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Tag Archives: Iliad

Avatar: The Density of Being

Let’s just say that I am recovering. It is a carefully sculpted onslaught, discretely spaced with only a few flaws, but an onslaught nonetheless. And I am recovering. It’s Pocahontas meets Full Metal Jacket meets The Diving Bell and the Butterfly meets Alien meets Coming Home meets Dragonheart meets Dersu Uzala  meets Brainstorms meets Total Recall meets The Legend of Zu meets Tron meets Dances with Wolves meets Final Fantasy IV meets Logan’s Run, all of this meeting Ecological Crisis ideology meets Indigenous nostalgia meets Disney ethnic cliché and New Age ascension, and all of that sum colliding with the categorical mytho-aesthetic effect of the first Star Wars and possibly 2001. The storylines and plot topologies proliferate at animation-cell frame rates so synthesized, so graced, they are no longer borrowings, but rather operate like flipped gateways for infusions that simply cannot be qualified, nor controled. The movie downloads the viewer with such ferocity and such poetic space the film bends back cinema upon itself, and introduces its content – the question of Avatarship – into the very experience, pulling out from technological increase and its inherent relatability the buried question of sensitivity, connection and projected identification, in short, the implied organic mutuality in everything our machines have brought us. Cameron and his magicians in such a threshold defying 3D invade our bodies and throw out our affects into the arms and sinews of operators which defy all of our repeated attempts to take map of where we are. This past movie recognition, this ethnic familiarity – are the Pandorans African Maasai, elegant Native American Indians, Thai-Myanmar Pa Dong Karen, naked Amazon natives, or even cats – inundates and torques the viewer in a transport that is more than pleasured, more than reflective. It is free…free in only the sense that aesthetic renewal can be free. One is tossed outward amid the equally familiar ideological landscapes of ecological nightmare (however this reads for you), and you are vividly aware of its artifice. But in that practical synthetics the technological nervature examines you and opens you out across the help even to your well-honed intellectual compass. You rifle through cartographies, all of them familiar, all of them critically engaged, but grid on grid, none of them suffice. The imagined-to-be trite self-discovery of the main character’s authentic warrior thymotic spirit (that template) sheds all of is scales amid an interaction with image and physical movement that perhaps only equals the dislocations and alien projections of scuba or spacewalk. If anything else is communicated here, technology is sense, and sense is technology, within the scope of global concern. Nevermind that every Na’vi looks the connotations of every supermodel distortion of mundane biology. Nevermind that videogame freedoms populate with every stigma of ideological absorption. Nevermind that mythologies fragment into flattened space confrontations. The whole thing escalates far beyond its means, revealing how Ideals throw us forwards, how when technologies and techniques are sufficient, they compel the spirit into new-born orbits of extreme decay and apogee, flights that must have been there in the thousands of memory verses when one of Homer’s avatars was repeating the invented history of the Greeks with muscular hexemeter and rhythm in the residue glow of camp-fires.

Seminar on Joy’s Transformation: Cybernetic Achilles

The Serpent, Sea and Fire: Thinking Beyond the Skin

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

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

As she announces, referring to Haraway,

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

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

The Frayed Threads of Divinity 

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Library, III. xiii 5-6

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

Achilles: The First Cybernetic Man

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Bristling of Wheat, The Warming of the Thymos

I was talking with my wife today about how our Cattle Dog pup’s fur bristles with fear/excitment when she steps out at night and smells the air, to howl or bark. She was saying how we all know what this feels like, despite our species differences, and what came to mind were a wonderful word-image of Homer’s on how the thymos of an angered man can come to be “warmed” or “softened”. This has consequences I believe for a general theory of Thymotics, as I joined Sloterdijk to advocate perhaps a different notion of economy. 

…and his spirit (thumos)
was warmed (ianthē), just like the dew upon the ears of corn
of a ripening crop, when the ploughlands are bristling (phrissō):
even so, Menalaos, was the spirit (thumos) in your heart warmed (ianthē)
Trans. Nicholas Richardson (Chapter 23 @ line 600)

Richardson translates these lines beautifully, showing their circular structure. The image is that of a thumos (heart, spirit, passion) that upon being warmed by the sun, simply evaporates, bringing the crops to grow. This is in restorative relation to the other images of desire, earlier in the Iliad describe as being vapor-like (kapnos) in the context of loss: the honey-sweet thumos that waxes like kapnos in anger at 18.110 where Achilles savors his anger over his lost Patroklus, and then Patroklus’ psuchē which goes into the earth like kapnos vapor, where Achilles cannot grasp it, 23.100. Instead here, in the shadow of Achilles’s adjudication, the thumos is warmed like dew is, under a divine sun. The bristling of the corn-wheat, phrissousin, has rich meaning; the word can mean anything from physically bristling to having a chill or a shudder, or even holy awe.

What does it take to see the whole world as bristling?

The Power of Political Silence: Achilles, Antigone and Ignatius

The non-Being of Speech

In researching and thinking on political/philosophical application of the ideal of Achilles (written about here) I’ve run into a provocative quotation from the early Christian Bishop Ignatius:

It’s better to be silent and to be rather than speak and not to be. Teaching is a fine thing provided that he who speaks also does; there is “one Teacher” who “spoke and it was done”, and what he has done in silence is worthy of the Father. He who possesses the word of Jesus can in truth also hear his silence, so as to be perfect, and so that through what he speaks, he may act, and through what he keeps silent, he may be judged. (ad Ephesios 4. 1.2)

[Found in Language in the Confessions of Augustine, Burton]

Immediately came to mind the withdrawal of Achilles from the Hellenic contingent, and his self-imposed silence on the matter because he had no proper “being” in the speech that was available to him. Eventually, in the ninth book, he will address the hall, and speak in a unique what that defies and re-defines the language game before him. Here in Ignatius’s appeal to the being of silence and the non-being of speech, the coherence of speech and action we find the very values of integrity speech that Achilles scolds Odysseus as failing to hold. Any Achillean, thymotic economy of political power must employ silence one would think.

Also recalled for me is the silence of Antigone, her withdrawal from the social order. There are many comparisons to be made between Achilles and Antigone, and I believe that Sophocles had the hero of the Iliadin mind when writing his tragedy. She completes her act of burial silently, and in her initial interaction with Kreon is nearly mute. And, like Achilles, when she does speak, she speaks in a way that uttterly torques the language game custom into which she has entered, speaking as if “the man”.

There is something worth contemplating here, “It is better to be silent and to be rather than speak and not to be,” as Ignatius advises. He is thinking of a particular political situation in this context (the Bishop of Ephesus), but I think his words can be extrapolated out to the very corners of what “being” is. In an illustration I often return to Tommaso Campanella compares existence with the very terminus of a line, wherein we reach the capacity of ourselves, coming right up against our non-being (all of what we are not). Speaking can threaten our capacities to be if we do not fully deploy ourselves within it. Teachers must speak fully. And silence is often a power that can be drawn on.

Human Competence: Achilles On the Mend

Carl at Dead Voles wrote a pair of ruminations that flowed from an all-too-honest confession of how to write a philosophy paper by Graham Harman (apparent Graham linked to the comments, and then deleted the link, finding the criticism out of bounds). First he critiqued Graham’s very helpful suggestions on how to structurally spruce up a paper, things like breaking it up into sections, identifying tensions with positions other than your own, and then mixing in a Classic thinker, drawing our attention to how as a historian Carl finds this process (expanded into a prescription for how to read books, and dovetail papers with talks) to be painfully different from the kinds of closer examinations he must carry out. Then in “Shopping at the Black Box Store” he draws heavier consequences from this kind of text and thought production, summing up the problems with the Latourian proposal that Theories operate primarily as Black Boxes, calling for perhaps a better, more lucid metaphors (linking parts of Metaphors We Live By), ultimately pointing towards the Black Boxes of Marxist thought:

This is an interesting metaphor to me, because in my dissertation I used it to characterize marxist approaches to revolutionary consciousness and suggested that its darkness contributed to enabling some pretty serious errors and atrocities. Perhaps a more transparent and reflective sort of thinking (not to mention a more glassy set of metaphors) might have contributed to a more humane revolutionary practice?

Part of this response falls at the feet of philosophy itself, with a real mourning that Graham Harman’s lessons how to produce and package philosophical ideas does describe the requirements of a real environment for philosophy production. One really must roll one reading into another talk. One really should throw in a Classical thinker every now an then. I mean, there is a brand to keep up. Distinct from the real sense that theories can be seen as Black Boxes that can indeed be opened up to see how they work, there is also in Latour (and Harman’s celebration of the same), the sense that the way that a theory succeeds is by Black Boxing itself, keeping its hidden mechanisms opaque to the viewer.

Two Kinds of Magic

Arthur C. Clarke said brilliantly in his Third Law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  There is the sense that any theory that is to be successfully put forth has to operate as a kind of magic, and a magic that happens when we don’t quite know how they did that. This is distinct of course from the kind of magic one feels when we “see how they did that,” when we see how things connect and manifest. There seems to be a fundamental tension between these two kinds of magic.

Graham Harman’s behind the scenes “tricks of the trade”  benevolent advice to up and coming thinkers perhaps invests in both kinds of magic. This is how it all connects, what Carl calls the glimpse behind the curtain: this is how you can create the illusion of deep and analytical thinking, and gather momentum in your profession and your brand. And there is a beautiful magic in “How to be a Successful Philosopher” perhaps in the same way as magician in training would feel relieved to know now how to saw the lady in half. Much of Graham’s professional insight seems to fall into this category of “there is no mystery for how to make the mystery appear”.

But as I read it, Carl’s problem isn’t with Graham’s successful procedures, but with the very social conditions which reward and reinforce just these habits of reading and paper building. Do theories only become accepted through a kind of magical allure, a seduction into a willing-suspension of disbelief, a refusal to let others look under the hood? I believe that what flows from Carl’s objection to skim reading and antique philosopher insertion is something of the same objection to mass-produced objects of consumption. There is the sense that yes, you can do it that way, but perhaps I want something hand-carved. When philosophy bases itself upon idea and text production of this sort, does it not take as its very material that which is most malleable to such a process?

Achilles Contra Odysseus

With these thoughts in mind throughout the intermittency of morning I found my mind turning to a comparison which was somewhat prevalent in Athenian society, the contrast between Achilles and Odysseus. There is something to Carl’s appeal for a glassier set of metaphors, and his dissatisfaction with Graham Harman brand-building Black Box stores that for me invokes this antique difference. Odysseus was he man of many turns, polytropos. The word is rich in meanings. Because clever he can turn in any direction, he is a swiss-army knife of mentality and action, full of devices. Yet because of this, his life (despite the homecoming at the Odyssey’s end) is also in quintessential Heideggerian and Holderlinian fashion, a life of wandering, turn upon turn, endlessly thrown into and against the world. He is thought to be in many ways the essentially modern man. To some degree he embodied both the positive and the negative values of contemporary Athenian citizen ideas.

But Achilles was a different sort of figure, a man of a different sort of Age, someone who the Athenian Greeks often felt put the Odysseus of tricks to the pale. A man perhaps who no longer it seemed could exist. Contrary to Odysseus’s adaptability, Achilles was someone who exerted the pure force of his ability to act and manifest itself directly (even it its absence). He was something like a direct radiation of Being. His story in the Iliad told of how man is to act amid social injustice, when one’s nominal leaders lack the community of values which are required to lead. It is told that he is both a rhetor and a doer in such a way that we understand that speaking is a kind of act and not something readily separable.

There is a very real sense that as the history of Western philosophy, particularly in its modern form, turned to the Greeks for their blueprints of questions and answers, the wrong, or least desirable Greek ideal was absorbed. People like Heidegger rejoiced over the alienations of Odysseus, his homeless machinations, and did not see the simplicity of force found in Achilles. A man conditioned by his loves (Briseis, Patroclus, Thetis, the Myrimdons, then lastly affirmed custom, reconciliation and mercy), and driven to personal yet mutual justice, someone who bent the rules of the very discourse available to express his dissatisfaction, and through a combination of refusal and action morally shaped both his community and historical events. Achilles was man before Man, something that could manifest both itself in surplus of the spectrum of the human, and become god-like, or in deficit of what’s human and become a mere force of Nature. It was the necessary capacity to bestride these two that he embodied to a far greater degree “what is human” than did the later Odysseus who articulated a specific historical domain, which he remained within.

As philosophy recovers from the Idealisms which plagued the Rights of Man, and seeks to reorient itself within a Real World of forces and objects, it must be wary of ontologizing the Odysseus of what is human, the specific alienations we have generated through our choices (much of it imported through the ontology of the Negation, how his name can only be pronounced as “No-man” by the poly-phemic One). There is a real choice in philosophy I believe, whether to start with the Achillean man (woman), or the Odyssean one, a beginning which directs the kinds of answers we find.

My sense is that as sufferers of modern and post-modern conditions, it is best not to ontologize these to the degree that we cannot imagine ourselves beyond them. Yes, perhaps it is good to learn the tricks of the trade, to bring forth black box powers as a matter of survival, but it is better I suggest to learn the glow of another competence, the competence of bond, withdrawl and speaking action. I think that there is something to Carl’s glassy metaphors that speaks to the proposed unifications of Achillean force. The ways in which powers are better read and expressed as Real.

What Does Odysseus know that Achilles does not? And what does Achilles know…ontologically?