Through some recent cursory discussion in which arose the comparison between Lacan’s analytic three realms of Imaginary, Symbolic, Real and Spinoza three knowledges (Imaginary, Rational and Intutional) a very important homology upon which their differences are perhaps best spelled out, the subject of Žižek’s take on Spinoza reoccurred to me. I had encountered it a few times before, and as always with his subversive simplifications I took pleasure in what he had to say…but lasting with a kernel of firm resistance. Instead of exploring the genetic relationship between Lacan and Spinoza there is the sense that Žižek is performing a landscape of historical necessity, contorting Spinoza’s theory in a kind of Procrustean vision which reduces him to what history made of him in the developments of German Idealism, in particular under the controversy of Panthesism of that Age. What is lost to us in such a movement of Spirit is both the social-political determinations which fueled the German Ideal reformulation of Spinoza – perhaps penult in the figure of Schelling (including our loss of Heine) – but more importantly Spinoza himself. And with the loss of Spinoza, is lost the potentiality of his claims and their own historical expressions of proto-modern forms of the Dutch Republic. Žižek ensures that Spinoza cannot come to us without the mediation of German Idealism. It is impossible. There can be no importation of the past along another nexus.
This made me wish I had engaged Žižek’s thoughts on Spinoza before, so I take this chance to take up some aspects of his inscription upon Spinoza, in a kind of running commentary. Hopefully this will direct others to his succinct and interesting exposition, but also will expand Spinoza out from such a titan’s bed. My mode of engagement is not academic. I simply pass to his excellent essay and extract the relevant and interesting passages, quote whole from them, breaking them into points that mostly flow into each other, and comment with some length in much the same way I would as my mind runs when I read them. You can simply skip my comments and read the numbered points and get a pretty good sense of where Žižek is coming from (and one can always return to the essay itself). I interpose several linked reference to past posts in case others would like to hyperlink around these arguments, changing frames as they wish.
1. So what is Spinoza? He is effectively the philosopher of Substance, and at a precise historical moment: AFTER Descartes. For that reason, he is able to draw all (unexpected, for most of us) consequences from it.
I certainly agree with Žižek that historically configuring Spinoza as AFTER Descartes is quite significant, I make something of a sociologically argument for the importance of Spinoza leveraged precisely on this fact, but Žižek has something important also in mind here. Spinoza is not only after Descartes, he is BEFORE Kant and then Hegel. He forms part of a progression, a series, which terminates in Hegel. Whereas I would argue that Spinoza’s Non-Representational, degree-of-Being view of knowledge was the path not taken (exposing the raw intellect of potential in early Dutch experimentation with Capitalism, Democracy and Mechanism), Žižek necessarily reads him as part of a march towards an ultimate totalization which finds its completion in Hegel. Following this trajectory requires that we take the Idealist’s approach which moves from Spinoza to Kant to Schelling and then Hegel, and reduce Spinoza’s philosophy to merely being a philosophy of Substance. There is something to Spinoza’s Substance, but it is not what German Idealism would like to make of it.
2. Substance means, first of all, that there is no mediation between the attributes: each attribute (thoughts, bodies…) is infinite in itself, it has no outer limit where it would touch another attribute – “substance” is the very name for this absolutely neutral medium of the multitude of attributes. This lack of mediation is the same as the lack of subjectivity, because subject IS such a mediation: it ex-sists in/through what Deleuze, in The Logic of Sense, called the “dark precursor,” the mediator between the two different series, the point of suture between them. So what is missing in Spinoza is the elementary “twist” of dialectical inversion which characterizes negativity, the inversion by means of which the very renunciation to desire turns into desire of renunciation, etc.
I do not think that Deleuze’s dark precursor is identical to the “subject”. In fact there are two levels at which I would resist Žižek’s easy slide. Firstly there is the conflation between “subject” and “subjectivity” and this is unwarranted. Caroline Williams delivered a nice Althusserian-Spinozist paper that can be accessed here: Subjectless Subjectivity, A Geography of Subject: Beyond Objectology. As Williams forwards, it should be argued indeed that there is subjectivity in Spinoza, without the “subject” proper. Secondly, Deleuze’s dark precursor is not in any sense a negation. Rhetorically it does invoke something of Schelling’s Dark God ungrund of the coming subjective reflexivity, but it is itself a surplus without reflection:
“In fact, it is not by poverty of its vocabulary that language invents the form in which it plays the role of dark precursor, but by its excess, by its most positive syntactic and semantic power. In playing this role it differentiates the differences between different things spoken of, relating these immediately to one another in a series which it causes to resonate.”
Difference and Repetition
Žižek is trying to wedge in the truth of his dialectical inversion, and where it does not fit it is merely coming (if history gives it enough time). Who can blame him, but we must keep track of such wedgings. Not every meditation is an inversion (it might very well be a “fold”) and not every mediation is a negation. In any case though, I would be glad to accept that Spinoza contains neither “Subject” nor “dark precursor”(or its Schelling imposition), and this is due to the unmediated nature of Substance’s expression. Substance both exists and acts via the modes (E3p6dem).
3.What is unthinkable for him is what Freud called “death drive”: the idea that conatus is based on a fundamental act of self-sabotaging. Spinoza, with his assertion of conatus, of every entity’s striving to persist and strengthen its being and, in this way, striving for happiness, remains within the Aristotelian frame of what a good life is – what is outside his scope is the what Kant calls “categorical imperative,” an unconditional thrust that parasitizes upon a human subject without any regard for its well-being, “beyond the pleasure-principle,” and that, for Lacan, is the name of desire at its purest.
This also is something I affirm, and have written on. There is a primary if not absolute tension between Freud’s Death Drive or his splitting of the drives, and Spinoza’s unitary Pleasure Principle conatus (Spinoza performs the differentiation of destruction on another, and in fact multiple levels). I entertain the differences between Freud and Spinoza here, in the latter part of the article: The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center. As I try to point out, there is a conflation between two things in Freud’s pursuit of this drive: the search for an explanation for the repetition of trauma (recursive unhappy behavior), and the presence of conscious/unconscious morbid thoughts such as “I want to die”, neither of which require the positing of an entirely different metaphysical drive.
It is good as well that Žižek organizes the contrast between Spinoza’s conatus and Freud’s Death Drive as the problem of self-sabotage. This is because it allows us to potentially trace how Spinoza unhinges the explanatory need for such drive in his subversion of the “self” as it assumed. This is to say, ultimately Spinoza deprives any self of ontological ground upon which any then “sabotage” can be grafted or posited. There indeed are selves, just as there are objects (in fact there are just as many one could say), but these selves are ever in boundary-smearing expansions and contractions, pulled in tides across their horizons. And pleasure/power is the mode by which these permutations appear to accrue and disperse.
Where is the Center of the Affects?
4.What the “imitation of affects” introduces is the notion of trans-individual circulation and communication: as Deleuze later developed in a Spinozian vein, affects are not something that belongs to a subject and is then passed over to another subject; affects function at the pre-individual level, as free-floating intensities which belong to no one and circulate at a level “beneath” intersubjectivity. This is what is so new about imitatio afecti: the idea that affects circulate DIRECTLY, as what psychoanalysis calls “partial objects.”
Here Žižek brings to the fore a very important feature of Spinoza. It is in fact the one feature that will undermine the singular framing he is trying to provide, how Substance has to be mediated by a negating Subject. Because Spinoza’s is a subjectivity without a subject, and because his ontology of modes is cross-tidal, the looked-for subject never appears. This not to say that it is denied, rather, it simply makes no appearance because it is unnecessary in the surplus of Spinoza’s model. Without the Subject Žižek’s progression through to German Idealism’s preoccupation with an optics of reflection or construction falls off its rails…reifying as they in their variety are want to do, imaginary reflections of images in mirrors, in camera obscura devices, in paintings of linear perspective, unto a logic of binary negating ab-straction. Indeed it is through the “trans-individual” communication of affects, the autonomy of affects we want to say, that we trace out the cross-currents that both work to vectorially focus themselves in persons, selves, identities, bodies of coherence, but also tear at these the same, communicating across their parts in such a way that there are gravities which pull at the joints of any anatomy. This implicit cross-directionality in Spinoza I have written on under the conceptual auspice of “Conjoined Semiosis”: Spinoza’s Notion of Inside and Outside: What is a Passion?, The Necessary Intersections of the Human Body: Spinoza, Conjoined Semiosis: A “Nerve Language” of Bodies and The “ens reale” and the “ens rationis”: Spelling Out Differences. But aside from the details of an argument of Conjoined Semiosis, it is in the general sense the veritably the trans-individual nature of the imitation of the affects which undercuts the centrality of the subject itself, and eventually atrophies its need. Interestingly, and with some connection to Lacan’s imaginary stage of identification, the imitatio affecti are the congealing of essential rational presuppositions (we must see the world as reflected by others who are both like us, and are in the same world) which help center our experiences along specific gravities; but these condensations are not reducible to strict abstract binaries of terms Same and Different, as they inhabit and inform the co-ordination of the entire animal and biotic world where no Symbolic “subject” gains any footing even for the staunchest Idealist. (On the extrapolations of the imitation of the affects and it rational centering: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV and the concept of an Exowelt.) Yet the autonomy of these affects, the way that non-human effects communicate themselves across those similarities, is the very thing that fuses the human and the non-human together, smearing out the anthropocentric center of human-oriented, Idealist preoccupation. As Žižek rightly stresses, these forces are beneath subjectivity. What he does not fully recognize is the sufficiency of this “beneath” in terms of explanation. One should add, these effects are not “partial objects” as they pervade the biotic world and inhabit a great variety of non-representational states, at best they are semiotic pieces.
5.The next philosophical consequence is the thorough rejection of negativity: each entity strives towards its full actualization – every obstacle comes from outside. In short, since every entity endeavors to persist in its own being, nothing can be destroyed from within, for all change must come from without.
Inside/Outside and the Vectors of Determination
This is an important point, and one can certainly see how Žižek arrives at this interpretation. Spinoza is quite forceful at times that there is only a physics in which things are composed in strict inside/outside determinations. And objects persists through some sort of momentum or conatus – like a baseball thrown through a vacuum in space – striving until some External event violently interacts with its internal circulation, eventually breaking apart its communications of parts which had existed in an otherwise harmonious relation. This is certainly in some sense the picture in Spinoza, and from it we gain his very strong cybernetic interpretation of the improvements of human knowledge and autonomy. We are to look within and order our informational house in much the same way that in cybernetic theory a system works back towards a homeostasis, and does so through the filtering of external (and thus threatening) noise. But Spinoza’s view is not comprehensively cybernetic. (I discuss the relationship between Spinoza’s Cybernetic and Chaoplexic features in Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?.) One of the reasons for this is that ultimately any cognitive inside/outside boundary – and thus any ontological grounding of the “subject” proper – is illusionary, or a kind of perspective for Spinoza. Spinoza’s readings of inside persistence and external obstacle are meant to be understood as something like: “insofar as something is taken in abstraction to be apart from its environment, and insofar as it is abstracted in an act of imagination from Substance and pictured as a thing unto itself, then…”. But this inside/outside dichotomy of external destruction is not the foundation upon which the negative is foreclosed. Instead really the negation which draws a boundary between one interiority and an external force (an imaginary exclusion), is not just a distinctness which separates, but a distinctness which joins the inside and outside in a mutuality. Ultimately because all interactions participate in each other, both at the level of Substance’s expression, but also at the epistemic mutuality of essence in a shared course, inside and outside are not final determinants. (An provisional development of this line of thinking is found here, in a study of the metaphysical consequences of Spinoza’s letter to Balling: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination ; Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination.)
This brings Žižek’s invocation of a fairly common reading of Spinoza that “all change must come from without” under some radical revision. Where the change comes from ultimately is Substance’s own expression under which inside and outside attribution has no final anchor. Further, a study of Spinoza’s theory of affects, specifically his General Definition of the Affects, we see that inside and outside is no longer the focus of the diagnosis. All passions are indeed causal relations of passivity to events external to the object, registered as a lack of self-determination (which all things but Substance share), but these are auto-affirmations of its own power to exist, expressed in the degree of adequacy of one’s own ideas. This is central to Spinoza’s idea of freedom. The change in power, a loss of a degree of being, is constituted by a kind, a quality of self-affirmation which is not a reflexivity, a mental (or I would say informational, organizational) affirmation of the physical capacity to be. Locating this change strictly outside of the internal closure of affirmation simply doesn’t hold, and this is because the inside/outside boundary is not determinative. I do not blame Žižek for simplifying the Spinoza model in the way that he does, because Spinoza at times truly speaks in that way and it is common to read in him this fashion, but his physics of preservation is part of a larger metaphysical organization in which internal ordering and external participation preside.
6.What Spinoza excludes with his rejection of negativity is the very symbolic order, since, as we have learned already from Saussure, the minimal definition of the symbolic order is that every identity is reducible to a bundle (faisceau – the same root as in Fascism!) of differences: the identity of signifier resides solely in its difference(s) from other signifier(s).
This is interesting. Žižek appeals to Saussure’s binding of signifiers (upon which he wishes to leverage his Master Signifier) to show how any ultimate inside/outside diagnosis of change requires a negating Symbolic Realm, the realm in which the “subject” finds its proper place. Žižek’s reasoning is a little circular and shifting here. Identify requires a “bundle” and a “bundle” requires a negation. Spinoza refuses a negation, therefore he refuses a “bundle” view of differences. What he does not consider is the way in which Spinoza indeed allows a bundles of differences that make an “internal” difference, but then mitigates any such reading through internal transformations of being (General Definition of Affects) and a mutuality of inside/outside participations. Bundles are transpierced by other bundles, so to speak. It certainly is true that there is no “symbolic order” as Žižek conceives it in Spinoza, but there are semiotic powers of organization in its stead. It is perhaps symptomatic that Žižek has moved from one simplified notion of Inside and Outside (Spinoza’s proposed physics) to another (Saussure’s linguistics).
7.What this amounts to is that the absence can exert a positive causality – only within a symbolic universe is- the fact that the dog did not bark an event… This is what Spinoza wants to dispense with – all that he admits is a purely positive network of causes-effects in which by definition an absence cannot play any positive role.
Here is where we can really almost leave philosophy behind and simply think about the world itself. Unless we are speaking of a highly refined, and circularly defined concept of “event”, it simply is not true that the absence of some event can only have a positive (and here I read positive as promotional and determinative) role in making sense of the world. Žižek simply wants this to be the case, that “subject” and “absence” and “negation” and “symbolic” and “signifier” all interlock to provide a framework for reading the world and others. Unless you already assume the sufficiency of such a framework, one has to even ask how does such a view get off the ground? The way that it gets off the ground is from starting one’s analysis with the Idealist binary abstractions of Being and Non-Being or Subject and Object. But the world does not start there. One need only begin with another model, perhaps that of music, to grasp how significantly an “absence” can be a presence without dissolving into abstractions of Being and its negation. Even a child’s tune played on the piano can show how an anticipated note, when not played, produces a determinative effect (pleasure, discordance, etc), without its resolution into a full “subject” operation. A semiotic contrapuntal view of the world as inter-rhythmed, for instance such as that offered by Biosemiosis, is one in which anticipated absences play a heavy, constitutive role. As I have pointed out before under the question of Spinoza’s supervention of the Death Drive, experiments with Slime Mold intelligence show that the presence or absence of stimulate become determinants of intellect action, such that absences work as much as “events” as presences do (The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center). Unless one wants to confer to Slime Mold’s “subject” status, the theory and our world conflict. I might add, as a moment of obvious recognition, my dog quite easily reads my failure to feed her at the right time of the day as an “event”, as well as my failure to become alarmed at a sound outside the house.
8.Or, to put it in yet another way: Spinoza is not ready to admit into the order of ontology what he himself, in his critique of the anthropomorphic notion of god, describes as a false notion which just fills in the lacunae in our knowledge – say, an object which, in its very positive existence, just gives body to a lack. For him, any negativity is “imaginary,” the result of our anthropomorphic limited false knowledge which fails to grasp the actual causal chain – what remains outside his scope is a notion of negativity which would be precisely obfuscated by our imaginary (mis)cognition. While the imaginary (mis)cognition is, of course, focused on lacks, these are always lacks with regard to some positive measure (from our imperfection with regard to god, to our incomplete knowledge of nature); what eludes it is a POSITIVE notion of lack, a “generative” absence.
This is a nice final point, and we see where Žižek and Spinoza are at greatest friction. Žižek needs the negation to be the foundation of the ethical itself, whereas Spinoza writes an entire Ethics which requires nothing of the negation as an ontological force. What Žižek finds as contradictory in Spinoza is that the imaginary projections of anthropomorphic imaginary relations which are supposed to plug-up in the gap of our knowledge are not appreciated for what they are, fill-ins for a gash in the ontological itself. Indeed the heart-felt link between the subject and negation that Žižek requires so as to ladder himself up onto Kantian grounds, is one that cannot imagine an ethical position without the gash in the world. It is telling that the musicality of life, the contrapuntal semiotic cohesion between the biotic and the abiotic, the role of tempo and constructive absences, cannot be grasped by Žižek’s Lacanian hands. Žižek must lead us to what Spinoza called and denied “a kingdom within a kingdom”. The reason why imaginary relations are not simply stucco for the hole in the humanist wall, meant to seal out the traumatizing Real that leaks in, is that the human itself is already participant and not cut off. To put it one way, in the failure to grasp “the actual causal chain” (imagined by Žižek as a failure of Representation) mis-cognitions through both the pursuits of pleasure and affirmation of power, participate in a mutuality of causal connection. Even the most imaginary relation in Spinoza is already a partially true one. There is no cut-off from the thing-in-itself. It is not a case of vats and brains. To use an example Spinoza takes from Descartes, we may imagine that the Sun is 200 ft away (and represent it as such), but this expresses a true relation of participation involving both the Sun and our Body, and this is to some degree participant in the true. The problematic is not how to connect the cut-off interior to an Ideal exterior, but how to improve these already existing connections and participations. Imaginary effects as powers of connection are an ethical connection in which we are already participant. Ethics runs itself right down to the fibers of existence. The lacks of mis-cognition are relatives of power and action, degrees of possible performance, and not categorical negations and their completion. And key to this is appreciating the contrapuntal nature of absences. I discuss this in the context of Hoffmeyer’s Code Duality in Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza. I owe Hoffmeyer’s theory a proper critique which I have worked on but not presented, but truly it is that Spinoza’s ethical subjectivity is woven out of the very semiotic material of both the biotic and abiotic world. It requires no subject proper. Žižek is correct in centering Spinoza against any Kantian subject commandment, but he is incorrect (or deficient) in reducing Spinoza’s position to this lack of Kantianism, something he accomplishes by amputating the inside/outside diagnostic from the living body of Spinoza’s full metaphysical position, and then importing the inside/outside distinction to his own Saussurian conclusion.
A Dynasty of Kings: The Insertion of Negation
Largely the progression that Žižek wants to enable is one founded upon the Idealist Representational view of knowledge, coupled with the Christianized centrality of the “subject” (as both soul and legal figure). Žižek wants there to be a holy trinity of Spinoza-Kant-Hegel upon which he can graft a further Idealist trinity of Deleuze-Derrida-Lacan. Aside from the logic of a kind of royal dynasty, subsumption of all philosophical enterprises under the notion that a trio of Kings must mythically occupy the throne in their seasonal turn, we recognize that this genealogy of Kings is accomplished with a severe descriptive restriction upon what Spinoza claimed. Indeed Žižek is right to demarcate all the ways in which Spinoza is not Kant and not Hegel, but pared from Spinoza are all the complex explanatory frameworks that enable him to stake out his non-Idealist alterity. In a sense we cannot begrudge Žižek’s attempted synthesis of the alien Spinoza to his own philosophical position (perhaps not unlike Kreon’s desire to subsume the house of Oedipus unto the State). Repeating the traumas of a State performance of course does not do the job any better.
There is another order in which I don’t understand the Lacanian-Marxist preoccupation with the negation. The fundamental and ontological structuring of the “object” and lack as the condition of desire and subject itself is an instantiation of a logic of Capitalism. It is the proposition that metaphysically our relations to the world can be none other than that of a kind of gap-chasing and fundamental alienation, an alienation which one could argue is has been historically produced. I simply do not understand how those politically minded against alienation would take as firm a hold as possible to a metaphysics of alienation, except in the most masochistic of senses.
I never really fully grasped the source of Negri’s political enthusiasm for Spinoza until I started looking at Heine, Heine who was inspired by the revolutionary potential Spinoza unleashed in terms of the Pantheism Controversy. Heine saw in Spinoza’s reclamation of matter as divine just what was lacking in Hegel’s turn to Idea and Spirit. And in this as well, an invocation of the proto, pantheistic, pre-Christian Teutonic religions of the earth.
This quote captures some of that pristine and material beauty, the way-point between both Plato and Aristotle. For those who find Spinoza utterly dry, they perhaps suggest an eruptive potential not always easily glimpsed. And one can see as well the “top” and “bottom” tension that Negri argues for as well.
“[With Spinoza] we become conscious of a feeling such as pervades us at the sight of great Nature in her most life‐like state of repose; we behold a forest of heaven-reaching thoughts whose blossoming topmost boughs are tossing like waves of the sea, whilst their immovable stems are rooted in the eternal earth. There is a peculiar, indescribable fragrance about the writings of Spinoza. We seem to breathe in them the air of the future.”
“Religion and Philosophy in Germany: A Fragment”
He says important, interesting things about the ownership of ideas as well and the possibilities of transforming Spinoza’s thinking beyond its argumentative form. Not to mention, here is the earliest comparison of his philosophy to a lens, and his lens-grinding that I have run across.
“Nothing is more absurd than ownership claimed for ideas. Hegel did, to be sure, use many of Schelling’s ideas for his philosophy, but Mr. Schelling would never have known what to do with these ideas anyway. He always just philosophized, but was never able to produce a philosophy. And besides, one could certainly maintain that Mr. Schelling borrowed more from Spinoza than Hegel borrowed from Schelling. If Spinoza is some day liberated from his rigid, antiquated Cartesian, mathematical form and made accessible to a large public, we shall perhaps see that he, more than any other, might complain about the theft of ideas. All our present‑day philosophers, possibly without knowing it, look through glasses that Baruch Spinoza ground.”
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.
[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).
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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
To return to the diagram of my last post on Plotinus I want to think along with a confluence of ideas that condense upon the very center of it, the infintesmal locus of “matter” which exists merely as a privation, yet also which alternately can be considered as a radiating center (under a different analogy).
The direction I want to go in this is a rumination that first starts from Badiouian notion that Being is not of the One, or “the One is not,” and that mathematics in a sense speaks Being, pronouncing what is expressible of being-qua-being. The principle that the non-numerical One is beyond Being is of course one that Plotinus holds at the pinnacle of his Ontology, for Being starts with the varigated particularization of the Nous. It is there that the predication of Being takes hold. The way that Plotinus tells it, the Nous is produced by the plentitude/emptiness of The One, and necessarily breaks it apart into a kind of representation which divides it into parts. The reason that Plotinus gives for this division into likenesses is interesting. It is that the Nous struggles with the fact that it has no control over that upon which it ultimately depends, a control which expresses itself in the desire to preserve:
The hypostasis of the Intellect [Nous] cannot maintain its vision of the One in primal unity, but “being being unable to preserve the power which it was procuring, it broke it up and made the one [power] that it might bear it part by part [katà méros]” (6.7  15.20-22). In so doing, Intellect constitutes itself as an imitation of the Good, as a many-hued and varigated Good (agathòn poíkilon).
F.M. Schroeder, citing Plotinus in Form and Transformation
Now there is a great and dissatisfying danger of simply reading these particularizations as mere abstractions of an esoteric philosophy, the most gripless of metaphysics, but Plotinus’s reasoning as to why the Nous indeed breaks up the One has strong affective, phenomenological correlates. It is the very dependency of the unity of the Nous upon what lies beyond it, and inclusive of it, that generates a corresponding particularization. In drawing power from what is outside, the inside distinguishes itself. If we turn to the simple figure of a circle (for millennia a favorite of philosophers, and think in terms of systems theory, we understand that whatever system there is, it necessarily is less complex than its environment. This is to say, as all systems (the inside) depends upon a more complex outside, the very inside/outside boundary issue of dependency drives the very divisions of the inside in regard to what lies beyond it. If we allow the observations of evolutary theory, life has moved from less to more complex, and with this increase of internal divisions (differences that make differences) it has relatively gained a greater role in the preservation of the power upon which it depends (and, notably, which it is also an expression). Plotinus’s story of the Nous serves as a metaphysical directionality which prescribes how any person (organism) might orient themselves to conditions which are beyond it, like the Nous with totalizes these relations, the move is towards a complexification of differences that make differences.
For Plotinus, this process of particularization comes from what he calls “beholding” or “witnessing”. Whereas the first particularization beholds the One/the Expressed, those of Soul and Sensation are even more narrow in what they behold, all the way down to matter, which simply exists as a non-existent privation. A speck of darkness.
A Retreat to Vico’s Conception of Mathematics: the ficta of points (1668 – 1744)
I find this speck of nothingness interesting because its very non-divisibilty division reflects something of mathematics, the way in which points or numbers are non-existent distinctions that operate as a kind of limit. What I have in mind is Giambattista Vico’s interpretation of mathematics as the most divine of human acts, because in the invention of the point and the unit human beings act just a God did, creating something out of nothing in imitation of divinity, scientia humana divinae sit imitatrix. For Vico, a forerunner to some themes found in Kant, human beings cannot truly know things that they have not created. Only God truly knows what is created. The reason why human beings can have perfect knowledge of mathematics is that its creation is wholely their own. In a sense, mathematics operates “within” the circle of human articulation.
To quote some Vico, and then a commentator, to give perspective on his position:
…man defines the names themselves, and on the model of God with no underlying thing he creates (creat) the point, line and surface as if from nothing, as if they were things…to establish (condidit) for himself a certain world of forms and numbers, which he embraces within himself: and by producing, shortening, or composing lines, by adding, substracting, or reckoning numbers, he effects infinite works because he knows infinite truths within himself
But the point of the human imagination is not the point we draw with a pencil: “the point, when you draw it, is not a point: the one, when you multiply it, is no longer fully one.”
“man, containing within himself an imaginary world of lines and numbers, operates in it with his abstractions, just as God does in the universe with reality.”
With something of Plotinus’s reasoning, the very imaginary abstraction that human beings creates is a coping mechanism for that which lies beyond them and upon which they depend. Here Robert Miner provides a good overview of Vico’s approach to the knowing of human understanding:
Abstraction is the mind’s way of coping with its estrangement from things. Because he cannot possess ‘the elementa rerum by which things themselves exist with certainty,’ he resorts to the fabrication (confingere) of elementa verborum, elements which, despite their unreality, are able to ‘stimulate ideas with no controversy.'”
Vico has described human truth as a factum that is arrived at through a synthesis of elements that are only partially grasped, because they exist outside the mind which grasps them. If the human mind is essentially outside the elementa rerum, how does it manage to grasp even their outside edges? Vico proceeds to answer this question: “God knows everything, because he contains within himself the elements from which all things are composed; man seeks to know these elements by a process of dividing (dividendo).”
What is the relation of “dividing” to making? Is dividendo creative or destructive? Vico’s answer is “both.” De antiquissima 1.2 begins with an homage to the fecundity of dissection. The “anatomy of nature’s works” gives birth to a range of human scientiae. It does so by inventing their objects. One can divide man into body and spirit. From body, human science has “picked out (excerpsit) or, as men say, abstracted figure and motion, and from these, as well as from all other things, it has extracted (extulit) being and unity.” The objects obtained through abstraction give rise to the human scientiae metaphysics (whose proper object is ens), arithmetic (unum), geometry (figura), mechanics (motus from the edge), physics (motion from the center), medicine (corpus), logic (ratio), and ethics (voluntas).
The fecundity of dissection comes at a cost. Man creates the human scientiae by fragmenting, and therefore destroying, the whole…The entities created by abstraction – being, unity, figure, motion, shape, intellect, will – are “one thing in God, in whom they are one, and another thing in man, in whom they are divided.” Ripped from the whole in which they have life, humanly obtained elements are disiecta membra. “In God they live, in man they perish.” Our efforts to understand nature by cutting it up supplies us with theories rather than works: “in nobis sunt ratiocina, in Deo sunt opera.” All that man acquires through dividing the whole, is like man himself, nihil prae Deo; all finite and created beings are nothing but disposita entis infiniti ac aeterni. Etymology confirms the connection between division and diminution: Vico asserts that minuere means both “to lessen” and “to separate.”
The limitations of abstraction ensure that we have access only to the extrema of the elementa rerum. In what is likely to be an illusion to Lucretius, Vico declares that when man starts to investigate the nature of things (naturam rerum vestigabundus), he finds that “he does not have within himself the elements from which composite things exist.” This lack (brevitas) is not a morally neutral feature of the human condition, but a “vice of the mind” (mentis vicium). It is an effect of fallenness, a decline from a primordeal state in which mind and nature where integrated. (Vico uses nefas to characterize physicists who think they can provide real defintions of things.) Man responds to this condition by turning the mentis vicium to good use, by performing an operation that relies solely upon the mind and bypasses, as it were, the material world. “By abstraction, as they say, he fabricates (configit) two things for himself: the point that can be drawn and the unit that can be multiplied.” The association of abstractio and configere suggests that abstraction is creative. The suggestion is confirmed in the Prima Riposta, where Vico writes that mathematics [move to quotes on mathematics].
Truth in Making, Robert Miner
The Terminus Point of Nonbeing: Campanella (1568 – 1639 )
There is another evocative figure of radiating being, that which Campanella uses to characterize how each thing is but a point from which non-Being radiates, a kind of photographic negative of Plotinus’s conception:
What we are concerned with is something that has an actual bearing on the existential order [not “relative nothingnesss” (nihilum secundum quid), the essence of a thing prior to existence], i.e., the composition of an infinite nonbeing with a finite being in existing realities. This is the point at issue, and this Campanella tries to illustrate by means of an analogy. Just as we can conceive a line stretching from the center of the earth beyond the circumfrence of the sky in infinitum, so, he says, man, like any other creature, is but a little dot where infinite nonbeing is terminated. Man is in effect the negation of an infinite number of other things and of God himself, being surrounded, as he is, by an infinite nonbeing (Bonansea, Tommaso Campanella, citing Met, II, 6, 3, 7)
In this Campanella presents something very close to Spinoza’s letter 21 claim that “all determination is negation,” something that Hegel made quite a bit of. Only in Spinoza any particular determination/negation is not a negation of God/Substance, but rather its Substance (Campanella always heretically veering towards collapsing God and Creation into one panpsychic whole, like Spinoza, but careful to walk the line).
What I am inspired to say about these circular analogies for Being and coherence of action, with their distinct and performative inside/outside designations, is that somehow mathematics in coming out of the pure fictiveness of human creation, in inventing the Non-Being of the immaterial point, somehow grasps whole the entire matrix of radiating conceptions, and is able to map out with great fecundity the very Oneness which is beyond Being (in a Plotinian sense). Weaving out the very absence, the infinitesimal (as my wife tells me, what is the decimal point which divides the infinitely large from the infinitely small, made of?), we get a glimpse of the very varigatedness that Plotinus attributes to Nous likeness taking. The whole thing is sutured closed, or at least remotely closed, for one imagines that there are many kinds of mappings that can be woven from the nothingness of the point.
Further though, even in its appropriation of the infinite nothingness, mathematics owes Alfred Korzybski’s adage “The map is not the territory,” while keeping in mind that mapping, and map-following is itself part of the territory (one hunts through the map, as one hunts through the territory). All organisms seem to in some form follow Plotinus’s thoughts on why the Nous mirrored the One, being unable to preserve that upon which they depend. The semiotic relations that make up an organisms internal relations, and then thus relations to other organisms, are not only performances, but also are duplications (not necessarily representations), “picking out” (intelligere, to choose out) certain aspects of the world, and it is always a tension between picking out the most important, valued features, and sheer numericity, since these two are intimately related. In a certain sense, mathematics too needs to be seen as a vast material organism/organization, as material as any map, appendage to the human species.
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).
Larval Subjects posted what Levi calls “the Full Nelson” of Plato, the exemplary text from the Phaedo which has condemned all of Western Philosophy to a certain kind of choke hold that ever since we have been trying to get out of (to transmute Hegelian dialectics into a single trope we still carry with us). The fearsome conclusion, roughly as Plato wrote it reads,
And we recognize also that this absolute equality has only been known, and can only be known, through the medium of sight or touch, or of some other sense. And this I would affirm of all such conceptions (75d)
Socrates has turned the relative sameness between things (rocks, tables, doves) into a derivative of Sameness itself, some surpassive Sameness, which we must have had grasp of [lambano] previously, so as to be able to grasp these samenesses through our senses.
I suppose we all know this drill, but occasionally when we return to the Same, we detect something different, and for some reason reading Levi’s post elicited in me a slightly different understanding of the Same, even the Same in the Platonic chokehold sense.
I should say from the start that the associations that I have for the search of Ontologies of Difference, of pure-Difference, have always troubled me. It is not that they are wrongly motivated, but rather that they seemed far too in love with the soterial potential of essential binaries, the Being/Not-Being dichotomy of imagined to be transcendental Logic (even when renounced), a dichotomy which itself is derived from an over-simplified caricature of human experience: hence, the reduction of the subject qua Subject, and on overall disregard for the plentitude of Being. It seems that somewhere someone got it into their heads (and there are more than a few candidates), that homosexuals or blacks or women, or poor, that is those that fall to the margins of society cannot be fully affirmed, cannot have the full rights of Being, unless we find a Being that starts with Difference. In such a reading which not only exposes the political use made of Ontologies in the past, a certain naturalization of subjugation, the category of Being seems to stand in for the State, and to reduced difference (skin color, gender, mental coherence, poverty) to merely a derivative of the State (as the Same Status), necessarily condemning many to the margins. Same became not only the political enemy, but the Ontological enemy. Difference must be celebrated, (and ontologically, logically posited) as essential and if possible, prior.
There is more than a grain of truth to this revisioning. That is, through our ontologizations we configure what is imaginable, we lay the land of concept so to speak. So a radical revisioning of what is ontologically beneath all of our legal and otherwise taken to be objective descriptions seems deeply in keeping with changing what is possible between us. Yet, there is something to this praise of difference for itself, the grand celebration of difference as the full right of Being which troubles me.
First of all, insofar as this re-ontologizing is a vast reclassification of particular people of difference, that is particular homosexuals, particular people of color or (trans)gender (the rights of which as different become projected onto the class of others like them that are deprived), there is an odd consumerist essentialization of difference for its own sake running through like a theme. “We chose and affirm our difference, as difference, because choice is what essentialized commercial subjects do, that is our right and duty, to choose.” As individual intellectuals celebrate their choices, and then align their differences to groups composed of difference, whose difference then becomes ontologized as a point of logic through elaborate strategies, it seems that dragged with it all is a fundamental, domesticating assumption, the subject of choice. I cannot say this for all celebrations of difference, and all searches to get out of Plato’s homoerotic chokehold, but this is a strong current in the movement.
Second of all, coming to think again on the nature of Plato’s Same, the enemy of pure, underived Difference, it seems that in some ways this Same has been misconstrued. I say this because for a very long time I think I misconstrued it. The problem is that in our binaries of logic we tend to flatten out what is a possibly a much more dynamic relation, almost always with a hope of transcending it. We draw the flat map to have mastery over the terrain, but as Wittgenstein tells us, the map is not the territory. (I would add, if we are to understand maps and territories, we have understand that while the map is not THE territory, it is A territory.)
A Minimization of Difference
Back to Levi’s post and my reaction to it. The trouble is that when we as postmoderns look at the argument that Plato puts forth, it does feel stultifying. (As Levi sums it up…)
Plato’s argument thus runs as follows. Equal-things always differ in some respect or capacity. Because equal-things always differ, we cannot arrive at a concept of equality-itself from equal-things. Therefore, our concept of equality-itself does not arise after our experience of equal-things, but must precede our experience of equal-things, for how could we recognize equal-things as equal-things- all of which differ both from themselves and others like them -if we did not first know equality-itself. Consequently, our concept of equality itself is prior to any of our dealings with the world.
For one thing, we don’t want our experiences here on this earth to be minimized in the least. This minimization begins a long process of minimizing one thing or another, one experience or another, one person or another, one peoples or another. We might be all for valuations and discriminations of better or worse, but something in us tells us that it should not start at the wholesale level, our experiences here are as real and significant as anything else. Secondly and relatedly, there is the terrible sense that if the reason why we able to recognize the similarity of things is simply because we have already grasped, before hand, a Grand and essential Sameness, this fails to capture the importance of differences to us. It is not just the samenesses that give us a love for living, but differences, perhaps even more so. How can all of these mundane distinctions merely be derivative? This carries with it the unsatisfactory notion that homosexuality is merely derivative of heterosexuality (with lexical irony), and that woman is derived from man, black a marring of white.
The Even Ground of Equilibrium
But, thinking on what it would mean for Sameness to be the origin, the great basin for Differences, I went back to Plato’s text, and looked at the word for “same” or “equal” (as it is translated). It is Ison, from which we get our words like isometric or isomorphic. What is immediately conjured up is mathematical equality, and this is generally the purity of Same towards which this binary heads. But contingently the LSJ dictionary had among any of its easily recognizable uses, one use which contained a subtle difference. It not only meant “equal” but “even”, as in can describe ground as “even or flat”, or the cadence of an army as marching in iso. As always is the case with the Greek, as much as we would really like to rationalize them into a near mathematical purity (given the tradition of their depiction), there is always a depth, a material depth to their conceptions that we miss. There is not a great difference between ison as “equal” and ison as “even”, but it a difference that opens up what Same is, not only for the Greeks, but for us as well.
I started picturing what it would be like to assume evenness of ground, or of step as the basin for difference, and what came to my mind is a perceptual experience which I rather naively assume to be shared with much of the animal kingdom. A predator, perhaps a mountain lion on its ledge overlooking a shallow gorge stares out at the field. There is an odd sort of evenness to it, as consciously it creates a field upon which differences register, there, a movement in the brush! Is this picture of consciousness, the idea that the evenness of the field in a certain sense foregrounds the possibility of difference really at the heart of the repression of woman and people of color? Is it that the difference of a deer’s movements are “derived” from the Same of the valley gorge, playing second fiddle? Is it that the evenness of perception has priority over the differences it enables, and if so, this hierarchy becomes the hierarchy of the subjugation? Well, in thinking about it, the shallow gorge is never completely flat, or even. It is already percolating with differences that the lion is registering (in my fantasy reenactment of an animal perception). The field of vision, as even, is in a sense fecund with both samenesses and differences, both the flat and the eruption, seem to be found within a general sense of ison. Instead of thinking of a great abstraction through which our logical binary can cut, it seems better to think of ison as Equilibrium, and an experience of Equilibrium at that.
When imagining that a sense of equilibrium is prior to, or the condition of disturbance, it seems that something less of the conceptual either/or baggage of ontological abstraction is carried through. It is hard to imagine that the general sense of equilibrium, what we as organisms have, is foundational to a naturalized minimization of the differences between people. Instead, equilibrium becomes the experiential baseline (already rich in differences) for which other differences, disequilibrium’s, disturbances, take on their significances.
In this embodied vision though we are immediately drawn into a Hegelian comprehension of the Negation of the Negation, that is, at bottom is an equilibrium process that encounters disturbances (negations, exceptions), which are then re-incorporated into a new and higher equilibrium. As someone like Judith Bulter complains, difference is always subsumed under a new Non-difference, (with the implicit, and one might say Capitalist/consumerist duty to difference for the sake of difference). Everything goes flat again. We have the appeal of a process of consciousness which describes how we are ever disturbed, and find ways to repress or reintegrate these differences that may feel like something we naturally do, without the desirable conclusion of difference for its own sake.
Not a fan of the Hegelian appreciation of the Negation, and its attendant teleology of history, I wondered if there is another way to think about this equilibrium, this field of evenness, which is not so reductive. Well versed with Spinozist tendencies, my own appreciation for Plotinus’s NeoPlatonic revisioning of Platonic Forms (ultimately the Ison), I keep wondering if we are missing something in the Greek notion of Same, of Equal, of Even.
Cat or Tails
If I return to the mountain lion and explore this notion of Same as Equilibrium and continue with the imagination of the field of differences, this is what I come up with. The cat, gazing lazily over the gorge is in an unattuned state of perception, that is, there is a directedness upon the general equilibrium of the life-force below which does not form an object, and upon which eruptive events occur, the shake of breezes on brush, the shadow from a hawk above, the regularity of the brook running. Any of these can provide occasions for momentary attenuation which is then reintegrated in the general state of equilibrium. These disturbances, these eruptions of a difference that make difference, are not best seen as objects, per se, but effects of relation. Their perception does not make up the essence of a consciousness (its intentionality), but the entirety of the field, its equilibrium states and its dissonances, do.
Now there is a movement, a disturbance which heightens the cat. Ears move forward, eyes narrow, breathing slows.
The difference, the disturbance in the equilibrium is registered as “prey” (to be categorically crude about it). The cat’s involuntary motions already set up a new equilibrium, and then motions towards the animal below (those differences), on a vector, set up new equilibriums, and soon the animal is running, leaping, configuring itself as a mutuality within the field of the world that the deer, the shallow gorge, and it all share. The contemplative equilibrium, that of a passive witnessing of a certain retreating flatness, has been transformed into an equilibrium of subsuming movement. Capacity to act. To say that all of the differences (disturbances) are only derived from the Equilibrium is to be too lexical, too syllo-logical about it (and to misunderstand the origins of logic). They are the very substance of what Equilibrium is. They are its expression and power as equilibrium. It is that the mountain lion has appeal to (cognitively, structurally) the dynamic equilibrium of the world, that it is able to act more freely. It is not that all of the differences are merely collapsed into the banality of Same, but that rhythm operates through the recognition of the full reality of difference, as difference, a process which is includes the awareness of difference as dissonance. If one is to make the collapse of the nature of Being into that of the State that is implicit is so many criticism of ontologies of Same, it is not that marginality is a secondary effect of the State (or even that the State is established through the necessary suppression of difference through the production of marginality — still too optical, containing the notion of the “hidden”), but that the State in its very forth-comingness, produces a maximalization of difference as the possibility of its very field, as perception. Instead of a Subject as Object-consciousness essentialized reading of Being (with its priority of absence or Nothingness which cloaks at the borders of an object, not to mention the optical sense that the “back” or the “inside” of the object is forever hidden from us), it is a Same as Dynamic Equilibrium, producing differences as concrete expressions of its power to act, maximizing those differences as it goes, creating the texture of its possibilities.
I think that this is what is behind the development of Plato’s “Full Nelson”. It is not so much a chokehold, as a hug. The Same is not a flat, logical identity of things to be expressed merely as a binary, and not even a Progressive necessity of the reduction of differences, but rather it is best seen as dynamic equilibrium, equilibrium as maximum expressiveness, an expressiveness beyond all subsumption. Being as radiating differences and distinctions.
There comes to mind a word from Sophocles’ Ode to Time, found in the play Aias (Ajax). Time is called “anaríthmêtos”. I have quoted the line before:
All things Vast [makros] and Unmeasured [anaríthmêtos] Time (646)
The word is often translated “countless” or “immeasurable” (and makros often simply translated as “long”). Time moves for Sophocles with a kind of negative theology. It cannot be measured. A metron in Greek is not only a “measure” as in a measurement, but also a “measure” as in a meter of poetry. Sophocles in measured poetry is singing about the immeasurableness of Time, a pure and delightful contradiction. If we were to translated the metered verse of the Greek into our English emphasis on rhyme, Time moves un-rhymeably in its vastness, as we rhyme about and with it. As we move away from Sophocles’s joy of the negation, the chasm of the tragic abyss (something I think he eventually profoundly overcomes with the concept of Eleos in the play “Philoctetes”), I think this is an essential aspect of the conception of Same which must be incorporated in our reading of the concept. Equilibrium for the Greeks, is musical. It is in the form of the poetic, an expression. If we are to recover from Plato’s Full-Nelson, it is from within this heritage of the Same that we must surely operate, the Same as maximalization of differences.
Again though, we really must retreat from any flat logic of binary differences; they are not rich enough to capture what happens in metered verse. (There is not only a genetic reason why Parmenides, who is thought to have made a category mistake of flat logic, wrote in meter.) And reaching out toward an ontology of pure difference does not cut it either (the dignity of persons of color or mixed gender does not rely upon that). It is rather the sense, the overriding and concrete sense that the entire world monistically is connected, that it rhymes, fundamentally with itself. All of our equilibriums, our transitions from contemplatively flat equilibriums to dynamic, poetic, bounding mountain-lion equilibriums of action, are reliant upon the appeal to a world that expresses itself as one vast equilibrium, an equilibrium of expression. The lion cannot run without fundamentally rhyming with the ground, the shallow gorge, and even the deer, each of them as expressions.
This is where I have long had a subtle misreading of the Sameness of Being which sterilely cut itself off from its step-brothers Differences. How is it that we are supposed to connect all of those differences (and those samenesses) back up to one Same? What an absurd question. It relies upon a notion of Same, of Ison, too flat, too drained white, not richly enough conceived as equilibrium as maximum expression. Much as we have had the metaphysical danger of confusing the map with territory, we have flattened out the lines of what Ison means. A car idling in the drive is Ison, even. The same car accelerating through a canyon curve is Ison. The communication between the driver and the steering mechanism is Ison. But also, the tree that has fallen in the road also must be Ison, if we are to continue, and the fear of hitting a deer is Ison, or the speeding over the limit is Ison. That is, there is always a plentitude toward the rhyming which is appealable, the bath in which is rewarded with a constructability, the possibility of action.
Same as Dynamis
It is here that I think that Spinoza’s notion of Substance provides particular revelation. How is it that he connects the Substance up to all the diversity within it?, people want to ask, flattening out the map of dichotomies. How does he get from the Only thing to the Many things? This is to mistake the question of the Same at the conceptual level. The Ison is fundamentally and unreservedly a dynamic equilibrium, a vast expression. As such it necessarily produces a maximalization of differences out of the pure plentitude of its even, equal, Isotic expression. To make anything less of these modal differences than the absolutely concrete actuality of Ison, to minimize even the tiniest of differences, is to minimize the reality of what Dynamic expressive Equilibrium is. The modes are Real because Being when it is “running” (and it is by it very nature always running), produces itself distinctly.
Returning to our mountain-lion, it is a music of Being which may attend to this sub-line of music (this equilibrium, the shallow gorge) in order to note this sub-line of music (deer-brush interactions, which serves as a dissonance), then composing its own gorge-lion sub-line of music, but none of this is done outside of a harmonization, that is the music, however faltering, always recaptures itself in a way that musicality itself becomes the tantamount supposition. The question for pure ontology of Difference, that is, the sour note that is granted full rights and dignity out of its very sourness, always must come back to the dynamics of tasting. This does not mean that all difference is simply collapsed into Same, made into an ephemera, an illusion (unless the illusion is that one can have a musical difference whose essence is non-musical, a freedom of choice or purchase which is utterly private and cut off from all interplay…the fantasy behind the hole in the Capitalist/consumerist, Democratic Subject). Rather, as one acts as Substance, increasing one’s capacity to act in the world through the understanding of expressive causes, as Substance one increases the number of differences one creates, a potentiality of sour notes abound, which is nothing other than the creation of a perceptual field of distinguishings, a body of dissonances, the way that the hair stands up on your skin, bristling. The is the meaning of horror, and awe, which lies at the bottom of any ancient contemplation of Same, of Ison.
The project of Being, insofar as we can stipulate one, is the creation of as diverse a number of surfaces upon which the horror-awe can condense, the maximalization of intensity as expressive equilibrium, in which one’s own differences register as a plentitude. Is this pure Difference? I wouldn’t know. It is more an Ontology of Perceptibility, and I suggest that it is reached not through a primary optical metaphor of Objecthood (the hidden below the surface), the shadow the Citizen as Subject, but through constructive bodily assemblage, the way that we technologically construct the living soul through our cybernetic combinations with the material and para-material world, creating more and more surfaces upon which revelation (dissonances) may occur. The hairs stand up on end.
It is for this reason that I think it best to see our capacities to read and experience the world as ultimately mutually expressive. Action is not at a distance because distance implies primary opticality. Action is always constructive out of a plentitude that is present, which is ever appealed to making rich differences which make the difference. Ison as plentitude, and not its lack.
The unhappy consequence of this understanding of Being is that it does not give ontological voice to what is taken to be an essential human experience (people who to define the Human separation from Nature by it). We want an ontology which expresses our alienation, one that fundamentally buries out alienation in the very heart of Being. We do not want to be told that our sadnesses, our dislocations are only problems of perspective, that if simply change our view our haunting shadow of the Abyss will simply disappear. And part of this is not wanting to imagine that when a bird returns to its nest-tree only to find it destroyed or raided, it may feel alienated or dislocated, or even sorrowful, at least not in the category which we are able. Our ontologies must entrench the very sorrow of our condition, anchoring it, alleviating our need to look towards our relations (chosen and otherwise), as the causes of our experience. It is agreed that the great satisfaction of Existential Ontologies of Negation, is denied here. Ours is not a world condemned to a freedom of Nothingness in various guises. In replace of this solace is rather opened a continual path of construction. That is, at any moment in time we can begin construction of bodies in assemblage, which are either newly created, seemingly ex nihilist of a change idea or mind, or can be reconfigured more powerfully from already existing forms (the same change in two ways). At any moment one can begin anew a music through the musical recognition of what is already playing, edging on cacophony. One searches for the tilted Equilibrium and affectively combines with other affective bodies, anew. Repeating a sour note, attenuatedly, changes it, yet one can only repeat the note cognitively, in a change of power, through the understanding of its cause through a mutuality with the world, and with others. When one does so one changes the possibilities of difference, modal becomes nodal.
The finding of similarities (of which metaphor is a exemplary) is ultimately not a referential process. The “same” of which the process participates is not a same of reference, a pointing back to, or over and above to some over-arching ground of Same. I’m not sure that even Plato thought of it in this way. This is a table not because there is a same of Table floating behind it. Rather, the finding of similarities is productive and best seen as bodily in construction, putting our bodies in consonance, such that it assumes the power of an equilibrium. Looking for the priority of this equilibrium, its foundation, is like looking for the workability of the experience of “it works”. But this does not make this Ur-Equilibrium simply the world of Becoming, for this flattens out the pure dimensionality of Being (a great fear of someone like Graham Harman). This dimensionality, a certain depth, is found in two ways. Locally its is found in the sheer dimensionality of bodies in combination, in the lived, affective transfers which express the power of communications, radiating out. The mountain lion-gorge-deer assemblage is dimensioned in locality. But it is also brought into depth through the nature of causal understanding itself. The very nature of increases in power through causal understandings is necessarily a minimal trinity where there was only a shallow binary before. The world becomes fleshed and immanent, through the power of causal understanding. This too is not an understanding of reference (Substance is not a “thing” or even a “state”), but of a constitutive experience flowing out of what Equilibrium must be.
Beneath any such appreciation of Equilibrium there is always the danger of having the concept collapse and become flat, that is the constant and ever-producing Equilibrium of Being can be read as a flat-line nullity. This the haunt of the Freudian Death Drive, the Shadow of the Pleasure Principle. A Pure and empty circulation, the inorganic draw beneath Pleasure pursuits. There is a tendency to see Pure Being as a negation of its expression. Our individual pleasures only collapse into a great machine of Death. This is merely, in my view, the gravitous compliment of too close a contact with the sacred (profane), as dissonance rises beyond the threshold of comprehension or even organization. The Death Drive circulation works as the center-of-gravity closure that allows dissonance affects to sink down and cohere, if only in a pure banality of effects, forever the attractor of Fascist, totalitarian binding. In this way a Spinozist conception of Substance (and of State) maintains as a matter of its project ever the ascetic haunt of blind circulation, intensity turning down upon itself for the sake of its own rhyming. The music of Being turned into a dull ditty (the pains/pleasures of dissonance flashing as mere surface ephemera). The antedote to this is to realize its ever presence (as a function of lived thresholds of coherence, a tendency to urgently create bodies in vaccum), and to return a notion of Ison as normatively and ontologically the production of maximal difference, a product of its fecundity. These ontological closures are mere cocoonings (sometimes brutal), for mixtures of potential action through dynamic Equilibrium.
No one can jump over their own shadow, but it’s a feasible reading of me as my own “evil twin” (without the value judgment, of course).
I say, this impossibilty of jumping over one’s shadow notion may point the way forward, for one really can jump over one’s shadow if one simply moves in relation to a new light source (vocabulary set). One may then have a differently oriented shadow, but then understands the solution to such shadow-staring is keeping an eye upon a multiplicity of light sources, and the nature of their varying strengths.
I’m glad that Graham sees the possibilities of this redescription of his work, and love the notion of a philosophy Federation of “Evil Kirks and Spocks.” I say that we embrace somthing of this, but in fine Nietzschean fashion retain the value judgment, the BGE evil of it (if I recall, Evil Spock was able to think himself out of his evil universe, finding common ground with Good Kirk). What I hope is that if indeed Graham is only attempting to save Qualities, and is merely presenting an OOP as a means for a QOP intention, something more is being achieved than flipping a coin around by pointing out this fact. What Nietzsche wants us to know is that the thing that is evil, that seems like the dark side of something, is really its potentiality masked. Without Hegelian pretension, if indeed Graham is seeking to save qualities, and not objects, we can stop asking questions about the exact metaphysical nature of objects, and start asking questions about what is the best way to save, or as I say, ennoble, qualities. It may well be that positing empty, regressing objects IS the best way, that it does more for the stature of qualities than molten postmodern/post-structuralist fantasy, or even another approach, but until we get to the program itself, we can never properly frame the question.
In this way, I am saying more than the common place that makes of everything a coin. Rather, it is if we get to the real, or at least determinative motivation of a philosophical project, its “evil-twin” underside, we can then open up the project to possibilities that a blindness to that underside undershadows. In Graham’s philosophy this limit, as he admits, comes down the occasionalism-like collaspe of objects which fails to account for the nature of their change. What I would say is that it is of the very nature of the armature that Graham has passionately and insightfully constructed, so as to save qualities, that limits the force of their salvation. If he, I and others come to agree, if we make a value judgment that what we are really after is the esteem of qualities, then we can discuss more precisely the failures of esteem in others’ approaches, and invent better strategies for that esteem, rather than simply looking to shore-up and solve what we thought was the central focus of our attention.
Instead of making a nice pair of things, a doppleganger of inseperable concepts, such as those seen in Graham’s wonderfully titled Count Magnus Effect, one proposes a means for satisfying discourse, for finding agreement. There may be some fun in pointing out to others that they are accomplishing one thing when then thought they were accomplishing something else; Nietzsche had tremendous pleasure in this, and modern day Zizek just loves this game. Such a reversal is not really all that valuable unless one returns it to the question of valuation itself. Do we value the same things and just have different projects on how to achieve it? This is not to say that agreement is guaranteed, but at least the nature of disagreement changes.
Campanella: Knowing is Being
The essentializing dyads that Graham expresses himself in, come from a strong Heideggerian genus, retain a certain human-centric heritage which Graham is pushing against. But I suspect that it is the nobility of the quality that keeps Graham on this side the panpsychist Gate. As I dig like a Latourian engineer attempting to meet up with the tunnel that Graham has dug in the same Ontological mountain, and trace out each of my excavation, and to the best that I can, his own, it is on the question of the salvation of the quality that I think we can find a common ground. What I will propose that instead of instantiating the rights of qualities upon the nothingness of a retreating and empty object, a consideration of Tommaso Campanella’s proto-Cartesian “Cognoscere est esse,” to know is to be. This a core, quality-directed principle which undercuts in history and object some of the founding theoretical dyads which inform a human-centered picture of consciousness. Much akin to the objects of Graham’s fascination with Late Scholasticism, and Late Renaissance theory (Bruno, Suarez), Campanella’s rationalization of Natural Magic, which is the attempt to synthesize the lived (Quality) emphasis of Telesio’s empiricism to the metaphysics of immanent and unified Being (Augustine), provides the substance of the rescue of Quality without the collapse into molten origins. Campanella’s metaphysics are rough-hewn, though voluminously written, and appear to modern commentators often as a hodgepodge of irreconsilable positions and influences. Campanella comes off as a pre-modern fantasticist, as confused by astrology as he was by the Political situation of which he was a victim. But rather, it is Campanella’s love for the world, its embodied, animal-like quality, its magic of effect, which produced the theoretical possibility for a contemporary salvation of qualites, of the sort that I think that Graham pursues. It is not so much that qualities are granted their rightful power because they are in a tension with Substance Objects which invariably retreat from all investigation, a mark of characterized experiences of human consciousness. It is rather, in surpass of any categorical reduction of human consciousness, that qualities has their own nobility and powers. Campanella wanted us to know that when I come to know something (an entity), I literally am transformed into it (an interesting pre-sage of Latour’s Principle of Translation). When I know a cold thing, I literally become cold. Or, if we want to postmodernize it, when I know Capitalism, I literally become Capitalism, I am transformed into that entity. How exactly to read this transformation I think comes from the notion of assemblage, of bodily (and therefore following Spinoza, ideational) combination, under a figure of power.
What I suggest is that once we identify the hidden, as Graham says, evil valuation behind his project, it is towards a panpsychism that qualitative embrace leads. That is, one needs not rent out high-priced object Real Estate on which Qualities are then permitted to live. Instead, qualities become the very mechanism for embodied agreement and power-assemblage, no more warring in tension with the landlord.
Late last night Graham Harman posted his objections to monism, a Spectre that haunts his sleep. When I saw the post I was greatly relieved because I thought that finally I was to understand why Graham Harman’s Cartesian-constructed project of post-humanism would not be better served by a turn to pre-Kantian Spinoza. It has seemed to me that this is really where Graham is heading, dragged by the specific current of his philosophical ambitions. But he has told us that he has great distain for the popularity of Spinoza who seemed to be hidden behind all kinds of postmodern metaphysical imaginations, he resists that robust, salty sea. Further, he has come down the Rhine River’s Idealist tributaries, he likes the beer-houses in local town ports where objects duck and hide, and thus has worked toward wending Intentional object-defined conceptions of consciousness, once solidly in the service of human-centric ontologies (Descartes, Husserl, and even Heidegger), out towards a post-human future. Can it be that all of the nobility of the object will be lost in a philosophical absorbtion into Deleuze and DeLandian “molten slag”? I mean where will the rights of the object (formerly postulated as the rights of man), stand, if we cannot make objects themselves (and their consciousness partner) the ontological center of philosophy? I was excited because I felt I was really going to have an answer to the question, Why should the “hiddenness” of the object stop there, at the object, and not be read more fully in the hidden Immanence of Spinoza’s Substance, especially if we are going to propose a post-human philosophy that does not privilege the specific conceptual phenomenological reductions of human experience. Is it true that the Rhine only flows into the sea (and if in the sea, does that mean that all is lost, or are there some very good things one can do at sea, as any good maritime adventure knows)?
Here I’d like to take up in more detail the objections I raised in response. My comments there were quick-fire and I believe that restating them with greater context them will bring their argumentative force into even greater relief. Mostly at the time I simply was responding to the disappointment I felt that when Graham took on “monism” he seemed to be taking on everything but Spinoza. He somehow steered either right into the Scylla of undarable Parmenides (the only “real” monism he would grant), or the Charybdis of Spinoza influenced post-structuralist thinking like Deleuze and DeLanda (D & G’s Thousand Plateaus is actually quite far from Spinoza, though he does get mentioned in interesting ways there, while his monographs on Spinoza are fairly close to text). Straight through, between these rocks, he never goes.
This may be because he is most familiar with both the pre-Socratic and the “molten slag” versions, and less with Spinoza himself, but I suggest, in that as Spinoza offered the most incisive correction of Descartes right at the root of Descartes human-centric theorizations, it is really to Spinoza, to Spinoza’s Monism, he should go. Here I’d like to present his points against monism, piece by piece, and put them in juxtaposition to Spinoza himself, and see how they stand.
1. There are two ancient monisms, that of Parmenides and that of Plotinus.
Graham counts between these only Parmenides’s “being is, non-being is not” the only real monism of the two. The Hen (One) of Plontinus is not a true monism in Graham’s mind because the Hen is only the source of things. I’m not sure that I follow his thinking here. The way that Plontinus argues his point, the Hen radiates out like a light source, ebbing as it goes, the closer to the source (the greater the Nous union of things as one thing), the greater reality one has, but in many ways there is no Being other than this light, radiation. The relatively isolated parts of the world that appear to not be part of the One, indeed are part of the one, as its emanation. Their isolation from the One is really a kind of illusion of perspective (despite Graham’s insistence that they are not). That is, their existence is that of entirely being an emanation of the One, and as distinctly separate things, this separation is an expression of their non-Being. Thus, insofar as there is One thing, only one thing has being. Separations from the One are simply compositions of Being and Non-Being, a kind of relative, non-Noetic illusion. It is a real noetic difference, expresses as the nature of the radiation of the One, but in terms of Being itself, the separation is an illusion. Now is this a “monism”? Well it depends how you define monism. There is only one thing that has Being, and non-Being has no Being (it works like the outer reaches of the ebbing of the One). But Plotinus puts the One even above the Being/Non-Being distinction (this would already involve Nous), and he is inconsistent as to how he treats matter, either as a kind of substrate of absolute (metaphorical) darkness, or as an illusion of non-Noetic perception, for there is only the One. So let us say, a kind of monism, depending on how you qualify Being.
I go into the nature of Plotinus’s monism because it will be within the concept of a Degree of Being ontology that Spinoza will operate. I don’t know if he picked up the fundamental idea from Augustine who made strong use of it to defend against essential, heretical Dualisms, or from other Neo-Platonic sources, but Spinoza leverages his entire metaphysics upon a degree of Being (expressed as the power to act, the adequacy of idea, a degree of perfection) conception of modal expression. But he does this through an inclusion of the old-fashioned Parmenidean claim, “Being is, non-Being is not,” which in Spinoza reads as the illusion of privation and all determination is negation (letter 21), or “There is nothing positive in ideas on account of which they are called false” (E2p33), “falsity consists in the privation of knowledge…” (E2p35). It was Hegel who was struck by the power of the phrase “all determination is negation” as found in Spinoza’s letter 21, and it was he who took up the reality of the negation into a progressive, and human-centric concept of Consciousness, leaving behind the other half of Spinoza’s Plontinian proviso, that all privation is illusion. As I will mention later, Hegel feared that without a progressive march toward the powers of negation human beings simply would not be significant in their conscious powers when placed before the universe. The small compliment Spinoza pays to Man, that he is relevantly more active (and real) than tables and rocks and mice, was simply not enough. Man must be the center of the entire march of history’s progress. Failing this centricity and direction, it was for Hegel that all of Spinoza collapsed into an acosmism, all of creation being merely an illusion.
2. Levinas proposes a qualitiless “there is” (a version of monism perhaps).
“1940’s. Emmanuel Levinas. Insomnia (from which I now suffer) reveals that the world itself is an inescapable, rumbling il y a (“there is”) without any specific qualities.”
Well in terms of Spinoza, this is simply not the case. Right away Graham has passed from ancient monisms to postmodern vagaries of Being, steered from Parmenides into the whirling Abyss. While Spinoza’s Substance does not have “qualities” per se, it expresses itself in Attributes (of an infinite number), and through those Attributes, in an infinity of real modes. And all of these modes are fully actualized, concrete things (though like with Plotinus, their conceptual isolation from Substance which “exists and acts” through them, can bring on a perspective of relative non-Being). Even the remotest speck of particle in the furthest reaches of the universe has complete Being, but when considered apart from Substance and other modal compositions of cause, its Being is to a very small degree.
Graham’s objection to Levinas’s indeterminate “lump”: “For if the il y a is a single lump, how is it meaningful to say that the mind can break it into parts?” is answered by Spinoza by saying that we can break the world into parts because it is expressed in the two Attributes of Thought and Extension, and the mind as a determined, thinking thing, following from that order, through the affects of its body/ideas, its imagination and rational thought can distinguish the determinations of Being.
3. Jean-Luc Nancy, “Corpus¨: Reality itself is an indeterminate “whatever”…
Clearly these two matching points are Graham’s personal engagement with the outer-reaches of what really is not much of a monism at all. They are quite far from Spinoza, and even quite far from Deleuze’s imaginative refashioning of Spinoza. The incredible unexplainable, one might say non-Noetic, character of this thinking perhaps explains the great trepidation Graham holds for monism (and its swarthy postmodern cohorts).
4. There is an intellectual momentum against “objects”.
This may be in the circles that Graham has come from, clearly the moiling Continental waters of the Rhine dumping into the sea, but if we understand “intellectual” to include scientific pursuits, and even Analytical philosophy, the war against the “object” does not have quite the same character. As far as Spinoza goes, indeed there are objects, what he calls bodies, as Substance is expressed into two discernable Attributes, Thought and Extension. Every body has its parallel idea (and may have ideas which are expressions of its power to act). In a certain sense, because it is not clear at all that any human being can have a completely adequate idea, the adequate idea of any object whatsoever, even the idea of one’s own “object” (body) is actually to some degree hidden from the mind of human beings, one might say that the idea of the object retreats (this proposes a heretofore unmentioned close parallel perhaps to Graham’s hidden object, in a different systematic context).
5. The world is either homogeneous or it is heterogeneous, you can’t have both.
Because this is the most substantial of Graham’s claims against monism, at least insofar as they can be directed against Spinoza, his point is worth quoting in full:
*If the world is a whole, then either it is utterly homogenous, or it is not. If yes, then particular things will tend to be viewed as delusions.
*If the world is *not* viewed as homogeneous, then it must consist of various zones that differ from each other in some way. These can either be called individual objects, or something pre-individual. If they are objects, then my point has been conceded and monism has been rejected.
There are two ways that Spinoza counters this emphatic either/or. The first is that there is both a homogeneity and a heterogeneity built into the expression of Substance. (Remember, Substance does not float out there beyond actuality for Spinoza, but “exists and acts” modally.) Spinoza argues that Substance is expressed in only two Attributes that the human Mind can comprehend, as mentioned, Thought and Extension. In the hands of the modern Analytic philosopher Donald Davidson, who professes a monism of Concept Dualism (Anomalous Monism) these are simply the two concepts of the physical and the mental. They are not reducible to each other, and there is no causation between the one and the other. Spinoza tells us that there is a fundamental homogeneity between Attributes (understanding the actual number of these to be infinite), and that is “the order and connection” of their expression (E2p7). In the case of the two Attributes we can perceive, things and ideas are expressed in parallel. This is a fundamental homogenity in the expression of Substance, it is the same across Attributes. But, this Attributive expression is distinct in the very differences of the Attributes themselves, that is, the conceptual order of the mental, descriptions of thoughts, beliefs, ideas, is different from the descriptions of objects, things, bodies. And even greater than this, Substance expresses itself in the real determinations of an infinity of modes, granting full reality to any aspect of existence, no matter who flimsy you want to make it.
6. There is a tendency these days to find some comtemporary philosopher who tries to have it both ways.
This is an odd sounding point. I assume that he is referring to the dissatisfactory “molten slag,” ‘intensity” versions he has already dismissed. But one wonders if merely by trying to solve Graham’s proposed dilemma disqualifies the solution? It seems to me that it is not some contemporary philosopher who solved this cake and eat-it-too difficulty of monism, but Spinoza himself, who closed the Idealist, human-centered breach right after Descartes opened it. There are of course many contemporary, creative things being done with Spinoza, and I can see why some of them collapse in a dissatisfying way for Graham, but these are not properly Spinoza’s thought. (I should add as well, that the monist Analytic philosopher Davidson, who has some largely unstated metaphysical differences with Spinoza, also seem to evade both horns of Graham’s impossibility: there is one kind of thing: matter; and two different fundamentally conceptual kinds of ways of describing it, concepts that are a product of our evolution).
7. The status of pre-individuals needs to be explained.
Another point worth quoting in full:
*But the status of these pre-individuals needs to be further explained. Either they are fully deployed in their mutual relations, or they hold something in reserve that is non-relational. If the latter, then they are objects and you’re simply trying to avoid using the name; my point has been conceded.
As Spinoza answers this question of the pre-individual, if I read him correctly, the essence of any modal expression already is in Substance (the Mind of God), but has not necessarily come into existence through the mutuality of (horizontal, transitive) modal causes (causes that will be extrinsic to it). To qualify this existence in the Mind of God sub specie aeternitas as a kind of “reserve,” I’m not sure what this means, other than to say as Spinoza does, that God is the efficient cause of the essence of things and not just their existence. In a sense, the “reserve” is the immanent, causal power of Substance itself.
But if they are fully exhausted by their mutual relations, then there are really no firewalls of any sort between the various zones of this “pre-individual” kingdom, and you end up with monism. You can’t have an intermediate position.
Spinoza’s ends up with monism. Individuals, objects, thoughts, ideas, relations, each thing, is explained by (which means understood through) both a reference to horizontal transitive causation and Substance’s immanent causation.
8. Latour holds something that might appear to be an intermediate position.
As Graham explains, this appearance is undone by the fact that any change produces a change in object:
Even though Latour is a relationist, his actors are always trapped in a specific set of relations, here and now. A thing cannot change even the least important of its relations even one iota and still remain the same thing.
Now the first aspect is the very same thing for Spinoza’s monism. Each modal expression is (well, not trapped), but determined, expressed, in a very specific set of relations. This determination is both a delineation and an expression of its power. There is not any vagary to this in the least. The question as to whether something remains the same thing or not in Spinoza is an open one. There is the theoretical framework though to argue that Latour’s position is tenable. Spinoza defines a body as a ratio of moving parts that stay in communication with each other, expressing an essence (conatus). The sameness of an object is a factor of both this ratio and the communication (not very Latourian at face value, though one could call this communication a network). The status of this ratio is indeterminate in Spinoza, for ultimately there is only one thing that persists and that is Substance (so any ratio of parts in communication is part of a far greater ratio 0f parts in communication). The ratio of “same” is both real (that is determined and reference-able), but ultimately is it explainable in term of other parts. In this way perhaps (and others) Spinoza is able to achieve something Latour’s occasionalism cannot.
9. Graham’s Model involves an intolerable retreat of every object into darkness.
The problem with my model, of course, is that with so many different entities withdrawing from each other into an apparently non-relational darkness, one wonders why anything happens at all. But I spend lots of time trying to solve this problem- the problem seems to me inevitable.
I appreciate Graham’s candidness here. But to my ear this is a huge problem for a model that wants to explain the nature of reality. If you can’t explain why anything happens at all, the entire explanatory apparatus of your model is paralyzed. Instead one is left with something perhaps more poetic and epiphanic, than explanatory. In confessing that it is inevitable, one assumes he means of his philosophical position, and perhaps this why he is haunted by monism, the instinctive appeal that if he is ever going to get his cut-off, darkness imploding objects to go anywhere, and do anything, for any reason, he has to fundamentally connect them.
For Spinoza, as I wrote in my response to Graham, “This is not a problem at all…for the change between concrete states is a function of the conatus of each essence striving to persist, the contingency of modal transitive causes, and the degree of power which is expressive of its adequacy of ideas. Nothing is in isolation of anything else, events, objects, bodies, thoughts, emotions are understood through the knowledge through their causes, so the path towards more powerful change is always open, ready to be caused.” What it comes down to is the power and real freedom of a good, rational explanation of events, understood as a linking action, or the consideration of explanation as some kind of contingency, some bubbling up of events.
10. Monism is the cheap way out.
This is how Graham expresses the dodging the snatch-and-run of monims, (something to be contrasted with his very expensive inability to explain why anything happens at all):
Monism, in short, is a cheap way of trying to avoid the communication problem that may be the central paradox of philosophy: ” a thing is itself, yet it is also another insofar as it affects others and becomes something other.” Monism is a way of saying “it’s a false problem; everything’s already interconnected anyway, so why do you artificially divide it?”
I still can’t tell if when Graham mentions “monism” he is thinking of the most vague of all Being declarations, like “there is something there” or of a particularly rigorous monism. But if we take up his objection, I would tell him that Spinoza’s philosophy would suggest that the path forward is not just that a thing becomes “something other” when it effects others, but that in understanding how it combines with others, that it cybernetically becomes something more, when it effects others (or they affect it), the thing becomes more powerful and free. This change is a real, ontological change, and it is achieved through explanation. Spinoza’s monism is a far cry from some kind of loving, “Hey man, we are all one big piece of Somethin’,” rather it provides the conceptual framework for a cartography of Being, inviting the very particular study of the exact ways in which determinatively we are connected (and determinatively not connected). Only by understanding your causes do you leverage yourself into combination with more things, actively. It is learning to cut so as to not dull your knife, at the joints of Being, so to speak (as the Daoist said, and then Lacan).
I appreciate Graham’s thoughts on monism, and he has expressed in the past fundamental resistance to Spinoza’s thinking. There may be grounds for his disfavor, but none of them fall on his so-far-expressed objections to monism. In fact, by my lights, Spinoza slips right through the two fearsome dangers that he poses on each side of the monist tendency, and he does so with Plontinian aplumb, that swashbuckler! Oh, Spinoza, the Odysseus of Being, polútropos ! Perhaps he has never been better described. Now only if I write the Achilles of Being, that is really what I will someday do.
[I thought I would return to the vital question of Hegel’s accusation of Spinoza’s acosmism, but the post did not lead that way, as I have put forward before, following Gatens and Lloyd, Hegel’s accusation stems from his only thinking of Spinoza vertically, and failing to understand the full horizontal reality of the modes for Spinoza: determinations by which God “exists and acts”. I bring something of this argument to bear in my earlier post Harman Brings Central Clarity to the Issue (wink, nod), coupled with a nice diagram]
The reason why the theoretical affirmation of “lack” at the ontological level, even if it be the constitutive effects of an illusionary lack deemed to be necessary for language use or subjecthood, (something that can be said to have rigourously begun with Hegel), is to be cautioned against, is that as these philosophies arise out of the reflection of the Capitalist values that pervade…the guiding purchase of THE completing object. The danger is to normalize these values of pur(chase) through the descriptive ontologies that assert lack as necessity. The attempted domestication of Capitalist-value lack through such descriptions works to entrench it as the only imaginable, part of the very grammar out of which we reason our freedoms. If I am stalwart on a Spinozist renunciation of lack, primarily in the pragmatic prescriptions for freedom, it is because only an ontological schematic which sees beyond this valuation of lack (rather than simply theorizing it into existence through an efficacy of reflection/expression), would open up the conceptual space for liberations outside of purchase, or the gritted embrace of a circulation existentialist jouissance amid desire (see how it burns). Rather, it seems the pragmatic, constructive assemblages of affective bodies, ground-up articulations of bodies in assemblage, that seem most open to the kinds of imagined communities human beings may make possible, even at an asymptotic limit. Only by refusing the programmatic valuation of lack itself in the conceptual space we design is its surpass possible, in redescription…a redescription that only maintains its claim through performance.
This being said, I do NOT see Capitalism as an evil, or even a degredation (while acknowledging the cruelties specific to its forms), but rather the path open to community yet imagined through the increase in affects possible. Part of this possiblity is the critique of the fundamental value of (pur)chase as the engine of exchange. It is in reasoning out of one plentitude, to another plentitude that I believe such possibilities reside.
Tho’ many are the terrors,
not one more terrible than man goes.
This one beyond the grizzled sea
in winter storming to the south
He crosses, all-engulfed,
cutting through, up from under swells.
& of the gods She the Eldest, Earth
un-withering, un-toiling, is worn down,
As the Twisting Plough’s year
into Twisting Plough’s year,
Through the breeding of horse, he turns.
& the lighthearted race of birds
all-snaring he drives them
& savage beasts, their clan, & of the sea,
marine in kind
With tightly-wound meshes spun
from all-seeing is Man.
Yet too, he masters by means of pastoral
The unruly-maned horse holding fast,
‘round the neck yoked,
& the mountain’s
& the voice & wind-fast thought
& the passion for civic ways
He has taught, so from crag’s poor court
from under the ether’s hard-tossed arrows
To flee, this all-crossing one. Blocked, he comes
upon nothing so fated.
From Hades alone escape he’ll not bring.
Tho’ from sickness impossible
Flight he has pondered.
A skilled one, devising of arts beyond hope,
Holding at times an evil,
But then to the noble he crawls,
honoring the laws of the Earth, &
Of gods the oath so just,
Citiless is the one who with the un-beautiful
dwells, boldly in grace.
Never for me a hearth-mate
may he have been, never equal in mind
He who offers this.
Ode to Man
A BwO is made in such a way that it can be occupied, populated only by intensities. Only intensities pass and circulate. Still, the BwO is not a scene, a place, or even a support upon which something comes to pass. It has nothing to do with phantasy, there is nothing to interpret. The BwO causes intensities to pass; it produces and distributes them in a spatium that is itself intensive, lacking extension. It is not space, nor is it in space; it is matter that occupies space to a given degree—to the degree corresponding to
the intensities produced. It is nonstratified, unformed, intense matter, the matrix of intensity, intensity = 0; but there is nothing negative about that zero, there are no negative or opposite intensities. Matter equals energy. Production of the real as an intensive magnitude starting at zero. That is why we treat the BwO as the full egg before the extension of the organism and the organization of the organs, before the formation of the strata; as the intense egg defined by axes and vectors, gradients and thresholds, by dynamic tendencies involving energy transformation and kinematic movements involving group displacement, by migrations: all independent
of accessory forms because the organs appear and function here only as pure intensities. The organ changes when it crosses a threshold, when it
changes gradient. "No organ is constant as regards either function or position, . . . sex organs sprout anywhere,... rectums open, defecate and close, . . . the entire organism changes color and consistency in split-second adjustments." The tantric egg. After all, is not Spinoza's Ethics the great book of the BwO?
Ode to Man
But human power is extremely limited, and is infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes; we have not, therefore, an absolute power of shaping to our use those things which are without us. Nevertheless, we shall bear with an equal mind all that happens to us in contravention to the claims of our own advantage, so long as we are conscious, that we have done our duty, and that the power which we possess is not sufficient to enable us to protect ourselves completely; remembering that we are a part of universal nature, and that we follow her order. If we have a clear and distinct understanding of this, that part of our nature which is defined by intelligence, in other words the better part of ourselves, will assuredly acquiesce in what befalls us, and in such acquiescence will endeavour to persist. For, in so far as we are intelligent beings, we cannot desire anything save that which is necessary, nor yield absolute acquiescence to anything, save to that which is true: wherefore, in so far as we have a right understanding of these things, the endeavour of the better part of ourselves is in harmony with the order of nature as a whole.