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Seminar on Joy’s Transformation: Cybernetic Achilles

The Serpent, Sea and Fire: Thinking Beyond the Skin

In the comments section over at In the Middle, Eileen Joy mentioned a seminar she teaches that really fascinated me, (and made me wish I could attend it), Bodies-Becoming & Identity Machines: Post/human Literatures, the syllabus of which she posts here. Any synthesis that contains the trinity of Grimm, Carroll and K. Dick simply thrills. In her description she quotes G&D’s ATP on the concept of a book…

. . . contrary to a deeply rooted belief, the book is not an image of the world. It forms a rhizome with the world, there is an aparallel evolution of the book and the world; the book assures the deterritorialization of the world, but the world effects a reterritorialization of the book, which in turn deterritorializes itself in the world (if it’s capable, if it can).

As she announces, referring to Haraway,

“In this course, we are going to explore how, following the thinking of Donna Haraway, the body does not end at the limits of the skin, but is dispersed across a world of affects, intensities, and objects. We will be especially interested in exploring hybridities and transformations of different “selves” that cross unexpected borders, from plant to insect to wolf to human to machine and beyond.”

Thoughts of this unity of transformation of course churn up all kinds of associations, with Kafka and von SacherMasoch heading the list when we are dealing with Guattari and Deleuze. But for me these kinds of trans-skin boundaries conjure up something more ancient than even Ovid. I think of Thetis, the mother of Achilles, for some reason.

The Frayed Threads of Divinity 

If you recall, Zeus was forewarned that if he bedded the sea-goddess Thetis the offspring would come to overthrow him. Wisely so, he forced Thetis to take on a mortal spouse, turning aside the divine fate, weaving it instead into a human line. But like the more well-known story of Menelaus in the Odyssey, who had to wrestle a shape-changing sea god Proteus, Peleus, the soon-to-be father of Achilles, had to wrestle Thetis in order to win her. It is this image that comes to mind, as Apollodorus tells it…

Chiron, therefore, having advised Peleus to seize her and hold her fast in spite of her shape-shifting, he watched his chance and carried her off, and though she turned, now into fire, now into water, and now into a beast, he did not let her go till he saw that she had resumed her former shape.


[Above: Peleus depicted as seizing Thetis around the waist, with the attendant creatures of transformation]

Here we have not a constant transmutation into a line of flight, but rather the wrestled hold upon transmutation until it shows its original/constant face. The female element passes through degrees of being. (A description of the late Mannerist depictions of Peleus and Thetis in Athenian vase: here.) So at first glimpse the Peleus/Thetis trial does not seem to hit immediately upon what Eileen is talking about…but give it a moment. Apollodoros continues…

And he married her on Pelion, and the gods celebrated the marriage with feast and song. And Chiron gave Peleus an ashen spear, and Poseidon gave him horses, Balius and Xanthus, and these were immortal.

When Thetis had got a babe by Peleus, she wished to make it immortal, and unknown to Peleus she used to hide it in fire by night in order to destroy the mortal element which the child inherited from its father, but by day she anointed him with ambrosia. But Peleus watched her, and, seeing the child writhing on the fire, he cried out; and Thetis, thus prevented from accomplishing her purpose, forsook her infant son and departed to the Nereids. Peleus brought the child to Chiron, who received him and fed him on the inwards of lions and wild swine and the marrows of bears, and named him Achilles…

The Library, III. xiii 5-6

Here we see the involution of the divine, now sought to be undone by the female power of transformation itself. Out of her shame she seeks to purify her son, burning the mortality right out of him. There is something remarkable about this image of the divine mother hiding her infant in the fire at night, and the infant writhing. The polymorphic materal body becomes not just a transverse cacophony, but a burning torture of purification itself. If we are to grant some sort of  Oedipal (and fatherly) cutting of the jouissance cord of agony/ecstasy, we see that the child is then joined powerfully to the wild/animal world through the surrogate Chiron. Not fires, but beasts feed him, in fact the core parts of beasts, intestines and marrows. The transformation of the child is no longer external, but internal, through nourishment most raw.

Achilles: The First Cybernetic Man

The boundaries of his skin, to take up again the Haraway’s distinction, are consecutively they are permeated unto transformation. The series of his mother has been embodied in a temporal succession of development. But there is more to add to this figure. As Frazer (the Loeb translator and editor) notes there is another legend of this story found in various mythological summations and scholia, as he retells it,

Thetis bore seven sons, of whom Achilles was the seventh; she destroyed the first six by throwing them into the fire or into a kettle of boiling water to see whether they were mortal or to make them immortal by consuming the mortal portion of their frame; and the seventh son, Achilles, would have perished in like manner, if his father Peleus had not snatched him from the fire at the moment when as yet only his anklebone was burnt. To supply this missing portion of his body, Peleus dug up the skeleton of the giant Damysus, the fleetest of all the giants, and fitted it neatly into the ankle of his little son, Achilles, applying drugs which caused the new, or rather old, bone to coalesce perfectly with the rest.

This one is just brilliant. Achilles is not only the birth-son of a divine/human interface, the warp and weft of human excellence, but he is also a cybernetic construction of an ancient past, a grafted inclusion of a lost Age of beings. And it must be embraced that the largeness of the former time is fitted to the infant’s body with a “drugs”. I assume here that Frazer is speaking of a “pharmakon” with is a recipe, a technology (technique), an invention of elements arranged, a potion, a medicine, a poison. Achilles, the first technological man.

There is something about this abberant version of the myth that speaks to just what the trans-human, post-human trajectory of path is. Our technologies are ever through combination beyond our skin’s boundaries, incorporating past and buried powers (those skeletons of flesh), with our own bodies, in novel ways. What is buried in the earth of our mutual past is exhumed and woven in, with pharmakon  magic (readers note of course the Derrida love for Plato’s myth on the origin of writing, calling it indeterminantly, a pharmakon.)

Lastly we understand what happens to this transformative thread, as it has been twisted through a human world. Zeus’s non-born son, is in-born in the human, and lastly, through the various intersections of the lines of flight, enters history. The transformations amid skin are lastly proven out in history itself, from which we get the Iliad


Related Post: An Achillean Economy: The Economy of Thymotics and Anger, Sloterdijk



Modern Aftermaths

I’m sure that this has been said enumerable times in a variety of ways and these are not sophistocated thoughts, but today comes back to me the words of my professor in Greek, that “new” for the ancient world, was not a compliment, but something of a distorting monstrosity. It gives us to say that Modernism is the alternate…

1. Craving for the new, for its own sake.

2. A counter-balanced appeal to the stripped down essence/frame behind all that is newish.

And what one says of its Post-, hair-of-the-dog, condition…

1. A renouncing of this craving through re-involution (only the old gets combined but to no substantive effect).

2. The stripped-down essence is this act of re-combination.

Post-Human: Ambulatory Cognition

We can see how the post- falls back into the modern, and then back out again. But is this economy of craving and renunciation enough to describe our relative horizon? Does the Humanist/post-humanist divide show through a different relationship to the “new”? It seems to me that the Humanist (in the Renaissance sense) and the post-Humanist (cybernetic) are of the same relationship to the “new”. They are both looking for the new-Human, so to speak, but not through novel combinations that are defined/driven by their novelty. Instead the Human/post-Human trajectory seems anagogic in its combinations, where “human” does not act so much as categorical boundary of exclusion, but more so a functioning ballast of the power-to-combine itself. In this sense, Humanism (to its post-) is and has ever been cybernetic, combinatory…but combinatory in a sense that is not oriented towards the “novum”  per se (at least not the psychological category). What is “new” is not the thing itself (under some determination that has to be located), but rather, what is topographically “fresh” given our position, even in the understanding/appreciation that even experiences of decay, can be in a certain regard fresh.

The Problem with Spinoza’s Panpsychism

Stones that Think, Imagine and Have Ideas?

Any serious confrontation of Spinoza’s supposed Panpsychism runs right up against some very hard ground, in particular how his ontological descriptions – meant not only for human beings, but for all of existence – are to be taken on down the scale, all the way down to the smallest, micro-existential level. By virtue of how Spinoza defines modal expressions of Substance it seems that from the widest of views anything that does exist would in some sense “think” ; that is, due to Spinoza’s parallelism, even the most minute speck of dust, every tumbling molecule or atom, is an expression of Idea which seeks to preserve itself and stays in existence out of this striving. Yet, when we apply the very terms and analysis which Spinoza applies to the weakness of human cognition, the descriptions which reveal the aspects of man that push him further down the chain so to speak, making a human being more passive, more in-animate, these are very difficult things to apply to animal, then plant, then mineral, and then even lower forms of modal expression. For what would it mean for a Table to possess inadequate Ideas? Or a fishpond? And while we might be tempted to see that higher animals like wolves and giraffes could be dominated by Spinoza’s first form of knowledge, confused, Imaginary Knowledge, condemned merely to a world of images and association traces, is this how we imagine earthworms to be, or bacteria, or even more incomprehensibly, viruses? The categories that Spinoza gainfully employs to criticize the human condition, when brought over to all of existence, simply seem to break down. And the difficulty arises when this disintegration of terms comes to grip with the genuine decentralization of human beings that is meant to guide his ontology in the first place. What we are looking for are descriptions of the variability of human capacities which can also be applied to all things in existence, and these Spinoza does not seem immediately to give. In part this is because he is in particular concerned with the nature of Human Bondage, and so his conceptualizations are in some sense decidedly human (are we to talk about the Passions of the Animus 0f the cactus, the love, jealousy and hatred of the sedimentary rock?) And partly this could be because although Spinoza certainly had a vitalist-like conception of the world as one huge animate expression of Substance/God, in which every part vied with every other part, becoming free only through rational cohesion, how this played out beneath the human level really was not of much importance to him. Man was to use the environment for his benefit, just as man uses man.

So how are we to conceive of the mental actions of the sub-human, and sub-animal in Spinoza’s own terms if we cannot readily apply concepts such as the Inadequate Idea or Imaginary Knowledge to a piece of slate? The answer to this I think comes back down to Spinoza’s definition of the body which I have been dwelling on here for some days. I’ll reprint it.

Definition: When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or if they are moving at the same or different rates of speed so as to preserve an unvarying relation of movement among themselves, these bodies are said to be united with one another and all together to form one body or individual thing, which is distinguished from other things through this union of bodies.

or, as Curley translates the important middle phrase: “that they communicate their motion to each other in a fixed manner”.

If we begin with this notion of Body as any continuing and communicative ratio of parts (or even the sedimentary-like vision of parts pressed close to each other, as Spinoza opens the description); understanding that for Spinoza this activity, this persistence must be mental activity as well as extensional activity we are forced to ask, What is it about these relations themselves that give us to see them as somehow “thinking”? What does it mean for a bowling ball to think?

Not Representation

I think we go a long way towards our answer if we give up the notion that for Spinoza an Idea Represents  ssomething, for we really are at a loss if we want to say that the internal relations in my pencil are in some way representing (that is, re-presenting) some aspect of the world to the pencil. (I think a great disservice was done to philosophy when it made its turn toward seeing the Scholastic notion of Idea as a Representation, ssomething that I think even comes to a wrongful interpretation of what Descartes meant by Idea.) So let us explore a bit what kinds of things that can be happening inside a taken to be inanimate object which might in some sense give a clue for how Spinoza conceived of Idea. What is a viable connection between the inside of things, and the outside of things that presents some kind of traction to the mental?

Well, let us take a deeply over simplified model, one that will emphasize the notion of border that seems implicit in Spinoza definition. Take an object to be something like a water-balloon. If we strike the balloon with our finger there is a certain reverberation of internal effects which we might say “reflect” the external or at least boundary-bound event. That is, as the balloon wobbles back into relative stability of form, there are a transfer of balances between parts within the balloon which are at least roughly coherent unto each other. Any one event within the baloon, or even subset of them does not so much represent the finger strike at it surface, as somehow express it unto the very nature of its internal relations. This is, in my thinking, a semiotic relation, an indication (I use the term semiotic not in its strict Peircian nor Saussaurian Idealist sense, but in a pre-modern Augustinian fashion). This semiosis indicates to the internal relations a consequences of changes (differences), but also is somehow oriented towards the boundary of the balloon. I think something of this is required to give sense to the cognitional capacities of the bodies so defined by Spinoza. It is not that the ideational changes (that is to say, recursively organized semiotic differences) represent  the world to the Body, so much as they indicate to the internal relations themselves how to react, a chain of reactions which in turn can be seen as a reaction to events external to the body. For Spinoza it key to see that the horizon-defined semiotic differences are determined, internally referential actions (ratios which preserve)…thus, Ideas are best seen as mental actions  of the physical, not representations per se.

This internalization of ideational changes, the way that a body can only “perceive” the outside world with reference to awareness of its internal states is precisely what Spinoza has in mind when he says of human beings:

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

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

It seems that this essential notion of mental closure, in parallel to physical closure is something that Spinoza would take to be all the way down the ladder in the order of things, for Spinoza, which work from the most active to the least. In keeping with this “affections” [affectio] are the material changes within a body, and their Ideas are their semiotic relations to each other (and relation to all materiality in general). Necessarily, though the semiotic relations which help constitute the body as a closed body may be adequate to that purpose, that mind, they are inadequate to the preservation of that body in all conditions it may and will find itself in (thus, there is an answer to the disputable question  whether human beings, or any finite being, can hold completely adequate Ideas: in a certain sense complete adequacy simply does not make sense as a semiotic, finite relation).

So what is the difference at the level of the take to be inanimate between an Inadequate Idea (semiotic relation) and a slightly more Adequate Idea? For Spinoza the question is of the nature of preservation. I think it safe to say that for Spinoza the internal relations of stones and fingernail clippings are essentially Inadequate, the inadequacy a reflection of their fundamental passivity to the world. Yet, these things are also things that in some sense press their existence forward. They do not act in any intentional way (showing beliefs, or fears, or even needs), but they to persist in time, both against countervailing forces, and with forces sympathetic to their cause. This calls to mind one of the more overt panpsychic passages of Medieval Philosophy, Augustine’s notion that each thing is cognizant in that it finds ways to preserve itself:

For if we were cattle, we should love the carnal and sensual life, and this would be our sufficient good; and when it was well with us in respect of it we should seek nothing else. Again, if we were trees, we could not, of course, be moved by the senses to love anything; but we would seem to desire, as it were, that by which we might become more abundantly and bountifully fruitful. If we were stones or waves or wind or flames or anything of that kind, we should indeed be without both sensation and life, but we should still not lack a kind of desire for our own proper place. For the weight of bodies is, as it were, their love, whether they are carried downwards by gravity or upwards by their lightness. For the body is carried by its weight wherever it is carried, just as the soul is carried by its love. – The City of God, Book 11 chapter 28

Adequacy to Landscape

Upon this gradation of capacity to act Spinoza has grafted a more precise internally semiotic notion of degrees of freedom. It is not just that things find their place in the world, and thus persist, but that the internal relations within a thing express a degree of freedom possible for that thing (whatever its boundary), and thus that bodies as their in an increase in the adequacy of their semiotic relations become more powerful, more active entities. (As a sidenote, we can see something of this notion expressed in Stuart Kauffman’s Complexity Theorist take on the self-organizing systems of closure that gave rise to life, not a connection I wish to pursue here though.)

But the question remains, just how are we to conceive of changes in adequacy in internal semiotic relations at the inanimate and then near inanimate level? If we take clue from how Spinoza has divided up imaginary knowledge from rational knowledge, perhaps we can get a sense of this. Despite Spinoza all out and categorical denial of contingency, it is very much the case that a particular body can and does have completely random experiences of increases of power (and hence Ideational adequacy, and thus Joy). This can happen in two ways. One is that a body may find itself in local circumstances which favor it. Suddenly the finite internal relations which have thus far been preserving it suddenly are even more adequate to their local environment (one has a strong sense that Spinoza has presaged a logic of Darwinism here, several hundred years early). The second, in the same vein, is a change in the nature of the internal relations themselves which makes them more adequate to local environments. In either case there is no necessity that the advantage be preserved…it can be pure happenstance…a dust ball might fall into a whole corner of dust balls in an abandoned house. But the way that Spinoza understand it, there are ways to pursue this advantage, either through improvements of the internal semiotic relations (an increase in the adequacy of ideas), a change that would lead to an orientation toward more favorable environments (including the shaping of one’s current environment). In this regard, rivers that shape riverbeds, gene populations which carve out ecosystems, seem to possess systematic increases in an adequacy of internal relations to their environments. There is a strong sense that their determinations of what is outside of them are expressive of determinations which are inside of them. How far down the ladder we can push this, I am unsure, but someone like Kauffman would tell you that the autocatalytic processes which formed the simplest of organic compounds exhibit both organizational closure, and also shaping effects upon their environments, something which seems to suggest a very elemental kernel of an increase in semiotic relations at the heart of even the most random of our material processes (at least in our material history).

Adequacy to Totality?

But Spinoza wants to go beyond questions of adequacy toward local environments (fitness landscapes), but adequacy as per the Total (which for human beings or any other finite body serves as a kind of aysmptotic limit which principally can never even come close to being reached). For this he provides a material/numerical vector by which we might be able to judge  the relative sufficiency of internal semiotic relation of any particular body:

Whatever predisposes to the human Body that it is affected in a great number of ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great many ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or affecting other bodies, the more useful it is; on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful. E4p38

Now interestingly there is nothing in this proposition which guards against the contingent local manifestation of destructive forces. One could conceivably increase the number of ways your body can be affected (or affect) at a moment in time it would be advisable not to be susceptible to those influences, at the ludicrous level, taking a Joyful walk outside just when a piano was falling. And there is some question on just how to read this numericity. Does a monk in seclusion mediating increase the number of ways he/she can be affected…perhaps? But in terms of the inanimate/animate nexus, it is a general call toward the real consequences of complexity (a multiplicity of folds, if we literalize it). The cockroach might not be a very complex creature as far as animals go, but its grouped expression nested into all the worlds environments might be quite so; a water molecule may only be able to be affected or affect other things in a few ways, but rich is the number of ways that water itself interacts and manifests shaping the world to give two open questions of the application of this definition.

You can recognize in this Spinoza offering a development of Plato’s own definition of Being as offered in the Sophist (the dunamis/capacity to affect or be affected), and Bateson’s own modern cybernetic “difference that makes the difference” definition of information or Latour’s idea of gradated and Networked Being.

In terms of Spinoza, it seems to be that deeply inadequate semiotic relations are those which hardly register events beyond them so as to be fundamentally passive to those events, subject to any random occurrence whatsoever, yet still adequate enough to have preserved the body, the thing (res) to that point. The expressive conditions of its internal relations are in enough harmony with the relations around it so as to maintain its existence in harmony (opening up the question which Spinoza is always turning to, by virtue of what do we isolate a body from the forces and patterns of others). Under these descriptions it seems possible to stake that all things do think, that is there is some internal relation of which we find things composed that preserves itself in sympathy to events outside of it under a variety of circumstances of increasing complexity and self-reference, much of it involving the mutuality of coherences between bodies which become more and more communicated. This is something of what I believe Spinoza means when he thinks about the whole world being a vital and coherent expression of Nature, God, Substance.

It is not really for Spinoza that we are all One, with an emphasis on the meld of Great Oneness (if that were so he would have written mystical treatises), and this Hegel got wrong. It is rather the incredible distinctiveness, the concrete contours of our separations, under the logic that anything that separates must also necessarily join. His determinative reading of causation and immanation is an attempt to locate the joints of Being that when recognized lead to real shifts in power, in a real world (not imagined to be later or beyond rewards). A change in power is immediately its own reward and consequence. If the world is panpsychic for Spinoza, and I do believe that it is, it is because each and every little thing, each speck of Being is something with which we have the potential to combine (and not just instrumentally observe or detachedly use). The reason why things think for Spinoza is linked to his emphasis that for a person to think is to materially change yourself. When you think a thought you are changing your brain, your body (we don’t often think like this). And when we enjoin a material thing, place it our hand, press its button, flip its pages, we are necessarily joining to its mentality. Things think because we in thinking are akin to them, such that we cannot be kept apart.

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.