Genie’s, der “Raffael ohne Hände”, das Wort im weitesten Sinn verstanden, vielleicht nicht die Ausnahme, sondern die Regel sein? – Das Genie ist vielleicht gar nicht so selten: aber die fünfhundert Hände, die es nöthig hat, um den kairós, “die rechte Zeit” – zu tyrannisiren, um den Zufall am Schopf zu fassen!

 Such a precious thought, of the kind that Nietzsche is so capable. I would like to look at it closely. First, it is necessary to understand the phrase, “Rafael without hands”. It is taken from Lessing’s play, “Emilia Galotti” (Act I, Scene 4). Notably this play is a classic example of enlightenment Bürgerliches Trauerspiel, wherein everyday people have taken the place of aristocratic protagonists. In such a dramatic form the long-standing assumption that only the upper classes were capable of feeling deeply enough to propel tragedy was being overtuned. “People” were suddenly “dramatic”. The “heroic” became more common, and this, in theme, is in keeping with Nietzsche’s momentary reflection on the nature and rarity of genius. 

Raphael With Hands

The Nature of Genius: “We cannot paint directly with our eyes”

The context of the quote is that of a painting of a beautiful woman, as it is being discussed by an enchanted viewer, Prince Gonzaga, and its artist. The Prince immediately recognizes the image of a woman he has fallen in love with, an image of remarkable accomplishment:“By God! As if stolen from a mirror!;” but the artist, Conti, replies that he is not at ease with his achievement, but also that this dis-ease has a comfort:

And yet, this piece still leaves me greatly dissatisfied with myself.—Although, on the other hand, I am also greatly satisfied with this dissatisfaction with myself.—Ah! Would that we were able to paint directly with our eyes! On that long path from the eye through the arm to the brush, how much is lost!—But, as I say, the fact that I know what was lost and how it was lost and why it had to be lost: of that I am as proud as I am of all that I did not allow to be lost. Prouder even. For in that knowledge, more than in this product of my art, I recognize that I am a truly great artist, athough my hand is not equally as great.—Or do you believe, Prince, that Raphael would not have been the greatest artistic genius if he had had the misfortune to have been born with out hands? (7)

So what is “Raphael without hands”? Nietzsche asks us to take such a phrase in the widest sense. Lessing’s Conti tells us of the transmission of an impulse, what we might call an affect of aesthetic experience, which travels down from the eyes, through the arm, to the hand and to the brush. And he speaks of his knowledge of the particular ways in which this aesthetic certainty is lost, the pleasure and pride of this knowledge. Raphael, an exemplar of human genius, is seen here to represent the possible incompleteness of genius, that as the man without hands, he might have lacked the very means by which his genius would come to be known.  We cannot “paint directly with our eyes” as Lessing puts it. This image of Raphael without hands invites us to think differently about the nature of genius. On one level of import it allows us to see genius as something that floats beneath the surface, something “in the eyes,” which according to historical contingency, Nietzsche’s “lucky stroke,” either makes its appearance or does not—for Raphael indeed might never have had hands, and we might never have known him—and even when it does make its appearance, its appearance is flawed, lost, broken, to some degree. One might wonder if there are thousands upon thousands of Raphaels around us, ephemeral and fractal un-becomings. But Lessing’s Conti allows us to see something more. Because he takes such pleasure in the knowing of the nature of his failing, the way the transmission is lost, the “how” and the “why” of its distortion, it calls attention precisely to the question of what are the “hands” of the genius?  It is this that Nietzsche has his eye on.

Titanomachy and The Titans of Completion

If we imagine that the hands of Raphael were not only his two physical hands, but in the “widest sense,” all of the events, minds and acts which conspired to bring him forth in history, the hands of Raphael suddenly become a perplexing involution of hands, all working together with remarkable perspicuity of effect. But something of them is monstrous, inordinate, beautiful. We are invited to not see Raphael in the traditional, and even Nietzschean image, of a great man who imposes his will upon the fresco wall, and then upon history, but rather as a collection of hands, hands that collude together.  Nietzsche tells us what genius possibly is, or rather what “rarity” is: “Genius is perhaps not really so rare, but the five hundred hands needed to tyrannize the kairos…” . He conflates genius, the rarity and the image of 500 hands into a single thing. Genius might be everywhere, but what is rare is the assemblage of hands which might bring it into appearance.

Here one is drawn, in the image of the five-hundred hands, to the association of the four Greek chthonic Hecatonchires (hundred-handed ones, sons of Uranus) which Zeus released from the underworld to help him overthrow the Titans; but also come to us thoughts of Typheus, the hundred-headed son of Gaia and Tartarus – Nietzsche marvelously conflating head and hand – the one who later warred against the Zeus and the Olympian gods. Read Hesiod’s informed description of the polycephalean effect:

Strength was with his hands in all that he did and the feet of the strong god were untiring. From his shoulders grew an hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon, with dark, flickering tongues, and from under the brows of his eyes in his marvellous heads flashed fire, and fire burned from his heads as he glared. And there were voices in all his dreadful heads which uttered every kind of sound unspeakable; for at one time they made sounds such that the gods understood, but at another, the noise of a bull bellowing aloud in proud ungovernable fury; and at another, the sound of a lion, relentless of heart; and at anothers, sounds like whelps, wonderful to hear; and again, at another, he would hiss, so that the high mountains re-echoed (820-835, Theogony)

The cacophonic assemblage of hands, voices, head, parts and pieces seems to be what Nietzsche is thinking of in terms of the rarity that makes up what we call the presentation of genius. It is a moment of revolution, one that makes sense to the gods a times, but then does not. The hands of coincidence are com- and im-plex, that is full of folds that threaten.

a circa 160 C.E,, representation of the allegoric statue made by Lysippos, in pentelic marble, Museum of Antiquities of Turin (Italy);

a circa 160 C.E,, representation of the allegoric statue made by Lysippos, in pentelic marble, Museum of Antiquities of Turin (Italy);

The duty of such a creature is to grasp the forelock of kairos. Kairos was the god of opportunity, depicted by a famed, lost statue by Lysippos as winged (above), having a long lock in the front, yet being bald in the back. The meaning of the visual trope is of course that one must seize the lock as it is coming, for it cannot be seized after it has passed. To understand the full meaning in Nietzsche’s use of kairos, so that it is not just conceived as a moment of any possible event, what can be called ‘plain opportunity,’ one should remember its meaning in Christianity. The kairos in the New Testament is closely associated with the “right moment” when Jesus as the Christ will reveal himself to the public. It is akin to our idea of mementousness. Jesus uses it in particular to tell his disciples why he will not go up to the Feast of the Tabernacles, just yet. His kairos is appointed, whereas theirs is somehow constant and immanent:

“Therefore Jesus said to them, my kairos has not yet arrived, but your kairos always is ready” (John 7:6), [and then], “You go up to the feast; I am not going to this feast, because my kairos has not yet been fulfilled (7:8).

Jesus indeed waits until the feast is half-way over before he arrives, and begins his ministry. The kairos is a moment of public appearance. Paul speaks of the return of Christ in just such terms: “I charge you to keep this commandment without spot or blame until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, which the best and only sovereign will show in his own kairoi “ (I Timothy, 6:14). As such the New Testament notion of kairos is entirely messianic. There is the unfolding of time, and then there is the exact moment when history is incised [interesting comments on the English word “intercession”]. The full-development of time works as a field wherein no particular act is important, that is, the kairos of disciples is always prepared/preparing. Christ’s is the flint moment.

Milton and Satan Speaks of Time

Of interest is that Milton, with whose work Nietzsche was familiar, takes up just this notion of the forelock of opportunity, and places it in the mouth of Satan, who is attempting to goad Jesus into acting too soon, before his kairos. An appeal to nationalism has failed to seduce, but Satan urges him on:

If Kingdom move thee not, let move thee Zeal,

And Duty; Zeal and Duty are not slow,

But on occasion’s forelock watchfully wait.

Paradise Lost. III 171-173

But Jesus has a sure conception of his Time, one which lies beyond common opportunity:

If my raign Prophetic writ hath told,

That it shall never end, so when begin

The father in his purpose hath decreed,

He in whose hand all times and seasons roul.*

III 184-187

 *[It is not for you to know the times (chronoi) and seasons/moments (kairoi) which the father placed in his own authority  – Acts 1:7]

Satan’s view of time is not of necessity, not of “must” but rather what appears to be best. In argument, he does not comprehend something more than that which brings advantage, one in which time is seen as a struggle of advantages, as each is conceived, for one’s own:

Each act is rightliest done,

Not when it must, but when it may be best.

 IV 475-476

How does Nietzsche aim to reconcile these views of time in a single conception of kairos? Against the Christ view of linear time, he has taken up the epistemological relativism of Milton’s Satan, a sense of time that waits and looks with Zeal for opportunity alone, such as can only be seen and argued for from a particular perspective. Yet like the Christ he has a dramatic sense of entrance and effect, that there is a moment that is appointed for him, not in terms of opportunity, but transformation. There is the sense that for others the right moment is everywhere, but for the man of greatness, it is precise. But what Nietzsche does in this small window of thought is upend his heroic conception of the man of greatness, of an isolated and rare genius, and make of him an infinite complexity. The singular becomes diffused across an entire field of action. What is rare is not genius, but the assemblage of hands which monstrously, cacophonously, produce its appearance. The forelock of kairos is slippery and fast. Only a five-hundred-handed-one could grasp it.

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Aggregates, Groups and Trans-semiotics

The Antinomy of Objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Van Leeuwenhoek’s View of Technology and Spinoza

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

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

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

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

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

Why Did van Leeuwenhoek Refuse to Let Others Look?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Van Leeuwenhoek, Technology and Spinoza

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

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


HAL 9000

The Intelligence of Innocence and What Makes Things Real

The “Open the pod bay doors please HAL” sequence

I watched 2001: A Space Odysseyfor the first time in sometime the other night. And a few thoughts rose to mind. There is of course the incredible personality dominance of HAL in the film, the unforgettable synthetic intelligence, and his schizophrenic lapse into homicidal clarity, brought on by the conflict of his two knowledges: a surface knowledged of the mission, and an unconscious knowledge which became an imperative, “secrecy”. It has been explained that HAL killed the crew as a logical function of this need for secrecy. No crew, no secrets.

This has obvious relevance for a criticism of totalitarian states, and power structures, those which circulate with a near-empty recursion of knowledge, but there is something more that struck me, in this viewing. (This film was the first film that I ever saw in a movie theatre I believe, and I was probably about 4 years old. So it leaves something of an Ur-print.) 


What really moved me was the nature of the Kubrick synthesis of technology and humanization, in particular the sequence where in Dave takes the pod out to retrieve the body of Poole, who we have just seen spasmodically hurled into space, until his limbs finally relent, and he eases into the void, a sculptural figure. What is remarkable, as Poole becomes aetheticized, as his “picture making mechanism” is cinematically evacuated, is the extraordinary delicacy with which the pod comes to his body. This emblematically human moment, the retrieval of a loved one’s corpse, the most irrational, yet powerful of acts, is accomplished via the mechanism. Kubrick and Usworth’s camera capture an incredible delicacy as the weightless body rolls into the otherwise crustacean-like pincher of the pod. This is maternal.

 What is significant to my point is that though the pod is behaving most humanly, what ensues is a robotic chess-match between Dave and HAL, already foreshadowed. Dave strategizes from within his mechanical sphere of action, he speaks with impeccable civility, adding the required “please” to his requests. The techniques of his technology, express, rather than retard his humanity, but he is operating from a logical core. Far from this being a 2001 that critiques technology, it is one that appraises it, as human. Where the humanity ends and the technique begins is not clear, in fact at times they are inverted, with humanity coming out from technique (lip-reading). There simply are techniques of the soul which HAL simply has not mastered yet. HAL at the same time presents the horizon of infinite and collapsed knowing (in which there is no “error”) but also the retarded and childlike, pre-reflective state in which error is not known. He is, like we are all, the baby monolith.

If we are going to let HAL and the mothership stand for a totalitarian, technocratic State, we will learn that the mind of such a State is childlike, possessing an innocence of the world, possessed in its purity of its knowing (and attendant to a logical paranoia). We have, for instance in the Tiananmen moment pictured above, with the pod holding the murderous consequence up to the monolithic mothership, the confrontation of the moral adult with the child-like structure possessing the capacities of a sheer and systematic brutality. What Kubrick’s point is though, I think, is that technology itself is in a kind of infancy, and as it matures, it becomes synonymous with, and undifferentiated from human action itself. Humanty in a sense is made up of our techniques. We see a bit of this in the scene in the lunar shuttle, as Heywood Floyd and the crew select artificial sandwiches.

{a dialogue apparently not in the original screenplay]

Dr. Floyd: What’s that? Chicken? 

Dr. Bill Michaels: Something like that. Tastes the same anyway. [laughter]

Other Pilot: Any Ham?

Dr. Bill Michaels: [looking] Ham, Ham, Ham, Ham…

Dr Floyd: Looks pretty good.

Dr. Bill Michaels: They’re getting better at it all the time.

Aside from the obvious, ironic tone with which everyone seems to be infected, an incipient overly optimistic talk, toeing the party line of unquestionable enthusiasm, there is the sense that indeed the food, just like HAL’s computer intelligence, IS approaching what is REAL, that is, the capacities to become synonymous with, and therefore indistinguishable from that which comes from a different process of assemblage. A ham sandwich not only is a ham sandwich by any other name, but by any other process. Its processes are capable of being subsumed.

What matters here is that technology is not impediment, but a genic pathway, a matrixing of human capacities, each of which have to understood to be in their infancy, much as man is seen in this way. As The technology of social organization which HAL is supposed to represent, stands in for our own capacities. We too, as we approach the infinite, asymptotic line, enter into brutalities and innocences which require moral adjustments. And these moral adjustments are hand and glove to the technologies themselves, in which technologies play a necessary part (hence, the pod carries out the most intimate of actions, the embrace of a dead loved one). In fact, technology expresses and manifests our most human shore. When we come to understand that the man who stood before the line of tanks (apparently an historical event that contemporary China young adults do not know happened), this was not best seen as a man positioning himself against men-in-tanks assemblage, a lone fleshly, individual and brave consciousness, but rather it was and is, a man-in-camera assemblage vs a men-in-tanks assemblage, a materiality put into assemblage whose vectors are continually being discovered.

There certainly is room here for a Lacanian style Big Other take on HAL and the mothership, the conscionable moment when the excluded individual presents the repressed remains to the Desire of the Other, and finds its airless way back into the system to subvert it from its blind spot. I think that there are very good reasons to suppose that such a “logic” does well to describe a certain circulation of desire and affect which regulates the acquistion of, and attendence to, knowledge. There is an investment in circulation. But such a dialectic does not see what is more, how there is an infancy and childhood to capacities to act, to technologies, as those capacities grow into our own extensions of what is Real. As as Real, the facts of the matter (no matter their transparency), compiled into knowing and perceptive bodies, which are necessarily joined in assemblage even to those that they oppose.

To add a last thought. This joining is not just a homogenization under a new logic, but rather are realistically read as a braiding of techniques, a communication of affects across bounds which resists any literalization. There is an intimacy with which the pod grasps the corpse, and an intimacy with which HAL recalls his eariliest song. The dialectic, if there really is one, is the passing of the polyphonous of technology into the binary of identities, for the sake of a polyphony of returns.

The imagination justifies its confused and indeterminate state by moulding itself in the natural potentia, in the development and increase of human operari. Therefore two levels can be identified: first a static level on which the imagination proposes a partial but positive definition of its own contents and a second, dynamic level on which the movement and effects of the imagination are validated as a function of the contitution of the world.

Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly